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 | Dreamstime.com

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, ChampagneGuide.net. 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.