October 9, 2012 § Leave a Comment
We experience all the world through the scrubby filter of our own individual prejudices, and wine stores are no exception. Broadly, in New York, there are the “institution” stores like Astor, 67, Sherry Lehman, and Crush… big boys who sell massive amounts in quantity and quality and enjoy nearly unlimited purchasing power. There is the “old school,” in the tired sense: tired narrow Manhattan shops with surprising range in inventory but little sales professionalism, uncertain storage conditions, and no focus whatsoever. There is an increasing amount of “new school” stores: places with a sometimes maniacal focus, or just a generalized obsession with vinuous oddities, or staff members with personas that may match the exact profile of the kids you gave wedgies to 20 years ago, but who you are now happy to take advice from about natural yeasts, indigenous varietals, and the merits of allowing chickens to shit on the vine roots.
I think it’s fair to say that most of us stuff most wine stores into one of the above categories. I’ve certainly spent a fair amount of coin in all three, and I can think of a handful of new school stores that have siphoned up my kids’ college funds in wine buys.
But I’m proud to say that the store that has the greatest claim to my loyalty is Scotto’s Wine Cellar, on Court Street in Brooklyn, and in a lot of ways it defies any neat categorization.
Sure, Scotto’s was literally among the very first stores to obtain a license after the repeal of the Volstead Act, and its original owners were shilling wine even earlier. And though Scotto’s defines a lot of what’s great about the traditional retailers in Carroll Gardens, it fits neither into the “old school” category of sleepy, unenlightened shops or into the category of 10,000 square foot institutions with great websites and mega-inventory. The selection of wines at Scotto’s is impressive but by no means either massive nor overly-curated. Every wine at Scotto’s is not amazing, but it definitely reflects judgment and experience, by both Jay (pictured in second photo below) and owner James Bennedetto. The Italian section — fittingly, for the neighborhood — is especially strong, though it offers terrific Rhone, West Coast, and South America too. And I’ll say this: though I appreciate a store with only 200 meticulously chosen wines, over the long haul, it’s the store that swings at more pitches that will get my business over time. Especially if it’s a store like Scotto’s where the staff know their wines, and are as comfortable talking about fairly mainstream wines as they are about biodynamics.
Jay is the only employee with a beard, and in no way can it be described as a New Brooklyn Dude Beard– though he’s at least as knowledgable as the average wine store employee that might sport the NBDB, he’s got zero pretension. And if you tried to give Jay a wedgie, I’m guessing you’d be in serious trouble.
It’s a store that cultivates direct relationships with local winemakers like Brooklyn Oeneology and Shinn Vineyards and also has no problem selling Apothic Red (possibly the worst wine I’ve ever tasted) or ass pockets of Popov. In a lot of ways it’s a pretty shining example of what makes Carroll Gardens so liveable.
But enough gushing. I want to focus on Scotto’s private label wines, as they have a few. Generally they sell in the $20-$30 range, which is aggressive given that the wines obviously have no cache outside the walls of the store. In addition to the Court Street Red, the store’s flagship Sangiovese bled, there is plenty of experimentation. To my knowledge, everything is sourced from Sonoma.
The Finnegan James, I believe named after James’ uncle (sorry, I take lousy notes), sourced from a single location at Grebennikof Vineyards, is 100% cabernet sauvignon, at $20. I am extremely hard to please with California cab at this price range as I’m not huge on Cabs in general and it’s hard for me to find what I like from California at any price below $30. It’s a 2006 that has signs of development, it’s still a rich ruby, and the wine has an alluring fragrance of mint, thyme, kafir basil, and eucalyptus. The finish was supple. I liked the wine, especially for the price, which again is remarkable given that this really isn’t my style of wine and in general the large California section at Scotto’s has sometimes led me astray.
Next up was the 2007 Court Street Red, Jay’s Blend, from the iconoclastic H. Coturri & Sons, which I believe neighbors Grebennikof. Does the Scotto’s crew make any overt fuss whatsoever about natural wine? Not much, in my experience. They’re just not “that kind” of Brooklyn people. But the Jay’s Blend is by no means the only of their private label wines tofeature no SO2 inoculation with sulfites, no yeast cultures, no use of concentrates to boost sweetness, no added water, no acids… etc. And the Jay’s Blend is just a big fat grape of funky weirdness. 75% merlot, 25% zinfandel, at least the zin underwent some degree of botrytis. Yep, you heard that right! A red table wine that is partially subject to noble rot. It’s a big, strange wine. The sweetness and zesty fruit that you’d expect from a California zin have an additional layer of fungal plastic alien chanteuse… I didn’t love it the first night but it’s the kind of wine that does perfectly well as the family moves into the TV room and transitions into chocolate. I think this one floats for about $24 but you’ll have to stop in on James, Jay, Liana and the crew just to make sure.
And you know what? Maybe you should!
August 13, 2012 § Leave a Comment
There are neighboring towns on Rt. 1 in coastal Maine that couldn’t be more different from each other, even though they are separated by just a few spits of tobacco and a couple of frighteningly dated motels. Like: Camden (drafty and grand captain homes, staggering heating bills that go unnoticed; a marina trolled by 90 foot yachts owned by investors who just traded your distressed mortgage to one another without even knowing your address) vs. Rockland (working fishing town, bank customers frequently witnessed conducting financial affairs with two slices of sausage pizza in a single beefy hand, no shirt, rubber boots, and a pair of jeans that start half way down the ass-crack). Both towns are a complete joy to visit; they’re just very different from one another. You can see this kind of contrast all over the world, or even in a single home, among siblings.
It’s true about wine, too. As region, appellation, varietal, and even terroir converge, flavor differences become harder to explain. It has become a truism that the best a winemaker can do is simply stand back and allow his or her vine and terroir to speak for themselves: “non-intervention.” Coincident with the fall of modernism, passivity is extolled as a virtue. As winemakers gain mastery, they speak of a heightened ability to “listen” to their vineyards. But what happens when the same terroir says different things to different people?
Why are all the kaki-pants one-percenters hobnobbing in Camden while all those gorgeously flabby ass-cracks are peaking over Levi 501s to say “hello theya” to each other just down the coast in Rockland?
To delve my pallete into this mystery, I checked out the Blue Hill Wineshop, in neutral territory, just downeast of the Camden/Rockland dichotomy on the Penboscot Penninsula in Blue Hill, Maine.
During a late afternoon in peak season, there were easily 4 or 5 times the number of customers as might be found even in a well-located store on a solid evening in Manhattan or Brooklyn. It doesn’t hurt that wine stores in Maine can also sell cheese and other delectibles, and even serve tea or coffee on premise (or whatever else they choose, so long as it’s not cooked in one of the dozen of double-wide meth labs that spot the landscape). When executed correctly, this kind of retail flexibility can really pay dividends, turning a wine store into the kind of community-anchor hang-out that lonely wine purveyers can only dream about on a desserted mid-summer day in New York.
When Max Treitler was a New Yorker, life was more about music than wine. He settled in Blue Hill, within earshot of the chamber music woodland splender of Kneisel Hall, and bought and eventually expanded the Blue Hill Wineshop to the remarkable hub that it is today. The selection is impressive, especially given the limited number of SKUs available in the state of Maine (a situation that has vastly improved in the last few years, thanks to the rise of a new generation in-state distributors like SoPo, Easterly Wines, Mariner Beverages, and Crush Distributors).
Max himself was far too busy to be pestered when I came in with my “different as brothers” challenge. But artist-turned-wine-seller Jetson Penkowsky set to the task. Before long we decided on two Puilly Fumé that Jetson believed would present some interesting contrasts.
Immediately, I looked forward to the opportunity to compare the wines, since Sauvignon Blanc is so recognizably itself, so distinctive in its characteristics: pungeant, flinty, aggressive. And at the same time, producers of Pouilly Fumé are known for their range of expression.
Pouilly Fumé, Vielles Vignes, Régis Minet (2010). Pouilly-sur-Loire, 13%, $24. Imp. Kermit Lynch.
Pouilly Fumé, Domaine de Bel Air (2010). Pouilly-sur-Loire, 13%. $24. Imp. Wine Traditions, Ltd.
These are wines of the same sub-region, vintage, varietal, alcohol content, and price, by producers with an equal commitment to quality and typicity. Lynch records that Régis’s 12 hectares “sit at 750 feet, surrounded by hills on the far east of the Loire River, and centered proudly on the prized limestone and clay of the Kimmeridgian chain.” Bel Air also consists of 12 hectares of hillside vineyard on top of Kimmeridgian clay, and both domaines are third generation. Both winemakers are dedicated to the practice of non-intervention. How different are their expressions of this grape, in this style, in this location?
The Domaine de Bel Air promised far more on the nose. Honey, mountain laurel, spring grass, and distant smoke allowed me to frolic on the hillside with Julie Andrews for a pleasant moment. When the wine hit my palette, our romp was rudely interrupted by the sisters of the convent, or perhaps that virulent Nazi youth who had designs on the eldest Van Trapp daughter. Pink grapefruit that on the first and third tasting struck me as assertive but on the second and fourth tasting as astringent. Almost caustically acidic. Few of the floral, honey or fruit notes came through. Julie Andrews disappeared in a cloud of gun smoke. The wine showed well against grilled sockeye, grilled eggplant, and salad, but the bottle did not beg to be emptied.
The Régis Minet was less generous in armoa, but it had a lot more to offer in flavor: creaminess, stone fruit, tropicana, and citrus in addition to the grass and smoke. It was equally food-friendly, holding up amply to steamed clams on fennel, and also a bit easier to spend time with as the night progressed.
Yes, the wines are noticeably different. On the whole, though, locating the contrasts between the wines was a sublte exercise. Neither was clearly superior, and both showed plenty of typicity; pungeant and flinty are words that could easily be applied. Perhaps not as different as Rockland and Camden, then, but the distinctions were entertaining to consider.
August 3, 2012 § 1 Comment
A few months ago, the Wine Spectator dedicated an issue to California Chardonnay. I was struck by how often the adjective “Burgundian” was used to signal a nod of approval to this or that winemaker’s approach. ”Burgundian” came up so often it was almost like a nervous tick of the editing staff, and it’s a strange choice of words in a feature that is supposed to be celebrating the glories of California. If we are to believe WS, all of California has been overrun by Frenchmen of the Eastern Kingdom, and moreover, this is something to celebrate.
What WS was trying to signal, we all know, is many winemakers’ movement away from the crutches that limited the wines in the past: excessive (and sometimes cheaply rendered) oak, malolactic fermentation run amok, a resulting muted acidity, and a general flabbiness that matches nicely with the average American’s midriff (not mine, though — and heavens, not yours). In contrast, many Chardonnays are now being made in a style that is associated with the Cote d’Or and even Chablis: nervous, sharp wines of high acidity and a more subtle array of palette attributes: minerality, white peach.
If WS’s overall message was that California Chardonnays have advanced in quality, that’s great. But particularly in an era when we celebrate each region’s individuality — and particularly when the subject is a varietal such as Chard that is famously adaptable and subject to the vagaries of localism — should we really be couching our approval in words of imitation? Should we, Wine Spectator?! If that’s really your name…
LET CALI BE CALI.
In my continuing effort to advance my own reputation by taking cheap shots at the giants of wine commentary, I set out to find some mid-priced California wines that demonstrate recent advances in winemaking technique but that are unabashedly Californian. And particularly I focused on the grapes that are… what’s the word? Oh right, Burgundian. This includes Chardonnay but also of course Pinot Noir, a varietal that is far less adaptable to differing climates and winemaking styles.
I live in New York. It’s difficult for New Yorkers to remind ourselves that California exists, because it’s so much more pleasant in nearly every way than this festering stinkbox of humidity and exhaust. For wine geeks in New York, it’s also easier to pine away for the fading, rustic glories of the Northern Rhone than to acknowledge the resplendent beauty of Sonoma. What I’m trying to say is that we ignore Californian wine more than we should. We’d rather talk about all four acres of vineyard currently planted in the Hudson valley (unfair, I know. But still…). This means that it would be incredibly difficult to find a wine store with a really credible depth of Californian wine in this city if it weren’t for….
Thank heavens for Jenny Frank and Taylor Senatore! In the depths of 2008, just when we soul-rotted New Yorkers were wallowing in the filth of our own excess, Jenny and Frank opened California Wine Merchants, a wine shop dedicated almost exclusively to Californian wines. And they didn’t open it just anywhere: they staked a flag right in the ground on Bridge Street, in the financial district, around the corner from Bowling Green. You could throw a bottle out the front door and it would probably hit a Bordeaux-addled trader on Wall Street.
Jenny and Taylor knew exactly what I was going for: a handful of wines that were evolved but defiantly Californian. We started with the 2010 Lioco Chardonnay (Sonoma County, $23.99). Crisp? Yes. Acidity? Front and center. But the flavors were a disciplined explosion of banana, ripe pear, lime, and other luscious fruits that find little expression in Burgundy. It’s a terrific food wine and has more than enough personality to stand on its own.
Pinot Noir is extremely tricky territory in California, especially since the wines will inevitably be compared to PN’s more comfortable expression just north in Oregon. While Chardonnay can rightfully be called Chardonnay wherever it is grown and in whatever style, is a jammy, full-bodied pinot still pinot? Is there any way to go besides Burgundian elegance? I don’t drink much Californian pinot and at first I was simply off-put by the viscosity, the alcohol and the fruit in the La Follette Pinot Noir (North Coast, $24.99). The Lafolette does have plenty of acidity, which immediately puts it ahead of many in its class, but on my first taste I found the acid to be simply working against the fruit, rather than holding it up. I found the wine disjointed. La Follette had a much better showing on day 2: more restraint, more unity. The black fruit started to show up a little more. There wasn’t a ton of depth here, but then again how many wines from Burgundy will show much interest in the $25 range?
This really leads to a broader point, one that is central to the problem with New York’s indifferent attitude to Californian wine. It relates to value. There is a perception that California does not provide as good a value as much of the old world. And it’s certainly true that $10 will get you far more from the Duoro, Sicily, or even Chianti or the Languedoc than it will get you from California. For my taste, too, $70+ wines from Burgundy or Piedmont are going to win out every time. But in the mid-range, I think California is extremely underrated for value. Between $15 to $25, there is a lot of really interesting selection that is poorly represented in most New York stores– and it’s just in this range that California Wine Merchants truly excels.
One final wine worth mention: during my last visit, John Bick from Michael Skurnik was serving up a few selections from their California portfolio (they carry the Lioco, in fact). The Heron Merlot (Mendocino County, 2010) at $13.99 happily undercuts my poo-poo of low-bracket wine from California. It also challenges a few notions I have of pure-bred Californian Merlot. The wine had surprising structure, medium-body, and definite length. I would put the Heron against anything from Chianti in that price range.
(Taylor’s dog Maddy, making sure the raccoon is well and truly dead– all because he doubted California value).
Definitely check out California Wine Merchants next time you are downtown, or, if you’re afraid of the raccoon treatment from Maddy, online.
July 31, 2012 § Leave a Comment
In honor of this week’s major scandal arising from the discovery that New Yorker staff writer Jonah Lehrer fabricated numerous facts and quotes in his recently-published book Imagine — a story I find delicious as Lehrer is younger than me, and was, at least until today, infinitely more successful — I have decided to celebrate with my own act of extreme journalistic unprofessionalism.
I am piggybacking right onto today’s New York Times article by Eric Asimov, Lambrusco Wants You Back. But are we ready to be taken back? And by whom? Let’s find out…
A few facts in the article caught my interest, including that traditional Lambruscos undergo their secondary fermentation — the interaction of yeast and sugar that gives sparklers their sparkle — in bottle. This is how things are done in Champagne. After fermentation is complete, such wines continue to age in bottle along with the expended yeast cells (or “lees”), giving Champagne its much-coveted complexity (frequently described as hinting at baked bread). In contrast, Prosecco, as well as most Lambruscos, generally undergo secondary fermentation in tank and are then bottled under pressure. The process is simpler, cheaper, and yields the kind of clean libation that is appreciated by avid Prosecco drinkers.
However Lambrusco is made, the fizzy red from Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region is a refreshing thirst-quencher, allegedly perfect for mid-summer, and Asimov reviewed ten bottles, all under $27.
Here was my big idea: I’d scurry to the best Italian wine store in New York, find a Lambrusco that was even better than anything Asimov reviewed, write about it, amaze the world with my resourcefulness, and thereby steal his job.
Finding the best Italian wine store in New York was the easy part: Italian Wine Merchants, located at 108 East 16th Street, just off of Union Square in Manhattan.
While the store is no longer directly related to the Bastianich-Batali empire, under the continued stewardship of Sergio Esposito, IWM’s preeminence on all vinous matters Italian (and, increasingly, French) is well-known. By far, most of IWM’s wine trade is dedicated to providing extremely valuable wines to extremely wealthy customers. Wines by the truckload are brought out to the Hamptons in temperature-controlled vans, shipped carefully to Aspen mountain castles, and white-gloved into Tribeca penthouses. And needless to say, they happily ship their fine wines to humbler residences, though you probably won’t be opening a box with one of these….
IWM also has a terrific, temperature-controlled showroom, an even more extremely temperature-controlled tasting celler, with some of the store’s finest bottles, and an exquisite room for tastings and other events.
Although the store’s selection of approximately 200 Italian bottles is predictably outstanding (a far wider, and even more outstanding, selection is available to big spenders), I was surprised to learn from Camacho Vidal, the Senior Wine Portfolio Manager, that they carried only one Lambrusco. Sergio’s perfectionism is infamous, and in any given year, he only carries what he finds to be truly remarkable. As it happens, only one Lambrusco made the list this year.
Perfect, I thought. Something rare, outstanding, and reasonably priced with which to crush Eric Asimov’s reputation!
Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro Pruno Nero ($16).
If the name looks familiar, it is because it appears in Asimov’s article. It also happens to be his number one pick.
Not great for my plans to de-throne Asimov, but a clear endorsement for Sergio and the staff at IWM. Even better, though Asimov lists the wine at $18, it can be had at Italian Wine Merchants for $16.
Is it worth it? I am not generally enthusiastic about Lambruscos, and for none of the reasons commonly cited: it’s not because I associate the wine with the wine cooler junk that was glugg-glugged down the gullets of the American public in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s; it’s not because of the “fear factor” Asimov suggests might keep would-be drinkers from sharing this style of wine with less open-minded friends.
Generally speaking? I’ve just never liked it. Yes, I’ve had Lambruscos that were made with an eye toward quality. And yes, I’ve usually found even those specimens just a touch too sweet and/or not very interesting. The question today is whether I can find interest in the Lambrusco that both Eric Asimov and Sergio Esposito found satisfying. Am I that impossibly, loathsomely uppity? Will nothing please me?
First, the good news: this Lambrusco succeeds in nearly every way I’ve found other Lambruscos to be lacking. It is dry. It is, as Asimov described, “fruity yet balanced.” But I’m stumped to say anything else about it. While I certainly did find the wine to be a pleasing thirst quencher, I’m uncompelled to fall lovingly back into Lambrusco’s needy arms. Why? Even for a simple wine, it’s just a little too simple for me. One of the things I love about Cru Beaujolais, or even, for instance, the Spanish Trepat we tried a few weeks ago, is that yes, the wines are refreshing and uncomplicated, but I would never call them one dimensional or simple. Even as they allow themselves to be poured down your gullet, they take the time to remind you of what’s remarkable about the best wines. They have layers, they have depth. They tap the table lightly with soft palms, just to remind you of how deep into the ground the vines had to go to find their nourishment. There is finish.
I can’t say I find those qualities in the Lambrusco. And even though my brother and I were happy to polish the wine off, it didn’t quite measure up to others sparklers — say, a terrifically priced Cava or Txacoli — in the headiness factor.
Fortunately, I came away from IWM with a superb 2010 Rosso di Montalcino from Canalicchio di Sopra, far more generous in depth and intensity than its $26 price tag would suggest. I will definitely be back to the store: for the wines, to chat with the outstandingly pleasant and professional Chamacho, and, of course, for the wine elevator.
Oh, right. At Italian Wine Merchants, the wine you go home with doesn’t get manhandled first by other lowly walk-in customers. When you’re ready to leave, your bottles are sent up by dummy waiter from the cellar, and arrive at a pleasing 55 F.
I’ll take one of those for my next house, please.
July 25, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Are wine stores like movies? I mean the kind shown in limited-release theaters filled with the sound of knowing chuckles from gray-haired audience members, and from liberal arts graduates even if they don’t have gray hair, the kind of people who are grateful that the concession carries espresso, even though no one actually orders the espresso because they’re all worried about insomnia, and/or about missing key but very subtle plot points because they’ll have to go to the bathroom, because they’ve always had bladders that are unusually…
Where was I? Oh, right: are wine stores the product of an “auteur”? It’s probably the same answer we arrived at after 3 hours of excrutiatingly pedantic “auteur” argument in my Fellini class in college a hundred years ago: sometimes.
At Frankly Wines, at 66 West Broadway just below Warren Street in Manhattan, you know you are in a place that is the genuine article: a full manifestation of its owner’s essence. If you are fortunate enough to have ever read Christy Frank’s Frankly My Dear musings about the trials and glories of owning a wine shop, you will know that she is nothing if not quirky, creative, and engaging. And you’ll also know that she harbors all of those personal traits unrelentingly in an effort to get you to buy more wine, a noble pursuit indeed.
Exhibit A: the back wall splash. Who in their right mind takes the time — 30 hours, apparently — to painstakingly inset 15,000 corks into the wall? What makes this triumph of a display even wilder is that the store is otherwise refreshingly unfussy: hand-written shelf talkers (“Only Mean People Won’t Like This Wine”), utilitarian shelving, a mysterious stack of inflated angry fish balloons in the corner.
Exhibit B: the wines. With space for only 150 or so wines, Christy is constantly pressured to make tough choices on inventory. And every choice she’s made is fresh, interesting, and, yes, quirky. ”Quirky” is a word that I wrote in my notes even before dropping in for a visit, and it’s a word that, perhaps not coincidentally, Christy used to describe the character of many of her wines.
An entire row of Jura wines? Is that really necessary? But every bottle has a story. And, yes, every wine you will find here is itself the kind of wine that no doubt reflects the personality of the winemaker.
Frankly Wines also has a section of the store devoted to no particular region at all, or rather the absence of region: the Mystery Wine section, where every bottle is wrapped in an unmarked white paper bag (Q: What kind of person buys mystery wines? A: “Two kinds of people. People who love surprises and people who can’t make up their minds.”).
I am both of those types of people, and I was assured the wines are fantastic picks, but I would not be swayed. I am determined to confront every wine store with a tough situation to test its staff’s creativity and resources in finding an appropriate wine to pair.
I just came back into town from Maine. The rest of my family is still up there. I’m alone at home, borderline depressed, borderline liberated, hungry, and desperate for fridge scraps: canned herring roe from Ikea which I might throw into a pasta with garlic and onion and lemon peel and limp week-old parsley, a chunk of parmasen which I’ll probably just eat in big bites like it’s Cracker Barrel, and whatever else I can find.
True to her quirky nature, Christy sort of took me through 2. Or 3, if you include the very interesting Fravolato by Gurrieri in Sicily (Nero D’Avola, Frappato), a light-bodied red, all full of tart fruit and pepper, that buys way more personality and liveliness than you’d expect for $18+.
But the wine we finally decided as the right wine for the situation was:
“Le Battistelle,” Soave Classico, Montesei (Italy, $16).
If you haven’t yet clued into the quality that is now coming out of Soave, is there any hope for you?
Maybe not, but there’s definitely hope for me and my barren fridge. While every bit as dry and acidic as you’d expect from a Soave, the Montesei has a lot more roundness than you’d expect. There is a pronounced nuttiness that makes this an extremely food friendly wine. The citrus is rounded, almost on a preserved or candied note. There’s a creaminess here that would put California Chardonnay drinkers at ease, but there’s also some exotic fruit. This is a wine that will find a home with my parmesan chunk and also with my Ikea herring roe pasta monstrosity.
Frankly Wines has got these wines for sale on her user-friendly website, but a trip to her store is called for. You don’t need to see the new Woody movie, since it’s probably a lot like the last one. Take a trip to auteur land by coming to Frankly Wines instead. Embrace the Quirk.
July 21, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Many of us would love nothing better than to spend the rest of our days shuffling aimlessly around a 453 square foot wine store being slowly poisoned to death with free quaffs of biodynamic Quincy served by a 37 year old wine store owner with crumbs of raw cheese cascading down his/her turtleneck sweater (that describes me, by the way, except I’m not quite 37, I don’t don the cashmere until at least the third week of August, and I don’t own a store (yet)).
But unless you’re the kind of person who never leaves your Precious-Brooklyn/One-Percent-Manhattan zip code, there are going to be a whole lot of times when you shop for wine in a massive, linoleum-floored, non-compact florescent track-lit, holy-christ-I’m-shopping-for-booze-in-a-store-that-carries-Bethany-Frankel’s-margarita-mix type place.
[footnote: it really pains me to say this on a few levels but I tried that stuff (ouch) and even at room temperature (ouch) you now what? It wasnt nearly as bad as you’d expect (ouch))].
And if you’re really lucky, the store is owned by the state and the employees won’t say anything to you unless their collective bargaining agreement says they have to.
So there I was on Wednesday night, 8:58 pm at the last store in New Hampshire before the Fun begins in Maine. There were the unionized employees, growling at me that I wasn’t welcome to come in unless I knew exactly what I wanted. There, also, were my two young sons, running wildly down the aisles screaming murder an hour past bedtime, and there was my wife and newborn daughter getting chewed alive by mosquitos in the sweltering parking lot. I had this idea in my head that if I bought the wrong bottle, this very scene would become my real life and I’d spend every night of my life EXACTLY LIKE THIS until the night my daughter would leave the house in handcuffs and mascara at age fourteen.
So I wanted to pick carefully. But I didn’t ask for the kind of advice this blog is supposed to be dedicated to because (1) I already assured the unionized employee I knew what I wanted, so he would let me in, (2) I’m an elitest jerk, and (3) there is a better than decent chance my elitest prejudices are correct and none of the employees have ever tasted any liquid, ever, other than Natty Light. Since before they were born. And (4) this is already the second post, is it really too early to deviate from the blog’s narrative theme? I think not….
The thing about these New Hampshire stores is that their prices aren’t competitive but there is no sales tax and while the bottles were all cooked to 100 degrees during the last union strike, the inventory is massive.
Domaine Tempier Rose, Bandol, 2011 $35. This may cost me even more credibility than my Bethany Frankel admission, but I’ve never had this iconic Kermit Lynch selection. Who spends more than $20 on rose? But it was worth it to put a palette experience to all those romantic stories about the Peyrauds, so I willingly sprung for it. Prim when opened and over-chilled, but time and temperature brought out an enchanting if not unexpected duet of minerality and tart red fruit. A touch more charm and character than you will otherwise get from a solid player from the Provencal bench, but is it really worth the premium over the charismatic and thankfully omnipresent Commanderie Peyrassaul, with its defiant acidity and fabulous, waxed abdominals and pectorals? Or the Commanderie’s even more impressive and sharply mineral elder brother, the Chateau Peyrasaul? I wonder…
M. Chapoutier Petite Ruche, Crozes-Hermitage, 2009 $24. Dare I expect much from a Crozes-Hermitage in the mid-20’s? And even accepting that Chapoutier is usually dependable, what kind of an asshole opens up a 2009 like this on day 3? And then writes about it? The wine is like fresh tobacco leaves and green huckleberries jammed into a saucisson by a malicious bandit of the Northern Rhone who has learned to chew and spit, NH style, after too many years in Manchester. It is full-bodied. And actually I kind of like it though I feel like a pedophile since it really shouldn’t have been opened for 4 years. Not like it would have been any great masterpiece. But certainly a good value. I will say this: this wine is an adventure into a a level of intensity and interest that usually doesn’t show itself in the mid-20 range, particularly from this appellation.
So If you find yourself near closing time at the New Hampshire liquor store, tell them you know what you want. Just don’t tell them you have anything to do with the guy with the 2 screaming boys and the wife nursing a newborn in the parking lot. Since I probably didn’t pick the right bottles, I may well be at the store during your visit…
July 17, 2012 § Leave a Comment
For this premier WineShopTalk post, everyone surely wants to know what a store with nearly unlimited inventory firepower could offer me as a featured mid-summer selection. Obviously, then, we will be looking at a store with thousands of square feet of retail space, legions of knowledgable staff, and separate buyers for every region, right?
Nope. Instead I visited a place with a near maniacal focus: a single country of origin. A whole store with wine from only one among the dozens of excellent producing countries? Must be one of the big boys, then, right? France? Italy? Germany, at least?
Nope. Spain. The country that witnessed such a tumultous 20th century that many of its wine regions spent the better part of the past 80 years lying fallow, and the better part of the last 30 years playing catch-up. Basically we’re talking about the backwoods of western Mediterranean Europe, or at least as far backwoods as western Mediterranean Europe allows.
The store is Tinto Fino, located at 1st Avenue and 5th Street in Manhattan. The obsession is Spanish wine.
And the concern, finally, is obvious: can a store with such a limited and unusual focus fully serve a customer’s needs? The store has about 250 wines with a strong showing from the many regions of Spain that have virtually no name recognition in the United States. A mesmerizing rack of sherries, some of which are unfiltered and/or released on a extremely limited basis, greets you at the front door to inform you that you are entering Iberian sacred space. But look in vain for a salmon Provencal rose or a cool summer Soave.
To test the store’s chops, I came at owner Kerin Auth and sales manager Brett Helms with the kind of real-world situation that calls for astute wine pairing. Since it’s too easy to approach with a food magazine recipe reverse-engineered to go with a ‘hot topic’ varietal, I described the kind of vague, messy, mixed-grill sort of meal that most of us here in the real world usually settle for when the cameras aren’t rolling: “Mid-summer, upstate, riverside grilling on charcoal… probably some fresh-caught trout, a ribeye, some corn, maybe a salad, a few grilled peaches.”
Will the country so strongly associated with severely oaked Riojas and rich, spicy Priorats represent in a predictable fashion?
Nope. Brett showed an immense amount of creativity and real-world awareness in offering a wine on the exact opposite end of the spectrum, a wine that showcases perfectly the unheralded orginality and dynamism of Spain’s wine culture.
Josep Forester Trepat 2010, Montblanc, Conca de Barbera.
From 120 km west of Barcelona in Catalunya, this wine is made from 100% Trepat.
Your eyes deceive: this is not a rose, although that is what the local varietal of Trepat is usually reserved for (cava too) when its roots aren’t being yanked up to make way for more internationally recognized alternatives. You’re looking at a red made by one of only two winemakers who use Trepat for this purpose. Fermented from natural yeasts at a relatively chilly 20º Centigrade, the Foraster Trepat is surprisingly ruby for a light wine — almost hinting at garnet, although you can’t really tell from the photo. It has rasberry and a little apple grape on the nose but then a whole host of earthy notes you wouldn’t expect: moss, wood smoke, a little sweet spice. There is the kind of outrageously fresh natural acidity you would expect from a region fully exposed to the Mediteranean (compare Conca de Barbara with Priorat, which is shielded by the Prades) and though it’s certainly dry, a nice chill be welcome, so long as it isn’t so extreme as to dampen the wine’s lovely seaside forest finish.
And it’s here Brett’s astuteness is apparent (I paraphrase heavily): “frequently you will see experts pairing big, full-bodied, luscious wines with barbecue, presumably to compete with heavy char and sweet-spice thick sauces. I don’t think that reflects the reality of how most of us barbecue: just as you suggested, a pretty broad mix of veggies, fish and meat, often with few sauces. And the temperature is usually high, which easily calls for something more refreshing.”
With the Trepat, you get a bright acidity that cuts through any fat but also plays with sufficient delicacy against the other components of the meal. What’s even better, the wine’s gripping ash and minerality are a perfect play against the char you’ll get on an outdoor flame. Those qualities are what set this wine apart from Gamay and colder region Pinot Noirs — varietals to which Trepat is frequently compared — and make it a far more appropriate pairing for barbecue.
Tinto Fino sells the wine for $24. While a new website for the store is in the works, I’d recommend you stop by or give Brett a call ((212) 254-0850) to try this one out.
I hope every WineShopTalk is as enriching as this first one: I got some intelligence not only about the potential of Trepat but also a fresh way to think about pairing for al fresca dining.