Thursday, March 31, 2011

Lambo-buco with Bertani at Beretta revives my faith in Amarone


San Fran is so big and happening, yet finding a place that hits the spot is not necessarily a slam dunk. As I examine my inner self, I tend to gravitate toward Italian food. It's funny because French and Chinese are my favorites. Yet, for comfort, I want gourmet yet relaxed sort of a place. Italian and Spanish are just right. Plus, any excuse to drink vino Italiano is worth consideration.

The other night, Rona and I found ourselves spending four hours at Beretta - in the Mission district. Just long enough to consume respectable amount of vino and still be good to drive! Terrific food, perhaps just a notch below Restaurant Delfina, but then the parking is a hell of a lot easier at Beretta. Get there early (5pm) and call in 45 min beforehand to get on the waiting list.

Since our friends were interested in learning about wine, I brought a couple of special selections: a 2008 Roero Arneis from Bruno Giacosa (top Arneis in the world, from Roero area in Piedmonte) and a 2001 Bertani Amarone, which I had remarked on at the 2009 Tre Bicchieri tasting, but this was my first serious date with it. Funny that cellartracker.com scored it relatively low (not many reviews though) and Wine Advocate's Antonio Galloni gave it 92 points and called it something like "a joy to drink but limited complexity". He did also say "restrained style for Amarone", which is probably the best thing about it, considering that Wine Advocate seems to reward bombastic wines. Oh, and what a great wine it turned out to be - I am running out and buying more! (you can find it online at WineChateau.com).

Amarone comes from Valpolicella area in Veneto, Italy (the same region as Venice), and is made by drying grapes on matts for 3-4 months to evaporate moisture (reducing grape mass by ~40% or so) and concentrate sugars. When all the sugar is fermented out, the result is relatively high level of alcohol. Thus, Amarone has potential to be quite bad - hot, raisiny fruit, low acidity. Not this 2001 Bertani! Wow, this was a type of wine that resurrects your faith in Amarone. So complex - it's hard to describe, completely dry, loads of tar, earthy fruit, medium body, great acidity. I had decanted it for 5 hours, as this wine is built to age for a very long time, and it needed a little prodding. Even at 15% alcohol (rather high for a red, but not for Amarone), it did not taste hot, and was excellent with the delectable dishes at Beretta, even pizza, although certainly drinking a $100 bottle of wine with pizza is a splurge, but what the heck! Culminating at a super-tasty lamb osso buco (or lambo-buco?).


Lambo-buco at Beretta with 2001 Bertani Amarone. Mangio bene!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Will my baby love paella?


For the pre-baby party at Domaine du Chevsky, my friend Chef Hector (technology architect by day, and chef and wino extraordinaire by weekend) cooked up a storm. Two incredible paellas that make me salivate just thinking of them a week later!

Seafood - with mussels, squid, shrimp and chorizo sausage. The aromas of ocean and saffron and toasty rice beckoned. Incredible paella. Perfect with a sparkling Italian rosé from De Faveri (we killed almost a case).



And the meat paella - with beef shank, pork ribs, and blood sausage. Blood sausage? Hell yeah! Out of this world - amazing! Excellent with a Cotes du Rhone from the ever-reliable St. Cosme (2009, 3 magnums gone quickly).



I could have gone all traditional Spanish with wine - with Rioja and such, but somehow sparkling rosé from Italy and a deep Cotes du Rhone from Southern France felt more festive. But for purists, Riojas and Vinho Verde were on hand ("under the counter"). I poured the Cotes du Rhone blind, and the crazy guesses of the crowd were all over the map. Oh, how fun it is to torture your guests!

The key to Hector's paella is precise execution and the best ingredients. Hector makes different from-scratch broths for seafood and meat. Then he uses the best, most expensive spanish rice called Bomba and saffron from La Mancha (the land of Don Quijote). He starts inspecting seafood several days in advance, visiting the fish monger nearly every day to see whether he should use mussels, clams, squid, octopus, etc... depending on what's the best that week and that day. It's a labor of love.

Sautée onions and garlic. Then add squid. Then chorizo sausage, and finally rice

Aromatic saffron accentuates flavor and adds color. Mix, and let the broth do the rest, while flavors meld together, then add shrimp in the end.


Chef Hector adds shrimp after having lightly sauteed it with onions in a separate pan.

Naturally, even if I could comprehend Hector's paella techniques, I could not reveal them in detail for fear of being persecuted by the Puerto Rican mafia :) Alas, I already said too much!


Meat paella, half-way through, before the broth is fully absorbed.


Here are some of the wines I poured to please the crowd! (Notice Grey Goose in the background... - yeah it's Russians' favorite French "wine")

Rona was happy! Even my 88 year old dear grandma got into it, and told stories of when I was a baby! Now... when my first baby first says "pa", will that mean "papa" or "paella"?



Here is to the oldest generation and to the youngest one!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

A date with Rhys




This young winery with vineyards running along Skyline Blvd., overlooking Silicon Valley from the heights of the Santa Cruz Mountains, doesn't really feel like wine country. World-renowned hot-bed of high technology, these lands are not exactly a destination of wine tourism. But legendary Santa Cruz Mountains names such as Ridge Monte Bello have long been on the map of California's wine history. Just minutes drive from swanky Palo Alto, but high enough for snow to form, founded by a high-tech entrepreneur in the early 2000's, Rhys has caught an eye of Burgundy wine geeks.

The entire Rhys winery operation is located under-ground, dug out from the rocky guts of the mountain.

The winery generated even more buzz when Allen Meadows (aka "the Burghound") - one of world's greatest authorities on Burgundy, gave the 2008 Horseshoe Vineyard Pinot Noir his highest ever score for a domestic Pinot - 95 points. Other wine authorities have been complimentary as well.

Through careful, scientific, geological analysis, the owner - Kevin Harvey (whose daytime job is as a general partner at Benchmark Capital VC firm) - identifies uncultivated, virgin sites in the vicinity of his hometown Woodside, and plants Pinot there. Being a huge Burgundy buff himself, he sticks to decidedly Burgundian techniques, producing cool, low-alcohol, terroir-driven Pinot Noirs that, frankly, might be a turn-off to the palate of "California Pinot" crowd. Absolutely no jammy fruit or balsamic sweetness. Instead you get stems, pepper, acid. Clearly, if you don't pump up the fruit and the sugar, other elements start showing, and vineyard and vintage differences become more evident. That's part of the reason we love Burgundy, and that's what happens here. A lot of character. Not cocktail wines. These must be drunk with food. But at the price of $50/btl for an entry-level bottling, are these going to compete with Burgundy at my dinner table?

A couple of weeks ago, I had a chance to visit Rhys for their open house and taste their 2009 Family Farm Vineyard. The wine immediately struck me as different from anything I'd ever had from California. Knowing virtually nothing about Rhys at that point, I wondered why the wine tasted so stemmy? Indeed, with their minimalistic approach to winemaking, turned out they use whole-cluster fermentation (100% stem inclusion) for that particular vineyard. The fruit was in the background, while pepper and stems dominated at this point.

Later on that evening, I had an opportunity to continue with Rhys, over dinner with friends. The afore-mentioned 95-pointer from Burghound - the 2008 Horseshoe Vineyard was now standing on top of the dinner table, along with a bottle of 2008 Family Farm Vineyard.



Next to the wines, I was staring at a plate of the most delectable fall-off-the-bone braised duck leg (Chez Panisse recipe, courtesy of Ed & Mimi).



The 2008 Family Vineyard (a year older vintage than the 2009 I'd tasted earlier that day at the winery) was an enjoyable wine - with hints of stems and pepper spice, but more subtle and integrated, with elegant fruit and texture, and light tannins - it reminded me of the 2001 Domaine D'Arlot Clos des Forets Nuits-St-Georges 1er Cru Burgundy (though not quite as complex). I still wish they cut down a bit on the use of stems, but perhaps with age and in warmer vintages, the stem influence is less distracting. The wine was a better match with the duck than the more concentrated Horseshoe vineyard. The high-scoring 2008 Horseshoe had more stuffing - dense and more intense, with tart raspberry, light elegant tannins and a note of fermented creaminess, reminding me of a Chassagne-Montrachet red from a good, fruit-filled vintage (like 2002 or 2005). The stems were not an issue in this wine.

Amazingly, these vineyards have been producing for just a few years, in the plots of land with no history of grape growing by a guy who is used to making software not wine. These Pinots are not inexpensive, but Kevin Harvey has no trouble selling out his entire supply. Gradually the winery is expanding production. It feels like a very boutique but savvy operation, with wines that are certainly making a splash out of the gate. With much anticipation but without a track record of longer-term aging important for development of secondary flavors, they are an intriguing item for me to watch. One thing's for sure - if I am to drink a domestic Pinot, the Rhys style is more likely to end up on my table than anything from Sonoma, Napa, or Central Coast. And that's something to be thankful for.

Additional info
  • My friend Richard Jennings has been covering Rhys in depth, and you can find several extremely informative articles on their wines and their methods on his blog here.
  • Another good summary can be found on PinotFiles here.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Perfection continues at Bottega, Yountville with Italian Greco di Tufo


Ever since Tre Bicchieri 2011, when Eleonora Guerini, senior editor of Gambero Rosso raved about an Italian region on a roll - Campania, I've been paying more attention to Greco di Tufo, one of Campania's top two white grape varieties, the other being Fiano.

So recently when I found myself lunching at Bottega restaurant in Yountville - currently Napa Valley's best foodie restaurant (IMO, along with Ad Hoc), that I've written about in the past, and I saw Feudi di San Gregorio Greco di Tufo 2009, it was an easy choice. Feudi San Gregorio is one of Campania's top producers.

Excellent, balanced, seafoody, fruit, acidity, a hint of smoke, minerals are all there. Character and depth, without heaviness or oakiness. As good a $17 bottle (at retail) of Italian white as you'll find to go with food. And the food was spectacular at Bottega yet again.


Polenta under glass. Super creamy polenta, caramelized mushrooms & balsamic game sauce.


Green-Egg and Ham. Olive oil-poached asparagus (perfect texture in your mouth!), crispy soft-boiled egg, prosciutto bits and Cambozola crema.


Burrata & English Peas, with caramelized wild mushrooms & creamy parmigiano vinaigrette.


Meyer lemon strozzapretti in dungeness crab lobster-fennel broth, basil, tarragon & crab butter.

And for reference, here is Gary Vaynerchuk talking about Greco di Tufo and this very wine.

Monday, March 7, 2011

France meets California at Dominus Estate


Dominus beckons on the other side of the highway from Yountville. "No tours, no tastings", says the sign by the front gate. Closed to general public, its impregnable looking, unique winery structure made of large rocks blends into the mountainous background of the Mayacamas.


With 7,000-8,000 cases a year of the main wine - a Cabernet Sauvignon based Bordeaux blend - Dominus Estate, and 4,000-5,000 cases of the second wine - Napanook, and a reputation that commands respect throughout the world, they are not too worried about explaining themselves to general public. The owner and founder - Christian Moueix (pronounced "Moo-Ex") also happens to preside over an empire of right bank Bordeaux chateaux in Pomerol and Saint-Emilion that include perhaps the most expensive and prestigious red wine in the world - Chateau Petrus, whose average price for a bottle of the 2005 vintage is $5000. Let's face it, the dude doesn't need more cash. Patron of arts and other fine things, Christian Moueix, now in his 60's, and his son Edouard are seeking perfection and beauty. At least, that's what Tod Mostero, the Director of Viticulture & Winemaking at Dominus since 2007, and Kassidy Harris, the new head of PR and an ex wine director from Thomas Keller's Bouchon Bistro (in Yountville) conveyed during my three-hour examination of the estate's vineyard and wines.

Dominus Estate was founded in 1982 on some of the most historic soils in Napa Valley. The Napanook vineyard used to belong to the Inglenook winery that had made wine since the 19th century. But despite its famous lineage, Dominus had not gained acclaim until the 1990's. According to Tod, it took a number of years for a family which was expert at making Merlot-based wines in Bordeaux to see results from Cabernet-based vines in Napa Valley. Tod pointed out that perhaps only now, after nearly 30 years, are they starting to figure out how to make wine in Napa. A modest statement, considering the track record. Tod explained that the "figuring out" part comes in when dealing with whatever each vintage throws at you. Learning how to get the best out of the weather and vines each year takes a long time. Which is why it's hard to compare with places in the old world where fine wine has been made for centuries.

What had attracted me to Dominus was their reputation for making balanced, Bordeaux-like expressions of Napa Valley. Tod talked about his focus on the vineyard, rather than the "post-production". He was sensitive to avoid being called a "wine-maker", because he loathes the notion that he "makes" wine. Whatever you call him, that is a common sentiment I've heard from many winemakers - that wine is made in the vineyard, not in the winery. The Bordelais' approach to that is owning their vineyards (thus the term "estate vineyard") to control every possible aspect of the wine. Healthy but struggling vines is what a winemaker is after. Dominus will replant theirs after 25 years or so (the oldest at Dominus are from 1988). Remarkably just after two years, new vines in Napanook can produce worthy wine. There is absolutely zero irrigation past a vine's infancy. The Dominus team believe that is the key to making fine wine in Napa - dry farming. Only certain lots of land in Napa allow for that, as soils of the right kind have to be deep enough to retain just enough moisture to support development of deep roots. As moisture has to come from somewhere, in the case of Napanook, there is an underground flow of water from the Mayacamas mountains down to the valley floor. The vineyard slopes gently toward highway 29 at a 5-degree angle, something that is hard to see with naked eye, but is fundamental to the soil composition of the vineyard (deeper soils at the foot of the mountain, shallowing toward the highway). The western tip of the vineyard is over 75 feet higher than the eastern end. I wondered if growing on the hillside would not result in better wine - certainly a popular concept. Tod explained that in fact they would have to irrigate a hillside vineyard, since moisture would not be retained at such a steep angle.

Past taking care of the vines, the biggest winemaking technique, if you will, is picking the right harvest date. Careful determination of the optimal level of ripeness (even one day off may noticeably degrade the final wine) is critical. "Consider a perfectly ripe peach", says Tod, "It's complex, sweet and tart, flavorful, juicy and delicious. If unripe, it would be too green and one-dimensional. If too ripe, the nuances will be covered up by sugar, so as to become one-dimensional as well. We are looking for the perfect peach!" The next key step is removing imperfections from grape clusters. "Complexity comes from harvest date. Purity comes from sorting", says Tod. This is one place where high technology is utilized, as image analysis module is built into the sorting equipment to automatically filter out anything that doesn't look like a good grape berry. (I've seen the same equipment being experimented with at Opus One.) Past that, modest oak treatment (40% new oak for Dominus, 20% for Napanook) for 16-18 months aims to allow the juice not the wood to shine through. The wines end up at around 14.1% alcohol.


In Bordeaux, usually maximum sunlight is desirable to ripen the grapes. Thus thinning of the leaves to expose grapes is common practice there. Dominus, on the other hand, employs a unique trellising system which spreads apart 4 shoots from each vine such that the canopy of leaves hangs over the grapes at a precise angle in order to reduce the amount of direct sun hitting the grape clusters.


Overall impressions

For the tasting, Tod lined up the 2007, 2006, 2005, and 1996 vintages of Dominus and 2007, 2006, and 2005 vintages of Napanook. All but the 1996 are still readily available in the market. Opportunity much appreciated, given these wines retail for ~$100-150/btl - still a relative bargain compared to many other top Napa cabs. I had requested that 1987, 1991 and 1994 be poured - as those are the most highly regarded prior vintages. Alas, I was out of luck. I think it would have been helpful to try those older bottles, given the steep maturity curve I observed going from 2005 to 1996. Perhaps next time.



I enjoyed the wines. Like a pretty woman in a Valentino red gown, they are easy to love, yet far from shallow. Dominus is more powerful and complex than Napanook, but both are good. Beautiful flavors and medium-weight textures, with a streak of inky chocolate running through all of them, and a bit of spice, especially in Dominus. A hint of earthiness and herbaceousness benefits the overall flavor profile. The wines reminded me of Opus from the 1990's, but perhaps even more to my liking.

Tasting notes

Vintage differences were evident - a good thing in my book - with the 2007 (95% Cab, 3% Cab Franc, 3% Petit Verdot) being beautifully open, pure, and plain delicious, 2006 (91% Cab, 6% Cab Franc, 3% Petit Verdot) - tight, tannic, full of chocolate, blueberry, and pencil lead, thicker and more intense than 2007, and structured for aging, and 2005 (92% Cab, 5% Cab Franc, 3% Petit Verdot) - drier and a touch more herbaceous, which I enjoyed. The 1996 Dominus was an absolute beauty - all secondary flavors, incredibly complex and intellectual. Tod suggested that 15 years of age is the perfect spot to drink Dominus. Judging by the 1996, I agree. But in my opinion, it's not a wine for everyone - those who enjoy the primary youthful fruit would probably not appreciate the 1996 as much as I did. The degree of difference that 9 years (from 2005 to 1996) had made was striking.

Acidity is a significant topic for me, as it not only affects the overall balance of a wine but also its aging potential and its food-friendliness. Dominus wines were medium acidity, higher than many Napa wines I try, but less acidic than their Bordeaux counter-parts - undoubtedly a manifestation of Napa climate. Having recently tasted cabs from Ridge Monte Bello, Dunn and Opus One from the 1980's and 1990's, with higher acidities, I felt that Dominus seemed to have matured faster, which could be a good or a bad thing, depending on one's outlook and purpose. After all, drinking beautifully at a 15 year mark is nothing to sneeze at. However, I think, had the wines had higher acidity, the 1996 would have been brighter and more youthful. All said, my friend Chris and I did love it (in fact, he wanted to run out and buy a case!), just not sure I would age it for another 10 years.

"1996 Dominus Estate (82% Cab, 10% Cab Franc, 4% Petit Verdot, 4% Merlot) - nose: a blend of black fruits and baked/roasted sweet veggies and tobacco. On the palate: secondary flavors, puree of sweet roasted veggies (beets, squashes, etc...) and black cherries and berries. Wow! So much character! Minty, tobacco, savory, forest floor, faded leaves and flowers, medium-acid." -- Iron Chevsky, March 2011

None of the wines felt hot or alcoholic or jammy or over-the-top, despite the 14.1% alcohol on the label. The 2005 was my favorite Napanook and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with its bigger brother Dominus:

"2005 Napanook - a little herb on the nose; mint, cool herbs, more Bordeaux-like, dark berry tea, hint of roasted coffee." -- Iron Chevsky, March 2011


Conclusion

All in all, rarely have I drunk more delicious California Cabernets than Dominus. The young 2007 was particularly tasty, and the mature 1996 - quite intellectual. If one were to imagine a child of two worlds - Bordeaux and Napa, Dominus might be it. To my palate, I still prefer old world acidity of top Bordeaux, as described in this story. To vast majority of wine lovers who appreciate the suave nature of new world wines without the tongue-cutting, saliva-inducing high acidity, but with the elegance and restraint of an old-world gentleman, I think these wines are worth the price, but I would start drinking them 5 years from release, and definitely be checking on them at the 10 year mark.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Louisiana kitchen gets it with Austrian Zierfandler


I don't suppose this is much of a discovery, since Angeline's has been around for 5 years in downtown Berkeley, just a couple of blocks from Berkeley BART station on Shattuck, but it was my first visit. I try to avoid Berkeley ever since my college days and my start-up days at Ask Jeeves. The hippie scene is not my cup of tea, really. But it's hard to argue with all the good food in that neck of the woods, something Palo Alto is lacking, in my opinion, despite the glitzy facade.

Angeline's Louisiana Kitchen is one of those places that belongs on Food Network's Diners, Dives, and Drive-ins. I am no expert in New Orleans food, but Angeline's tastes damn good. Fried chicken, jambalaya, corn hush puppies, and out-of-this-world beignets. At a cool $10 corkage, what to pair with?

2008 Austrian Zierfandler "Mandel-Hoh" from Stadlman was perfect! Enough body and dominant, ripe quince flavor with hints of orange and Asian pear to go with sweet, creamy, fried and spicy meal. This is a higher-end wine than the generic Zierfandler I'd previously mentioned - Austria's native. The wine walks the line between heavy-handed and elegant, with crushed stone minerality and excellent acidity. At 13.5% alcohol, I didn't mind gulping a couple of glasses of it, and then dozing off at a furniture store afterwards while Rona was scouting out baby stuff.


Angeline's buttermilk fried chicken. Pricey ($16) but very good.


Crawfish Etouffee ($14) - perfectly cooked crawfish, with just enough spice.


Beignets - the New Orleans classic… Light French style pastry pillows served w/powdered sugar. Amazing taste and good value ($5).

Friday, March 4, 2011

Butterfest with Lobster and Grand Cru White Burgundy


This particular pairing inspired my pregnant wife. "This is the best food and wine combo I've ever had!" Rona said, repeatedly. Wow! I thought it was good, but best ever? Must be hormonal! But apparently, guests around Scott & Kate's dining table were impressed as well. And yes, she sips a tiny bit of wine. My "extensive" research shows that drinking exclusively Grand Cru Burgundy improves fetal brain capacity. I swear!



After all, how can you go wrong with a Grand Cru white Burgundy from an excellent producer from a soft, approachable vintage (2006) and a masterful rendition of a lobster tail by the hand of friend chef extraordinaire Scott H., whose culinary delights I've previously remarked on on these pages.

Admittedly, my palate has grown tired of the heavily oaked full-bodied chardonnay style, with loads of butter that comes not just with Napa Chardonnay, but even with white Burgundy of the highest order (notably from the great Puligny-Montrachet terroirs in Cote de Beaune). But, there is a time and a place... and a dish to pair with. For me, what distinguishes top Burgundy from Napa (apologies for generalizations here) are stone fruits rather than tropical fruits, minerality, blossoming in the glass rather than getting tired, greater overall balance and finesse, and most obviously the acidity, which matched wonderfully with fresh-squeezed lemon juice incorporated into the mushroom sauce. The 6 or so sticks of butter used in cooking the tails and sauteeing the mushrooms begged for the bigness of the Chardonnay, and bigness they got! The key to the succulent dish was not overcooking the lobster. Task accomplished, by careful poaching in butter (diluted with just a bit of water - oh no!) for about 15-20 minutes under the simmering point. As soon as the lobster tails began to curl, Scott served them. The whole dish was quite simply cooked, but with a secret ingredient - Pastis, a liqueur flambéed over mushrooms, giving them a hint of licorice/anice/fennel-root flavor that matched the earthiness of the parsley and chives sprinkled in the end.

Raw "ingredients": lobster tails from New England Lobster Company in South City and 2006 Paul Pernot Bienvenues-Batard-Montrachet Grand Cru Burgundy.


Transformation of the lobster throughout the poaching process.


Plain brown mushrooms or wild mushrooms work well.


Voila! 2 Michelin stars for sure! Bravo!

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