Negotiating for a Negoçiant in Unexpected Places

If you’re really interested in great wine values, then, if you haven’t already, acquaint yourself with some trustworthy negoçiants.  In case you might not have seen the term before, negoçiants are, very broadly translated, something like  wine merchants.  In practice, however, their relationship to the wines they sell under their own names is much more of a hands-on enterprise than simply the selling of a product.  They canvass a particular viticultural area, buying up excess grapes, or the juice thereof, or even a stray wine here and there in various stages of completion.  Some of the juice or grapes may even come from some notable producers who wish to keep the amount of their own label under control by selling off some of their excess raw ingredient.  Negoçiants, then, proceed to complete whatever needs to be done to those ingredients to procure a finished wine to be sold under the name of the negoçiant.  Few serious fans of wines will not have heard of the likes of Louis Jadot for Burgundy, and Georges du Boeuf for Beaujolais.  But have you ever heard of Cameron Hughes, a California negoçiant who sells most of his admirable product to Costco?  No, you don’t have to be French to be a negoçiant, despite the cedilla under the “c.”  But Costco???  Well, as it happens, Costco may be the largest negoçiant in America, producing under its Kirkland label something like 15 different wines not only from the U.S., but from such areas as France, Italy, and New Zealand as well.  All of those Kirkland wines range from good to excellent, but the price value of those same wines is never less than remarkable.

One of Kirkland’s finest values of late has been their Chateauneuf-du-Pape, perhaps the southern Rhone’s most distinguished wine and, while rich in Grenache, comprises, still further, a judicious blend of any of eighteen different Rhone varietals.  The excellence of a CNP is hardly a secret, and it rarely sells for less then fifty bucks a bottle.  The Wine Spectator gave a recent Kirkland CNP a 92 rating, and, when Costco finally noted this in their stores, the wine vanished from the shelves with dispiriting speed.  O.K.  So here’s an advance notice: the 2012 Kirkland CNP has just appeared.  It has not yet been rated by any major wine publication, to my knowledge, but my own tasting revealed that it’s a first-class bottling, and, like its wonderful predecessor, sells for only $19.99 … a price that is beyond astonishing.  Go for it before word gets any further out than this notice.


The Back Abbey

Should you find yourself in the heart of the Pomona Valley, you’ll quickly discover that you’re in a genuinely lackluster area for restaurants.  And yet, there are dining gems to be found for those willing to seek them out, and one of the most sparkling of these, somewhat hidden away in the western sector of Claremont, is The Back Abbey.  Even enthusiastic locals would be hard pressed to tell you the name of the street it’s on: 128 N. Oberlin Ave.  The Abbey is not very large; in fact, it’s a survivor from the old days (1920’s, I think) when it served as the Union Ice House for the local area.  Saved from demolition by an enterprising restauranteur, it’s altogether unremarkable architecturally, save for its western façade, which preserves a chapel-like arched entablature, reminiscent of a small Spanish church … a kind of abbey, if you will.

How to characterize its look?  Rough and ready? Rustic? Simple? Unpretentious?  I suppose it all of these and more, with several – not all that many – rough, almost unkempt looking tables inside and out, and a long bar fronting an endless array of beers.  It’s those beers – a surprisingly full array of Belgian brews on tap, plus a really long list of sometimes recherché bottled beers to fill in any gaps still left on the roster – that attract the crowds, but also the food.  Almost anything you order there will be more or less familiar, but there always seems to be a lovely surprise with each dish.  Yes, there are several excellent hamburgers, Niman Ranch beef all the way, and sizeable enough to cook to order.  But one of them will feature exemplary buns, scattered perhaps with some micro-greens or some grilled mushrooms or perhaps grilled poblanos.  The salads are remarkably original and even feature a genuine Salade Lyonnaise, though here they call it simply a Bistro Salad.  In France, it’s met regularly, but out the Abbey way, it’s a singular treasure.  Check out the Salade Lyonnaise blog in Food By The Glass for more details.


A lovely sandwich!

And how about a prosciutto sandwich accompanied by arugula and a strikingly edgy mustard vinaigrette?  I never thought about the combination of proscuitto and arugula before, but what a match!  If you’re into Belgian beers, why not have one with its logical Belgian companion, steamed and sautéed mussels.  The potatoes have been fried in duck fat, so one is reluctant to dilute the delicate flavor of that heart-stopping extra touch, but it comes with an array of three great sauces: horseradish (unusually delicate and fitting), really intense catsup, and, wholly unexpected once again, an herbal remoulade.

Before I forget it, let me mention that, in addition to their wide beer array, the Abbey has a small but seriously selected list of wines with, again, that surprise factor.  Chenin Blanc, yes, but it’s a French Vouvray.  Cabernet Franc, yes, but it’s a Loire Valley Chinon.  The wines by the glass are by far the largest pours I’ve seen in years.

Note: The Back Abbey is open for lunch and dinner every day but Sunday, and does not take reservations.  Go and be surprised.


You Never Know What You’ll Find Inside a Bottle of Wine

I suppose that what follows is something of a follow-up to a short blog I previously submitted on the difficulties attending decisions to keep a bottle of wine for an extended period of time.  Therein I noted that whatever you think you know about wine, there is no hard data available about aging any particular kind or bottle of wine; informed guesswork is your best and inescapable solution.  What follows here is an illustration.Enchiladas

When my wife and I were up in Sunnyvale visiting one of our sons and his family, we decided to have dinner at his home on a Saturday evening, and his wife had prepared some lovely enchiladas, full of properly assertive flavors but blessedly uninvaded by jalapeños, serranos, and their spicy ilk, which only beer can  properly mollify.  A rich and flavorful red wine was called for, it seemed to me, and, fortunately, my son had a few on hand.  Now understand: he enjoys wine but neither craves nor studies it.  In a cupboard on the back porch just above the clothes drier was a shelf with half-a-dozen or so wines, uncritically assembled or gifted from which I was invited to choose.  I found among them a bottle of Keenan 2004 “Mernet” (half Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon … get it?).  Now Keenan has always been a winery of consequence since its origins in the Napa Valley some time in the mid-1970’s.  Still, I had never tasted the Keenan Mernet, and its uncertain history, age, and storage conditions all suggested a perilous outcome. I guess I could have remembered (but I didn’t) that 2004 was a great year for wine in the Napa Valley, particularly conducive to long-lived reds.  Anyway, we opened the Keenan and it was nothing short of spectacular!  One of the best Bordeaux-style blends I have tasted in many years.  The cost of the Keenan Mernet – yes, that blend is still made – will probably keep me from trying much more of it, but I’ll never forget its pleasures and my astonishment.



Greek Wines – Try Something COMPLETELY Different

When, in 1959, I was a budding young archaeologist bustling around Greece for the first time, I quickly became aware of Greece’s wines and of the strange (to me at least) grapes peculiar to the country.  Ever heard of, say, Xynomavro, or Assyrtiko, or Moschophilero?  Neither had I, and the wines I tasted made from those and others like them were somewhere between undistinguished and unpleasant.  And yet … every now and then, I stumbled across something that was not only good, but nearly sensational … say a well-aged Xynomavro from the Boutari label.  It didn’t happen often, but, when it did, it suggested that the problem with Greek wines of those days didn’t lie with the grapes themselves, which were obviously capable of great things, but with the winemakers.  It took about 25 or 30 more years before those winemakers either passed or retired and their places were taken by their descendants, most of whom had studied oenology, perhaps in Bordeaux or in California or any of the many others there and elsewhere that were born at that time.  As a result, the potential of earlier years became fully realized  – something true of southern Mediterranean wines in general – and you can now buy, at knowledgeable wine stores, some very nice stuff.  So … I was at Bev Mo the other day, looking around for bargains, and my wife, who had been roaming the wine aisles on her own, came up to me brandishing a bottle of Boutari Moschophilero (the label spells it phonetically: Moschofilero), which was on clearance sale for about six bucks.  Note that the word “Moschophilero” literally means “fly-loving,” and there was that time decades ago when flies were just about the only forms of life that could abide the wine.  That’s no longer true, I’m delighted to report, and this “Moschofilero “ is now a lovely, well-balanced and gently fragrant white, just awaiting your summer afternoons on the patio.  Give it a try and perhaps you’ll be emboldened to try many of those other grapes that are out there that you’ve never sampled or even heard of before.greekwine2

Please note that the Greek grapes to which I have referred above have nothing to do with the famous/infamous Retsinas or resinated wines of Greece.  Those sui generis beverages constitute another story altogether.


Aging Wine – Thoughts from the Wine Collector I love the Most!

Since my parents retired and moved into a retirement community, they’ve had to store their wine collection at a professional wine storage facility.  Gone is my 1910 childhood home that had a real underground cellar.  And so, as the wine ages along with my parents, my dad sent me a few notes about aging wine…enjoy!

Aging Wine – by Steve Glass

1.  Aging wine is, at its very best, an informed guessing game, and there exists not the slightest amount of really controlled data concerning either aging per se, or the potential of the bottles you happen to be aging.

2.  If you’re in the habit of aging wines, it is far more likely that you will keep a wine too long than that you will drink it too young.

(and my favorite…)

3.  It is far better to drink a wine that is too young than to drink one that is too old, for many foods can ameliorate the effects of excessive youth, but a moribund wine is only a gloomy reminder of one’s own improvidence and of what might have been.


A First Rate Petite Sirah!

Since my son Greg just posted a bit about BBQ Pork Spare Ribs, let me post a bit about Petite Sirah – a perfect pairing for that dish:


Petite Sirah is one of those wine grapes (including Zinfandel and Malbec) that do better in their adopted country than their place of origin.  It thrives in California where it always seems to offer, at the very least, entirely pleasant drinking.  The Bogle Petite Sirah, for example, is one of the best wine bargains in the state, year after year, and for less than nine bucks a bottle, too.  If, for example, you’re having a 200-guest wedding reception for your daughter, and you don’t want to dismay either those guests or your accountant, that Bogle Petite Sirah is always the way to go.

Interesting thing … back in the late 1950’s, Gallo’s famous (infamous?) Hearty Burgundy always seemed to me, well, unusually hearty.  It was only many years later when I discovered that the Hearty Burgundy of those days contained a major quotient of Petite Sirah.  That, alas, is no longer true.

Every now and then, however, one encounters a Petite Sirah of genuine stature … a really serious and utterly delicious red wine.  As an example, I’d like to suggest the Four Vines “Skeptic” 2011 bottling.  The Wine Spectator has always had a good-natured respect for Petite Sirah, but I never saw it go so far as to award one a score in the 90’s.  Then came the Four Vines version, which earned a rating of 92.  It’s absolutely compelling and worth every one of its points.  I picked up a couple of bottles at one of BevMo’s 5¢ sales … a great deal, because BevMo wants $25 per bottle for the Four Vines, but buying two bottles and taking advance of that 5¢ deal cuts the price to $12.50.  Whether or not BevMo still has that “Skeptic” Four Vines Petite Sirah still in stock I don’t know, but, believe me, it’s worth the search.


A Good Wine I Often Forget to Drink – Beaujolais

I belong to a small group of diners for whom I am regularly assigned to choose the wines appropriate to our meals.  To this end, I take the opportunity to introduce them to grapes and wines with which they might not be readily familiar.  Last night, I brought to the table some Beaujolais, a lovely French red wine whose virtues include an early drinkability, and lively fruit, along with gentle textures and, for those averse to tannins, a equally gentle disposition.  The distinctive grape of Beaujolais is Gamay, sometimes called Gamay Beaujolais.  Though it is grown elsewhere in the world, the excellence of its French disposition remains, thus far, unrivaled.  It’s distinctive character is produced by carbonic maceration, a fancy name for whole-grape fermentation, rather than fermentation achieved by first crushing the grapes.  This largely accounts for that gentle disposition that I noted above.

Each year, when the official date for releasing the previous year’s Beaujolais arrives, it has become fashionable to hold parties featuring the newest of the new vintage.  It’s called Beaujolais Nouveau, the closest thing to Kool-Aid you’re ever likely to encounter in a wine.  Once you pass it by (and you should pass it by), more serious wine awaits.  You can start by drinking, well, just plain Beaujolais.  Move it up a notch and try what is called Beaujolais Village.  The top of the line, however, comes from ten different communes that are allowed to add their names to the label, e.g. Morgon, Moulin-a-Vent, Chiroubles, Fleurie.

Although most Beaujolais is meant to be drunk young, it’s worth noting that some of these “named” wines can be aged productively.  I once drank an eight-year old Morgon that I could have sworn was a full-blown Burgundy.

Anyway, summer looms and the young and sprightly, always-ready-to-drink, goes-with-almost-anything, always affordable Beaujolais awaits.  If you’re consulting a restaurant’s wine list that is wise enough – let’s say generous enough – to include the low-profit Beaujolais among its offerings, jump at the chance.

smoked salmon

Food and Sparkling Wines

I recently posted a blog concerning a tasting I conducted of French brut Champagne versus California brut sparkling wines produced by leading French Champagne houses.  At the end of that posting, I promised to say a word or two about appropriate food.  Well … what does one eat with a brut sparkler?  Of course, Champagne and its brethren are widely known for their astonishing versatility with food, particularly with food that is salty.  So … would you have guessed that Champagne and salted popcorn are the closest of gustatory friends?  The same can be said for the likes of caviar or smoked salmon.

caviar mousse

caviar mousse

For this most recent tasting, I served caviar, but not bowls of Beluga or Sevruga caviar, both of which used to be moderately priced and widely available, neither of which is true today.  Rather, I used a good whitefish caviar, mixed it with some mayo and other flavorings to make a mousse.  I poured that into a mold  – makes a handsome presentation when unmolded – and served it on thin slices of rye.  For another accompaniment, get some good smoked salmon, chop it up, moisten it with olive oil and add some chopped shallots and ground pepper.  Then, place spoonfuls of the salmon on lightly toasted and oiled baguette slices, and add on top a bit of crème fraiche, embellished with a few capers.  If you like, you can mix in just a touch of prepared horseradish with the crème fraiche.  Smoked salmon, caviar mousse, and popcorn … who would have thought it?


What to Drink with What you Eat – a great book!

By the way, for those interested in the more general question of the pairing of food and wine, give a close look at A. Dornenburg and K. Page, What to Drink with What you Eat.  It is surprisingly inexpensive for a book so handsomely turned out, and deserves to be in every wine lover’s library.


A Sparkling Evening – Champagne tasting!

Last night I offered to a small group of old and new college friends a tasting and a comparison of sparkling wines.  About forty years ago, several of the top large Champagne houses in France (which is the only place that makes what may be legally called “Champagne”) decided to establish winemaking outposts in California, three in the Napa Valley, one in Sonoma, and one in the Anderson Valley.  Today, they continue to make fine sparkling wines at those sites, using the traditional Champagne method of inducing a secondary fermentation in the bottle … enclosing, thus, all those fine bubbles we enjoy so much.

preserving champagne

Put balloons on the bottles to keep the bubbles fresh! Blurry photo?…maybe I should serve smaller tastings to the photographer!

What I decided to do was to pair the basic house brut of a French Champagne maker against the basic house brut from that same maker’s California winery … for example, Louis Roederer Brut Champagne versus Roederer Estate sparkling brut wine from the Anderson Valley.  Each bottle was bagged so that no prior prejudices in favor of California or France could be indulged.  Though almost every participant preferred the real Champagnes to their California counterparts, the latter were still deemed entirely enjoyable.  That’s important to know because the French sparklers cost, on average, twice that of their American competitors … no small consideration, especially if one is serving sparklers to a large number of guests.  By the way, if you have sparkling wine left in the bottle, how do you best reseal that bottle?  The pressure remaining in the bottle will simply eject any cork, so try this:  put a rubber balloon over the bottle top; that way the seal is functionally air-tight, and that remaining pressure will do nothing other than to inflate a bit of balloon.  Looks weird, but it works.

I might add that when, for many years past, I conducted the same kind of tasting for senior undergraduates at the Claremont Colleges, they almost always liked the French version when drunk by itself, but the California when consumed with food.  Interesting.  So what does one eat with these bruts?  Stay tuned.

The Tasting List:

Bortolotti Prosecco Brut  DOCG  (Valdobbiadene)

G.H. Mumm (Reims)

Mumm Napa Brut Prestige (Napa Valley)

Moët & Chandon Impérial (Epernay)

Chandon Brut Classique (California)

Louis Roederer Brut Premiere (Reims)

Roederer Estate (Anderson Valley)

Taittinger (Reims)

Domaine Carneros, 2009  (Carneros)

Albino Armani 1607 Prosecco  Extra Dry (Veneto) DOC



Cellar Surprises For the Aged

One of the nicest, but largely unanticipated rewards of collecting and cellaring wines for future consumption is that one tends to forget, over the years, just what wines have been stored.  Tonight I discovered – that’s the appropriate verb – a Di Bruno (Santa Barbara County) 2008 Merlot that had long since vanished from my memory banks.  Interestingly enough, although the Di Bruno/Curran folk have their actual winery in the Sta Rita Hills AVA, this wine was one of the earliest produced from grapes in Happy Canyon, the newest and warmest of Santa Barbara County’s AVA’s.  Now …  regardless of what you think you know about aging wines, there is no hard evidence to guide you about aging wines in general or aging any wine in particular, other than keeping those aging wines in the dark, motionless, and cool.  Merlot’s reputation for aging is not at all the same as, say, Cabernet Sauvignon, but the ’08 Di Bruno was spectacular …not only endowed with the soft fruit one normally expects from a Merlot, but with an edgy complexity that made it a wonderful accompaniment to equally complex food.  Even Miles, the infamous Merlot-hater in the movie “Sideways” would have loved it.