Sunday, June 24, 2012

Tasting Virginia's "Best" Wines

Let me get one thing straight: I’m not here to slam Virginia wines. There are many solid viogniers and chardonnays, and some decent red blends coming from all across the state. I am ocassionally surprised by the state's adopted red, cabernet franc, and I've been impressed by lesser-known red varieties like norton, tannat and nebbiolo. I love Virginia so much I’m even planting my own vineyard on my parents’ property in Appomattox County. There's a lot for a wino to like in Virginia, but the quality is so variable, and so many of the wines are downright terrible, that drinking Virginia wines is like playing Russian roulette with your palate.

The Governor’s Cup is an annual wine tasting competition that is supposed to highlight the best Virginia wines. Hundreds of wines are submitted and tasted by a panel of judges, who rate each wine according to the 100-point scale: 95-100 is classic (among the best in the world); 90-94 is outstanding (of superior character and style); 85-89 is very good (a wine with special qualities); 80-84 is good (a well-made wine of good quality); 75-79 is average (a drinkable wine that may have minor flaws); and 50-74 is not recommended. Below 50, I guess it’s not really a wine. Whatever flaws and contradictions are inherent in this scoring system (and there are many), it does offer a framework through which we can analyze different wines, taking into account all their different attributes, and place them along a continuum of quality. It’s not perfect, but it can be useful.  

Apparently, any wine that got a gold medal this year received an average score of at least 90 points. I was curious to see whether these wines were as good as they were alleged to be. Well, thanks to my friends at Terroirist, a daily wine blog, I got to taste through all of the Virginia wines that got gold medal awards at the 2012 Governor’s Cup. (
Here’s the full list of medal-winning wines from Virginia.) I took some notes and scored each wine according to the same 100-point scale that the judges used. To say I disagree with the Governor's Cup judges on these wines is a bit of an understatement.

Here’s my take on these gold medal wines…

(Note: there are several European wines that we snuck in because... well... we needed some diversity.)

2008 Trump Winery Blanc de Blancs Kluge SP - Virginia, Albemarle County
The new Trump Winery in Virginia, like everything Trump touches, has received a lot of fan-fare. I'm sure the winery is as classy as Donald's hair, but forgive me if I was a bit skeptical about the juice in the bottle. This 100 percent chardonnay sparkler was my first taste from Trump, and I'll admit... I was impressed. It did have quite a reticent nose of lemon-lime, some chalk. The palate shows tangy acid and green apple fruit. The bubbles seem a bit weak, and I wanted more power, but overall this is a nice sparkling wine. It's by no means a steal at $28, but that's Trump for ya. (86 pts.)

2010 White Hall Vineyards Gewürztraminer - Virginia, Monticello
Aromas: sweet lychee fruit, mixed nuts, white grapes. Rich and oily on the palate, almost like green grape jelly. There's some sweetness here, and lots of chunky tropical fruit, but also some white pepper and spice to keep it interesting. It's hard to get too excited about a gewurz that doesn't have any of the mineral flavors I love in wines from Alsace, for example. This needs more acid or some minerals to balance the sweetness and thickness of the fruit. Still, this is an impressive effort. (83 pts.)

2010 Tarara Winery Viognier Honah Lee - Virginia, Loudoun County
Wow, I can't believe this wine got a "gold medal." It's unbearable. Aromas of white grapes, oil and marmalade. The palate tastes bitter, like someone crushed grape seeds in with the fruit. And the alcohol clocks in at 15.5%, which gives this wine the feel of a bizarre cocktail gone wrong. The fruit is bitter and the alcohol overbearing. How someone could vote to give this wine a gold medal is beyond me. It's quite miraculous to taste a wine this bad that doesn't have a specific chemical flaw. It's like they set out to create the worst wine possible. A good half-dozen people tasted this wine with me and not one of them wanted to finish a glass. (60 pts.)

2009 Linden Chardonnay Hardscrabble - Virginia, Northern Region
My long-time wine buddy Brett snuck this "silver medal" winner into the tasting, as he's a big fan of Linden. Drinking this wine, I couldn't help but think: who the hell are these judges and why didn't they give this wine a gold? This chardonnay is well-made, delicious, and truly deserving of a 90-point rating. Aromas of green apple, white flowers and fresh pear. Lots of gummi fruit flavors, white peach and green apple on the palate, balanced by solid acid. It got better with two hours being open, and could age for several years at least. It's Virginia chardonnays like this make me wonder why so many winemakers choose red over whites in the state. Still, it gives me hope for the state's white wines. (90 pts.)

2010 Keswick Vineyards Merlot - Virginia, Monticello
The first red of the tasting didn't set a good precedent. It smells like sweet cassis, oak and cherry jam. The palate is full of sweet fruit, lots of grippy oak, giving it the overall feel of spiked grape jam. Cough syrup lingers on the finish. Ugg. (71 pts.)

2008 King Family Vineyards Meritage - Virginia, Monticello
Okay, now we're dealing with a legit Virginia red wine. It smells like dessert: cherry pie, cheesecake topping and black cherries. It's quite lovely on the nose. The palate shows grippy tannins, sweet cassis, and a distinct note of iron. It's very Napa-esque, but even a bit sweeter. This wine had the most petit verdot in it, which could contribute to that extra weight and grip that a lot of the other reds were lacking. It's a good wine, but when I heard it was $70+, I thought... no friggin' way. (87 pts.)

2010 Jefferson Vineyards Cabernet Franc - Virginia, Monticello
Aromas of sweet cherries, musk, tobacco and some old barn. The palate is sweet with cherry fruit and oak. This wine is mouth-coating, and it tastes sweaty. Not sweet, sweaty. There is absolutely no acid. To be honest, this wine is a total mess, and it's nowhere near Virgnia's best example of cabernet franc. (70 pts.)

Palate Cleanser
At this point in the tasting I needed a muscadet to cleanse my palate of some of that lingering sweet, oaky taste.

1999 Domaine Pierre de la Grange (Luneau-Papin) Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine Sur Lie Le "L" d'Or - France, Loire Valley, Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine
Nothing cleanses the palate like a muscadet from Luneau-Papin. Aromas of lemon zest, with aged aromas of peanut brittle and hints of sherry. The palate is plump with apricot and lemon fruit, but the minerals and acid are still there for balance. Sweet apricot and butter linger on the finish. (88 pts.)

Virginia's Big Reds
A lot of these reds weren't just disappointing, they were flat-out terrible. Overall, most of them tasted startlingly similar, showing sweet red fruit, bizarre flavors, too much oak and bitter tannins.

2009 Keswick Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Reserve - Virginia, Albemarle County
Thick aromas of black cherries and figs. The palate is too rich, with sweet figs and cherries, overwhelmed by lots of oak. Again, no acid whatsoever. Too goopy to enjoy. (69 pts.)

2010 Veritas Vineyard Vintner's Reserve - Virginia, Monticello
After a lot of crummy Virginia reds, this one was actually good. Sweet cherries and leather on the nose. Plummy on the palate with smooth tannins, some sweet and savory aspects. Almost Napa-cab like. Not thrilling, but much better than a lot of the other red blends. (85 pts.)

2009 Potomac Point Vineyard & Winery Richland Reserve Heritage - Virginia, Albemarle County
Aromas of sweet rhubarb pie and toasted oak. Sweet and baked on the palate, with fig and gritty coffee. The theme here is sweetness. At this point, I really wanted a Virginia red that wasn't laced with unfermented sugar. (76 pts.)

2009 Glen Manor Vineyards Hodder Hill - Virginia, Shenandoah Valley
Sweet black cherries on the nose, figs as well. Sweet, again, on the palate with lots of fig and chocolate. Very baked-tasting, almost like cough syrup and chocolate. Overdone. Some at the tasting liked this wine, but I found it out of balance. (75 pts.)

2010 Bluestone Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon - Virginia, Shenandoah Valley
Cassis jam and caramel on the nose. Not as thick as some of the other reds in the tasting, which was nice. Flavors of grilled plums are a bit awkward. Not good, but not terrible either. (74 pts.)

2007 Delfosse Vineyards and Winery Meritage - USA, Virginia, Central Region, Monticello
The last Virginia wine in the tasting was actually good. Ripe gushers candy on the nose, along with raspberry jam. The palate is like strawberries, sugar cane and pancake syrup. It's sweet, but somehow still fresh and quite pleasant. This wine showed more acid than most of the others. (81 pts.)

Non-Virginia Wines
After all that sweet, hot mess of wines, it was time for something more Old World...

2011 Domaine Tempier Bandol Rosé - France, Provence
Pale copper color. Aromas of gooseberry, honeydew melon, and a sauvignon-blanc-like grassy, peppery aroma. Lots of cut on the palate, but also nice creaminess. Watermelon, strawberry mix with chives and pepper. Lovely stuff with a great crisp finish. This wine was perfect after a bunch of those overdone Virginia reds. (90 pts.)

2010 Domaine Servin Chablis 1er Cru Butteaux - France, Burgundy, Chablis 1er Cru
Bright yellow color. Aromas of white grapefruit, seaweed, and minerals. With some time, I picked up some sage and herbs, which was really nice. Tons of acid on the palate, which I love. Creamy yellow apple fruit, grapefruit, green apple, accented with sea salt and a bit of brine. Delicious stuff that will continue to improve for a long time. I love the ocean-like qualities of chardonnay from the Butteaux vineyard, and this is a great example. (91 pts.)

2008 Domaine Pascal Cotat (Pascal & Francis) Sancerre Chavignol - France, Loire Valley, Sancerre
Jeremy brought this wine and poured it blind. He had us all guessing, because this is such a strange wine. Light copper colored. A bit of oxidized aromas, but not too much. Some white peach and stone aroams. The palate shows tangy acid and an interesting combination of flavors: honeycomb, strawberry, yellow apple and pumpkin seeds. There's a lot of limestone and quinine in this wine as well. Acid carries the finish. I like this wine, but it's also quite strange. Maybe a good salad wine? (86 pts.)

2008 Alain Hudelot-Noellat Bourgogne - France, Burgundy
Soft burgundy colored. Aromas of sour cherries, beef broth and celery seed. The palate shows searing acid, tart fruit and brisk minerals. Also, flavors of green olive, tomatoe paste and beef broth. Interesting wine, definitely on the austere end of the spectrum. This wine shows those earthy flavors and ripping acid of the 2008 vintage, but in a light and fresh package. (88 pts.)

2009 Domaine Bernard Baudry Chinon - France, Loire Valley, Chinon
Smoky aromas, also some green olive and soy sauce. Very young, right out of the bottle, it really needs time to breathe. The palate shows gritty tannins, dark cherry fruit, as well as beef broth and some bay leaf. Very complex and delicious, but it really needs some time. (88 pts.)

German and Austrian Rieslings to Beat the Heat

F.X. Pichler makes incredible rieslings and gruner veltliners from Austira's
Wachau, while Selbach-Oster consistently turns out classic Mosel rieslings.
It's been hot as hell in DC these past few days. So on Friday, I decided to hide from the oppressive heat and humidity, watch some DVR'd shows and drink some great rieslings. I invited a couple of friends over to enjoy the wines with me. The acid, fresh fruit and minerals in riesling can make it one of the most refreshing wines to drink . And the wines are generally far lower in alcohol than a lot of table wines, so you can keep on drinking! I chose three wines from my collection from three different regions and vintages, just to make it interesting . All the wines showed well, demonstrating what these varying regions and vintages have to show.


2001 Hessische Staatsweingüter Kloster Eberbach Steinberger Riesling Kabinett
- Germany, Rheingau
The aromas were a bit hesitant at first, and really started to show fresh flowers after an hour being open. There’s an oiliness to the aromas, like lemon oil, along with orange rind and white peach. The aromas are loaded with complexity. On the palate, the surprise here is the acid… just beautiful, from start to finish, the tanginess never ceases. It’s like biting into a Granny smith apple. This really tastes like blue slate smells, and lots of sea shells. There’s also a nice apricot and dried apple flavor that I find in a lot of rieslings at about this point in their evolution. This riesling is still very young, and nowhere near the end of its life, but it’s doing beautiful things right now. (90 points)

2002 F.X. Pichler Riesling Smaragd Loibner Berg - Austria, Niederösterreich, Wachau
Ah, to bask in F.X. Pichler’s rieslings, it is always a pleasure. This 2002 shows its age with a rich yellow color in the glass. It smells of pineapple and apricot, also showing aromas of oil and salt. This wine is thick on the palate, showing bold and powerful flavors, but the combination of minerals and acid keeps it pulled together quite nicely. The flavors here are darker than the German rieslings in the tasting, and focused more on apricot, peach and mango. There’s also a spiciness to this wine, like a bit of white pepper and herbs. The wine is thicker, but the acid rips, and the combination is delicious. In classic F.X. Pichler style, the minerals have a great kick to them. Very oily on the finish, but that acid still lingers. A hint of quinine on the finish. I’ve got one more bottle of this wine, and I should probably drink it in the next year or so. At the same, time, I’m always curious to age these wines, even though I think I like them earlier on. (92 points)

2009 Selbach-Oster Bernkasteler Badstube Riesling Spätlese - Germany, Mosel Saar Ruwer
The aromas in this wine are incredibly fresh and vibrant. The youth of this wine explodes from the glass in aromas of lime, white peach, kiwi and ocean breeze. The palate shows great balance of plump, fresh fruit (apple, peach and orange rind) and acid, which keeps the wine focused and precise. It shows that great blend of ripe fruit, mineral and acid I look for in a 2009 Mosel riesling. There are some underlying flavors of apricot and yellow apple that I think will grow with more time. The minerals keep this wine light and tangy. Lovely honey on the finish, but the acid keeps going until the very end. This will improve for at least a decade, although it’s so pure, rich and balanced now, that I’m glad I opened it. This wine has a special place in my heart because it reminds me of the time my girlfriend and I stayed in Bernkastel at the foot of this vineyard, drinking lots of riesling from 2009 and 2010 and enjoying the hell out of ourselves. I can’t really ask for more from a $25 wine! (91 points)

Thursday, June 21, 2012

One Hell of a Scary Novel

I can honestly say I will never forget Gillian Flynn’s first novel “Sharp Objects,” an unbelievably terrifying, dark, harrowing, noir, crime/journalism thriller that I devoured over the course of two days. This is not your mama’s mystery. If this book does not haunt you, it’s quite probable that you are a psychopath and you should seek immediate help from a professional.

Camille is a reporter at a struggling Chicago paper, which doesn't have much money or name recognition. But a murder in Camille's hometown, Wind Gap, Missouri, gets the paper’s editor interested. It's the second murder in one small town, a town Camille fled and never went back to. Right away, the story starts off with a bang: Camille has to go back home to face her ghosts. Or, as the editor puts it, to "flesh some stuff out." Instantly, I’m drawn into this book.

This book wastes no time. Camille is back in Wind Gap by Chapter 2. She notes three businesses on the road into town that perfectly sum up the place: "tanning beds, a gun shop, a drapery store." This place is rough, but it also tries to mask its roughness. Wind Gap, Missouri, is indeed an odd place, which becomes more terrifying with each chapter. There's a mysterious history of violence in this town, and the locals seem to have come to some sort of macabre resolution that their town is just, well, crazy.

Camille stays with her mother, whom she refers to only as Adora, a lying, narcissistic head-case. Adora has another daughter (Camille’s half-sister) named Amma who is really something else. She’s thirteen, hyper-sexualized, needy for attention, deceptive, psychotic and totally unpredictable. All of this is swirling around with two murders that haven’t yet been solved. Both of the murder victims were young girls, both girls had their teeth pulled posthumously. There were no signs of sexual assault, which doesn’t fit the profile. A cop on loan from Kansas City may have a few leads, but if he does, he’s not letting Camille in on them.

What makes this crazy book great is that Camille's point of view is seamlessly believable. She is definitely the most interesting protagonist I’ve come across in months, maybe years. She's so complex and such an individual. She's got this old-fashioned toughness and this macho reporter angst matched with a fragile vulnerability. She drinks bourbon and eats peanuts while she writes. She becomes obsessed with the two dead girls, and makes an unwavering commitment to get to figure out what happened to them. On page 60, Camille finally admits to what I’d been expecting for a while: “I am a cutter. Also a snipper, a slicer, a carver, a jabber.” The reader learns she has a reason for never taking her clothes off in front of other people: she’s carved seemingly random words all over her entire body.

“I am a very special case,” she says of her self-mutilation. “I have a purpose.” That purpose? Documentation. “By eleven I was compulsively writing down everything anyone said to me in a tiny blue notepad, a mini reporter already. Every phrase had to be captured on paper or it wasn’t real, it slipped away.” Words like: vanish, whine, milk, hurt. She wears long sleeves all the time so no one can see the words she carves into herself. Camille also admits to being prone to "compulsive neatness," and it's this self-knowledge of her own psychological state that I find fascinating in this book. She both loves and hates her job, which rings true for any reporter. "Reporters are like vampires. They can't come into your home without your invitation, but once they're there, you won't get them out till they've sucked you dry."

Gillian Flynn writes beautifully about tragedy. I like the way Flynn refrains from the gimmick of italicizing her own thoughts. She just writes: "I thought X." It's the blunt prose of a journalist, and it really proves Flynn's craft in developing this narrator.

Without giving away the powerful, haunting ending, the book comes full circle in a spectacular way. This story is not just about solving the two murders, but about Camille discovering just what happened to her as a child, and how those events still control her life as an adult. She's a broken woman and, over the course of this novel, she breaks completely. And through her first-person narrative, the reader goes through the entire process.

Flynn is not only a master of language; her mastership of plot is truly incredible. The denouement competes with Agatha Christie's best. And the tension Flynn weaves into her prose reminds me of the best of Stephen King's writing. This is an unabashed thrilled, but a complex one, a thriller that slows down to note the color of the sky and takes time to develop the characters. Every major character is a conflicted, unpredictable, fully human person. There are no stock characters here. This is not an episode of C.S.I. Miami. This is a superbly crafted novel that speeds up the heart rate and teases the mind. I can’t really put it in a definitive genre, because it’s so risky and bold. The ending, though it comes after 200 pages of hell, is still something of an ending. It's all wrapped up in the end and every last detail explained, hence the reference to Agatha Christie. In addition to being scared out of my mind, the book still left me feeling fulfilled. Flynn’s ability to put all unanswered questions to rest at the end is superb. I recommend this book, but not to people who scare easily.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Disintegration of David Wojnarowicz

Disturbing is not a word I throw around lightly when discussing literature. Maybe I’m anesthetized and cynical and it takes a lot to disturb me. Maybe a lot of writers avoid disturbing subject matter or just aren’t honest enough to portray the truly disturbing nature the world. Whatever the case may be, I can say undoubtedly that David Wojnarowicz’s book “Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration” disturbed me. The stories, snippets, essays and rants in this book are thick and heavy, and they’re sure to leave any reader unsettled, angry or downright sad. Take this as my disclaimer.

At its core, this book is the story of slow death from AIDS. There are a lot of suicides, far more suicide attempts, some dead and dying lovers, and behind it all hides a society that either doesn’t care or ignores the horrific disease because they think it doesn’t affect them. Wojnarowicz tackles these issues with prose that is raw, stripped bare and at times brutal. If this book reads like the journal of a dying man, that’s because it was published in 1991, a year before Wojnarowicz died of AIDS-related complications.

While the subject matter and the events recounted in this book are depressing indeed, the book itself is not. Wojnarowicz (artist, filmmaker, contrarian, gay activist, and the list goes on) is too good of an artist to leave you depressed. He tales of prostitution, drug use and alienation are laced with hilarity and poetic insight.

As a queer American, Wojnarowicz  frequently lashes out at what he calls the myth of a “ONE-TRIBE NATION.” (He puts the phrase in all caps every time he uses it, sometimes in bold as well.) This is the basis for much of his disgust with American society. He calls this myth a denial of “the fact that there are millions of separate tribes in this illusion called AMERICA.” This is perhaps his most poignant critique, a dialectic that proves useful twenty-plus years after publication. LGBT Americans have been, and in many cases still are, a minority tribe in America, a tribe with historically few allies and many enemies. This notion of American tribalism is further enhanced by elements of religious tribalism, which set themselves apart from and in opposition to LGBT Americans.

Wojnarowicz spends a lot of time blasting politicians and religious leaders (which I’m a sucker for), reserving his most venomous attacks for those who have made it their goal to oppress gays. I’ll admit, however, that Wojnarowicz’s political arguments frequently fall into the shallow end of the pool. He rants, and occasionally he analyzes, but he doesn’t offer a coherent critique. Wojnarowicz eschews labels and systems of thought, and, like a lot of his avant-garde contemporaries, he doesn’t offer specific answers. This book could easily be criticized as an incoherent and idealistic, and I’m tempted to agree. But in the end Wojnarowicz’s work is just too damned powerful, enthralling and addictive. Like much of his art, “Close to the Knives” is raw and emotive. I love his use of language, the way he strips words of any philosophical or academic pretension. He is not a philosopher, but a student of the human spirit. He understands injustice, bigotry and equality, more so than millions of homophobic Americans today.

Well, that's one way to name a chapter.
The more I read from this guy and about him, the more I like him. I won’t rehash Wojnarowicz’s entire life and career here, because that would take a book-length work. (Plus, there’s Wikipedia for that: And, look at that, I learned he was born in Red Bank, New Jersey, just up the shore from my hometown. Jersey shore pride!) The power of Wojnarowicz's work is evident in the recent hullabaloo about his film "A Fire in My Belly," which was part of an exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. The film was attacked as being anti-Christian, and the Smithsonian caved to censorship pressure and pulled the film. The LA Times has a good summary of the film, and here's the Smithsonian attempting to explain their decision to remove Wojnarowicz's work.
Being a photographer, filmmaker, and all-around artistic soul, Wojnarowicz has quite a few things to say about art and media in this book:

“History is made and preserved by and for particular classes of people. A camera in some hands can preserve an alternate history.”

“When you buy a newspaper you are being bought.”

“Describing the once indescribable can dismantle the power of taboo.”

“When I was a kid I discovered that making an object, whether it was a drawing or a story, meant making something that spoke even if I was silent.”

“What some people call ‘pornography’ is simply a rich historical record of sexual diversity that has been made invisible in this world for centuries by organized religion.”

Art quotes aside, this book is not easy to read. It’s hard to listen to Wojnarowicz write about his lovers and friends dying of AIDS, his struggles with the disease, and the sobriety with which he confronts his impending death. “As far as I’m concerned, if there is reincarnation, I’m refusing to come back. Once is enough. If there is somebody you appear before who determines where and when you’ll come back – I’ll punch them in the face. Maybe that will put me on the end of a very long line for the return flight.”

I don’t believe in reincarnation, but I do wish Wojnarowicz could have lived long enough to see the progress our society has made. Surely, he’d still be pissed, rightly mocking all those bigoted politicians and preachers who belong to bullshit organizations with “American” and “Family” in their titles. But I think he would also be proud of the effort LGBT activists and their straight allies have put forth in recent years.

I don’t say this often about writers (we're an odd bunch), but I truly wish I could have met this man. He is a real artist, and anyone interested in the struggle for LGBT rights should take a good look at his work.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Hooray for Vouvray

It's summer, which means yet another post on yet another French white wine. I picked up this 100% chenin blanc for $25 from Bassin's in DC, and it's such a screaming value that I had to post about it.

Quintessential chenin blanc aroms of wax, honey, white flowers, chamomile. Over time some ruby red grapefruit and sugar cane came out. On the palate, this wine is bold and full of chunky fruit. There’s a gorgeous creaminess to this wine the whole way through, and a bit of sweetness (this is technically a "demi-sec" wine, meaning off-dry), but the high acid balances is out. Stark minerality carries through, with lots of limestone. Apricot and nectarine fruit lead the way to a spritz of lemon that carries the finish. Just a hint of sweetness, like a dollop of honey on top of the rest of the wine. This really is an incredible chenin blanc. Chidaine is simply an artist with the chenin blanc grape. So balanced, so pure. This will improve greatly over the next five to ten years. 92 points IJB.

"Le Bouchet" is the name of the vineyard where these grapes are grown, a three-hectare portion of the Clos Baudoin estate in Vouvray. As K&L Wines' explains: "The soil consists of deep clay and limestone over a subsoil of tuffa, the bedrock in the area from which the deep cellars are carved and out of which the villages are built. It is porous and provides water to the vines in even the driest of summers. The average age of the vines is fifty years and they yield only 20 hectoliters per hectare. Harvesting done manually in several passes through the vineyard. Chidaine never chaptalizes wines [adds sugar] that will finish with residual sugar."

If you're looking for a special wine that won't break the bank, and you don't mind a bit of sweetness, pick this up. It won't disappoint.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

An Austrian Sauvignon Blanc Sings

I enjoy sauvignon blanc in all its regional interpretations, from the Loire Valley wines of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume, to New Zealand and some of the more restrained California sauvignon blancs as well. That said, a lot of sauvignon blancs take the easy way out and offer similar takes on the same theme. Not so with the 2009 Sauvignon Blanc Steirische Klassik from Tement. This Austrian sauvignon blanc stands up and demands attention, and any serious fan of sauvignon blanc would be apt to try it.

This sauvignon blanc is unique, to say the least. Actually, it borders on the extreme. It has a lovely lemon-green color in the glass. The aromas are really wild: a burst of onion grass right off the bat, then some white flowers, followed up by crushed rocks and gooseberries. My first thought was: "It smells Austrian," because that zesty fruit and smoky mineral combination strikes me as quintessentially Austrian.

The palate shows great cut, medium body and a lot of mineral flavors. The dominant fruit flavor is green apple, followed up by limes, and then there's this pungent flavor that reminds me of leeks and green onions. I happen to like these flavors, but they might be a bit much for some. This bottle is, unquestionably, a great example of what Austrian sauvignon blanc can do. I actually think this could stand up well to a lot of foods that are usually difficult to pair, such as asparagus.

Also, I'd wager that this is one of those SBs that would benefit from three to five years of age. I tasted two bottles of this wine, back to back, one of which had been opened for 24 hours, and the other one hour. The difference was remarkable, and the bottle that was opened for a whole day was showing so much more floral and potpourri flavors, while the freshly opened bottle showed more pungent herbs. I scored it 90 points.

Weygandt Wines in DC sells this wine normally for $28 per bottle, but they're running a deal on half and full cases. Either way, this wine brings some serious stuff for the price. Tement is a superb producer, with claims to Premier Cru and Grand Cru designated vineyards. They grow mostly white grapes, Sauvignon Blanc counting for half of production. If you're looking for a different take on a classic white grape, this is your wine.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Friday Night Grab Bag

Last minute, I emailed some friends to see about a possible wine tasting on a Friday night. What I expected to be a small event quickly turned into a really solid tasting, with several people coming and bringing some special bottles. This is a unique bunch of wines and styles, but overall they were great. Notes...

2009 Domaine de la Pépière (Marc Ollivier) Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine Chateau Thébaud Clos des Morines - France, Loire Valley, Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine
This is a big, bold Muscadet that shows a lot of heft, but still pays homage to the classic sea spray and mineral intensity of Muscadet. Initially, it smelled like white flowers, rich melon fruit, ocean spray and sea salt. The palate shows plump white peach fruit, tangy acid, and hints of lime and salt. There's a lovely creaminess to this wine, but also a lot of acid. Can a wine be hedonistic and racy at the same time? If so, this is the wine. Over time a lot of soap and perfume aromas came out. This could be aged for ten years easily, and I'm sure it would gain a lot of complexity. This is one hell of a Muscadet. (90 pts.)

2008 Gilbert Picq Chablis Dessus La Carriere - France, Burgundy, Chablis
Tim popped this Chabls. It's definitely a unique wine, at a unique place in its evolution. Right out of the bottle, the wine really smells like tuna can and lemon. No kidding, my cat Sonoma would probably love this. With time some nutshell, lemon-lime and nougat came out. If I smelled this blind, I would think it had at least eight years of age on it. The palate is surprisingly fresh and lively, with lots of sweet melon and grapefruit. There's some limestone and sea salt in there too, reminding me that we're in Chablis. It opened up with time, but it's definitely a mysterious Chablis. Maybe this wine would be a bit better with another two or three years? (88 pts.)

2011 Château de la Bonneliere Chinon Rive Gauche Rose - France, Loire Valley, Chinon
Lovely salmon color in the glass. Nose of seashells, grapefruit and nectarine. The palate is tangy and crisp with lean minerals. Flavors of wild strawberry, raspberry and a very distinct brambly note. I also get a tangy cranberry flavor that reminds me of Thanksgiving. Good structure and tannins for a Chinon rose. Delicious. (87 pts.)

2011 Clos Roche Blanche Touraine Cuvée Gamay - France, Loire Valley, Touraine
Leave it to Clos Roche Blanche to come out with one of the craziest gamays I've ever tasted. Pungent aromas of grapefruit, tilled soil and green onion. The palate is tart and tangy with lots of green pepper, white cherry and grapefruit. There's a lot of minerality and incense in this wine, along with a whole garden of herbs. This ain't no Beaujolais. Bizarre, and not for everyone, but really fun and nerdy. (89 pts.)

2009 Tramontane Collioure - France, Languedoc Roussillon, Collioure
Despite the weird label reminiscent of the early 1990s video game series Kirby, this is a serious wine. 100 percent grenache from the southern-most appellation in France. I tasted two bottles of this wine, one was opened that night, the other 24 hours before. The two tastings made clear to me that this wine can age, and should age. Day 2: Great raspberry aromas, savory spices, nutmeg, allspice. The palate shows tangy acid, lovely sweet cherries, along with spices of nutmeg and clove. This wine gave me a craving for lamb or bison burgers. The Day 1 bottle was a lot darker and showed richer fruit and spices. I'd love to taste this wine again in two years, as it clearly has a lot of complexity packed in here. (90 pts.)

2009 Schiefer Blaufränkisch Königsberg - Austria, Südburgenland
This was tasted blind, and my buddy J later told me it had been opened for several days. I usually like Schiefer's Blaufrankisch, and I did like this, it was just strange. Aromas of cranberries, lemon verbina, tobacco and toast. There are some bitter tannins, and tangy acid, but there's a lot of great flavors: orange rind, moroccan spices and cranberries. I'd score it 86, but again this was opened three days prior.

2008 Alain Hudelot-Noellat Chambolle-Musigny - France, Burgundy, Chambolle-Musigny
A beautiful young Burgundy. Elegant aromas of rose petals, sour cherry, as well as some savory spices and herbs. The palate shows tangy acid, firm tannins and a very elegant mouthfeel. Raspberry and rhubarb flavors abound. There's some stemminess, but not too much. This wine definitely needs some time to come together, but it's really pretty, and with time it became more floral and expressive. Lovely Chambolle. (90 pts.)

2007 Markus Molitor Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese - Germany, Mosel Saar Ruwer
Pretty gold color in the glass. Aromas of peach ring candy, whipped honey, peanut brittle and orange rind. Very rich aromatically. The palate shows sweet peaches, honeycomb, and rich canteloupe fruit. The acid came out with an hour or two, but I wanted a bit more. It's rich, but a little flabby, and doesn't have that mineral and acid streak I look for in Wehlener Sonnenuhrs. Tasty, but not very elegant. (86 pts.)

2005 Müller-Catoir Mußbacher Eselshaut Rieslaner Spätlese - Germany, Pfalz
I cannot believe I only bought one bottle of this wine. Neon yellow color in the glass with thick legs. The aromas are unbelievable in their complexity and purity: petrol, lemon oil, wax, apricot sauce, candied ginger. The aromas change and shift with three hours open, showing all sorts of gorgeousness. The palate is rich with lemon custard, yellow apple and ginger snap flavors. The acid keeps it fresh and lively. There's so much apricot, honeycomb, key lime pie and herbal flavors. The whole time, the acid and minerals slip through, providing sleekness and balance. Lovely tangerine rind on the finish. This could age for 10, 20+ years easily. It's almost a crime to drink it this young, but it's so good that I don't feel bad. Bob: "This is a very special wine." In ten years, I could see rating this wine even higher. This is no joke. Perfect Friday night wine. (94 pts.)

Friday, June 8, 2012

Summer Reds: a Classy $16 Chinon

2010 Domaine Bernard Baudry Chinon "Les Granges" (France, Loire Valley, Chinon)

This bottle of cabernet franc is a great summer red, offering lots of fruit and freshness, which makes it easy to drink. At the same time, it's quite a complex wine, showing trademark Chinon qualities.

Gorgeous medium-purple color in the glass. Upon first sniff, it’s evident we’re dealing with cabernet franc: lovely tobacco and black olive aromas. But there are also some currants and black cherry aromas, as well as a hint of sweet maple.

This is a medium-bodied wine with fine tannins and tangy acid. Sour cherries and currant fruit lead the way to white pepper, tobacco and hints of smoke. I love the tanginess of this wine. The fruit and acid are so fresh that it reminds me of biting into fresh cranberries. Solid finish. Overall, this is one delicious cabernet franc. And, at the price, I really can’t help but love this.

After an hour, the aromas smoothed out and became more elegant and floral. The fruit became richer and more expressive. I imagine this wine would gain complexity for at least three years.
Wine Library is selling this wine for $16, which is a real steal.

88 points IJB

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Things I See in DC - #1

I'm an observer. I watch people and things, trying to make some sense of them. This world is a strange place, and writing down what I see makes me feel like less of an alien.

I see a lot of interesting things in my adopted hometown of DC. So I've decided to start a new segment titled, surprisingly, "Things I See in DC." Here is the first installment, based on things I've seen in April and May of 2012.

Things I See in DC - #1 (April-May, 2012)

My landlord scuffling down the alleyway, a trash bag in his hand, pulled taught. He walks five houses down, dumps his trash in another person’s bin, then struts away nonchalantly.

Three well-aged black men sitting on a front stoop, blowing on Happy Meal kazoos, laughing, celebrating…

She’s blind, the old white woman who wanders my neighborhood, her only safe route the one her faithful dog chooses for her. She looks to be about sixty, but her youthful spirit is evident in her strong legs and broad shoulders. Her hair is thick, nearly white, like dried straw pulled back in a crisp ponytail. She sees, in her own way, and I’m sure it is beautiful.

A young woman, pretty, rich, white, oozing snobbery, chatting on her cell phone as she walks past my front porch. All I hear her say is, “I can deal with a little bit of sleaze, but this guy takes it too far.”

A wall in a bathroom in a bar... Somewhere in DC...

War Stories and Secrets in "Triage"

“Forget the dead. The dead don’t need anything from us.”

True, but perhaps we the living need something from the dead. Like answers.

The above quote is spoken by a Kurdish doctor in Scott Anderson’s novel “Triage.” The doctor is in charge of a shanty triage hospital in Northern Iraq during the late 1980s, and an American journalist named Mark has just been delivered to his care. Mark is, to put it bluntly, fucked up. His physical injuries are not life-threatening, but it is clear that he is suffering severe trauma. The link between Mark’s body and his mind has been severed, destroying his ability to experience emotional and physical reactions. He cannot move properly, and he cannot (or will not?) think about what happened to him.

Survivor’s guilt, the self-distancing of those who have seen combat, the power of the subconscious, the horrors of readjusting to society after witnessing violence, these are the elements of many novels and psychology studies. But in “Triage” Anderson delves into these issues in a way that seems totally new… even though the book is now more than ten years old. 

Mark leaves Kurdistan, tries to leave the memories behind, and comes back to New York. His girlfriend Elena notices Mark has changed, physically, emotionally, mentally. And there’s the question of Mark’s long-time journalist partner and friend who has not come back from Kurdistan. Mark doesn’t seem to know what happened to his partner, or at least he doesn’t want to talk about it. Mark’s trauma and self-isolation make him a hard character to get to know, and this could be a problem for some readers. I didn’t know much about Mark in the beginning of the novel, and by the end I’m not sure how much I’ve learned about him. He has a family, spread out over the country, but by the end they’re no less involved in his life than they were in the beginning. He has an apartment and a job, but his future, like many things about him, is unclear.

Luckily for readers looking for interesting characters, the book isn’t really about Mark. This story is much bigger than one fucked-up war photographer’s rehabilitation.

Mark’s girlfriend, Elena, is his bridge to the real world, the reader’s bridge to the real story. Elena struggles to understand Mark, desperately trying to get him to open up about Kurdistan. But Mark seems incapable of confronting what he experienced.

Then the story takes a big turn, as Elena and Mark receive some (unwanted) help. This help comes in the form of Papa Joaquin, Elena’s estranged grandfather. Joaquin worked as a faux psychiatrist for the post-war Franco government in Spain. His job was to consult with fascists who were mentally scarred from the horrors they committed during the war. With no formal training, just a virulent commitment to the cause, Joaquin consoled these men, tried to allay their mental and psychological scars, “purifying” them before sending them back into the world. Joaquin leaves Spain for New York with hopes of reconnecting with his granddaughter and helping Mark recover.

Papa Joaquin is an unrepentant, stubborn fascist, and I want so badly to hate him. It should be easy, but it’s not. In fact, it’s impossible to hate Joaquin. He is too persistent, too dark, too hilarious, and he carries with him a combination of nihilism and duty so bizarre that I can’t help but marvel at him. “No one can make this easier for you,” he says to Mark, “because no one can know how you suffer – not me, not Elena, and not some specialist. Pain is the most private thing in life. If you don’t understand this, if you continue to believe someone else holds a solution, then you will never be cured.”

As the secrets from Joaquin’s long life of terror come out, he is revealed to be a much more complicated man than I’d ever thought.

Anderson’s prose is punchy, raw and sprinkled with poetic insight. I’ve heard some comparisons to Hemingway, and I think they are deserved. The realness of the novel is undeniable. There is no time for melodrama, forced epiphanies, and, as in war, there are no easy answers. Veterans, journalists, psychologists and deep thinkers will find lots of things in this novel to ponder.

And just wait until the ending!

Monday, June 4, 2012

Starting Off Summer with White Wine

On any given day, all things considered, I'd probably choose a white wine over a red. Maybe its my constant desire to beat the heat, maybe its the foods I like to cook, maybe its my obsession with white grapes like riesling, chardonnay and chenin blanc. Whatever the reason, I'm likely to go for white wine. That probability is even higher when it's June in Washington, DC.

Sitting on my back patio, hanging outside, cooking with seafood and fresh veggies, it makes me salivate for white wine. I've popped quite a few whites over the past week with various friends, and it seemed each one was refreshing and delicious in its own way. Here are a few notes on recent white wines that are the cure for any sunny Sunday afternoon.

Non-Vintage U més U fan Tres Cava Brut 1+1=3 - Spain, Cava
I like the spicy aromas of this wine, like ginger, lemon zest and toast. A lighter styled Cava with lots of acid, citrus flavors and toast. Not too complex, and a little bitter on the finish, but still quite nice. As far as grocery store sparkling wines go, this is a solid one. (84 pts.)

2010 Domanine Bonnet-Huteau Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine Les Laures - France, Loire Valley, Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine
I've had this wine several times and it always demonstrates itself as a delicious Muscadet with lots of creaminess and minerality. Great with summer salands and appetizers, and delicious on a sunny Summer afternoon. (90 pts.)

2009 Birgit Eichinger Riesling Gaisberg - Austria, Kamptal
What a great riesling for the price. Weygandt Wines in DC had it on sale for less than $25, which is a real steal considering the quality of the juice. Intoxicating, classic riesling aromas: intense minerals, melon, lime and slate. The palate has fresh acid and lots of corresponding white peach fruit. Gorgeous lime and minerals on the finish. A very focused and pretty riesling that will gain complexity for years. I'd love to try this five years from now. (90 pts.)

2010 Domaine Plouzeau Touraine - France, Loire Valley, Touraine
A surprisingly full of nose of nectarine and melon, along with lemon and lime. The palate shows sharp acid, it's like a burst of intensity on the palate, followed up by creamy honeydew melon, lemon and margarita salt. It's an interesting combination of zesty and mineral-driven sauvignon with a richer, more fruit-forward style. Val poured this for some of her girlfriends, and I knew it was going to be a hit. (87 pts.)

A young chenin and an aged riesling: two aswers to heat and humidity.
1989 Weingut Reuscher-Haart Piesporter Goldtröpfchen Riesling Spätlese - Germany, Mosel Saar Ruwer
This wine, the old man of the week, must've been stored perfectly because the label, the cork, the capsule, everything was in pristine condiction. And the wine itself, while showing the complexity of its years, is still surprisingly fresh and alive. Reuscher-Haart is one of my favorite Mosel producers, and they consistently put out quality riesling at very reasonable prices. As this wine demonstrates, their rieslings can age beautifully. Honey-lemon color with thick legs in the glass. Aromas of lemon oil, nougat, orange zest, smoky slate and petrol, just a lovely combination of mature Mosel riesling aromas. Over time, some lychee nut and pineapple came out as well. The palate has lots of juicy melon fruit, spritzy lemon flavors, fresh pineapple. Crunchy acid with an overall sense of precision. It's subtle in its approach, delicate even, while still maintaining concentrated flavors. Frankly, it's beautiful. The minerality is really attractive with its flavors of blue slate and sea salt. Those mineral flavors combine with a candied orange peel flavor on the long finish, which finishes with a kiss of acid. Superb stuff. Wish I had more. This wine is in a perfect place right now, and should probably be consumed in the near-term, although it will surely develop some crazy aged flavors with another ten years of cellaring. (91 pts.)

2007 François Chidaine Montlouis-sur-Loire Les Bournais - France, Loire Valley, Montlouis-sur-Loire
My friend Bob popped this superb chenin blanc, and we were both really impressed. The aromas have Champagne-like intensity, showing limestone, lemon zest and white flowers. The aromas changed so much with air and an increased temperature, showing pineapple sauce, mango nectar and smoked nuts over the course of the evening. What a gorgeous nose. The palate is huge, starting off with a burst of rich melon and pineapple fruit. Then the acid comes in, searing, with intense minerals and chalk. There is so much canteloupe in this wine, it's ridiculous. I love the mango nectar and slate flavors that linger on the finish. This wine evolved eons over the course of the evening, and it will continue to gain complexity for a decade, easy. Rarely do I find a chenin blanc that has equally massive amounts of richness and minerality. It's an intriguing wine indeed. Good choice, Bob. (91 pts.)

Friday, June 1, 2012

What's In a Novel's First Line?

First lines are everything.

Well, not really. That statement is a bit dramatic. But that’s what I love about first lines in novels. They’re dramatic. As a writer and an obsessive compulsive, I love dissecting first lines, looking for a connection to the forthcoming text, searching for clues into what the novel has in store.

Example. Here’s the first line of a novel I read recently called “A Tomb on the Periphery” by John Domini: “It wasn’t midnight yet, to judge from the moonlight, the clarity it gave to the exposed skeleton.”

Midnight, moonlight, clarity, an exposed skeleton... this is one mysterious first line. It raises so many questions: Who is the person making this observation? What are they doing around a skeleton? Whose skeleton is it? How did the owner of said skeleton perish? Starting off the novel starts just before midnight is an interesting choice, and the image of the moonlight giving clarity is particularly telling. There will be darkness in this tale, oh yes, but also clarity… perhaps.

I just finished up a hefty novel called “The Blind Assassin” from award-winning author Margaret Atwood. It starts off like this: “Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.” Another excellent opener. The reader is primed to enter an era of war. It’s likely going to be an older war, because it seems wars don’t “end” these days, at least not on any specific day. Amidst this violence, the narrator is clearly struggling from severe personal distress. Someone’s sister has just died, and not in her sleep. She drove her car off a fucking bridge. The structure of the sentence reveals that the sister had some control over the end of her life. There’s no passive verb here. Atwood didn’t write: “my sister Laura was in a car accident.” If it is indeed a suicide, driving a car off a bridge sounds like a strangely bold way to go. The narrator’s sister didn’t just down a handful of sleeping pills with a glass of gin. She met her fate head on.

The first line of my forthcoming novel “Broken Bones” is cropped down even more than these two examples. It starts, simply: “It was dark.” Granted, that first line doesn’t tell a whole lot, but, if that’s kind of what I was going for. The novel is about a man regaining his consciousness and sanity after a prolonged period without food or sleep. The first paragraph goes on to further detail his semi-conscious state: “I blinked my eyes. Beams of streetlights sliced into the room from between blinds beside me. I could make out some blankets, a desk and a lamp with a long sloping shade. I blinked again. A door, to my right.” One of the reoccurring themes in the novel is the frailty of perception. The narrator is nearly dead and certainly incapacitated, so it was a conscious decision to start the novel with the narrator’s simplest observation. When you boil it all down, visual perception is based on the presence of light, and here the narrator is surrounded by darkness. “It was dark” is to this narrator what “Cogito ergo sum” is to Descartes: the starting point.

If you’ll indulge me, post the first line of the novel you’re reading. I think it would be interesting to read them and see what they tell, or don’t tell, about the novel as a whole.