Wine to me is passion. It's family and friends. It's warmth of heart and generosity of spirit.
Robert Mondavi

Monday, August 31, 2009

What a night, what a meal!

A group of us got together this past Saturday for an incredible night of food, wine and camaraderie. A couple months ago I proposed having a wine dinner, during which the meals prepared would be pared with a wine to show each other off. I have been doing these Wine Extravaganza dinners with some other friends and was hoping to show how this concept really makes for a special evening with this group.

As a group, we are truly lucky (in terms of culinary experience) to have a chef and a truly gifted cook. You add these two knowledge-bases together and it is a recipe for something memorable. The wines were certainly showcased, but the dishes were equal in imagination and flavor.

The menu was the result of two very talented chefs. Jason Berkman (pictured to the right, executive chef at Legal Sea Foods, Burlington) and Chris Baker were the ones responsible for creating the dishes that paired with the wines I selected.

The result was nothing less then extraordinary. We had great food, great wine, great conversation and to cap it off, a great cigar.

Below is the menu with wine pairings (with tasting notes and ratings). If you have a chance, you must try a couple of these dishes and/or wines!

Maine Oysters
Jalapeno Relish, Lemony Cucumbers, Watermelon Gazpacho

NV, Nicolas Feuillate, Brut Rose Champagne
Epernay, France
- Perfect clarity with watermelon juice color. On the nose there was a healthy amount of strawberry and raspberry with faint yeast. The palate was of super dry strawberry and raspberry with a nice pomegranate aftertaste. Terrific acidity and very well-balanced. ES - 90

Salmon Confit
Creamed Leek and Cannellini Ragout, Fennel Salad

2008, Nobilo Icon, Sauvignon Blanc
Marlborough, New Zealand
- Wonderfully young straw/greenish hue. Nose shouted pineapple, green apple, and grapefruit. The palate was lively and crisp again showing pineapple, green apple, and grapefruit with some nice minerality at the later middle palate. Terrific acidity and balance paired the salmon perfectly. ES - 93

Spiced Rack of Lamb
Fingerling and Avocado Mash, “Bounty” Rum Compote

2006, Domaine Drouhin, Pinot Noir
Willamette Valley, Oregon
- Nicely concentrated purple hue. Nose and palate of complex black cherry with hints of oak and the palate continued with a slight trace violet. Very well-structured, nicely complex and elegant. ES - 94

Braised Beef Short Ribs
Oven Roasted Sweet Beets, Charred Belgian Endive, Crispy Onion

2005, Justin Isosceles, Meritage
Paso Robles, California
- Star wine of the night and I am not surprised. It was extremely dark purple, almost black in concentration. The nose was of blackberry, black pepper and oak. The palate was intense and rich, offering blackberry, currants, leather and smoke. The tannins were wonderfully supple. Overall this wine offered a lot of flair and panache. The Braised Short Ribs could not have been a better pairing! Decanted for an hour. ES - 95

Chocolate and Caramel Peach
Vanilla Ice Cream

1999, Chateau Pajzos Aszu 5 Puttanyos, Tokaji
- Very surprising and delicious. This wine had a brilliant golden hue. The nose was of honey and apricot which were mirrored on the palate along with some caramel. It had a beautifully viscosity and was sweet, rich with intensity, balance and character. ES - 94


Friday, August 28, 2009

When a wine list is more than a wine list!

A restaurant’s wine list say a lot about who they are, what their aspirations are, and what they think about you. This is very evident in locations that you will visit across the country. From Applebee’s, to The Cheesecake Factory, to Mario Batali’s Del Posto, you will find very different, yet appropriate, wine experiences that fit the atmosphere, cuisine, and crowd that typically dine at these establishments.

I bring up Batali’s Del Posto, because a good friend of mine recently dined there while taking a long weekend in NYC. Once he returned, he had a few questions for me regarding his wine experience at Del Posto.

"On a recent trip to NYC, I went out for a truly fine dining experience. After being seated I was greeted with a massive wine list. When I mean massive, I mean over 2,500 selections. How does a restaurant build and maintain such a large list, and is it necessary?"

This is a certainly a legitimate way to look at the situation. A wine list of this magnitude can be overwhelming to say the least. The answer to the first part of the question will be a bit wordy, so let me address the second part first.

Using my friend’s example, Del Posto is in the food and wine Mecca of the US. Day in and day out they go up against culinary giants such as Daniel, Jean Georges, Le Cirque, Tribeca Grill and countless others. Competition is fierce and there is a significant amount of prestige that is placed on an award winning wine list and the service that is provided by their resident sommelier(s). Having truly classic wines available is an appropriate necessity when you are dining on a truly classic meal! This is true not only for NYC, but anywhere a high level of importance is placed on quality.

Del Posto, as mentioned before, is one of many restaurants owned by Chef Mario Batali. Besides being an extremely successful restaurateur, he is also a partner in Italian Wine Merchants, which is a high-end wine shop that has a selection of Italian gems unlike any other I have come across. It is this passion for bringing together the complete dining experience that sets restaurants and restaurateurs, like Batali, apart. It is also what allows them to charge a premium for the experience that they provide, while maintaining a waiting list as long as Madison Avenue!

"How does a restaurant build and maintain such a large list?"

To build a wine list with the breadth and vision of Del Posto, locally based Left Bank at the Stonehedge Inn & Spa (Tyngsboro, MA) and Bedford Village Inn in (Bedford, NH) or any restaurant with a tremendous wine offering takes a very structured approach. Once the structure is in place, knowledgeable people are needed to implement the list, along with an owner(s) with exceptionally deep pockets.

Initially, the most important steps are to realistically assess your clientele, menu, storage space and budget. Not everyone can afford a bottle of a Bordeaux First-Growth, Chateau Petrus, Gaja Sori Tilden, or E. Guigal Ermitage Ex Voto, especially when marked-up to restaurant standards. This means that there must be a number of wines to bridge the gap between reasonably-priced wines and the classics.

The job of creating any wine list typically falls either to the owner, a wine director/sommelier, a consultant, or unfortunately in some cases, a distributor. Now a list that is of notable quality will probably not be developed solely by a distributor, so we will avoid speaking about them any further.

Depending on the size of a wine list, the owner, if truly knowledgeable, or a consultant can put into place something very special that will convey to the patrons that their experience is of the utmost importance. This takes a massive amount of time and effort, so unless you plan on doing all of the leg work, hire someone to do it for you. A good example of this is Unums in Nashua, NH. They have a modest wine list compared to Del Posto, but it is well thought out and looked over by the owners. A different example is Junipers at the Wildflower Inn located in Lyndonville, VT. The owners and management did not have the knowledge to put together a thoughtful and quality wine list. They decided to hire a consultant do so. It was rewarding to see them embrace what a thoughtful wine list could do, not only for their patrons, but for their restaurant.

Creating and maintaining a list such as the one at Left Bank at Stonehedge, which offers 2,000 selections (101,000 bottles in inventory), or Del Posto, which offers 2,300 selections (39,000 bottles in inventory) takes a team effort. The organization is typically led by a wine director and generally includes personnel working beneath them (i.e. assistant director and sommelier). The task is a daily exercise in taking inventory (thank goodness for computers), reordering, blind and regular tastings, negotiating, rotation, research, promotion, etc. It is a daunting task, but a task that is energetically undertaken, because wine professionals are exceptionally passionate about what they do.

Ultimately, a restaurateur’s goal is to create an experience that is positively unique and memorable. A strong wine list is essential in conveying the message of a restaurant to its patrons. If this is done effectively, the guests will leave happy and be more likely to return.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

We should be used to this by now…

Ever since wine has fallen under the jurisdiction of state governments, there has been an ongoing battle regarding censorship. The state argues that alcohol (including wine) is an evil that needs to be highly regulated and even censored when appropriate. Although their intentions are pure, their implementation of restrictions is down-right ludicrous.

A few weeks back, I reported about an incident covered by Wine Spectator that took place in Alabama. The Alabama Alcohol Control Board decided to ban the wine produced by Cycles Gladiator. They enacted this ban because the bottle has a replica of a painting depicting a naked woman flying next to a bicycle on the label and deemed it pornographic. Although Cycles Gladiator historically produces some very average to poor wines, the ban effectively provided them with unwarranted amounts of publicity and drove sales to levels they have never seen. Good work ‘Bama, you promoted a horrible wine!

Now, enter the Maine representative David Webster (D- from Freeport). As reported in the Kennebec Journal on Monday, Webster has successfully proposed an amendment to L.D. 498. It states that alcoholic taste-testing activities must be conducted in a manner that precludes the possibility of observation by children. Here we go again!

Let us take this opportunity to look at this law and raise some points/ask some questions.

1) Children should not be in the beer/wine/alcohol section of a grocery store during tastings without their parents or guardian.
2) If children are there, it is because their parents decided that they do not mind (either intentionally or unintentionally) if their children are exposed to these actions.
3) If a tasting happens to be observed from a distance, it provides parents with the opportunity to engage in a productive dialogue with their children (or tell them they are sampling iced tea for grown-ups).
3) Why are wine shops coupled in with establishments that serve hard liquor?
4) Does this mean that restaurants which allow children in, which would be all of them, are no longer allowed to serve alcohol?

It is comical that these questions take only a matter of seconds to think of, yet were not considered or proposed for correction until after the law had been passed!

To be fair, the article points out that wine shops and restaurants were never intended to be coupled with liquor and grocery stores that do beer and hard liquor tastings. They were able to straighten things out regarding restaurants, but unfortunately not wine shops.

Regardless, beginning September 12th, wine shops will have to cordon off areas in which they conduct wine tastings, or black-out their windows and not permit children inside with their parents, or simply stop doing tastings altogether. The sad thing is, whatever step they end up taking will more likely then not only be needed until January, when legislative proceedings restart and it is anticipated that corrections will be made.

My heart goes out to those people who have wine shops throughout Maine. You all have effectively been hosed by your representatives who should be forced to pay some means of reparations for lost opportunity. It is not a surprise how bills that are rushed for a vote, although well intentioned, are often poorly thought through!

My advice to lawmakers is to stop unnecessarily micro-managing of our lives! We are capable of taking care of ourselves and making appropriate decisions for our families. Put in place some thoughtful laws and let us follow them instead of knit-picking us at every turn.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Time to try a Bordeaux Second!

For most of us, times have been tough and a bottle of one of the best Bordeaux wines is too steep to even dream about buying. Most people cannot even begin to rationalize paying $300, $600, or even $1000-plus for a single bottle of wine. Truth is, even in better times, or for those who can still imagine spending that much, it would be hard to pull the trigger if the situation arose. So how are we to partake in the craft that these amazing wine houses put forth?

The Answer: Bordeaux Second Wines!

The craft of wine making in Bordeaux is one that demands perfection. Only the best grapes go into the estate wines. This would obviously leave a lot of waste if the remaining grapes went unused or sold to lesser crafters. The question was asked, “what do we do with all of the grapes that are still excellent, but not perfect?” The answer came in the 18th Century, when Bordeaux’s major wine houses began using these grapes to create their “second” wines.

Bordeaux Seconds are an opportunity for us, mere monetarily restricted mortals, to enjoy wines crafted by the elites. Names such as Château Latour, Château Margaux, and Château Petrus (just to name a few), are now available to us without the need to shell out a weeks or months worth of pay! The best part, you sacrifice little in terms of quality and complexity! Using Wine Spectator's ratings as a guide, the 2004 Château Petrus was rated 93 points and would run you around $900. Now compare that to their second wine, Château La Fleur-Petrus, of the same vintage. It will run you around $80 and is rated 92 points, that's less then 1/10 the cost! If that is not a deal then I don’t know what is?! Examples such as this are not uncommon and Bordeaux Seconds are carried quite readily by wine merchants and liquor stores for this reason.

Here is a list of some of the Estates and their corresponding Second wines:

Bordeaux First Growths:
Château Latour - Les Forts de Latour
Château Margaux - Pavillon Rouge de Château Margaux
Château Mouton-Rothschild - Le Petit Mouton
Château Haut-Brion - Bahans Haut-Brion
Château Lafite-Rothschild - Carrudades de Lafite-Rothschild

Other Bordeaux (a little more affordable and just as enjoyable):
Château Lynch-BagesChâteau Haut-Bages Averous ($25-40)
Château Ducru-Beaucaillou - La Croix de Beaucaillou ($25-40)
Château Petrus - Château La Fleur-Petrus ($60-95)
Château Palmer - Alter Ego de Palmer ($70-100)

The next time you are looking for a special occasion or gift wine, keep an eye out for Bordeaux Seconds. They have all of the prestige and quality without the astronomically high price! I hope you have a chance to enjoy one of these at some point. You will not be disappointed.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A German-style Riesling from Washington

2007, Chateau Ste. Michelle/Dr. Loosen Eroica, Riesling, Columbia Valley, Washington - $20-25

The 2007 Eroica is a classically crafted, German-style Riesling. It is not like most Riesling produced along the Pacific Coast states that typically have medium to high residual sugar, which makes them sweet. The Eroica characteristically has lower residual sugar, which leads to a nice undertone of sweetness, but nothing overly forceful.

The nose and palate are very vibrant with delicious pear and the palate continues to develop with citrus notes that slowly introduce some terrific minerality (think wet stone). The acidity and balance is absolutely terrific, which allows this wine to compliment spicy and/or lighter dishes (non-red meat) incredibly well. Unlike most lighter/semi-sweet, white wines, this Eroica certainly should stand up over time due to its terrific structure and acidity.

Much of the complex qualities and amazing craftsmanship of this wine should be attributed to the knowledge of those at the renowned Dr. Loosen in Mosel, Germany and winemaker Bob Bertheau at Chateau Ste. Michelle. By melding Old World techniques with New World ingenuity, they have been able to collaborate on some really terrific wines over the years.

Chateau Ste. Michelle/Dr. Loosen Eroica Riesling is a very under-appreciated wine that has a ton of finesse and quality, but it is not completely understood. Many people think of the sweet Rieslings they have had in the past and overlook this gem. Don’t be one of them!

I give this wine a 91 pt rating (verging on 92), as does Wine Spectator and the Wine Advocate. Wine & Spirits hits it with a hefty 93 which is by no means a stretch! It is readily available at any wine shop or liquor store so give it a try! You will not be disappointed.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Cab rules supreme, but why?

Final Tally:
Cabernet Sauvignon - 6
Zinfandel - 3
Merlot - 3
Sangiovese - 3
Pinot Noir - 2
Nebbiolo - 1
Other - 1

The results of the latest poll are in, and as expected, Cab is King. I am sure a number of factors go into this outcome, but to me the most notable would be the vast selection of Cabernet that is carried at most liquor and grocery stores. Along with this, and equally as important, the simplicity of the labeling. The thing is there are a lot of cabs that fall under that appealing decent category in quality, but very few are stellar (and those that are usually demand overly inflated prices).

For those of you who enjoy Cabernet I would strongly suggest that you branch out and try something new. Two of Italy’s gems, Sangiovese and Nebbiolo, possess many of the characteristics that make Cabernet appealing. These two Italians offer the same strength and complexity that Cabernet usually possesses without the savagery that can sometimes make Cabernet not the best wine to pair with food.

Like many European grape varietals, Nebbiolo and Sangiovese are more known for the wine regions they hail from then by their names themselves. Nebbiolo is the backbone of the terrific wines of Barolo and Barbaresco, while Sangiovese may be more familiar to you as Chianti or Toscana wines, of which they are the majority grape used. No matter what they are known as, they make some of my favorite wines! Also, wine in Italy is meant to be consumed at most meals, thus their wines are created with food friendliness in mind!

The next time you are looking for a wine to select, I want you to venture out of the Cabernet section and start taking a gander at the Italian section. Find a bottle that is in the price range that you would have selected and try that instead. It is a cool way to begin to learn about different wines (just make sure you stay away from da Vinci).

One to look for in a reasonable price range, and one that is readily available, is Antinori Villa Toscana. The Antinori Wine Empire can easily be thought of as the Mondavi Dynasty but of Italy (sans family turmoil that was the inspiration of TV's Falcon Crest). The current release is the 2005 vintage and will run you around $20-25. Compared to most Cabernet offered at this price, it is a terrific option.

2005, Antinori Villa Toscana, Tuscany, Italy - $20-25

Antinori makes some of Tuscany’s best wines. Their higher end Tignanello and Solaia have enjoyed heaps of praise throughout the years. They also produce some very nice entry-level wines as well. For many years their Pèppoli Chianti has been one of the most reasonably priced Chianti gems out there. To this list I would add their table wine, the Villa Toscana.

The 2005 is a very deep red that is medium to full-bodied. On the nose you can almost smell what you picture of Tuscany. Dark berries and herbal notes paint a rustic picture and lead to the palate in which you get some of the berry with a lot of ripe red plum (the kind that stains your fingers). The finish is moderate with nice balance and decent complexity.

To me this Tuscan is a solid 89 and Wine Spectator have it an 87. Although not quite a great wine it is certainly very good and at $20-25 I feel that it is a good value as well. Pizza would be the best food pairing with this, but also most meals containing steak, pork, veal, meaty fish, or grilled vegetables will also shine.

Regardless of what I think, challenge yourself the next time you are out shopping for wine. Step away from what you are comfortable with and try something truly unique to most American wine drinkers. I am by no means knocking Cab, but next time grab a Barolo or Barbaresco for a special occasion, or a nice Toscana, Chianti or Chianti Classico (only difference is the age of the zone it is in) when you order a pizza. I think you will be pleasantly surprised!

Saturday, August 8, 2009

A terrific Merlot from Napa…No Way?!

Over the years I have become more and more aware of, and slightly cynical towards, Napa's propensity to overlook an exceptionally important varietal, Merlot. If you look at Napa's Merlot focus, there are only a few handfuls of wineries that take pride in producing outstanding Merlot. It has been some time since I have come across a truly exceptional bottle of Napa Merlot in the moderate to moderately-expensive price range (sometimes you have to bite the bullet and spend a little more then normal to get what you desire).

Back in the spring, while in Cleveland visiting family, my cousin Bob (from "A Cautionary Tale") graciously opened a number of bottles for me. During one of the evenings, he opened a bottle of Plumpjack Merlot. I remember it distinctly due to the name and surprising qualities it put forward. It was because of this experience that I jumped at the chance to include it on Junipers at the Wildflower Inn's wine list.

Last evening I had the chance to partake in another bottle of Plumpjack Merlot, this time with Jason Berkman, the Executive Chef of Legal Sea Foods in Burlington, MA. It again lived up to its reputation and delivered the best Merlot experience I have had in what seems like an eternity!

2006, Plumpjack, Merlot, Napa, California - $53
From the initial sniff, there was something unique going on in the glass. The aroma of black cherry is a typical characteristic of Merlot. However, this rich black cherry was very reminiscent of the nose of a terrific Zinfandel. The aroma is not where the similarities end. On the palate there was a nice harmony between the cherry and red currant that melded into a terrific Zinfandel-esque jamminess! This was followed by pleasant hints of spice leading to some muscular, yet ripe tannins. The finish was truly amazing, lingering for many minutes! This was everything that I love about Merlot.

To put it simply, this was a Barry Sanders type of wine: terrific balance, finesse, power, and grace. I guess that would be my unorthodox way of describing the 2006 Plumpjack Merlot.

Wine Spectator gave this a 91 pt rating which is very accurate. I upped them to a 92 due to the fact that this wine solidly realized its potential as great!

Friday, August 7, 2009

Thanks for nothing 'Bama!

I have officially added Alabama to the list of states that I will not be visiting (along with Delaware and Michigan…Go Buckeyes!). I know Alabama is an odd state to despise out of the blue, but trust me it is not without reason.

This morning, I opened up WineSpectator online and was looking through the various articles. In Boston, the wine crooks who stole a $20,000 bottle of 1945 Chateau Mouton Rothschild were arrested and the wine was returned. That was followed by a nice story out of Detroit. We find out that Curtis Granderson, All-Star outfielder of the Detroit Tigers, used the allure of wine to raise thousands of dollars for his charity (odd, I guess something good can come out of Michigan). Both fantastic bits of news! Score two for wine!

Then Alabama had to come in and ruin it!

Being the ULTRA-conservative state that it is, the Alabama Alcohol Control Board decided to ban the wine produced by Cycles Gladiator. No, they did not ban the wine because it is cheap hooch. They did not ban it because in 2004 they produced a very weak rated 76 pt Merlot and then followed it up in 2005 with a gem that scored 68 pts from WS (which is one of the lowest ratings I have ever seen!). They did not ban it because once you start drinking it you wish you had not. No! They banned it because it has a replica of a painting depicting a naked woman flying next to a bicycle on the label and deemed it pornographic! Say what?! The last time I checked they have always used this label for all of their varietals. Silly prudish Alabamans!

So why am I mad?

I am mad because the article this morning speaks of increased sales of this junk! This simple act of banning Cycles Gladiator is the best promotion that they have ever received. The worst thing is that the publicity is completely undeserved. Why not ban Merry Edwards wines?! They, like Cycles Gladiator, have paintings of naked women/fairies on the label, plus you would be able to enjoy a terrific, very well-crafted wine while sticking it to the man.

All in all, this is just another reason to avoid Alabama like the plague, along with Cycles Gladiator Merlot!

To be fair to CG, they have improved their wines somewhat in the past couple years, but with a track record like that and all of the other options out there, I would avoid it.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Unums: They totally get it!

As many of you know I have launched a business venture to try to improve the quality of restaurant wine offerings and service. The goal of Senel Wine Consulting is to help restaurants select quality wines at each price point to allow patrons to have an exceptional restaurant experience.

This past Saturday my wife and I had a chance to get out on a date night. We decided to go with somewhere which we have not been previously. We went to Unums in downtown Nashua and immediately I knew we made the right choice.

Co-owner Stephen Williams greeted us at the door with a handshake and escorted us to our table. From there on we had a terrific culinary experience. We decided on going with three appetizers instead of entrees so that we could sample some of Chef Brianas’ creations. With a line-up of fresh gnocchi & shrimp in a peanut sauce, a red pepper stuffed with mozzarella and sausage, and finished it off with baked brie & fruit plate how could we go wrong?! FYI – the portions were very generous!

We accompanied our meal with a bottle of 2005 Robert Stemmler Nugent Vineyard Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley. It was a very fragrant Pinot and went well with all three dishes. It had a smoked cherry nose and led to cherry and an earthy/smoky note on the palate. The tannins were mellowed out by the meal. It was elegant and complex with a very nice balance and pleasant finish. It is almost up there with the Domaine Drouhin, however the Drouhin inches it out in terms of finesse and complexity. Still a terrific wine! However, on its’ own merit I am scoring this a solid 91.

For dessert we enjoyed a glass of 1999 Felsina Vin Santo from the Chianti Classico region of Tuscany. This was a very interesting wine due to the fact that it had such strong cognac features, yet once I had a chance to look it up (although the information was minimal) it does not seem to be fortified. Hence the nose was of very rich butterscotch similar to cognac. The palate however was very appealing with a lot of fleshy fruit and some honey going on, with the most memorable of the fruits being apricot. This is certainly a slow sipping wine and very fun to try on special occasions. I am by no means a dessert wine expert, however I found the butterscotch scent to be somewhat overpowering. Overall, I would score this wine an 89. It was very well crafted, but my aversion to cognac may have swayed the score slightly lower (don’t forget, every person’s preferences are different!).

Back to Unums!

Stephen and our waitress, Kira, were exceptionally gracious and attentive, yet not overbearing in the slightest. We were there for about three hours and it truly felt like they enjoyed us hanging around. Stephen and I had a chance to talk about the wine offering and also recommended some of his preferred wines. He also shared with me his ambitious endeavor to further improve the wine list and attempt to obtain Wine Spectator recognition. Considering his passion for enhancing his patrons’ experiences and love for well-crafted wine I believe he will certainly obtain this.

The owner, staff, atmosphere, food and drinks, brilliant! In the past I believed that Michael Timothy’s offered the best total dining experience in Southern NH. In my opinion they better stay on their game, because I can definitively say that Unums proudly rivals any New Hampshire establishment for culinary supremacy!