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Monday, October 16, 2006

The Wine Library's Poster Child
Northern Jersey is home to several diamonds in the rough. An area that I used to consider New York's proverbial armpit, has grown on me like a fungus. I've noticed that the sweaty skies of Newark happen to be surrounded by plenty of beautiful suburbs that white collar New York professionals call their home. During the past year that heavenly swamp that houses my beloved New York Giants called East Rutherford, has begun to seem more like an oasis from Manhattan's concrete penitentiary. Past highway 78's traffic over Jersey's scattered industrial zones and busy on-ramps leading to the now famously congested turnpike, (which we've all seen during the introduction to the Sopranos) you'll find a haven for enophiles stocked to the brim w/ 750 ml bottles of liquid salvation. Springfield, New Jersey's Wine Library is as comprehensive a store as any, and has recently made news for it's daily series of televised tastings referred to as WLTV (Wine Library T.V.) which can be viewed on their web site's homepage (links to the show are also sent via mailing list).

The man on stage, the Library's director of operations Gary Vaynerchuck, is responsible for running the show. Never to be criticized for lacking personality, Gary brings a non-traditional approach to modern wine review. Wines are selected daily by Gary, the Wine Library staff and viewers of the show using themes such as: school night wines, highly rated picks from the Wine Advocate and tastings of unfinished wines from the barrel. Special guests, like Robert Mondavi Jr., Margo Van Staavern of Chateau St. Jean and Santiago Achaval of Achaval Ferrer, have come on the show in past episodes to discuss their wines w/ Gary during tastings. Wines are tasted non-blind and Gary will regularly recommend (or pan) wines w/ scores using Robert Parker's consumer friendly 100 point scale.

Gary, like wine, is a bit of an acquired taste. His antics can be a tad over the top at first, but seem to grow infectiously fun as you become accustomed to them. His whimsical rants about the New York Jets, clips of 80's pop culture and his supporting cast of action figures seems to bring a much needed sense of levity to wine business. As Gary spits (and occasionally sips) he is never afraid to comment on a wine's bouquet w/ descriptors like 'loaded w/ dirt, sweaty socks and rocks' or tasting like 'skittles, burnt paper and horse manure,' Gary's unpretentious and passionate reactions to wine appear to be as honest and unique as they come. Even the nerdiest of wine geeks can be satiated by Vaynerchuck's occasional references to soil and terroir (which are almost always accurate), as he displays not only experience but depth of knowledge. It appears the show's frank commentary on over and under performing labels has hurt sales at the Wine Library nearly as much it has boosted them. WLTV has convinced me that it's more about honesty and entertainment than sales, and I'm sure that was always Gary's intention.

The community of WLTV is rapidly growing. The message boards have grown from posts in the single digits to over 200 for the comical 100th episode. Vaynerchuck constantly encourages, begs and pleads for viewers to come out of the woodwork and comment after viewing. He has had continuing success in fostering a community of wine lovers to share dialogue during each episode's conclusion. The once small cult following has quickly blossomed into a refuge from the drudgery of the mundane 9 to 5 rat race.

Considering the state of a wine world laden w/ commercial saturation, odd European labels and limited 'taste before you buy' opportunities, the role of the wine critic has become invaluable. WLTV offers an alternative to obscurely written tasting notes and an opportunity to vicariously experience an unknown wines taste through a primal, honest and humorous platform. Although Vaynerchuck's palate is no more infallible than Robert Parker's or James Suckling's, any viewer can taste alongside Gary and decide for themselves whether they agree or disagree (much like Gary does by comparing his impressions to that of the Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator). If you find him totally off-base, you can always let him have it by posting on the WLTV message board.

I've found WLTV to not only be informative, but an energetically funny source of light-hearted stabs that help demystify the intimidating seas of wine snobbery. I'm happy to call myself a long time viewer and first time poster.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Every fall Sunday is dedicated to football, and while I have yet to graduate to the level of decanting aged cabernet during a Giants game (I still maintain beer as a sports beverage of choice), I wonder what would happen if the pigskin and grape met?

It seems you can't turn on ESPN w/o hearing the latest and the greatest of the 'Dallas Days of Our Lives' drama involving Terrell Owens. I considered not posting this for the fear of perpetuating the TO saga, but apparently I can't help it. I'm hooked on soap opera.

Some food for thought. If Terrell Owens were a wine, what type of wine would he be? Or what type of wine would any athlete be? Critics and aficionados alike will generally liken wine to personality traits, and what better character to start off w/ then the bratty, brash and poisonous TO?

Considering the fact that he's big, loud and colorful, its gotta be in the red family. His muscularity has a spicy, tannic bite, so that leads me to syrah. The more I think of it, there are very little refined or balanced qualities that TO possesses. All this leads me to conclude that Terrell Owens is an under ripe Petite Sirah, maybe from the Anderson Valley in California.

If I was truly accurate, I'd also add that he has a tendency to become corked. Now a tainted, green Anderson Valley Petit Sirah can certainly be poisonous.

Any other intriguing figures to tackle? Perhaps venturing into politics, Bill Clinton could be a fun candidate for a wine diagnosis. Any grapes out there prone to deception and adultery?

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Credit where credit is due
The debate between Old World and New World is endless. Too much alcohol vs. too thin, too fruit forward vs. too austere when young, American oak vs. French oak, blah blah blah. For the purpose of this post, I'll leave it at different strokes for different folks.

Now a striking difference between the camps of the New World champions vs. The Old is in whom (or what) is given the bulk of the credit for quality (or lack there of) of their respective wines. The 'Reader's Digest version' of where I'm going w/ this is:
  1. New World boosters generally praise the talent of the winemaker first and the land second. We'll refer to this as 'the individual approach.'
  2. Old World diehards throw around the term terroir in an almost religious fashion. Land is infinitely more important than any human effort. 'The earth approach.'

This isn't a debate, just a benign observation. Even if the area is Old World, a New World perspective (from a critic, perhaps) can ruffle some cuffs by lauding the winemaking abilities over the 'sense of place' where the grapes are grown. I wonder how it was received in Saint Emilion when the Wine Spectator began documenting the praise of Stephan Von Neipperg? A foreigner (from Germany, not an ounce of French blood in his family) coming into Bordeaux and 'revolutionizing' 4 properties: Canon La Gaffeliere, Clos de L'Oratoire, (grand cru vineyards that simply 'needed a little love') La Mondotte and Chateau D'Aiguilhe. The latter two are most interesting considering that La Mondotte sells for over 300 dollars (and, yikes, isn't a classified growth...hell it isn't even a Chateau!) and D'Aiguilhe is a prime example of a man's passion coaxing lovely wines from an inferior appellation, the Cotes de Castillion. Something tells me this really pisses off those old school Bordeaux loyalists considering that an outsider comes into Saint Emilion and turns the hiearchy and terroir 'cast system' upsidown by cranking out critically acclaimed wines at premium prices from relatively sub-par plots. He's also got a really thick German accent, which beautifully adds insult to injury. It's heresy I tell yah!

Then there is Jean-Luc Thunevin of Chateau de Valandraud, who essentially makes his wines out of a 'garage' and sells bottles for prices that rival first growth Bordeaux and fundamentally spit in the face of their centuries of 'nobility' and 'heritage.' How does he sell it? Very democratically of course, via hard work and praise from the most influential of American wine critics, Robert Parker.

These are isolated incidents and can't possibly match the widespread influence of the 'flying wine maker.' Wine consultants are hired by wineries from both worlds old and new in order to improve the quality of the wine. The likes of Michel Rolland, Stephane Derenoncourt, Carlo Ferrini and Luca d'Attoma, to name a few, are paid enormous sums of money to transform the wines from thousands of estates. Whatever the country, whatever the continent, these guys deliver the goods by 'single-handedly' ratcheting up the quality, regardless of the hallowed notions of terroir. Critics generally will mention whether or not a consultant 'oversees the quality' of a particular estate and, of course, echo their praise across the board.

Now I am not insinuating that the New World 'individual approach' thinks that wonderful wine can be made in waste disposal land, but the human element seems to star the lead role w/ the sense of terroir playing second fiddle.

The 'earth approach' has it's most firm roots in Burgundy. Terroir is everything, literally. Growers lay claim to parcels that are sometimes smaller than an acre. The 'cru system' of Burgundy does actually stem from quality of the site, which is necessary considering Burgundy is one of the most difficult areas to ripen grapes fully. Burgundy, collectively, kicked out Robert Parker from any perceived attempt to disrespect their cherished values of sacred soils. Aubert de Villaine, co-owner of the famed Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, was quoting as saying "now we can go back to focusing on our terroir" upon Parker's Burgundy rejection.

Conservative, old fashioned vintners like Aubert de Montille will admit to having particular styles of wine-making, but generally pride themselves as 'doing as little as possible' in the vineyard. Letting mother nature take care of the vine and giving thanks to the bounty that the vintage provided. This makes sense, at least in Burgundy where vintages are truly erratic, vintners do not have the expectations that a Californian grower would have on having Mother Nature's full cooperation. It's also quite easy to have a minimalist approach when your vines are over 100 years old (so of course you don't need to do much crop thinning or canopy management as vines of that age will not bear excessive yields) and it doesn't hurt to have centuries of experience under your belt.

The last 'land-centric' observation I'll make is that terroir is a great defense mechanism, especially for the French. The French had just about everyone believe that the best wine in the world can only be made in, you guessed it, France. Why? Terroir of course! Only our terroir can make wines of this class, longevity and elegance because it comes from our vineyards and our soils. Bordeaux can't be made anywhere else in the world but Bordeaux. Great way to get an edge on the competition, don't you think?! The Paris tasting was a sham anyway, right?

I think New World extremists are arrogant to think that an individual can fundamentally transcend place. I think Old World elitists are condescending to believe that only their land can make the best wine, irrespective of the wine maker. It takes a great wine maker w/ great terroir to make great wine (and both need a GREAT amount of experience).

Philosophy class in college did help me understand one immutable fact. The most sensible answers lie in the middle. Perhaps as time progresses the Old and New will become closer together, perhaps forming somewhat of a 'hybrid world' where wine makers are greatly important and land is still paramount? Who knows, I'm still clinging to the hope that pigs will eventually be able to fly.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Who wants Italian Chardonnay?
Not me. Although Italy's staple grapes all seem to be red, the country is loaded w/ diversity from a different color. There are literally hundreds of white grapes that have their origins traced back to the old country, many of which you probably haven't even heard of. Exotic names like Garganega, Fiano and Vermentino have yet to enter most wine consumer's lexicons, but I believe they should. One of the beauties of wine is the ultimate sense of discovery and exploration, and the vast array of white wines from Italy not only offer a glimpse into the country's heritage, but also provide a true window into the simple pleasures of their culture.

I can't help but recall a moment in the film 'Mondovino,' when a blatantly foolish tour guide of the Robert Mondavi winery tried to encourage the patrons to 'envision an ancient Tuscan villa' while they sipped away on some innocuous chardonnay blend from the valley floor. Now I have a fairly vivid imagination, but why would I be compelled to see such a sight from a run of the mill bottle of butter and oak? Well, I guess I'll suspend my disbelief when I realize a cheap and fundamentally simple glass of chard can sometimes be a decent ticket to la-la land.

I think I have a better idea, and no, it won't cause you to break the bank. There is a sea of inexpensive, top flight bottles of white Italian wine that make that mental excursion to Sicily much more feasible. I'm going to offer a quick 'how to' series of regional recommendations that will hopefully bring you a glimpse of what Italy's diversity is all about.

While some of these indigenous varietals may be a bit intimidating at first, their delicate aromas and delicious tastes will be well worth the journey.

Campania, in the southeastern region of Italy, offers a trio of varietals that are certainly worth more consumer attention. Falanghina, with its firm citrus backbone and dried pineapple notes is a versatile grape that is slowly gaining critical acclaim. Fiano di Avellino and Greco di Tufo (the names of the grape and sub region of Campania) have pronounced rich textures of honey, passion fruit and a racy frame that pairs wonderfully w/ sweetly seasoned fish. Producers of note to shop for include; Feudi di San Gregorio, Terredora and Mastroberardino. Check out the most recent vintages available as the wines, and most Italian whites for that matter, are best consumed in their youth.

Vermentino, a Sardinian varietal that has recently caught my eye, has to be one of the most under priced gems the island has to offer. My favorite, the 2005 Argiolas Costamolino, flirts w/ exotic notes that bring shades of what Viognier can do in the Rhone, while maintaining it's sturdy sense of 'Italian-ness' (and a price tag under 10 bucks). Antinori's rendition of Vermentino from Bolgheri, called Guado al Tasso, is also outstanding and can act as a perfect foil to a pair of diver sea scallops.

If you are in the mood for shellfish (and are interested in an alternative to Sauvignon Blanc), a Tuscan white called Vernaccia di San Gimignano could be just your ticket. Tree fruits, fresh pears and a zingy splash of lemon rind will leave your palate thirsting for more. Riccardo Falchini and Melini are excellent producers of Vernaccia that also offer attractive prices.
Another lovely white can be found just southeast of Tuscany, called Trebbiano d'Abruzzo. Prime examples of this varietal exhibit fresh flowers, soft spice and a cleansing minerality that pair beautifully w/ salted cod, or as an aperitif. Marramiero and Caldora have recently crafted excellent Trebbiano bottlings that you should seek out.

Piedmont, an appellation tucked away in the northwest corridor of Italy, is almost exclusively known for its powerhouse Barolo and Barbaresco's made from Nebbiolo, the king of Italy's red wine grapes. Although Piedmont's whites are not nearly as stately as its well known reds, there are definitely some excellent bottles of Blanco that curious consumers should check out. Gavi, a wine made from 100% Cortese grapes, calls Piedmont home and has a somewhat polar reputation. Perceived as either an uninspiring quaff or a delicious treat, Michele Chiarlo and Villa Sparina craft some of the richest, most plush examples of how generous Gavi can be. Bring on the primi piatti!

Veneto, with its cool climate and proximity to Austria, is arguably the most famous of white wine growing regions in Italy. My guess is that most of the notoriety comes from the ubiquitous plantings of Pinot Grigio (which, by the way, is not a native Italian varietal), the pleasurable sipper that Americans swirl down like Pepsi. Although there are some fascinating producers of Pinot Grigio (no, not Santa Margherita), I think you'll find the whites of Soave Classico much more generous. Soave is generally made w/ at least 75% Garganega, with the remainder of the blend varying from Trebbiano, Malvasia, Pinot Bianco and other local varieties. The finest glasses of Soave Classico (and Soave Superiore) that I've had were truly spectacular. The balance between notes of rich cream and honeysuckle laden pie crust with a bracingly fresh undercurrent of acid (thanks to those cool nights up in Veneto) was really astounding. There are plenty of industrialized forms of bland, Bolla-infused plonk, so stick to names like; Inama, Anselmi, Pieropan, Gini and Ca'Rugate.

Soave can also be made into a dessert style wine referred to as Recioto di Soave. The process involves drying the grapes on wicker racks, concentrating the sugars and creating an intensely sweet, unctuous version of Soave for after dinner.

Values and diversity abound for any consumer that thrives on taking the road less traveled. Not only are these Italian whites delicious on their own, they are perfectly engineered for food companionship w/ their low alcohol levels and thirst quenching acids. Even though these concepts are relatively tame in 'the new world,' I believe that wines of this pedigree bring together the best of the old and the new. Perhaps the Italians can send an olive branch of peace towards the Americans by dumb-ing down the labels a bit, seeing that we don't have the time or patience to decipher the 'D.O.C. code.' On the other hand, if Prosecco and Pinot Grigio can be en vogue, why not give Falanghina a shot?

I strongly encourage you to be adventurous, challenge any preconceived notions and seek out these unheralded gems (before they gain cache and rise in price). Worse case scenario, your out 15 bucks and can always opt for some Italian Chardonnay. Like the tour guide in Mondovino said, 'just imagine yourself in Tuscany.'