Monday, August 9, 2010

1988 Chateau Raymond-Lafon Sauternes

At the end of our bbq last night, my friend Robert offered us quite a treat. At first I noted the sauternes chilling in the fridge, but not the particulars. It was only when he handed me the bottle to open (with my favorite corkscrew given to me by my wife) that I realized it was from one of the better vintages of the 1980s, 1988. I was a bit concerned upon first opening it, as the nose was very tight (perhaps it was a bit too cold) but it really came around. Flavors of honey and sweet pineapple were wrapped up with the classic botrytis finish. A pleasant reminder that there is something unique and wonderful about drinking aged wines.

2006 Punto Final Malbec Reserva

As we wrapped up our bbq at the house last night, we opened a bottle of 2006 Punto Final Malbec Reserva. At this point in the evening, we were drinking it by itself and was quite enjoyable. Then tonight, the rest of the bottle accompanied our pan-roasted breaded chicken and caesar salad, which confirmed that this full-bodied wine definitely pairs well with full-bodied meals. It is a blend of 99% Malbec and 1% Cabernet Franc, with ten months in French oak barriques and another six in the bottle. Very deep purple color with notes of berry and toast on the nose. More complex flavors than other entry-level Argentinian malbecs make it a great wine in the $15-20 range. Its drinking lovely now, but it might be interesting to see how it develops over the next year or two.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Honeymoon in the Napa Valley (the wineries - pt 1)

Finally, we come to the end of our honeymoon in the Napa Valley. In previous posts, I have discussed the restaurants and the wine tours & private tastings. Thus, this brings us to the remaining wineries that we visited during the week.

Grgich Hills Estate

In their tasting room, which is open daily to the public from 930am-430pm, Grgich Hills offers two options, five of their current releases for $15 or three of their special selections for $30. Another bonus is that you get to keep your glasses (at least for the second option). I have to admit, I was totally blown away by their 2006 Chardonnay Carneros Selection ($75), which uses wild yeast and no malolactic fermentation. It is substantially better than their 2007 Chardonnay Napa Valley, ($42) and definitely ranks up there with my all-time favorite chardonnays. Comparing their cabs reminded me once again that cost isn't everything. Both Joy and I, along with the folks tasting beside us, favored their 2006 Cab Napa Valley ($60) over their much pricier 2005 Cab Yountville Selection ($135). Their late harvest 2008 Violetta ($85/375ml) was also delicious with its botrytis. All in all, nice people and very nice wines. I would recommend stopping by if you're in the neighborhood (which isn't hard since they are right on HWY29).

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars (*also one of the best winery websites that I've come across)

If you are going to visit SLWC (open daily, 10am-430pm), which you should, I would recommend their estate collection tasting flight ($30pp) over the Napa Valley collection ($15pp). Its a lot of fun to taste their three estate cabs side by side and see how vineyards right next to each other produce such different wines because of the difference in soil. The 2006 Fay was spicy and delicious, while the 2006 SLV was so ridiculously smooth and fruity. But the best of all, made from the best barrels of both, is their Cask 23 ($195, but found it for $115 on My tasting notes say it all: "HOLY CRAP!!! Best cab of my life!" Absolutely magnificent! This wine, however, reaffirms my belief that the wine critics scoring system is broken. I just cannot fathom how Wine Enthusiast gave this wine a meager 91. That's right, a 91. Their Cask 23 was the only wine I tasted all week that I honestly thought was worth the sky high price (if you could afford it). So Joy and I agree, if you are coming through the Stag's Leap District, you really should drop by.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

X Winery (Napa Valley)

On our last full day in Napa, Joy and I began with a trek up to Rombauer Winery (which I will share more on later) before returning to downtown Napa for a lovely lunch at Grace's Table. After this our paths diverged. Joy set her sights on the antique shops and I sought out more wine to taste. First, I made the short walk across Second Street to X Winery.

1. The Wines

After a week of tasting wines that often cost $50+ a bottle, it was nice to find some more affordable ones. Not only were they reasonable, the five I tasted that day were very drinkable too. Especially good was the 2008 Napa Valley Truchard Vineyard Pinot Noir ($24.99), which was very smooth with lots of red fruit; the 2008 Red X North Coast ($14.99), a delicious blend of Syrah (55%), Tempranillo (23%), Grenache (14%), and Zinfandel (8%); and the 2007 X3 Tri-County California Cab ($17.99) that had lots of tasty fruit that especially carried through the mid-palate along with nicely balanced acidity & tannin.

Since they were so affordable, I brought the Red X and X3 Cab back to NYC. Since then, we opened the Red X to pair with assorted cheeses from Dobb's and Bishop, our Bronxville cheese shop. Everyone loved it and I cannot wait to get some more of this incredibly versatile and affordable wine. Tonight, the X3 really complimented the turkey shepherd's pie that Joy made. Not too weak nor overbearing. The balance of the wine really makes this wine enjoyable.

2. The Experience (or lack thereof)

Even though I really like their wines and plan on buying more, my experience in their tasting room was less than impressive. It wasn't particularly bad, just frustrating. They have a three-tiered tasting option, which enables you to pick 3 of 5 basic wines, then 2 of 3 more wines for a little more $, and 1 of 2 reserve wines for more $ (but no option to taste everything). If its incredibly busy, I understand getting the standard treatment. But when you're the only one in there, clearly very interested in tasting their wines (as evidenced by taking notes in your moleskin journal and pouring after each taste), and they are closing in about an hour, getting the standard treatment is disappointing. After visiting dozens and dozens of tasting rooms over the last several years, I have often experienced that extra touch, whether it be pouring wines not listed, pouring two glasses after we decide to share one, or kindly offering to revisit any of their wines. And more often than not, such generosity results in additional purchases. So it was a bit surreal for them to go through the trouble to explain how completely different their two cabs are and then leave me to decide which of them I would taste (since I only had 1 left of my second group). Who knows, perhaps I might have loved the other one and bought it too. In short, if you are running a tasting room, please don't be stingy to customers, especially if they are interested and the bottles are already open. On top of all this, I emailed their NY distributor over a week ago to find out where I can get their wines in NYC and haven't heard back yet.


If you come across the wines of X Winery, I would give them a try, especially if you see their incredibly versatile Red X.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Honeymoon in the Napa Valley (the wine tours)

In this installment, I am focusing on the four scheduled tours of our honeymoon trip to the Napa Valley. If you are new to the wine country scene, it is helpful to know that there are two basic types of winery visits. Many wineries have tasting rooms that are open to the public and do not require an appointment, but usually have some form of tasting fee (hopefully reimbursed if you purchase at least a bottle). Their hours are typically posted on their website or in wine country maps/guides (like the Preiser Key to Napa Valley). Simply drop by and enjoy!

Other wineries only offer tours and/or tastings by appointment only. I tend to enjoy taking advantage of this type because you get more than just the wine, you get to see and experience more of the wine making process. So I selected four to provide a means of structuring our days, without sacrificing our freedom to fill out the rest of the day as we saw fit.

Swanson Vineyards

Recommended to us by family and friends, our first stop was Swanson Winery for the hour-long Bon Vivant tasting ($55/pp). Be prepared for the fact that they tend not to open the gate until five minutes before. Thankfully, winemaker Chris Phelps came out from the lab to say hello while we waited. The salon, inspired by 18th century Parisian salons, is absolutely beautiful. It is a fairly intimate setting with no more than eight guests. This is nice, unless one of them is extremely obnoxious (which happened to us).

The tasting includes six of their wines with delicious pairings. Joy especially loved the wild American caviar with creme fresh on a potato chip, paired with their 2008 Chardonnay. Their 2005 Sangiovese was ridiculously smooth and luscious, but at $75/750ml, we did not leave with any. The gem, for me, was their 2006 Crepuscule, a heavenly late harvest Semillon. They have only made it nine times in the twenty-five year history of the winery due to the uncommon occurrence of botrytis or noble rot, the stuff that makes Sauternes so amazing. The tasting ended with my first double blind tasting using Riedel black wine glasses. Not only is it the truest test of your discerning abilities, it was a ton of fun!

Swanson also recently began producing what they call 'occasion' wines (so far called Merci and Just Married, with Expensive Christmas Wine up next). Even though we did not taste them, they are reasonably priced (low $20s), so we had some shipped to NYC. I'll post my notes when we eventually open them.

Summary: Although it was the most expensive tasting, we were glad we did it. The beauty of the salon and the pairings were definitely memorable. But once is probably enough.

Nicholson Ranch Winery

For our wedding present, our friends Richard and Jacky arranged a private tour and tasting for us at Nicholson Ranch in Carneros, just south of downtown Napa. Lance, our guide (and Fordham grad!) provided an absolutely great experience for us. We started off in the tasting room with their delicious 2005 Chardonnay Cuvée Natalie Reserve Estate ($40/750ml), then grabbed a bottle of 2009 Ramona Rose of Pinot Noir Estate ($22/750ml) and wandered out into their Chardonnay vineyard. It was a beautiful day to walk the grounds and we enjoyed having the opportunity to ask anything about the winemaking process. Next, Lance took us into their fermentation facility (little aside: love the fireman's pool) and down into their caves. We ended up in their great room, which was the perfect setting to finish tasting their wines. Instead of providing lengthy tasting notes for each of their wines, I'll simply say this: they are all top-notch. The hardest part was trying to decide what to leave with! I would be remiss, however, if I did not highlight their spectacular 2006 'Cactus Hill' Reserve Pinot Noir ($50/750ml). Of all the wineries we visited, I would join the wine club at Nicholson Ranch were I not a poor grad student (well, them and Stag's Leap, but that's a different pipe dream altogether).

Summary: If you are visiting the Napa Valley, I strongly recommend you add Nicholson Ranch to your list, at least for a visit their tasting room. We will certainly be going back!

Schramsberg Vineyards

Admittedly, neither Joy nor I love champagne, but we had heard great things about the cave tour at Schramsberg at the north end of the valley ($40pp). First of all, it would be nice for them (and several other wineries) to have better signage. So give yourself some extra time to get there and don't be surprised if you miss the turn. The winery has a long, fascinating history that includes becoming the official sparkling wine of the White House (since Nixon took Schramsberg to Beijing). But the best part is without a doubt the caves. Just breathtaking. (in the pic, I'm drinking their 2006 J. Davies Cab, their lone red wine, which was tasty, but pricey at $75/750ml).

Summary: Even if you are not a big fan of champagne, I would still strongly recommend the cave tour. Its a fun experience. But we probably wont be going back as once is enough.

Pine Ridge Winery

Our last scheduled tour was at Pine Ridge. It was a rather standard, moderately priced ($25pp), small group tour of their facilities that ended with tasting at a nice table in their caves and then a separate room for wine club members (which we aren't). They have a nice demonstration vineyard, but it was a shame that it wasn't incorporated more in the tour. Also, they only provided one small cheese platter for our group. The cheeses paired wonderfully with the wine, but it was not nearly enough as it ran out halfway through the tasting and they didn't bring out any more. The highlight of the tour, which was the sole reason I booked it, was the barrel sampling of one of their Cabs. I was also appreciative of how many wines they poured for us. I have notes for eleven, including their pricey Fortis and Andrus Reserve. Overall, they make nice wines, but nothing wowed me. Probably my favorite was their 2006 Stags Leap District Cab ($80/750ml), which was very smooth with balanced tannins and lots of red fruit.

Summary: If you are like me and wanted to try a barrel sampling, Pine Ridge is a nice way to go. And if you visit them, do not miss Stag's Leap Wine Cellars just down the road.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Monte Antico 2006 Toscana IGT

It seemed fitting tonight to open this Super Tuscan to complement our spaghetti dinner. A Super Tuscan is a Tuscan red wine that doesn't follow the traditional appellation laws. Monte Antico is 85% Sangiovese, 10% Cab, and 5% Merlot.

A few months back I received an email offer from Wine Express for this wine. Between the price of this wine ($12/750ml) and shipping for their wine of the day offer (99¢/bottle), I decided to give it a try.

Despite being ranked #61 in Wine Spectator's 2009 top 100 and garnering a 90 pt rating from them, I am less than impressed. The nose is full of plum and overpowering anise/licorice. Then palate is marked by nice red fruit and smooth tannins, but the acidity is simply too biting. Low 12.5% alcohol.

The search for affordable and tasty Super Tuscans continues...

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Honeymoon in Napa Valley (the food)

Not only is the wine fantastic in the Napa Valley, the food is off the charts too! In fact, several of the restaurants we dined at, we could have gone there for the entire week and not repeated anything nor run out of enticing dishes. Certainly its unnecessary to discuss every appetizer, entree and dessert from each restaurant, thus I'll just highlight the must-have dishes when appropriate. Enjoy! (pics: Joy and I dining at Celadon)

For the first night, we dined at Ristorante Allegria in downtown Napa (suggested by our hotel). My pasta special (fettuccine with fresh tomato, roasted sweet corn and prawns in a cream sauce) ranked as one of my top meals of the week. Joy also loved her potato gnocchi with pesto cream sauce. Reasonably priced, and there's live accordion music on mon & wed.

For our second night, we ate at Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen. We loved the setting outside under the giant fig tree, and where else can you order Spice Cured Pork Belly?

Next was Tra Vigne. We enjoyed our food and loved the service, but not sure it delivered at the same level as the others.

The following evening we found ourselves at Mustard's Grill, which was just fantastic. Joy probably wouldn't order the calf liver again but it was interesting, and my rabbit was delicious! We're definitely going to try their famous Mongolian Pork Chop (they sell 1500/month!).

Next on our list was Bistro Jeanty. A word on reservations. Make sure you call to confirm two days before. They lost my parents' reservation last year (made by phone) and ours (made by opentable), but thankfully were able to accommodate us in both situations. And the food was entirely worth it. No matter how hot it is, you must absolutely order the tomato soup in puff pastry. Its simply spectacular!

We returned to downtown Napa again to dine at Celadon. You cannot afford to miss this restaurant. While salmon and steak almost seem boring to order nowadays, Celadon nailed them. Of course it doesn't hurt to use wild caught Columbia River king salmon. After eating my last bites of my grilled C.A.B. filet mignon with yukon gold potato gratin, I experienced a sort of sadness that comes when you just aren't ready for a perfect meal to end.

Our final dinner was damn near heavenly. Instead of spending a large fortune at the famed French Laundry, we decided to spend a smaller fortune at Auberge du Soleil. Since they knew we were celebrating our honeymoon (the hostess asked when I made the reservation), they graciously seated us on the terrace, which has one of the best views overlooking the Napa Valley. After wine tasting all day, I was not in the mood for a lot of wine, thus I appreciated their offer of either a regular 6oz glass of wine or a 3oz taste. Also, do not be afraid to ask for the sommelier's help (esp when you aren't familiar with their wine list). I picked out my three plates and she made wonderful pairing suggestions. Again, while its hard to go wrong with any of their plates, if you have the chance, you must try their sauteed foie gras. Neither of us had had it before, but it is truly otherworldly. It just melts in your mouth. I cant wait to pair it with a sauternes! Not only was the dinner spectacular, but the service was superb. Furthermore, when we were about to leave, the older couple next to us overhead that we were celebrating our honeymoon and kindly offered us a glass of our choosing. So with glasses of Dolce in our hands, we enjoyed a nice conversation with them for another hour before finally leaving.

For lunch, you definitely want to swing by Gott's Roadside. Joy claimed her western burger was the best burger she'd ever had. And maybe not the best for wine tasting, their garlic fries are delicious.

The only frustrating thing about dining in Napa is that there are too many restaurants and too few meals in a week! But if you were to come to Napa, it would definitely be a shame for you to miss out on the fantastic food at Ristorante Allegria, Mustard's Grill, Bistro Jeanty, Celadon, and Auberge du Soleil.