Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Burgundy 2015 - It Begins with Maillard...

If you have heard a bit about Burgundy in 2015, you may be surprised that I've been mum on the subject. Time to break the silence...give me a few minutes of your time.

Ted (our beer manager) and I traveled to Burgundy this February where we tasted bottled 2014 wines and 2015 wines in barrel. There is no denying the "sexiness" of the 2015 vintage. After sampling nearly 200 wines, I'm left with the impression of a hypothetical blend of 2009 and 2010. In that I mean, it has the supple juiciness of 09 but with a little more of the structure in 2010. In short, the wines were excellent, very easy to drink and will commercially be a home run. So why have I not spoken a word about them til now?

Because the 2014 wines are gorgeous! They are supple, lacy wines with great purity. They deserve attention and I loved A LOT of the wines. Loved. So in my opinion, it doesn't do them justice to start lauding another vintage that hasn't even been bottled yet. And honestly, a wine isn't fully complete until the cork goes in. Now, since we returned from France, you may or may not have heard of the catastrophe of the weather in 2016 so far in Burgundy. Believe me, the struggle is real my friends.

Most producers all over Burgundy were hit by hails storms, some multiple times. Best estimates are that the losses will be in the 50-60% range, with some saying they lost nearly everything. What do you think will happen to the prices of the superb 2015 wines now? You guessed it. Skyrockets in flight.

So my recommendation for those of you who love Burgundy like I do is to buy as much delicious 2014's as you can. Those wines are now available or if they are en route, the price is already set. They will be excellent steals for the quality. Or find wines like the one below in 2015 that DESTROY for value. And I do mean destroy... This wine was also priced and en route before the hail storms making it amazing for the tariff. So if you want a glimpse of what the 2015 vintage looks like, here is proof positive of the loveliness...

Domaine Maillard Bourgogne Rouge 2015

Pascal Maillard, one of our favorite winemakers in the Cotes de Beaune, tends to his vineyards with the precision and focus of a marksman. Honestly, he's got the chops of a musical wizard of the highest magnitude; think of him as the Jimi Hendrix of Burgundy, playfully pouring his soul into his wines. And while Bourgogne Rouge can technically come from anywhere in the whole of the appellation, the grapes for this classy, elegant Pinot Noir come from Maillards' vineyards located around the villages of Ladoix and Chorey in the Cotes de Beaune. The 2015 is sexy as hell with plenty of black cherry tones with a mouthwatering, juicy character followed by subtle floral hints, rose petals and a hint of raspberry as well. A touch more weight than previous vintages, there are still subtle little tannins that frame the wine and will encourage a bit of cellaring short term. An amazing Bourgogne that would give just about any village level wine a run for its money.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Still Talking Natural....Still Talking $%&!

No I'm not going back on my statements in the last post.  I said it.  I meant it. 

BUT, that doesn't mean that I hate all things natural.  I love the Museum of Natural History, Nature Valley Bars, animals in their natural habitat, and of course, who doesn't love natural boobs.  And I love these two wines listed below, both picture perfect for the season and naturally made...

Domaine Bulliat Morgon Nature 2014 - This would normally be the exact kinda wine that would irk the crap out of me, a Cru Beaujolais with zero sulfur, biodynamically farmed and natural as they come.  But there is one important difference.  This ACTUALLY tastes freakin' delicious!  Light, fresh, clean and "airy as a feather" cherry fruit riding a wave of floral notes.  Love it...  $24

Pithon-Paille Vin de France "Grololo" 2014 - Speaking of boobs, this label is cute and funny but the wine inside is serious as a heart attack.  It's mainly Grolleau with some Gamay and a heaping helping of love.  Dark berries canoodling with an acid rush that will make you think you are back in the 70's.  $25

Click the link on each wine and buy these at 56 Degree Wine.  What, you thought this blog wasn't  going to be semi-self-serving?  Fret not, I'll get back to ranting next week.

JCB the 4th

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Natural Wine...The Danger of Dogma

Ah, natural wine...it is the "it", the buzzword of the our vinous times.  It's the darling of many sommeliers, retail wine zealots and uber-wine geeks.  It's the hot topic, the stuff of cool kid dreams.  It's the new wine reality.  It's legend in the making.  It's the SHIT!

And I don't care about it at all.

I have a lot of friends, really good friends in varying strata of the wine business who are all in.   I still call them friends and hope they will still feel the same about me.  But natural wine is not only of no interest to me, but I find it in many cases revolting.  But it's natural wine, Man!  It's gotta be good for you like kale.

Let's rewind a bit.  Natural wine is born out of a very good ideal and I don't want to gloss over that.  It's saying that we want to intervene as little as possible with the product.  We want the vines to be healthy.  We don't want to use chemicals or pesticides.  We want the environment surrounding the vines to be lively with other living organisms promoting balance.   It's all good stuff, right?  So what is the big deal?

The big deal is many of these wines taste like any combination of these:  LeBron's sweat sock after a double overtime game, grass clippings, nail polish, road tar, poop, barnyard animal, and hairball.  Oh and many with a slight unintended fizz.  Yum...  Notice I didn't mention any fruit from a product supposedly made from grapes.

I've been in this business long enough to know that dogma is dangerous.  There are tons of natural wines made by expert vignerons that are world class.  I mean, they taste flat out delicious.  Those people have great vines, know exactly what they are doing and are dialed in like Jordan Spieth pre-Masters meltdown.  But there are also a wealth of people dogmatically flying the flag of "biodynamics" and "natural" wines that are making unstable and/or flawed wines and trying to convince you that is good.  And by taking that dogmatic approach and refusing to do things to make a better product rather than just make a natural wine, they do a disservice to their reputation (read as you can't have confidence in their product) and to the people who are actually supposed to be enjoying it.  I even know some producers who made a wine under pretty favorable conditions, refused to stabilize it in any way and then tossed the whole tank down the drain when shit went haywire.  Doesn't make any sense to me.  You had a great product and you let dogma dog you out.  You wanted to make a wine that's "sans soufre" and instead you are "sans wine".  Ridiculous.  

I taste these things all the time and way too often.  Like last night...

I spent an evening with my sweetheart in our old stomping grounds briefly stopping by a (mainly) natural wine bar.  I sampled a rose that looked (and tasted) a little brown, a Blaufrankish that was dull at best and a red from Southwest France that started off fine but air did it no favors as it became muddled and herbal.  Sigh...  But there is something way more important afoot.

99% of the buying public for wine couldn't give a flying frankfurter about PH levels, indigenous yeasts, vine age or dozens of other vital statistics that we as wine pros obsess over.  They just want a good f'in glass of wine with their dinner!  One young couple sat next to us at the aforementioned wine bar, as the well intention-ed bartender/somm asked them what they wanted.  Looking for white wine, the bar/somm suggests a couple things and they taste them.  Trying one of the wines the woman retorts, "I don't like that."  And after more lengthy discussion/descriptions/dissertations, the gentleman says, "Just give us one of each, I'll drink whatever she likes the least."  I mean, wine is supposed to be joyful, fun and enhance your meal...sensual and get you in the mood for whatever comes later.  It shouldn't need an owners manual nor be so far of the field of play that people don't like it.  And by and large, most people don't like it.  Like almost everyone save for those seeking to examine it or live the life of dogma.  

And further more, if you pull some industry peeps aside and ask what they really think, they will tell you that they don't care to drink a lot of them either.  

I'd drop the mic, but I think someone is going to pick it up and start screaming at me.  I'm ready...

Much Love,

JCB the 4th

Thursday, June 9, 2016

That's Right...I'm Back!

Greetings Planet Earth, 56 Degree Wine Faithful & Folks with WAY too Much Time on Their Hands...

I have decided to revive my blog, Le Monstre du Vin, or "The Freak of Wine" en Francais, after a 5 year hiatus.  Can't believe it's been that long.  I promise to make Le Monstre 2.0 more fun and more scathing than ever and most likely, a career mistake.  Oh, and get off my chest all the venom this elder "L'Enfant Terrible" can muster.  

Since I abandoned you back in 2011, life and the wine world have drastically changed.  I married a gorgeous lady, had a beautiful daughter and realized that I am far better suited to complaining about, tasting, assessing, purchasing, and selling wine in retail than I am at being a wholesale sales rep.  In addition, my palate has changed a bit, my views on wine have shifted and my tolerance for nonsense has dwindled.  Yeah, I've still got a wee bit of a chip.  I'm a little chunkier (working on that) a little funkier and I've got 5 years of toxins that need purging from me.

So please do check back regularly.  As this is just an intro or rather a reintroduction of sorts, the real meat in the sandwich comes next week...I think I will make the first of many errors by spilling my guts on the natural wine trend and why I'm not overly impressed.  Did you hear that?  It's the boisterous, sucking sound of industry folk in NYC unfriending me on Facebook and Instagram.

Much Love,

JCB the 4th

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Dirty "T" Word

"Terroir"... I'm certainly one who loves to bandy that word about. Seems like the scholarly cool wine-guy term to use to make you look like you know what your talking about. But I actually do "believe" in the concept of terroir. Well, let's go back a couple steps...

"Terroir" is that hard to describe French term that has no simple translation. The example is that you can take the rootstock from Barolo Brunate, plant it in the same type of soils somewhere else, approximate the climatic conditions to a "t" and you still cannot make Barolo Brunate in Mendoza. Thus the "terroir" of Brunate is singular and Brunate can never to be reproduced anywhere but on those white soils of La Morra. But there is another connotation to the term. It is that of being able to taste "terroir". Well, I can assure you that there are many, many folks that can taste wines blind and tell you which one is Puligny-Montrachet Les Folatieres and which one is Puligny-Montrachet Les Pucelles simply from a sniff, swish and swallow. But what about the notion that "terroir" is really code for "rustic" which can be code for "dirty" if you take it 12 steps further.

I've always had a soft spot for wines that I feel express their place. Wine comes from grapes, which the last time I checked is a fruit. And when I eat fruit, I like it to not be bitter. So why then are there many wines that are supposedly "terroir"-based, that are overtly earthy, lacking in fruit and charm, many loaded with discernable flaws like brett or volatile acidity? To me, "terroir" doesn't mean the wine tastes like a hairball your cat just spit up. It only means that it has a signature, a story that tells the tale of the place from which it hails. It also doesn't mean that it is necessarily good. Many wines have passed my lips that have been very reflective of a place, a place that I don't really want to taste again. St. Romain comes to mind. By and large, it is disgusting Chardonnay to me. I honestly want to drive a tractor trailer through the entire appellation and build McMansions there. Would be a better use of the land than making crap Burgundy, but I digress...

JCB the 4th

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Ya Heard Me...

Good evening, friends. As my usual move, I'll apologize for not being prolific writing. But hey, I got thangs to do.

This post is just about a few random things that I've heard of late, not to be attributed to the person who said it to keep the guilty innocent...

-In reference to a pretty violently corked bottle presented to me for tasting after I said that I thought it was not sound, "It's funky now for sure but it will get better with some air."

-In reference to a friend who doesn't have a Twitter account, "I don't believe in twat!"

-In reference to some very much needed ice in NYC, the gas attendant said, "I can give you a cup of ice for $1.50 or a bag for $2.50."

-In reference to some particularly delectable salumi, "It's like meat butterscotch!"

-In reference to the local bakery guy not having any coffee ready at 9:15am, "The girl just left me here...sorry, but it''s not my fault."

-In reference to the not particularly cold bottle brought to a BYO, a server brings a glass filled with ice cubes and a spoon, "For your wine..."

Wine rant on the way this weekend...

JCB the 4th

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A Pig's Life...

I know what you're thinking but I'm actually not referencing myself with this blog post title.

On the literal plane, it describes my Sunday evening exploits, as I experienced a Cuban pig roast courtesy of my buddy and supplier, Juan Prieto. Juan and I have been traveling to Burgundy for five years running (actually going back again in October) visiting his terrific stable of producers. So while we certainly are biz associates, our relationship is very tight and I consider him one of my closest friends in the wine business and in life. Juan just passed a milestone birthday over the weekend and his family decided to celebrate that momentous occasion and the Labor Day holiday all rolled into one, Cubano style!

One thing I can assure you is that Cuban's will not let you go hungry. There was enough food on hand to solve the Somali crisis. Three kinds of rice: one white, one yellow with red beans and one with black beans, salads, oysters, clams, mussels, lobster tail, corn and pork empanada, croquetas de jamon. This list was exhaustive and truly delicious. But the Yucca con Mojo was devastating. It's like a somewhat mild-n-sweet version of a white potato, boiled and covered with a light garlic and olive oil sauce that just brightens the Yucca with a blast of sunshine. I couldn't stop eating it. And then there was the pig...

Juan relayed to me the process of selecting a pig for a roast. He goes to a local farm and actually looks for the right pig. According to Juan, you want one that is lively...one that seems alert and mobile. Sluggish pigs won't do. After selecting the right one, they butcher it for you and butterfly it, cleaning out the nasty bits so you don't have to. Juan has this tremendous wood box lined with metal that cooks the pig to perfection by placing burning coals on top of the box. Ours was a small pig...50 lbs small in fact. Overnight marinating in bitter orange, garlic and other seasonings and 4.5 hours of roasting in that box and you have the most succulent, tender meat with a beautiful crispy skin. We all just started picking on it, pulling pieces of what are essentially cracklings off the pig. It was heavenly. When it came time to dig into the meat, as per Juan's suggestion, I went right for the cheek...the guanciale so to speak. I dug my fingers in and ripped the cheek off, leaving me with a feeling of primal manhood, a little caveman-esque rush came over me. And I'm not the only one. A six year old, very adventurous neighborhood girl came over to the pig and immediately asked to eat the ears, both of them! After walking away from the table for less than a minute, she came back to request another ear....sorry, darling -- pigs just like humans only have two.

My barbaric inner Cro-magnon soul was quickly followed by a wave of civility as I sat down with a knife and fork to eat this plate of loveliness with a glass of 2001 Domaine Leroy Pommard Les Vignots. The wine was spot on, as the Brits would say, as most 2001's are in position A at present. The moist tender and flavorful meat melded with the Pinot Noir in the most natural of ways, like each existed only to serve the other. Truly a heart wrenching (as well as artery clogging) experience that will stay with me for quite a while...in more ways than one.

All in all we enjoyed some Rose by Mas de Cadenet from magnum, a textbook 2002 Puligny-Montrachet AC magnum by Domaine Bzikot, and a life-altering bottle of 2001 Lamy-Pillot Le Montrachet Grand Cru that just kept stretching its greatness with such class as time went by among other wines. The party going on late into the night, more and more pork, magnificent wines, salsa music providing much of the backdrop, it was a great evening celebrating the life of a very good friend. Happy Birthday, Juan!

Come to think of it, maybe the title references me after all...

JCB the 4th

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Gentlemen's Lunch

If it seems the return of Le Monstre is food based, you may be on to something. C.R.E.A.M (Cash Rules Everything Around Me, for those not familiar with the Wu Tang Clan) has been replaced by F.R.E.A.M. And while that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue or even make much sense, it allows me to mention the Wu in a blog post…which warms my heart.

Every once in a while our good client and better mate, Angus, will come to town to pick up some wine but more importantly, for us to have a proper Gentlemen’s Lunch. Angus is an Aussie, who officially lives in Manhattan but is constantly traveling the most remote places in the world. I will often get a witty reply to one of our 56 offerings from some micro-village in Africa or Asia. Angus is nothing if not witty, with a repartee that puts mine to shame. Also possessing a pro’s palate, he’s actually in the process of becoming an MW. He’s that good. Add it all up and you have a great guy to spend a couple hours dining with.

We’ve had four or five of these now, usually Chris and I along with my good friend, Doug. We’ll frequent the Pluckemin Inn or Restaurant 252, grab a few bottles and have a nice two hour lunch and just generally geek out on wine, food and life. A good, long lunch is something that has fallen by the wayside in our society. It’s understandable – busy schedules and the need to produce at a high level doesn’t usually allow for two hours of eating in the middle of the work day. Unless you are from Spain, in which case it’s expected. Hell, you can’t even find a business open during “Siesta” hours. But I’m actually working during this lunch (remember, Angus IS a client) so I’m doing my duty. I love my duty. Reminds me of my good friend, Manish Bardolia, and his blog post on combining work and passions. Anyway, for this Gentlemen’s Lunch we went back to the scene of the very first one, Sette Cucina in Bernardsville.

Allan Russo is the most under-rated chef in NJ. He doesn’t do nouveau cuisine. He doesn’t build skyscrapers on a plate or use chemistry or power tools to produce food. What he does is take you to the essence of traditional Italian cooking. He keeps it REAL. Want one of the best meals you’ve ever had and be transported to a trattoria in Campania without buying the plane ticket or getting crushed by the Euro? Just go to Sette and ask Alan to cook for you. No menu, no constraints…he will make it like in the old country with heart and passion. We’ve hosted many Italian winemakers at his restaurant: Gianluca Grasso, Christina & Isabella Oddero, Vinzia Novara from Firriato, Ivan Rapuzzi of Ronchi di Cialla. All have gushed on how amazingly authentic the food is. “It’s like I’m eating at home!” remarked Gianluca Grasso.

For the Gentlemen’s Lunch, we just had Allan cook. He started us with Bruschetta, homemade garlic bread, ripe red tomatoes, fresh basil and extra virgin olive oil. Angus is always good for bringing old Aussie wines and he supplied a mature 1991 Tyrells Semillon from Hunter Valley. Next up, Antipasto Fantasia, thinly sliced Prosciutto di Parma, sweet soppressata, “Cinque Stelle”, Gorgonzola, and Poached Bosco Pears. A simple yet utterly delicious plate that was devoured in a blink, we attempted to pair it with a bottle of 2001 Ronchi di Ciallo Ciallabianco but alas the bottle was corked. Back to the Semillon…

Next was Antipasto Caldo, an eye-popping plate of sweet and sour Yellow & Orange Peppers with Homemade Sausage. This was so simple and so flavorful, as well as appealing to the eye. You always see a dish first, setting your mind up for the flavors to follow. To me presentation is very important, never better illustrated than with this dish. We cracked open the 2004 Cascina Chicco Barbera d’Alba Bric Loira, a perfectly aged and delectable Barbera that is drinking brilliantly.

Then Alan brings out a plate that will remain in my mind for a very, very long time. Tortellini al Profumo di Tartufo, Baby Torellini sautéed with toasted Pancetta, touch of Cream and Truffle Essence…my God, this was orgasmic. I mean just look at it! I felt as if my body was leaving the planet and rising to the heavens. We uncorked the clear wine of the afternoon, the 1985 Emedio Pepe Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. Words aren’t really sufficient to describe the depth of this old Montepulciano with this magical mushroomy, salty, creamy plate of love.

Finally, we finished with another old Aussie wine that Angus provided, the 1996 Bowen Estate Shiraz Connawarra, a dark fruited, gamy wine that reminded me of a great Languedoc, a la Grange de Peres. It was fantastic with Vitello al Gorgonzola, Escalope of Veal, sautéed Crimini Mushrooms and Gorgonzola, perfectly picking up the earthy notes of the dish and melding with the Shiraz. One would never confuse this coolish Coonawarra with the sappy Shiraz that are mass produced today. Truly lovely stuff…

Much discussion by the Gentlemen of which I can’t divulge. For what happens at a Gentlemen’s Lunch stays there, only to be revisited at the next one. Not soon enough…

JCB the 4th

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Down & Out In Napa City Part II

Woozy with the simultaneous outrage of the prior evening’s meal and fortified with a little booze and a lot of wine still coursing through my system; I woke early from my beautiful room at Avia Napa seeking redemption, a little exercise and something to soak up last night’s exploits. Unshaven and unshowered, I wandered out of the hotel and began to walk Napa City. With the streams of disappointment still burning in my mind, I began to search for some silver lining. I mean, Napa is supposed to be going through a revival – a rebirth that is revitalizing the town and luring tourists by the droves. While this was no Shawshank, Gillwoods provided the perfect start to what was to become an unforgettable day of dining. I don’t really need to go any further than showing you this photo of a perfectly done Belgian Waffle with Fresh Mixed Berries and a side of Slab Bacon. Nuff said…

We jump in the car and head to Sonoma for an appointment with an old friend who had a lead for us that worked out brilliantly. I’m proud to announce that there will be a 2010 Pre en Pierre Chardonnay Russian River Valley and it is delicious! Terry Thiese once wrote that “delicious” is a word that is under-utilized in tasting notes. I agree and am here to reclaim the word and grab it from the world of pedestrian nomenclature. It encapsulates so much in those nine little letters. Who doesn’t like “delicious” foods, wines, people? I try to use “delicious” every day. If you do the same, your life will be enhanced no doubt…

Anyway, we find the “delicious” Chardonnay and plow through about 40 other really awful bulk wines. I mean thoroughly revolting wines! I’m talking about turning the cap to the bottle and having shitty, spritzy wine flying out at me covering my face with a thin film of grossness. Believe me, we taste a lot of poo before we find these little wine jewels. With that torture finished yet running a little late for our next appointment, I ask if we have time for a quick bite to eat, Lita and I leading the charge for some sustenance. The short answer was no but then on our way to the next meeting, we quickly swerve into a parking lot at what appears to be a sleepy roadside grill.

Henweigh’s Café was like an oasis among the scrubby landscape of Occidental. We walk in to this quiet restaurant with our typical New York City bluster informing the waitress that we need to order quick and leave quick to make an appointment. She smiles and says, “Sure, no problem. What can I get for you?” We order five Arnold Palmers and ask what’s good? Then a voice comes out of nowhere; a grizzled old guy looking slightly disheveled lifts his head up doing his best Billy Bob Thornton in Slingblade impression, “Get the pulled pork…” and then returns to his food never to be heard from again. Armed with the recommendation of a local (always a good idea) we all order Pulled Pork Sandwiches. In less than a couple minutes, the waitress brings five refreshing Arnold Palmers, a perfect division of iced tea and lemonade clearly evident in the contrast of colors. It struck me that she did this faster and with more care than anything that happened at the Napa Disaster the evening before. Then came the sandwiches…

Made by a transplanted Boston-ite chef-owner, who spotted our NY accent as easily as we spotted his Red Sawks drawl; this was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. Yes, I said it! So succulent, perfectly smoky, slightly sweet and melting in your mouth, it was like all the sins of yesterday washed away with that sandwich. Starting to nibble on them, we were powerless against the pulled pork accompanied with homemade potato chips. Thinking it was better to take in the “terroir” of Henweigh’s by eating this masterpiece at the counter than it was to be on time, we quickly devoured this heavenly delight. Thanking our hosts profusely, we barreled out of the parking lot like Starsky and Hutch chasing a coke dealer.

Two more appointments with lots of blending and tasting of more samples and the trip was officially over. The only thing left was the “out”, as in back to San Francisco for dinner and an early am flight back home. Hitting the normal maddening traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge, we arrive at Spruce in a huff. I hadn’t even had an opportunity to change clothes from the day’s tastings so I was wearing a white t-shirt, jeans, sandals with my sunglasses perched on my now tanned bald dome. Warmly greeted by the maître d, we were shown to our table in the gorgeously adorned restaurant. I couldn’t help but notice the elderly woman with huge glasses lock her gaze upon me as I walked by her table. Her eyes never leaving me with a look of disdain as if to say, “Morris, who let this riff-raff in OUR restaurant? What in the world is this negro wearing in OUR favorite place?!?” Chuckling as I took my seat, that is where the pretentiousness ended. We all took turns laying into the extensive and very well chosen wine list and decided to begin with a gorgeous bottle of NV Diebolt Vallois Champagne Brut Blanc de Blancs “Cuvee Prestige.”

Everything, I mean everything done at Spruce is top-notch. Not only the sommelier but each server, food runner and bus boy had an air of confidence that didn’t feel stuffy; something one would acquire from a) experience b) excellent training and c) confidence that you will do everything to make the customer feel welcomed and satisfied. A delightful amuse gave way to my first course, Seared Sweetbreads over Tagliarini with Foraged Mushrooms. Whoever came up with the name for the thymus gland as “sweetbreads” is a real joker…There is nothing sweet nor bread-like about them. Just the most tender, fleshy gift from the food gods that have richness and succulence to stand up to the perfectly al dente pasta and the earthy but subtle flavors of the champignon. A magnificently conceived and executed dish that set my weary brain ablaze with sensation. Surprisingly, the dish even worked with Brian’s selection of 2003 Raveneau Chablis Montee de Tonnerre 1er cru. The deux mille trois was in great shape, minerally and briny, fresh and vibrant and showing no signs of oxidation. Brilliant!

Finally, for the main course Chris ordered a sexy beast of a wine, the 1995 Joseph Roty Mazy-Chambertin Grand Cru. Expertly decanted by our sommelier, this wine was beauty personified in a glass. I knew some form of meat was in my future and went with the Honey Lacquered Duck Breast with Cinnamon Spiced Fois Gras, Watercress and Glazed Rhubarb. This sounds like its sticky sweet but the chef’s sensibilities here worked with smashing results. This is a rich dish for sure and not for those seeking to slim down, but my God was that fois gras melt-in-your-mouth good! I finished up with a cocktail, one of my favorites called The Last Word and off we raced to get half of our traveling crew to the airport. Many thanks to Brian DiMarco, Lita Rosenberg and Ted Wilson (and Chris Cree) for a great and successful trip.

The “out” more than compensated for the “down”.

JCB the 4th

Friday, July 8, 2011

Down & Out In Napa City

“Here’s a dime, boy…Gimme a shine, boy,

Down and out in New York City

Ain’t no way to be, but where can you go?

When you’re down and out in New York City”

James Brown, Down In Out In New York City, Original Soundtrack to Black Caesar

I know -- you probably thought I was gone for good. I’ve been busy, ok…

Just took a trip with Chris Cree to Napa/Sonoma to find new juice for the shop and experienced it all in terms of food service; the best of the best and the absolute worst of the worst. Stay with me on this one…

Arriving at SFO before the rest of my travel mates, I spent the am/afternoon hours exploring the Ferry Building and the magnificent, Slanted Door. Nothing unexpected here, just beautifully prepared food and attentive service as I sat at the bar alone soaking it all in with amazement. How do they feed so many people -- the place was packed – so quickly and at such a high quality? A funky-looking but tasty Vietnamese Crepe with Shrimp, Pork and Bean Sprouts was the perfect foil to a glass of Veuve-Fourny Champagne Brut Grand Reserve 1er cru. The lively bubbles caressing the delicate flavors of the crepe, I smiled a wide satisfied grin. Since I was eating alone, I’m sure my server peeped my face and thought I was missing a chromosome or two. Caramelized Wild Gulf Shrimp with Onions, Chili and Garlic was sublime with a glorious glass of 08 Donnhoff Kruetznacher Krotenphul Riesling Spatlese. Fat and happy, I waddled out of the Slanted Door and down Market Street, spending the rest of the afternoon wandering the city.

The next day held tons of tastings many of them notable and we found some magnificent wines. The Pre en Pierre label is in for some delectable stuff in the fall! As a confirmed Franc-Ital-o-phile, I sometimes forget that although California wines aren’t the first ones I personally reach for with dinner, there still are some very, very good wines being made. I was energized by the day which included a stop at Gott’s Roadside, the amazing 50’s style lunch joint that formerly was Taylor’s Refresher in St. Helena. I heart Gott’s…and fell head over heels all over again for my old standard, the Ahi Tuna Burger. It’s a solid brick of sushi grade Tuna, seared for just a moment per side and cool in the center. It is heaven on a bun. Opting to give wine a rest, I settled on a beer. It was good, refreshing but forgettable next to that lovely raw slab adorned with Asian slaw.

One constant through the day was the universal acclaim for the restaurant we planned to dine at that evening. I mean, everyone said it was fantastic. One person even told me it was the best restaurant in the valley (I’m assuming this person never had ventured to the French Laundry) so my excitement began to build.

I’m going to let this place go unnamed. As you would suspect, when anything goes unnamed, it ain’t a good sign, disaster looms. I know that everyone has a bad day, an off day and even a really awful day…myself included. This was a bad day, an off day and a really awful day combined to the tenth power for this restaurant. For a moment lets set aside the food – a serviceable for the most part yet innocuous meal with only one of the five dishes we tried (a beautiful braised rabbit) really making a mark in my mind. The service side is where the “down” began…

We’ll call my server Darren. Darren came up to the table literally shot out of a canon. “Ladies & Gentlemen, prepare yourself for one of the most amazing culinary experience of your life!” Wow, now that’s an intro! Now, I’m not saying I’ve eaten everywhere, but I’ve dined at some of the best in New York, DC, Philly, San Francisco, Los Angeles, etc. as well as a number of two star and three star restaurants in France, Italy and Spain. Places where the staff have the grace and elegance of ballet and the service moves in a concert-like rhythmic fluidity . Never at any one of these extremely memorable places have I had a server make such a wildly boastful claim. I’m a child of hip-hop. I’ve been known to throw around some MC-like braggadocio in my day. But can you imagine getting that kind of intro at Le Bernadin, or Le Meurice in Paris? They know they’re the shit…and so do you. They don’t need to make nutty proclamations. They just deliver the goods in every facet; quietly, assuredly, professionally, they allow you to have a great night with whoever you are looking across the table.

So Darren takes our drink order which takes a while because of his constant running commentary on every aspect. I mean, it literally took five minutes just to “order” the drinks. Ordering food took even longer, as Darren’s persistent chatter had us retool the order a couple times. The "process” ended with me ordering a bottle of 2005 Oddero Barbaresco Gallina that I asked to be decanted and then requested to see the sommelier. I’m in the wine biz, and am certainly capable of navigating a wine list. But I like to have the sommelier select wines for me. They know the food. They know the list. Might as well get that input, plus it is fun to bounce ideas off them. No sign of the sommelier…or our wine either. 10 minutes, 15 minutes go by. Our first courses arrive. We start to eat and I flag down Darren letting him know we have no wine. He apologizes (something he became proficient at throughout the night) and says its coming right up. “Here you are, Sir, the Jermann Pinot Grigio 2008", the sommelier says finally showing himself. Damnit! Nope we’re drinking Barbaresco. More apologies, more waiting.

The sommelier returns (although he never introduced himself) and begins to set the glasses for the wine we ordered 30 minutes ago. He sets my glass reaching over my left shoulder to place it in position. Then he takes the glass for Brian, who is sitting across from me, and slides it across the table as if we’re playing shuffleboard, resting pretty close to where it should be. I’m floored! When did this turn into Mel’s Diner? Actually, they wouldn’t even slide a coffee mug at Mel’s Diner. Flo has more sense than that! I look at Brian and he looks back at me like, “Should I go ballistic on this guy right now?” Nearly stepping on my jaw, as it was clearly on the ground a gasp at the glass toss, I think one of us began to smile breaking the tension a touch and onward we go. All told we order a very good 2001 Quintarelli Ca de Merlo followed by an even better 1999 Isole e Olena Cepparello Toscana IGT. I’m guessing we’re in for over $500 in wine alone.

Winding down, I was asked by Bex if I would like some more wine as there was about 1/3 bottle of the Cepparello still left. I respond, “I’d love some but they took my glass away!” Darren overhears this and about five minutes later apologizes for the fourteenth time stating, “I’m sorry we took your glass away too early, but since I don’t want you to go thirsty, here’s a Barbaresco that another table left.” He pours me a glass as I try to keep from busting out laughing, for now it’s getting comical. So the remedy to taking my stems away is presenting me with a leftover from another table? It felt akin to offering me up some uneaten French fries off a diner’s plate. Un-be-lievable!

So what is the final kick in the crotch? We order dessert…nothing comped despite the multitude of miscues. Oh, and I almost forgot – let’s not forget the 20% gratuity added TO THE ENTIRE BILL! Six diners equals automatic tip/screwing including paying 20% on the wine.

So that’s the “Down”, the next day brought a trip to Sonoma and then back to San Fran for the “Out”. Things got WAY better! Although there was nowhere to go but up, we went to the top of the food chain, first at a roadside grill in Occidental and then at one of the best meals I’ve ever had in SF. Stay tuned…

JCB the 4th

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Wild World of Joan Escoda

Ok, close your eyes...

Dream of a long winding Spanish highway in a DO just outside Montsant, coming down a mountain and make a sharp right turn onto an unmarked dirt road. Envision a mile of gentle hills, native grasses and unkept totally natural terrain. Glide by rows of vines...Chenin Blanc, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Grenache with vegetation growing among them as the need to not disturb the ecosystem is law here, not marketing hype. Every type of grass, flower, weed are all important. Prepare to be greeted by a grey-haired man looking younger than the grey hair would have you believe. He walks with you through the vines and takes you to his compost pile and digs his hands deep inside. Take a smell! You half-heartedly whiff in the compost of various animals that all reside on the property. Imploring you to feel how warm the pile still is, you politely decline lest you have doo-doo under your nails and subsequently on the keys of your Blackberry.

He shows you the cow horns that he fills with dung and buries among the vines to "dynamize" the soil. He shows you his herding sheep complete with one black one that (surprise, surprise) was actually on its own away from the pack. He walks and rolls a cigarette, lights it and you identify the sweet smell of weed...yeah that kinda weed. He shows you his rabbits, his lamb, his chickens -- basically his organic free-range food and he explains how eating in restaurants often makes him feel ill as the food almost all of them serve is not truly organic...at least not on the level of what he raises.

Follow him to the cellar and taste from tank and from bottle but not from barrel. Wines in barrel are not to be disturbed and they go basically untouched until the time is deemed right. Savor a 2008 Pinot Noir "Llopetera" that you would be hard pressed to not think Volnay if you had your eyes closed. Wrap your lips around a Cabernet Franc, Merlot blend called Coll del Sabater that will make you reconsider benchmark Right Bank Bordeaux in a different light. Listen as various winemakers argue with this man about his philosophies, his wines, his biodynamic "hocus pocus". Watch him subtly fire back but ultimately laugh off the whole thing. Certainly a man who is comfortable with his vision, his process and his outlook on wine, grape growing, winemaking and life.

Welcome to the Wild World of Joan Escoda, biodynamic eccentric rebel of the Conca de Barbera.

JCB the 4th


Hand me the glass and let me bask
For not a drop will be forgotten nor will there be the waste of indifference
Swirl, release, anticipate, draw, inhale, envelope, contemplate all the profundities brought to you
Let the dance of every facet move you far from alacrity
Relinquish, revel and bask

JCB the 4th

Saturday, February 19, 2011

No Rain In Spain...Its Anything But Plain

Hoping like hell for a reprieve from the blast that descended upon NY/NJ this winter, I was pleasantly surprised and mildly shocked that a balmy 60 degrees greeted me at the Barcelona Airport with a warm embrace. The trip was a whirlwind, no doubt, but the first stop was absolutely unforgettable. Didier Soto (shown with his lovely wife, Nuria) saw a desheveled piece of property in the scrubby hills of Selva de Mar. Between the 1000 year old stone building they have made a home and the ampitheatre of vines terraced on the hillsides of the mountain-fortified bowl that encloses them, the Soto family have created a slice of heaven on earth. But this did not come without serious hard work for it is difficult to bring a run down vineyard back to life. Yet their way of life is simple...biodynamics flows through everything they do, from the vineyard management to the harvest, from the winemaking to the bottling. Phases of the moon, compost, "eye of newt and toe of frog" (thanks Willie) are more than just wine "hocus pocus". They really do work, not only reviving the soil but make amazing wines.

And make no mistake, these wines are amazing. The "Quindals", which is almost all Black Garnacha with a touch of Syrah and Carinena, is the more approachable red they produce with plenty of dark berries and spice tones abound. Shifting to the Vinya Selva de Mar 2004, Didier explains the blend shows a greater percentage of Syrah (30%) and Carinena (20%) with the wine showing more structure, power and packing more concentration. It is so thought-provoking and introspective, a wine that woos you with whispers rather than flash. These wines defy definition. The are typical of a Priorat blend yet they bear no resemblance to those wines whatsoever, being far too mineral and not as flashy. One then thinks of Chateauneuf du Pape, but they don't deliver the same racy raspberry tones nor do they ever show heat. They truly are like no other wines on earth...ah, maybe just a direct reflection of their unique terroir. Isn't that refreshing?

We were blessed to host Didier this past week for an event at Equus Tavern in Bernardsville with the super talented chef, Paul Viggiano, making a magnificent meal to pair with Didier's wines. The night contained so many laughs and such a great vibe that it is almost hard to describe it all. Didier, ever the colorful character, made the evening come to life without hardly speaking. Twas anything but plain for sure...
JCB the 4th