Thursday, February 28, 2008

How Is This Tasting Different From All Other Tastings?

Because it's all-kosher, you putz! Because they have pitchers and a basin at the entrance so you can ritually wash your hands, if you wish. Because the servers must wash out your glass between each taste in order to keep with the laws of kashrut. Because there is tons of food. (What? You're going to invite guests over and not feed them?)

Other than that, and a lot of black hats and beards, it was very much like any other wine tasting: A great deal of dross and some wonderful juice, if you knew where to look. I knew where to look, having gone to last year's Kosher Food & Wine Experience (as it is called). I headed directly over to what were called the "French Wine" tables, and sampled the new vintage of the $500-a-pop Chateau Valandraud, Jean-Luc Thunevin's praised garagist Bordeaux. This was a revelation when I tasted it last year. Frankly, the new 2002 vintage was a disappointment: tight and sour. I'm sure it will mature, but it was no delight at present. A real delight, however, was the news that Thunevin's second label, Virginie de Valandraud, which is much less expensive, is now being made in a kosher version.

Soon after, I headed for the Spanish table, which can only mean the wondrous Capcanes. I believe Capcanes Peraj Ha'abib, a blend of Garnacha, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Carignan, may possibly be the finest kosher wine on the planet. It is deep and juicy and dignified and beautifully structured, with well-integrated tannins. A great wine by any measure. They also had on hand their new entry level kosher, Peraj Petita, which was like an immature version of the Perag. I don't mean that in a negative way. It was simply not as profound, but just as wonderful in its way, and eminently drinkable. The grapes used here are Garnacha, Samso and Ull de Llebre.

The tasting also gave me the chance to try the vaunted Castel brand of Israel. The table was serving up all three labels—Castel Grand Vin, Petit Castel, and Castel "C" Blanc—and there wasn't a loser in the bunch. All three were modeled after the Bordeaux model, and didn't far miss their mark. I returned to some past favorites—the Cab-Merlot blends of Bazelet Hagolan and Psagot—and was impressed once more with how far along the Israel wine industry has come from just a few years ago. New discoveries were the Binyamina Chardonnay Special Reserve and Onyx, another Chardonnay. Both were complex, the former left on the lees for some time and rendered pungent, rich and forceful in the manner of some Friuli whites (I thought), the latter tapped from a single vineyard and showing plenty of tasteful discipline.

Those were the best. Of the rest, something has to be done with the Italian kosher wine industry. Bartenura and Rashi just ain't doing the job. Insipid stuff. As for the Australians—well, they're Australians and not my cup of flabby, fruity tea. The folks at the Covenant table were certainly impressed with their boutique Napa Cab, which has been raking in the review in the last couple years. It was good, no doubt, but didn't knock me over. They kept going on about how the land naturally imparted very soft tannins. Soft they were. Too soft, perhaps. It made an already very fruit-forward wine all the more fawningly friendly. It was a California wine, simply said. And just the sort of thing Robert Parker would like; and he has. They can keep it at $75. I'll stick with the more complex Israeli and Spanish wines mentioned above.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

In the Cellar at The Modern

My February "In the Cellar" column in the New York Sun too a look at Belinda Chang, the talented new wine director at The Modern, who comes to New York by way of Chicago and San Franciso. One of the rare women in the business, she is also one of the most vivacious sommeliers I've ever met. She's wears on her sleeve the enthusiasm for wine most sommeliers hold in their heart.

Chang was open and generous enough to let me sit in on a Wednesday tasting with various distributors, who were all trying to get their wines on The Modern's list. This was fascinating, and not only because of the wide variety of wines sampled, but because of the wide variety of salesman that paraded by. Every type from the typical, nervous flop-sweat hawker to representatives that reeked icy-cool confidence, gracious and long-winded Europeans to former Garment District workers who could do their job blindfolded.

The Perkiest Sommelier in Town
In The Cellar

February 27, 2008

The new wine director at the Modern, Belinda Chang, presides over what may be the most global dining room in New York City. Situated in that tourist haven known as the Museum of Modern Art, the Danny Meyer restaurant attracts not only the blue-chip businessmen and publishing executives from Midtown, but also the hordes of art-loving European and Asian travelers who are taking full advantage of the low dollar.

"I have those whole days in the dining room where I don't hear any English," Ms. Chang said, with a laugh. "I got to practice my Chinese tonight, spoke a little French there, a little German over there." Catering to so many nationalities means keeping a wide variety of wines on hand. New Yorkers are happy to choose from among the classic Burgundy and Rhône and other European selections that have been the list's mainstays since it opened in 2005. But vacationing Europeans don't want to order what they can easily get back home. "We have a lot of internationals who are all looking for California and Washington and Oregon wine because they're visiting the States." As a result, Ms. Chang, who only arrived in New York three months ago, is beefing up the New World side of the list.

The peripatetic nature of many of the Modern's patrons shapes the list in other ways as well. Leisurely diners may want a bottle, but passing tourists on their way from MoMA to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and business people cooling their heels after a long day, are looking for an intriguing glassful. "We go through so much of our wine by the glass, we never have any problems with anything going stale," she said.

On a recent afternoon, while tasting the wares of a parade of wine distributors, she peppered the sellers with requests for magnums. She believes the big bottles add a bit of drama to the by-the-glass game. "I think that they're gorgeous in the dining room," she said. "People see them be poured at the table and they get thirsty for them. I'm definitely obsessed with magnums. They're so fun to pour!"

She said this, as she said almost everything, with a wide smile and a burbling laugh. To say she is bubbly is an understatement. It's little wonder that such an exuberantly cheerful person has no trouble selling barrels of vino to strangers. But anyone who thinks her giddy manner and tendency to label wines "super" and "neato" are the earmarks of a lightweight will be quickly set straight. Ms. Chang knows her stuff, bandying wine terms and winemakers back and forth with lightning speed, and twirling a pen around her knuckles at a rate that would rattle any salesman.

Ms. Chang has a reason to be impatient. There was a bit of a lag between her predecessor's departure and her arrival, and though the Modern's cellar contains 10,000 bottles, she's still got some holes to fill. "They drink a lot of wine here," she said simply. And "they" are not just anybody. They are New Yorkers, who are among the most demanding oenophiles in the world.

Ms. Chang, who was born in Massachusetts, has worked at restaurants in Houston, San Francisco and Chicago, where she handled wines at Charlie Trotter's."New Yorkers were always my favorite restaurant diners to take care of," she said. "They're good at it. With a guest in Chicago, we'd be futzing around with what they want to drink. Everyone's sort of a professional here, and really well-dined. They've seen everything. They know what they want. We're definitely striving to still surprise you."

Toward that end, she is keen on snaring every "exclusive" she can for the wine list — "cherries" as one distributor called them. "So many of our regulars are the Café Gray regulars, are the Daniel regulars," she explained. "They don't want to drink the same thing everywhere they go."

Ms. Chang has been so enmeshed in her new work that, even though she can see MoMA from her apartment window — where her closet if stuffed with innumerable black suits — she hasn't yet had time to actually tour the museum. But that doesn't mean she hasn't been thinking about what's hanging on the institution's walls.

"I'm putting a lot of thought about how the art in the museum has to do with the wine in the cellar, because I think that could be interesting to explore," she said. "I look at wine as art. It's about choosing wines for our list that are varietally correct and terroir-specific."

She added: "We've all had that Pinot Noir that tasted like Syrah, or that Cabernet that was too light to be a Cabernet. What was happening there? That was manipulation — not purity, not art."

Monday, February 18, 2008

A Weird, Great Muscat

Who ever heard of a Vin de Pays Muscat Sec? I mean, they make 'em, but who sees them over here?

Not me. So I had to buy this Mas Las Cabes Muscat Sec when I saw it at Smith & Vine, my local wine store. And I'm glad I did.

I don't think much about Muscat. Does anybody? Beside the people who grow it, I mean? This one comes from the Roussillon region of southern France. Jean Gerdies makes it. It's all Muscat, and all dry, but with a soft, graceful mouth feel (uh, hate that term, but that's what it is). It's a bit viscous. Honey, melon and gooseberry, a little lime are what you'll get. There's a mineral underpinning as well. The nose is a little honey dream. The finish is mild.

It's all just really interesting. And cheap! $14! I'm going to buy up a bunch. Gardies is supposed to be a young genius of the area. I'm going to look out for other wines of his.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Too Easy to Like? A Devil's Advocate View of Canton

I threw a little party for the week a couple weeks back. It's impromptu theme (her idea) was "Coffee and Cognac." Some people took it very much to heart, and one person brought as a gift a bottle of French Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur, which is made with VSOP Cognac.

I had never tried it before. It's basically ginger-infused Cognac, the world's first "premium" item in that category—even though a similar drink was made for some time in the China. It was an immediate hit with the crowd, and we're lucky we were left with some. It came with a little booklet of cocktail recipes and, after the party was done I tried a couple, including the La Coloniale (2 parts Canton, 3 parts gin) and the Canton Ginger Sidecar (2 parts Canton, 3 parts Cognac, making it the most Cognacy cocktail ever!). After that, wifey took it away from me and said "Mine!"

The Sidecar was the better, offering more character, and, because of the Cognac I used, a little more kick. The Coloniale was quite smooth and enjoyable, but maybe too smooth and enjoyable. I suspect the Classic Ginger Martini (2 parts Canton, 2 parts Vodka) would be even more smooth. (BTW, how can it be classic, when Canton hasn't been around that long, and it's made with vodka? Marketing, I know, but it drives me nuts.)

Which brings me to my devil's advocate question? Before I get argumentative, two things: 1) I like Canton very much; it's terrific; and 2) I understand the ginger gives it a bit of a zesty zing, but it's still basically a smooth, easy-drinking liqueur.

My question is: Is Canton too easy to like? Furthermore, was it designed to be easy to like? As I sipped it and mixed it and enjoyed it, I started thinking: this is too unproblematic. It began to remind me of the reaction I get when I drink St. Germain, the wonderful elderflower liqueur that is also quite new on the market and which I adore. But I'm always a bit suspicious about how utterly appealing it is to my and all other palates, and I feel the same about Canton. It's like that old line: Never trust anyone who doesn't have any enemies. St. Germain and Canton appear to have no detractors. Reviews always deem them "perfect liqueurs."

A part of me thinks that Canton is part and parcel with our currently dominant vodka-drinking culture. As with the cocktail booklet that came along with the St. Germain, many of the recipes call with vodka or champagne. Sometimes gin. And most of the libations, once made, offer no resistance. They glide down the gullet like water and make you very happy. But they don't make me think much, except for maybe the thought that you'd like another. I like a simple cocktail as much as the next purist, but a good simple cocktail—one made with gin or rye or bourbon—is simultaneously complex, and evokes complex reactions. A Canton cocktail or St. Germain cocktail is about one idea: the flavor of Canton or St. Germain.

And so I'm torn about Canton. Again, I like it and admire it, and I will buy it again. But I'll probably always drink it during those tired moments of the day when I don't want to challenge my weary mind, and only want to relax. For many people, this is exactly what they want from an alcoholic drink. I guess I'm just a little more demanding.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Bordeaux, at Last

I don't know why I've dragged my ass so in reporting on the big January Bordeaux tasting in New York. I guess it's because there were so many wines and I knew blogging them all would be a chore. Plus, I get so bored, sometimes, with the accepted grandeur of the whole Bordeaux world, that sometimes I'd rather talk about any other kind of wine. But I guess I better do it before my thoughts on the tasting leave my brain forever.

The event was packed, because the 2005 vintage has sparked such interest; invitees were assigned to attend either from 2 to 4 PM or 4 to 6 PM. I didn't realize I was slated to come at 4 PM, and arrived at 2. But nobody hassled me and I glided right in. (Don't worry sticklers: I left around 4 anyway.) I began by tasting my way through a pretty unimpressive aisle of Margaux and started to despair. Was it all going to be like this?

I escaped to Saint-Emilion territory and was revived. Though I agree with a friend at the event, who said he thought the St.-Emilions tends to veer toward a juicier, International style, the bottles sure were an improvement on the watery and bitter Margaux, so I wasn't complaining. Chateau Angelus, Chateau Figeac and a few others pleased plenty. What's fascinating about the area is how the blends vary. Sometimes Merlot is up there at 90 percent, sometimes at 30. Cab Sauv is sometimes knocked out of the mix altogether. I liked Figeac's reasoned approach: one third each of Merlot, Cab Sauv, and Cab Franc, giving the wine a more mature, balanced profile than its brothers.

From there a couple of enthusiastic imbibers directed me to the Pomerols. "You gotta taste the Pomerols!" I was a bit suspicious—everyone likes Pomerols these days—but I went. Merlot, my friends, Merlot. Lots of green notes. Big and full. A creamy Chateau Beauregard, a more austere Chateau Clinet, a one-dimensional Chateau Gazin, but mainly I wasn't really feeling it.

Always open to suggestions, I was then directed to the Saint-Juliens. Now things started to pick up. Chateau Lagrange was rich and silky, Leoville Poyferre has great balance and structure, and Talbot kind of knocked me out. It hit my nose with force. The tannins were intense as were the flavors of dark cherry. A bit much, perhaps, but such much!

Maybe I had drunk my share at this point, but Pauillac tasted even better than Saint-Juliens. Chateau Clerc Milon was very nice, with good balance and good fruit. Very deep. Pichon-Longueville was rough and full and extracted, and Pontet-Canet was fuller still, but more smooth and ripe fruit and green notes.

The most stellar white Bordeaux I tasted was Chateaus De Fieuzal, the deep complexity of which cannot be understated.

Like everyone else, I save the Sauternes for last. And, like everyone else, I didn't leave enough time for them and kinda rushed through. They were all pretty friggin' good. It's hard to lose with this stuff. One that stood out was a Barsac, Chateau Climens, which had a extra spiciness and less honeyed tone that set it a bit apart.

A couple other things. I must compliment the organizers of the event for their scheme of setting up many small round tables in the aisles. This made tasting so much easier. One got one's sample and then, rather than stay rooted to the crowded serving table, retreated to the round neutral stations to sip in peace and think and make one's notes. Bravo! This should be the way at every tasting!

And finally, why must buffoons argue with the pourers about Robert Parker, and his supposed influence over their wines? What do they think they're going change, except the pourer opinion of them? People have got to stop harping about this guy. It's old. It comes off like cranky old Grandpa carping about those damn horseless carriages.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Wine, Whiskey, Beer

There were times when I was drinking Loire Vally biodynamic guru Nicholas Joly's 2002 Coulee de Serrant Savenniere that I could have sworn I was having a beer. The color of the liquid was a fine medium amber you see on many lagers. And the palate was often so overpoweringly yeasty and hoppy that, had it been a blind tasting, I might have been fooled into believing I was being served something from Belgium. Other times, it seemed I was sipping a whiskey, so full and spicy was the nose.

And I do mean sip. Joly's Chenin Blanc doesn't go down like silk. It provides a lot of resistance, with an almost brutally tart acidity, and causes you to pucker up. Everyone who's ever talked to me about these wines has told me they were profound. That's the word they always use. Profound. Indeed, they are; they make you think; they cause you to pause and contemplate their seriousness. The wine lacks, however, an easygoing enjoyability. It's Tolstoy, as opposed to Dickens. I felt like I should be in a darkened study thinking only about the wine, and about nothing else.

These comments are not meant to be criticisms. The wine is a great one. But even as wines approach greatness, they tend to leave something behind. Perhaps it's a bit of lighthearted fun. And everyone likes to have a little fun whey they drink wine.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

My Drinking Habits at the Uncertain Bar

I've discovered that, when I approach a bar of uncertain virtue and a bartender of untried skill, I tend to follow a certain pattern of behavior.

I begin, as I often do, by asking if they have rye behind the bar. If they do, I am very encouraged, and probably go on to order a rye-based cocktail—a Sazerac, if the bartender recognizes the name, or a Manhattan if he/she doesn't.

If there is no rye behind the bar, I am discouraged and realize I am faced with a second-class establishment. (The call of "no rye" usually causes me to quickly scan how many different bottles of vodka are in stock and angrily wonder if one of these couldn't be sacrificed so that some rye could find a place on the shelf.)

For some reason, knowing there is no rye behind the bar causes me to loose faith in the bartender's ability to mix drinks with bourbon or scotch. Don't ask me why I think this. I just do. I guess I just think a bartender's skills in mixing brown-liquor drinks should be built on rye before he moves on to scotch or bourbon libations. And so, I shift to gin. I try to keep it simple, to better ensure I will get a good drink, and since Martinis can be muddied up an innumerable ways (vodka is used instead of gin; the drink is made "dirty" without it being requested), I opt for a Gibson. No one ever asks for a dirty Gibson or a chocolate Gibson. If the needed onions are on hand, I'm in luck.

And this is why, when I'm not in a swank cocktail emporium, you'll tend to see me with a Gibson in my hand.

The Clover Club Is Coming

There's been some construction going on on Smith Street for a while now, around the former location of Johnnie's Bootery. I wasn't sure what it was all about until last week when they put up a sign saying Clover Club.

Woo-hoo! The Clover Club is coming! I've been hearing about this cocktail joint for some time and it seems it's to be a reality. The fine folks who brought you the Flatiron Lounge are behind the new bar, and I can't think of a finer name. The Clover Club is a lovely, under-recognized egg-based drink from days gone by, and it's right that it's so honored. Can't tell when it will open.

Between this and Sasha (Milk and Honey) Petraske's Weather Up in Prospect Heights, good times are coming to Brooklyn!