Wine and Meditation

Wine and meditation

What does it mean to know a fine wine? Too often we only see what we have been taught to perceive. We measure wines against established categories and personal prejudices about what defines quality. What would happen if instead of rushing to identify or critique, we put aside the reductive methods championed in most wine education classes and afforded wines the necessary time and attention to unfold and reveal themselves naturally. What if we began to value presence over mastery?

I came around to this way of thinking after writing a profile on the Swedish rare wine merchant Peter Thustrup. Peter is a classicist who specializes in Bordeaux and Burgundy.  He advises private collectors and arranges esoteric tastings of hard-to-source vintages. He is also an autodidact who learned by tasting, taking notes and studying his own responses. I first interviewed Peter on the veranda of the Maidstone Arms in East Hampton after he had sold his eponymous Paris shop and spent the five years of his non-compete curating a deep and idiosyncratic personal collection. During one of our follow up conversations, he confessed to meditating on wines. This detail did not fit into my initial story; a profile in seven hundred words is a form of haiku, fleshing out the impulse to drink alone in silence is a story unto itself. 

The idea took root in my imagination. What if instead of writing a technical note using a controlled set of descriptors, you let the wine speak for itself? Not all bottles are worthy of such lavish consideration, but for a wine with something to say, silence and presence could set the stage for eloquence. I decided to give it a try. I blocked off two hours on a Tuesday afternoon and looked in my storage unit for a bottle that was up to the challenge. Many were appealing, but none were right for the job.  How could I trust the results if I were to meditate on a wine I knew well, or one that fit too neatly in my comfort zone?  Then I recalled the La Clarté de Haut-Brion, a sémillon-based blend from Pessac-Leognan produced with fruit from the Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion vineyards, which serves as a second white wine for both chateaux. I had only encountered it once, as part of an overview of the Haut-Brion portfolio, but the way its delicate floral aromas were contained within a structure that was at once firm and transparent, evoking a bed of wildflowers within a formal garden, had left an indelible memory.  

La Clarté was not a wine I could pick up in my neighborhood shop. Only a thousand cases are made each year and most are sold through retailers that do robust business in blue-chip Bordeaux.  I ordered a bottle through Sherry-Lehmann and was pleased to discover that it goes for one-tenth the price of its more celebrated cousins. When the hour of the tasting  approached, I took out a Zalto Universal glass, a corkscrew and a favorite silk scarf. Freelance writers do a lot of odd things when their children go to school and their spouses go to the office, but I have never felt quite so self-conscious as when I tied the silk scarf around my forehead and pulled out the cork.  I checked to make sure the wine was in good condition and etched out a preliminary technical note, which confirmed my earlier experience. Then I sat on the floor with my back to the wall, slid the blindfold over my eyes and pulled the knot tight. 

I took a few breaths to relax and immediately my attention focused on the delicacy of the stemware and the weight of the wine in the glass.  Lifting the bulb to my nose, I took in the the wine's warm honey tones.  Over time, like the reflection in a kaleidoscope, its dominant aromas shifted from raw honey, to ripe melon to white flowers to wet stones.  I took a small sip and felt the impression of saline waves crashing on the sides of my tongue.   The next time I sniffed, it was as if I were inhaling sea air tinged with apricot and hints of burnt caramel. Even though this is a bone-dry wine, the aromatics were reminiscent of Sauternes, the sémillon-based sweet wine made from grapes concentrated by the noble rot botrytis in vineyards an hour south of Haut-Brion.   

Finally, I took in a generous mouthful.  A rush of acid declared the wine’s youth, registering in the quickening of my heartbeat. For all its grace, the 2009 La Clarté wanted me to know it was still a baby with loads of drive and freshness. I have consumed enough bottles to see down the road. In five years or so, the wine will soften and communicate in more nuance and leveled tones.

Beneath the blindfold, I closed my eyes and tried to paint a mental picture of the wine to remember it by.  I saw a woman standing on the roof of a grand chateau looking over the pine forest to a melon stand alongside a honeysuckle bush near an ocean dune, perhaps the Great Dune of Pilate in Arcachon, the beach that lies directly to the west of Pessac-Leognan.  The image was a reminder that terroir is not just the dirt beneath your feet, but the spirit of a locale, and that the innate formality of the finest wines in  Bordeaux are balanced with a refined  attunement to the natural world.  

La Co(o)rniche, Pyla-sur-mer

La Co(o)rniche, Pyla-sur-mer

The La Clarté is not an aperitif wine.  It begged for food that is at once bright and toothsome -- roasted oysters bathed in salted butter, seafood cassoulet, rotisserie game bird.  That night I served it a with lentil and sweet sausage soup, which was delicious on its own yet when paired with the La Clarté utterly masked the wine's charm: dimming what made it fresh and floral, calling attention to its weight on the palate.  La Clarté means clarity, with the soup I experienced only obfuscation. I put the bottle away.

The next evening I made a dish inspired by a Norwegian schoolteacher named Gro Bygdevoll, who turns her home on the island of Myken into a restaurant called Karenstua Café for six weeks each summer to celebrate the midnight sun.  There is only one item on her menu, snapper in herbed butter.  It's my favorite kind of recipe, adaptable, delicious and easily understood in a paragraph, which I have included below the story. This time the meal and the wine were in balance.  Each was delicate and rich, of the earth and of the sea, fragrant and satisfying, contemplative and vivacious. We call this a pairing, but really its more of a lively dialogue, two dynamic personalities drawing each other out.  

This exercise may seem frivolous, but after two days with the La Clarté I grew conscious of the distinctions between knowing and observing; judging and receiving; interacting and sharing.  The practice of presence removed the pressure to perform, to show what you know and put the focus squarely on the wine itself. I found myself wishing I had stayed in the reflective state a bit longer, wondering what would have happened if I had summoned more patience.   

I've listed 9 more wines worthy of the blindfold  below the recipe for the Red Snapper Karenstua. Most cost far less than the La Clarté.  All exhibit depth, typicity, grace and interest.

Red Snapper Karenstua: On a clean plate, season both sides of two 8-ounce snapper filets with salt and pepper. Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a cast-iron skillet or heavy nonstick sauté pan over medium-high heat. Lay the snapper skin-side down and cook for three minutes, until the skin has contracted and the fish appears to float. Using a fish spatula, gently turn the snapper fillets. Add a clove of  minced garlic to the pan and cook for three more minutes, until the fish flakes when pierced with a fork. Sprinkle 3 tablespoons of mixed minced fresh herbs -- dill, oregano and parsley are a winning combination -- on the skin of the fish. Spoon the melted butter over the herbs and serve the snapper directly from the skillet.

10 Wines for Meditation

Grenache Lovers, Meet Gigondas

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Mention Gigondas and devotees of this grenache-based wine from the Southern Rhône will wax poetic about the grandeur of the Dentelles de Montmirail, the dramatic limestone cliffs below which region’s vineyards are planted. They will go on about how Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s growing popularity has led to soaring prices and confide that Gigondas provides much of the interest of its famous neighbor, with perhaps a tad less finesse, for a much smaller investment. Once they’ve set the stage and given the sales pitch, hopefully they’ll open a bottle and offer you a glass.

Located in the hills on the eastern edge of the broad alluvial plain that tracks the Rhône River, Gigondas sits in the path of the blustery wind known as the mistral, making it a cool climate wine relative to its famously hot locale. At their best, Gigondas’ are more expressive and complex than their neighbors in the Côte du Rhône. Gigondas must be at least eighty percent grenache; this provides the wines with a rich base of red fruit and plum flavors. They must also be at least fifteen percent syrah and mourvèdre; these thick skinned varieties anchor grenanche’s overt fruitiness with savory aromatics, tannic structure and the capacity to age in oak.

Delicious, if rustic, in its youth, Gigondas begs for an exotically spiced lamb tagine or a hardy stew. Time is this wine’s friend. If you can forget about a bottle for a decade, its rough edges will soften and a sense of harmony between the flavors of fruit and earth will emerge. Wines from Domaine du Pesquier, Domaine du Cayron, Pierre Amadieu and Lavau are all good places to begin to explore this gem of a region in the Southern Rhône.

Denis Dubourdieu on Drinkability as an Essential Characteristic of Dry White Bordeaux


Denis Dubourdieu is the leading authority on the white wines of Bordeaux. Beyond being the Director of General Oenology at the University of Bordeaux, he manages four family estates, including Doisy-Daëne and Clos Floridéne, and consults with wineries such as Château Cheval Blanc and Château d’Yquem. Here, he guides us through Bordeaux’s distinctive white wines.

Sophie Menin: What are the hallmarks of a great dry white Bordeaux?

Denis Dubourdieu:  Drinkability is the most important quality of a Bordeaux Blanc. They should be fresh and fruity without too much alcohol. A good one will quench your thirst.

SM: What distinguishes the region’s sauvignon blanc and sémillon, the two grapes that make up most white Bordeaux?

DD: Our sauvignon blanc is a wine of the Atlantic coast. It is more delicate than the intensely grassy and tropical wines you find in New Zealand and less flinty than sauvignon blanc from Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé. At its best, it exhibits flavors of grapefruit and white peach.

Bordeaux is at the northern limit of where sémillon can be cultivated and it does very well here. It is our chardonnay. The finest examples are grown on limestone. Bordeaux wines made from sémillon smell of hazelnut, almonds and brioche. After a few years, they develop aromas of fresh apricot or orange. 

SM: How has dry white Bordeaux changed since you started making wine?

DD: Bordeaux Blanc as we know it did not exist thirty years ago. Our dry white wines used to smell like oxidized sweet wines. Things started to change in the mid nineteen eighties when I was directing white wine research in the enology department of the University of Bordeaux and we began to understand which molecules were involved in creating the characteristic aromas of sauvignon blanc and the role of the yeast in protecting wines from oxidation.

When we applied this knowledge to Bordeaux’s two main white grape varieties, sauvignon blanc and sémillon, we discovered their fruity taste and how well they complement each other in a dry white blend.

SM: Could you describe the sweet white Bordeaux known as Sauternes for us?

DD: Sauternes caresses the mouth. There is a quality of softness. You don’t sense any corners. No matter how long the wine has aged, you always encounter aromas of fresh fruit, not just jam and honey. Last month I opened a bottle of our 1934 Doisy-Daëne, a sweet white made next door to Sauternes in the commune of Barsac. It was a complex bomb of orange, smoke, chocolate, ginger and apricot.

SM: When do you drink Sauternes? 

DD: I like young Sauternes as an aperitif and old Sauternes at the end of the meal. 


What is a "Non-Dosage" or "Brut Nature" Champagne?


The terms “non-dosage” or “brut nature” on a bottle of Champagne may mean that no sugar has been sugar added at the end, but don’t be fooled, these are far from the sparkling equivalent of a SkinnyGirl drink. They are more akin to the feat of appearing gorgeous on camera without makeup. Just as it takes a great beauty to successfully forego a little foundation before submitting to the camera’s lens, it takes a truly exceptional base wine to make a compelling “non-dosage” or “brut nature” Champagne.

To understand why this is so, it helps to review the methode traditional used in Champagne production. Traditionally, Champagne is made by bottling a base wine made of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier, then adding a liqueur de tirage (wine mixed with sugar and yeasts) to initiate a second, in-bottle fermentation, which gives carbon dioxide off as a by-product, lending the wine its distinctive effervescence. 

The wine is then aged in bottle for at least fifteen months. At the end of the aging process, the sediment from the second fermentation is coaxed into the neck of the bottle by a process called riddling. The neck is then flash frozen and its contents are pulled out like a stopper. Finally, the dosage (wine mixed with cane sugar) is traditionally added before the bottle is re-corked.

The dosage is like the pat of butter or splash of sherry added to a sauce or a soup before serving. It rounds out the flavors and balances the component parts. For a winemaker, forgoing the dosage means giving up their chance to make small corrections. That’s why some wine lovers have dubbed these wines “naked Champagnes.” 

A renewed focus on farming, the growing importance of grower Champagnes, a wider understanding of Champagne as wine, the preference for drier wines, and global warming have all played a roll in the growing importance of the “non-dosage” or “brut nature” category. If you have not yet tried one, the Ayala Brut Nature, Pol Roger Pure, Benoît Lahaye Brut Nature, or any of bottle from George Laval or Tarlant are an all excellent places to begin to explore Champagne stripped down to its essence.


How a Sommelier Helps

As the Gramercy Tavern Beverage Director, Juliette Pope manages every aspect of the restaurant’s wine program from selecting wines, to meeting budgets to the logistics of cellaring, all with an eye toward delighting their eclectic clientele. She chooses wines for a busy casual tavern, a more formal main dining room, locals who frequent the restaurant three times a week and tourists with no fine dining experience. Juliette knows how a list full of unfamiliar wines can make guests anxious, since Gramercy Tavern never pours your typical pinot grigio by the glass.  Here she offers advice on how to make your interaction with a sommelier a success.

SM:  When should you ask for the help of a sommelier?

JP:  Any time you don’t see a bottle that rings a bell or fits your budget, ask for help. If the only sauvignon blanc by the bottle is $100 and you want to spend $50, you need to talk to somebody.

SM:  How can a sommelier help you?

JP:  A sommelier can direct you to a wine that is stylistically up your alley, even if it is unfamiliar. For example, I find people who typically drink sauvignon blanc to be good candidates for grüner veltliner from Austria. The wine may sound Germanic and unlike anything they are used to drinking, but it often lines up well with their tastes and budgets.

SM:  What is the point of tasting a wine before it is poured?

JP:  Technically, it is to see if the wine is flawed, but for the restaurant guest, the point of tasting a wine before it is poured is to see if you like it. Our crew is trained to taste each bottle before it goes out to ensure flawed wines don’t reach our customers. If you don’t like the wine, you can send it back. We believe this is an important part of service, because we don’t want people to sit at a meal with a bottle they are not going to enjoy.

SM:  Do you have any advice for getting the most out of your interaction with a sommelier?

JP:  Don’t be shy about budget. The best way to indicate your budget is to use your finger to point to a price on the wine list and say, “I am looking for something along these lines.” The number doesn’t get verbalized, but the sommelier knows where to take you based on your price requirements and the style of wine you described enjoying.

The Halmarks of a Classic Rosé de Provence

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Rosé de Provence is the kind of wine that fulfills a longing for a particular time and place. Its pale salmon hue, fresh fruit aroma and tumbling minerality evoke seaside lunches and sunset aperitifs. Typically made from grenache, cinsault, syrah and mourvèdre, the classic style is light and refreshingly dry. When the weather begins to warm, Americans have an insatiable appetite for Rosé de Provence. For eight consecutive years this bottled essence of Southern France has experienced double-digit sales growth here. As such, today we have access to more rosés from a greater variety of Provençal producers than ever before.

Achieving the elegant simplicity of a well-crafted rosé requires gentle handling of mature fruit. Corners cut in the vineyard lead to thin wines with an aftertaste that can be green or medicinal, wines that are the bad oysters of summer drinks. Good rosés should be light-bodied with mouthwatering acidity and taste of white flowers, seashells and just-picked berries. A few bottles that fulfill this tall order are Château de Pourcieux,  Domaine de Saint-Ser, Château la Calisse, AIX and Domaine de l'’Abbeye Clos Beylesse.   

Rosé de Provence is not a wine to be sipped slowly and pondered. It is meant to disappear quickly, by the magnum if possible, and its charming way of capturing the spirit of Mediterranean idyll should be delivered to the consumer without emptying their wallet.

Salcheto’s Remarkable Winery

Inspired to improve his wines while reducing energy consumption, Michele Manelli, the winemaker at Salcheto in Montepulciano, Italy, has built a remarkable winery that is completely off the grid.

Nestled into the side of a hill with a vertical garden planted on its façade to absorb the sun, the winery is as beautiful as it is functional. The roof doubles as a piazza and is equipped with an automated sprinkler system. When the piazza is wet, the sun’s energy vaporizes the water and cools the winery through a simple (yet ingenious) thermodynamic process. The facility is heated by burning clippings and other materials in the local landscape. Inside, there are no light bulbs. Natural light is delivered through long reflective tubes and mirrors. To pump over, stainless steel vats harness the power of CO2 released during fermentation process. Electricity is provided through solar panels. In terms of metrics, the net result is that Salcheto’s winery uses 54% less energy than a conventional facility. 

At this state-of-the-art winery, Manelli makes Obvius a Rosso di Montepulciano he describes as being made “exclusively from grapes.” For Manelli, this means no added sulfites, cultured yeasts, oak barrels or even electricity are used in the winemaking process. The recipe calls for perfectly intact sangiovese grapes, ambient yeasts and vinification in his stainless steel vats designed to harness CO2 to power the mechanism for pumping over. The wines are aged and bottled in an oxygen free environment. The result is a fresh juicy wine with a complex inner core, and a terrific value at $19 a bottle. 

Stephen Carrier on Harmony in Mature Red Bordeaux

Few people understand what distinguishes the red wines of Bordeaux from their New World counterparts better than Stephen Carrier, the winemaker at Château de Fieuzal in Pessac-Léognan. The son of grape growers from Champagne, Stephen began his career as the winemaker for Newton Vineyard in the Napa Valley before honing his skills crafting Bordeaux blends at Château Lynch-Bages in Pauillac. Here he shares his passion for mature red Bordeaux.

Sophie Menin:  What makes for a great red Bordeaux?

Stephen Carrier:  In one word? Time.

SM:  We’re surprised you didn’t say vintage or terroir.

SC:  Bordeaux has sixty appellations each with a distinctive terroir. Every year the potential exists for great wines to come from the Medoc where the presence of clay gives the wines the potential to be bold and lush, or the exacting gravelly soils of Pessac-Léognan, or the merlot based wines of St-Émilion and Pomerol. But in all these regions, the young and old wines taste very different.

SM:  How so?

SC: Young Bordeaux is like a bright child in need of a good education. It is alive with aromas of fresh fruit and spice. If you hold your nose to the glass, you will experience the heady scents of blackberries, red currants, tobacco and vanilla. I assure you that you will want to drink this wine, but I don’t recommend it. All you will taste are the building blocks of a wine that has not yet reached its potential. A wave of fruit will be followed by the drying sensation of tannins on your tongue and gums. 

SM:  What changes over time?

SC:  With time the fruit flavor grows deeper, the tannins become silky and aromas of spice and earth begin to dominate the wine’s perfume. This experience of depth, harmony and balance is what great Bordeaux is all about. Depending on the vintage, this transformation can happen after five, ten or twenty years in the bottle. 

Many wines go through an intermediate stage when the tannins have softened and integrated into a wine that still possesses the expressive bloom of fresh fruit. I like these wines very much as well.

SM:  What do you drink when you are waiting for the wines to mature?

SC:   In France we drink the less celebrated vintages while we are waiting for the great ones to come around. Many of the less celebrated years produce wines with more delicate fruit. These wines are less tannic and mature earlier. Right now, the 2007s are very good!

The Vogue for Amphorae

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Winemakers and fashion designers share the habit of combing styles and techniques from the past with an eye toward improving their current works. For designers it might be a skirt length, stitch or fabric. These days, for winemakers, it is often the use of clay vessels called amphorae.

Amphorae are ceramic vessels that were used by the ancient Greeks for the storage and transport of wine, as well as other liquids and dry goods. Typically, they have a large oval body, a narrow cylinder-shaped neck, two handles and a pointed base. The average height of amphorae is eighteen inches, but they could be as tall as five feet.

What attracts winemakers to amphorae? In a word: purity. Like steel, clay is flavor neutral, and like oak, it allows for the beneficial passage of tiny amounts of oxygen. Winemakers who swear by the use of amphorae believe it expresses the unique characteristics of the grapes without adulteration.

Amphorae wines tend to be darker and cloudier than their counterparts made in steel or oak. The best have the same kind of inner complexity you expect of a deep satisfying broth. They are popular with the natural wine movement because the types of corrections that happen in a modern cellar are not possible with these wines. Their deliciousness depends entirely upon impeccable practices in the vineyard.

The use of amphorae in winemaking dates back 6,000 years to the Republic of Georgia where their contemporary, distinctive orange-colored wines are still made in beeswax-lined, terra-cotta amphorae, called quervi. The ceramic containers are buried up to their necks in the earth while the wines macerate and ferment.

If you subscribe to the notion that everything old is new again, we recommend giving amphorae wines a try. Some notable producers are Elisabetta Foradori in Alto Adige, Italy; Josko Gravner in Fruili, Italy; Movia in Slovenia; C.O.S. and Frank Cornelissen in Sicily, Italy; and Beckham Estate in Oregon, where the winemaker is a ceramics instructor who makes his own vessels. 

Bud Burst in Santorini

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Bud burst comes to Santorini, a Greek island in the southern Aegean Sea, in the early spring as it does in most of the northern hemisphere, but it is unlike bud burst anywhere else on earth. With the use of kouloura pruning, new shoots are woven into basket shaped vines, which protect delicate young fruit from sand blowing in punishing wind and the burning effect of the island sun on black lava.

Vineyards have been continuously cultivated in this inhospitable environment for three thousands years. This is in no small part due to the resilience of assyrtiko, the island’s high-quality indigenous grape variety. Assyrtiko thrives in the mix of pumice stone and lava rock that have blanketed Santorini since it was devastated by a volcanic eruption in 1650 BC. The grapes are small and densely flavored, much like the prized white eggplants, cherry tomatoes, capers and yellow fava beans grown on the island.

A singular feature of assyrtiko is that approximately every seventy-five years vines are pruned to the root and allowed to regrow. A new vine could spur from a root system that is up to five hundred years old. The ancient roots burrow deep in the soil, making it possible for assyrtiko to thrive in an environment with scarce water.

Assyrtiko is prized for its capacity to retain high acidity and sugar levels simultaneously. Even in a hot arid climate, it yields fresh citrus and mineral driven wines capable of maturing in the cellar. It is the kind of muscular white wine that can be enjoyed with grilled lamb as easily as it could with fresh fish. Assyrtiko from Sigalas, Hatzidakis and Gaia Thalassitis are among the finest examples available in the U.S., and an ideal place to begin exploring the wines of Santorini short of a vacation in Greece.

Summer Reds

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When we talk about white wines for summers, we implicitly understand the reference. Summer whites are bright, light, thirst quenching wines that are eminently drinkable. Sancerre ,Muscadet Sevre-et-Maine and Albariño immediately come to mind. Summer reds are more difficult to define. We know we are not breaking out a pensive vintage Bordeaux for the family barbeque or uncorking a luscious California cabernet sauvignon with a bowl of chilled asparagus soup, but it is it possible to reduce the entire universe of reds to a simple rule of thumb for the summer months?

One helpful idea is to think about the climate of the wine’s region of origin. Warm climate reds tend to be juicy with plenty of body and just enough acidity to be mouthwatering. Think nero d’avola from Sicily, malbec from Mendoza, or grenache from the southern Rhone Valley. These intensely flavorful wines will maintain their structure in the face of bold, smoky, spicy summer fare. 

On the other end of the spectrum are the cool climate reds, what we call bistro wines, since they show so well served lightly chilled by the carafe. At their best, cool climate reds are youthful and delicious, tasting of fresh berries often with floral or mineral notes. They won’t overwhelm a fresh salad niçoise, spring pea soup or chicken paillard. Some very fine examples can be found in the Loire Valley, notably the cabernet franc from Chinon and Saumur. Other sources worth seeking out are pinot noirs from Alsace and Central Otago. 

The New California Wine

In 2010, San Francisco Chronicle wine editor Jon Bonné was writing a short article for Saveur when his editor called him with a problem. She had a slew of stories about California wine that were not fitting together and needed an overarching narrative to connect them. She gave him a week to develop and write the piece. After seven days with little sleep, it was clear that what had once seemed like a disparate movement of iconoclastic producers had reached a critical mass and a new kind of California wine had emerged. The seismic shift begged for more space than a special edition of a magazine could offer, thus his indispensable volume The New California Wine: A Guide to the Producers and Wines Behind a Revolution in Taste. 

Sophie Menin:  What are the New California Wines? 

Jon Bonné:  These wines represent the continuity of the state’s long wine growing history, what made people fall in love with California a generation ago and where it is going. They are wines made in a style that is relevant to wines around the world, wines that have a sense of place and are meant to be part of a gastronomic experience. They often use varieties other than the northern European grapes to which we’ve grown accustom and are not trapped in a bigger is better arms race. 

SM:  Yet not all the wine and winemakers discussed in the book are new. 

JB:  The book’s theme may be the new generation of winemakers, but it was important for it not to be about just the young and hip. Decades ago, winemakers such as Paul Draper, Cathy Corison and Ted Lemon (respectively of Ridge, Corison and Littorai) chose to stick with values they deemed important and pursued a radically different set of questions as others took an easier path. Their work wasn’t simply to make great wine, but to push ahead an industry that was really in its infancy. 

SM:  What have you discovered about where varietals are doing well? 

JB:  Grenache and grenache blanc are going to be superstars. Red Grenache grows beautifully in Santa Barbara, Santa Rita and the high dessert. The Sierra Foothills are a largely untapped resource for native Rhone varieties, especially the whites. Ron Mansfield is the great pioneer of those grapes up in mountains. 

SM:  Why is table wine such a dilemma in California? 

JB:  For all the quirky things people are doing, the core of the industry is not paying attention to simpler wines so table wine is left to those who make wine as an industrial product. The new winemakers seem to understand that even if you make great wine, you still have a responsibility to make a simpler wine as well. Steve Matthiasson is an example of someone who is pushing forward on this issue. With the Tendu project he is making aggressively priced compelling wines in liter bottles with crown caps. The white is mostly vermentino from Yolo County and he just released a red made from aglianico. 

SM:   Has it been helpful to not be a California native when reviewing for the San Francisco Chronicle? 

Ten years ago, when I began writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, coming from New York seemed like a liability. It was easy for some in the industry to dismiss me as a dude from New York who says wine should be made in a European style. But more relevant than being from New York was that I had just spent five years writing about wine in in Washington State where it was natural to meet talented winemakers without big money behind them. Washington State winemakers constantly have to prove themselves. It gave me an innate understanding of the type of winemakers covered in this book.

What to Drink with a Dish that is Intriguing, Sophisticated, and Bitter....

In the introduction to Jennifer McLagan’s fascinating new book, Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor with Recipes, the author imagines her subject through the lens of the Japanese word for bitter tanginess, shibui.

First she quotes a Kinfolk Magazine article that explains, “When people are described as shibui, the image is of a silver-haired man in a tailored suit, with a hint of bad-boy aura about him.” Then she says, “So bitter is a cultured, intriguing, and sophisticated taste, with a dangerous side. Who could be more fun to cook or dine with?”

Regardless of whether or not you care to break bread with a shibui gent, the question of what to drink when enjoying a dish that is intriguing, sophisticated, and bitter is not at all obvious. Bitter comes in many different guises: grapefruit, olives, artichokes, kale, couscous, and cocoa are all bitter, but taste very different.

The challenge is finding wines that bringing a sense of balance and harmony to a particular dish. Here are a few examples:

The fresh apple and mineral flavors in a young Austrian grüner veltliner like the 2012 Sohm & Kracher go beautifully with white asparagus or bitter citrus, such as Seville oranges.

The hint of sweetness and mouthwatering acidity in a German riesling such as the 2013 Donnhoff Estate rounds out the bitterness in Brussels sprouts and brightens the flavors of many of its tastiest roasting partners, for instance bacon and chestnuts.

The mix of dark berries and woodsy notes in a Rosso di Montalcino like the Il Poggione showcase the smoky bitterness of grilled radicchio drizzled with aged balsamic vinegar.

Even a luscious fruit-forward Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon such as the Chateau Montelena has a touch of bitterness at its core, making it the perfect foil for the most decadent of bitter desserts, molten dark chocolate. 

Rosé Champagne


When Belinda Chang, a James Beard Award winning wine director wrote the wine notes for Charlie Trotter’s Meat and Game, her biggest takeaway from the many weeks of sampling bottles in Trotter’s enviable cellar was this: the perfect wine for a dish is often completely the opposite of what you think it should be! Rosé Champagne and dry aged steak is a great example of this maxim. 

Traditionally, Champagne is a white sparkling wine made by bottling a base wine made of white grapes (chardonnay) and two red grapes (pinot noir and pinot meunier) that are pressed gently so that no color is extracted from their skins, then adding a liqueur de tirage, wine mixed with sugar and yeast. The liqueur de tirage initiates a second in-bottle fermentation resulting in Champagne’s distinctive effervescence. 

Of course, there are variations on the theme, a Champagne labeled blanc de blancs will be one hundred percent chardonnay. A Champagne labeled blanc de noirs will be entirely pinot noir and pinot meunier, though it will still be a white sparking wine. Then there are the rosés. 

Rosé Champagnes are generally made by adding a small amount of red wine to the base. Their colors can range from delicate salmon to ballerina slipper to hot pink, depending on how much red wine is present. When a rosé is also a blanc de noirs, its hue is achieved by letting the base wine absorb color from the dark skins until it turns pink. But the wine is drained off the skins or “bled” before the color grows too deep. Both methods yield Champagnes with more structure, intensity and earthy flavors than the traditional blends. These qualities along with Champagne’s naturally high acidity make rosé Champagne a terrific foil for rich meats. 

When pairing a rosé Champagne with a dry aged steak, Belinda recommends looking for houses whose rosés demonstrate development and richness over fresh fruit. Veuve Clicquot was the first house to commercially export rosé Champagne and still makes a very successful style that works with a savory steak cut. Chartogne-Taillet Champagne Rosé and Gatinois Brut Rosé are two of her other favorites for a meat centered feast. 

There are certainly several styles that pair beautifully with a dry aged steak! 

Cloudburst Reveals the Potential of the Margaret River

Cloudburst owner and winemaker Will Berliner just netted the chardonnay he will harvest in late February. The meshwork protects the fruit from three types of birds: silver eyes, which take a sip out of each berry; ring neck parrots, which lop off whole grape bunches to exercise their beaks; and honey birds, which actually eat the fruit. He guards his tiny crop jealously, given that after three vintages, Cloudburst Chardonnay has earned coveted placement on the wine lists of three New York City dining meccas-- Tribeca Grill, Le Bernardin, and Eleven Madison Park, a remarkable accomplishment for a novice winemaker with a vineyard in the Margaret River of Western Australia.

Cloudburst’s unlikely genesis began with Will’s homesick Australian wife, Ali, with whom he used to travel to Australia regularly to visit family. When Ali became pregnant and sleeping on floors was no longer possible, they drove the Australian coast in search of a home. Coming from New England, Will found it difficult to imagine living in the country’s arid climate. Then they visited the Margaret River, a wine community among ancient hardwood forests five miles inland from the point where the Indian and Southern Oceans meet, and it just felt right. They spent their savings on a property abutting Aboriginal land and a national park, which also happened to be on the local wine route near the well-known wineries Leeuwin Estate and Moss Wood Winery.

For seven years, Will listened to the land and developed a deep affinity for biodynamic practices. Meanwhile, he studied viticulture long-distance at the University of California at Davis, educated his palate and began planting experimental blocks of chardonnay and other varieties. He released the first vintage of his expressive chardonnay in 2010, followed by a leaner, more complex bottling in 2011 and an elegant, fleshier wine 2012.  All in all, it is an auspicious debut for an adventurous spirit from Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Some Unexpected Advice for Maintaining a Healthy White Smile After Drinking Red Wine

Photo by Robert Daly/OJO Images / Getty Images

While there is nothing quite like the pleasure of indulging in an inky red wine with great structure and mature fruit, too often the smile of satisfaction that ensues takes on a purple hue.

This may seem like the perfect time to sneak off to the bathroom for a quick brush, but dental professionals recommend you to hold off! The acidity in wine weakens the enamel on your teeth, making them extra-sensitive to the scratchy strokes of a toothbrush. To protect your teeth, wipe the stains away with a damp piece of gauze and wait at least an hour before brushing so that your saliva has time to rebalance the pH in your mouth.

Here are a few more tips for indulging in the great red wines of the world while maintaining a healthy white smile.

1. Brush and rinse well before you drink. Wine sticks to the plaque on your teeth.

2. Drink plenty of water between sips, preferably with bubbles, to rinse away stains.

3. Nibble on hard cheese. Cheese helps increase saliva production, which balances your mouth’s pH. It also adheres to enamel, protecting your teeth from acid’s corrosive effects.

4. Brush and floss and before going to bed. 

There is, of course, always a silver lining. The polyphenols in red wine actually block the ability of the bacteria that causes tooth-decay to stick to your teeth. For optimal enjoyment and oral health: take a bite of cheese, drink red wine, hydrate, drink again and repeat. When the meal or party is finished, wait an hour before you brush your teeth so that the pH in your mouth has time to rebalance and you won’t damage your enamel.


“You taste and you taste and you taste until you see the light!”

How does one understand Burgundy? According to Jacques Lardière, who spent forty-two years as Louis Jadot’s technical director before officially handing the reigns to Frédéric Barnier in 2012, “You taste and you taste and you taste until you see the light!” It’s a deceptively simple aphorism that cuts through the usual wine jargon to underscore the essential truth that a wine can only be known through your senses – seeing the color, smelling the aromas, tasting the wine and experiencing how it feels in your mouth.

Sampling enough Burgundy to begin to know the wines requires a strategy for sourcing bottles that are both affordable and compelling. Wine from the high-integrity producers in Burgundy’s southern appellations, the Mâconnais, Côte Chalonnaise and Beaujolais, are an excellent place to start. The Domaine Leflaive Mâcon Verze is a chardonnay of exceptional complexity and finesse. The Domaine Francoise & Jean Raquillet Mercurey exhibits the classic wild strawberry and violet aromas associated with Burgundian pinot noir. The Cru Beaujolais of Stéphane Aviron are lucid expressions of vineyard site. When choosing wines from marquee villages on the Côte d’Or, the négociants Louis Jadot and Joseph Drouhin consistently offer value and quality, both are major landowners throughout Burgundy and leaders in organic and biodynamic practices.

Women in Wine: The Young Guns

For the latest generation of women winemakers, there has been no single path to success. The spectacular career of Ntsiki Biyelais a case in point. Raised in the rural South African province KwaZulu-Natal, Ntsiki Biyela had never tasted a sip of wine before South African Airlines offered her a full scholarship to study oenology in Stellenbosch. Afterwards, in 2004 she joined STELLEKAYA as a junior winemaker, where she was given responsibility for the entire cellar a year later, becoming the first black woman and first Zulu in South Africa to hold the title head winemaker. It was a bold choice for the winery, but a wise one. In 2009 the agricultural magazine Landbouweekblad named Biyela South Africa’s Woman Winemaker of the Year.

Oenology school followed by travel has been an effective formula for the young, talented and ambitious. After studying at Lincoln University in Christchurch, New Zealand, and working stints in the Margaret River of Australia and in Sicily, Italy, Tamra Washington was invited to return home to Marlborough, New Zealand, to launch YEALANDS ESTATE WINES. Molly Hill studied at the University of California at Davis then cut her teeth at DOMAINE CARNEROS and SEA SMOKE before becoming the winemaker at SEQUOIA GROVE in the Napa Valley. Renae Hirsch spent a decade acquiring skills at wineries across the globe before being offered a position at the helm of HENRY’S DRIVE in Padthaway, Australia.

In recent years, young women vintners have earned distinguished international reputations as leaders in minimalist winemaking, as witnessed by the fine wines produced and the acclaim bestowed upon Arianna Occhipinti of OCCHIPINITI in Sicily, Italy; Magali Terrier of DOMAINE DES 2 ANES in the Languedoc-Roussillon, France; and Nadia Verrua of CASCINA TAVIJN in Piedmont, Italy.

It seems counterintuitive, but women born into the world’s most prestigious wine making families often have to work the hardest to prove themselves worthy of a hand in cellar. Alix de Montille of DOMAINE DE MONTILLE in Burgundy, France, was required to study law before earning her diploma in oenology. Today she crafts the white wines for DOMAINE DE MONTILLE and MAISON 2 MONTILLE, the boutique négociant label she established with her brother. María José López de Heredia earned degrees in both law and theology before learning viticulture and winemaking. She is now the general manager of her family’s venerated Rioja estate R. LÓPEZ DE HEREDIA. And in perhaps the world’s longest audition for the role, fourth generation Argentine vintner Laura Catena graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University then earned a degree in medicine from Stanford University before becoming part of the winemaking team at BODEGA CATENA ZAPATA, her family’s winery in Mendoza, Argentina, where she is now general manager.

A Valentine's Day Ode to Amarone

Why drink Amarone on Valentines Day? Have you ever stared at a glass of this classic Italian wine from the Veneto, the land of Romeo and Juliet? Its blood red hue --achieved through fermenting dried corvina, rondinella and molinara -- is the color of passion, desire, seduction and thirst. It clings to the side of the glass when you give it a swirl. If you allow your nose to hover over the glass’s bowl, it is filled with aromas of plums, chocolate, black pepper, espresso and earth. Then there is the name, Amarone, (pronounced: a-mar-oh-nay), which sounds so close to amore, the Italian word for “love,” but actually has its roots in amaro, the Italian word for “bitter,” as if to remind us that the two feelings almost always come in pairs. Plus, if you handle Amarone with care, the best bottles will last a century or more.

While I can’t help you find the perfect mate, or even Valentine’s Day date, in recent years it has gotten much simpler to pick a terrific Amarone. In 2011, after decades of overproduction that led to vastly uneven quality among estates, twelve top-tier producers banded together to create an association called the Amarone Families, dedicated to excellence and the preservation of region’s distinctive artisanal winemaking traditions. These producers are voluntarily holding themselves to stricter standards than required by the DOCG. The families include: Allegrini, Begali, Brigaldara, Masi, Musella, Nicolis, Speri, Tedeschi, Tenuta Sant’Antonio, Tommasi, Venturini and Zenato.

If you don’t remember these names, all bottles of wine produced by the Amarone Families are all marked with a hologram of the letter “A”. There is an adage in wine that you can judge a producer by the quality of their entry-level offerings. This is particularly true of the Masi Costasera, Tenuta Sant’Antonio Selezione Antonio Castagnedi and all the producers who founded the Amarone Families.

Wines for Marcus Samuelsson’s New American Cuisine

At Marcus Samuelsson’s iconic Harlem restaurant, Red Rooster, culinary director Joel Harrington executes New American Cuisine, defined as flavors representative of the vast mosaic of cultures and ethnicities that constitute the fabric of America. For Samuelsson, these foods are also a highly personal expression of the ethnic and cultural influences in his own life.

Born in Ethiopia, Samuelsson lost his parents to tuberculosis and subsequently was adopted by a couple in Sweden, where he discovered his passion for cooking in his grandmother’s kitchen. His early career took him on jaunts throughout Europe, Asia and the Americas to study and work, until he became one of the most celebrated chefs of his generation. Samuelsson has earned three stars in The New York Times as the chef at Aquavit; won Top Chef Masters in Season Two; prepared the meal for the first State Dinner of the Obama administration; and published the memoir Yes, Chef!

When it came to designing a wine list that would straddle gravlax and jerk chicken, oysters Rockefeller and blackened catfish, his first priority was seeking out accessible wines that go well with a wide variety of foods. Toward this end, the Red Rooster list features an impressive array of pinot noirs in styles spanning from overtly fruity to delicate and textured. A current favorite among guests and staff members is the OPP (Other People’s Pinot) from Mouton Noir, the Dundee, Oregon winery owned by the sommelier André Hueston.

In terms of bolder reds, the Ridge, petite sirah is the go-to recommendation for the steak-for-two and Caribbean pork chop. Recently, more South African wines, such as the Raats, Western Cape, cabernet franc, are making their way onto the list in honor of the memory of Nelson Mandela.