Tasting SLV and Mouton with Warren Winiarski

During my recent visit to California, I had the pleasure of visiting Warren Winiarski, founder of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and a Napa Valley pioneer whose Cabernet Sauvignon won the famous Paris Tasting of 1976. We first met a few years ago when the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History opened its exhibit Food: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000, and I interviewed him for an earlier piece on Napa Cabernet.

Warren Winiarski with his 2006 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon

Warren Winiarski with his 2006 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon

We were to meet for lunch at Bistro Don Giovanni, but at the last minute Warren invited me to his home first to taste the Stag’s Leap 2006 SLV, the last vintage he harvested before selling the winery in 2007, and the 2006 Mouton Rothschild. One does not decline such an invitation.

When I arrived at his home, perched on a hill behind the winery with a panoramic view of the Fay Vineyard, Warren seemed perturbed. The Mouton, he explained, was damaged. He showed me a half bottle he had purchased from a well-known online purveyor. Unfortunately, it arrived with the cork protruding half an inch from the bottle, nearly poking through the foil. The tissue paper wrapper was stained with wine, and the label also showed signs of leakage. The wine had obviously been improperly stored.

My first thought was, what idiot would put an obviously damaged bottle of Mouton into the mail, especially when the customer name on the label was Winiarski? Reflecting on this experience later, I wondered about the reliability of any wine purchased over the Internet, especially older rare wines. (Note the comment below that the seller gave Warren a full refund.)

The Mouton was indeed cooked. The color was brown, it tasted of stewed fruit compote and lacked virtually any aroma. The SLV, on the other hand, was still quite young and vibrant. It was just shaking off its youthful tannins and beginning to show its potential to develop into a truly classic Napa Valley Cabernet.

Even though we couldn’t make the comparison with the Mouton, the chance to taste the Stag’s Leap with the man who grew it and helped establish Napa’s reputation for Cabernet Sauvignon nearly 40 years ago was memorable.

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Drinking Local with The Wine Curmudgeon

BAV 2010 Chardonnay

The wine of the week?

My wife and I had the pleasure last week of hosting Jeff Siegel, aka The Wine Curmudgeon, while he was in DC judging a preliminary round of the 2015 Virginia Governor’s Cup wine competition. (Jeff posted his impressions of the judging here.)

Since Jeff was here to taste Virginia wines, we started with Thibaut-Janisson’s Xtra Brut bubbly, which I was confident would not be in the competition because of small production. Then we focused mainly (though not exclusively) on Maryland. Jeff said he was unfamiliar with Black Ankle Vineyards‘ white wines, so we tried the 2010 Chardonnay. The wine was somewhat golden, reflecting age (most of it in my imperfect cellar), but it was by no means over the hill. It was rich, creamy and oaky, and we each enjoyed a glass before moving on.

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A Chance to Live the Luxury Wine Life in South Africa?

It was only a matter of time before wine auctions go online, like everything else. This year’s Cape Auction in South Africa may not be the first to try this, but they’ve gone virtual in a big way, with a month of online bidding preceding their auction February 13-14 in Stellenbosch.

Online bidding began today, and is aimed at the U.S. market. Big spenders, of course, as most auctions are. And this isn’t eBay, where a package shows up in the mail a few days after your successful bid. For most of these lots, you’d better be planning a trip to South Africa’s wine country. But if you are, and if you have deep pockets, this would be a great way to jazz up that trip.

Will it fit in my carry-on?

Will it fit in my carry-on?

Most of the lots include private tours, dinners, spa treatments and luxury lodging, including at Sir Richard Branson’s Mont Rochelle estate. The Môreson & Le Quartier Français lot includes a barrel of premium chardonnay and a weekend of private partying, including accommodations for 42 people. The Warwick Estate lot includes “an incredible summer party for 100 friends.” (These South Africans know how to have a good time!) If you’re not heading to South Africa, one lot includes a Loire Valley trip, and another includes grouse shooting in England.

Most lots include wine, of course. And lots of it. If I had the money and the cellar space I’d be tempted by the Swartland Revolution lot, which includes Balthazars (12 liters, or 16 regular bottles) from some of Swartland’s hottest producers: A.A. Badenhorst, Sadie Family Wines, Porseleinberg, and Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines. I would need those 100 friends to help drink those! These names featured prominently when I wrote about the excitement in South Africa’s wines last fall. (The wines would be delivered through an importer, such as Broadbent Selections, which imports A.A. Badenhorst, Sadie Family, and Warwick Wine Estate to the U.S.)

The auction hopes to raise more than $1 million this year, according to Mike Ratcliffe, managing director of Warwick and Vilafonté wineries. Proceeds support educational charities in South Africa’s wine lands.

In an email, Ratcliffe even referred to the auction by its Twitter handle #CWA2015, showing the importance of social media and the online bidding. About half the people who attended the auction last year came from outside South Africa, many from the United States, so the organizers decided to try to attract more “U.S. punters,” he said. “Bill Harlan, Charles Banks, Garen & Shari Staglin, Bartholomew Broadbent, André Shearer & Zelma Long amongst many others are representing the USA in our efforts,” he wrote.

Like most auctions, I’ll be watching from the sidelines. But if you have trouble filling out your 100-person guest list, give me a call.

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Relieve Some Pressure: Pop a Cork!

In the spirit of the season, here’s a reminder that sparkling wine should be on the menu year ’round. From my Washington Post column, June 18, 2014, in which I coin (I think) the word “fizzologists” to describe those whose profession is to analyze the bubbles in Champagne, rather than to enjoy them.

A Champagne bottle holds about six atmospheres of pressure, requiring heavy glass, a special cork and a wire capsule to restrain the wine. In 2008, Decanter magazine reported that a German scientist with nothing better to do shook a Champagne bottle really hard before opening it, and measured the cork’s speed at about 25 miles per hour. (It’s a wonder there aren’t more one-eyed athletes on championship teams.) The scientist also estimated that if you left the bottle out in the sun without shaking it, the cork could theoretically reach a speed of 62 miles per hour once you nudged it loose.

This year, French scientist Gérard Liger-Belair, who leads a team of fizzologists at the University of Reims, published a paper in which he concluded that a glass of Champagne would release about 1 million bubbles. Assuming you don’t drink it, that is. His figure was much less than the estimate of 15 million bubbles popularly bandied about by various wine writers. (Most wine writers are not scientists, and it is very easy to lose count.)

The point is, opening a bottle of Champagne relieves pressure — both on the bottle and on the drinker. Those bubbles that mark life’s celebrations are really mood-altering drugs. That’s why sparkling wine — and here I include any bubbly, not just Champagne — makes an ideal aperitif for any occasion. No sourpuss can resist its charms. Food tastes better when we’re happy, and bubbles make us happy.

Yet Americans still consider sparkling wine to be for special occasions, when we’re probably already happy. The vast majority of us purchase one or a few bottles a year, typically in December. Even Veuve Clicquot, the most popular Champagne in U.S. markets, is subject to this seasonal bias.

Veuve Clicquot chief winemaker Cyril Brun with some of his stellar cuvées

Veuve Clicquot chief winemaker Cyril Brun with some of his stellar cuvées

“We notice a little peak in sales around Valentine’s Day, then again around Mother’s Day, but most sales are concentrated around the New Year,” Cyril Brun, Clicquot’s chief winemaker, said during a recent visit to Washington. He was optimistic though that consumers are beginning to enjoy the wine for itself instead of for the occasion.

“When people are more into the product than the context, that’s a big step forward,” he said.

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##WW More Holiday Bubbly and Some Celebratory Reds

In the spirit of “Wine Wednesday,” here are recommendations for some fine bubbly and two delicious red wines to help celebrate the holidays. These were published December 10 in The Washington Post, with lists of stores in the DMV that carry them, but without this little intro. It seems “drinking stars” was unintelligible to non-wine fiends, especially given the recent unfortunate news coverage of fraternity parties on a certain local university campus. I trust readers here will catch the reference to Champagne lore, however apocryphal it may be.

’Tis the season for drinking stars, so here are some more sparkling wines for your holiday celebrations, plus two delicious reds.

Piper Heidsieck Brut
2-1/2 Stars
Champagne, France, $50

A classic Champagne, with tree fruit flavors and crisp minerality and a satisfying, palate-invigorating finish. Alcohol by volume: 12 percent.

Stolpman Vineyards Estate Grown Syrah 2011/2012
2-1/2 Stars
Santa Ynez Valley, Calif. $32

This excellent syrah from Santa Barbara County is a bit gangly at first, but it opens nicely to reveal blueberry and cherry fruit with an earthy edge. I tasted the 2011 most recently, while the distributor has recently begun selling the 2012 — no worries, as this winery is consistently good. ABV: 14.1 percent.

Mont Marcal Cava Brut 2011
Penedes, Spain, $15

Cava is a great bargain bubbly, made in the Champagne style. Inexpensive ones (and I mean $10 and under) tend to be good, while top end producers such as Mont Marcal make wines with depth and complexity. If you close your eyes and think real hard, they’re even Champagne-like. I recommend any Cava by this producer. The importer is Seattle-based Classical Wines, which has been importing terrific Spanish wines for 30 years. ABV: 12 percent.

Purple Hands Pinot Noir 2013
2 Stars
Willamette Valley, Ore. $24

Can we ever have too much Oregon pinot noir? Not in my book. While most Oregon wineries are currently selling the fantastic 2012 vintage, Purple Hands alerts us that 2013 will offer lots of pleasure too. This is simple, youthful and straightforward, but also rich and delicious. ABV: 12.5 percent.

La Jara Sprizz’ter
Veneto, Italy, $8

La Jara produces some excellent organic Prosecco. The Sprizz’ter is the winery’s stab at a wine cocktail, a mix of sparkling wine, water and fruit flavoring. There’s raspberry scented Rosso and a citrusy Bianco that tastes like Sprite on steroids. These are juicy, slightly sweet and fun, ideal for cocktails, punch or sangria, or just for sipping over ice with a twist of orange. My mother-in-law loved them. Maybe Bartles & Jaymes were on to something after all. ABV: 5 percent.

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#TBT: Not All Festive Fizz Comes from You-Know-Where

In the spirit of Throwback Thursday, I offer this item published December 10, 2008, in The Washington Post – my first attempt at the obligatory holiday sparkling wine column.

I nearly clocked my mother-in-law with a champagne cork. It exploded from the bottle as I loosened the wire cage holding it in place, whizzed past her right ear, thwacked the ceiling and came to rest on the floor under the kitchen table, where our cocker spaniel assessed its edibility. The entire family began laughing before my MIL had time to wonder whether it had been a bad cork or bad aim.

That scene might be played out across the land this month as we flit from holiday party to office reception to family celebration, culminating in the traditional New Year’s toast. Chances are we will sip more fizz in December than we have all year. If someone else is pouring, all well and good. But when it’s our turn to buy the wine, it pays to know our options so we can fit our budget and our bubbles to the occasion.

“Champagne is so expensive!” I hear that complaint all the time, and not without reason. Decent stuff starts at about $35 a bottle and skyrockets into the stratosphere, and unfortunately, higher price does not guarantee higher quality. But other wines, including Italian prosecco, Spanish cava and American sparklers, can provide the bubbly celebration we need this time of year and still leave some change in our pockets.

“Champagne,” of course, refers to sparkling wine from the Champagne region of France, about an hour’s drive northeast of Paris. It is the most sought-after and expensive of sparkling wines, and for many bacchanalians nothing less will suffice. To call other sparkling wines “champagne” is unfair, not only to champagne producers, which try to protect the brand, but also to the wide range of bubblies from around the world that have their own character and identity.

I’ll discuss how to find good value in champagne in next week’s column. For now, here’s a primer on the other main types of sparkling wine. Continue reading

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#WW Five Champagnes for the Holidays, and Beyond

Champagne is expensive — usually from $30 a bottle on up. The best values tend to kick in around the $40-$50 range. That’s another reason to treat them like fine wine and savor them out of a decent glass. Here are a few to brighten your holiday season.

Heidsieck & Co. Monopole Gold Top Brut 2005
Champagne, France, $50

A “great value” for $50? Absolutely, when you’re talking vintage Champagne at this quality. The wine is generous and friendly, as welcoming as a roaring fire in winter. Alcohol by volume: 12 percent.

Gonet-Medeville Blanc de Noirs Premier Cru Brut
Champagne, France, $52

Another delicious Champagne, racy with red currant and mineral flavors. Blanc de Noirs means a white wine from black (red) grapes. This wine is 100 percent pinot noir from chalky soils, and is precisely focused and energetic. It wants you to sit up and take notice. ABV: 12.5 percent.

Lancelot ChampagneLancelot-Goussard, Claude Lancelot Blanc de Blancs Brut
Champagne, France, $42

Blanc de Blancs means “white from whites” and indicates a Champagne made entirely from chardonnay. This one is expansive in mouthfeel and rich with tree fruit flavors and some nice toasty character. ABV: 12 percent.

Charles Orban Carte Noire Brut
2-1/2 Stars GREAT VALUE
Champagne, France, $42

This wine blends the three Champagne grapes — pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay — in equal proportions, so it was an appropriate wine for my glass tasting experiment. This is classic Champagne, minerally and fruity with great focus. ABV: 12 percent.

Pommery Brut Royal
2-1/2 Stars GREAT VALUE
Champagne, France, $42

Pommery is one of the classic Champagne houses. Its wines display an elegance and delicacy that appeal to me. If there’s such a thing as liquid gossamer, it probably resides in the chalk cellars of Pommery. ABV: 12 percent.

These recommendations were published in The Washington Post on December 3, 2014. For store availability information in the DMV markets, click here

3 Stars = Exceptional; 2 Stars = Excellent; 1 Star = Very Good. These ratings are intended to show my enthusiasm for the wines. Any wine recommended is worth buying, in my opinion.

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