La Spinetta, a profound time- and space-warping conversation

June 5, 2013 § 2 Comments


Several of the glorious rhinoceros-decorated bottles of La Spinetta, surrounding my custom-rigged Riedel Oregon Pinot Noir glass. I know bottles look better in photos when there’s still some wine left, but…well, y’know…

This week in the Portland Press Herald, I write about La Spinetta, a winery that began in Piemonte but has expanded into Tuscany. Their wines from both regions are extraordinary, and somehow the spirit of the Rivetti family who make these wines possible suffuses both regions, and all their terroirs. Wine is about place, but not just place.

A line I originally wrote for the article got cut in the editing process: “The wines of La Spinetta open profound conversations about time.” I stand by that. These wines clue us into how clueless we are about true time.

Here’s something else I wrote for the article, but I cut it out myself due to space considerations:

In fact, you were supposed to have read this article last week, but I flat-out missed my deadline. I’d given the wines the usual few days it takes me to drink, observe, and compose my reactions, but then there was both too much to say and not enough. I had to send a sheepish email to my editor at the last minute confessing a sort of existential collapse, an anguished sense of my own limits. I thought I’d have been done with the wines as usual, but I wasn’t. And the wines certainly weren’t done with me.

True story. I mean, I really did miss my deadline for the column, because I was too taken with the wines to say anything about them. With La Spinetta, everything takes longer than usual. Please, drink these wines, and do the time warp again…

May Day! Drinkers of the World Unite! Lose commodity-wine fetishism!

May 1, 2013 § 1 Comment

The other possible quotation to have put in that headline is “Ask not what your wine can do for you, but what you can do for your wine.” Kennedy’s birthday is coming up later this month, but today is International Workers Day, so Marx trumps JFK.

Both lines are relevant to my column in today’s Portland Press Herald, wherein I try to loosen the grip of what’s-in-the-glass fetish, and open up the conversation about the true juiciness of wine residing in process. That’s it: Wine is a process, not a product. A living thing, not a lump of money or sense-satisfaction in a convenient tasty-liquid format.

The column is kind of long-winded (big surprise) with perhaps too little payoff, but I felt I needed to write it to set up how I’m going to shift the perspective of future columns somewhat.

Most of it came out of my recent trip to Slovenia and Italy, and several moments of revelation therein. Visiting different winemakers in Vipava, Karst, Trentino, Friuli, and the Veneto, I heard different perspectives and arguments on viticulture and vinification each time: simultaneously, everyone was disagreeing with each other and everyone was right. I wanted them to get together and discuss. I wanted the truth!

But they won’t all get together. So it’s up to me, you, and other interested drinkers to connect the strands. To approach each taste of wine (and/or of life) as if the only important matter is the story, the entire sequence of events and methodologies that led to the wine’s birth, and its ongoing development in bottle, in glass, in mouth, in soul.

You thought you knew what wine was? Hah!

April 1, 2013 § Leave a comment


A scrumptious Minervois from Benjamin Taillandier

My most recent Portland Press Herald wine column is the third in a series on “natural” wine. Regardless of your feelings on this category of sorts, it’s growing in importance, and the debates are worthwhile. They signal where wine drinking is going in this country, in this world.

This week I try to focus on what to expect from the tastes of natural wine. What to expect is…the unexpected! That’s the point. Some of the wines taste just delicious, some are…interesting. Which can be great, and still delicious, or not good at all. Just like other wine! Either way, familiarize yourselves with them. Your world will open.

clos lojen

The indigenous Bobal grape makes this Manchuela wine

I’ve met a bunch of people lately who are ordering cases, because they’ve found something in wines fermented with natural (“wild”) yeasts and bottled with either no sulfur or a tiny amount, that tastes like life — like a more vivid, lifelike version of life!

Jesus, Priorat’s good

December 7, 2011 § Leave a comment

Jack Kerouac, Jean-Luc Godard & Jesus Christ walk into a wine article; who comes out alive? They all do: Priorat has the power to raise the dead. Sounds like a joke but it’s dead serious. Priorat is serious wine. It’s wine to adore, hate or fear. I adore it. It’s got the power, in the words of one of my wine heroes, Rainer Christ, to “set off impressions, visions, possibilities.” Which is why those illustrious gurus make appearances in my latest column.

Thanksgiving wine? Ask the (other) experts…

November 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

Today’s column passes the keyboard to some of my colleagues in retailing, as each offers one and only one recommendation for a Thanksgiving wine. I figured, a lot of what we winesellers do this time of year is talk about which wines we’re going to drink at America’s holiest meal, and we hope we can convince customers to buy the “right” wines for that day. Well, here’s part of that ongoing conversation, in print and online.

The cool thing for me was how many suggestions were good. They’re overwhelmingly from northern-latitude, cool-climate regions that prize minerality, low alcohol and vibrancy, over weight, concentration and stunning-ness. It’s just one meal, after all. Anyway, who on earth has a problem with Austria (the big winner), Alsace, Alto Adige or Burgundy?

Rainer Rilke, Pauline Kael, Archibald MacLeish, Lester Bangs: here’s your wine

October 27, 2011 § Leave a comment

I’m still unsure whether the wine column I wrote this week is especially true or especially balderdash, but dammit I think it’s the former. It might strike you as “over the top” or irrelevant to wine, but at least it’s honest and wine should be about honesty. Most of the feedback has been good, though one reader told me he wondered why I was so upset.

I’m not upset at all! Just impatient with the consumerist mentality of wine-buying (ha! what kind of oversensitive jerk gets upset about consumerism when we’re talking about buying?!), and unwilling anymore to cordon off parts of my actual life (poetry, music, heart) from the other parts (wine, food).

So, if you want a “hot list” of what to buy next, read Wine Spectator. If you want to come along as I try against the odds to feel my way into a mode of being in which everything is connected and we react to objects and experiences of value with love rather than wallets, read this!

Wine = reality = truth ≠ language

July 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

My latest column in the Portland Press Herald acknowledges the ultimate futility of (wine) writing, while simultaneously rescuing it from ignominy all the same. Despite, with qualification, what Eric Asimov says, there actually are good reasons to try to adhere language to wine, even though it often fails so miserably and sounds ridiculous. Just because a wine has “poopy elements” doesn’t mean it tastes like poop. And it sure doesn’t mean you won’t love the wine.

Rosé Über Alles

June 2, 2011 § Leave a comment

My Portland Press Herald wine column this week is on rosé. Does anyone at this point need to be told how great rosé is? Not all of it, of course (just like reg’lar red and white wine, goshdarnit), but man can you get some delicious wine at $15 and under. In my usual way, I got a little carried away as I wrote, and so I wrote too long, and some chunks of the article got edited out. For you masochists, the excised portions are below. Read that, then link to the article and get busy! I mean, that lawn ain’t gonna mow itself…and afterwards, that fridge ain’t gonna open itself and that glass ain’t gonna fill itself. But all that’s a cruel joke unless you buy several bottles and keep ’em chilled!

(By the way, sorry about the formatting problems in the article. Seems the newspaper’s online sector can’t handle foreign-language accent marks and so when they’re in there it gums up the works.)

With the sun finally out and plenty of spring cleaning and maintenance tasks to be taken on (after which a refreshing beverage is called for), it’s time for rosé. There are an extraordinarily high number of rosés available now – many of them very, very good – and this column is in no way comprehensive. There are so many good rosés out there that I haven’t tasted, and even some of the very good ones I have tasted are not mentioned below. (Additionally, my list betrays a European bias that’s not entirely fair, as more New World winemakers embrace the rosé genre.) That’s how bountiful the scene is right now: enough different delicious rosés that you could explore from now until September and never grow bored.

I’m not going to spend more than this measly paragraph “arguing the case” for rosé. If you still think of this category as “blush” wines made in a supersweet, unbalanced White Zin style; if you’re such a Big Guy that it’s only Big Reds for you: catch up with us, buddy! I’ve converted many people to rosé just by having them close their eyes before I hand them a glass. Rosé is made from red-wine grapes where the crushed fruit stays in contact with its skins for less than 18 hours. Whatever hang-ups you have concerning “girly” colors or fresh red fruits, get over them.

They’re not just for summer, either. It’s a cliché to note how perfectly rosés work with Thanksgiving and other harvest-time fare, but these wines are for any time you want something very vibrant and exciting to drink. The lighter styles do thrive in warm months, though: casual, cobbled meals are just the thing for most pink wines, as are grilled vegetables and white meats, crab salad or lobster rolls, tomatoes, salads with beans or greens, and fresh cheeses like mozzarella or feta. Deeper styles are great with burgers or pasta alla Bolognese: Food with blood and/or tomatoes goes great with dark rosés.

Again, here’s the link.

Mixed cases, the key to: horizons, wine genius, fun

May 25, 2011 § Leave a comment

My latest wine column in the Portland Press Herald sings the praises of a mixed case. You talk to your retailer, you give her a price maximum, and she rewards your trust with eye-opening wines, wines you never would have thought of, wines you can grow with and turn friends on to.

Best way to bring best French wine? Live in Loire, sleep on NYC couches

April 26, 2011 § Leave a comment

From Portland Press Herald, April 27, 2011

This is a Golden Era for anyone excited about wine. That’s not because 2008 Oregon Pinots are “perfect” (though they are), nor because 2009 Burgundies are ready-to-drink-now (kinda true, which is why 2008s are better), nor because 2009 Beaujolais is the “vintage of a lifetime” (not; 2009s just taste like Malbec so the industry is happy).

It’s a Golden Era because of a generation of young, curious and un-hidebound importers, who are bringing to market an array of exciting, honest wines from little-known producers and regions that until recently you had to travel great distances to find. For under $15 a bottle.

Exhibit A: Laurent Bonnois. As the importer behind Maximilien Selections, Bonnois brings to the U.S. low-priced Old-World wines of character. Some of the best-selling in Maine are ridiculously quirky, with obscure grapes and from places even French people know little about, yet they sell because they’re delicious and real. “I like lighter wine,” Bonnois told me. “I want people to have a second glass. Oak helps wine age, but most people here don’t buy wine to age it, they’re drinking it tonight. They want to taste freshness, minerality, liveliness, acidity, balance.”

Read wine magazines and compare how many times you see such terms as “freshness”, “liveliness” and “balance” with the count for “gobs”, “huge”, “concentrated” and “inky”. I have no idea what sort of point-scores Bonnois’ wines garner, but it’s a sign of the increasing irrelevance of such reviews that ordinary drinkers are buying a lot of Maximilien wines these days. We care about the connections between wine and food, and are not rich or stupid enough to buy ego-gratifying trophy wine.

“I’m looking for pleasure,” Bonnois said, “for wines that will really go with food. When I taste, it’s with a casual sort of drinker in mind, who’s sitting at the bar or cooking dinner….Many wine-sellers and critics think people drink the way professionals taste, but it’s not so. What normal person tastes through 30 wines?! So, often what gets promoted is based on false assumptions about what people want.”

Bonnois worked for years in New York City restaurants, eventually opening a wine shop, Blanc et Rouge, in Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood. In 2007 he sold the store and moved with his wife and two kids to Bourgueil in the Loire, where his father lives. Most U.S. importers live stateside; Laurent lives where he works, “and I sleep on a friend’s couch every time I come to NYC.” By living in France and selling his wines through a U.S. agent, he can stay closer to the winemakers he loves.

He can also live cheaply (“I’m not greedy,” he told me. “I live in the Loire and I don’t need much money”), and pass his parsimony on to us. (How else to get offbeat wines into people’s hands?) These wines pose little threat to the under-$4, market-tested corporate junk enjoying a heyday, of course, but those wines aren’t values; they’re just cheap. Maximilien brings within reach wines of uncommon complexity and truth. Here are just a few:

La Croix Blanche Côtes de Gascogne 2009, $10. Crisp and easy, this just pops. It’s what most people who choose Sauvignon Blanc are actually looking for.

Château de la Morinière Muscadet sur Lie ‘Vielles Vignes’ 2009, $12. From 35-year-old vines and aged a long time on the lees, this is a relatively full-bodied, rugged Muscadet you will drink with every meal containing oysters or tender white fish from now until October.

Domaine Grand Chardonnay 2008, Côtes du Jura, $16. A rich Chardonnay with a hint of oxidation that sees one year of oak-aging, but comes through very clean. From a winemaker who has been farming biodynamically for 20 years, using only natural yeast. All Chardonnay-lovers should know this wine. (Domaine Grand’s red Trousseau, mentioned in my previous column, is currently my favorite wine.)

Famille Laurent Saint-Pourçain 2008, $14. By now almost classic, this upper-Loire Gamay–Pinot Noir blend is what helped make Laurent Bonnois’ name in these parts. Gamey, with open-air earthy qualities and pure, driving fruit. Perfect summer red, slightly chilled or not.

Domaine du Bel Air Bourgeuil 2003, $14. When’s the last time you tasted an eight-year-old Loire Cabernet Franc for this price? Chewy, dense and alive, this brings to mind Terry Theise’s warning that a wine that is “concentrated” is only good if what you’re concentrating is attractive. Here the concentration is of land rather than fruit: pepper, branches, dried herbs.

Le Grand Rouvière Côtes de Provence 2009, $13. Old-vine love from Provence, and it hits with everything Provence is known for. Starting with a chunk of plump, oil-cured olives, then twiggy herbs, dry bark and some subtle grill marks. As it finishes, slowly, it takes on a grippy bitterness and expresses sun-baked rocks. I’d love to try this vintage in 5 years. Just a terrific red for grilled meat or even grilled whole fish.

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