Friday, November 30, 2012

Things I See in DC - #3

I'm an observer. I watch people and things and try 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. Here are a few such things:

Things I See in DC - #3 (September-November, 2012)

It’s nine o’clock on a Monday night, and I’m reading a book on my porch and enjoying a glass of California pinot noir, like I do sometimes. I see two guys running up my hilly street. They’re thirty-somethings, dressed like tool-bags with all the pricey running garb and tassles, tufts of wet hair flopping over their ears. The one on the right checks his gadget-watch, huffs to the other: “Mile one: six minutes, two seconds.” The other one says back: “Nice! Let’s pick up the pace!” And they run off down the street, faster now. I take a sip of my wine and watch a mouse as it starts to dig a hole in my garden.

I grab a seat at the bar in Jack Rose. I look up at the library-style wall of Scotch, trying hard to make out the names in the hazy glow: Ardbeg, Auchentoshan, Bowmore, Bruichladdich. There must be hundreds of them, thousands perhaps, each bottle holding onto its own savory Scottish secret. A man plops down two barstools to my right. He’s my age, clean as clean-cut gets, his curly hair slicked back and gelled into a crisp helmet. He’s sporting slick shoes and a show-off suit that’s been far too carefully ironed. It isn’t long before a pretty blonde appears, stepping up to him with delicate feet. “Are you so-and-so?” she says. “Yes, and you must be so-and-so,” he replies. She takes a seat next to him. I sip my Highland Park and wonder what the hell this woman is doing with this guy. Mr. Clean grabs the bartender’s attention, and she walks over to take his order. Instead of asking his first date what she’d like, he looks up at the massive wall of whiskey and thinks of his own beverage. He scrunches up his brow and asks the bartender, simply: “Do you have any Scotch?”

In DC's Eastern Market neighborhood, mirrors of city life. ©Isaac James Baker

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Best Bottle of Bubbles for $20

See this bottle? Take note. It's the best sparkling wine available for $20. End of discussion.

Okay, let me dial it back a bit. With wine, there's never an end to the discussion. Of course, I'm always willing to try a new bubbly that could prove me wrong, but year after year Roederer Estate's non-vintage Brut offers bubbly bliss that far outperforms the meager $20 cover charge.

This should come as no big surprise to lovers of the bubbles. After all, Roederer is the brand behind the king of bling, Cristal Champagne. (The 2000 Cristal brut from Roederer remains the greatest wine I've ever tasted, period.) And since 1982, Roederer Estate has been cultivating its own vineyards in one of my favorite California wine regions, Mendocino County's Anderson Valley. Roederer Estate puts out a range of still and sparkling wines made from the classic Champagne grapes (pinot noir and chardonnay), most of which are quite moderately priced. While their higher-end bubbles are even better, nothing beats the value of the non-vintage brut. I first tasted this wine at the winery a few years ago and have been an avid fan ever since. Most recently, I popped a bottle on Thanksgiving, and it proved to be a serious crowd-pleaser. Here are my notes from that bottle...

Non-Vintage Roederer Estate Brut Anderson Valley
Pretty gold color. Clean aromas of melon, white flowers, orange peel and bread dough. Superb acid on the palate, balanced by crisp minerals. Nice biscuity flavors, along with apples, melon and lime. This is legit stuff for $20! A blend of 60% chardonnay and 40% pinot noir, this wine spends at least two years aging on the yeasts, which adds to that biscuity complexity. The finish is long and crisp. 90 points IJB

And I'm not the only fan of this stuff. One taster wrote: "This wine has yet to disappoint. 7 or 8 bottles in the last year that are all in the 90-91 point range. I love the style and the consistency." Another fan: "Best $20 sparkler out there. PERIOD." Yet another: "The epitome of consistency and under $20 over-achieving sparkling. You can always count on NV Roederer Brut. Solid 90, dog."

Yup, this stuff is awesome, dog. With the holidays already upon us, and 2013 scratching at the door, it's always good to have a few bottles of bubbly around. And, to date, I haven't found a better bargain.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Naked Mountain: Quality Virginia Chardonnay

Courtesy of Naked Mountain Vineyards & Winery.
Virginia wines get little love. They’re blasted for being overpriced, overoaked, too sweet, too watery, too stemmy or just plain gross. I’ve visited many Virginia wineries and tasted scores of wine from the Commonwealth over the years, and I’ll admit it: these descriptors are right on… for some Virginia wines. Every year, Virginia winemakers put out really good wine, but it seems sometimes that every solid bottle of Virginia wine is followed by three others that are mediocre to bad.

Like any wine from any region, the producer is key. Sure terroir matters, but good wine doesn’t make itself. This is why I go back again and again to quality Virginia winemakers like those at Linden, Barboursville, Glen Manor and Veritas, just to name a few. I’ve recently come across a new (to me) producer, Naked Mountain, located east of the Blue Ridge gateway town of Front Royal. Bob and Phoebe Harper planted the first vines here in 1976. Planting grew over the years, reaching annual production of 6,000 cases. A couple of young wine enthusiasts, Randy and Meagan Morgan, bought the winery in 2010. Naked Mountain boasts that its chardonnay has been served at the White House twice, once during a State Dinner hosted by Bush I and once at a Clinton meeting with state governors. Not a bad couple of notches to have on your wine’s resume.

I spent this Thanksgiving in the beautiful Blue Ridge foothills with family and friends. I popped a Naked Mountain chardonnay one night and poured it for five or six people, all of whom enjoyed it. Here are my notes…

Having never tried a wine from Naked Mountain before, I poured myself a glass with few expectations. That said: I was impressed with this wine. It showed generous aromas of baked pears and apples, some buttered popcorn and lemon cake. The palate is full of bruised apples, pear and guava fruit, along with buttered popcorn and cinnamon flavors frmo the oak fermentation. Medium acid saves this from being overwhelming or flabby. It’s not a stunning wine, but it outdoes a lot of California chardonnays at twice the price. I picked this up at a Virginia wine shop for $12, and I consider that quite a bargain. 86 points

I’ve never been to the winery, but it’s in a very scenic area that is really accessible to Washingtonians or Appalachian passers-by. I think I’ll make visiting Naked Mountain a priority in the coming year. And I think I’ll try the new release (2008) of this barrel-fermented chardonnay soon.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Basking in Lioco's Demuth Vineyard Chardonnay

Last year, while I was hanging around the San Francisco Bay Area, I drank a 2009 Demuth Vineyard chardonnay from Lioco. It was a new wine for me, and I was so floored by it that I became somewhat obsessed with the wine. I did some research and I wrote up this little ditty on the 2009 vintage. After that great experience I was able to find a 2008 vintage of the same wine. The day before Thanksgiving, I popped it, expecting great things. I was not disappointed.

2008 Lioco Chardonnay Demuth Vineyard (California, Mendocino County, Anderson Valley)
Lioco's 2008 Demuth Vineyard chard is simply stunning. Aromas of seashell, intensely-focused minerals, honeysuckle, slate, whipped honey and lime. Waves and waves of aromas. Fresh acid on the palate, with a beautiful mouthfeel, so silky. This wine combines the richness of apricot and honey with the freshness of a Granny Smith apple. The minerality in this wine is simply amazing. I remember the 2009 having that same mineral intensity, and I’m absolutely in love with it. Hints of quinine and rosemary add legit complexity. This is easily the best California chardonnay I’ve had in a very long time, and it cements my idea that Lioco’s Demuth Vineyard chardonnay is perhaps my favorite California chardonnay, period. It’s simply stunning, and I love it with the passion that I love many Grand Cru Chablis wines. It’s up there on that level of quality. No oak on this wine, and it doesn't need it.

94 points

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Arizona Winery Profile Featured on Terroirist Blog

You know you're in Arizona when a sign in a winery's tasting
room announces you can't pack a firearm while drinking.
On the list of things I love most in life, travel, writing and wine are close to the top. I took advantage of all three earlier this month when I took a trip to an Arizona winery and wrote up a little ditty about it. My piece on Page Springs Cellars, a trailblazing winery located in Arizona's Verde Valley, is being featured on the daily wine blog Terroirist. 

From the valley floor of Phoenix, the drive to Page Springs Cellars takes you on a gradual incline through desert and prairie grass toward the rugged red rock formations of Sedona. Off the highway, the windy road to the winery is hemmed in by cottonwood trees, sagebrush, and prickly pear cactuses. Above, ravens and vultures glide across the wide sky. Below, the occasional tumble weed rolls across the road just like a scene from a clichéd Western film.

Fiction with an All-Too-Real Environmental Disaster Scenario

I don’t want to denigrate this novel by calling it “genre,” like some literary snob. I guess it is technically a “thriller,” but a thriller in the best sense of the word. The issues and themes in this novel are dark, deep, complex and challenging. The characters aren’t mere cut-outs. Yes, the plot twists, lies unravel and people die, but it all happens in the context of a well-crafted fictional world that is not too far removed from our own.
“Flowertown” takes the country we know (the novel is set in the farmlands of Iowa) and shows what it could easily turn into. Seven years before the novel starts, Feno Chemical, a pesticide company, spills a harmful chemical into an Iowa town, contaminating the waterways and surrounding areas, killing almost everything in its path. The affected survivors are held under quarantine in a fenced-off village everyone calls Flowertown, named such because the chemical contaminant gives off a weird floral aroma. The government has ceded control and authority over the quarantine to the same company that created and spilled the contaminant. As demonstrated by countless chemical and oil spills in the real world, when profit-driven, unaccountable entities take charge of public safety, the public is anything but safe. The survivors are doped up with mysterious medication and controlled from dawn to dusk.  
Soon, a mysterious clique of resistance rises up from within the quarantine, passing out pamphlets, delivering coded messages to other prisoners, defacing walls and company vehicles. Who’s behind it? What’s brewing underneath the surface? It’s one hell of a fun time finding out.
This book is a real a page-turner, but S.G. Redling brings the reader through the story on her terms. She writes with the authority of a street-wise investigative reporter (she worked in radio for years), and I love her punchy, jumpy style. 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Red Velvet Cupcakes — the Vinous Version

As a DC resident it’s hard to escape the allure of cupcakes. There are so many cupcakeries and cafes, even food trucks, that sell every variety of cupcake under the sun. Thing is: I’m not really a fan. My girlfriend makes some incredible peanut butter cupcakes, but they’re pretty much just peanut butter and chocolate, which means they, by definition, must be delicious. The fluffy cake insides and the ultra-sweet topping of a typical cupcake just don’t do it for me. So I was more than a bit skeptical when a friend brought over a bottle of Red Velvet Cupcake wine.

I drink a lot of good wine. I drink a lot of wine that I think is going to be good but turns out to be bad. And then there are the wines I drink that I know are going to be bad. This wine falls into the latter category.

The “fact sheet” on this wine provides strikingly few facts: “Red Velvet is a blend of classic red varietals with Zinfandel as a base. It has fantastic structure, aroma, depth of flavor and a long creamy finish.” I’ve read there are some merlot, cabernet sauvignon and petite sirah grapes in here as well, but it seems the producer, like some cult cupcakery, wants to keep the recipe secret. I can’t find any information on where in California the grapes came from, how the wine was made, what kind of oak treatment the juice received. I can only assume that the winemaking team used all the gimmicks in the technological toolbox. Maybe they soaked tea bags of oak chips in the wine, added acid, filtered the hell out of it… who knows? Asking how this wine is made is like asking where Jimmy Dean sausage comes from. Only a few people know, and those who do wish they didn’t.

When I was entering my tasting notes into CellarTracker, my favorite online tasting note database, I laughed out loud at several other tasting notes. “Frightfully sweet and sickly, and hard to believe it's actually wine,” writes one taster. “I love red velvet cupcakes, but I have no desire to drink them. Spurn it as you would spurn a rabid dog.” Ouch! Another taster writes: “if a case of this fell off a truck I wouldn't bend over to pick it up.”

However, not everyone detests this wine. One taster rated it 100 points, but didn’t provide any tasting notes. (I’m going to assume that individual was suffering through some sort of diabetic coma when they scored the wine.) When I was researching this wine I came across a blog post from someone who clearly liked it. She wrote: “It has been a perfect [sic] during the hotter months as a stand alone glass or for pairing with appetizers or lighter summer fair – grilled chicken, boiled shrimp or burgers.” Look, to each his/her own is my mantra. But if I were to drink this wine with appetizers or shrimp or any other “lighter summer fair” the combination would repulse me. The sweetness and oak in this wine would overpower almost any edible item. It would be like pairing toothpaste and orange juice. What could you pair with this wine? The only thing that comes to mind is the obvious: red velvet cupcakes. (Here’s a blog post from a couple of foodies who decided to do just that. They paired this wine with their own recipe for homemade red velvet wine cupcakes… Talk about diabetic comas!)

Here are my notes on this stuff…

2011 Cupcake Vineyards Red Velvet (California): Look, this is not a wine to be taken seriously, that’s obvious from the fact that the wine says Red Velvet Cupcake on the label. It’s the color of pie filling and it smells like someone smeared blueberry jam on burned toast. This wine is everything it claims to be: a sweet red wine with a dessert-like quality. It’s not fortified; I think it’s just a red blend with a crapload of residual sugar. It tastes like a late-harvest zinfandel or something. Anyway, it’s strange stuff, and it tastes like someone concocted it in a factory. But, all things considered, the wine isn’t repulsive. If you pick up the glass expecting a dessert cocktail, you won’t be as upset about the fact that — newsflash! — this isn’t a serious wine. That said, I drank this on Halloween, which makes an ironic kind of sense. On the 100-point scale, I score this wine a "No."

Again, when it comes to wine, to each his/her own. If you like this, more power to you. Some people are willing to wait an hour in line for Georgetown Cupcakes, some aren’t. Know what you like and drink it, that’s what I say. I also say: pour me a different zinfandel blend, please.

Monday, November 5, 2012

2004 Copain Syrah James Berry Vineyard - Wow!

Copain has long been one of my favorite producers in California. They craft regional blends and single vineyard bottlings of pinot noir and syrah from a wide variety of spots across the state. Most of my favorite Copain wines come from Mendocino County vineyards, like Hawke’s Butte, Eaglepoint Ranch and Wentzel, but I’ve been holding on to a single bottle of 2004 syrah from James Berry Vineyard for quite a while. Located in the Central Coast appellation of Paso Robles, James Berry Vineyard sits 10 miles from the Pacific Ocean at an average elevation of 1200 feet. The vineyard is known for producer big, bombastic bruiser red wines, made famous by producer Saxum, whose James Berry blends frequently receive gushing scores of 95-100 points.

I was a little wary of opening this bottle, even though it’s had eight years to rest, because Paso Robles wines tend to big a bit too extracted for my palate. Well, I should’ve known better than to doubt Copain, because the 2004 Copain Syrah James Berry Vineyard is an epic wine.

This is an incredibly dark syrah. It’s really compact right out of the bottle, and a few hours in the decanter helped coax out some more aromas. Plum cake, fig, tar and war paint aromas dominate. After three hours in the decanter it started to show a bit more olive and smoke aromas.

The James Berry Vineyard is home to some stellar syrah vines.
On the palate, this wine is definitely big, with a mouthfeel like glycerin and paint. Flavors of plum pits, blueberry pie, fruit cake, dark chocolate and toast combine in a dense, complex package. The tannins are fine-grained and provide significant backbone. Just enough acid to keep it going, but not nearly as much as I like. It evolved with air and time in the decanter to show some loam and charcoal flavors, which add complexity, and the mouthfeel smoothed out a bit. After three hours I started picking up some olive and brine flavors, and as a Northern Rhone syrah lover, I was very pleased. This syrah deserves to be taken seriously by any wine lover, because even though it’s steeped in this bombastic Paso Robles style, it’s elegant in its own way. What’s important to me in a Paso Robles wine is the purity of the flavors and at least some semblance of balance. Copain’s 2004 James Berry syrah has both. Overall, it’s absolutely delicious and complex as hell. I can’t believe I don’t have another bottle (or ten) to tuck away and drink over the next five or eight years because this wine will definitely last that long. It's up there with the best syrahs I’ve had all year.

95 points

Friday, November 2, 2012

Some Thoughts on the Novel as an Art Form

Why should you care about the novel as art form? Why do I spend time not only reading and writing novels, but reading and writing about novels? Simple: I believe novels represent some of humankind’s greatest achievements. I believe the novel is the most important of all art forms. I believe the novel has the ability, not to change the world, but to change individual people who inhabit the world.

That said… What is a novel? According to novelist Jane Smiley there are “five small facts that apply to every novel. A novel is (1) lengthy, (2) written, (3) prose, (4) narrative with a (5) protagonist.” This is how Smiley defines the novel in her how-to, literary criticism book 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel.  “Every novel has all of these elements,” she writes. “If any of them is missing, the literary form in question is not a novel.”

Smiley continues: “A novel is a hypothesis. A novelist shares with a scientist the wish to observe… But, of course, the novel is a particular type of hypothesis — it is an ontological construct, it is a theory of being.” Here’s another great quote about the novel: “The underlying assertion of almost every novel is that meaning exists and can be understood because it can be arranged in a sequence that then takes on some sort of logic.”

Jane Smiley’s love for this art form pours out of the 500-plus pages in this behemoth. There are more than a few dull pages scattered between the covers, but that’s understandable. The titular 13 Ways are really just 13 chapters, each one focusing on a different aspect of the novel, such as “The Psychology of the Novel” and “Morality and the Novel.” Since the book is so expansive, I’ve chosen a few of Smiley’s claims and arguments to discuss.

Smiley spends quite a few pages discussing the idea of willing suspension of disbelief and how this process affects the novel reader’s experience. “Willing suspension of disbelief is a strange state of mind,” Smiley writes. True so far, but then she continues: “reading nonfiction does not require [willing suspension of disbelief] and neither does reading poetry, since both are based on logical argument.” This I take issue with. I hear a lot of people say that they can’t force themselves to read fiction. They can’t spend their time reading “something someone just made up.” To these people — and to Smiley — I would argue that reading an average news article or nonfiction essay (pick your medium) requires willing suspension of disbelief as much (if not more) than reading an average novel. I don’t believe people really open up the newspaper or go to a news blog, read an article and think, “Yup, that’s exactly how it happened.” Maybe they do, and maybe that’s why we have absolutely no idea what’s going on around us.

When I read an essay or an article in some news outlet, I approach it with a serious sense of skepticism. I hope the author has something worthwhile to say, and I am open to the notion that there is some truth to be gleaned from this writing, but I never assume that a “nonfiction” piece is accurately portraying reality. Nonfiction is not necessarily science. The ultimate goal of a memoir, an essay, and op-ed, is not accuracy. The construction of nonfiction requires collecting certain impressions, memories, ideas and (sometimes) facts and piecing them together in a manner that seems logical. Basically, it’s about making an argument. In this sense, I think nonfiction requires suspending a substantial amount of disbelief. Nonfiction asks the reader to believe what they are reading to be “real,” that the structure of the narrative has some sort of connection to a sequence of actual events. Novels, on the other hand, are works of art. The author of a novel does not make factual, scientifically falsifiable claims. The novelist is telling a story. While discussing Proust, Smiley makes a point that sounds similar to my own: “And, as Proust would have maintained, the construction of memories themselves, and their arrangement into a logical and understandable order, may make them fictional, but also makes them worth reading about.” This is exactly what “nonfiction” does. The only difference is that novels do not demand the pedestal of accuracy, whereas nonfiction writing does.