Saturday, December 13, 2008

Languedocumentary! Eat, Drink, Drive On

Food is an inevitable companion on trips to wine country -- wherever wine country happens to be this week -- and nowhere is it more enjoyable than it was earlier this winter in Languedoc. In the coming months, I will have articles appearing in several publications about the wines of Languedoc -- Beverage Media, Sommelier News, Signature Brandywine, and The NewsJournal in Wilmington, DE., among them -- but, for a moment, I will concentrate on the glorious food...

We descend into Toulouse, the early December rain and mist obscuring all but a few of the city's white-faced buildings with their ochre roofs. Our bags have made it through the Charles de Gaulle transfer, and we are soon met by Yves Retailleau, a jolly, middle-aged Frenchman who speaks enough English to answer our questions and to keep us amused. An hour later, we are cautiously negotiating the minivan through the slickened, narrow streets of ancient Carcassonne, the historical and cultural jewel of France's southwest. Just outside of town we had seen our first vines, denuded except for a few clinging leaves and wizened bunches too dessicated to drop.

It is Day One of our five-day march across Languedoc, France's Mediterranean culinary pork belly, in search of food and drink. That evening, we walk a couple of blocks in muted light from the Hotel Le Donjon across wet paving stones to the Hotel de la Cite, an impressive Orient Express property, where we meet Christine Molines, export director for the Languedoc wine authority (CIVL) which is sponsoring our small cadre of three journalists on the journey. Today, it is just Deborah Parker Wong and me, along with public relations exec Tia Butts, but tomorrow we will be joined by writer/restaurateur Pamela Busch.

We start off the evening with hors d'oeuvres in the lobby -- local Lucques olives, a pumpkin sorbet, and a duck mousse in a spoon that are all washed down with local blanquette de Limoux -- before descending into the hotel's cave for a fixed-menu dinner under the direction of Jerome Ryon. (As a matter of fact, we will never see a menu during our entire visit.) We are treated to a dinner of veloute de cepes et foie gras (mushroom and foie gras soup), scallops, and poitrine de veau (breast of veal). It is a lovely welcome to France! We drink more blanquette and red Minervois and discuss how far the wine of the region has come since the days when much of it was shipped elsewhere in France and northern Europe to be blended, perhaps, and bottled. Upstairs, an elegant party is just breaking up, Nigerians celebrating their signing of a contract with Airbus, which has major facilities in Toulouse.

Day Two. Has anyone had a truly memorable hotel breakfast in Europe? Perhaps, once in Geneva in the 1980s, but not at this moment, as I work my way through the limp cold cuts, unimaginative cereals, and little bottles of stamped-out yogurt. We start our adventure with a drive south to Limoux to take a tour of the giant caves of Sieur d'Arques, the region's largest producer of sparkling wine, where we taste both blanquette (from mainly Mauzac grapes) and cremant (often a blend that includes Chardonnay and Chenin) before moving on to lunch at Gayda, a jewel of a restaurant on a small hilltop near Brugairolles, where we meet Limoux producers from Antech, Delmas and J Laurens. The lunch of shrimp with julienned vegetables and duck breast with frites and chanterelles is delicious and matches well with the sparkling wines. Next, we head cross country for a tasting with Minervois-La Liviniere producers at the southern outpost of the Cazes wine empire, L'Ostal Cazes. (A new generation of local, family winemakers, many university-trained, as well as "outsiders" are behind the revival in the Sud de France.) We have as enjoyable, informative late afternoon tasting of reds from first-class winegrowers, including L'Ostal, Ch. Sainte Eulalie, Ch. Gourgazaud, Ch. Maris and Clos Centeilles. Then we rush across the countryside in the dusk -- the glow from sundown lights up the dormant vines in a halo of red -- on our way to the Hotel Domaine de l'Hospitalet near La Clape outside of Narbonne.

We have only a moment to deposit our bags, take a quick shower, and say hello to Pamela, fresh in from San Francisco, before we are again racing through the darkness (in the direction from which we have just come) for dinner at L'Auberge de Saint Martin in Beaufort to meet some producers of unhyphenated Minervois. Beaufort is a lovely little town -- the kind of place they look for as movie sets -- and the auberge next to the church has excellent country food. We meet the producers of Coupe-Rose, Hegarty Chamans, and Ch. la VillaTade, and immediately start a lively evening of tasting wines and arguing about terroir and winemaking, and almost don't notice that the appearance of an excellent foie gras with a chutney, which seems to be a continuation of our a poultry-based tasting pattern.

On the way back to La Clape, I ask when we will have a cassoulet, the signature dish of the South of France. But, like a child who asks a question about the existence of god or Santa Claus, I am not given a straight answer.

Day Three. It is a cold morning with a wind coming off the Mediterranean a few kilometers away, but I take a few minutes to walk in the garrigue -- the famous scrub growth that gives a scent to the region and some would say to its wines as well -- and pick a few sprigs of nice-smelling bushes, including some wild rosemary. And the coffee at breakfast is good.

Our first stop of the day is unplanned. Yves insists that we have to see the market at Narbonne, a photo op that is not to be missed and a great place to have fresh oysters for breakfast. Yves is right. I have walked through many European marketplaces, and this is one of the best -- tremendous amounts of meats, seafood, and produce in the heart of the city. It is very lively with people from restaurants making early selections, housewives and elderly couples looking for today's bargains, and all sorts of workers in heavy boots and high heels grabbing coffee and pastry on the way to the construction site or the office. I decline the oysters and settle on some sun-dried tomatoes that have all the concentrated essence of a fine old Corbieres.

Which is our next official stop. After miles of narrow roads through coastal hills -- desolate and lovely -- we arrive at the Cave d'Embres et Castelmaure, where we taste their Corbieres, quite well know in America, and those of Domaine du Grand Cres, which deserve to be known much better than they are. Perched on the side of the hill, the winery looks like a mining outpost in the Colorado foothills. Back into the van. Drive on across more countryside to Canilhac where we taste the wines of Ch. Ollieux Romanis in the Corbieres-Boutenac appellation at the Auberge Cote Jardin. If you happen to be on walkabout anywhere between Montpelier and Carcassone, you must rest your feet under a table here and have a meal. It is a delightful setting in a one-street town, and the food by Chef David Prevel is sublime -- imaginative but not over-engineered. Subtle but still assertive. We start with a polenta with beetroot and a mousse of rocket, followed by a melt-on-your-tongue pumpkin flan with a chesnut cream and trumpet mushrooms and sprouts. The main course is a -- is there any better adjective? -- succulent black pig with Corbieres legumes and winter vegetables and a reduction sauce. Dessert is a cheese and chutney. Now, tell me again, does the wine taste so good because of the food, or the other way around?

That evening, after an afternoon tasting at Chateau Cazal Vieil in St. Chinian, we are back at the l'Hospitalet -- and more food. Here, we are treated to wines of a large producer, Gerard Bertrand who owns the hotel and who makes both large volumes of everyday wine and small volumes of prestige wine with grapes harvested from across the Languedoc, and a small producer of very high quality wines from La Clape, Mas du Solleila. The food is excellent -- if a tad familiar: foie gras in a capuccino emulsion and duck breast with a potato gratin! Cassoulet, anyone?

Day Four. I'm beginning to fill a little bit of wine-and-food lag this morning, but I brighten as we have a great vineyard tour and lunch at Domaine de Nizas in the village appellation of Pezenas. Nizas is part of the same wine group that includes Clos de Val in Napa Valley and Taltarni and Clover Hill in Australian. There is a fancy catered lunch ar the domaine, where we are joined by a representative of nearby JC Mas. Our hosts do the re-heating and serving -- it feels much like showing up at a friend's house for a dinner party -- and we taste many wines with the food. The menu -- foie gras, roasted duck breast with a gateau provencal, assorted cheeses, and a pear tart with ice cream -- is enough to tide us over through a visit to the marvelous, misty, mountain countryside of Pic St. Loup, where we visit the chalet-like winery of Domaine de l'Hortus, set in a narrow valley beneath high rock clifts.

Tonight, there is another schedule change, and it becomes one of those up-close-and-personal moments that make wine writing so enjoyable. Instead of going as planned to a fine restaurant in our terminus city, we are instead invited to have dinner with Count Pierre de Colbert and his family at Ch. de Flaugergues. The property has become encapsulated by the city as it has grown around the vineyards, and the estate is now open to public tours. But we are this evening in the estate's rather modest kitchen, sitting around a wooden table with a huge fireplace keeping the night warm, chatting with the count's parents, who had run the property before him, his wife and their two young daughters. Dinner is soon served next door in the dining room, and it is a complex, warming, very satisfying smoked salmon casserole with pasta, spinach and cream cheese. Cheeses follow. It is a very special evening. Now, if I can just stay awake until we get to the hotel...

Day Five is mostly consumed with blind tasting more than 100 wines at the Maison de Vin from all the appellations across the Languedoc. We are choosing about one-quarter of them as a cross-section to serve as the region's "ambassadors" on a 2009 tour of the U.S. After a couple of hours, we smile though purpled teeth as the paper bags are removed, and we see the 27 wines that we have selected. It is quite satisfying to see that we have a good representation from many of the wineries we have visited during the week as well as many others than we don't know but look forward to discovering. We go next door to the Mas de Saporta restaurant for lunch. It is a lively place with excellent food -- all chosen in advance, as in the days before. But, please forgive me if I remember only one dish. My plea has been answered with an individual, appetizer-size cassoulet, small but rich in beans and fall-apart meats. I am a happy wine camper.

The final meal is, well, a bit of a let-down. We have good conversations with three Picpoul de Pinet producers -- Domaine Felines Jourdan, Domaine la Condamine l'Eveque, and Mas Saint Laurent -- at the Cote Bleue in a seaside lagoon. It is always a bit disappointing to have average seafood in a seaside restaurant. Maybe we should have ordered foie gras and duck breast.
All in all, it has been a fabulous wine and food tour, and one that makes me better appreciate this lovely stretch of land that arcs between the Spanish coast and the Rhone Valley.
Until next time....
Roger Morris

Publication Notes: I have been enjoying working recently with two CondeNet sites, and For the former I contributed Top 5 Wines for Under $12, and for the latter I updated best Champagnes and wrote on 15 Top Wines for Under $15....for Drinks, I did a fun piece on Champagne All Day or "how to drink bubbly from breakfast mimosas to bedtime night caps"...sticking with the Champagne theme, I wrote about Champagne alternatives for Beverage Media, as well as telling how to throw a French-themed holiday party BevMedia's retail customer booklet, Good Hosting...Chablis was my topic for Tasting Panel, and I contributed a piece to Robb Report on the newly famous White Bowmore... Finally, the online Sommelier News allows me the space to write longer pieces, including recent ones on varieties of Champagne (is there a theme here?) and a profile of the Drouhins of Burgundy. Let me know if you can't lay your hands or browser on any of these and would like to read them --

Monday, November 10, 2008

Mr. Gutenberg, Let Me Introduce Ms. Kindle

Last week, after listening to Oprah, Ella and I decided to become part of a momentous, potentially groundshaking movement. No, I'm not talking about voting for Barack Obama.

Ella decided to buy a Kindle, the electronic book machine and electronic library.

Think about it: For 558 years, Johannes Gutenberg and his successors have been the only competitive reading game in town. Before the inventive German came along, monks for centuries were in charge of book production, one painful, beautiful letter at a time. Then, in 1450, Gutenberg invented movable type and the printing press, and practically everything that has been read since then -- except for handwritten love letters and post cards -- was first set into type and then printed. In the 1960s, the movable type part started to be phased out of the picture as offset, or electronic, type took over for hot type. But printing continues. Your morning newspapers, the copy of Saveur or Robb Report, the book you read at the beach this summer all were printed conceptually the same as Gutenberg did it. Sure, we can already read things on a computer screen, as you're reading this blog now, but lack of portability and flexibility hindered a totally electronic publication. Early electronic books were too klunky and too limited in scope.

Then came Kindle. Like hundreds of thousands of Americans, Ella -- the rapid adopter in our family -- got her first exposure to Kindle on an Oprah show, and she (and subsequently we) were bedazzled. Kindle is portable, can almost instantaneously download any of hundreds of books (including those just published) for $9.99, allowing you to store them for later or repeat reading, change fonts and type sizes, and find your place where you stopped reading any of them -- no bookmark or turndowned page corners. It can be read in any light with virtually no glare. And it can electronically access magazines and even your own computer files. Want to make notes in the margin? -- yup, Kindle can do that, too.

Of course, the Kindle people don't want you do printouts (too Gutenbergy and against their business model), and you can't share a book on one Kindle with another Kindle (oops, see corrective Comment below). Ella and I anticipate the day when I buy a Kindle, and we'll be switching our sets back and forth to read each others' downloaded books.

Some friends say they are holding off, partly out of loyalty to books and partly to wait for the technology to improve. The latter excuse sounds like one I would make, but we couldn't really think of anything that we would want in a handheld electronic library that Kindle doesn't already do. And we've done the test run. Ella's has quickly purchased and downloaded three books, including The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski (above), her first.

As far as real books go....I have fondled them lovingly since infancy. I have been intoxicated by their smell, particularly the ones printed years ago in England. And I love the look of them ensemble, whether they are in the straining book cases in our library or haphazardly piled by my nightstand. We will probably end up buying more of them than we normally do just to justify our dalliance.

Still, when I get on the plane to Paris next month for a wine trip to Languedoc, odds are I will have convinced Ella to lend me her Kindle. Or will have bought one myself.

Until next time...

Roger Morris

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Harvest Dinner at Mercer Estates

I have had a long fascination with the area of Washington state that lies "east of the mountains" -- a desert of slopes, hills and plateaus made green by irrigation, a land settled by families whose pioneering ancestors arrived here by wagon trains, a broad farm belt of waving grain and grazing sheep. More so than most places, there is a tradition here that blends agrarian culture, which at is simplest comes from planting seeds and working toward a harvest, and the older, basic hunting and fishing culture. Over the past quarter century, wine -- and very fine wine at that -- has been added to the mix.

On a recent visit to the Yakima Valley, I was able to experience the combination of all these threads as guest of the Hogue and the Mercer families, which earlier this year opened their new winery, Mercer Estates, in Prosser, the small farm town that is the center of activity in the region. In addition to visiting vineyards and wineries, I also went hunting with them -- pheasants in the woods and shrub-brush upland draws of Horse Heaven Hills --and fishing for steelhead trout from drift boats in the remote Klickitat River. Most of all, I was able to share two harvest dinners with the combined families, one a pheasant dinner a the home of Ron and Barbara Hogue Harle and the other a seafood fest, including steelhead trout, at the home of Mike and Dora Hogue. I also had the opportunity to spend time with Rob and Brenda Mercer and Rob's father, Bud. The game dinner was prepared by chef Frank Magana of Picazo 7Seventeen Restaurant, Prosser's one fine-dining eatery, and the seafood dinner by Anthony's in the nearby Tri-City area.

I will be working on various articles soon about the Yakima Valley and its 60 wineries and about my delightful visit with the Mercers and the Hogues of Mercer Estates.

PHOTO NOTES: From the top, Mike Hogue, grape grower and wine pioneer with Hogue Cellars; Chef Frank Magana prepares a harvest dinner using a Mercer Estates Merlot in a pheasant dish; Ron Harle and Rob Mercer with the first of six pheasants bagged earlier in the day in Horse Heaven Hills near the Mercer family vineyards; Magana's pheasant entree and Mercer Estates wines bring an active October harvest day to a beautiful close.

Until next time....

Roger Morris

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Going Back to School on Wine Education

Just like the kids who every morning set off for the bus stop, wine writers have to go back to school every fall.

Oh sure, there are still things to study over the summer. Bottles keep arriving at my front door like so many textbooks -- some weighty tomes that need a lot of thought and analysis, others a quick read over dinner. And there's the occasional trip to the big city for a lunch-and-learn seminar at the DB Bistro Moderne or Per Se.

But things really heat up after Labor Day. First, we have to choose our field trips: Burgundy or the Mosel Valley or Mendoza? And the PR people who work for wine growers -- I think of them as my tutors -- always have suggestions about new things to try and new things to learn. Like Andy Rooney, they are always asking, "Have you ever thought about why...?"

Then there is this new education tool called a "webinar." In the old days, kids out in the boonies would be sent reading materials by mail, then they would turn on the radio Saturday morning to hear the lecture. With webinars, a winemaker in Chile or Australia, who could spend more money than Congress taking a plane north and still not catch up with all of us writers, merely has to set up a camera in front of a bunch of vines and lecture us via the internet.

Like a couple of weeks ago. The folks at Barossa Valley Estate make some really neat wines, especially two shirazes -- Ebenezer and E&E Black Pepper -- so the tutors set up a seminar for winemaker Stuart Bourne to talk to us via webcam from his Barossa vineyard while we sipped wine, trying not to get cracker crumbs in the keyboard.

I always do advance prep, and sometimes my friend Anthony helps with my homework. So here we are in my kitchen at 10 a.m. tasting these four wines before the noontime webinar. We immediately fall in love with the 2006 BVE E Minor Chardonnay, which has a sort of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc attitude. Next, there is the 2006 E Minor Shiraz -- lots of spicy fruit like a jazzed-up Russian River Zin. Wow!

Then we taste the 2004 vintage of Ebenezer and E&E Black Pepper, which regularly gets ratings in the 90s by the guys who write the textbooks. Eb has great, raw-meat, steaklike aromas, and Pepper has fruity balsamic and green olive notes. Both sport that trademarked Aussie fruit balminess, but neither is totally satisfying, like an apple pie with great filling but no crust. I turn on the computer to catch Stuart, but Anthony has to take off. What a guy -- helps me study even though he doesn't have to write a report!

Next day, I re-pull the corks on Eb and Pep -- education never sleeps -- then the next, then the day after -- and gradually they turn delicious. Should have decanted on that first day! But, if you study hard enough, you finally get it.

"No drinker left behind," I say.

This article appeared in slightly different form in my weekly wine column in the Delaware regional newspaper, The News Journal.

Until next time....

Roger Morris

Friday, October 3, 2008

Champagne Trail: Digging Pommery's Caves

On first-time visits, hosts always like to ask what surprised and impressed you -- two related, but yet quite different questions. This September, I was invited to visit the respected Champagne house of Pommery, which is part of the Vranken maison, which also includes the Vranken, Diamant, Charles Lafitte, and Heidsieck Monopole labels in Champagne as well as Listel table wines and Rozes port, among others.

So here is what impressed and surprised me.

1. I was impressed, but not surprised, by the wines, as I had tasted many of them before. Most wine writers never accept invitations from winegrowers we don't thoroughly respect (not that we can't be surprised), just as you wouldn't agree to spend the weekend at someone's house whom you don't like all that much. And quietly enjoying a vertical tasting of Pommery's luxury marque, Cuvee Louise, at the end of a hectic day with cellar master Thierry Gasco was certainly the wine high point of the visit.

2. I was surprised by the beauty of the Champagne landscape. I had been led to expect monotonous, rolling hills of nothing but vines -- but the narrow roads twisted and turned through lots of woods, past villages tucked into little corners of the countryside, and through vast cultivated fields that had been decreed years ago as unworthy of being prime vineyard land.

3. I was fascinated by the press houses. In addition to the big wineries that the large Champagne companies own, there are hundreds of press houses scattered among the villages and even in the vineyards. The idea is that the grape farmers, who still command most vineyard acreage, press the grapes quickly for juice purity before it goes to the winery, generally keeping a part of the production to ferment as their own house wines. I had thought these houses were surely relics of the past, superceded by refrigerated tanker trunks and neutral gases. Not so. Driving through the vineyards with Gasco, I noticed a yellow post-it note hanging from the rearview mirror of his Audi. It was his daily "do list" of 10 or so press houses he needed to visit to check harvest and production, two of which we saw. One, Lejeune Pere & Fils, was part of the grower's comfortable house in an upscale neighborhood, much like a large garage. Another, Pierre Arnoud, was a small winery opposite an ancient cemetery where a town gave way to hillside vines.

4. I loved the little city of Rheims, where Pommery and many other firms have their headquarters, with its beautiful, historic cathedral where the kings were coronated. "This is where France started," our guide said, "when Clovis converted to Christianity in the 5th Century," although the cathedral was built much later.

5. I had the best time at a luncheon at the newly rennovated Villa Demoiselle, just opened to the public, with Paul-Francois Vranken, his wife, Nathalie Vranken, and Vranken-Pommery managing director Paul Bamberger. Earlier, Nathalie took us on a delightful tour of the villa, detailing the fascinating work of dozens of craftsmen. The lunch, prepared by Chef J.J. Lange, was exquisite, and the conversation lively and free-ranging.

6. And I found the miles of caves -- Roman chalk pits connected by passageways -- under Domaine Pommery and the city to be awe-inspiring. Not only are there millions of bottles stored down here, but the caves, and the English-style castle above it, are the site of the Pommery Experience, a rotating international art exhibition sponsored by Vranken-Pommery. The current exhibit is much too diverse to explain in this short space, but imagine walking into a large room of this underground cavern and encountering the brighly lit beach scene below!

It's enough to make one call it a day and reach for a glass of Pommery Brut Royal!

Articles Update....

I've recently become Managing Editor of the electronic publication Sommelier News, the official newsletter of the International Sommelier Guild, and thus find myself selecting and editing my own articles among those of other writers. In the October issue, I examine "New Zealand's Right Bank Reds," which is about how the Gimblett Gravels area of Hawke's Bay has become home to Merlots that remind one of Bordeaux's Right Bank and Syrahs that are reminiscent of the Rhone's Right Bank.... Log onto and click on "article and guides - drinking" to see my recommendations for "Top 5 2005 Bordeaux for Under $50".... In my first article published in the beautifully photographed magazine, La Vie Claire, I profile Heidi Peterson Barrett , "The Queen of Napa Valley".... And, finally, in the October issue of Beverage Media, I look at what Kermit Lynch and Frugal McDougal have in common -- consumer newsletters -- in "You've Got Wine Mail."

Until next time...

Roger Morris

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Drouhins of Burgundy: All in the Family

There are undoubtedly thousands of family wineries in the world, but few are as good or as completely involved as the Drouhins of Beaune, the wine capital of Burgundy. Robert Drouhin, who headed the Joseph Drouhin company for years and still participates in the daily tastings, represents the third generation of the family business, and all four of his children are actively involved in the the global wine venture today. The youngest, Frederic, is CEO of the business because his older siblings asked him to run the firm. Laurent heads American and Caribbean marketing from New York City, and Philippe looks after the estate vineyards and grape buying in the Cotes d'Or, Macon, Cote Chalonnaise, Beaujolais, Chablis -- and Oregon. Veronique, in the photo above, heads the winemaking and pioneered the family's Domaine Drouhin estate in Oregon.

I recently spent time with the family in Burgundy on assignment and will be writing more about them and Burgundy in the weeks to come.

(Oh yes, the snails in garlic butter in the photo, served for lunch at the Auberge de Cheval Noir in Beaune, paired wonderfully with the 2006 Joseph Drouhin Clos des Mouches Blanc.)

Meanwhile, back at the ranch...

There are a few of my new articles that might be of interest to you:

In the Robb Report, a piece in the September issue features the subtle charms of the 200 bottles of rare 1965 Auchentoshan lowland Scotch, while the November issue tells about the obvious charms of Orient Express' Colca Canyon resort miles away from everything in Southern Peru... In the September issue of Beverage Media, we explore the growing influence of sommeliers in the article, "Gatekeepers of the Next New Wine"... We return to Peru for a perusal of rare forms of the Pisco Sour for the September issue of The Tasting Panel... If you like your Chards naked, check out the "Top 5 Unoaked Chardonnays" and the foods and recipes to go with them at the fall issue of Drinks features the attractiveness of Spain's Albarinos and other white wines... in the September edition of Sommelier News, we look at how Israeli winemakers are turning their country into a land of milk, honey -- and good wines...and, finally,if you've ever considered getting rid of that pesky grass and instead growing grapes in your backyard, pick up a copy of the October issue of the Wine Enthusiast to see how Clos LaChance is turning Silicon Valley into Grapegrowers Alley.

Until next time...

Roger Morris

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Brandywine Book of Food: Coming May 2009

Paul Mikos, Associate Publisher of Cumberland House publishers, knows how to reward writers who get their copy in on time. As the the last days of July crept up on August 1, three of us were scrambling to get in the text (me), photos (Ella Morris), and recipes (Cathleen Ryan) for The Brandywine Book of Food to meet our August 1 deadline.

The book is scheduled to be published in May 2009 -- a compendium of recipes, photos, and stories about the people who produce and prepare food in the Brandywine region of northern Delaware and Southern Pennsylvania west of Philadelphia. Cumberland House was itself scrambling to assemble its spring catalog and make marketing and sales plans. The book will definitely be of high quality, both inside and out.

The restaurants whose recipes are featured and photographed and whose stories are told include Talula's Table, Domaine Hudson, Toscana, Fair Hill Inn, Harry's Seafood Grill, the Hotel du Pont, Catherine's, Simon Pearce, Sovana Bistro, Brandywine Prime, Blue Pear Bistro, Nektar, Bistro on the Brandywine, Hank's Place, and Gilmore's. Plus tales from the regional wineries and the B&B's and small inns.

Was it just a coincidence that Mikos sent us the cover mockup (above) of the book only minutes after the last recipe was e-mailed to Nashville, where Cumberland House is headquartered? I prefer to think it was a reward for our hard work and for staying on deadline.

Definitely more later....

Roger Morri

Sunday, July 20, 2008

As September Approaches, A Last Marathon

It is September 2000, the first year of the new Millennium, so we no longer have to worrry about the Milennium Bug.
I am standing around with a bunch of shabbily dressed people I mostly don't know outside Chateau Beychevelle on this warm Sunday morning, blind tasting one of the property's second labels.
"There is great intensity," I say to myself after taking a sip, "and a richness of flavor with a chocolate, earthy finish." But is it the chateau's Les Brulieres or the Amiral, and what is the vintage -- 1998, 1997, 0r something older?
Can't tell, so I approximate a Gallic shrug, throw my plastic tasting cup into a trash receptacle, and clip my mini tape recorder back to my shorts. And reluctantly start running again, as we are only about six miles into our race with another 20 miles to go.
Each fall, the Marathon du Medoc -- the date of this year's edition is September 8 -- gives thousands of people the opportunity to taste 20 or so wines from the top chateaux in Pauillac, St.-Julien, and St.-Estephe, plus the opportunity to sample many typically Bordelaise foods. The catch is that you have to run for three-to-six hours through their vineyards to experience this gastro treat.
Moi, aujoud'hui, I am running what I intend to be my last marathon in the first vintage of the new century. Although I have completed six prior marathons in relatively decent times, I am now past my running prime and in only so-so shape.
But the lure of the venue and the encouragement of friends, one a foodie who is with me today, running his first marathon, kept me focused during the weeks of training and those four 20-milers in practice.
Our morning starts early along the Gironde River in the wine town of Pauillac, where there are more than 3,000 runners milling around with up-tempo music loudly blaring as it always does at races. Although there are serious marathoners participating, most people here are fun runners, many adorned in costumes. Large, bare faux buttocks seem to be the tout le rage. But remember, the French think Jerry Lewis is funny, too.
At 9:30, we are off. The first wine stop is within the city itself, a mere quarter of a mile into the race, and it is jammed. My running buddy, Glenn Bergman, and I pass it by. I note sadly that Lynch-Bages, which we see on our right as we leave town, isn't pouring today, so we push on toward St.-Julien and Beychevelle.
At that point,the course loops inland toward the northwest, the runners begin to spread out, and there is more running room. And this is good, as Nature begins calling, and runners both male and female start peeling off into the vine rows to drop their pants and do some organic enrichment of the terroir. Wine stops at Lagrange and Grand-Puy-Lacoste are properly noted into the recorder, and then we come into the courtyard at Pontet-Canet. Here, we are treated to real wine glasses, and the wine is drawn from barrels. "We would never taste in plastic glasses," a pourer sniffs. Even though this slows down the process, we are glad for the time to catch our breaths.
So far, the food has been bistro-simple -- fruit, cheese tarts, sweets -- but, after a wine stop at 14 miles on the beautiful grounds of Mouton-Rothschild, blood sausages are offered us in the streets of the village of Le Pouyalet. Against my warning, Glenn, ever the foodie, cannot resist. He asks if sweetbreads are also available.
As we cross over into St.-Estephe, the sun starts bearing down as we slog through the hilly countryside. Le Crock, Pomys, le Haye, Marquis de St.-Estephe, and Phelan-Segur now seem obstacles to overcome rather than delightful chateau wines to be sampled. With five miles to go, we are at one of my favorites, Haut- Marbuzet, but today I can barely enjoy the view.
The course heads back downhill to the river, but running downhill now seems more difficult than running uphill, so we walk for 100 yards or so. As we again reach the wide, tidal waters of the Gironde, there are raw oysters -- perhaps cooked oysters by now -- with white Bordeaux. Our plan from last night was to celebrate here with just two miles to go, but now it seems like a nauseating idea. I do grab a cup of wine with a kilometer to go, Mouton Cadet blanc, and it has never tasted more delicious and refreshing.
And ,then, there is the last flurry to the finish line back where we started, a sprint on cramping legs. I hold back, and Glenn jubilantly runs ahead. Our time is very slow as marathons go -- around 5 hours and 10 minutes -- although I do feel better when I realize there are hundreds of people still behind us. Some may be even planning to spend the night at their favorite chateaux.
Later that evening, Glenn and I, along with two other friends who ran part of the race and one who was injured during training, and our wives celebrate in the elegant Hautrive St. James in Bouillac. Glenn in euphoric, while I am merely exhausted. The waiter arrives, and we order a cold bottle of a very good Champagne.
Sorry, but we've had enough vin du Medoc for one day!
Note: I apologize for the tardiness of recent postings. My two partners and I are just finishing the manuscript, photos, and recipes for The Brandywine Book of Food, which will be published early next year by Cumberland House.
Until the next time...
Roger Morris

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Napa Chards: Judgment of Paris Revisited

The appearance of the move Bottle Shock at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year caused us to cast an eye backward to the the 1976 Judgment of Paris at which Napa Valley wines, that is, its Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, began to get worldwide recognition when preferred in blind tastings with the French classics. Judged by Frenchmen, no less.

Drinks magazine editor David Mahoney asked me to do a piece on how Napa Valley Chardonnays are doing today. The answer is, "quite well, thank you." The article, in the Summer 2008 issue, includes interviews with Bo Barrett of Chateau Montelena (played in the film by Chris Pine), former Flora Springs winemaker Ken Deis, current Flora Springs communications director Sean Garvey, Shaun Richardson of Clos Pegase, and Jon Emmerich of Silverado.

Two interesting notes. One, most California Chardonnays were called Pinot Chardonnay back then, a piece of trvia that many of us have almost forgotten. Two, I talked with Steven Spurrier, who conceived of and conducted the Paris tastings, in Bordeaux during this year's primeurs tasting. The Decanter contributor is played in the film by the accomplished actor Alan Rickman, but that doesn't keep Spurrier from labeling the film a bit of bowdlerized trivia. He much preferred the real version.

Scratch a wine critic and find a film critic!

If you would like a pdf of the whole article courtesy of Drinks, please contact me at

Until next time....

Roger Morris

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Headline Writer Tattoos J Winemaker

When I visited the progressive J winery in Sonoma County this spring with some other wine journalists, I was surprised to hear head winemaker George Bursick tell us to come back in two years and J would be making the best Pinot Noir in California. Normally, winemakers are as bland as football coaches in saying anything truly quotable. So Bursick's willingness to paint a bullseye on his chest for other winemakers to shoot at woke me up after a morning of sipping wines. The statement was especially daring as Bursick, formerly wine chef at Ferrari-Carano, had never made Pinot Noir commercially.

When I got back to my desk, I wrote my column for The NewsJournal in Wilmington on Bursick's pronouncements. Many readers don't know it, but writers don't write the headlines for their stories. Fortunately, I have good headline writers, and my column on Bursick and J appeared under the headline:

"Audacious Winemaker Shoots for the Top with His Pinot Noirs."

I was not surprised to find out that the folks at J did not go all spastic on me or George. A few days later, veteran PR head Tony Lombardi sent me a note with a link to the J blogsite ( There was a picture of George with a faux tattoo that says "Audacious Winemaker" that Lombardi had a local tattootist whip up.

Which goes to show you that Bursick, unlike the grape he plans to take to new heights, is not thin-skinned.

Until next time...

Roger Morris

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Counting Bottles on the Wall

I first met painter Thomas Stiltz at a reception at the University of Delaware in April, but I already knew about him through leering at his life-like paintings of famous wine bottles -- some in pristine lineups, others dishabille in the middle of affaires de table -- on gallery walls from Carmel to Martha's Vineyard.

A former commercial photographer turned serious painter, Stiltz was doing OK until a gallery owner suggested that he take the occasional glasses of wine he placed in his still lives and turn them into real bottles. Although he was hesitant at first, she loaned him a bottle of Opus One -- "1997, I think" -- and the rest is history. Stiltz has since painted through the famous vineyards of California and, more recently, Bordeaux to the praise of critics, wine lovers, and winery owners. The latter are very happy to exchange rights to paint their famous labels in exchange for giclee prints of his paintings, which cost from $850 to $1,500 each. Cakebread, Joseph Phelps, Beringer, Heitz, Shafer, and Chateau Montelena have been his muses in an official series that could be called, "Let Us Now Paint Famous Bottles."

In person, Stiltz is a delightful conversationalist. While he doesn't sleep with his models, he does consume them. "My strength is painting wood, glass, and metal, so wine bottles come naturally," he says. A graduate of Delaware, Stiltz returned to campus to give a lecture and to unveil a print of the painting above, "Five First Growths," (photo by Ella Morris) which he was donating to the university.

Next, Stiltz is turning his attention to portraits of famous musical instruments. While we all love classical music, I fear those of us who love his cellar collection are in danger of suffering from bottle-less shock.

To view or purchase Stiltz' paintings and prints, go to

Added Notes: Look for two new articles in the June editions of these wine magazines -- my report on the 2008 Bordeaux primeurs tastings of the 2007 barrel samples in Beverage Media and a look at Napa Valley Chardonnays 25 years after the Judgment of Paris in Drinks magazine.

There will be no new postings this week. We are away on assignment to Colca Canyon in Peru.

Until the next time...

Roger Morris

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Road Trip: Pelicans Without Briefs

A wonderful bird is a pelican,
His beak can hold more than his belican.
He can take in his beak
Enough food for a week;
But I don't see how the helican.

-- Dixon Lanire Merrith, 1910

Pelican sans briefs.

-- Ella Morris, 2008

Part Two: There and Back

Fourth Day Out: It's not often you drive over a thousand miles to meet someone, and then discover that person was born in the countryside less than five miles from your own birthplace.

Ella and I had arrived in Sebastian, Florida, on the Atlantic Coast around midday after spending the night near St. Augustine. Ella's mother's family -- the Websters -- were a close-knit clan of eight brothers and sisters who lived on a farm near St. Albans in the Kanawha River Valley of West Virginia a few miles downstream from Charleston. Nevertheless, half of the family decided to move to Florida within a relatively short time period, all settling in the Sebastian area south of Melbourne, while the other four, including Ella's folks, stayed on in West Virginia. All of the siblings are dead now, and only two of the sisters in law, one each in Florida and West Virginia, have survived.

Survived? No, that may not be a strong enough description for Aunt Bella. She has endured. We are sitting now in her living room, having carried our bags into the back bedroom for our two-night stay here. While we sip sweet tea, Aunt Bella sits in front of a needlepoint frame, and there are crochet hooks nearby. Crocheted lace doilies for table tops and the backs of couches (sofas) were standard issue in country homes when I was growing up, and Bella still creates lovely ones in both all white and in mixed colors.

Bella was born a Canterbury, and Canterburys were as plentiful as fleas on a beagle along Sandy Creek north of Charleston where we both had our childhoods a generation apart -- she at Frame and me a few miles away on Aaron's Fork. She left the creek in the 1940s and met Herman Webster. I left the creek in the 1960s and met her niece, Ella Alford. So, for a while, Bella and I play the "do-you-know?" game. We discover I went to school with some of her nieces and nephews, and she knew some of my aunts and uncles on both sides of my family.

Later that evening, we drive a few miles to Micco to visit Ella's favorite cousin, Connie, whom she played with when both were children in St. Albans before Herman and Bella migrated south. Their relationship is one of those where they might not see each other for years -- decades even -- and they pick up where they left off. Ella has met Connie's husband, Bob, before, but I have not. I like him immediately. He was born near Sebastian and was the first person Connie met when she was sent from the family car inside a small grocery store to ask directions to her uncle's new place. A few years later, she married Bob, and they now have grown children and grandchildren.

Like the Websters, Connie and Bob's family is close-knit, but even if they weren't relatives, they all share the same passion -- hunting and fishing -- so they would have crossed paths somewhere outdoors. They all know the same ponds, lakes, beaches, woods, streams and canals and what moves within them. Vacation and weekend retreats is a hunting camp a couple of hours drive away. They have hunted deer, alligators, frogs, and all the fishes in the deep blue sea. So with just a little urging, Bob brings out a venison sausage from one of the deer someone in the family shot that is densely packed and delicious. One link would provide chewing for a day. We also discuss gigging frogs and the best parts of an alligator and how they should be cooked.

The other thing we talk about is hurricanes. The Sebastian area has been the target of a few recently, and Connie and Bob tell stories about fleeing storms that have person first name or of hunkering down at home to wait them out. Perhaps even more horrendous are the stories of rising insurance rates, when insurance is available at all.

Fortunately, as we leave to go back to Bella's for the night, there is not a breeze stirring.

Fifth Day Out. Today, the Pelicans aren't flying. The wind has picked up this morning, so they are comfortable to perch on piers or hunker in the grass at Pelican Island National Wildlife Reserve. We have driven here with Connie and Bob from Sebastian across the bridge and causeway across the intracoastal waterway and past the multimillion dollar estates of John's Island. Bob remembers when there were dirt roads here and how he and his buddies would sometimes get stuck in the sand on their way to a fishing boat.

Ella loves pelicans and scurries among them taking pictures. Who knows why -- modesty, perhaps? -- but they sit with their wings gathered in front of them and peer between them like medieval warriors looking out at an enemy from behind metal shields.

Earlier in the day, we have met Cherie, Connie and Bob's daughter. Cherie's husband, Garrett, has build a thriving electrical business here, up from nothing to outfitting cell phone towers across the state. Of course, his business success is nowhere nearly as important to the family as is the fact that he is from Louisiana -- a Cajun -- and therefore loves to hunt as much as his brothers-in-law and father-in-law. Their two teenage daughters, both young beauties, have already bagged deer.

Cherie has for years been a quilt collector, and Ella has brought her one that Ella's mom and a sister-in-law created together some years ago, an heirloom that Cherie places in her special quilt cabinet, something that originated in West Virginia -- a hazy place already to the grandchildren -- and will now be passed along to generations in Florida.

Connie and I have a discussion about an article I wrote for Saveur magazine about a Thanksgiving in West Virginia. I brought a copy down for Bob because the family I profiled, who live near the New River in Monroe County, are also steadfast deer and squirrel hunters. But it is Connie who is most interested because the mother in the family is a Canterbury who was born in Kanawha County. Was there a link between this lady and the Canterburys in her mother's family? She is sure there must be, and she decides it is time to put on her genealogical hat and some time soon track that down the potential relationship.

Our visit is coming to an end, so we have a final dinner out at a rambling seafood restaurant along the waterway and say our long goodbyes. What a delight to have finally met, and spend a couple of days with, what we have referred to for years as "the Florida relatives." We agree to host Bob and Connie when they decide to take that long-planned trip north to visit New York City.

When we get back to our room, Bella is already asleep.

Sixth Day Out. It is about a six-hour drive from Sebastian to Seabrook Island, south of Charleston, SC., where Tom and Linda live. Like Mike and Patty, whom we visited in Wilmington, NC, on our way down, Tom and Linda are part of our old wine group that flourished during the late 1990s while we all had corporate jobs in the Delaware area (except for Ella, who was commuting to one in New York).

Along with three or four other couples, we would set aside one Friday night a month to sample 10 new bottles of wine and briefly discuss them. However, somewhere about the four or fifth bottle, side conversations would pop up. Randy, another camper, would thunder out, "Focus!" and Linda, in her East Tennessee drawl, would command, "Shut the shit up!" to restore calm. Almost as important as discussing the wines was guessing each bottle's price, with a door prize going to the best guesser. The wine tasting was followed by a communally prepared dinner, and more bottles would emerge from the cellar of whoever was hosting that evening. The group was so tight -- in more ways than one -- that we even went on road trips together to visit wineries and vineyards in Virginia and Long Island and, on a couple of occasions, even Bordeaux.

But, like the Websters of Ella's family, the group eventually split up. One couple moved to Philadelphia, close enough to still join us on an occasional basis, but Tom and Linda and Mike and Patty ended up in the South, although each family has a son still working in Delaware where they still see childhood friends. Tom is slightly younger than I am, but we have different philosophies -- often discussed -- about how to spend post-corporate life. He decided to retire cold-turkey -- no consulting, no "just for the fun of it" job as a part-time barista at a coffee shop or as a bookstore clerk. Instead, he lives as hectic a life retired as I do as a marketing consultant and writer. Tom does charity work, serves on committees for the community, keeps fit with lots of kayaking and golfing. Neither of us, we have decided, could be happy with the other's lifestyle.

Their house is within walking distances of beaches, yet it and the other are tucked along neat streets where trees outnumber lawns. Were it not for the fact that the house is raised above the garage to protect against storm surges and that an alligator patrols the canal out back, the community could be in central Ohio. As the day slips away, we go out to a nearby beach to view the sunset, as those of us on the East Coast seldom see sunsets over water unless we live on an island or on the east side of a bay.

Later, we reprise an evening with the old wine group on a scaled-down model. We drink wine, then drink more wine, as Tom grills and Linda prepares the side dishes, then more wine comes from the pantry. There are few true underground wine cellars on a barrier island. We talk about their trip to Machu Picchu a few days ago and ours there last year. Linda does not once admonish us to quietude, although once, for old time's sake, I sample Randy with a "Focus." And, like boys at a fraternity party, we decide to call someone -- Jennifer and Michael -- back in Delaware, not sure if they would still be up or asleep. The next day I can't truly remember the purpose of the call.

Seventh Day Out. Do you know Philip Roth? Ella and I both have read a lot of current fiction over the years, especially her when she was taking those daily train rides to New York, but I've always had trouble with Roth. I like the idea of his fiction often more than I actually enjoy reading -- perhaps only one book read to the end and a couple started with the bookmark permanently stuck somewhere around Page 83. The lure is his intelligence and wit, the fact that he is one writer who still discusses ideas and philosophy in his novels. But at what length! Try reading Roth while you're in bed, and you're asleep before the first page is turned. Read him at the beach, and you find yourself flipping through pages of ideas in search of action -- or even a plot. Would someone walk by topless to detract our attention from the page?

But Roth is perfect, we find, as a road book, even if his obsession with body functions (or lack thereof) surpasses even the levels of my late mother-in-law. (I give you Mrs. Portnoy's liver.) Anyway, we are now into the second or third disc -- one would never find an abridged audio version of a Roth book -- of Exit Ghost. Roth's lengthy ruminations on the human condition (including stains) seem perfectly delightful as we weave our way through rush-hour traffic around Charleston en route to I-95 north. Zuckerman's dilemma -- or one of his dilemmas -- of wanting to pursue a young lady even though prostate surgery has left him both impotent and incontinent seems fascinating when you're starting off on a long drive. And how fitting it all seems when we have to temprarily stop the disc after finally finding a suitable rest stop on the long drive through the woods along I-26.

We have decided to power through on the 10 or so hours that it will take us to get home tonight, and not stop in Virginia for an early evening and a two-hour final drive on Saturday morning as we had originally considered. We want our own bed and to reunite with our six yard cats, whom, we are convinced, can't wait another night without us.

As we turn off I-95 on US 301 then merge west of Annapolis with US 50, we begin to encounter weekend traffic from Washington for the Eastern Shore and the Maryland and Delaware beaches. Years ago, when there was only one two-lane bridge crossing the Chesapeake Bay, traffic would back up for hours. We find that it still does -- or at least the better part of an hour -- although there is now a second, multi-land span. Then the traffic gradually starts moving, first in fits and starts, then in a mad rush like a drain clog that has been loosened by the plumber's friend. I hate the new bridge -- it is higher and more exposed -- but traffic going east crosses the old one, so I am not too concerned about my acrophobia kicking in.

But as I go rapidly through the E-ZPass lane, we are diverted as a reward unto the right lane of new bridge, overlooking the cargo ships miles below heading for their berths in Baltimore. Meanwhile, west-bound traffic hurtles toward me inthe adjoining lane. Where are the distractions of Zuckerman's complaints when I need him? Several minutes later and safely across, I am sure than my fingerprints could be lifted from the underside of the steeing wheel without the need for any forensic dusting.

Finally, the road trip is over. I have managed to take my pilgrimage to Florida and back without getting a traffic ticket. For this week, the roadside alligators have snapped someone else's wallet. Nor have we brought back any cypress knees or Spanish moss, as my ancestors would have done, but more precious are a couple of Aunt Bella's handmade doilies, one which will in time grace our dining room table, the other a windowside wooden stand.

On the back deck, I give a whistle, and the cats slowly emerge one-by-one from under the steps and out of the woods. First Harvey, then Alfie, then Lyle, Clint, and Ernie. And, hanging back at the edge of the May apples that have popped up while we were away, there sits Mama Chester. They cluster around to rub our ankles or be rubbed as we admonish them as "bad cats." As they can attest, John Lennon was right -- "all you need is rub!"

"Where have you been?" they demand.

"We have stories to tell," we reply.

Until the next time....

Roger Morris

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Prosecco Picnic: How Extra Dry It Is!

Cartizze is the name of a prized hill in the Prosecco region of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene -- about 262 acres of vineyards that constitute the area's fabled cru. Several producers own a piece of this famous terroir, located about an hour's drive north of Venice, or at least have access to its grapes. The wine they make from these vineyards is usually a lightly sweet sparkling wine with good acidity -- generally a dry or extra dry and, occasionally, a brut. Fermented in tanks to preserve the Prosecco grape's floral characteristics, the sparkling wine from Cartizze makes an excellent picnic wine.

Which was reason enough to saddle up for an alfresco affair in Bisol's own patch of Cartizze to eat the elegant cuisine of Marco Bortolini (standing) of Da Gigetto restaurant in Miane and to drink the elegant Proseccos of the Bisol family (seated, rear table, at 11, 12, 1 and 4 o'clock), including a bottle produced from grapes grown around our picnic area. The author is at 3 p.m. at the rear table, and fellow writers Robert Whitley, Susan Westmoreland, and Tom Stevenson, along with photographer Peter Sukonik, are scattered among the tables. Behind the tree at rear, pointing skyward, is an ancient cannon to protect us from hailstorms.

How sweet, or at least off-dry, life is!

Until the next time...

Roger Morris

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Robert Mondavi: Napa Valley's Wine Messiah

Robert Mondavi, who died last week at age 94, was a transitional wine industry figure who grew up in one era and helped pull the rest of us into a different age. When Mondavi, already a mature 53 years old, founded his own winery in Oakville in 1966, very few Americans drank fine wines, and those who did drank French.

More than any other person, he changed all that.

Mondavi's challenge, as he saw it, was a two-step goal: Work unselfishly with his fellow Napa Valley vintners to make world-class wines, and then rapidly convince the rest of the world of this new reality. Not that he didn't have help. Andre Tchelitschef, Joe Heitz, Mike Grgich, Warren Winiarski, and Jack Davies were all quality pioneers, but none had the leadership drive and capabilities to match Mondavi.

Having led this miraculous transformation of the Napa reputation by the 1980s, Mondavi sought to use his new-found wealth and admiration to become a world leader in winemaking, and, for a while, he was. But, like a tiring race horse at the head of the stretch, he and his business model began to stumble during the 1990s. By the time of his death, his eponymous winery (like so many eponymous California wineries founded during the heady 1970s and 1980s) had been sold to someone else.

Those of us wine writers who met Robert Mondavi and his sons Michael and Tim during the 1970s know that we are all marked by Mondavi's aura as well. We visited the Mondavi winery shrine in its glory days, heard the master's message, and all willingly and fervently spread it.

And, in our own ways, that's what we still are doing.

Until the next time...

Roger Morris

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Tasting Notes: New York Slate of Rieslings

Of all the classic grape varieties, Riesling is arguably the one most affected by its terroir. Of course, all grapes are influnced by their soil and climate and whatever other elements one factors into the T-word, but Riesling seems to be so delicate and sensitive that it can take up the actual taste of shale or slate or sediment from the earth of the vineyard where it is growing and transfer it into our glass of wine. So it may not be surprising that among people who drink a variety of wines, Riesling also appears to be one grape or wine where preferences as to what is great or merely good also varies most widely. Perhaps it is because there are so many variables within the glass that it is difficult to settle on one, or even a set, that best shows off the variety.

All this came to mind a couple of days ago when Joshua Greene, editor and publisher of Wine & Spirits magazine, led a tasting of 10 selected wines at the 2008 Finger Lakes Riesling Summit at the Astor Wine Center in lower Manhattan. Greene is an expert at the region, one that he has staked out, but rather than being pedantic, he was like an museum curator who has put together an exhibit and wants you to understand what went through his mind in assembling it, including connections that may be tenuous even to his own mind. Ten wines was a workable number -- big enough to give a representational variety, yet small enough to examine in detail.

Which is what Greene did. He explained that his main theme was terroir, and he started with the geographic component, a distribution of locations around the three major lakes, Cayuga, Seneca, and Keuka, assembling the wines into three flights according to their location. This geographic spread also allowed him to examine two other primary aspects of Finger Lakes terroir -- soil composition and the region's multiple lake effects, including those of Lake Ontario to the north. Which led to a discussion of the 500-pound gorilla in the room, in this case the far-larger glaciers that alternately gouged and flattened the landscape, creating deep lakes and plateaus. By selecting these 10 wines, Greene wanted to open the consideration of how these major points of terroir affected the grapes grown and the wines made. But it was also clear that he was not leading a rush to judgment, to tidily wrap up the causal factors in each wine's tastes.

"You get a lot of variability of factors that have nothing to do with terroir," he said, and easily brought many of them into the discussion, which was aided by a sampling of the wines. For example, the yeast used for fermentation. Or the rootstock. The clone. Age of vines. Drainage. Aspect. Density of planting. Yield per vine. Oxygen treatment. Acidity. Residual sugar. Levels of alcohol. And, of course, the philosophy of the wine grower. To be sure, we wine writers had been through all this before, in rooms with other regions and other grapes, but Greene's exploration seemed at once intellectual and entertaining, performed in a thorough yet casual manner.

More than anything else, I came away with the idea that soil, from the granular level to the fractured slabs of slate, has more to do with the way a Finger Lakes Riesling (or any Riesling) tastes than anything else, that ability of the Riesling grape to bring what is at its roots to the tips of our tongues. It is a marvelous sensory achievement, but it still leaves us with the difficult decision of which roots, and which winegrower who interprets those roots, makes the best wine.

As a group, the Finger Lake wines, all from the 2006 vintage, were good to very good. They reflected great minerality, balance, acidity in most cases, and food-friendly flavors. Were they as good as the German Rieslings -- or those of Alsace, Australia or New Zealand? The question is bound to be asked, and, to my palate, the answer is a qualified "no." Certainly, the wines are worthy of exploring further, of our rooting for them to improve with each coming vintage. So, very well-made wines, very enjoyable wines, very good wines for the price (mostly under $30), but not wines that dance around on the palate and through the brain.

So, for now, enjoy the wines. But don't schedule that Judgment in Wiesbaden.

Notes on the Wines Tasted

All wines tasted are from the 2006 vintage, and all are apparently made of 100% Riesling. Retail prices and availability not provided,

The Favorite:

  • Treleaven Dry Riesling. The only wine to exhibit much of the petroleum-like aromas so associated with German Rieslings, it has almost tropical fruit and citrus flower flavors, excellent balance, with a flavorful, yet lea, profile.
Not Far Behind:
  • Fox Run Reserve Riesling. Haunting pears and mineral aromas, followed by a wine that is initially in two parts: juicy tart apricot (pause) followed by stony minerality and a white peach skin finish. It melds the longer it is in the glass, so I would decant before serving, even if that isn't the current practice.
  • White Springs Red Label Riesling. Mote-like particulates in the glass (unfiltered?), but the wine itself has great Riesling juiciness and acidity. Not long on the palate, however.

In the Running:

  • Chateau LaFayette Reneau Johannisberg Riesling. Fruity on the nose and velvety in the mouth with nice white flowers framed by tonic-water prickling around the edges.
  • Red Newt Riesling Reserve. Very lean, raspy minerality, with ripe, red gooseberry flavors.

In the Pack:

  • Buttonwood Grove Dry Riesling. A little heavier on the palate with not as much finesse, the flavors coming mainly at the finish.
  • Sheldrake Point Reserve. Very nice aromas and tart orange flavors, but fuller, heavier with some tart vegetal notes and a constricting finish.
  • Standing Stone Riesling. Good balance, but not a lot of fruit. Most of its considerable character comes from the minerality.
  • Hermann J. Wiemer Dry Riesling. Delicious nose and good flavors, but comes up short with some papery undertastes.
  • Dr. Konstantin Frank Dry Riesling. This is a wine I wanted to like even more than I did -- beautiful nose and a bundle of varietal fruits up front and even some dusty tannins, but it lacks finesse and is short on the palate.

Until the next time...

Roger Morris

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Road Trip: A Pilgrimage to Florida

Long before Republicans and the Cuban exiles, West Virginians discovered Florida.

Our early ancestors made the overland passage in ancient Fords and Chevies, their running boards caked with mud and squirrel and raccoon tails waving from the antennae that were capturing the country sounds of WCKY, Cincinnati One, Ohio, at that time our cultural beacon. We had earlier discovered Ohio, but it was even colder than the mountains in winter, and its post-war factory jobs there were then disappearing. So why not Florida? Employment was uncertain, but the weather was hospitable.
When these pioneers came home after a few weeks, their cars were decorated with brightly colored decals pasted to the wing glasses and back windows, advertising such exotic places as Tarpon Springs and Cypress Gardens. They also brought back gifts that the natives gave them for dollars -- clumps of greying Spanish moss to hang on the front porches, cut cypress knees suitable for making into lamp bases, and wooden cases full of sweet, fresh oranges. But they also told harrowing tales of the lands they traveled through -- the Carolinas and Georgia -- and of feral police cars that pounced from their lairs behind Mail Pouch and Stuckey's billboards and gas-station attendants who could cipher mysterious engine ailments just by raising a car hood.

Although we seldom talk about it among ourselves, those born West Virginian have a desire to some day get into a car and drive to Florida, no matter how far we have flown from our native state, no matter how long ago we shut that door.

Part One: Outward Bound

First Day Out. The lower third of the Delmarva Peninsula dangles south like the nude, tapering tail of a possum escaping up a hickory tree. The land is dead flat, laced with the watery fingers of inlets from the Atlantic Ocean to our left and the Chesapeake Bay to our right that masquerade for a few miles as rivers, their flows dictated not by gravity but by the mysteries of tides. Although the gas stations and convenience stores we pass by are thoroughly modern, the small towns and crossroads are not. There is a siren call of the past here, of a time when farming and fishing were everything to a young country, and it makes you want to stop and linger for a few days -- have a cup of everyday coffee at a small cafe and not read a newspaper, sit in a pasture under a spreading oak tree whose only worry is the occasional passing winds of a hurricane or a fast-moving Nor'easter on its way to Maine, dangle your feet off a decaying dock and look for water halos of fish below. We pass by signs for Assateague (where once I lugged in a half case of wine in my backpack for a weekend alfresco cooking jaunt) and Chincoteague, both barrier islands in the Atlantic. Other signs point to the crabbing and oyster-catching haunts of Crisfield and Smith Island, where the past clings to our consciousness like barnacles that can never be totally scraped away.

Ella and I left Pennsylvania this morning with cups of Starbucks latte nestled in the cup holders between us and a long, unabridged CD of Philip Roth's Exit Ghost nestled in her side pocket to entertain us later and in mine a tin box of curiously refreshing peppermint Altoids to give us quick bursts of fiery energy. We are Florida bound. First, to visit Ella's relatives, an aunt and cousins who went there in the '50s and never returned; second, to visit friends along the way, and, finally, to fulfill that Mountaineer urge to drive south.

The dozens of no-range chicken barns of Perdue and other meat manufacturers are now mercifully behind us as we prepare to traverse the long, beautiful Chespeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel that crosses from Virginia's Eastern Shore at the tip of Delmarva's tail to its Left Bank and the historical, military, and holiday haunts of Newport News, Hampton, Williamsburg, Norfolk, and Virginia Beach. Unfortunately, Ella and I are the Mr. and Mrs. Jack Sprat of topographical phobias -- she hates tunnels and all things underground, and I am terrified of high bridges and all things that suddenly drop off. But the tunnels are short, and the bridges don't really soar, so we touch down at the far side virtually unstressed.

By mid-afternoon, we arrive at the Outer Banks, our destination for the night, and are immediately disappointed. Never having been there, we had anticipated something pristine and, well, spirit-soothing. Instead, Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head -- such free-sounding names -- turn out to be wall-to-wall beach houses stretching from the inlet up over the primary dune like a wave in reverse. Later, we drive south into the national seashore area, and the houses begin to fade away, so we become somewhat mollified. And we enjoy the Wright flight enclave carved out between beach developments and four-lane highways. Still, what does this place look like in the summer?

In the evening, we have our anticipated seafood dinner at Kelly's at Milepost 10.5. Although it is a sauce, starch, and quantity-driven place, everything is fresh and flavorful, and the wine list is good and fairly reasonably priced. When we return to our motel, there is a wedding party going full bore at a beach house down the dune. We decide to crash -- but not it.

Second Day Out. We stop at Grits Grill on South Croatan Highway barely five minutes after liftoff for a quick, Sunday-morning breakfast. Northern food critics like to fawn over grits, possibly because as children they never had to eat them. But the grill's name proves to be more a paean to the locale than it is to the character of its food. The eggs are fresh, the coffee superb, and the service very attentive for a place that has a takeout counter for Krispy Kreme donuts. You also have to love a restaurant that serves both breakfast and lunch all day.
Sated, if not wiser, we head westward across the Great Dismal Swamp, and here we suddenly have the beauty and solitude -- we seem to be the only car on the road -- that the Banks seem to lack. There are warnings of alligators in the ditches and canals that parallel the highway, then fork off into the woods along desolate dirt paths that promise to lead to remote clearings we've all experienced at arm's length in primal-scream slasher movies and Erskine Caldwell novels.
By midday, we are at our friends' home in the Landfall section of Wilmington, NC. Mike and Patty are former neighbors who, since leaving our docile environs, have dodged tornadoes in Oklahoma and barely missed wildfires in the hills of Southern California. Now they are permanently Tarheels, or at least until the next hurricane roars through. We go on a tour of Wilmington, lingering in the old town area along Cape Fear River, where the annual azalea festival is being held. At about every other house, mostly young women dressed up as pre-bellum Azalea Belles give us don't-move-an-elbow waves as we drive by. Beyond the pageantry, though, Wilmington does look like a nice town, the kind of place where you would like to sit down at a small cafe with a cup of coffee and finally read that newspaper.

Mike's and Patty's home is on a golf course -- an early hole -- and I watch Mike hit golf balls with his sand wedge to their young Lab retriever until Patty calls us in for spring lamb chops. As we have packed a few provisions in the car, we play the wine-drinking game of "Raise and Match," as in, "I'll raise your bottle then match it with another."

Third Day Out. We pull up to a motel outside of St. Augustine after a long drive down Interstate 95. It has not exactly been a boring ride, but the highpoint of the day was checking my Blackberry every 15 miles, being sure that the radar-toters hiding in the trees along the medians didn't scan us like a can on a checkout conveyor while I was answering e-mails.

Dinner is a pleasant surprise. Not wanting to overplan (as Ella generally accuses me of doing) or to predetermine how far we would drive each day, we did not consult any travel guides on Great Roadside Restaurants to Eat at While Traveling to Florida. But we did find one -- and a local delicacy as well.

Schooners Seafood on Colon Avenue in St. Augustine looks like the outside of any other 400-mile restaurant, as in, "I've driven 400 miles, and right now this place looks great to me." Inside, it's all booths, lots of local families who seem to know each other, and a menu that has everything from "gator tails" to conch to catch of the day to catfish, all prepared to your specifications, fried or broiled. The surprise is Minorcan datil peppers, which I learn were brought to St. Augustine by settlers from the Greek Islands. Today, a bottle of pepper sauce sits on every table as a condiment along with the mandatory ketchup bottle, and it's also a common ingredient in many dishes -- moderately hot and spicy. Along with some very good calamari, I try the Minorcan clam chowder, and the dish, I decide as I scrape the bowl clean, fits very nicely as the southern terminus of the great American chowder chain -- New England, New York, and, now, Minorcan.

After a Jack Daniels on the rocks in lieu of dessert (life is full of tradeoffs), I call it quits. Tonight, Jack Daniels. Tomorrow, the relatives.

Until the next time....

Roger Morris