Back when I was a newly minted Sommelier, I had the grand idea to use all this knowledge I had to write about wine, to educate and spread that knowledge around. At the time, I was living alone is Spanish Harlem, around 103rd street and simply started writing, finding a website to publish my words: vino.com. This was back in 2003, before I even know what WordPress was and what blogging actually took. (Not as mysterious as I had thought, but more work.)
I’d been thinking of reviving some of those old columns for publishing here, but only last week did I actually go and find the Clarisworks (.cwk) files and found that, damn. I had a voice and a writing style I miss. So, for the next several Wine Fortnightlies, Wine Romps, I’ll be refashioning some of this old content for your perusal and enjoyment, including “Wines from the Vaults” the wines tasted over a decade ago. Not all of them, but enough to show me I have lost a lot of knowledge over the past one and a half decades and I’ve got to work hard getting it back. No photos though—just more thoughts on the wines, such as background and matching ideas.
These soon to appear in the current wines. (A promise I’m making to myself.)
Without further ado: the first “Wine Hunter” column from Vino.com:
Damn Good Wine
It’s 6:23 pm, and I’m hungry. I have sausage and peppers, and blanched broccoli rabe waiting in the fridge. Those, a fresh Eli’s baguette, and brick of Pecorino Romano and I should be quite happy. But, I’m not. I’m out of wine.
Choices present themselves and going without wine is not one of them. Looking down Second Avenue from my window, I see my local bodega. Nestled in a spurt of storefronts at the base of a housing project in Spanish Harlem†, the shop beckons with its one block walk. But the neon sign, with only half a letter u, and an o, and r left glowing reminds me that the selection there is not exactly broad. In fact, it’s awful. After trying the most promising bottles from their assortment of sixty-odd wines, I’ve found only two I liked: One white, one red. Retailing for fewer than ten bucks, they’ve become my go-to wines when all else fails. But all else hasn’t failed.
Grabbing a bus, I travel the eighteen blocks to my favorite Upper East Side wine store, Mister Wright. Here, the whole world offers itself—both the fun and problem of wine. Where do you start? Who do you trust?
The simple answers are start wherever you want, and trust yourself.
Walk to any country, region, or varietal that appeals, find a bottle in your price range and buy it. The only person who knows what that bottle tastes like is the person who has poured it into a class and sipped it. If someone in the shop has, ask him. Wine writers and sommeliers, if you happen to have any handy on your smartphone, are other sources of information about the secrets held within that glass vessel you hold in your hand.
Yet, the only way to be sure if YOU like it or not is to taste it. This matters more than anyone else’s opinion, no matter how well trained or famous. You and you alone know what pleases your tongue. Trust yourself. Know what you like and refuse anyone telling you otherwise. To discover your likes and dislikes, you must risk buying wines you don’t particularly care for. It’s not wasted money: You’ve just found a style or producer you don’t like and won’t buy again. The wine world shrinks. The task becomes easier. And, experimenting with bottles under $20 softens the sting of a loser.
While trying wines, you have to be attentive. Notice not only what you like, but also what you don’t. Remember it. That means write it down. “The road to wine ignorance,” as Tom Maresca wrote, “is paved with forgotten wines.” Taste often. Trust yourself. Always write it down.
Me? I went with a Chinon. A bit light for the lusty sausage and peppers, but I happen to like Chinon and simply felt like it. And, when you trust yourself, you can follow a whim and enjoy it. Regardless of experts or fashion.
Inexpensive wines make up the bulk of most people’s wine drinking. But reasonable doesn’t have to mean boring. Added bonus not only are these wines guilt-free for the budget, but they match everyday fare better than more expensive wines. (Prices are what I paid retail in Manhattan in 2003.)
Wines of the fortnight
Tasting notes (for your perusal)
Front and back labels of El Espía Capitulo Primero Vino Tinto N.V. Big, woody wine with less fruit than expected. Deep plum with a touch of garnet at the meniscus; slow forming, fat legs speak to its high AVB (13.8%) and suggest a fully body. Nose is hot (read lots of alcohol), rich, with warm spices and loads of dark berry fruit. Not as full on fruit as expected—rather mellow attack—opens with Cedar-wood notes, acidity and some berry fruit—hints of fine tannins—mouth-coating full body—Balanced, but with a vanishing finish. Some warm spice, but it’s mostly about texture: 3 of 5 🍷.#RedWIne #Medoza #Malbec 🇦🇷 (main text in mirror image format, legal stuff regular)
This grand wine is a mysterious power. It’s thinking for those who dare to discover all the secrets: What? Where? Why? When? How much? Who? How?
This wine was made to share good moments of life. Animate, unveil, discover, seek, enjoy that life is a great game and with the cup full you, you will become the spy.
Not bad: more texture than taste though: light parchment color, fine head, stead long-lasting bead. Tight nose—gives up very little, faint suggestion of fruitiness. A bright, prickly attack, which continues into the mid-palate; Later some tropical fruit, which extends the prickly effervescence—Balanced acid and impression of fruit w/o being impressive. Quite long acidic finish—its single standout feature: 2.5 of 5 🍷. #sparkling #prosecco #italy 🇮🇹
Pleasant, acidic red that needs food. Clear plum with a brick meniscus; it’s moderately viscous with a few slow forming distinct legs. Light cherry tart nose. A faint attack, though it opens up nicely into light cherry/berry fruit, solid acidity and fine light gripping tannins, all of which carries on into a pleasant, long finish. Wants to love food: 3 of 5 🍷#RedWine #Chianti #Italy 🇮🇹 — at Hunt William.
Clear sparkler, only a hint of parchment color and a light bead. Slightly musty nose, but clears out quickly with a fresher scent of a touch of fruitiness. Petulant attack rather than full sparkling—the mustiness carries through, fights with what little fruit there is. Firmly acidic. This suggests it might have been corked or sitting in a basement a long time: 2 of 5 🍷. #whitewine#sparkling #Spain 🇪🇸
Caramel-cranberry color, with petulance. A rich dark berry and brown sugar caramel nose. A yummy berry-sour balance, with some rich caramel notes, balanced by firm acidity, and that suggestion of caramelized brown sugar. My wife didn’t much care for it, but I found it enjoyable if nothing special: 3 of 5 🍷. #redwine #sparkling #italy 🇮🇹 — with Karina Gukasian-Hunt.
Decent if stingy grüner. Pale goldenrod, moderately viscous, mostly sheeting in the glass with a rare large trying to form. Light nose, tinged with white fruit and smidgen of chalk. Muted attack that opens up with some hints of fruit mid palate, and firm acidity that all melts into a creamy finish, under pinned with that firm acidity. Ends up being pleasing if it starts off on the wrong foot: 3.5 of 5 🍷. #WhiteWine #Austria 🇦🇹
Outstanding atypical red. Medium garnet with a touch of brick at the meniscus. A few, slow legs, and moderate viscosity. The nose has some dark fruits and cedar notes—nutmeg and warm spice—mild but with complex elements, slightly warm: 12.5% APV. Mellow attack—but loads of raisin—spice (think mincemeat) mid pallet, with a medium body—lingering acidity and fine tannins, almost back licorice and exotic spicy, nearly garam Masala very intriguing finish: 4.5 of 5 🍷. #redwine #moravia #CzechRepublic 🇨🇿
Bright, minerally white that goes well with seafood. Very pale parchment, with a clear meniscus, and a good number of legs in patches around the glass: Viscosity of water. Minerals show up on the tart nose—like sour candy, with a hint of lemon peel — a bright attack, with white fruit, particularly pear, very tart mid palate. Gripping acidity in the super long finish, which includes a touch of bitterness. Digs shrimp cocktail and crab cakes: 3 of 5 🍷. #Whitewine #Greek
Five wines under $20 (From the Vaults)
(Prices are what I paid in Manhattan circa 2003)†
Notice the additional information I’d forgotten about: importer, as that might be the only way to get a wine sent to your favorite wine store, a bit of history, and pairing notes—successful, not no good, and suggested. I miss that. They will start showing up on some newer reviews and eventually all of them.
Sauvion Chinon 2000 $7.99 Retail †
W. J. Deutch and Son, LTD Importers
Chinon is a classic Loire Valley red of 100% Cabernet Franc. In Bordeaux, vintners use Cabernet Franc as a blending grape to help calm the tannic bite of Cabernet Sauvignon in the Medoc, and in larger proportions in the left bank, especially St-Emilion, and Fronsac. Cabernet Franc also shows well in Northwest Italy, Long Island, California, and the Pacific Northwest, though again usually as a blending grape.
At first, this Chinon’s relative lack of fruit might put off people used to New World wine, such as Californian or Australian Cabernets and Merlots. But, its bright ruby color and intriguing, full aroma of cured bacon and powdered red fruits (think a freshly opened roll of Sweet-Tarts), mixed with a subtly earthy, forest floor flavor, backed with soft, smooth, but distinct tannins and balanced acids make this a wine to think a bit about.
I thought about whether I like it or not until the finish, which opened up into hints of cherries cloaked with those soft tannins. That kept going. And going. The acids and tannins allowed the Chinon to stand up to the sausage and peppers, though the power of the dish did outshine the wine. The Chinon went splendidly with a crudité dressed only with extra-virgin olive oil, and sea salt. Best with food. Not something for a first date unless you’re both into inscrutability and subtly.
Avila Pinot Noir San Luis Obispo County 2001 $14.25 Retail†
The moment I tasted this wine, I knew it had to be on my restaurant’s wine list ††. The lively pale ruby looks great in the glass. And the aroma follows up on this appealing look. Up-front and rich, with berries and cherries playing over hints of smoked bacon and spice, it attracts immediately. The flavor continues to impress: silky and fruity, with lovely balancing acids and well-integrated, fine tannins. Medium body, verging on full bodied with a long finish of silky tannins that opens into brambly, mountain berries.
This is an excellent example of a double duty wine. Its immediate appeal of fruits and silky tannins make this an excellent aperitif. Yet, these same tannins allow it to pair with a wide variety of foods, from white meats, and more flavorful fish, to all but the richest or complexly sauced red meats. Avila is essentially a second wine from Laetitia Vineyard & Winery, sourcing grapes from their Arroyo Grande vineyard, among other areas originally planted for sparkling wines. This is a top-notch, cool region Pinot Noir. Simply great at this price.
†† I was manager and sommelier of Brasserie Julien on the Upper East Side of Manhattan at the time.
EXP Estate Bottled Syrah Dunnigan Hills 2000 $13.95 Retail†
I’ve used this wine to impress friends for years. And, it has never failed me. The rich, dark ruby color perfectly foreshadows the aroma and flavors. The upfront aroma comes on as rich, dark berries, and spices – allspice and cloves. Very ripe grapes produce high alcohol that can nip at the nose. The flavor does not disappoint. The attack comes on full of fruit berries and more berries, rich and mouth-filling. Then it moves into soft but decidedly present tannins that balance the alcohol and fruit, leaving you wanting a second sip. The berries and soft tannins continue through the long finish. You’ll be licking your teeth from the mouth coating body. In a word: yum. This wine works excellently as an aperitif but has the body and structure to match most red meats, and full, assertively flavored dishes. It will overpower delicate dishes.
Stonehedge Pinot Noir California 2000 $11.99 Retail†
For about six weeks, a trucker’s strike made it impossible for me to get Avila Pinot Noir to my restaurant††. I chose the Stonehedge to replace it. My guests agreed with the choice. It’s bright, light ruby with hints of orange at the edges suggest a certain subtly. And, the aromas confirm this hint. Cooked sugars, verging on caramel, as though from a cherry tart, make up the bulk of the aroma. Yet, there are intriguing hints of minerals and a hay-like, earthy funk. Though the aroma’s not forward, it’s easy to find. The flavor starts with an impression of fruit, which opens into cherry tart with a hint of caramel. The medium body balances with the soft tannins and medium-long finish, which hints at cooked red fruits.
Even with a more intriguing aroma than flavor, it remains an appealing wine that does not need food to be enjoyed. Yet, it can match flavorful less oily fish and white meats without trouble. For red meats, stick to simple cuts, simply prepared. It would also compliment savory stews, as well as dishes featuring mushrooms.
Domaine Santa Duc ‘La Quatre Terres’ Côtes Du Rhône 2001 $13.75 Retail†
Robert Kacher Selections, Importer
That’s a lot of money for a Côtes Du Rhône. But this is not your mother’s Côtes. In fact, it’s unlike any Côtes Du Rhône you’ll probably ever taste. The vineyard ‘La Quatre Terres’ sits just outside Gigondas and Vacqueyras, sharing much of the terroir. And, the maker keeps the yields very low, almost to the level of Châteaunuef-du-Pape, boosting flavor concentration. Basic Côtes Du Rhône is a blend of grapes from the southern Rhône valley, just north of Provence, using mostly Grenache, with Syrah, Mourvèdre and Cinsault making up the typical blend. It’s a hot region, so produces big, alcoholic wines. This is no exception. Yet, the color doesn’t give it away, just a pure bright ruby. Innocent looking. But you change your mind once you smell it.
The aroma comes on strong with pencil shavings and phenols (a vaguely woody-chemical smell, which some liken to violets) that cover hints of raisins. After a few minutes, it opens into a rich but subdued layer of very ripe red fruit. The flavor starts with a burst of fine tannins and then shifts into a layer of pencil shavings. As this fills your mouth, another layer of flavors comes on as slate with phenols that leads to a several minutes long finish. Throughout, hints of overripe red fruits and raisins tantalize, yet never simply give themselves up. I found that the fruit showed a bit better with about ten minutes in the glass, once the tannins had relaxed, letting the richness out.
It went very well with a braised beef shank, the huge flavors complimenting each other. It’s certainly a food wine. Yet one to think about. Pair it with big cuts of red meat, especially complexly sauced, or braised. This is a wine for laying down for three or four years. Both 2000 and 2001 were good years in the southern Rhône. The 1999, if you can find it, are drinking splendidly right now. And, with 2002 being a disaster for much of the Southern Rhône, this 2001 vintage might be the last good one for a while.
† I’ve lived in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn for about 14 years now. I originally wrote this 16 years ago.