Monday, September 26, 2011

Marty Lipton, Mr. Vouvray?

The boss has been lost in the Loire all summer. He’s drunk Cabernet franc, Gamay, even the obscure Pineau d’aunis and ranged from Cheverney to Chinon and Saumur. The boss will buy something from Sancerre or Vouvray when his wife wants a white, but he leans red and completely avoids wines made from Muscadet and Chenin blanc. The former is a classic pairing for shellfish, but maybe the boss shies from shucking his own oysters lest he slice one of his fingers and have to go easy on the blogging. That, or he just doesn’t want to talk about the grand cru Chablis he drinks when he heads to the Jersey shore and has Wellfleet oysters flown in from Maine. 

The boss has even less use for wines made from Chenin blanc, which often contain residual sugar. After all, those Chablis are perfect with the succulent lobsters the boss favors, so he doesn’t need to pair them with chenins. But I’ve picked up a few chenins for the club, and last week I tasted one I bought and two others.

I began with a non-vintage sparkling Vouvray from Francois Pinon. The wine smells and tastes a little like sherry, because like that beverage it’s exposed to oxygen, but the bubbles and the sugar from the grapes (none is added, as is the case in many sparking wines) make for good quaffing.

I also drank a glass of Pinon’s ’08 Cuvee Tradition, a wine similar to one I picked up this winter for the Big-Time Spender. BTS is suave, single, and willing to stretch both his palate and his budget, and the wine store suggested a chenin for a pumpkin curry with naan that BTS was whipping up that weekend. BTS liked his wine, and I loved my glass of the Pinon: clean on the tongue, a slight hint of honey balanced by some acid and tropical fruit (I don’t know what anyone means by tropical fruit, but I mean intriguing, non-citrus tastes that were too shifty for me to pin down precisely.) Sophisticated, mysterious, and damn tasty at $20 a bottle.

I also went out on a limb and had a Savennieres 'Croix Picot' Chateau l'Eperonniere 2008, a Chenin named for the Loire town in which it’s produced. Savennieres can be bone-dry and needs time to age. The one glass I had previously – never let ignorance get in the way of a blog post – at Heirloom Café in San Francisco last year, was a 2000 Baumard that had a lovely, delicate nose but a much cleaner taste. This one was a touch sweet and went well with a spicy octopus dish and fritto misto, but it wasn’t in the same class as the ’08 Pinon – of which, for you law geeks out there, a certain MLipton is a huge fan according to MLipton was even more rapturous about the sparkling Vouvray.

Now, it would be too good to be true if MLipton were corporate law legend Marty Lipton, but who knows? Maybe the sparking vouvray flows at Wachtell, Lipton when they sign up a big deal. 

Zipping through Sicily

"This smells of quince preserves, green tea, narcissus, lily, and hints of mushroom and of caramel and lanolin from barrel. Opulently textured but vivaciously laced with fresh white peach and lemon, this delivers saline, stone-licking mineral notes in its finish ..." Parker's Wine Advocate on a Savennieres

"Sheeet." - Clay Davis, on multiple occasions

I have never read a description of a wine that gave me a real idea of how it tastes. Blackberries? Rose hips? Cut grass? The comparisons used by critics from Robert Parker to the amateur reviewers on just aren’t that helpful. Perhaps my palate is poor or my imagination lacking, but I find myself at a loss when asked to describe a wine in detail.  Words fail me to the extent that I admire Clay Davis, the unrepentantly corrupt politician on the HBO series The Wire who can express whole paragraphs with a single brilliant enunciation of the word “shit:”

The problem confronted me once again when someone in sales asked for two bottles of red for $50 or less total. (Call her 2B Sales.) I suggested Sicilian wines, since I loved the glass of Occhipinti ’09 SP68 I had this summer at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. Every sip was delicious: refreshing, balanced, substantial but not overwhelming, not tannic but also not flabby. At $12 or so a glass, it was a steal. Could I describe what it smelled like, or why it was worth buying instead of a $12 table wine? Not a chance.

Fortunately, 2B Sales didn’t expose my ignorance, and I got her the Occhipinti, which is made from Nero d’Avola and Frappato by Arianna Occhipinti, a young Sicilian who’s quickly gaining cult status in the wine world. Nero d'Avola, named for a town about 15 miles south of Siracusa on the southeast coast of Sicily, is one of the island’s most popular grapes. Frappato comes from the same area and “can make good  lively wines to be drunk young,” according to The World Encyclopeida of Wine by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson. 

I thought about getting 2B a 2000 Calabretta Etna for her second bottle, a robust red made from nerello mascalese I had last year at Del Posto because it was one of the cheapest wines with some age on the list. Nerello mascalese is usually considered the poorer cousin of nerello capuccio, but this one was delicious. (Come to think of it, this is a wine for the Coffee Connoisseur.) But 2B does not eat red meat, and the salesperson steered me to the Montoni 2008 IGT Sicilia Nero d'Avola. I also picked up a bottle for Vino Guarino, who wanted to ring in the fall by toasting her ancestors with a bottle from their homeland.

Speaking of CC and unusual grapes, he wanted a wine similar to the Pedrolonga do Umia ’07 (a bottle of which the baker bought this week), and he ended up with the Benito Santos ’09 Alipio, a $16 bottle from Galicia made from 70% Mencia, the predominant grape in the Pedrolonga, and 30% Garnacha Tintorera, a blending grape. CC liked it but said it lacked the complexity of the previous week’s wine.

The boss stayed in the Loire for a red from Touraine, an appellation that produced the Clos Roche Blanche he liked earlier this month. But the Touraine he got this week was $16 reduced from $20, so we’re going to keep the name under wraps until the Boss reports back. If he likes it, we’ll have the fall’s Boss-man special next week. Save your pennies.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Why I trust the coffee connoisseur

The coffee connoisseur helped me move a few more bottles this week. Two of my coworkers - call them  sales chief and Big Green - wanted Cabernets. Neither is a finicky drinker, and I suggested the Pedralongo 2007 Do Umia, a red blend of the Spanish grapes Mencia, Caiño and Espadeiro about which CC raved in August. "He's got a great palate," I promised Chief and Big Green, each of whom signed up for a bottle.

The reader's suspicions may have been raised. How do I know what synapses fire in CC's brain when he sniffs and sips? I don't, of course, but I know that CC disdains the coffee brewed in our office Bunn machine and is particular about what he drinks. CC rejects coffeemakers in favor of a french press, and he prefers fresh-ground beans. He adds only small amounts of raw sugar and cream - not enough to taste, he says, only enough to lighten the flavor. Processed sugar  - "shit" was the term he used - and lighter grades of milk "make the coffee taste like shit," or, more precisely, "Maxwell House." (One of these weeks we'll have to see what CC makes of a Burgundy that tastes of, as the oenophiles politely put it, barnyard.)

CC likes his brew dark and bold, a palate that I believe leads him to prefer the bigger, more robust flavors that many American men favor in wine. His disdain for milk and processed sugar lead me to believe he'd reject overly fruity, poorly balanced wines. I'm guessing, in other words. But CC loved a Cabernet from Broadside in Paso Robles, Calif. that other drinkers enjoyed, which gave me confidence, and he's willing to try new wines. He found the '07 Pedralonga complex and hard to pin down. CC will consume another bottle this weekend, when Chief and Big Green will get their first taste of the red from Galicia in northwest Spain.     

The week's other noteworthy buy was a Clos Roche Blanche 2010 Sauvignon Blanc, a wine from the Loire that I tasted on Monday and found crisp, lean, almost like a Muscadet. When I mentioned that reaction to one of the people at Chamber St. Wines, there was a long pause suggesting consumer palate error before he told me that the wine was very lightly oxidized. 2B, so named for her penchant of buying two wines per order, will get a chance to compare it to a Francois Cazin, 2010 Cheverny Le Petit Chambord, a Loire blend of 70% Sauvignon Blanc and 30% Chardonnay.

The boss-man (not to be confused with Chief) went for a Texier Cotes du Rhone Brezeme, a syrah from one of his favorite regions, after two months of Loire drinking that included a dip into Kermit Lynch's Adventures on the Wine Route, which begins in that region. The marathon runner in the cubicle next to me (Mr. M for short) rewarded himself for his 3:07 time in the Lehigh Valley marathon last Sunday with a 2009 Beaujolais from Julien Guillot. Mr. M found that the gamay stood up well to a Gouda he scarfed down to replenish his calcium supply, while a Broadside cab, a muscadet, some mommy juice, a Cali chard and a Bordeaux wine rounded out the case. Until next week, salut!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Blog - An explanation and user's guide

I have a wine-buying problem. When I walk into a wine store, I feel like a Dallas socialite at Neiman Marcus. I want to buy way more wine than I can consumer. Red, white, rose, sparkling, orange. Jura, Loire, Rioja, Sicilian, Lebanese. Sales and bargain bins are especially dangerous, as are cheap wiens with bottle age. Case discounts were invented for suckers like me. Wines with cool labels, which seem like most of them. Chablis. Wines a trusted bartender recommends. Wines flogged in store emails. Wine producers whose wares I've previously enjoyed. Nerello mascalese. Muscadet. Mourvedre. Mencia. I like the unconventional, the underpriced, the downright odd. But when an odd wine bakes for months in a third-floor walk-up with no air conditioning, it will not be underpriced upon opening no matter how cheap it was at the store. It will be bad.

Last August I stumbled on a solution. I wanted to buy a few bottles on a slow Wednesday afternoon. I emailed a few friends to see if they needed wine, and then a hit up some co-workers to assemble a buying consortium for a case, got on the subway, picked up the product at the store, and distributed it at the office. I had my two bottles at case discount, didn't need to go to a cash machine for the next week, had put a few miles on my Amtrak card, and had driven a little business at the wine store, thereby earning a dash of goodwill. I started going to the wine store every Friday. A few months later, I picked up an Eric Texier Côtes du Rhône for one of my editors. No piece of writing I'd done for him in twelve years had inspired such an enthusiastic response as the one I got the next Monday morning. This was born the Marcus Friday Wine Club and its first promotion, the "Drink what the boss is drinking for under $20 a bottle" special, later abbreviated to the "Boss-man special."  

Being the office wine buyer had what the economists call network effects. I could recommend bottles favored by more discerning drinkers, including the Rhone-o-phile and a coffee connoisseur. If a co-worker liked a bottle, I could get him a similar one next week. I developed a modest knowledge of producers. I got better information from salespeople because I bought more wine. I accomplished this without buying more than I can drink even as buying became more enjoyable. The editor likes Loire reds - what do you have that's good? He loved the '05 Olga Raffault Les Picasses - what would contrast with that? The coffee connoisseur loved the Broadside cab but wants to branch out. What kind of mommy juice stays fresh in the fridge for several days?

This is the blog version of the Marcus Friday Wine Club. The blog's focus will be the wines I buy for co-workers form week to week. These are journalists, so the wines are affordable, between $10 and $25 a bottle. They range from the unremarkable to the outre. Some of my co-workers care about food pairings; others just want something that goes well with Curb Your Enthusiasm. I'll also write about the wines I drink, since those influence what I recommend.

I do most of my shopping at Chamber Street Wines, a highly praised store that happens to be about 50 yards from the 2/3 train, a key advantage when you're carrying a case back to a Wall Street office. Now that I'm doing the blog, I'll try to branch out, though I'll still probably do most of my buying at Chamber St. Finally, I'll keep my coworkers anonymous but will provide pseudonyms. The boss-man, as you've learned, is capable of extending focus on a single region. The coffee connoisseur likes robust reds and loves complexity. In time we'll meet Vino Guarino, the baker, the Portugal lover, the New England editor, Johnny Bronx, and the rest of the club. Happy drinking.