Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Tyranny of Tasting Notes

Scott Rowson of Show-Me Eats pointed me over to an article in the Riverfront Times by Dave Nelson, who discusses his disdain for the point-rating system employed by wine critics, most prominently by iconic wine critic Robert Parker. This discussion is an important one; Alder Yarrow of Vinography recently posted his thoughts on the subject in response to a talk given by Eric Asimov, head wine critic for the New York Times.

Some quick background is in order. Until the late 1970's, when Robert Parker decided to drop his law practice to start Wine Advocate and provide independent, objective wine criticism, there wasn't much if any independent wine criticism. It was a common thing for wine critics to be financially involved with wineries and other parts of the industry; not only that, but wine reviews from that era rarely aimed for any kind of objectivity and often provided little to no information about the wine's quality.

Whatever else you can say about the subject, the introduction of an independent wine critic was a fundamentally revolutionary force for the industry. But it didn't happen overnight. The 1982 Bordeaux vintage was panned by most if not all major wine critics; Parker alone went out on a limb, identifying 1982 as a banner year for Bordeaux. When the vintage was released, Parker's status sky-rocketed; since then, Parker has become the biggest single-person brand name in history. His rating systems are criticized precisely because they are so influential; a rating of 90 vs. a 89 can be responsible for millions of dollars in sales and ratings of 95 points and up can create such high demands that some cult wines auction for thousands of dollars a bottle (or at least they did prior to the global financial meltdown).

Dave Nelson isn't the only person criticizing Parker's stylistic preferences; the criticism is often made that Parker's preference for big, massive wines loaded with fruit have driven winemakers all over the world to 'Parkerize' their wines, ie, make their wines in the style that Parker likes as it's easier to get a good rating that way. But the picture isn't so simple; while it's true that Parker does influence the stylistic decisions of many winemakers, the net effect is that wine around the planet has gotten better. The wines of Bordeaux and the Rhone particularly are good examples of this: Parker's reviews and ideas have pushed winemakers to understand the science of winemaking, to use clean equipment and better their vineyard management processes and to find the true potential of the grapes that they grow.

As a consumer, I'm glad of that. Here is Parker's rubric for scoring wines:

In terms of awarding points, my scoring system gives every wine a base of 50 points. The wine's general color and appearance merit up to 5 points. Since most wines today are well made, thanks to modern technology and the increased use of professional oenologists, they tend to receive at least 4, often 5 points. The aroma and bouquet merit up to 15 points, depending on the intensity level and dimension of the aroma and bouquet as well as the cleanliness of the wine. The flavor and finish merit up to 20 points, and again, intensity of flavor, balance, cleanliness, and depth and length on the palate are all important considerations when giving out points. Finally, the overall quality level or potential for further evolution and improvement—aging—merits up to 10 points.

Scores are important for the reader to gauge a professional critic's overall qualitative placement of a wine vis-à-vis its peer group. However, it is also vital to consider the description of the wine's style, personality, and potential. No scoring system is perfect, but a system that provides for flexibility in scores, if applied by the same taster without prejudice, can quantify different levels of wine quality and provide the reader with one professional's judgment. However, there can never be any substitute for your own palate nor any better education than tasting the wine yourself.

That's not so bad as an effort at an objective evaluation of a wine. But as far as a consumer cares about what they're drinking, context is extremely important and point ratings alone don't tell the whole story.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A Cultural Meme Goes Japanese

The iconic wine country movie Sideways has been remade for the Japanese market:

The Japanese version of “Sideways” (which for the moment is still being called “Sideways”) is one of the most intriguing of these cross-cultural experiments. As in the original, the action takes place in California and the road trip involves plenty of wine talk, a leather-harness-clad chase, a jealous-rage beating and a wine-spittoon guzzle.

Plenty of other details, however, have been changed. The two male characters (Michio and Daisuke instead of Miles and Jack) now head from Los Angeles to Napa Valley, instead of traipsing up to Santa Barbara. While wine sales are on the rise in Japan — thanks in part to the comic-book sensation “Kami no Shizuku,” or “The Drops of God,” about a heroic odyssey to find the best wines in the world — a lesser-known wine region like Santa Barbara would still resonate little with audiences. And heading to Napa allowed the filmmakers to weave in some local landmarks. “You can’t do a road trip in California without going over the Golden Gate Bridge,” said Cellin Gluck, the new film’s director.

Link to the story, published in the New York Times, is here.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Sale at Top Ten Wines

While Paul's away, we're having a wine sale.

All Australian wines (over 100 different wines) and Pinot Noir from around the world and on the shelves are 20% off. Everything else is 10% off, except the those 25 wines at the bottom of the page which are listed. The sale starts Saturday, March 21 and ends on Wednesday, April 15. First come first served.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Mark Sulltrop Leaves Bleu?

Rumor on the street is that chef Mark Sulltrop has left Bleu Restaurant and Wine Bar on short notice. If true, I'm sorry to hear that; the restaurant seems to have hurdled many obstacles to opening and losing a chef is a really difficult thing, though not necessarily crippling. Owners Tina Patel and Travis Tucker seem to have a knack for dealing with obstacles and a vision that Columbia seems to have embraced.

Hat Tip: Scott Rowson, Show-Me Eats.

Monday, March 16, 2009

More New Stuff

1. A couple blogs I recommend: Chert Hollow Farm, by Eric Reuter and St. Louis Eats by Joe and Ann Pollock. I met Joe Pollock last night at the Bommarito tasting in St. Louis; really nice guy and his blog seems to be very detailed and well written. Both are good resources if you are interested food and agriculture in Missouri.

2. Great article on Springfield's iconic regional staple cashew chicken in the NYT. A little known-fact is that Springfield is probably the nation's most competitive restaurant industry and serves as the testing ground for most national chains. Tyler Cowen, economist at GMU, posts here briefly about the labor market economics of Chinese restaurants.

3. As previously noted, Jon Poses of We Always Swing Jazz Series is offering customers of Top Ten a $5 discount on seats to the Blue Note 7 concert this Thursday at the Missouri Theatre. The Blue Note 7 recently received some really good press in last Thursday's Tribune.

4. Paul is leaving for South Africa on a wine-buying trip on Thursday! He will return on the 2nd or 3rd of April. We will be posting videos from the trip on your YouTube channel, here. (I haven't uploaded anything yet but check back within the week). If anyone has recommendations or travel tips pertinent to South Africa, leave a comment.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Back from the Bommarito Tasting in St. Louis

Paul and I just returned from the A. Bommarito tasting in St. Louis at the Ritz-Carleton in Clayton. There is a lot for me to talk about; I tasted wines from many different producers and many different regions that are represented in the Bommarito portfolio. There were lot of notable personalities there; for now I will note particularly Dan and Connie Burkhardt of Bethlehem Valley Vineyards in Marthasville, Missouri, as the only Missouri winery represented in Bommarito's portfolio.

I did get a lot of video footage from the tasting, including interviews with both Tony Bommarito Sr. and Tony Bommarito Jr. Tony Sr. is an iconic figure in the Missouri wine market, known for his commitment to integrity in his business; unlike the vast majority of wine distributors he does not play the discounting game. The theory is that heavy discounting signals that your product wasn't a good value in the first place, either because the product is inferior or because you haven't been able to invest appropriately in the kind of activities that add value to your product. I was particularly glad for the chance to talk to Tony Sr. and Tony Jr. as they are very highly regarded in the wine industry and have operated a successful and respected business for many years.

As I mentioned, I did get a lot of video footage (31 clips!), and I will be uploading it to our YouTube account and blogging about specific winemakers in the coming week.

I did run into some interesting industry people: Glenn Bardgett, the wine director at Annie Gunn's; Curtis Reis of Billington Imports, who's done tastings with us in the past; and Andrey Ivanov of Vin de Set.

I will note that Paul and I weren't the only Columbia folks making the trip; Tina from new downtown hotspot Bleu were also in attendance with a good chunk of her staff. It's one thing for owners and managers of restaurants to attend industry events like this by themselves; taking your waitstaff with you is an easy investment that reaps great dividends in terms of the ability to provide sophisticated, intelligence restaurant service. Kudos!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Popping the Cork

Old friend and former co-blogger Jason Rosenbaum stopped by my house last night with a rather tricky problem: the cork on a bottle of pinot noir he was having for dinner had partially disintegrated and the remainder of the cork seemed irredeemably lodged in the bottle. I thought this was a good starting point to sound off about a couple of things.

First, I don't know why producers of low to medium end wines still bother with cork. Screwcaps are much much easier to manage and you can easily recycle. Cork is also susceptible to bacterial infection that on occasion can taint the wine and produce some rather ghastly aromas of moldy basement and putrid socks. And some producers use composite or synthetic corks that are hell to open...sometimes it seems like synthetic corks are superglued to the bottle.

As a former waiter, I can assure you that you're not alone. Many times I've been in embarrassing situations opening bottles of wine for people. Some of these times have been actually rather dangerous: I particularly recall once trying to remove a synthetic cork from a bottle that just would not budge; ultimately I applied so much pressure with the corkscrew hinge that part of the neck of the bottle cracked in my hands, leaving me with a minor but bloody flesh wound. Not something I prefer to happen during table service...

Fortunately, there are some simple solutions. First, breaking the seal between the cork and the bottle is extremely do this, just insert the corkscrew into that space between cork and bottle instead of into the middle of the cork. That should weaken the grip between cork and bottle. Second, don't worry too much about disintegrating corks; worst case scenario is that you'd have to pour the wine into a carafe to filter out cork.

I'll finish off here with a note that I hope you enjoy your weekend. And for people looking to keep up with a really good Missouri political journalist, it doesn't get better than Jason's blog, Capitol Calling.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Sushi And Wine Tasting, Friday, March 13th, 7pm

In preparation for the Sushi and Wine Tasting this Friday, here's a few of my thoughts regarding sushi, sake, and wine pairing.

On Sake
Sake, or Japanese rice wine, comes in a wide array of styles and flavors, but here’s a brief rundown of some of the most useful things to know. First, the styles vary from light to full-bodied, with the lightest being nama zake and progessing to ginjo, daiginjo, junmai, and aged sake. Sweetness is also a variable to take into account; sweeter sakes, like the unfiltered nigori or some aged sakes can be excellent next to spicy foods or desserts.

Sake is made through a process that’s kind of a blend of wine and beer fermentation. The grains are polished to some degree (with more polishing generally being associated with finer sakes), soaked, and cooked. They are then dosed with a dose of a fungus that turns the starch to sugars and a dose of yeast that turns the sugars to alcohol. Some sakes have brewer’s alcohol added before the final step (pressing the rice solids from the liquid sake) to enhance flavor extraction. Some sakes see a secondary fermentation in the bottle and become sparkling sakes; the sparkling sakes found in the US are tend to be sweet and acidic and thus fairly versatile.

Beverage Pairing with Sushi
Opinions are split on serving sake with sushi. Some people find that the ricey qualities of sake are an overwhelming complement to the rice in sushi and that flavors of things like wasabi tend to completely overwhelm the sake; these people tend to serve sake with sashimi or as an aperitif or with dessert exclusively. Others alternatively find much pleasure in matching the more delicate flavors of sake to specific sushis, but sake in general is not a optimal pairing for most foods, tending to be low in acid. Junmai sake particularly tends to have higher acidity; combined with its weightier nature, it can stand up to comparatively richer dishes than most, including and especially cream sauces.

Some prefer serving teas like oolong with sushi, but these are in the minority. Some ales also work. Successful wine pairings will take more care and thought, but they can be extremely rewarding. Low alcohol wines made from Chenin blanc, Riesling, and Gewurtztraminer will do well with spicier sushi; unoaked, minerally chardonnay from Burgundy will have the body, fresh fruit, and minerality to work with most preparations; and the heavier flavors associated with eel or seaweed have been known to do well with Californian Zinfandel or Italian Amarone. Sparkling wine, from Champagne to the sparkling Vouvrays of the Loire or the cavas of Mediterranean Spain, are all well suited to deliver a pleasant accompaniment.

If you'd like to come to the tasting, call us at 573-442-2207 to make reservations. The cost of the tasting is $15 and we request a two bottle purchase.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Playing Catch-Up

A few things from last week that I think are worth mentioning.

Was in St. Louis Thursday night/Friday morning. Dropped by Iggy's Mexican Cantina (located right across from Laclede street classic Humphrey's) for a beer, then made my way to Llewellyn's on MacPherson for a couple more pints. Iggy's wasn't much more than a college bar with a vigorously drunk karaoke scene; Llewellyn's is much more of a pub, with a bartender pulling cask-conditioned beer.

I myself had the good fortune to run into an old high school friend who, like me, followed other academic paths and ended up in the wine and hospitality business and is now working with the acclaimed Vin de Set on Chouteau Avenue. I have not yet been to this restaurant but look forward at perhaps dropping by in the near future. If you've been to this restaurant, leave me a comment below...I'd love to hear about it.

Coming tomorrow: Posts from our Wednesday Wine group and some discussion on sakes in preparation for our Sushi and Wine tasting on Friday.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Downtown Hot Spots

Marcia Vanderlip, food editor/writer for the Tribune, has a really good listing of good places to lunch downtown for around $5. The article is here.

I thought I would throw in a couple extra comments. Formosa is good; the other underrated Chinese restaurant is Jingos, next to the Regency hotel. The prices there are in the $7-$11 range, but the food is excellent. I find the food at Jingos to be a little ligher and more nuanced than Formosa but both places are excellent.

I think Cherry Street Wine Cellar and Bistro also is a place that is often forgotten for lunch. Lunch there is not an extravagant affair; again, prices are extremely reasonable, ranging for a $5 salad to a $15 entree; I personally prefer the Camembert sandwich. The menu is here. Given the quality of the food, this might be the best lunch value in Columbia.

The Indian restaurants downtown (Taj Mahal) are decent but unsatisfying to my southern Indian palate. The food is good but I find it somewhat bland; this is because Indian restaurateurs cater to the bulk of their clientele (aka non-Indians) which means toning down the spices and presenting simple, accessible food.

Other places I stop by semi-frequently: the Artisan for simple, wholesome panini sandwiches, Sub Shop, Sycamore, Teller's.

In the works: My perspective on restaurant winelists around Columbia.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Californian Chardonnay in the New York Times

I'm not an experienced wine drinker yet, but I have been drinking wine long enough to know that people's tastes evolve over time. My personal evolution began typically enough with bad Californian chardonnay that I purchased from the discount bin. It was undrinkable to me and even though I would later on be introduced to some of the cream of the Californian crop--wines like Pahlmeyer, Cakebread Reserve, Kistler, DuMol, Forman, et al--I very quickly discovered that my preference was for wines that weren't overoaked, flabby butterbombs.

Part of the reason why California became known for their oaked, buttery chardonnays is because chardonnay is a grape that's very receptive to winemaking expertise because it tends to be somewhat of a bland, neutrally-flavored grape unless rigorously grown. Mass produced chardonnay tends to produce poor juice that turns into poor wine, high in alcohol and harshly acidic and without much defined fruit. To cover those deficiencies, winemakers can introduce a secondary malo-lactic fermentation that processes the malic acid in the wine into lactic acid (the acid in milk and cream) or they can saturate the wine with the vanillin flavors of oak using a variety of techniques, including dumping wood shavings or chips into the wine. Often, grapes like Columbard that grow even faster and provide higher yields (and hence are cheaper) are blended into wines for filler.

At some point though, it's unfair to castigate that entire segment of the industry. Wine--like any other food--is an agricultural product. And the mega-wineries in California were the companies that got large enough to invest serious money into research, spurring many of the technological and intellectual advances in our understanding of how to make wine.

In any case, Eric Asimov, head wine critic for the New York Times, headed a tasting panel trying chardonnays from Santa Barbara Country that's in today's NYT. Santa Barbara is a region to keep an eye on; at tastings in the last year I've noted that the chardonnays and pinot noirs from the region are not only fairly diverse but generally of a high quality. An excerpt:

While Santa Barbara can trace its winemaking history to the days of the Spanish missions, it is relatively new to the modern age of winemaking. Much of the region’s growth, in fact, has come in the last 15 years, which makes its accomplishments fairly remarkable given the decades spent seeking out the best places to plant vineyards in Northern California, not to mention the centuries of trial and error in Europe.
Still, the wines offer a palpable sense of experimentation. Sometimes they work well, occasionally they do not, and sometimes, well, the jury is still out.
Regardless of the style of the wine, what separated the bottles we liked best from those we rejected can be summed up in one word: balance.
As is often the case in California, the biggest struggle for growers is to get the grapes to ripen slowly and evenly. The sugar, which is fermented into alcohol; the acidity, which offers liveliness, and the other grape components all must be in balance, otherwise the wines can be thin and acidic, or, more likely, overblown, hot and fatiguing.
All of our top wines achieved this precarious balance. Our No. 1, the 2006 Ashley’s from Fess Parker, was rich and full-bodied. Yet it was lively as well, giving shape and focus to the voluptuous flavors and keeping it refreshing.

Some of the other wines on the list, including the wines from Brewer-Clifton, are wines I've tried before; I'll concur here that the Brewer-Clifton wines I've tasted are beastly and massive and hugely concentrated and probably not for the faint of heart.

If you're interested in these wines, we do carry Brewer-Clifton as well as the 2006 Fess Parker 'Ashley's Vineyard' (3.5 cases).

A New Wine from Argentina

Paul and I tasted a strange new Argentinian white today, a blend of Malvasia and Sauvignon blanc with the label New Age. Malvasia particularly is not a grape that I have tasted much of, mostly white blends from Spain and Portugal. The wine that we tasted at lunch was really interesting, having had aromas of orange blossoms and citrus, bubbles to the point of effervescence, and flavors of sweet ripe orange, mineral, and a viscous texture.

Malvasia itself is the general name for a closely related group of varietals that are all genetically fairly similar. The most important specific grape is probably Malvasia bianca, which is responsible for white wines in Mediterranean companies.

Portugal has a number of grape varietals confusingly labeled Malvasia, one of which, Malvasia Candida, is also known as Malmsey, a grape used to make a sweet style of wine called Madeira. Madeira is a style of fortified wine that is made in a process that heats the wine to extremely high temperatures and lets it oxidize. Madeira is consequently famous for being practically indestructible; at auction you might find some extremely old vintages over a hundred years old. They can be really good wines (particularly popular prior to the Civil War in the South, being consumed generally with cigars), but not to everyone's taste.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Blue Note 7 at the Missouri Theatre March 19th

The "We Always Swing" Jazz Series has a concert coming up that caught my attention. The Blue Note 7 will be at the Missouri Theatre on Thursday, March 19th, at 7pm. The group consists of pianist Bill Charlap, Saxophonists Ravi Coltrane and Steve Wilson, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, guitarist Peter Bernstein, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Lewis Nash. They were assembled by legendary label Blue Note Records to celebrate and perform many of the hard bop classics that formed the core of the company's catalog during the mid-1950's to the mid-1960's.

A good review of Mosaic, their album, is here. A blogger in Santa Cruz, raves about them here. Their second show in Yakima, Washington, apparently went very well.

And of course you can YouTube them here.

EDIT: Jon Poses at the We Always Swing series is offering $5 off public seating if you mention this blog post. You can reach him at 573-449-3001.