A Devil of a Merlot for International Merlot Day

As Madeline Puckette of Wine Folly notes, national and international wine holidays are actually quite unofficial, but they are certainly a great excuse to drink wine and focus on a specific grape variety or wine category.

Consequently, International Merlot Day, which Puckette traces back to 2011, has a designated date of November 7 and is as good a reason as any to drink more Merlot, particularly if this grape isn’t in your usual repertoire!

No longer widely maligned, Merlot has found renewed favor, which it richly deserves and is among the most popular red varieties in the U.S. This great grape originally hails from France and is wonderful on its own or as part of a blend (especially the wines from Bordeaux’s Right Bank). Generally, these wines offer up red fruits, coffee and herbal notes, along with good acidity and soft tannins, but the wines will vary depending upon where the grapes are grown.

Merlot adapts well to many climates and has been transported from its ancestral home to almost every wine region across the globe. Within the U.S., the variety does well on Long Island and in Washington State and in California. Worldwide, there are an estimated 660,000 acres of Merlot planted, so there is definitely no shortage of Merlots to try.

To help you get started, here’s one option worth checking out:
Charles Smith The Velvet Devil Merlot 2015, Washington State, U.S., $12.99 (SRP)
With an intense nose showing plum, coffee and meatiness, this wine is dry with very ripe fruit character, medium+ body, medium acidity and present tannins. Flavors of plum, fresh herbs and dried herbs dominate the palate, along with a hint of earth and spice. These latter notes add to the wine’s complexity and give it a fall-weather feel, which may be why it paired so well with roasted butternut squash.

If you still have friends in the anti-Merlot camp, it might be time to find some new friends or you could simply tell them, the devil made me do it.


Noma: My Perfect Storm, a film about food, focus and fame

7René Redzepi is not a household name, but for those in the culinary know, he is the bright star behind Copenhagen’s Noma restaurant. A new documentary from Magnolia Pictures, Noma: My Perfect Storm, inspired by Redzepi’s own books on the subject, charts his rise, fall and rise again.

Scoring a reservation at Noma is a feat. Most of us won’t have the opportunity to dine at San Pellegrino’s Best Restaurant in the World (2010, 2011, 2012, 2014), but through this film, we can catch a glimpse of what it might be like to taste through the multi-course meal as imagined and conceived by this food fanatic.

In this regard, Redzepi is credited with creating a new concept — the Nordic kitchen – using Nordic ingredients almost exclusively, an especially daunting task considering that Scandinavia is blanketed by snow five months a year.

As part of developing this concept, he was determined to tell a story with each dish: the story of a place (where the food came from) and time (the season in which it was grown). In essence, the here and now of what is on the plate. With the use of time lapse photography, we are drawn through the seasons of the beautiful Danish landscape, further illustrating Redzepi’s pursuit.

To accomplish his ground-breaking approach (sometime quite literally), Redzepi combed the land for foragers, farmers and fishermen in search of local products, produce and people, many of whom we meet in the film. He claims that ingredients are an alphabet by which to share a new language; the more ingredients one has, the more beautiful the prose.

Beyond taste, Redzepi also explores new techniques such as his experiments with fermentation; fights about thyme vs lemon thyme; and inclusion of live ants in a particular dish. Aided by a head-mounted camera, we watch Redzepi’s creations come to life, accomplished with such tools as paint brush and tweezers to ensure that his vision is realized in its precise level of detail.

But, more than just a pretty picture of food, the film is refreshingly candid, permitting us to see not only the less than glamorous side of five-star dining, but also the darker side of Redzepi. Achieving such a lofty goal at a young age, Redzepi discusses the dangerous side of success. Moreover, it is evident that he takes things very personally and you can feel his frustration as he pushes himself and his team to be even more creative and constantly driven to be the best.

It is also an immigrant story. Born and raised in Macedonia on the family farm, Redzepi comes to Denmark as an outsider, who must overcome racism. Yet, as he advances his new Nordic menu, he is “more Danish than the Danes” as one of the film’s interviewees describes him. He must also overcome the derision of his peers who are less than enthusiastic about his novel menus and taunt him accordingly.

The film is a bit slow at times, but, ultimately, the story pulls you through, as you eagerly await the outcome of the various obstacles that Redzepi faces in his struggle to succeed.

Film from Magnolia Pictures
Available in theaters, on demand, Amazon video and iTunes December 18, 2015.

It’s A Winederful Life

If you have been a reader of this blog, you will have noticed the lack of posts for almost a year. I have no real excuse other than the fact that I had shifted my attention and writing efforts to my NY Wine Shopping Examiner column on Examiner.com.

However, I feel that I have a voice that is not getting heard with that column. Accordingly, I am excited to announce the launch of my new website: It’s A Winederful Life. My Grape Matter posts will remain as is, but all new material will be posted to the new site. I hope you will follow me in my new online journey.

In memorium for Christian Albin

four-seasonsI was stunned by the news of Christian Albin’s death earlier this week. Mr. Albin, Executive Chef at the beloved Four Seasons Restaurant, passed away on Saturday, June 13 due to cancer, only two days after the Four Seasons’ 50th Birthday Bash.

Albin joined the Four Seasons in 1973 and assumed the position of Executive Chef in 1990. Accordingly, he has been the chef throughout my entire history with the restaurant, including our attendance at last Thursday’s event.

I only met him briefly once, but his cuisine has had a lasting impression upon me for years. As I recounted in my review of the restaurant’s 50th Anniversary Gala, I quickly became enamored with Christian’s food. Over a decade later, I can still recall the lusciousness of foie gras served with roasted peaches, at that first lunch.

Over the years, I have had the pleasure of dining at the Four Seasons for both formal wine dinners and casual cocktail parties, all of which delivered fabulous food, time and again. Whether it was caviar-topped smoked salmon or braised short ribs, I loved it all. So much so that I trusted him with my palate implicitly. The very first time I ate unagi (eel) and sushi, it was at the Four Seasons, having been afraid to try them previously.

On another occasion, my husband and I chose to order the Chef’s Tasting Menu at dinner, which is simply listed as such on the menu. The server checked for any allergies, but, we would not know what to expect until each course arrived at the table. I don’t recall the full menu, but I do remember that one course included sweet breads, which is something I would never have ordered or thought to try. However, I reasoned that if Christian had deemed the ingredient to be tasty, the least I could do was taste it; they were heavenly.

These memories will remain embedded in my mind as some of my most pleasant experiences and I am thankful to Chef Albin to have them. We will certainly return to the Four Seasons restaurant, but he will truly be missed. Our sincerest condolences to his family and colleagues.

A critic or a critique

hpim2295As a wine educator, I truly love to teach and am passionate about wine – its complexity, nuances and the connection to the earth it provides. Consequently, I use my blog primarily to inform and educate about wine, as an adjunct to my teaching. While I don’t think that someone needs to know everything there is about wine to enjoy it, I do think that knowledge, even in small doses, enhances one’s enjoyment of this unique beverage.

In adding to one’s knowledge, I feel that it is useful for a wine educator to talk about specific wines in the context of wine education. However, I feel that as an educator and journalist, my review of a specific wine should be impartial. To that end, my descriptions of wines are intended to be non-judgmental and simply provide the reader or student with the opportunity to learn more about the qualities of a given wine and then make his or her decision about whether or not they might wish to taste it themselves. We all have different preferences, which are equally valid, so a clear and accurate description of the wine should be beneficial to the consumer, rather than trying to dictate whether a person should like a given wine just because of the writer’s preference.

Moreover, preferences are just that — preferences. They are not necessarily an indication of quality or a lack thereof.   Further, if my preference for a given wine isn’t the same as the producer’s, I am free to find another wine to drink. Therefore, I don’t think that it is my place to tell a winemaker how to make his or her wine. Given that I am a wine professional, I do think that I have a responsibility to point out poor winemaking – not my preferences for a particular wine style, but rather those elements that can be empirically determined such as unbalanced alcohol (as opposed to criticizing a winemaker for a wine with high alcohol) or an otherwise flawed wine. But, beyond that, I don’t feel that it is my place to arbitrarily prescribe winemaking techniques.

Today, there is a proliferation of wine regions and wineries, providing consumers with the luxury to find wines that span a wide range of styles and price ranges. Within a given wine region, there will be many styles. For example, in a recent Decanter article on Brunello di Montalcino, one producer noted that there was room for both a traditional and a modern style of Brunello. Even within the same winery, with the same winemaker, there will be differences among the wines that appeal to one and not another. As a case in point, at a recent visit to Jaffurs winery in Santa Barbara, I had the opportunity to taste through a number of its wines. Among the selection were two single-vineyard Syrahs – Bien Nacido Vineyard and Thompson Vineyard, both from the 2006 vintage. The Thompson Vineyard Syrah was fruit-forward in style with notes of blackberry, chocolate/cocoa, berry and spice. Conversely, the Bien Nacido offering was much less fruit-driven and presented with decidedly secondary aromas and flavors of earth, leather, berry and a hint of spice. Each retailed for $38.00.

For some consumers, the Thompson Vineyard wine will be more to their liking while the Bien Nacido may be preferable to others; different people may like both wines and still others may not like Syrah at all or may only drink Syrahs from France. Did I have a preference? Yes, but does it really matter? Were I to voice an opinion, I would become a critic, but, as an educator, I wish only to offer a useful critique. In this regard, I feel that it is my responsibility to accurately communicate what is in the glass and leave the decision-making up to the consumer. My preference for one or the other isn’t valuable to my students or to the winemaker. Of more value, I can use the two wine descriptions to talk about the influence of the specific terroir (each of the named vineyards) and, more generally, the differences in climate, which may account for the flavor differences in the two wines.

With this in mind, one of the interesting things about wine is that it is both a natural product and a man-made one. From budbreak to harvest, it is essentially up to Mother Nature to determine the outcome of a given harvest. Yet, humans have the ability to manipulate the vineyard such as through amendments to the soil, irrigation in the absence of rain, and both natural and chemical means to control mildew. Then, more directly, once the grapes have been harvested, it is up to the winemaker and his/her team to decide what winemaking techniques to consider. Should they employ stainless steel or oak? How long should the maceration last? In Europe, many of these decisions are more regulated than in the New World (i.e. the Americas, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa), but they do exist to some extent.

Accordingly, as an artisan product, the winemaker must be a grape whisperer – listening to what the grapes are telling him or her to do. Some winemakers are more hands-off than hands-on, but may need to intercede in more difficult years. With experience, knowledge and preferences guiding the winemaker, he or she endeavors to make the best wine they can. Once the wine has been made, it is the reviewer’s job to accurately describe the wine and leave winemaking decisions up to the winemaker. It is easy to be an armchair quarterback, but as I wasn’t in the vineyard or the winery encountering various conditions and challenges, it is not my place to tell the winemaker how s/he should make their wine. And, of course, I certainly wouldn’t want a winemaker telling me how to write.

A Wine Soaked Week

003The last week of April was filled with wonderful wine. I kicked off the week at the Wine Media Guild’s monthly luncheon. This Tale of Two Pichons featured a matched, vertical tasting of Chateau Longueville au Baron de Pichon-Longueville (aka Pichon-Baron) and Chateau Pichon Lonagueville Comtesse de Lalande (aka Pichon-Lalande). These highly acclaimed Bordeaux wines were accompanied by a sumptuous meal at Felidia.

Christian Seely, Manager of all AXA-Millseimes properties (which includes Pichon-Baron) was joined by Gildas d’Ollone, Managing Director of Pichon-Lalande, in enlightening us about these two properties and their resulting wines. Much discussion about the cepages (blend) and weather patterns of each year ensued, with both men noting the importance of ripeness and yields.

The Longueville property was initially one large parcel, but upon the marriage of the Baron’s daughter, it was split into two separate properties as part of her dowery. In 1978, Giladas’ aunt purchased the Pichon-Lalande property, which she sold to Roederer in 2007. Pichon-Baron is presently owned by AXA-Millisime.

As usual, the first part of the event featured a walk-around tasting. Given the day’s theme, the luncheon was particularly crowded and included some luminary members and guests that rarely attend. Consequently, I chose not to take detailed notes during the tasting but rather, to simply enjoy the wines. We began with the 2000 vintage, which was lauded as one of the top vintages in Bordeaux, until 2005 arrived. Overall, I found the 2000’s to be quite amazing and felt that the 2005’s needed additional time to mature. I was also surprised that the 2003’s (the hot vintage) were as good as they were. Generally, it was interesting to taste each wine from the same vintage and see how the two differed. Similarly, it was great to see how the same wine changed from vintage to vintage. In some vintages, I preferred Pichon-Baron, while the Pichon-Lalande was my favorite in others. During the actual lunch, the 1985, 1989 and 1975 (the latter in double magnum) Pichon-Lalandes were served as were the 1989 and 1990 Pichon-Barons. The 1975 Pichon-Lalande was incredibly bright and lively for its age.

After lunch, many of the attendees headed over to the Four Seasons restaurant to attend a preview tasting of the recently declared 2007 vintage for Port. Event participants included properties from the Fladgate Partnership, Symington Family Estates and Quinta do Noval. I briefly tasted through a few of the 2007s, noticing their richness, coupled with chocolate and berries. A selection of older Ports was also available to taste, of which I particularly liked the very concentrated Smith Woodhouse 1977, the mellowness of the Graham 1970 and the luscious bramble fruit of the Dow 1980.

The following evening found me at Grape & Grain wine bar in the East Village, meeting up with a friend from out of town. The by-the-glass list was surprisingly heavy on Spanish wines, but also had a selection of others. We weren’t very hungry, so we simply ordered a white bean dip accompanied by spicy pita chips. My initial glass of wine, a white blend of Macabeo, Xarel-lo and Chardonnay, seemed somewhat oxidized, but as many traditional white Spanish wines have this characteristic, I ignored it. However, when my husband arrived later on, he brought it to the server’s attention who expressed surprise, having not encountered it in that wine before. Consequently, he opened a second bottle, which had the same oxidized note and then a third, which didn’t, before pouring me a new glass of wine. The bar also carries a selection of beers in hommage to the “grain” in its name.

My next major interaction with wine didn’t occur until the end of the week, but it was quite major. Grand Cru Classes hosted the Saturday night dinner for TasteCamp East in its Tuscan-inspired tasting classroom. Participants had been asked to bring a bottle of wine, especially one from their home state/local wine region. Many attendees took this a step further and arrived with a full case. Consequently, with 30+ people in the room, there was a sea of wine. The diversity of wines present was quite astounding with fruit-based wines sharing the table with the likes of Duckhorn. All in all, it was an extremely fun evening and we enjoyed meeting and, in some instances, re-acquainting ourselves with, the bloggers.

We woke up Sunday morning with a fair amount of cleaning up to do.  All told, we ended up opening over 30 bottles of wine, with many unopened bottles taken home and a just few left behind. It truly had been a wine-soaked week.

A new organic wine hits the market – the Pinot Grigio to feel good about

Harvest at CollaviniFriulian wine producer, Collavini, has introduced a new Pinot Grigio, produced from organic grapes. The family-owned and operated winery has been in existence since 1896 and is currently run by Manlio Collavinin, along with his sons Luigi and Giovanni. Wife, Anna, manages public relations for the company.

In addition to being an organic wine, several environmentally-friendly measures have been taken in connection with the wine. More specifically, the bottle itself is made of recycled glass and may be recycled yet again. Sealed with a natural cork, the closure is also recyclable. Related packaging such as the wine shipper and its partitions, was produced from recycled materials, most of which is fully recyclable as well.

Made entirely from Pinot Grigio, the (ICEA) certified organic grapes are grown in the Venezie region, with adherence to organic practices and eschewing man-made fertilizers and pesticides. The winemaking process is not certified organic, but care was taken to follow traditional winemaking practices with minimal handling of the fruit.

Collavini Pinot Grigio 2008
IGT Delle Venezie
$13.99 SRP
This wine has a clean nose of floral, lemon and slight stone aromas. On the palate, it is dry with lively acidity and a relatively light body. Flavors of lemon, stone and tangerine persist throughout the wine’s medium+ length. The high acidity permitted this wine to pair nicely with fried food, cutting through the grease and cleansing the palate between bites.

Etch a sketch

 etch2I received an invitation to participate with a company, Etching Expressions, to have my logo etched onto a bottle of wine. It seemed like an interesting idea, so I decided to give it a chance.
I sent in my logo according to the specifications requested and within a few weeks was the proud owner of a Grand Cru Classes logo’d wine bottle! The logo was reproduced exactly and the etching workmanship seems quite good. The red in our logo doesn’t show up quite as well on the green glass, but that is certainly not the fault of the etching company.
My only other criticism would be the fact that this is a bottle of “California Champagne” which is wrong for so many reasons, not the least of which Champagne can only be from one place in the world — Champagne, France. Anyway, the company does offer other generic wines for etching: Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir, and also has a selection of name brand wines as well, including Clos du Val, Beringer Vineyards and Veuve Cliquot. Alternately, you can choose to send in your own wine with several caveats mentioned. However, while the potential for damage may be low, I wouldn’t recommend doing this with a prized bottle of wine (just Close up of etched imageshipping it back and forth isn’t so good for the wine, let alone possible breakage).

The service starts at $65.00/bottle, but drops as the volume increases. Beyond etching a corporate logo, they also do personalized greetings such as Happy Birthday or Congratulations with a personal message to the recipient included below the more generic graphic. As party favors, meeting give-aways or other corporate gifts, it can be a nice option for making your mark.

Keep them laughing: My debut in stand-up comedy at Comix

photo_112208_001As a wine educator, I am a teacher, coach, mentor and performer, all rolled into one. I strive to ensure that my students truly learn about wine, while having a great time doing so. I want them to overcome any obstacles and to begin to really appreciate all of the nuances involved.
Accordingly, I constantly strive to improve my presentation skills, along with my pedagogical approach. Over the years, I have been fortunate to receive some great presentation skills training and I am a confident public speaker as a result. However, I know that while I enjoy wine very much, parts of it can be overwhelming, confusing or just plain boring. So, I sought out a way to solve this issue.

Accordingly, last fall, I enrolled in a stand-up comedy class. While I had never considered myself to be the funniest person, I thought that I had a great sense of humor that occasionally shone through. Apparently not.

When I told my mother that I was taking the class, her immediate response was, “You know you’re not funny, right?” My sister was a little less harsh in her reaction, but was equally surprised by my decision to study stand-up and was considerably anxious about my performance. But, I chose to ignore their concerns.

The class ran for three hours a week for five weeks and was expertly facilitated by the comedianne Cory Kahaney.  At each class meeting, including the very first, participants were instructed to present a comedic set to the instructor and class, both of which would provide constructive feedback.

In between classes, we were writing new material and would occasionally have a specific homework assignment such as writing a joke about our mother or using a particular format such as a switch joke. Just as in a regular class, we were required to demonstrate that we had done the assignment; the only difference was that we had to tell our joke from the stage, rather than submit a piece of paper to the teacher.

We started off the sessions with a two-minute set. This eventually built to 5-6 minutes, which we aimed to perfect by the end of the last class meeting. Now was not the time to experiment or try new things.

A few weeks after the class ended, all of the students were scheduled to perform on stage at a prestigious comedy club in New York City — Comix. While it was a Saturday, it was a little less nerving to perform at 4:00 PM and instead of a room full of strangers, we were surrounded by our friends and family and those of our classmates. Accordingly, we had the benefit of an encouraging crowd.

I was scheduled to appear near the end of the show and waited nervously in the Green Room with fellow colleagues awaiting their turn. One by one, our classmates took the stage, performed their best and made the audience laugh. When my turn finally came, I stepped out onto the stage and was bathed by the brilliant lights. It was a heady moment. My husband and sister (who was clawing my husband since she was still so anxious about my lack of talent) were seated in front of the stage and, along with several other friends, were  a welcome sight, putting me further at ease.

I began my set and was rewarded with laughter. I continued on until I saw the red light in the back of the room indicating that my time was up. I wrapped up with my closing joke and took a bow. I had had an amazing time and was sorry that the time had passed so quickly!

I exited the stage and reunited with the dozen or so friends and family afterward, sharing in the moment.

While I do not anticipate performing entire comedy sets for my students, I do plan to utilize more humor into my teaching and finding ways to always make wine fun. And, when I get the chance, I find myself up on stage doing my 5 minutes for yet a new audience. I may not be funny, but my comedy seems to make people laugh.

See my set: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-2601622325874714325&hl=en

An Examined Life: I join the Examiner.com as NY Wine Shopping Examiner




This week I began writing a column for Examiner.com as their NY Wine Shopping Examiner.

I am excited about the opportunity to combine my love of shopping with my passion for wine. While my sister , who works in the fashion industy has a closet full of clothes, I have a closet full of wines and you can imagine how they got there. I often feel like a kid in a candy store when I go to a wine shop, which is why I previously did most of my wine shopping online. However, as part of my investigative reporting, I will be venturing out of the house more and seeking out wine and spirit shops around New York.

In addition to profiling local wine shops, I will also cover wine shop events including in-store pours, classes and sales. If it has to do with wine and retail, it’s my beat. Won’t you join me on this journey?