We celebrated a big promotion, a birthday, and a job offer at San Francisco’s Piperade last week and our friends did the honor of bringing a bottle of Dom Perignon, Moet & Chandon’s top-of-the-line version of its Champagne.

You'd be happy too if you invented Champagne

It was appropriate to the triple-crown victory of that night and confirmed my opinion that, for me, of all the so-called “prestige cuvees” in Champagne, Dom dominates. It was just, so, complete. It had the exact right amount of pearly, snappy bubbles, at just the right size. It had just the right amount of apple and pear fruit, just the right amount of yeasty-toasty flavors, just the right amount of body. It went great with serrano ham and stuffed peppers. And I love the fact that this wine is named after the alleged founder of sparkling wine, the 17th Century monk who, after he made his first bottle by accident, was sent running toward his comrades shouting, “Brothers! Brothers! I am drinking stars!” Never mind fifty shades of grey: Dom is the sexiest dom.

Mojitos, Water, and Wine

Today we had friends, fresh mint, and a hot day by the pool … a great beginning for mojitos. But we didn’t have any soda water. Doh! Then one of us spotted a spare bottle of inexpensive sparkling wine in the fridge and bingo, we had a solution. W.C. Fields, who said of water, “NEVER touched the stuff,” would have been proud. If you’re worried about the drink being too alcoholic, just cut down a bit on the rum.
(makes four)
a big handful of fresh mint leaves
four fresh mint sprigs
two fresh limes, cut into 8 pieces each
2 cups light rum
1 cup simple syrup
1 bottle inexpensive sparkling wine
Divvy up and muddle the mint leaves and the lime pieces in the bottoms of four big glasses. Add ice to the rim, then divvy up the rum and the simple syrup. Top with sparkling wine and serve. (You won’t have used up the whole bottle but that’s okay. Save it for mimosas tomorrow morning.)

Aloha Rioja

We drank this Rioja, the numero-uno red wine of Spain, at a big celebratory dinner at Picasso in Las Vegas, right before we poured a cult Napa cab that was six times the price. The Vina Ardanza blew it off the table. No contest! On the advice of the wine director — a really nice guy named Robert –we decanted this 100% Tempranillo for one hour. We could have done more, because even though 2001 seems like an older vintage, for this type of wine, this bottle was an itty bitty baby Rioja, just released by the winery. (That’s one of the many reasons I love Rioja: the “riserva” versions are held forever by the wineries so that the winemakers are sure that we impatient rubes don’t drink them too young.) The wine started out with a pungent nose of violets (“like sticking your nose in a flower bed!” I said), notable poise on the palate, as if the wine had wings. Then, a fascinating array of flavors, including ripe cherries and other red stone fruit, wild blackberries. Ripe, rich, and mocha-y on the edges, lots of earthy sweet tobacco flavors, too, young, pure and vibrant at its core. Some toast and then a very very long finish. I loved this wine. There was just so much going on. Hands down, the most memorable wine I’ve enjoyed this year.

Paired up for Valentine’s Day

Nice-looking, but doesn't play so well with others

Just returned from a Valentine’s Day tasting at Viansa in Sonoma, and I’m happy to report that we learned something.
We paired three wines with chocolate desserts, including chocolate-covered strawberries, kiwi, and banana, plus biscotti and a couple of wine-flavored chocolate sauces. While we were especially fond of Viansa’s “Prindelo” 2006 (a blend of red Italian varietals and some zinfandel) with the biscotti and choco-wine sauces, we just couldn’t warm to any of the reds, including Viansa’s fancy Pomerol-style “Samuele,” with the chocolate-covered fruit. “They clash,” said our friend Terri.
My theory: It’s because of the acids in the fruit. They bumped up against the acid flavors in the wine and made for a wincing experience. The biscotti, though, especially because they had licorice in them, matched up perfectly.
So sorry folks. The classic Valentine’s treat of strawberries-dipped-in-chocolate are best paired with something other than wine, in our opinion. Any suggestions from you lovers out there?

Please Ban “Buckie”

The New York Times ran a disturbing article on Buckfast Tonic Wine, an appalling-sounding brew of fermented grapes, sugar, and caffeine that’s being blamed for a national crisis of highly-wired inebriation in Scotland. The government is considering controlling the vile substance, but local fans are responding with protests to the theme of “Don’t Ban Buckie!”
If you’ve tasted “Loopy Juice” (as they say in Glasgow) let me know if you were seized by intent to vandalize. And click here for the thoughts about my alcoholic WASP heritage that this story inspired: (more…)

The Burgundy of Italy

I just read Neal Rosenthal’s Reflections of a Wine Merchant, in which the importer — who is well-known by his fans to be a master of the geographical intricacies of French Burgundy — confesses that he learned from Barolo to appreciate the influence of the land on wine. So it was Barolo, not Burgundy, that made him appreciate terroir.
I guess that kinda makes sense. Barolo is a red wine made (like Burgundy) in very small quantities, usually from single vineyards, in the north of Italy. And like Burgundy it’s made from only one, very temperamental, highly sensitive grape called nebbiolo. So, as in Burgundy, the character of the site where the grapes are grown tends to shine through.
Click here for our trip to the training camps in the foothills of the Alps that turned Mr. Rosenthal into America’s most notorious home-grown terroirist: (more…)

How to Order Wine in Paris

The best bottle of our whole trip to Paris was a 2005 Rouquetaillade La Grange — and I am ashamed to say that I didn’t order it. In fact, my poor traveling companions had got so disgusted with my selections that on day four my dear friend Mark (and thank goodness he is still my dear friend after all those liquid disappointments) spotted a bottle of red on a neighboring table, determined that the French people who were drinking it were enjoying it, and told the waiter we wanted one of those.
Mark was embarrassed, but I was wholly impressed. First, I was so relieved he had taken the slack reins from my hands and steered us in a new wine direction. Second, I was staring at the wine list of this great bistro we default to every time we’re in Paris, mostly because of its excellent calves liver, paralyzed. I’d been ordering wines all week based on familiarity and recognition — so, Bordeaux from wineries I know — and time after time we’d been disappointed. The wines tasted thin and young. I even ordered a Haut Marbuzet from a vintage I’d collected and sampled from my own cellar, but for some reason it tasted like a shadow of this wine I know and love. So clearly my strategy wasn’t working.
Out came the Rouquetaillade La Grange. The waiter opened and poured … and it was delicious. Balanced, with good fruit but also that dry, earthy taste that comes from cabernet blends made in Bordeaux’s cool, almost seaside locale. It seemed somehow more vivid and satisfying than all the lifeless reds that had preceeded it on our trip. It was also half the price.
Then, the next day (because all my traveling companions had to leave on early flights) I found myself having lunch alone at a wine bar in the Buci market. I tried a variation of Mark’s wine-selection strategy, which was to order a glass of something cheap and completely unfamiliar. It turned out to be a cru Beaujolais and went beautifully with my pate.
So here’s the theory I came away with.

In Memoriam: Erin Findlay

I haven’t written since July, but I have a good excuse: on July 19 my mother — who, although she was not a connoisseur, loved wine and helped trigger my development as a student of wine — was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. As a result I’ve spent the last five plus months fighting, caretaking, squeezing out every drop of meaning from every moment, grieving (she died on November 11), and not writing. Or at least not writing about wine.
Though we did, of course, drink some in her twilight hours. My mother loved chardonnay: the bigger, the butterier, the better. Normally she’d have something merely quaffable, at least to her, for lunch. (I have no idea what to do with the 1.5 liter bottles of Glen Ellen “Reserve” I cleaned out of her pantry. And I hate to think what the non-reserve tastes like, or if it even exists.) But considering the circumstances I convinced her to help empty my cellar of all my Kistler chardonnays.
I know some wine snobs are horrified by Kistler’s full-throttle versions of this varietal, but I have a lot of respect for their commitment to single-vineyard bottlings, that is, to wines that try – even in the midst of all the ripe fruit flavors that can come from this grape plus California’s warm climate – to express the individuality of place. Kistler’s chardonnays are not subtle. But they are always different from one vineyard to the next. And especially to Mom they were always memorable, always a “wow” wine.
Click here for some more of the comfort wines we drank during Mom’s last days: (more…)

Yes We Cairanne

A recent trip to France convinced me that, ironically, the best place to drink French wine nowadays is in California. Let me give you an example: a red wine from Cairanne in the Southern Rhône, a 2007 Côte du Rhône Villages from Domaine Catherine le Goeuil, which I bought at Kermit Lynch Wines in Berkeley last week for $23.
I love this Cairanne. It’s a mouthful of ripe red plums, earth, and that brambly Southern Rhone “garrigue” flavor. It’s got delicious aromas of framboise, blueberry compote, asian spices, and licorice. It’s totally dry but tastes sweet on the palate, enough to go *great* with the BBQ sandwich I am now enjoying. Clean, fresh, slightly soft mouthfeel, though not lacking in heft. I haven’t enjoyed an under-$25 bottle of wine this much in a long time.
Why is this wine so exemplary of my new theory? Click here to find out (more…)

Varietal Smack-Down

Last night the Ladies Tasting Society met to blind-taste five red varietals, that is, wines made primarily from, and named after, one grape variety (for example pinot noir or cabernet sauvignon). It was an exciting and highly competitive tasting, since not only did the ladies score ourselves based on how many aspects of the wine we could detect correctly (grape? vintage? French or Californian?), the wine types were also vying with each other to be our favorites of the evening.
One lady and one grape prevailed. Click here to find out who and what (more…)