Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Today's picture from Block Island

Michael Wheeler is on I'll Drink to That!

The legendary Michael Wheeler is the voice of today's I'll Drink to That! When it comes to the wine and restaurant scene, Michael is a guy that has been there and done that and it was a great pleasure to speak with him. Hear what he has to say about his new distribution concerns in New York and Portland, and also just about wine in general. Michael is a dude who knows where the bottles are buried.

Check out Michael's interview.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Today's picture from Block Island

What does a wine of terroir look like?

Is a wine of terroir sculpted and entrenched from what is given by nature?

Perhaps winemaking leaves its own signature.

Or maybe a terroir wine refracts and turns our view of nature in new and different directions.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Today's picture from Block Island

Your humble scribe is taking a break from the restaurant scene for a bit. Although there have been a few bottles to tell you about soon enough.

When you stand in the surf the sand seems hard underneath your feet when the tide comes in, then quickly slips away and erodes as the water goes back out. Wine knowledge is like that too. It's easy to think you are firm in what you believe until you realize you aren't standing on much.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Blake Johnson is on I'll Drink to That!

"Chardonnay from Burgundy is not called Chardonnay...it's from a place, it's from a village and that's the way you start to understand wine from Europe, the Old World."
A maestro of the Manhattan sales scene, Blake Johnson is on I'll Drink to That! today. Blake has been working with the Rosenthal Wine Merchant portfolio for close to 20 years now, and for Chadderdon for several years before that. The kind of perspective he brings to the tasting table is a good example of the benefit the New York wine scene offers: the depth of experience that is out there.
This is someone who looks at the streets of New York and sees the history of great restaurants that have been here. And he saw the role of the contemporary sommelier develop over his time walking those streets knocking on doors. Blake's is a nuanced perspective, one developed over long experience. Listen to what he has to say on iTunes or find the interview on the dedicated website.
And if you are curious to learn more about the wines Blake sells and sincerely believes in then you should check out the Rosenthal Wine Merchant website.

Today's picture from Italy

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


While in Italy I shared this distillate with friends. It had been been infused with ruta, also known as rue, which is a shrub found in the Mediterranean and also apparently in parts of Asia. I've never tasted ruta on its own, but when added to grappa I've seen robust flavors develop, in the same manner that Popeye the Sailor enjoys a big lift from spinach. There are the bitter bass notes, a vegetable stalk minerality that I really enjoy, and a leafy citrus treble like you might expect from lemon verbena. And the aromatic frequency changes when ruta is added. The long stalks of ruta don't settle in and go mute. There is in the flavors the persistence of a woodpecker amongst tall pines.

A Levi Serafino bottling of Ruta can be hard to find. It is said that until recently Romano Levi's sister Lidia cultivated the Ruta in a garden near their home. The number of bottles produced has always been small. It is much easier to find the Ruta offering from Nardini, one of the largest producers of grappa in the world. That Ruta is widely available in the New York area, and usually not more than about $45 for a liter bottle. It is also my favorite product from amongst Nardini's range, and I think a good introduction to Ruta infused distillates. I generally prefer to drink these neat, at room temperature, although I suspect the addition of ice and club soda might be refreshing in the summer months. On the other hand, drinking Grappa alla Ruta with espresso is not so much enjoyable as a good way to prove that you are especially perverse.

Recently I visited a friend in upstate New York who cultivates a Ruta garden. He enjoys to make his own house infused grappa alla Ruta, and interestingly he chooses the normal Nardini grappa as the base with which to do so. This got me to thinking as to why this might be. After all, if you are making it yourself, you could choose any grappa base that you desire. There are other grappas available that are smoother and more refined than Nardini's. But I have decided that maybe a rougher texture to a grappa better supports the flavor of these shrubs as they seek out crevices to root in. Certainly, grappa from Levi Serafino is not smooth either.

Today's picture from Italy

Friday, August 17, 2012

Today's picture from Italy

Gregory Dal Piaz on I'll Drink to That!

Gregory Dal Piaz, who covers wine for Snooth Media, here covered in wine. Greg is an extremely intelligent observer of the wine scene with a deep knowledge of the subject to draw on. What's going to happen with the Chinese market? What are young people in this country looking for? What surprises does Brazil have for us? How can you protect yourself from forged bottles? How did the scandal in Montalcino get going? Greg has some answers for you. Maybe not always the answers you want to hear, but certainly they are well reasoned.

Give a listen to the interview that went up today. You can tune in on the dedicated I'll Drink to That! website or on iTunes. This is somebody whose opinions are worth your time to discuss.

You can also find more of Greg's thoughts on wine on snooth.

Today's picture from Italy

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The vines left out of the scene

Jean-François Millet, Trussing Hay, 1850

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, The Haywagon, 1830s to 1860s (?)

Theodore Rousseau, Landscape with a Plowman, 1860-1862

Gustave Courbet, Lunch Break During the Haying, 1867

You've probably heard that Europe was covered in vines before the louse phylloxera found its way to the Continent and devasted the vineyards there in fairly short order. It's mentioned fairly frequently, the part about a Europe covered in vines. The first phylloxera outbreak is thought to have been in the Southern Rhône in 1863 and the change was soon dramatic. The Oxford Companion to Wine places the total wine production of France in 1889 as less than 30% of what it had been in 1875. And as modern consumption habits changed, a considerable amount of what had once been planted was never replanted after the attack. The vineyard area of France never fully recouped from the purge.
So the question might be asked, where were the vines? Not the planted vines but the painted ones. With vineyards planted to the horizon, you might expect to come across a wide variety of depictions. The 19th century was an expansive time for French landscape painters. Millet, Rousseau, and Corot amongst the Barbizon School. Gustave Courbet the Realist. Even Edouard Manet painted a bit of landscape. Landscape painting was a major undertaking of mid-19th century French art. And it would continue to be a major theme of the Impressionists towards the turn of the century. But you don't see vines amongst their work.

Theodore Rousseau, The Large Oak Tree, Forest of Fontainebleau, 1839

Gustave Courbet, Forest in Autumn, 1841

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, The Willows of Marissel, 1857

Jean-Francois Millet, Spring Landscape with Rainbow Sky, 1868-1873

Admittedly the area around Barbizon, where several mid-19th century landscape painters worked, is more known for wheat fields and forest than vines. And it is true that I have seen two paintings from Millet that depict grapevines. But it is just those two that I can find from an entire 100 years of French landscape painting. Nothing from Courbet. Nothing from Corot. Nothing from Monet. No vines from Van Gogh. I'm not saying that vineyard paintings from these artists absolutely don't exist, and I am no art historian, but I certainly haven't been able to find others paintings that depict vines. And I have looked. Two paintings from Millet, an artist who lived to be 60 years old, is a very small amount of his total production. Two paintings from a century's worth of French paintings is pretty much almost none. Paintings of vineyards don't start to be a commonplace until the second half of the 20th century.

Theodore Rousseau, Panoramic Landscape, 1831-1834

Jean-Francois Millet, The Cousin in Greville, 1855

Gustave Courbet, The Valley of Ornans, 1858

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, The Vale, 1855-1860

Edouard Manet, Landscape with a Village Church, early 1870s

I think we place in a landscape what we wish to revere. Classical themes. Biblical stories. Military battles. Peasant workers. Sunlight. A nature given over to a painter is a nature created for an audience. And it doesn't have to be the what of the painting, it can also be the how. You knew the 20th century would focus on the technique of painting as soon as the Impressionists stepped outdoors. They put paint in the landscape for emphasis. But the history of nature in paintings is a history of painting in the important subjects of a time.

It's surprising what was deemed to be pastoral. There were all those vines everywhere, but none made it onto the walls of the Salons. I can only imagine that the grapevines weren't deemed fit to be seen. Perhaps we train them differently now, because the way we look at them is clearly not the same.

Nowadays we might assume that he is reading a treatise on soil composition.

David Bowler on I'll Drink to That!

Top 40 Rock n' roller and wine distributing maestro David Bowler chats it up with me on I'll Drink to That! today. David is a genuinely funny and good guy. Plus he represents some really wonderful wines in the New York market. And last but not least, he has more than his share of entertaining stories about the business and the people who populate it. Be sure to check out this interview if you feel like chuckling or getting some good time vibe passed your way. You can hear the conversation on iTunes or on the dedicated website.

David doesn't tune in to the Twitter channel of speech, but you can take a look at his company's website. Give a listen to the interview and maybe leave a comment to tell us what you think!

Today's picture from Italy

Friday, August 10, 2012

Today's picture from Italy

The fruits and flowers that tell time

A kigo (季語 "season word") is a seasonal reference found in Japanese poetry. Often consisting of a single word but also sometimes a phrase, a kigo is many times drawn from the natural world, but might also refer to a human activity. A kigo implies a season of the year. For instance, if the reference is to cherry blossoms, it is understood that the season of Spring is implied. One of the most common kigo is in fact sakura, the Japanese word for cherry blossom. It is actually so common to refer to cherry blossoms that often the generic Japanese word for blossom, hana, is taken by itself to refer specifically to cherry blossoms in a Japanese poem such as a haiku. Traditional Japanese haiku generally contain a kigo as a matter of form. There are in fact large compilations of kigo called saijiki which contain notes on different specific kigo, as well as example poems.

With a kigo, a word or phrase quickly brings to mind not just a thing, but also a time for that thing or activity. For example, "sunbathing" is a kigo that is associated with the Summer season. The poet doesn't have to also separately note to the audience that the poem is set within the summer months. He has already conveyed this by the activity described in the poem. If a poet refers to sunbathing then it is also understood that he is referring to Summer. Likewise, wisteria are associated with summer, as are iris and lotus. Apples and persimmons find a home in Autumn. So do some pears.

I wonder, as we compose our tasting notes full of fruit descriptors, if we have thought beyond the flavors to the seasons that they imply?

A monk sips morning tea,
it's quiet,
the chrysanthemum's flowering.

Matsuo Basho as translated by Robert Hass

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Importance of Being First

It would seem that co-opt is the new black, or so people do tell me. Everyone with a gripe about not being recognized for their first-i-ness with a particularly popular wine. Everyone there before everyone else, and no one getting the credit they socially aspire to. Even Algernon and Lane, most recently.

Morning-room in Algernon’s flat in Half-Moon Street. The room is luxuriously and artistically furnished. The sound of a piano is heard in the adjoining room.

[Lane is arranging the afternoon amaro on the table, and after the music has ceased, Algernon enters.]

Algernon. Did you hear what I was playing, Lane?

Lane. I didn’t think it polite to listen, sir.

Algernon. I’m sorry for that, for your sake. I did some amazing work just now, really tops, and you could have heard that and known for yourself just how wonderful it was. But here, take this down for twitter: I don’t play accurately—any one can play accurately—but I play with wonderful expression. As far as the piano is concerned, sentiment is my forte. I keep science for Life.

Lane. Yes, sir. Noted. I will somehow make that 140 characters and yet still keep the deep chords of meaning.

Algernon. And, speaking of the science of Life, have you got the cucumber sandwiches cut for Lady Bracknell? From the recipe we copied off that blog? We aren't so obvious are we at all, are we Lane? You don't think she'll notice?

Lane. Yes, sir. No, sir. [Hands them on a salver.]

Algernon. [Inspects them, takes two, and sits down on the sofa.] Oh!… by the way, Lane, I see from your book that on Thursday night, when Lord Shoreman and Mr. Worthing were dining with me, eight bottles of champagne are entered as having been consumed.

Lane. Yes, sir; eight bottles and a pint.

Algernon. Why is it that when we serve the hipster grower bubbly from the Aube the servants invariably drink so much? I ask merely for information.

Lane. I don't attribute it to the superior quality of the wine per se, sir. I have often observed that if a wine is au courant with the, shall we say, chattering classes, that everybody wishes to be seen drinking it all the time. And if possible, to be seen drinking it first.

Algernon. Good heavens! Is wine so demoralising as that? Each and everybody riding on coattails as if they were magic carpets?

Lane. I believe it IS a very pleasant state, sir. I have had very little experience of it myself up to the present. I have only been thought to have been hip once. That was in consequence of a misunderstanding between myself and a young person.

Algernon. [Languidly.] I don’t know that I am much interested in your wine street cred, Lane.

Lane. No, sir; it is not a very interesting subject. I never think of it myself.

Algernon. Very natural it is, I am sure. That will do, Lane, thank you.

Lane. Thank you, sir. [Lane goes out.]

Algernon. Lanes views on credit for one's trailblazing work seem somewhat lax. Really, if the lower orders don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them? They seem, as a class, to have absolutely no sense of moral responsibility.

Really, it is as it was, a comedy of wine manners.

Tell me with a ribbon

It's a big world of wine out there these days. Real big. Wines from small regions and small producers are abundantly available. But how do you know that the shop salesperson or sommelier you are talking to is as knowledgeable about Savagnin as they are about Savigny? Or Shiraz?

Well, you don't. In fact, they probably aren't equally knowledgeable across the board. Most folks these days tend to, if not specialize, at least follow their current interests. It is extremely hard, and expensive, to keep abreast of the entire world of wine. In fact, it may not really be feasible anymore at all.

So how do you know who you are speaking with? Is the sommelier at a particular venue big on Burgundy or on Barolo? Do they spend time drinking wine from Rioja or from the Red Hills? Well, there are a couple of ways that that answer could become known. Like for instance we could follow the television model and have IRON SOMMELIER BAROSSA and IRON SOMMELIER BRUNELLO designations. But just as it is likely that a sommelier doesn't follow all regions, it is also true that they probably do follow more than just one.

So I propose merit badges. Or ribbons.

These are the ribbons that were worn by General George S. Patton. I had thought Patton was a big Bordeaux guy, but it turns out he had a real love of Burgundy, as I would be able to tell if these ribbons represented wine accomplishments instead of military advancement.

Think about it. You've tasted a Chablis from each of the Grand Crus? Here's your ribbon. You've done a vertical of Calon-Segur back to 1975? Here's that ribbon. You've visited Liguria? Hey, I've got a ribbon for you!

Then at least you'd look at your sommelier and see where they were coming from. Hmm, looks like this person really focuses on France, or on Spain, or Greece. You'd know.

Well, I mean, you'd know if you could decipher what all those ribbons meant. Uh-oh.

Today's picture from Italy

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Today's picture from Italy

Lee Campbell chats with I'll Drink to That!

Lee Campbell gets on the microphone at I'll Drink to That! today and shares some of her stories from back in the day. Tree swings at the restaurant, farm to table before it was cool, approaching the New York scene and avoiding its snobs, working with Joe, serving wines that have their "mean days" and other good stuff. She also takes the time to set the record straight about the audacity of Andrew Tarlow and what's important right now to her actual customers.

Check the interview out. You can hear it on iTunes. I sincerely believe this is somebody you should spend as much time with as you can. Lee is the Real deal.