Oct 232013
 

Death StarMy reward for passing the Master’s Exam in March of 1992 was to work Sunday brunch two days later.  It wasn’t punishment, it was just how the schedule worked out and I wasn’t about to pass the shift off on the other two sommeliers who were also good friends.  To be honest they would have refused to work it and rightly so.

But this is another story.  Several months later on a Friday night I had the first of many seminal sommelier moments or reality checks to be more accurate.  There I was on the floor wearing my shiny new gold and burgundy MS pin feeling somewhere between Austin Powers and James Bond with a little Mr. Bean thrown in for gravitas.  One of the first tables in the early seating was a four-top.  After they had some time to settle in the with the menu and wine list I approached the table and asked the host with the list if he had any questions or needed a suggestion.  He asked for a few minutes.

When I returned to the table he handed me the list and said with the utmost confidence, “we’ll have the such-and-such old vines Zinfandel.”  The wine in question was a seriously tannic red from a top Zinfandel producer from a vineyard that dated well back into the 19th century.  For the sake of convenience, we’ll call it “Death Star” because the tannins were so extreme they could easily take oil stains off a driveway.  “Just curious,” I cautiously asked, “what will you be enjoying for dinner?”  The host responded by saying they would start by sharing a dozen oysters on the half shell and then two of them were having the poached salmon special while the other two had settled on sautéed local Petrale Sole.   Immediately all the sommelier alarms in my head went off at over 100 decibels.  The combination of a ferociously tannic red with oysters and delicate fish was like a train looking for a wreck.  I quickly went into triage mode and tried to talk him out of the wine in every possible way by saying things like:

“Great choice. You know, I tasted that wine recently and it’s a bit tight and pretty tannic.  So we might look at a delicious aromatic white to go with the salmon and Petrale instead.”

Or

“Wow, that’s a great Zinfandel.  Someone last night enjoyed it with the chef’s braised short ribs.  You might consider that instead of the oysters and salmon.”

Or

“A single bottle of Death Star has been known to level an entire village. I’m not sure we’re licensed for it or have the proper safety equipment to administer it.”

But try as I might I could do nothing to dissuade him from ordering the newly released vintage of Death Star.  “You don’t understand,” he said, “this is our favorite wine and it’s impossible to find.  We rarely get to try it.”   I smiled and politely said, “of course.  I’ll bring it right away and decant it for you.”  Visions of ‘50’s sci-fi movies and electro beams melting human skulls danced in my head as I left the table.

Minutes later I returned with the bottle of Death Star and a decanter vainly wishing the prep kitchen had a paint shaker so I might “put a little air” into the wine before serving.  Alas, it was not to be.  I decanted the wine at the table and poured a taste for the host.  He smiled broadly and gestured for me to pour for the others at the table.  Just as I finished pouring his glass the oysters showed up and everyone tucked in ravenously.

A few minutes later I checked back in to see how everyone was doing more out of morbid curiosity than anything.  I fully expected someone at the table to voice a complaint about the tannin-bivalve insurgency in process but not a word.  Instead they ordered a second bottle of Death Star and another dozen oysters.  Then they ordered a third bottle just as the salmon and Petrale hit the table.

Conventional food and wine pairing wisdom said that they should have been suffering the cruel fate of horribly mismatched food and wine chemistry.  But there was nothing of the kind.  In fact the two couples were by all appearances having a grand time.  They polished off the third bottle with dessert and coffee.  Then the host palmed me $20 on the way out.  He thanked me profusely saying they hadn’t seen their friends in years and the fact that we had their favorite wine made the evening perfect.  I stood in the wake of the front door as it closed completely stunned.  Even with my newly acquired MS bling nothing had ever prepared me for what had just happened.  I clearly remember saying out loud, “so what the hell do I know?”

The lesson I took from the “Death Star incident” as it came to be known was simple: always give someone permission to drink whatever they like to drink regardless of how much you know or in this case think you know.  Otherwise in doing what you believe is the right thing everyone loses.  Oh yes, context as in “this is my favorite wine,” trumps all.

I’d like a Fernet, please.

Oct 142013
 

 

Grapes on a Train

Photo Credit: Tracy Ellen Kamens

From walk-around wine tastings and dinners with winemakers to clever titles and cute comparisons, it’s challenging for wine public relations people to create something new and different for the press and trade. However, the folks at Complexity – New Zealand  have certainly succeeded with their Grapes on a Train event held in late September.

“All aboard!” came the shouts from the conductors as we assembled on the platform at New York Penn Station very early on a Sunday morning. We were about to embark on a unique journey, partially retracing the tracks of the famed 20th Century Limited.

Operated by the New York Central Railroad  from 1902 to 1967, the 20th Century Limited provided express service from New York to Chicago, making the journey in only 16 hours.  The passenger train was known for its high level of service, complete with its signature red carpet rolled out in the station platforms on either end. As journalists and sommeliers, we were similarly given the red carpet treatment when we entered the Hickory Creek train car, hooked up behind the regular Amtrak service to Montreal. This historic, Pullman car was part of the 20th Century Limited’s re-launch in 1948 and has now been restored to its former glory, used for private events held along Amtrak’s existing routes.

Given its remarkable history, the 20th Century Limited has been prominently featured in books and Broadway we well as movies, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.Thankfully, instead of being greeted by villains and spies, the group was welcomed aboard by winemakers from some of New Zealand’s top wineries.

Upon departure, we headed north past beautiful views of the Hudson River and fall foliage on our way to Canada. But, while the scenery was stunning, our true itinerary was New Zealand, as the winemakers presented several seminars with guided tastings.

The seminars were led by the winemakers, all members of the Complexity-New Zealand consortium. This portfolio crosses wine regions and emphasizes New Zealand’s high quality wines, with membership currently limited to 17 producers.   We kicked off the day with a general introduction to New Zealand – its history, its culture, its people and its land. With the stage set, we then moved onto the varietally-focused tastings.

Wines on the Train

Photo Credit: Tracy Ellen Kamens

 

Sauvignon Blanc with Brett Bermingham, Winemaker of Nautilus Estate and Tim Heath, Winemaker at Cloudy Bay
It’s nearly impossible to speak about New Zealand wine without mentioning Sauvignon Blanc as the grape that put New Zealand on the world stage. However, the discussion centered on the diversity of Sauvignon Blanc, looking at differences among grapes grown on gravels compared to those grown on clays as well as among the Wairau and Awatere Valleys situated within the greater Marlborough region. In this regard, clay soils provide more herbal/green notes and less tropical fruit. As New Zealand producers become more experienced and their vines become more mature, it is expected that more sophisticated styles of Sauvignon Blanc will be seen in the future. Among the most interesting wines tasted in this session (and perhaps of the entire event) was a Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc from 1996, which showed that although these wines are best enjoyed in their youth, they can provide complex aromas and flavors with age. Among the younger wines, I really liked the Mud House “The Woolshed” Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Marlborough, New Zealand.

Aromatics Seminar with Rudi Bauer, Winemaker of Quartz Reef and Ben Glover, Chief Winemaker at Mud House Wines
Less well known than Sauvignon Blanc, the aromatic white varieties of New Zealand can be traced back to the 1980s when Gewürztraminer, Riesling and Pinot Gris were first planted. Rudi suggested that these varieties were more about purity of varietal expression than about winemaking, additionally emphasizing the link between aromatics and acidity. Rudi acknowledged that you don’t always know what you are getting from Pinot Gris, but with Riesling, the standard of quality is better. He felt that the reason Pinot Gris was way behind Riesling in its development was that the initial stock had come from Geisenheim, when the focus was on quantity, not quality. As progress is made, alcohol levels are coming down as are sugar levels. Consequently, Pinot Gris wines are becoming more food friendly to support cuisine along with a trend toward longer time spent on the lees, resulting in wines with more richness and texture. My favorite wine of the session was the Mt. Difficulty Pinot Gris 2012 , Bannockburn, Central Otago, New Zealand.

Pinot Noir with Matt Dicey, General Manager and Winemaker of Mt. Difficulty Wines and Ben Glover, Chief Winemaker at Mud House Wines
Although Matt admitted that Burgundy is a reference point for Pinot Noir, he also emphasized the word, Tūrangawaewae, which is Maori for “where we stand,” an indigenous concept similar to that of terroir. Building on this aspect, he mentioned the regional and vineyard differences as well as the increased exposure to UV light in New Zealand as compared to vineyards in the northern hemisphere. Moreover, Central Otago fruit is credited with delivering darker fruit flavors, while Marlborough is generally more savory in style. With wines from both of these regions, the session tasting provided further confirmation of this diversity. My favorite was the Villa Maria Taylors Pass Pinot Noir 2010, Marlborough, New Zealand.

Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot & Syrah with Nick Picone, Senior Winemaker of Villa Maria Estate
Nick referred to the wines in his session as “hidden gems,” suggesting that most people know a whole lot less about these wines than others from New Zealand. Turning first to Chardonnay, he noted that premium NZ Chardonnay is typically hand picked, whole bunch pressed and barrel fermented with good freshness and a purity of fruit. Wines from the warmer north are picked earlier and at lower sugars, while wines from the cooler south with have more lime and citrus notes, with intense minerality in those from Central Otago. When discussing Bordeaux style wines, which are best associated with Hawkes Bay, Nick attributed the turning point for this region to the establishment of the Gimblett Gravels. Finally, he spoke of New Zealand Syrah, which he described as being closer to the Rhône Valley in style than to Australia, despite the geographic proximity. I was impressed with the Kumeu River Estate Chardonnay 2009, Auckland, New Zealand.

After arriving in Montreal, we stopped at the hotel to freshen up before heading to an evening BBQ, held at a rented house in the Mont-Royal neighborhood. From the home’s rooftop, we could see the Olympic Park, but the fall weather pushed most of us inside where we proceeded to enjoy a delicious meal accompanied by an enormous selection of wines. Having been to New Zealand several years ago, I was especially pleased to see wines from Amisfield, Ata Rangi and Te Kairanga, all places we visited (and tasted at) on our trip.

The next morning, it was off to the airport for the flight home, packed with luggage and great memories of a fun and festive virtual visit to New Zealand.

Oct 102013
 

Log onto Local Wine Events on any given day and a long list of wine tastings, seminars and similar events will appear. But, if you really want to learn about a wine region, the best introduction is to truly immerse yourself in it.

Aside from scheduling the requisite vineyard visits in Bordeaux, visitors to the region also have the opportunity to take classes in the heart of the city at a number of different places, which cater to varying levels of knowledge.

L’Ecole du Vin
The most logical place to start is l’Ecole du Vin de Bordeaux (Bordeaux Wine School), which is run by the Conseil Interprofessionnel du Vin de Bordeaux (CIVB) and conveniently housed at Maison du vin de Bordeaux. The Bordeaux Wine School offers introductory seminars as well as in-depth workshops.

In the two-hour, Introduction to Bordeaux Wines class, students are presented with a general overview of Bordeaux, inclusive of climate, soils, grape varieties and wine production, followed by a guided tasting of a dry white wine, two red wines and a sweet white wine. These classes are scheduled from 10:00 AM – 12:00 PM on Mondays through Saturdays (€35/person) and are a perfect way to begin the day and establish a good baseline of regional knowledge.

l'Ecole du Vin

Photo Credit: Tracy Ellen Kamens

A more intensive option, geared for wine professionals, is a three-day long program that incorporates lectures at the Maison du Vin and structured vineyard visits. The School’s intermediate offerings generally encompass two days, inclusive of seminars, tastings and a meal. Participation in these more advanced programs start at €350/person and often requires prerequisite knowledge and experience.

Max Bordeaux Wine Gallery
At Max Bordeaux Wine Gallery, enomatic machines span nearly the entire store, which claims to be “the only place in the world where you can taste the top 50 Grand Crus Classes.” Open Monday through Saturday from 11:00 AM – 8:00 PM, visitors can simply choose to purchase a tasting card (minimum €25 +€3 deposit) and taste through a variety of samples.

Bordeaux Enomatic

Photo Credit: Tracy Ellen Kamens

However, tasting workshops are offered on Tuesdays from 7:30-8:30 PM for €35/person, with private tastings arranged for groups at a similar fee. This basic option includes a tasting of two to three Grand Cru wines, with the theme changing monthly. On our visit, we tasted a dry white from Pessac-Léognan and two reds – an older Left Bank wine and a young Right Bank wine. The store also presents a First Growths Workshop that features three First Growths and costs €85/person.

Millésima 
Another interesting and equally educational option is leading Bordeaux wine merchant, Millésima. Millésima’s premises date to 1840 and are home to over 2 million bottles of Bordeaux. The merchant offers 30-minute guided cellar visits to its vast warehouses and its “Imperial Library,” which houses over 10,000 large format bottles of top Bordeaux wines.

Bordeaux Warehouse

Photo Credit: Tracy Ellen Kamens

In addition to taking the tour, visitors can choose to participate in one of seven tutored tastings, presented in French, English, German or Spanish. Tasting sessions are by appointment only and start at €100/person, depending on the type of tasting selected and the time of day (evenings and weekends are more expensive than weekday visits). The introductory Initiation to the Wines of Bordeaux guides participants through a dry white (Château Latour Martillac 2007 Graves Pessac-Léognan blanc Cru classé), a Right Bank red (Château Grand Corbin Manuel 2005 Saint Emilion Grand cru) and a Left Bank red (Château Peyrabon 2005 Haut-Médoc Cru bourgeois).

Among the more complex (and pricier options) are a horizontal tasting of 1998 Right Bank wines and a horizontal tasting of wines from the vaunted 2000 vintage. And, if guests want to purchase any of the wines they’ve seen or tasted, Millésima’s on-site shop offers 400 wines and is open weekdays from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM.