Drinking Wine


This weekend we spent a day in Sebastopol, a lovely Sonoma County town that specializes in apples and antiques. The day culminated in an early dinner at the two-month old Restaurant Eloise. The chefs, Ginevra Iverson and her husband Eric Korsh were recently at Prune in New York, relocated to California to open their own place. They began by planting a garden to supply their new restaurant. We had rutabaga and grapes from the garden and those two things were delicious. The meal wasn’t quite perfect, partly due to a mistep in ordering on our part, and partly due to poor service. Service is not something my husband and I complain or care about, we are generally happy to be ignored. The exception is when it interferes with the flow of the wine and food. Twice we found ourselves waiting while our food sat there trying to flag down someone to order another glass (the second time my husband went straight to the bar, which caught our waiter’s attention). It turns out that it was the first truly busy night they’d had — it was packed to the gills — and our server apologized by comping us a couple glasses of wine. We started with a trio of housemade charcuterie — trotter torchon, head cheese, and veal tongue — and the head cheese was the stand out dish of the three. We ordered this off the bar menu, and it didn’t translate well to the dining room for various reasons. In retrospect I wish we ordered the roasted bone marrow and parsley salad off of the dining room menu instead, which is the one menu item the chefs brought with them from New York. The wine, 2006 Kuentz-Bas Pinot Blanc, was a great match for the mix of rich meat, not interjecting too much personality of its own, yet full and round enough to match the range of flavors and acidic enough to meet the pickled onions (which accompanied the veal tongue) head to head. My rabbit papardelle was delish, and my husband’s lamb chops (accompanied by the rutabaga and grapes) were wonderful. But what was truly delicious and wonderful was the 2005 Domaine Olek-Mery Chinon “Cuvée les Tireaux”! I can’t express how excited I got about this wine! Often one settles into a contentedness with wine, which is a happy place to be. This Chinon re-ignited a spark in me, moving me out of contentedness and back into love! I’m actually having trouble describing the wine while still doing it justice. Let’s just say it was refreshing and earthy and everything I wanted it to be. And with a little time to work out the kinks, I’m sure Restaurant Eloise will warrant the same description.

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I recently had a Swiss dessert wine called Amigne de Vétroz, and paired with an apple tart. It was my first encounter with the grape Amigne. The Vétroz is an appellation within the Swiss wine reigon of the Valais. This is in the western, french-speaking part of Switzerland and they make a wide variety of wines, from Fendant to Dole. The Valais contains all the Amigne planted in the world, and most of that is in Vétroz. I had a half bottle of Jean-Réne Germanier’s 2001 “Mitis” bottling, and it had an apricot and rhubarb smell, was off-dry with lively acidity and a honeyed texture. It went very well with the apple tart, which was from a recipe in Richard Olney’s Simple French Food, a cookbook my husband loves, but occasionally intimidates me. I’d say only about half the recipes are actually simple — the apple tart was one of them. The crust was different from the paté brisée I usually make, it was more cookie-ish. After making the crust you spread the apples in the middle, fold the crust around up around the sides and bake for 40-50 minutes. Afterwards, spread a little bit of puréed fruit jam or butter on the top. I used Rigoni di Asiago’s Apricot fruit spread and it worked very well. Delish!

Have you have noticed the little warning symbol that is a crossed-out circle containing a pregnant woman drinking wine that’s appeared on French bottles in the last year or so? Its a strangely charming design, something you’d never see on a U.S. product. It is a relatively new law in France, mandating that either the symbol or a written warning must be on the label. Apparently the instances of babies born with fetal alcohol syndrome are many, with mothers reporting ignorance in regards to the affect of alcohol on their fetus. So, the legislation was put in place to mandate the warning symbol. Now the United States, not to be outdown, has a placed ban on wine with that symbol! I can’t find much information about it, but I’ll link to the blog that alerted me to the ban. According to the Washington Post article I linked to above, “bottles with the logo have been turned back at the U.S. border because liquor imported to the United States requires warnings to be in English.” Hmmm. So that graphic symbol is in French, huh? “We do prohibit the French (or any other country’s) government health warning,” Arthur H. Resnick, spokesman for the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau said in an e-mail. “We feel that consumers are likely to be confused and possibly misled by a proliferation of government warnings.” Obviously some bottles are making it past the border, as I’ve seen quite a few. However, for those producers who don’t want to risk their product being turned away, they have a big, expensive job of replacing the labels of the bottles headed for the U.S. market ahead of them.

Last night we enjoyed a slightly aged Muscadet with a meal revolving around the tin of Consorcio tuna I bought from Corti Brothers. The 2004 Clos de la Chapelle Muscadet was an intensely briny wine, perfect for the richly flavorful tuna, artichokes (brought to us by a friend who was driving through the Salinas area recently), hard-boiled eggs, green beans, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, red onions and baguette.

snob |snäb|

noun

1) a person with an exaggerated respect for high social position or wealth who seeks to associate with social superiors and dislikes people or activities regarded as lower-class.

2) [with adj. ] a person who believes that their tastes in a particular area are superior to those of other people : a musical snob.

 

I have been called a wine snob numerous times, and I feel the need to express my dissatisfaction with that title.  Friends, family, and strangers have used the title to my face, as though it wasn’t an insult. As you can see from the relevant second definition, it is an unpleasant attribute to be a wine snob. I don’t think about my tastes in wine in relation to other people!  Why is it that someone with a passion for wine (or food, my husband is often called a food snob) is automatically described as a snob? Everyone has passion, expertise, opinions, and standards about something, whether it be politics, architecture, keeping house, watching television, textiles, knitting, dogs, thrift-store shopping, etc.  Only occasionally does the expertise come with the moniker “snob”.  Why is that? One would never call an expert accountant an “accounting snob.” Or a superb teacher an “education snob.” No, instead you would be glad that they are good at what they do, and not think of it in relation to yourself. Why with wine or food or movies do people feel the need to exhibit a sort of reverse snobbery, and put you down for caring so much?

Once I became an expert on something, it made me really admire expertise in others.  And contrary to seeming like snobs about their chosen subject, true experts want to share their knowledge with everyone! I began asking for help in stores of all kinds because I realized that the owners and salespeople held expertise in something I did not, and I wanted to benefit from their experience. I also started asking friends and family more about what they specialized in, realizing that because one can’t be an expert in more than one thing, a community of experts on individual topics is awesome.

I can forgive you for calling me boring if I go overly deep into an explanation on matters of wine, but please, please don’t call me a snob.

Terry Theise, the irrepressible importer of German, Austrian and grower-Champagne wines, writes and speaks about wine beautifully. I recently posted about wine vocabulary and prose and neglected to mention Terry’s rare style. He certainly uses the current arsenal of comparisons to fruit, rocks, and flowers, but he also conjures up neat analogies and beautiful imagery. 

For instance, regarding top vineyard sites he said, “I like to say that Grand Cru vineyards are the earth’s erogenous zones. They are special places that tingle when sunlight hits them.” He believes that the more birdsong heard while walking in a vineyard, the more of a trill will be found in the wine. He describes Riesling as “birdlike” — it “sings and flies.”

I recently attended a seminar titled, “Why Terroir Matters,” held at the Fort Mason Center in San Francisco. It was mc’d by Terry and the panel included four talented Riesling producers: Johannes Hirsch, Christine Saahs, Johannes Leitz, and Helmut Donnhoff. I was very excited to attend this seminar, not only because I have a lot to learn about the many vineyards devoted to Riesling in Germany and Austria, but also because I love a good lecture! Listening to a lecture/discussion among experts and taking notes is what I loved most about school, and I wish that sort of academic approach was applied to wine more often. At any rate, this seminar did not disappoint me. 

Terry opened by saying that this would not be a defense of the existence of terroir.  He believes (rightly so) that we should move beyond debating its existence, and instead discuss what about it is interesting. He started this discussion with his personal definition of terroir: “A cause and effect relationship between soil components and wine flavors for which no other explanation seems possible.” The New Oxford American Dictionary supplies this definition: “The complete natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography, and climate.

Terry and the winemakers kept making the point that they do very little to the grapes, juice and wine to determine the final outcome. To further elucidate what they meant, he made a series of analogies: the vineyard determines the text and the winemaker chooses the font; the vineyard writes the music and the winemaker conducts; the vineyard gives birth and the winemaker is a midwife. 

Winemaking is simply the preservation of flavor, rather than the creation of it.  Finally, he emphasized that terroir should not be used interchangeably with the term, “minerality.” The terroir signature could be expressed as minerality, but is not limited to that — it could also be expressed as fruit or flowers or anything.  Whatever the signature may be, it only matters that it is repeated vintage to vintage and cellar to cellar. 

Johannes Hirsch, of Weingut Hirsch in the Kamptal region of Austria spoke next. He described terroir as a “special fingerprint.” To highlight the difference between his vineyards, Heiligenstein and Gaisberg, he poured wines from each from the 2003 and 2006 vintages. It was an excellent opportunity to see what sort of signature or footprint a vineyard leaves on a wine year after year. Both Heiligensteins were smoky, incense-like, and tightly wound.  The Gaisbergs were fruity, floral, and open.

Christine Saahs, of Weingut Nikolaihof in the Wachau region of Austria, had a unique perspective on terroir. Because she farms her vineyards biodynamically, she sees terroir and biodynamischer landbau as completely intertwined.  One could argue that she has restored her land to its most natural state, which is possibly the fullest expression of terroir.  She showed three wines from the Steiner Hund vineyard, from three different vintages (2002, 2003, 2005).  The wines were all very different from each other, and I’m afraid they showed vintage variation more than vineyard signature without having another of her vineyards to compare to Steiner Hund.  If I could generalize, I’d say they all had a steeliness, with floral notes.

Johannes Leitz, of Weingut Josef Leitz in the Rheingau region of Germany, made the point that “everything” has terroir. If white asparagus tastes differently from village to village, why not wine? He showed wine from three different vineyards, all from 2007 vintage. Here too, it was difficult to suss out the vineyard signature without comparison to another vineyard.  The Berg Kaisersteinfels Alte Reben and the Berg Roseneck Spatlese shared a smokiness, and they apparently share quartzite soil, albeit at different elevations. The honeyed nose of the Berg Schlossberg Spatlese showed that this slate covered vineyard was affected by botrytis, something not shared by the other two wines.  But these distinctions were not quite as pronounced as the examples from Hirsch, and above all the Leitz wines shared, regardless of vineyard, a sumptuous peach aroma and rich sweetness.

Helmut Donnhoff, of the Donnhoff estate in the Nahe region of Germany, impressed me greatly. He possessed a wisdom and a sense of history that his younger colleagues failed to convey. He started off by saying that his father would not have known the word, terroirWhich makes sense of course, because it’s not German, but a French word cum buzz word. But the concept of terroir was understood as the business of wine was conducted. As an example, he pointed out that in his father’s day, the word “Riesling” didn’t even appear on the label, only the name of the vineyard, indicating that the vineyard signature was the more meaningful thing. Helmut’s explanation of why Riesling is such a good conduit of terroir is that it is a late-ripening grape that gets to spend a longer period of time in its environment than other grapes.  For instance in 2007, his grapes had 150 days of hang time between flowering and harvest.  That’s 150 days of exposure to birdsong!  Helmut makes 20 different wines from 20 hectares (about 50 acres) of vines.  A visiting Australian colleague expressed surprise at this: why not just one wine? In the Nahe, there are dozens of different soil types within six and half square miles. Each vineyard plot creates a different wine.  We tasted five of his vineyard expressive wines, all from 2007. My favorite was the excellent, steely, racy, limey Oberhauser Brucke Spatlese, but we also tasted the Estate Riesling, the Oberhauser Leistenberg Kabinett, the Kreuznacher Kahlenberg Kabinett, and the Kreuznacher Krotenpfuhl Spatlese.  They were all extremely mineral and lean, with such perfectly balancing acidity that they “drank dry” despite being Kabinetts or Spatlesen. As far as deciphering the vineyard signatures, I again found it difficult without another vintage to compare them to.  Regardless, after tasting fourteen unique Rieslings the point of the seminar was well made – terroir matters.

I propose a series of follow-up seminars: starting with a comparison of Heiligensteins and Gaisbergs not only across vintages, but also across wineries.

Last night we feted a good friend for her birthday, and because she very wisely chose New Lai Wah, we feasted for a meager sum.  I brought Pyramid Valley’s 2006 Lebecca Vineyard Riesling (just a $5 corkage fee), and it really sang alongside the dishes we ordered. I’ll post more about Pyramid Valley in the near future, but for now I’ll say that it is one of the few non-European wineries I’m actually excited about! Mike Weersing, a native Californian, settled in New Zealand after working at top-notch wineries in France and Germany. His Riesling is made in the Mosel style, and it fit perfectly on the table last night:


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Pyramid Valley 2006 Lebecca Vineyard Riesling tastes like peaches and lemons, with a Kabinett-like sweetness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The cold dish was chicken (recently plucked and still a bit hairy) covered in a Sichuan pepper oil sauce, with peanuts, cilantro, and scallions. We also had a bottle of Hitachino Nest (was it Brown Rice Ale?) on the table. I don’t know much about the brewery, but everything I’ve had has been tasty!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Perhaps the most exciting dish of the evening was a geoduck picked out of the tank, and prepared into two dishes: the body (top photo) came out as a delicate sashimi, reminiscent of raw littleneck clams I’ve had on the east coast — briny and fresh. The head (bottom photo) was prepared into a soup, with bok choi, tofu and ginger. The broth was wonderful. It too was reminiscent of New England, specifically the Rhode Island style of clam chowder (no cream).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next was the always excellent plate of ton choi with preserved tofu sauce (I recently discovered they do this same dish at Macau Cafe, but with spicy fermented tofu and chiles!)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We finished with the lobster and glass noodle dish our group has come to love. It’s an excellent summer dish, because it’s light, gingery and refreshing.

If you live in Sacramento and haven’t been to this restaurant, I highly encourage you to give it a try. Bring a bottle of wine or two, order family style, and then be surprised when the bill comes at how you can get such expertly prepared, elegant food and be charged so little money for it!

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