Monday, June 19, 2017

ROSÉ RESURGENCE; NO LONGER BELLY-BUTTON FLUFF



 “I have red and I have white,” she said. “What do I need pink for?”

My wife was responding to my insistent call for her to try a terrific new rosé from Acquiesce.  When did she become a rosé snubber? I thought. I remembered a time when we put away a lot rosé together at the poolside. 


Her proclamation reminded me of a British wine snob who once said, “Rosé is wine’s answer to belly-button fluff, baffling in origin, purposeless in deployment.” Elegant, yet brutal. 

Why indeed do we need rosé in our lives? I posed the question to regulars at Wine Wizard’s.


Because it is good,” said one.  Because you need variety in your life,” quipped another. “Life is not complete without it.” Larry Johansen, the Wiz himself, considered rosé an indispensable element of the overall wine experience.

Rosé hatred used to be a popular sport, but it is now passé. We are in the midst of a major rosé resurgence.


Consumption of this easy-drinker is increasing dramatically. Bev Mo used to offer around fifteen brands of rosé; now it’s offering over fifty. Locally, Wine Wizard’s always sold classic Tavel and Bandol rosé from Provence, and hidden secrets like cheap Grignolino rosé from Heitz in Napa - better known for its pricy Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet. Larry is now also offering a larger variety, French stalwarts, Italian rosatos, Spanish rosados and domestics, including Acquiesce, the Lodi rosé I mentioned to my wife, from a winery well on its way to local cult status. 

In the meanwhile rosé has also conquered upper echelons of society. In the sheik Hamptons of Long Island, New York, sales of Wölffler Estate rosé, a local concoction, has enjoyed an explosion from eighty-some cases in the 1990s, to twenty-thousand plus currently. It is nowadays known as “Hampton’s Gatoraid.” 

Why the difference?


To begin with, rosé has finally emerged from the dark shadow of White Zinfandel that cast a cloud on it. White Zin was as serendipitous a discovery as Penicillin, though not as useful. In the early 1970s, a Napa winemaker, Bob Trinchero, set aside a failed batch of grape juice with prematurely arrested fermentation. The yeast had died before the sugar was consumed. When he later tasted it he discovered a sweet, fruity flavor that he thought was marketable. Sutter Home White Zinfandel was thus born.

It went on to make a fortune for Trinchero, and touched off a White Zin craze in the 1980s and 90s that smeared rosé wines in its swirl. White Zin was not real rosé, but rather a “blush” wine. For drinkers it made no difference. They were both pink. So what?


While White Zin was extracting a toll, rosé had another, more intransigent opponent: macho males. They wouldn’t be caught dead drinking anything pink, wine or otherwise. Now White Zin is old history and machismo has acquired a softer side. We are in the midst of a more touchy-feely Bro-sé phenomenon. According to Chris Schonberger, editor-in-chief of firstwefeast.com, as of 2014, “it finally became cool for men to drink pink (up 39% by volume),” rosé making a transition from “baby showers to backyard barbeques, poker nights and tailgate parties,” with New York leading the way. “A search for the #brosé hashtag on Instagram reveals a treasure trove of shirtless homoeroticism,adds Schonberger.


Contrary to common misperception, rosé is not made by mixing white and red wine, nor is it a product of incomplete fermentation – as in Sutter Home White Zin. It is created by keeping the skins of red-wine grapes in shorter contact with the juice, during a process called maceration. Thus rosé can be made of any red varietal grape and therefore carries  diversity in styles, Old World versions dryer, New World sweeter.

It is thought that ancient winemaking techniques favored rosé. In those days longer maceration periods resulted in harsh red wines that were too hard to drink. Shortened maceration times meant easier drinkers – and pale colors. The English who bought boatloads – literally – of claret from Bordeaux at one time, preferred pinkish clarets for this very same reason. 

Modern techniques subsequently refined wines, red and white alike, to an extent that made pink inferior.  


The current rosé resurgence is in part fueled by endorsements from celebrities such as Beyoncé and the now defunct Brangelina (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie), the latter touting their own rosé label: Miraval, from Provence. Famed movie director Francis Coppola, a Sonoma winemaker, has a best-seller rosé: Sophia, named after his daughter. Print media has joined the fray, touting the virtues of rosé  wine, while unlikely social media stars such as The Fat Jew (Josh Ostrowsky) are spreading rosé-love on Instagram.


To be sure, rosé is easy to love. It is friendly both on the palate and wallet. “You do not need to pay more than $15 for a bottle,” says Rachel Sanders of BuzzFeed. It is also agreeable with and array of foods: barbecued meats (fish, chicken, red meat), veggies, potato chips or even cookies. It is versatile, drinkable at a barbecue, the beach or at the TV couch, with or without food, and can be mixed into cocktails. Just don’t age them. Rosé is a buy-and-drink wine. Within a year most rosé is undrinkable.

Rosé resurgence was long overdue. Contrary to the British bloke who compared rosé with belly-button fluff, its origins have always been well known and its deployment is no longer uncertain. 

Now if I can only convince my wife to join in. I think I’ll buy a bottle or two and sneak some into Julie’s poolside glass this summer.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

CABERNET FRANC; IS THERE ANY HOPE IN AMERICA?




Someone suggested a Cabernet Franc tasting, domestic versus French. Not again!

Over the years I’ve been through a few of these. They have all left me with the same impression: the French maintain the essence of the grape while Americans make a mess of it. Would this one be any different?

Cabernet Franc is mostly a blending grape, ubiquitous in Bordeaux where it plays second fiddle to its more illustrious counterparts, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. These mixes are imitated in other parts of the world. 


The only region where Cab Franc is a mainstay solitary varietal is the Loire Valley of France. There the grape rules the roost, Chinon being the top appellation, Bourgeuil a close second, and Saumur-Champigny an upstart that is catching up. 



In North America, single varietal Cab Franc is a novelty item made only by a few. In a recent search at the cavernous K&L wine store in San Francisco, known for the depth and variety of its offerings, it took an experienced clerk quite a while to find me a single domestic Cab Franc on display. 


Loire Cab Francs have cool weather characteristics: light fruit with green pepper or small berry flavors and hints of smoke. Many, especially Bourgeuil, have characteristic burned pepper noses and flavors. It may sound off-putting, but it’s delicious, once the taste is acquired. The wines are well balanced and pack a wallop of acidity in their finish, making them friendly with a variety of foods, especially pork and poultry, some pastas and steaks. 

When tasted by themselves however, they don’t compare well with more fruit forward, higher alcohol, somewhat sweeter wines from North America. Nor do they do well against their more lofty French brethren from Bordeaux or the Rhone Valley. This may be why most Loire reds are stuck at relatively bargain prices when all others keep rising. 


Meanwhile, American winemakers who have an uncanny ability to take any grape and make it taste like a popular, well selling varietal, create Cab Francs with highly extracted fruit on the sweet side, with high alcohol and prominent oak. They are hard to identify as Cabernet Franc and resemble Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. Prices tend to be high, certainly higher than Loire Cab Francs.   




By coincidence, our tasting, a BYOB, combined four French and four domestics. The French were predictable and, with one exception, pleased those tasters that like the Loire style. Included were a 2007 Chinon from famed producer Joguet, and a 2015 Bourgeuil Domaine de la Butte. Baudry, another respected producer appeared with a 2007 Chinon that was over-the-hill. A disappointment. The best of the bunch was a 2007 Bourgeuil from Catherine & Pierre Breton. All these were lighter style, well balanced, food friendly wines. They retail in the $ 30-45 range.


The Americans were a hodge-podge. We began with a 2014 Andrew Will from Columbia Valley in Washington State.  
It was a big and fruity wine, sweet and with striking spice and aggressive tannins that dominated the finish. It tasted nothing like Cabernet Franc and was not worth $ 40 it sells for.
A 2013 Chimney Rock could have easily been mistaken for a well made Merlot. It was elegant, well balanced, a bit ripe and sweet, and oaky in the finish, not overly so. I described it as a wine that appeals to popular tastes. Located in the Stags Leap district of Napa’s Silverado Trail, this winery is better known for its expensive Cabernet Sauvignons. So was this Cab Franc, $82. 

Would anyone pay that price for a bottle of Cab Franc? I liked the wine, but not I.



The worst of the domestics was a 2009 Windwalker from El Dorado Hills in Amador County that retails for $22. It exemplified all the sinful excesses that domestic wine makers commit. The wine was huge, sweet, oaky from beginning to end, high alcohol and, in many ways Port-like. Stunned, the only comment I could offer was, “I didn’t know Cabernet Franc could make a dessert wine.” 


Just when I thought all hope was lost and this tasting would go the way of all the others, a surprise appearance from Paso Robles turned out to be most notable: this 2016 Franc Field Recordings. It had a floral nose, light Chinon-like fruit and a smoky mid palate. Those of us who like the Loire style mistook it for a Chinon. In retrospect hints of sweetness in the upfront fruit and less pronounced acidity gave it away as domestic.  

Finally we had come across a Loire style Cab Franc from California. Hallelujah! 

At $19 it was the cheapest wine in the tasting. Hallelujah again.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

PAIRING PERCEPTIONS AT SEVEN HILLS


Pairing wine with food is a world onto itself. A recent dinner at Seven Hills, a San Francisco restaurant, allowed me to rediscover some rules I already knew and one I should have known.


Located in Russian Hill, Seven Hills is one of those hidden neighborhood gems that Michael Bauer, food critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, refers to as “a second tier restaurant that would be first tier in any other city.” It’s a small, 45 seat storefront spot on a quiet, residential block of Hyde Street, cable cars crisscrossing in front. The food is Italian, with a strong touch of California cuisine. 


Julie and I employed our usual wine strategy: two bottles, white and red, two wine glasses per person, mix and match as we please.  It allows for experimentation with unconventional pairings. I had brought a bottle of 1999 Chateau Beauregard, a Bordeaux, with me. From the restaurant’s wine list I picked a 2015 Ciu Ciu Pecorino, a white wine from the Marche region of Italy.


The Beauregard is a serious red. It comes from a historic estate in Pomerol founded in the 11th century by the Knights Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem. Its varietal composition is 70% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Franc, a typical Right Bank mix. ’99 is a vintage that is drinking well nowadays. 


The white wine was a wild leap. I had only known Pecorino as a cheese made of sheep’s milk. I recently learned that it’s also a wine. When it caught my eye on the wine list, I decided to give it a whirl.

We first sampled both. The ’99 Beauregard had a wonderful herbal nose, soft texture on the palate and a pleasantly vegetative finish. Very nice. The Pecorino turned out to be quite aromatic, with bold flavors, crisp acidity and some sweetness in mid palate that we greeted with some alarm. Would it go well with the meal?

Our first courses were appetizer plates. My wife’s snap pea salad, full of fresh vegetables and a yogurt based sauce, went well with the white wine. No surprise.

The other plate, Italian meatballs with melted Fontina in the center, was a revelation. Two giant, baseball sized meatballs were presented in tangy marinara sauce. One would think that the red wine would match well with the red meat. The Beauregard didn’t. The Pecorino was much better.

It should not have been so surprising. The white wine was actually pairing with the marinara sauce rather than the meat. I had just re-discovered a rule I knew: do not match the wine to the meat, match it to the sauce.


The meal continued with a shared plate of tortellini with English peas, excellent with the Pecorino. Then came grilled halibut for me and Wagyu beef for my wife. We tried each wine with each plate. The white disappeared fast. The Bordeaux lingered. It had tasted well by itself. With food, its vegetative qualities became exaggerated, off-putting. 

I thus came to a realization that, when later announced, drew laughs from my wine group colleagues: Bordeaux does not go well with Italian food.


One wine buddy slapped his forehead with his palm. “Now, you discovered?!” They had known this all along. 

If you must drink red with Italian food it’s best to stick to Italian reds. They are, by tradition, made to go with food, lighter in fruit and acidic as they are.


Naturally there are many wines from France or California that share similar qualities. They are not, however, the ones we enjoy as sipping wines, overstated in fruit, featuring high extraction and  alcohol. In this regard, if uncertain, it’s best to consult with a knowledgeable wine steward, if one is available.


Perhaps the best lesson from the experience is the main one I learned by ordering the Pecorino. Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone and try something new. More often than not, the effort will be rewarding.

Friday, May 5, 2017

IS HE A WINE GUY?




“Expensive wine is a weakness we both share,” he said. 

He took a sip of Chardonnay from a glass he had nursed through fried calamari. I was quite sure it was domestic but I refrained from asking. 


“Yes,” I replied. “Nowadays my main go-to wines are Chablis Premier Cru for whites and Chateauneuf du Pape for reds.” I boasted. I was being an ass.

He smiled in acknowledgement but I wasn’t sure if he knew what those wines were. 

I decided to change the subject. We were having a business dinner at an uppity suburban mall, just he and I. He was an agreeable character, pleasant, easy to talk to. No sense in me getting overbearing, as I can be when the subject of wine comes up. The conversation moved on. In the meanwhile, I was left wondering, is he a wine guy?


The waitress brought our entrees. He looked at his empty wine glass, then at me. “Are you sure you don’t want something to drink?”

I was nursing a bottle of Pellegrino. I had driven a long way to meet him and had to drive back. I couldn’t tell him that I despise wine by the glass, nor was I to order a bottle and then drive. “No thanks. I’ll have something when I get home.” I mentally opened the screw top on a Talbot Kali Hart Pinot Noir that awaited me, a wonderful, easy drinking Central Coast Pinot. 


He gave me a suit yourself look and examined his plate: New York steak and potatoes. “I’ll have another glass of that Chardonnay,” he told the waitress politely.


Allright, he is not a wine guy. I speared a fat shrimp sitting atop a tall mound of fettuccine.  The conversation moved on amicably. He cut a generous piece of steak and washed it down with the Chardonnay. Maybe I am being prejudiced, I thought. Nowadays there are many out there who are into unconventional wine-food pairings. Maybe he has a thing for steak and Chardonnay. Who am I to judge him?

I forced myself to quit bothering about his glass of wine and focus on our meeting. It was going well. The waitress approached us for dessert. I didn’t want any. I asked for a cup of Cappuccino instead. He said he’d like one too. 


The coffee was extra foamy. We each wiped white mustaches from our upper lips and took deep sips to get the liquid hidden beneath. We were winding down our encounter with future deals we would make, idealistic goals to serve our respective communities. I forgot about his Chardonnay.

He didn’t. He shot a glance at his glass, discovered more Chardonnay and took a sip.  

Did that really just happen? I tried to suppress my agitation. As if reading my mind he absent mindedly gulped more Cappuccino, then took another quick sip of wine. He smacked his lips and continued talking.

I was horrified. He may as well have been drinking his own urine.

We parted amicably, our business smoothly concluded. I drove home sober, and sobered by what I had witnesses. He definitely was NOT a wine guy. 

It took more than half the bottle of Talbot Kali Hart for me to forget the grisly combination of domestic Chardonnay with Cappuccino. Temporarily, it turns out. As I write these words I am certain that I will never forget.