December 17, 2009

Support for a Theory

The 2005 vintage of the Confuron-Cotetidot Vosne-Romanee smelled of woodsmoke and plum skins. It also had an odd, meaty note that I don't usually associate with Pinot. In the mouth, it was tart cherry fruit and peppery spice with a big, green-tinged tannic bite on the finish.

Given the growing conditions of the vintage, I expected ripe, maybe even over-ripe, fruit. I read somewhere that the high tannin levels in the 05s might be an issue. This bottle suggests that's true.

But it was remarkable to drink this next to the 2001. It was so clearly a younger relation. The wines had nearly identical structure, similar linear elements, common aromas and flavors.

Surely there's a big clue about terroir in those shared traits.

And in the differences.

December 13, 2009

An Education

As I mentioned, I was a little apprehensive opening the next installment of the Evolution (Red) series. The last bottle drank older than its years. I feared the 2001 vintage was set for early expiration.

So it was a startling epiphany when I tasted 2001 Vosne-Romanée last night.

The wine was really good. Way better than the last one.

All the architecture was there. But more fruit. Denser, more approachable. Stewed fruit, blackboard chalk, grape stems, white pepper and sandalwood on the nose. On the palate, tart cherry, allspice, leather, minerals and mocha.

I don't know if the last bottle was flawed, if slightly...

The Confurons have been vignerons for more than three centuries. More recently (80s), Jacky Confuron used careful vineyard management, grape selection and punched down the cap with his feet and so developed a reputation for making highly structured, old-school wines. More recently still (now), his sons Yves and Jean-Pierre have taken the helm but have continued making wines like Dad. The vineyards have NEVER seen pesticides, not even when this was fashionable. Vines are old. Yields are low. The wines have a reputation for their ability to age.

So maybe this wine is just coming into its own.

I've got nine to go. So I sure hope so.

I'll make good on my compare/contrast 2001 and 2005 tomorrow.

December 12, 2009

EVOLUTION 3.5: Better Late Than Never

The combination of my summer illness and the protracted negotiations regarding our TARP repayment has delayed the next installment in the Lab's EVOLUTION series. We're overdue to taste the next red.

Some of you may remember that the last time we drank one of the reds from our long duration experiment, 2001 Confuron-Cotetidot Vosne-Romanée, we drank it alongside an older vintage, a bottle from 1988. This time we thought we'd go the other way -- mostly because I happened to find a 2005 at a wineshop in town.

I'll admit, I'm a little nervous about this bottle. The last one seemed to be giving up the ghost (or at least the fruit).

Stay tuned.

November 23, 2009

Dreading Zeus

Good name for a band.

But in this instance, I've merely given a peculiar title to a phenomenon I know all serious wine wankers have experienced.

You put a bottle in the fridge, not because you want to drink it, but because you don't want to cellar it. And now it's there. Taking up space.

Maybe you tasted the wine and it was just okay. But you bought two. Maybe you know it's a challenging wine. No matter the reason, you aren't excited about drinking it. So it just sits there. Taunting you from the back of the fridge.

There has been such a bottle in the fridge in the Lab break-room for some time now.

It's a very strange wine. Colere de Zeus from Julian Courtois, 2001, a mix of Menu Pineau and Sauvignon Blanc. I don't know exactly when it became my personal albatross. But it's been in there a while. I decided last night, it would taunt me no longer.

So after everyone left for the day, I pulled it from the fridge and opened it.

I watched a pale yellow wine turn deep amber. I mean, I am literally watching as this oxygen-inspired transformation takes place in the glass. It takes about 2 minutes for the wine to travel from the color of pale straw to a coppery hue. It smells of tuberose, honey and gum tree. It tastes like you smashed apricots into juice with big, granite rocks.

I don't know why I waited so long to drink this.

November 15, 2009

A Second Date

When I first tasted Phifer-Pavitt's Date Night Cabernet Sauvignon, I was impressed. That was a year ago. With the second release of this wine, the 2006 vintage, I think I might be falling in love.

Me and a California Cab? It's Montague and Capulet. I'm a Jet; this beauty's a Shark. This can't be.

But Date Night is made from a single, organically farmed vineyard in Napa's Pope Valley. The grapes are hand-picked before undergoing a wild yeast ferment. The wine isn't over manipulated. The goal of the wine-making is to express the site.

What's star-crossed about that?

The wine itself is beautiful. It has a bright, complex and perfumed nose of cherry confiture, pomegranate juice, stewed plums, allspice and cafe au lait. It shows elegant balance and pure fruit on the palate. Like the inaugural vintage, it is remarkably linear. And the dark chocolate and crushed rocks finish lingers long enough to make the 3rd date.

This could be the start of something serious.

November 12, 2009

A Big Waste of Time

As regular readers know, we recently dug three wines out of their variegated resting places. One from the Lab's cellar. One from my closet. And one that ended up wedged behind a stack of Cup-O-Noodles in the Lab breakroom.

The wine we're testing is a Cabernet Franc from Philippe Delesvaux. As we've written previously, Delesvaux started out as a kind of Loire Valley garagiste producing his first vintage (1983) in a shed. He now has 35 hectares of biodynamically managed vineyards and makes his wines in a natural, non-interventionist mode. He is most famous for his usually overpriced Sélection de Grains Nobles Coteaux du Layon, a botrytised Chenin Blanc. He should be famous (but isn't) for his lavishly underpriced 100% Cabernet Sauvignon Anjou La Montee de L’Epine.

We tasted the three bottles blind. The results were surprising indeed.

Bottles #1 and #2 were nearly identical. The nose was harsh, almost astringent, with a noxious perfumy mix of dark fruit and menthol. Bottle #3, however, smelled of smoky blueberries and espresso with hints of white pepper. The first two tasted like they smelled, sharp and bitter. The alcohol imbalance dried the tongue. Bottle #3 was less sharp, less bitter. The minerality was more pronounced and their was a distinctive mocha flavor (barrel effect) on the finish.

In truth, the results verged on irrelevant. Because I didn't like any of these. Even the "better" bottle was too bitter and too austere to drink, even with food. And if this 3rd bottle was, in fact, the carefully cellared bottle, the improvement wouldn't justify the refrigeration expense.

Before we revealed the three bottles my hypothesis was that bottle #3 was either the cellared bottle or the bottle from the kitchen. My thinking was that either the whole cult of 57 degrees (roughly the average temperature of a basement in France) was actually beneficial. Or that the warm, but relatively constant, temperature of the kitchen might have accelerated aging and improved the wine.

Wrong on both counts. The winner was bottle #2, the one that spent the past 15 months with my shoes.

Sometimes science is mystifying.

November 11, 2009

What A Difference A Year Makes?

More than a year ago, the Lab set out on a bold experiment in patience. We stored three bottles of the same wine in very different circumstances. We stored one in pristine, 57 degree, cellar conditions. We stored one in the bottom of my closet. And we left the third in the Lab break room with a "Do Not Drink" note taped to the label.

We planned to leave them in storage for a year and then taste the wines blind to see how each fared under these circumstances.

But we forgot about them, and now it's been more than 15 months. Time to realize the results of our experimental efforts.

One of the interns pointed out that wine years are sort of the opposite of dog years. After pointing out that unpaid volunteers aren't supposed to speak during our weekly meetings, I asked what he meant by that. I'm still not sure, and I have ordered a review our Cost Cutting & Productivity initiatives. The interns are really nice, but collectively... not a lot of lights burning brightly. We might need to rehire some actual scientists.

In any case, I think what he was trying to get at was the idea that storing a wine for a year is but a blip in wine-time. Oenophiles aren't quite geologists when it comes to measuring the march of the calendar. But if collectors will still pay top dollar for a fifty-year-old Bordeaux (48-years-old anyway), what difference does a year make?

It's a fair point.

But we're tasting the wine tomorrow anyway.

November 3, 2009

Old School, Oak Style

Today, an old school experiment. A straightforward investigation into wood; oak, in particular.

Stephen Ross Dooley is a Central Coast négociant who specializes in (mostly) single-vineyard Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. He produces wines under the Stephen Ross Wine label. Among these is a Chardonnay made from "four rows from Block J at Bien Nacido Vineyard" in the Santa Maria Valley.

In 2006, the Bien Nacido Chardonnay was bottled in two formats. One was barrel fermented (33% new French oak, the rest once-used barrels). The other -- designated methode moderne -- was fermented in stainless steel and saw no oak at all.

We drank the two wines side by side.

The differences were stark and started as soon as the wine hit the glass. The oaked wine was a deeper, richer yellow. The moderne wine was pale, with shimmering hints of green. The differences continued on the nose. The oaked wine had a faint vanilla tinge. The moderne offered brighter floral and citrus aromatics. Both showed a similar, pastry dough, evidence of malolactic fermentation.

On the palate, the moderne was racy. The acidity was nervy and biting. There was a strong mineral element throughout, though strongest on the attack and then again on the long finish. The fresh apple and nectarine flavors were like biting into crisp, just under-ripe fruit. The oaked wine, meanwhile, was more subdued, but also more structured. It had greater depth, felt denser on the palate. The mineral element was significantly absent and the acidity was more controlled. It was the richer, more balanced of the two.

It's hard to pick a favorite here. I think it's more of a Rorschach thing, where the choice says more about the drinker than the drink. The wine fermented in stainless steel was untamed and wild, offering what felt like direct access to those 4 rows of Block J. But the wine from the barrel presented clear refinement and sophistication, with none of the caustic, roughness around the edges of the unruly sister.

The obvious concluding metaphor I might employ is sexist and adolescent. So I'll resist conjuring it. But here's a hint.

October 27, 2009

One Ugly Monkey

Sorry for the delay in reporting these results. I've dropped twenty pounds and am way out of drinking shape. Experiments didn't used to hurt this bad.

Moreover, Death in the Afternoon is not something to trifle with. A heady mix of absinthe and Champagne rumored to be favored by, if not actually invented by, Ernest Hemingway (who wrote a book with the same title and only spells his name with 1 "M"). The drink involves a jigger of absinthe, newly legalized, and enough iced Champagne to obtain "the proper opalescent milkiness."

Hemingway favored French. So we used a very good, if not exorbitantly priced, grower Champagne from the grand cru village of Verzenay. A non-vintage Michel Arnould & Fils Grand Cuvee Brut. For the absinthe, we opted for a hand-crafted elixir from Berkeley, California called St George. It may be less "traditional" but it has dense herbal aromatics, a blend of anise, fennel, verbena and citrus. It also has a cool, scary spider monkey on the label.

The first thing you notice is the licorice. The smell reaches you even before you pick up the glass. The second thing is the milky opalescence (see above). The blend of liquids seems to gain substance in the glass. On the palate, the flavors spread thickly across the tongue, like the texture of a really delicious mix of peanut butter and lighter fluid. It's beguiling. You give the green fairy a wink and smile. Because the third thing you notice is how really good this is.

The fourth thing you notice is how bad your head hurts as you wonder who's bed you've slept in.

Whether Ernest chose this as a sea-sickness cure (as Champagne was generally thought to be back in olden times), because it was delicious or because it's the most effective way to get blood alcohol levels up to toxic levels, we may never know for certain.

But be careful of the monkey. He smells nice. But he's not your friend.

October 19, 2009

I Can't Believe I Misspelled Hemingway

I was an English major for Pete's sake (until boredom forced me to drop Victorian Era Poets and change my major to Economics).

How embarrassing.

(I did at least catch the mistake myself, and then fixed it below).

October 14, 2009

What Would Hemingway Drink?

To resuscitate our occasional forays into the history of drink, we set out recently on a bold experiment, one that broadens our original experimental mission.

One might, of course, argue that this is a departure from our prior tests of pre-phylloxera vines under the Thomas Jefferson rubric, or the Julius Caesar umbrella we employed for wines made in terra cotta amphorae. You could say this is more about nostalgia, less about historical inquiry.

I wouldn't disagree. But someone told me that Hemmingway's favorite drink was something called Death in the Afternoon, and I was immediately intrigued by the name. Google told me the drink was a noxious combination of absinthe and Champagne.

I'd like to point out in advance, given my recent illness, drinking this was a really stupid idea.

But absinthe has recently made a legalized comeback (2007) and the allure of chasing in Papa's boozy footprints was too exciting to resist.

Absinthe? From the Times: "a neutral spirit infused with myriad herbs and botanicals, centering around anise, fennel and a specific type of wormwood, Artemisia absinthium, from which absinthe takes its name. This wormwood contains small amounts of thujone, a compound once thought to affect the mind. It’s understood now that hallucinations and other health issues attributed to overindulging in absinthe were more a result of alcohol poisoning due to the high alcohol content, typically 50 to 70 percent."

Details of the "experiment" up next.

October 12, 2009

I'm Back!

But I'm damaged.

And it's not just about the virus that kicked me around all summer. I'm in the throes of a deeper crisis of conscience. More about that later.

In the meantime, my apologies to the Lab Staff and their families. I know how difficult this period has been for you all.

I will endeavor to bring the Lab's operations back to their former levels. But it may take a while to get fully re-started. As many of you noted when his calendar was released, I talk almost incessantly with Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner. If he's not on the phone with Blankfein, he's calling the Lab. He's very chatty and not all that interesting. But it's going to be increasingly difficult to buy Champagne with an ever cheapening dollar, so I'm doing my part in the lobby effort. I listen to Tim ramble on about unemployment, bank reserves and the fragile housing market and then I say the same thing, "Raise rates, Tim." He tells me that it's not his call, that Ben Bernanke is in charge of stuff like that. And I point out that we both know Bernanke couldn't find inflation if it were sitting on his lap like a Cocker Spaniel -- which it is.

So stay tuned. There's a big back log of experimentation to get through.

September 3, 2009

Like Kryptonite

Thanks to everyone for the cards and wishes for speedy recovery. I should probably explain that Parvovirus is more annoying than life-threatening. So I'm very annoyed, but basically fine.

Along with low-grade fever, rash and joint pain, one of the listed symptoms of Parvovirus, or Fifth's Disease, is malaise. I seem to have malaise in spades. Not only does the ailment leave me indifferent to drinking, but when I do drink, I can literally feel the life force ebb from my system.

As a result, I've lost about 10 pounds. I'm thinking I could bottle the virus and sell it as a diet aid. Chicks in New York would pay top dollar for this stuff.

On a less entrepreneurial front, I would like to take this opportunity to apologize to the Lab staff and their families. Things will hopefully be back to normal soon. I do appreciate all the efforts to keep things going during this difficult period.

August 25, 2009


Avoid small children if you can. Especially, your own.

Off and on, for the past several weeks, I have been running a low-grade fever and been plagued with aches and soreness. On at least one occasion my fever spiked above 104 degrees (40.2 centigrade) and I was sure I was done for. Thankfully, I survived. But my condition has kept me from the Lab. The backlog of experiments is mounting.

I've discovered today that I have Parvovirus B19 which I acquired from my otherwise delightful school-age daughter.

The best part? There's no cure. You just have to wait it out and eventually your body conquers the virus. Or you get terrible anemia and need transfusions. I'm hopeful I can avoid this eventuality.

I'll let you know.

August 6, 2009

Something New: Day 2

I've always been curious about the idea that a wine that holds up on the second day is well suited for aging. It is certainly well suited to handle exposure to oxygen for 24 hours. But is this really proof of longevity? Everybody thinks so. But everybody thinks a lot of things that aren't true.

Before you start writing letters, I'm not making any claims for or against here -- unlike the controversy I started by claiming that decanters are just for show which is definitely true, and you can write all the letters you want but the facts won't change) -- I'm just expressing a curiosity on the topic.

It's a tough hypothesis to test rigorously. But regular readers know that rigor isn't actually one of The Lab's strong suits. So we'll test it in our own way.

I figured since I'm watching the evolution of the Pyramid Valley Riesling anyway, I might just add this test to the mix. So last night, I left a single glass worth of wine in the bottle -- which did require a great deal of discipline on my part. No inert gas; no pump. I just capped the bottle and put it back in the fridge.

Twenty-four hours later...

It was still brilliant. No discernible fade. The acidity was crisp and bright. The fruit luscious. If anything the aromatics had improved.

If there's any truth in this notion, this wine should hold up for the duration.

Guess we'll see about that.

And if you do write letters, please be sure to mention the Stelvin closure (screw top) because The Lab is just looking for an excuse to enter into the whole cork controversy as well.

August 5, 2009

Hello Again


It's time to check in with our Evolution programme wherein we follow a single wine for the long haul. Today we taste the white category entrant, the 2006 Pyramid Valley Vineyards Lebecca Riesling (and by "we," I mean me, hiding in my office, hoping none of the staff wander in and force me to share.).

The nose first shows subdued petrol notes, followed by lemon oil, citrus pith and something herbal/green (verbena?). In a profound way, the wine tastes just like it smells. The attack is citric acidity with enough energy that you briefly think frizzante? The mid-palate has terpene notes intertwined with apple, nectarine, clover and honey. A limestone finish almost completely eclipses the sweet. With some time in the air, you would swear you can smell the lees in your glass.

This wine seems to have gained some flesh since we last tasted it, as if the orchard fruit were ripening in the bottle. There's still some glycerin but it seems less obvious at this stage. But the structure of the wine seems more forward now, an architecture finding a foundation.

I've always thought this wine had an unexpectedly Mosel quality, like a brilliant counterfeit. But with time the forgery fades and you have to acknowledge the unique artistry that's there in the (new) original.

July 29, 2009

I do know Jack!

I might be having a mid-life crisis.

Lately, science hasn't had the same appeal. I don't get giddy with excitement about a new experiment the way I once did.

Yesterday, I was thinking about selling the Lab and sailing the Pacific when I opened a bottle of Sam Tannahill's strange "white" elixir Jack (2005).

Jack is a mix of Pinot Blanc and Gris and Chardonnay. It is, allegedly, a Josko Gravner inspired wine. Six months of extended maceration (where the juice remains in contact with the skins). And then a long spell in oak barrels (not clay amphora).

It is striking to see in the glass, a sort of dusty orange wine, but with a radiant pink core that seems to shimmer magically when it catches the light. On the nose it is apricot marmalade, clover honey and something grapey (as a side note: anyone but me find it strange how rarely "grape" is used as a wine descriptor?). I first tasted this a year and a half ago and it has fleshed out considerably since then; the then subtle orchard fruits have swelled into bright white peaches and apricots. There's still a strong mineral backbone and a tannic tingle on the long lingering finish.

But this wine is more than its parts. It defies precise analysis. It resists the experimental impulse. Jack just is. And it is a wonderful is-ness.

What did William Hurt's character say in The Big Chill? Sometimes you just have to let art flow over you...

Maybe that's the way out of my crisis? I need a break from analysis. I need to let a little more art just flow over me.

Or I could buy a Ferrari?

July 13, 2009

Message in a Bottle

Or three bottles. To be more precise.

Regular Lab provider, K&L Wines, has an interesting palate training exercise on their shelves.

The biodynamic producer Champagne Fleury has released three versions of the same wine from the 1995 vintage and K&L has them in stock. These are identical wines, except that each has a different level of dosage: Extra Brut, Brut and Doux.
Dosage (n, doh-SAHJ; from wikipedia), immediately after disgorging but before corking, the liquid level is topped up with liqueur d’expédition. At this time, it is common to add a little sugar, a practice which is known as dosage.
Fleury's wines are outstanding. Dense, earthy, often with alluring red fruit flavors. So we jumped at the opportunity to taste these wines, with their different dosage levels, side by side.

These wines were exceptional. Rich and complex, but also open and approachable.

The Extra Brut was my favorite. A bright, energetic mandarin acidity dominated the palate. There is a strange and wonderfully unique minerality on the finish. Not chalk. Not limestone. Not sure what, but it's really good.

The Brut had similar orange-y acid, with jasmine and silver tarnish on the finish. The sweet is more pronounced but the overall balance of this wine is better than the Extra.

The Doux was also good, but showed a bit like a watered down version of the Brut. It had similar flavors but with less intensity. However, the fact that this has at least 42.5 grams/liter more residual sugar than the Extra Brut is remarkable. The wine is sweet, but the sugar is remarkably well integrated.

The most surprising observation of the evening (and thanks again Alicia!) was the nose on each wine was practically identical. If I were a fake journalist instead of a psuedo scientist, I would have tried to discover if Fleury used cane sugar or concentrated grape must (MCR), because the liqueur d’expédition seemed to have no effect on the olfactory character of the three wines.

Perhaps more controversially, I would also observe that the Extra Brut was the most expressive of site and vintage. The sugar in the Doux, while integrated, seems to obliterate any signs of the vineyard.

July 8, 2009

Dude! Where Have I Been?

Many of you have no doubt read about California's current budget situation. More than $26 billion in arrears, the state has commenced issuing IOUs to employees, service providers and other debt holders.

It's not wholly unexpected. In California, mandatory term limits for state office holders provide that a regular cycle of political amateurs are in place to manage our government. And our most exciting laws are scripted by Joe Citizen and approved by mob rule. God love popular democracy!

To solve the current crisis, clarion calls have begun to increase the State's revenue base by finally taxing California's most profitable natural resource. And we're doing our part here at the Lab. To help ease the state from its current predicament, the Lab has begun an entirely new category of research.

I'll admit, we've gotten a little lost in our current set of experiments. But what are you going to do? Duty calls...

June 29, 2009

Shell Game

This could be a tale of two vineyards.

In our ceaseless search for dirt, we end up seeking out a great deal of single-vineyard wine at the Lab. Recently, we drank two outstanding North American Rieslings each from it's own vineyard.

The first is born of Randall Grahm's re-scaled, relocated venture. A 2007 Pacific Rim, Solstice Vineyard Riesling.

The nose is diesel, verbena and citrus pith. The terpenes dominate in a way that would make me nervous about laying this down. But at the moment, they're relatively tame and the palate is simply beautiful. Honeyed tangerine swells over pear and lemon and grapefruit. There's an unusual lingering, loamy minerality. Classic Riesling flavors with unique "specific-ness."

Next we drank the 2007 Smith-Madrone, Riesling.

There's a vinous nose of orchard fruit and litchee. In the mouth, a beautiful mix of crisp, acidic MacIntosh apple and sweet Bosc pear. There is a light glycerin touch evident on the attack that almost seems to coat the tongue, paving the way for the fruit. There is a sensation of sweet even though the wine is dry. Mid-palate you begin to notice evidence of a solid, mineral architecture which builds through a long finish. This is traditionally-styled Riesling with a clear and unique vineyard signature.

But here's the trick. While these are both beautiful, terroir-specific, expressions of Riesling. One, I bought at a shop. The other was a sample.

Does it really matter which is which?

June 26, 2009

All You Need To Know

I have milked my interview with Lou Amdur for content all week. Who would have known that I would get such terrific mileage out of three cliché questions?

When published on another wine blog, the interview with Lou elicited a number of enthusiastic responses. Some went so far as to claim that Lou was the "best natural wine bar in the world!" The discussion included the owner of Terroir in San Francisco, another amazing place for wine. At some point the suggestion was made for a throw-down of sorts to determine the true champion, a Vegas-style mud-wrestling for bragging rights (I'm assuming this event would necessarily involve paid surrogates in the actual arena of combat).

Lou offered this to conclude the debate:

We’re (Lou) not a better natural wine bar than Terroir because we have more interesting wine — we have the same wines, mostly (though because I pour everything by the glass you won’t see Bea’s wines or good grower Champagne at Lou, but you will find these wines at Terroir). We’re better because our sans souffre, all-analog hi-fi system is powered by 300b single-ended triode monoblocks fed strictly by low-hour moving coil cartridges and an old Audio Research tube head amp. Lowthers or rebuilt Quad electrostats, bien sûr.

Enough said.

June 24, 2009

Things I Know That Are Not True

1. This is not a blog.

2. Los Angeles is not much of a wine town.

3. I do not have much of a local readership.

I'm not all that sure about #3. I quit looking at my traffic logs a while ago. Something zen-ish, having to do with not why I maintain the Lab. But if #2 is accurate, then it stands to reason that #3 would be true as well.

If I did have a significant local readership, I know this would be true: I definitely would not write restaurant reviews. In part because this is a serious pseudo-scientific research institute and we don't have time for that sort of thing. But mostly because I don't want to wait behind any of you for a table.

Nevertheless, I feel compelled to follow up on my interview with Lou Amdur of Lou that we collaborated on for saignee's 31 days of natural wine. According to the long established etiquette of gift exchange, I feel kind words are due, especially since Lou did most of the work.

Lou is on Vine, just north of Melrose in mid-town Los Angeles, just up the street from Paramount Studios. The restaurant has the corner spot in a multi-function, L-shaped strip mall.

Lou has the most interesting and eclectic wine list in Los Angeles. Every time I stop in, I learn something I didn't know before. He is passionate about wine and goes to great lengths to find interesting, characterful (his word) things to pour. If you're looking for a great educational resource, take a photo of the menu with a spy camera, develop the microfilm and then google every wine on the list. It's a journey through biodynamics, old and ungrafted vines (yes!), dry-farming and wild yeast ferments.

Oh, the food at Lou is fantastic too.

Los Angeles has altogether too few, great neighborhood bistros. We drive around too much chasing trends here. But Lou is a special exception.

So please, don't tell anyone about it.

June 21, 2009

Lou on Lou

In support of saignée's 31 Days of Natural Wine, I ventured out from the safety of the Lab's crenelated, ivory tower and sat down over a bottle of Chablis with Lou Amdur of Lou.

Sometimes you serve a wine and it needs context and description. Sometimes you serve a wine that is so good, you just pour it and let it speak for itself.

The interview, or more accurately, Lou's answers to my questions, are like that. I don't think this needs any introduction.

And if reading this doesn't make you want to go to Lou immediately (it's at the corner of Vine and Melrose in Los Angeles), then there's really no helping you. Is there?

LAB: Can you describe your "conversion" to natural wines?

LOU: My conversion experience to natural wine is on on-going and didn’t emerge from a single epiphanic moment of eureka. And I should say it’s an on-going conversion, as the natural wine movement itself is a moving target—with a vigneron like Thierry Puzelat, for example, it’s clear that he’s having an on-going conversation from vintage to vintage with his vines and his winegrowing process. Certainly a big thing for me was attending the huge Nicolas Joly natural wine road show a few years ago at the Skirball Center; that gave me an opportunity for the first time to taste a great many natural wines (I realized, after three hours, that (a) I was only half way through the tasting, (b) I was drunk, even though I was dutifully spitting, (c) I had been so enraptured by the wine that I’d been ignoring the klaxon horns of my poor bladder, and was on the verge of peeing in my pants, and (d) I had to somehow get back to my wine bar in Hollywood by 6 PM).

My palette is following an arc that I think is familiar to some who grow up with wine, but perhaps not very interesting wine. You fall in love with big, chunky wines, but end up preferring wines that are made with a lighter touch. As a kid this meant the big, chunky, sticky sweet Concord grape kosher wines of Shabbos and Pesach. But when I was four or five my Uncle Eli gave me a small glass of the very good wine he had been making in Minnesota starting in the late 50s—he was a serious-minded hobbyist and pioneering quality wine grape grower in Minnesota, plus he had a doctorate in chemical engineering so the wine making process was not something foreign to him. I remember that first taste of Eli’s wine; compared to the Manischewitz Concord grape wine I was accustomed to it tasted bitter to me but I liked it! And that’s the beginning of the arc.

In my late teens I drank mostly beer and cheap hard liquor (1 dollar shots of vodka at Verkhovyna in the East Village!). At that time the drinking age in NY was 18, and most delis had a decent selection of imported beer, and I found that I enjoyed more complex beers like Reinhardt Wild Ale. I did enjoy drinking what I referred to then as “big” wines, big oaky Napa zinfandels like Hannah’s. These big wines have sweetness, less from any residual sugar and more from the alcohol. And I understand completely why many people gravitate to such wines and never seem to move beyond: they’re wines that don’t make you think. And by “think,” I mean thinking with your tongue, not your brain. Émile Peynaud has a long description of how the tongue “thinks” in one of his books, and it’s actually quite disturbing to pay attention to the physiology of taste when you’re drinking wine. There’s a Stereolab tune with the line, “We need so damn many things to keep our dazed lives going,” i.e., we have a lot of shit to attend to in our lives and for most folks, wine is a field of non-controversial pleasure, they don’t want to think about wine, just enjoy it. You see the same attitude toward food among chefs like Bad Boy Bourdain, who’s attacked Alice Waters in the most embarrassing way—how dare you make me think about what I put in my mouth!

When you drink a massive, high extract, high alcohol wine, its overwhelms your palette; it’s a very atavistic pleasure that I liken, as a vulgar Kleinian, to the overwhelming feelings of deep satisfaction that blot out everything else that an infant feels when it suckles. And it makes it difficult for some people to enjoy a new wine, especially a lighter-bodied wine for which they lack reference points. It pains me when 20 somethings profess that they’re “pinot grigio” drinkers, as if pinot grigio is a brand, like Coke. They’re young geezers, many of whom will never drink outside their comfort zone. Jeremy Narby, when asked about the safety of taking ayahuasca, responded in an interview that we’re too safety obsessed in our culture—ayahuasca isn’t safe, it might just teach you something about yourself that changes you forever. I don’t want to live as a crabbed old coot like the character that Edgar Buchanan played in Petticoat Junction. I try to become more receptive to new things and experiences. Wine is my ayahuasca.

In the early 80s I worked at a restaurant, long gone, that was connected to the New York Wine Center in Manhattan. We were allowed a shift drink and we mostly drank Mondavi cabernet, but one day a wine rep sent back to the kitchen a half-full bottle of Lafarge Clos du Château des Ducs, ’78, and that was my transcendental wine experience. I didn’t know what I was in for—it’s like the first time you get high, you’re always chasing that first time. I kept looking for that bottle for years (only later did I learn that ’78 was a great Burgundy vintage, and that only way I was going to find a bottle of that Volnay was if someone opened a bottle for me—still hasn’t happened).

LAB: How do you go about discovering the wines for your list?

LOU: How do I learn about new wine? To be sure, you’re not going to find satisfying coverage in Wine and Spirits, Decanter, and of course, Wine Spectator. I learned a lot from reading two of Patrick Matthews’s books, The Wild Bunch and Real Wine. There are a few blogs I enjoy reading, and the discussion groups that I lurk around on, like Wine Disorder, are populated be folks who have had their conversion experience a long time ago. I depend a lot on the superb distributors and importers I work with to do the hard work of locating new growers: there’s Farm Wine (distributes Dressner and José Pastor in California), Peter Weygandt, Michael Sullivan, Hiram Simon, and Betty Dunbar, to name a few. Note that these are importers who mostly import French wine (though Weygandt, for example, brings in some great Austrian wine, too). Sometimes, I find an importer that brings in a single biodynamic wine that I love (I’m thinking of one grower from Roussillon), but the rest of their book is not interesting. I’ve been trying to get a distributor for Jenny & Francois here in Los Angeles for a couple of years, and so far, no go, so when I order their wine, it’s a large order (for me, at least—30-50 cases). Another source are my friends and customers who bring me wine to try. I have a regular, now friend, Martin Marquette, who is good friends with Azzoni, and I first tasted three of Azzoni’s wines that Martin brought back from France for me. Finally, whenever I travel abroad (rare for me since I signed the lease for my wine bar in 2005), I visit wine bars, shops, and if I’m in wine country, vignerons, though I find organized tasting rooms a la Napa dull—I like talking to vignerons, not tasting room staff. We were in Paris last December and enjoyed visiting La Cremerie, it was just down the street from our hotel, and also Racines.

LAB: You're stranded on a desert island, what three natural wines are in your cooler?

LOU: Three desert island wines: I’d pack a sparkling wine, a red wine, and a white wine. If there was room, I’d also pick a dessert desert wine. For a sparkler I’d go for a good grower Champagne, like Leroy’s zero dosage cuvée, or Drappier. For white I’d select something refreshing but also complex that might work well with my desert island fare of raw fish and coconut, perhaps one of Tissot’s non-sur voile wines (I love Tissot and Puffeny’s sur voile wines, but I don’t want to drink them every day), or maybe something really straight forward, like J.P. Brun’s Beaujolais blanc. For red, again, it’s a desert island, hot and dry, so I’d select Foillard’s Morgon Côtes du Py which I’d shove in the ocean for a few minutes before opening so that it’s nice and cool, or possibly one of Gauby’s wines, his vielles vignes. Both are wines that I have had over several vintages, and I never tire of drinking them, and always find new facets to enjoy. Finally, for dessert, Suronde’s Quarts du Chaume, or the Jurancon that Dageneau made (I have a six pack sitting my cellar—well, I’m down one bottle that I gave as a gift).

Notes on the natural wine and a reprise of the interview will be available tomorrow at saignée.

June 18, 2009

The Last Days of Joly (for Me)

I think the Day 1 tasting note for the Joly wine sums it all up nicely (see yesterday's post if you're already behind):

Gun metal and rubbing alcohol with faint floral perfume.

Now I've had enough of Joly's wines to know that all is not necessarily lost at this point. The palate was sharply acidic, but still had some interesting complexity. This wine could stage a comeback. I've seen it happen.

Day 2 for the Joly: Smells like nail polish.

And Day 3: Something killed this.

There would be no come back for the Clos Sacres this time. The Villaine white Burgundy, meanwhile, was singing.

Day 1-3: Nose is an interesting mix of honey, clover, coddled cream and lemon oil. There's also a strong oak undertone of vanilla. In the mouth, more lemon with some grapefruit/lime acidity, and ripe apple and freshly cut grass.

This held up pretty well and drank consistently, and with little evolution, over the first three days. On Day 4, however, the barrel effects took over in an unappealing way. A smell like the banana flavored novocaine my dentist used in the 70s dominated and the fruit faded behind a tart acidity.

So this could have been a classic battle. The Joly tortoise versus a Burgundian hare, with the reptile closing the distance and claiming victory on the final day. It could have been exciting. Except that the tortoise was DOA from the start.

To add insult to injury, I opened a second bottle of Les Clos Sacres on day 1. It was frizzante and cloudy; some refermentation had occured in the bottle.

I get that sulfur, or more accurately, the absence of sulfur, has become a fashion in wine. And Joly has long been on the edge of that trend. But maybe using some sulfur should remain in vogue for wine that you know you're going to ship from France to America. Joly labels this wine for the North American market (it's called Les Vieux Clos in France), so perhaps he should sulfur for export as well.

When Joly's wines are good, they can be sublime. But in the past year or so, I've had more misses than hits. I really don't know if this can be chalked up to just (a reluctance to use) sulfur. But I do know buying these wines seems more and more like a roll of the dice.

June 17, 2009

5 More Days in Joly

As many of you know, the Lab celebrated an anniversary recently. And to commemorate the event, we have recreated the Lab's introductory experiment.

The results are in line with my recent experience with Joly's wines, which is to say, ripe with potential but disappointing in the end.

For the test, we drank Joly's Les Clos Sacres, 2005.

This time around, we also implemented a "control" wine which we (unnecessarily) decanted vigorously (though not with a blender) and tasted alongside the Joly wine over the five day stretch.

To make it a fair contest, we thought we'd pick another legend -- which is not easy to do at an equivalent price point. But we think we've done well with Domaine A. et P. de Villaine's Rully, Les Saint-Jacques, 2005. Villaine is a legend for being part-owner of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.

Full notes and the tale of our disappointment up next.

June 9, 2009

For me?

You shouldn't have.

One of our favorite publicists sent us a Cabernet Sauvignon from Piña Napa Valley to commemorate the Lab's first anniversary.

Napa Valley, D'Adamo Vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2006.

This can't be a sample. It's a single-vineyard Cabernet. The bottle is very fancy, etched with gold. The wine-makers are actually vignerons (the Piña family have sustainably farmed vineyards in Napa for 5 generations). The wine-making is non-interventionist (mostly); the wines aren't fined, only lightly filtered, and commercial yeasts are used only minimally. This is way too nice to be a sample. Surely, this is a gift.

The Lab has a strict "No Samples" policy (presently under review by the Lab's Ethics Board). But we have no such rules against gifts.

The wine's aromas are dark berries, black cherry and kirsch, with notes of dusty sandalwood, camphor and stems. It's young; there's a phenolic bite, but still approachable with elegant, understated fruit. The barrel effects are gentle and welcoming. There's a taut structure that seems to literally spread out with time in the air; a dark chocolate finish stretches from curt to prolonged after the wine has time to breathe.

There's enough stuffing and complexity here to think that with a couple years in the cellar, this could be spectacular. And it's very good now.

Thank you!

June 8, 2009

Sorry, Honey

We have been so busy doing fake science, homage travel writing, and bad finance that we forgot all about our Anniversary!

The Lab celebrated it's birthday on the first of the month, and I totally forgot. I did wonder at the time what everyone was doing in the conference room wearing those stupid, pointy party hats.

So with apologies to all, we are celebrating the milestone today. Cake will be served in the conference room at lunch. Feel free to bring the dumb hats if you still have them.

To further commemorate the occasion, we will also be recreating our initial experiment, 5 Days in Joly, wherein we tested Loire legend and biodynamic stalwart, Nicolas Joly's, claim that his wine should be decanted "vigorously" and are best on the fifth day.

Results up in about five days.

hats: © Zts |

June 3, 2009

I Feel Like Peter Liem

Peter Liem writes one of my favorite wine blogs. For me, it is exactly what a blog should be. Peter is a writer for Wine & Spirits magazine living in France's Champagne region. His blog details his unique adventures there. He has also recently launched a paid subscription site, Hopefully, he'll find a way to justly serve both old free blog and new for-profit venture simultaneously. Because whether he is drinking Grand Marque vins clairs, comparing corks and closures, or just hanging out with icons like Jacques Selosse, Peter's deft, expert and amiable writing gives us a window into a world we might not otherwise see. Which is blogging at its best.

Given the time I spend living vicariously through Peter's posts, you can imagine my thrill when I recently received an invitation to help disgorge and cork Champagne just 15 minutes South of the Lab's front door!

More details on the field trip soon, but here's a shot from the event.

June 1, 2009

Evolution 2.5: With An Old Twist

It's time to check back in on our case of Burgundy, and just to mix it up we thought we'd combine the ongoing Evolution Experiment with our Old/New program.

So alongside the next installment of the 2001 Confuron-Cotetidot Vosne-Romanée, we are also tasting a 1988 vintage of the same.

For the 2001, this seems like a quite different wine than the one we tasted six months ago. The nose is still fresh and bright -- cherries, cinnamon and perfumed sandalwood. But the fruit on the palate (plums and currants) is beginning to give way to leathery secondary flavors and peppery spice. What's most interesting about this is that you can almost taste the architecture. It's as if the fleshy middle has faded away, so you can now sense the bones of the wine. You taste the acidity but you can't pin down its specifics; the mocha on the finish is more of a sensation than a flavor. This is a ghost's wine.

The 1988, meanwhile, drank like an old, familiar friend. The nose is musty sandalwood, stewed fruit, mushrooms and graphite. But the palate caught me completely off-guard, it is dominated by still bright fruit. There are other flavors hinted: river stones, white pepper and a coppery note on the finish, but the fruit still shines above the rest.

The fading fruit on the 2001 leaves me a little worried the 2001 isn't going to make it to the Evolution finish. But I suppose the '88 offers some cause for optimism.

Guess we'll see.

May 28, 2009

Not Ungrafted

Regular readers know I'm quietly, diligently working on my Ungrafted Manifesto.

As I get little time away from my many responsibilities at the Lab, it is taking a little while longer to complete than I originally expected. And let's not kid ourselves. Manifestos are not that easy to write.

As part of my research, I recently happened upon some photographs of "grafting" -- which is not "ungrafting" but related. These photos were shot by Vincent Dancer at the Domaine Thomas Morey in Chassagne-Montrachet.

I love Vincent Dancer's wines. He makes stunning Burgundy. White, in particular. But I'm a real fan of his often haunting photography.

The rest of the grafting images are here.

The whole photo blog is here.

May 26, 2009

Mosel 101

For anyone interested in Riesling and Wine Science, Lars Carlberg, who exports fantastic Rieslings under the Mosel Wine Merchant Imprint, has generously provided a graduate seminar entitled: "On Aromatics: Wild Ferment, Sulfur and Slate" at the Brooklynguy College of Wine.

Lab Employees will receive 10 (ten) Continuing Education Credits for attending.

May 22, 2009

Tasmania: Postscript #2

May 20, 2009

Tasmania: Postscript

The rest of my Tasmanian journal arrived today, looking like Chinskirin's dog tried to eat it. I was able to recover these few fragments...

Newly arrived and have just had a taste of the Kreglinger Vintage Brut, 2003. Why am I going on a big search for sparkling wine? This is fantastic!

... local pinot noir is much touted, but not all that good. I'm hopeful to find exceptions...

The real destination for our quest should rightly be Stefano Lubiana Wines. I have it from several sources that these wines are hand-crafted and brilliant. But we received sad news this morning. Winemaker Steve Lubiana suffered the loss of a close family member and our visit must be rescheduled...

No real emphasis on a) keeping track of own-rooted vineyards; b) keeping phylloxera out of Tasmania (where it apparently does not presently exist). What's wrong with these people?

... enormous potential for wine here in Tasmania, but there seems to be too little focus on viticulture (sustainable, organic, etc). And the hobbyists seem to outnumber the professionals, for the moment...

(notebook: © Loraliu |

May 17, 2009

Kurtz's Bubbles

Sorry to keep you waiting.

Chinskirin is recovering comfortably in hospital. The doctors assure us there is little permanent damage.

We have reached for and grasped our sparkling grail. All that's left is to determine whether it is worthy of the journey.

Moorilla's owner may be circumspect about his art purchases and reluctant to discuss his casino winnings, but he is enormously forthcoming with technical notes on his wines (thanks Danny).

I jotted down a few which I reprint from my notebook in toto:

Moorilla 2004 Muse Sparkling Brut.

The fruit is from two vineyards, the St. Matthias (West Bank, Tamar River) and another in Winkleigh. Both sites are low yielding.

St. Matthias Vineyard fruit was all hand-picked on March 19, 2004.

Winkleigh Pinot noir was hand-picked on March 27, 2004 and the Chardonnay was hand-picked on the 30th.

Blend: 64% Pinot noir, 36% Chardonnay.

Fruit was whole-bunch pressed. Cool ferment in stainless steel tanks. Fine lees for six months except 32% which was held in oak barriques for maturation. No malo. Secondary fermentation in bottle. Disgorged in October, 2008. Total time on lees: 4 years, 5 months.

On the nose, the Brut has distinctive autolytics that I'm beginning to associate with the region, grape must and brioche. The fruit is bright and fresh, lemon and its zest. There is a faint mineral undertone throughout that emerges like cool granite on the finish. This is very elegant, very interesting and very, very young.

I have laid several down in Chinskirin's cellar. I think this, like Tasmanian wine in general, has huge potential.

And the Brut Rosé was even better!

May 15, 2009

Heart of Weirdness

April, I'll tell you when it's May.

As we moved further into the remote, upper reaches of the river, even the birds seemed to taunt us with the name.


A great sparkling wine. Or just the hallucinatory dream of one. We'd been on the river too long to know the difference. Chinskirin hadn't spoken for days. He just sat on the bow of the boat, mumbling to himself.

Until he sat up pointing, face flushed, eyes wide and wild. I followed his point. There it was. We had made it.


The site of one of Tasmania's oldest (modern) vineyards, planted in 1958, by an Italian textile merchant, it is now owned by David Walsh. If ever you dreamed of your own private Kurtz, the dream would be of David Walsh.

Walsh is enigmatic and outrageous. His extensive wealth was amassed through gambling schemes that left him banned from casinos all over the globe. He's building a museum for his collection of radical and controversial art. He makes his own beer. His winemaker, Conor van der Reest, is converting the vineyards to organics and bio-dynamics. I'm just waiting for him to shave his head and stack on 20 kilos.

But what of our quest?

We are so close. But Chinskirin has stripped nude and is dancing through the vines. Notes up as soon as he is recaptured and sedated.

May 13, 2009

Up Another Creek

All of this happened in April.

We left the Tamar Valley (catch up on our voyage here) and headed south, further south in fact than I have ever been. Any further south and I'm a penguin.

Though we were still searching for the perfect Tassie sparkler, I couldn't shake the taste of the Riesling we'd had at Goaty Hill.

Maybe it was an early sign of the fever, or maybe I was just feeling greedy, but I made Chinskirin stop at more than one cellar door along the way. I couldn't help myself from wondering, what if all the Rieslings here are that good?

Turns out they aren't.

But we did find one other gem. Winemaker Kate Hill, who has worked at Stefano Lubiana Wines and Riverina Winery, has recently launched her own label. Working with fruit sourced from several vineyards around Tasmania.

Her first Riesling vintage (2008) is, as the locals say, a fair dinkum beauty. The nose is lemon verbena, lime pith and Oolong tea. It's slightly off-dry, with a nice balance between sweet (passion fruit) and acid (tangerine). There's pear and glycerin mid-palate, and a flinty, mineral finish.

I would love to see what Kate might do with a single-vineyard. I made vague efforts to argue the point, but the whispers were growing louder, the rumors emerging as truth. Chinskirin was anxious to keep moving. Our quest now had a name.


May 11, 2009

Help Wanted

Fellow wine scientist and Auburn University postdoc, Tracy Rickman, is working on wine and something called blogging.

At the Lab, we're signing on to sponsor her research. Because Tracy needs a job, and we'd like to see her get one.

The flow chart looks like this:

Collect Data > Write Article > Get Published > Gain Employment.

So please, let's help Tracy get her data, so she can get to work.

Take her very short (3-4 minutes) SURVEY.

(After the fact note: Turns out it's more of a medium survey (7-9 mins). But it is serious research -- unlike most of our Lab activities -- and would be a big help.)

The survey is available HERE.

If you're still not getting it, this is another LINK to her SURVEY.

Everyone here at the Lab appreciates your time and thanks you for your effort.

To the Barricades, Mes Amis!

The French are revolting!

In Provence, at least, a revolution is afoot. The winemakers there are protesting a recent decision by the EU that would allow for the manufacture of rosé by blending red wine into white. This instead of the traditional approach of leaving pressed juice on the skins just long enough to stain them gris.

This is a prime example of the kind of thing that would totally piss me off if I cared about this kind of thing.

Because I don't think the issue is merely semantic. I think the Provencal have a point. I think rosé should mean something (so then perhaps it is merely semantic?). Rosé should mean you've allowed for a brief interval of staining maceration. It should mean you're old-school. It should not mean you've poured a little red wine into a lot of white wine to make it pink. If the point is merely pinkness then let's use drops of Red Dye #2, put an animal on the label and call it day.

But at the Lab were are not calling it a day. We are saying no to blended pinkness.

As a show of solidarity, we're drinking a true rosé, Robert Sinskey's Vin Gris of Pinot Noir, 2008.

(ed note: if you've noticed the last few posts all share a theme of "elaborately justifying what we're drinking at the Lab," well, then, you are paying close attention. Nice work by you.)

The nose on the Sinskey rosé is almost startling. It's fresh and bright, and smells exactly like ripe strawberries at first, then turns more vinous with time in the air. In the mouth, the wine almost floats. This is what liquid rose petals from some exotic bloom might taste like, mixed with Bing cherry essence and hints of pomelo acid. And it's all held aloft by a poignant minerality that lingers achingly on the finish. But the best part of all is the color. It's an elegant, almost coppery, hue of salmon pink. This is stunning wine.

It might be worth fighting for.