Saturday, January 29, 2011

Restaurant Delfina with Vietti Barolo Lazzarito in hand

Tripe alla Fiorentina at Restaurant Delfina, San Francisco. Delicious, perfectly textured between chewiness and melt-in-your-mouth'ness.

Last time after I raved about Pizzeria Delfina, located next door to the San Francisco jewel of an Italian restaurant that I'd never been to - Restaurant Delfina, the chef owner Craig Stoll was nice enough to invite me over.

With menus updated daily and swanky atmosphere in the midst of a bustling Mission neighborhood, I'd been itching to go for a while, as the place has foodies abuzz. Having a bottle of the Vietti Barolo Lazzarito 2004 in hand that I had just gotten from, Rona and I headed to Delfina to meet our dear friends whom we hadn't seen for ages.

Vietti sits somewhere in between the traditionalists and the modernists of the Barolo producers spectrum. The influence of oak is there, especially compared to the recent bottles of a staunch traditionalist Bartolo Mascarello (I just had 2003 and 2006 at Donato Enoteca a couple of weeks ago). Lazzarito is a single-vineyard bottling in Vietti's famous and quite extensive Nebbiolo line-up. Their other top single-vineyard Barolos are Brunate, Rocche, and Villero. Lazzarito - expensive, formidable, masculine, and built to last, the wine has personality. Coming from the great 2004 vintage, with the structure for aging, Vietti was not going to be approachable. Yet, I had to see how it's been evolving while there is still an opportunity to buy more at retail. I had remarked positively on this wine two years ago at Tre Bicchieri 2009 tasting, and on its 2005 vintage at Tre Bicchieri 2010. When just opened and tasted, the wine was as they say "tight and tough as nails". I poured it into a decanter and back into the bottle, three times, back and forth. By the time we started dinner three hours later, and throughout the meal, the wine kept opening up, as layers of flavor revealed themselves, coaxed by the impeccably executed, belly-warming and soul-caressing dishes of Delfina. Lazzarito is a darker expression of Nebbiolo - with loads of cola, tobacco, leather, with hints of menthol, figs and plums, rather than the more common to Nebbiolo sour cherries. The mintiness was not apparent to my friends at first, until they paired the wine with mint tagliatelle pasta, and nodded! A commanding bottle of vino for those who enjoy the darker style of Barolo, but it needs time. At $90-100+/btl, it gives me pause, especially when Vietti's entry-level non-single-vineyard Barolo Castiglione is quite good for around $40.

Take a look at the array of spectacular food we had - every single bite was spot on! Oh that tripe! Oh that panna cotta! Oh that this, oh that that! When do we go back?!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Three decades of Opus One

The place looks like an alien spider ship just descended to take over Oakville. Sitting on the valley floor next to Highway 29 and Oakville Grocery, Opus One has a grass lawn growing on its inclined circular walls. Scott and I imagined sliding down that thing in a cardboard box, but then thought better of it lest we ruin our upscale reputations with this venerable establishment. Too late, I suppose!

If you never heard of Opus One, then you've surely been living under a rock. In fact, even the far-away Japanese are so gaga over Opus that Japan is Opus' third biggest market, after US and France. There is a guy out in Kobe, who built a virtual shrine to Opus, with bottles from every vintage stacked high and wide, and savored every day of every week of every year, like a religious reminder that he is alive. The winery’s 2000 vintage was noted in volume 1 of "Kami no Shizuku" (watch it on this blog) - Japan's insanely popular manga with the protagonist searching the world for iconic wines. While in the rest of the world Opus' distribution is done through a group of Bordeaux negociants, the winery is so hot in Japan, they are now placing permanent sales staff there.

Opus One was founded in 1979 as a joint venture by Baron Philippe de Rothschild, legendary proprietor of Chateau Mouton Rothschild (Bordeaux 1st Growth Grand Cru) and Robert Mondavi, to create essentially a Grand Cru Bordeaux in Napa Valley. The winery's logo is perhaps the most recognizable of all American wineries. If you look closely, the likeness to the two founding men is unmistakable.

Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild

In the tradition of Bordeaux, they cultivate estate-grown fruit from their four vineyards, and bottle it into a main wine - Opus One ($150-200), and the second wine - Overture ($70). Both are Cabernet-based Bordeaux blends. Annual production is around 25,000 cases. Prior to 2004, Opus One was co-CEO'ed by one appointee from each side - Mondavi and Rothschild. Winemaking was also done with oversight and final approval from both. Since 2004, when Mondavi winery was acquired by Constellation Brands, Opus One has had a single CEO - David Pearson, and a single winemaker - Michael Silacci, who run the winery with more autonomy, with Rothschild and Constellation supplying three members each for the Board of Directors. Opus One now has the freedom to make viticulture, winemaking, personnel, and sales & marketing decisions, including competing with Bordeaux world-wide.

I sat down with Opus' winemaker since 2001, Michael Silacci (previously of Stag's Leap Wine Cellars), and their Director of PR since 1995, Roger Asleson, for a tasting of 6 vintages spanning the last 30 years: 1987, 1995, 1997, 2001, 2005, and 2007.

If images of Napa fruit-bombs, dark, thick, jammy, overripe, alcoholic oak monsters come to mind when you hear "Napa Cab", I have to say, Opus has threaded the needle. These wines are more red then black, plush but not thick, medium not full bodied, possessing decent acidity, with none of the jammy, overripe character that you will find in many California reds. That's not to say that they are Bordeaux-like. The alcohol levels have climbed steadily from the 1980's, when they were in 12-13% range, to the 1990's in the 13%-14% range to the 2000's when they are solidly in the 14-15% range (in 2007 at the higher end of that range, and in 2010 likely at the lower end of the range). I asked Michael about it.

"In the 80's, we had to replant many vines due to phylloxera. By then, we had learned how to grow healthier vines, more suitable for our climate and soils. We started using better root-stocks. Healthier vines reached sugar ripeness earlier.", explained Michael.
"But why would you not pick earlier?", I pressed.
"Because we still have to wait for phenolic (physiological) ripeness of skins and seeds, otherwise the wines would be overly tannic and green. This causes sugar ripeness to climb (and the acidity to decline). Higher sugars, especially pronounced in hotter years, result in higher alcohol. That's why we will see slightly lower alcohol in 2010 - on average a cooler year than its predecessors."

To flesh this out further, I borrowed this excerpt from
Winemakers commonly make a distinction between two rather separate ripening processes, known as phenolic ripeness and sugar ripeness, although this distinction is contested by some. Phenolic ripeness (also referred to as physiological ripeness) refers to the changes in the tannins that occur in grape skins, seeds and stems. Sugar ripeness refers to the breakdown of acids and accumulation of sugars. In the classic northern hemisphere regions, grapes are typically harvested by sugar ripeness. In many vintages it’s a question of getting the grapes as ripe as possible before autumn rains set in, and usually the phenolic ripeness is satisfactory where yields have been kept sane. [Editor note: I believe that is more of a case in Bordeaux and Burgundy.]

In warmer regions the growers get better results picking by phenolic ripeness, because this often trails sugar ripeness. Warm regions have no problem producing grapes with high levels of sugar and thus potential alcohol, and here the challenge is to get grapes to reach phenolic ripeness without making wines with heroic alcohol levels and no natural acidity. It’s no good picking earlier at 13 degrees potential alcohol in order to avoid an alcoholic wine, because if the phenolic ripeness isn’t adequate the wine will have an unpleasant green, unripe flavour to it.

To my palate, certainly the 12.5% of the 1987 was the most pleasing. The wine is decidedly more Bordeaux-like - possessing herbaceous notes, high acidity, a touch of smoke, and cool mouth-feel. Incredibly youthful, energetic, and fresh, the tannins are still there, keeping it alive and well. From there, the 1995 and 1997 add a bit of heat, thicker texture, a bit of jerky and spice, and feel like a baby of two worlds - Old and New. The 2001, 2005, and 2007 are different - obviously more fruity, almost apricoty, with fruit/berry tea component, hotter, plusher, perhaps "cleaner", with strong tannins reminding of the wines' youth. The entire line-up stays light on the palate, with a streak of chocolate-covered black cherries running through. The 2007 seems more open and approachable than many 2007's from other Napa producers, such as Bond. Out of curiosity, after I finished going forward in chronology (from 1987 to 2007), I went backward. Now the 1987 was tough to drink - noticeably greener, leaner, and more sour. This reminded me of how wine-drinkers with California palates must experience French wine :)!

"At what age do you recommend drinking Opus One?", I asked Michael.
"Well, we release 3 years after the vintage, and think the wines are drinkable on release. That said, I prefer them at 12-17 years."

Since 2001, Michael applied much of his time and wisdom to establishing and training a dedicated vineyard crew. Prior to that, crews used to rotate from other Mondavi's vineyards, including those that grew grape varieties that had nothing to do with Opus One. According to Michael, cultivating grape vines is different for each grape variety, and even each vineyard. Developing intimate knowledge of the land and the vine, creating an emotional attachment between the farmer and the final wine is key in his mind to raising quality of the final product. Opus One now has a veteran crew of 20 devoted vineyard workers, who not only tend to vines but even compete in teams to vinify two mini-tanks, under the supervision of Michael, of course. If successful, not only do the workers learn to appreciate the fruits of their labor in not just monetary terms, but their wine gets blended into Opus One, and they get to take home a specially labeled 3-pack of the Opus they made. The sense of ownership is something that money simply cannot buy, and Michael is very proud of that.

As I listended, I couldn't help but think of how these were the same savvy management principles that experienced managers use in all walks of work, not just viticulture. In my hi-tech day job as a Vice President at YouSendIT, if you make employees care, really care about the product they build, have them touch all aspects of it, not just their specific area - from engineering, to testing, to supporting customers, then the product will show it. Ask them to take it home with them and use it, and both the morale and the quality will go up. You will get happier workforce and happier customers.

In addition to team building, Michael has poured his energies into increased dry-farming (i.e. stressing vines by limiting water, except in the most extreme heat spikes). "Grapes, like people, get their intensity and depth from being deprived of easy life. Struggle causes them to dig deeper and to get better.", Michael explained his philosophy. "But only up to a point. I want to impart into them a sense of urgency, not a sense of anxiety. If you push too hard, they shut down.", he smiled, referring equally to his workers and his vines.

To help refine clone selection and irrigation schedules, he has hired experts to develop a very detailed soils analysis of the land. He believes the combination of those three strategies - the dedicated crew, the dry-farming, and the knowledge of the soils has resulted into steady improvement of the quality of Opus One in the past decade. You be the judge!

Walking through the clinically clean and meticulously arranged wine storage facility, I gazed at the shiny stainless steel tanks and experimental hi-tech grape sorting equipment that uses computer vision to filter out faulty grapes -- further evidence that the winery constantly invests in the latest methods to drive the quality of Opus One ever higher.

"But why do you want to keep improving quality, Michael?", I asked a devil's advocate's question.
"I guess no one had ever asked this.", he eventually said. "I am a perfectionist."
"Well, your wines are loved throughout the world. So what if you'd have an imperfection? A little animal, raw meat flavor, like in Northern Rhone, gives character.", I said.
"It's probably Brett", he said. "I actually enjoy a little bit of it."
"Then why would you try to improve this?", I wondered. I recalled a conversation I'd had with Italian wine expert Enrico Nicoletta of Wine Warehouse. When asked if the quality of Italian wine had changed over the last 30 years, he was very quick and confident to acknowledge the dramatic improvement. "Then what about the glorious vintages of the past?", I asked Enrico. "Yes, true, but those were few and far between. The consistency with which good quality wines come out of Italy today, vintage in and vintage out, is unprecedented." So relating that back to my dialog with Michael Silacci, I asked Michael:

"If great vintages already produce great wines, is this push for quality aimed at raising the level of poor vintages? I imagine it also helps you be more efficient and increase production without sacrificing quality?"

I suppose that's an equation every winemaker works to solve - maximum quality at maximum yield. Perhaps these questions puzzled him a bit, but he finally exclaimed: "If I weren't improving the quality, my job would be boring!"
We left it at that.

Earlier, Michael and Roger had walked me through their lab, where they are currently refining methodology for cork testing, with the vision to test for TCA (cork taint) not just samples of every cork batch, but every single cork that goes into their bottles. An ambitious and pioneering endeavor, ultimately designed to protect the reputation of Opus One.
"If consumer drinks a corked wine, they may not necessarily realize it's flawed. They may simply decide the wine is not good.", Michael explained.

On the way from Napa, I stopped in downtown San Francisco for a Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux tasting of the newly released 2008 Grand Cru Bordeaux. What a great opportunity to contrast Opus One against the French brethren, while memories were still fresh. The top 3 members of the Union were notably absent - Cheval-Blanc, D'Yquem, and Mouton-Rothschild. The rest were all well-known names at the lower rungs of the Grand Cru hierarchy, with Figeac and Angelus being perhaps the more famous from the right bank and Talbot and Lynch-Bages (5th Growth) from the left. While Lynch-Bages to me was the best of the show, generally I didn't enjoy any of the 2008's. Very tight and ungiving, many with greenish character, tons of smoky wood and soapy spice, dark black fruits, extremely tannic and masculine at this point. I will come back to them in a year or two for further judgment. In comparison, the 2007 - current release of Opus One - now seemed like a pretty girl ready to go out.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

TorreBarolo Spring 2011 promotion

Needless to say, Barolo is one of the absolute top areas for wine, not just Italy, but world-wide. For many, there is Barolo and Burgundy, and then everything else. TorreBarolo are doing a Spring promotion. Located in the center of town of Barolo, it is a renovated 17th century tower that is available for rent as a self-catered property.

For a chance to win a 3-night stay at TorreBarolo, here is the link.

In addition to the above, Iron Chevsky readers automatically get a 15% discount in the months of March and April, as explained here.


Saturday, January 22, 2011

Don't bother me - I am drinking Roero

Watching a little TV on a weekday night, trying to forget the pressures of corporate deadlines, meetings, objectives, metrics, how to keep 15 million users happy and one million competitors dead... What else does one need but a bottle of 2006 Ca'Rossa Roero Audinaggio and a plate of spinach ravioli with tomato basil garlic sauce with a few chunks of truffle cheese like Boschetto al Tartufo melted in. Killer Nebbiolo for $32-35. As good as most Barbarescos out there from a solid vintage. Truffles, faded roses, and a little meat. Don't bother me - I am eating! ...and drinking Roero!

See more of my Roero raves here.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Saturday breakfast at the Chevskies

My exec coach at YouSendIt suggested that I re-read some of the Harvard Business Review articles on leadership. In not so subtle ways, she is telling me something, isn't she?! Drink less, lead more? Gosh, I haven't read HBR in 10 years. But one's perspective certainly changes - even if reading the same old material, you get something different out of it. Suffice it to say, I thoroughly enjoyed the breakfast.

Killer 2009 Rosé from a small Loire appellation of Cheverny, 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Gamay, goes perfectly with hot-smoked salmon on a croissant!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Ad Hoc, and how I almost got into a fight with Gordon Ramsay, David Beckham and Victoria "Posh Spice"

Rona and I were having a Sunday brunch at Ad Hoc. Phenomenal comfort food! The brunch menu consisted of smoked salmon on brioche for starters, short ribs with eggs, mushrooms, and potato cakes (hash browns) for mains, and vanilla panna cotta for dessert. I brought in the left-overs of the '98 Dunn cab opened two days ago, about a third of a bottle left, and the wine was absolute killer with short ribs and sauteed mushrooms - great acidity, little animal, wet earth and forest floor, graphite and mocha dark, very satisfying - I would have never guessed it was a domestic!

I felt like I was in a French bistro!

As usual, I was taking photos of the food and ambiance. Surveying the room, I saw the "Ad Hoc" sign on the far-away wall. I wanted to point and shoot, but Rona stopped me lest I disturb the table next to us. Then I noticed directly in the line between me and the wall, the TV star of Hell's Kitchen and world famous chef Gordon Ramsay with his wife Tana and kids, and next to them none other than their buddies David Beckham with wife Victoria "Posh Spice" Beckham and kid. Just picture what would have happened if I had taken that photo of the wall, and they noticed and assumed I was spying on them! Whew - that was a close one! It would have been like "Mr Ramsay, sir. Honestly, I was not taking photos of you and your family and Mr Beckham and the Spice Girl over there! I was just taking a snap of the wall for my wine blog." Yeah, right! Just imagine getting banned from Ad Hoc for getting into a fight with Gordon Ramsay!

No, I am not so much without class that I'd take pictures of celebs on vacation in a classy place like Ad Hoc. But it could have happened if I did take that picture, couldn't it! I took a few peeks at the stars sitting there. Despite his hard-ass reputation on the set of Hell's Kitchen, Gordon seemed incredibly understated and cuddly with his kids, as was David B. with his. Quite a heart-warming sight this New Year season. With a little bit of imaginary fun!

The moral of that story? - always listen to your wife!
And Happy New Year, boys and girls!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Bottega, Napa Valley

Bottega opened in 2008 in the back of the big parking lot in Yountville across from Bouchon. That's not its only fame. In fact, in my opinion, Bottega easily outshines the famous Bouchon. Bottega is a brainchild of a top chef master and Food Network personality Michael Chiarello, who just, btw, released an obligatory Bottega cookbook. Put it on the shelf next to the Ad Hoc book and the Mustards Grill book - all instant classics from favorite Napa Valley foodie havens! The cuisine feels decidedly California-Italian. Prior to Bottega and his Food Network gigs, Michael was the founding executive chef of Tra Vigne - another "Italian-influenced" Napa Valley top draw.

Bottega has become my gastronomic destination. Perhaps the only other place I've been where Italian food rises to a higher level is Bobby Stuckey's (ex French Laundry sommelier) Friuli-influenced Frasca in Boulder, Colorado. I'd be remiss not to give an honorable mention to Delfina in the city (SF) and Donato Enoteca in Redwood City. I hear amazing reviews of Tony's in Houston as well. Refined Italian food is where comfort food meats gastronomy - and in the hands of a master, how can you go wrong with that! Just take a look at these.

Mouse-over for descriptions.

New Year celebrations at Bottega kept the place busy feeding New Year crowds. Both standard menu and special New Year menu were offered and executed to perfection. The service was impeccable and friendly - don't you just love a jolly old waiter with an opinion?! (I do!) For a wine lover, the wine selection by the glass was relatively limited. I did pick the tremendous 1999 Dom Perignon (one of my fave Dom P's) for $30/glass. At $20 corkage, I would recommend you BYOB.

Every dish spoke to me. Every look and every bite were delicious and inspiring. Happy New Year 2011!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Dunn - the last honest Howell Mountain cab?

Few hours remaining in the year. Am I Dunn yet?
Not until Mike Dunn and I spend a couple of hours drinking through his stash.

While everyone else was getting ready for New Year's, I headed to Howell Mountain, overlooking Napa Valley, to check out what the fuss in my wine circles was all about. A year ago, a friend treated a group of us to a killer magnum of 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon from Dunn, and that bottle still decorates my butler's pantry.

Dunn is a small family-owned operation, run by Randy (dad), Lori (mom), Kristina (sister) and Mike, with a long standing office manager and vineyard crew. They make a respectable 4000 cases a year, and been making cabs since 1979 from old vines (some since replanted) atop the rural Howell Mountain just 15 minutes east of Saint Helena in the town of Angwin. Not much else seems to be going on there but wine making and Seventh Day Adventist church-going.

Yet, Randy Dunn, who was the wine-maker at Caymus from 1975 to 1985, and his son Mike manage to make some of the best California Cabs I've had. The closest comparison I can manage is the legendary Ridge - and that's saying a lot! Dunn's wines are low-alcohol, between 13 and 14%, cool, deeply flavorful, with supple tannins and loads of graphite (as in pencil lead), black berries and cassis, baked sweet root veggies, cedar box, dark chocolate and coffee, good acidity, Bordeaux-like, and that's music to my ears and deliciousness to my palate.

Howell Mountain is regarded in Napa as an appellation that produces superlative wine grapes. Owing to its unique high elevation, foggy micro-climate, and nutrient-poor, mineral-rich soils, the wines of Howell Mountain tend to be dark (as in graphite and black fruits), with a bit of spice, and in the right hands - with potential for great acidity, balance, and deceivingly strong but supple tannins, which allow them to age for decades while being drinkable within just a few years of release. During the growing season, Howell Mountain rises above the fog line, so the mornings here are warmer but never heat up to the intensity of the valley floor. Howell Mountain Vintners & Growers Association explain these unique aspects of the appellation on their website and in this excellent video on the appellation:

We tasted through an impressive line-up of 1989, 1998, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2006. All excellent wines. The 1989 - going strong. The 1998 - my favorite - I would not be able to tell it apart from a high-end Bordeaux - cool 13.3% alc, jerky and slight gaminess, graphite, black plums and berries, dark chocolate, but good acidity and lightness on the palate, with tons of character - a very complex wine! The 2002, 2004 and 2006 showed more fruit, while 2003 and 2005 a bit more acid and herbaceousness that I enjoy in old world wines.

Mike and I lamented (or cheered?) to the fact that for the last few years, Wine Spectator has not been kind to their wines, scoring them in the 80-something range. I say "to hell with them"! Heck, these wines aren't the alcoholic, jammy, thick monsters that win certain critics over? The same critics who pumped up the 2007 vintage in Chateuneuf-du-Pape and Napa Valley, even though the wines drink like alcoholic syrup! No, thank you very much - I'll stick with "lesser" vintages and with Dunn!

The wines stay in barrels (75% new oak) for 30 months inside the property's mountain dug caves. The caves' all-natural constant temperature and humidity result in very little evaporation of the liquid and about 1/2% of alcohol loss as the wines age. The 30 long months in barrel serve to round out the tannins before bottling. The intensity of the fruit and tannins stands up well to the extended barrel aging. While typical Howell Mountain wines are said to be bold, rich and powerful, Dunns aren't, in my opinion. I guess it really depends on one's definitions. A very detailed 2005 article by called Dunn's cabs "massively proportioned, complex and concentrated Cabernet Sauvignons." I could agree with that as long as it doesn't imply rich, thick, or over-ripe. "It's a matter of picking at lower brix (ripeness levels) than most", says Mike, "to keep the alcohol low and the wines cool". These are wines of restraint and food-friendliness, ripe enough for my palate, with a dark character of Howell Mountain and relatively light texture that shines through in the bottle without knocking me over the head with one drink. Cheers to that!

Clearly, as Mike is coming into his own as a winemaker, he is struggling with this dilemma - stick to their guns and make the type of wine they've always made (the type of wine I enjoy), or move closer toward the style that critics and, frankly, many consumers value more - the richer, fruitier, thicker wines. While my preference is clear, and I pointed out Ridge as an example of a revered stalwart that has not wavered, it's easy for me to say, but the economics have to work for Mike and his family, i.e. the wines have to sell. I have to believe that just like Ridge has earned devotion of its many loyal followers, Dunn stands to gain the same if they stay true to the tradition. The pendulum will swing back. To me, it's really a matter of marketing, not wine.

Special thanks to Mike for handing me the unfinished bottle of my favorite '98, the wine I continued to enjoy and analyze in the hot tub back at the hotel while getting ready for the New Year's dinner at Bottega.

Happy New Year 2011 - 'tis gonna be a great one!

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