Saturday, September 27, 2008

Four Barrel Ethiopian Yirgaceffe Kocherie

Four Barrel in San Francisco's Mission District just opened less than a month ago and is repackaging beans from Stumptown Coffee Roasters in Portland, Oregon, until they start roasting their own. I couldn't find this particular coffee on Stumptown's site and was wondering if someone had simply misspelled Koratie, which both stores sell. But I did some Internet searching and found other Ethiopian coffees with the name Kocherie - apparently it's a region in Sidamo in the Kore district (I'm cribbing here from Victrola's description of a similar coffee). It's washed, unlike the Koratie, which is natural, or dry processed.

In a pour over, the Kocherie was a dead ringer for Darjeeling tea, with a lithe mouthfeel and astringent and spicy flavors in the mouth. On the nose I got that black tea scent as well as a candied fruit, something like those chewy, sugar coated orange slices candy that you pick up from a convenience store, two for $1.

In a french press, the coffee was largely the same, with a rounder mouth feel. I pulled this as a shot, but wasn't really blown away by it.

There was no obvious signs of a roast date on the package. I say obvious because there are two lines on the bottom that could, could be "11" though there's no month next to it. The guy at the desk said they got a shipment of coffee on the 17th, so that's when he thought they were roasted. The beans seem fresh, so it wasn't an issue, but it's still nice to know when they were roasted.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Four Barrel Revisited

I finally was able to drag my friend Tara down to Four Barrel during lunch yesterday. She liked the cappuccino, but said she thought Blue Bottle's was better.

I had a double shot of Stumptown's Hairbender, and it was similar to last time, though maybe a bit less syrupy in its mouthfeel.

I was also inspired to try a chocolate donut after reading Man Seeking Coffee's description of one from Dynamo Donuts (Four Barrel sells their donuts, and Dynamo sells Four Barrel's coffee).

It was indeed a delicious, chocolately sponge cake with a nice, slightly spicy frosting on top. But for me, I'll always love Ma's Donuts in New Bedford, Mass., where I grew up.

Think small, dense hard cake topped with a chocolate mocha frosting (my personal favorite) or big, sugar coated donuts filled with jelly, as soft as a feather pillow to the bite. The blog New England Bites has a nice review with pictures here.

Ma's Donuts is the type of local bakery where if you don't get in line before 6 a.m. on a Sunday, you're not likely to find much on the shelves by the time you make it to the cash register. Seriously. People line up before it opens. I've shown up at 8 a.m. thinking I'd have a good chance to score a bag of my favorites, only to leave in anguish. The donuts are just that good.

I rarely eat donuts anymore (as a kid they were like crack to me, with my dad buying a dozen seemingly every weekend for me and my friends) but the Dynamo chocolate was a nice break from my boycott.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

2007 Carignan "Very Old Vines" Vin de pays de L'aude

Purchased this wine at Whole Foods for $8.99 a month or two ago, and since then I've seen the price drop to $6.99. A write up by the cases of bottles talks about how this wine has been a crowd pleaser in the past, and that only a limited amount was bottled (I think this particular one was 3,000 cases, but I don't recall the number exactly).

This was a non-complex wine, sort of a few notes of black fruits, but beyond that, I didn't get much. Easy drinker, I finished it quickly so my notes aren't that extensive.

Carignan hasn't really been a stellar grape in terms of quality in the past. It's more known for its quantity, which is why it's part of France's "wine lake" or overproduction of wine every year. In fact, it was France's most produced grape until 2000 when it was surpassed by Merlot.

The Aude region is in south-central France, between the Mediterranean Sea and the Pyrenees mountains.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Epicuro 2004 Salice Salentino Reserva

This is probably one of the best value wines you're likely to find on the market. A $4.99 steal from Trader Joe's. Salice Salentino is a town in Italy's Apulia region, which is the heel of the county's boot. The wine is 80% Negoamaro, 20% Malvasia, and tastes like strawberry jam with a dose of vanilla extract on the finish. Not too much oak, as this wine was aged in large oak barrels for six months and then stainless steel vats for another 18 months.

It's an easy sipper with 13% alcohol content, and pairs well with food. The reason it stands out so much among other cheap wines is that it has some complexity and is sweet. Almost Kool-Aid cherry drink sweet. I just realized this the last time I had this bottle when I was trying to figure out what I was tasting and not just enjoying it. Most of the cheaper red wines you're likely to come across have some defect to them, which is why their cheap. Especially California wines. A lot of them are overly harsh or out of balance. Occasionally you stumble upon something like this, and if you're like me, you'll keep a bottle or two around for that last minute dinner invitation, wine & cheese get together or just something good and easy to drink on a Friday night.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Santomas 2005 Big Red

I'm always up for something new, so when Jeff at Farmstead Cheese & Wine in Alameda pointed out a Slovenian wine made 100% from the Refosk grape, I jumped at the chance to try it. We had been talking about obscure Italian veritals (he said there are thousands, with many local types slowly being lost as growers plow them under to plant more common varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon -- such a tragedy!). Which led us to this wine, the 2005 Santomas "Big Red."

The grape type, Refosk, is an Italian grape grown in the northeastern corner of Italy's Friuli-Venezia Giulia, which borders Austria and Slovenia. The grape is called Refosco there. This variety is known for having concentrated tart flavors of plums heading toward bitterness, with high acidity.

The wine was in the odd-ends bin, and on sale for around $15 (normally $16.50). Upon opening this bottle, I was worried that it was corked - the cork was stained halfway to the top, and an unpleasant odor came out.

The first day this wine was just awful. The nose was funky, like super funk. I usually find those earthy-barnyard-blue cheese mold aromas interesting. Here, however, it was like smelling a dirty diaper. As a dad to a 16-month old, it's a smell I readily recognize. Behind the funk was a layer of dark wild fruits, but it just couldn't compete with the diaper.

The wine's color was dark purple/red, meaning that it's probably young. In the mouth, I found it incredibly unbalanced, with a taste of flat fruit initially, run roughshod by tannins, and after the tannins had its way with my mouth, a lingering after taste of Vicks cherry vapo-rub.

Sounds gross, I know. But I wanted to see what would happen on day two, since this was a pop-and-pour experience. The wine was ridiculously tannic, so it needed time to breath.

Last night, my friends Liz & Rob came over with some thick and hearty pea soup they made, and I decided to pour this for us. (I told my friend Becca about my initial impression of this wine and she thought I wasn't being a very nice host in offering it to Liz & Rob, but I told her I had some other bottles I could crack open if this remained a disaster. Plus, come on - Slovenian wine! how often do you get to say you've tried that, no matter what the taste!)

On day 2, this wine became better focused, although I realized it certainly could age for another decade or so in the bottle to give those tannins a chance to mellow. The horrible odor on the nose changed to more of the normal funkiness that I find appealing, and in the mouth, the dark fruit flavors livened up and were present throughout the entire sip (in other words, the tannins didn't take control this time). No Vapo-Rub on the finish either.

So, what to think of this wine? Well, it certainly is an interesting ride. If you get it, be sure to let it decant for a few hours. I'd love to see what this wine would taste like in several years. 2005 is just too soon a vintage to drink, at least from this bottle. If I saw an older vintage on the shelf or on a restaurant's wine list, I'd be tempted to order it.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Jose Maria Da Fonseca Periquita 2004

When I first tasted this Portuguese wine I did a double take of the label because I could have sworn I just sipped a Cabernet Franc. It had a nice nose of green pepper, spice red berries and some coffee. In the mouth the mix was the same, with a bouquet of flowers on the finish that lingered for quite some time.

The actual breakdown of the grapes used to make this wine is 70% Castelao, 20% Trincadeira and 10% Aragonez.

On the second day of drinking it, the fruit came forward more and the bouquet bloomed. Really nice wine for the $10 I spent for it at

The producer, Jose Maria Da Fonseca, has been making this wine since 1850, and even exported it in the 1880s to Brazil. It sold 3.6 million bottles in 2000.

The technical sheet for this wine says the grapes are grown in the sandy and clay-lime soils of the Setubal Peninsula, and that it was aged for only four months in both new and used oak barrels. With a 13.4% alcohol level, this wine doesn't override food and is a good dinner bottle.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

2006 Saumur Lieu-dit Les Epinats

My search to try new whites continues with this Chenin Blanc, picked up from Whole Foods for $8.99. Coming in at 12.5% alcohol, this light-golden colored wine had a slight nose of lime, melon and tropical fruits, followed by a mouth dominated by minerality, tongue-gripping acidity and flavors of slate, coconut, and perhaps a bit of bananas. Good wine to go with food, as I readily quaffed this one down quickly every night with dinner until the last drop.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

2003 Lanciola Chianti Colli Fiorentini DOCG

I ordered this wine on sale from Grail Wine Selections for $10 (normally $20). I found it to have a pretty nose of sweet cherries with a touch of fresh earth. It's color was brick red around the edges. In the mouth, the cherries turned sour, which were supported with some green veggies, and moderate tannins take this wine through the finish. Good acidity. I also got a lot of baked fruit and raisins throughout.

The wine was aged both in steel tanks and oak barrels, and clocks in at 13.5% alcohol. Lanciola Winery is in the Tuscan countryside a few miles outside of Florence, according to its web site. About half of the estate's total of 200 acres is planted with grapes, and the other half olives, from which they make an extra virgin olive oil.

From what I can gather from the site, it looks like the wines are only distributed by seven firms worldwide, with two in Japan, two in Europe, and two in California, including Grail Wines.

Napa-based Grail Wine Selections focuses on Italian wines, and my contact there, Erin Martin, is very friendly and knowledgeable about vino, as I discovered when she put up with my numerous and probably annoying questions about this bottle and others. She said this wine, which is 90% Sangiovese with a little bit of Merlot, is "just more dirty and harsh (in a good way), more of a food wine, a little more masculine" than a Sonnino Chianti that they're selling (I purchased the Sonnino as well and plan to review it when I get around to drinking it).

Grail Wine Selection contrasted the two wines in their e-mail, saying: "Stylistically you can compare them to those gorgeous Italian men in the fashion magazine advertisements. Sonnino is more delicate and slightly androgynous; the Lanciola is more ruggedly handsome with a slight 5:00 stubble. Beauty is all in the palate of the wine drinker... We think the Lanciola is a bit more of an appetizer or first course wine than a sipper. We like to serve it with the antipasti or pesto bruschetta. It also works well at the end of the dinner, when you need that "one more little glass". You want something good, but it doesn't really make good sense to open that $75 bottle in the cellar."

This was definitely a nice wine that went well with a bunch of different meals I had this week, and I'm looking forward to trying the Sonnino to compare the two.

I've sort of avoided Chianti for years now, based on some bad cheap bottles I had a long time ago, but this opens a new door for me, and I'm glad I tried this.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Barefoot's Guatemala Finca Vista Hermosa, El Eden

In a muddied french press, this coffee had a wine-like consistency on top, with blueberries in the mouth and a nice acidity.

As a ristretto espresso shot (less liquid than a normal double shot, but thicker, more intense) there were wood chips and flowers on the nose, while in the cup a nicely balanced mix of mild fruits and chocolate.

As a pour-over, I found this to be a much simpler coffee, more of a one-note affair of just coco flavors. As it cooled, I got some hints of pineapple with still a strong chocolate/coco flavor.

I didn't find this coffee to have the explosive fruit-forward flavors as some of Barefoot's other Guatemalan beans. It is more mild and balanced.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Sobon Estate 2006 Rocky Top Amador County Zinfandel

I love Zinfandels. They can be dark, spicy and fruity all at once. They can be appreciated on their own, or a great accompaniment to a meaty, rich meal. My first "wow" wine was Zinfandel. As in, "wow, I can't believe how amazing this tastes!" Which is why I like attending the ZAPfest every year here in San Francisco - the annual crazy, overwhelming event that brings out hundreds of Zinfandel producers in one massive warehouse. Madness ensues, as it's the kind of event where people get plastered and cheer loudly every time someone breaks their glass on the cement floor. But it gives you a chance to really compare some great zins and see the full range of what the grape can do.

A few months ago I purchased the Sobon Estate 2006 Rocky Top Amador County Zin, for about $16 from Farmstead Cheese & Wine in Alameda. The wine is 92% zin, with the addition of 4% Petite Syrah, 2% Carignane and 2% Barbera. About 4,050 cases were made, and it has a 14.5% alcohol level.

Among the zins I've had, this one falls in the middle. It has that classic zin nose of blackberries, cherry cola and black pepper, with a touch of honey sweetness. These flavors continue in the mouth, dominated by cherry cola, violets and black pepper.

It wasn't a disappointment, it wasn't a superstar, but a good everyday drinking zin.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Fontanafredda 2006 Barbera Piemonte "Briccotondo"

Purchased this from the shop in Berkeley a few weeks back for less than $12. The bottle was named one of Wine Spectator's top 100 buys for 2007 with a 90 point rating.

Since we've been suffering through a series of heat waves in Oakland, I've kept the bottle I'm drinking in the fridge until I get home from work, then let it warm up a bit for an hour or two before pouring a glass for dinner. This may affect what I'm getting from the glass, but I get less from a wine when it's too hot than when it's too cold, so I prefer it this way.

As usual, I drank this bottle over the course of several days. The first day, when it was still cold from the fridge, I didn't get much on the nose, but tasted "bowl of cherries."

The next day, when I had it out of the fridge a little longer, I got a lot of heat on the nose. In fact, I wrote down "vodka & grenadine" to describe what I was smelling. Basically it smelled like every bad drink you made in your college dorm room before going out to parties. Overly alcoholic and not very balanced. This again though has to be discounted because of the temperature I served it at. As wines get warmer, the alcohol evaporates, and can make the wine seem "hot" so to speak.

In the mouth, though, this wine still performed well, giving me a gamy, herbalicious flavor mixed still with a cherry cola taste.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Blue Bottle - Mint Plaza

I had a few minutes yesterday before an event I was covering was supposed to start, so I made my way to Blue Bottle's Mint Plaza cafe for a quick espresso. I've been here before, during their opening day when the line went out the door and people were just ooohing and aahing over the cafe's super expensive ($20,000!) siphon machine imported from Japan.

The cafe is sort of tucked into a quiet corner of a SOMA plaza that has been spiffed up recently with some fancy restaurants for a beautification project. The cafe itself is light and airy, with huge windows, and a modern feel inside. Against the far wall are numerous glass globes, beakers and lamps connected with metal pipes. It looks like a science lab. You can sit at a bar facing these devices, or at a large communal table in the middle of the room. All the servers wear black and look well put together, unlike their Hayes Valley & Ferry Plaza stand, where baristas are more free-spirited in their dress.

Mint Plaza is just a cool place to hang out if you like coffee and espresso. They have two different kinds of espresso machines, an semi-auto and a manual lever. I ordered a single-origin Brazilian Camocim Bourbon from their Bosco Napoli two-head manual lever machine. My barista said Blue Bottle doesn't do direct trade with the farm. I found this link online with more info about what I believe are the same beans. She said it has "more of a savory, heavy body" than some of the other coffees they pull, which I took to mean their Ethiopian Misty Valley.

The shot was pulled tight and short, leading to a honeyed nose with high notes of woody fruit. The dark-brown crema lasted forever. In the cup, the shot was sweet with deeper bass notes, and hummed along my palate.

I couldn't spend much time at Mint Plaza, so I can't do a full review of the coffees and espresso offerings there, but it's definitely worth checking out, as it has become somewhat of a mecca for coffee geeks.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Robert Mondavi Private Selection 2005 Vinetta

I usually avoid big name labels like Robert Mondavi, but I was recently reading George Taber's "Judgment of Paris," which gives great background on some of the most well known Napa wineries that beat some of the most highly regarded French wines in a blind tasting in 1976 in Paris, and I thought I'd give this one a try.

I probably spent around $10 for this Bordeaux-style wine (68% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Merlot, 11% Petite Sirah, 5% Malbec, 2% Cabernet Franc) at Nob Hill, even though I thought there was a good chance it might taste too fake, too sugary, and too oaky, like a lot of large-production wines from big companies trying to appeal to the mass market. However, I liked the combination of grapes in this bottle, as well as the relatively low alcohol level - "only" 13.5%, which, compared to a lot of California red wines, is on the lower side of things.

A little over 80 percent of the grapes came from the Central Coast AVA, specifically Monterey County and Paso Robles area, according to the Robert Mondavi website.

The 2005 growing season was cool during the summer, with a warm fall that extended the growing season, allowing the grapes to hang longer on the vine, developing more intensity without high alcohol levels, the site says.

I really enjoyed this wine. It had scents of liquorish and cherries on the nose, with a mouthfull of dark red fruits. There's definitely some oak in there (it was aged in French oak for 14 months), but it's not an overriding flavor. Nice balance, some complexity stemming from the mix of grape varietals, and for $10, a good deal.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Howell Mountain Tasting at Slow Food

The Slow Food weekend here in San Francisco was simply amazing. The amount and variety of events were extensive; the people I encountered who ran the events were incredibly knowledgeable and famous in their own segments.

One of the events I attended was a taste workshop on Howell Mountain wines produced by La Jota Vineyard. Winemaker Chris Carpenter gave a discussion about what makes the Howell Mountain AVA so special, and then talked us through a vertical tasting of La Jota Cabernet Franc going back to 1988, and including vintages '92, '95, '96, '97, '01, '03 and 2005.

"There's only a case left of the '88, so you're the only group that will try tis wine for a long time," Carpenter said. La Jota first planted in 1985, so this was their first wine.

Howell Mountain is a part of Napa Valley that has cooler days than the valley because of the fog that stalls at the foothills. The winery can let the grapes hang longer on the vine during harvest, and because of the cooler weather, can get greater concentration without too much sugar. This leads to intense wines with lots of fruit flavors but not the super high alcohol levels that would normally come from a high sugar content in the grape.

I was really surprised about the wines they poured for us. This event only cost $20, so to have wines this rare and expensive (well, they're rare and expensive when you have my budget) was just so special.

Let's start with the 1988 (these were all Cab Francs from La Jota). I wrote down that this wine was somewhat of a chameleon because each sniff and sip I took gave me a different impression. Overall, this was a nicely balanced wine, with the tannins aged to the point where they fit in with everything else. On the nose, I got sweet peppers, and a floral scent that Chris identified as rose petals. In the mouth, a veggie-herb combo with tannins balanced on the mid-palate and finish with fruit. This wine definitely opened up more as the event went on, with my last sniff and sip bringing a bigger boutique of flowers.

1992 -
Nice fruit, somewhat corn syrup scent on the nose, and that earthy, barnyard funk. A little nutty in the mouth, sweeter than the '88, but not as expressive.

1995 -
This was my least favorite. It had a metallic, copper smell that continued in the mouth.

1996 -
Candy apple nose, good amount of herbs and fruit in the mouth. The end fell off.

1997 -
This was my favorite, and the favorite by far of the group as a whole (Chris took a poll). It was very floral on the nose. I got a boutique of flowers in the mouth, along with peppers and sweet fruit. A bit of tangerine came through as well. Tannins were nicely balanced.

2001 -
Caramel and tannins on the nose. Thought it had a nice structure, and could actually age a bit longer, as it seemed too young to drink now when compared to the previous vintages. Chris said the winemaking process changed in 2001, with more oak added to the process.

2003 -
Heavy nose, very rich, caramel, sugars, fruit and tannin in the mouth.

2005 -
Very fruit forward on the nose. In the mouth, green peppers and black peppercorns, sweet red fruits and certainly tannins.

The tasting seemed a bit rushed, as we only had about an hour to hear the talk, try the wines and then discuss them as a group. The saddest part was at the end, watching the servers take all these wine glasses with such amazing wines from all these vintages, and just pour them all together into one pitcher to dump. I almost cried.