Thursday, March 18, 2010

La Bouteille Mystère - Don't trust the French?

First off, I want to thank my friend Eric (an expat from France) and wine shop owner of Rouge Wine Cellar & Gifts in Creston Illinois for the inspiration and contribution to this post!

Eric was recently given this bottle of wine that he became very excited about even though he had no intention of ever opening it. The following are bits and pieces quoted from Eric along with some of my own observations.

The wine inside is said to be a "White Bordeaux Wine" from the 1969 vintage, bottled by Cruse & Fils, Frères and imported by "the sole distributor for the US" The Jos. Garneau Co, NY.

Eric observed a dark tea-like shade for its color, so it's obviously past its prime and will never be opened; too bad, because it would have been fun to taste this wine while it was in its prime, because tasting it would have allowed us a chance at identifying it. As I elaborate further, the labeling of this wine is full of a lot of contradictions, making it impossible to ever know for sure what's inside.

The label clearly states that this is a Bordeaux wine (Appellation Bordeaux Controlée), however, the shape of the bottle suggests that it's Burgundian. To confuse matters even more, there is also a tiny inscription on the neck that actually reads "Bourgogne - Bordeaux". For those of you not familiar with French geography, Bordeaux is found along the west coast of France just south of center. Burgundy on the other hand is found north east of Bordeaux along the eastern center of the country.

To the best of our knowledge, Bordeaux producers have never used a Burgundy shaped bottle for their wines. This is important because the region defines the grape variety and the shape of the bottle used. To add one more possibility to the mix, despite what it says on the neck about it being a "Bourgogne - Bordeaux", the wine could have come from the Loire valley which was almost unheard of by Americans in 1969, and is closer to Bordeaux (due north) than Burgundy. Like Bordeaux, Loire also grows Sauvignon Blanc, however they bottle their wines in Burgundian shaped bottles.

Back in 1969, Americans were consuming more off-dry white wines (partially sweet) than those that were completely dry. Bordeaux is also known for these types of wines; however so is the Loire. There is also one more strange clue. The label also says "Blanc de Blancs Brut", which would imply that you are now expecting a sparkling Chardonnay! The cork and foil however are what you find on a still bottle of wine, not a sparkling one. So why the "Blanc de Blancs" title indicating only white grapes were used to produce this white wine? You wouldn't find either Chardonnay or the blending of white and red grapes in a Boardeaux white wine!

With this information, my best guess narrows down the grape varieties to the following: If the wines were completely dry then it could be a Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire or Chardonnay from Burgundy. If the wine were a little sweet then perhaps a French Columbard from the Loire Valley or possibly a Chenin Blanc from the Loire village of Vouvray.

After perusing the Internet for a possible explanation, Eric found this in a WSJ article:

"Acting on an informant's tip, in June 1973, French tax inspectors barged into the offices of the 155-year-old Cruse et Fils Frères wine shippers. Eighteen men were eventually prosecuted by the French government, accused, among other things, of passing off humble wines from the Languedoc region as the noble and five-times-as-costly wine of Bordeaux. During the trial it came out that the Bordeaux wine merchants regularly defrauded foreigners."

It appears that around the same time this bottle was shipped to the US, the Cruse family was doing some shady blending between different wines from different regions, an absolute big "Non Non" in France, which could very well explain why there are so many contradicting elements to the labeling of this bottle. Today, it's amazing how obviously suspicious this bottle looks and yet somebody sold it and another bought it!

As Eric concludes, "I had only been drinking wine for 2 years in my baby bottles in 1969 but I bet I could have smelled the rat! I tell you my friends, don't trust the French when it comes to wine!"

And as one of Eric's French friends added "This is not fraud. This is great marketing. This bottle has all to attract all kinds of consumers: Burgundy amateur, Bordeaux collectors, White lovers and Sparkling drinkers. This is what one calls "to cover your bases." As for not trusting the French about wines: If on the sixth day God created Man and Woman on the seventh the French created wine fraud."


Tuesday, January 19, 2010

More Cheese Please...

I was inspired to write about cheese after reading a post by Shana Ray, (a poster on Twitter & Facebook) who asked the question: “Which is your favorite: Beer, Wine or Cheese?” I had to laugh at the responses, especially by one poster who asked “isn’t this the holy trinity?” Certainly, one could argue that Beer & Scotch (one of my other favorites) are one in the same; and could be included in this gastronomic trinity, but I digress.

Since my early childhood, cheese has been one of my favorite foods. My Grandmother used to cut us slices of sharp cheddar cheese and serve them with crackers and peanut butter for a mid day snack. I would always try to make sure that I had enough crackers to go along with each cheese slice (yes, I was a bit weird about my food even at the age of 5 & 6) and would inevitably get into a disagreement with one of my sisters as they tried to break up this synergy by snagging one of my crackers.

I have very fond memories of going into town with my Grandfather and stopping at the local delicatessen for some Monterey Jack. This wasn’t the rubbery white utility cheese that you find at your local grocer, but real aged Monterey Jack cheese that was much firmer but yet not as hard and dry as the aged jack that you can find at the Vella Cheese Factory in the town of Sonoma.

In high school after water polo or swim practice, my supplements weren’t vitamins or energy drinks; it was cheese, fries and Dr. Pepper. On my way home from school, I’d stop off first at the local deli and pick up a half pound of jack cheese, then stop next at the Dairy Bell for a large bag of French fries along with a large Dr. Pepper. All of this would be long gone by the time I reached home on my bike. Strangely a few hours later I would then devour dinner.

One of the highlights of visiting France and Italy is the abundance of artisan cheeses. Barbara and I have enjoyed many informal lunches in Europe that were composed of a local cheese, fresh baked bread accompanied by a local wine; nothing can beat this, especially if you are zooming through the countryside on a train, sitting out in a Piazza or just lounging on the veranda of your overnight accommodations watching life below. As a result of my first trip to France, I picked up two really great books on the topic: Cheese Primer by Steven Jenkins – Workman Publishing & French Cheeses by Eyewitness Handbooks.

Living in Sonoma County, it’s easy to take for granted the number of small, local purveyors of fine artisanal cheese. The one pictured here comes from the Joe Matos Cheese Factory in Santa Rosa, located just south of Todd Road on Llano Road. There you can buy direct, this wonderful cow’s milk Cheese called St. Jorge named after the Portuguese island in the Azores where the Matos family comes from. This cheese is dense but not what I would consider dry, with flavors that are dusty, sharp and nutty, a cross between a good jack and a sharp cheddar. What I like about this cheese is its versatility; not only can you enjoy it by itself with a glass of wine, this cheese melts really well and is great for pizza’s or grilled cheese sandwiches. I especially enjoy it on a Croque Monsieur.
If you weren’t already, I hope this has Inspired you to become a cheese head like me!
Bon Appetite!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

A Jewel of a Pinot

My first impression of Pinot Noir was probably like a lot of folks... not all that impressed. I mean, come on - where's the intensity? Where are the full ripe berry flavors that jump out at you like that of big ripe juicy Zins or Cabs? Where's the chewiness? I just thought that Pinot Noir was - OK - nothing special.

That was 20 years ago...

My ah ha moment came in the mid 90's. I was trying to introduce Pinot Noir to the students of my wine education classes. At first, I approached Pinot Noir as a variety that I was also trying to convince myself to like. I'd tell my students to be patient and give this grape a little respect. After all, some of the best wine is made in Burgundy, France! I was always met with the same reaction; the wines underwhelmed people.

Then it happened! I was at a little winery up in the Santa Cruz mountains who only made Pinot Noir. Wow - I was totally amazed and blown away. My next discovery came from a winery that I had been buying wine from for years. I had never given their Pinot Noir the time of day. Once I put on my Pinot glasses, I was hooked.

When I became a vintner, the last wine that I said I'd make was Pinot Noir. This was partially because of intimidation and partially because of economics. While I was writing my business plan, I hadn't discovered an affordable Pinot Noir vineyard and I was really afraid of making a mediocre wine. As luck would have it during our first year in Sonoma County, I was introduced to a Pinot Noir grower out in Carneros who had a new vineyard and no buyers. I played with the fruit in 2001 and was so impressed, I used this vineyard for our first commercial vintage in 2002 and kept using it until our 2008 vintage. In fact, our 2007 vintage received 2 gold medals; I feel I can truly say that I'm on the right path...

I bring up the past to explain how I fell in love with Pinot Noir and how I discovered Dutton Estate Winery / Sebastopol Vineyards. You see, just after harvest in 2002, I was on a quest to find some Pinot Noirs that were similar to the one that I was making. At the time, I felt like I was finally starting to understand Pinot Noir and become fine tuned to the different styles and what influenced them.

It was during our annual March Barrel Weekend outing in 2003 that we stopped in at Dutton Estate. We started talking to the winemaker and I mentioned that I had just gotten my first commercial vintage under my belt and that I was really interested in trying his Pinot Noirs.

As a result of our enthusiasm, he took us back into the winery and suggested that we try several, including his favorite, the Jewel Block. WOW - all four of us were amazed by the complexity; the wine was so young, yet it was showing off black cherry, dried cranberry and earth, along with tobacco and leather - it was a Pinot Noir lovers Pinot Noir. It had it all! And yet, this wine was also quite closed and was still awkwardly going through ML.

As the four of us walked into the winery, I asked if everyone felt like I did and was ready to drop the credit card on the register and order a case of futures. Nods came from everyone - so I proceeded to buy two cases of futures, one for each couple. No big deal, right? I mean, whatever it cost now, it was sure to go up in price when it was released in 12 months. So, I made my way out to the car to meet the others. My friend George asked how much he owed me so I gave him the figure; half of the purchase - and there was this pause - like, what? I said, yea, you bought a case and I bought a case... You should have seen the look in his eyes, and that of everyone else... they all started laughing at me because they had thought that I was going to SPLIT a case...

Fast forward twelve months. The new price of the wine had gone up even higher than what it was advertised at in March '03. I think it was released for almost $60 per bottle and we had paid something like $28 at Barrel Weekend in March - as it was, it was still expensive at the time. Talk about an investment... WOW - this wine turned out as good, if not better than I thought it would when we tried it from barrel. George was VERY thrilled to have his own case!

Seven years later this wine is still wowing me! Today, this wine is still showing some wonderful young fruit characteristics of black cherry, cranberry, leather and earth, along some tobacco notes. The tannins are also well balanced and integrated; there also appears to be enough tannin to allow this wine to age very gracefully over the next 10 years. I'd say that we really did find a JEWEL of a Pinot.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

My discovery of Sancerre

Barbara and I were on our first trip to France in the mid-90's. We were traveling with a couple of friends and an American couple who operated a barge in France during the tourist season. For a first time traveller to France, there were several benefits of booking this trip by way of barge. First, the owners spoke fluent French and could clue us in on French culture; Second, the owners were excellent cooks and enjoyed good food, cheese and wine;

During that first trip (that turned into many more over the years), I honestly don't know what I enjoyed the most. Was it the French scenery and culture; the endless selection of cheeses that I had never experienced before; or was it the introduction to French wine?

Certainly, one of the most memorable discoveries during this trip was of the French white wine known as Sancerre. The Sancerre Appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC) region is located on the eastern part of the Loire Valley, across from another well known white wine region, Pouilly-Fumé. The white wine grape variety in this region is Sauvignon Blanc. Instead of a strong grassy, herbal characteristic that most California Sauvignon Blancs are known for, Sancerre's tend to reflect a more citrus, fruity characteristic, influenced by the marl (chalky white limestone) soil.

One of the benefits that I often overlook when working with wine, are the R&D opportunities. For my own Sauvignon Blanc project, I was looking for a good example of Sancerre to evaluate and was turned onto this Domaine Michel Girard et Fils by my friend Eric, owner of Rouge, Wine Cellar & Gifts. This wine comes from the village of Verdigny, that stylistically has the reputation for wines that are balanced, fruit forward with citrus notes and less grassy than those of villages further to the southwest and away from the river where the soil has less gravel.

This wine did not disappoint! Hints of grass, followed by a warm citrus nose of orange blossom and grapefruit. On the palate, there is a creaminess that must come from regular stirring and aging in neutral oak, with citrus flavors of grapefruit and orange along with some lavender honey on the finish.

I'm hoping that by the summer of 2010, I will be releasing my first Sauvignon Blanc from Inspiration Vineyards. Stylistically, I'm aiming high towards this style of Sancerre!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving and the French

Long after our Country's first Thanksgiving, we had a choice... or more importantly, the French had a choice. Support those upstarts across the pond with some financial aid and some troops to defeat the British - or - deny them the financial aid that was requested by one of America's first Francophiles, Ben Franklin and let them go it "alone". Well, we all know what choice the French made, and in so doing, we speak English today!

Just as our ties with France dates back to the colonies and later, to our country's founding; so does our admiration of wines from France. Look at Thomas Jefferson, probably one of our country's first wine geeks! If you live on the "other" coast then you know what I mean and are probably more familiar with wines that come from France than those of us who live in California, the cornucopia of wine; folks from around here tend to not understand or appreciate wines made across the Atlantic. Maybe it's because we just don't think about buying French... or maybe it's because our choices are more limited than they are in, say New York?

So for Thanksgiving this year, I solute the French! We are adorning our table with a nice bottle of Chablis from Meuliere - 2006 Chablis, Domaine de la Meuliere to be exact. So this isn't a grand cru; but hey - why serve a grand cru w/ turkey? I mean, we are just ordinary folk who enjoys affordable, good wines!

I came upon this bottle from one of my customers, Eric from Rouge Wine Cellar & Gifts in Creston IL. You see, Eric IS French. He's also one of the nicest guys I know who is passionate about wine; ALL wines; as long as they are well made and GOOD!

On the nose there is a sweetness of honeydew melons; on the palate, clean flavors of lichee, honeysuckle and an edgy finish that slightly tastes like granny smith apples. The acidity if firm, not overpowering... but unlike most California Chardonnay's, this wine is not oaky or buttery. What I like most about this wine is that if I close my eyes, it takes me back to my first time in Chablis France; very unmistakable!

Check it out - wishing you a wonderful Thanksgiving...


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Day 1 - to blog or not to blog...

Being on the road alone selling wine provides plenty of time for reflection; especially when it's about the business that you own, and what you should be doing to help promote it.

For a couple of years now, I have been thinking about blogging. In fact, last year I made a very feeble attempt to create one, but never got around to spiffing it up, let alone adding content to it. Needless to say, it died on the day it was born. So why blog now?

One reason is because when I have time, I like to write. OK, so most of my writing is directed towards responding to emails, posting on Facebook and writing an occasional Tweet. However I do have an interest to write about the winery, the wines that I'm making along with observations and reviews about the wines and spirits that I regularly enjoy.

The problem is, writing takes time and a blog takes discipline; not to mention the fact that it also takes some creativity to put words down on virtual paper. So here I am, about a year or so later attempting to do something that I have never been able to do before... Consistently write about anything... in this case, about Inspiration Vineyards & Winery, including information about our wines, the vineyard, my daily life AND about the wines and spirits that I personally enjoy that inspired me to make this crazy career change in first place!

I'm almost done with Day 1 and my first post... before I leave, I thought that I'd create a list of topics that I promise to blog about in the coming days and weeks (and hopefully months...) All I ask (if someone out there is actually going to read this... and follow me...) is that you are patient with me at first, until I make the habit of writing a weekly and daily occurrence.

Upcoming topics - in no specific order...
  • Winemaking at Inspiration - crazy insights to why I'm doing this; the life cycle of wine from grape to glass; and Living the Dream...
  • Tasting Notes - Sancerre 101: I have a nice bottle of 2008 Domaine Michel Girard ready for tasting and reviewing; this leads to part two of this story, how is my own first attempt at Sauvignon shaping up in comparison?
  • Tasting Notes - Chablis 101: I acquired a nice bottle of 2006 Domaine de la Meuliere for another review; part two will revolve around my thoughts about the differences between Chardonnay made in Chablis and the Chardonnay that I make from the Russian River, and why I believe that less is more when it comes to the use of French Oak when making these wines.
  • Tasting Notes - Whisky anyone? I was given a bottle of Death's Door Whisky. Haven't heard of it yet? You will - and I'll be writing about and maybe include a recipe for the perfect Manhattan.