20 June 2009

Predator, prey

[lion’s head]He sits directly in my path, staring. There’s no way to get around him, and going through him is beyond consideration, considering the multiple sharp, hooked weapons he’s carrying…including the one pointed directly at me. His head rotates…left, right, left again…and then he re-fixes his gaze on me as he lets out a low ululation. A warning, perhaps. I don’t know what I’m going to do.

Eventually, his lids droop, and he seems to fall into a wary semi-slumber. Or is he just faking it? Maybe I can step over him, if I move quickly…

…continued here.

19 June 2009

Forever small

[tombstones]Wine is about many things, and one of them is loss. You drink a bottle, and then it’s gone.


Sure, there’s another version next year, but it’s not – and can’t be – the same. Eventually, every wine runs out or runs down; the last glass is swallowed, or the bottles that remain fade to an unnoticed death in some dusty corner. When the wine’s insignificant, or a mere commodity, such passings go largely unnoticed. But when it’s something special, something tangible is lost.


The wine world recently lost two rather special people. Jean Hugel was the first, and that loss was more personal for me than the other, because of my deep and abiding affection for the wines of Alsace.

Some, familiar with the wines of perhaps the most famous of all Alsatian houses, might ask how that could be. Hasn’t Hugel underperformed of late? Sometimes, yes (with exceptions), though of course opinions differ. Perhaps significantly, their decline has often been expressed as a lack of vigor, a premature fading, an absence of life. The wines, as they must, reflect the man.

But no, the respect I have for, and the debt I owe to, “Johnny” Hugel is grander than issues of individual wine quality. He (along with the Trimbachs) made the name of Alsace in the United States, and many other places as well. Without his tireless promotion, I wouldn’t know, own, or love these wines. Within Alsace itself, no number of encomiums can measure his influence.

The second loss was Paul Avril, of Clos des Papes. I’d wager that for all the love shown to this often-extraordinary property, few knew the name of the proprietor. I only met Avril once (and knew neither gentleman well), but to spend time with either was to be in the presence of living passion made manifest.

Others have said what there is to say about what these losses mean to the world of wine, to their regions, and to their families. But I’d like to take a moment to point out something they shared. Something that is being lost in our modern world of superstar winemakers, self-reverential marketing, and gratuitous consumption.

Clos des Papes had its signature wine, their Châteauneuf-du-Pape (in two colors), and on those sometime pricey bottlings was their reputation built. But there was also the little wine. Explicitly so, in this case: Le petit vin d’Avril was a vin de table that sold for very little money. No, it was not the best wine in the world, or even in its category. But that was never its intent.

Hugel’s showcase wines were its late-harvest bottlings, relatively rare and fabulously sweet, but then there was the classic blend they called “Gentil” …often as pleasant a wine as could be had for anything approaching its price.

When we think about the giants of wine – and certainly, Hugel and Avril were giants – we tend to think about their longevity, their influence, and most of all their bottled monuments. But in the quiet hour after their passing, spare a thought for the wines that reflected that quiet. Drink their epic works in tribute, but spare a glass for their humblest offerings as well. They wouldn’t have made them if they didn’t intend just that.

For one day, the last great Clos des Papes touched by the hand of Paul Avril will be consumed. Eventually, the last Hugel-inspired selection des grains nobles will fade into a sweet sunset. And there will be those that will mourn their passing. But the simple wines, the daily wines – whether theirs or those that follow – will remain.


16 June 2009

An odd encounter

[bryggen tunnel]Combine two of my favorite things (wine and travel), and a third opportunity regularly presents itself: meeting similarly-disposed folk all over the world. And so here I am, getting into the car of someone I’ve never met outside the confines of online fora, collecting a few more city-dwellers, and driving up and out of the city to that someone’s home for dinner. The prelude to some Sideways-like slasher flick? I hope not...

…continued here.

14 June 2009

Three days in New Amsterdam

[drinking]It’s a birthday ending in zero. Why not spend it in New York?

Day 1

After two weeks squiring French friends around Boston, to Vermont, to Montréal, back to Vermont, and back to Boston again, with all the attendant excess food and wine (and their corollary and cumulative sleep deficit), there’s neither time nor desire for extended festivization…just a quick bite, and then sleep. So, a meal at Momofuko Noodle Bar suits, and it’s pretty much as expected: good, eclectic, crowded, and so forth. I don’t really understand the hassle this place gets. Yes, each dish can probably be had for less somewhere else. The same is true for a lot of restaurants. My Szechuan noodles…better elsewhere? Undoubtedly. But I don’t think those places are going to serve me sashimi as a first course. Which, itself, is probably not up to other places either. But for a couple of interesting courses, a beer, some water…it’s just not that expensive, everything tastes good, and it’s all in one place. What’s the problem? OK, the seats aren’t that comfortable. There’s my big criticism.

Afterwards, I saunter over to Terroir to meet some wine board folk. Scott Reiner is there, with a friend. There’s also an exceedingly energetic young lady whose enthusiasm for wine studies would be infectious had such enthusiasm not long since been beaten out of me by the hateful cynicism of the wine trade. Or maybe, that’s just my own homegrown cynicism. Well, whatever. (I later hear a rumor that she’s California winemaking royalty, of a sort. Is that like being a cellar princess? Are the crown jewels made from tartaric crystals? Well, I wish her luck. There’s a big exam in her future that should be happening…right about now.) There are some others with us, as well, and everyone seems to love wine, but we’re about two too many and in the wrong ambience for full-group conversation.

And then there’s Sharon Bowman. With whom I have a long chat, even though – thanks to Terroir’s scene-setting soundtrack – I can only hear about every fourth word she says. Get some Freon in those lungs, Sharon!

The wines? There’s a 2003 Burgundy that’s surprisingly OK (a Gevrey? I can’t remember), and a de Moor Chablis that’s better than OK, but I don’t take notes and don’t much regret that I don’t.

Day 2

It’s nice, for a change, to not be staying in Midtown. I wander the neighborhoods, noshing on whatever rises above the can’t-get-that-in-Boston threshold, which here is a pretty hefty tally of stuff. One standout is Otafuku (236 E 9th St.), where the multiply-sauced fried octopus balls, eaten on a two-seat bench out front, are stupidly addictive. The day’s perfect for strolling, and so stroll I do. And not once do I have to push through any holders of tickets to Legally Blonde: The Musical, or walk past any naked cowboys. Hallelujah!

Later, I’m jacket clad, and thus a little less comfortable than before. A taxi deposits me in an awfully ritzy neighborhood just behind the U.N. I’m here for dinner, but also for another encounter with a nefarious wine board habitué. This time, it’s Levi Dalton.

Levi and I have an interesting history that’s not worth recounting here, but involves my repeatedly trashing a former employer, and then a creepy stalking incident a few years back in which he told me where I sat and what I ate at a dinner at said establishment that happened at least a decade ago. (Or maybe he just has an eidetic memory. OK, so forget the “creepy stalking” thing.) Despite all this, we’ve never met, but he recognizes me as I malinger on the sidewalk. It’s at this point that I realize that he’s actually Ivan Lendl.

I always wondered what he’d gotten up to.

The Olde Englishe Drawinge Roome feel of Convivio’s bar is suited to its current patrons, most of whom are probably wearing socks that cost more than my entire suit. I never do get a look at the interior dining room, but a few rather striking model-types walk by on their way to and from, so maybe this is a mistake. I will say that the one thing I’d want, were I an employee here, is a bar that I didn’t have to duck under every single time I passed its threshold. After all, Lendl’s a tall guy. That can’t be easy.

So anyway, “Levi” pours me some sparkling wine while I wait for my dining companion:

Donati 2007 Malvasia di Candia Frizzante (Emilia-Romagna) – Straight from the bottle (which was, I believe, previously-opened), there’s a bit of traditional-lambic funk; alongside the spritz and the nippy acidity, this is like a far less painful Cantillon. These elements settle and cohere with air and rising temperature, bringing out some proto-peach and grapefruit precursors, a tactile but not gustatory salinity, and that ever-present spiky buzz of sparkle. If there’s a quibble, it’s that the wine is monotonic in pitch. But there’s a lot going on in that note, and so the quibble remains no more than a quibble. (6/09)

After said companion’s arrival, we’re seated outside, in what must be one of the only quiet street-side patios in Manhattan. It’s a beautiful night, with just a hint of chill. Theresa orders from the menu, I just let them bring whatever seems best, and the procession of courses that follows is really quite impressive. This is Italian, more or less…and the “more” is the simplicity of conception, more than the actual style of cooking (though that’s Italian as well). There’s nothing I don’t love, and that’s a rarity. Moreover, the prix fixe menu – their suggested mode of dining – is, especially for Manhattan, a rather impressive value for what one receives.

As I leave the food in the kitchen’s hands, I also leave the drinking in Levi’s hands. (Not that I actually drink out of his hands. That would be gross. Especially with all those blisters from years of topspin forehands.) There’s one exception – Theresa’s in the mood for a specific dessert wine at the end of the meal – but I’m both well- and over-served, and this is another not-in-Boston moment…because back home, someone would have to drive afterwards.

Coste Piane 2006 Prosecco “Tranquillo” (Veneto) – This grape seems to lend itself very well to representations other than the dominant one…so much so that I wonder if a lot more exploration along these lines might be beneficial. And just as fully dry sparkling Prosecco is often too parched and barren for its own good, so too do the barely-sparkling and still versions benefit from something that one can’t quite call sweet, but rather “soft”; they might call this sec-tendre in Vouvray (though I should note that I actually have no idea of the actual residual sugar level in this particular wine). Here there’s a yellowness that’s neither lemony nor stone-fruited, sun and freshness, and a kind, subtle nervosity about the meniscus that lends the wine just enough edge to avoid turning into a drinkable pillow. Yet there’s the dusty memory of earth, as well, and a little bit of crispness that clarifies. But no…these are too many words for this wine, whose pleasures are simpler than all this verbiage. (6/09)

Sella 2007 Coste della Sesia Rosato “Majoli” (Piedmont) – Pink nebbiolo is my favorite (still) pink of all, I’ve learned. It’s a shame that there’s so little of it. This is a more aggressive interpretation than many, less so for its structure – the tarry bite of tannin is shed, and the acidity has loosened into full-blown juiciness – than its fruit, which is as much orange as it is red and pink, and sounds the occasional braying, brassy note. So it’s a rosé that demands attention, and keeps it by remaining balanced throughout (lacking the so-common rosé flaw of excess alcohol). But it’s not a “serious” wine, whatever one prefers that term to mean. (6/09)

Giobatta 2007 Riviera Ligure di Ponente Rossese di Albenga “U Bastiò” (Liguria) – Mercaptan-dominated. There seems to be some rather gorgeous, barn-floor earth and soft red fruit underneath, but for me the stink is not quite penetrable. The less-sensitive (among which are numbered by dining companion, whose wine this actually is) will find less fault, and in fact said dining companion rhapsodizes about the wine. (6/09)

Cà de Noci 2006 “Notte di Luna” (Emilia-Romagna) – Not an orange wine, exactly (it’s far too pale and recognizable for that), but one in training, with the sandpaper scrape of tannin abrading a broth of whitish stone fruit, dried pith, and powdered stone, then finishing with the tactile buzz of newly-absent soda. While potentially gorgeous, it’s sorta elusive in my glass…not in the endless-descriptor fashion of the true orange-wine cohort, but in a more diffident fashion. This could just be a function of its context (other wines, food, distraction), and so I’d like another chance at this. Preferably several. (6/09)

Somwhere in here is a Vestini Campagnano Terre del Volturno 2005 “Kajanero” (Campania) that, alas I don’t manage to taste. Or if I do, I don’t remember anything about the wine.

Fià Nobile 2007 Cerasuolo di Vittoria (Sicily) – Spiderwebs of red fruit that come off as insistent, but are actually rather soft-hearted. Volcanic dust, as well? Yes, some (alongside more organic brown earth), and this is a wine with a fair measure of soil amidst the berries. Balanced and highly approachable. Yum. (6/09)

Gulfi 2007 Cerasuolo di Vittoria (Sicily) – A mix of red and darker fruit, shouldery and fairly powerful, yet with enough restraint to avoid being boisterous or overblown. There’s a dark core of soil and rock here, slightly lava-esque, but the concentration of the fruit that surrounds it doesn’t allow much penetration at present. Full and muscular, with aging potential. (6/09)

Pellegrino 2007 Passito di Pantelleria (Sicily) – Perfume and pine with a shot of sweet clementine nectar. Simple and tasty, with a little bit of suntan lotion. (6/09)

Dessert (amaro gelato with espresso poured over…I could not possibly love this more) is accompanied by a gated barrier of glasses, all of which are eventually filled. Good heavens.

Perucchi Vermouth Rojo “Gran Reserva” (Spain) – A rich mélange of herbs and cut grass, with a red tinge (not just to the color) that reminds me of a high-quality red wine vinegar minus the acetic acid. Very enticing. (6/09)

Caffo Vecchio Amaro “del Capo” (Calabria) – Unfortunately, I remember little about this liqueur, except a sensation of depth and a better balance of bitter and sweet than is typical (usually, amari tip towards one side or the other). (6/09)

Russo Nocino (Campania) – Pretty straightforward…dark walnut, sweet and sticky, with hints of cocoa and old wood. Very tasty. (6/09)

Aggazzotti Nocino “Notte di S. Giovanni Riserva” (Emilia-Romagna) – Nocino amped up, less with power than with density, like a slow-built stew with layers upon layers of flavor. There’s dark chocolate, Sicilian espresso, even the darkest of black cherries…though perhaps a slight devolvement of the walnut’s central role in such a liqueur. Nonetheless, this is fabulous, and if nocinos received points, this would probably be the beneficiary of a lot of them. (6/09)

Vajra Barolo Chinato (Piedmont) – There’s way too much volatile acidity here, and despite my attempts it remains impenetrable. The less sensitive might do better. (6/09)

Mitchell & Son “Green Spot” Irish Whiskey (Ireland) – Friendly, even “pretty,” yet with smoke and ancient wood enough for enjoyable sipping. It must be said that this was tasted at the end of an awful lot of wine and other, more spirituous beverages, and my attention was not fully upon the glass in front of me. (6/09)

When the bill arrives, only the passito – the one wine we asked for – is on the bill. This is an insane bit of generosity on Levi’s part. Maybe I should slam his employers more often? What’s even crazier is that over the course of the evening, Levi only tells me I’m “wrong” once. Heck, I was ready for a half-dozen more iterations, at least, and it seems grossly out of character. (Maybe after these notes?)

The walk back to the hotel – all the way from Tudor Place to Union Square – is semi-restorative, albeit hard on the feet. Wingtips aren’t made for long post-nocino strolls.

Day 3

It’s hot, humid, and there’s rain on the way. Yet for some reason that can’t possibly be related to the above narrative, I spend rather more of the cool morning in the hotel than I’d planned. Granted, there’s some work to be done, but still.

Of course, the other explanation for lethargy is that today’s the birthday-with-a-zero. Ugh.

I skip breakfast. I skip lunch. Of course, by mid-afternoon I’m ravenous, and a bowl of ramen at a place I can’t remember the name of …it’s a few blocks south of Union Sq., in a place signed with dire warnings about the non-portability of its lunches…is about all I need. I’m caught in a deluge on the way back to the hotel, and umbrella-less, but I don’t really care all that much. It seems like a good metaphor, all things considered.

Back in a jacket, and this time with an uncomfortable tie in the mix, we meet an old friend for a drink at Bar Jamón, which is just a block and a half from our hotel. I’ve passed this more than a few times on the way to and from wherever, and it has looked interesting (though Scott Reiner tells me that Casa Mono, steps away and under the same ownership, is better).

Ameztoi 2008 Getariako Txakolina “Rubentis” (Northwest Spain) – Not strawberries, but a papyrus representation of strawberries on which has been spilled a considerable amount of sharp, frothing soda water. Comes at the palate like the churning maelstrom at the bottom of a very, very small waterfall. Anyone who doesn’t like this may not actually hate wine, but they probably hate life. (6/09)

Unfortunately, a few sips of this drink is about all I can tolerate. Not because of the wine, which I love, but because of the ambient temperature. It is at least ninety degrees in here. There’s not a breath of air-conditioning. People are coming to the door, feeling the furnace, and walking out again. Soon, I’m literally drenched in sweat, and forced to stand outside. So, a warning: all that wine at Bar Jamón? It’s all cooked. I’d be a little wary of the food, too.

We retreat to some dive bar around the corner for a beer. Hey, it’s an improvement. And they have AC.

The actual celebratory (or “celebratory”) dinner is at wine geek nirvana Veritas. We go for the full-bore tasting menu. It’s a lot of rich, high-style French food, and I’m not sure we’re used to eating quite like this anymore. But it’s (almost) all fantastic, the service is as exquisite as any I’ve experienced in the last decade, and of course the wine list and its service can’t really be topped. The only niggle is probably the too-close tables, which make it nearly impossible to entirely ignore one’s neighbors. But this is minor and inconsequential; if you’re coming to Veritas for a romantic evening, you probably care more about the wine than your date anyway. (Not that this is a bad thing, necessarily. It would depend on the date.)

Roumier 1969 Morey Saint-Denis Clos de la Bussière “1er Cru” (Burgundy) – Tentative and tired as the cork is removed, yet there’s a low pulse of strength within, and the finish is surprisingly broad despite the wan aromatics and over-resolved structure. And then, as one hopes, it grows. First in outlines…a bit of wiry structure here, the desiccated residue of red fruit dust there. Then the basic hues – antiqued cherry, soft earth tones – gaining intensity and fullness as succeeding coats are applied. After fundamental vibrancy is achieved, the detail work begins: filigrees of hazelnut and Perigord truffle, a plateau of beautifully mature darker berries, and layers upon layers of rich, fertile earth. As the work continues, the finish not only continues to broaden, but deepens as well, and recapitulations of the primary themes come rumbling from those depths, enveloping the palate in satin memory. It’s so typical as to be a cliché with wines like this, but the last sip is both the best and cloudy with dregs of regret at its finality; to liken the experience to drinking the sunset is to employ more than one metaphor. (6/09)

Peyraud “Domaine Tempier” 1993 Bandol “Cuvée Spéciale” La Tourtine (Provence) – Surprisingly, almost shockingly, primary. Stuffed with sizzling blackberries and plums, black earth, walnuts, and a blizzard of black pepper. The structure has retreated into the background, but it’s still most definitely there. As intense a Bandol as I’ve ever tasted, in flawless balance, but still so, so young. Ten more years? Twenty? Probably more the latter. (6/09)

There’s also a glass of 1999 Beerenauslese that I don’t bother to remember, even though it’s quite excellent.

The walk home? Only a few blocks of foot-floating bliss. It turned out to be a pretty darn OK birthday after all.

Day 4

This morning, there’s supposed to be a trip to Katz’s for giant towers of pastrami. Instead, there’s a fruit salad from the deli next to the hotel, tea, and a cab to the airport. My next meal might not be until 2010. Perhaps on my next birthday, though I think this one will be hard to top.