30 August 2006

TN: Barth and parcel

Barth 2004 Riesling Rebgarten (Alsace) – Ripe, crystallized peach and pear confiture with quartz-like minerality, lemon verbena tea and a spicy, rich sweetness. Everything rushes to a climax on the midpalate, leaving a finish that’s a good deal less sugary, but also fairly wan in comparison to the wine that precedes it. I don’t know that it tastes much like riesling, though, and while it’s loud, it lacks spine. (8/06)

Reports on the web indicate that this wine underwent malolactic, which is unusual (and usually deliberately avoided) for Alsatian riesling. The attenuated, nerve-reduced character is something I associate with the few companion examples I’ve tasted. As for the site, it’s near Bennwihr, generally east-facing and consists of multiple soil types. Alcohol: 13%. Closure: cork. Importer: Vineyard Research.

29 August 2006

TN: Wineries in glass houses (Oregon, pt. 9)

15 July 2006 – Willamette Valley, Oregon

[McMinnville Turkey Rama dancing]McMinnville Turkey Rama – Some things cannot be described, but simply must be experienced. This is one. It must be said, however, that there appears to be a general undersupply of turkeys.

Van Duzer – Once upon a time, I had great affection for this winery as a commercial but solid producer of nice pinot noir, plus eminently drinkable pinot gris and bubbly. So, despite it being a really, really long way from just about everything else, we make the long drive from Dundee to the extreme south of the winemaking Willamette Valley to check up on things.

And so it is with dismay that I must report a significant downturn in quality. I don’t know where to place the blame – some sort of change in vineyard or winery practice, ownership, or the inconsistencies of my palate – but this is a very disappointing lineup of wines. What’s not exceedingly commercial is disjointed and unbalanced, the newer wines are decidedly worse than the older versions, and there seems to be a rather disheartening wandering of the winery’s attention towards other labels and regions.

Van Duzer “Stone’s Throw” 2005 Sauvignon Blanc (Lake County) – Slightly fetid grass and pink grapefruit with gooseberries on the finish. The wine has a strange texture that turns gummy as it rests in the mouth. Disturbing.

Van Duzer 2005 Pinot Gris (Willamette Valley) – Tart pear and grapefruit. Big and fruity, this tastes more like freshly-crushed grapes than wine. It’s not bad, just uninspiring.

Van Duzer 2005 Pinot Noir Rosé (Willamette Valley) – Raspberry bubblegum and tart green beans wrapped in plastic. Odd, and very acidic.

[Van Duzer]Van Duzer 2005 Pinot Noir “Vintner’s Cuvée” (Willamette Valley) – Smoky plum and juicy blueberry with Juicy Fruit Gum™, jam and canned peas. Red apple and raspberry emerge on the finish, but the vegetal thing is a deal-breaker.

Van Duzer 2004 Pinot Noir “Estate” (Willamette Valley) – Big spiced blueberry and blackberry with anise liqueur. There’s some structure, but heat will always be the wine’s dominant feature.

Van Duzer 2003 Pinot Noir Homestead Block (Willamette Valley) – Roasted cashew, dark plum and moody blackberry with leathery black earth underneath. This, at least, shows remnants of the quality I remember from this winery. The fruit edges towards liqueur (kirsch or mure, perhaps?), but there’s structure and aging potential here.

Van Duzer “Stone’s Throw” 1999 “Skipping Rock Red” (Mendocino) – A blend of syrah and zinfandel, still full-bodied and fat despite seven years of age, showing wild blueberry and leather with a smooth, creamy texture. It’s all quite enticing, until one realizes that the wine is absolutely formless, as if its skeleton had simply been removed.

Van Duzer “Windfall” Port (Oregon) – This is, to my knowledge, the first “port” of pinot noir that I’ve tasted. It’s big and strong, with strawberry and red cherry cough syrup sweetened by milk chocolate. It nods, briefly, towards balance, but soon slips into unstructured flabbiness. Plus: cough syrup. Blech.

TN: Watch your head (California, pt. 9)

[pine cone buds]24 April 2006 – San Francisco, California

Quince – One of the more difficult reservations to make in San Francisco quickly becomes one of the most difficult to keep, as our group stands around the restaurant’s cramped front section, generally feeling as if we’re intruding on everyone’s dinner, for a full thirty-five minutes after our scheduled time. The blame can’t be laid entirely at Quince’s doorstep – if a table won’t leave, it won’t leave, and there’s no call for Manhattan-style deadlines on what should be a leisurely dining experience – but a little more consideration and, at the very least, apologizing would be nice. We receive little of either.

Once seated, we set to the dual tasks of deciding which of the many wines we’ve brought should be opened, and what to eat with them. Quince sets a two-bottle limit on BYO, which is stringent but obviously works to the benefit of their excellent wine list, and their $25 per bottle corkage seems fair given the overall setting. Choosing the food, however, is more difficult, because for a small restaurant there are almost too many enticing options.

A first course of fried fish with favas and an herbal sauce is fine, as are small pieces of halibut on toast, but a pasta course with razor clams is more of a mixed blessing; tart and delicious in its crisply acidic sauce, but featuring slightly overcooked pasta that too-closely mimics the texture of the clams. My main dish of salt-encrusted pigeon is flawless and brilliant (though the squeamish will want to quickly dispense with the head, which is included in the presentation), but its accompaniment of peas is, like the pasta, somewhat overcooked…or maybe Quince is trying for an English approach to the vegetable. I eschew dessert, but an evening-capping coffee is simply world-class.

Once we’re finally seated, our service – and especially our wine service – is excellent.

Boxler 2002 Gewurztraminer “L60P” (Alsace) – I forget precisely what the “P” stands for, but it’s a site designation…though not a grand cru. The wine shows – big surprise – intense aromatics, featuring lychee and spiced white plum. It’s full and rich, yet somehow carries a delicate balance through its long, persistent finish. Gorgeous wine, though unquestionably on the very sweet side.

Bründlmayer 2004 Grüner Veltliner Langenloiser Berg Vogelsang (Kamptal) – Celery root and ripe Meyer lemon with good, grapefruit-like acidity. Perhaps the dominating crispness attenuates this wine a bit, but the finish feels shorter than it should. This probably suffers from following the Boxler, though plenty of palate cleansing and food interruption does little to change the impression.

Gaja 1985 Barbaresco Costa Russi (Piedmont) – Murky, silky and sultry all at the same time, with spiced dried fruit, spicy plum, red cherry and strawberry seed over a steaming bed of hay…a strange wine, seemingly dominated by its spice (from which one makes inevitable deductions about wood), with a lot going for it, but not a lot of coherence. However, after an hour everything has snapped into focus, with exotic floral notes and a rich complexity coming fully to the fore. The first version of the wine is good but odd, the second is inspired. I recommend drinking the second.

Aldo Conterno 1985 Barolo Bricco Bussia Vigna Cicala (Piedmont) – Sexy, but a bit rough, showing S&M strawberries and a succulent, balanced finish. As with the whites, this may suffer in comparison to the bigger, richer and more “worked” Gaja…but it also definitely improves with time and distance from its regional counterpart. This is a wine that deserves a little more quiet contemplation that it probably receives here.

28 August 2006

TN: Y not?

[Yalumba]Yalumba “Y Series” 2005 Viognier (South Australia) – Simple, relatively clean stone fruit with floral enhancements. It lacks exoticism and complexity, but neither is it heavy. A decent wine. (8/06)

Viognier’s appeal lies in its overtly floral, honeysuckle-and-peach fruit…but to achieve these qualities, it’s often necessary to let the fruit hang, which leads to its most significant problem: high alcohol, lending any resulting wine a heavy, ponderous texture. Unfortunately, it’s a rare site and winemaker than can avoid the latter while achieving the former. Thankfully, the wine is at least pleasant when presented in its less ripe form…as long as it’s not buried in new wood, which this wine is not. Alcohol: 14.5%. Closure: screwcap. Web: http://www.yalumba.com/.

Cane 2004 Dolceacqua “Superiore” Vigneto Arcagna (Liguria) – Compelling but slightly harsh red fruit, tarted up by sour cherry acid and wet bark, but stuffed with fruit dust aromatics. It’s a particular, almost dying sort of style that might not find purchase in our modern world…but with higher acid food, it really shines. People tend to decry the existence of “food wines,” but this – properly paired – is the sort of thing that makes them look foolish. (8/06)

This is made from rossese grown west of Genoa, right up against the French border. Ligurian wines don’t make much, if any, impact on the international marketplace – even the fame of Cinque Terre can’t change that – so it’s interesting to see this on local shelves. The internationalization of wine works its nefariousness in two ways: by forcing wines of this type into new wood and smoothing textural deformations, and by keeping wines of this type out of the marketplace entirely. But this…this is what wine used to taste like. Not a cocktail, but a partner at the table. Alcohol: 13.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: Adonna.

[Texier]Texier 1998 Côtes-du-Rhône Brézème (Rhône) – Extremely sweaty leather and beef juice with sun-charred rocks and spiky, jarring acidity. It smells terrific, but the acid – even when one is expecting it, which anyone familiar with this wine should be – is occasionally shocking. Still, it appears to have reached some sort of peak, and with the inconsistencies introduced by its synthetic cork I wouldn’t dare hold it any longer. (8/06)

100% syrah. Texier’s Brézème is the only wine from this site that I’ve tasted, though I’ve been led to believe that high acidity is a site characteristic. It’s certainly jarring, and definitely not for everyone…even acid-lovers like myself. With the right food – something higher-acid than the normal syrah fare, perhaps game or a roast with onions or tomatoes in the mix, or why not lamb in a Greek-style avgolemono sauce? – things improve quite a bit. Closure: extruded synthetic. Importer: Louis/Dressner/LDM. Web: http://www.adonkeyandgoat.com/texier/.

[Guigal]Guigal 2000 Côte-Rôtie Brune et Blonde (Rhône) – Solid and dependable, showing mild animalistic funk smoothed over by dark, earthy, baritone fruit and a few alto incursions of blackberry residue. Everything is very strictly in place here, and the wine is aging nicely, but one perhaps wishes for a bit more verve, and certainly for a good deal more aromatic enticement. Nitpicking, I know. (8/06)

96% syrah, 4% viognier. Guigal, long a dependable producer of representative wines (aside from their expensive and frequently overwooded luxury cuvées), goes through ups and downs. Lately, they’re on a definite upswing, with qualitative improvements obvious almost across the board. Name the appellation and there’s certainly a “better” example, but the wines are once more steady-handed representatives of their terroir. (Note, though, the usual caveat: be wary of 2002/2003 wines, which are difficult for different reasons.) Closure: cork. Importer: Ex Cellars. Web: http://www.guigal.com/.

[Tendresse]Milan Champagne Sec “Grand Cru” Blanc de Blancs “Tendresse” (Champagne) – Lightly sweet melon and yellow raspberry, gently oscillating in a dish of pure, sweet sunlight. There are hints of complexing minerality here, but this is really one of the nicer sweet Champagnes I’ve ever tasted. (8/06)

100% chardonnay. Despite the literal translation of the word, “sec” in terms of Champagne means relatively sweet. Though it’s often-rumored (and occasionally confirmed) that Champagne houses sweeten all their cuvées for the American market – because after all, you’ll never go broke selling sugar to Americans – categories other than brut (dry) and extra-dry (slightly less dry…yeah, yeah, go figure) are exceedingly rare in the States. This is probably because Americans like to think they’re drinking dry, even when they prefer sweet. (If you think about it, this is the same concept behind Starbucks and Trojan eschewing anything labeled “small.”) It’s too bad, too, because I think this wine would be very, very popular in the States, if people would only try it. Closure: cork. Importer: Theise/Skurnik. Web: http://www.champagne-milan.com/.

24 August 2006

TN: Grüner or later (California, pt. 8)

(The original version, with nicer formatting and more photos, is here.)

26 April 2006 –San Francisco, California

[burger & wine at Taylor’s]Taylor’s Automatic Refresher – On a gorgeous, pure blue day on the Embarcadero, an outdoor table is too much to resist, and I end up here rather than back for another (expensive) bout with a few dozen oysters. The Wisconsin sourdough burger is, like all Taylor’s products, pure, drippy decadence. Not cheap, but worth it…especially when partaking of the burger joint’s clever little wine list. I cart a half bottle to my outdoor picnic table and feel completely decadent. (Also, later: sunburned.)

Storybrook Mountain 2003 Zinfandel Mayacamas Range (Napa Valley) – Fat and woody, with spiced cedar and huge blackberry fruit. There’s good acid though, and this really works best as simple, sun-drenched fun.

bacar – Packed, which renders service a little slow, and yet it’s good to see this excellent wine bar in fine economic health despite its slightly difficult location. My only complaint – and it’s a minor one – is that, for several years now, the enticing wine list has been rather dominated by blowsy 2003s. I suppose they have to sell through their stock, but I’m looking forward to being able to order Austrian, German, and other higher-acid whites with more confidence that I’m going to enjoy the results.

Nigl 2004 Grüner Veltliner Kremser Freiheit (Kremstal) – This wine undergoes a fascinating transformation from nose to finish. It starts out very salty, while showing classic celery and green, grassy acidity. From there, it proceeds to sweeter melon rind, green kiwifruit and floral aspects. Finally, it finishes almost fat, with orange blossoms, raw cashew oil and hazelnut. Such a procession from light and nervy to full and flavorful is one of the delightful surprises of good grüner, though it’s not usually experienced quite to this extent. It would be nice if the nose were a little more enticing, but I suspect that will come in time, as its center of gravity shifts forward.

Bründlmayer 2004 Grüner Veltliner Kamptaler Terassen (Kamptal) – White pepper, ripe apple blossom and white rice-encrusted apple and green plum form a ripe, vivid whip-snap, albeit one encased in silk. Skin bitterness adds structure and counterbalance to the fruitier aspects, which edges very slightly towards being a bit warmer (that is, more alcoholic) than ideal. That’s nitpicking, though, for this is a very good wine.

Donabaum 2003 Grüner Veltliner Atzberg Smaragd (Wachau) – A ripe, fat nose of rum-soaked banana skin doesn’t improve much on the palate, where alcohol adds a harsh burn. Things are a little better once one becomes accustomed to the heat, and creamy celery and cauliflower with ripe white asparagus steer the wine towards the silkier, more dairy-like aspects of high-test grüner. Still, as the wine fades, one is once more left with that buzzing, numbing alcoholic fire.

Hirsch 2003 Grüner Veltliner Heiligenstein (Kamptal) – A smoky nose full of mineral dust, ripe celery and heavy red cherries precedes a smooth, balanced palate and long finish that provide more of the same. Unfortunately, the wine also carries a throbbing, fiery burn from out-of-balance alcohol.

Revelette 2004 Côteaux d’Aix en Provence Rosé (Provence) – Salty canned fish (not, as it might seem, an inherently bad thing, though it is unusual) and heavy, molten lead with dead, softening wood rotting away in the background. OK, scratch the equivocation about the salted fish; this is pretty much the opposite of “fresh,” which I do believe is a virtual requisite for Provençal rosé. Worse yet: even with all the weirdness, the wine is boring.

Corbières du Boncaillou 1999 Corbières (Languedoc) – Gorgeous aromatics of dried flowers and spice with rustic undertones…but probe deeper, and there’s a smooth granite base with strong, complex striations. There’s a hint of something that tastes very slightly modern, but I’m not sure it’s possible to render Corbières all that urbane without leaving scars. No wounds here.

TN: On Garda

Vezzola “Costaripa” 1999 Garda Classico “Campo della Starne” (Lombardy) – Long-aged red cherries and orange squeezings with suggestions of a once-bright acidity, but now settling slowly into a caramelized, old-oak miasma. Probably better a few years ago, it’s quite tasty for the first half-hour, then fades inexorably away. (8/06)

30% groppello, 20% barbera, sangiovese and marzemino, 5% cabernet sauvignon and merlot. To be honest, it’s probably only creeping internationalization – cab and merlot, plus new wood – that has preserved this wine for seven years, as the appellation is not known as a long-aging one. Alcohol: 12.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: Empson. Web: http://www.costaripa.it/.

23 August 2006

TN: From the Saar to Groenekloof

Van Volxem 2002 Saar Riesling 01 03 (Mosel-Saar-Ruwer) – Gorgeously-textured silk paper with the thinnest possible coating of lime honey and a fine-grained granitic surface. The power is obvious at first, though it does recede at an accelerated pace, and this is not a wine for the long haul. (8/06)

Run by the incomprehensibly-named Roman Niewodniczanski, this is an estate with lots of creative ideas about wine. There are successes and there are failures, but certainly no one can say the property is dull. Age – as with this wine – helps clarify some of the notions that Mr. N. is pursuing, because some of his fresh-off-the-bottling-line efforts can be a little obscure. Alcohol: 11.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: Theise. Web: http://www.vanvolxem.de/.

JJ Prüm 1999 Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Kabinett 3 02 (Mosel-Saar-Ruwer) – Better than a previous encounter, with an old-riesling cream supported by dusty, post-windstorm summer leaves and a baked, country road strewn with gravel. Still, it’s definitely on the downslope. (8/06)

One of the better vineyards of the Mosel, producing wines that are usually on the fruitier side in their youth. And, unlike so many of its modern brethren, this feels like it should actually be labeled kabinett…rather than spätlese or, heaven forfend, even auslese. Alcohol: 8.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: Classic. Web: http://www.jjpruem.com/.

[Scharzhofberg]von Hövel 2005 Scharzhofberg Riesling Kabinett 9 06 (Mosel-Saar-Ruwer) – Sweet melon and crisp, ripe engineered apple (by which I mean, one of those Honeycrisp-type breeds) with acidity and intensity, but not much cut or integration. It’s awfully young, so there’s still time, but this seems more a collection of fine ideas than a unified theory. (8/06)

Unquestionably one of the great vineyards of Germany, though the site is perpetually underutilized by many (most?) growers. The best wines have an impressive complexity that is maintained through a long aging curve. Alcohol: 9.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: Classic. Web: http://www.weingut-vonhoevel.de/.

[Hattenheimer Nußbrunnen]von Simmern 2004 Hattenheimer Nußbrunnen Riesling Kabinett 009 05 (Rheingau) – Sweet-tart key lime and shattered quartz crystal minerality with raw steel and a subdued, but solid, structure hanging out in the background. Promising, though there’s the threat of a heavy metal drone looming in the subaudible. (8/06)

The 1893 labels on this estate’s wines are perfect examples of how to make an already-unfamiliar wine completely unidentifiable. Which is a shame, because the wines are really terrific across the range. And “thanks” to a rough patch a short while back, they’re also relatively underpriced for their quality. Not that much in Germany is exactly overpriced in that regard. Alcohol: 11%. Closure: cork. Importer: Carolina. Web: http://www.langwerth-von-simmern.de/.

Sokol Blosser “Evolution” 9th Edition (America) – Off-dry, floral, fruity and fun, though it’s flabbier than a sea lion and sorta flops around in the glass. Cocktail wine, without question. (8/06)

Riesling, müller-thurgau, pinot gris, sémillon, muscat, gewurztraminer, sylvaner, pinot blanc and chardonnay. When this wine was first introduced, it was “Evolution #9.” I suspect Apple (the music publisher, not the computer/iPod manufacturer) had something to say in response, because it’s not called that anymore. Alcohol: 12%. Closure: cork. Web: http://www.evolutionwine.com/.

Roussel & Barrouillet “Clos Roche Blanche” 2005 Touraine “Cuvée Gamay” (Loire) – Bitterly tannic when first opened, though this quickly recedes under the impetuous crescendo of graphite-tinged wild cherry and rose hip fruit. There’s an almost vibrant sense of possibility here, though it buzzes and dances just out of perception for the moment, and the structure of the wine is, other than a slight gravitational tug towards the tannic, very nice. (8/06)

Gamay is so delicately malleable in the soils of Beaujolais that it’s almost certain to do wonderfully expressive things elsewhere. Yet it remains so relentlessly unhip that few are much moved to try. This isn’t to say that there’s not a lot of non-Beaujolais gamay elsewhere in France – there is – just that most of it’s fairly mediocre. Here, for example, is a delightfully different take on the grape from the soils of the Touraine. Alcohol: 12%. Closure: extruded synthetic. Importer: Louis/Dressner/LDM.

Peillot 2003 Vin du Bugey Mondeuse (Ain) – Spiced blackberry soda, with blueberry skin and slashing razors of sharp herbs, tar dust and grillchar. Yet it’s full-bodied enough to withstand these rendings, and fills the room with delicious, pulsating fruit. A true success. (8/06)

See previous note for more on this wine. Alcohol: 12%. Closure: cork. Importer: Louis/Dressner/LDM.

Easton 2004 Zinfandel (Amador County) – Briary wild berry fruit and vanilla-coconut wood, with the suggestion more than the actual presence of firming structure…yet the wine is neither soft nor out of balance (for a zin). Good, early-drinking stuff. (8/06)

See previous note for more on this wine. Alcohol: 14.5%. Closure: cork. Web: http://www.terrerougewines.com/.

[Onyx]Darling Cellars “Onyx” 2002 “Noble Late Harvest” (Groenekloof) – Beautiful old honey and nut paste in a toasty-spicy cream. Extremely sweet, though buoyed by a fair sense of acidity, with rich sunset browns, oranges and golds lingering on the succulent finish. Gorgeous. (8/06)

100% botrytis-affected chenin blanc, 240 g/l residual sugar. Though it’s made from chenin, and should thus theoretically be more akin an ultra-late harvest Côteaux-du-Layon or Vouvray, the actual model here is Sauternes…most easily seen via the oak aging that lends much of the spice to this wine. In truth, many grapes respond well to this treatment, though few can reach the standalone heights of botrytized chenin in its native state. This is not to suggest that the winemaker missed the boat here (especially since the wine is terrific), only that alternative expressions are possible and might be worth exploring. Alcohol: 11.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: Loest & McNamee. Web: http://www.darlingcellars.co.za/.

TN: Mushroom, mushroom (Oregon, pt. 8)

(The original version, with bigger photos, is here.)[vineyard]

14 July 2006 – Willamette Valley, Oregon

Joel Palmer House – For some people, the Willamette Valley isn’t about grapes at all. It’s about mushrooms, which grow wild, and…apparently…in some quantity, or so one must conclude from their ubiquity on local menus. But no one does as much with as many champignons as this restaurant, yet another set in a converted house of considerable charm. Not that we get to enjoy much of that charm, because we sit outside. It’s a beautiful evening; why waste it?

Service is a bit on the quick side, and since we’re ordering the five-course mushroom tasting menu, this rapidity does impact our ability to finish each dish. However, it’s hard to find fault with a restaurant that passes out free glasses of Argyle when one of the managers learns he’s just become an uncle.

Argyle 2001 Brut (Willamette Valley) – Frothy. Tart citrus and more lurid tropical notes dominate a wine playing host to a war between simplicity and goofiness. It’s pleasant, but easily forgotten.

The tasting menu works like this: a diner selects a “main” course from the (already mushroom-dominated, though there are a scant few exceptions) regular menu, while the chef constructs the rest of the meal based on what’s been freshly-foraged. It’s an exciting concept, and we do love mushrooms, so…

Amuse bouche: mushroom risotto. The concentration of mushroom flavor here is almost unfathomable (one presumes mushroom stock of a rare intensity), though this is balanced by a heady dose of piquant parmesan. The risotto is done in the drier American style, in which the rice is a bit softer and the runoff less pronounced. But it’s no less excellent for it.

First course #1: porcini chowder. All the classic elements of pure New England chowder (well, minus the potatoes) are here, with the creamy and sweetly earthy power of porcini in their thick dairy sludge dominating the little counterpoints of corn. Delicious.

[cat]First course #2: mushroom soup (from an old family recipe). Theresa receives this as an alternative to my chowder…and while my dish is nearly flawless, this one is flawless. A beautifully-integrated mélange of flavors literally explodes with every bit of fungal earthiness one can imagine. It’s salty, but not overly so, and I could happily eat bowl after bowl of this. But then, I’d miss out on the rest of the meal. Pure umami, available by the spoonful and growing under a tree near you.

Second course: three-mushroom tart. Simplicity works best here, showing off the quality of a blend of mushrooms that, contrary to many such tarts I’ve had, are not variably overcooked. Perfect.

Third course: baked portobello with gruyere. Decent, but nothing special.

Fourth course: sautéed morels with crisp potato curls. Just when the earthy intensity of the mushrooms – and these are pretty spectacular morels – threatens to overwhelm, these crisp little shreddings of potato liven things up. Sort of a root vegetable intermezzo, if you will.

Fifth course: local (from nearby Carlton) fallow venison served with juniper-infused red cabbage and black trumpet mushrooms. My most disappointing dish, and one I do not care for at all. The problem here is the cabbage; an extremely sour and over-flavored expression that reminds me of an Vienna-style Christmas dish cranked up to eleven (or perhaps about eighteen). It obliterates the mushrooms, and comes very close to muting any positive qualities of the venison as well. What’s the point? Theresa opts for a ’shroom-less rack of lamb with jalapeño cornbread, which is quite nice but very spicy…and also a huge amount of food to appear this late in a tasting menu.

Sixth course: candy cap mushroom ice cream, with caramelized candy caps and candy cap cheesecake, plus a hazelnut/chocolate torte with raspberry sauce. Now, careful readers will note that the five-course tasting menu has, including the amuse bouche, become seven courses comprising nine different dishes. This isn’t a bad thing at all, but given the quantities involved it’s worth noting. More importantly, this is an incredible dish, utilizing the natural, maple-like sweetness of this rather unique mushroom to stunning effect. The non-mushroom torte is awfully nice as well, with a better balance between the nuts and the chocolate than such concoctions usually possess, and showing admirable restraint with the sauce.

All of this is paired with a selection from a very long wine list, jammed with local specialties (and, of course, very heavy on the pinot noir, which can and does excel with the mushroom-dominated cuisine) and littered with mini-verticals. However, the markups range from large to huge, and there’s very little that comes with a “name” or an appealing number of years in bottle to be had for less than three digits. It’s not that there’s a lack of bottlings at more reasonable prices, it’s just that with a list like this, one hopes to be able to drink something not currently (and widely) commercially available without sending the tariff into the Michelin-starred range. We have a long, friendly, but ultimately frustrating dialogue with a waiter who presents himself as the wine guy for the evening, though he seems unable to find something to our tastes (all his suggestions are way, way above our oak/extraction thresholds) without several consultative trips to the kitchen…and even then, his suggestions are not really what we’re looking for. Lacking expert local guidance, we turn to a bulkier variation on an old friend.

[vulture]Domaine Coteau 2002 Pinot Noir “Reserve” (Yamhill County) – Solid, with dark fruit and black, post-forest fire undergrowth. A dense, muscular structure surrounds the brooding fruit, and there’s incredible aging potential here. Right now, however, it’s all a bit much to take, and requires aggressive food to keep it in check.

Coffee is weak…not that it much matters, because we’re stuffed to the gills. I take a flyer on a glass of dessert wine, though in the end I wish I’d not bothered.

Sineann 2002 Riesling Medici (Willamette Valley) – The restaurant’s wine list calls this “late harvest,” but I can find no evidence that such a wine exists in the Sineann portfolio, leaving this as the only identifiable alternative. Anyway, it’s out of balance, showing sweet lime, lemon and green grape with spiky acid that’s completely unable to beat back a thick, goopy sludge. Those for whom intensity is the only worthwhile virtue in wine will find this exemplary. But it’s not good. It’s not good at all.

The final verdict on the Joel Palmer House is this: the chef has a clear specialty, and like many other such chefs can appear to lose interest in dishes that don’t fit the theme. Almost any dish with mushrooms will be somewhere between good and extraordinary, while other dishes are decidedly more variable. And the salt-averse will want to be wary here. However, the relentless brilliance of the majority of the mushroom dishes makes this one of those meals that surpasses its objective quality, making it truly memorable. That’s something that even many of the best restaurants in the world can’t say, and something to be cherished.

21 August 2006

TN: Clearing the cellar

A “clear the cellar” (a/k/a “make room for more wine”) tasting with friends in Connecticut. One addition: the mini-vertical of Clos des Briords (posted elsewhere) properly belongs among these notes.

Chateau des Charmes 2004 Gamay “Droit” St. David’s Bench (Niagara Peninsula) – Faint sweet cherry with a dry soda aspect and spiky acidity. The texture is all aspirin and baby powder. I don’t care for this at all. (8/06)

Mugneret-Gibourg 2002 Bourgogne (Burgundy) – Lovely and balanced, with strawberry seeds the dominant characteristic. (8/06)

[St. Innocent]St. Innocent 1999 Pinot Noir Seven Springs (Willamette Valley) – Gorgeous black cherry soda on the nose, with a rougher, more tannic brew of raspberry, strawberry, plum and grey earth on the palate. Just starting to round into form…though a few more years will bring superior harmony. (8/06)

St. Innocent 2004 Pinot Noir Shea (Willamette Valley) – Woody, showing layers of coconut over raspberry, with lots of thick tannin. Full and almost fat, but structured. Opened way too early. (8/06)

Téofilo Reyes 1996 Ribera del Duero (Castilla & León) – Caramel nougat and thick, dark, sticky fruit. It’s not as awful as it sounds, but it’s sludgy and one-note and, ultimately, pretty boring. (8/06)

Lopez de Heredia “Viña Tondonia” 1976 Rioja Gran Reserva “Viña Bosconia” (Center-North) – Dill and smelly feet, with crabapple tartness and a hot finish. (8/06)

Edmunds St. John 1999 Syrah Durell (Sonoma Valley) – Leather, blueberry and powdery tannin, with all sorts of yummy, earth-and-herb-and-sweat characteristics starting to bubble to the surface. The future looks promising. (8/06)

Müller-Catoir 1996 Mussbacher Eselshaut Rieslaner Spätlese 04 97 (Rheinpfalz) – Clumsy tropical fruit with searing, tongue-scalding acidity. (8/06)

Wittmann 1999 Westhofener Steingrube Spätburgunder Beerenauslese 23 00 (Rheinhessen) – Intense to the point of being overwhelming, with grass, red-toned melon, and pomegranate with huge acidity. Bizarre, and I can’t quite decide what to think of it. (8/06)

TN: A mini-vertical of Clos des Briords

Ollivier 2005 Muscadet Sèvre & Maine “Sur Lie” Clos des Briords “Cuvée Vieilles Vignes” (Loire) – Huge minerality underneath, with a dusty floral breeze riding the top. Long and elegant, showing balance and a drying, almost tannic finish. (8/06)

Ollivier 2004 Muscadet Sèvre & Maine “Sur Lie” Clos des Briords “Cuvée Vieilles Vignes” (Loire) – Very young-tasting, showing grapefruit, kiwifruit and melon with seashells and puréed rocks forming a slightly texturally-confused foundation. Big, with slightly spiky acidity. Call it a rebellious adolescence. (8/06)

Ollivier 2002 Muscadet Sèvre & Maine “Sur Lie” Clos des Briords “Cuvée Vieilles Vignes” (Loire) – Gorgeous, with fantastic green apple acidity, a crystalline texture, and minerals borne on a distant ocean breeze. (8/06)

Ollivier 2001 Muscadet Sèvre & Maine “Sur Lie” Clos des Briords “Cuvée Vieilles Vignes” (Loire) – Somewhat oxidized and unquestionably a bad bottle (or, more likely, cork). (8/06)

Ollivier 2000 Muscadet Sèvre & Maine “Sur Lie” Clos des Briords “Cuvée Vieilles Vignes” (Loire) – Very mineral-driven, but with an extra generosity to the ripe honeydew melon rind fruit. Long, big, ripe and rich, showing clear signs of development. (8/06)

19 August 2006

TN: Trends

Luneau-Papin “Domaine Pierre de La Grange” 2004 Muscadet Sèvre & Maine “Sur Lie” “Vieilles Vignes” (Loire) – Generous for a Muscadet, but with plenty of nerve and cut, showing brined, water-bathed seashells and a pearl-like texture cut with firm (but not oppressive) lemony acidity. Clean and balanced, with a solid finish and volume-raising affability with food. (8/06)

If there’s a “problem” with the high-quality Muscadets now available from specialist importers like Louis/Dressner (and others), it’s that they confound culinary expectations. They’re not the ultra-crisp, brazen expressions of crushed bivalves that provide such a terrific foil for oysters and their like. Instead, they’re more complete and full-bodied wines, some even possessing the character to be enjoyable on their own. And who’s ever heard of that from a Muscadet? Anyway, the trick is to get a little more aggressive with the pairings. Seafood is still the thing, but I served this with a “surf & surf” dinner of soft-shell crab (soaked in lebne cheese and coated with garbanzo bean flour, then fried), pan-seared salmon (briefly dusted with a Japanese rice flavoring mix that was heavy on the bonito), and local red oak greens drizzled with a ginger and macadamia nut oil vinaigrette. Normally, that would be way too much for a simple Muscadet. Here, the combination was explosively good. Alcohol: 12%. Closure: cork. Importer: Louis/Dressner/LDM.

Tourniaire “‘Le Gari’ des Hauts Débats” 2002 Côtes-du-Rhône (Rhône) – Smooth, sanded and buffed bubblegum and leather squeezings with the dark residue of blackberries. It’s country wine – simple, everyday quaffing stuff – and is a little too oval for deeper interest, which may very well be a result of the difficult, flooded 2002 vintage. Still, this is the sort of simple, clean wine on which an entire culture of non-oenophilic enjoyment is based. How could one find fault with that? (8/06)

If you’ve read A Year in Provence, you know how this wine is made. A friend and his parents have a place near Jonquières…and like many properties in this area, it comes with vineyards on the property. The grapes are worked by and sold to a cooperative, where they are blended and made into a regional wine (in this case, entitled to the Côtes-du-Rhône appellation). Grape suppliers are then paid either with money, with wine, or (more often) a combination of both. I’ve had the white, rosé and red from this establishment, and all are nice, simple wines that I’d be pleased to drink on a daily basis. Lucky people, these friends of mine. Alcohol: 12.5%. Closure: cork. Not commercially available.

18 August 2006

TN: The end of the reign (New Zealand, pt. 37)

[Queenstown overlook]All good things…

Our last day in Queenstown. Can it be?

In a sense, travel is a series of goodbyes. A new destination is achieved, then abandoned. Just as a certain comfort is acquired – with the geography, with the sights, with the rhythms, and with the quirks and individualities that make up culture – it’s back in the car (or train, or plane) and on to the next place with little more than a fond thought. There’ll be plenty of time for nostalgia afterwards, when each destination has become not a thing to experience, but a memory to recapture.

This is why the notion of “settling in” is so dangerously seductive. Bags are fully unpacked, belongings are given a home, and accessories (often in the form of groceries) multiply and take their own respective places. The regularities of everyday life intrude on the abandon of travel…a morning cup of coffee, a post-dinner cleanup, the number of days that can pass before the laundry simply must be done…and lend their normalcy to the experience-rich environment of elsewhere. And in turn, experiences are that much the greater for the familiarity of their context.

But when it’s finally time to say goodbye, there’s a price to be paid. The passing melancholy of moving on becomes more wrenching, more poignant. Familiar sights and paths are revisited, suffused with longing for that one perfect memory. And then drawers and cabinets are emptied, bags are packed, and one’s life is once more contained within the boundaries of a suitcase. It is, inevitably, a diminishment, and it carries with it the potential for great sadness amidst the satisfaction of a destination well-lived.

Cuppa Joe

Another interesting experience allowed by a long visit is the chance to become (however temporarily) a “regular” at a local haunt. And though I wish I’d made the connection earlier in our visit, one location almost immediately suggests itself: Joe’s Garage.

The staff – already unnaturally attractive, despite the occasional brooding – is today joined by one of those people at which I just can’t stop staring. She’s beautiful, yes, but with that extra and individual something that speaks to my subconscious. I sip a series of flawless flat whites, feeling a mixture of attraction and mild guilt (it doesn’t help that she frequently meets my glances, smiling each time), and then Theresa arrives…fresh from the spa…to rescue me from my imagined but disquieting psychic infidelity. Some encounters are better off left to the imagination.

Hanging out

Warmed by milk-infused caffeine, we’re protected against rising winds that buffet the waters of Lake Wakatipu into frothing whitecaps. It’s not exactly cold on our decidedly non-aerodynamic little boat, but the forecast suggests that it will be. As the girl at the ticket booth cautions, “gotta sail now, ‘cause the weather’s turning to shit.” And thus, if Theresa wants to dangle from a big cloth, she’s going to have to do it immediately.

Or perhaps I should back up a bit.

(Continued here, with tasting notes included…)

17 August 2006

TN: The old & the ancient

La Vieille Ferme 2005 Côtes du Luberon Blanc (Rhône) – Simple stone fruit and river-washed citrus. It feels heavier than it is. Under close examination it’s completely innocuous, but properly treated as a cocktail wine it’s much more honest and interesting than most. Plus, it’s silly cheap. (8/06)

30% grenache blanc, 30% bourboulenc, 30% ugni blanc, 10% roussanne. This is yet another of the Perrin family’s ventures, along with Beaucastel and Tablas Creek. The Vieille Ferme line is cheap, easy quaffers for everyday drinking, and I highly recommend them as low-key party wines. They don’t bear up to scrutiny, but they’re exactly what cheap wine should be. Alcohol: 12.5%. Closure: screwcap. Importer: Vineyard Brands. Web: http://www.lavieilleferme.com/.

[Château Saint Martin de la Garrigue]Château Saint Martin de la Garrigue 2001 Côteaux du Languedoc “Cuvée Tradition” (Languedoc) – Dark, chewy fruit with horse sweat and herb-studded earth. This is a fairly pure and direct expression of the Languedoc, with better-than-average structure and balance for such an inexpensive wine. (8/06)

Carignan and grenache. The Languedoc is one of Europe’s several “wine lakes,” where the production is much more about quantity than quality. But trust Kermit Lynch to ferret out a wine that expresses what’s best about the region’s terroir and climate, and that exceeds the expectations placed upon it. Languedoc wines will rarely be about finesse or elegance, but sometimes power and impact – without all the winemaking tricks that can create them – are just what’s wanted. Alcohol: 13%. Closure: cork. Importer: Lynch. Web: http://www.stmartingarrigue.com/.

Hummel “Domaine de l’Ancien Monastère” 2001 Rouge de Saint-Léonard “Cuvée des Vigneronnes” (Alsace) – Rough and ready pinot noir in it’s wilder, country-bumpkin form…when chilled. With air, the flaws come out: adhesive tannin, imbalanced acidity, and chewy but ultimately thin fruit. Which just shows that this, like most Alsace pinot noir, is meant to be consumed on the cooler side. (8/06)

This is the rare wine that I don’t know that much about. It’s pinot noir, carrying a village appellation (Saint-Léonard is commonly associated with the town of Boersch) rather than announcing the varietal designation, as many such Alsace reds do. And it’s from the cooler northern reaches of the Bas-Rhin, which – perhaps contrary to expectations – is where the better Alsace pinots come from. But even at its best (which is: light, not more than very slightly wooded, and with much done to manage tannin and acidity), Alsace pinot noir is an acquired taste. This is a wine for conviviality, for fun and friends with rustic French provincial cooking, for those times when you want a red but can’t bear something heavy and palate-deadening. In other words, exactly those times when rosé usually fits the bill. Even though most Alsace pinot noir is decidedly not rosé (though there is some, and it’s often fairly tasty), it helps to think of it as one when deciding what to do with it. Alcohol: 12.5%. Closure: cork.

15 August 2006

TN: Sardinia & the bottom

[Kuentz-Bas]Kuentz-Bas 2004 Alsace (Alsace) – Spice and pear skin, with a slightly disjointed mix of thick, molten-mineral texture and crisp, watery thinness. Not as good as a previous bottle. (8/06)

This underperformance vs. a previous note could be due to bottle variation (which, truth be told, is usually cork variation), but it’s more likely to be due to food variation. The previous bottle was paired with uniform, compatible food, while this one was opened as an apéritif and then forced to accommodate some unusual and variable foods. Remember that every tasting note is a snapshot of a time, place and environment, not an objective and immutable measure of quality. Alcohol: 12.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: Lynch. Web: http://www.kuentz-bas.fr/.

JP Brun “Terres Dorées” 2004 Beaujolais Blanc (Beaujolais) – Chardonnay in deep, rich tones, full of earth and brooding twilight duskiness. Balanced and very, very enticing. (8/06)

There’s so much indifferent chardonnay in the Mâcon (another appellation that chardonnay grown in Beaujolais is entitled to, and the one it usually adopts) that it’s almost remarkable what’s achieved here. Careful vineyard work is the principal reason. Alcohol: 12%. Closure: extruded synthetic. Importer: Louis/Dressner/LDM.

[Cluver]Cluver 2005 Gewurztraminer (Elgin) – Some of the right varietal notes – peach, rose petal, some vague nods in the direction of spice – but half the orchestra’s missing, as this is thin and watery, with masking sugar and a completely void finish. (8/06)

Perhaps it’s gewurztraminer’s occasionally scary alcohol levels that wreak fear among winemakers, but the grape is one that requires a certain measure of courage. The wild, musky, powerful aromatics that are its signature must be given time to develop, and that requires hang time. And when the grape does not reach these benchmark characteristics, the temptation to mask faults with residual sugar must, at least in part, be resisted. Sweet bad wine is not inherently better than the dry version, no matter how much counter-evidence of popularity the U.S. beverage industry presents to the contrary. Alcohol: 12.5%. Closure: screwcap. Importer: Vinnovative. Web: https://www.cluver.com/.

[Tablas Creek]Tablas Creek 2002 “Côtes de Tablas” Blanc (Paso Robles) – Grapes grown in the desert, with beautiful mixed nut oils, dry (and dried) stone fruit and an evocative brick-red desert palette of spices. Beautifully long and balanced. Delicious wine. (8/06)

36% Viognier, 30% marsanne, 26% grenache blanc, 8% roussanne. I’m not often one who is impressed by tales of long post-opening maintenance (e.g. “this bottle was even better four days later,”) because oxidation is not the same as aging, and it says nothing about the wine other than how resistant to oxidation it is. However, for those who find comfort in such assessments, this was just as good two days later, recorked and unrefrigerated. Alcohol: 14.2%. Closure: cork. Web: http://www.tablascreek.com/.

Margan 2006 Shiraz Rosé “Saignée” (Hunter Valley) – Watermelon Jolly Ranchers. Sticky, synthetic and absolutely vile. (8/06)

“Saignée” means that the vats were “bled”…juice from red grapes was removed from its skins, leaving it not with the deep red it will acquire from long soaking with the pigmented skins, but rather with (in this case; grapes and wines differ) a lurid pink. Alcohol: 14%. Closure: screwcap. Importer: Southern Starz. Web: http://www.margan.com.au/.

[Sella & Mosca]Sella & Mosca 2002 Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva (Sardinia) – Pure island fun, showing walnuts, roasted pecans, bright strawberry bubblegum fruit (though not in a candied way), judicious oak spice, and a nice, crisp acidity supporting everything. (8/06)

This is grenache, showing a lot of the grape’s varietal characteristics (strawberry bubblegum), with some interesting Sardinian elements (the particular balance of the wine) and a little modernistic winemaking (oak, which is rarely my favorite companion to grenache, but which seems to do well here). Alcohol: 13.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: Palm Bay. Web: http://www.sellaemosca.com/.

[Cabasse]Domaine de Cabasse 1998 Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages Séguret “Cuvée Garnacho” (Rhône) – Not quite dead, but knocking on the door. That was a very fast decline for this wine, and I wonder if there might not have been some sort of cork failure. In any case, this is all tannin and oxidized fruit on the nose. It’s heavy and still thick, and the palate has some slightly more pleasant grenache characteristics, but overall there’s just no pleasure here. (8/06)

Most (though not all) Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages wines are grenache-dominated blends, but occasionally wineries do all-grenache blends, and label them so. It would be logical to assume that the “Cuvée Garnacho” (a local dialect word for the grape) is one such wine, but it’s not; it’s simply a differentiator between this wine and the less traditional grenache/syrah blend from the same appellation, “Casa Bassa.” Alcohol: 13.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: World Shippers. Web: http://www.domaine-de-cabasse.fr/.

12 August 2006

TN: Bugey Bay

Bottex Bugey-Cerdon “La Cueille” (Ain) – The usual slightly off-dry raspberry froth, with a slightly bitter and hollow edge that’s definitely not usual for this wine. (8/06)

Gamay and poulsard, allowed (rather than induced) to sparkle. Alcohol: 8%. Closure: cork. Importer: Lynch.

Westport Rivers 1999 Brut “Cuvée RJR” (Southeastern New England) – Tastes strongly of tonic water and mineral salts, with grapefruit and some aged, yeasty creaminess lurking in the background. This has always been a bit odd and slightly disjointed, and age doesn’t seem to be helping. Look for other vintages. (8/06)

Don’t let my tepid reaction to this wine turn you off Westport River’s sparklers in general, which are usually quite good…and incredibly good considering their Massachusetts origin. It’s definitely cool-climate viticulture, but that’s a boon for sparkling wine production. As for other vintages: if you run across any ’98, snap it up. It’s drinking beautifully right now. Closure: cork. Web: http://www.westportrivers.com/.

JJ Prüm 1999 Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Kabinett 3 02 (Mosel-Saar-Ruwer) – Soft and fully creamed, perhaps overly so, with spicy dust starting to fade away on a dry Sahara wind. (8/06)

This isn’t overly old for a kabinett, so a less-satisfying performance is a little surprising. It’s probably an artifact of the vintage, but it could also be something in the wine’s storage history (it was recently purchased, rather than bought at release and cellared). Still, it does point out why even ageable kabinett usually gets consumed in the first flush of youth: the rewards of aging are not always as clear as they are for spätlese and riper styles. Alcohol: 8.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: Classic. Web: http://www.jjpruem.com/.

[Tablas Creek]Tablas Creek 2002 “Côtes de Tablas” Blanc (Paso Robles) – Mixed nut oils and dried apricots with a roasted earth and mushroom character. The wine doesn’t initially seem all that assertive, but there’s a surprising amount of power and concentration, which must eventually express itself as force. This is a very complete and impressive wine. (8/06)

36% Viognier, 30% marsanne, 26% grenache blanc, 8% roussanne. I’ve noted before how I find this winery’s Rhône-style whites an even more impressive achievement than their reds, and this is another reason why. Rhône whites are notoriously cranky agers, and yet bottle after bottle of this wine shows clear development and increased complexity. Alcohol: 14.2%. Closure: cork. Web: http://www.tablascreek.com/.

[Tempier]Peyraud “Domaine Tempier” 2003 Bandol Rosé (Provence) – Orange blossoms and lavender. Serious and structured for a rosé, but in a very light-bodied way. In other words, just about everything one wants from a rosé. Yet the finish is nearly absent, which is probably an artifact of the vintage. (8/06)

This is a very expensive rosé (around $30 at one local store, though I bought it for much less), and one expects a lot at that price. In many years, Tempier delivers. This, at least, is a healthy attempt. Alcohol: 11-14%. Closure: cork. Importer: Lynch. Web: http://www.domainetempier.com/.

[Van Duzer]Van Duzer 1998 Pinot Noir “Barrel Select” (Willamette Valley) – Brown earth, loam, wet autumn leaves and dried cherries. Just a little tiny bit past it, with the tannin biting the remaining aromatics into rough chunks, chewing them up, and spitting them out in an increasingly angry way. Drink up soon. (8/06)

Van Duzer has taken a turn for the commercial and increasingly dismal, but this is a reminder of a time when they made better wine. Even then, the last time I tasted this wine (maybe 2004 or so), it was drinking beautifully. Well, that was a quick demise… Alcohol: 13.5%. Closure: cork. Web: http://www.vanduzer.com/.

[Pegasus Bay]Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2000 Pinot Noir (Waipara) – Massive black fig, dark plum, orange rind and intense, ripe red beet. It seems like it should be packed with structure, but it’s really not. A bit of a hammer blow pinot, yet one with amazing complexity and persistence. Still, it is big. (8/06)

Outstanding pinot in the forceful modern style. In fact, it does veer into syrah territory, and many will dislike it for that reason – I myself would be disheartened if most pinot tasted like this – but as an occasional alternative, its qualities are impossible to deny. Alcohol: 13.9%. Closure: cork. Importer: Empson. Web: http://www.pegasusbay.com/.

11 August 2006

TN: A silent confrontation (California, pt. 7)

[cable car in Chinatown]

Send me a cable
25 April 2006 –San Francisco, California

Ocean Pearl (781 Broadway) – This is a dive in every imaginable way, with tilting tables and leaking teacups (not that it much matters, because the tea is lousy). Potstickers are constructed and served like spring rolls – a new experience for me, and one I don’t think is to their gustatory benefit – and salt & pepper squid have good flavor but are overly doughy. On the other hand, a plate of spicy jellyfish is simple and tasty. Everything here is dirt-cheap, and I suppose you get what you pay for. English is barely spoken, and not well-understood either.

VinoVenue – A “concept” that seems to have spread to a lot of places, wherein one buys a sort of debit card and inserts it into machines that dispense tastes of wine. They’re tiny tastes, and something about this whole venture strikes me as profoundly antisocial, but there is an actual bar at one end, with seats and a real live bartender. Plus, proximity to the Moscone Center can’t hurt business.

The wines – several dozen of them – are categorized, albeit haphazardly, into general substations based on color, region, variety, obscurity, and price. And the per-taste prices are just uneven enough that one will inevitably be left with insufficient funds at the end of a tasting session…which is no doubt designed to encourage “recharging” of one’s debit card.

Cullen 2003 “Ephraim Clarke” (Margaret River) – A sauvignon blanc/semillon blend. There’s sweat-covered grass and good acid up front – this attack is being led almost exclusively by the semillon – and a thick, long finish that’s full and luscious in a highly floral way. If there’s a criticism, it’s that everything ends on the goopy side. But it’s a pretty good wine nonetheless.

Coyne 2002 Grenache “Old Vines” (Lodi) – Confected bubblegum, dill-infused blueberry syrup, and toast with wood-flavored jam. Blech.

Stonecutter 2003 Pinot Noir (Martinborough) – Soft plum, tomato (perhaps tamarillo would be more accurate, though there’s no citrus), and golden beet with good acidity and a long, spicy finish that, eventually, turns vegetal and sour. This is just an odd wine.

Hochar 1995 Musar (Bekaa Valley) – Well-spiced earth of terrific complexity, paired with mixed peppercorns and a stunning black truffle core. Delicious, elegant, and certainly ready to drink…though I don’t think holding it will do any damage either.

Havens 2002 “Black & Blue” (Napa Valley) – A cabernet sauvignon/syrah blend, and dreadfully, painfully corked.

It’s this final wine that assures I will never return to VinoVenue. That the wine is corked is immediately obvious…the fruit isn’t just obscured, it’s buried in a thick, moldy reek. I bring my glass to the clerk at the front desk, who shrugs and directs me to one of the bartenders. I hand him my glass.

[street & Coit Tower]

The white tower
“I think this is corked.”

He waves the glass in the general direction of his nose for far less than a second. “Nope.”

I frown. “I’m sure it is. It smells like it, and there’s absolutely no other aromas.”

He shakes his head.

This is getting nowhere. So, I attempt a bargain. “Look, the wine’s almost empty at the dispenser. Open another one, we’ll compare the two, and if I’m wrong, I’m wrong. If I’m right, though, I think you should credit the taste.”

He simply turns away. No further conversation is invited.

A few minutes later, as I’m pondering whether or not to escalate my complaint, the bartender reappears, a toothy grin that looks like more of a skull’s grimace pasted on his face. He’s carrying a glass. “This is what a corked wine smells like,” he says, presenting the liquid.

I sniff. He’s not wrong. But the Havens is far more deadened than this wine. At this point, I’m irritated, and say so. “It is corked. But it’s not as corked as the Havens. I do know how to identify corked wines. So are you going to replace it, or not?” For the second time, he just turns away. Apparently, non-confrontation is the service standard here.

Not that I’ll ever find out. Because I won’t be back.

Slanted Door – In need of a restorative (or perhaps purgative) wine experience, but with limited time before dinner, I power walk to the Embarcadero, in search of a wine bar that I know won’t ever let me down. And it doesn’t, as a grab the last seat in a restaurant that’s already getting very, very busy with early diners.

Prudhon 2001 St-Aubin “1er Cru” “Sur le Sentier du Clou” (Burgundy) – Lovely and elegant, with earth-flecked loam and lurking raspberry. The wine’s a bit of a structural chameleon, with good acid and tannin up front, a quick, sun-drenched brightening, then the emergence of a deeper, basso undertone, before finally softening once more on the finish. Air tightens the wine. It’s good now, but after a disappointing stage as it closes down it’s likely to be very pretty at full maturity.

[Italian products]

Where’s the prazhoot?

Delfina – It’s time to try another of San Francisco’s small Cal-Ital meccas (is that a horribly cross-cultural descriptor, or what?), and the Mission’s Delfina is next on my list. It’s absolutely packed, and the sort of “scene” that just screams SF, with same-sex and mixed-sex couples making out all around us, then sort of making out with their food. Wine flows like a river. We squeeze into the bar and order a few glasses to start.

Sorelle Bronca Prosecco di Valdobbiadene (Veneto) – Fun citrus and sweet flower nectar with grapefruit and ripe melon. Aromatic and succulent. Terrific prosecco.

Unti 2003 Syrah (Dry Creek Valley) – Heavy, dark and thick fruit fighting through thick wood and thick (though ripe) tannin. Did I mention something about thickness? There are good raw materials here, and I suspect long ageability is a given, but the sludge is so heavy that it’s a chore to drink.

The food is fabulous…at least, most of the time. Artichokes done in the Jewish-Roman style with mint and lemon, a straight-from-the-sea salt cod dish, and a stunning, pure essence of cauliflower soup are the standouts from the first course, a giant platter of Tuscan pork ribs is carnivorous heaven, and gnocchi are absolutely flawless in their pillowy chew. The only letdown among the savory courses is a wan Dungeness crab salad, though it’s still better than dessert: a misguided buttermilk panna cotta with candied kumquats, which lacks both harmony and any appealing tastes.

Anselma 1993 Barolo (Piedmont) – Bitter tannin overwhelms fully-resolved fruit, leaving some dried rose petals and rough, sun-baked red cherries in its wake. Hanging on, but only just, and not that interesting of a wine.

Theresa opts for an oolong tea that arrives grossly oversteeped, while I delve into the stranger side of the dessert wine list.

Contini 1996 Vernaccia di Oristano Riserva (Sardinia) – Like dry oloroso Sherry, flat and austere with dark molasses residue. Very, very different. I’m initially repelled, but by the last sip it starts to grow on me.

10 August 2006

TN: Royal and green mountains

Notes from a few days in Montréal and Vermont:

Dard & Ribo 2004 St-Joseph (Rhône) – Exciting and complex, if fairly primary, showing grilled blackberry residue, pure essence of nighttime blueberry, and the essential Northern Rhône “meat liqueur” character, all layered over rich, dark black earth dusted with urfa pepper. The acidity is shockingly vivid. Outstanding. (8/06)

St-Joseph is becoming like Cornas: a appellation almost forgotten outside of the work of a very few committed producers. These 100% syrahs lack the masculinity of Hermitage and the Burgundian elegance of Côte-Rôtie, but replace them with more upfront fruit and a generous texture. Plus, they’re cheaper than both. This should be a recipe for export success, shouldn’t it? Closure: cork.

Foillard 2004 Morgon Côte du Py (Beaujolais) – Perfectly ripe berries bursting from their skins, showering fresh tarragon and light grey graphite with beautifully enticing juice. It’s light and flirty as an apéritif, more serious and substantial with food, and effortlessly moves between the two states. This is the kind of wine that makes you want to roll around in the grass and giggle. (8/06)

Gamay is not often an ageable grape, except over the very short term, but from a few select terroirs the story changes. Morgon Côte du Py is one such terroir. But unlike some other ageable Beaujolais terroirs, like Moulin-à-Vent, the solidity and structure is not immediately evident. Morgon Côte du Py bridges the gap between the pure aromatic delight of other Beaujolais and the deceptively firm construction necessary to support the wine’s future development. Closure: cork.

Cazes 1991 Rivesaltes “Ambré” (Roussillon) – Old sugar, caramelized and spicy with moderate oxidative notes and a crisp, apple-skin bite sharpened by walnut oil. It’s not particularly complex, but it’s quite delicious. (8/06)

Rivesaltes of this form is a vin doux naturel, which means high-sugar grapes have their fermentation blocked by the addition of alcohol, thus fortifying the wine and leaving it with a good deal of residual sugar. This method is more familiar when used to make Port, but it’s done all over the winemaking world, and is very common around the Mediterranean. Fortified muscat is the best known form of this wine, but this particular bottling happens to be made from grenache blanc. And finally, these wines are typically consumed young…but as this wine shows, given the right conditions they can age quite well. Closure: cork. Web: http://www.cazes-rivesaltes.com/.

Serge Dagueneau 2004 Pouilly-Fumé “Les Pentes” (Loire) – Light, pale schist and dust through a gauzy filter, with faint grass and green apple notes. A very indistinct wine that tastes completely stripped. (8/06)

100% sauvignon blanc, with none of the allegedly-signature “gunflint” promised by the appellation, and every evidence that the wine has been excessively filtered. Pouilly-Fumé doesn’t have an excessive number of high-quality proponents, but I’ve had much better from this domaine in the past. Web: http://www.s-dagueneau-filles.fr/.

[Cazes]Cazes “Chateau Les Ormes de Pez” 1996 Saint-Estéphe (Bordeaux) – Almost as pure an expression of the classic Bordeaux descriptor “cigar box” as one will ever experience. And “almost” because the other major aromatic impression is of sticky waves of butterscotch-tinged oak. There’s a really beautiful wine lurking in here, but the wood – at least at this stage – is doing its best to bury it. A shame, really, but maybe time will heal this wound. (8/06)

A cabernet sauvignon-dominated blend (with merlot and cabernet franc playing supporting roles). As for the oak…unfortunately, that horse left the barn a long time ago, and it’s probably too late to coax it back in. How Bordeaux is improved by being made to taste more like anonymous New World cabernet I can’t imagine. Closure: cork. Web: http://www.ormesdepez.com/.

[Everett Ridge]Everett Ridge 1999 Zinfandel (Dry Creek Valley) – Massive blackberry and boysenberry fruit bordering on concentrate, with jammy inclinations only slightly mitigated by a nice dose of ground black pepper. A one-note wine…though it’s a tasty note. (8/06)

Zinfandel is capable of aging, certainly (though a significant number of the most ageable are not 100% zinfandel at all), but – especially these days – two destines are more likely. The first is excessive alcohol dominating all else, which is the fate of some of the more overdriven and overripe versions (though high alcohol at bottling is not a 100% reliable indicator). The second is where we find this wine: ever-more concentrated fruit, moving from on-the-vine, to jam, to syrup. (More coverage of Everett Ridge can be found here.) Closure: cork. Web: http://www.everettridge.com/.

Isabel 2004 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Slightly heat-damaged by the external evidence, and the wine bears this out: the intense aromatics and green-tinged edges are gone, replaced by a creamy, pear-dominated wine that’s primarily about its texture. Sourced from the New Hampshire state liquor system, which has a long and dedicated history of baking their product. (8/06)

The state of this wine is a shame, because Isabel – while it has gone through peaks and valleys – makes a sauvignon blanc that does not ape the popular tropical fruit salsa (complete with hot pepper) style, but rather exercises restraint in the pursuit of structure. Also, their sauvignon blancs are much drier than most of what’s commercially available these days. Alcohol: 12.5%. Closure: cork. Web: http://www.isabelestate.com/.

04 August 2006

TN: Behind the green door

Trimbach 2001 Gewurztraminer (Alsace) – Light on the lychee, showing more peach and apricot with firm acidity. If a “deft” Alsatian gewurztraminer is even possible, this is a candidate. But one might wish for a little more intensity…which it has shown in the past. A bit closed, then. (8/06)

Most gewurztraminer is made in a huge, upfront style and never really shuts down or ages in any useful way. The really sweet stuff – represented by the vendange tardive and sélection des grains nobles designation in Alsace – often lasts more than it ages. But occasionally, one finds a gewurztraminer with the structure and balance to age…which it does by developing its bacon fat and spice characteristics. I’m not sure this is a long-term ager, but it should be better in a few years. Alcohol: 13%. Closure: cork. Importer: Diageo Web: http://www.maison-trimbach.fr/.

[Kanu]Kanu 2005 Sauvignon Blanc (Stellenbosch) – Fruity, semi-zippy and light, with an intensely green-fruited character feathered by grass. It’s fairly monotone, but it’s a nice enough quaff. (8/06)

95% sauvignon blanc, 5% chenin blanc. Sauvignon is a very insistent grape; it tastes what it tastes like, and only the most remarkable terroir or winemaking can wrench it from this varietal consistency. Since most sauvignon blancs are fairly identical, the question is: what is one willing to pay for that flavor profile? The Kanu is a fairly good value, but no better than certain mass-market New Zealand sauvignons. If it and other South African versions are going to compete on the marketplace, they’ll have to find something interesting to say. Alcohol: 12.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: Cape Classics. Web: http://www.kanu.co.za/.

La Puerta 2005 Torrontes (Famatina Valley) – A mélange of fruit flowers and meadow-derived perfumes, with a sticky and somewhat heavy texture. Lightly off-dry. More fun to smell than to drink. (8/06)

A fairly new winery, producing in a dramatically beautiful valley. Torrontes is the Argentine analogue to muscat, in that its principal quality is its heady aromatic presence. But, like muscat, what it also needs is freshening acidity and an eye towards lightness, something this wine doesn’t quite achieve. Alcohol: 13.3%. Closure: extruded synthetic. Importer: Ecosur. Web: http://www.valledelapuerta.com/.

[Felsina]Fèlsina “Berardenga” 2000 Chianti Classico Riserva (Tuscany) – Sweet wild cherries and wind-blown organic soil, lightening and then firming up again on the finish to show structure and balance. Not everything is in sync – the fruit is a little too forward, the tannin is a little too hard – but it’s a worthy and expressive wine. (8/06)

100% sangiovese, done as traditionally as one can expect these days, from old vines. It’s almost remarkable that a producer as solid as Fèlsina gets such wide distribution, and sells for such reasonable prices. Alcohol: 13.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: Domaine Select. Web: http://www.felsina.it/.

03 August 2006

TN: A sparkling knit (Oregon, pt. 7)

(The original version is here.)

No sweater needed
14 July 2006 – Willamette Valley, Oregon

Argyle – We pull into this well-known winery’s busy parking lot just as the Valley- and coast-bound afternoon traffic from Portland really picks up, turning Dundee into a slow-moving parking lot of its own.

Argyle produces a wide – possibly too wide – range of wines, but for me they’ve always been best-represented by their often terrific sparkling wines, contenders for the absolute best of the United States.

Argyle 2001 Brut (Willamette Valley) – 53% chardonnay, 48% pinot noir. Soft grapefruit, geranium and banana with notes of too-old papaya and carambola. Too fluffy and imprecise.

Argyle 1998 Blanc de Blancs (Willamette Valley) – Clean and crisp, showing mixed apples and great balance between sharp fruit and bracing acidity. Essence of walnut emerges on the finish. A very nice wine, with medium-term aging potential.

Argyle 1998 Knudsen Brut (Willamette Valley) – 70% pinot noir. Full-bodied for a bubbly, showing strawberries and leaves with apple skins. It’s nicely structured, and in this respect acts more like a still wine made from pinot, but there’s also the elegance and sophistication of a fine sparkling wine. A fine particulate softness suffuses the wine, which has balance and length to spare. Marvelous.

Argyle 2003 Brut Rosé (Willamette Valley) – Raspberry, mango and strawberry in a bit of a fruit explosion, but there’s minerality underneath (mostly graphite), and a perfect, dry-but-not-desiccated finish. Terrific stuff.

Argyle 2005 Riesling (Willamette Valley) – From relatively new plantings, after an outbreak of phylloxera. Lime, grapefruit and some sourness with a strange, off-putting finish.

Argyle 2002 Merlot (Oregon) – Oak and oakspice with roasted cashew, blueberry jam and chunky peanut butter. Those with gluten allergies who nonetheless crave PB&J sandwiches might do well to consider this wine as an alternative.

Argyle 2003 Chardonnay “Nuthouse” (Willamette Valley) – From the Stoller and Knudsen vineyards, with 30% seeing new oak. Sulfurous and bland, with apricot and an unmistakable coal aroma. Perhaps the barrels weren’t just toasted, but were instead blackened? Did Paul Prudhomme have a hand in this?

Argyle 2004 Pinot Noir “Reserve” (Willamette Valley) – Gorgeous, crowd-pleasing strawberry and plum in a big, fat but muscular package. There’s no complexity now, but this has the construction and raw materials to age.

Argyle 2003 Pinot Noir “Nuthouse” (Willamette Valley) – Chewy and big, with huge plum flavors soured up by orange and blood orange. There’s decent acidity, but a hefty whack of alcohol, and the fruit is a little on the bizarre side. A confusing wine.

Argyle 2005 “Minus Five” (Willamette Valley) – Freezer wine…in this case from pinot noir, which is a first for me. It’s pretty good, with sweet, silky corn syrup, raspberry and rhubarb in equal measure. There’s enough acid to supply balance. A fun wine.

(Disclosure: tasting fee reduced, wines purchased at “trade” price rather than full retail.)

02 August 2006

TN: The recalcitrant llama (Oregon, pt. 6)

[Belle Pente]14 July 2006 – Willamette Valley, Oregon

Belle Pente – When first visiting a wine region, I normally like to taste as widely as possible. This necessarily precludes appointments, which demand more attention and longer stays (the downside, of course, is that casual tasting cannot replicate the in-depth knowledge acquisition achieved by conversations with winemakers). However, some wineries are only open by appointment, and so it can’t be helped. Such is the case at Belle Pente.

I first encountered this winery years and years ago, on one of the online wine fora; some guy named Brian O’Donnell would occasionally post, and in-the-know locals would in turn laud the wines – mostly pinot noir, but also selections from the Alsatian palette – he was making. They weren’t available where I lived at the time, and later encounters here and there had left me…not so much underwhelmed as confused. I couldn’t figure out what the wines were trying to be.

But then there was another bottle, and another, and pretty soon I was as intrigued by the winery as those aforementioned locals. So when it came time to visit the Willamette Valley, there was just one person I actually called for a visit.

Craig Camp from Anne Amie guides us down dusty country roads to an unassuming property with a hillside vineyard, and…hey, wait, is that a llama? Well, yes, it is. He’s supposed to be on guard duty over other livestock, but mostly he appears to be hiding in the shade, well away from his charges. Bad llama. Bad, bad llama.

O’Donnell has squeezed us in on a busy day and at the last minute, but generously runs us through a quick tasting that gets less quick as time goes on. Like most winemakers, he’s reticent at first, but warmer later, and the wine conversation grows more effusive and expansive as we proceed. He explains that their property dates to the 1840s, and that they’re only the fifth people on it; at the time of their 1992 purchase, it hadn’t been farmed in thirty years.

The initial plantings were pinot noir, chardonnay, pinot blanc and gamay, though this mix has changed and grown over the years. About 50% of the fruit is from estate vineyards (totaling about 16 acres, 12 of them pinot noir), and the winery’s long-term commitment to organic viticulture has grown into the full biodynamic regimen that will begin with the 2006 vintage. O’Donnell mentions that there’s quite a “study group” on biodynamics in the Willamette Valley, led by Mike Etzel of Beaux Frères, and that we’ll be seeing more and more such wines in the future.

Belle Pente 2005 Muscat (barrel sample) (Willamette Valley) – Dosed with sulfites just prior to our arrival, and thus showing a little oddly, but the quality is obvious. All the muscat signifiers are there – flowers, yellow plum, exotic perfume – with a striking mineral core and a long, dry finish (the wine carries just four grams of residual sugar). It might be just a bit too dry for the average muscat fan, but I think there’s obvious potential here, and would like to taste it when it’s free of the sulfites.

Belle Pente 2003 Gewurztraminer (Willamette Valley) – Light and shy on the nose, with full, fruity orange and peach dusted with a little spice. The finish is long and equally fruity. O’Donnell seems unsure about the wine, but I think it tastes like a cold site Bas-Rhin gewurztraminer, which isn’t a bad thing at all. What it’s not is lush and full-bodied, as many people presume gewurztraminer must be. Still, it’s outclassed (in a sense) by the next wine.

Belle Pente 2005 Gewurztraminer (barrel sample) (Willamette Valley) – From chardonnay vines grafted over to gewurztraminer (virtually the definition of a universal good), showing honeysuckle and a long, balanced and dry finish. There’s still not the overwhelming “whomp” of highly-ripe gewurztraminer in the Alsatian style, but what this wine has – and the 2003 lacks – is coherence and harmony. On the other hand, at the moment the 2003 is definitely more fun to drink.

Belle Pente 2004 Pinot Gris (Willamette Valley) – Anise, leaves and mild residual sugar with faint minerality. The finish is long and soft. One wishes for a little more of…well, something. The wine doesn’t necessarily need size, but in its absence more nerve and clarity would be welcome.

Belle Pente 2004 Riesling (Willamette Valley) – O’Donnell labels this wine “the upper end of halbtrocken,” and notes that some of the fruit is from the third vineyard planted in all of Oregon. It’s a beautiful, late spring wine, showing crushed slate (between which flowers are blossoming) and honey, with great acidity. The minerality expands and sharpens on the palate and throughout the finish, giving this wine the razor-edge necessary for riesling, but in a somewhat smiley-faced and more immediately appealing fashion than its Germanic ancestors. Among North American rieslings, this is near the top of its class; in the Fatherland and its oenological brethren (Unclelands?), it would be about middle of the pack. That, lest its unclear, is pretty high praise.

Belle Pente 2003 Chardonnay “Reserve” (Willamette Valley) – Two-thirds estate fruit, spending eighteen months in barrel on the gross lees (O’Donnell calls it an “extended élevage experiment”). There’s great, spicy orange rind and candied tangerine on the nose, though the wine’s initial attack is a bit hollow. Things fill out on the midpalate, and build towards more tangerines just loaded with barrel spice and yeasty tingles. There’s even a bit of gravel. It’s very good in its idiom, though it tastes a bit more “made” than the other wines in this portfolio.

Belle Pente 2004 Pinot Noir (Yamhill-Carlton District) – These are young vines, and the fruit spends twelve months in barrel. The wine shows elegance, with dried strawberry leaves in the key of autumn, and gray soil in a cold fall light. Is that a hint of funk on the finish? A very pretty wine with some brief notions of complexity, but some rebellious elements as well.

Belle Pente 2003 Pinot Noir Belle Pente Vineyard (Willamette Valley) – Eighteen months in barrel, and adjusted to 24 brix before fermentation. Ripe strawberry and red cherry with a hint of fraise liqueur, an intense floral overlay, and a sturdy, tannic structure. The finish is very long. A wine more for the future than for now, and it should definitely reward careful aging.

Belle Pente 2003 Pinot Noir “Estate Reserve” (Willamette Valley) – O’Donnell explains that this wine stems from a “red fruit/black fruit” decision, with the Estate Reserve designed to express the latter. The difference is immediately obvious, with a heady wave of cassis and blueberry supported by great structure constructed of perfect, ageworthy amounts of tannin and acid. The acidity and the sheer stuffing of this wine quite literally buzz on the palate, especially as the finish lingers. Gorgeous, and highly ageable. However, there’s a caveat: for some people, the greater heft of this wine is what will define its quality. I quibble with that characterization. The wine probably is “better” than its red-fruited brethren, but not because of the red/black fruit divergence or its size and impact, but because of its overall balance and harmony. Further, it is a forceful wine that expresses the potential of pinot noir in a completely different way than its predecessors…which means that the wine will have different uses on the palate, at the table, and in the cellar. Those who appreciate the wonderful malleability and diversity of pinot noir will embrace both styles for what they are.

01 August 2006

TN: The château on the hill (Oregon, pt. 5)

14 July 2006 – Willamette Valley, Oregon

(The original version, with more photos and the real secret to pinot noir production, is here.)

[Anne Amie entrance]Anne Amie – The former Chateau Benoit (the name lives on via a few bargain-priced wines) is perched atop a hill of vines, with one of the most expansive views in the entire Willamette Valley. The tasting room/visitor center itself is beautiful and artfully decorated. And so, I worry. Majestic views and elaborate interior design are rarely indicators of quality wine, except by historical inertia.

We’re here to meet Craig Camp, noted Italophile and blogger, but now general manager of the winery, and we’re several hours early. I’ve told Craig we’ll arrive in the afternoon, but a quick visit to Scott Paul has left us with some time before an appointment at a nearby winery, and since we’re in the neighborhood…

Anne Amie 2005 Pinot Gris (Oregon) – Ripe pear and hints of wood, with a juicy, chewy, and almost salty broth of overripe grapefruit infused with a little bit of anise. Feels off-dry, though I don’t know if it is. Strange wine.

Anne Amie 2003 Chardonnay (Oregon) – Smoked Calimyrna fig and sweaty oak with a sweet aspect countered by bitterness on the finish. The overall impression is candied and somewhat sickly, but then I’m rarely a fan of chardonnay.

Anne Amie 2005 Riesling (Willamette Valley) – Geraniums dominate a big, floral nose, rising from a wine full of ripe apple and tangerine. It’s crisp and fun, but the finish is distressingly short.

Anne Amie 2004 Pinot Noir “Cuvée A” (Oregon) – Intended as an early-drinking, inexpensive bottling, showing slightly stale and burnt notes on the nose, though it freshens considerably on the midpalate. There’s simple plum and synthetic strawberry fruit, with corn silk and an out-of-place buttery note on the finish. It’s decent, but no more than that.

Anne Amie 2003 Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley) – Fragrant with roses and lush strawberry vegetation, somewhat green in the middle, but longer-finishing than its predecessors, and showing more breadth and potential; not everything here seems to have ripened at the correct time. I’d suspect this is better in other vintages (and, as it turns out, we’ll have the chance to find out).

Anne Amie 2003 Pinot Noir Yamhill Springs (Willamette Valley) – Raspberry, strawberry, and charming floral notes, which turn to red plums on a bed of decayed leaves on the palate. Just a bit sweet (I suspect it’s from alcohol, not sugar), which expresses itself more positively as soft plum on the slightly overpolished finish. Almost a really nice wine, but it lacks…I’m not sure how to express it, but perhaps that extra bit of conviction necessary to carry the complexity of pinot noir.

Anne Amie 2003 Pinot Noir Hawks View (Willamette Valley) – Cherry liqueur, ripe strawberry and plum, with a nice, fresh, flower pollen finish with softness and elegance. By far the class of the bunch thus far, and a really lovely wine…as long as one isn’t overtly averse to kirsch.

Craig is out, but expected back soon, so we settle into an outdoor table with some average local cheese and a bottle given to Theresa as a conference gift; a micro-lunch (neither of us are particularly hungry, especially after a marvelous breakfast at the Black Walnut Inn, and with a big dinner on the horizon).

Sokol Blosser 2002 Pinot Noir (Dundee Hills) – Sweet plum and orange rind with a boring, flabby structure. Understuffed. While it’s never actively unpleasant to drink, boredom soon sets in.

As we sit and sip on Anne Amie’s gorgeous terrace, overlooking both vineyards and the valley below, Craig joins us, bottles in tow. We’re short on time, but it’s an enjoyable (albeit brief) overview of the Valley, the soil types, and Anne Amie’s history and philosophy. Vineyards sloping down towards the winery entrance have a rough patch in the middle (amongst a cluster of müller-thurgau), which Craig labels phylloxera and which allows him to utter the line of the afternoon: “müller-thurgau is the leading cause of teen pregnancy.” He’s also brought the single most interesting wine of our visit.

Anne Amie 2005 Viognier (Oregon) – Very floral, showing honeysuckle and peach with a pretty, flower-dominated finish. Gorgeous, varietally-true, and somewhat of a revelation.

Anne Amie 2002 Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley) – A small dip into the archives, showing a better (and, one assumes, more representative than the ’03) vintage of the basic pinot. This is very closed at the moment, showing hefty tannin that lends the wine a fairly bitter cast, but there’s soft fruit lurking underneath the structure. Too difficult to assess at the moment.

We do a brief tour of the cellar and a nearby vineyard, with Craig pointing out one of the fundamental differences between the Willamette’s various subregions: the soil. Here, it’s the grayish-tan Willakenzie, whereas in Dundee it’s a sun-baked brick red that gives the Red Hills their name. And he does us a final kindness by guiding us to our next appointment, a destination we might not have been able to find with our fairly indistinct map. The only lingering regret is that, in our haste to talk, tour and make our next appointment, I fail to purchase a few bottles of the wines I’m most interested in. Well, I’ll make it up to them next time.

(Disclosure: wine tasting, extra wine, several opened gift bottles from our tasting, and cheese provided free of charge.)