Monday, January 24, 2011

Mondavi's Cru Classe' Fume Blanc

When I first started hanging out in the Napa Valley in the late 1970s, visiting Robert Mondavi and his winery was like going to the fountainhead. There were perhaps a dozen or so fascinating winemakers at the time who were great people to taste and talk with, but the Mondavi Winery was special because Robert and his people encouraged experimentation, debate (sometimes quite heated) and interplay with other winemakers. Even vintners who thought they made better wine appreciated the fact that the Mondavis were always available if there was a need and that the publicity Robert garnered brightened the spotlight on all the other Napa wineries.

I also remember when Robert started to popularize the term "Fume Blanc" instead of Sauvignon Blanc. In those days when Chardonnay was queen, I personally had my doubts if the American palate would appreciate the more vegetal tastes of Sauvignon. I should not have worried. I also remember the discussions about To Kalon vineyard ("how do you spell that, Robert?") and how special he considered it.

All this comes to mind after drinking a bottle at dinner the other night of the 2007 Robert Mondavi I Block Fume Blanc from the To Kalon vineyard, a 100 percent varietal available only through the winery at $75. Just 208 cases were made. I love to be stunned by a great white, and this one did just that as it progressed through three layers. First, a melody of tropical and stone fruits - peach, mango, apricot skin, mellow tangerine juice - followed by a layer of brioche and subtle smokiness, then finished off with a minerally display of limestone and tart citrus out of a tin cup. The wine is full on the palate (14.7% alcohol) yet has great closing acidity.

In her notes, director of winemaking Genevieve Janssens, says To Kalon is "what I consider the first growth of Napa Valley." I would agree with her, although I would add the word "among," for the valley does have other vineyards worthy of that appellation.

And, at all levels, I continue to be impressed with the high standards of winemaking at Robert Mondavi at To Kalon and elsewhere. It is a worthy keeper of the cru.

Until next time...
Roger Morris

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Table with a View - The Bayard House

First in a series of postings on restaurants from around the world offering spectacular, or at least interesting, views.

The Chesapeake and Delaware Canal first opened its gates to seagoing traffic between the Chesapeake Bay to its west and the Delaware Bay to its east in 1829 - a span of 14 miles across the states of Maryland and Delaware. In the 181 years since, it has been widened and deepened, changed ownerships, and transformed from a canal with locks to the sea-level passage that it is today. It serves as a shorcut for all sorts of seagoing vessels - some quite monstrous in size - traveling between the port of Baltimore at one end and the ports of Wilmington and Philadelphia at the other. Like the Mason-Dixon line, which parallels it a few miles north, the canal has served as a division line as well - in this case between the more-industrial, more-populated northern Delaware and the more-rural, much-flatter southern Delaware, known affectionately by the northerners as "Slower Delaware."

There are no major cities along the canal's route, but there is one fascinating small town - Chesapeake City in Maryland. Chesapeake City is the southern terminus for the region's thoroughbred farms - another duPont family outpost - but it mainly today serves as an historic village with historical registry homes, a few shops and galleries, and a place to have lunch or dinner and watch the ships go by. The canal splits the town, but the halves are conveniently connected by a high-rise, two-lane bridge along Maryland 213, the access route for Pennsylvanians who want to spend summer weekends along the Eastern Shore.

Years ago, shortly after we moved to Delaware and later a few miles away to Pennsylvania, we used to enjoy dining in the Maxwell's Plum atmosphere of Schaefer's Canal House on the northern side of the canal. Ships going through the canal must do so under the guidance of special pilots who know the channel and how not to run over pleasure boats with their drunken owners during the summer months. The pilots at the western end board and debark the seafaring ships just west of where Schaefers is located. Back then, the owner of the restaurant would dim the lights as a ship was passing by the large glass windows and tell us the name of the vessel, its port of registry, and what it was carrying, at least legally. I thoroughly enjoyed the showmanship.

Although the Canal House building is still there and subject to re-openings and rumors of re-openings, we have since transferred our dining allegiance to the Bayard House on the southern side of the canal, generally for lunch once or twice a year. The building that houses the restaurant itself dates back to the 1780s and was thus already a half-century old when the canal first connected the east and west coasts of the ghastly named Delmarva Peninsula. We went back to the Bayard in early January for the crab soup and other regional delicacies, including a damn fine Bloody Mary rimmed in Old Bay seasoning.

Depending on the season and geo-economic trends, we may or may not see a ship passing by our windows during the hour of dining. Even if not, there are ducks to amuse us, pleasure boats in the summer bearing bikinis large and small, and the coming in and going out of the tides - not as dramatic as Fundy, but seriously roiling around nonetheless. One cold winter, there was a massive floe of broken ice churning back and forth as the tides were in the midest of a shift.

But just as often as not, there is a ship, such as the one in the photos above, chugging from Maryland to the left while nearing Delaware to the right. This boat was at about eye-level (the restaurant is on the second floor, and the building sits up about another floor above canal level. But we have seen very tall cargo ships go buy, and we crane our necks up at them as they sweep by our table. Similarly, the top of a cargo ship approaching from the east can be seen for a few minutes before it rounds a slight bend in the waterway and the bottom comes into view.

This time, we had bagged our ship - although we didn't know its provenance or cargo - while we were still on our Bloody, and thus were free to enjoy our food while keeping an eye out for another ship that might pass in the day.

Until next time....

Roger Morris