February 1999 Newsletter
Wines evaluated last month: 208
Rejected: 178 Approved: 30 Selected: 2
This is the first time we've featured two wines in the same month from wineries which can technically be referred to as negotiants. The French add a second term, eleveur, which really refers to what these people do, elevate the taste to a higher level.
In the case of Castle Rock, the concept is all about costs. Keeping overhead down and controlling costs allows them to offer wines at way below market value. Their longevity in the business is a testament to the concept's success. The fact they've built relationships over the years that have helped source exceptional wines that are not available to anybody else really separates them from the norm.
Our import may have come from the southern hemisphere, but it was certainly "elevated" in California. And what an elevation it is! We have tasted several superb Malbecs from Argentina and haven't been able to feature one because there just wasn't enough available. Fortunately, the grape variety is catching on and enough is being imported to make one available to our members. I'm sure you'll wonder, as we did, just what took so long!
Castle Rock is not your "normal" winery. By that, I mean it has no "formal" winery facility, no vineyards and only three employees, none of whom are on salary.
Castle Rock was founded in 1994 by marketing executive Greg Popovich who had come across a batch of very good wine with no home through the efforts of his good friend, Joe Briggs. Joe is owner of his own successful winery, August Briggs, and grew up in the wine business. So, Greg purchased the wine, aged it in oak barrels in a space he rented from another winery. Joe Briggs finished and bottled it.
In Europe, Popovich would be referred to as a Negociant Eleveur. He negotiates a price for wine that is just fermented and then finishes it himself, in other words, "elevates" it to a higher status through blending and barrel aging. It's the old adage that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. "Often times we taste wines that have promise but need acid, or oak or some other component they lack. Finding the counterpart helps give flavor and complexity to the wine that could not come about if any of the individual wines were used on their own."
Most of these wines are available for anyone to purchase, but a few are not. Because of Greg and Joe's contacts, they sometimes acquire small lots of wine that never make it to the market. This is the key to finding and blending wines and keeping the price at a point where it becomes an outstanding value.
Pinot Blanc was once the heir apparent to Chardonnay. It shares Chardonnay's lush fruit flavors and marries beautifully with oak. It features additional banana and almond components that make it more exotic than Chardonnay. Unfortunately, it is very finicky in the vineyard and often will produce less grapes than Chardonnay on the same amount of land. Tough competition against the most popular white grape in the world! But, when properly handled and blended, it turns into the sublime offering we feature this month.
Heady, racy and extracted peach, pear and nectarine fruit flavors surrounded by rich vanilla extract, clove and cinnamon. The mouth is full and expansive offering a myriad of flavors and a popping finish. Sings with full-flavored shellfish dishes, chicken or veal. Try with the Paella recipe on page 6.
Perfect now. May
age a year or two.
Our import selection this month represents a unique departure from the norm. The grapes were grown and fermented in Argentina, qualifying if for it's import position. However, the wine was barrel-aged and finished in Sonoma. Let's start with the grape.
Malbec may be most-associated with the Cahors region of France, a little known grape growing area in Bordeaux, but it is proudly the national grape of Argentina. This may be committing heresy, but quite frankly we've tasted a lot of wines from Cahors and found them to be intolerably astringent, bitter and generally hugely unappealing. The same grape grown in the Mendoza region, and particularly in a small microclimate called Lujan, produces an absolute powerhouse of a wine featuring intense, black fruit flavors, spice and extract. It grows in Mendoza better than anywhere else.
This fact was not lost on one of California's premier winemakers and owner of one of the most sought after names in the business. His estate Cabernet sells for $40 and is worth every penny of it. This winery doesn't make much of its own wine because its estate vineyard only produces so much. So, they source wines from around the world. This Malbec was a component in one of these wines, but he had too much. One taste is all it took for it to become a selection. They didn't want their name used in this newsletter, but if you look on the back label you'll get an idea of who we're talking about.
Because of the cost involved, most of the grapes grown in Mendoza are pruned and harvested by machine. This is very cost effective, but at the expense of grape quality. The grapes for Villa Mendoza were pruned and harvested by hand. This preserves the essences of the grape and that translates into the spry fruit and luscious finish that comes along with each sip. In the hands of a lesser winemaker, you'd never pay any attention to this wine. When it comes from a master, the wine is transformed into the little beauty you hold in your glass.
Very dark and intense color with a purple edge and black core. Ripe vanilla and plum/spice scents signal the wallop to follow. Big,
awesome flavors burst in your mouth. A heady mixture for heady foods like the Cabbage beef rolls on page 6.
Perfect now. Will
"Paul, How important is the smelling of the cork, pouring the wine from the punt and other rituals?."
B.N.S. Denver, CO.
I'm so glad you asked. This is a pet peeve of mine, because many of these rituals, as you so aptly called them are pure nonsense. I have no idea where the smelling of the cork thing originated. My experience tells me that all corks, except those that are fouled by a nasty bacteria that smells like wet cardboard, smell like cork.
This ritual started over 300 years ago in France by the kings who asked to see the cork before drinking the wine. The major chateaux branded their corks even back then. So royalty, constantly aware of an errant heir trying to edge up to the thrown quicker than the king would like, would check to make sure that the cork which came out of the bottle had the same name as the label. If not, then the king figured it was not the real thing, or worse yet, tainted. Probably a few heads were lost before that little trick was abandoned.
Many feel that the punt on the bottom of the bottle is for wine stewards to place their thumb in and pour the wine. The punt is there so that after wines age and begin to throw sediment, the bottle is stored for a day or two standing upright, allowing the sediment to fall to the bottom. Because of the small amount of space at the bottom of the punt, the sediment collects and compacts so that when the wine is decanted, it stays together without going into the wine.
I've seen people return bottles of wine in a restaurant because the cork was wet or there were tartrate crystals on it. The crystals look like glass, but are harmless and tasteless and actually a sign that the wine wasn't overly processed in order to remove them. A wet cork means nothing. Tasting means everything.
Another misconception is that if there is mold on the top of the cork, the wine is bad. It just means that the wine was stored properly, under fairly humid conditions. Humidity promotes mold growth, but it's on the outside of the cork, not the inside. Once again, tasting is the only yardstick.
Most wines are unflawed to begin with, and most stay that way. However, being unflawed doesn't mean it tastes good. It just means there isn't something chemically wrong with it. Finding wines that have proper taste and balance is another story. We should know. We taste enough of them every day.
Adventures in Food
Here are two favorites that will hold up to the powerful choices we have this month.
4 pounds chicken,skinned and cut into
1/4 cup olive oil
1 onion chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 green bell pepper
2 cups long grain rice
1 pinch saffron
4 cups chicken broth mixed with
1 cup Castle Rock Pinot Blanc
1 lb green peas, shelled, or 1 8oz pkg.
1 pound raw shrimp
1 cup chopped ham
1 Italian sausage sliced
24 cherrystone clams in shells
Prepare all ingredients before beginning assembly. Scrub clams well. Peel shrimp. Slice sausage and chop the ham. Cut chicken into serving-sized pieces. Boil green peas until barely tender. Chop onions and garlic.
Ina heavy skillet or Paella pan, heat butter and olive oil. Add chicken and sausage. Sauté 1-2 min., add bell pepper, garlic and onion. Cook until chicken is still pink on the inside. Remove all and set aside. Add more butter, olive oil (if needed) and shrimp. Cook no more than a minute until pink, but still raw on the inside. Remove and set aside.
In separate saucepan, bring chicken broth to a simmer. Add saffron. Add butter to paella pan and uncooked rice. Ladel broth over rice and stir until rice is cooked, adding more broth as it is absorbed by the rice. Do not allow rice to cook completely. It will finish cooking with the other ingredients. You won't use all the stock.
Stir the chicken/shrimp mixture into the rice. Bury some of the
clams partially into the mixture. Place rest of clams on top. Bake at 350 degrees until heated through and clams are open.
Discard clams that do not open. Serves: 8.
CABBAGE-BEEF ROLLS WITH RICE
1 cabbage head
1 pound lean ground beef
1 onion chopped
1 1/2 cups cooked rice
3 tablespoons butter melted
1/2 cup soft bread crumbs
1/4 teaspoon ground sage
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 dash ground nutmeg optional
4 tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups tomato juice
Cut the core from cabbage. Under running water, carefully remove about 15 leaves to use for the recipe. Have about 2 quarts water boiling; add 1 teaspoon of salt. Dip the cabbage leaves in boiling water, 3 at a time, for about 3 minutes. Remove with tongs, drain and set aside.
Mix the meat, onion, cooked rice, butter, bread crumbs, sage, pepper, nutmeg and salt. Lay a cabbage leaf on a flat surface. Put 2-4 tablespoons of the mixture on each leaf, depending on the leaf size. Put the meat near the base of the leaf, fold leaf up and over the meat, turning under the sides. This will make about 15 rolls. Place the rolls, seam side down, in a greased 2-quart casserole dish. Make two layers of the rolls. Place this dish on rack over 2 inches of simmering water in wok or large heavy pan with rack. Cover pan and steam for 35 minutes. Serves: 6.
Melt butter in skillet. Add salt, chili powder and flour. Cook over high heat, stirring constantly, until mixture comes to a boil. Add tomato juice, return to heat and cook until it boils and thickens.
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