Rosé and a Garden Bench

You can drink rosé any time of the year, but part of its appeal is an association with the months when warmth and light are abundant, colors more saturated, and oceans become swimmable instead of foreboding. The brevity of the season brings with it an intensity and awareness that it is not to be squandered or missed. This connotes something different to everyone - for me, it's dinners in our city garden.

When our building needed a new roof, we had to pull our garden up. It was a timeworn treasure of sea grass, lavender and roses hauled from the greenmarket, a place where we eked out extra seasons from aging cedar planters with wood planks and metal brackets. The new garden is a different species entirely. It’s up to code, approved by engineers, and it can be dissembled and reassembled at will. It’s exquisite, although we miss the well-worn character of the improvised.


While we were rebuilding, I read a book by the Belgian designer and antiquarian Axel Vervoordt called Wabi Inspirations, about the influence of Wabi aesthetics on his work. Wabi philosophy comes from Zen monks who sought solace and contentment in simplicity and restraint, monks who valued the beauty of imperfect objects in their most austere and natural state. Moved by the tranquility of Vervoordt’s spare reflective residential spaces, I contacted the gallery about a Wabi garden bench. The images they sent suggested the aesthetic of the humble and decaying was not limited to objects from the East. It could also be found in a Spanish wedding bench, a French pew, or the 18th century Piedmontese farmhouse bench that now resides in our garden. The garden’s porcelain tiles and the  bench are precisely the same color, but that is where their similarities end. One is the result of talented engineers replicating the look of aged cedar; the other exudes the kind of gravitas that comes from centuries of weathering the elements, evidenced in its irregular veins and raw edges. The difference in the materials brought to mind how we measure quality and character in rosé wines, a category where color is often the only common denominator. 

As with Wabi objects, the best rosés convey simplicity and refinement. They are unpretentious, yet have a story to tell, one with a beginning, middle and end. It might open with aromas of citrus and red berries, then offer a whisper of an impression of fruit on the palate, followed by a wave of refreshing acidity, and a long finish that speaks of either sea or stones, depending on where the vineyard is located. The wines will reflect their fruit source. A rosé made from pinot noir grown in Sancerre might be delicate, while one made with mouvèdre from Bandol is likely to be full of interior architecture.  

Daniel Ravier, the winemaker at the iconic Bandol estate Domaine Tempier once told me that making rosé is easy, but making good rosé is very difficult. This is because what distinguishes a rosé is not the region, grape variety, or price, but the scores of small decisions made in the vineyard and the cellar long before the bottle is opened. Even though certain coastal enclaves have burnished the image of rosé as essential to summer idle, there are pockets of excellence the world over: Domaine Bernard Baudry in Chinon, Chateau de Trinqueverde in Tavel, Finca Torremilanos in Ribera del Duero, Robert Sinskey Vineyards and Matthiasson in the Napa Valley, to name a few standouts.

In Provence, exceptional examples abound from jewel box wineries such as Clos Cibonne along the coast, Domaine de l’Ile on the island Porquerolle, Saint Ser at the foot of Mount Sainte Victoire, and Domaine Tempier. Beware of popular brands that have increased production exponentially rendering the wine you fell for a decade ago less than delicious. Exports from the region to the U.S. have experienced annual double-digit growth for more than twelve years. Some producers have cashed in on the strong trend at the expense of quality. Also, if a rosé smells of marshmallow, candy, pineapple or banana, or if after the first sip you perceive a chemical taste or hollowness where the flavor should be, throw it out. It’s either made from inferior fruit or has been manipulated in the cellar. Once you do find a rosé that pleases you, stock up early.  The coveted ones disappear quicker than June roses.

When it's warm outside, I pair rosés with simple no-cook dinners, such as beef carpaccio inspired by the Roman chef Sandro Fioriti. Ask your butcher to slice beef tenderloin into carpaccio. Arrange the carpaccio in a single layer on individual plates or a large platter. Top the beef with generous portions of shaved parmesan, shaved celery, and finely sliced cremini mushrooms. Finish the dish with salt, pepper and a drizzle of olive oil , and serve it with your favorite market salad and crusty bread.  

Wishing you a peaceful summer.

10 Rosés

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.

Jasmine Hirsch: In Pursuit of Balance

Jasmine Hirsch says she discovered wine while living and working in New York. This may sound improbable considering she grew up at Hirsch Vineyards, the oldest premium pinot noir vineyard in the West Sonoma Coast, but she explains, “My dad was a grape grower. He started making wine after I went to college.”

She quickly developed a passion for wines with finesse and restraint, especially collectible Burgundy and the rieslings she tasted at Terroir. When she returned to Sonoma to work with her father, Jasmine wondered whether it was possible to make the kind of pinot noir she had grown to love in California. She put the question to Rajat Parr, wine director of the Mina Group and partner at Sandhi, who took out a pen and began writing the names of artisan pinot noir producers on a cocktail napkin. Thus, In Pursuit of Balance was born.

In 2011, Jasmine and Raj organized a group tasting of those wineries at RN74. Four hundred people showed up. The next year they added chardonnay to the roster and held an additional tasting at City Winery in New York. Within a couple of days, it sold out. Now in its fourth year, the annual In Pursuit of Balance tasting has become a reference point for talking about the breadth of styles and growing sophistication of California wine. Participating wineries are chosen in a blind tasting by committee. The only requirement is that they are made in California.

This spring, Jasmine and Raj will travel to London and Stockholm with Jon Bonné, author of The New California Wine, and several winemakers featured in the In Pursuit of Balance program. It is an international road show aimed at breaking the stereotype of California wines as being overly ripe and oaky.

After only a few years in the industry, Jasmine Hirsch has translated her ardor for pinot noir into a vital conversation about the evolving identity of the California wine scene.

Napa by the (Cook) Book


When chef Christopher Kostow moved to Napa in 2008, he had just earned two-Michelin stars at TJ’s in Silicon Valley and was looking for a bigger stage for his cooking.

The opportunity to run the kitchen at The Restaurant at Meadowood freed Kostow to reimagine himself as an innkeeper with a dining room that lured gastronomic tourists with his innovative cuisine, a kind of modern day haute-aubergiste. It’s an idyllic image, but of course Meadowood is a five-star hotel built into the St. Helena hillside in the heart of wine country.

Something else happened to chef Kostow when he arrived there. Rambling with his dog Charlie along the region’s riverbanks, he discovered the other Napa. Beyond the classic cabernets and manicured gardens he found uncultivated passages where wild prune and walnut trees -- holdouts from the orchards that were a mainstay of the valley before it became devoted to vineyards -- growing among miner’s lettuce and rutabagas. It affected his cooking.

Kostow is the kind of chef who thinks deeply about his choices. As the title of his magnificent new coffee table book, A New Napa Cuisine, suggests, he has transplanted the values of The New Nordic Cuisine (pristine local ingredients and a freedom from traditional French techniques) to the bountiful landscape of northern California. The result is cooking that is both deeply personal and reflective of the “somewhereness” that is the Napa Valley.

For Kostow, quality is the new luxury, not just for the ingredients themselves, but also for their cooking vessels and the dishes on which they are served. He cooks potatoes in beeswax, sturgeon over coals and serves them in ceramic bowls and on slabs crafted by local artisans.

You probably won’t cook much from A New Napa Cuisine, but reading it is like a long leisurely meal in the company of one of the finest chefs of our generation. 


Château Latour and the Araujo Estate Winery

When the French billionaire François Pinault’s investment company announced this past August that it had purchased Araujo, an estate that produces one of the Napa Valley’s most prized cabernet sauvignons, a sense of exhilaration swept through the California wine world. Not only had Araujo been included in a highly curated portfolio alongside Château Latour in Pauillac,Château Grillet in the northern Rhone and Domaine d’Eugenie in Vosne-Romanée, Burgundy, it marked the first time the owner of a First Growth Bordeaux had invested (without an American partner) in a Napa winery. The purchase was seen as yet another affirmation that the region’s finest wines now compete in the same league as the most exalted wines on the planet. 

The announcement went a step further, making it clear that the group had not just bought a well-known luxury brand but also a coveted terroir. The CEO of Château Latour is quoted calling Araujo’s thirty-eight acre Eisele Vineyard (pronounced ICE-lee) “unique” and the estate’s “jewel.” 

The Eisele Vineyard has been producing legendary vineyard-designate cabernet sauvignon since 1971, mostly for Joseph Phelps Vineyards until Bart and Daphne Araujo purchased the property in 1990. The Araujo’s immediately understood the specialness of the site and introduced organic and biodynamic vineyard practices to let it speak to its full potential through their wines. If you look at the Araujo wine labels, the designation Eisele Vineyard is always larger than their name on the bottle. 

While Napa does not officially assign vineyards a classification such as First Growth or Grand Cru status, with the purchase of the Araujo Estate Winery by Château Latour,  Eisele can lay claim to being its first star vineyard.