Saturday, November 6, 2010

A Week of Drinking Adventurously

Sunday, October 31
Through the years, I have been fortunate to be friends or close acquaintances with a number of winemakers in America and abroad. It always brings up the question of whether I can be totally objective in what I write about their wines, and the answer is, "Yes." As a college instructor at Arizona State during the wild 1960s, I often partied with students (no one gave it a second thought back then), some of whom I had to give a "D," while some non-partiers got an "A." If you can't separate your judgments from your emotions, you shouldn't be a writer, a critic, a teacher, or a judge of any sort. You end up lying to yourself and everyone else.

The good thing about being friends with a winemaker is that you can learn a lot. Even though they may disagree with some judgments and opinions I have, they gain a certain trust - and, hopefully, respect. They know what they can say off the record, they are open to giving opinions and theories, and occasionally they ask for honest feedback on one of their wines.

Michael Richmond at Bouchaine in Napa Valley is a complete joy to talk with. I've learned a lot over casual lunches with Francois Thienpot of the famous winemaking family on Bordeaux' Right Bank and from Bernard de Laage of the extended winemaking team at Chateau Palmer on the Left. Locally, I can discuss anything with Eric Miller of Chaddsford and expect a very frank appraisal, which we often then discuss with some heat.

Anthony Vietri at Va La Vineyards in Avondale and I probably have more time to talk about wine (and sports and politics) than most because, I think, we are both good observors and because he lives 15 minutes away. Sometimes, after we spend an afternoon over a bottle or two of wine and some good local cheese and his own figs and chesnuts at his winery, he will pull out something he has just released and ask, "Do you mind tasting this and tell me what you think?" Fortunately, Tony is a very good winemaker who makes very distinctive wines. "Give a little time to breathe," he cautioned on Thursday as I departed with a bottle of 2007 Mahogany, his Barbera-dominated wine that is probably his top cuvee.

It is now about 4:15 a.m. on Sunday morning, and I have just gotten up to feed the cats, brew some coffee, and toast some focaccia with a little salsa on top. While the coffee is brewing, I open the decanter with the Mahogany. I decanted it on Thursday night in a large vessel, but put a stopper in it so that the wine would get a lot of air but all recirculated off the surface of the wine. The first taste on Thursday still had a touch of post-partum sulphur which gave it a little gaminess, a taste I like but one which I knew would disappear. I have been writing Tony twice-a-day notes since.

This morning, I taste it, make notes, grab the coffee and focaccia, and go to my office with my indoor/outdoor cat, Lyle Lovett, racing up the stairs ahead of me. I e-mail Tony, "The last taste was probably the best. I finished it this morning. It has all integrated for the first time into one taste - purple fruit, close to black raspberry, with cream and a tug of tannin at the end."

Lyle Lovett snuggles in behind me on my writing stool. Not a bad way to start a week of drinking.

Monday, November 1
It has been a busy day of writing, but I have again worked my way ahead of the assignments-due versus articles- completed curve, having knocked off the last of eight holiday pieces for Caviar Affair and a Porto travel piece for The Hunt.

Tonight, Ella and I are relaxing at a wine dinner at Domaine Hudson in Wilmington (see earlier post) that features Le Cadeau Pinot Noirs from Oregon. I am the designated driver, so I am watching the pours, especially since I had tasted the wines Saturday night at a party for the Mortimers, who own Le Cadeau. It's a chatty group at our end of the table, and my notes trail off to nothiness - I'm covered! - as courses come and wine flows. At the end are business entrepreneurs and executives Ajit and Sarah George, whom we chatted with at Saturday's grand tasting, and next to us are Al Mascitti and Valerie Helmbrecht, both writers who often do other things.

Al puts his nose in one wine and says, "I like this, but I would have never guessed it was a Pinot Noir," and we are off into a discussion of how modern winemaking techniques have lessened the relevance of "varietal characteristics," which we all talked about during the '70s and '80s, in favor of "taste profiles" (a winese term which I detest) emphasizing whether the fruit is red, purple, or black.

I ask Al if he misses being a restaurant critic after doing it for years. "Not at all," he says. "I can now order what I want, but generally I'd rather eat at home." "And when we do go to a restaurant," Valerie adds, "Al doesn't tell me what to order!"

Tomorrow being election day, the talk shifts to politics - Al and Valerie have both covered Delaware politics as a reporter, and Ajit has been a campaign volunteer - so I stop taking wine notes altogether and plunge in.

Tuesday, November 2

Election Day. I have voted, taken a long walk, and posted the Le Cadeau piece. I see my piece on Nouveau Brandywine has been posted by a regional site. It is now about 8 p.m., and I decide to fix myself a drink to sip as I monitor returns on the New York Times and Politico sites. Last week, also in the New York Times, Frank Bruni wrote about his quest to find out how to make a Frisco, a cocktail that still, apparently, haunts his memory. Eventually, he came up with a rye, Benedictine, and lemon juice combination that satisfied his memory and his tastes.

So yesterday I bought Benedictine, having only B&B in the cabinet, and now I'm blending, blending, blending the three ingredients, then add ice. I make a very big drink, for it will be a long evening. I take the first sip, and I am not sold - too much lemon juice, a little too bitter, although that may suit my mood as the returns come in. But as the evening goes on, the results, and the drink, mellow. So do I. Looking at the Senate map as it fills in, I see a lot of red fruit in the profile, but there are some welcome blue fruit notes here and there.

But Frank, I'll be looking for a sweeter cocktail two years from now.

Wednesday, November 3

The sample bottles arrive in the morning - 6 tiny wine bottles, enough for a taste or religious communion (a possible market?) - for this afternoon's 3 p.m. tasting. How's that for confidence in Fedex or last-minute planning ("Did I send the wine? I thought you sent the wine! OMG!")

Normally, I amtrak to New York City a few times a month, and occasionally to Washington, from my home in Chester County, PA, for a wine tasting and seminar conducted by a winemaker. (Occasionally, the PR agency tries to slip in another writer or sommelier - skip those.) But, increasingly, Webinars are saving everyone time and money. I watched Montes from the vineyards in Chile, Raymond talking from California. Today, it will be Cameron Hughes talking and tasting from Napa Valley, with his sidekick, Sam Spencer.

At 3 p.m., I have lined up six large glasses that tower over the six screwy Lilliputs. I turn on the radio - I mean, click on the website, pump up the volume, and Cameron and Sam start talking at me. One by one, we go through each Lot Number, and the wines, all lots purchased negociant-style by CH, are very good and very good values to boot. And no need to spit, as all six might add up to one good pour. I decide I could start a relationship with Lot 175, purchased from Havens. It's my favorite, and I lust after more than this brief kiss.

There are about 25 of us online now, and we type in questions that are relayed to Cameron and Sam. I ask if all of their high-end partners are in distress, or if some are using CH to declassify as they might normally do in bulking off. Cameron leaps on the first part of my question, looks straight at me through the ether-world, and explains to me that many of his partners are in good financial straits. He didn't hear the second part, but that's OK.

Cameron, you've found a good business model for now, a good way to send just-in-time wine samples, and a good way to tell me all I need to know about your wines, taking less than 30 minutes of my time.

Thursday, November 4

It is a miserable, rainy, cold day - the kind us Anglophiles just love. I have spent the morning at the University of Delaware lecturing, as I do once a semester, to one of Robert Nelson's hospitality classes on worldwide wine trends. They are a good undergraduate audience, even though most of them are not yet of an age to legally drink up any part of my talk.

I don't cook enough any more, so today I make a bean and Italian sausage soup. Whenever I'm not traveling, Ella and I share a bottle of wine with dinner, generally trying to remove one from the kitchen pantry cabinet where I keep the samples that come to my doorstep like abandoned foundlings. Since most arrive in 750ml (note to Cameron) diapers, our pantry is generally overflowing. I don't choose anything dramatic tonight, but it turns out to be a very satisfying meal of homemade soup and 2008 Le Veli Salento "Primonero."

Today, comfort food, comfort wine.

Friday, November 5

I see my article on the Douro Makeover has been posted on Sommelier News, as the November issue is beamed out to its audience.

Tonight, Ella goes with me to a walk-around tasting, generally not my favorite type of wine venue. Too often they are shoulder-to-shoulder crowded, and it's almost impossible to concentrate on the wine you're tasting or talk with the people pouring the wines. Tonight, it's different on all counts. It's the annual calling-all-vendors bash by the Wine and Spirit Company of Greenville, a retail store, and it's being held at Brantwyn, one of the many decommissioned mansions and great houses of the scions of the founder of DuPont, the company, scattered all over the Brandywine Valley.

Once inside, over there is Michael Richmond, winemaker at Bouchaine (wasn't I just talking about him?), a winery owned by the Copelands, who also own the wine shop. And beside that table is David Duckhorn, the genial wine importer, with his cache of California and New Zealand wines. And so we work our way from table to table, room to room - a sip of wine and a brief chat at each. And about 40 minutes later we are back out into the night air.

At home, Ella and I again raid the sample pantry, this time for a bottle of 2007 Blason d'Issan. We were in the Medoc that harvest, so it gives us something else to chat about as we sit at the kitchen counter and raid the refrigerator for some of Tom Schaer's underground sheep cheese from just across the creek and some artisan salumi handmade by Phil Pyle, a chef owner at Fair Hill Inn, a handful of miles away in Maryland. It's a wonderful after-the-theater snack.

But it's only 8:30, so I delve a little further into my novel and Ella into her Kindle as we read ourselves to sleep.

Saturday, November 5

One more night out. It's now late in the afternoon, and I have to finish this posting so we won't be late for tonight's dinner at Susan Teiser's Centreville Cafe, co-hosted by Linda Collier of Collier's of Centreville wine shop. I have to be there - no excuses - because "Roger Morris Selections" will be poured tonight to accompany the great food of Susan and her staff.

It's a coming-out dinner of sorts, as I recently expanded my involvement from writing about the wine trade to being part of it as a broker in Delaware for three California wineries - Bell Cellars, Mauritson, and Hidden Ridge. I hesitated for a long time before making this commitment. One, I still fully plan to be a wine writer first, so I've made the vow not to write about my wines in any sort of advocacy way. When I mentioned this to Clay Mauritson, I liked his reply: "Hell, I don't care if you don't write about my wines. I want you to sell my wines." Point taken, so you'll see none of them as my Wines of the Week.

The second reservation is that I'm not a entrepreneur, although I love entrepreneurism. Translated, I love working with new ideas, launches, and new ventures, but I hate putting up money that I might lose. John Lowman, my partner in RMS' parent company, North Fork Wine & Spirits, put that fear in proper perspective. "The worse that can happen," John said, "is that we'll have to drink a few pallets of wine."

Okay, it's almost time to go drink - sorry Clay, sell - some wine. And tonight I can leave my notebook at home.

Until next time....

Roger Morris

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