July 22, 2010

My New Expense Account Rocks

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 velouté. But 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: André Clouet, Rosé, NV. 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 Moment in the Dirt

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

The Motherlode!

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!)
André Clouet
Bereche et Fils
Cédric Bouchard
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

Grand Opening: Guangzhou Labs

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 11, 2010


July 9, 2010

The Martini Shot


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.

Stay tuned.

July 8, 2010

Back to the Stone Corral

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

Three Pinots, One Guy Named Owen


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 Bubbles


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

Au Revoir Los Angeles

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.

First Course
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

Second Course
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

À bientôt mes amis. À bientôt.