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Friday, July 28, 2006

Bradley's burning...

I have decided to do my best Jim Rome (of ESPN's 'Jim Rome is Burning') impression for this week's rant as I 'burn' on my topic of the day that I'd like to call 'specialization wine bars.' Actually, there are thousands of names for them, such as; niche bar, theme restaurant, concept dining, cultural cuisine, or even pigeon-holed passion. You've seen them before, whether they take the shape of an Italian restaurant, an Australian theme bar, or even those cozy little establishments that specialize in their particular area's local food and beverage. They all provide a unique getaway from the shapeless decor, bland cuisine and humdrum monotony that plagues so many cash cow tired establishments. Specialization bars are a haven for those that seek out clever dining experiences, but don't provide much appeal to those that only desire a night in which someone else does their dishes and serves them souped up versions of Hungry Man's chicken fried steak. The latter crowd need not pay attention to my ensuing rant for it will offer them no joy nor understanding. You know the crowd I speak of, waltzing into an Indian restaurant and asking for a burger well done w/ a side of fries. No Budweiser on tap you say? Well give me the next closest thing. Nah, this is the anti-lame American dining crowd rant, a rant in which I am choosing to look at these specialization 'theme bars' with a critical microscope. Why am I doing this? Because, damnit, I ask a lot of my niche restaurants! I need a reprieve from the redundant, amorphous strip mall infused hell of corporate 'Craplebees' and T.G.I. Friday's that have overpopulated the world w/ their scripted menus of uniformity. If I'm ever sent to asylum, it will be in a Chili's lobby, sitting by the hostess and a bunch of middle-class families that are staring at their bright blue beepers for 45 minutes until they are buzzed away to a table, indistinguishable from the rest, amidst a proverbial mosh-pit of conservative tourists stuffing their overly bloated bellies w/ mass produced sludge. Well, at least the Coors Light is cold and they serve White Zinfandel in extra large glasses.

Anyways, where was I? Oh yes, I've chosen to unleash my critique of a particularly unique specialization tapas bar called 'Barcelona.' The name, which leaves little to the imagination, is appropriate in painting the picture of a Spanish-centric wine bar. The wine list begins w/ a refreshingly dramatic array of liquid Spanish flair. Native white wine varietals such as Albarino and Verdejo are included, as well as a Malvasia from Toro and a rare white Priorat. The Rioja list, although not exhaustive, offers a nice mixture of reds by the glass and include copious selections of tempranillo based wines from the watershed vintages of '94 and '95. Some Ribera Del Duero highlights include an '89 Vega Sicilia Unico, a '01 Pesquera and a '91 gran reserva from Bodegas Protos. The other regions, like Jumilla, Penedes and Priorat, are grouped into an 'other Spanish reds' category, supplemented by a nice tutorial on Spanish wine regions. There is a map of Spain, w/ particular wine regions of focus labeled and captioned w/ brief explanations offered on each region. Beneath the map is a set of definitions for Crianza, Reserva, and Gran Reserva. Now I find this to be a wonderful idea for a couple reasons:

  1. It provides the patron w/ background information on the varieties offered in the menu, as well as their points of origin (wine really is about place, isn't it?)
  2. It makes a menu, filled with foreign producers, verbiage, grapes and regions, far less intimidating to the uneducated consumer.
  3. It provides the diner w/ a learning experience. Having background knowledge to guide one's selections will always provide a more enjoyable and adventurous evening out.
  4. It stimulates conversation w/ the staff regarding the menu, the country of origin and wine in general. American's biggest hurdle in trying foreign wines is that of the wine labels themselves. Getting past the labels should enable patrons to branch out a bit, perhaps for the better.

Now up to this point in the menu, I'm sold. I see a wide variety of native wines accompanied nicely w/ background information that demystifies Spanish wine labels for the novice, but shouldn't totally bore a seasoned Spanish wine aficionado. Having said that, the next page brought me nothing but indigestion. Stag's Leap 2001?? What's that doing here; did I stumble onto a steakhouse restaurant wine list by accident? Duckhorn this, Duckhorn that, there's a whole damn Duckhorn vertical here! Is this a Smith and Wollensky rip-off w/ a Spanish sub plot or what?

It gets worse. Jordan 2000 (it's bad enough that it's Jordan, but c'mon at least they could have picked a decent vintage!), Chateau Montelena, Silver Oak, Caymus, goes on and on. Might as well stab me in the heart w/ an Opus One while you’re at it. Punctuated horribly w/ a list of Veuve Clicquot bottlings that exceeds the Cava selections by a long shot. After a smattering of '99 Tignanello and '03 Catena Malbec, I'm ready to crumple up the list and ask for bread and water. Where the hell is the Sherry? I'm blinded by the Bonny Doon Muscat!

Alright, alright, I'm a bit dramatic. Here's my bottom line. Theme bars are only good if they keep the theme. You can't compromise a theme bar w/ a couple of Joe Shmoe crowd pleasers just to spruce up business from the uninitiated. Don't get me wrong, I'd love a glass of Dominus but I wouldn't seek one out at a place called Barcelona. If you want to please everyone, you might as well open up another chain of Outback Steakhouses so all those hungry patrons can enjoy their milk shakes and New York strip. On the other hand, if you genuinely want to express the passion, pride and pleasure of Spain, don't dilute it w/ brand name dollars. Oaky American Chardonnay and brutish California Cabs muddled the entire message of Barcelona's menu, and because that pure vision was compromised, there is very little left to show for their individuality.

I, for one, go to my specialization bars to be swept away from the ordinary. It is a genuine experience, and a beautiful reprieve from the superficial sellout in the strip mall. Once that beautifully unique establishment becomes tainted w/ compromise, it's just a matter of time before it dominos into the mundane. You can't put a price tag on class because once you do, it's worthless.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Location, location, location
I fully embrace the fact that New World vintners can grow whatever they want, wherever they want and however they want. The fact of the matter is, more and more oppressed Old World growers have flocked to the New, in search of democratic wine making creativity. I completely understand the rationale behind the A.O.C. and D.O.C. (or the even more scrupulous D.O.C.G. for that matter), but I think much is lost in the translation. These governing bodies were formed to ensure consumers of a quality standard in the interest of expressing the regional label w/ consistent excellence. For example, if the label is Italian and says 'Barolo D.O.C.G.' on it, the consumer knows it's 100% Nebbiolo grapes that had to be tended, fermented and aged in a particular way. That's nice, but does it mean that the wine will be any good? Not necessarily. The good conservatives of these wine governing bodies have adamantly chosen what grows best where and how the best way to grow it is. It has to be a 'classical' style to 'preserve tradition.' Granted, these Old World domaines have had hundreds to thousands of years of cultivating experience to learn through trial and error what succeeds and what fails, to an extent. Should it be heresy or criminal for a producer to chaptalize (add sugar) or add acid if the vintage dictates it necessary? Is it a vulgar act to blend a tiny percentage of a 'not allowed grape varietal?' According to these governing bodies, yes.
So they zap any ounce of improvization in the grape grower, making their jobs as textbook and routine as re-treading tires, as they are powerlesss to intervene w/ what mother nature decides to offer. Kinda sucks huh? If you create a great wine, it's only thanks to the vintage. If it's lousy, well it sure aint the grower's fault, right? These conservative rules are a bit of an exaggeration, but they remain obsolete regardless. How can the D.O.C.G. explain the thousands of diluted, bitter and amorphous Chianti Rufina and Chianti Classico bottlings that are cranked out each year? Well it seems the D.O.C.G. stamp of approval on a Chianti bottle only guarantees that when you buy it, you'll be guaranteed a piece of mass-produced sludge juice filled with plenty of debris. Save your money, there's a 6 pack of Schlitz w/ your name all over it (and yes, a guarantee stamp to boot).
There are no guarantees in wine. The more a wine maker's creativity and ingenuity is stiffled, the more lethargic they will become (and it will show in their wines). Todays wine world is full of critical accountabilty and big business. A Super Tuscan like Ornellaia doesn't need a D.O.C.G. stamp of disapproval on their bottle, the I.G.T. suits it just fine. Even though Ornellaia is chock full of unapproved varietial clones that are attached to unapproved rootstocks that are aged in unapproved fashions, I think they are doing just fine. The consumer will pay a lofty pricetag for these 'un-guaranteed' wines made in untraditional means because they are great wines. Do they undermine Italian wine authority? Yep, the wine police is definitely not making any apprehensions in this occasion. But do these wines fail to accurately transmit a sense of place and disrespect the Italian soils? Absolutely not. These wines, at their best, untraditionally bring medlies of aromas and flavors that linger for minutes on end, but maintain an underlying sense of modesty and character that can only come from an Italian terroir. At their worst, they are charred, coarse and dried up nausea bombs that don't merrit any positive attention.
There's nothing wrong w/ a regional structure or framework of what a consumer can generally expect from particular wine growing appellations. Should the grower be able to adapt to the hand that Mother Nature has dealt them? Of course, w/in reason. Should the grower be able to bottle different lots, varietals and blends? Why not? If it's good wine, people will buy it. If it's garbage, it will be discarded as such. Today's frenzy of legitimate consumers aren't in search of an A.O.C. or D.O.C. label, they are in search of a quality wine.
Having said that, the rationale for a governing body couldn't be clearer when I see some of the New World's liberties taken advantage of in such inappropriate ways. A prime example can be found in the winery of Rancho Sisquok, touting their Santa Maria Valley Cabernet Sauvignon as uniquely atypical. I had the opportunity to view one of their sales representatives present their wines, the Cab included. He was lauding the Cab for it's lack of green, weedy character. Yes, he was praising something because it didn't suck. Come on! I guess it's an accomplishment that the Cab didn't taste like asparagus, but it sure didn't taste like Cab either. Santa Maria is too damn cold to grow hearty varietals like Cabernet, quit trying!
Thankfully, I know MOST consumers in search of quality wines will not be buying any Santa Maria Valley Cabs anytime soon. But hearing tales of New World growers blatant disregard for enological research makes me feel like 'there oughta be a law against doing that!' Well, not really....but I do understand the 'framework concept' of the A.O.C., with a looser belt at least.
All of my rant on quality could be completely irrelevant if we didn't all agree on what quality is. Germany, for example, grades riesling quality soley on potential alcohol (or grape ripeness from sugar accumulation during the vintage). Well if that were the case, these 16 plus percent alcohol Paso Robles and Alexander Valley Zinfandels should be the creme de la cru! Granted, Germany is the most severe and northerly of wine growing regions, so sugar accumulation is a different animal there. That being said, even German producers are raging against their system of quality governance by de-classifying particular labels to 'Qualitatswein,' or QbA, to avoid distinguishing a sugar level. I think it's generally understood that wines of 9% alcohol can be of better quality than wines w/ 12% alcohol and vice versa. I'll leave it at that and save the 'quality debate' for a later post.
So where does that leave my position? In a very democratic place I suppose (must be my American upbringing). I think old-fashioned, ultra conservative wine law definitely stiffles the producer and shafts the consumer. I also think too much freedom is something of which humankind doesn't take too well to and only leads to abuse. With all our knowledge of growing grapes, we can draw lines in the sand about particular issues. Washington should be able to irrigate, central coast shouldn't grow hearty varietals that won't ripen (c'mon, even if the A.O.C. allowed Burgundians to grow Cabernet Sauvignon, would you want to drink it?), Napa vitners should have an acceptable alcohol range, etc. The one thing I would demand is that all of these 'rules and regulations' have to be ammendable. One thing I know, is that I don't know everything, or maybe it's just the George Washington spirit in me?
Philosophy classes in college did teach me one thing, that the most reasonable answers lie somewhere in the middle.
Anyone care for some German Shiraz?

Monday, July 10, 2006

Cabernet Sauvignon's red headed stepchild….
or should I say red headed step father? Technically, Cabernet Franc is actually a parent grape of its more prestigious baby (a romantic mingling between Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc created a universally gorgeous infant vine, which we now call 'Cab'). Much maligned and often only used as a side bar blender for Bordeaux styled wines, Cab Franc is experiencing a baby renaissance of sorts in varied New World regions. Areas that have recently stepped up to the Cab Franc plate include Washington's Walla Walla Valley, Sonoma, Howell Mountain, Oakville, small pockets of California's Central Coast and Long Island's North Fork. Successful wines have been recently produced by the likes of Owen Roe, Detert, Viader, La Jota, Pride, Chateau St. Jean and my dark horse champion, Osprey's Dominion. In spite of this small handful of dedicated producers, Cab Franc remains in the dugout of the competitive wine world. Are there limited plantings of this grape due to the lack of popular demand, lack of appropriate terroir or simply a lack of understanding in general? Perhaps its a bit of all three. Wine reference materials consistently cite notes of bell pepper, green tobacco leaf and other realms of the vegetal spectrum as Cab Franc's hallmark notes. Sounds yummy, huh? My question is whether or not these traits are innate, or are they consequences of enological/viticultural flaws like inappropriate clonal selection, poor location, and various other wine making decisions that just can’t do it any justice? I typically root for the underdog and the under appreciated, so I have to believe that Cab Franc isn't just a lousy quaff by nature, but by lack of nurture.
I'd like to cite a champion example in Cheval Blanc, which has never been characterized by having green tobacco notes chock full of the farmer's best bell pepper. It wasn’t the biased British press or French nationalists that put Cheval Blanc on a pedestal because we all are aware they had an obligation to do so anyway. It is, quite frankly, a superlative wine to any taster that has a tongue w/ any buds to sense taste. But what is Cheval Blanc made of, you ask? That’s right, 60% Cab Franc! But how does Cheval Blanc coax all of these unworldly flavors and sensual qualities out of a garbage varietal like Cab Franc? Good question, perhaps the rap sheet may be a tad unjust.
It's easier to dismiss a rough grape than to baby it. Why spend time, taxing research and frustrating energy to learn how to make Franc flourish when you've got Merlot and Sauvignon pegged (not to mention a group of customers thirsting for familiar varietal flavors). Hell, I've heard even the most open of minds find classic New World Cab Franc examples from the likes of Delia Viader to be too foreign to their palate for them embrace it (and she charges PREMIUM prices for her wines). So why bother? If it's consistently harvested in under-ripe conditions, it produces wines of distastefully vegetal flavors. If harvested too late (as it is in several California sites), it's stymied by a flabby, soft and over-cooked character that is by no means enjoyable. Sounds a bit like the Goldie Lox of wines that needs everything to be juuussssst right. Actually, it sounds strikingly like Pinot Noir. How come Pinot, a notoriously challenging grape to grow, has become so popular and sought after? I’ve heard countless tales of pinotphiles taking out second mortgages simply to scrounge up a couple rusty old vintages that they just had to have. Just imagine these salivating crowds of Burgunhounds clamoring around a gavel at Christie's. They drool over bottles from the Domaine de La Romanee Conti as they were halos to be paid homage to. What if they showed a similar reverence to Cab Franc? Doubtful, unless the creators of the film ‘Sideways’ decide to feature Cab Franc as the main character for the sequel.
All that aside, winemakers need passion and their passion needs a cause, so why not Cab Franc? Well, where to start? Where do they grow this troublesome varietal w/o causing me widespread addiction to prescription pain meds? I say they should start where they always have, in France. Whatever your opinion of the country, this nation's centuries of vinous trial and error have laid the ground work for nearly every New World winemaker's success, and they remain a reference point for excellence. Yes, even with Cab Franc. We all know Bordeaux, and are most familiar w/ the lofty estates of the Left Bank that treat Cab Franc as if it were a seasoning to be sparingly sprinkled on a heartier dish. On the other hand, the Right Bank's successes w/ the varietal extend far beyond the previously mentioned Cheval Blanc. Several estates have large amounts of acreage dedicated to this fussy grape, from prestigious cru chateau to the village wine cheapies; they've managed to craft thousands of illustrious wines from Cab Franc for years. Perhaps France's refusal to label wines by grape type has suppressed this grape’s popularity into obscurity even further, or maybe Saint Emilion is the only place that can consistently crank out decent Franc? I don't think so. Some of Long Island's savvier vintner’s have caught on to climactic and soil composition similarities between the North Fork and the Right Bank, and are taking advantage of their research. Even though Cabernet Sauvignon could probably produce bigger profits, the wine makers of the North Fork aren't interested in making money from diluted Cabs, they are interesting in making quality Cabs (from Cab Franc). Paumanok, Bedell, Schneider, Pellegrini and Macari have all made good to excellent Cab Franc bottlings (either labeled by varietal or labeled as a supporting cast of a meritage blend) by paying attention to terroir and not listening to consumer demand. I found the apex of Cab Franc bottlings to be from Osprey's Dominion. This winery is probably the least pretentious and most easy going success stories of the North Fork. Osprey's was recognized as NY Winery of the Year on an occasion or two by varied critical societies, but the majority of the collective wine press have mentioned very little of them. I found the 2001 and 2002 Cab Franc bottlings to be the best versions of the varietal I had to date. They were dynamic bottlings that made me change they way I view the grape, w/ the '02 being the more expressive of the two as it was marked by a vividly explosive rush of palate coating wild fruits and spice. I couldn't help but notice this tiny and refreshingly fun winery's blatant statement that seemed to proclaim 'Cab Franc doesn't have to suck, dude.'
Plenty of the Island's wines (w/ or w/o Cab Franc) are green, weedy and lack definition, but that is to be expected from a region that is still in it's training wheels phase of evolution. Irrespective of the North Fork's relative youth and inconsistency, there has been remarkable progress and potential exposed in such a brief time span. To say the least, the majority of the Long Island wineries have ignored profitability and marketing for a passion, and that passion has been to express appropriately selected varietals from their respective terroirs. One of those varietals happens to be Cab Franc, and heck why not?!
To punctuate my synopsis I'd like to add that Osprey's Cab Franc can easily compete w/ the west coast powerhouses of Pride, Cayuse, Chateau St. Jean and Beringer, while barely tipping the scales at 12% alcohol and costing all of 25 dollars (some day those Californians will realize that wines can be big, even if they don't have 16% alcohol). Ironically enough, Osprey's Pinot Noir was lousy. I guess the terroir gods can't allow two crabby grapes to flourish in the same place.