Saturday, September 29, 2012

A Chateauneuf-du-Pape Birthday

On my birthday I like to get together with some close friends, pop some corks, drink some wine and tell some stories. And since it's my birthday I get an excuse to let my obsessive side cut loose, and I spend a lot of time gathering wines I think people would enjoy. Well, this year, as I turn 29, I've been thinking a lot about the South of France, and how I need to go there very soon. I'm busy as hell with work and I've got so many other travel plans in the works, but I must get away to Avignon, to Bandol, to Aix and to the Southern Rhone Valley, to the crazy soils of Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

I can't help myself when it comes to CdP. Year in, year out, they're just some of the best wines I ever drink. This tasting was a great time to check up some some various vintages within CdP. One thing I love about the wines of Chateauneuf is their ability to translate a vintage into a glass, to interpret each season in a truthful way. Each vintage has a character, an attitude, it's own voice. I know it sounds corny, but I guaranteee, if you taste several vintages of good Chateauneufs side-by-side, you'll get what I mean.

It was interesting to taste many different vintages and discuss the differences with friends. Wine nerds and novices alike attended the tasting, but I think it's fair to say everyone had a blast. Now, the wines...

Opening White
2008 Domaine Raymond Usseglio & Fils Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc - France, Southern Rhône, Châteauneuf-du-Pape
We started off the tasting with this bottle I picked up from Weygandt Wines in Cleveland Park, DC. I picked this white Chateauneuf to kick off what would inevitably be a tasting dominated by reds. This wine is a blend of 40% grenache blanc and 20% each of roussanne, clairette and bourboulenc. On the nose: white flowers, papaya, hint of cotton candy, apricot, orange blossom. On the palate: fresh acid leads to a nutty, white peach feel with lemon zest and honey on the finish. Very acidic for a CdP, and my girlfriend said it was too much acid for her. For me, I was excited to see such a complex CdP blanc have so much freshness. It was even better after five hours of air exposure. A lot of white CdPs can be heavy, but not this one. 89 points

A Birth-Year Bordeaux
1983 Château La Croix du Casse - France, Bordeaux, Pomerol
I threw this Bordeaux into the tasting as a ringer of sorts. I approached this wine as an experiment, a unique drinking experience, and I had no expectations that the wine might actually taste good. Being form my birth year, I decided to pop this bottle and see if it had any life left. The color is a weird orange-red. The aromas are very pungent: rhubarb, garlic pickles, beef broth and wet mud. Soft tannins, medium acid (not too sharp). Lots of beef, leather and pickle juice flavors linger on the finish. This wine is totally crazy, and most people poured it out after one taste, but I give it points for insanity. My friend Tim described this wine as "D.O.A." I like to think I've aged better than this wine has. For a long time this Chateau La Croix du Casse was owned and operated by
Jean-Michel Arcaute, who also owned the famous Chateau Clinet estate. Apparently, Arcaute died in a tragic boating accident in 2001, and I can’t figure out who makes the wine now. It’s a blend of 80 percent merlot-20 percent cab franc.  75 points

Bring on the Chateauneuf-du-Pape
1994 Château de Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape - France, Southern Rhône, Châteauneuf-du-Pape
In 1994 Beaucastel used more mourvedre grapes (40% versus the normal 30%), which may have something to do with this wine’s theme of leather, mushrooms and farmyard soil. It supposedly possesses the lowest percentage of grenache (30%) of any Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and the highest percentage of mourvedre. Whatever the final blend is, as soon as you open a Beaucastel, it's clear you're dealing with a unique wine. This wine stands up and announces itself proudly. Clear ruby color in the glass. The aromas are bright and alive, but also savory, showing peppercorn, bacon frying in a pan, bay leaf , all of which linger. The nuances and shifting nature of the aromas is really amazing. On the palate this wine is still bright and full of grippy tannins. The flavors are very complex and nuanced, showing grilled meat, sour cherry, dusty and snappy cranberry fruit, accented by licorice and charcoal. So pure, so fresh, really unbelievable. Several people chose this wine as their wine of the night. Tied with the 2001 Rayas for my favorite wine of the night. 93 points

2001 E. Guigal Châteauneuf-du-Pape
A blend of 80% grenache, 10% syrah, 5% mourvèdre, 5% other varieties. Pungent aromas of rhubarb, cherry skins, bitter coffee, raspberry greens. The wine still has a lot of grippy tannins and fresh acid. Flavors of red plums, coffee, peppered steak, cherry pits. This wine has a lot going on, and it shifted a lot over the course of several hours. This wine is nowhere near the end of its life. A lot of the people who attended the tasting thought this wine was a bit astringent, and I get that. For me, it’s an enjoyable CdP that has five more years ahead of it at least. Beautiful stuff. By the second day, the aromas were even more savory and I picked up some rose petal aromas as well. Finishes with hints of meat and dusty tannins. 90 points

2001 Château Rayas Châteauneuf-du-Pape Pignan Reserve
A bottle of Rayas is a special thing indeed. They use no stainless steel,
no temperature controls, no new oak, and they age their wine in a mix of old school containers. The color of cloudy cherry compote in the glass. Bright aromas of cherries, cranberry, a whiff of white pepper. With time delicious aromas of bay leaf and rose petals came out. On the palate, the tannins are acid are so strong, but balanced perfectly. Red plums and snappy cranberry fruit on the palate, along with complex flavors of licorice, minerals and dried leaves. This is such a gorgeous, feminine wine, almost Burgundian. One of the most elegant Chateauneufs I've tasted in a long time. This wine was the group's favorite, and for good reason. Thanks, Ian, for contributing such a beauty. I’ve read that this wine is a minimum of 98% grenache, but sometimes 100%. 93 points

Domaine Les Cailloux is named after the Southern Rhone’s famous cailloux roulés, which are the large stones found scattered all over the Chateauneuf du Pape vineyards. The Les Cailloux blend, made by André Brunel, is usually a blend of 65% grenache, 20% mourvèdre, 12% syrah and 3% of other varieties, all of which come from vines averaging 60 years old.

2003 Les Cailloux (Lucien et André Brunel) Châteauneuf-du-Pape
Bright ruby color. It was clear at this point in the tasting that we were dealing with a fruitier, more bombastic kind of wine. Some of the new world haters (Tim, I'm looking at you) didn't like the wine's jammy profile. However, I think it is one of the better 2003 CdPs I've had, and one that shows a lot of personality but also some balance. Syrupy fruit on the nose, showing red licorice, melted cherries and rose petals. The palate is bold and jammy, with medium tannins and low acid. The low acid is what throws this wine for me. I need more structure. Still, the flavors of game, spices and earth come out with three hours being open. Still a pretty and yummy wine. Val really enjoyed this, which was no surprise. 89 points

2006 Les Cailloux (Lucien et André Brunel) Châteauneuf-du-Pape
Ruby-cherry colored. Aromas of sour cherry, beef fat and leather. A dense wine on the palate with hard-line tannins but a lot of fresh cherry and raspberry fruit. I really like the flavors of white pepper, corned beef and soy, which add complexity. A lot more acid and structure than the 2003, and a good example of the quality wines of the 2006 vintage. 90 points

2006 Clos du Mont-Olivet Châteauneuf-du-Pape
I was surprised by how vibrant and full this CdP was. I'll say it again, 2006 is an overlooked vintage but a lot of producers put out solid wines for less money. This one's bright cherry colored in the glass. Aromas of plum skins, sour cherries, white pepper, roses and clove. Very complex nose, and it got better and better over the course of the evening. Bold structure on the palate of lively acid and fine-grained tannins. Wild cherry and cassis fruit mixes with flavors of anise and smoke. There's a meaty aspect to this wine that is delicious. This is a really opulent wine, but one that maintains a real purity of flavors. 90 points

2008 Domaine Jean Royer Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Tradition
It was nice having a 2008 red in the mix, as I've really come to enjoy this vintage. Stuck between the 2007s and 2009s, 2008 might get overlooked sometimes. Extracted cherry color. The aromas are really opulent: red plum, iron, purple Mr. Sketch marker, a hint of olive. Plush and sexy on the palate. Cherry fruit mixes with minerals, charcoal and fresh sod. It's that acid on this wine that's got me exited, it's so pure and focused. Very easy to drink now, but I'd like to try it again in five years to see what other complexities come out of this wine. 91 points

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Aged Anderson Valley Pinot is a Beautiful Thing

I turn 29 today. I'm throwing a Châteauneuf-du-Pape tasting for my friends tomorrow for the official celebration, but last night, my last night as a 28-year-old, I decided to open up an aged pinot noir to mourn the loss of another year of youth. At 14-years-old, the 1998 Elke Vineyards Pinot Noir "Donnelly Creek Vineyard" gives me hope that the good things in life really do get better with age. The grapes come from one of my favorite regions for pinot noir: Mendocino County's Anderson Valley. I have family in the area and I've traveled a lot through Mendocino, so Anderson Valley will always have a special spot in my heart.

On the eyes: Gorgeous ruby color with just a bit of cloudiness (the wine was bottled unfined and unfiltered). As California pinot noir ages, the color just gets more and more beautiful. I could gaze into this wine for a long time, it’s just that pretty.

On the nose: The nose is everything I expect from an Anderson Valley pinot noir, plus a medley of unique aged characteristics. You get the sweet cherry and cool raspberry fruit, but a lot of spices as well (cinnamon, clove, rhubarb). There’s this really spicy aroma that comes out after a few hours being open that really reminds me of cayenne pepper or some sort of Asian red pepper paste. I can’t remember ever smelling this in a wine before, but I love it.

On the palate: The tannins are split 50/50 between silk and fine-ground coffee, and the combination is beautiful. Raspberry and wild cherry fruit dominate, along with a hint of milk chocolate. Flavors of pipe tobacco and cedar add a good cigar shop aspect to the wine. The acid provides refreshment and balance. Sappy red fruit and beef broth tones linger on the finish.

I can’t believe how well this pinot has held up, and perhaps it still got a few years ahead of it. But it’s showing perfectly right now and I don't see any reason to hold onto this wine any longer.

91 points

Now, here's the real kicker: I bought this wine at auction for $10! All those hours poring over auction lists paid off. Happy birthday to me! I hope in 14 more years I'm still as youthful as this wine.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Petit Manseng: A French White Grape Finds a Home in Virginia

The small berries and thick skin of petite manseng
make it perfect for late harvest dessert wines.
In January the Virginia Wine Board released a report on the state of the Virginia wine industry and Virginia wine as a brand. The report contains two telling quotes from restaurateurs about Virginia wine. One told the researchers: “Traditionally there was an impression that [Virginia Wine] is overpriced, insipid and that they have NO ability to make the reds.” Notice the past tense “was.” Does that mean these impressions about Virginia wines are changing? Another restaurateur thinks so: “I wouldn’t have been able to sell any of it 10 years ago. But I think people are starting to come around now.”

I think both of them are right. Even though a recent tasting of Virginia’s gold medal-winning wines left me more than a little disappointed, I refuse to give up on Virginia wines. Winemakers in Virginia have been fighting for recognition by putting out more and more quality wines made from an increasinly wide range of grapes. And one of the most interesting Virginia wines is made from a grape few people have heard of: petit manseng.

Petit manseng, along with its big brother gros manseng, are traditional white grapes of Jurançon, a region near the Pyrenees in Southwest France. Petit manseng's small berries and thick skins translate into bold tropical and floral aromas. On the palate, the wines frequently show zippy acid and gobs of tropical fruit. Many petite manseng grapes are harvested late when they contain the most sugar, and are frequently made into dessert wines packed with apricot and spice flavors.

Chrysalis Vineyards in Middleburg, Virginia claims to have produced “America’s first varietally labeled Petit Manseng.” They describe petite manseng as “an aromatic grape producing sweet wines bursting with aromas and flavors of flowers, honey, candied fruit and spice.” Some Virginia wineries blend petit manseng with other varieties like traminette, viognier and vidal blanc.

Petit manseng was one of 25 varieties analyzed by the Virginia Cooperative Extension in a major 1987 study. Doctor Tony K. Wolf, Viticulture Extension Specialist at the Virginia Cooperative Extension, had heard good things about the grape from British Master of Wine Jancis Robinson. And while collecting petite manseng in Geneva he “was astounded at the high quality of the fruit that was still hanging on the vines” late into the harvest season. Planted in Virginia, petite manseng grapes produced bountiful yields and the grapes proved to be more resistant to rot than chardonnay. “Petit Manseng wines fit a particular niche market, I believe,” Dr. Wolf wrote in a 2003 trade publication. “Finished with some residual sugar, they make excellent dessert wines. Dry Petit Mansengs are sort of like dry Rieslings or dry Gewurztraminers…” Dr. Wolf was clearly on to something, because 25 years after experimenting with petit manseng, Virginia wineries are putting out some solid examples of what they and Nature can do with this grape.

I’ve tasted a lot of French wines made from petite manseng, but not many from Virginia. Recently I had the privilege of tasting three Virginia petit manseng wines in one night. The tasting convinced me that petit manseng from Virginia is a wine to watch in the coming years.

2011 Chateau O'Brien Petit Manseng (Virginia, Fauquier County)
I tasted this wine blind, and it was a lot of fun trying to guess what it was. It smells like grass, grapefruit and white peach. The palate shows tangy acid, a burst of tangerine and lime fruit. For a while, I was convinced this was a California interpretation of a French Muscadet, with its lime and salt and sea flavors. There’s a burst of tangerine on the finish. My guess ended up being: a California muscadet. I was excited to see it was a Virginia petite manseng. It’s very aromatic and full of flavor, and it would be great with oysters or shrimp. 87 points

2008 Linden Petit Manseng Late Harvest (Virginia, Northern Region)
At the end of a recent tasting of domestic white wines, I had the pleasure of tasting two dessert wines made from Virginia petite manseng. The Linden Late Harvest bottling has to be one of the best Virginia wines I've tasted, no kidding. It’s got this amazing golden color with thick, creamy legs. The wine shows gorgeous aromas of apricot liqueur, marmalade, dried flowers and salted nuts. The palate is an explosion of honey and orange marmalade, while notes of chamomile and persimmon add complexity. Clover honey and caramel linger on the finish. This wine is quite balanced, and believe it or not I think it has serious aging potential. Five years would do wonders on this wine, at least that’s my guess. My interest in Virginia petit manseng is growing. 90 points

This dessert wine, like most everything I've tried from Glen Manor, is peculiar. It smells of smoke, apple zinger and a whiff of pepper. The palate is oily, but balanced with tangy acid, which I like. This has a lot of spicy flavors going on, some of which are quite pungent. It’s a fun wine, a good conversation starter and a wine for the experimental palates out there. 80 points

Like all Virginia wines the quality depends on a wide swath of factors such as rainfall, heat, the presence or absence of rot or mold in the vineyard, the skill and dedication of the winemaker. That said, petit manseng clearly offers Virginia winemakers an opportunity to produce delicious wines that could appeal to a lot of palates. I’m excited to try some more in the future.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

A Weekend of <$25 Wines

I taste a lot of wine, and inevitably I come across some disappointmenting bottles. This weekend contained no such wines. I tasted a slew of mostly old world wines at home and with some wine nerd buddies at Weygandt Wines this weekend. Bacchus was with us, because every bottle had something to show me. When you keep an open mind, taste everything, you find some goodies.

By the way, an added bonus: all of these wines were purchased at or retail for less than $25.


2010 Domaine les Aphillanthes Côtes du Rhône Blanc Clementia - France, Southern Rhône, Côtes du Rhône
Pretty peach-gold color in the glass. At first, not much going on here aromatically. Yellow apple and honey, some white flowers. It opened up with about an hour. On the palate, the first thing I notice about this wine is its ripeness, lots of cantaloupe melon, yellow apple and a hint of apricot. There’s enough acid to balance the ripe fruit, and it’s not goopy. But it is not a lean wine. Some nutty and buttery notes add complexity and weight. This wine makes me crave chicken alfredo or linguini with white clam sauce, something rich that could stand up to this wine’s boldness. A blend of equal parts roussanne and viognier with about 10% clairette. 86 points

2008 Weingut Dr. Siemens Serriger Würtzberg Riesling Kabinett feinherb - Germany, Mosel Bright gold color in the glass. On the nose, this is classic Mosel riesling, but it also does its own thing. Lots of green apple and lime aromas mix with clover honey, nougat and a whiff of oil. On the palate, I really like where this wine is in its evolution. Acid attacks and sticks around the entire time, providing a laser-like backbone. The fruit flavors are refined and sexy: lime, Granny Smith apple, papaya, a hint of quince. The minerality in this wine is really kicking, like mountain stream water and slate rock. Combined with the acid, it’s almost like a tickling sensation on the palate. This wine is tangy, zesty, but showing signs of maturity in the hints of nougat, honeycomb and lemon oil. Delicious stuff, especially for the price. As with most rieslings I drink, I want to taste this again in five years.  91 points

1997 Christine Woods Chardonnay Estate Reserve - California, Mendocino County, Anderson Valley
The label, capsule and cork were in pristine condition, like this wine was newly released as opposed to 15 years old. Medium gold color in the glass with thin legs. Interesting aromas, predominantly orange rind, lemon zest and hazelnut. Pretty aromas, demonstrating that this wine is by no means dead or dying, and surprisingly not oxidized. Lots of lemon curd and baked apples on the palate, along with a flavor that is a dead ringer for boiled peanuts. It tastes smooth and nutty, slightly sherry-like from age. A bit of toast accents the fruit, but it’s so subtle. What I like is the kick of acid that sticks around throughout. There’s a waxiness and mineral aspect that reminds me a bit of chenin blanc, believe it or not. Apple sauce notes linger on the finish. The 12% alcohol means this wine is quite light on its feet, which I really enjoy. (Why don’t many people make 12% alcohol California chardonnays anymore?)  It’s a really fun wine that was probably meant to be consumed ten years ago. But, hey, it’s still going. Considering my expectations were extremely low, I ended up enjoying this wine. I brought it for some friends, and they all commented that it was still youthful. 87 points

2010 Domaine Michel Juillot Bourgogne Blanc - France, Burgundy
Aromatically, this is the picture of freshness: green apple, lemon, white flowers and honeysuckle aromas. Lots of acid on the palate, flavors of lemon-lime, a hint of grapefruit, and a kick of minerals. This is such a pure chardonnay, with a tingly finish. Yum. 87 points

2005 Luneau-Papin Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine Semper Excelsior - France, Loire Valley, Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine
I tasted this blind and its minerality, high acid and creaminess led me to guess it was a 2010 Chablis. Bright yellow-straw color. Aromas of green apple, whipped cream, sweet tarts and slate. Very tangy on the palate, with a streak of minerals and lime. Very precise and focused. I was very surprised to see this was from 2005, as it tastes incredibly young. It really reminds me of a young Chablis. It's frankly beautiful, and I'd love to try this again in five years. 90 points

2010 Domaine de l'Ecu (Guy Bossard) Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine Expression d'Orthogneiss - France, Loire Valley, Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine
Light straw color. Lots of tropical fruit on the nose, papaya, mango and honey, but somehow it's still really bright. Super creamy on the palate with intense acid. Lots of body, but tons of minerals and acid for balance. A very impressive muscadet that would be great to taste again in ten years. Tasted blind, guessed it as a 2009 muscadet. 89+ points


2011 Daniel Bouland Côte de Brouilly - France, Beaujolais, Côte de Brouilly
Vibrant cherry-ruby color. Bright aromas of black cherries, dark loamy soils, hints of bitter chocolate. The palate has a lot of tangy acid, along with grippy tannins. Flavors of pure cherries, minerals, cocoa and graphite. It's very complex and could age for ten years easily. Solid stuff! Daniel Bouland is a master with the gamay grape. 89 points

2010 Jacques Puffeney Trousseau Arbois - France, Jura, Arbois
I tasted this blind and guessed it only as a Jura red. It just has that Jura red mystique: the light cherry color in the glass; aromas of sour cherries, cranberry, white pepper and raspberry bushes, a hint of black tea. The palate is really tangy with lots of minerality. Fine-grained tannins combine for an almost mouth-puckering feeling, reminiscent of a 2008 Burgundy. A hint of soy and herb lingers on the finish. Gorgeous, and I imagine this will be even better in two years or so. 90 points

2010 Château Des Roques Vacqueyras - France, Southern Rhône, Vacqueyras
This is a more restrained and elegant wine than the 2009, and it's frankly one of the best bargains I've seen in a long time. Dark cherry colored. Blackberries, fig paste, hints of braised meat on the nose. The palate is pure silk. Fresh cherries, blackberries and cranberries glide in on a wave of acid and fine tannins. Notes of pepper, cocoa and minerals linger on the finish. This would be beautiful with a pot roast. 88 points

Friday, September 21, 2012

New Column: How I Fell in Love with Wine

Every couple has a story. How you both met, what s/he was wearing, what music was playing, the magic of the first kiss.

Likewise, every wino has a story, a tale of how they fell in love with the juice of the grape. Well, here's mine. It's part of the recently-launched 20 Something Magazine, started by my good friend Dario DiBattista.

I hope you like the column, and please "like" the magazine on Facebook if you do. I'd love to hear the story of how you fell in love with wine as well.


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

On Lorrie Moore's Novel "A Gate at the Stairs"

I read Lorrie Moore’s novel “Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?” for a fiction class at Johns Hopkins University last year and loved it. So I picked her novel “A Gate at the Stairs” as soon as I saw it, expecting something equally good. The two novels are very different things, as any two novels are, but in this case I feel like I’m reading an entirely different author.

It was my love for “Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?” that got me through the first 100 pages of this novel. They are such a drag, and I was so tempted to return the book and not bother with the rest of it. But I stuck it out, and, despite the novel’s faults, it came around. A bit. There was some incredible stuff on pages 150 to 250. Then, again, it slipped back into mediocrity. The ending is a real letdown, not because nothing happens but because Moore completely drops characters she’s spent the entire novel developing.

The prose gets pretentious far too often. The narrator (Tassie) veers off into three-page expository rants about her childhood in the middle of a scene, then Moore drops us right back into the scene and we’re supposed to figure out where in the hell we are along the time-space continuum. In one scene, Tassie is talking to Sarah Brink, a local woman who adopts a two-year-old girl and hires Tassie as a caretaker. The reader is immersed in dialogue between Sarah and Tassie when Tassie goes off for three pages about some random experience she had when she was a kid. Then it’s right back into the dialogue like nothing has happened. The effect is discombobulating. At times, I really felt like I was reading the ramblings of a teenager pepped up on Pixi Stix and speed, albeit a teenager with a cheeky vocabulary.

Sarah’s character is interesting. She’s a white middle-aged yuppie who takes being a liberal as seriously as Karl Rove takes being an asshole. She runs an organic restaurant that serves food I’ve never even heard of topped with other stuff I’ve never heard of. She has bumper stickers that say “Born right the first time” and “If God speaks through a burning bush, let’s burn Bush and see what God says.” And she also calls everyone Nazis, telling Tassie “You may be too young to know this yet, but eventually you will look around and notice: Nazis always have the last laugh.” She becomes even more interesting as her secret past comes to light. She shows her true colors when Child Services comes to take her adopted daughter.

It took me a long time, however, to connect with Tassie. The experience of reading a first-person novel cannot be fully realized if the narrator isn’t interesting, if there’s no connection. And I struggled to connect with Tassie. In fact, she’s as boring as the Wisconsin landscape she grew up in. She’s not one to remember. She’s the girl your guy friend starts dating and everyone around them thinks: “Eh, give it two weeks. He’ll get tired of her.” I confess: I got tired of Tassie in about twenty pages. And that made the rest of the 300 pages a bit rough.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Henry Miller, the Evangelist of Big Sur

“Sweet or bitter, I am now convinced that all experience is enriching and rewarding. Above all, instructive.”

Henry Miller’s book Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch is full of such existential musings on art and life. Here are a few more:

Surely every one realizes, at some point along the way, that he is capable of living a far better life than the one he has chosen. What stays him, usually, is the fear of the sacrifices involved.

Whoever uses the spirit that is in him creatively is an artist. To make living itself an art, that is the goal.

Quotes like these remind me why I love Henry Miller. The man’s understanding of human desire, art and the innate human need to create is astounding. 

“Artists never thrive in colonies. Ants do. What the budding artist needs is the privilege of wrestling with his problems in solitude – and now and then a piece of red meat.”

And what better place to find solitude in the late 1950s than Big Sur, California? I’ve never been to Big Sur, which I feel is something of a crime given my love for California and rugged coastlines, but Miller is an incredible evangelist for this little corner of California. In Big Sur he tells the stories of the things he sees, the people he meets, the day-to-day things he does and the thoughts that pass through his mind. Seriously, that’s the plot. Nothing else really happens. There’s virtually no sex and only minimal drug use. If this sounds boring to you, perhaps you have not experienced the passion and power of Miller’s language.

We’re talking about Henry Miller here, so I wasn’t surprised that the book contains some serious rambling. He spills a lot of ink on a lot of tangents, and many times I found myself asking: “Miller, what’s the bloody point already?”  I was also not surprised that Miller rewards those readers who stick with him through the slow and rambling parts. There are phrases, sentences, arguments and observations that remain stunning more than 50 years after this book was published.

So, is it worth your attention? Is the ratio of boring to beautiful prose acceptable? Absolutely. When Miller hits it, he hits it hard, and the impact of his prose is undeniable.

The written word, Miller argues, should be true, real, personal and based in one’s experience and understanding of the world. “There should be fire, passion, an obsessive urge.” I’m with Miller here. Without fire and obsession I’m convinced you cannot master your craft, whatever medium you use. Miller states writing that is worthy of being called art comes only through “toil and struggle, through reflection, meditation, self-analysis, above all through being scrupulously and relentlessly honest with oneself. “

Miller offers this tip for struggling writers: “To those who protest that they are not understood, not appreciated, not accepted – how many  of us ever are? – all I can say is: “Clarify your position!” Miller, in this 404-page book, is clearly trying to clarify his own position on nature, art and community, and he does a damn good job of it.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Sauvignon Blanc from California and Virginia

For my palate, domestic sauvignon blanc is a hit or miss category of wines, with more than a few misses. On one hand you’ve got the leaner styled wines that can taste like grass and lemon juice, and on the other you’ve got the wines that have been oaked beyond recognition.

But I’m convinced that sauvignon blanc, being such a versatile and food friendly wine, can be made to suit almost any palate. The challenge is finding the ones that fit your tastes. At a recent tasting of American white wines, I tasted four domestic sauvignon blancs, two from California and two from Virginia. The range of styles was incredible, and each wine offered a distinct interpretation of the sauvignon blanc grape.

2011 Glen Manor Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc (Virginia, Shenandoah Valley)
This is one heck of an extreme sauvignon blanc. Pungent aromas of lemon, grapefruit rind, sage and freshly cut grass. The wine is so pungent it almost smells like a bitter green salad. My girlfriend said it smells like “a cat peeing on grass,” while my friend J described it as smelling like “bleu cheese under a Frenchman’s armpit in August.” Both are good descriptors. The palate is too sweet for my taste, bursting with lime and sweet tarts. The grass and onion flavors are too pungent and powerful. This wine just ain’t my cup of sauvignon blanc. 71 points

2011 Linden Sauvignon Blanc Avenius (Virginia, Northern Region)
Linden is one of the few Virginia wineries that almost always puts out solid and interesting wines. This sauvignon blanc beat the hell out of the 2011 Glen Manor. The nose has a seltzer-like sense of freshness, with lime, orange, honeysuckle and sage. The palate is light and tangy, with a burst of gooseberry, melon and lime. Minerals and hints of green onion accent the fruit flavors. Very balanced and clearly well-made. Maybe sauvignon blanc has potential in Virginia? 87 points

2010 Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc (California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley)
I brought a few bottles of this wine back from a trip to Sonoma in March. When I tasted it at the winery, I was floored by its complexity, balance and depth. Among the many domestic sauvignon blancs I’ve tasted, this is by far the best, and it’s way up there on the list of my favorite sauvignon blancs from anywhere in the world. So I wanted to share a bottle with my good wine friends and see what they thought.

Heavenly aromas of grass, jalapeno, white peach and green apple. The aromas opened up with time and air, showing all sorts of nuance. Most of the tasters were a bit skeptical of this wine, thinking it would be too oaked or bold, but the acid in this wine is so attractive that it won a lot of fans. The melon and lime fruit is pure and plush, laced with herbs and cut chives. The finish is long and seamless. On day 2 the wine opened up even more, showing papaya and tangerine, but it’s equally matched with lime-like acidity. So fresh and beautiful. 93 points

2010 Cowan Cellars Sauvignon Blanc Isa (California, Lake County)
This ain’t your average sauvignon blanc. Your usually white wine is made by pressing the juice from the grapes and separating that juice from the grape skins, seeds and stems. The sugary nectar is then fermented, usually in stainless steel, sometimes oak. But to make a so-called “orange wine” the process is different, not to mention ancient, dating back thousands of years. Orange wines are made like most red wines are made, by fermenting the juice and the grape skins together for some duration of time. Depending on the length of time the juice and skins spend together, this process results in a wine with darker color and more structure. It also provides a wine-drinking experience unlike any other. In an interview, winemaker Jim Cowan explains why he chose to make this wine the ancient way: “Fermentation on the skins gives the wine texture and considerable complexity.”

The skin contact is evident in the wine’s pretty apricot color. The aromas are fun and wild: apricot, pineapple, white flowers and an aroma that reminds me of good bourbon. The palate is dense and creamy, but the acid keeps it fresh and lip-smacking. Flavors of quince, honey, wax and peanut shell. This wine reminds me of some wines from the Jura region of France, with its high acid, nutty and slightly oxidized aspect. This is really fun stuff, and I give it serious points for creativity. 89 points

So there you have it: four different sauvignon blancs, four different takes.

What’s your favorite American sauvignon blanc?

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Crazy White Blends of Compagni Portis

Bedrock Wine Co. describes Sonoma Valley’s Compagni Portis Vineyard as “a jewel remaining from a bygone age.” Originally planted in 1954, before everyone began uprooting obscure white varieties in favor of chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, the Compagni Portis vineyard is a gnarled hodgepodge of old vine white varieties: gewurtzraminer, trousseau gris, riesling, burger, green Hungarian and some that are still unidentified.

The label art is almost as gnarly as the vines themselves.
The Compagni Portis vineyard is a perfect example of quality taking precedent over quantity. These old vines produce ultra-low yields, but those grapes are packed with concentrated aromas and flavors. The resulting field blends offer some of the most delicious and educational drinking experiences in all of California white wine.

Bedrock’s winemaker describes this six-acre vineyard as, “a sporadic, seemingly random, assemblage of varieties that can only be found together here in California’s oldest vineyards and makes a wine more indicative of place than variety, spacing, farming, or anything else.” Basically, he’s standing up for the terroir of the Compagni Portis vineyard. And I agree: this place is very special.

At a recent tasting of American white wines I had the pleasure of tasting two white blends from the Compagni Portis vineyard. Both wines came from the same vintage, 2010. It’s always fun to taste two wines from the same vineyard, same vintage, but blended and fermented by different winemakers. While the wines were both unique, they share a baseline of aromas and flavors that speaks to the terroir of the Compagni Portis vineyard.

2010 Bedrock Wine Co. Heirloom Compagni Portis (California, Sonoma Valley) 
This wine is fermented with wild yeasts and aged in neutral oak and steel barrels. It’s a light yellow color in the glass. Aromatic intensity is this wine’s game: tons of flowers, peach blossoms, perfume and a gewürztraminer-like combination of fresh citrus and mixed nuts. The palate shows chunky melon and pineapple fruit, white flowers, honey and lychee nut flavors. There’s a lot of tangy acid throughout, and the wine maintains a superb sense of balance. This is a really unique white wine, unlike anything I’ve tasted. The closest comparison I can come up with is a traditional proprietary white blend from Alsace, one of those tangy-rich wines with five or ten white grapes mixed in. But the Bedrock Heirloom white shows a purity of fruit flavors that is quintessentially Californian. The combination of elements is like jazz: there’s a bit of everything in here, it’s chaotic, but somehow it works. Lovely. And a great bargain at $24. By the second day, the wine showed even more nuance and complexity.
92 points

I love the simple yet artistic label on the Arnot-Roberts.
2010 Arnot-Roberts Old Vine White Compagni Portis Vineyard (California, Sonoma Valley) 
Most of the people at our tasting liked this wine a bit more than the 2010 Bedrock Compagni Portis. I was in the minority, but this wine’s quality is undeniable. On the nose: white flowers, honeysuckle, rose petals, pears and tons of perfume. This is truly a beautiful wine to sniff. The palate is fresh and tangy, with green apple, tangerine, wax, tart lemon and perfume flavors. The acid sings all the way through, but there’s a waxy aspect to the wine that gives it great mouthfeel and depth. This white blend is just so damn authentic, a true testament to California’s rich history with white wine. A no-brainer at $25-$30. A blend of riesling, sylvaner, green Hungarian, berger and other varieties, all of which are fermented together.
90 points

If you ever get a chance to taste a white blend from this vineyard, I suggest you take it. You won’t be disappointed.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England

My paperback copy of Brock Clarke’s novel “An Arsonist’s Guide to Writer’s Homes in New England” is littered with drop quotes from big-shot publications: “darkly comic,” “absurdly hilarious,” “wildly, unpredictably funny” and other combinations of quirkily kooky clarifiers. Then there’s the Washington Post’s one-word quote: “Sizzles.” Okay, that last one’s a bit corny considering this novel is full of arson fires. Point is: Apparently everyone loves this book.

Well, count me in.
Sam Pulsifer, the first-person narrator, is an accidental arsonist who burns down Emily Dickinson’s house and kills the two people he didn’t realize were in bed upstairs. He’s 18 years old at the time, and he spends the next 10 in prison. When he gets out he visits his parents only to find out that his father has had a stroke, and his mother drinks more beers in one night than a Phillie’s fan at a double-header. Sam tries to fit into society, but he’s a confused and strange guy, having come of age behind bars.

Sam is a self-described “bumbler,” a man who fucks up most everything he touches. He’s aware of this, and he carries with him more than his share of self-loathing. At least it’s self-loathing of the ultra-comic variety: “Always count on a bumbler to think that he is unique in his bumbling, to believe his bumbling is like a fingerprint, specific to him. The truth is that the world is full of bumblers exactly like you, and to think that you’re special is just one more thing you’ve bumbled.”

Sam finally loses his virginity when he’s about 30 to a Catholic woman named Anne Marie. Sam asks her to marry him that same day and Anne Marie says yes. They’re married and soon have two children. I won’t give it away, but suffice it to say that Sam’s bumbling also extends to his family life.

The novel takes place in and around Amherst, Massachusetts. I’ve never been there but Clarke’s such a damn good writer that I feel like I know the place well. The narrator describes it thusly: “Amherst didn’t seem big enough to justify all these superstores and their parking lots; it was like building a sub without first building the urb.”

As Sam readjusts to life on the outside, someone begins setting fires to other writers’ homes, Mark Twain’s, Edith Wharton’s, Robert Frost’s. The suspicion falls naturally on Sam, who sets out on a detective mission to find the real arsonist. It’s this mystery plot that drives the narrative.

At times this book reminds me of some of Vonnegut’s earlier work, which is to say that it’s near perfect. The deadpan humor, the way Clarke fiddles with language, the way the characters possess a sense of zaniness and realness at the same time, Clarke brings it all.