24 March 2006

A brief hiatus

oenoLogic will be back in a few weeks, with the continuation of the New Zealand saga and a fresh set of notes from Alsace and Paris; watch for comprehensive reports on Trimbach, Boxler, Kreydenweiss, Rolly Gassmann, and possibly a few surprises as well. Stay tuned.

22 March 2006

Birdies (New Zealand, pt. 16)

[kaka eating]The care & feeding of kaka

A steady rain drums against the window. It encourages us to roll over and go back to sleep – one of the lesser-known benefits of vacation rain – refreshing our tired and weta-troubled minds. Eventually, Ernie comes downstairs to do some laundry, and we emerge from hiding just in time to greet some new visitors.

On the patio, perched first on a chair and later on the end of a nearby picnic table, are a quartet of inquisitive kaka; big, brown and a little bit shiny, with colorful streaks visible each time they spread their wings.. They’re clearly no strangers to our lodge, and Ernie encourages us to offer them some food. Their fierce-looking, sharply curved beaks give pause, but as I hold out a morsel of bread, I realize there’s little cause to worry; the boldest of the four sidles towards me and gently plucks the food from my fingers with the most painstaking delicacy. He then grabs the bread with one claw, nibbling in approval.

We retreat to the kitchen and return with more options. An apple proves unpopular, and a bit of garlic- and rosemary-infused ciabatta leads to one bird taking an exploratory nibble, dropping the rest on the ground, and noisily squawking about the insufficiency of our cuisine. Eventually, however, the food leads to inter-avian squabbling, and we retreat inside while the now-angry birds chase each other around the surrounding trees.

Bivalves and beer

We waste a bit more time, waiting for the rain to let up (which it eventually does), then stroll back into town for lunch at one of the two Stewart Island establishments that could legitimately be called restaurants. The South Sea Hotel, however, is not just a restaurant and lodging, but also a (or rather, the) pub, an all-encompassing booking agency for many of the island’s activities, and an oft-identified meeting place for those activities. In our three days, we’ll see most of the island’s inhabitants here again and again, enjoying a brew and bantering in a vaguely Scottish-influenced patois that’s virtually indecipherable to outsiders.

Service in the hotel’s casual dining room, separated from the occasionally noisy bar by a series of open and swinging doorways, is rushed and casual, but the food is as good as it is simple; no pretense, no adornment, just (mostly) local ingredients and a few basic techniques. A bowl of seafood chowder is rich with mussels and fragrant lemongrass, while a plate of terrific fries accompany some Stewart Island oysters…a bit out of season, but worth the experience nonetheless: light, creamy, and more texturally akin to oyster-flavored marshmallows than to any other oyster within my experience. The wine list is OK, but the only by-the-glass options are from the lower end of the Montana stable, and so I ask our harried waitress to choose a beer for me. She returns with a pint of Tui, a North Island brew that is unquestionably the darkest IPA I’ve ever seen (they do know what “pale” means, right?), with an apple-y, almost sweet taste. It’s good, despite a slightly thin finish, but there’s an illicit cider pregnancy somewhere in its ancestry.

Mail-only golf

If the South Sea Hotel is a multi-service establishment, the Stewart Island Post Office is practically a self-contained town. It’s got mail, a check-in desk for the island’s remote airport (a shuttle runs between the two) that recycles a scale they’d otherwise use for packages, a storage area for backpackers, a miniature book store, a few shelves of local food products, and the facility in which we’re interested: greens fee collection and club/ball rental for the local golf course. We stuff a few choices from a rather motley and battered selection of clubs into some rather tattered and moldy bags, and begin our hike.

(Continued here…)

21 March 2006

Murder, mayhem, pigeons & cod (New Zealand, pt. 15)

[New Zealand pigeon]Murder in the night

Somewhere around midnight, I feel the bed shake.

In a half-conscious state, abruptly yanked from REM sleep but with my eyes still closed, I attempt to make sense of the situation. Theresa’s moving around, somewhat jerkily. I appear to have an upset stomach, and a bit of a headache as well. Maybe a bad mussel, maybe a chill from yesterday’s rain-enhanced cold, maybe just crankiness from being woken up. I choose to ignore the shaking, and go back to sleep.

Somewhere around one a.m., I feel the bed shake.

It’s Theresa again…or at least it appears to be…as she makes what, in my sleepy state, seem like unconscionably violent movements. I’m getting crankier, and wonder if this is going to go on all night. Finally she stands up, heading for the bathroom. I turn around, attempting to go back to sleep.

At two a.m., I snap awake. Again in the middle of REM, but something’s different this time. I actually open my eyes. Theresa is sitting up in bed, twitching her head around like an agitated bird.

“Are you OK?,” I mumble, still sleepy. I figure she’s had a bad dream of some sort.

“There’s a big bug in here.”

(We’ve been down this road before. Theresa hollers from the kitchen, “there’s a huge bug in here!” I stop what I’m doing, enter the kitchen, and find some tiny crawling thing, or a completely average-sized spider, and sometimes an ant. I kill it…danger averted…and go back to work.)

“Probably one of those sand flies.”

“No, I’m serious. There’s something really big in here. It keeps landing on me.”


But…I’ve been married long enough to know that going back to sleep isn’t going to satisfy anyone. So I get up, turn on the bedside lamp, and gaze blearily around the room. Theresa slips from the bed and tiptoes across the room, sees some fleeting shadow (probably me in the way of the lamp), and lets out a yelp. She is seriously freaked out. Really, though, how big could this thing be? I feel ridiculous, standing here in my boxers and still half-asleep, looking for some no-doubt tiny phantom menace that’s haunting Theresa’s dreams. If it’s not a fly, it’s probably drifting lint or something.

I see nothing. “What bug?”

“I thought I felt a bug on me earlier tonight, and I just brushed it off. Then I felt it again. It felt…it felt like it was covering the entire right side of my face. I could feel it touching my neck, and at the same time my cheek right below my eye.” She demonstrates with her hand, fingers on each named location. OK, that would be a big bug. But there’s no way there’s something like that in here. We’re not in the Amazon rainforest. “The last time I felt it, I brushed it away, and I heard a ‘thump’ as it hit the floor.”

Sure you did,” I think to myself, looking around again.

Something catches my eye. I stop, retreat, look at the curtain that covers the window nearest her side of the bed. I pause.

“Oh. That bug.”

(Continued here…)

20 March 2006

To the ends of the earth (New Zealand, pt. 14)

[Nugget Point rocks]Signs, signs, everywhere a sign

It would be a peaceful, remote beach lapped by cold southern waters, its beauty preserved by its very remoteness. It would, but it’s not, because the town and its beach are littered with agitation. “No reserve!” is the slogan repeated on signs, placards, graffiti on dozens of walls and houses…we’ve waded into some sort of simmering anger, but we’re completely oblivious as to the cause. Yet here in Port Molyneux, they’re certainly exercised about something.

We’d arisen early enough, but last-minute packing, cleaning, and more lengthy reminiscence and chit-chat from host Bill led us to depart from the Otago Peninsula little later than we’d intended. Today’s voyage is one of the chanciest of the entire vacation, because its success or failure depends largely on the quality of Southland’s highly unpredictable weather. Plus, time is also a looming concern. If it rains, it’s a quick but disappointing trip to our next bed. If it doesn’t, we’ve got to pick and choose from among far too many enticing options, lest we miss dinner at the other end. But a passage of the ultra-remote Catlins, unquestionably one of those paths less-trodden (which, for an already remote area, is saying something) by tourists, is something we must at least attempt.

Much is made, by Kiwis, of the potential dangers of the road. Twisty and often unpopulated by cars, it is unsealed for a few dozen kilometers (though the government is in the process of rectifying this), but I grew up on gravel roads and am not much intimidated by rocks under my wheels. And, truth be told, one can easily proceed through the Catlins without ever really experiencing true remoteness and anything wilder than the road; towns, at least on the eastern half of the drive, are pretty common and easily accessed, services are abundant, and there’s no real lack of infrastructure. But traveling the Catlins that way would be a mistake, one we’re determined to avoid. As long as the weather cooperates.

(Continued here...)

15 March 2006

Birds, not of a feather (New Zealand, pt. 13)

[Sandfly Bay from Sandymount]A man’s home…

Of all the things and places toured by visitors to New Zealand, a castle is one of the most unlikely. This is a country of natural wonders, of breathtaking scenery, of environments so unique they can never be truly captured by word or image. Castles…well, Europe is stuffed to the gills with ’em, and some pretty damned impressive ones as well. What could this far-flung corner of a far-flung country possibly offer in comparison?

A long, tragic, and occasionally scandalous history, for one thing…which is appropriate enough. Larnach Castle isn’t going to make anyone forget, say, Warwick, but it’s a pleasant enough diversion for a morning’s visit. The rooms are nicely restored, showing a level of historic extravagance that seems even more out of place (given its remote location, far from what would have passed for “civilization” in those days) than does the castle itself, and there are some entertaining decorative details: “sans peur (without fear),” the original owner’s family motto, is paired on an elaborate stained glass window with...those with an affection for puns can see it coming…several cats. Lodging and meals are available, though one has to book far in advance.

However, it’s the grounds that are the real draw here. Not only is the castle itself situated in a high point of the Otago Peninsula, providing (especially from its upper turret) wonderful panoramic views of the peninsula’s hills and harbor, but careful work has been done to make the grounds a showpiece for local plants and flowers. Neither Theresa nor myself have ever been particularly moved by matters botanical, but between yesterday’s hike and this morning’s excursion, we’re developing more interest than we’d ever imagined. In one especially artful corner of the grounds, with sheep covering the far-below valley floor like little maggots or grains of wiggling rice, a massive stump has sprouted a cleverly-carved door; something straight out of (or to) Narnia. (Unfortunately, the magical aura is a bit dampened when one peers behind the door; it turns out that it’s just a storage closet for gardening supplies. Mr. Tumnus is nowhere to be found.)

[Sandfly Bay from Sandymount]…is around his neck

We partake of a latish lunch, feasting from yesterday’s leftovers, including the Kennedy Point 2004 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough), which is greener and leaner than it was the day before, showing more lemongrass, lime, and lemon thyme than the tropical notes it had sported previously. It’s still quite fun, though.

Driving east along the harbor, we pass an abandoned whaling station, a series of picturesque huts on elevated piers, and the rather depressed Maori settlement of Otakau (after which the peninsula is named), before climbing up the steep promontory at the end of the peninsula to Taiaroa Head. Far below us, waves thunder against ocean-etched cliff walls, with tangled colonies of bull kelp oscillating in the water’s relentless approach and retreat. A lonely lighthouse dots the tip of the peninsula, but what we’re here for is just a little bit inland.

On the rocky shore known as Pilots Beach, people congregate around a wretched stench. Blending into the rock are several dozen sea lions…many behind a protective fence, but some unconcernedly napping just a few feet from a curious public. They’re adorable, but wow does their waste smell horrible. And all around them, no doubt adding to the stench, are the crushed and rotted carcasses of unwary seagulls. We do spend some close-up time with these blubbery snoozers, but eventually the stench overwhelms us, and we scale a long path to a rather crowded car park. Anyway, it’s time.

(Continued here…)

14 March 2006

Livin' large with Marge (California, pt. 6 & end)

15 November 2005 – Palo Alto, California

Lavanda – Searching for a place with good food that would allow some recalcitrant wine geeks to B a little of their O, I finally settled on this upscale establishment at one end of Palo Alto’s main drag. I’m a little early, and so I wander the streets for a while, finally entering to find that John DeFiore is equally early, and enjoying a drink at the bar. I wish I’d thought of that.

Lavanda has the usual California mix of suit-and-tie folk mixed in with casual, jeans-wearing students. It’s a restaurant that attempts to be formal, but is a little noisy and frenetic to really achieve it, with high quality but occasionally uneven food; order wisely. My meal is very nice, except for a buttery dish of truffled pasta in which they’ve severely overcooked said pasta, but my fellow diners seem well-pleased with their meals. The wine list is long and extremely interesting, and if one isn’t bringing wine there’s no lack of solid options. Service depends on who you have; one waiter is dismissive and cold, others – including, at one point, one of the owners – are warm and welcoming.

The highlight of the night, however, is supplied by Bill Futornick…in the form of his mother, Marge. She’s about fifteen pounds and four feet of pure sarcastic energy, and an absolutely hilarious dining companion. An example of her repartee:

“Winemakers always say to me ‘every wine is different because their soul is in it.’ That’s crap.”

She keeps us laughing late into the night.

Couly-Dutheil 1996 Chinon Les Chanteaux Blanc (Loire) – Beeswax and candle wax with lavender, white flowers, light oxidation and high acid. It seems quite faded, yet every once in a while there’s a surge of aromatics. Perhaps, rather than too old, it’s actually too young. That would be expected for chenin, but I’ve no experience with aged Chinon blanc.

Graillot 2001 Crozes-Hermitage La Guiraude (Rhône) – Leather and smoked nuts with dried berry skins, evaporations of sweaty horse, salted pork and some of that classic Northern Rhône meat liqueur. Soft and fading, then re-energized, then well-knit; a very good wine in the variable throes of adolescence.

Verset 1997 Cornas (Rhône) – Animalistic and sweaty more than actually funky (though there’s a bit of Bootsy Collins as well), showing firm but roughly-hewn and earthy blackberry, graphite and leather. Significant, but not unpleasant, tannin provides backbone. Impressive.

Baumard 1995 Côteaux-du-Layon “la queue de Paon” (Loire) – Beautiful, silken-textured sweet chenin cream, with lovely balance. There’s fruitspice and pungent, chalky apricot, but ultimately this marvelous beverage is all about its gorgeous texture.

16 November 2005 – Menlo Park, California

Sharon Heights Golf & Country Club – As a golfer, one doesn’t pass up invitations like this. The course itself is nice, pleasant, and not all that difficult (though it’s very much the off-season for me, and I don’t play that well), but the awe-inspiring clubhouse and the general amiability of the people makes for a most enjoyable afternoon. My host’s locker is right next that of Jerry Rice (“serious about golf, but not that good”), and during the round we cross paths with Bill Walsh, which completes a year of unexpected celebrity sightings…for whatever that’s worth.

13 March 2006

Tavijn a ball

Lageder 2004 Moscato Giallo Vogelmeier (Alto Adige) – Minerals and lime-flavored rocks, with a pristine, rock-formation structure dressed up with a little muscat perfume.

I’ve written about this wine before, so no need to repeat everything here…except to note that the wine shows remarkable consistency. Alcohol: 13%. Closure: cork. Importer: Lageder USA. Web: http://www.lageder.com/

Goracci Rossano & Danilo “Tenuta Roccaccia” 2004 Bianco di Pitigliano “Superiore” (Tuscany) – Pretty lemon flower and lightly crystalline structure; there’s light shining through this wine. It hints at, but never entirely achieves, greater weight.

A trebbiano toscano/chardonnay blend (dominated by the former) from the southeastern corner of Tuscany. Though the wine has apparently been known for just about forever, this is my first example. Alcohol: 13.5%. Closure: molded synthetic. Importer: Montecastelli. Web: http://www.tenutaroccaccia.it/.

Mayr-Nusser “Nusserhof” Blaterle Tafelwein (Alto Adige) – Non-vintage table wine (for what reason I’m not clear, though it appears to have something to do with the “authorities” not wanting to recognize this wine), showing mixed leaves and saline minerality, but a harsh, acrid sort of imbalance. I want to like it, because many of the elements I like in mountain whites are here, but I just don’t. Too many rough edges.

Aside from the information on the importer’s web site and a few distributor and retailer additions, this wine is a virtual blank slate for me, and information is almost impossible to come by. Jancis Robinson doesn’t mention the grape in Vines, Grapes & Wines, nor is it in the Oxford Companion to Wine. Obviously, a visit to the source is required. Alcohol: 12.5%. Organic. Closure: cork. Importer: Louis/Dressner/LDM. Web: http://www.cascinatavijn.it/.

cascina ‘tavijn 2004 Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato (Piedmont) – The ripest possible cherries crushed right under one’s nose; an explosion of multicolored juice carrying with it a mélange of aromatic flower petals, hints of graphite-like tannin, and that succulent, sexed-up fruit smell one gets from the most exquisite black truffles. This is an absolutely amazing wine.

No one can seem to agree on whether its “ruché” or “ruche,” but all agree that the grape is one of those individualistic things that litter Italy. “Red gewürztraminer” is what one observer called it, and I can see what they mean: this is not shy. Alcohol: 14%. Closure: cork. Importer: Louis/Dressner/LDM. Web: http://www.cascinatavijn.it/.

Lageder 2001 Lagrein (Alto Adige) – Heady and forceful, with red and black fruit dust in the soprano register and somewhat strident mineral-driven structure. Yet the whole thing holds together nicely, and a fine future seems in store.

Lagrein, with its restrained power and mineral-driven complexity, is a grape I should like a lot more often than I do. Unfortunately, far too many are handled (or, more likely, grown) badly, leaving hard tannins and ungenerous fruit much harder and more ungenerous than they need to be…and sometimes, a thick layer of fresh wood just compounds the problems. This isn’t a great lagrein, but it’s a good one, and it’s ageable. Alcohol: 13%. Closure: cork. Importer: Lageder USA. Web: http://www.lageder.com/

cascina ‘tavijn 2004 Grignolino d’Asti (Piedmont) – Gorgeous, faded color, and slightly better with a brief chill. However, this is a wine that wants to be more than it actually is; there’s a mild overdose of structure around pale red, orange and yellow fruit with earthy dustings of dried peppercorns, and the whole thing comes off as a “serious” rosé more than a light-styled red…and even then, it’s not quite as light as one would think. I’m conflicted about this wine; I think I like it, but I’m unsure whether the actual feeling is more or less positive than that. Another bottle might help clarify matters.

The first dozen or so versions of this grape to pass my lips weren’t Italian at all, but instead from Heitz (of Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon fame); their rosé, red and “port” versions provided a lot of easy, pleasurable drinking in the early days of my wine obsession. Even in the lush climes of Napa, however, there was an intriguing “difference” to the grape; a light, desert-sunset color, a semi-exotic bitterness (or perhaps “edginess” would be more accurate), a divergence from the usual range of expected fruit aromas. And one more thing: this wine does one of those surprising variable dynamic acts that so many bigger, heftier wines simply aren’t lithe enough to do. Light food, it’s a light wine. Heavier food, and it suddenly gains weight and intensity. It’s a marvelous thing. Alcohol: 12.5%. Closure: cork. Web: http://www.cascinatavijn.it/.

Racing windmills

[pinotJF/Ernest Burn 2002 Pinot Blanc (Alsace) – A great (though sweet) pinot gris, from which one might assume that there’s a healthy proportion of extremely ripe auxerrois in this wine. Spicy and hugely peachy for pinot blanc, it’s massively sweet to the point of being dangerous to pair with anything other than the right food. Despite the sugar, there’s just enough supportive acidity to at least approach balance, and this isn’t a bad wine. It’s just way, way out in left field.

This used to be a solid producer of intense, rich, rarely dry and terroir-revelatory wines. Now? I fear it’s become a bit of a sugar factory. But then, that’s the way to points and glory in Alsace these days. Alcohol: 12.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: Arborway. Web: http://www.domaine-burn.fr/.

Frick 2004 Muscat (Alsace) – An empty warehouse of a wine, with the sweet floral perfume of muscat in one corner; available, but not particularly present. Despite the sweet nose, it’s dry, with slightly clumsy structure and somewhat insufficient balance.

Dry muscat is a chancy proposition. Right off the bat, a certain percentage of consumers are going to reject its “smells sweet/tastes dry” character. Second, it doesn’t have many obvious utilities at the table (asparagus, yes, but that’s someone one has to learn; almost no one would ever guess). But when it’s good, in Alsace, it’s a delicately floral and perfumed take on what might otherwise be a light-bodied riesling from a cool site. Here, unfortunately, things are not quite what they should be. Alcohol: 13%. Biodynamic. Closure: cork. Importer: Violette.

Laurent Barth 2004 “Racines Métisses” (Alsace) – Clean, wind-tunnel aromas of hard steel and faded sweat, with the faintest hints of spiced pear and tomato. Somewhat vegetal and seemingly sylvaner-dominated on the acidic palate; too austere for its own good.

The term “edelzwicker,” which (sorta) means “noble blend” and is intended for wines of this type, doesn’t have much marketability outside the cheaper-is-better crowds that inhabit French supermarkets. Thus, savvy producers turn to proprietary names. What’s here: apparently everything but gewurztraminer, which is wise (though if there’s muscat, it’s very hard to tell). One looking for a good, quaffable edelzwicker would do better looking to Boxler or Meyer-Fonné, to name two that I believe are available in the States. Alcohol: 12.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: Vineyard Research.

Ollivier “La Pépière” 2004 Muscadet Sèvre & Maine “Moulin de la Gustaie” “Sur Lie” (Loire) – Almost shockingly upfront for Muscadet, with clean and crisp but vivid salted white fruit and amber-preserved flower stems. The price one pays for all this “exuberance” (such terms are relative, after all) is a somewhat shorter finish, but it’s a fun Muscadet for right now.

Since the choice of a synthetic cork basically means that the producer is encouraging earlier drinking, it’s beneficial that this one delivers the goods so quickly. I’m getting hungry for oysters just thinking about this wine. Alcohol: 12%. Closure: extruded synthetic. Importer: Louis/Dressner/LDM.

Varietally challenged

Concannon 2003 Pinot Noir (Central Coast) – Hard and skin-dominated at first, eventually developing some rounder red fruit characteristics, and even a hint of softness. But overall, it’s a harsh wine; big, but harsh.

Drinking inexpensive pinot noir is a little like playing the slots. Yeah, once in a while you’ll hit the jackpot, but mostly you’re going to lose, and your odds (vs. the house) are worse than just about any other game you’d care to play. If you’re in the market at this price range – and really, who wouldn’t be? pinot noir is yummy – I’d strongly recommend the Maréchal Bourgogne “Cuvée Gravel” instead. Alcohol: 13.5%. Closure: cork. Web: http://www.concannonvineyard.com/.

Cooper Mountain “Cooper Hill” 2004 Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley) – Reasonably friendly, soupberry fruit with elements of earth and leaf. Varietally-correct pinot, without complexity but also without trauma. A nice, simple-minded wine.

On the other hand, this might not be a bad option either. It’s fruitier and more obvious than the Maréchal, but some might prefer those qualities. Cooper Hill is apparently a lower-cost entry from this semi-pioneering (in Oregon) biodynamic producer, who does solid – if occasionally unexciting – work across their range.Alcohol: 12.5%. Biodynamic. Closure: cork. Web: http://www.coopermountainwine.com.

Mills Reef 2003 Sauvignon Blanc “Reserve” (Hawkes Bay) – Absolutely classic, if slightly restrained thanks to a brief stay in oak, with grass, crisp lime and grapefruit. Nicely acidic, clean-finishing and nicely done.

People know Hawkes Bay – if they know it at all – for some of New Zealand’s better attempts at heavier red grapes; syrah, merlot, the cabernets, etc. But if the latter three can be successful, there’s no reason not to try sauvignon blanc (re: the parallel raising of those grapes in Bordeaux, red and white). This wine is reliably classic in its conception despite the oak, and the seemingly-requisite residual sugar common to so many of its Marlborough brethren is in absence here, which will both win and lose it fans. Alcohol: 13%. Closure: screwcap. Importer: San Francisco Wine Exchange. Web: http://www.millsreef.co.nz/.

Blackstone 2003 Merlot (California) – Boisterous dark fruit and stewed vegetables, which soon start to smell like – no kidding – garbage after enough air. Ugh.

I know this wine is enormously popular. I have never been able to understand why. This (minus the garbage) is a good profile for a wine once it’s spent some time in the stewpot with the aromatic vegetables and herbs, but not so much in the bottle. Alcohol: 13.5%. Closure: cork. Web: http://www.blackstonewinery.com/.

Sokol Blosser 9th Edition “Evolution” (American) – Sweet, perfumed muscat; the other eight grapes add little but acid and some vague, light but tart citrus. Beginner wine, but good in that idiom.

I remember when Sokol Blosser introduced this wine (then called “Evolution No. 9,” which undoubtedly ran afoul of the Beatles because it’s not called that anymore) to our market. I participated in the fun of trying to guess the grapes. I did OK; 7 out of 9 I think. But then, I sorta lost interest in the thing, and I think the reason is the muscat. I like muscat, and I like blends, but I rarely like blends with muscat in them…because the result is almost always a thin-tasting muscat rather than a pleasing mélange of flavors. Some grapes just do not play well with others, and this one features both muscat and the other classic offender in this regard: gewürztraminer. Alcohol: 12%. Closure: cork. Web: http://www.evolutionwine.com/.

Sierra Vista 1999 Zinfandel Reeves Vineyard (El Dorado) – Brooding yet fierce, with animalistic wild fruit and jagged, pointy tannin, acid and alcohol. I’m not sure this is aging harmoniously. It might still come around, and the fruit that’s there is rather good in its classic, angry Sierra Foothills fashion, but the alcohol is worrisome, and I suspect the problem is that it’s actually a bit late to be drinking this.

The ubiquitousness of zinfandel around California’s viticultural regions means that it’s a wonderful study in terroir, even if it’s not always that easy to detail the points of difference. I think that there is a sort of generalized but recognizable Sierra Foothills profile, though – there’s still time to work out the sub-regional and vineyard-specific differences – and this wine demonstrates what happens to it when it gets a little too surly, which happens quite a bit in the region’s zins. Possibly, it would have been more harmonious a few years earlier. Alcohol: 14.2%. Closure: cork. Web: http://www.sierravistawinery.com/.

09 March 2006

Bovine beach blues (New Zealand, pt. 12)

[net on Okia Beach]The road not taken

Commitments are a strange thing. “Next time we’re in New Zealand, we’re going to do some hikes,” we’d agreed in the rosy afterglow of our 2002 trip, and at the time we’d fervently meant it. New Zealand’s incomparable natural beauty is, despite a general lack of roads, surprisingly accessible…but then there’s much more that’s not, unless one is willing to get out of the car, train, boat or tour bus and walk a bit. It was, at the time, a firm commitment to an ideal.

Of course, the strange thing about commitments and ideals is how they crumble in the face of reality. Neither of us much likes camping (Theresa’s just not into the hassles, while any affection I once had was thoroughly destroyed by the Boy Scouts, especially our northern Minnesota winter excursions – 30ºF below zero, all day and night – and their mosquito-ridden summer equivalents), Theresa has a downhill ski racing-damaged ankle and two similarly-damaged knees that ache to the point of immobility on extended downslopes, and, to be honest, neither of us have entered this vacation in the best of shape. An exploratory early-evening stroll around our villa on Waiheke Island drove this point home with accompanying dismay, when after a mere fifteen minutes of low-impact and low-speed walking we were sweaty, tired, and eager to sit down for dinner.

Nonetheless, surrounded by the natural majesty of the Otago Peninsula, we’re determined to overcome our self-induced obstacles. Not being fools, we’ve chosen to start our walking adventures on a flat track and in the cool of the early morning. Bill, our host at the Fern Grove Garden, delivers our breakfast – enough for three starving lumberjacks: fresh fruit, organic eggs, milk, bread, butter, and a rather frightening quantity of muesli – and serves of a side of some experienced advice on which tracks might suit our needs.

Basalt, salt, and the roar of the lion

A short while later, we’re in a dusty car park (really just a flat circle of gravel) with a field full of placidly munching cows gazing lazily over a long wooden fence at these interesting new intruders. We can hear the gentle scrape of the ocean beyond the horizonless pasture, but much walking lies between us and it. To our left, gentle hills turn steeper, full of grassy and fern-covered tumult. We open a gate next to a sign that announces the beginning of our journey – the Okia Track – and start down a rutted tractor path.

Ten minutes later, we’re back at the gate. It turns out that we’re on the wrong side of a fence. The commitment is strong, perhaps, but the skill may be lacking.

(Continued here…)

02 March 2006

Another isle of sky (California, pt. 2)

13 November 2005 – somewhere above Cupertino, California

Ridge – Despite a number of visits to the Lytton Springs offshoot, I’ve never been to the original. So with picnic supplies in tow, we (me, Theresa, Larry Stein and his young daughter Shira) wind our way up the mountain…which is, I have to say, a much less silly drive than I’ve been led to believe, though I suspect comparison with New Zealand has something to do with this…for a little lunch and a little tasting.

Lunch is first, with a nice spread (from a Whole Foods somewhere down in the valley) on a picnic table amidst gnarly old hilltop vines, sun and sky all around us. With it, we enjoy a library release from the nearby tasting room; this is a practice I wish more wineries would mimic.

Ridge 1995 Zinfandel York Creek (Spring Mountain) – Ripe apple and concentrated strawberry jam, still tannic and firm but with fruit that’s starting to “roast” (a personal descriptor I have for one specific quality of aged zin) and I suspect it’s about half as rich as it once was. Drink soonish, I’d say, though it won’t outlive the tannin.

During lunch, an amusing conversation takes place between Theresa and Shira, who are chatting about some boy Shira either does or doesn’t like:

Theresa: “If I were single again, I’d probably go for an older man.”

Shira: “Why?”

Theresa: “Maybe a richer man.”

Shira, thoughtfully: “True. True.”

I glance at Larry, amused at the look of growing panic in his eyes.

Back inside, a busy but uncrowded tasting room offers a slightly smaller selection that I’m used to vs. the Lytton Springs facility.

Ridge 2002 Lytton Springs (Dry Creek Valley) – 14.4%. Scotch and blackberry liqueur, with thick, massive waves of oak and density. Very long, and I’m used to young Ridge tasting woody, but what’s up with all the heat?

Ridge 2003 Geyserville (Sonoma County) – 14.6%. Big berry fruit (mostly cherry and blueberry), showing good, zingy acidity and moderately-strong tannin. A good, balanced wine.

Ridge 2003 Zinfandel Independence School (Sonoma County) – 15.4%. Papery and flat, with dried, dust-covered berry residue. No thanks.

Ridge 2001 “Late Picked” Zinfandel York Creek (Napa Valley) – 15.9%. Chocolate-covered cherries. This is starting to mellow a bit, though it’s still dominated by its off-dryness rather than its inherent qualities. At least here, the size makes sense, but it’s not showing much of interest at the moment.

Ridge 2003 Zinfandel Buchignani Ranch (Sonoma County) – 14%. Dried walnuts and light plum with shriveled berry skins. Balanced.

This is a somewhat dismaying tasting. I’m used to Ridge zins being big, and also being less than inviting in their oak-infused youth, but when their future seems to include a choice of Port or Sherry wood maturation, I get concerned.

01 March 2006

Transitory traumas (New Zealand, pt. 11)

[plane]It’s the most stunning flight ever.

I’ve flown over the towering spires of the Alps. I’ve flown over deep blue equatorial ocean flecked with glinting white. I’ve flown over the jagged russet shading of the Grand Canyon. They’ve got nothing on this series of views: isolated, snow-capped Mt. Ruapehu rearing above a few drifting clouds, the girdled regularity of Mt. Egmont and its endless downflowing rivers, flowing white-capped turbulence on Cook Strait, the delicate golden tracery of Farewell Spit, and then the towering, rust-colored Kaikoura Range in disordered majesty, bordered by the relentless oscillation of the Pacific Ocean.

Theresa encourages me to get the camera and take a few pictures through the plane’s tiny window. But no, I don’t think I will. Some pictures are beyond the lens.

In Christchurch, arriving later than we’d anticipated thanks to a delayed Auckland departure, we engage in the most unsecure of transfers – through a door, around a corner, and into an already-queued line of passengers, with nary a security camera or officer in sight – to our next flight. A thirty-three seat, double-propped needle in Air New Zealand blue and white sits on the tarmac, and Theresa immediately gets nervous; she doesn’t like small planes, she hates turbulence, and this flight promises an abundance of both. Amid the clatter and chaos of the care and feeding of an airplane, carts and hoses and identically-suited men swarming like workers ‘round a queen bee, we board the plane, passing our luggage – currently sunning itself atop an overstuffed baggage cart – along the way. We’ve paid $100 in “overweight” charges to get this already-irritating collection of clothing and wine onto the Waiheke Island ferry, onto an Airbus shuttle (as always, incredibly delayed and highly unreliable), and onto a small domestic jet. It’s amazing what the addition of a single case of wine can do to otherwise hassle-free travel, and my back still hurts from lugging the box across a busy Quay Street in Auckland.

The southward flight from Christchurch is bumpy and far less scenic than its predecessor, with the buffeting waves of the Pacific coastline petering out against low, rocky cliffs that only slightly elevate the farmland to their west. It seems we’ve barely ascended to a level cruising altitude when we make a slow, sweeping turn to the right and begin the seemingly endless westward descent to Dunedin’s remote airport, the enveloping hills turning green and lush and overrunning the last traces of farmland. A tiny, somewhat ill-designed terminal is packed with students returning from holiday (Dunedin is a major university town), and one by one they pull battered knapsacks and trunks from the conveyor belt and depart for re-acquaintance with friends (and, no doubt, re-acquaintance with hefty quantities of Speights). Eventually, we’re left with a dozen other forlorn-looking tourists and students, luggage-less.

(Continued here…)