The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Regrets, Radikon and Evolution

The too-short story of a bottle of wine

Having heard that my bottle of 1994 Radikon Merlot was in danger of evolving past its peak, I uncorked my bottle to enjoy it. The wine was pleasant upon opening, emitting scents of dried strawberries, along with Christmas spices and tea leaves. The wine felt initially giving and complex on the palate and possessed minerality and a vibrant acidity, a sign the grapes were picked early. I noted a presence of a green vegetal quality—also an indication of an early harvest— that was initially kept in balance by the wonderful dried strawberry notes. Within a few minutes the wine changed, the front and mid-palate began picking up bitterness from the seeds, while the back palate reeled from the explosion of long and intense fruit flavors. This was an intriguing development; in a wine of lesser quality, fruit flavors appear on the palate initially, and recede to be replaced by the bitter phenols from the seeds. However, the Radikon was doing the reverse.

“Where was this heading?” I asked myself. There was no denying that this light-bodied wine packed a powerful strawberry wallop in the initial moments in the glass. I wondered, “Would this wine reveal more or would it end soon, having shown its all?”  It seemed too much to ask from a sixteen-year-old wine for its performance to remain at this intense level.  Eventually, I regretfully observed, the Radikon’s delightful dried fruit flavors dissipated, leaving behind the bitter notes of the seeds. I wondered what more this wine could have expressed had it been opened earlier.

And yet, wine evolves. Two hours later a new aroma began emanating from my glass. “What was this?” I thought, “Surely the wine had gone past its way.” I tasted again and found a wine that was coming into itself. The flavors and the acids had become integrated and expressive of cherries, in a tangy, savory, umami way; the bitter tannins were now non-existent. The green quality had also dissipated and was replaced by a musky quality. It was a delicious revelation.

Wine evolves, as the truism goes, and this bottle of Radikon proves the veracity of that idea. Indeed, I’m reminded that getting to know a wine means having more than just one bottle of it. A bottle holds only a small portion of the entire vintage. Each bottle upon opening tells the story of where it came from, and where it may go. To truly know the wine and the vintage you’d have to possess several bottles from the vintage and experience them over the course of time.

This ’94 Merlot’s performance indicates it could have been cellared longer. However, I have no regrets about opening it. Rather, having experienced this Radikon, I regret not having more of it—and being able to taste more of it over time. Wine evolves, and remarkable wine evolves remarkably. Unquestionably, this ’94 Radikon is a remarkable wine.

Less Wine, More Laws

A Look at HR 5034

HR 5034, a bill recently submitted to the U.S. House of Representatives, is the proposed legislation that will limit direct sale from a winery to the consumer, and in the minds of oenophiles, it’s a potential mess of our bureaucratic process. As many wine writers are reporting, the bill is arguably the biggest threat to wine and alcohol consumption since Prohibition, and it’s no surprise that this new legislation is being blamed on large distributors who may be bypassed in the process of consumers getting wine shipped directly from vineyard to their homes. Currently, individual states have the right to determine if they will allow alcohol products to be shipped into their borders, and this is what the bill proposes to change. At a minimum HR 5034 is very confusing. On a greater level, it speaks of the considerable greed that characterizes our industry.

Every twenty to thirty years, the distributor process cycles through a natural expansion that’s followed by a consolidation. Today, there is certainly a considerable consolidation happening around the United States. The primary force behind this consolidation is Southern Wine and Spirits, which is the largest distributor of alcoholic beverages in the US. While there are many of my colleagues who fear the giant, I have had delightful experiences with this very professional operation. The primary concern most people have is the company’s overt demand to have 80% of a retail outlets business. However, it has been and remains a family operation with excellent professionals at the senior levels. This bill, however, is being blamed on the large distributors like Southern Wine. This attribution is a canard. The bill is actually the responsibility of beer distributors.

At primary concern for the distributor is the possibility that a beer producer will be able to sell directly to a WalMart or Costco and skip the local distributor. Certainly, we are all willing to empathize with this considerable economic challenge. It might mean that the consumer is able to pay for the product at a more reasonable price. Imagine what would happen to a case of wine that was shipped from the winery directly to the consumer rather than through the normal three tier system. Beer distributors want to be able to control how wine, alcohol and beer get shipped on a federal level because it’s in their best economic interest to do so.

That desire, however understandable, is really awful for everyone who isn’t a beer distributor.

There is a point where our government works efficiently. However, there are too many instances where government grows needlessly complicated because of the special interests of large companies. Perhaps we could suggest that we use the end line consumer as the guiding force for our decisions. To me it all comes down to one question: is it better for American taxpayers to receive their wine at a lower price? Indeed it is.

For more information, go here or here. And to make a protest, go here. There’s even a Facebook page.

The Jungle Gym of Wine & Food Pairings

The beauty and bliss of wine and cheese

Those of us who have experienced a sublime wine and cheese pairing know exactly what I’m talking about: some combinations are mind-blowing and leave you yearning for more, even after you’ve finished a half pound of cheese and a bottle of wine. Others, regrettably, make you feel like scraping your tongue. In this writing, however, I want to concentrate on the really good, and not the egregiously ugly.

Why is it that wine and cheese can be so good together?  One reason may be that either component on its own is a delight in its own right. However, the sum of both is far greater than either than its parts, and so we need to look more deeply into the ineffable chemistry of the pair.

Cheese is composed of water, animal fat and protein, and wine is made up of water, alcohol, acid, sugar and tannins (for the purpose of this article, we’re just looking at the tannins found in reds).  When a science/wine/food nerd-type like me looks at this ingredient set, I can’t help but notice how perfectly these two meld together.  In part, they match one another because they both come from simple ingredients, shaped by terroir, blended by artists, changed by age and created by microbes. In many ways, cheese is the solid, protein version of wine. Chemically, they’re kind of the perfect foil for each other.

Imagine yourself drinking a bottle of red wine—or better yet go pop one right now.  You will notice that most red wines will leave your mouth feeling dry with an astringent after feel.  This “dryness” is due to the tannins in the wine.  The tannins in the wine coagulate your salivary proteins that are secreted by the pores in your mouth.  Without saliva lubricating your palate, this astringent feeling comes into play.  Now let’s add cheese into the equation.

Remember that I said that cheese was mostly fat and protein.  When you take a bite of cheese and then take a sip of wine, the tannins now have another protein to coagulate with, other than just your salivary protein.  The tannins bind to the cheese protein instead of your saliva, giving the wine a much smoother and rounder sensation in your mouth. And just like magic, the wine and cheese anomaly has been exposed.

White wines also make excellent pairings because of their acidity.  Most whites should be paired with lighter and tangier cheese so as not to mask the flavor of the wine.  The acid in white wines works to cleanse the palate and prime your palate for the next bite.  The acids will also make the cheese taste a bit sweeter because the wine’s acids occupy your acid receptors on your tongue and leaving your sweet receptors open to some of the cheese’s sweeter nuances.

Wine and cheese are like the jungle gym of wine/food pairings.  Reds, whites, sweet, and sparkling wines all can pair nicely with cheese; the combinations are nearly endless.   Just remember that you want to pair strong cheeses with fuller, more intense wines and lighter cheeses with fresh, light wines, for example, Sauvignon Blanc or Chenin Blanc with goat cheese. Generally speaking, hard cheeses are more intense, and softer cheeses are less intense because hard cheeses are aged longer allowing water to evaporate, thus intensifying the cheese’s flavor.  Remember to pair cheeses with their native wines—Spanish cheese with Spanish wine, Italian cheese with Italian wines.  While the basic rule is “what grows together goes together,” you can mix and match, but nothing can beat a traditional combination.  Here are some guidelines:

  • Aged pecorino and Parmigiano-Reggiano with most Italian reds( Brunello, Chianti, or Barolo, for example)
  • Aged cheddar with American Cabernet
  • Light cheddar with a full Chardonnay
  • Mozzarella with light whites
  • Gouda, Chevre,  creamy cheddar and brie with Champagne
  • Amarone with gorgonzola

How Are Tastes in Wine Shaped?

Insight from three generations

I started thinking the other day about people’s relationship with wine. Clearly everyone is different, and there are a number of different variables, but what is it that shapes our tastes and habits in the world of wine? It looks to me as if our tastes in wine are shaped much as our tastes in just about everything: by genetics, culture, family tradition and, as I witnessed this past week, generation.

I was eating dinner with my grandparents, who spend most of the year in London and a few months in New York. Upon arrival, my grandmother handed me a glass of Bordeaux. As I sipped it, I discreetly perused their bar and noticed that every bottle of wine stored there was from Bordeaux. I remembered how often I’d drunk this wine in their presence. I continued pondering the Bordeaux connection, and I realized that Bordeaux is all they ever drink—in restaurants and in their home. In fact, it’s a taste that I associate with my grandparents. And I can’t help but think that they’re not the only wine drinkers their age who practice that sort of discrimination.

One school of thought would then be that this predilection for Bordeaux would have been passed on to my mother, and then on to me. However, it’s quite the opposite—my mom’s red of choice is Zinfandel and we rarely drink Bordeaux at family meals. So what is it that drives my mom’s relationship with wine? Could it be that because she is a baby boomer she has the cultural drive to try something different, to redefine traditional values? Does her choice of wine constitute a subtle act of rebellion? Is my mother’s Zinfandel the sign of an infidel? Or does she merely like it better?

I then started to think about my friends from California. While they’ll try anything new and different that they can get their mouths on, when push comes to shove, they’ll show their hometown pride in opting for a big Napa Cab any day of the week. This choice seems to fall clearly into the culture camp. To drink otherwise is not to support the home team.

And then I tried to decipher my own relationship with wine. Although I do have my everyday favorites and some wines that I crave above all others, I am like many people of Generation Y: I’m always searching for the new. Novelty may be the standard in my relationship with drinking wine, a habit I was allowed to develop early on because of my parents’ European love of always having a glass of wine with dinner. However, as much as I love pushing my oenophile envelope, I cannot credit any one thing for shaping my relationship with wine. But then, I’m still young. Maybe by the time I’m my grandparents’ age I too will have found my Bordeaux. (Though I doubt it.)

I’m curious about all of you. What would you say shapes your love of wine? Culture? Tradition? Taste buds? Generation? Or some combination thereof?

A Daring Pairing

A study in breaking the rules

Last week I was approached by our Wine Acquisitions Director, Christy Canterbury, who came to me with a lovely dilemma. She had been invited to a charity auction called “Taste of the Earth” held by Christie’s, the international auction house, and she couldn’t attend because she was scheduled to fly out to Italy that very night. All the auction lots were wines, wine tastings, or trips centered on wine, and I was among sixteen NYC Sommeliers and wine directors from various companies and restaurants that participated in pouring and chatting; of course because of my late substitution for Christy, the name and picture for the evening showed up in the informational booklet was hers. I did, however, get my own name on my nametag.

I had never been involved in a live auction of any kind. To be a part of one at Christie’s— let alone one based on wine — was a real privilege, and I was excited to go. I knew other sommeliers and wine directors from around the city would be there, but I still wasn’t sure what to expect. As I made my way by subway and by foot to the auction house, I imagined a guy in a tweed suit and horn-rimmed glasses standing at a podium rattling off in quick-fire speech, “Let’s start the bidding at $800, do I here $1000, $1000, thank-you-gentleman-at-the-back-for-one-thousand, do I hear fifteen hundred, fitee…thank-you-new-bidder-at-the-front…” I recognize now that I was basing every mental picture on Bond movies.

Scanning the menu for the evening and the wines that were to be served, I found myself unfamiliar with some of the wines. I recognized the Il Poggione 2004 Brunello di Montalcino, which made my Italian pride flare up because the rest of the wines were French, Californian, German and Chilean. I noticed immediately that the wine director for this event had paired a Sàint-Émilion Grand Cru, a blend of 97% Merlot and 3% Cabernet Franc by Château Fonplégade, with poached Mediterranean Langoustines, a seafood.

It was an odd choice to my thinking, and finally, a guest approached me and looked at my name tag. “Excuse me, Will. Aren’t you supposed to pair white wine with only fish?”

“Most of the time, yes,” I said.

“Then why are we drinking this red with the Langoustines?” the gentleman inquired.

Having tasted the wine and eaten the dish, I had to agree with the implication this gentleman was making in his question—and I had to scratch my head. Why did they pair this Merlot blend with this shellfish? This is the sort of question that brings to mind the blogs of my colleagues Emily and Francesco, and it’s the sort of question that makes me wonder if there are really rules. Just because I don’t necessarily enjoy that pairing, does not mean that someone else might not?

In the middle of my conversation with this gentleman, the wine director for the event approached us to say hello. The question was presented again, and his opinion was that this pairing was a good match, which is natural because he chose the pairing. He turned the question to me, and I had to be honest and say it wasn’t something I would have done. I dubbed it “A Daring Pairing,” not because it was a red wine with a fish dish, but because the weight of the wine seemed to overpower this delicacy. I have often paired a light, fresh red with a tomato sauce fish dish, for example, so a red with fish was not new to me. Still, this particular one felt odd, and not merely to me and my querying guest. So unusual was the pairing that the entire room took it to vote, and one table voted “Ay,” while the other twelve “Nay.”

As I said, there’s not necessarily a right or wrong in choosing food and wine complements; it’s a matter of taste and your palate. Rules are made to be broken or bent.

But occasionally, they are also meant to be adhered to.

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