Category Archives: Advice

Dr. Apstein’s Case for Quarantine

I’ll leave the medical advice concerning the need to quarantine to your personal physician and public health experts.  My advice is for a case of wine you’ll need for those two weeks.  Of course, depending on how many other adults are with you in quarantine, you may need more than a case.

For many, planning dinner two nights in advance is a task.  I know of no one who could plan meals two weeks in advance.  So, you need flexibility in the wine you select.  You’ll need reds and whites that go with a variety of dishes, since you may not know exactly what you’ll be eating each day.

Let’s start with the obvious: Champagne or other sparkling wine.  You’ve heard the statement about Champagne, attributed to Napoleon or Churchill, or maybe both, “In victory, you deserve it.  In defeat, you need it.”  At this stage of the pandemic it’s premature to declare victory, just as it’s not appropriate to throw in the towel.  Regardless, you still need Champagne.  And a Champagne stopper, which allows you to enjoy a glass, re-stopper the bottle to conserve the bubbles, and have another glass the following night.  I recommend the graceful Chardonnay-laden Laurent Perrier NV Brut ($47) or the more powerful and equally seductive Louis Roederer NV Brut ($55).  Champagne’s too pricey with economic disaster looming in the near future?  Try Roederer Estate Brut from California’s Anderson Valley ($25) or Ferrari’s Metodo Classico from Trento in Northern Italy ($24).  Less expensive still, but still worth putting in the case, is Bisol’s Prosecco, “Jeio” ($15).  One of the best French non-Champagne sparkling wine bargains is Paul Chollet’s beautifully balanced rosé, Crémant de Bourgogne Brut “Oeil de Perdrix” ($16).

Undoubtedly during a two-week spell you’ll have pasta, maybe linguine and clam sauce (using canned clams), macaroni and cheese, a robust spaghetti putanesca, or a subtler rigatoni and Bolognese ragú.  With all the time on your hands, this would be a good time to make risotto.  And chicken breasts, thighs or whole a roasted chicken will find their way to the menu, along with steaks or lamb chops that you’ve thought to freeze.  Hearty beef stews or lamb shanks always improve after a day or two.  With that array of flavors, you’ll need an equally diverse group of wines.

Let’s start with whites.  Riesling is always a favorite of mine because it really can go with most foods—even steak—because of its mouth-cleansing acidity.  Trimbach, one of the great names in Alsace, makes consistently excellent Riesling.  Their 2017 ($19) has enough body to offset the acidity and be a good match for that spaghetti putanesca.  I go off the beaten track and suggest William Fevre’s 2017 St. Bris ($24).  St. Bris is a tiny appellation near Chablis that requires the use of Sauvignon Blanc.  Fevre’s combines the bite of that variety with minerality imparted by the limestone of the region.

Moving to southern Burgundy, pick up a bottle of Louis Latour’s 2018 Viré-Clessé from a small appellation in the Mâconnais.  The backbone of acidity in Latour’s whites is well-suited to ripeness imparted by the warmth of the vintage.  This is a great introduction to white Burgundy.  Pieropan’s single vineyard Soaves are consistent winners, but so too is their regular one.  The 2018 ($23), which just won a double gold medal at 2020 Toast of Coast International Wine Competition, should certainly be in your case.  It has good stuffing and a piercing acidity that keeps it fresh.  Cerulli Spinozzi, a top producer in Abruzzo, makes a fabulous Pecorino (a wine, not the cheese).  Their 2016, with a pepper-like bite and saline stoniness, is lively, refreshing and a bargain to boot ($15).

Turning to the reds.  I’ll state the obvious.  You want wines that are ready to drink, so avoid those that would benefit from even a year of bottle age.  The 2016 Chianti Classicos are perfect for drinking now with those hearty pasta dishes.  Try Machiavelli’s savory and racy 2016 “Solatìo del Tani ($25),” or Fontodi’s ripe and racy 2016 ($45), or Frescobaldi’s graceful 2016 Tenuta Perano ($23).  Similarly, save your Brunello di Montalcino for another time and embrace the 2016 Rosso di Montalcino, such as the finesse-filled one from Col d’Orcia ($22).

In Beaujolais, Château Thivin’s Côte de Brouilly never fail to impress, so look for their mid-weight and savory 2016 or 2017 (each about $29).  For the steak that will likely be on the table once during the two-week period, try Jed Steele’s 2016 Stymie Vineyard Merlot ($38) from Lake County in California.  Though it’s a big wine, it’s not over the top and the fine tannins and suave texture allow immediate enjoyment.  For those of you, like myself, who could not stand the thought of being away from red Burgundy for two weeks, I suggest Jadot’s 2017 fleshy and charming Pernand-Vergelesses Clos de la Croix de Pierre ($49), a premier cru that the family has owned for decades, and delivers a balanced mix of fruity and savory notes.  This is a 2017 red Burgundy that’s enjoyable now.

Cheese won’t spoil over two weeks, so you can look forward to the occasional cheese course, which, means a sweet wine, in my opinion.  Sauternes will keep beautifully after being opened for a few days, so this is the time to find a bottle of it.  Château Coutet (from the famous Sauternes sub-section Barsac) is one of my favorites.  The beautifully balanced 2005 is still widely available ($68).  Equally good with cheese, is Port.  I favor a well-aged Tawny over a Vintage Port because there’s no need to decant and the wine will stay fresh after opening for at least two weeks.  Look for Taylor’s or Fonseca’s 20-year old Tawny (each $52).  Those wines might seem pricey, but remember, you’re drinking them over a week.

So, there’s Dr. Apstein’s recipe: a bottle of bubbles, a sweet wine, five whites and five reds.  Adjust as necessary.  Consider doubling the quantities just in case you get a recurrence and need to re-quarantine.

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E-mail me your choices for your case for quarantine at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

March 16, 2020

Holiday Gifts for Wine Lovers

The obvious choice for gifts for your wine loving friends this holiday season is a bottle—or two—of wine.  Sadly, too many are intimidated to give wine to a so-called wine expert.  We’ve all heard the excuses: I don’t know anything about wine; I don’t want to embarrass myself by giving an ordinary wine; I don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on a prestigious one.  Well, I have lots of non-wine suggestions that would make perfect gifts that I’ll get to in a minute.  But first, let me remind you:  You can safely give a bottle of wine.  Just give something that you’ve enjoyed and, if possible, is a little off the beaten track.  If you’ve liked it, then it’s a safe bet that your wine-loving friend will at least find it interesting.  After all, you’re friends for a reason.  But if that argument doesn’t convince you, here are other options.

There are a handful of books that every wine lover would love to have.

As a Harvard-trained molecular biologist and gastroenterologist, Ian D’Agata writes about wine with the same scholarly approach as he did when he was doing scientific research and practicing medicine.  His latest book, Italy’s Native Wine Grape Terroirs, is a fabulous sequel to his first one, Native Wine Grapes of Italy (both, University of California Press, each $50).  Both now represent THE authoritative texts on Italian wine and should be on the shelves of anyone with even a passing interest in Italian wine. Despite his scientific background, which might make some think that the writing will be dense, it is not.  His prose is a pleasure to read.  He is wonderfully opinionated in both books, listing his favorite producers, benchmark wines and the best cru.  I cannot recommend these two books highly enough.

Hugh Johnson & Janis Robinson (are there two more luminous wine writers in the world?) have just released the 8th edition of their venerable The World Atlas of Wine (Mitchell Beazley/Octopus Publishing Group, $65).  Even if you have a previous edition of this Atlas, you need this one.  Here’s a summary of some of what’s new:  Maps for Israel and British Columbia, two important wine producing areas; expanded maps for Chile, Marlborough and China; a soil map of Beaujolais that shows how the crus differ. The writing, as in past editions, is refreshingly succinct but conveys a wealth of information.  In only about 50 words they described Morgon and Brouilly accurately: “Morgon, the birthplace of natural wine (see p. 35) is the second-largest cru associated with its famous, volcanic Côte du Py, whose wines are particularly strong, warm and spicy.  Les Charmes, Les Grands Cras, Corcellette, and Château Gaillard vineyards give lighter and rounder wines.  South of Morgon, the big cru of Brouilly is unpredictable.”

While The World Atlas of Wine and D’Agata’s books will certainly appeal to wine geeks, I recommend two books enthusiastically for those starting to learn about wine.  Both are so well-written and clear that even those who know a fair amount about wine will learn something from them.

Wine for Dummies ($25, Wiley Publishing, 7th edition) is the book to buy if you have a friend or a child interested in learning about wine.  In an easy to follow, but not patronizing tone, Ed McCarthy and Mary Ewing-Mulligan, MW demystify the seemingly complicated morass of wine.  (Full disclosure: the authors are friends and colleagues here at WRO, but even if I didn’t like them, I’d be forced to recommend their book very highly because it’s just so useful.)

The other so-called introductory book is Windows on the World Complete Wine Course by Kevin Zraly (Sterling Publishing, $28), who is a superb teacher, both in person and with the written word.  Again, although those relatively new to wine will learn an enormous amount quickly because of the format and Zraly’s style, even those more knowledgeable about wine will enjoy this book.

With much wine writing moving to the web, there are two particularly good sites I can recommend. Decanter Premium (Decanter.com) give you access to thousands of their tasting notes and articles otherwise unavailable.  ($100 for a yearly subscription.)

Every Burgundy lover should subscribe to Jasper Morris’s Inside Burgundy.com (95£ a year).  Morris, an MW since 1985, was for many years the principal Burgundy buyer for the famed British merchant, Berry Brothers and Rudd.  He has forgotten more about Burgundy than most people know.  His recommendations and insight are essential for navigating the mine fields of Burgundy.

Though I’ve written about the Champagne stopper previously, it bears repeating, especially at this time of the year.  It makes a fabulous gift.  The Champagne stopper, which costs about ten bucks, will transform the way you think of Champagne.  No longer is Champagne a “special occasion” beverage.  With a Champagne stopper it can be a nightly pleasure.  The stopper looks like an oversized bottle cap with short wings that clamp under the rim of any bottle of Champagne or sparkling wine.  It allows you to have a glass of Champagne and stopper the bottle, maintaining the fizz, for another day.  Easy to use—both attaching and removing it from the bottle is a cinch—it keeps the Champagne or sparkling wine fresh and bubbly for up to five days.  Don’t forget that if, by chance, the fizz is gone on day five, the still wine that remains is still fresh and ideal for deglazing a pan in place of white wine.

It allows you to spread the cost of, for example, a bottle of Pol Roger NV Brut, which is widely available for about $40, over five nights, with a large, 5-ounce, glass a night.  Alternatively, you and your spouse or significant other can each enjoy a reasonable 4-ounce pour over three nights.  And, if you chose a less expensive sparkling wine, such as the fruity and lively Roederer Estate Brut from Anderson Valley or crisp and edgy Simonnet-Febvre Crémant de Bourgogne Rosé, each which can easily be found at about $20 a bottle, you can halve those expenses and still “celebrate” on a nightly basis.

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Comments, questions or other gift suggestions?  E-mail me at Michael.apstein1@gmail.com

December 4, 2019

Two Essential Pieces of Equipment for Anyone Who Drinks Wine

The corkscrew is an obvious choice as one, but what’s the other?  I’ll give you a hint — it costs between $5 and 10, so that eliminates the Coravin, the clever $300 gadget with a long needle that lets you sample a bottle without having to open it.

The other essential piece of equipment is a Champagne stopper. Continue reading Two Essential Pieces of Equipment for Anyone Who Drinks Wine

Chablis: The World’s Best White Wine for Food

That’s a bold claim, but I think it holds up to scrutiny.  The only other contender would be Champagne, but once one takes price into account, the medal goes to Chablis because these wines are so well-priced.  Albariño from Rias Baixas, a region tucked away in Galicia in Spain’s northwest, is in the running, except so little is made and distributed that it’s not a reasonable choice.  So Chablis gets my vote, and here’s why. Continue reading Chablis: The World’s Best White Wine for Food

A Simple Strategy for Buying Burgundy

Burgundy produces some of the world’s most exciting wines.  Although many, such as those from Domaine Romanée Conti, Domaine Leroy, or Domaine Rousseau are priced in the stratosphere, affordable well-priced Burgundies do exist.  But finding them can be like walking through a minefield.

Potential for confusion abounds.  The Burgundians themselves nefariously created the largest hurdle the 19th century when they linked the name of a famous Grand Cru vineyard to the name of the village.  The town of Gevrey became Gevrey-Chambertin and Chassagne morphed into Chassagne-Montrachet.  The French hoped that unwary consumers would mistake all wines from the village of Chassagne-Montrachet as those from the Grand Cru vineyard, Le Montrachet.  And how would you know that Charmes-Chambertin was a Grand Cru, but Gevrey-Chambertin a lowly village wine?  I suspect more than one bottle of Gevrey-Chambertin has been purchased by someone thinking it was Grand Cru.  (I know one was, by me, years ago).

Napoleonic laws of inheritance have added to the confusion by forcing the fragmentation of vineyard ownership.  Several, if not scores of individuals, own pieces of a single vineyard and can make their own wine from that vineyard.  On retailers’ shelves the consumer can be bewildered by seeing multiple bottles of wine, all labeled Puligny-Montrachet Les Folatières, all of which taste different and reflect the individual grower’s talents or style.  Contrast this scenario with Bordeaux where all the bottles from a particular vineyard, such as Chateau Palmer or Chateau Latour, are identical.

And then there is the internecine squabbling that results in the dissolution of estates, marriages that create new ones and expiration of vineyard leases that enlarge existing estates while shrinking others.

One solution for the casual, and even experienced, consumer is to rely on the reputable négociants, such as Bouchard, Drouhin, Jadot, or Latour, all of whom make consistently fine wines.  Another approach for navigating Burgundy’s often murky waters is to let someone else, such as Jeanne-Marie de Champs, do it and follow her advice.  Her expertise won’t help you in a restaurant because her name is never on the wine’s front label or highlighted on a wine list.  But in a wine shop, turning the bottle to the fine print on the back label will reveal something like “Shipped by Jeanne-Marie de Champs” or a “Domaines et Saveurs Selection.”  Those words are the equivalent of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.

Michael Franz profiled Jeanne-Marie de Champs and reviewed many of her wines just over four years ago: [http://winereviewonline.com/Franz_on_Burgundy_&_de_Champs.cfm].  I spent parts of four days tasting her portfolio at this year’s Vinexpo in June, found that at lot has changed since Franz’s article and thought it time for an update.

Jeanne-Marie originally hails from France’s Loire Valley, but has been firmly ensconced in Burgundy since the 1980s and knows the terrain better than anyone.  She scours the countryside tasting hundreds of wines to find small producers or growers who consistently make high quality and unique wines.  Once identified, she persuades wholesalers and retailers in the US to distribute them.  Wines from her producers rarely disappoint.

Domaine Bart and Marsannay

Although Domaine Bart was founded only in 1988, their vineyards are part of the former famed Clair-Daü estate, perhaps the best producer in the obscure village of Marsannay.  In 1983, family fights resulted in the Clair-Daü estate being broken apart.  Maison Louis Jadot purchased one-third; one-third went to Bruno Clair and one third to Bruno’s sister.  She married Monsieur Bart who died two years later and the estate was taken over by their children.  Domaine Bart makes a stellar Bonnes Mares, but for value look for their wines from Marsannay, an under appreciated source of solid red Burgundy.

Marsannay, a village practically in the suburbs of Dijon, was elevated to appellation status only about 20 years ago.  Prior to that the red wines were sold as Bourgogne Rouge or Côtes de Nuits Villages. It has no premier vineyards, but in Bart’s hands, many of the named vineyards (lieux-dits) taste like premier crus.  Even their straight village 2009 Marsannay ($26) is genuine Burgundy and a great value.  Also look for their 2009 Marsannay Finottes or Marsannay Les Grands Vignes ($28), both of which are perfumed and earthy and easy to recommend.

Domaine Gabriel Billard

Two sisters, Laurence Jobard and Mireille Desmonet, founded Domaine Gabriel Billard when they took over their parents’ small (roughly 11-acre) property.  Jobard was the longtime winemaker at Drouhin and was responsible for stellar wines while there.  She is making wonderful wines at her own estate now.   The 2009 Bourgogne Rouge ($25) delivers more than you’d expect from that lowly appellation and reminds us to search for wines that have less prestigious pedigrees in a year like 2009.  Their 2009 Beaune Les Épenots ($37) packs more punch with greater richness and depth while maintaining its lacy charm.

Domaine Rapet

Domaine Rapet does wonders with grapes from grand appellations, such as their Corton-Charlemagne, as well as fruit from less well-endowed plots, such as Pernand-Vergelesses and Savigny-lès-Beaune.  Their 2009 Pernand-Vergelesses Sous Frétille ($38), a premier cru white, is both creamy and stony with bracing acidity.  Their 2009 Savigny-lès-Beaune aux Fourneaux ($35) is floral and delicate with incredible persistence of red fruit flavors.  Rapet’s 2009 Beaune Clos du Roi ($45) is simply gorgeous, deep and rich with all the alluring charm that makes Burgundy so popular.  It is very well priced for a wine of this stature.

Domaine Méo-Camuzet

Jean Nicolas Méo-Camuzet is now running the eponymous domaine, one of Burgundy’s best, and has started a négociant firm.  Consumers need to scan the label carefully to know whether they are buying wines from the domaine, which are usually better (and more expensive) or the négociant since the labels are similar.

Jean Nicolas is a great example of the new face of Burgundy as the younger generation takes control of established domaines.  Many of their prized vineyards, which have been in the family for decades, had been leased to others, including Henri Jayer.  In 1989 Méo-Camuzet decided not to renew the leases, the vineyards reverted to the family and Jean Nicolas took over.  He hosted a tasting a few years ago celebrating 20 years of the domaine and showed wines from each vintage.  The take-away message from that tasting was that great producers, like Méo-Camuzet, produce stellar wines in what are generally regarded as “off” vintages.  Their 1997 Nuits St. Georges aux Murgers, 1992 Vosne-Romanée Au Cros-Parantoux and 2000 Échézeaux, none of which hailed from universally acclaimed “great” years, were stunningly good.  My advice:  look for which ever of their wines you can afford. (Franz recommended their 2004 white from the Hautes Cotes de Nuits called Clos Saint Philibert).  The 2008, an equally successful year for whites in general, is currently available ($35).  Don’t miss it.

Domaine Tremblay

And if you like Chablis, look for Tremblay’s wines from 2008, a great year for white Burgundy, especially Chablis.  Their wines have richness often associated with use of oak, but they use only stainless steel.  They are unusually well priced, with their Premier Cru Chablis selling at less than $30.

My advice for buying Burgundy has always been, and still is, producer, producer, producer.  As an alternative, look for Jeanne-Marie de Champs on the back label.

September 21, 2011

Gifts for the Wine Lover

Friends and professional colleagues always tell me they shy away from giving me wine.  They profess not to know what to give.  They say that they don’t want to embarrass themselves with an “ordinary” bottle.  Those excuses, and all the others, are silly.  Wine lovers typically love all types of wine, not just the “important” ones.  So there’s no need to shy away from giving wine to your wine geek friends this holiday season.  Here are some suggestions.

Unique Bottles

Find a unique bottle of something, anything.  Recently a friend, knowing I love Burgundy, brought me a bottle labeled Bourgogne Fin from Robert Arnoux that he found at a local wine shop.  Robert Arnoux is an excellent Burgundy producer, but Bourgogne is the lowliest appellation we see on these shores.  (The appellation, Bourgogne Grand Ordinaire is even more pedestrian, but is never exported). Despite its down-market pedigree, I loved the gift because I had never heard of Bourgogne Fin, which turns out to be made from a clone of Pinot Noir that some think is the “original” clone.

Ask at your local wine shop—not a liquor store that sells wine—for help selecting a unique bottle.  For example, when I go to the Boston area’s best cheese shop, Wasik’s in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and am undecided about what to buy, I ask those cutting cheese, what one cheese they would take home that night to eat.  You can use the same tactic in a wine shop.  Ask the wine buyer or salespeople what one wine they would take home to drink tonight.  Phrase the question as a red and a white, and bingo, you have just found two gifts.

Port and Sherry

Port and Sherry are two categories that most wine lovers know least well.  Even those who consume wine every night with dinner rarely drink Port or Sherry on a regular basis.

Although vintage Port is the category that gets all the press and commands the prestige, it is also the least “user friendly,” requiring decades of bottle age and careful decanting before consumption.  Tawny Port, on the other hand, is very user-friendly.  Having been aged in barrel, it’s ready to drink upon purchase and needs no decanting.  Pull the cork and pour.  Well-aged Tawny Port makes an ideal gift. A 20-year old Tawny from Taylor Fladgate, Fonseca, Graham’s or Dow’s, to name just a few prominent producers (each about $40 – $50) would be an excellent choice.

Even Sherry aficionados have a difficult time explaining a Palo Cortado, which makes a bottle from that category an easy choice. The most useful definition comes from Javier Hidalgo, head of the eponymous bodega that produces a stellar line of Sherry.  According to him, a Palo Cortado represents the “best barrels in the cellar.”

Originally, these barrels were reserved for the family.  But after it became apparent that there would be an excess over what they could use, it was bottled and sold.  They are expensive, but, unlike table wine, a bottle is not consumed in one sitting, but will last for weeks.  Lustau’s 20-year old Palo Cortado (about $110) and Williams and Humbert’s Dos Cortados, a 20-year old Palo Cortado, (about $50) are just two of many that will please.

Cognac

The well-aged and prestige Cognacs—XO category and above—are expensive, but the recipient will remember the gift for a long time because a single a bottle could last a year since they are consumed slowly, in small quantities.   There are many great Cognac producers— Courvoisier, Hennessey, Martell and Remy-Martin, to name the four largest—all of whom make excellent XO Cognac.  For something truly distinctive and unique, I would turn to Camus, a family owned producer whose refined Cognacs are now available again, thankfully, in the US market.

The Cognac appellation is composed of six areas, Grande Champagne, Fine Champagne, Borderies, Fin Bois, Bon Bois and Bois Ordinaire.  Cognac from the Borderies, while not the most prestigious—that title goes to those from Grande and Fine Champagne—are prized for their aromatic profile and lend a floral, violet-like essence to a blend.  Camus is the only producer with an XO Cognac exclusively from the Borderies.  And it’s made almost entirely from their—not purchased—grapes.  Seductively aromatic and intense, the Camus Borderies XO envelops sweetness and spice with remarkable smoothness.  Long and warming, it’s a marvelous Cognac and a great way to end a meal (about $140).  They also make a stunning XO Cognac, called Elegance, in which Borderies comprises about a third of the blend (about $120).

Books

The Pearl of the Côte—The Great Wines of Vosne-Romanée by Allen Meadows

Every Burgundy lover needs a copy of The Pearl of the Côte—The Great Wines of Vosne-Romanée by Allen Meadows ($60, Burghound Books; in the US, available only on-line at Burghound.com) Meadows, (aka Burghound) a former financial executive, spends months each year in Burgundy visiting producers and tasting.   His four times a year subscription newsletter contains comprehensive reviews of Burgundies and is the go-to resource for the assessment of the wines of that region.  In short, he has become one of the world’s leading experts on the wines of Burgundy.

Although he includes the fascinating history and evolution of the concept of Burgundy appellations, this is not a book for beginners.  Meadows had done a superb in-depth analysis of the vineyards, producers and wines of Vosne-Romanée and neighboring Flagey-Echézeaux.  As an example, he unravels the complexity of Échézeaux, with its 90-acres, the second largest Grand Cru in the Côte de Nuits after Clos Vougeot and its 84 owners.  He describes in great detail the character of the11 climats (vineyards) that comprise Échézeaux and lists where the 62 major owners have their plots.  And he lays it all out in both scholarly and conversational tones that make it remarkably easy to read.

Along the way he gives minutiae that only a true wine fanatic could love—who knew that the Lamarche family, now the sole owners of the Grand Cru, La Grande Rue, and the Domaine Romanée-Conti traded miniscule pieces of their respective Grand Cru vineyards so they could each control the entire vineyard.

If I were rating The Pearl of the Côte on a 100-point scale, it would get 100.

The Complete Bordeaux by Stephen Brook

Stephen Brook, one of Great Britain’s best wine writers, has set the standard for books about Bordeaux with his, The Complete Bordeaux ($60, Mitchell Beazley, 2007).  Similar to The Pearl of the Côte, The Complete Bordeaux is more a reference book than a cover-to-cover read.  But if you have a question about a Bordeaux chateau, you will find the answer in Brook’s book.  He details the history of each of the major—and many minor—chateaux, the composition of the vineyards and their winemaking practices.  He doesn’t limit himself to just the Cru Classé of the Médoc, but also includes chapters on the lesser appellations, such as Fronsac and Côtes de Blaye & Côtes de Bourg.  And his tasting notes are short and to the point.  It’s an indispensable book for anyone serious about wine.

Wine for Dummies by Ed McCarthy and Mary Ewing-Mulligan, MW

While The Pearl of the Côte and The Complete Bordeaux will appeal to wine fanatics, for those starting to learn about wine—and even for those who know a fair amount but want to learn more—Wine for Dummies ($22, Wiley Publishing, 4th edition) is the book to buy.   In an easy to follow, but not patronizing tone, Ed McCarthy and Mary Ewing-Mulligan, MW demystify the seemingly complicated morass of wine. (Full disclosure:  the authors are friends and colleagues here at WRO.  Even if they were enemies, I would be forced to recommend their book, it’s so good).

December 14, 2010

Wine Cellar 101

With the current economic downturn forcing people to cut back at all levels, perhaps it’s foolhardy to suggest that now is the time to start a wine cellar. But paradoxically, now is a perfect time.

I’m not suggesting investing $10,000 or more in beautifully stained wooden racks, recessed lighting and an insulated, temperature-controlled room. At its most basic, a wine cellar will cost nothing more than the price of the wines by carving out a corner of your basement where you can store a half dozen cardboard cartons turned on their side. Nor am I recommending dropping thousands of dollars for top name Bordeaux or California cult wines. I think the most important wines in the cellar are the least expensive bottles. Over the long run, you will actually save money on wine purchases if you have a cellar–unless of course, like most people who get hooked on wine, you get carried away.

Why Start a Cellar?

Before giving specifics of how to build your cellar and what to put in it, the major question is, why create a cellar at all?

First, a cellar will save you from being held hostage by the limited selection offered by the closest store that happens to sell wine–especially useful if the nearest store that specializes in wine is some distance away–when friends are coming to dinner. With a cellar, you have a ready supply at home, which, if you have followed my advice, you will have purchased on sale.

Next, you can drink what you want on a particular night, rather than what your wine retailer just sold you. Maybe you want California Pinot Noir for the salmon that is coming off the grill, but your local wine store just put together and sold you a case of hearty Spanish reds because they were on sale. Those hearty reds can now go into the cellar to be brought out when the weather turns cold and you are digging into hearty stews.

Thirdly, you can take advantage of wine sales for all your purchases. With a cellar, you have a ready place for storage so you should never need to buy wine at full retail. And during an economic turndown, retailers are hurting as much as the rest of us, so prices tend to come down, especially at this time of the year when stores need to make room for new wines arriving in the fall.

For example, Park Avenue Liquor in New York City, a fine wine shop, runs a spectacular store-wide sale in August in which the second bottle is 50% less than the first, for a total of 25% off. Get on Zachy’s e-mail list and be notified of ‘Andrew’s Fridays Loss Leaders’ sale, which notifies customers of discounts of up to 50%. These sales are not limited to New York. One of California’s major wine retailers, Beverages and More, currently is running their 5-cent sale in which the second bottle of certain wines costs a nickel. In every city, wine retailers have promotions, which savvy consumers should embrace.

Sales are not limited to August. Paradoxically, Champagne goes on sale when it is most in demand, between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. With a cellar, you can stock up for the rest of the year, or years to come.

Economics aside, the major reason to cellar wines is to taste for yourself the magical development of a wine as it transforms over time from a beverage offering primary, grapey notes to one that offers what I call ‘not just fruit’ flavors. With bottle age, many well made reds develop a host of these flavors that people describe variously as akin to coffee, leather, leaves or dried fruit. Even some whites, especially Riesling and white Burgundy, develop nutty or other non-fruit flavors that add complexity.

To me, it’s this evolution of flavors that makes drinking wine special and unique. The chance to savor this transformation is becoming increasingly rare as the trend toward bold fruit-driven wine meant for early consumption continues unabated. Even when you can find mature wines in restaurants or wine shops, they are prohibitively expensive.

With a cellar you can watch–and taste–the evolution by buying a case and opening a bottle periodically (every year or so) to see how it changes. When the wine comes from your cellar and you’ve opened it specifically to see how it’s developing, most everybody–even beginning wine enthusiasts–will remember how it tasted in prior years.

The Basics for Building a Cellar

The two most important aspects of a cellar are temperature and humidity, not the racks for storage. The warmer the cellar, the faster wines will evolve, up to a point. If the cellar is too warm–over 80 degrees or so for a protracted period of time–the wines can spoil. Fortunately, most basements are cool and damp, which make them ideal for a wine cellar. Choose the coolest area of the basement–usually the corner that is most underground–and away from the furnace or vibrations. An easy and inexpensive–less than $20–way to monitor temperature is to buy a max-min thermometer, a device that allows you to see the maximum and minimum temperature over any period of time. The ideal temperature is between 55 and 65 degrees F, but in my experience, temperatures up to the mid 70s, while not ideal, are fine as long as there aren’t abrupt swings during the day.

An easy way to start your cellar is to use the cardboard cases–turned on their sides to keep the cork moist–that the wine came in. As your collection expands, you can move up to wood racks or bins, which are commercially available and easily found with a keyword search on the internet. Although bins for 12 to 24 bottles are less expensive than racks with slots for each bottle, they’re more cumbersome for accessing a specific bottle. Some people opt for elaborate–and expensive–cellars with tables and subtle lighting. While they may be architecturally beautiful, I would spend the money on the wine, not the showcase.

How to Stock a Cellar

Just as you want balance in wine, you want balance in your wine cellar. The first rule of building a wine cellar is to remember that you want to have something to drink with dinner–tonight. Yes, you want the kind of wines that will allow you to see how wines evolve and develop, but you still want to have something to drink. So you need to stock up on wines that are ready to drink to prevent you from raiding the cases of wines you are saving to see how they develop. You will also want a balance of whites and reds and a selection from both the Old and New World.

For everyday reds, stock up on Guigal’s 2005 Cotes du Rhône, which offers remarkable depth and spice for $12 a bottle and is suitable for a range of food from steak to burgers. The Los Cardos label by Doña Paula (about $11) offers simple yet sophisticated red wines as well.

Two whites perfect for current drinking are the 2007 Trivento Torrontes (about $11), a breezy, fresh wine from Argentina, or Benziger’s 2006 North Coast Sauvignon Blanc 2006, a zippy item at a bargain price (about $12). The best advice for finding wines to drink now is to search the WRO archives for wines in your price range, as the search function will enable you to pull up wines sorted by price.

Although many people assume that only expensive top level red Bordeaux are suitable for aging, I’ve had many ‘simple’ Bordeaux from great vintages, such as 1982 or 1990, that have rewarded the patience required to give them time in the cellar. Wines with a lesser pedigree–and a smaller price tag–from the superb 2005 vintage in Bordeaux should evolve beautifully. Try the 2005 Chateau Recougne (about $14), the quality of which always exceeds the expectations attached to its lowly Bordeaux Superieur appellation. Within the last few years, I’ve consumed the 1952 Chateau Recougne with pleasure on several occasions, so I wouldn’t worry about aging the 2005, a much superior vintage.

Now is the time to pluck a few remaining red Burgundies from the fabulous 2005 vintage and learn how Pinot Noir from its ancestral home develops and expands with time in the bottle. While many 2005 red Burgundies are frightfully expensive, some of Jadot’s from the Côte de Beaune, such as their Santenay Clos de Malte, Pernand Vergelesses Clos de la Croix de Pierre, or Savigny-lès-Beaune Clos des Guettes, are still available for $25-40 a bottle. Judging from past experience with their wines and tasting these 2005s, you will be happy in 5 years that they are in your cellar.

Take advantage of the WRO archive of reviews for other suggestions, consult your local wine shop, or e-mail me at mapstein@winereviewonline.com for more advice.

August 26, 2008

A Plea for Reasonable Restaurant Wine Service

Wine service in restaurants, even many that carry one of the Wine Spectator‘s awards for superior wine lists, seems to be an afterthought.  Although the Spectator‘s awards are solely for wine lists, you’d hope that those restaurants with stellar lists would also have stellar service–or service that is at least reasonable.  But that’s rarely the case.

I realize that wine is more important to me that the vast majority of diners.  I always order wine with dinner.   I invariably look at the wine list first and then select my food.  So even though I’ve never run a restaurant or consulted to one, I eat in them often and therefore can offer my observations in the hope that someone might be listening.

What’s particularly annoying is that the flaws in wine service at restaurants are easy to correct.  I’m not talking about investing vast sums of money in temperature-controlled cellars, high-end wine glasses or a special dishwasher for washing them.  Most of my complaints could be fixed without additional money.

Michael Franz, my colleague here at WRO, pointed out problems with restaurant wine lists in a column last year (http://www.winereviewonline.com/franz_on_wine_list_excellence.cfm), so I’ll not repeat his observations but, rather, comment mainly on service, along with my perspective on pricing.

Many Restaurants Get it Right

Some restaurant owners might say, why bother about wine service?  Few people judge restaurants solely by it, and even I don’t go quite that far.  If a restaurant is continually packed and every table has wine on it, there might be no reason to change anything.  But most restaurants are not.  And some restaurants get it right all the time.  Order wine at Blantyre, the ultra-comfortable Tudor-like resort in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts and you will receive service that is flawless without being obsequious.  Or experience the less formal, but no less helpful or cordial wine service at Troquet in Boston, where Chris Campbell has the best list in the city–and food to match.

California seems to do far better than the rest of the country in this regard.  Since California is the wine capital of the United States, residents in general feel more comfortable with it.  It’s more a part of daily life, rather than a special occasion beverage.  Hence, those who work in restaurants are more familiar with it even before they start work in the industry.  The ability of customers to bring wine into restaurants in California surely increases pressure on the restaurant to offer ‘something special’ with regard to wine.  Places as diverse as Nopa and A16, deservedly popular informal spots in San Francisco, to Spago in Beverly Hills, to Cyrus, an upscale restaurant in Healdsburg, all provide professional wine service along with that something special.

But Far Too Many Make Mistakes

Keep the list accurate and up to date.  There is nothing worse than ordering a wine and then waiting for 15 minutes for the wait staff to present the bottle just as the food arrives, at which point the wine turns out to be a different vintage than what you ordered.  And then you are told nonchalantly that they ‘changed vintages.’  Would they bring you veal when you ordered steak because it was just a younger version?  In fact, there is something worse.  The wait staff returns to inform you that the wine is unavailable.  (Would you like to order something else while your food gets cold?)  In an era when a laser printer costs less than a single bottle of First-Growth Bordeaux, any restaurant’s list can be reprinted daily.  Items that are out of stock can be cut in an instant with any word-processing program, which can likewise permit a restaurateur to pasted it back in with no great effort when stock is restored.

Be sure the staff can find the wine.  Often, the staff fails to bring the bottle to the table before the food arrives.  Since this flaw seems economically foolish for the wait staff, it’s particularly hard to understand.  If the bottle arrives promptly, many customers will use it as an aperitif as well, and a second bottle may follow, increasing the tab and the tip.

Take more care with wine by the glass.  Wine by the glass, a great concept, has taken off in the last two decades.  Despite generating significant revenue for restaurants, many restaurants seemingly put little care into the wines themselves.  One orders a glass of wine at lunch at high risk in most establishments since, more often than not, the bottle has been open since the previous night.  Chefs would not use ingredients that are not fresh, but restaurants often serve wine by the glass that is not.  Since the wholesale price of the bottle is generally recouped with the first glass, it seems silly to squeeze every last drop out of the bottle and risk alienating a customer.  Better to open a new bottle.  If you think the wine in the open bottle is just as good, let the owner take it home for dinner.

Wine Prices are Often Obscene.  Steak houses seem to be the worst offenders, but many restaurants take advantage of a perceived ‘normal mark-up.’  I am happy to pay for a unique service provided by the restaurant when it comes to wine, such as supplying aged wine.  But it’s rare to find aged wines on a wine list anymore.  I am happy to pay for the expertise of sommeliers, such as Jeannie Rodgers at Il Capriccio, a superb Italian restaurant in Waltham, Massachusetts, who goes to Italy to find and import wines for her restaurant.  Or for the services of a talented wine buyer who finds exceptional wines that have escaped my radar.  But I am outraged to pay three times the price for a wine I can buy in the local wine shop, and won’t return to any restaurant that marks up wines at such a rate.

I’ve heard the arguments to justify wine prices–money necessary to train staff, glass breakage, and the cost of carrying inventory.  Well, judging from the poor service in restaurants, many are not training their staffs adequately.  I’m sure glasses break, but so do plates and most restaurants aren’t using $75 Reidel glasses.  These days, restaurants rely on current supplies from wholesalers and carry small inventories.

The free-market should determine prices.  If every table is ordering wine, then the price must be correct.  But in most restaurants, wine is not on every table.  Perhaps outrageous prices are part of the problem.  Maybe lower mark-ups would sell more wine.

I can understand the ‘mark-up’ on food–after all, the chef does something with it.  With wine, more often than not these days, someone just opens it.

January 15, 2008

Selecting Wine in a Restaurant

It is the part of restaurant dining that most people dread. You are with a group of colleagues or friends, or perhaps on a special date. The conversation is flowing, everyone is relaxed and having a good time. Then, the waiter gives you the wine list. As though selecting a wine were not difficult enough as things stand, restaurants have made navigating the wine list more difficult by a lack of consistency in its organization. Sometimes the wines are arranged in a traditional fashion by regions, while other lists arrange the wines by style or grape variety, mixing white Burgundies with California Chardonnay since they are made from the same grape. To make matters worse, most lists are certainly not priced in a way that encourages experimentation.

If all restaurants approached wine the way Disney does at their Napa Rose restaurant in Anaheim or their California Grill atop Disney’s Contemporary Resort in Orlando, ordering wine in a restaurant would be painless and educational. At those establishments, the staff encourages customers to taste any or all of the scores of wines they offer by the glass to help decide what to order with dinner. They realize that the wholesale cost of the wine is insignificant compared to the value of pleasing and keeping a customer.

Until that attitude moves nationwide, diners will have to rely on broad guidelines and general advice to help them through what can be an ordeal.

Upscale Restaurants

In upscale restaurants that emphasize wine, I’d advise you to ask the waiter or sommelier for assistance. True sommeliers, as in France, are responsible for every stage of restaurant wine service, from buying to pouring. They select the wines for the restaurant by tasting hundreds of bottles supplied by distributors or by visiting wineries directly. They decide which wines can be put on the list immediately and which need to be cellared for service in the future. And, of course, they advise diners. In the United States, sommeliers typically have less responsibility because wine is a less important component of the meal and few American restaurants buy wine to cellar themselves. A few Boston sommeliers, such as Jeannie Rodgers at Il Capriccio in Waltham and Cat Silirie at No 9 Park in Boston, while not going to the lengths of their European counterparts, find treasures for their lists that are not widely available in the retail market.

In other wine savvy restaurants, a sommelier or someone on the staff has tasted and selected all the wines on the list based on what they like and what they feel goes with their food. The typical restaurant wine buyer has endless opportunities to sample hundreds of wines from which to construct a list. Rely on his or her advice. Many consumers still have a cynicism regarding wine recommendations in a restaurant, as if the staff is “pushing” a particular item. While some producers, wholesalers or distributors may offer incentives to restaurants to sell a particular wine once it is on the list, the fact remains that most restaurateurs do not buy items they do not like, regardless of the incentives that may be offered.

Ask the person who gives you the wine list if the restaurant has a sommelier or someone who can advise you about selecting a wine. Voice your preference for red or white or inform the sommelier what your table has ordered. Do not be shy or embarrassed about your preference regarding price. Suggest a price either verbally or by pointing to the right hand column of the list and saying, “what can you suggest in this range?” If you do not suggest a price range, a good waiter or sommelier should offer a couple of suggestions in different price ranges, according to several Boston sommeliers.

Apstein’s Crib Sheet

Ordering wine is more difficult at a restaurant where wine is not a priority and the wait staff knows no more about it than you do. You are truly on your own. Here are the general characteristics of the most important wines to assist you in selecting one with dinner. Since the French generally label wines by where the grapes are grown instead of the name of the grape, important place names where that grape is grown are in parenthesis.

White Wines

Chardonnay (white Burgundy including Chablis, Macon-Villages and Pouilly Fuissé): Creamy, rich, and suave, Chardonnay is a good choice for unadorned seafood, or any fish, chicken, and veal preparations that emphasize butter or cream. California Chardonnays tend to be fuller and riper than their French counterparts. Their familiarity and popularity adds to the price.

Sauvignon Blanc (Sancerre and Pouilly Fume): The hallmark of Sauvignon Blanc (sometimes simply called Sauvignon, especially in Italy) is a pleasantly piercing citric character that makes it perfect for spicy or highly flavored dishes. While a touch of coriander or hot chili in a dish obliterates Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, especially from New Zealand or South Africa, can take the heat. These are ideal wines for Asian influenced cuisine or dishes with lots of different flavors.

Riesling: Riesling from Alsace in eastern France (where they do put the grape name on the label) or Australia is like my father’s rosé: it goes with anything (only in this case, it is true). Many consumers overlook Riesling because of a fear it will be sweet. Most from California and Germany are indeed sweet, but not so for ones from Alsace or Australia. An extremely versatile wine, dry Riesling has a mineral quality and bracing acidity which makes it excellent throughout a meal. The classic match for pork, it is also excellent with all types of fowl, from chicken to goose.

Red Wines

Cabernet Sauvignon (Bordeaux): Intense black fruit flavors typically with an attractive hard edge makes Cabernet Sauvignon a good foil for the fat infused, succulent flavors of beef or lamb.

Merlot (Bordeaux): Softer edges make Merlot more approachable than Cabernet Sauvignon, but for practical purposes, it can be used interchangeably at the dinner table. Most Bordeaux is blend of the two grapes and is usually less intense than the Australian or Californian versions of either.

Pinot Noir (red Burgundy): Pinot Noir can be a heavenly wine. Deceptively light, it explodes with bright cherry and strawberry-like flavors, without the astringency typical of most red grapes. It is versatile, equally at home with beef (as in boeuf bourguignon), duck, roast chicken, or even grilled salmon. Just check the credit limit on your card before you order. They are never inexpensive.

Syrah or Shiraz (Rhone wines such as Côtes du Rhône, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, or Hermitage): Most Californians call these Syrah while the Aussies call them Shiraz. In either case, they are spicy, full-flavored wines that insist on robust foods, such as stews, casseroles, and other winter fare. Like Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, they also are a good choice for beef or lamb.

Italian Food

Since Italian restaurants play such a large role in dining out for Americans, they deserve a category of their own. Despite the potentially confusing labeling (the Italians use both place and grape names for their wines), opt for Italian wines whenever dining in Italian restaurants. Their hallmark, naturally high acidity, cuts the oil and garlic flavors indigenous to the cuisine. For whites, in addition to the ubiquitous Pinot Grigio, try Vermentino or Sauvignon (all grape names). They are clean, light-bodied refreshing whites that are lovely with seafood. The choice of reds to accompany pasta, meat, and even fish in a tomato-based sauce, is virtually limitless. It is hard to go wrong with Chianti (a place) and its bright cherry-like flavors devoid of sticky tannins, a silky Valpolicella (a place), or a spicier Barbera (a grape).

Concluding Advice

Take advantage of a producer’s consistency and style. If you have enjoyed a Mondavi Chardonnay in the past, but the meal calls for a red wine, you will probably be pleased with one of the winery’s Cabernets or Merlots. Similarly, if you remember fondly a humble Beaujolais by Louis Jadot, you will not be disappointed if you splurge on one of this producer’s upper end white Burgundies.

The least expensive wine of the list usually offers the worst value because it is usually marked up the most. You can find a much more interesting choice for just a few dollars more.

When ordering a bottle of wine to serve as an aperitif or pre dinner drink, inform the waiter of your intentions so he can bring it immediately. Often, there is an inexplicable delay in staff bringing wine to the table.

Wine sold by the glass potentially allows customers to enjoy wine with a meal when only one person is drinking or when you wish to sample a variety of wines with different courses. Be sure the restaurant opened the bottle that evening or has a system to store opened bottles under inert gas to keep the wines fresh. It is especially risky to order wine by the glass at lunch, since the bottles used were often opened the night before.

A glass of port is a pleasant way to finish a meal, especially during the winter. Vintage port, the most prestigious category, is sturdier than ordinary table wine, but nevertheless loses its freshness after being opened for more than a day. Before ordering it, inquire when the bottle was opened. A safer choice is a glass of well-aged, 20 or 40 year old tawny port, which has been exposed to air over its entire life. It will not have deteriorated significantly sitting in a bottle opened even months earlier.

January 17, 2006.