Sunday, April 11, 2010

Battle: Chardonnay

I was shopping at my fantastic neighborhood wine store that has a woefully short selection of half bottles (don't they all) looking for half bottles of Chardonnay. To my surprise, they actually carried a half bottle of Mersault, so I grabbed one and the obligatory half bottle of Chardonnay in order to compare the two against each other. I actually grabbed three, but put away one in a moment of weakness (see previous post). In retrospect, I really wish I had that third bottle. Anyway, here it goes.

On the California side, we had Landmark Overlook Chardonnay from California (back label says Sonona/Sta Barbar/Monetery county blend) from 2007 with 14.6% alcohol that retailed for $10 to $15.00. From Burgundy I had Albert Grivault Mearsault from 2006 with 13% alcohol (but could be +-1.5% based on US law, I think).

Color: Huge difference. Mearsault was a very light hue of yellow, almost clear while the Landmark was a much deeper yellow (looked almost like melted butter).

Aroma: Mersault had all the classic Mersault characteristics, highlighted by an intense minerality that showed wet steel and even wet asphalt. Mild creaminess, lemon oil, even a tad nutty. Landmark exhibited intense oakiness and butter. Some pineapple and tropical fruits.

Taste: Mersault continued it's mineral theme, but added some apple/pear notes and a bit of spice. Landmark was rich, buttery, oaky, flamboyant and tropical.

Balance: The Mersault would probably benefit from a few years of aging, but very well balanced. The different profiles played in solid harmony with each other and the zesty lemony acidity kept it fresh. Although the Landmark has many fans, I found the oakiness to be overpowering. The acidity just didn't match the weight of the wine for me.

Ultimate Judgement: It's probably unfair to stack these two wines against each other. They have distinctly different styles and as one who prefers wines that are more elegant than powerful, I am naturally inclined to prefer the Mersault. Although both are Chardonnays, it's comparing apples to oranges (or papaya). I should have tasted the Landmark next to the Macrostie for a better comparison (which I enjoyed much more, but that could be due to not having a quality Mersault to compare against). In order to do this right, I have to do a better job of eradicating my preconceived ideas about Chardonnay. California Chardonnay, particularly the style of Landmark, is not Burgundian Chardonnay and should be viewed on its own merits. It needs to be looked at through the lens of what it's trying to be, and on that score, I think it is a good reflection of the showy, flamboyant Chards that many seem to like. Whether I learn to enjoy this style is another story. While the Landmark certainly hasn't pushed me any further, the Macrostie actually did.

MacCrostie Chardonnay 2007

For the first wine I tasted in my attempts to gain a better appreciation of California Chardonnay, I turned to a Macrostie 2007 from Carneros. I bought a 375 ml version (in fact, the main reason I picked it is because it was available in 375 at my local wine shop), intending to taste against a variety of style, but got a bit greedy and tasted it on its own. No matter, as it provides a good launching point to California Chard.

I tasted without reading any winery notes, reviews, etc (which I will try to do for all wines). I typically avoid Chardonnay in the $20.00 range as I expect (right or wrong) that I will find something out of balance, usually the oak treatment, but almost as often, the ML or ripeness is out of whack. But I was tremendously surprised by the balance. I'm not sure if restrained richness is an oxymoron, but I found that the weight (which was noticeable) never teetered to the overwhelming. Surprisingly, the oak was a background player offering mild vanilla and spicey notes, but never interfering with the richer apple tart elements. It's a little richer than I typically like, but an almost refreshing citrusy acidity kept the wine mostly in balance.

What surprises me more than anything is that the style was very Californian, something I try to avoid. But the winemaker did a great job in harmonizing the elements. I actually expected that I would be trashing this wine, but so much for preconceived notions. This isn't to say that this is the greatest wine I've ever had, but that I genuinely enjoyed it at it's price.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010


I'm all to ready admit to my general dislike of California Chardonnays, especially in comparison to their Burgundian cousins. However, Steve Heimoff's thought provoking blog "Why I'm not an ABCer" and particularly some insightful comments by his readers got me questioning why I am so vehemently against most California Chardonnays. After all, they come in a wide variety of styles, ranging from the Burgundian efforts at places like Ramey to the Chablis-esque Chateau Montelena to the rich fruit forward Mer et Soleil and in a variety of price points. So, I'm officially removing my ABC (for the uninitiated, Anything But Chardonnay) outlook I acquired from spending too much time around some serious wine snobs and cleaning the slate. Well, cleaning as much as I can. However, to clean the slate, I need to be realistic with my preconceptions in hopes of confirming or expunging them. So here they are.

1) Cheap California Chardonnay sucks. No two ways about this, I avoid any Chardonnay from California under $20.00 and admit to looking down my snoot at those who enjoy them. My expectations from cheap Chardonnay is overly alcoholic without the right balance, oak chips, 100% malolactic for the nasty buttered popcorn, and fruit profiles either non existent or reminiscint of overly sweet pies and noxious banana bread. In short, cheap California Chardonnay sucks.

2) Burgundian whites are superior to California Chardonnay at every level. While there are high end California Chardonnays that I like better than village level wines from Burgundy, when price is equal, I assume that the Burgundy is better (of course, with ubiquitous vintage chart in hand).

3) The only California Chardonnays worth seeking are those that are explicitly attempting to model Burgundy. This is a big one for me and points to my obvious preference for the Burgundian style. However, without knowledge of the actual winemaking practices or experience with specific wineries, this can be very tough to ascertain. So, unless it's Ramey, Hobbs, or another winemaker known for "Burgundian" styles, I avoid.

4) The "Pompous Barbarian" effect. I choose the name of this blog because this is what I am. I can quite pompous about things like Chardonnay, but utterly barbaric in my reasoning and communication. While I have enough experience to say that I don't like most Cal Chard, I also have never really had an open mind to it having the superiority of Burgundy bludgeoned into my starting at my first fine dining job with only a few Cal Chard fans encountered along the way. Coming from the Pompous world of fine dining where nearly every wine steward looks at purchasing a bottle of Chardonnay with the same snootiness as top chefs have towards people who order chicken, I have learned a few really bad habits when it comes to wine.

So, with my preconceptions firmly understood I have the makings of a small yet simple plan. Taste as much Chardonnay at different price points from different locations (just looking at California and Burgundy would fall into the same pompous trap that I am trying to escape) and take notes, whether on paper or mentally.

Monday, April 5, 2010

2003 Pride Merlot

I am not one of those people who think California Merlot sucks. But I think a lot of it does. So I'm always a bit nervous when I open a bottle, even one from a good producer like Pride Mountain Vineyards, unless I've had it and can remember it. I tend to hold my California Merlots for a fairly short period because the quality and balance can vary so much even among good producers. I got the bottle when touring the Spring Mountain wineries, most of which require appointments. Sunset magazine ran a great article on Spring Mountain wineries several years ago that turned into one my favorite trips to Napa. The tasting room itself is magnificent and if you have a chance, go.

I wasn't entirely sure what to expect. I don't specifically remember tasting the Merlot, but I've had enough Pride Mountain wines to know they tend make dense, extracted wines. And the Merlot did not disappoint. If I had to do it over, I'd hold this bottle for another five years, but as it opened, Plums interlaced with chocolate balanced with spice (I swear I tasted Cinammon) with an incredible richness that had only really started to take on the mature flavors I prefer. Velvety smooth tannins provided depth and weight that I find either lacking or overblown in many California Merlots. With a few more years to even out the tannins, the acid would show through better. The wine continued to evolve through the hour it took to kill the bottle eventually showing cassis and oaky notes. Overall, a great bottle of wine that I would love to get more of.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Two more wines from the cellar down

Over the weekend, I once again learned the importance of drinking wines at the right time. I had two very different experiences, though much of it can probably be explained by the quality of wines I started with. I'll start with the good.

2001 Martinelli Bondi Ranch "Water Trough Vineyard" Pinot Noir. A trek through a forest floor after a good rainstorm. Hints of mushrooms, game, and wet wood (I want to say decaying, but that sounds bad and it's really an amazing quality in pinots) intermingled spectacularly with wild berries (and a hint of cherry) and vibrant acidity. A great example of what can be done in California with Pinot when in the hands of skilled winemakers.

1999 Clos du Bois Marlstone Cabernet. Although only two years older, the fruit and acid had disappeared. The mature flavors I expect broke through a bit, but the wine lacked balance and ended up being flabby and a bit boozy. I suspect that I needed to open this 3-4 years ago to get the best benefit, but I expect more from the top bottlings of well known producers. I still like Clos du Bois more than some of my friends, but I'll probably stick to their value wines. But, alas, the value wines I used to enjoy have tilted away from value.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

2000 Peju Province Reserve Cab Franc Review

After one of my regular vigils to my wine collection (how pompous) looking for wines that are ready to drink, I found a little gem in a 2000 Peju Province Reserve Cab Franc. I knew I had a few Peju wines left over from a spiteful trip to Napa Valley where I spent my budget at one place because I was ticked at my girlfriend for some stupid perceived slight and I still have a few reserve CSs sitting in my collection as evidence of my general idiocy. But after sharing the bottle with my wife last night, not only am I glad I married someone else, but also glad that I burned some coin at Peju.

Mature mocha notes blended beautifully with an undercurrent of blackberries (I know blueberries are classic Franc profile, but I don't usually find it). Although it may have been a bit past its peak, the wine retained a lively quality thanks to just enough acid to keep the lingering richness from oak aging in balance. This wine is one of the reasons I love aging wines. The maturity added a depth and richness that created a truly great wine.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Urban Bourbon Trail Review

When I first realized that I had to take a trip to Louisville for business, my first thought was "time to turn in my notice." Of course, my own desire to never tell stories about my days of living in Golden Gate Park intervened, so I buried my horror and made the arrangements. Fortunately, I was able to get a downtown hotel this time rather than an airport hotel. My next thought was how I could turn this into gaining a greater appreciation for Bourbon (aka debauchery). While visiting a distillery was out of the question due to work needs and my other desire to avoid stories about how I got arrested in Kentucky for DUI, I found this nifty little thing called the Urban Bourbon Trail. The UBT has all the hallmarks of a tacky tourist bureua invention with the notable difference of ample booze and a "free gift" if you get your UBT passport stamped by all nine locations. So, my colleague and I made the decision to make the most of our trip to a city that I only remembered from a few other short trips for business that never got much past an airport hotel bar and an Outback Steakhouse.

Stop 1 Old Seelbach Bar: Horrible. Disinterested bartender who walked away in midconversation spoiled any charm this place may have had. I give it one star out of five simply because it was a cold Monday night and my colleague said he had a decent experience once before.

Stop 2 Baxter Station: Awesome. Great pub with better than expected food, friendly and knowledgable bartender who steered us to some great Bourbons and beer. Owner chatted with us for a good half hour. Busy on a Tuesday night and good interesting neighborhood. Four out of five stars.

Stop 3 Blu (in the Marriott): Not my scene, but okay. Like any downtown Marriott, Blu was populated by smartly dressed sales people, which is fine with me. Busy and vibrant with enough cougars to be interesting. Cocktail waitress was an airhead which I enjoy anyway. Three out of five stars.

Stop 4 Jockey Silks: Started Wed. in the least crowded bar. Great selection and maybe a decent bar later or on the weekends, but couldn't get past the King of Queens reruns airing while I was there. Bartender seemed more interested in when his shift ended, but was surprisingly knowledgeable, directing us to some of our favorite Bourbons of the week. Two out of five stars.

Stop 5 Proof on Main: Trendy with the accompanying trendoids, but if you like the borderline pretentious spots (and I do), it's a lot of fun. Busy with a great menu (Roasted Bison Marrow Bones was a standout), it has an art gallery in the same hotel that is actually interesting. Would be five stars, but our bartender claimed that Colorado made a Bourbon. When I mentioned that is was probably a whisky in the Bourbon style, I was rebuffed. Points for making their own tonic water as well. Four out of five stars (would be five if their staff had a clue).

Stop 6 Z's Fusion: Maybe this is something new and different for Louisville, but it would be tired and played out in San Francisco. Nice enough staff with plenty of people, but I worked in a Fusion place 15 years ago. Not interesting. Two ouf of five stars.

Stop 7 Maker's Mark: I thought for sure this place would suck. In the middle of the Louisville theme park named Fourth Street Live, it seemed destined to be the equivalent of a crappy SF waterfront restaurant. Surprisingly, the food was better than expected and the bartender was a riot as we exchanged stories of inebriation. Only misstep was the worst bread pudding I've ever had in my life. Four out of five stars.

Stop 8 Brown Hotel Bar: I was pretty hammered by this point, so no real review. Just make sure you sit at the bar. Cool place that seemed at the same time the most touristy and the most authentic. Marble floors, piano, and spilling into the lobby, I could see this bar more than any other as a relic from another era. But the service stank, so I would recommend sitting at the bar if possible. And I ate something, but have no idea what it was. I think it was a dessert. Very busy for a late hour on a cold Wed. night. No rating due to advanced inebriation.

Stop 9 Bourbons Bistro: Our only stop on Thursday, we almost didn't go due to crushing hangovers from Wednesday night. I'm glad we mustered the energy as this place was amazing. From the bar which features a ton of Bourbons and great atmosphere to the food which I would stack against anything in the country, we had a great time. The chef even came to speak to us a bit after my colleague asked for some of his sauce to go, giving us the sauce AND the recipe. One of my all time favorite dining experiences. Five out of five stars.

Since we all like handy lists, here's mine for what it's worth.
Best Bar: Baxter Station with honorable mentions to Proof on Main, Maker's Mark, and Brown Hotel.
Best Bartender: Tie between Baxter Station and Maker's Mark.
Best Food: Bourbon's Bistro with honorable mentions to Proof on Main and Baxter Station.
Best People Watching: Proof on Main
Best Meal: The Duck Confit Strudel at Bourbon's Bistro.
Best Bourbon, hard to find category: George Stagg and Poppy Van Winkle 20 year
Best Bourbon, easy to find: Basil Hayden

Worst Bar: Z's Fusion.
Worst Bartender: Old Seelbach Inn.
Worst Food: Maker's Mark (actually, their food was pretty good, but I'm still having nightmares about chalk masquerading as bread pudding).
Worst Bourbon: Had a few I didn't like, but fortunately can't remember them.

Best place to find a cougar: Blu
Best place to feel like you're a tourist: Brown Hotel Bar
Best place to feel like your a meaningless business traveller that no one ever cared about: Old Seelbach.
Best place to feel like you actually have a life in comparison to the pitiful bartender: Jockey Silks
Best place to visit to feel really good that you live in San Francisco: Z's Fusion

Ultimately, I like Louisville far more than I thought I would. Interesting neighborhoods, much better food than I expected, and the combination of Midwest friendliness and Southern hospitality made this a great experience.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

My first post

I figured I torture my friends and family with my overly critical nature of everything enough. So I thought I'd kill the proverbial two birds with one stone by having a forum where I dump my inane musings saving my exasperated wife from another profanity laced bourbon fueled diatribe on why James Cameron is the anti-Christ while sharing my perverted world view with the bored, cubicle encrusted masses that kill time by reading trivial blogs. After working for ten years in the fine dining world with stops in Seattle, New York, and my hometown and current digs, San Francisco, I've been toiling as a wage slave for (insert heartless corporation here). Of course, I make gobs more now, but I still reminsisce about nearly burning Seattle to the ground in a Bananas Foster incident gone terribly awry and the thrill of that first bottle of wine that gave me my unshakeable love for wine. From now on, you'll see random musings on several topics, mostly related to food, spirits, and my version of the good life, but plenty of other trivial matters. I don't intend to inform, enlighten, entertain, or provide any worthwhile service. I only intend to have a place to vent my inner cynic to spare my family. If you enjoy, great. If not, I don't care.