It’s Hard to Say Goodbye

This has not been easy.

Back in February, I guess, I realized that I would stop writing this blog. And I've been meaning to write a goodbye post, but it turns out that goodbye posts are difficult. I wrote this thing for over seven years! It's been an integral part of my life. I've learned so much and experienced so much because of writing this blog. Much has changed in my life while doing this - my job, my marriage, friends, my whole self...

How do I say goodbye? What can I write that conveys how grateful I am for having had this experience? Every time I feel like I want to sit down and write goodbye to you all, in the end I cannot pick up the pen. It feels too daunting. Part of me hasn't wanted to say goodby.

But it's been a long time, and I'm too busy to give this blog the kind of attention it needs - other things take priority now. It no longer feels like I do it for myself - if I write it's because it feels like I should. So it's time to stop.

Because I haven't been able to think of the right subject for a final post, because I can't come up with the right goodbye to you all, instead I will close out the Brooklynguy thing with what feels fitting to me - a simple dish and a humble but lovely wine to go with it.

I found a new farmer at my market (Bill Maxwell retired last season, to my sadness). Her asparagus are pretty darn good. I roasted a handful with a little olive oil and a bit of sea salt - that's it. Served next to a piece of blackfish, the sweet moderately-firm fish that eats shellfish. Barely dredged in flour, seared in butter, finished in the oven, topped with a mixture of green garlic, parsley, mint, a small pinch of red pepper flake, and black olives.

This was a nice weekend lunch. It was elevated by this very lovely Chablis.

I like Gilbert Picq's wines. This is a humble villages wine from 2012, a pretty good vintage, it would seem. I spent less than $20 for this bottle. Okay, it was best about 8 hours later, and so maybe would benefit from a couple years in the cellar. But who cares. I loved it with my weekend lunch. It has fresh and airy aromas that provide a glimpse into the briny, stony, floral splendor that a great Chablis offers. The palate is lively and balanced, and surprisingly long and pungent for a humble villages wine. Not every day is a 1er or Grand cru day. Most days aren't, actually. A good villages wine is a wonderful thing, if you can find a good one.

Thank you again for being here with me. I truly enjoyed it and I hope you did too. I'm not going to take the site down because I still enjoy poking through the old posts from time to time.

And now I will say goodbye, and wish you all the best.

More Thoughts on Quality.

First class seats on an airplane are better than the seats in coach. There is no question that this is true. They are more comfortable to sit in, they offer more space, they come with better food and drink, and also with the privilege of getting on and off of the plane before everyone else. They are the best seat on an airplane. They also cost a lot more than any other seat. Whether or not they are worth the expense is a decision that is our own, made according to our own individual calculus. That we have this decision and can opt not to buy first class seats does not imply, though, that there is some question about whether first class are best.

Wine is like this too - some are better than others. But it's much more complicated of a thing to appreciate this in wine and I think that there are three major reasons for this:

1) It's easy to for anyone, even a person who has never been on an airplane before, to understand why first class seats are better. Appreciating why one wine is better than another wine is not as straightforward.

2) We develop personal preferences, we find styles of wine that we like, prefer one kind of wine over another. It is easy and self-serving, even, especially as we gather more wine drinking experience, to assume that our personal preferences are in line with an objective truth about quality.

3) We get confused by price. We buy coach seats when we fly because, well, who can afford to fly first class? And no one wants to waste their lives wishing for what they cannot have. The $12 bottle of Château Peybonhomme les Tours Blaye Côtes de Bordeaux is delicious, terroir expressive, and entirely worthy of our attention. It might be among the best red wines at $12 in NYC today. But it is not better than first class, no matter how many bottles I can buy for the same price. It's more fun (or less unsettling, anyway) to think that we've struck gold in the high quality $12 bottle than it is to think about how much better Léoville-las-Cases is.
-----
If it sounds like I'm saying this from somewhere on high, I don't mean it that way at all. It's the opposite, actually. I've been trying to learn as much as I can about wine (while also enjoying drinking it) for the past ten years, and the point is, I'm still scratching the surface when it comes to any real knowledge of what is great wine and what is not. I simply am not exposed to enough wine, I cannot build the necessary context. I have come far enough, though, to know how much there is that I don't know.

Occasionally I do get to have an experience where I learn something real about quality. Here are two such recent experiences.

Right before Thanksgiving a friend and I drank the 2004 Éric Texier Côtes du Rhône-Brézème Domaine de Pergault. I bought three bottles on release in 2007 and this was my last bottle. Three years ago I drank a bottle and was not thrilled, but SF Joe, a guy who knows the wines pretty well suggested in the comments that I should give it a bit more time, perhaps three years more, in the cellar. He was absolutely right.
The wine was so much better three years later. Here is my note on drinking this wine in late November:
Just lovely, glad I waited for this. I caught the previous bottle too soon, as someone else suggested. Now this is mellow and alluring, with a rusty hue to the color, peppery, bloody, and floral aromas that are soft and gentle. Balanced and lovely on the palate too. The wine shows its class, but it also shows the limitations of the terroir - this is gorgeous wine, but it doesn't achieve the complexity or grandeur of great Syrah from a more illustrious site.
You can probably see where I'm going with this. Although the wine showed better three years later, and although it was delicious and I loved drinking it, it was not great wine. I was reminded of this the other night when I had dinner with a few friends that I haven't seen in a while and we drank a great Syrah by the culty Rhône producer Noël Verset. It was a wine made in what I understand is the worst modern vintage for northern Rhöne wines - 2002. It was lighter and perhaps even more rustic than Verset wines are in more typical vintages. But it was undeniably great wine. Two months later it became clear to me, this idea that Verset Cornas is better than Texier Côtes du Rhône. Really, is that such big news? No. I wonder though, what it means, to know this. If I were a rich person, would I buy and drink only Verset Cornas and the few other Syrahs of similar quality? If money were no object, would I make room for Texier Côtes du Rhône also, even if I could afford first class any time I wanted it? 

Recently a very generous friend opened a few mature first and second growth Bordeaux wines for a group of friends at dinner. He decanted them and we actually drank them without knowing which was which. We all thought that the same two wines were the best of the group, and that one of the two was better than the other. They turned out to be 1979 Latour and 1979 Pichon-Lalande, and the Latour was the better of the two. It's "supposed" to be better - it's a first growth wine and Pichon-Lalande is a second growth. But these wine classifications are not always accurate. In this case, if these wines are representative, the classification is spot on. Both wines were wonderfully aromatic and complex, and both were delicious and classic in their Bordeaux character, even if they came from an off vintage. But the Latour just was a more complete wine on the palate, it maintained a better presence through the midpalate and showed more complexity and depth on the finish. 

I read in Alexis Lichine's Guide to the Wines and Vineyards of France that Latour's vineyards literally abut those of Pichon-Lalande in Pauillac, and that Pichon-Lalande's vines spill over into St. Julien. The map in the book makes it look as though Latour's vines are closer to the river. As in many other places in France, and throughout the wine world, the distance of a stone's throw separates vineyards that are truly different in their potential. It's one thing to "know" this because others tell me so, or because the producers are classified as one thing or another. But to drink these wines side by side, with friends and over dinner - differences in quality become immutable, even to a relatively untrained eye like my own.

Back in the Saddle

I haven't written anything in a long time. It's hard to get started again. I've wanted to, but the longer it gets, the more inertia sets in. Perhaps the best way is simply to write something  - anything. Even just a list of recent wines I've loved. If it's fun, I'll write again another time.
The best red wine I've had in some time? A bottle of Beaujolais, but a special bottle - the 2011 Yvon Métras Moulin-à-Vent. This is not so easy to find here in the US, but whoa, it's worth looking for. Here's my note on the bottle: "Honestly, the finest red wine I've tasted in a while. A perfect bottle. Fragrant with fruit, flowers, stones, leaves. Beautifully expressive on the palate with complex fruit and mineral flavors, a structural firmness under the fruit that smacks of Moulin-à-Vent, texturally perfect, long on the finish - I'm trying to mention everything that's great about this wine which starts to feel silly. It really was just a wonderful bottle with a depth and expression of aroma and flavor that is fantastic." Métras is a cultish producer and that might turn some folks off. It turned me off, to be honest. But this bottle converted me. 

Then there's also this bottle, the 2008 Giuseppe Rinaldi Barbera d'Alba. Another one that is not easy to find here in the US. This bottle kind of blew me away. Pure and fresh, absolutely transparent in feel and the earthy minerality is pungent. The wine is so complex too - the finish is a melange of the herbal, the acidic, and the ripe but not overripe fruit (which itself is a melange of bright red raspberry and deep dark cherry). If you drink it now, save half for ay 2 - way better on day 2. I've not had too many Barberas, and I've had none that I loved except for a bottle a few years back by G. Conterno. This one, I loved, LOVED. Is this is what Barbera grown on great soils by a great wine maker is like?

The 2012 vintage of Tissot Poulsard is here and it's really good. For me, this is the Poulsard to buy and drink with impunity these days, as Overnoy is a unicorn and Ganevat costs $50. This wine needs a good decant to deal with the reduction, but it is absolutely delicious. It comes from very old vines and it has no added sulfur (which should raise alarms more than act as a selling point, in my book, but this one does it beautifully). It will greatly please Poulsard lovers but also I think would be a nice way to introduce a friend to the charms of light and weird red wine - it's accessible like that. Cranberries, blood oranges, hard spices, flowers, harmonious and beautifully textured, this wine packs a lot of interest into a very light frame. It costs about $25.

I'm still not entirely sure where I am with this wine. 2010 Weingut Günther Steinmetz Mülheimer Sonnenlay Pinot Noir Unfiltriert, as it is deftly named, might be an intense wine that offers way more complexity, terroir expression, and overall quality than its $23 price tag suggests is possible. Or it might just be an incredibly delicious and balanced Pinot from Germany. I can't tell yet. But I will tell you that I am vigorously enjoying the act of drinking the wine and further exploring this important question.

I still drink white wine. Way more than red, actually. Here are some recent whites that also wowed me:

2007 Fritz Haag Brauneberger Juffer-Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese. You know, I look back at my notes from drinking this wine and it's not as though I loved it on paper. But the thing is, I loved it. I've thought about it a lot since drinking it. Maybe it sounds obvious to you if you drink these wines, but the purity, the delicacy, the impeccable balance...it really got to me and I must have more.

2012 Bernard Ott Grüner Veltliner Am Berg. I think this is a great vintage for this wine. It's subtle and quiet, but absolutely delicious and entirely expressive of place and of Grüner. I like to decant this wine, and then there are clean and cooling aromas of sour cream, lemongrass, and green herbs. Quiet, but arresting. And versatile at the table. And about $18.

I dipped into my small stash of the very fine La Bota de Fino Nº 35, and whoa, is it drinking beautifully. This is a Fino selected from barrels in the Valdespino Inocente solera system. The overtly powerful personality of the wine has been tempered a bit and it now thrives on this amazing harmony of aroma and flavor. Complex, savory,  and shockingly delicious.

Just to see what's what, I opened a bottle of 2008 Gilbert Picq Chablis 1er Cru Vogros. It reminded me that it's possible to drink real Chablis, truly satisfying Chablis, elegant and bantam weight Chablis that really smacks of seashells, iodine, and white flowers, for under $30. I like this wine in every vintage I've tasted. This one drinks very well right now, but takes 90 minutes to get there and seems like it will improve with another few years in the cellar. But whoa, when it got there it was rewarding.

That was kind of fun, writing this. For me, anyway.

An Evening with the Champagnes of Benoît Lahaye

Benoît Lahaye is probably the best grower/producer in Bouzy right now. I use "probably" because I haven't sat down recently with a bottle of Champagne by Camille Savés or Paul Bara. But I feel pretty confident on this one. Lahaye is making excellent wines, mostly of Pinot Noir from Bouzy.

Lahaye is a smart winemaker, strategically varying in his use of wood for fermentation, using naturally occurring versus selected yeasts, cork or crown capsules for secondary fermentation, presence or absence of malolactic fermentation, and deftly blending wines. There are 8 cuvées, I think, which sounds like a lot for a guy who owns fewer than 5 hectares of land. There's just not a large supply of any of the wines. He is also ultra-conscientious as a grape farmer. The first paragraph of Peter Liem's profile of Lahaye on ChampagneGuide.net describes this:
A passionate advocate of natural winegrowing, Benoît Lahaye took over his family’s estate in 1993 and has been bottling wine under his own label since 1996. He became interested in natural viticulture early on, and inspired by Patrick Meyer in Alsace, Lahaye completely stopped using systemic herbicides in 1994. By 1996 he had begun to work organically, in addition to using cover crops in the vineyards and experimenting with biodynamic treatments; the estate was fully converted to organic viticulture in 2003, and certified organic in 2007. Lahaye has noticed a pronounced difference in his wines since the transition to organic farming. “It’s not really a question of being better,” he says, “but my wines attain higher levels of ripeness now, while retaining the same level of acidity.”
I first tasted a Lahaye wine on the same day that I first met my good friend Peter - he brought a bottle of the 2002 vintage wine back from France and shared it over dinner in Portland. Since that day I drink the wines at every opportunity. Bottles are not easy to find, but there were always a few places. I used to drink the rosé off the list at Vinegar Hill House when it was something like $55. I could find a bottle here and there at places like Chambers Street and Crush. Peter always told me that a decade from now there are a few Champagne producers who will be widely recognized as superstars, and Lahaye is one of them. buy the wines now, while you can, he said.

I am not an expert with Lahaye wines. But here is my take: like many Champagnes, they show better when they are opened well ahead of drinking them. I've never had a mature bottle, so I have no idea how they age. But the young bottles - open them a few hours before you want to drink them, if you can. And if you cannot, consider decanting, although that can change the texture of the wine. Lahaye's wines generally show great intensity of character, as opposed to opulence or overt richness. The best bottles show vivid and detailed aromas and flavors, and provide hours of interest and deliciousness. I find these to be particularly food-friendly Champagnes, too, working well with a good variety of dishes.

All of that said, I've never tasted the lineup of wines in one sitting. I've never opened more than one Lahaye bottle at a time - I've never done anything with Lahaye wines other than to enjoy them bottle by bottle. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But I was excited, then, when a few friends agreed that it would be good fun to find as many bottles as we could and to drink them all together, over dinner.

We did this on a recent night and it happened that the weather turned entirely weird, reaching over 60 degrees on a December day, and poured rain in buckets. There are some evenings when the wines show beautifully. This was not one of them, my friends. The wines were fine, but did not show much of the intrigue and beauty that made us fans in the first place. There were things to appreciate and I very much enjoyed them. But some of the folks at the table who had not previously had a lot of Lahaye wine - those folks perhaps think that the rest of us are weird for loving this producer.

Here are the wines we drank, along with some notes (we found everything except for the Brut Nature and the Blanc de Noirs):

Benoît Lahaye Champagne Brut Essential (I'm not sure of the base year here, but I believe it was 2009) - as one might expect, this turned out to the the most accessible of the wines on the table, but hours later as we revisited the wines, it was the one that held up the best on this evening of strange fluctuations in humidity and air pressure. This is a blend of mostly Pinot Noir (85%) and Chardonnay and it is overtly delicious, although less complicated than the other wines on the table. But it is a good example of what Lahaye wines tend to be - ripe but entirely focused, vinous and intense and with a certain purity of expression.

Benoît Lahaye Champagne Naturessense Brut - this is made of equal parts old vines Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, from a blend of vintages. It is unusual in that it is vinified entirely in wood, and on this night the immediate impression of the wine reflected this. It was distinctly woody in the first half an hour, and although there were nice aromas of creamy lemon and stone in there somewhere, I found the wood to be distracting. But then 90 minutes later when I came back to the wine, the wood was much better integrated and the wine showed much better. I enjoyed the merging of the influences of red berry and lemony fruit, creamy richness, and focused minerality here, and I would like to drink this again on another night soon. I'm not convinced that our experience was representative of the wine.

Benoît Lahaye Champagne 2007 Brut - One of the great values in Champagne right now, Lahaye's vintage wine showed well even on this poor night. This wine is also vinified in barrel, although I find no real wood influence in the wine. It took a while to unfold on this night, and I doubt we experienced it at its best, but I love this wine in general for its deep darkly intense Bouzy fruit, its elegant balance, and its almost vicious minerality. There is a lot of material here and this seems like something to forget about for a while in the cellar.
Benoît Lahaye Champagne (2009) Violane Brut Nature - This is the newest of the Lahaye wines,  and this one based on 2009 is the second release. This is a Champagne made without the addition of sulfur. Okay, I'm not a fan of "natural wines" just because they are "natural." This one, however, is compellingly delicious. It was immediately and entirely apart from the other wines on the table in its fruitiness. Grapey, almost. In a good way. Clean and pure dark fruit really vibrates here, and underneath that, chalk. But on this evening, it didn't hold up well, and the thread that held the wine together began to come undone. But I know this to be a great wine and I think it just showed very poorly on this night.

Benoît Lahaye Champagne Brut Rosé de Macération (2009, I think) - Lahaye's rosé has been available here in NYC for longer than many of his other wines. It seems to be a polarizing wine. I've drunk bottles with wine lovers who simply do not enjoy it, and on this recent evening I heard one person say that it has an unpleasant yeasty sense to it. I love the wine, unabashedly. It is made using whole clusters in fermentation. Yup, like some Burgundy producers do, including Dujac and Chandon de Briailles. It is dosed at a very low level - 3 grams here, if this was in fact based on 2009. The wine just doesn't play like a typical rosé of Champagne. It takes hours to open up after pulling the cork (what would it be like if I left a bottle in the cellar for 10 years?). It is vinous and intense, and I think sometimes it drinks more like a light red wine than a rosé. After an hour or two, I thought our bottle was drinking beautifully. Other folks did not love it the way I did.

Benoît Lahaye 2007 Coteaux Champenois Bouzy Rouge - One of the great names in wine, Bouzy Rouge. Lahaye's is considered to be one of the great red wines of Champagne. On this night, this bottle also was somewhat controversial. I am a fan of red wine from Champagne. When well made, it is a special and delicious thing that is uniquely expressive. This bottle was fascinating to me, with aromas that were darkly mineral and savory, and with a sort of primal forest-y sense. The palate, however, felt constricted and a bit simple, and the wine probably needs more time in the cellar in order to show its best, as might be expected with Pinot Noir from good terroir. Five or six is probably not a good age for a wine like this. Go younger or older, I would think. Still, I liked the wine and would be curious to drink it again in another 5 years. Others felt that they would have liked it more if it cost $25. Fair enough, although I think that part of the point of the wine is lost when thinking about it in those terms.

So, that's it - our evening with Benoît Lahaye's Champagnes. Although this was not a great night for the wines, I heartily recommend them if you like soil-expressive red grape heavy Champagne.

Thank You Bill Maxwell

Bill Maxwell, the New Jersey farmer is retiring at the conclusion of his market season this year. I've been buying his vegetables and fruit for about 10 years now and in that time I've come to see his as the finest and most consistent produce that I can buy. And it's not just me - in the peak spring and summer months it's necessary to get to Maxwell's stand before 8:00 AM if you want baby artichokes, asparagus, okra, and other wonderful things that he has in short supply. And let me tell you that at 7:30 AM on a summer Saturday you are jostling over a small bin of fava beans with the owner of Franny's and several other Brooklyn restaurants.
Over the years I've developed a little bit of a friendship with Bill. We don't go out for beers or anything. It's the kind of friendship you develop with someone when you do personal business with them for a long time. I look forward to Saturday mornings. We always chat a bit - baseball, the weather at his farm, the state of our lives post-divorce, whatever. His hands are rough like a coral bed and his weathered face is beautiful. His smile is warm and he's nice to children. He's a genuinely good man.

A few summers ago I took my young daughters to visit him at his farm in new Jersey. He helped them pick ears of sweet corn in the field, and we shucked and ate them right there. Every time I post photos of vegetables on this blog, from baby artichokes to shell beans to tomatoes, they are things that Bill grew. I can't begrudge him for retiring, but I do wonder how I will replace his food in my family's life.

Happy retirement Bill Maxwell! I will miss your wonderful food, and I will miss you!

I will miss your carrots.

I will miss your pole beans.

I will miss your cauliflower.

I will miss your limas.

I will miss your garlic - I got 20 stalks last week and will figure out how to preserve them.

I will miss your bell peppers.

I will miss your cucumbers.

And lord above, will I miss your tomatoes. I cannot tell you how much.

May your new post-retirement life bring you the same contentment that you brought to all of us through your work as a farmer.

Thanksgiving Wines, yet again.

This time of year I always feel like staying out of the internet chatter on what wine to drink with the Thanksgiving meal. But I just looked back and in almost every year that I've written this blog, I do in fact make some Thanksgiving recommendations. I first did this in 2006 and nothing about the way I approach this has changed. Although I got funnier in 2010, I would say.

Wines for Thanksgiving? In sum, keep it refreshing and lively, try to keep the alcohol to a minimum, and as a good friend of mine says, "You don't want your clients to remember you because of your fancy suit." Point being, it's not about flash. Quality speaks for itself and the wine isn't the point of your family meal anyway. But you do want to drink good wine, right?

Here's what I'm bringing this year, because I know that you cannot enjoy your Thanksgiving holiday without this vital information:

Cyril Zangs Sparkling Cider - 6% alcohol, dry, refreshing, made from apples. About $15. Delicious.

2010 Günther Steinmetz Wintricher Geierslay Riesling Sur Lie - 10% alcohol, almost dry, creamy and refreshing, made from grapes, about $23.

Emilio Hidalgo Fino Sherry - 15% alcohol, bone dry, refreshing, about $12 for a 750ml bottle. Okay, this one is not guaranteed to go over with the family, but wow it seems like it would make everything on the table taste better.

2010 Clos Siguier Cahors - 12.5% alcohol, fresh and fruity old vines Malbec that's easy to drink and of high quality. About $13.

2012 Domaine de Sablonnettes Le Bon P'tit Diable - 12.5% alcohol, fresh and fruity Cabernet Franc that's easy to drink and of high quality. About $15.

2011 Château La Grolet Cotes de Bourg - a soil expressive blend of mostly Merlot, a delicious and traditionally-styled Bordeaux wine that will give lots of pleasure at the table. About $14. If the first two red wines are "easier" to drink, this one offers greater soil expression and complexity. Consider decanting, unless it makes your family feel as though you are putting on airs.

There, now you can enjoy your holiday.

Drinking a Few Things from the Cellar

In 2005 I got into wine again, after a long time away. I bought some bottles and drank all of them. In 2006 I continued to buy wine to drink but I also bought some wines with the intention of cellaring them. According to my records I still have 18 of those bottles. I still have over 50 bottles of wine that I purchased in 2007.

There are bottles in that group that I hope to hold onto for a good while longer, and there are others that seem like great candidates for drinking over the next year or two. I think it was the VLM who once wrote that the beautiful thing about collecting wine is not necessarily the trophies you can open on a grand night with fellow wine lovers. It's that you get to a point when you can go into your own cellar and open a mature bottle, and you can do so on a Monday night, just because you feel like it.

For this to really work, though, I have to still like, or at least be interested in the wines I bought 6, 7, and 8 years ago. Have your tastes changed in the past 7 years? Mine have. But as I look through my cellar I see that there really aren't too many things that I am no longer interested in. That would be a great theme actually - a "bring-a-bottle-you-purchased-years-ago-but-no-longer-care-about" wine dinner.

As I look through my remaining purchases from 2006 and 2007, I see that the wines are mostly Loire Valley and Burgundy wines, and that I did better with the Loire selections. Huet, Chidaine, Clos Rougeard, Baudry, Foreau...hard to argue with that. The Burgundy wines are mostly villages and "lesser" 1er cru wines, and I bet they will be delicious. But they are not things I would buy today, for the most part. It's just a matter of price - there are many wines today I would prefer to buy with my  $45 than Voillot villages Volnay or Pommard, for example. That said, I am the proud owner of both wines and look forward to trying them.

So, I've started to dig in lately. In each of the past two weeks I've opened a bottle that I purchased a few years ago. Last Monday I made a simple dinner of skirt steak and vegetables and opened the 2005 Terrebrune Bandol. Yes, yes, I know, this sort of Bandol wine can take 20 years before it hits a true window of maturity. Here was my thinking - 2005 was a ripe year and the wine might be more generous than is typical. And before investing another 10 years in this wine (I have more than 1 bottle), why not check in to see how it's progressing?

I am a fan of Terrebrune - the wines can be great. I've had excellent examples from the '80s and early '90s. I love the rosé too. When they're good they are intensely powerful and sturdy wines but they're also graceful wines, not heavy. And they faithfully express the animale wildness of Mourvedre grown in this hot southern clime. This bottle was not so great, though. On the first night it was exuberant and pleasing in its ripe, deep, dark, and spicy fruit. But there was not a great deal of complexity and the finish tailed off in a rather drastic way, leaving not much more than an impression of tannins. On the second night the wine is more harmonious, the fruit and the tannins better integrated. But still, the wine did not speak so clearly of Bandol to me. Where is the musk, the leather, the soil? Maybe the wine is closed down, or maybe I'm just not going to be a fan of this sort of wine in the warm vintages.

I had much better luck this week. On Monday night the daughters helped me make a bunch of gray sole fillets for dinner. They seasoned some flour, dredged the fillets, kind of wiped their hands before touching everything else on the counter top, and we sauteed the fillets in butter. Ate them with a heap of rice and vegetables.
I opened a bottle of Muscadet, one of the great wines from that place - the 2004 Domaine de la Louvetrie Muscadet le Fief du Breil. I loved this particular wine when it was young and saved a bottle to see what would happen when it turned 10 years old. I made it past 9 years old, so that's close. The aromas were pure and clean, and pungent in that way that happens as wine ages. It smelled of preserved lemons and saltwater, and tasted predominantly of rocks, finished briny and long. If it sounds a bit austere, it was, but that can be a good thing, and this wine was compelling and delicious. And it seems as though it will continue to develop, and perhaps improve, for another decade. This is solid stuff. I spent $13.50 on it 6 years ago.

This is going to be fun, digging into some of the things I bought.

Sausages and Beaujolais Will Make You Feel Better

You know how when you go to your parent's place out of town because your dad is getting older and doesn't feel so well these days, and you want to help out and so you offer to seal the wood on the deck before the winter sets in? And you get up there where it's a solid 10 degrees colder than it is the city, and it's very quiet? And you walk by the lake and see the gorgeous fall colors? And you light a fire in the fireplace in the evening? And you feel generally happy and at peace?

But you're a city kid so you're not an expert on applying stain or sealant to wood on decks. And so you leave a little extra time and resolve to do it right. But you know how in the country it seems to get darker a little earlier? And so all of the sudden there's not a lot of daylight left and you're rushing? And you pack up, lock the house, and throw everything back in the car before doing the sealing so that when you're done you can just get in the car and drive home?

Well, my advice to you next time you do those things is to make sure that you take your keys with you before you seal the deck, so that you don't have to walk back onto the wood to get back into the house to retrieve your keys. Because then you have to re-seal the deck and that takes a little while, in only the light of dusk, and you feel like a real idiot.

But if you happen to forget your keys then here is one thing you can do:
Make yourself a hearty plate of lentils, real sauerkraut, and a fresh Kielbasa from Jubilat Provisions. You should probably throw a few chunks of smoked pork belly in with the lentils, too. Never mind that it was a long and cold drive home, and your hands still smell like sealant. Lentils, sauerkraut, and really good Kielbasa will make you forget how dopey you were with the deck. You are allowed to feel good again.

And use good mustard. This one is so good, I recently ate a spoonful, just right out of the jar. 

Oh - and drink Beaujolais too. Preferably from a ripe year, hopefully with a few years of bottle age. See? That's not so bad. Maybe next weekend there will be leaves that need raking, or wood to chop, or something.

Burgundy Price Sadness, Champagne as Consolation

I love Burgundy wine and would happily drink both the reds and the whites several times a week for the rest of my days. I do not like, however, paying for Burgundy wine. It's not that I refuse to spend money on wine - I splash out a bit here and there. Over the years, though, I like to think I've become smarter about how I spend my wine dollars. Now, when I spend $25 on a bottle of wine I want to buy something that represents the best wine I can get for that $25. When I spend $50, I want the best wine possible for $50. And it makes me sad to admit to myself that in the price range where I spend most of my time, I no longer think Burgundy represents the best I can get for my money.

Wine old timers will talk about the days when you could buy Roumier Bonnes Mares on the shelf for $100, and other sordid tales. I was not buying wine in those days. But even 5 or 6 years ago it was possible in NYC to buy truly top quality Burgundy wine for $75 - wines from great terroir that would improve over time and reveal great detail and nuance, and would be utterly delicious. The top Chevillon Nuits St. Georges 1er Cru wines were approximately that price. Fourrier 1er Crus from Gevrey, D'Angerville 1er Crus, and plenty of other wines that are truly exceptional. Those wines cost way, way more now. Today my favorite wine store in the world sent out an email advertising 2011 Burgundies and Chevillon 1er Cru Les Cailles costs $145. Les Cailles is a great vineyard and Chevillon is a wonderful producer - there is no question in my mind that this will be excellent wine. If money were no object, I would buy some.

For most of us, money is a limiting factor. There is no conceivable situation in which I could imagine buying 2011 Chevillon Les Cailles for $145, and this has nothing to do with the quality of that wine. It has everything to do with the other wines I could buy for that same money, if I were to spend that money on a bottle of wine. Some of you will now say "But if you want Chevillon you can still buy 2011 Chevillon 1er Cru Bousselots or Pruliers for $115." Same problem - there are other things I would buy for that same money, were I to spend that money on a bottle of wine. The villages wine, the 2011 Chevillon Nuits St. Georges Vieilles Vignes costs $75. $75!

All European wine has gone up in price in the past 5 or 6 years. The rate of increase in Burgundy seems to be more accelerated than most, however, and it means that I drink way less Burgundy wine, which makes me feel sad. That said, there are still places to spend that $75, should you spend that kind of money on a bottle of wine (and the holidays are coming up people), and to feel confident that you are getting the best wine for your money. For me, one of the very best places to spend up to $75 on a bottle of wine right now (NYC market prices) is Champagne. I know, that sounds weird - Champagne as a value. I don't mean it that way, exactly. I mean to say that I think that if you are spending $75 in a NYC wine store right now, Champagne in general is the place where you can get the finest wine, objectively speaking.

Here are a few of the producers whose wines can be purchased at or below that price point, and that I believe represent truly exceptional quality:

Roederer - yup, I'm leading with a big house. The vintage Blanc de Blancs is for me one of the reference standards for Chardonnay in the Côte des Blancs. The wine is delicious young but has the acidity and structure to age well. And this is why I'd rather spend my $75 here than on Chevillon VV - Roederer's vintage Blanc de Blancs is in the upper echelon of wines made of Chardonnay from that place. Chevillon VV is not. 
Bereche - The whole lineup is of very high quality, and vintage wines made entirely of Meunier or from Chardonnay that are entirely expressive of place can be had for under $75. The rose in the photo above costs a bit more, maybe $90. But that's less than 2011 Chevillon 1er Cru Bousselots. I'm not picking on Chevillon - I am in love with those wines. I resent the new pricing though.
Savart - Harder to find (check Chambers Street) but the wines are fantastic. The one in the photo is exceptional, and can be had for about $55. If this were Burgundy of similar quality it would cost $125.

Larmandier-Bernier - specifically the Terre de Vertus (in my book). One of the grand wines of Champagne, according to none other than Peter Liem, and the 2008 (but this is never a vintage wine) release is on the shelf now, for under $75.

Rene Geoffroy - I like the whole lineup and think it is vastly undervalued, even among Champagne lovers. Empriente, for example, the vintage (but not vintage dated) wine made mostly of Pinot Noir is exceptional and one of the finest of its type and can be had for under $70.

Diebolt-Vallois - the Prestige Brut Blanc de Blancs is always great - big and lusty, and entirey focused at the same time. This is tremendous wine for about $60.

There are many others - I just included the ones that I drank recently enough to still have photos (and aso Geoffroy and Roederer because I love them). Now, what can we do collectively to bring Burgundy prices back to a reasonable level? Or must we accept this, the indignity of no longer buying the wines?

En Rama Sherry

A few years ago Equipo Navazos Sherries began to get a lot of attention, and this opened the floodgates here in the US - a new generation of wine lovers became interested in tasting and drinking Sherry. There are many special things about the wines bottled under the Equipo Navazos label. One of them is that the wines are bottled with minimal filtration.

Young whippersnapper wine connoisseurs such as myself may take this unfiltered thing for granted. The Burgundy, Loire, and most of the other wine I buy is either unfiltered or minimally filtered. But with Sherry, this is typically not the case. A little over two years ago I wrote something about this that was fun (for me, anyway) to go back and re-read. At that point there were almost no unfiltered Sherries to buy here in NYS. Equipo Navazos, and Pastrana - a Manzanilla Pasada by Bodegas Hidalgo (La Gitana). Now, however, it seems as though everyone makes an unfiltered wine. I thought it would be good to revisit this subject, to take a look at the current NYC market for these wines.

First, a couple of basics:

Fino style Sherry (including Fino, Manzanilla, and wines from El Puerto de Santa Maria) is aged in barrel under a layer of living yeast, called flor. To bottle the wine without filtration would mean bottling bits of flor, perhaps still living, and various other solid matter. Most producers opt instead to bottle their wines after a heavy filtration. This allows the wines to be more stable during their overseas journey and the subsequent movement to warehouse and eventually to retail shelves or restaurant refrigerators. Stabilizing though it may be, this heavy filtration strips the wine of solid particles that contribute significant color, aroma, and flavor - the resulting wines are typically pale and without the complex aroma and depth of flavor that makes Sherry great. Consider the following quote from page 72 of Peter Liem's book Sherry, Manzanilla, & Montilla: a Guide to the Traditional Wines of Andalucia:
What is insidious about this, in our opinion, is that we as consumers are now trained to believe that the pale color of these wines in bottle is natural. In fact, fino and manzanilla are not naturally pale in color, nor are they particularly light in body, except perhaps in relation to other types of sherry. By definition, they are aged wines, having spent many years in cask - even the simplest of these is aged in barrel for at least two years, and the best versions for much longer. When sampling a fino or manzanilla from cask, its color is pronounced, is aromas are pungent, and its presence on the palate is much richer than one might anticipate. All of this is lost, or at least significantly modified, by excessive filtration.
When we fell for dry Sherry all over again, we fell for wines that had not been filtered in this way. Okay, Equipo Navazos filters wines before bottling, but lightly, "just to remove the flies," they like to say. But it is this lightly filtered style of wine that was our gateway drug. And as the market for fine Sherry continues to grow, more producers are releasing an en Rama, or unfiltered version of their brand. Here are those that I can think of off the top of my head:
  • Tio Pepe now releases Tio Pepe en Rama (and also the Palmas, which are lightly filtered).
  • Gutierrez Colosía bottled an en Rama version called Amerigo of their lovely Fino el Cano.
  • Lustau released an en Rama Fino, a Manzanilla, and a wine from El Puerto. 
  • Bodegas Hidalgo now releases an en Rama version of La Gitana.
  • Valdespino releases an en Rama version of their Deliciosa Manzanilla.
  • Barbadillo releases four en Rama versions of their Solear Manzanilla, one for each of the seasons (!!).
  • And soon Fernando de Castilla will release an en Rama Fino.

I'm sure there are others and I'm just not remembering them right now. This is such a great thing for Sherry lovers. We can taste different versions of the wines we love, experience them in a state that is closer to what they were in barrel. But please notice that I did not say "better," I said different. Deliciosa is a lovely Manzanilla, brisk, saline, and focused. Deliciosa en Rama is excellent too, with more expression and detail of aroma and flavor. But it's also more spread out on the palate - less focused, and feels a bit rustic in comparison. That's not a bad thing. The en Rama bottling showcases one style of wine and the regular bottling showcases another.

All of these en Rama wines are worthy of your attention. But I have a favorite - let me tell you about Barbadillo's Solear en Rama. First of all, Solear is an excellent Manzanilla, averaging 7 years of age and fully expressive.

The unfiltered versions are also excellent, even better in my opinion, with an amplified feeling of lemon-enriched flor character and a more expressive saline minerality. What sets these wines apart, for me, though is the almost shocking complexity of aroma and the intensely savory nature of the palate. These things are true of the wine in all four seasonal releases, although the recent 2012 winter bottling was as darkly savory a wine as I've encountered. And the 2013 spring bottling is ridiculous, the best version of this wine that I've tasted, combining great focus and lightness of body with great intensity and richness of flavor. Joe Salamone at Crush has worked hard to bring these wines to the NYC market, and although they are gone for now, the summer 2013 bottles should be out soon.

If you like Sherry, and I think that you do, you should make a point to seek out and taste these en Rama wines. But as you do, I hope you will not feel that en Rama automatically means that the wine is great, or that it is better than its filtered counterpart. En Rama represents a style of wine, and that you might prefer the more filtered counterpart. That's not wrong - Solear is delicious. So is Deliciosa. Drink both styles next to each other and see if you prefer one over the other. The amazing thing is that you can do that, with 375 ml bottles, for under $40. That, my friends, will not last.

En Rama Sherry

A few years ago Equipo Navazos Sherries began to get a lot of attention, and this opened the floodgates here in the US - a new generation of wine lovers became interested in tasting and drinking Sherry. There are many special things about the wines bottled under the Equipo Navazos label. One of them is that the wines are bottled with minimal filtration.

Young whippersnapper wine connoisseurs such as myself may take this unfiltered thing for granted. Most, if not all of the wine I buy from Burgundy, the Loire Valley, and elsewhere is either unfiltered or minimally filtered. But with Sherry, this is typically not the case. A little over two years ago I wrote something about this that was fun (for me, anyway) to go back and re-read. At that point there were almost no unfiltered Sherries to buy here in NYS. Equipo Navazos, and Pastrana - a Manzanilla Pasada by Bodegas Hidalgo (La Gitana). Now, however, it seems as though everyone makes an unfiltered wine. I thought it would be good to revisit this subject, to take a look at the current NYC market for these wines.

First, a couple of basics:

Fino style Sherry (including Fino, Manzanilla, and wines from El Puerto de Santa Maria) is aged in barrel under a layer of living yeast, called flor. To bottle the wine without filtration would mean bottling bits of flor, perhaps still living, and various other solid matter. Most producers opt instead to bottle their wines after a heavy filtration. This allows the wines to be more stable during their overseas journey and the subsequent movement to warehouse and eventually to retail shelves or restaurant refrigerators. Stabilizing though it may be, this heavy filtration strips the wine of solid particles that contribute significant color, aroma, and flavor - the resulting wines are typically pale and without the complex aroma and depth of flavor that makes Sherry great. Consider the following quote from page 72 of Peter Liem's book Sherry, Manzanilla, & Montilla: a Guide to the Traditional Wines of Andalucia:
What is insidious about this, in our opinion, is that we as consumers are now trained to believe that the pale color of these wines in bottle is natural. In fact, fino and manzanilla are not naturally pale in color, nor are they particularly light in body, except perhaps in relation to other types of sherry. By definition, they are aged wines, having spent many years in cask - even the simplest of these is aged in barrel for at least two years, and the best versions for much longer. When sampling a fino or manzanilla from cask, its color is pronounced, is aromas are pungent, and its presence on the palate is much richer than one might anticipate. All of this is lost, or at least significantly modified, by excessive filtration.
When we fell for dry Sherry all over again, we fell for wines that had not been filtered in this way. Okay, Equipo Navazos filters wines before bottling, but lightly, "just to remove the flies," they like to say. But it is this lightly filtered style of wine that was our gateway drug. And as the market for fine Sherry continues to grow, more producers are releasing an en Rama, or unfiltered version of their brand. Here are those that I can think of off the top of my head:
  • Tio Pepe now releases Tio Pepe en Rama (and also the Palmas, which are lightly filtered).
  • Gutierrez Colosía bottled an en Rama version called Amerigo of their lovely Fino el Cano.
  • Lustau released an en Rama Fino, a Manzanilla, and a wine from El Puerto. 
  • Bodegas Hidalgo now releases an en Rama version of La Gitana.
  • Valdespino releases an en Rama version of their Deliciosa Manzanilla.
  • Barbadillo releases four en Rama versions of their Solear Manzanilla, one for each of the seasons (!!).
  • And soon Fernando de Castilla will release an en Rama Fino.

I'm sure there are others and I'm just not remembering them right now. This is such a great thing for Sherry lovers. We can taste different versions of the wines we love, experience them in a state that is closer to what they were in barrel. But please notice that I did not say "better," I said different. Deliciosa is a lovely Manzanilla, brisk, saline, and focused. Deliciosa en Rama is excellent too, with more expression and detail of aroma and flavor. But it's also more spread out on the palate - less focused, and feels a bit rustic in comparison. That's not a bad thing. The en Rama bottling showcases one style of wine and the regular bottling showcases another.

All of these en Rama wines are worthy of your attention. But I have a favorite - let me tell you about Barbadillo's Solear en Rama. First of all, Solear is an excellent Manzanilla, averaging 7 years of age and fully expressive.

The unfiltered versions are also excellent, even better in my opinion, with an amplified lemon-enriched flor character and a more expressive saline minerality. What sets these wines apart, for me, though is the almost shocking complexity of aroma and the intensely savory nature of the palate. These things are true of the wine in all four seasonal releases, although the recent 2012 winter bottling was as darkly savory a wine as I've encountered. And the 2013 spring bottling is ridiculous, the best version of this wine that I've tasted, combining great focus and lightness of body with great intensity and richness of flavor. Joe Salamone at Crush has worked hard to bring these wines to the NYC market, and although they are gone for now, the summer 2013 bottles should be out soon.

If you like Sherry, and I think that you do, you should make a point to seek out and taste these en Rama wines. But as you do, I hope you will not feel that en Rama automatically means that the wine is great, or that it is better than its filtered counterpart. En Rama represents a style of wine, and you might prefer the more filtered counterpart. That's not wrong - Solear is delicious and so is Deliciosa. Drink both styles next to each other and see if you prefer one over the other. The amazing thing is that you can do that, with 375 ml bottles, for under $40. That, my friends, is something that will not last.

Sherry Fest 2013

The second annual Sherryfest just wrapped up in New York City. Peter Liem and Rosemary Gray did an excellent job once again, raising funds, organizing many people and events, and creating the largest Sherry tasting in the United States.
This year Peter and Rosemary hosted the Grand Tasting at the Astor Center. The space was perfect - brightly lit and cheerful, roomy, not too noisy, but humming.

This is such a special event, and here's why: most large tastings are put on by a particular importer/distributor. If you attend that tasting you do so to taste that particular book of wines. Sherryfest celebrates Sherry, not any particular importer, and brings together over 25 Sherry producers (and there really aren't many more than that) and 160 wines. This is a unique opportunity to learn about one of the world's greatest wines.

Jan Petterson of Fernando de Castilla was there, showing and discussing his wines. He is a wealth of knowledge and any time listening to him is time well spent. He brought along a new wine this year, the first ever bottling of Fernando de Castilla Fino en Rama - delicious. En rama translates literally as "on the lees," and it means bottled without filtration. This is a popular trend now and many producers are offering an en rama version of their Fino or Manzanilla.

Lorenzo García-Iglesias was there representing his superb lineup of Bodegas Tradición wines. Such a treat to be able to taste these great wines next to one another.

Antonio Flores, the master blender behind Gonzáles Byass, was there. He is such a lovely man, and so good at explaining the wines. Tío Pepe is the world's highest selling Fino, if I am not mistaken, and the soleras that create the wine are massive, the job of tending them is enormous.

Flores offers an en Rama version of Tío Pepe every year, and this one was delightful. Most of it goes to the British market, sadly. It was also an incredible treat to taste the four Palmas, the series of wines meant to illustrate to progress of Fino towards Amontillado. This year Flores showed the second batch of these wines, and they completely and entirely lived up to the hype. The wines are incredibly fine and wonderfully expressive.

I tasted the entire lineup of Barbadillo wines (minus the Reliquias, those elusive treasures) with importer Julio Baguer and his daughter. These are such excellent wines, and they are so accessibly priced. I remembered at this tasting that Solear is a lovely wine, very complex and expressive, entirely delicious. A wine like this, produced on a large scale, not the top wine of the house - a wine like this can get lost in the Sherry shuffle. But Solear is really a good wine. And that's just the beginning for Barbadillo. 

I enjoyed speaking with these and other producers I am familiar with, revisiting their wines. Sherryfest also offers the chance to discover new wines.
I had never before heard of or tasted the wines of Delgado Zuleta, for example. Apparently this is the oldest Sherry firm, founded in 1744! I enjoyed the whole lineup of wines, particularly the lovely Manzanilla called Barbiana. The wines are an average of 6 years old and show a deep complexity of flor character, and lovely balance and freshness. One taste at one large tasting is not sufficient to judge a wine, but based on my experience at Sherryfest, I will eagerly try a bottle of this wine when it appears on retail shelves.

Importer Robert Jordan said that it should retail for about $22 for a 750ml, a friendly price point for a wine of this caliber.

This year Peter and Rosemary thought it would be fun to bring Sherry cocktails to Sherryfest. They were correct. Four talented bartenders offered a Sherry cocktail of their choosing. I was expecting to enjoy these drinks, and still I was surprised at how good they were.

Joaquín Simó of Pouring Ribbons made a Coronation. Fino, dry vermouth, maraschino liquor, and orange bitters Delicious!

And Dan Greenbaum of The Beagle made one of my favorite cocktails (and something he introduced me to), the Adonis. This is a wonderful cocktail and it's not really that boozy, so you can have a few and not be drunk. He uses La Ina Fino, sweet vermouth, and orange bitters. So good.

Sherryfest is not only the Grand Tasting. There are seminars and dinners too. This year I attended a dinner at Maysville at which Bodegas Tradición and Bodegas Aecovi wines were paired with this restaurant's excellent cooking.

Oysters and bracing Fino or Manzanilla Sherry is an excellent pairing.

Bodegas Tradición introduced their new Fino at this dinner, and I loved it. Sadly, very little was bottled and we will have to wait to be able to buy this wine.
Delicata squash stuffed pasta topped with crab and almonds was a beautiful dish, and it elevated and was elevated by Bodegas Tradición Amontillado. Is it possible that the Tradición wines are underrated? I believe so. People new to Sherry are so focused on La Bota wines, and with good reason - they are great. But there is so much more out there, these great wines among them. 

Thank you Peter and Rosemary for creating this wonderful event! I'm already looking forward to next year...

Slope Farms Addendum – Dinner

When I arrived home from my vacation, a trip that concluded with a visit to Slope Farms, I was hungry. It wasn't hard to decide what to eat for dinner.
I bought a Slope Farms veal sirloin steak.

Cooked some russet potatoes with onion, tomato, and seasoned with smoked pimentón. 
Bok choy in the wok with garlic, soy, and chinkiang vinegar.  

Seasoned with salt and pepper, steak goes into a very hot pan. 

Steak rests. 

Steak is sliced.

Dinner. 

Slope Farms Beef, Catskills NY – a Visit with Ken Jaffe.

This is the longest post ever to appear on this blog, by far, but I wanted to share all that I learned at Slope Farms. I think it's very important to engage with this - thinking about where our food comes from.
-----
I don't remember exactly when I began buying Slope Farms beef, but it's been over five years now. I tried several varieties sold at the Coop and found Slope Farms to be the most delicious.
The label made me feel good too - no hormones, antibiotics, grass-fed, and never confined to feedlots. Then I learned from the meat buyer at the Coop that Slope Farms is run by Ken Jaffe, a guy who was a beloved Park Slope family doctor for 25 years. He retired from his practice and moved to the Catskills to raise beef cattle. I heard that you can't buy cuts of meat from Slope Farms - you must buy the cow. That seems like a very decent way to do business. I mean, what happens to all of the shanks if you let people buy only tenderloin? And so, over the years I kept eating this beef and feeding it to my children and it really is so much better than any other beef I know of. One day it would be interesting to visit this Slope Farms, I thought. How is this guy Ken Jaffe doing this? Why is he doing this?

A few weeks ago, as summer was still vibrant but beginning to wane, I found myself in the Catskills for a few days. I emailed Ken and he welcomed me to come visit the farm. I drove west from near the Hudson River on Route 28, a gorgeous drive if ever there was one.

Eventually I found the place to turnoff, a road that used to be called the Catskills Turnpike. There was no traffic on the Turnpike on this summer afternoon. 

I stopped at the side of the road to admire the view. I hadn't been in a place that looked like this in a long, long time. 

I arrived at Ken and his wife Linda's house and Ken told me to put on a pair of the big rubber boots that sat in the garage. We would do a lot of walking on wet ground, he said. We began by going out behind his house, past his little tomato garden, and heading toward the pastures. I asked him about how it happened that he became a beef farmer.

Ken grew up in Brooklyn, in Fort Greene. He left NYC for college and went to SUNY Binghamton for college and then to SUNY Buffalo for Medical School - that's how he came to feel a connection with upstate NY. He returned to Brooklyn with his wife Linda and worked as an old fashioned family doctor for 25 years. Ken was the doctor, Linda ran the business. He was not part of a larger medical group - he had no other partners. He saw kids, old people, everyone. But eventually the necessities of the modern medical business establishment made it unfeasible for Ken and Linda to continue their business, and so they stopped. Their kids were grown. They had been visiting the Catskills for years, and decided to move there.

Okay, I said. But why beef farming? We looked out at the hills of pasture from behind Ken and Linda's house.

"I went to Columbia school of public health in 2002," he said, "and began thinking about the relationship between human health and how we raise livestock, and about environmental implications and health concerns regarding the beef industry."

Ken went on to tell me that the Catskills region used to be covered with dairy farms, now largely defunct. "NY State has abandoned factories, just like Detroit," he said. "Ours are empty plots of land that once were used for dairy farming. You can think of the beautiful unused open pastures of upstate as similar to the empty factories of Cleveland or Detroit."

Ken Jaffe doesn't strike me as a crusader. He wasn't preaching anything and didn't seem interested in converting me to any particular vein of thought. What I now realize is that I think he approaches what he is doing the way a doctor approaches a patient. He is a man of science. He knows how to help fix this problem, but he does so somewhat dispassionately. After all, a doctor cannot make a patient take their medicine.

Ken unlatched a part of the wooden fence and we walked out into the pasture.

We passed a small pond and it was beautiful to look back at the Jaffe's house, and the barn next to it. But where were the cows, I wondered. We walked through gorgeous fields of healthy looking tall grass. "Do the cows eat this grass," I asked.

Slope Farms is 97 acres on the main farm and then another 100 acres a few miles down the road. There are 160 head of cattle right now. Ken explained that his animals do eat the grass on this field, but not right now - not this month. The farmland is divided into 24 paddocks and there are thin wires separating the paddocks from one another, wires that deliver a mild electric shock when touched. 70 head of cattle eat a little under one acre of grass each day. Ken allows his cattle to graze a paddock until the grass gets low, and then he moves the animals to another paddock. They do not return to the first paddock for 6 weeks - that's how long it takes for the grass to recover to the level Ken is looking for. This system is called rotational grazing.

"Rotational grazing is the key to healthy beef agriculture," Ken said. The idea is to mirror the natural grassland ecosystem, which in nature includes large ruminants moving from one area to the next as a key component of the health of the grass and soil. In the past, between tens of millions of years ago until hundreds of years ago, large ruminants roamed the plains in the US and the eastern grasslands as well. They grazed, they used their hooves to trample some of the grass into the soil, they added excrement to fertilize/add carbon to the soil, then they moved onto other plots and returned after the grass had recovered and regrown."

"So how did you figure this out," I asked.

"Rotational grazing is not rocket science," Ken smiled. "You can learn 80% of what you need to learn in an hour or two. You can read about it in any number of books. The other 20% takes more time, observation, and practice to learn."

"What about in the winter," I said. "What do they eat then?"

Ken said that the grass in the fields doesn't grow past October, but it "stockpiles" in the pastures and the cows eat it through December - it remains nutritious into the winter. Then they eat hay produced at nearby fields until the spring. I asked if the beef finished on grass tastes different from beef finished on hay, and Ken said that it does not. 

"And where are the cows now," I asked. We walked uphill, and through a clearing in a line of trees, I saw them.

There they were, only a couple hundred yards away - the cows! We walked closer. They lifted their heads to look at us.

They know Ken and are not afraid of him. He walked easily among them, patting some, talking about which ones looked robust and almost "finished," which were not. I followed Ken, but uneasily. It turns out that cows are big, and when they are in a large group and unconfined, they seem very powerful.

They didn't want me too close to them, but they didn't run. The looked at me, moved away if I got close, and then kept eating.

They have cute faces. There were lots of flies, something that Ken said happens every year at this time. This is a Black Angus cow.

And this is a Hereford. I asked if the meat of a Black Angus cow tastes better. Ken said that Herefords are equal in quality, that although everyone thinks that Angus are better because they have brand recognition, Herefords really are just as good.

"And they never go inside," I asked.

"The adults are almost never indoors," Ken said. "The babies - if the rain or wind or cold is too intense, they will go inside. We leave the younger animals close to the barn so they have the option of going inside if the choose. They generally prefer to be outside, only going in if there is freezing rain or windy cold."

"And what about at night? Is there any worry about bears or any sort of predator?" 

"Not bears," Ken said, "but there are coyotes around, which the New York Department of Environmental Control reports are about 90% red wolf. They cannot hurt a full grown cow, but they could take a calf if the mother weren't vigilant. We've never lost any calves to coyotes.

"You know, I was pretty surprised when I started seeing Slope Farms veal appearing on the shelves at the Coop," I told Ken. "There's such a stigma with veal. Why did you get into that business?"

"Well, some cows make babies that take too long to 'finish,' and I learned which ones those are," Ken said. Babies from those cows become veal. We raise those calves in the fields with their mothers and the herd."

"Finish? - What do you mean by that?" I asked. I must have made a face. Because Ken said "You know, if you drink milk then you are participating in the veal industry. This is a dirty little secret. Cows must have a baby every year in order to produce milk. Of course, half of the babies are male. And in the dairy world, most male calves are raised away from their mothers in an industrial setting, and end up as veal. Our male calves become steers, and are marketed at 18 - 30 months of age."

Ken explained that a 'finished' animal is one that is ready for market. For lack of a better word, it is 'fat' enough. Animals whose ribs are showing, or whose haunches are too bony, those animals are not 'finished' and will stick around longer, eating more grass. He said that it took him a while to learn how to select good cows, when buying animals at the beginning, to predict which would 'finish' well.

"So how does it work in general - how long are the animals with you here," I asked.

"Our animals are slaughtered at an average age of two and a half years old," Ken said. Some calves become veal. Other calves that are male become steer and then are slaughtered at about two and a half years old. Female calves can be finished just as the steers, or kept as breeding stock as long as they continue to make babies that 'finish' well - often more than 10 years."

"What happens when that older cow stops making 'good' babies," I asked.

"For older animals, generally females who stop breeding, the default is ground beef because most of the meat is not very tender, but is has very good flavor," Ken said. "But the tenderloins on those animals stay very tender and have great flavor - deeply beefy. With these animals I like to take a rib steak into my 'test kitchen' and see if it's tender enough for steaks. About one in three times it is, and the Tarlow group in particular loves those steaks."

---Note to self: find out how to go to Marlow & Sons, Romans, or one of the other Tarlow joints when that kind steak is on the menu.---

As we walked away from the herd toward the other pastures, a couple of cattle hung out in the shade of some tall trees. "The land really is beautiful here," I said.

"As healthy as the grass and the cattle look," Ken said, "it's the life underneath the surface of the soil that's the richest, teeming with small animals, microorganisms, and fungi, which creates a healthy soil. When it's working, cows eat the leaves of the grass plants, use their hooves to push other grass into the soil. In the perennial pasture that develops, plants like clover work symbiotically with bacteria to move nitrogen from the air to the soil. When soil and roots are healthy, grasses will regrow and be ready for grazing again in about 6 weeks."

As we walked further through the pastures, I looked more closely at the plants I could see.

This is clover, with a Japanese beetle on it.

There were old apple trees.

And elderberry bushes. We ate some small and tasty yellow plums from a tree. The apples were delicious too, although not a variety that we find in stores or on farms - more tannic and coarse. Apparently the cows love to eat them.

We walked back to the house and got in Ken's pickup so we could see the rest of his cattle and his land. On the way we passed some fields that looked quite nice, others not as much. Ken told me that some of his neighbors noticed how healthy the Slope Farms fields look, saw what Ken is doing with rotational grazing, and adopted the practice for their own herds. Others, not.

We stopped in front of a neighbor's pasture. You can see here that the grass is way down, "like a putting green," Ken said. "There's almost nothing here for those dairy cows to eat," he said.

After touring we stood in Ken and Linda's kitchen and talked some more. "So how does this become the industry standard?" I asked. "Is it about Americans learning to eat less meat, but meat of higher quality that is farmed in a healthy way?"

"I agree that in terms of health and the environment, it is better to eat less meat that is of higher quality," Ken said. "But I feel that there is room for more than one type of beef for consumers to choose from. Its about changing our tastes, expanding our palate. The American palate currently leans towards feedlot beef that is low in flavor but extremely soft in texture. Grass fed beef has more flavor but is, on average, a bit less tender. People should have a choice rather than being stuck with the industry standard."

There is no question whatsoever in my mind that the feedlot cattle industry is harmful the health and to the environment in several important ways. At the end of this post (which by now must seem will never come) I will include Ken's analysis of the costs of industrial feedlots. Our conversation continued and I asked him more about how to scale the grass fed beef business.

"Is this a good business, first of all," I asked. "Are you making money?"

 "Yes," said Ken. "It is very important for me to show that this is a profitable enterprise, to help create an economically viable model from grass fed beef production in our region."

"So what's stopping others from doing what you're doing," I asked. 

"The main barrier," Ken said, "is how to get a small number of finished cattle to the market of wholesale buyers. Buyers want a regular supply of high quality product. Feedlots house 10,000 - 100,000 animals. Trucks can come in, point to the animals they want, and drive away with them. Feedlots are horrible in many, many ways, but they have one advantage - they aggregate the animals so that when they are ready they can be shipped to market from a central place."

"So a small cattle farmer has a hard time getting the finished cattle to market," I said.

"Yes," Ken said. "There is a need for an aggregator. This is a crucial business player. As others start good farms, an aggregator is needed."

"Are you doing any of this now," I asked.

"I work with about a dozen farmers to help them get their beef to market. I'm at their farms constantly and I can vouch for their no hormone, no antibiotic, all grass, and animal welfare practices. They raise the cattle and I can maintain quality standards and sell their beef under my label."

---Whoa - does this remind you of anything in the wine industry?---

"So," I asked, "is this something that can happen - can grass fed beef be brought to scale?"

Ken told me that the Grassland Team at Cornell University says that there are 3 million acres of unused pasture in New York State. They wouldn't all be used for cattle farming, but that's enough pasture to finish 1 million cattle each year - enough to supply all of the demand for beef in New York City for a year.

Compelling ideas, indeed.

I love the taste of grass fed beef. At home I eat it exclusively. Whenever I happen to eat feedlot beef, I am struck by the differences in appearance, taste, and texture. I find the corn-finished feedlot beef to be pink rather than deep red, and essentially tasteless. The tenderness has no appeal to me - it's like eating a very soft wet towel. But I'm opinionated and picky, so find out for yourself. If you happen not to have tried grass fed beef, I seriously encourage you to find and buy a simple grass fed steak. It costs a bit more, but it tastes better. And you're paying for more than your beef - you're investing in something bigger than just that steak dinner.

For those of you who have made is this far, here is Ken's thinking on the costs of feedlots. 

"What are the costs of the current industrial feedlot system," I asked. Ken wrote an email to me later in which he described the costs as follows:

1) At the feedlot:

Air
     1)Regional air pollution with toxic dust and airborne bacteria.
     2) Greenhouse gasses from manure lagoons.
      
Water
     1) Runoff killing local streams and polluting larger waterways.
 
Animal Welfare
     1) Cattle each have about 100 square feet and are not able to have a normal life grazing.
     2) High grain diet leads to 'acidosis' and cattle illness.
  
Human Heath Impacts
     1) Daily antibiotic use in cattle leading to strains of bacteria in humans that are resistant to antiobiotics (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus bacteria, salmonella, E. coli, campylobacter)
     2) Hormone implants in feedlot cattle lead to hormone residue in meat.
     3) Feedlot beef has a fat profile that is less healthy than grass fed beef - there is more saturated fat, less omega-3 fatty acid, less conjugated linoleic acid).

2) Production of Grain to Feed the Feedlot Beef

Fossil Fuel Usage
     1) Use of fossil fuel to plant, fertilize, harvest, and transport grain.
     2) Use of fossil fuel in production of chemical fertilizer, herbicides, and pesticides.

Water
     1) Widespread water pollution from runoff from chemical fertilizers (the dead zone off the Gulf of Mexico, for example)

Air 
     1) Loss of carbon from the soil into the air due to plowing, as opposed to rotational grazing which moves carbon from the atmosphere into the soil.

Biodiversity
     1) Use of GMO grain.
     2) Loss of biodiversity in plants and animals from mono-crop production.

Tipping and Restaurant Service: Thoughts on the Pete Wells’ Article in the NY Times, and Some Stories

A week ago the NY Times published dining critic Pete Wells' thought provoking piece on tipping in restaurants. In the article Wells argues that our current system of tipping does not have an impact on the quality of service we receive and that we should consider changing the way servers are compensated. He points out additional factors that he suggests might lead restaurants to do away with the current system, including lawsuits and cultural issues within restaurants.

This is not a long article and worth reading, if you haven't already. Tipping is one of those things that everyone has an opinion on. At of the time of this writing, the Times piece has generated 474 comments. I want to share some of my thoughts after reading the article.

The economics behind the tipping question are complicated and I do not fully understand them, especially with regard to the equity questions raised in sharing tips with cooks, bartenders, and other staff. But I do think that it is worth asking this: why are we using the tipping system we use? Is our goal to ensure that servers are fairly compensated? Is our goal to provide servers with an incentive to give high quality service? Is our goal to allow customers to express their appreciation for services rendered? Is it a combination of the above?

If the goal is purely about compensation of servers, then the system does not make sense. I am "served" by many people during the week, and most of them are compensated by their employers, not by me. The man at the hardware store helped me the other day to figure out how I should go about building some shelving for a closet. I paid for the lumber. His employer paid him. I felt good about the service I received and so I will return to that store the next time I need hardware.

Why do we accept the notion that each of us must help to compensate a server at a restaurant, or the driver of a taxi, but not the employee at the hardware store or behind the desk at a medical office? If we are trying to ensure that servers are fairly compensated, then let's allow the labor market to function without the tipping intervention. But compensation isn't the goal, purely. It's also about restaurants lowering labor costs, and it's completely rational for them to try to do so using any legal means. 

One of Wells' main points is that the system fails as a way to create the incentive for servers to provide high quality service, and he gives several good reasons for this. The problem is, a system in which tipping is not allowed or not customary also does nothing to create the incentive for good service. And this is the thing that I wish we would talk about more when we talk about the relationship between service quality and tipping.

The way to create the incentive for servers to provide high quality service is for restaurants to evaluate servers based on their performance. A good service manager ensures that servers are properly trained and faithfully implement the restaurant's hospitality policies. A server that repeatedly fails to do so would not remain on staff. A service manager would be replaced if his or her servers too often fail to provide a high quality service standard.

In a tipping-as-compensation system, as most of our restaurants currently use, management should evaluate servers performance using qualitative data, not simply by looking at tips as a percentage of sales. Tip percentage is often not a reliable indicator of the quality of service the customer feels they have received. In a system that fully compensates servers via salary, as in most of Europe and now at some US restaurants, managers cannot rely on tip percentage as a means of evaluating servers and must therefore use other methods. Just like the manager at the hardware store does when evaluating the service provided by his or her employees.

Many of us feel as though our tipping system all too often allows restaurants to ignore their hospitality management responsibilities. They assume that customers handle this job for them, via tipping.
-----
When I was 18, over the summer after my first year of college, I worked as a waiter in Manhattan at a restaurant called The Lion's Rock. I had no prior experience and I still have no idea why they manager hired me. I trailed another waiter for one shift, but otherwise received no service training. Then I was given a full schedule. It was a busy restaurant in the summer with a huge outdoor section, and we pooled our tips - tips were added up at the end of the night and shared by all waiters, after tipping out the bartender at 15% of the total. This tip pooling gave me the incentive to help serve tables that were not "my" tables, because I was impacted by the tip at that table. One summer evening I was delivering food to a well-dressed couple on the patio, and as I put the plate down in front of the man I tilted it too far and spilled sauce onto his lap. Not just a little bit of sauce. It was everywhere, comical in proportion. I apologized profusely, brought napkins and seltzer, apologized again, and felt truly awful. They were nice about it and they left me a big tip - over 20%, perhaps because they sensed that I would soon be unemployed. I have no idea if the manager offered to pay their dry-cleaning bill. In fact, the manager never spoke with me about the incident.

After I graduated from college I worked at another Upper East Side restaurant that no longer exists, called May We. I worked there for almost a year while trying to figure out what to do with my life. I'm sure that I cleared plates before all diners were finished and committed many other service atrocities - I received no training whatsoever. Anyway, we pooled tips there too, and there was no turnover in the waitstaff while I worked there. After a few months I noticed that I was consistently earning more money in tips and at a higher tip percentage than some other servers, and yet we shared tips equally. The manager never noticed, or if she did notice she never did anything about it. She also never thanked me when I spotted Ruth Riechel, at that time the NY Times restaurant critic, at a table in the upstairs room and alerted the kitchen and management so they could pay extra attention to her and her food. No one had noticed her until that point. She wound up giving the place a decent review on her weekly radio show.

Because I've worked as a server at several restaurants I feel some empathy for how hard the job is, and how frustrating it can be. I tip well when service is good, but I tip less when service is not as good.

Not too long ago, and for the first time that I can remember, I left no tip for the server at a restaurant. I was with my daughters and a good pal and we went in at 5:30. We were the only diners in the room and there are perhaps 10 tables, all of which can accommodate 4 or more people. This is a pizza place, a red sauce joint in a small city in northwestern Connecticut. We had been there many times before. I asked to sit at the booth where we usually sit and the server (who I did not recognize) told us we couldn't because the booth was meant for 6 people and we were only 4. I told her we would move if a larger party came in, and that we'd be there for only 45 minutes anyway. She said no, I politely asked her if I could ask the manager, she came back and said the manager said no. We ate our dinner (because at that point there was no other way to get the daughters to another restaurant in time to also go bowling and get home to bed) and I told the server as we got up to leave that I was sorry, but I would not leave a tip. Funny thing is, she said she understood and that she was sorry.

A new restaurant opened recently around the corner from my house. The menu offers things like sweet corn hushpuppies, pickled fried chicken, chickpea chopped salads, house made pickles, and other tasty sounding things. A friend and I went and sat outside in the back garden. Right after our food arrived I noticed that my friend had a genuinely disturbed look on her face and I asked why - she pointed behind me and I turned to see a large rat on the ground, perhaps 10 feet from our table. It was sitting there contentedly, gnawing on something. This is a paved outdoor space, by the way. We got up and so as not to alarm our neighbors or cause a scene, I quietly told our server that there was a rat near our table. She asked if we wanted to move indoors, and we gratefully accepted. We sat at the bar and the bartender said "So you've met out little friend. We've been trying to get rid of him for days now." A few minutes later he said that the restaurant would like to buy us our next round of drinks, and so he did. I felt disgusted by the rat and it seems to me that a new restaurant should be a bit more concerned with my friend and I in this situation - "let me buy your next drink" is not sufficient. If I owned the place I would have comped the meal (which amounted to about $50) - I want to demonstrate how seriously I take the issue and hope that these two people will give my restaurant another shot. Or at least that they will not spread this alarming tale on Yelp, awesome Brooklyn Wine and Food blogs, or other social media. They presented me with the check, and once my dining companion left the bar for the door, I handed them $60 in cash and politely told the bartender and the server how I felt (without the social media part). The server apologized and said "You're right," but the bartender pushed my money back at me and snidely said "keep it - we don't need your money." It was one of the strangest restaurant experiences I've had and needless to say, I would never go back.

I recently had dinner at Maysville, the newish Manhattan spot owned by the people behind Char No 4 in Brooklyn. My friend and I were both struck by how great the service was. Okay, they recognized my dining companion and were being quite nice to us, but looking around, it seemed as though everyone receives that level of service at Maysville. I asked the bartender about a cocktail on the menu, but expressed my misgivings about the Jack Daniels the drink called for. Although her bar was busy, she discussed it with me and offered to substitute something else. I declined because she clearly knew what she was doing, and the whole interaction felt right (and the drink was delicious). At dinner the servers did not attempt to whisk away and deep-chill our bottle of 1995 Cazin Cuvée Renaissance (excellent). One of them did pour it a little too deep and fast but they were friendly and gracious when I asked if we could pour it ourselves. Servers appeared when we needed something, not otherwise, and we never needed to ask for anything. When I dropped a fork near the end of our meal, some one who was not my server - a runner (some one whose job is to bring food from the kitchen to tables and to clear tables when diners are finished), brought me a new fork within minutes, wrapped in a napkin, without ceremony or flourish - just brought me a new fork without my having to ask. We left a big tip.

Rhode Island Wine Weekend, Part III

We drank several exceptional bottles of Rioja on Saturday night. Each of these wines was a special thing, something that could be the focus of a special dinner. I've had a little experience drinking mature wines by López de Heredia, and maybe a bottle or two by La Rioja Alta. But that's about it. So drinking these wines was a wonderful way for me to get a sense of some of the other great producers in the region.

These wines also rekindled my thoughts about the objective an subjective in wine. The wine I liked the most was not, objectively speaking, the best wine. This is something that can be hard to wrap your head around as it's happening. For me, it can still be tempting to conflate favorite and best.
We began by drinking two bottles by Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España, a famous Rioja producer whose wines I had never before tasted. You see this producer referred to as CVNE, which everyone seems to then pronounce as if it were spelled CUNE. The 1970 CVNE Viña Imperial Gran Riserva is the first Rioja we poured and I was blown away by the nose. To me the nose was the epitome of Rioja. I could tell you that it smelled of leather and blood, and it did. But that could describe Syrah or wines from other places. There was just something particular about the sheerness of the aromas, the way they came together as a whole, that for me was a classic expression of Rioja. The wine was not as complete on the palate, but it was delicious and I loved it.

The 1978 CVNE Imperial Riserva was thought by everyone to be the better wine, and as the night wore on, revisiting them both, I do not disagree. Also lovely on the nose, but with a more floral aspect, and more complete on the palate, the wine was great. It made me think of Burgundy, in a way, and I got hung up on this after the essence of Rioja that was the Viña Real. It's perfectly fine that I preferred Viña Real, but that doesn't mean it was the better wine.
We then drank 1981 López de Heredia Viña Bosconia Gran Riserva. I've had this wine several times and this was the finest bottle yet. Beautifully perfumed, incredible balance and detail, a truly spectacular bottle of wine. This wine is objectively better than the 1970 Viña Real, and I absolutely loved it. But I preferred the former on this night. By this time I understood what was going on - the experience I had with the clarity of the terroir as expressed in the Viña Real simply made a bigger impression on me than the great things about the other wines.

We finished with two very special bottles, 1987 and 1964 Marqués de Murrieta Castillo de Ygay. Both were excellent. The 1987 was noticeably young, especially after drinking the other more mature wines. The 1964, however, that was a memorable bottle of wine. Perfect harmony and balance, everything so well integrated, a lushness to the composition but the feeling was nimble and bright. Fantastic wine, maybe the best of them all.

And yet, I preferred the 1970 Viña Real! You know by now that I am not trying to say it was better, because objectively speaking it might have been the least of the five wines. But on that night it spoke to me in a special way. That's worth something too, and I am happy to be learning how to appreciate both the subjective and objective.

Rhode Island Wine Weekend, Part II

We drank Bordeaux on the first night, and it was a first growth kind of evening. This is because the guys we were hanging out with have been collecting wine for a long while, and they are generous people who derive pleasure from sharing cellar gems with friends.

The lineup:

1994 Château Laville Haut-Brion.
1966 Château Haut-Brion.
1970 Château Haut-Brion.
1975 Château Mouton Rothschild.
1980 Château Margaux.

Are you kidding me? Fugedaboudit.

I have so little experience with wines like these - with every sniff and sip I am experiencing new thoughts. And on this night, we also drank a great California wine. A bit younger than the Bordeaux wines, but a great wine nonetheless. The 1991 Dunn Vineyards Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon. If California used such a system, this surely would be a first growth wine. We drank it last, and it was fascinating to compare it with the other wines.
First, there was this utterly stunning white wine. White Bordeaux is not something that I come across very often. This is as good as White Bordeaux gets, according to the Bordeaux cognoscenti. I've had Laville Haut-Brion one time before, the 1993 vintage, and it thrilled me. This one, the 1994, equally so. It really takes a while to open up and get going though. We saved a third of the bottle and 2 hours or so later on went back to it, and the wine was so much more energetic, pungent in its aromas, and vibrant on the palate. The particular combination of smells and tastes are unfamiliar to me - things like honeycomb and orange oil and lemon sherbert, all atop a subtle backbone of stone. Semillon is a strange grape. And this expression of Sauvignon Blanc, this is not something that you'll find elsewhere. The wine was fantastic, and a rare and true joy to drink.

We drank 1980 Château Margaux. It was ridiculously good. One of our party was absolutely smitten with this wine, and he smiled and said to everyone who walked by, including waitstaff and other random patrons of the restaurant, "Hey - want to taste the best wine in the world?" It was sweet, because when they inevitably said "well, that does indeed sound good," he would pour them a taste.

This wine was 33 years old, give or take, and it was fresh as a daisy. The fruit is still vibrant and sweet. The wine was knit together perfectly, with a rich bouquet of fruit and flowers, and although it felt exuberant, it was also entirely focused and perfectly harmonious in its balance.

We drank the 1970 Château Haut-Brion. The 1966 was flawed. Not corked, but green and weird and entirely unappealing. But let's focus on the good news though, shall we? The 1970 was as great a Bordeaux wine as any I've ever tasted (not that that's saying all that much). There was less fruit, which makes sense - the wine is 11 years older. But somehow the wine felt more complete to me, even more perfect, if possible. The nose was just a grand thing, pointless to try and describe it. Full of energy, great depth and complexity, and a minerality that was so intense it practically shimmered. I know why our pal at the table was calling the Margaux "the best wine in the world." And I cannot say that one was better than the other because I do not possess the experience necessary to make such a statement. But I did agree with one friend at the table who said "I might have an affair with the Margaux, but I would marry the Haut-Brion."

1975 Château Mouton Rothschild was a very fine wine, but it suffered for its company. Next to phenomenal wines like the Margaux and Haut-Brion, to me it simply was outclassed. Not that Mouton wasn't good, it's just that those other two were ridiculously great. I would be curious to drink it again on its own (or next to some less illustrious wines), as in this company it seemed to have less breadth, less overall impact.

By the way, the chef prepared Beef Wellington for us to enjoy with our fine old clarets. I'm still not sure how this happened, but I now speak with a British accent. Could you tell from reading this that I have an accent now?

And then, we drank 1991 Dunn Vineyards Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon. It was my first taste, as far as I can recall, of Dunn. Everyone at the table - everyone, spoke very highly of the producer, saying that the wine maker Randy Dunn does everything the right way, and that this is one of the great wines of California. And the wine was great, it really was. And I loved it. Again, I cannot say anything worth listening to about relative quality, that Dunn was better or worse than Haut-Brion, for example. But I can tell you what I learned by drinking them together.

Haut-Brion's beauty, to me, comes from its complete and perfect harmony. The component parts are gorgeous - the fruit is pure and delicious, and musky in its age. The minerals shimmer, the finish has a life of its own. And the overall effect is of great intensity, showcasing all of the component parts, and also somehow this quiet sort of harmony. Dunn, and we are talking about a wine that is twenty-one (21) years younger here, does not feel to me as though it will ever have a quiet aspect to it, the way Haut-Brion, or even the more seductive and charismatic Margaux, are quiet.

Dunn's fruit was darker, more brambly, and the acidity was younger, more intense. The thing that stuck out for me, however, was the structure - Dunn was structured differently from the Bordeaux wines. It has bigger bones, literally. The wine is built on a larger frame and then the fruit that goes on that frame is bigger. It's like comparing an offensive lineman with a tight-end. They play the same game, and at times perform similar functions. They can both be great football players. But in the end, they are best at doing different things, and maybe this fascination with declaring one as better than the other is misguided. We are luckly to have both. Especially on a gorgeous summer night in Rhode Island, with friends.

Rhode Island Wine Weekend, Part I

You know how you have those weekends where you go out of town to a friend's house where a bunch of serious wine lovers gather over a few dinners to open and share truly great old wines?

Yeah, me neither. But this past weekend was exactly that for me. I spent time with old friends, met some excellent new friends, and drank some incredible things. On Sunday, on the way home in the car, I drowsily told Peter that there were three major things I learned about wine during the weekend. And so, dear reader, I will now present part 1 of what I think likely will become a syndicated sensation known as Rhode Island Wine Weekend...

Big House Champagne and Grower Champagne are very Different from one Anther, and Big House Champagne is Good Too. 

We arrived after a long and traffic-filled drive, washed up, and joined forces with our friends at the Hourglass Brasserie in Bristol. We were visiting a friend from our Burgundy Wine Club. He and several of his wine pals set up a 5-course dinner at Hourglass so that we could enjoy good food and wine together.
These gentlemen are an organized bunch. The very first thing we drank was a bottle of recently released NV Pol Roger Brut Réserve Champagne. Smelling and drinking this wine, I had a mini-epiphany about Champagne. It's not so easy to explain why this felt like a deep thought, but it did: big house Champagne and grower Champagne are very different from one another, and big house Champagne is good too. They are trying to do different things, and both types of wine have value. Sure, I prefer one style over the other, in general, but there are great wines made in each style.

Pol Roger is a grand old Champagne house with a rich history, and a cuvée named after a British former head of state. I do not have a lot of experience with the wines - I've had maybe 4 or 5 bottles before this evening. But I drank this wine and I felt as though I finally understood something about the nature of big house Champagne. The wine is not trying to showcase purity of fruit, as do the wines of Cédric Bouchard, for example. The wines are not trying for a uniqueness in expression of character or terroir. When well made, a big house wine like Pol Roger's NV Brut achieves a striking balance, a focused harmony, a fine-ness of construction. The point of the wine is how well made it is, how fine it is, and that it is made in the Pol Roger house style.

Pol Roger NV Brut did not thrill me (and that is a subjective comment), but I understood immediately that this is a well made wine. It was entirely focused and fine in its texture and flow throughout the palate, well balanced, and chalky and long on the finish. The wine had no deficits, it was not lacking in anything, and it was pleasing. And in this way it is successful. It reminded me of the Henriot Blanc de Blancs I drank in San Francisco a few months ago at Hog Island Oyster Company. A delicious, focused, and classic Blanc de Blancs Champagne. It did not thrill me the way certain other Blanc de Blancs wines thrill me, but its quality was unmistakable. It is classic, and speaks the language of Champage in its focus, balance, finesse, and chalky minerality.

If I were at a wine store or restaurant and faced with a broad selection of non-vintage Champagnes, I would not choose Pol Roger's over Bereche's or Chartogne-Taillet's. But that is because I prefer those other wines, not because Pol Roger's is of lesser quality. This is the thing that became crystal clear for me this weekend at Hourglass. Pol Roger is also a very high quality wine. We've been conditioned in the past decade to think otherwise, as grower Champagnes fought for their place in the US market and as supporters of grower Champagne sought to define their niche. Appreciating these very different styles of wine need not be mutually exclusive.

After we drank Pol Roger, we moved onto a bottle of Lanson NV Black Label from the 1960's - we were not certain of the exact vintage of the base wines. Lanson is another big house with a rich (and rocky) history. These are not wines that I would buy today, but older wines from the 60's and 70's are supposed to be of very high quality. This bottle was a great example - the wine was legitimately great. So well put together, so complex, so long, such great poise and charm. To hear Peter talk about it, he wine is was made in an era when grapes were picked at lower levels of ripeness than they are today, and at higher levels of acidity. And they did not go through malolactic fermentation, so the acidity is untamed, if you will. A wine made like this should age well, and this one has, feeling fresh and vibrant, with a mature and potent character. And by the way, this wine paired beautifully with almost everything we ate, from oysters to duck. It's absurd to think that a modern grower NV Brut would show this same character after 40-plus years in the bottle. But it wouldn't be trying to - they are different, and both have value.
The following evening we began our dinner with a magnum of 1981 Lanson Brut Champagne. Initially I found the toasty notes to be distracting and I was not enjoying the wine so much. But an hour or so later, after letting it relax in the glass, the wine was delicious. It was deeply saline, focused and well balanced, and it felt completely harmonious.

There is one thing that I've not said about the 1981 or the NV from the 60's (or the Pol Roger). To my inexperienced palate, neither wine expressed much in the way of terroir, not the way some grower Champagnes can. Peter Liem could make a convincing case for how the Pol Roger and the Lanson wines express terroir, and he is correct. But to my palate, relative to today's grower Champagnes of similar quality, the wines are more about other things and less about terroir expression. They are about fineness of construction, and this is a valuable thing too.

During dinner Peter said "Understanding these wines is part of understanding Champagne. Drinking grower wines without drinking and understanding these wines is like looking at modern art without having seem the classics."

More soon - we drank loads of amazing wine and I learned several other scintillating things, which are sure to titillate you.