Thursday, March 29, 2012

Two Novel Reviews in 300 Words or Less

Like the painting it’s based on, this is a very precise novel, full of detail, light and color. In 1665 a lowly maid named Griet takes up residence in the home of Dutch painter Vermeer. From the beginning it’s clear that Griet is the one who will ultimately become Vermeer’s subject, the titular “girl with a pearl earring.” The question that drives this subtle, slow-paced novel is how this young woman, this maid from the lower class, can rise to become the subject of Vermeer’s painting, the exalted woman who keeps Vermeer’s gaze. At a time when women were viewed as little more than brooms and baby-makers, this novel plays with questions of gender roles, sexual repression and religious tribalism.

Tracy Chevalier is an adroit writer with a painter’s sense of perception. Through Griet, Chevalier explores the intricacies of life in 17th Century Holland in an almost fairy tale tone. Most likely I never would’ve read this if it hadn’t been assigned to me for my novel class at Johns Hopkins University. And while it’s by no means a favorite of mine, it is a beautifully written book that captures the sense of a time and place through intricate characters, sensual details and vivid imagery. This book has received a lot of praise, and Chevalier deserves it, as well as the boat-load of royalty payments she must’ve made from selling the screen rights.

“Sister” Rosamund Lupton

“I’d do anything to be with you.”

There’s no better way to start off a dark mystery novel than with a bold, obsessive statement. Beatrice is the narrator of this tale. Her sister, Tess, has just been found dead in Hyde Park, London. All signs point to suicide. But Beatrice, the loving older sister, believes otherwise. Tess, Beatrice believes, would never have killed herself. The mentally unstable Beatrice takes it upon herself to investigate how and why her sister died. Oh, yes, and the entire novel is written as a long letter from Beatrice to her dead sister.

It’s clear from the start that the narrator isn’t exactly in her right mind. Throughout every chapter, there’s a sense of looming madness, paranoia and distrust of strangers. The macabre tone reminds me of the plot-driven, claustrophobic stories of Daphne DuMaurier… and that’s quite a compliment.

The more Beatrice digs, the more she begins to believe that Tess was murdered. Beatrice finds out that Tess has been having an affair with an older, married man, who got her pregnant. Just before her death, her baby died, and that seems to be the end of Tess’ sanity.

Is Beatrice right? Was her sister really murdered? Or is Tess so deranged that she is unwilling to accept the truth?

This is a mystery novel with literary aspirations. Rosamund Lupton is an artist with the English language, and she is able to craft a British mystery novel with the best of them. Yes, there’s a “Gotcha!” ending, and whether it works or not is a matter of personal opinion. But it’s a beautiful foray into the love among sisters and the extent to which we go to protect the ones we love. It’s definitely worth a read if you’re a fan of Agatha Christie or Daphne DuMaurier.

Lioco: A Stunning California Chardonnay

One of the many highlights of my recent trip to the San Francisco Bay area was having dinner at Alice Waters’ famous Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley. Long before most yuppies cared about fresh, local, environmentally-friendly food, this place has been serving up culinary works of art with a Northern California touch.

The restaurant’s upstairs section is designed with an a-la-carte menu that changes almost as quickly as the Ocean Beach surf conditions. My girlfriend and I split an assortment of Pacific oysters for an appetizer, and I ordered halibut with a green olive, oil and herb sauce for a main course.

I was surprised by the affordability of the wines Chez Panisse had on their list, as well as the diversity of producers. I ended up choosing a wine I’d never heard of, hoping for a surprise: the 2009 Lioco Chardonnay Demuth Vineyard from the Anderson Valley in Mendocino. Considering the establishment at which I was dining, I knew the wine would be good, but I had no idea how good. Turns out, this wine is stunning.

Intoxicating aromas of meyer lemon, margarita salt, minerals and brie rind. Over the course of the evening, a bit of honeydew melon came out on the nose. This wine really is an aromatic experience.

The wine isn't oaked, and I for one am happy about that. The juice is so damn good that it needs no added flavors or textures. Tangy acid hits the palate upon the first sip and carries through to the finish. This wine is almost Chablis-like with its mineral and lemon flavors, but the California sunshine shows through with flavors of rich lemon curd and orange rind. As a whole, this is pure, vibrant and simply beautiful chardonnay. It's worlds apart from those high-alcohol, oak-slathered, butter-bomb California chardonnays you might be used to. 

It stood up to the briny oysters with its minerals and acid, but it also paired well with  the richness of the halibut. I would love to taste this again in five years, as I’m sure its complexity will evolve for a long time. I'd also love to throw this wine into a tasting of Grand Cru Chablis, because I have a feeling it would hold its own.

I scored it 94 pts, and that's being conservative.

The wine was so good, I had to do some research…

These chardonnay grapes are grown in the Demuth Vineyard, a 1,600-foot mountain-top vineyard that overlooks the Anderson Valley. The soil has a shallow layer of clay underlined by thick shale rock, and the wide swings in temperature between day and night provide ideal growing conditions for chardonnay. The winemakers insist on their website that: “this is the best demuth we have made yet. period. end of story.” This is my first Demuth Vineyard wine, but I’m willing to take their word. It’s an incredible California chardonnay, even if it acts a little French.

Copain: Visiting a California Wine Favorite

I've been a fan of Copain wines for a long time. Most of my experience has been with their single-vineyard syrahs  from older vintages between 2003 and 2007. On a recent trip to Sonoma, California, I visited the Copain winery for the first time and got to try some of their new releases. I'm happy to report that they're as good if not better than the older wines I've had. Copain carefully crafts its wines from fruit grown in distinct vineyards all over California. All but one of the wines I tasted come from Mendocino County, a huge, rustic region north of Sonoma. Mendocino's Anderson Valley has long been one of my favorite growing regions in California, and the three Anderson Valley wines tasted here demonstrate why.

The Copain Winery in Sonoma offers a range of distinct
pinot noirs and syrahs, not to mention great views.
Copain's wines have a lively, fresh style, while displaying focused fruit flavors and notes of mineral and earth. Not your average California fruit juice. The staff at the winery was really helpful, informative and down-to-earth, giving out generous pours. It was a sunny day in Sonoma and the experience couldn't have been better. I tasted the wines with my girlfriend, my brother and his wife, and everyone really enjoyed this style of wine and the visit in general. This place is high on my list of top spots for Sonoma wine tourists.

This chardonnay sees no new oak, and it undergoes limited maloactic fermentation, making for a fresh but fruit-forward chardonnay with a unique character. Aromas of fresh pineapple, pear and a distinct mineral aroma. The palate is creamy to start, then the acid kicks in. What a lovely white peach flavor, backed up with a dose of lemon and minerals. Long finish with lingering acid. Copain does a great job with reds, so I was thrilled to try this. It didn't disappoint. I look forward to some more Copain chardonnays in the future. (90 pts.)

Wow, what a beautiful pinot noir. Gorgeous strawberry color in the glass. The nose is soft and seductive, showing cherry, cranberry and a hint of pepper. Fresh and medium-bodied on the palate with medium acid. The flavors cascade over the palate like liquid silk. I love the cranberry, licorice and underbrush flavors. Fine-grained tannins with a sexy finish, showing just a kiss of toast. This pinot has a lot of complexity that will surely evolve for at least a few years. I brought some home, so I'm looking forward to revisiting a bottle in a year or two. (92 pts.)

This wine is so seductive, it's hard not to gush over. Bright, pure black cherry color in the glass. The nose is a medley of flowers, rose hips, roasted plums and just a hint of meat. The palate shows a firm structure, more so than the 2009 Les Voisons pinot noir. It's definitely got some grip to it. Flavors of black cherry, smoke and a bit of coffee. Acid keeps it balanced, but it's clear that this wine needs some time in the bottle or at least in the decanter to show its true stuff. Caramel on the finish. Pure and lovely, and it will only get better with a few years. I don't need a reminder why I love Anderson Valley pinot, but I got one anyway. (93 pts.)

2009 Copain Syrah Les Voisins - Yorkville Highlands
Gorgeous dark purple in the glass. Dark and rich aromas of plums, cocoa powder and a bit of crushed rock. The palate shows restraint, with plush tannins and flavors of black cherry, currant and just a hint of vanilla and white pepper. The best way to describe this wine is purity. Creamy finish with a hint of subtle oak. I'd love to revisit this in three or five years. (91 pts.)

2007 Copain Syrah Thompson Vineyard - Santa Barbara County
This syrah is sourced from much further south in Santa Barbara. I liked this syrah, but it seemed a bit too big for its britches. Dark purple in the glass. Aromas of boysenberry, blueberry and creamy milk chocolate. The palate is plummy and dark as hell, with brooding blue fruit and dense tannins. It's delicious, but this reminds me why my palate has shifted to North Coast syrah over the past few years. That said, if you're a fan of brawny, fruity syrah, this won't let you down. (89 pts.)

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Mosel Riesing Auslese - 3 Beautiful Words

If you haven't noticed yet, I'm a huge fan of German riesling, so much so that in 2011 I made a pilgrimage to riesling's Mecca, Germany's Mosel Valley. I picked up a lot of wine while I was there: dry, off-dry and dessert. After all, there's a riesling for every occasion.

The steep slopes of a classic Mosel Valley riesling vineyard

I was in the mood for something a bit sweet the other day, so I opened this wine: 2008 K. Schmitz-Bergweiler Ürziger Würzgarten Riesling Auslese *** (Germany, Mosel Saar Ruwer) This riesling comes from the Würzgarten vineyard in the Mosel town of Ürzig. Auslese is a German tern for "special harvest," which means the fruit is riper than "spätlese" wines when they are harvested. Yes, this means there's some sweetness in this wine, but don't write it off just yet. Sugar is good, especially when balanced and crisp like this wine.

In the glass, this wine displays a gorgeous honey, apricot color, with thick legs running down the glass.
Initial aromas of apricot, oil and lychee candy. It's very fragrant and powerful, and with time the aromas evolved into lilies and white clover. Gobs of apricot and honey on the palate. There's a Sprite-like rush of sweet lemon-lime that comes in and provides some acid. The minerals tingle all the way through. The clover honey and white peach flavors are rich but not at all overwhelming. There’s a light and zingy feel to this wine which keeps it fresh. Of course it has sweetness, but the minerals and citrus flavors complement the sugar

This lovely prize from Ürziger Würzgarten will develop complexity for twenty years, easily.

92 pts IJB

Thursday, March 15, 2012

A Nahe Riesling at Ten Years

2002 Weingut Jakob Schneider Norheimer Dellchen Riesling Spätlese (Germany, Nahe)

I came home from a very long day at work and found my girlfriend had cooked up some orange chicken with rice and veggies. I instantly thought: riesling. I wanted something with a bit of sweetness, but also some acid. I ended up popping a 2002 Weingut Jakob Schneider Norheimer Dellchen Riesling Spätlese. This is a late harvest (spätlese) wine from the Nahe region vineyard of Norheimer Dellchen. I bought this bottle a few years ago and figured: what better time to pop this wine and see what is has going.

This riesling is a gorgeous orange-honey color with thick legs streaking down the glass. The aromas are fresh and rich, with mango, honey, lime and minerals. The age has added a wax and honeycomb aroma, which I love. The complexity of aromas is quite something.

The wine starts out plump on the palate, but the acid rushes in. It starts off with a gorgeous white peach flavor, followed by nectarine and honey, but the acid streaks through the entire time, keeping it balanced. There's a flavor that reminds me of biting into a nectarine rind, but in a really delicious way. The mineral flavor really comes out on the midpalate. Honeycomb and a hint of nougat linger on the finish with the acid. It got more expressive with time, opening up to show richer, fuller flavors. Still, that tangy acid lingers.

This really is an endlessly enjoyable riesling, I would love to try this again in ten years. It has lots of evolution left.

94 pts IJB

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

2004 Alban Vineyards Estate Roussanne

We have here a 2004 Alban Vineyards Estate Roussanne from California's Edna Valley...

Color: Rich golden color in the glass with thick legs.

Nose: lemon oil, pineapple, smokey toast and hints of fresh chestnut. In Ukraine, they call them kachtans, and they grow all over the city. Well, this wine smells like kachtan.

Palate: this wine feels oily, with flavors of butternut squash, almonds, also some brown sugar. It was aged in two-thirds new French oak, so there's definitely some smokey, nutty flavors, but somehow the fruit is ripe enough to stand up against the oak. At this point in its life this wine has developed some delicious aged characteristics, and the wine showed more of those complexities as it opened. The acid is just enough to keep it balanced. There’s a delicious hint of honey, but there’s a dose of lime that comes out on the finish and keeps it in balance. Its hard to parse through the flavors and sensations of this wine because it has so much going on.

This is why I love in California wines made from white Rhone varieties. I’m always impressed with Alban's wines, and this was no exception. If you haven't tried a California roussanne, this is a great place to start.

92 pts IJB

Monday, March 12, 2012

2003 Meyer Family Syrah (Mendocino)

2003 Meyer Family Syrah (USA, California, Mendocino County)

I bought this wine because I love Mendocino syrah, and my girflriend's last name is Meyer. I thought it would be a fun wine to drink, but I was surprised by it's overall quality. At nine years old, this wine is still a vibrant, clear purple color in the glass. The nose shows bright cherries, fresh herbs and milk chocolate. What a wondrous nose. The palate starts off with root beer float and cherry coke flavors, matched with grainy tannins that feel almost like dark coffee. The finish is smooth and creamy, accented with mocha. The flavors in this wine were pure and vibrant. A serious crowd-pleaser. 

89+ pts IJB

Thursday, March 8, 2012

A Terroir-Driven Mendocino Syrah

2004 Bink Wines Syrah Hawks Butte Vineyard

Yup, another Mendocino County syrah. I can't get enough of them. Considering the silly name and the purple label with the cat on it, you might think this is a cheap-ass critter wine. No way. This wine comes from a really interesting area of Mendocino called the Yorkville Highlands. I've driven through there a couple of times on my way from the inland Potter Valley to the Mendocino coast, and it is a remarkably beautiful region full of hills, rocks and redwoods. This vineyard, Hawks Butte, is a rocky slope located  35 miles inland from the coast at an elevation of 1,200 feet.  The warm days, cool nights and high elevation can produce syrahs that are as elegant as they are powerful.

This wine is an earthy purple color in the glass with just a bit of cloudiness. The aromas start off with dark berries, dried leaves and a distinct note of red meat. With air, the wine develops a lovely crushed red cherry aroma, but that meatiness continues throughout. On the palate, the tannins have smoothed out with eight years of age, but still provide structure. Medium acid and juicy fruit combine with a hint of mocha .

I like this wine at this point in its evolution, even though most of these were probably consumed within a few years of release. The fruit has softened and some secondary flavors have developed that are really delicious: dried cranberries, leather, and just a hint of green olive and radish. Toast accents the finish, but doesn't overwhelm the palate by any means. I believe this wine only saw a little bit of oak, which is nice because it lets the purity of flavors show through.

This Hawkes Butte syrah is clearly California, but it takes inspiration from the syrah of the Northern Rhone Valley. In my opinion it does a good job of demonstrating the terroir of Hawks Butte Vineyard syrah.

90 pts IJB

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Style and Swagger in Junot Diaz's Prize-Winning Novel

My first thought upon reading this novel was: Oh, great, another novel without quotation marks. How kitsch.

I read on.

Then I came across the footnotes, some of which spanned three pages. Then the frequent sentence fragments. You know. Like these.

Then the change in narrators and shifts in points of view. Sure enough, Junot Diaz’s novel “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” contains all the gimmicks in the fiction writer’s handbook, and then some.

But these little games make sense within the context of Diaz ’s theory of the novel. This novel is all about style. Sure there are characters and a postmodern acid trip of a plot, but it seems Diaz has focused much of his time and energy on crafting a style that is uniquely his own. His writing draws inspiration from the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, as well as the punk postmodernism of Kathy Acker. He bastardizes all sorts of literary genres and conventions to create something I call the literary middle finger. This novel is an act of literary defiance, a big “Fuck You!” not only to convention and tradition, but to the reader. I imagine Diaz sitting at his desk, reading an advanced copy of his own novel, chuckling to himself. “Well, fuckers, here it is. My artsy and profound novel. It’s clever as shit, bitches you know it! Gimme the fuckin’ Pulitzer already.”

Diaz’s overarching goal — in my opinion obviously — is to force a reaction from the reader. How exactly the reader reacts is less important than the reaction itself. Every good novel creates some sort of emotional, existential, sometimes even physical reaction in a reader. It’s what makes novels worth reading, and writing. But Diaz, in his own quirky bravado, sticks his readers right in the gut just to see how they’ll react. While not nearly as disturbing and violent as trangressive fiction writers like Brett Easton Ellis and Kathy Acker, Diaz’s novel shoots at many of the same targets. Sex, violence, gangsters, murder or bloodthirsty dictators appear on almost every page. It’s like Diaz set out to create a feeling of discomfort in the reader, to confuse the reader, and lastly to piss off the reader to no end.

Take the novel’s footnotes, for example. They serve the purpose of providing some background and historical information on the Dominican Republic, where about half of the novel takes place. But they frequently turn into continuous rants or streams of semi-consciousness. Reading a novel and simultaneously skipping around to read the bizarre footnotes is discombobulating for the reader, and I would not be surprised if many readers simply skipped over the footnotes altogether.

That said, and even though they can be frustrating, the footnotes add richness and complexity to the narrative. They just do. They become stories of their own. (Is it really a gimmick if the author pulls it off?)

Another important aspect of Diaz’s style is repetition, lots and lots of repetition. Lots and lots. Of. Repetition.

Here Diaz’s narrator…
  • On Trujillo, the Dominican dictator: “Trujillo was Mobutu before Mobutu was Mobutu.”
  • On the Dominican Republic’s capital city: “Santo Domingo was Iraq before Iraq was Iraq.”
  • On Trujillo, again: “the Dictatingest Dictator who ever Dictated.”

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Chablis for Beginners

If you’re not drinking Chablis, you’re missing out, not only on some of the best examples of the chardonnay grape in the world, but on value as well.

Chablis is a geologically unique limestone enclave north of Burgundy’s Cote d’Or. All wines labeled Chablis are 100 percent chardonnay. It’s a wine collector’s dream, and because of high demand and limited amount, it’s a region that isn’t usually associated with value. A lot of wines from Premier Cru vineyards cost upwards (sometimes way upwards) of $50, let alone the coveted Grand Cru bottlings.

But wines labeled simply “Chablis” can be good values. This basic appellation means the wine can come from anywhere in the region’s 19 communes. In practice, this label means the wine likely came from vineyards that are not highly regarded. But you can still get solid, zesty chardonnay from these areas.

I drank just such a Chablis last night: the 2009 Simmonnet-Febvre Chablis. This baby cost me a whopping $13 from Calvert-Woodley, although other chardonnay bargain hunters seem to have bought up the current allocation. It outperforms and even outprices supermarket chardonnays from California and Australia, which makes it the perfect Chablis for beginners. If you want to get your palate acclimated to a leaner, more mineral-driven style of chardonnay, it’s hard to beat this wine. I gave it 86 points.

It’s a good sipper, and will be even better in warm weather, yet it still retains some classic Chablis characteristics. Aromatically, this wine is a bit closed down at first, but with some air it shows lemon, yellow apple and mineral water aromas. The palate is medium bodied with nice creaminess and subtle flavors of yellow apple and lemon zest. There’s just a dash of that Chablis minerality and limestone on the finish. This wine was fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks, so there’s none of those oaky, toasty aspects. However, being aged on the lees, this wine has developed an attractive creaminess.

This is a great Monday night wine. If you’re tired of oaky, buttery chardonnays, but don’t want to drop too much money on Burgundy, entry-level Chablis is a good choice. If you’re drinking any entry-level Chablis, I'd love to hear about it in the comments.


Sunday, March 4, 2012

Three Exciting Wines from the Jura

The other day I had the opportunity to taste some wines from the Jura at Weygandt Wines. They're not for sale yet, but Weygandt is excited about getting them. These three wines are all from the same producer, Domaine de la Pinte, in the Arbois appellation. One chardonnay and two reds from unique varieties. After tasting these three wines, I'm thrilled about the quality and the price. I believe all of these will come in at less than $25. Since there's not a huge market for Jura wines, it's a great pleace to explore.

2010 Domaine de la Pinte Arbois Pupillin - France, Jura, Arbois Pupillin
I tasted this blind with Peter Weygandt and knew it was going to be something unique. Sure enough, it is. Light yellow color. Ripe pineapple leads the way on the nose, but there's also an aroma like olive oil and salt. The palate starts off quite fruity and ripe, with white peach and pineapple. A second later, the acid comes ripping in, followed by a saline aspect. The effect is a bold but balanced wine. There is complexity packed into this wine that needs years to evolve. I'd love to put some of these sideways for 10+ years and see what happens. (90 pts.)

2010 Domaine de la Pinte Arbois "del Ami Karl" - France, Jura, Arbois
Another great surprise. This wine is made from 100% poulsard. Light ruby color in the glass, and very clear. Very interesting aromas. There's an aroma that reminds me exactly of turkey gravy, really unique but kind of strange. There's some currant tea aromas underneath. I tasted this blind, but I knew it was Jura. There's something about the aromas in Jura wines, I just love it. The palate shows bright fruit, lots of acid, and smooth tannins. Currants, rose petal and meat gravy flavors glide over the palate. There's enough fruit from make this more than just a "nerdy" wine, as we all described it. I really enjoyed this and am looking forward to when it hits the store this summer. (90 pts.)

2009 Domaine de la Pinte Arbois "a la capitaine" - France, Jura, Arbois
Tasted blind and I was very impressed. Vibrant ruby color in the glass with thick legs. The color is clear and fresh like a light pinot color. Aromas of rose, black cherry and baking spices. The fruit is pure and matched with gritty tannins. There's this delicious inkiness here that reminds me of some California syrah, but then there's this rush of minerals that comes in and completely takes over. The finish is laced with chocolate shavings and charcoal, but those minerals never go away. This wine is really delicious. It would win over new world fans with its strength and power, but wow Jura fans with its complexity and those dark, earl grey tea tannins. I can't wait til this becomes available for purchase. (91 pts.)

Here's a map of this lesser known region:

Thursday, March 1, 2012

2010 Beaujolais - Daniel Bouland

2010 Daniel Bouland Morgon "Corcelette" Vielles Vignes (France, Burgundy, Beaujolais, Morgon)

This is what Cru Beaujolais is all about.

Daniel Bouland is an artist with the gamay grape, and with a great vintage like 2010, he produced some amazing wines.

This "Corcelette" wine from the village of Morgon is one of his best wines I've tasted. (Vielles Vignes means that this wine comes from old vines.)

Clear, bright ruby color in the glass. The aromas are fresh and lively: strawberry pie, violet, hints of smoke. The palate is bright and fresh, with pure cherry and strawberry fruit, fine-grained tannins and beautiful acid. On top of that, there's this sensation of drinking fresh mineral water, like the stuff gushing out of the friggin' rock.

This wine is beautiful right now and I want to drink more. That said, I think it would be really interesting to age a few of these for five to ten years.

It's simply wonerdful stuff. I drank this while watching HBO's "East Bound & Down," with good friends, and damned if that ain't a good Wednesday night.

90 pts IJB