October 23, 2010
As I seem too often to be starting these Lab missives with an apology for delay, I have instead decided to officially memo-rialize that Lab Reports will come a little less frequently than previously. At some point, I'm sure we will return to our pre-Asia pace of experimentation. But right now... frankly, we're just too busy making history to have much time for chronicling it.
In addition to drinking from it, we make an ongoing and continuing effort to hedge the value of the bottles in the Lab's cellars. Foreign currency has long been our favorite hedging vehicle. Lately, roiled markets have meant we've been crazy-busy. Mostly busy selling as many US dollars as we can. As the Fed seems to be long green ink, we've really had to step beyond our usual efforts.
Until today. Today, we have a new strategy.
Instead of trading currencies, we are starting our own.
Now, just like the United States Federal Reserve, we can use quantitative easing as a way of reducing the real value of our significant tabs at bars, restaurants and wineries around the world.
We hatched this audacious plan after tasting our way through a fair few of the gray market Delatite Wines we recently acquired.
And they're as crazy-good as our new Lab Rupees.
The 2008 sparkling Pinot Noir, Demelza, presented great depth and breadth. A faint salmon hue with beautiful aromas of strawberries, pink grapefruit, baking bread and Turkish delight. The palate is a swirling mix and linear stretch of all those same flavors, especially the Ruby pink grapefruit, with some beguiling chalky limestone minerality.
The 2008 sparking Gewurztraminer, Polly, showed lemon and grapefruit zest, spice and toast. This one might be a little imprecise on the attack but spreads out with a rich mid-palate burst of apple fruit with tangerine and grapefruit acidity before a finish of pencil leads. I'm thinking this might benefit from a little cellar time. Although it drinks beautifully now. And did I mention it's Gewurztraminer? Crazy-crazy.
David Ritchie's white and sparkling wines all seem to have a French soul (I have no experience with the reds). The Sauvignon Blanc is more Sancerre than Australia. Same for the Alsatian styled Gewurztraminer (non-sparkling) and the un-wooded Chardonnay (that must in fact see a little oak?). And they are all windows into Ritchie's uniquely located vineyards. I am a fan of the entire range.
But it was the 2009 Riesling, whose own soul lies a little East of France somewhere along the Mosel, that I found most intriguing. Its flavors of lime and grapefruit and whatever lies beneath the Buller soil that drinks like limestony slate, with traces of clover and honey, are simply delicious. And while it's style is decidedly German, this is not a wine that aspires to be from someplace it is not. It is profoundly tethered to its high country Victorian trellises.
Even if it's easy enough to pour a glass, close your eyes, and imagine a vineyard along the banks of some Rhine tributary that you've never heard of and cannot get to.
October 5, 2010
I'm going to tell you a little story about how wine gets done in Hong Kong.
First some backstory: I was in Australia not long ago where I met biodynamic vigneron David Ritchie. Ritchie's Delatite Winery is nestled at the base of the Mt Buller ski area and is an Australian version of an Alpine Winery. I don't think they're particularly well known beyond their immediate region (so far...) but I was served one of their sparkling Gewürztraminers (yes, Gewürztraminer) at a luncheon a few years ago. It was so precise, so unique and so utterly unexpected that I remember having to leave the table and sit with it in an out of the way corner for a brief spell.
When I met Ritchie, I asked him if he had a distributor in Hong Kong. He said he did, but they only brought in a few of his wines and none of the sparkling ones. I'm sure my expression was crestfallen, but then he said, "Although there is this guy..."
"This guy" turned out to be Alvis Kwan. David introduced me to him via e-mail. It turns out Alvis is a building engineer who specializes in ventilation and air-conditioning systems for commercial and large residential buildings. Alvis is also interested in wine. Alvis spent some time in Australia where he met someone who now manages wine sales for Delatite. So with a view towards an unspecific, future venture in the wine business, Alvis decided upon an experimental import of a pallet of Delatite wines. A pallet is roughly 56 cases.
He figured he'd sell them to his friends and the odd nut like me who showed up at his door. Maybe put them in a storefront he bought with his 401k. Or perhaps even sell them into the Mainland. He figured the only way you can figure out the wine business is by dipping your toe into 672 bottles -- a palate's worth.
In Hong Kong -- Tom Wark, are you listening? You'll like this part -- there is no 3-tier system. No divide between importer, distributor and retailer. And, as of 2008, no customs duty. If you're an HVAC engineer and you want to import a large quantity of wine, then you just do it.
How about that?
So I arranged to buy a case of sparkling wine and a case of white wines for the Lab, as well as a couple of cases of whites for a friend who grew up in view of Mt Buller.
I drove out myself to meet Alvis at his office in San Po Kong, an industrial section of Kowloon perhaps best known as the site of deadly riots that grew, with help from the Cultural Revolution, out of a non-violent workers' protest at an artificial flower factory in 1967.
I paid less for the wine than I might have paid had I bought them at the winery's cellar door because my only middle-man is a building engineer with an office in San Po Kong.
September 28, 2010
Okay, when I wrote yesterday that "None had a cork," what I meant to say...
I don't actually know what I meant to say. As usual, I wasn't paying very close attention. At the Lab, "not paying close attention" is often a euphemism for "drunk." And what I missed was a fairly obvious "cork" in the bottle of the Ocean Eight Chardonnay on my desk. But it's actually not really a cork, in the traditional sense of the term. It's a polymer-mash of neutered and neutralized cork bits and urethane manufactured and marketed by DIAM. A "French company" that makes "cork".
As a side note, anyone who has ever worked in France knows exactly why I put "French company" in quotes.
So it's not really cork, and if you believe Diam's marketing materials, then the Section Eight Chardonnay still holds true within my category of Aussie Chardonnays that are sensational and not sealed with corks (no quotes).
And as long as I'm improving on yesterday's post, let me add this note on tasting notes.
Champagne-ologist extraordinaire, Peter Liem, has recently penned a piece for the World of Fine Wine's new blog. His point, if I may be crassly reductionist, is a paraphrase of what William Hurt's character in the Big Chill says about a late night TV classic: "Sometimes you just have to let art... flow... over you."
As another side note, the proliferation of wine blogs is truly astonishing. I'm thinking that perhaps it's time the Lab finally got one...
Liem's point is a concise and learned expression of a thought I've been kicking around since this post. And I guess it boils down to this for me: I really only want to drink wines that cannot be reduced to their constituent parts. I want to drink great wines (and no, dear Chinese readers, that does not mean expensive ones). And I want to let them... flow... over me.
Like Mike Aylward's Section Eight Verve Chardonnay which has such great cut and precision. And beguiling aromatics. It's like --
Sshhh. Just drink it.
September 27, 2010
Little did I know that when I began my first "dig for China" as a small child on a sandy, California beach, that I would make it here, almost 40 years later.
But I hate that sort of sentimental crap. For much the same reason, I hate corks. Nostalgia for corks is like all other forms of nostalgia... borderline proto-facism. Think I'm wrong? Read Mussolini's early writings (with Gentile). But you don't have to be Antonio Gramsci or suffer through a Tea Party rally to understand that warm feelings for idealized history are the first step on a road to labor camps.
I don't want to get into the cork debate. Because there is no debate. The baseline science is there. This is like global warming. You either get it. Or you're wrong.
But I will posit my disdain for cork as a reason why I've had so many astonishingly good Australian Chardonnays since I arrived in Hong Kong. Australia has all but given up on corks and so I'm favorably disposed towards the wines when I see them here.
Of course, it might also have something to do with the multi-million dollar marketing campaign the Australian wine industry has recently launched in China.
Anyway, here's a short list of great Aussie Chardonnays I've had recently in Hong Kong:
Leeuwin, Art Series, Margaret River, 2006
Yabby Lakes, Mornington Peninsula, 2007
Mas Serrat, Yarra Valley, 2006
Ocean Eight, Verve, Mornington Peninsula, 2008
Punch, Lance's Vineyard, Yarra Valley, 2008
Two of these, the Mas Serrat and the Yabby Lakes, were made by the same guy, and made quite elegantly. The Leeuwin was so good I was convinced it was Burgundy (thanks Roger; both times). I'd actually been avoiding these wines for the past few years, thinking they were too expensive. The 2006 (and 2007) are well worth the money. I can't say enough about the whole range from Ocean Eight; but it's the Pinot that's the killer. And the Punch Chardonnay is consistently unique and site-specific. It's a vineyard I'm sure I will recognize on sight.
You would be doing your cellar a favor to buy any of the five.
None had a cork (well... correction forthcoming...).
September 16, 2010
Sorry for the long delay between reports. I'm adjusting to the local culture, and nobody really does jack in Hong Kong during the summer. In fact, most of the expat crowd bails the island. But Fall is here. I know this, not because the temperature has changed. It hasn't. It's still basically a rice cooker beyond the air-conditioned confines of the Lab. But I know the season has turned because there's a line at my favorite coffee shop in the morning and all the tables are filled with women who don't play tennis but wear diamond tennis bracelets anyway.
Another aspects of Hong Kong culture I've been adjusting to is the abundance of skilled domestic labor from the Philippines. The market is heavily regulated by the regional authorities. But if you can maneuver through the forms and bureaucracy, you can get what' s known in the local parlance as a "helper."
I decided to get two.
Because I think the helper is a fantastic concept. Now that my responsibilities are reduced at home, I have a lot more time to drink. The Philippines should probably be making a better effort to export this thing globally.
At the Lab, we've been cataloguing and organizing the wines shipped to our new Guangzhou cellars. We've run a few tests on overseas shipping as well which we'll report on soon. But I grabbed an orphan bottle and brought it home last night, to see whether we can further reduce labor costs at the Lab.
I'm growing weary of writing tasting notes. So I poured a glass of a recent vintage Burgundy from bio-dynamic stalwart Hubert Lamy for one of the helpers and asked her what she thinks.
"This is very good, sir," was her reply.
I think she had it about right.
August 31, 2010
Asiaexpat.com is essentially a local Craig's List for the expat community in Hong Kong and elsewhere in the region. As much advice is shared as stuff gets sold on the site.
I couldn't make this stuff up if I wanted to.
Viognier: any restaurant serving reasonably good food without charging corkage (or below $100 (approx US$15) corkage)?
Ada Kok: Me and my husband (Dick) have found the perfect solution in regard to those ridiculously high wine prices in HK restaurants: we buy a nice bottle. Before we go out for dinner we both drink a glass of wine. We pour another 1-2 glasses in a samll (sic) bottle: halfway through our dinner I go the ladies and take a few good swigs. Upon my return, Dick goes to the gents and drinks the rest. We get home we have another glass to finish off the bottle. This was we have a nice wine and save a lot of money.
Posted by Director, Lab Outreach at 9:42 PM
August 18, 2010
Vestiges of the former British Empire still exist in Hong Kong. And like a gene for ear-wiggling, they are receding quickly, but if you hunt carefully you can still find them.
And sometimes they find you, as was the case last Tuesday when I was duly notified that I am being considered for membership in the the prestigious Royal Society of Oenological Studies, Hong Kong Chapter.
As part of my application (pro forma, to be sure), I have been asked to present a paper to the Society based on my current research. I will be offering, "The Oriental Practice of Mixing Bordeaux and Coke: Myth or Fiction?" to that illustrious body in the coming weeks.
From the moment, I arrived in the region I've heard whispered rumors of this strange custom, but I have yet to confirm the truth of the practice. From my new bespoke tailor in Shenzen, I've ordered some khaki shirts, a wide-brimmed fedora hat and a bullwhip. When that stuff arrives, I'll be off to the provincial Chinese countryside in search of documentary evidence.
According to legend, the tradition dates back to the first trendy alcohol imported into China and flogged to the emerging capitalist classes as a mark of economic distinction: Cognac.
Nothing like getting hopped up on French brandy to say, I've arrived! And Cognac of the caliber affordable in a country where the average monthly wage is three hundred bucks was generally cut with coke and served on the rocks - when ice was available -- or used to power rocket engines. When wine from Bordeaux came to replace Cognac as the beverage to best demonstrate your rising status in the new middle class, many continued to mix coke into their drinks.
I've little doubt that Coke would vastly improve some of the imported table wine I've seen on offer in China. You could make a case that adding a little residual sugar and caramel flavoring at home is no worse than stirring wood chips into industrial vats at the wine factory. I wouldn't argue with you if you did.
Whether the Chinese are actually mixing Coke and Bordeaux, or this is yet another example of a bigoted Western denigration of these kind and simple peasants, I cannot yet say.
But an adventure awaits.
Posted by Director, Lab Outreach at 5:12 PM
August 13, 2010
Somehow, I made my way onto the National Rifle Association's mailing list. I tried to unsubscribe without success. I even sent them a note asking to be removed from future mailings. But I still keep getting their propaganda.
Which is how I can tell you, faithful Lab acolyte, about the NRA's new wine club.
I think I'll leave it at that. Any further editorial comment from me is likely to spark protest.
Posted by Director, Lab Outreach at 5:32 PM
August 12, 2010
I was on my way to a wine dinner recently. As I left my office, I grabbed an engraved laguiole opener that I was presented at some milestone or another the Lab had reached.
It's impressive hardware, and, yes, I admit, I was planning to show off a bit with it. It's not like I was going someplace where there wouldn't be corkscrews.
At the event, I reached for my opener, only to find it gone.
I knew immediately that my trophy opener had fallen from my pocket in the cab I had taken to dinner. I was momentarily devastated. I quickly strategized a few ways to drop not so subtle hints to the staff about my Christmas present for this year and tried to soldier on.
You can well imagine my surprise and delight when the next morning, arriving back at my office, my assistant presented me with the opener. Having found it after I exited the cab, the driver of the taxi had returned it to where he'd picked me up and left it with security at the building.
Hoping I might offer this generous and thoughtful man a reward for his kind act, I went downstairs to ask security myself if he had perhaps left a card or contact details.
He had not.
I was unable to offer my thanks directly.
But I am very grateful.
August 5, 2010
I was recently lured out of the Lab to attend a local wine event that promised fine wines, vintage cars, diamond jewelry and an ex-Miss Hong Kong.
This seemed to be all the necessary ingredients for a quintessential Far East wine outing.
The invitation failed to mention that the event would be held in a garage in Kwun Tong, an industrial section of Kowloon, and that the temperature inside would be well over 90 (32+ ) even at 9 o'clock at night. Also not detailed on the invitation was the reality that the last bottle of white wine would be already half gone when we arrived. Or that the ex-Miss Hong Kong was actually an ex-Miss Canada. Or someone claiming to be an ex-Miss Canada. I searched "Miss Canada" on Google and fruitlessly scrolled through 20 pages of images in failed hopes I might find her.
Curious editorial aside: the search did return a picture of Robert Redford, one of an alpaca and this shot of a scary looking dude who would seem, at a glance, to have little to do with Miss Canada.
The part about the vintage cars was as advertised.
If I were a practitioner of understatement, I would say it was a curious event.
It was at least that.
The diamond jewelry was provided by a man who practices an orthodox formulation of Judaism, so roughly 1/3 of the sweat-drenched crowd wore yarmulkes. I'm sure it was the heat in the garage, but I had flashes back to my childhood when my buddy Howard Goldstein was bar mitzvah'd on a scorching July day in Arizona.
Another third of the crowd seemed to be photographers; the alleged ex-Miss Canada must have a sensational publicist to get a throng of paparazzi out in the late night Kowloon swelter.
The wines were provided by Altruistic Boutique Wines, a Hong Kong / Beijing based wine importer who seem keen to give a portion of their profits away to charitable organizations. The company's Managing Director, Rai Cockfield, was pouring the wines, or what was left of them, himself. He's an ex-Lehman Brothers banker who has left finance to chase Dionysus. He and his partner have assembled a very good list of small, mostly California, producers. I'm not sure what's the point of marrying philanthropy and wine sales. But the philanthropy as marketing seemed one of the least random details of the evening, so I let it pass without debate. Besides I didn't work at Lehman, so I have less to atone for.
He poured me a taste from the dregs of the final bottle of white wine. The 2007 8 Chardonnay from Vineyard 7&8. It was... curious. And gratifyingly cold.
Vineyard 7&8 is a boutique, ineptly-named winery in Northern California. The Chardonnay had nice cut on the attack, but way too much new French Oak everywhere else.
A check on the winery website leads me to believe, the owners are in fact Thurston Howell III and his wife, Lovey. They have outsourced both the viticulture and the wine-making, being one of several wineries to have have employed Luc Morlet since he left his illustrious post as wine-maker at the illustrious Peter Michael Winery. Morlet recently announced his own private label, so the skeptic in me thinks the Howells will soon be needing new staff. I'm sure the Professor could figure out how to stop malolactic fermentation before the wine became indistinguishable from a dairy product.
I couldn't bear to drink the red, a Cabernet Sauvignon also from California, in the dense, humid heat of the garage.
So instead I wandered around, dodging photographers and grease-jockeys, wondering about the tax advantages that were no doubt realized by pretending your antique car collection was a working garage.
Perhaps that's unfair.
Maybe it's not a tax-hedge?
Maybe the cars are merely a Hong Kong financier's indulgence to one of his many elaborate hobbies. A list which would seem to include not only vintage cars, but also diamond jewelry, culty New World wines and...
the Miss Universe pageant.
August 1, 2010
I know, I know. I'm falling behind on my Lab reports.
Look, there's a lot of work involved relocating a cutting-edge research facility. Plus I'm in a new sphere of influence and much in demand. If it's not this panel, it's that presentation.
But I'm aware of what my priorities should be and I'll soon have myriad reports to deliver.
In the meanwhile, I've been busy looking for a chef for the Lab's cafeteria. As you can imagine, this is an important detail in the Lab's operations. It's not just anyone who can whip up a paring menu for orange wines after all.
So I've been roaming the back streets and alleys of Hong Kong, looking for someone with the right skill set and disposition. My search carried me to ABC Kitchen, which isn't so much a restaurant as it's a food stall. On the uppermost floor of the Queen Street Cooked Food Market in Sheung Wan.
Whatever end of the grocery shopping spectrum Whole Foods is on, Cooked Food and Wet Markets are at the other end. The U.V. to the Whole Food's Infra-red. The ground floor is typically populated by half naked men who are cutting the heads off chickens or bashing huge fish into bloody pulp and slightly resentful looking women sitting next to fresh produce that might have been grown on Mars (dragon fruit?). If there is a second floor, it's usually a mixed bag of service-oriented stalls (shoe repair, dry cleaning) and small stores. The top floor is where the Cooked Food section always is. It often looks like a backwater Bingo Parlor sponsored by Marlboro.
So my expectations were low.
But the ABC Kitchen was sensational. They have a wine list that would be unexceptional except for the fact that finding a wine list at a Cooked Food Market is enormously exceptional. They pour a House Red and a House White that changes with supply, and I thought that a charming detail.
Joe the Owner was trained at M on the Fringe, which managed for 20 years to be Hong Kong's hippest restaurant. Joe loves having his own gig. And he seems to really enjoy cooking for the grandmothers who hang out at the Cooked Food Market.
So I am not confident I will be able to lure him away.
But I'll need to come back several times to try.
July 22, 2010
It is a tough transition from owner to employee, but having sold the Lab I am managing to struggle through.
I have discovered one sensational silver-lining: My corporate expense account.
I was told by the new ownership that I should not be shy about food and entertainment expenses where, in my judgement, the prestige of the Lab would benefit.
So I went to lunch in Melbourne, Australia and expensed the whole thing.
Foul-mouthed, fire-breathing celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay has opened a new outlet for his Maze restaurant in the Metropol annex of the Crown Casino. I'm not sure it justifies the Hell's Kitchen bullying, but the food is sensational. I don't even like cauliflower and am still jonesing for more of the veloutBut the quality of the food is almost beside the point, because the wine list is... I'm afraid my own refined sense of hyperbole may fail me here... the wine list is perhaps the best I've ever seen.
Which is not what you would expect in the opulent decadence of a casino-adjacent, hotel bistro. But there it was, a leather-clad binder sitting on my lap.
Page 1, sparkling by the glass: AndrClouet, Ros . That must be a misprint.
But I turned through the pages of the list, I found each a revelation. Outstanding local wines from Ocean Eight and Punch. Grower Champagnes. Interesting examples from small producers in the Jurancon and from Provence.
How does this happen? In a casino no less? We're definitely not in Vegas, Toto. Or Macau for that matter.
The list has been painstakingly assembled by Lincoln Riley, an award-winning sommelier who has apparently been given some latitude to build a list that's a little unusual and well worth raving about.
Lincoln is an unpretentious, amiable fellow. He possesses that rare combination of being deeply knowledgeable about wine without being boring. Lincoln gets really excited about the wines he pours and his enthusiasm is contagious. I mentioned in passing that I thought the Mornington Peninsula was, thanks to global warming, emerging as a top-flight wine region. He started bouncing in his shoes, then disappeared into the cellar to emerge quickly with a Chardonnay from Allies, an indie producing team, that I'd not previously known.
From a single vineyard, Garagiste, Chardonnay 2008, has amazing depth and structure. It's linear in a way that implies walking up a staircase. The mandarine acidity on the finish literally feels like it happens on a different level of your palate. Pear fruit and ginger spice play tug-o-war with your tongue. It probably needs 12 months for the oak to settle, but this was a remarkable and intriguing stretch of the standard definition of Chardonnay. And confirms my global warming theory.
Under Riley's stewardship (get it?), Maze is launching a series of Sommelier tasting menus and a private Sommelier's dining area. So my only concern now is how many times can I come back here before accounting starts to kick back the receipts?
Mh goi (means thanks) to Alicia for organizing and for sending the top photo of the Sommelier's room.
July 18, 2010
A result of the rapid and simultaneous conclusion of several DIRT SEARCH investigations at the Lab's Farewell to Los Angeles gala, we've had quite a bit to say about terroir recently.
So I thought it might be worth jotting down a few quick notes on the subject.
Terroir isn't like pornography. You don't always know it when you see it. It's not the minerality. It's not the earthy smell. At least, not always. And drinking different wines from the same and adjoining vineyards only solves a part of the mystery. Because you need to taste longitudinally too; you have to drink the same wine over a span of vintages to really understand that ethereal combination of grape, soil, weather and wine-maker.
You also have to drink other wines from the neighborhood. And wines from across town. Because to understand the specificity of a vineyard, you need to need a good handle on the generality of the grape as well.
If it were possible to produce a neutral example of Pinot Noir or Riesling or any grape, you could start with a "fruit baseline". Then you could compare your baseline to site specific wines. And the divergence would be vineyard, climate, viticulture (terroir) and... manipulation (not terroir). But there's no such mythical grape. So learning to recognize terroir requires a lot of experience. And Dirt Search experiments are a good way to gain it. So is drinking with people who have a lot of their own experience. So is drinking un-manipulated wines -- which helps you learn how to spot wines that are manipulated, as some call them: spoofulated.
But, in the end, why should terroir be this Holy Grail of booze consumption? Why should we work so hard to figure it out? And what do we get if we do?
All fair questions.
And the answer is further complicated by the fact that most people who talk about it don't actually know what it is.
So why should we bother with terroir?
For me, I guess I just love the idea of a moment in time trapped in a bottle. It's romantic, sure. And like all romantic ideas, it's a little bit silly. But the search for that mystical trinity of vineyard, climate and wine-maker, all captured in a single vintage and bottled for safe-keeping seems to me something worth looking for.
July 14, 2010
Here's another story about how Hong Kong works.
I needed to outfit my new executive suite. My efforts to buy John Thain's office furniture on eBay were unsuccessful (maybe I bid too low, but I'm not a believer in antique toilets; I'm long progress) so I went out into Hong Kong in search of furniture. In general, the closer you get to the Chinese border, the better the deal. But I don't have time for bargain hunting. I'm a busy guy. Moving an oenology lab to a foreign country eats a lot of time.
So I went to Horizon Plaza.
Horizon Plaza is a non-descript office building in an industrial section of Ap Lei Chao (a small island connected to Hong Kong by a bridge). It caters mostly to locals and houses 28 levels of furniture stores. It's overwhelming. 28 floors of furniture! I find the place makes you physically dizzy. There is also a small appliance outlet (10th floor), an Italian delicatessen (6th floor) and an Armani outlet (22nd floor).
And on the 16th floor, wedged between a ceiling fan supplier and a custom mattress manufacturer, I discovered the finest collection of artisanal Champagnes I have ever seen in a single location.
Vouette et Sorbée.
Vilmart & Cie (nearly the full range!)
Bereche et Fils
David Leclapart (the full range!)
And more. That's just the short list.
I still have bruises from pinching myself.
Boutique Wines specializes in small producers from New Zealand and Australia. Their book features some outstanding producers, like Cullen from Margaret River and Felton Road from Central Otago. But there are few artisanal independents. No cult stars or natural wine freaks.
The Champagne list is another story. It's one of those lists that is easier to describe by who's not on it. When I suggested that I was a big fan of the wines of Benoit Tarlant, the Brut Zero in particular, Peter Nicholas, General Manager for BW, said, "We'll try to source those for you." How's that for service? I bet Peter knows how to get to the post office.
I have no idea why Boutique Wines is hidden amongst the sofas and dining sets of Horizon Plaza. And I don't care. I only hope the birds don't eat the trail of bread crumbs I left from the store to the doors of my office.
On the spot, I decided to spend the budget allocated for office wall sconces on Champagne. I've been looking for Leclapart's wines for at least 3 years. I'll drink them in the dark if I have to.
Oh, and there's one more thing about how things work in Hong Kong. Boutique Wines delivers your order to your house for no extra charge.
July 12, 2010
I admit it has taken us a bit longer than expected to get things going in Hong Kong, but we are finally open for experiment in Guangzhou.
I'm not exactly sure why the delays, but here's a little insight into how Hong Kong works.
I took the elevator down to the lobby of our new building. I asked the woman working at reception where the post office was.
With a bright smile, she effectively told me, "You can't get there from here."
It was too far to walk. Too short to taxi. There was a bus, but the stop wasn't convenient and you might have to transfer to get back. She got out maps to show me. A colleague joined her. Both of them trying their best to be helpful as they delivered the disappointing news that the post office was beyond my reach.
By the time I stepped away from the desk, even their manager had joined the discussion.
I thanked them for their help and trudged slowly back to the elevator banks. I was dejected, my disappointment obvious in the slump of my shoulders. I could feel their pitying stares on my back, when one of them asked, "What you need at Post Office?"
Stamps, I said.
"Oh, stamps! We have stamps right here."
Hong Kong is efficient. Hong Kongers are eager to be helpful, almost obsequiously so. But it helps to know how to ask for what you want, directly and without abstraction.
July 9, 2010
DIRT DINNER. Last Part.
In Hollywood, the Martini Shot is the last shot of the day. Legend has it this is because the next shot comes out of a glass.
And so out of glass, we chased the end of our farewell evening.
The wine from the Chateau d'Yquem is arguably the greatest Sauternes in the world. Though I don't know who you'd get to argue about this. The Chateau Raymond-Lafon is famous for being next door to the Chateau d'Yquem, and its wines are often marketed as such. The "shelf-talker" next to the bottle I bought said, "Next-door to Yquem for 1/3 the price!" (Maybe it was 1/8th... I don't remember exactly).
Raymond-Lafon is owned by Pierre Meslier and his family. Meslier was the long-time manager of Yquem. So there is more than just geographical proximity in play.
And yet, there is nothing similar about these wines. Except for the fact they are wines.
The Raymond-Lafon smelled like caramelized prunes and tastes of sweet apricot jam. There was nothing that suggested proximity to Yquem. No common thread. No shared Dirt.
The Yquem meanwhile was beguiling. A seductive enigma. An aromatic Siren. One amongst us said dreamily, "I just want to keep smelling this. Forever."
At a point in the evening when we were all half in the bag, this wine gently and unpretentiously claimed our full attention. It was a mind-spinning, ethereal swirl of apple and pear, quince, pineapple, fresh apricot, lime pith, honey, vanilla, firefly glow and white magic.
It simply stole the show.
The perfect wine to end a beautiful dinner with dear friends. To toast the Rational Denial Lab's illustrious tenure in Los Angeles and to christen our forthcoming Asian adventure.
So that, everybody, is a wrap.
July 8, 2010
DIRT DINNER. Part Three.
I feel like Wyatt Earp on a wander back through old stomping grounds.
Been there. Done that. At this corral, anyway. The Stone Corral.
But for those of you lacking eiditic memory, a quick review.
In 2001, Brian Talley converted a 27-acre plot of grazing land into a vineyard planted with Pinot Noir. Two other winemakers, from Kynsi and Stephen Ross, shared the development costs in exchange for long-term access to the grapes grown. The 5 blocks of the resulting Stone Corral vineyard were each divided into thirds, each to be shared by the three participants.
And at our farewell dinner, we drank all three side by side.
The Talley and the Kynsi wines were quite similar (not surprisingly). The Talley perhaps had a slightly defter touch wood-wise. You felt like you had better access to the fruit. But the Kynsi was energetic and slightly more complex with hints of sandalwood and cola. It's tough to know with any precision where the varietal profile stops and the specific vineyard starts, but both of these wines seemed to provide great transparency to the Dirt of the Stone Corral.
The Stephen Ross entry was an altogether different wine. It was bigger and concentrated. The dense cherry fruit mixed with plum and dark fruits, heaps of dry extract and too much mocha on the finish.
As with the New Zealand wines, the exercise was not about subjective judgements, but -- very subjectively -- I can't help but think the hyper-extraced wine makes a poorer window to the vineyard.
July 6, 2010
DIRT DINNER. Part Two.
Three wines. Three winemakers. One vineyard (pictured topographically at right).
This experiment is not so much ours as it is theirs -- the "they" being, the generous souls at Felton Road Wines and their co-consipirators from Pyramid Valley Vineyards and Craggy Range. We at the Lab are just the gleeful beneficiaries of the results.
Here's the story as we know it. A fellow named Owen Calvert bought a vineyard. Owen is generally regarded as a really good guy. He and his wife spend most of their time in bleak places providing aid and assistance to people in need; they are UN relief workers. Their vineyard is just across the road from the Felton Road winery, so Owen asked if Felton Road might like to manage the vineyard and use the fruit.
They thought it would be a better idea for Gareth King (Felton Road's aces viticulturist) to manage the vineyard (bio-dynamically) and to let three different winemakers make a wine from fruit branded as coming from the Owen Calvert Vineyard. In that, the vineyard would become a known entity, and when Owen Calvert returned home from his long missions, he might have something of sustainable value at the end of his porch.
So each of the three parti-
cipating wineries gets an allocation of what is essentially the same fruit and from that they make their own expression of what the vineyard has provided.
What better window to Dirt could there be?
The 2006 is the first vintage of this collaboration. And we carefully cellared an example of each wine, patiently waiting for them to blossom.
Then we sold the Lab and decided to drink up.
The Pyramid Valley Vineyard pinot smells of rich cherry fruit and loamy soil. It is elegant, long and linear, revealing in turns cherry, plum and nectarine, then spice, and stones. It has a lithe, almost feminine quality. It caresses the tongue like velvet.
The Felton Road wine offers similar aromas, if with a slightly more pronounced rustic, earthy tone. The fruit seems brighter -- cherry, tart plum and nectarine (could this last orchard fruit be the clue to the vineyard?). This is less delicate, less linear and the cooperage is somewhat more obvious. But it is, like the first, sensuously delicious.
The Craggy Range is also very, very good. It is the least earthy and mineral of the three, but the most fruit forward. There is, alas, no nectarine here -- but I'm not giving up my theory without further tests!
The family resemblance between the three is unmistakable. These wines are like brothers. The Marx Brothers. One obvious and upfront. One a thoughtful crowd-pleaser. And one silent and brooding, taut with mystery.
Are we any closer to our elusive goal? Have we found Dirt? Perhaps. But it's not like terroir drops down from the ceiling and quacks like a duck with the secret word.
To be continued...
July 4, 2010
DIRT DINNER. Part One.
After my last post, a few of you called (the old switchboard at the Lab rings through to a service now) to complain.
It wasn't a quiz. At least, not intentionally so. I (wrongly) assumed the thematic context of the dinner would be obvious from the wines listed.
The experimental theme of the dinner was "Wines from the Same Dirt." In the case of the two Pinot Noir flights, all were wines from the exact same vineyard and vintage -- one in New Zealand; one on California's Central Coast. In the case of the Champagnes and the Sauternes, the wines were from adjoining, or adjacent, at least, nearby vineyards.
The Champagnes are from Vertus. A place I'm disappointed to admit, I have not been. But I have Champagnista par excellence Peter Liem to thank for a research note. Some time ago, on his abandoned blog, he wrote:
Not to be missed is Veuve Fourny’s Millésimé 2002 Blanc de Blancs, sourced exclusively from parcels in Les Barillées and Les Monts Ferrés in the heart of the slope (the same terroir, incidentally, as Larmandier-Bernier's outstanding Terre de Vertus).
Sensing opportunity, I promptly located a bottle of the wines from each producer. I would have preferred to match vintages as well. But it's not a perfect world, and I was happy just to find examples of both wines. Believe me. It wasn't easy. The Veuve Fourny was from 2000. The Larmandier-Bernier a 2004 (although labeled NV).
Both wines were beautiful. The Larmandier-Bernier a steely, tensile expression of Chardonnay with floral aromas and a salty minerality. The Veuve Fourny was more expansive and opulent wine. Would be hard to pick a favorite, which, thankfully, was not the exercise.
Discovering something about the underlying terroir was the point. In this pair, it remained elusive. The commonalities seemed to have more to do with the properties of Chardonnay than shared earth. Terroir is an elusive little bugger. And not so easily revealed.
Especially when, as we did, you hurry through the tasting, anxious to get to the next flight of wines... Stay tuned.
July 2, 2010
I've been procrastinating this report. A surface scratch of the cover of any pop psychology manual will tell you why. But I'm knuckling down. The wine culture in Hong Kong is rich and interesting and deserves its reportage. However, before I can properly commence our work here in Asia, I must formally conclude the all-important California chapter of the Lab's illustrious history.
As we packed up our gear and shipped much of the Lab's cellars overseas, I did manage to strategically conclude a few key experiments before turning over control to our new Far East ownership.
The Lab's final farewell was a deep search for DIRT. Surely, our favorite experimental past-time.
Brothers Stork, the elder being the General Manager of the Patina Restaurant Group, organized a sensational dinner that we paired with a number of DIRT THEMED wines (list below). We were joined by a few kindred spirits, ex-officio Lab contributors, and even Lou Amdur of Lou (on Vine).
It was an evening of much celebration and some small sadness. Parting is indeed difficult. We don't all get a send-off like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar after all.
So I will tease you with a list. And in subsequent days offer a few, tear-stained notes on the wines.
Larmandier-Bernier Brut (non dose) Terre de Vertus 1er Cru, 2004,
and from an adjacent parcel in the same vineyard block on a hillside in Vertus,
Veuve Fourny & Fils Brut Vertus 1er Cru Blanc de Blanc, 2000.
All from the same vineyard/vintage.
2006 Craggy Range Calvert Vineyard Pinot Noir
2006 Felton Road Calvert Vineyard Pinot Noir
2006 Pyramid Valley Vineyards Calvert Vineyard Pinot Noir
All from the same -- though different -- vineyard vintage.
2006 Talley Vineyards Stone Corral Vineyard Pinot Noir
2006 Kynsi Stone Corral Vineyard Pinot Noir
2006 Stephen Ross Stone Corral Vineyard Pinot Noir
2003 Chateau d'Yquem
And from (allegedly) the winery across the road,
2003 Chateau Raymond-Lafon
mes amis. .
June 22, 2010
June 21, 2010
I'm far from agnostic on the subject of biodynamics. Regular readers know I drank deeply of the Buried Cow Horns kool-aid (you have to search "biodynamic" if you want to see the full catalog). Our second Lab Report even featured this photo of Rudy Steiner.
Regular visitors also know I have no truck with facile New Age charlatanism (unless I stand to make serious profits from claiming otherwise). We're even on record calling the patron saint of biodynamics an "all around weirdo".
For me, the simple facts are these. I like to buy wine from farmers. And I like to drink wine that says something about when and where it came from (terroir). Biodynamics is a good clue for me about what's in the bottle and how it got there. I'm also aware that biodynamics in practice is fairly fluid and very flexible. Unless practiced incorrectly, it's not a strict orthodoxy. In fact, some adherents don't even include biodynamic on the label (Chidaine, Huet, Pyramid Valley Vineyards, et al). And maybe it's many adherents. After all, how would you know?
There are other facts to consider. I've had some crap biodynamic wine. I've been told that biodynamic treatments include too much copper. I don't know jack about actual agriculture, but throwing a heavy metal around your fields doesn't sound like a super-great idea. And culty "wine" maker Frank Cornelissen told one of the Lab staff recently (Hi Annie!) that biodynamics is still lost in the wrong paradigm because, "It tries to be a cure."
So where do I come out on biodynamics? I find the whole mystical, occultish approach to making alcohol to be very sexy and totally inane.
But what do I know? Maybe giant vortexes from the dark side of the moon do have an impact on phenolic ripening. Maybe magnetic fields do wreck the complexity of intermingling polyphenols. Maybe it's not a coincidence that Druids and Jedi Knights wear the same sorts of cloaks.
But if the wine tastes great, who cares? That's where I am on this. Except I do care about the Jedi/Druid thing.
It is true my brand of studied indifference to all things religious is perhaps unique (you see what I did just there?). It certainly is at Stu Smith's house.
A little context: Stuart Smith is one of two brothers who run Smith-Madrone in St Helena. I think their Riesling is among the best in California; it might even be the best one. They farm steep, hillside vineyards with what seems to be a sustainable approach to viticulture. They make their wines in "artisanal" fashion. In the past, I've even swapped a few emails with Stu and he seems like a charming and interesting guy. I love everything about this producer.
Except this. Stu Smith has started a new blog: Biodynamics is a Hoax. The vitriol is dense. He is seething mad about Rudy Steiner's posthumous success. I mean, he's seriously pissed off about this stuff.
Why does he care?
I have no idea why.
Are we seriously expected to debate this stuff? And what would that look like?
My vortex is bigger than yours. Your magnetic fields suck. I can't fight you because it's a root day.
Come on. Does anyone really care? I don't care. Please join me in not caring.
But whether I care is beside the point. Biodynamics is emerging as a major trend in viticulture. And the wine press, its new media arm in particular, is taking up the cause -- both for and against -- with verve.
So I thought the Lab should do its part and provide a small measure of community education on the topic.
Tomorrow we'll publish a short, reasonable/rational, and yet still passionate defense of biodynamics and all it's wonderful hippy mysticism and occult fantasia. It was written in counterpoint to Stuart Smith's new blog. And I think it's is worth reading.
May the Force be with you.
June 18, 2010
I wanted to put up a few more (hisptomatic) snapshots from my trip to Seramai.
Because it makes me feel good.
If anyone wants to build their dream house on a pristine and private beach on the Sea of Cortez. They should check in with these guys:
And then let me know because I will be coming to visit.
Posted by Director, Lab Outreach at 5:42 PM
June 17, 2010
I mentioned previously that the next few reports would be self-indulgent bravado.
None more than this one.
Before setting sail to Hong Kong, I had the opportunity to visit a resort development on Mexico's Baja peninsula. It is a spectacular and pristine 600 hectares on the Sea of Cortez. There is a plan to build an Aman resort and a number of luxury residences on the spot which features 360 degree views of... well...nothing. It is a place perhaps most amazing for the fact that in every direction, as far as you can see, there is the barest hint of humanity. I have never felt so wonderfully lost from the world.
Normally, I wouldn't include such a trip in the category of Lab Field Trip. Baja does have a wine growing region with some history and potential, the Guadalupe Valley, but we were nowhere near it. In fact, after we landed at the airport near the sleepy fishing village of Loreto, it seemed we were nowhere near much of anything.
And yet, just off the old town plaza, in the shadows of the Mission Loreto, there is a new tapas and wine bar called Cava. The menu looked great, but we were too early for dinner.
But we did grab a bottle of Argentine rose from the Cava wine shop. I'm sure it was good. But after 10 margaritas, it's hard to know for sure.
June 12, 2010
Is it more racially insensitive that I find it fun to make puns with colonial-era Asian place names? Or that I use them interchangeably, as if Thailand and China were just one big "Asialand"?
While you form your views on that, I'm happy to report that even before we've officially opened the doors of the Lab's new Ghaungzhou facility, we have welcomed our first visitor.
In town for Altaya Wines "Passion for Pinot 2010" event, Pyramid Valley Winery's Mike Weersing dropped by the Lab's HK executive suites carrying a bottle of the current release of his Earthsmoke Vineyard Pinot Noir, 2008.
The wine is unfiltered, unfined and only modestly sulphured, and so is a light, cherry red and a little, dare I say... murky. The nose is a delicate mix of chalky soil, orange -- blossoms and oil -- a late rush of red fruits and a green note that I would have previously associated with stems.
Mike mentioned that he gets that comment often about this wine, but the truth is they do not press whole cluster, but fastidiously de-stem all the fruit by hand and so press whole fruit. He thinks the aroma may have something to do with the fermentation that starts inside the berry before being crushed.
The wine tastes much like it smells, with sour cherry and currant layered in. It is distinctly linear, taut, and pulsing with a tensile energy.
When I tasted the first vintage from this vineyard, 2006, it reminded me much of the Burgundy made by Michel Lafarge in Volnay. But the more experience I gain with this wine, the more it tastes like itself. I still think the flavor profile and structure is reminiscent of the French counterpart. But the profoundly earthy note that forged the link on my original impression seems, in this bottle, to be less like Lafarge's newly turned soil and more chalky and dry. Perhaps more like Canterbury dirt?
A final note for the big geeks out there (you know who you are): This wine is very high pH. Something like 4.2 (with 3.6-3.8 being "normal"). As part of his evolving non-interventionist philosophy, Mike eschews acidifying his wines now. Preferring to take them as they come, as it were. In spite of the high pH, this wine was fresh, youthful and lively. It offered more than sense of acidity than actual acidity.
Curious to see what this drinks like in five years time.
June 9, 2010
In yesterday's post, careful readers would have noted this odd sentence:
"In ethos and character, they were more than Napa."
I don't know what that means either. What I wrote was:
In ethos and character, they (the Peter Michael Chardonnays) were more like Burgundy than Napa.
But a conspiracy involving my thumbs and my laptop's touch pad wreaked some havoc on the piece.
Sorry about that.
Posted by Director, Lab Outreach at 6:43 PM
June 8, 2010
We make little secret of the fact that we are better drinkers than tasters at the Lab. This means that certain experiments require an extra level of thinking to find an appropriate work around.
However, extra thinking was not in view at a recent Lab event; a dinner designed to A) help reduce bottle inventory before the move; B) conclude a long-term Lab experiment; and C) bid farewell to some good friends of the Lab.
One of the Lab's original experiments was designed to test a simple hypothesis: the fancy wines that you are not drinking because they are brutally expensive are not as good as the people who are drinking them want you to believe.
To test this theory, some years ago we worked our way onto the allocation mailing-list for haut-fancy Napa Valley producer, Peter Michael Winery. Through careful, regular purchasing, supplemented with some auction work and cellar scavenging, we were able to assemble to a flight from their La Carriere vineyard -- the steepest and perhaps most site-expressive -- that included a bottle from every vintage from 1999-2007.
We carefully planned a tasting menu to complement the Chardonnays and invited a number of Lab benefactors to a dinner (thanks again G&M!).
In hindsight, it's pretty easy to armchair quarterback what went wrong. We should have commenced the evening with a tasting featuring the entire flight. Guests could have tasted their way through the flight of wines and then returned to their favorites over dinner.
It seems so f---ing obvious now.
Instead, we paired 3 wines with each course.
I did have an odd tingle when the caterer generously poured the first three wines, the oldest ones of the flight. Given that we'd already had a couple rounds of cocktails and Champagne before we sat down to dinner, I ignored the tingle and set right into the wines.
At some point not long after my memory of the evening grows fairly hazy. I was able to reconstruct some of the evening's largesse from my progressively illegible notes. And from there we can perhaps draw a few practical conclusions.
The oldest wine in the flight was just that... old, and had made a recent turn towards vinegar. The next eldest, the 2000, was off, having suffered some refermentation in bottle. The 2001 showed a high degree of oxidation, but was delicious.
The next flight -- and I have no memory of what we ate alongside these wines, but I do remember that the food was sensational -- were the stars of the evening. 2002, 2003 and 2004 were each outstanding. I couldn't really make out much about the specifics in my notes, but I did make several emphatic stars next to the 2002 and noted that the 2003 was noticeably bigger and richer, with more obvious complexity than the other two.
The final flight, the youngest wines, weren't bad, but were all dominated by their barrels, especially the 2006. I seemed to have especially liked the 2005. But it's not always easy to interpret a smiley face.
Setting aside the obvious conclusions with regard to restructuring our tasting procedures, I would say this. These were beautiful Chardonnays. The limestone, honeysuckle-tinged minerality that seems to be the hallmark of this vineyard's terroir was present in each wine, all the way back to 2001. In ethos and character, they are more like Burgundy than Napa. And for that reason, I think it's not entirely unfair to say that, while delicious, I can hardly argue for their quality-to-price ratios. Given these wines fetch $60-75, it's not impossible to find White Burgundies that drink as well for 30-40% less.
Still, if you are going to drink them, it seems that the ideal drinking window goes back a little further than I would have guessed. In 2010, I would have thought the 05 would have stolen the show and the 02 would feel on the downhill slide. But it's clear these wines can -- and perhaps should -- go a little longer in the cellar.
Finally, given the performance of the two oldest wines, both purchased at auction (online), I am now formally skeptical about buying wines in this fashion. I remain a big fan of Winebid.com. But I am more inclined to purchase recent vintages of hard to find European wines that are likely being sold by distributors in a clearinghouse capacity.
Though far from conclusive, the experimental result that suggests a prestige wine is not so great that you should pine over not having any in your cellar is something that will hold me in good stead in Hong Kong.
I would say this, however. This really is an experiment you need to run for yourself. The macro result is fairly obvious. Where the results are most compelling are deep in the realm of the subjective.