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VINO 2011: Italian Wine Discoveries

vino 2011 day 1 002
Greetings from VINO 2011 at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City, a wine conference sponsored by the Italian Trade Commission. How do you navigate a wine tasting with over 80 producers, each pouring multiple wines? Do you try them all? Although tempting (purely in the interest of seeking more wine knowledge, ahem), the answer is no. I did a quick survey of the room and honed in on one target: bubbles. I’ve always loved the wines of Northern Italy for their freshness and purity so it was no surprise that I flipped for the sparkling wines of Maso Martis from the Trento region. Pure, elegant, and crisp, I found a lot to love from the Brut, Brut Rosé, and the Brut Riserva.

Maso Martis
The sparkling wines of Maso Martis and Alessandra Caroni, Export Manager.

Another highlight was a red wine from Talis in Friuli, the Purpureo. It’s a Bordeaux-style bend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon. I’ve been recently exposed to a ton of red wine that has been lavishly slathered with oak, so it was a great change of pace to drink a red that tasted of fruit and varietal character(s) rather than oak. I guessed that the Purpureo was unoaked, but it turns out it gets a brief stay in the barrel. But don’t confuse unoaked with wimpy; it had plenty of tannin to balance the fruit. I wish I just could have walked off with the bottle, headed to the lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria, and curled up in a big chair with only a good book to accompany my wine. (I guess it wouldn’t of hurt to ask if I could have done so, no?)

Mauro Cencig of Talis Wine
Mauro Cencig of Talis Wine shows off the delicious Purpureo.

So what are some of your recent wine discoveries?

Full disclosure: The Italian Trade Commission has provided my transportation and accommodations.

Hunting for Hunter Semillon: Tyrrell’s Vat 1

Tyrrell's Vat 1 Semillon
A legendary white wine from Australia.

For better or worse, in the mind of many wine-drinkers, Australia=Shiraz. Couldn’t blame you for thinking that way; a decade-plus ago, when I was first introduced to Aussie wine, I was guzzling oceans of Shiraz and little else from Down Under. Hell, I didn’t even know there was any wine besides Shiraz. My willful ignorance was cured when I discovered a world of wonderful dry Rieslings (criminally underrated) and great Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon blends reminiscent of good white Bordeaux. But the real gem, and one of the more collectible and age-worthy whites in the world, is Hunter Valley Semillon, particularly Tyrrell’s Vat 1.

Through a bit of providence I was able to get my hands on some of the 1999 vintage. And then, even better, got to drink some. I knew I was in for something good when I first poured the Vat 1, as aged Semillon takes on a hue that seemingly comes from the touch of King Midas. But what really blew me away was the freshness of this wine. An 12 year-old dry white wine has no business being so lively and exciting, but this Semillon was a smooth, delicious white reminiscent of a top quality dry Riesling. I had expected it to have developed some secondary characteristics, like a bit of nuttiness, but it was still quite primary. So it’s no shrinking violet; you could tuck it away in your cellar for years to come. (Though I’m not sure I could keep my hands off it, it’s so tasty right now.)

But don’t just take my word for it. One of my favorite wine writers (and customers), WINEcouver, had quite the experience with a bottle of the 1998. (Way to make me blush.)

http://twitter.com/#!/WINEcouver/status/21689785399648256

What regions or countries do you think have wines that aren’t getting their due or are a bit lost in the shuffle?

1999 Tyrrell’s Vat 1 Hunter Semillon $40 (limited)

Pizza, Beer, and Mark Ryan Winery

Mark McNeilly at Big Mario's
Mark McNeilly at Big Mario's. He's smiling because the pizza was so good.

I sat down with Mark McNeilly of Mark Ryan Winery at Big Mario’s Pizza to ask him how he went from making wine in a garage in Greenwood to half of his parent’s two-car garage to having his own winery in Woodinville. (And frankly, we’re always–always–looking for an excuse to go to Big Mario’s. And Mark’s conference room in the winery was already booked.)

Rather than going the UC-Davis enology route to winemaking (though he did eventually take a class at the famed school), Mark’s wine education began in restaurants. “Waiting tables led me to be exposed to wine. I got into selling wine because I wanted to make it.” With no experience at all, Mark picked up a kit and took a stab at making a white wine. The next thing he knew, through connections, chance, and fate, he had two tons of Ciel du Cheval fruit to work with. Able to rely on relationships with winemakers cultivated through working for a local distributor, and with Jim Holmes (vineyard owner) on speed dial, Mark made his first vintage. There is a lot of self-deprecation going on as Mark describes the entire process, but, on the serious side, what I gleaned from his story is that sometimes you have to learn by doing and not be afraid to make mistakes (on the small scale). It helped that Mark “read a lot and asked questions.”

Like many Washington winemakers, he started out making exclusively reds and later added whites to his roster. I asked him what the challenges of making whites versus reds were, and he told me that “making wines at other people’s places make me realize I needed my own equipment.” Whites require “more control” as people expect them to be “aesthetically perfect” in appearance, aroma, and flavor. In other words, people are less forgiving of whites. He also gave credit to the work of Enologist Erica Orr in making his whites especially successful. (The 2009 Chardonnay is an Esquin staff favorite and, trust me, we don’t often agree on wines.)

I wanted to know more about the idea behind the Board Track Racer The Vincent, a 2008 Columbia Valley Cab/Syrah blend. Mark told me that wines like his have become “special occasion wines” and he wanted to be able to offer something in a price range that could be enjoyed on a more regular basis. (It’s around twenty bucks. And look for a Board Track Racer white, a Chardonnay/Viognier blend, coming in the future.)

Probably my favorite of his reds, the Crazy Mary, is made from Mourvedre so I thought I would ask if he’s playing around with any other grapes that aren’t among the heavy-hitters in Washington. While no new single-varietal wines are on the current docket of releases, Mark added some Malbec to the new vintage of Dead Horse. It “enhanced the non-fruit side” of the wine, which he thinks is a great attribute. The structure it adds prevents his reds from becoming what he calls “fruit cocktail wines.” (I am going to adopt this phrase to describe all syrupy reds that are overly sweet with oak; I love it.)

Big Mario's Pizza
Sausage, Pepperoni, and Mushrooms please.

Oh, and one last important question. Which of his wines would go best with our pepperoni, sausage, and mushroom pizza? The 2008 Lost Soul Syrah, because, like our pizza, it’s “meaty.”

It’s hard not to root for a guy like Mark who not only makes great wines but also is genuine, funny, and enjoys reminiscing about the late 80’s and early 90’s (my salad days as well) while the music of the era streams over Big Mario’s sound system.  (So it’s not surprising he named a wine after the Afghan Whigs album, Black Love. Dude, you’ve got to send Greg Dulli a bottle!)

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Full disclosure: Mark picked up the tab for lunch.

Entering the Cayuse Conundrum

Bionic FrogEasily the most contentious and controversial blog posting of the year in Washington wine, Wine Peeps take on Cayuse generated a volume of comments not normally seen unless Justin Bieber is involved. The burning question: Are the wines of Cayuse a unique expression of Washington terroir (a word so beaten to death and co-opted by marketers I would like to see it retired) or are they flawed? Wine Peeps side with the latter. I have zero intention of rehashing the debate (feel free to block off an afternoon to read all the comments) but I advise you to consider the spirited counterpoint to the arguments put forth by Wine Peeps in Sean Sullivan’s Washington Wine Report.

So what was my take on all this after plowing through the science, the tasting notes, the passion, the vitriol, the laughter, the tears? I really, really wanted to try Cayuse and decide for myself. It took about a month and a half post-Cayusegate, but I got the chance recently. Thanks to providence and generosity of our owner, the staff at Esquin got to sample the 2006 Cayuse Bionic Frog Syrah. Though I did not have a lab at my disposal to evaluate the soundness of the wine, I was in full possession of my taste buds and my highly subjective opinion.

First, what did the heavy-hitters of the professional wine world, The Wine Spectator and The Wine Advocate, think of the 06 Frog? Suitably impressed: 96 and 99 points, respectively. While I’m not one to rate wines on the 100 point scale, or any scale, I trust these stalwarts to ably tally up their score cards. I do, however, have to vehemently disagree with possibly the most jaw-dropping sentence I have ever read in a wine review, courtesy of Jay Miller: “Imagine having to choose between your ideal fantasy sexual partner and this wine–and you choose The Frog!” Jay, you can have the bottle and I’ll take Scarlett Johansson.

My take on the Bionic Frog? Three word review: I liked it. But allow me to elaborate. It’s probably the meatiest wine I have ever tasted. If you like your Syrah on the earthy/gamy side, this is for you. My critique of the wine is that it’s missing something from the other end of the spectrum: fruit. I’m not sure how many people in the general wine-drinking public would like a wine that leans so heavily towards one end of the spectrum of flavors. Regardless, the Bionic Frog is one of the most interesting and unique Washington wines I’ve ever tasted. And I’m not being pejorative (or cowardly) here; “interesting” and “unique” are not euphemisms for negative remarks.

What would be really cool (and this is something that Sean covers) is to taste all the wines made from fruit in The Rocks area of the Walla Walla Valley AVA. I know each vineyard site is specific and has different soils, slopes, and blah blah blah. But I’d like to get a general handle on how much site influences the wines and how much winemaking has an impact on flavor.

I’m not going to paint Cayuse with a wide brushstroke after sampling one bottle, but (you knew this was coming) I didn’t think it was flawed. The Bionic Frog is not made to be crowd-pleasing and this style of wine is polarizing–even amongst experienced wine-tasters. But with critical accolades and a wait list longer than the one for Green Bay Packers season tickets, Winemaker Christophe Baron isn’t losing any sleep over his critics.

So what’s your take on Cayuse? You can also read the thoughts of my coworker Justin on this same bottle at Bottle Variations.

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What Wine Goes With Deep-Fried Turkey?

Deep Fried TurkeyWhile spending Christmas with my family in Tacoma, we managed to successfully deep-fry a turkey without injuring ourselves or setting the place on fire. As far as wine choices with this turkey, and especially with a holiday meal where everything under the sun is on the table, I say just drink what you like. A handful of ideas, however, did come to mind during and after I pounded down a few beers in front of the boiling cauldron of oil and turkey:

  • Bubbles. Anything crunchy and salty (like chips) seems to have an affinity with sparkling wine. The deep-fried turkey had a remarkably crisp skin that I could have eaten by the handful if only I didn’t have to share it with a dozen other people. (Not that I was complaining….OK, maybe a little.)
  • A light, refreshing red and/or white. A lively Northern Italian white or something in the Gamay/Pinot Noir family is a classic with turkey. But then again…
  • Why not a hearty, burly red like a Zinfandel? Or a bruiser of a Spanish Garnacha? You’ve got that spicy skin, and you can’t discount the dark meat. Put some brawn into your glass! Which reminds me…
  • A big, rich white would work as well; why not a plush White Burgundy or California Chardonnay? Nothing that’s an oak monster, but a little bit of heft wouldn’t hurt.

So you can have bubbles, a lighter white and/or red, or a heavier white and/or red. They all have their pluses (and minuses). It’s best just to have a lot of variety and experiment with whatever happens to be within arm’s reach. I ended up drinking the same red I had for Thanksgiving: The 2009 Brundlmayer Zweigelt. An easy-drinking red in a shareable one-liter bottle, it was great with a slight chill on it.
Deep-Fried Turkey and Zweigelt

So what did you end up eating and drinking over the holidays?

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2009 Brundlmayer Zweigelt (1L) $15

Wine Safari with Foodista


My good friends at Foodista, Barnaby (auteur) and Andrea (charming co-star), put together a great little video tour of Esquin and were kind enough to let yours truly be the guide.

On our “wine safari” I help Andrea navigate the dizzying array of wine selections and give her some tips on how to find great wines in the face of unfamiliar names and labels. In the new year we hope to be working on some more videos focused on a single topic such as region, style, or varietal. (There also needs to be some rigorous work on my part to expunge “um’s” and “you know’s” from my on-camera work; it’s all a bit nerve-wracking!)

I’ll also be a bit more contentious, controversial, and contrarian. Because it’s who I am.

So is there any wine topic you’d like to see us potentially cover in 2011? Suggestions welcome!

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Prosecco: Freshness Matters!

Freshness matters!
Sometimes you can learn a lot about a wine from a back label. Let’s take the Bisol Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Crede for instance. This single-vineyard gem is not only thirst-slaking, palate-cleansing, and party-starting, but the good folks at Bisol are kind enough to let you know the vintage of the bottle in your hand. Even better, you can tell when it was bottled by deciphering the lot number. No Rosetta stone necessary: L10082 means it was bottled on the 82nd day of 2010. With most Proseccos, and sparkling wines in general, there is no way to discern freshness based on what you see on the label. (And here is where I must say that we sell oceans of bubbles at Esquin; nothing that we love sits around for any extended period of time.)

This is a practice I would like to see more sparkling wine producers undertake, beyond their vintage-dated offerings. For non-vintage wines that do not go through a secondary fermentation in the bottle, why not stamp the date it was bottled on the back label? If it’s good enough for Budweiser, it’s good enough for all your quality sparkling wines that peak in their youth.

Demand freshness!

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Bisol Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Crede: $20

Quintarelli: Great with Thai Food

Quintarelli WhiteLike Dal Forno Romano, the wines of Quintarelli will change your notions of the heights that great Valpolicella can reach. And, to my pleasant surprise, Quintarelli also makes a hell of a white wine.

The Secco Ca’ del Merlo is an unusual blend: Garganega, Trebbiano, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Saorin. (I have no idea what Saorin is.) Aromatic, medium-bodied, silky-textured, and refreshing as a mountain stream, it was pretty damn incredible with some Thai food we had delivered to the home of Esquin’s Wine Jedi, Arnie Milan. (I’m Luke to his Obi-Wan. Though I’d prefer to think of myself as more Han or Boba Fett. But I digress.)

And though I really love stylized wine labels, there is something really charming about Quintarelli’s scripted label. I love the unique look of his writing; I wish my chicken-scratch penmanship could hold a candle to it. Can someone please turn it into a font?

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2007 Quintarelli Secco Ca’ de Merlo: $52

Côtes du Rhône Goes With Everything

A Tasty Trio
I was at a spectacular family-style meal that started with a welcoming glass of white and a duo of wood-fired pizzas. As we sat down to our multi-course feast, I figured we would have a different wine with each dish. With the breadth of food coming, one wine could not possibly cover all the bases and be that versatile. Could it?!? Panic mode started to settle in. Egads, I only spy one red wine!

I quickly calmed down and realized I wasn’t there for some kind of dinner that required an army of appropriate glassware and a dizzying array of wines. It was an informal gathering (that became quite boisterous) in a quiet, out-of-the way location where we had glass after glass of an easy-drinking Côtes du Rhône: the 2008 Delas Saint-Esprit. What surprised me was how well it went with everything, from a squash soup to a frittata with sorrel to a bean gratin with bacon. I concluded it must be because this is a Grenache-intense blend with maybe a small dollop of Syrah.

And then I found out I was wrong. The Saint-Esprit is mostly Syrah with a little Grenache. The exact opposite of my well-reasoned, educated, professional conclusion based on years of experience. D’oh! Only 30% of the wine goes into barrels and the rest is left in tank so it retains a lot of freshness, has very low tannins, and isn’t heavy or sweet. And certainly being in a convivial setting, surrounded by delicious food and the laughter of friends both old and new, makes good wine taste great.

So if you had to choose one red to go with a multi-course meal, what would you pick?

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2009 Delas Côtes du Rhône “Saint Esprit” $12

Champagne: V is for Vilmart

Vilmart Champagne
I can admit to being a bit finicky and quite opinionated about Champagne. My strident feelings bubbled (hee hee) over at the uncritical stance many of my colleagues have towards Grower Champagne. (As opposed to negociants who often purchase grapes or juice to blend into their Champagne, growers own the land, harvest the grapes, and make the wine. You can tell a Grower Champagne from a negociant by looking for the tiny “RM” at the bottom of the label versus “NM”, respectively.) While most of my favorites are from growers, I felt that the discussion surrounding these Champagnes, sometimes affectionately referred to as (seriously) “Farmer Fizz”, and the larger houses seemed to cleave in an all-too tidy “us versus them” dichotomy. Just because a Champagne house is big (or owned by a large company) doesn’t mean it’s bad or that Grower Champagne is good solely based on heartstring-tugging sentimentality. Part of my stance on this issue I will admit comes from my penchant to be a contrarian, but I like to judge and recommend Champagne based on the most important criteria: taste.

But lest you think I sit around all day guzzling Fortune 500 Champagne, I must tell you about my new favorite producer. And it happens to be a grower. (“You liberal hippie!”) Tasting the Champagnes of Vilmart was a game-changer for me; they are simply the finest producer of the loveliest sparkling wines.

I’ll address the rosé first, the Cuvée Rubis. Wowzers! It’s as beautiful to look at as it is to drink. Sometimes there is a bit of hesitancy on the part of people to try rosé Champagne; but for bubbles fanatics like myself, they are often the most memorable and pleasurable. The Rubis teases out flavors of every red berry fruit you can imagine, from the sweet to the tart, with a rich finish that’s like a dollop of some yet-to-be-discovered, otherworldly creamy goodness.

The 2004 Grand Cellier d’Or is a stunner. Like Krug (which is in my mind the gold standard of Champagne; the 1996 may be the best wine period I’ve ever had), Vilmart ferments and ages the still wine in barrels before transforming it into Champagne. This process gives the wines a richness and complexity that does a gorgeous dance with Champagne’s natural acidity and liveliness. Somehow the Grand Cellier is both substantial and ethereal at the same time.

So what Champagnes are you looking forward to enjoying this holiday season?

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