This Wine Kills Fascists

August 21, 2013 § 1 Comment

ImageThe question: Can California be a home for normal wines, at normal prices? We know it can be a home for ridiculous wines, and extraordinary wines, at prices befitting the adjectives we use to describe them.

But what about the sorts of table wines that Europe made us fall in love with all those years ago? Bistro wine, trattoria wine. Beaujolais, Dolcetto. You get the idea.

Kenny Likitprakong gets the idea, too. He’s the everything behind Hobo Wine Co. Aptly named. Kenny doesn’t own vineyards. He’s a hobo. He loves Woody Guthrie. He’s got a super loose attitude, but super tight principles and action. He represents the best of this country.

And his wines are just what I’m looking for: hand-picked grapes, wild yeasts (he, scientifically, calls them “uninoculated”), low alcohol (even the Zin has 13.6% alc!), no crap-addition or funny stuff in the cellar. The wines are limpid, supple, nuanced, and real. They don’t cost tons of money. The only unfortunate thing is that wines like this, from a place like that, are still in the minority.

Benevolent Wine Dictator Strikes Again

July 22, 2013 § Leave a comment

You know how when there’s something you know something about, and you talk with someone who’s interested in that something but has her or his facts a bit screwy, but thinks she or he knows quite a bit, and you want to correct the misinformation but don’t want to come off like a jerk, so you’re caught between fake-smiling and letting it go, or bringing the knowledge hammer down, and in the aftermath you resent yourself for either the fake abiding or the heavy-handed pedantry?

That was how I started my Portland Press Herald wine column last week. The rest of what I wrote was my way of exploring the best way to be of true help when you know something someone doesn’t.

Along the way, I mention some particular wines I like a lot — Chablis, Pinot Noir, Riesling — which betray many calcified notions we have of grape variety, region and style.

The big lesson is: Kill your idols, smash your categories. Every moment is a new one, and the primary purpose of your knowledge is to help you see how little you know. Knowledge to make you more curious, less rigid, more open and accepting.

Sweet and Savory, and Fresh

July 16, 2013 § Leave a comment

ImageA few weeks ago, I riffed off an old Asimov column in the New York Times on two metacategories for wine: sweet and savory. I’d been feeling that there’s a third aspect that’s just as important: freshness.

It’s real, but hard to pin down. In a wine that expresses freshness, fruit jumps out of the glass, only faintly distracted or veiled by tannins. There’s a kind of potential-energy tension, brought on by acidity so tuned it suggests (and sometimes delivers) effervescence.

You just feel big life, in the wine itself. Summer is the right time to look for freshness, and it was in drinking the J. Hofstätter Pinot Nero 2010, from the Alto Adige, that I felt the urge to write on it.  I’ve never met anyone who didn’t love this wine.

Pink Bubbles. Get over yourself, St. Valentine, it’s the best wine there is.

February 13, 2013 § Leave a comment

I mean, really. The potential from conscientiously made sparkling rosé is endless. On Earth as in heaven…the ethereal reaching into the corporeal. Spirit made flesh. All that and it might get you laid. Interested? Read on.

Ascending Mount Eden, in the footsteps of Martin Ray, to reach the grail: balanced Pinot Noir & Chardonnay

October 3, 2012 § Leave a comment

Often Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in California suffer a viniferous “foie-gras effect”: grapes force-fed a diet of heat, hang-time and high yields until their organs are so engorged you’ve got to spread the wine they pretend to be onto toast in order to get them past your exhausted palate. Not this time around, as my column this week explores.  Jeffrey Patterson, chief winemaker at Mount Eden Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, is making good on Martin Ray’s 1940 promise to make great wine in California.

Great wine, as in balanced, delicate, respectful of varietal and useful of land. At 2,000 feet above sea level with cool breezes blowing from Monterey Bay, Mount Eden is a thin skein of soil covering what is mostly shale. Not a lot of nutrients, and therefore not a lot of yield. More flavor goes into fewer grapes.

The wines are achingly elegant. Polished yet with jump in their bones. Their promo material says “Burgundian” (of course), but that’s not quite right. The wines are richer and more compacted than Burgundian Pinot and Chardonnay (more Meursault than Montrachet for the whites, but that’s only ballpark) , as is their birthright, but they still dance. And they make you kind of proud to be American.

Inman Family Wines, where eco-ethics and exceptional wine come together

July 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

Kathleen Inman makes singular Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay in Sonoma, California’s Russian River Valley. It’s singular because it’s balanced and actually expresses all the natural acidity and pure, unadorned flavors of the grapes and the land they grow in. This is the exception in Russian River, where more often than not the wines are high in alcohol with overripe fruit looking for a fight — lipstick-smeared pigs, all made up with nowhere to go.

As I write in my Portland Press Herald wine column this week, Inman is a respectful, humble woman, and she makes respectful wines. She’s also a committed environmentalist, and her entire winemaking process walks a deep eco-friendly path: no -cides (pesti-, fungi-, herbi-, etc.), no funny stuff; the winery is solar-powered and composts and recycles graywater and does 1,000 other things that are good and right to do. And Inman is convinced, rightly, that these practices make for better wine, by sustaining the health, vitality and distinctiveness of the land she loves.

Robert Sinskey, shedding light in the darkness of Cali insanity

December 21, 2011 § Leave a comment

My column this week celebrates the wines of Robert Sinskey Vineyards in Los Carneros, Napa. If you know me at all you know my prejudice toward Old World flavors and terroir-honoring wines. My column’s ratio of European to American wines has got to be 17:1 at least.

And yet. Here’s Sinskey, in the belly of the score-garnering, my-wine’s-bigger-than-yours beast, producing elegant, balanced wines with pure flavors, low alcohol, food-focused acidity and a respect for EARTH. Organically grown grapes, farmed biodynamically. The Carneros microclimates are capable of ushering forth aromatic, Alsatian-style whites as well as bold Bordeaux and Burgundy avatars. Yet still speak the native tongue(s) of Carneros. Is there anywhere else on Earth as capable of that diversity? Only where there are winemakers of such humility and competence.

Grüner Veltliner and Zweigelt. Just (don’t) add lobster…

October 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

Grüner Veltliner is still riding a trend wave, though the wave has mostly washed ashore on Wine Fashion Beach. That’s good, because now those of us who actually love the wine can have fun with it and not get distracted. Still, a lot of young, affordable Grüner can be too angular and…well…boring. I could say similar things about Zweigelt, Austria’s best-known red varietal: all smiley faces of raspberry and strawberry, not enough to hold the interest of a full-grown adult.

To the rescue come Martinshof’s “Lobster Label” Grüner and Zweigelt, which I explore in my latest Portland Press Herald wine column. A modicum of ennobling Riesling excites the Grüner, while an analogously minimal addition of Pinot Noir to the Zweigelt has an analogously intriguing effect. What’s the effect? A subtle richness. A tethering earthy touch. More versatility with food. Young Grüner Veltliner and Zweigelt are meant to be fun, and you’ll still have fun with these wines. But it’ll be a more memorable sort of fun.

Is German Pinot Noir (from Mosel) the world’s most popular wine? Yes! Er, I mean: No! But drink their Riesling and dream with me

June 29, 2011 § Leave a comment

My latest Portland Press Herald wine column brings together the world’s two greatest grapes, Riesling and Pinot Noir, from a spectacularly talented winemaker, Konrad Haehn at Freiherr Von Schleinitz in Germany’s northern Mosel Valley. The wines fly a bit under the radar, but they’re singular, delicious and reasonably priced. I write about the Kabinett Riesling and the Pinot Noir, but they do a full line-up of Pradikat Rieslings (Kabinett, Spatlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese) as well as the lower-priced VS line which has a Dry and Off-dry style. Try a couple, and then go for the Von Schleinitz (sparkling) Sekt, which is my hands-down favorite sparkling wine in the world and yes I’ve had grower Champagnes. (The Sekt is less complicated than great Champagne, but more fun than most.)

Then, there’s the Von Schleinitz Pinots. The straight-up red is steely but delicate, a pure expression of Mosel slate terroir.  Of Von Schleinitz’s 5-6,000 cases per year total, a tiny sliver of Pinot Noir rosé is made, and then there’s the even-more-limited-production Blanc de Noir (Pinot, with skins removed before any maceration). It’s a mind-blowing magic act of a wine, with the full, suede mouthfeel of a red and the acidic cut of a…well, of a Riesling. Don’t know if you can find it where you live, but ask around…

Von Schleinitz isn’t distributed everywhere in the U.S., though word of their greatness is spreading. By you, if you catch on!

Muhammad Ali had no problem being pretty, what about your red wine?

April 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

From Portland Press Herald, 13 April 2011

Rosé is delicious twelve months of the year, but the bulk of it is drunk from May to September. Although the past few years have seen a remarkable increase in wine drinkers’ willingness to appreciate pink wine, and the 2010 vintages are coming into stores and restaurants now, the critical mass won’t start buying for another month or so.

Consequently, let’s call this the season of pretty red wines. Pretty red wines are an easy segue into pink wine and the increased white-wine-drinking that summer brings. Pretty red wines unapologetically emphasize prettiness, which I’ll define as a tilt toward softness, smooth-edged integration of flavors, tannins in the background if anywhere, prominence of flowers and red fruit (cherries, cranberries, strawberries, certain kinds of plums; no dark plums, no blueberries) over earth and mammals.

Pretty reds are what many wine drinkers at least claim they don’t want, because as serious, substantial people they of course prefer “hearty reds” or “dry reds”. Anyone who lives in a cold climate, has adult responsibilities, eats (maybe also kills) meat and knows how to change their own oil must, of course, drink deep, dark red wine. The coffee is French roast, the flannel is thick, the boots are mud-caked, the driveway is shoveled, so the wine is dark red and bellows: The tannins are rip-snorting, the mouthfeel is Big-League-Chew, the blackberries and cocoa land their kidney punch.

To which a part of me says, Grow up, sunshine. Or at least, lighten up. It’s mid-April and aren’t we ready for something a little different? Anyway, I can’t tell you how many self-professed hearty/dry-red-wine drinkers I’ve seen taste a more supple red wine and absolutely swoon; it’s as if their souls, imprisoned by a Dostoyevsky-narrated-tale of what they’re supposed to prefer, can fly free in the honest air of joy, delicacy and grace. Some of these people even manage to crack smiles.

Here’s how you know a pretty wine: You taste the wine and all those muscles spending all that hard-earned energy “holding everything together” realize they could work half as hard and nothing bad will happen. These muscles are in your jaw, your face, your neck and shoulders; let them go.

Another way of knowing a pretty wine is when you taste it you say, “Wow, that’s just so…pretty!” And then you feel slightly ashamed, because “pretty” is one of those words our culture has come to frown on; who wants to sound like a parody of a second-grade art teacher? But it is pretty. It’s charming. Given the aggressive, overly fierce culture we find ourselves in, that smile — that connection with charm — is important. It’s not a secondary quality, it’s a kind of radical political act.

Pretty reds are, naturally, food wines, when the food is likewise unconcerned with grandstanding. The wines’ delicacy, harmony and grace come into finest focus when paired with simple, light, straightforward foods that springtime calls for: suppers made out of salads, or sandwiches; roast chicken or a simply grilled piece of fish; vegetables touched only by olive oil, salt and lemon; pasta with fresh tomatoes; soft, plainspoken cheeses.

Which grapes make pretty red wines? No iron-clad rules apply, but there are some reasonable guidelines. Pinot noir is an obvious place to start, though for the most part Pinot from France, Germany or Oregon is going to fit the profile better than California or Argentina. Gamay is often very pretty, and Sangiovese can be pretty if the winemaker knows how to tone down the sour-cherry aspect; ditto for Bonarda. Here are some recommendations, but please treat them only as starting-points for your own — smiley, charming — search:

Domaine Grand Côtes du Jura Trousseau 2009, France ($15, Devenish). This is the prettiest wine I’ve tasted in a long time, and the reason I wrote this column. Beautiful ripe fruit, soft as a baby from start to finish. (The grape is Trousseau, native to the Jura.)

Senda 66 Tempranillo 2008, Spain ($10, Mariner). Fuller-bodied than other pretty reds; let’s call it a gateway drug for those of you still skeptical. Succulent dried cherries, dried cranberries, dried roses, a little spice at the end. Gulpable, fun, playful.

Von Schleinitz Pinot Noir 2008, Germany ($22, SoPo). An amazing wine, which were it from Burgundy would cost twice as much. Mineral-rich, indeed as stony as a red wine can be and still be pretty. The cherries are the star here. Soon Von Schleinitz’s 2010 rosé will be available, and there simply are no words for how beautiful that wine is; for now, please splurge and drink this wine.

Château Bianca Pinot Noir 2009, Oregon ($14, Wicked). Perfectly supple mouthfeel, and wild strawberries dance on the tongue. What we talk about when we talk about Oregon.

Culpeo Pinot Noir 2010, Chile ($9, SoPo). Such a refreshing surprise because I don’t ordinarily associate Chilean wines with delicacy. Not complicated or even resonant, the Culpeo still expresses the softness and balance that much louder (and more expensive) wines fail to find.

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