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.


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.



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.


Ruminations on Barolo

In an earlier blog on the Wine Spectator’s Grand Tour wine tasting, I had noted that at that tasting there had been an extraordinary opportunity to taste eight different wineries’ Barolos.  Barolo is at home in Piedmont in northwestern Italy, and its sole or occasionally primary grape is considered by some to be Italy’s most impressive: Nebbiolo.  The origins of Nebbiolo are unclear, but there are those who think it goes back as far as Roman antiquity.  Whatever its past, what one either learned or re-learned from the WS tasting is that Nebbiolo, and Barolo in particular require considerable age before the wines are ready to drink.  The tasting, for the most part, was a reminder of that fact owing to the relative youth of the wines offered … wines that promised great things but were yet too young to have yet met that promise.  Still, one label in particular – a 2009 Damilano – was already a lovely quaff, despite its expected array of tannins.

2009 Damilano Barolo

2009 Damilano Barolo

What does that prove?  When it comes to the aging of wines, you never really know.   One more point, Barolo can be and usually is pretty expensive … and yet … there are Piemonte wines made from Nebbiolo that can be drunk younger than Barolo and thoroughly enjoyed.  Next time you’re buying, try a Babaresco or a Gattinara or a Spanna.

I guess none of these was quite prestigious enough for the WS array, but don’t forget them; they’re delicious.


Wines Can Be Welcome Guests

My wife and I were having dinner with good friends last night, and I served them a Gascon Reserve Malbec, 2010 from Argentina, imported by Gallo.  The Gascon part is easy enough to find, even at your local grocery store, but the “reserve” bottling will make a difficult search for anyone, and deservedly so: it’s a delicious quaff by any standards.  Malbec itself comes from the Cahors region of France, just a little southeast of Bordeaux.  Sometime in the 1850’s, and prior to the phylloxera plague that devastated so many French vineyards, Malbec cuttings somehow made their way to Argentina.  Some have suggested that the pre-phylloxera part of the story explains why Malbecs from Argentina taste so much better than their French counterparts.  It is theorized that the Malbec vines which replaced the phylloxera-destroyed originals never again achieved the former glory of their French predecessors.  Well, I’ve never tasted a 19th century Malbec, but I can certainly attest to the superiority of their now widely available Argentine offspring.

Gascon Reserva Malbec

Gascon Reserva Malbec

While we’re on the subject of wines that somehow do better in their host countries than in their original homes, think of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah … and, if this kind of thing interests you, have you ever looked at Jancis Robinson’s (et al.) rather new book, titled Wine Grapes?  It’s nothing short of both glorious and magisterial!


Wine Grapes – a terrific book!


The Hitching Post II – Buellton, California

The Hitching Post II steak house in Buellton, CA, a family spinoff from the original Hitching Post just south of Santa Maria, CA, is a great local place. Thanks to the movie Sideways, however, it is now a world-famous, jammed for noon to midnight place. Reservations on weekends are very necessary, and even with one you may have to wait 10 to 30 mins. It’s a wine country institution.

For the umpteenth time, my wife and I ate there Saturday night. As with each visit, my wife has to cringe and grit her teeth when the waiter greets us and asks “if we’ve dined with them before”, praying that I don’t deliver Miles from Sideway’s line “It’s practically my office.” As usual, I considered it and then decided against it. She breathed with relief.

Here is a simple list of why I love The Hitching Post II:

-          The grilled artichokes – fresh, par-steamed and then grilled over open wood flame with their signature “magic dust” seasoning, they are served with a chipotle mayo and the pairing is heavenly.

Grilled Artichokes with 'magic dust' and chipotle mayo - mmmmm!

Grilled Artichokes with ‘magic dust’ and chipotle mayo – mmmmm!

-          The grilled quail – maybe you’ve had quail, maybe you haven’t. But if you like BBQ chicken, do yourself a HUGE favor and try the grilled Texas quail. Again, over the open wood pit flame with magic dust – it’s just THAT good!

-          The steak – could you do it home?…sure. But their wood grill and magic dust give their prime beef a singular flavor. If you only eat beef occasionally, save up for the Hitching Post beef.

-          The wine – as many people who have NEVER eaten there know, they make their own Hitching Post wine, wines that are available throughout the U.S. in limited quantities. Their specialty?…what else, Pinot Noir! Their standards, Cork Dancer, Highliner etc. are always good. Their vineyard designates, like their Bien Nacido and Fiddlestix, are even better. Tonight we had a Fiddlestix blend called Perfect Set – a 2010 iteration. To draw again from the movie, “…because it’s so F$#@#%n good!”

2010 Hitching Post "Perfect Set" Pinot Noir

2010 Hitching Post “Perfect Set” Pinot Noir

So yes, it’s now a tourist attraction, but the Hitching Post II never disappoints. If you have an artichoke, a quail, a steak and a bottle of Pinot Noir, it’s as good as it gets anywhere – famous or not. Enjoy!





More on Temecula, CA…Thornton Winery

Since we are at the point of visiting the first winery on my list, Thornton, I’d like to make some general points about visiting any winery in Temecula.  Good winery maps of the area are available on the internet, and so is the information on each winery you intend to visit.  All Temecula wineries are open on weekends, but check to find out what specific days they’re open during the week.  Find out, too, when the tasting rooms open and when they close.  To my knowledge, only one winery – Briar Rose – requires reservations.  Again on the internet, check the subject of Temecula winery coupons, and print out those for your intended visits.  They generally offer two-for-one tastings, which, added to the fact that some wineries charge less for tastings during the week, could make a clear, if modest, difference in your expenses when you visit Temecula Monday through Thursday.

Ready to head into the tasting room!

Ready to head into the tasting room!

So … traveling east on Rancho California you’ve crossed Butterfield Stage Road, and a couple of hundred yards on your right is the entrance to Thornton Winery;  signs will direct you up the hill to visitors’ parking.  Many years ago, the site of Thornton was occupied by Culbertson Winery, which made only sparkling wines.  Thornton, however, while continuing to make an entirely decent sparkler, has branched out, and was one of the earliest wineries in Temecula to make the surprising (to me, at least) discovery that the area was strikingly kind to Italian varietals.  You can taste Thornton’s wines in their comfortable inside tasting room or outside on the adjoining terrace.  Thornton was the first Temecula winery to offer not just a menu of individual wines from which to choose, but several different pre-selected four-wine flights with different kinds of emphases.  If you only wish to drink white, for example, there will be a flight entirely devoted to such, even though other predominantly red wine flights may contain one or another apposite white.  The pours are quite generous, so plan to share them if you have one or several guests with you.  If you don’t like one particular wine on a flight, the exceedingly hospitable hosts (a general Temecula phenomenon, I’m pleased to report) will be happy to replace it with a wine more to your liking.

On my most recent trip, I thought that the following wines had special merit:  2012 Sangiovese, the principal red grape of Tuscany, and the 2012 Cabernet Franc, famous in Loire Valley reds, and southern Bordeaux blends.  What really startled me, however, was an Italic white wine: Vermentino.  Vermentino is originally a Sardinian/Corsican grape which has moved to the central Italian mainland.  I have always thought of it as drinkable, but not much else.  Not this one!  The Thornton 2013 Vermentino is the best bottling of that varietal I’ve ever tasted.  Observe that I have taken care to list the years of each wine I mentioned.  Even though the difference between good and more difficult years is much less pronounced in California than in Europe, there are distinctions worthy of note.  Last year’s Thornton Nebbiolo (the major red grape of Italy’s Piemonte), was nothing short of spectacular.  This year’s version is pleasant enough, but of no special merit beyond that.  Thornton allotted only one bottle per person for purchase of last year’s Nebbiolo; you can buy all you want of this year’s.  So … let’s move on to the next winery.

And here we are - ready to sample today's pouring!

And here we are – ready to sample today’s pouring!

rose wine

Time for Rosé

It was a beautiful Easter Sunday in the 80s here in Burbank today. I could smell the BBQ grills going off throughout the neighborhood this afternoon. Imagining that every table in town was having ham, turkey, BBQ ribs, Tri-Tip, I thought to myself…what do ALL these foods have in common?

Answer: They pair perfectly with Rosé.

For the uninitiated, we’re not talking your grandma’s white zinfandel here. We’re talking Vin Gris – that beautiful light color, bone dry, fruit forward wine that is the pure definition of summer time. Personally, I usually go for my Rosé from Pinot Noir. But I’m just as happy with a Bordeaux version, or even an Italian Sangiovese Rosé. My family members are partial to Grenache Rose – but it’s just not my cup of tea. Some of our favorite Rosé producers include the Vin Gris from Ken Brown, the Pinot Rosés of Tony Soter and the Grenache Rosé from Kris Curran.

Tonight, we cracked open a very limited production 2012 Cabernet Rosé from Bella Luna in Paso Robles. As they only produced 85 cases, don’t bother looking for it. But be sure to stock up on some Rosé for the summer – and we’ll have more recommendations coming soon. If you have some favorites, make sure to tell us about them here or on Facebook.


2012 Bella Luna Cabernet Rose from Paso Robles