Notes from the Cellar blog
Words. Wine. Song. Voila, the three realms that give color, flavor, texture and an esquisse (sketch) of sense to this old boy’s romp through the life cycle. While each in its own way is hugely responsible for forming the collective bundle of pleasure, pains and ideas that led to my particular here and now, they all more or less inform and color one another (quite handy when it’s time to reach in the metaphoric bag o’ tricks). I often think of books in terms of wine, music in terms of books, wine in terms of music...and so forth.
I find this little habit of mind especially useful when tasting wine. Thinking of wine in terms of music doesn’t just make for a nice set of metaphors, it’s actually an amazingly precise way to describe—and evaluate—wine. Texture, ripeness, residual sugar and alcohol readily lend themselves to orchestral or acoustical interpretation. Think of red Burgundy in terms of Debussy, brilliant, elegantly balanced whites as Mozart (or Beethoven) string quartets, and the Rhone as Ravel’s orchestral works (for example). On the other side of the Atlantic, old school California cabs are the Stan Kenton band, while Zinfandel is a bad-ass tavern band…and all those overripe, over-oaked, ego-centric expositions of plushness are everything from a metal band turned up to 11 to “smooth jazz” laced with layer upon layer of digital delay—walls of lush, silky, sentimental, processed sound. Oak is the wild card, the magic tool, the special touch, the producer’s ace, everything from lush strings to saccharine vibrato --think Leonetti Cellars wines channeling Kenny G offering a prime example (for those who have the means).
Perhaps the most useful musical reading of wine is in terms of basic harmony. The basics, the roots, the timeless stuff that gave birth to most of everything else that matters, musically. Think Bach chorales, for example. Four voices: Soprano, alto, Tenor, Bass. In well-balanced, cleanly rendered wines, all voices sing clearly, cleanly and in harmony. Solo or featured voices will stand out, of course, due to varietal or vintage considerations, but the parts should always all be present. White wines, for example, should see the soprano as featured soloist, or in strong support of an alto soloist, (Too often, overripe white wines become lush textures of alto and tenor, with no voice in the soprano part.), with tenor and bass present, but laying down the proverbial foundation. Likewise, red wines should tend to feature tenor and bass voices, but not to the exclusion of the altos and sopranos. Those high harmonies provide a bright contrast, providing depth and context for the profundity of lower voices.
You get the idea. There are endless examples, of course, but check it out over your next bottle or four. Think in terms of basic, four-part harmony and find the individual voices in the wine. See how they contribute to the texture and provide counterpoint for one another. And, of coursed, a little Bach (or Basie, Beethoven, the Beatles or Buddy Miller) on the side doesn’t hurt, either…
Sometimes you can be so wrapped up in what’s just beyond the metaphorical windshield that you lose sight of the various, truly amazing people and things that make the whole danged journey worthwhile. Then the universe and the road conspire to give a little tug on your coat. And voilà…illumination, perspective, satori, reality check.
Last day in France at the end of a non-stop, action-packed trip and I’m hitting that point where I need to either be home or stay. Twelve days of being on the move make for a powerful desire to be quiet and still—maybe with a tasty beer to wash the dust (and several hundred wines) outta my mouth. Just one more visit to make before I catch my ridiculously early flight to Paris to begin the long, long day that ends up back in Ballard. It turns out to be the highlight of the trip—and makes all the rest even more worthwhile.
Jean-Pierre Vanel is a classic. Thinker, reader, philosopher, amateur of music. And, of course, artisan-vigneron, grower of some of the Languedoc’s most authentic, soulful wines. A man with as much depth as the ocean, and not the sort with whom one can taste and run.
We meet at Jean-Pierre’s house in the village of Caux, taste barrel samples of E-blanc, named after a line in the Rimbaud poem Voyelles, and the only white wine Jean-Pierre grows. It’s incredible, an enchanting blend of grenache blanc and roussanne -- with the savory, floral, mineral character of the vineyard contributing as much to the fabric of the wine as the varietal character. Then it’s off to lunch in Pezenas, where the Saturday market is in full swing under fresh blue skies that sing promises of spring.
With the temperature still a little fraiche, we score a table in the sun at a bar à vins on the place. Soup, bread (classic, simple, amazing, inexpesive), charcuterie, cheese—and a tour of Jean – Pierre’s current releases of reds: Fine Amor, grenache – based and as delicately, elegantly expressive as pinot (which inspires Jean-Pierre’s vinification of it); Mélanie – based on syrah, brooding, but still beautiful; and probably the most elegant expression of mourvèdre I’ve ever tasted—ma non troppo, the musical term meaning “but not too much” which perfectly sums up this wine. It show the dark, animal character of mourvèdre, tinged with the savory-but-bordering-on floral notes of the Pezenas terroir. Amazing.
Add conversation, from philosophy to politics to books … and of course, wine – and it all adds up to one of those afternoons you wish you could bottle and keep (that’s all the better because you can’t).
Jean – Pierre expounds on his fundamental ideal as a vigneron: the idea that he doesn’t “make” wine. Vineyards, earth and the weather do that. His role is that of accompanist, to simply help the process along as much as possible. He pauses, grins and says “c’est on opinion—et je la partage” (that’s my opinion –and I’m sharing it).
Syrah. Let’s just say that I’m not a huge fan – though I truly, truly love syrah.
Huh? A case of love – hate, where passion leads to a treacherous walk on the wild side of excess? Nope, no epic battles of virtue and vice in this episode – although as a matter of sensibilities it makes a handy metaphor for what this curmudgeon sees as the frontier between character and gooey gratuitousness (but that’s another story).
It’s a question of style (and sensibility), and we’re talking about two very, very different things. Syrah (syrah the grape, that is), is a marvel when harvested at ripeness that allows it to express both its uniqueness and its terroir. Think dry, dark fruit essences, black cherries, dark stone fruit (imagine a black peach), notes of pepper, aromas of violets, game, smoke. Profound and brooding, but capable of elegance and finesse, it’s the place where fruit and dirt intersect. Like many things with pronounced character, it’s something that you either like or don’t’. It doesn’t invite ambivalence.
Syrah, the “style” on the other hand, is all but an oxymoron. When picked at the levels of über – ripeness that typify New World syrahs, it loses all those lovely characteristics that make it so distinctive vanish, leaving a big, juicy, alcoholic monolith of fruit compote. Flavors that’ll wow your senses with shock and awe, but that can’t carry on a conversation in the morning. It’ll blow you away, but have nothing to say.
Happily, more and more Washington winemakers are embracing syrah, and working with it in a way that allows for expression of both grape and terroir. I tasted two this past week, a new release from our friends at Naches Heights (whose wines just keep getting better and better) and an impressive third vintage from Jeff Lindsey – Thorsen at W.T Vintners. Both his syrah and a yet-to-be-released gruner veltliner left us enthusiastically looking forward to getting this wines in the stores (coming in early March). Here are notes on both:
Naches Heights Syrah ($18) Biodynamically farmed syrah from Two Coyote and Naches Heights Vineyard deliver pure syrah character—a brooding, spice, pepper and mineral-infused whirl of dark fruits. A foundation of minerals and a whiff of piney, sagey terroir round out an outstanding wine from one of our favorite producers. Ridiculously affordable for this quality.
W.T. Vintners Syrah Destiny Ridge Vineyard ($26) This is impressive stuff, especially given that this is just the third release for this wine. A super example of what syrah is really all about, it’s a bold, yet restrained, with an elegant Old World sensibility. Savory aromas of tar, violets, blackberries, pepper and game resonate on the palate, where notes of spice and smoky dark berries join the chorus, supported by firm tannins. A terrific value.
Generally speaking, I’m not a fan of “Bordeaux” varietals — especially cabernet sauvignon (although I do love me some cabernet franc–Loire-style cabernet franc, that is — not the overripe, overwooded, generally over-the-top stuff that tries to be sauvignon). The monolithic monsters that wow the wine-by-numbers crowd by dint of shock and awe feel like an assault on the palate, while the old-school California-style cabs that actually have structure and a sense of place are pretty danged hard to find and usually prohibitively expensive when you do. And let’s not even getting started on Malbec, which is well on its way to being the new poster child for wine grape prostitution.
There is, of course Bordeaux (yes there is, isn’t there?). Shoulder shrug. Why spend time and bandwidth (and too often a pile of loot) on a handful of ubiquitous varieties when there are a gazillion other crazy, wonderful, unique, off-the-beaten-path flavors just waiting to be discovered?
Malepère, that’s why. And why is that? Location, location, location. Sitting just to the northwest of Carcassone at the Languedoc’s westernmost edge, the appellation sits astride the Mediterranean and Atlantic climates (yes, the wind doth blow, both ways). Encompassing barely a thousand acres of vineyard and 18 producers, it’s among the smallest and the least-known of all France’s AOCs, not to mention the most unique, in terms of character. Think Bordeaux and Southwest cépages, but with a pronounced Occitan, even Catalan accent.
Tristan Shout, bearing tidings from Agent MC, stopped by with a gorgeous, amazingly affordable bottle from Domaine Girard the other day. Just a few swirls and sips was all it took to tilt my interest meter from moderate intrigue to pure enchantment. Composed of cabernet franc and merlot, it shows that duo at their old-world best, with focused, crystalline, bright aromas and flavors of red fruits that shade to darkness around the edges. Think structure, balance and certain Bordelais sensibility — married with the a sauvage element that’s pure Langudeoc, elegance with an untamed streak — and a heady bouquet of all those crazy garrigue-y things that sing songs and tell tales in old Occitan.
Crazy good, and a lesson not to make sweeping generalizations, nor to let a jaded, been-there-done-that attitude get in the way of brand new deliciousness. That’ll show me.
Now, it’s just a matter of waiting until that boat from Marseille actually gets here. Can’t wait!
Great wine doesn’t truly resonate until it’s shared. There’s nothing like drinking an incredible bottle (or several) with your favorite people to allow your palate and brain to fling open all the sensory doors and windows. As it turns out, my noggin is still vibrating with the harmonics of some astounding bottles the Accomplice and I shared over the holidays – including some memorable stuff imbibed with the Throckmorton clan.
All that goodness got my brain fired up, particularly the Champagne. Beyond good, the wines were brilliant, inspiring even. Last year I made a resolution to drink more Champagne (and Jerez), at which I managed to follow through with modest success. But this year, I’m redoubling those efforts, hi-ho! I’m on a mission, to both enjoy and evangelize – as the pleasure is unparalleled—and the story in the wines—we’re talking grower Champagne – is a metaphor for “honest” wine and for quality and character trumping crass crap in general.
Which brings to mind Terry Theise, who, besides being highly intelligent, articulate, perceptive, incisive and never one to shrink from calling out the emperor in his various states of undress, is perhaps the most fervent—and successful -- evangelist for farmer fizz out there. Terry tells it the way it is—and very convincingly, too. Here’s Terry’s “Manifesto” – Words to live (and drink) by:
"Beauty is more important than impact. Harmony is more important than intensity. The whole of any wine must always be more than the sum of its parts. Distinctiveness is more important than conventional prettiness. Soul is more important than anything, and soul is expressed as a trinity of family, soil, and artisanality."
Amen. Happy New Year. Drink more Farmer Fizz!
Voilà. Seven* lovely things I’m looking forward to over the next week or so. Why seven” Purely random. Twelve seems a little too “dozen-y,” too “twelve days of christmas clichéd and may even weirdly allude to twelve - step programs. Seven is a nice number, prime and makes me think of brings to mind John Coltrane’s “Seven Steps to Heaven.”
Gaston Chiquet Blanc de Blancs (or any Gaston Chiquet, for that matter). I tasted this wine amidst an absurdly lovely selection of farmer fizz a few weeks back. It’s exquisite, amazing purity really set it apart from all those other very delicious wines. My notes say “as pure as mountain rain.” Can’t wait for those first few sips and that half-a-glass contentment.
Sangiovese. I’m not sure yet just which wine we’ll have with Wednesday’s standing rib roast with rosemary, peppercorns, etc. But that lean, structured, edgy, savory framework that surrounds a heart of cherries, iron and iodine gets me all dreamy.
Quality lager. I know it’s mid-winter, but I’m craving, and won’t be denied. It’s that purity thing again, all clean, crisp grain, mountain stream water and just enough hops. Dialed back on the alcohol, too. – so a person can actually have a second and maybe a third, without getting all stupid. Anchor’s rendition is amazing, very smart, as some might say
Amontillado. That amazing nuttiness that opens a rabbit hole of tobacco, licorice, earth and salt. Sets your palate up for sweetness, then delivers a dry depth that tells all sorts of stories.
Quady North Cabernet Franc Rosé. I think there are some bottles left at a couple of our stores. Man, but this is the goods—austere and generous all at once, creamy fruit that’s bright and edgy at the same time.
Domaine La Madura “Classic” Blanc (and rouge, too, now that I’m thinking about it). These are two of the prettiest, most delightfully honest, expressive, fascinating wines I know. There are probably more bottles of La Madura enjoyed chez nous than of any other single grower.
Leah Jørgensen Cellars “Oregon Tour Rain” (or Cabernet Franc Blanc). Can’t decide between these two, but these wines were easily my favorite Cascadian discoveries of the year. One of our favorite small distributors will, with any luck, be bringing these wines to Seattle next year. We can’t wait to share. They’re gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous.
So, that’s more than seven. But oh well, it’s the holidays isn’t it? ( And I could easily have just kept right on going ‘til next Christmas). There’s just one more thing I need to add, and that’s the observation that every single one of these wines (in fact all the wines I happen to love) are made by people who have in common that they’re danged fine, sweet, honest, modest, just-plain-lovely, salt-of-the-earth people. After a certin number of solstices a person tends to figure out that life is just too danged short to waste a drop of it on anything but good food, good wine and great friends.
Buona festa, bonnes fêtes, happy holidays.
*(give or take).
I got a note from one of our wine stewards yesterday saying that a gentleman (a generous use of the word) had come into the wine department, muttering my name, looking at the ABV percentage on various Washington wines, saying I’d told him his wines had too much alcohol--and had stopped just short of causing a scene. Had I happened to talk to someone pitching us some wine?
Well, I hadn’t. Not yesterday, anyway. But we get lots of Washington wines submitted to us, on a regular basis—and I mean lots. Many are decent, some are quite good, some even excellent. (Unfortunately, because we have a finite amount of space and set a pretty high bar in terms of quality and value, only a small fraction of those wines ever end up for sale in our stores.) Others, on the other hand, are flawed, awkward -- and occasionally, really, really awful. Weird adventures in microbiology awful.
In any case, our “rejection” letter is a simple, generic note thanking the prospective vendor for their interest in PCC and stating that their product doesn’t fit our present needs. Most are understanding. Some want specifics, which we do our best to supply, as constructively as possible.
A few, however, don’t take it so graciously. This subset are convinced of my complete lack of any semblance of business sense or a competent palate, not to mention a striking resemblance between my personage and a particular human excretory organ (which, while perhaps a fitting observation, is nonetheless beside the point when the wine in question ain’t gonna fly in our stores).
My mother always cautioned that if I couldn’t say anything nice, I should just keep my piehole shut. It’s advice I try to heed – and when I just can’t help myself, I make it a rule not to name names, in public forums, anyway.
So. To you, Mr. Anonymous Angry Winemaker Dude: I’m not 100% certain, but I think I recall having tasted the “wines” you submitted. Whatever the exact wording of my response, it was no doubt a huge euphemism, a kind way of saying that your wines, quite frankly, sucked. And since we’re evidently not going to have the opportunity to mutter at one another in person, here’s the lowdown on your product.
Alcohol? Not a crime against wine in itself, but quite often just the first symptom of a wine that’s out of balance. Which encompasses a litany of ills: flabbiness, lack of acidity, lack of varietal (or any) character, palate heat and, well -- blatantly, unpleasantly, overbearingly alcoholic aromas and flavors.
Oh, and can you say VA? Nail polish and vinegar can be very good and useful—but not in wine. Fruit? That component in your juice was unidentifiable as any particular species, just a mass of overripe berry goo, a sort of overcooked jam – with some weird vapors of composty funk around the edges (maybe you’re calling that ‘minerality’ –whatever). Big? Sure, I’ll give you that. Monolithic, even. We’re talkin’ shock and awe, baby.
If you actually like and enjoy drinking the science-experiment-gone-wrong you’re peddling as wine, you have an advanced case of “house palate.” If you think that it’s worth the absurd, ridiculous, outlandishly ludicrous price you’re asking, you’re crazy, man. Nuts. Out of your mind. Gone pecan.
It’s been said that if you want to make a small fortune in the wine business, you’d better start with a large one. That’s advice you’d do well to heed, literally and seriously. Your wines were pretty bad, trending toward awful. No, let’s be frank – they were abysmal. (To be fair, one was almost palatable, interesting even—but only as a curiosity, a circus sideshow, a biological aberration, the wine equivalent of a two-headed monkey). All in all, they merited our most emphatic seal of disapproval.
There, done. Had to get that out of my system. This blog is supposed to be a forum to share sips from the endless river of amazing, lovely, unique, fascinating, wonderful labors of love and hard work that I get to discover from day to day – and the really, really cool people who invest their love, sweat and inspiration in nurturing them from vine to bottle. Thanks for enduring the detour. Back to more of the good stuff – stay tuned for the Christmas edition.
“Aromas of ripe, dark cherries and spice with a persistent note of blood…” Blood probably isn’t a word you’re going see used in a wine description anytime soon. At least not at your local grocer (or bottle shop, for that matter). No matter that there are times when it’s the absolute best word to describe what you’re tasting: iodine, iron, a little saline, a note of something essentially animal, very distinct—blood. No matter that it’s the very juice of life for every single living being on the planet, as essential as water, or air (not to mention the transmitter of the those two essential elements). Nope. In our clean, pristine, sanitary world, “bloody” just isn’t the sort of adjective we use for things we drink. Just too close to the the proverbial bone, too icky, I guess.
I’ve been on a bit of a sangiovese spree lately, drinking Chianti for the most part, a little of everything from Classico to Colli Senesi to Rufina to Colli Orientali – as well as a mighty nice, perfectly-aged bottle from Montecucco and lovely, lovely Brunello. All in all, a string of gorgeous wines, taut and lean, but no less assertive or generous for it – and all expressing the lovely little nuances that make each region subtly different from its neighbor.
Being from the same region and composed primarily of the same grape, all show rather remarkable similarity (go figure). In addition to various shades of dry cherry, spice and the Tuscan iteration of garrigues, all share a thread of iodine and iron, an essential earthiness, a saltiness that’s best described as blood. While threads of that texture are sure to be expressions of terroir, the bulk of the weave is in the grape – and its capacity to translate that singular terroir.
Sangiovese. Jove’s blood, literally. From the Latin sanguis (blood) Jovis (God). Metaphorically, we could riff endlessly on that (I’ll spare you just now), but appropriate and downright cool is that? Whether you grasp “God” as patriarchal or Matriarchal, no matter. Wine as God’s blood, Mother earth’s blood – an essential, inspirational, soulful infusion of goodness from the Powers That Be – whatever they be. So, be grateful, and drink up. I’m having another glass of this lovely Selvapiana Chianto Rufina.
It’s bloody good.
While gratitude is, of course, a practice that’s best done on a daily basis, the Thanksgiving holiday seems like a fine time to share a few wine guy reasons to be thankful. Voilà –just a teeny, tiny few seasonally appropriate things that make me glad…
Beaujolais -- real Beaujolais. There’s nothing like it. Fresh, vibrant, nearly pulsing with exuberance, the essence of sun become sweet fruit, wrapped around a core of cool granite. An old friend who always forgives me for running off to hang out with other wines, and welcomes me back with a glass way more than half full.
Winegrowers. As in farmers, or wine people who think like farmers. Modest, down-to-earth, ordinary human types who have calluses and dirt on their hands. People like Jean-Pierre Vanel, Kay Simon and Clay Mackey, James and Poppie Mantone, the Pouillons, Herb Quady, Keith Pilgrim, Remi Pouizin, Bill Powers, Robert, Corrine and Barbara Gross at Cooper Mountain, John Morgan, Barbara House and Liam Doyle at Lost River, Tony Dollar, Phil Cline, The Gilbert Family… and a whole bunch who I’ll catch the next time around.
“Everyday” wine. These are wines that are what they are, that taste like where they came from, that aren’t all fancied up to be some sort of luxury item. Because wine is something ordinary people should do, just about every ordinary day, and it’s less expensive to make (and has more character anyway), when it doesn’t try to be some fancy pants thing for fancy people.
My nose. An essential, of course, but I’m amazed at how much it teaches me as I learn to notice more and more smells, not just in wine, but out there in the world at large. The key to all sorts of Proustian magic. The world is your oyster—and your madeleine, too.
Friends. Because, nothing tastes as good solo as it does when you share it with your peeps.
Food. Italians have this nailed. Wine needs food to really sing the high notes—and food needs wine to truly nourish our souls.
And lots of other stuff. Stay tuned, more later.
Buona festa, bonne fête, happy holidays. Amen.
Sometimes, the nuts and bolts of take over. The day-to-day, devil-in-the-details side of things becomes everything. The means turn into the end and the raison d’être vanishes in an ocean of work that feels like…work. Lost in the changes, as jazz folks say.
And then, unannounced, with no gift wrap (don’t the best things always come unadorned, anyway?)…a reality check. One of the good guys comes calling, bag packed with bottles of goodness: character, soul, passion and inspiration. Glasses gets swirled, releasing wafts of far-away places, seasons composed of days, nights, sun rain, wind and the hard work that turns them into liquid goodness. It’s an epiphany, an old friend, a favorite teacher with a remedial class in the finer points of the bigger picture—(that particular bigger picture being among the more rewarding reasons I get up in the morning and march off to work ...hi - ho!).
Today’s lesson is in the alchemy of syrah, grenache, carignan and mourvèdre, the blood of the Languedoc, the translators of its inimitable terroir. Two wines in particular grab my attention, both grown by rock solid, inspired, brilliant men – two humans as different as the astonishingly singular terres they farm.
Artisan – vigneron Jean-Pierre Vanel is a man of letters with the soul of a poet, or a pianist. His aim is to “make his terroir speak, accompanying it, without leading it.” His biodynamic – farmed vineyards are in the Pézenas appellation, where the rolling hills of the Mediterranean plain meet the foothills of the Cévennes, in the decaying basalt lavas of ancient volcanoes. Jean-Pierre’s grenache-based “Fine Amor” is a lovely case in point for his view of grenache as the pinot of the south, a crystalline, pure expression of cool raspberry and cherry fruit wrapped around brooding, introspective tones. It’s a wine that offers the pristine tones of an aria sung by in alto voice, with a dark funk of earthy decadence. It’s gorgeous, a wine that begs contemplation, and sip after sip.
100 clicks west by southwest, in the heart of Minervois, the tiny village of Félines smells like nowhere on earth. A heady mélange of typically Languedocien garrigues attains an incredible intensity. Wild rosemary, thyme, truffle and green oak, cistus and Mediterranean pine, with a streak of schist that rises from the ground to add its earthy voice to the mix. Michel Escande, sorcerer to Jean-Pierre’s poet, soothsayer of vines, translates the sauvage perfume into his wines. “Esprit d’Automne” is an introductory course in Minervois magic, while “La Féline” steps up to graduate level, all that wildness lacing dark, ultra-dry, pure fruit essence – a marriage of earth, sky, fruit, blood and soul. It’s astounding, the essence of the place and the good earth, only possible when a grower forsakes ego, in favor of the soul of the vineyard. Michel says, echoing Jean-Pierre: “learning to be quiet, that’s a vigneron’s most important job. Learn to be quiet, in order to begin to listen, to try to understand the signs…”
Inspiring, beyond numbers, a challenge for words – and a great reason to “go to the office”!
I love this gig.