Monday, October 24, 2011

Robert Parker Makes Some Predictions

Just came across this article, written by Mr. Parker, on the website. He writes twelve wine predictions to take place between now and 2015. The list is an entertaining read, and I noticed a couple of intriguing items to touch upon.

His second prediction is this:
"2 The wine Web will go mainstream
Internet message boards, Web sites tailored for wine geeks and state-of-the-art winery sites all instantaneously disseminate information about new wines and new producers. Today the realm of cyberspace junkies and hardcore Internet users, these sites will become mainstream in 10 years. A much more democratic, open range of experts, consultants, specialists, advisors and chatty wine nerds will assume the role of today's wine publications."

It appears that Mr. Parker is giving a tacit nod to wine bloggers as a legitimate voice of wine criticism. He, who infamously called them (us) "blobbers", is basically saying that the role of wine critic, held today by wine publications like Wine Spectator, The Wine Enthusiast, and The Wine Advocate, will be taken over by a wide range of new voices. Obviously that includes wine bloggers.

This isn't surprising to me or my fellow bloggers, indeed we're already seeing guys like Joe Roberts and Alder Yarrow become more and more known as respected voices in the wine community. The aforementioned wine guys are moving beyond the digital domain by having their work exposed to a wider audience. That audience is not the wine-blog-reading type, rather, the people who may google a wine's name and then quickly scan the relevant (to them) article. Enough of the self-congratulations though, because wine bloggers do have a long way to go in order to garner the levels of respect accorded the print publications and critics.

Another prediction, the sixth:
"6 Spain will be the star
Look for Spain to continue to soar. Today it is emerging as a leader in wine quality and creativity, combining the finest characteristics of tradition with a modern and progressive winemaking philosophy. Spain, just coming out of a long period of cooperative winemaking that valued quantity over quality, has begun to recognize that it possesses many old-vine vineyards with almost unlimited potential. Spanish wineries recognize that they are trapped neither by history nor by the need to maintain the status quo that currently frustrates and inhibits so many French producers. By 2015, those areas that have traditionally produced Spain's finest wines (Ribera del Duero and Rioja) will have assumed second place behind such up-and-coming regions as Toro, Jumilla and Priorat."

On one hand, having just returned from Spain on a blogger trip, I agree that it is indeed ascendant because there is a lot of seriously good quality wine just waiting to make it here. I saw evidence of this in Navarra, where winery after winery was producing inexpensive, high quality, expressive wine that would appeal to a large part of our wine drinking population here.

However, Mr. Parker fails in that he notes a region already held in high esteem (Rioja) and a region that still is known for producing high priced red wine (Ribera del Duero) versus a more balanced selection. Instead, Parker needs to elevate Toro, Navarra, and La Mancha into the tiers of wine that we should be seeking out from Spain. First off, with Rioja, Parker completely avoids the fact that the stylistic framework of those wines is evolving away from his signature style. That style being a highly extracted, intensely fruity, heavily oaked wine. Momentum is shifting towards fresher, low-oak wines that have a lot more acid than your typical Rioja. A lot of his high scoring Ribera del Duero wines are the same way, as are the Priorat and Jumilla wines he gives those big 90+ points to. Big, overly extracted, heavily oaked wines that are borderline undrinkable.

Lastly, the 11th prediction:
"11 Value will be valued
Despite my doom-and-gloom prediction about the prohibitive cost of the world's greatest wines, there will be more high-quality, low-priced wines than ever before. This trend will be led primarily by European countries, although Australia will still play a huge role. Australia has perfected industrial farming: No other country appears capable of producing an $8 wine as well as it does. However, too many of those wines are simple, fruity and somewhat soulless. Australia will need to improve its game and create accessible wines with more character and interest to compete in the world market 10 years from now."

Once again, Parker sidesteps the fact that he helped create this fruity, soulless wine currently lapping our shores from Australia. He also completely misses the fact that this style of wine does and will continue to hold immense appeal to many casual wine drinkers. The kind of drinker who probably doesn't read any wine blogs, who buys Yellowtail because they've had it and it's easy to drink, and who thinks a 90 point score means the wine is good.

Another question I ask is whether Australia wants to be known as the world's best producer of $8 wine or not? I doubt it, because at the $20 and $40 level there are some wonderful Australian wines to be had. For $8, there are solid, unimpressive, good quality wines available, but if a consumer has only bought those wines before, what's the chance they'll risk it and take that $20 bottle off the shelf? I would argue that they would turn to France or Italy, even California, to buy that "expensive" bottle. Therefore, in the value-wine segment, I have a feeling we'll see Australia's role diminish from "huge" to more along the lines of California. It will take a concerted effort from the Aussies to make this happen though. Hmmm, maybe they should send me on a blogger trip down there?

What do you think? Care to make any predictions for the next five years?

Beau Carufel

Friday, October 21, 2011

Dinner at The Country Cat, Portland Oregon

Last night I had a fantastic meal at The Country Cat here in Portland. As a recent emigrant to this city, I've been excited to start exploring the highly regarded restaurants in the area. Living in Beaverton, I'm a short drive into Portland yet also live in a neighborhood that has it's own hidden gems. As I continue to get settled and explore, I'll be writing about some of those cool places to.

For now though, let's start with the amazing dinner my friends and I had last night. I was downtown with Becky, meeting with the always-wonderful Karin McKercher to discuss some business (I'm still looking for a job remember!) and while we had a couple of delicious bottles of wine, including a 2006 Belle Pente Estate Reserve pinot noir and a 2007 Hamacher Willamette Valley pinot  noir, there wasn't any food to be seen! I did really enjoy our venue though, Oregon Wines on Broadway. Great selection, nice staff, and good pricing make this a wine bar I'll be visiting often.

Naturally, after the three of us polished off those two bottles (both of which were quite good, earning a B+ and an A- from me, respectively), my thoughts turned to food. That always seem to happen, but I've no complaints. Becky found out her friend Anna was downtown too, literally blocks away. Anna writes a great food blog, one I highly recommend you foodies check out. She was entertaining H.C., a fellow food blogger from Southern California. Karin took off and the four of us turned our attention to getting something into our growling bellies.

The first place we stopped at, The Woodsman Tavern, has just opened and had an hour wait..minimum. Plus, it looked like every other pseudo-speakeasy run by hipsters with scraggly beards, too much pomade, and tattoos of sparrows on their arms. I rolled my eyes and figured it just wasn't my scene. My jeans weren't tight enough and I wasn't wearing plaid.

Anna then suggested The Country Cat, a short drive down the street, further into Southeast Portland. This neighborhood, called "Southeast" by the natives, is considered an up-and-coming hip place to be. Lots of gastropubs serving nouveau-American comfort food. Take that for what it's worth, I am always skeptical of restaurants that market themselves as such.

Walking into The Country Cat, we saw the place was not crowded and had plenty of open tables. A nice selection of liquor and wine was mounted above the bar, and there was a chalkboard listing beers on tap as well as their "liquor in a jar" special. Our server, Brian, came over quickly enough and we began to order. Anna and Becky led the way, ordering the pretzels to start, while I took a moment to peruse a nicely organized beverage list.

As we sat and chatted, Brian came back with our first wine, a 2010 Grochau Cellars Commuter Cuvee pinot noir. The night before, I tasted this wine with my friends Dan and Chas of Wine is Serious Business and we all enjoyed it. The Country Cat charged $31 a bottle, retail price is around $18 or so. That is how restaurant wine pricing should be. Unfortunately, I saw a bottle of 2010 Bonny Doon Clos de Gilroy for $41 when I believe it sells for $18 off their website. Kind of a bummer that it cost $10 more than the Grochau, yet retails at the same price.

The pretzel was good, it needed more salt on top but had a nice crunchy outside and a warm, soft doughy interior. The portion size was good for two people but I think we should have ordered two. Perhaps other dipping options can be offered too, as I think that a spicy deli mustard would have been a better choice. Still, this was something I'd order again.

Becky brought up that the hamburger at The Country Cat is apparently noteworthy and has been featured locally as one of the best around. Since I'm a bit of a burger fiend, this naturally resulted in me placing an order for the burger, replete with American cheese and bacon. Again I will suggest more variety, this time for the cheeses available on the burger. I may sound snobbish, but a locally produced, artisan cheddar would be an amazing complement to the burger. And what a burger it was! Look at that picture! A bit too much mayo perhaps, but that was made up for by the fact that the burger was cooked to a true medium-rare. Thank god, a restaurant that can do that! The meat to bun balance worked out, and the bacon had a great crunch factor, providing a foil to the rich beef. You Portland burger fans, check this place out.

Those onion rings were epic. As was the catsup, perhaps the most natural-tasting version I have ever had in my life. This plate was so full of epic goodness that I nearly ordered another one. I never do that. Reveling in the meaty glory that is this burger was perhaps Portland's way of saying "welcome kid, it's gonna be a fun ride" to me.

What is a great meal without a great dessert? Check out the picture below, and drool for a while.

Apple pie, almost always incredibly good and a perennial favorite of mine, topped with pecan ice cream and drizzled in caramel. At this point, my synapses began to overload, screaming "this just isn't fair!" at me. But like a champ..or like a boss, I dug in. Great balance between sweet, rich apples and flaky butter crust, and the ice cream had a bit of dry nuttiness which was complemented nicely by the sweet caramel drizzle.

Apologies for the terrible picture quality. Anyone want to give me $100 so I can go buy an iPhone 4? Yea, that's what I thought. Still, I hope you enjoyed reading about my first big culinary adventure in Portland. Thanks to Becky, Anna, and HC for sharing a great night with me. Thanks to Karin for showing me a wonderful new wine bar right in the heart of Portland. This is the start of a great adventure for me.

Beau Carufel

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Where Have I Been?

The eight of you that read this blog may have wondered why it's been so quiet lately. After living in San Diego for over 20 years, I packed up and moved to Oregon. Right outside Portland is a small community called Beaverton, where I'm now making my home. The drive north, up Interstate 5, took two days with a stop in Sacramento overnight. Becky had flown down the week previously and was invaluable, helping me pack and load the truck as well as keeping me entertained on the drive up.

Preparing for the move took up a lot of time and energy, so I was unable to get much writing done. As of now, I have four blog entries in the draft queue, but none are fit to print...As if anything I post is ever truly fit to print. In the final weeks of my San Diego life, I tasted through some good and not-so-good California cabernets as well as a lineup of decent carmeneres from Chile. Notes on each of those tastings will be forthcoming. More coverage of my September press trip to Navarra is also on it's way, including some of the best wine I've tasted this year. I've also a slew of single-bottle/winery reviews coming along in the pipeline, and some op/ed pieces I've been brewing in my head for a long time now.

So now that I'm in Oregon, will this blog change much? I hope it only changes for the better, with more commentary on the wine world and fewer cut and dry wine reviews. I don't think I have the energy or drive to write exhaustive articles on every single wine event that goes on, but there are some interesting tastsings coming up that I hope to attend and report to you on.

With that, I ask your pardon for a few more days as I get everything settled into my apartment in Beaverton. I'll be posting up some coverage of the harvest work I did yesterday at Kramer Vineyards, and recapping the aforementioned Curry & Carmenere tasting, as well as the (very) interesting California Cabernet tasting I did a few weeks ago.

Beau Carufel

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Foley Steel Chardonnay, 2009, Santa Rita Hills

I used to be firmly against oaky, buttery chardonnays. The "California style" that was so prevalent in the mid-90's through the early '00's grossed me out. Wines that reminded of movie theater popcorn and vanilla extract were (and are) horribly offensive to my palate. As a result, I avoided chardonnay for the most part, occasionally allowing a Montrachet to seduce me or a Chablis to dance a tango for me.

With age and maturity, I have evolved, much like a fine wine. Today those chardonnays are viewed as elements of a meal and I've had a few that were incredibly friendly and palate-pleasing. Rombauer, Far Niente, Kongsgaard, Kistler and the rest of them could be made in a technically complex style and are certainly capable of high scores...and the associated high prices.

The other side of the chardonnay coin would be examples that see no oak and no malolactic fermentation. Crisp, clean, bracingly acidic wines that highlight intenese minerality over oaky richness. Chardonnay like that holds immense appeal to me, and I remain an unabashed fan of white Burgundy to this day. Here and there, a wooded chardonnay would appeal to me, and I remain a fan of the Derbes offering, though it's rarely seen here in San Diego.

That brings us to this wine, the 2009 Foley Steel Chardonnay. The word steel referring to the lack of oak barrel aging. Also, there is no malo-lactic fermentation taking place, which results in higher malic acid for more of the green apple and lemon flavors. The suggested retail price is $30 but I've seen the 2009 Foley Steel sell for as little as $23 per bottle.

Some wine geek info: 14.3% abv, pH of 3.35, 100% chardonnay, and all fruit from the Santa Rita Hills AVA.

But what's this Foley Steel all about? Is it worth your money?

One of those answers is a simple yes or no, the other requires a bit of exploration. Is the 2009 Foley Steel Chardonnay worth your money? Yes, it's an excellent chardonnay and goes head to head with white Burgundies at the same price. But why?

Aromatically there are all sorts of fun things going on. I was struck by how fresh this chardonnay smelled, being devoid of oak and m-l fermentation allowed the natural bouquet of summer flowers and lemon zest to shine. Intense minerality plays a part too, showcasing a wet river rock scent, or perhaps that of a gravel driveway after a rainstorm. In short, this Foley chardonnay is a wine you want to sniff for hours, enjoying the picture that it's bouquet paints.

But that's only part of what makes the '09 Foley so deliciously fun. At first sip, lots of green apple and lemon pith present themselves. As the wine moves across the palate, it fattens up to reveal lemon curd notes with a core of tight minerality akin to limestone in the sun. That fatness comes from the relatively high 14.3% alcohol, perhaps the only flaw I found. Despite this cabernet-level amount of alcohol though, the Steel chardonnay remains balanced and food-friendly. 

I reviewed this wine a couple of months ago and gave it a B+ and STRONG BUY recommendation because I was impressed with the quality and balance. Later, I learned that Wine Spectator gave this exact wine a 90 points, it's nice to know my ratings agree with the "professional" critics once in a while. For suggested food pairings, go with something light and fresh. Grilled ahi tuna or mahi mahi fish tacos would be wonderful. Pasta with pesto would also work out and any kind of vegetarian pizza pairing would be awesome.

This wine was a sample for review purposes.

Beau Carufel

Monday, October 3, 2011

Navarra Wine Adventure, Day Two: Malon de Echaide and Finca Albret

Today arrived way too early in Navarra because we (the "#Navarra5") were out eating a stunningly good meal until 11:30pm the previous night and I didn't fall asleep until 12:40. My alarm went off at 7am, when it was still dark outside in Pamplona. Luckily the jet lag either hasn't hit me or won't hit at all. After discussing it with Ward and Mike, I think it may have something to do with the arrival-night's festivities. Those activities helped re-set my body clock to Spanish time, which is nine hours ahead of San Diego.

Breakfast was quick, we had to meet downstairs at 7:45am to get a start on the day's activities. Our schedule consisted of visits to wineries, tastings, a huge lunch (more on that later), and a walking tour of Pamplona. After that, another sumptuous dinner was scheduled but that ended up being cancelled in favor of more pintxos! Instead of boring you with words, and in the interests of keeping things concise, I'll post some pictures below.

After about an hour, we began with a tour and tasting at Malon de Echaide. This is a cooperative of growers, around 200, that grow then sell their grapes to the Bodega, which makes wine to sell. We spent some time touring the cellars and tasting their wines, all were great examples of why wines from Navarra are QPR smashers.

A Farmer Brings In His Load Of Muscat

New Oak Barrels from America

500,000 Liter Tank!!!

After tasting and the tour, we headed to another winery, Finca Albret, to taste a different style of Navarran wine. At Albret, the emphasis is on expression of terroir, letting the grapes do the talking. Perhaps the biggest difference between Albret and Malon de Echaide is that Albret owns all it's land, controlling literally every step in the winemaking process. As a result, the winemaker and oenologist can work together to ensure optimum ripeness levels in the vines before they're harvested.

Ripe Graciano at Albret

Bodegas Finca Albret

Lineup of Albret Wines
After this tour we headed to lunch to gorge on more awesome Spanish foods, including fresh vegetables grown right in Navarra. Unfortunately I failed to take any pictures during lunch, my bad. Two days and two big lunches made it clear which meal is the "big meal" of the day As such, getting used to eating a six course lunch, complete with wine, then dessert is in fact difficult. But that isn't to say that I'm not having fun trying!

Following the giant lunch, our group loaded back up into the rented van and drove back to Pamplona (roughly an hour away) to take a walking tour through the heart of the city. For me this was a highlight of the trip (yes, my interests go beyond wine) because I got to see some real, live history. The pictures above and below highlight the amazing things we saw as we walked the route of the Running of the Bulls, saw the ancient city walls, and even witnessed Basque musicians.

Ancient church

Countdown clock for next year's Running

Basque musicians

Returning to the hotel tired, still full, and maybe even a bit thirsty, I sat at my computer and began to compose this blog. We had a long day and will be up and at it tomorrow for more winery visits plus an old church and town. Seeing this history somehow makes the wine mean something more, the buildings are a part of the land and have been here in the first vineyards were planted, could we consider them somehow part of the terroir? A romantic notion perhaps, but Spain has given me a heady sense of romance so far.

I didn't finish this blog entry before bed, so what you're reading now was composed a week after I returned home.

As I look back, Day Two of the Navarra Wine Adventure was everything I had wanted out of the trip. Touring the vineyards, tasting the wines, and learning the history of the place I was in checked off the three main "needs" I had for this trip. Since the trip, I have become even more interested in visiting wine regions and reporting back what I find. Perhaps the beginnings of a wine journalism career were formed in Navarra, drinking wine.

Beau Carufel