Archive for: November, 2017

60 Second Whiskey Review – Alexander Murray

Some quick thoughts on a few Scotch whiskeys from independent bottler Alexander Murray.

The Geekery

Founded by Scottish native Steve Lipp in 2004, Alexander Murray is a notable source behind many of the private label Scotches found at Costco (Kirkland Signature) and Total Wine & More (Ainsley Brae).

The Whiskeys

The 20 yr Glentauchers is a really light and elegant, floral “breakfast Scotch”. Something between a Glen Moray and Glenfiddich style. Around $150 a bottle which is a bit high for this light style, in my opinion.

The 23 yr Allt-a-Bhaine (used by Chivas in their high end blends) has a good balance of malt with light peat–sort of a more powerful Oban. A lot of layers and complexity with a long smooth finished. Around $150 a bottle which is an outstanding value for a 23 year that easily outclasses many 21 yr whiskeys in the $200+ range.

The 21 year Braes of Glenlivet is a bit shy on the nose but had good weight on the palate. Nothing like regular Glenlivet. Rather more like a Fine Oak Macallan. Around $180 a bottle which is a little too much for my taste.

The 19 year Cask Strength Linkwood is a much spicier and more powerful driven Scotch then typical Linkwood. I strongly suspect Sherry casks. This is like a Macallan 18 yr but with way more depth and power. It holds it proof really well for a smooth finish that doesn’t need to be watered down. Around $150 a bottle which is an outstanding value especially considered the Macallan 18 is around $230.

The 26 yr Bunnahabhain is very savory and meaty. More in a Mortlach or Glenfarclas style than anything I tasted from Bunnahabhain. Something to contemplate over while rolling it around your tongue. Around $290 a bottle which is a bit steep but I can’t deny the uniqueness of this expression of Bunnahabhain.

The 28 yr Cask Strength Bunnahabhain is classic Old School Bunnahabhain before they started adding more peat. A touch of peat but it’s all about the beautiful dried fruit, fresh cereals and long, subtle spice on the finish. Very smooth for a cask strength. Around $320 a bottle which is certainly because of its age. It’s a very tasty whiskey that delivers a lot of pleasure but you’re going to pay a premium for it.

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In Defense of Evil Empires

Recently Esther Mobley of The San Francisco Chronicle wrote of the blockbuster Pinot noir producer Kosta Browne’s new direction away from their super-lush and highly extracted style to something less “over-the-top, opulent, blow-your-lid-off wines.” The catalyst for this change, according to Kosta Browne’s president Scott Becker, is changing consumer demand, particularly among Millennials.

“We were at the risk of becoming victims of our own success…To be relevant and successful for the next 20 years, we have to recognize that the consumer is changing.” –Scott Becker as quoted by SF Chronicle 11/7/17

A sharp motivation also seems to be a bit of ego bruising that Kosta Browne has taken over the years for being a poster child of the high alcohol, super-ripe and hedonistic wines that flooded the market in the last few decades. Mobley quotes founder Dan Kosta concerns over his namesake winery being used by winemakers in Oregon and by organizations like In Pursuit of Balance as an example of what not to do with Pinot noir. The Chronicle article also includes an amusing anecdote about a sommelier at the NYC restaurant Breslin being ignorant that a winery named Kosta Browne even exist.

I find your lack of faith disturbing.

Quick look–is this Pinot noir or Syrah? Sometimes it’s hard to tell with wines as well.

Let’s set aside how poorly that story reflects on the quality of the wine knowledge for a restaurant’s program. As an owner/wine director, I would expect my sommeliers not to be ignorant of a winery that has won Wine Spectator’s Wine of the Year (and been featured in their Top 100 list numerous times) and is regularly in the top half of most collectible wines from California according to Vinfolio’s Collectibility Index. Love them or hate them, Kosta Browne is, for all practical purposes, part of the pantheon of “cult producers” of Pinot noir in California with a 2 to 5-year long waiting list.

Even if you don’t like Kosta Browne and don’t feature them on your wine list, it’s beyond pale to shrug your shoulders at the name as if you’ve never heard of them.

I say that as someone who really doesn’t like Kosta Browne’s wines. Like many somms, I roll my eyes at seeing them on restaurant wine lists with their exorbitantly marked up prices just waiting for an expense account ego to order them.

Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger; anger leads to hate; hate leads to suffering

Particularly a big-fish whose name rhymes with “Stiancarlo Ganton”

Even if Kosta Browne is not my style, I’m a bit saddened to read about this “change in direction.”  It’s not that I don’t think pursuing more balanced wines isn’t a worthwhile goal. But seeing Kosta Browne trying to become “more restrained” in style is a bit like following the Hot Stove League in Baseball in the post-Steinbrenner years as the New York Yankees aim to be more “fiscally restrained.” Yeah, you’ve got the LA Dodgers and Boston Red Sox’s trying to fill in the gap with their best Belle Glos and Sea Smoke like efforts. But as a fan of an old school small market Joseph Swan-like team (the St. Louis Cardinals), the excitement of potentially landing a big fish is not quite a thrilling when one of the Goliaths of the game are sitting on the sideline. David isn’t David if the slingshot is never used.

Likewise, how exciting would the Star Wars movies be if the Galactic Empire changed philosophies all of a sudden and started espousing Kofi Annan style diplomacy?

There’s always a bigger fish.

“Good is a point of view…. Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator are similar in almost every way, including their quest for greater power. ” — Chancellor Kofi Parker, Jr.

The world needs Evil Empires like the New York Yankees and Kosta Browne. Because the little guys, the outsiders, the rebels, the hipster snobs need something to target. The world needs a balance between good and evil and you can’t have one without the other. So why should we root for Kosta Browne to shed its evil ways and try to become something….else? Do we think that people will suddenly stop wanting to drink lush, full-bodied and highly extracted Pinot noirs? Of course not! Just like matter can be neither created nor destroyed, so too, is evil and the taste for residual sugar in wines is constant.

And as we’ve seen from history, when a vacuum of evil is created, there can be consequences when a new force tries steps in.

You can argue that a lot of the world’s recent problems can be traced to the Chicago Cubs winning the 2016 World Series by trying to out-Yankee the Yankees.

If I could photoshop him twerking on the Camaro, I would.

They went from being the lovable, lowkey Eraths of the Pinot noir world to the big budget and crass-commercialized Meiomi. They changed their style, trying to become the “New Evil Empire” and it messed up the cosmic order. Now we have women twerking on top of cars, folks dropping turkeys from planes and idiots launching home-made rockets trying to prove the world is flat. Yes, the world is out of whack. I place the blame squarely on Ben Zobrist.

You can’t stop the change, any more than you can stop the suns from setting.

Sure, big over-the-top wines can be tedious and lack “character”. Likewise, big, cash-rich organizations that can buy or trade for any stud player can be infuriating and soulless. But doesn’t having Evil Empires exist make it more satisfying when you find a gem? A wine that tells a story to your palate. Or when your plucky rag-tag team of no-names finally scale the summit?

Sure, we want to root for the underdogs. But we also need those Big Dogs to be still casting their long shadow of evil like the Death Star. The world works better this way. It has balance even if that balance is dripping with sugar, extract and alcohol.

A New Hope.
AKA winemakers of the Eola-Amity Hills.

There is a place in the world for the Kosta Browne Yankees just like there is a place for my Joseph Swan Cardinals, the Merry Edwards Twins, the Beaux Freres Giants, the Argyle Mariners and the Williams Selyem Braves.

There is even a place, begrudgingly, for the Meiomi Cubs. Well, once they’ve been dethroned and relegated to the bottom of the shelf.

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60 Second Wine Review – 2012 Au Pied du Mont Chauve Les Chenevottes

Some quick thoughts on the 2012 Au Pied du Mont Chauve Chassagne-Montrachet from the Premier Cru vineyard of Les Chenevottes.

The Geekery

Made by Domaines Famile Picard, owners of 35 hectares (86.5 acres) in the Côte d’Or, most of which are farmed organic and biodynamically. Since 2010, the wines have been crafted by Fabrice Lesne, former winemaker of Maison Nicolas Potel.

The 1er vineyard of Les Chenevottes in located on the northern end of the village of Chassagne-Montrachet, just southwest and slightly upslope of the Grand Cru vineyard of Le Montrachet with the sites sharing similar orientation and exposure. The Picard family’s plot contain 60+ year old vines that are farmed biodynamically.

Other notable producers that make wine from this Premier Cru include Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey, Domaine Leroy, Marc Colin et Fils, Louis Latour, Henri Boillot, Louis Jadot, Bouchard Aine & Fils and Gerard Thomas & Filles.

The 1er vineyard of Les Chenevottes highlighted with star

The wine
Glistening golden hue. Very visually inviting. The nose is medium-minus intensity. Some tree fruit and white floral notes. A little subtle spice.

The palate is tight. Medium-plus acidity and medium body. You really have to work it in your mouth, rolling it around your tongue to coax out the fruit. The tree fruits become more defined as honey crisp apple and d’Anjou pear. You also start to pick up some oak spice and a little vanilla cream. On the finish, the acidity leaves you salivating and brings out mineral notes. Once the wine gets going, you start to see an impressive balance of weight & presence coupled with freshness and verve.

Everything about this wine is screaming that is a bit young. Its clear that this Chardonnay has a lot of life ahead of it and more story to tell. It’s well worth seeking out a bottle.

Right now, the Wine Searcher average price is $74 which is fair for this quality level. I can see it going up to $90 with the wine still over delivering as a “baby Montrachet”.

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Gin Scratch Fever

In Edmonds, Washington by the waterfront is a must visit site for any gin lover– Scratch Distillery.

Founded by self-described “gin-nerds”, the story of Scratch is intimately tied with the motto of Kim and Bryan Karrick–Gin Equals Love. It was their shared love of gin and quest for the perfect martinis and gin & tonics, that led them to start their distillery in 2013. After years of attending classes, internships and reading nearly every book on gin they could get their hands on, they officially opened the distillery on July 10, 2015.

I got a chance to learn more about their story and making gin during one of their Giniology sessions hosted at the distillery. This was truly a one of a kind experience that immerses you into the world of gin production, getting up close and personal with the history of the spirit, its classic cocktails and the endless potential of the many different botanicals that are used it craft it.

An absolutely delicious Gimlet made with Scratch’s Martini-style gin

The Giniolgy starts with a pre-class Gimlet cocktail made by their staff mixiolgist using Scratch’s Martini-style gin. As you get settled in, Bryan Karrick explains how the Gimlet is a surprisingly simple cocktail made in 5-1-1 ratio of gin, lime juice and simple syrup that hides really well how strong and potent it is.

And he was quite right! Beautifully aromatic with the citrus notes of the lime playing off the spice of their Martini-style gin, and silky smooth to boot. I can easily envision this being a cocktail that someone would get seconds and even thirds of before realizing how much booze is in there.

The class then spends about 30 minutes going into the history of Gin, tracing the early origins of distilling, the development of the alembic still and the creation of medicinal tinctures to the birth of the malty Dutch jenever. The modern concept of gin really takes off in the 18th century in Great Britain which introduced to the world the slightly sweet Old Tom gin , the gun-powder ready Navy Strength, the historic Plymouth and, finally, the London Dry styles of gin that we see in marketplace today.

The class also touched a bit on the cultural role of gin and how it evolved from a public scourge during the “Gin Craze” of the 18th century to the choice tipple of naval officers before becoming the benchmark of white-collar sophistication in the mid 20th century with the “Three Martini Lunch”.

I came into the class with some familiarity about gin after reading Lesley Jacobs Solmonson’s Gin: A Global History and Dave Broom’s Gin Manual but I was impressed with Bryan Karrick’s concise but very detail-oriented intro into the world of gin. You can see the passion and “gin-nerdiness” at work and its hard not to be infected with his enthusiasm for the spirit and the role it has played in history. However, where the class leaped beyond the pages of any gin book is when Kim took over and brought the class into the distillery.

At its core distilling is very simple. You start out making essentially beer and then move it to a still where heat vaporizes the alcohols that are then captured and condensed backed into a liquid form. But being simple is the recipe for making Everclear. The art and craftsmanship in distilling comes in all the tiny decisions and the watchful eyes that follow the process from start to finish.

The most fascinating part of the entire Giniology session is watching Kim talk through each of these tiny decisions from creating the wash to moving it to the pot still for the first distillation and then the careful temperature control and sleepless nights monitoring as the distillate works it way through the multiple plates of the column still. Since different alcohols vaporize at different temperatures and you only really want the “heart” of the distillate, monitoring this process and making the decision of when to make the cut is one of the distiller’s most important tasks.

Just visible between the column stills in the picture above, the magic happens with the introduction of a gin (or botanical) basket. Here the Karrick’s commitment to doing everything “from scratch” with organic, non-GMO and locally sourced botanicals is put into practice to craft a high-quality product that is light years beyond the mass-market gin brands.

I really can not give justice to the wealth of information and eye-opening experience you get walking through the process of gin production with Kim and Bryan. Over the course of the 40 minute tour of their little one-room distillery, you are certain to leave with a deep-seated appreciation for the craftsmanship as well as the hours of time and sweat that goes into making something that a lot of people just think of as tipple for their gin and tonics.

And speaking of G & T’s, after the distillery tour, you are greeted with one made with Scratch’s Gin & Tonic style gin as you hunker down to indulge in your inner mad scientist. Here the Giniology class goes from strength to strength as Kim and Bryan walk you through how to come up with your own personal gin–starting with first really getting to know the ingredients.

The Core Four ingredients of gin–juniper berries, coriander, orris root and angelica root

Have you ever rolled juniper berries and coriander seeds between your finger tips? Ever smelled orris root on its own? Seen angelica root up close and personal? Played around with hop flowers? Have you ever even heard of galangal root?

Even if you could answer “Yes” to all those questions, I would still wager that you’d get a sense of childlike wonderment as the dozen or so jars of botanicals are passed around and you get a chance to fully engage your senses with each. I found myself thinking back to early herbalists across ancient cultures who would look at each and every one of these herbs, seeds, flowers and roots with an inquisitive mindset of what kind of healing or intoxicating properties each had.

After getting familiar with the botanicals themselves, you move on to smelling and tasting them in isolation. Using neutral potato spirit, Scratch isolated 30 different botanicals that are commonly used in gin to give folks a chance to experience what each individual component can bring to a recipe. It can be a bit overwhelming for the senses which is a testament to the discipline required by master distillers like Kim Karrick to sit down and really study each of these botanicals as they craft their proprietary recipes. Like a chef combining food flavors and textures, you see the art in the distiller’s blending of different flavors and sensations with the intermingling of citrus, floral, spice and heat.

While the possibilities are endless, going through the exercise you start to see some patterns in the process beginning with why the core four ingredients of juniper, coriander, orris and angelica root form the bedrock of nearly every gin recipe. With Kim and Bryan’s guidance, you also learn about some of the “house styles” of popular gin brands which is very valuable in crafting your own blend.

Do you enjoy Hendricks? Well that is a floral-focused blend with caraway, cubeb berries, cucumber, lemon, meadowsweet, orange and rose. Is Bombay Sapphire your go-to? That’s a citrus-driven blend with lemon, grains of paradise, cubeb berries, cassia bark, almonds and licorice.

Though more important than knowing your favorite brand is knowing what you want to do with gin. Gin’s versatility in cocktails is legendary but the perfect gin for a Negroni may not be the perfect gin for an Aviation. In crafting my recipe, I told Kim how I liked more citrus oriented Gimlets and Martinis (and that I absolutely adored Scratch’s Martini-style gin), so she steered me towards a relatively soft blend that was high on the citrus aromatics but with enough spice to balance.

If you are intimidated by the math and ml conversions–especially after enjoying two cocktails–don’t be. Thankfully, there are professionals there to do the blending for you. While the staff at Scratch are making your blend, you get an opportunity to try many of Scratch’s other offerings like their vodkas, “bier schnapps” and barrel-aged gins.

And then finally, after probably the most fun 3 hours of “work” you’ll ever have, you leave the Giniology class with your own custom bottle of gin and a recipe that is kept on file at the distillery and can be replicated whenever you like. If you’re like me, you’ll probably also leave with a few extra bottles of Scratch’s products like their crazy smooth organic wheat vodka that makes Grey Goose seem like a bottom-shelf pour and a pepper infused vodka (made from a blend of Jalapeno, Serrano, pink and black peppercorns) that is just begging to be used in a Bloody Mary.

Overall, this is truly an experience that is well worth the time and cost to attend. If you are already an avowed “gin-nerd”, you will revel in the geekery of playing with the botanicals and crafting your own personal expression of your favorite spirit. But even if your only experience with gin has been the occasional martini or G&T made with the handful of mass-market brands, its still worth checking out this small, family-owned distillery.

I guarantee that not only will you end up having a lot of fun but you’ll also just might find yourself Scratched with a case of Gin Fever.

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Brave New Burgs (Part 1)

One believes things because one has been conditioned to believe them. — Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

Pop quiz, wine geeks.

1.) What is the white grape of Burgundy?

If you know enough to be dangerous with a restaurant wine list or in a wine shop, then you probably didn’t hesitate to answer “Chardonnay”.

And for the most part, you’d be right.

But also a little wrong.

Some of the best “intro to wine” texts around like Karen MacNeil’s The Wine Bible, Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Wine Course and Madeline Puckette’s Wine Folly will teach you that it is easy to start getting a grasp of Burgundy.

Just remember that there is only two grapes–Pinot noir and Chardonnay.

It’s a reflex condition to think with Burgundy that if its red, it’s Pinot noir. If it’s white, then Chardonnay. Sure, everything else about Burgundy with it’s 100 appellations and intricate classification system of 23 regional AOCs, 44 villages, 33 Grand Crus, 585 Premier Crus and countless named lieu dits is enough to make your head spin—but it’s easy to nail the grape varieties. Right?

“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.” — Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

A Sauvignon blanc produced less than 20 km from the heart of Chablis’ Grand Cru

I started working on the Wine Scholar Guild‘s Bourgogne Master Level Program lead by Don Kinnan with the desire to get more comfortable with Burgundy. But it wasn’t long before I found myself diving head-first into a rabbit hole that would shake me out of my comfort zone but introduce me to a world far more exciting than the one I began studying.

As Allen Meadows, the Burghound, is fond of saying–Burgundy is “the land of exceptions”.

It wasn’t long before the first exceptions started blowing in like the north wind across the Yonne. Here, in the land of Chablis, we have the Auxerrois where grapes like Sauvignon blanc run wild in Saint-Bris and Melon de Bourgogne (the grape of Muscadet) in Vézelay.

However, the exceptions aren’t limited to obscure villages in the northern backwoods of Burgundy. Instead, in the heart of the Côte-d’Or we have the curious case of Pinot Gouges.

In the 1930s, Henri Gouges was inspecting his vineyards in the Nuits-St-Georges premier cru monopole of Clos des Porrets. He noticed that one of his red Pinot noir vines was producing white grape clusters. Intrigued, Gourge took cuttings from the vine and planted them in the NSG premier cru vineyard of La Perrières. His grandchildren still cultivate this “Pinot blanc” though instead of labeling it as that grape, the Gouges family describe Pinot Gouges as “Pinot noir that lost their color“. Regardless of what the vines are called–the fact still remains that in the middle of Chardonnay land, we have an exciting and distinctively non-Chardonnay white Burgundy being produced from a premier cru vineyard.

My notes on the Pinot Gouges “The color looks like a regular white Burg with some oak influence. On the nose, tree fruits of apples and pears but there is a lot of spice here–not oak spice but rather exotic spices.
On the palate there is a lot of weight and texture–things that would make me think of oak except for the complete absence of oak flavors. There is no vanilla, cinnamon, clove, allspice, etc.”

Now while it is technically illegal to plant Pinot blanc in most of the Côte d’Or (though, again, there are exceptions), several producers still tend to legacy vines. Inspired by bottles of Pinot blanc from the 1960s that aged remarkably well, Domaine Méo-Camuzet sourced Pinot blanc vines from Alsace to plant in their Clos St Philibert vineyard in Flagey-Echézeaux. The wine produced from these vines is blended with Chardonnay and classified under Bourgogne Hautes-Côtes de Nuits AOC (as opposed to a village level Vosne-Romanée).

Then there is the case of Pinot Beurot (Pinot gris), the sneaky pink-skinned mutation of Pinot noir that can sometimes find itself interspersed among Pinot noir vines. Not content to just be an interloper, the grape plays a starring role in wines like Domaine Comte Senard Aloxe-Corton blanc that is 100% Pinot Beurot as well Domaine Lucien Boillot et Fils Les Grands Poisots sourced from a parcel of Pinot Beurot first planted in the Volnay vineyard in 1958. Not legally permitted to be called a Volnay, the wine is labeled under the basic regional Bourgogne appellation. Likewise, in the famed white wine vineyards of Puligny-Montrachet, Domaine Guillemard-Clerc has a little less than an acre of Pinot Beurot which goes into it regional Bourgogne blanc. In the Bourgogne Hautes-Côtes de Beaune AOC, Domaine Guillemard-Pothier à Meloisey also produces a Pinot Beurot.

My notes on the Cave de Genouilly Aligote “As if a Sauvignon blanc and an unoaked Chardonnay had a baby. Great mouthfeel with weight. Smooth but fresh.”

And this is not even getting into the more widely known exception of Aligoté which has its own AOC and has earned the affection of a literal “Who’s Who” of legendary Burgundy producers like Aubert de Villaine, Lalou Bize-Leroy, Marquis d’Angerville and Michel Lafarge. Domaine Ponsot takes the love affair a step further to make premier cru level Aligoté in the Morey-St-Denis monopole of Clos des Monts Luisants.

The faith in these producers to devote precious terroir to this obscure grape is a testament that there is something interesting about Aligoté that makes it stand out in the Chardonnay-saturated world of Burgundy. It’s high acidity enchants with racy and mouthwatering appeal that is balanced by a weighty mid-palate that gives a sense of lemon custard richness which can charm even the most traditional white Burgundy lover.

There is no doubt that Burgundy is home to some of the greatest expressions of Chardonnay. However, for the wine geeks conditioned to merely think White Burgundy=Chardonnay, there is brave new world of exciting white Burgs waiting to be discovered.

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