What Does A $500 Wine Taste Like?

29 November 2016
Maple & Ash

Maple & Ash

There is a widespread suspicion that high-end wines are something of a con, even among high-end winemakers themselves. I recall a swanky Bordeaux tasting I attended where I chatted with the owner of a Sauternes winery. He did not mince words about trophy wines: “You know, to be perfectly honest, I never buy wines that cost more than 50 or 60 euro. That’s maybe $100? Anything that costs more than that is bull****. When you buy wines,” he gestured towards the room, “that cost $300 or $800, you are not buying the wine. You are buying the label. I want to buy only the wine.”

Because I have limited experience with wines in the $300-$800 price bracket, and because it suited my own prejudices, I was inclined to believe him. What could you possibly get for $500, say, that you couldn’t in a $250 bottle? Would the $500 wine be twice as good as the $250? And of course, the $250 should theoretically be twice as good as a $125 bottle, which should be twice as good as a $62 bottle, which should be twice as good as a $31 bottle, which should be twice as good as the $15 bottle that I typically have on my rack at home.

Which means that a $500 bottle should, with that kind of quality, literally make my head explode with joyous rapture. Literally. I mean blood-on-the-ceiling joyous rapture explosion.

Fortunately for the condition of my head, wine tends to occupy a more logarithmic scale, which means that though there will indeed likely be a gigantic leap in quality from an $8 bottle to a $15 bottle and again from a $15 bottle to a $30 bottle, the returns start to diminish as wines become more expensive. So how could a $500 wine be worth it?

Gaja wineYou do get something for all that expense. At a recent tasting in Chicago’s Maple & Ash restaurant, I had the fortune to sample three $500 wines in succession. Well, two $500 wines and one $535 wine. I observed the room during the tasting, and many of the men (the guests were almost exclusively men) did indeed appear to be enraptured. I must admit I felt some shivers of delight myself, as I tried them.

These were wines by Gaja (pronounced guy-a), one of Italy’s most formidable wine families, which has vineyards in Barbaresco, Barolo, Bolgheri and Brunello. But it’s the Barbarescos that fetch top dollar. Or more accurately, the Langhes. As I learned from The Oxford Companion to Wine, which devotes an entire column to Gaja, Angelo Gaja thought that his coveted single-vineyard wines had hurt the reputation of his traditional Barbaresco, which is blended from multiple vineyards. So, as is common in unnecessarily complicated Italy, Gaja now sells its most expensive bottlings under a basic catch-all appellation, Langhe DOC, instead of the ostensibly more prestigious Barbaresco DOCG.

At the tasting, I tried the 2013 Gaja Barbaresco, a blend of 100% Nebbiolo grapes from 14 different vineyards around the town. Barbaresco, incidentally, was for ages not an especially popular wine. “Barbaresco did not enjoy Barolo’s connection with the House of Savoy and the nobility of the royal court in Turin,” The Oxford Companion explains, “and suffered in relative commercial obscurity until the efforts of Giovanni Gaja and Bruno Giacosa in the 1960s demonstrated the full potential of the wine.”

It’s difficult now to imagine that Barbaresco was once the ugly duckling of Piedmont. If anyone has any lingering doubts about Barbaresco’s potential, Gaja’s example will smash them into pomace. I loved the 2013, even in its youth — the dark-red fruit aroma had a savory note underneath, as well as a floral overtone. The wine moved gracefully from ripe fruit to white-pepper spice to supple, dusty tannins. It is an absolutely beautiful wine, with poise and elegance, but its suggested retail price is only $240, and we’re not here to talk about bargain Barbaresco. Let’s move on to the pricey stuff.

Gaia Gaja

Gaia Gaja

But first, why are these wines so pricey, anyway? Gaia Gaja, the fifth generation in her family to work at the winery, presented the wines we tasted, and she provided part of the explanation: Gaja takes great pains to create healthy vineyards, using its own compost, seeding vineyards with a mix of plants from local meadow in order to improve biodiversity, introducing bees, and planting some 250 cypresses to serve as a refuge for small birds, among other measures. “The birds eat grapes,” Gaia Gaja told us, “but they also eat harmful insects, so we have to be generous.”

And, of course, making top-quality wine is expensive and labor-intensive. Gaia Gaja noted that the winery doesn’t hire many seasonal workers, relying more instead on full-time staff. “Seasonal workers know agriculture,” Gaia Gaja explained, “but not Nebbiolo vines.” The winery decided to train people and keep them on staff, ensuring that its workers really got to know the vineyards and how to coax the best fruit from them.

But perhaps the biggest factor in the price is simply that there is limited supply and high demand. Gaja, as evidenced by the family’s numerous appearances in The Oxford Companion, is a wine giant, and when a name has great renown, that name drives up the prices (that’s why I usually write about more obscure wines — they’re what I can afford).

Gaja’s wines, however, are more than just a name — they have the quality to back up their hype. Let’s examine the evidence:

2013 Gaja Sorì Tildìn, suggested retail price, $500: “Sorì” is a local Piemontese word indicating a desirable vineyard. The aroma of dark-red fruit is rich and forward, and that big fruit continues in the taste. This wine is powerful, with immense fruit, lively acids and youthful tannins. Deliberate and slow-building white-pepper spice marked the finish. That slow build was a delightful surprise, and although the wine felt youthful and bold, it moved from flavor to flavor with impressive finesse.

2013 Gaja Sorì San Lorenzo, suggested retail price, $500: This wine was one of the first single-vineyard bottlings of Nebbiolo in the region, first sold in 1967, and as such, it helped put Barbaresco on the map. It had a rather dusky, hooded, dark-red fruit aroma, marked with some spice and some purple flowers. Again, this wine tasted big and brawny, with dark-red fruit flavors quickly moving to white-pepper spice and strong (some might say “tough”) tannins. It needs a little longer to mature, but even now, in its headstrong youth, it exhibits finesse as it shifts gears from fruit to spice to tannins.

Giovanni Gaja, Gaia Gaja and Bill Terlato

Giovanni Gaja, Gaia Gaja and Bill Terlato

2013 Gaja Costa Russi, suggested retail price, $535: “Costa” is the Italian version of côte, or slope. Here the dark-red fruit in the aroma was accompanied by some meaty notes as well as an overlay of violets (as I write this, I realize that combination sounds rather horrifying, but actually it’s thoroughly enticing). This wine had the slowest development of the three. It took its own graceful time to unfold, moving from concentrated fruit to focused acids to sneaky tannins. They started softly at first, and it wasn’t until I was in the thick of them that I realized their power.

What all three wines have in common is great finesse. It might be difficult to imagine, but when you taste a wine that has it, finesse is unmistakable. It’s like riding with an expert driver in a manual-shift car. Anyone who knows how to drive a stick can get you where you’re going, but the journey is ever so much more graceful and enjoyable with an expert maneuvering the gears and clutch.

But are these wines worth it? That depends. Let’s say you make about $50,000 a year, and you think $50 is an affordable splurge on a bottle of wine. To make a similarly affordable splurge on one of the three wines above, you would have to be making $500,000 a year.

If you are indeed one of those high-earners, these wines won’t disappoint. They offer a seductive and life-affirming combination of richness, power, balance and finesse. I loved tasting them. They put me in a brilliant mood for the rest of the day. I practically skipped home.

But would I spend 1% of my yearly earnings to purchase a bottle? I think I’ll have to settle for a ride in which I feel the gear shifts a bit more.

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Vézelay: Burgundy’s Flyover Country

14 November 2016
Vézelay

Vézelay

I regarded the Burgundy map in my World Atlas of Wine with some consternation. In the midst of planning my road trip from Paris to Beaune, I noticed an immense gap between Burgundy’s northernmost vineyards, surrounding Chablis, and its most famous, stretched along the Côte d’Or. The shortest route between my hotels in Chablis and Beaune was 82.6 miles, and the idea of driving that entire length — almost an hour and a half — without stopping for a drink seemed incomprehensible.

Then I noticed it: a little dogbone-shaped speck of pink, hiding in the map’s vast sea of grey flanking the A6 highway. This speck represented Bourgogne Vézelay, which the World Atlas calls a “recondite mini-appellation.” Goodness knows I’m a sucker for a recondite mini-appellation, especially one close to such a lovely (if touristy) town as Vézelay. I planned a detour.

The Oxford Companion to Wine had little to say about the appellation, but my Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia was a bit more encouraging, noting that Vézelay’s “top-performing white wines… are superior to the lower end of Chablis, which is relatively much more expensive.” To determine what the top-performing white was, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I simply googled “best Vézelay winery.”

Domaine de la CadetteAnd it worked! Google suggested Domaine de la Cadette, the wines of which are imported by the legendary Kermit Lynch. Trusting in the judgment of Google and Lynch, I added the winery’s tasting room to my itinerary.

The words “Burgundian winery” might conjure visions of grand châteaux, but that’s only occasionally the case in the Côte d’Or, much less in Vézelay. The tasting room looked quite unassuming, in fact, and as I pulled into its parking lot, it also looked quite closed.

Ever hopeful, I walked into the similarly unassuming restaurant, the name of which translates approximately to “The Foot in the Plate” (it sounds ever so much more charming in French). Inside Le Pied dans le Plat, I met the delightful and thankfully English-speaking Martine, who explained that the tasting room had indeed permanently closed. However, the restaurant and winery were affiliated, and I asked if I could do a tasting for my blog. Martine was happy to oblige.

ChanterellesI settled into a shady table on the restaurant’s terrace, decorated with potted succulents interspersed with old green demijohns. A young waitress sat nearby, brushing the dirt from a gorgeous pile of golden chanterelle mushrooms. Martine appeared with the first bottles, and I poured myself a bit of the Melon.

Melon de Bourgogne, in spite of its name, has little presence in Burgundy nowadays, long ago supplanted by Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. This crossing of Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc now grows more commonly in the Loire. As The Oxford Companion to Wine explains, “Melon’s increasing importance today rests solely on Muscadet, although it is also grown to a limited extent in Vézelay…”

The Melon vineyards in Vézelay may not be as important in the grand scheme of things, but the wine they make can certainly be delicious. The 2014 La Soeur Cadette Melon had an appealingly minerally aroma and zesty flavor, with tart green-apple fruit, lively limey acids and some minerals on the finish.

Domaine de la Cadette Pinot NoirI also tried two cheerful Chardonnays, the 2014 Domaine de la Cadette “La Châtelaine” and the 2014 Domaine Montanet-Thoden “Galerne” (Valentin Montanet of Domaine Montanet-Thoden is the son of Jean and Catherine Montanet, founders of  Domaine de la Cadette, and the wineries are intimately linked). The organic “La Châtelaine” had fresh, creamy fruit leavened with bright, lingering spice — a wonderful contrast. But I liked the “Galerne,” named for a local wind, even better. It had a rounder aroma, more subtle flavors and a more complex journey: the creamy fruit started taut, unwinding and opening into gentle lemon-lime citrus and some light ginger spice.

I also tried two charming Pinot Noirs. The 2014 Domaine de la Cadette “Champs Cadet” tasted light and fruity, with a pop of spice. It wasn’t especially deep or complicated, but there’s nothing wrong with a wine that’s simply lively and fun. The 2012 Domaine Montanet-Thoden “Garance” was more serious, with an unusual pink-aspirin aroma and a less fruity character. It tasted more earthy and meaty, with darker, brooding fruit and subtler spice.

Feeling quite comfortable by now at my little table on the terrace, I ordered some trout meunière for lunch. The fish had perfectly crispy skin and delicate flesh, and luscious butter soaked the potatoes and fresh vegetables. Martine tentatively asked me how it tasted. She looked relieved to hear my praise, and said, “Some people complain about all the butter.”

Trout meuniere“That’s insane,” I replied. Ordering trout meunière and complaining about the butter is like ordering steak tartare and complaining that your beef is undercooked.

The tight and citrusy “Galerne” Chardonnay was a perfect foil for the trout, cutting right through the buttery richness. I’d had more elegant wines in Chablis, and I would soon indulge in much fancier food in Beaune, but at that moment, with that trout and that Chardonnay, I didn’t want to be anywhere other than the sunny terrace of The Foot in the Plate.

Burgundy has other “recondite” appellations, and one of my favorites is St. Bris, which produces delicious Sauvignon Blanc. To learn more about St. Bris and how I made a fool of myself in Whole Foods, click here

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The Federalist At “Hamilton”: Wines Fit For A Founding Father

29 October 2016
Lin-Manuel Miranda

Lin-Manuel Miranda at the party celebrating the Chicago premiere of Hamilton

A cast party seemed like an odd venue in which to taste wine, but as a recovering theater major, I have a soft spot for musicals. Getting a new one off the ground can be tough, especially if it’s a wordy period piece, and I decided that if my blog post about the partner wine of the musical can also help promote a good show, then so much the better. So I accepted the invitation to the party celebrating the Chicago premiere of Hamilton.

Serving glasses of a wine named The Federalist during the intermission of a musical about Alexander Hamilton would seem gimmicky if the quality were less than excellent. After all, who cares if the wine’s name ties in to the theme of the show if it doesn’t taste any good?

Federalist Sonoma County ChardonnayAs we entered the party, I wasted no time in scooping up a glass of the 2015 Federalist Sonoma County Chardonnay. In general, Sonoma has a cooler climate than Napa, because the county is closer to the cool ocean currents off the coast. Cooler temperatures often result in higher acidity, which means that Sonoma Chardonnays are less likely to be blowsy and overripe than Napa Chardonnays.

And indeed, this Federalist Chardonnay was a well-balanced beauty. It suckered me right in with its aroma of buttered popcorn and a bit of tropical fruit. The fruit tasted rich and ripe, and there was an overlay of oak. Some people despise butter and oak, I know, but in the right proportions, they can be gorgeous flavors. Especially when they’re balanced, as they were here, by ample acids and a shaft of white pepper spice. This wine sells for about $14-$16 a bottle, which is a fantastic value for the money. Comparable white Burgundies cost twice as much.

I also tried the 2014 Federalist Lodi Cabernet Sauvignon, which I approached with no small measure of skepticism. At this summer’s Wine Bloggers Conference in Lodi, I tried a handful of Cabernet Sauvignons, and I found only one I could actually recommend. Now, I’m pleased to report, I have two. I enjoyed the cool, clean, rich fruit, the lively and rustic acids, the perk of white pepper spice and the supple tannins. It had some finesse, this Cabernet, and again, it’s surprisingly affordable at around $17 a bottle. Another fine value.

Federalist Dueling PistolsI noticed Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of Hamilton and the star of the production on Broadway, standing not far away, and I took the opportunity to ask him about Federalist wines and their partnership with his show. I had just started my question when Mr. Miranda took the opportunity to give me a pithy quote: “I have to go over there now,” he said.

Well, he’s more of a whiskey drinker in any case.

His speedy departure gave me a moment to try the third wine offered at the cast party, the 2012 Federalist Dry Creek Valley “Dueling Pistols” blend of 50% Zinfandel and 50% Syrah. I was especially excited to try this wine, because I can’t recall ever trying such a blend. According to The World Atlas of Wine, Sonoma’s “Dry Creek Valley still has a reputation for some of the finest examples of [Zinfandel],” and certainly this wine gave me no cause to dispute that assertion.

The “Dueling Pistols” smelled of rich, ripe fruit and tobacco — one of my favorite combinations. I absolutely loved its opulent fruit leavened with zesty spice, ample tannins and more of that wonderful tobacco on the finish. This wine is rich, dark and very sexy. It costs more than the others, around $35-$40 a bottle, but every penny you spend is repaid on your tongue.

Miguel Cervantes and Mario Cantone

Miguel Cervantes and Mario Cantone with a bottle of “Dueling Pistols”

Heading back to the bar for more, I turned around to discover Mario Cantone, of Sex and the City fame. He knew the Federalist wines well, since he spends quite a bit of time in Sonoma, and he agreed that the Chardonnay in particular is “delicious.”

The lead of the Chicago Hamilton production, Miguel Cervantes, approached us as we were chatting, and it turned out that he had never tried any of the Federalist wines. My quick-thinking friend Liz Barrett of Terlato (The Federalist’s distributor) offered to get him a glass so that he could give one a try, and she returned with a sample of the “Dueling Pistols.”

Mr. Cervantes proved quite adept at describing his experience with the wine. He gave it a smell, and said, “Oh yes, I like bigger, spicier wines.” After giving the “Dueling Pistols” a sip, he said, “I like the dry start — it’s not a Kool-Aid start like some Syrahs.” He took another taste and continued, “It gets in there dry, and then it’s a big old kick-you-in-the-face finish. I like it a lot.”

Me too. After trying this superb Zinfandel/Syrah blend, I have to wonder why we don’t see that combination more often. It really works. And even at $35 or $40 a bottle, the “Dueling Pistols” goes down a lot more easily than the price of a Hamilton ticket.

Note: The samples of these wines and the tickets to the cast party were provided free of charge.

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When To Decant, When To Aerate, And When To Just Back Off

15 October 2016
My empty, dusty decanter

My empty, dusty decanter

Dinner last week at my parents’ house got me thinking about decanting. I brought a 2009 Brunello di Montalcino, to pair with the beef tenderloin my father was whipping up. We opened it and poured ourselves small tastes, not only because of the wine’s youth (seven years, while old for most wines, is fairly young for a Brunello), but because wine streaked the cork from top to bottom. Air might have come into contact with the wine, oxidizing it.

Fortunately, the wine remained intact, but the tannins still felt tough and the fruit tasted tightly wound. Because we planned on eating in about 15 minutes, I decided it was time to decant. Or, more accurately, since my parents don’t own a decanter, we decided it was time to attach a little plastic nozzle to the bottle which helped aerate the wine as it was poured.

The wine unwound a little faster than it would have just standing in the bottle, and it ended up pairing beautifully with the beef in mushroom gravy. The ample but taut red fruit combined with lively spice and somewhat softened tannins to clear the palate after each rich, beefy bite.

I follow this procedure — tasting a little bit first — with any wine that I suspect might still be in the throes of youth. There is no other way to determine whether a wine needs to be decanted or not. You may very well find other wine writers who tell you that such-and-such wine always needs to be decanted, but don’t believe them. Even if they have an authoritative-sounding book.

Wine Folly CoverLast year, for example, when I reviewed the otherwise commendable book “Wine Folly” by Madeline Puckette and Justin Hammack, I discovered, in large font and all capital letters at the top of page 27, the title, “AERATING WINE TO IMPROVE FLAVOR.” The introductory paragraph described decanting as “magic,” and farther down the page, there was this criminally misleading assertion: “All red wines can be aerated.”

This is nothing short of absolute nonsense. Decanting an old wine is the vinous equivalent of asphyxiating your grandmother with a pillow. I still smart at the memory of a foolish waiter at a Chicago BYOB restaurant breaking the cork on a 1986 Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon, pushing the remaining cork piece into the bottle, and then decanting it through a coffee filter. When I saw what he was doing at the waiter station, I stopped him in his tracks, but the damage to the half of the wine he decanted was done. It fell flat, lacking the liveliness of the portion remaining in the bottle.

But it’s not just old wines that will suffer from decanting. Try decanting this year’s Beaujolais Nouveau, and you’ll get an even nastier surprise than usual when you taste it. In the unlikely event that it had some structure in the first place, you’ll have aerated it into oblivion. You also won’t do yourself any favors by decanting an expensive but delicate Pinot Noir, nor that unoaked red that precisely maintains its balance.

Taste first. If the wine tastes unpleasantly tight — if it makes you pucker a bit and/or the tannins rasp the buds right off your tongue — decant if you’re in a hurry, or simply let it stand open a bit. If you automatically decant, you’ll miss how the wine develops and changes in the glass over time, and that’s one of wine’s great joys.

VelvThe decant-first-ask-questions-later philosophy is so insidious that entire companies have devoted themselves to finding ways to introduce ever more oxygen into your wine, as I discovered at this year’s Wine Bloggers Conference in Lodi, California. The latest aeration contraption, demonstrated for us at the conference, is called Velv™.

(Full disclosure: Velv™ sponsored a lunch for conference attendees.)

As the Velv™ website describes, “Unlike decanting and aeration methods that rely on ambient air, Velv™ Wine Oxygenator uses 99.5% pure oxygen to bring wine to its flavor peak in just minutes.”

It’s not actually air that changes a wine’s flavor profile. Oxygen, specifically, is what causes the chemical reaction in the wine. But air is only 20.95% oxygen, which suddenly makes a decanter seem wildly inefficient compared with the pure and ruthless Velv™.

This wand-shaped device has a canister of oxygen in the handle, and at the tip, a “micro-diffuser” that you stab into your glass or bottle of wine. The machine forces tiny bubbles through the diffuser, ensuring that the wine has maximum contact with the oxygen.

I observed the Velv™ in action at the conference, and as I watched, I heard the sales representative say the most remarkable thing to one of my fellow bloggers: “After six minutes, [the Velv™] took all the gravel and the dirt and the ugliness out of a Bordeaux.” I stood there, mouth agape, as I transcribed the conversation in my notebook. I wonder what that Bordeaux winemaker would think about all that “ugliness” — some might call it character or complexity — being removed from his or her wine.

The Velv table at the Wine Bloggers Conference

The Velv table at the Wine Bloggers Conference

I later related the conversation to a friend at the conference, who asked, “Why would you want to turn a Bordeaux into a California Merlot?”

California wines, incidentally, did not escape the violent bubbles of the Velv™. The sales representative went on to enthusiastically describe how the machine “…can also blow the oak and butter out of a big Chardonnay.”

Of course, the other way to avoid oak and butter flavors, which some people legitimately dislike, is to purchase an unoaked Chardonnay. Most wine shops carry at least one these days. Then you’ll be able to taste the wine as the winemaker intended it to taste, and you’ll have saved yourself $250 to $300.

The Velv in action, inserted into a Menage a Trois

The Velv in action, inserted into a Ménage à Trois

Distressing sales pitches aside, the only way for me to determine the effect of the Velv™ was to experience it for myself. The sales representative poured me two tastes of a 2013 Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon, one velved and one not.

He recommended trying the velved version first. It still had lots of dark fruit to it, and more surprisingly, the tannins still dried my tongue right up. I thought they might feel a bit softer after all that oxygen.

Then I tried the non-velved Cabernet. Wow. The fruit was all there and the tannins felt similar, but the wine tasted spicier. The Velv™ had removed that key component of the Cab — the spicy quality in the middle — and with the spice intact, the wine felt more balanced. I much preferred the Mondavi with its midsection not blown to bits with the Velv™ blunderbuss.

In short, should you decant your wine? Probably not. Should you spend $250 on a device to literally gas your wine? In the name of all that’s good and holy, no.

I’m sorry, Velv™ sales representative. I guess I owe you lunch.

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Japanese Whisky And The Problem With Food Festivals

29 September 2016

Suntory Whisky Toki and miso-glazed chickenI had planned on helping to weed the nearby community garden on Saturday, followed by some light packing for my trip to Vancouver. But before bed on Friday night, something told me to check my email. “I’ve been able to secure a ticket for you for Saturday!” a message from a PR firm read.

I felt a most extraordinary and peculiar sensation: disappointment that I would have to forgo weeding in order to attend Chicago Gourmet.

Before I delve further into my perversely skewed priorities, duty requires that I spend a moment describing the delights of Suntory Whisky Toki, a Japanese whisky released this past June. Suntory’s PR firm organized my Chicago Gourmet media pass in spite of sell-out conditions on Saturday, and even went so far as to procure me a “Staff” bracelet when my media pass was stolen from the PR rep.

The very idea of Japanese whisky was met with grave skepticism even just a few years ago, according to Gardner Dunn, the Suntory Japanese Whisky Senior Ambassador. “Eight years ago, I had to convince people it wasn’t made from rice,” he said, as we chatted in Suntory’s shoji screen-clad tent. (The whisky is made almost entirely from corn, with a touch of barley added for its enzymes.)

Oddly enough, this whisky hasn’t yet been released in Japan. I asked Dunn why, and he said, “We think it’s good enough, and maybe we’ll release it there in 2018. We’re not sure.” In the meantime, this Japanese whisky is available only in North America, the market for which it was tailored. “We know what the U.S. consumer wants,” Dunn explained. “I’m seeing a craze for bourbon, rye… sweeter whiskies. That’s why this whisky has a little complexity but is easygoing.”

Suntory Whisky TokiHe’s exactly right. I tried this blended whisky neat, and though it had a fresh and light aroma undergirded with some wood, it felt lush on the tongue. That initial richness quickly gave way to big spice and some fresh tobacco on the finish, and on the whole, it felt very well-balanced. Peat-phobes need not fear this whisky.

It’s pleasant enough neat, but really, it was intended to stand up to dilution in a highball, a cocktail which is reportedly wildly popular in Japan. In fact, I met a man dubbed “Mr. Highball” in the Suntory tent, and he told me that though highballs were an American invention (“Be sure to write that they’re an American invention,” he said), they have become exceedingly popular in Japan, where people drink the mix of whisky and sparkling water with food, “like a beer.”

The Suntory Whisky Toki is big enough and spicy enough that it doesn’t entirely lose its character when mixed with sparkling water, as some whiskies do. With a twist of citrus, it makes an exceedingly refreshing (and low-sugar) cocktail, and it indeed works well with food, as I discovered when I paired it with some savory and bright miso-glazed chicken with Fresno pepper and burnt lemon. “You need to have a soda water with big bubbles,” a companion of Mr. Highball explained. The best, according to her, is Fever Tree.

The whisky costs about $40 a bottle, which doesn’t seem at all a bad value, particularly in comparison to other Japanese whiskies, which typically cost upwards of $70. A search of Binny’s selection revealed only one less-expensive Japanese whisky, the Mars Whisky Iwai.

If you’ve never tried a Japanese whisky, you certainly couldn’t go wrong by starting with some Suntory Whisky Toki.

Chicago Gourmet 1With my duty complete, I turned from the Suntory tent towards the heart of Chicago Gourmet, a sea of tasting booths and hungry people. And tasting mean one thing to me: work. Weeding is like meditation. Tasting I’ve turned into work. It’s pleasant work, to be sure, and I love that it’s part of my work. But delightful though the work may be, it’s still work.

I looked around at all the people who weren’t working, and I can’t deny that I felt a bit baffled. Chicago Gourmet ranks among the city’s most expensive events. Tickets this year cost $185 per person, plus a shameless $22.27 ticketing fee charged by Eventbrite. That totals an insane $207.27 per person.

Unless, of course, you want to spring instead for a Grand Cru ticket. And at this point, why not? Those will set you back $229.57 per person, including fees. That price doesn’t necessarily include seminars such as “The Tao of Tacos,” however. That run for the border costs an additional $106.92.

Chicago Gourmet Line 2You then get access to a beautiful park full of tents offering all-you-can-eat nibbles from notable restaurants as well as numerous all-you-can-sip tastes of various wines, spirits and cocktails. It’s all very fancy.

You also get access to lines. Long lines. And it’s hard to feel fancy when you’re standing in a line — several of them had amusement park-style switchbacks — with an empty plastic plate in your hand. The line for the seafood pavilion alone easily held more than 100 people.

I decided to try a little experiment. I selected one of the shortest lines, the line for Tasting Pavilion #8, to see how long it took to get something on my plastic plate, and whether that something was worth the wait. There were no switchbacks. Switchbacks make me feel like I’m waiting in an airport for my luggage to be searched and my body to be backscattered. Just a line.

Agnolotti, crudo, burger and pork croquette at Chicago GourmetIt took me exactly 15 minutes to make it through, and for my effort, I was rewarded with some overcooked butternut squash agnolotti (actually an agnolotto) with a pomegranate/balsamic reduction, serviceable shrimp and scallop crudo with cilantro and Fresno pepper in a citrus marinade, a decadently rich burger of braised short-rib with peppercorn aioli and baby arugula, and a savory pork croquette with sweet-and-sour cabbage atop a celeriac/truffle oil purée.

I adored the burger. But I know other adorable burgers that can be had for about $15. With fries.

The wine and spirits booths also proved to be hit and miss, and the hits tended to have lines as well. The Prisoner sentenced people to waits of about 10 minutes, by the look of things. But to be fair, those unwilling to wait for Roederer, for example, could walk right up to the Prosecco booth.

I felt unwilling to wait for Roederer, and I didn’t even have to pay for my ticket. How did people who plunked down more than $200 to attend Chicago Gourmet feel about queuing for their Champagne? I just don’t see how it’s worth it, paying that kind of money to access food and drink — after a wait — that’s presented, in many cases, as if it were part of a sales pitch.

Do any of you pay to attend food festivals like Chicago Gourmet? Why not just have a fabulous dinner for $200 a person somewhere? Somewhere that serves food not on plastic plates.

Obviously I’m missing something, because Chicago Gourmet sells out every year. What am I missing? Write a comment and fill me in.

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The German Side Of Lodi

14 September 2016
Dornfelder growing in Lodi's Mokelumne Glen Vineyards

Dornfelder growing in Lodi’s Mokelumne Glen Vineyards

After visiting Lodi, California, about a month ago, I can confirm that it’s hot. Hot, sunny, dry and flat. The soils range from sandy loam to loamy sand, and both types feel, more or less, like glorified dust. Zinfandel, famous (infamous?) for producing jammy fruit bombs, is the signature grape.

I’ve also had the fortune to visit German wine regions such as the Rhein and Mosel valleys, and I can confirm that they are cool, wet and frequently quite steep. Slate permeates the Mosel’s soil and some of the Rheingau’s vineyards, with loess and marl also appearing in the latter. Riesling, the best examples of which display steely nerve and focused acids, is the signature grape.

In short, the terroirs of Lodi and Germany have about as much in common as avocados and schnitzel. Lodi is one of the last wine regions on Earth I would expect to find German grapes.

And yet, there they were in the Mokelumne Glen Vineyards, growing in tidy, defiant rows. The appeared to be flourishing, in fact, like German tourists on a permanent holiday in Mallorca. Even I, someone who regularly seeks out the unusual wines, felt flabbergasted at the sight of Dornfelder grapes ripening happily in Lodi’s semi-desert.

Vineyard co-owner Bob Koth, a former winemaker and paratrooper, explained how he grew to love German wines while visiting his daughter, who lived there for a time as a Fulbright Scholar. He came back wanting to grow German grapes, and that’s exactly what he did, sun and loamy sand be damned. He and vineyard co-owner May Lou Koth eventually converted a pear orchard into Mokelumne Glen Vineyards, where they now grow some 48 different German and Austrian grapes.

Mokelumne Glen Vineyards

Mokelumne Glen Vineyards

Most of the varieties, including true oddities such as Oraniensteiner and Affenthaler, are grown on an experimental basis. So far, nine grapes — Bacchus, Gewürztraminer, Kerner, Rieslaner, Riesling, Weissburgunder, Blaufränkisch, Dornfelder and Zweigelt — have done well enough to justify larger plantings.

Unlike in Germany, ripening the grapes is never a concern. The trick is to pick them after they fully ripen but before the juice turns flabby.

Still, the whole idea struck me as frankly insane. Could wines from these grapes possibly be any good? I sat down in a shady glen near the vineyards with a dozen fellow wine bloggers for a tasting. Winemakers from four different wineries poured (Mokelumne doesn’t produce its own wine).

German varietal wines of Lodi2015 Sidebar Cellers Kerner Mokelumne River: As we tasted this wine, Bob exclaimed, “This is the only place west of Michigan that grows Kerner!” I believe it. The Oxford Companion to Wine mentions plantings outside of Germany in England, Japan and South Africa, but says nothing about Kerner in the U.S. (you can read more about Kerner in this post). This example had a green, spicy aroma. There was a sense of richness, with its ripe fruit balanced by grapefruity acids and plenty of spice. Delightful, and priced well at $25.

2015 Holman Cellars “Uncharted” Bacchus:  I started this blog in 2011, and yet this was my first time tasting its namesake grape, Bacchus! This cross of Müller-Thurgau with a cross of Silvaner and Riesling doesn’t often appear as a varietal. According to The Oxford Companion, “Unlike the more aristocratic and more popular crossing Kerner, however, the wine produced lacks acidity and is not even useful for blending…in poor years since it needs to be fully ripe before it can express its own exuberant flavors.” The Companion also notes that warm-climate examples can be “flabby.”

Lodi Bacchus should by all rights be a real Jabba the Hutt of a wine, but this example had ample lemon/orange acids to balance the rich fruit. I got notes of fresh herbs, like bay and sage, and even some minerality on the finish, both of which also contributed to the balance. Against all odds, I really liked this wine. It offers a lot of flavor for its $25 price tag.

Winemaker Markus Riggli

Winemaker Markus Riggli

2013 Borra Winery Markus “Nuvola” Gewürztraminer: The name of this wine comes from its winemaker, Swiss expat Markus Niggli, and the Italian word for “cloud.” A warm-climate Gewürz sounds like a terrible idea. As The Oxford Companion notes, “Many wine regions are simply too warm to produce wine with sufficient acidity, unless the grapes are picked so early… that they have developed little Gewürztraminer character.” That character is unmistakable — perfumed and spicy, commonly with a strong note of lychee.

Some Gewürztraminers are too perfumed for my taste, in fact, and if you agree, this is the Gewürz for you. The aroma had more of an undertone of flowers — lily of the valley, to my nose — along with notes of dried herbs. The fruit tasted quite peachy, and it even veered into caramel territory, but balance was restored by a shaft of ginger/white pepper spice. The finish felt sweetly chalky. I’m not sure this qualifies as a classic Gewürztraminer, but I liked that the perfume didn’t slap me in the face. A good value for $19.

We also tasted two blends of Kerner, Bacchus, Riesling and Gewürztraminer by Borra Winery, the 2015 Markus Nativo, which tasted delightfully cool and clean, and the 2014 Markus Nimmo, which included a higher proportion of Gewürztraminer. It tasted creamier — almost buttery — but refined spice and a long mineral finish kept it balanced. $19 and $22, respectively.

Hatton Daniels Zweigelt2015 Hatton Daniels Zweigelt: You may not have heard of this dark-skinned grape, but as The Oxford Companion explains, “It is widely grown throughout all Austrian wine regions and can increasingly make a serious, age-worthy wine, even though most examples are best drunk young.” This Lodi example had a classic Zweigelt aroma of ripe red fruit and earth. I wouldn’t call this light-bodied wine “age-worthy,” necessarily, but I liked its cherry fruit, notes of leather and meat, and the quick burst of acids. Some tannins on the finish kept things grounded. $25

I suppose that 50 years ago, it would have seemed crazy to the people of Cahors, France, that their Malbec would grow exceedingly well — dare I say even better — in Mendoza. Now Argentine Malbec is in every corner liquor store. So perhaps we shouldn’t be shocked to discover perfectly lovely examples of Kerner and Gewürztraminer in the wilds of central California. The grapes behave differently there, to be sure, but that doesn’t mean they don’t make tasty wine.

I’m sure people thought Bob Koth was crazy when he said he wanted to grow German grape varieties in Lodi. Some people probably still do. But the proof is in the pudding.

These tastes were provided free of charge as part of the 2016 Wine Bloggers Conference.

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13 Notable Quotes From Lodi’s Wine Bloggers Conference

20 August 2016
Wine bloggers at work in Lodi

Wine bloggers at work in Lodi

I just returned from 2016’s Wine Bloggers Conference in Lodi, California, and as you might expect, people had all sorts of insightful things to say about wine, food and life in general. I gathered up my favorite gems, so that you, too, might learn from our collective wisdom.

The most important 13 quotes of the conference, in no particular order:

1. “This is your wine now. You know, you can come and stroke it or whatever you have to do.”

2. “They love the winemaker. I’m crap, but they love the winemaker.”

3. “Gewürztraminer is the Pamela Anderson of grapes.”

Vino Noire and Josh Likes Wine talking about either goat ragù or waterboarding (I can't remember which)

Vino Noire and Josh Likes Wine talking about either goat ragù or waterboarding (I can’t remember which)

4. “Riesling is not Kleenex.”

5. “Can you waterboard someone if they’re OK with it?”

6. “It tastes good for Chardonnay.”

7. “I’m going to extend my arm.”

8. “This would go great with some goat ragù.”

9. “After six minutes, [this aerator] took all the gravel and dirt and ugliness out of a Bordeaux.”

10. “Do you have your syringe?”

11. “Gary [Indiana] has that drive-by feng shui.”

12. “Lisa is our tasting room entertainer. …Man, she is really good.”

13. “I think it’s fundamental to remember that we all love alcohol.”

Amen.

If you were there in Lodi and have a quote or two of your own to share, feel free to do so in the comments section!

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