Thursday, May 28, 2009

Sean Thackery's Pleiades XVII

Wine Maker Sean Thackrey is one of those guys who's limited production bottles can be hard to get a hold of, thanks to high 90s scores by Robert Parker. Thackrey, who claims to own the world's largest collection of ancient writings on wines and reads in seven languages, lives and does his wine making in Bolinas, California, in a Eucalyptus grove. His wines are named after constellations, and he has a Petite Sirah called Sirius; a Rhone-style blend called Orion; a Pinot Noir labeled Andromeda; and the cheapest of his offerings, the field blend called Pleiades.

Pleiades is a non-vintage, which is why it's given Roman numerals. Last year I popped open version XVI for a party with friends and enjoyed its red berry fruit flavors and cool-Eucalyptus finish (read review here).

This year, I spied Pleiades XVII at the Wine Mine in Oakland and purchased a bottle for $21 there (prices can vary depending on where you shop from $19-$26). I drank this bottle over a few days. It's appearance is a black cherry color, complete opaque in the center with some light filtering through the edges, which looked brick red.

On the nose I got Nyquil cherry scents, along with Eucalyptus and bark. These flavors follow in the mouth, to the point where it really has that medicinal cherry taste going on, accented by the cool Eucalyptus that carry throughout the sip.

Grippy tannins on the palate, with an acidic bite on the finish.

As much as I wanted to love this wine, I found the medicinal cherry flavor a bit too overpowering and ultimately this was more of a two-note wine when I expected more. I would certainly call it interesting though, and definitely not a cookie-cutter California wine.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Crazy wine bar

As a wino, I love wine bars. Love them. You get to try a variety of wines you might not find elsewhere or not be able to buy anywhere else. They usually have interesting cheeses and sliced meats and other small plates for munching on. And in general, you feel like an adult in one, which has become a rare commodity for me ever since my daughter was born two years ago (if we do go out to a restaurant as a family, it's usually before 6 p.m. at a "kid-friendly" place - ie - not too slick or expensive, usually with beat up wooden tables and open enough so if she complains or cries people don't get upset. Yes, I'm looking at you Triple Rock, our go-to fam-friendly restaurant with the amazing beer selection.)

But getting back to the matter at hand - when I've been allowed out of the house after dark for a dad's night out or just a drink with a friend, I've been going to Alameda Wine Co. and loving it.

The place is not for everybody. It certainly has its quirks, the main one being the owner, a willow-thin, bald woman who wears droopy sweat pants that expose a thong as she walks around behind the bar. She also seems to have a nervous breakdown every time I'm there, swearing profusely and loudly about ex-customers who didn't pay or someone who pissed her off. I'd imagine it's kind of scary for people who didn't grow up with parents who screamed a lot. (Check out the one-star reviews on yelp for a taste of the offended customers - here).

Ok, on to the positives. The selection is nice and affordable. You can get a small pour or a large pour and pay accordingly. This is super if you're like me and want to try several selections on the menu without committing to an entire glass. The variety of the selection is nice too. When I've been I've found interesting American, Italian, French, Spanish and Argentinian offerings. There's a 1977 port you can try if you want. Last time the bartender popped open a really great madeira (I think it was a Rare Wine Company Historic Series Madeira Boston Boal NV) to show me how good madeira can be - and boy was she right.

The bar is curvy and the seats are leather with backs. You can sit for hours there twirling around, creating mini-flights of wine from the menu, and pick at plates of charcuterie and artisinal cheese. If you liked something you drank, they also have a retail end of the store with well priced wines that are mostly under $20 and include a lot of small production, well made choices.

If you're ever in Alameda, check this place out.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Paul Mathew 2008 Knight's Valley Gamay Noir

Another nice find from the Wine Mine in Oakland! The Paul Mathew 2008 Knight's Valley Gamay Noir cost $13.99 (MSRP $16) and clocks in at 13.4% alcohol. It's appearance is a translucent cherry color tending toward purple at the edges. Slight nose, but in the mouth bright cherry notes (reminded me of Hi-C cherry flavored beverages) and a bit gamey. After a few days sitting in my fridge, I finished it off last night and found additional flavors of cinnamon and tobacco, which were kind of bizarre to get from gamay.

This is a great wine for the summer, it's light, fruity, and tastes good chilled. Try it instead of a rose with some lighter fare, as the acidity probably won't be as sharp as a rose.

I also like this wine because it's small production - only 133 cases produced from a 60-year old, two acre plot in Calistoga. The NYT's wine writer, Eric Asimov, had an article today about the difficulty of finding good, cheap and interesting American reds. I especially found myself shaking my head in agreement with this sentence: "In effect, then, California produces a small amount of top-flight wine along with an ocean of generic wine that seeks to imitate the top echelon, often through artifice like oak substitutes and additives. All too often, the choices are expensive cabernet or chardonnay, and imitation expensive cabernet or chardonnay."

Asimov's take mirrors my own opinion and findings as a wine drinker who mainly stays within the $10-$20 a bottle price range. Interesting and unique wines are difficult to find from the U.S. But they can be found, and some, like this gamay, can be utterly enjoyable.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Velvet Hammer

My perusal of Charles Smith wines continues with The Velvet Hammer, a 2007 Merlot from Columbia Valley, Washington. Charles Smith is the crazy-haired guy who used to be a promoter for Danish rock bands, then decided to make wine in Washington State more than a decade ago.

I've tried and reviewed his Kung Fu Girl Riesling and Boom Boom Syrah! so when I saw this on the shelf at Farmstead Cheese and Wine in Alameda, I grabbed a bottle (for $15.99, I think).

Love the name and graphic. Also nice to see, on the back of the bottle, was this motto: "Land to Hand, Vineyard to Bottle," an ode to producing wines that taste like, well, wine, and not toasted oak and vanilla. Or as Smith says on his site: "The intent is to create wines to be enjoyed now, but with typicity with regards to variety—that is merlot that tastes like merlot—and to the vineyard—wine that tastes like where it was grown. The wines are full of flavor, balanced, and true to their place of origin."

I've largely been disappointed with cheaper American wines lately, as they tend to taste over-made. Some people criticize me for criticizing these wines - after all, why pick on a bottle that costs less than $15? Well, for most drinkers who chose to imbibe every night with a meal, this is probably your sweet spot, price wise. So why not ferret out the values, finds and nicely made wines in this price range?

It's not hard to find, if you know what to look for. Loire Valley reds, in my shopping experience, hit the mark. Washington State also seems to put out a good amount of these wines. Wine regions in California far removed from Napa Valley and expectations of being a "big massive trophy bottle" can also surprise.

Some of the things I look for on the bottle is a description of limited interaction between the wine maker and wine. Organic, biodynamic, no filtering or fining, carbonic maceration, etc etc etc. These are a few of many terms you might see on a bottle expressing to you, the buyer, that the liquid held in the bottle in your hand wasn't treated like a commodity beverage.

Now not all these wines are great. In fact they can be hit or miss, and just because the grapes were grown with limited chemicals doesn't mean it wasn't picked too ripe or stored in oak for too long. But with a sea of choices in front of you at the wine store, these are some hints as to what might be an interesting purchase.

Back to the Velvet Hammer. It was a dark burgundy in color, and murky in the glass. Slight nose of spices and dark red berries, and in the mouth showed lovely cloves, nutmeg, wild blackberries and cedar notes. This wine was mostly spice for me - cool spice - not the kind that sear the tongue, but ones that seem to chill the palate.

The winemaker's website says this of the wine: "Balanced, rich and explosive. Think red plums, bittersweet cocoa with hints of smoke and cedar. SO SMOOTH, SO NAUGHTY, AND SO VERY, VERY NICE." (MSRP: $12).

This wasn't an amazing, mind blowing wine. It didn't move me to sing it's praises like some other recent bottles I've had (like this one). But it was a nice wine, and, if you're used to too many overdone American Merlots, is a nice contrast. Plus for $12-$16 a bottle, won't kill the wallet.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Ritual Roasters Fazenda Esperança Pulped Natural, Brasil

Pulped naturals are an intriguing halfway point between washed coffees and full naturals (or dried processed). I really like naturals. They give you interesting, murky, maybe even musty sweet fruit flavors with muted acidity. Washed coffees can give you a more complex, subtle cup and lots of acidity. A pulped natural is when the outer layer of the coffee cherry is stripped off, and the coffee bean, embodied in the fruity mucus, is left to dry in the sun.

When I went in to Ritual last weekend looking for something new to try, I originally grabbed a bag of the Fazenda Kaquend, the first place winner in the Brazilian Cup of Excellence contest. It's not often you get to try a CoE #1 coffee. However, I checked out the price and decided $30 was a little rich for me right now. Trying to cut back expenses, given the depression and all...and spending that much for coffee is a little hard to justify.

However, the Fazenda Esperança caught my eye. Also a pulped natural from Brazil, this coffee was a mere $15. Deal!

I had a hard time dialing this coffee in as an espresso. The few times I tried, I got very light colored crema, blonde/tan in color and lasting a medium time before fading. In the small cup, this coffee tasted like dark chocolate and cinnamon. Nice milky mouthfeel. Now that I'm reading Ritual's description, I also recall getting malt chocolate. Whoppers-candy like.

As a French press, this coffee is all hazelnut. Almost like a Dunkin' Donuts flavored coffee. But much better. There was some vanilla notes in there as well, but this was really dominated by the hazelnut taste.

From Ritual's website: "Produced by the Souza family—João and Tiago—in Campos Altos, Brasil, this coffee is a micro-lot from their farm, Fazenda Esperança, located in Brasil’s Cerrado eco-region. These Mundo Novo, Acaia, and Catuai trees were processed in the pulped-natural manner—pulping of the coffee fruit followed by drying with some mucilage, developing natural sweetness with clean, syrupy body. This coffee is clean and syrupy with flavors of malt chocolate, toasted aniseed, and sesame."