27 September 2007

No fun allowed

[wine snob]If you ever want to suck all the fun out of wine, get together with a bunch of wine lovers.

Let me back up...

I've made a lot of terrific friends through wine. All over the world, in fact. Almost to a fault, they have been kind, generous, hospitable, and generally wonderful to be around. And I say that even though I've seen most of them at their potential worst (that is, with a hefty load of alcohol in 'em). Lord knows they've seen me that way. It's not always pretty.

In fact, one of the things I miss most about the breakup of the old wine forum paradigm is the loss of a central meeting place for the world's wine geeks to connect. Some of my best experiences ever have been via meetings facilitated by the online wine universe, and I cherish and nurture those relationships even more now that the virtual vinosphere has splintered into hundreds of different, special-interest and single-language sub-fora.

One form of these social interactions is called the "offline," wherein online wine folk congregate, usually over dinner, at a venue that allows (or even encourages) BYO. People bring bottles -- usually far too many -- they open them, they taste, they drink, they spit, they eat, and they chat. And it's a hell of a lot of fun. (Of course, there are other forms of interaction as well. There's the dinner, which isn't unlike any other dinner except for the fact that it usually involves more food and wine than any reasonable human being should consume in a single sitting. And there's the structured (or semi-structured) tasting, in which the bottles are brought with a purpose, often a thematic one.

So how do offlines go wrong? By including the "wrong" people. Despite the deluge of wine, what makes these events fun is the crowd itself. Why sit at a table with people you don't like, whether over wine or a profound debate on Kant and aesthetics? It's pretty simple, and the general rule of inviting people you'd like to drink wine with and letting Bacchus take his course has, for many years, fed the engine of the offline without incident. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, fun. How could it not be?

And yet, to read this, you'd think that not only everyone was wrong at offlines, you'd think that the entire institution was broken for a lack of constitutions and bylaws. Except that...damned few of these whiners and anal-retentive snobs actually get it. It's not about the wine. (A formal tasting; that's about the wine. If you want to have one of those, go right ahead. But don't call it something it's not.) It's about the people, the camaraderie, the fun. It's not about the size of your bottle or the girth of your wallet. It's not about sucking every last bit of enjoyment from what is, after all, the ultimate social beverage. And it's certainly not about living your wine life like some pointy-headed dictator, whining and bitching and crying when everything doesn't turn out to your organoleptic and economic advantage.

Why would anyone drink with these people?

22 September 2007

Tasting notes

A lot of them, and yet always more to come -- don't tell my liver doctor -- on oenoLog.

21 September 2007

Memory, cheapened

Years ago, I had a favorite restaurant in Boston. I don't know if it was the best restaurant in Boston (that honor has, for a long time now, belonged to No. 9 Park), but it was most certainly my favorite. I not only went every chance I could get, I sent all and sundry there whenever I received a request for advice. (Which, in those days, happened quite often.) And I'd take as many guests there as I could, every one of whom was exceedingly impressed.

The restaurant was one of a (then) very rare breed of authentically Italian outposts in the overtly Italianate (but even then gentrifying) North End of Boston...one that didn't just rest on the easy profits of overly-familiar red sauce, pasta, veal scallopini and the like. The chef had a point of view, and also a hook: he eschewed butter and cream as foundations for his cuisine, which lightened it sufficiently for him to work an authentically Italian, yet also fundamentally modern and experimental, magic with his food.

But while the food was excellent, it wasn't what kept me coming back.

The wine list, too, represented a particular mindset (it was also constructed by the chef). Missing were the mainstream but ever-so-boring Chiantis and pinot grigios of most of its neighbors. In their place were obscure bottlings from DOCs even the reasonably wine-savvy had never even heard of, much less tasted...wines often made from grapes virtually lost to history save for the fanatic traditionalism of a few growers.

But it wasn't the wine list that kept me coming back, either.

On nights when it wasn't too busy -- in other words, not on weekends -- the chef would gleefully participate in what is my absolute favorite kind of dining: the surprise tasting menu. Diners would tell him what they didn't eat (or, in some cases, enter a special request for something...rabbit, for instance), and he'd construct a series of dishes and matching wines that were regularly astounding in their perfection. Not "great" cuisine with all the cultural baggage that implies, but food and wine perfectly-executed with both art and passion.

I used to love those meals. I used to live for those meals.

But, as tends to happen, one day the restaurant closed. Insiders and recipients of insider gossip (I was one of the latter) saw it coming for a while, due to factors pretty much unrelated to food or customers. And so I made sure to go back one more time, to pay a sort of homage to a chef who'd fed me so well for so long.

One of the biggest quirks on an already very quirky wine list was that the most expensive wine on it was not an old Chianti Classico Riserva, not some rare Amarone, and not some cultish Gaja. It was from Piedmont, but it was no prestige Barolo or Barbaresco. Instead, it was the Coppo Mondaccione, made from the increasingly obscure but wonderful freisa, and often considered the most "serious" among all the grapey and boisterous expressions of the grape.

So on my last visit, as the restaurant's consistent brilliance drew to a close, the chef gave me a gift. Whether it was a thank you for the scores of diners I sent there, or for my own patronage, or from a sense of wine and food camaraderie, or as a gesture of friendship, or maybe just because he didn't want to carry the inventory to closure, I was presented with a pristine bottle of Coppo 1995 "Mondaccione." I put it in the cellar, and waited. Because it needed time, and because I hoped that maybe I could drink it with the chef who gave it to me.

Years passed. The chef moved on, and eventually re-entered my dining life in another role. But I forgot about the wine. One night, many years later, we managed to have the chef over for dinner, and while getting the dime tour of the cellar, he identified the wine as the one he'd gifted so many years ago. I moved it to a different rack, thinking that I'd open it for him the next time we got together.

But then, other friends -- excellent, close, wine geek friends -- decided to leave Boston for the Southwest. And so, we hosted a little blowout dinner for them, and the Mondaccione got opened.

Inevitably, it was corked.

When people ask me why I'm so passionately anti-cork, this is the sort of thing I tell them. Because this wasn't just a (reasonably pricey) wine, twelve years old and theoretically definitive in its idiom. That, though at some cost, could be replaced. This was a wine that meant something to me. It had aged...at Coppo, at the importer's and wholesaler's warehouses, in the restaurant's cellar, and finally in mine...for a long time. And it was full of memories. And from the moment of bottling, it was ruined by a faulty piece of tree bark that cost the winery a few cents, at which price the scandalously indifferent cork producer managed to make some sort of profit.

This morning, as I poured it down the drain, the memories smelled of moldy cardboard, and the meaning was choked off in a wringing tourniquet of fungal nastiness.

Damn you, cork. Damn you.

Monks, meat & mountains (Cataluña/Pyrenées/Roussillon, pt. 6)

[montserrat rain]
From the over-touristed heights of Montserrat to the mountain-shrouded strip mall that is Andorra, we chase (and are chased by) the rain, all the way into the Pyrenées. Thankfully, there's a carnivorous reward at the end of it all. Although, given subsequent events, I wonder about the value of the reward.

Anyway, read on...

19 September 2007

Walla welcome

Let's start off gently, shall we? I'll leave the harsh criticism for another day. Though I assure you: it will come.

I had a meeting the other day -- brief, over water and coffee rather than wine -- with two representatives from the Washington Wine Commission. Boston and environs are one of their target markets for expansion, and they wanted to do a little information exchange...get their message to me, and let me give them some local knowledge of the market and a few of the key players within it.

Personally, even though I have fairly strong Europhilic tendencies when it comes to wine, I welcome the effort. Other than the mass-market stuff brought in by Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest and the like, we don't see much Washington wine here. Oregon does better, with a fair sampling of the lowbrow and the more interesting stuff on the shelves (or allocated in the back room), and of course through sheer size and inertia California does the best, but for whatever reason, we don't see much (in fact, very close to any) of the higher-quality, artisanal stuff. That's a shame.

On the other hand, I wish them luck, because it's going to be a tough sell. Which, it's worth noting, I told them as clearly as possible. Boston is, itself, a very Europe-facing wine market, both figuratively and literally. We welcome some measure of European obscurity -- this is, at least the last I've heard, still the number one domestic market for Alsace, we've long had a very solid Portuguese underground, and there's not quite so much focus on Tuscany on Italian shelves as there is pretty much everywhere else -- but domestics are a tougher sell.

It's not just Europhilia, though. Our asinine anti-shipping laws, bought and paid for by the greedy wholesalers (oh, now just watch the invitations to their tastings roll in), keep a lot of the cultier, mailing-list-only wines completely out of the market...at least for those unable or unwilling to use one of the usual but time-consuming work-arounds. So if the wines aren't on the shelves and aren't in the private cellars of wine geeks, it's hard to build up much of a market interest in them. And with the rapid contraction of distributors in this market, there are fewer potential buyers than ever; the small, focused distributors tend to have almost exclusively European portfolios.

Washington will have to be careful, too. The big, ripe, woody reds that so impress certain critics will not be a showstopping success here (not that they need to be; they sell very well without our help). Leaner, more...well, let's be honest: more "Old World" wines will do better. And perhaps the best option of all is to push non-chardonnay whites. Riesling, in the form of "Eroica," has done well (though note that it has done so primarily through its German connection; there's that Europhilia again), and other rieslings could be successful. Sémillon is a difficult grape, but there's potential for success there as well. Among the reds, it seems to me that syrah (which is better known for a general aversity to oak, a fact I'd hope Washington state winemakers embrace) would do better than cabs and merlots, but I'm not an expert in such things. I was given a cabernet franc to taste (haven't yet), so maybe there's potential there. And, of course, there's always interest in an expansion of the varietal palette past the handful of big-name grapes...grapes that far too many places produce already. Washington may indeed have something unique to say with, for example, a cab/merlot blend, but there'll be an extra burden of convincing to sell it in this market.

Overall, and as always, the wines will succeed or fail on their merits and their pricing. But the key will be to get them in front of consumers in the first place. Alsace succeeds because certain key figures visit to push their wines, year after year. I'd expect to see Washington put on a lower-end push at next year's Boston Wine Expo, and then bring the better stuff to a dinner at the Boston Wine Festival. Perhaps Nantucket. I'd expect to see them in the market, collectively or individually, showing the wines to trade and press at other times of the year (the frenzy around the previous two events, when everyone is in the market and wants the same fifty tasters' attention, is hard to cut through).

As for that cabernet franc, I'll report back as soon as possible, over on oenoLog.

18 September 2007

Big changes

For instance, me actually posting something to this long-dormant blog. Now that's a change.

The old method of posting tasting notes in four places (two versions on the parent site, one here, and another on one of the zillions of wine fora out there) is, ultimately, unsustainable. Or it's too much work. Or I'm just lazy. (This isn't a poll, by the way.) In any case, why post notes hither and yon, carefully constructing categorized archives that grow decreasingly useful as they're populated, when Blogger has the lovely meta-tagging feature you'll find at the bottom right?

I appear to have mastered the rhetorical question.

Anyway, the big change is this: there's now a little brother to this blog. oenoLogic has given birth. Or cloned. Or asexually budded. (I'm a little unclear on the whole blog procreation thing.) It's called oenoLog...and you're not wrong in thinking that that's a spectacularly un-clever name. What it is, however, is utilitarian, and that's a pretty good description of the new blog. See, it's going to be tasting notes. Nothing but tasting notes. So if that's your thing, that's your place. If you find endless, non-contextual tasting notes about as exciting as cement, however, best to go elsewhere. I'm not going to judge. Well, maybe in private...

So, regular tasting notes are going to disappear from this blog, and also from the parent site. (Or, more accurately: they're going to stop accumulating additional content. Though if anyone can tell me how to move old notes from one blog to another without retyping or copy/pasting everything, I'd be eternally grateful.)

So what's going to appear in their place? Well, on the non-bloggy site, the long-form travelogues and articles (for print and otherwise) will remain, as will dining commentary and a guide to regional coverage there and elsewhere. Pretty much everything else will go into stasis; it'll still be there, free for the Googling, but the links to it will slowly disappear.

And how about here? Well -- and I know this is a radical plan -- I'm going to turn it into an actual blog. You know, with commentary and links and unnecessarily personal musings. OK, not so much of the latter. Mostly short-form stuff, though my oft-cursed loquacity will occasionally triumph. (For example, consider how long this simple announcement has taken to get to the point.) And there will be teases to the travelogues and longer-form stuff on the grandaddy site (notice how it keeps changing identity? oenoLogic has its own definition of "family values"), too.

What it all means: tasting notes may still appear here, but only if they're contained within a different framework than a stand-alone note. Otherwise, whether it's a shopping list or the latest outrageous campaign of hate against some downtrodden supermarket wine, oenoLog is the place to be.

Got all that? Good. Now, could someone please explain it to me? I'm hopelessly confused.