Bottoms Up

Beer and wine in the Bay Area and beyond

Archive for February, 2007

Mid-winter Barrel Tasting and Auction

There’s something to be said for creating art-on-demand. When you combine it with winemaking, it’s a marvel. People will drop bucks — major bucks — to get rare, one of a kind wines from tiny lots that are otherwise not available. Especially when you put a paddle in their hands.

The mid-winter barrel tasting on Saturday at the Culinary Institute of America, the crux of Premiere Napa Valley’s two-day events, was supposed to inspire bidders for the auction, which took place a few hours later. Boy did it. And how could it not? All you had to do was saunter over to your favorite producer and taste a little genius.

People who dropped major cash last year (this is the event’s 11th year) wore county fair-style ribbons that said Successful Past Bidder, or something like that. Oftentimes, wineries woo these folks — hosting them in restaurants and putting them up — in the hopes of another paddle raise. Relationships are typically forged, too. It’s not just about the money.

On the local front, I ran into the owners of Hap’s of Pleasanton, who had their eye on the Narsai David lot. They got their hands on 4 lots of it last year; but this year, it was out of their budget.
Rather than tell you what all of the nearly 200 vintners showcased, I’ll focus on the biggest sales and surprises:

The highest sale: Rombauer. Five cases of their Cabernet Sauvignon went for $50,000. The dude who got his hands on this, Darioush (5 cases for $17,000) and other name droppers, was V.J. Jazirvar, the chair of Petroleum Club in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the largest private club of its kind in the country.

When I talked to V.J., he struck me as a very jolly guy who was serious about money. He was wearing a white short-sleeved polo shirt and jeans. Very casual. He admitted he’d been drinking at the auction. We all had. Last year, he paid even more for the Rombauer lots. $64,000. “We like to keep our members happy,” he told me. By the time I left, at around Lot. No. 152 of 187 lots, V.J. had spent nearly $100,000 at the auction.”I got a bargain for every one of them,” he said.

Biggest surprise: Hourglass. At the second highest, five cases of their inaugural Cabernet Sauvignon blend, 36 24 36, the numbers that supposedly form the perfect hourglass shape, went for $42,000. I wasn’t familiar with the winery, and neither was my posse. Their schtick is that the three blocks making up the St. Helena appellation provide the perfect balance of black fruit and anise, mint and eucalyptus, and earth and mineral to make a balanced and seductive wine. When and if you try it, let me know.

No surprise: Five cases of Shafer’s Sunspot Cabernet Sauvignon went for $40,000.

Biggest shocker: The undeniably beautiful Schramsberg 1992 J. Schram Late Disgorged I was raving about yesterday only went for $8,000 for five cases. Unbelievable. I wanted to ask V.J. to buy me some, or perhaps find a way to push his paddle-holding hand high up into the air. Falling on him was an option. But hey, it was a professional event.

Posted on Wednesday, February 28th, 2007
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Premiere Napa Valley Parties

Did I mention the parties following the Perspective Tasting at Premiere Napa Valley? So, after an arduous day of tasting 2004 vintages against their older siblings and after that almost spiritual stop over at Shafer, I met my friend Michaela for dinner at Go Fish, the new seafood restaurant in St. Helena.

Earlier that afternoon, Michael Bauer, editor of the San Francisco Chronicle’s food and wine pages and the paper’s restaurant critic, told me Go Fish had its flaws. Namely, giving the patron too many options of what fish to eat, how to cook it and what sauce or reduction to serve it with, sort of like a high-end Askew. At over $20 a pop with no side dish, I heeded his warning and stuck to sushi. It was magnificent. We got the Ken’s Roll — which has chunky spicy tuna mixed with pine nuts (brilliant) — and washed it down with a crisp Domaine de Nizas rose. Heaven.

Afterwards, we headed to Duckhorn, our first of two parties that night. I’ve always been a proponent of marrying wineries and nightlife, meaning that, if millennials are the new wine drinkers, we need the properties to stay open longer, play music and cater to a post-6 p.m. crowd. But I wasn’t so sure when I got to Duckhorn. It almost felt like West LA. At the circular bar, there was a 3-deep line to get to the bartenders — er, I mean tasting room attendants — and the music felt way louder than it should have been. I almost felt dizzy, running into people I recognized, avoiding others. What a scene. Was I in wine country, or out for a Night Writer, my club column?

There was a reason we were there. We got to sample the 1992 J. Schram Late Disgorged Sparkling Wine there, which would sell at auction the next day for thousands of dollars. It was gorgeous — pure Sue Bee honey with French Toast. I didn’t want to leave it and the next day I’d ask for seconds and thirds at their booth. I like how some wineries at Premiere banded together, consolidating their open houses and bringing in more people. Not sure what the relationship is between Schramsberg and Duckhorn, but it worked. After a full day of tasting young Cabernet-based blends, my mouth was puckered out. All I wanted were fresh, citrus-y and effervescent wines to wake up my palate. Good move.

We did leave soon after, for Frog’s Leap, actually. Their newly remodeled property, which I’ve blogged about before, is reminiscent of William Sonoma meets Town & Country, and I knew that if anyone would throw a party to my liking, it would be John, Jonah, Lindsay and the others at this winery. Sure enough, it was like a fancy barbecue. We get there and Jonah, the GM, is sipping a beer. See, his palate was puckered too! We took a spot at the fireplace and sipped their 2005 Sauvignon Blanc, which was chilling in half bottles in a bucket of ice. Mini pizzas and hamburgers dressed in gorgonzola and caramelized onions covered the long and inviting dining table. Later that night, a cute Oklahoma wine buyer by the name of Aaron Meeker would take over at the grill. I ran into Rod Santos, one of the owners of Wine Thieves in Lafayette, and then it started really feeling like a cool house party. Especially when Jonah took us down to the cellar, where old bottles of Margeaux and Latour were chilling at a cozy 57 degrees. My kind of party.

Tomorrow: 11th Annual Mid-Winter Barrel Auction

Posted on Tuesday, February 27th, 2007
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Premiere Napa Valley Perspective Tasting

It’s drizzling here in St. Helena as I say goodbye to my colleagues from the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers. After we take our “camp” group photo, a bus takes us to the Rudd Center at the Culinary Institute of America for a trade-only walk-around tasting of the 2004 vintage before it’s released into the market. Specifically, we’re tasting Cabernet-based wines alongside two previous vintages, the 2003 and 2004. Naturally, all is blind.

I decided to taste from youngest to oldest, figuring that would give me a better sense of subtle changes among vintages, even a mere three. There were 12 wineries, for a total of 36 wines. My standout, which, once I looked at my cheat sheet, led me to their open house party later that afternoon, was Shafer Vineyards’ Hillside Select from the Stag’s Leap District.

The wine is an alcohol whopper at 14.9 % and spends 32 months in new French oak. Dear me. What a beautiful wine. It’s 100 % Cabernet Sauvignon with loads of fruit and pepper and mellowed tannins. Even the 2004 was a treat. Get your hands on this stuff come March, when the 2004 is released.

After the Perspective tasting, I said goodbye to my friend Michelle, a New York former news writer turned sommelier-in-training and headed to straight to Shafer. Because of Premiere Napa Valley, many wineries were hosting the press and trade at parties, and I didn’t want to miss theirs.

I’d like to see Tuscany top their view. Tucked behind the Silverado Trail, the sprawling property is easily one of the most magnificent of the 400 or so wineries in Napa: green, lush and breathtaking after all the week’s rain. I run into Elin McCoy, author of “The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr. and the Reign of American Taste” and we compare notes on Shafer’s portfolio. Save for us, there are lots of Japanese businessmen at the party and almost every salesman from the Henry Wine Group, one of whom hits on me despite not being a single man. Shameful.

I forge out, dipping into the 2002 Chardonnay first. Easily my favorite chard au moment. It is quite possibly the best expression of the grape without malolactic fermentation. The Emperor said it, and I completely agree. It was deliciously drinkable, and if you can’t get your hands on it, buy the 2005. They’re not that different. And yes — that is a bit old for a Chardonnay. But so magnificent.

One thing I noticed about the reds, or perhaps just the bottles they were pouring, was the prevalence of sediment in my glass. More than a few bits, which naturally wasn’t enough to turn me off of the taste, especially on the Relentless Syrah, which was firm and smooth. My perfect wine that day, if that exists, was the 1989 Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sunspot. Talking about hitting the spot. Gorgeous maroon color and a finish that just goes on and on.

Next up: Dinner at Go Fish, and parties at Duckhorn and Frog’s Leap.

Posted on Monday, February 26th, 2007
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Day 4: After hours at the Symposium for Wine Writers

Puffs of fog hang in the air like translucent marshmallows as I look out onto the valley from my view in Angwin. It’s the last official day of the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers, and tomorrow, I will embark on Premiere Napa Valley, a series of auctions and get-to-know-yas.

The rain is gone, at least for now, and the delicate sun attempts to melt the ice off my new Yaris. I definitely didn’t get enough sleep last night. I stayed up until 1 a.m., after an extravagant dinner –all I remember is bacon froth — and a flight of 14 stunning wines from the Valley. My favorite: a 1993 Stag’s Leap Petit Sirah that was so mellow and yet alive that I thought it might reach back and splash me in the face. I made it last as long as I could. I was sitting across from Dirk Hampson, the president of Nickel & Nickel and Far Niente wineries, who was showcasing the only white in the mix — a 2005 Chardonnay that was viscous without containing a stick of butter. I enjoyed it.

The evening ended with Christina Kelly, an Oregon wine writer with a voice like Stevie Nicks after, you guessed it, a 14-wine flight. She’d busted out a guitar, provided by the Nashville wine writer, of course, and was belting out beautiful melodies with winemaker Judd Finkelstein of Judd’s Hill, master of fab cabs, and the ukulele.

Earlier in the week, at a lunch at the Culinary Institute of America, we’d tasted a young Bouchaine Anderson Valley Gewurztraminer from the Bacchus Collection that blew more than a few of us away. And talk drifted back to this wine, with its suble rosewater flavor and perfume nose. If ever there was an Eau de Jessica, this was it. I like that this cluster of people, these 60 or so oenophiles from around the world, get what I mean. I miss them already, but am confident that we’ll keep in touch until we meet again next year, as they say, in the Valley.

Posted on Friday, February 23rd, 2007
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The Way It Is: Craft Beer 2007


Wonder which direction craft beer’s going? Well, it’s not headed in the direction of bland.

Consider this from Pyramid, which I believe is a first-rate mainstream company:

- Pyramid Apricot Weizen beer is the #1 fruit beer in the country and continues to grow at a faster rate than others. Growth rate for 2006 was 32%.

- Pyramid’s ThunderHead India Pale Ale (IPA) is the fastest growing IPA in the nation with 53.6% growth rate.

Also in the news: City Beer Store (1168 Folsom St., San Francisco) held a pre-Oscar night event tonight (Thursday, Feb. 22). The trick is to pair beers with Academy Award-nominated films. Here’s City Beer proprietor Craig Wathen’s pairings:

The Departed: Speakeasy Godfather
Babel: Russian River Supplication
Queen: Old Speckled Hen English Ale
Little Miss Sunshine: Hoppy Face Amber Ale
Letters From Iwo Jima: Hitachino Nest

Not too bad.

Posted on Thursday, February 22nd, 2007
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Day 3: The Winerati, and a Great Pinot Noir

Steven Spurrier
Steven Spurrier

When a post starts with, ‘so I was pruning with Steven Spurrier,’ you know it’s going to be a whopper. I’m finding anything less hard to avoid this week.

This is my third day at the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers, tucked into Meadowood Napa Vallley, the breath-taking St. Helena retreat where moss covers trees like Persian carpets. East Coast attendees have sworn to me that they believe these green rocks are fake and that they’ve got speakers behind them à la Disneyland. Really makes you appreciate your proximity to this pristine and idyllic valley.

The world’s top wine professionals — writers, editors, authors, bloggers and entrepreneurs — have descended on this resort for a week of growth and inspiration. And, of course, schmoozing. Here comes the name dropping.

Alder Yarrow
Alder Yarrow

I took a seminar from Alder Yarrow, perhaps the most established and widely read wine blogger. His San Francisco-based vinography.com gets some 12,000 hits a day. Yowzers. Alder, meanwhile, is an unassuming, ethical and gentlemanly fellow who is willing to share any and every secret he has on wine and wine blogging. Cheers to him.

Anthony Blue and Steven Spurrier
Anthony Blue and Steven Spurrier

After that, and an exquisite 5-course lunch at the Culinary Institute of America, I participated in a blind tasting of four wines — two whites and two reds — with Anthony Blue, formerly of Bon Appetit and now host of CBS’ radio show “Mr. Blue’s Lifestyle Minute,” and Decanter’s” Steven Spurrier, a wine legend and the brains behind the Judgment of Paris.

The seminar was perhaps the best lesson in tasting notes. Namely, how to evaluate wine and more importantly how to express those evaluations without sounding like a flowery buffoon. It was a great marker for me, in terms of how accurate my impressions are, and, when two supertasters disagreed, how subjective this whole business of tasting can be. Ironic.

Naturally, they had very different views on judging and rating wines. Spurrier, like Hugh Johnson and the other European Five, grades on a 20-point scale and keeps his tasting notes simple, clear and to the point. You won’t find any cat piss in his notes. Blue, on the other hand, subscribes to the American academic system. So Spurrier’s 16 was Blue’s 88. Get it?

After tasting each wine and writing down our notes, we were encouraged to share our impressions with the group. I found some of my colleagues’ notes over the top, and was encouraged when Spurrier complimented the more simple and to-the-point offerings as “good notes.”

I was pretty much thrilled when my impressions, at least a few on the reds and almost dead on with the whites, matched some of Spurrier’s. Just an acknowledgment not that my palate is advancing, but that I’m looking for the right things.

You probably want to know what the best wine we had was, right? Highest rated for me, and several others in our group, including chef Tony Lawrence, was a 2005 Domaine Chandon Pinot Meunier, which tasted more like an ’04 or ’03, with its dark, smoky cherries and Tahitian vanilla. I absolutely loved this wine and I’m dying to get my hands on it before I leave the Valley, especially at $35.

Posted on Thursday, February 22nd, 2007
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Day 2, Tannins and Tea

I’ll be the first to admit that tannins make me uncomfortable, despite the fact that I’m Persian and grew up on black darjeeling tea, three times a day. We drink it in a distinctly un-British way: With a nub of rustic rock candy clamped between our front top and bottom teeth. The rock candy serves as a sweet gateway, and any tannins or cardamom, for that matter, passing through this door have to succumb to a screen of saccharin. Do this in front of an American and watch their face fall in fear.

I’m reminded of my addiction to black tea because today, day two of the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers here in Napa, we’re learning about tannin development. Specifically, the two styles in which the seeds of grapes mingle with their juices in fermenting tanks, and the kinds of tannins they produce. Today’s seminar is led by international writing coach Don Fry and Karen MacNeil, head of the wine department at the Culinary Institute of America and author of the “Wine Bible.” With supertasters like MacNeil leading the way, I’m confident I’ll walk away understanding tannins in a whole new way.

Andy Sweiger, a teddy bear of a man and winemaker with Sweiger Vineyards here in the Valley, stopped by CIA to demonstrate the two fermenting practices, pumpovers and punch downs. Most wineries I’m familiar with do punch-downs, meaning they let the seeds and skins mingle and form their own soft and often luxurious tannins. Pumpovers create larger, fat tannins that are a bit sloppy and all over the place in your mouth.

Why would any winemaker choose pumpover over a punch down? Well, for simplicity and speed. Whereas punch downs require judgment calls and monitoring, pumpovers can be done by virtually anyone, right before their coffee break. So huge production houses with highly tannin monsters are most likely doing pumpovers.

Posted on Thursday, February 22nd, 2007
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Craft Beer Sales up 11 percent in 2006


I don’t usually run press releases, but I wanted get this up right away. It shows that craft beer sales continued to boom in 2006.

Here’s the media release:
The continuing growth of craft beer entered double digit territory in 2006, with sales by craft brewers up 11.7% by volume for the year. This comes on top of strong growth in each of the prior three years and illustrates the ongoing surge of consumer interest in craft beers.

The Brewers Association estimates 2006 sales by craft brewers at over 6,600,000 barrels (one barrel equals 31 U.S. gallons) up from an adjusted total of just under 6,000,000 barrels in 2005. The increase totals over 690,000 barrels or 9.5 million case-equivalents. For 2006 craft beer posted a retail sales figure of $4.2 billion.

A strong area of distribution for craft beer is grocery, convenience, drug and liquors stores. According to Information Resources Inc. (IRI), “The beer category reaped growth from import (+10.9%) and micro-brew (+16.9%) products, while suffering losses across domestic and non-alcoholic varieties, , the Brewers Association said.

One note of caution: Imports far exceed craft beer sales. The Beer Institute, the Washington-based trade organization, estimatesimports hit 25.9 million barrels in 2006, up about 11 percent for an estimated 13.5 percent market share.

Also, Anheuser-Busch alone sold 102.3 million barrels of beer in 2006, according to A-B’s estimates. That was up 1.2 percent from 2005. Sales of Rolling Rock, Grolsch and Tiger added 0.5 percent of the 1.2 percent.

That gave A-B a 48.4 percent market share, down 0.3 of one percent from 2005.

More from the Brewers Association:

“American tastes are clearly changing thus the demand for more flavorful and diverse beers is exploding,” said Paul Gatza, Director of the Brewers Association, which tabulates industry growth data.

“Craft beer has become a great American success story and today U.S. craft brewers are being watched, emulated and celebrated globally.” stated Julia Herz, Director of Craft Beer Marketing for the Brewers Association. “Demand has become contagious. Craft beer is satisfying the thirst and beer enthusiasm of a continuously growing number of beer drinkers who are seeking flavor, diversity and value.”

Amen to that.

Posted on Tuesday, February 20th, 2007
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Day 1 — Wine Writers Symposium

Working the vines

It’s Tuesday, my first of five days at the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers in Napa. There are 36 of us — newspaper writers, magazine freelancers and bloggers from around the country who get paid to sniff, swirl, slosh and sip our way into publications. We’re here to nurse the writing juices out of ourselves, take a step back and perhaps appreciate the process as much as the final product. Among our instructors are the world’s best. Writing coaches Don Fry and Antonia Allegra; pioneer Steven Spurrier; and writer Eric Asimov of the New York Times. I also recognize Alder Yarrow, the San Francisco food and wine blogger.

Working the vinesWe’re spending the morning at the Napa Valley Reserve, with gloves and expensive Swiss shears in hand. The morning sun has landed on acres of six-year-old Cabernet Sauvignon, and that’s where we find ourselves. Vineyard manager Mary Hall is guiding us through the art of pruning, that counter intuitive exercise of reducing a crop by as much as 90 percent to yield and concentrate the best fruit. It’s only February, and this exercise, this back breaking work, will happen many more times this year. Off these menorah-like vines, we’re snipping last year’s shoots to prepare for this year’s bud, which won’t see harvest until the fall, and won’t see a bottle for at least another two years. When we’re done snipping, there should be two buds left on each shoot, and four to five buds per arm.

The work is physical, draining, and invigorating all at once. My stance is like a wrestler, or a yogi in half moon. I have to use both hands to cut the base of many of these shoots. My body is not made for this, and I feel for the $12-an-hour farm workers. Immediately, I find it difficult to cut a living thing, especially when I see the sap rise once the wound makes contact with the air. A split shoot looks sort of like an eye and the water dripping out, a tear. As I step right and snip, I begin to get into a rhythm, and I make a mental note now to remember this moment when I take my next sip of wine. It may not be the greatest, but the labor, love and sweat that goes into each and every snip snap certainly is.

Posted on Tuesday, February 20th, 2007
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Poaching salmon in New Belgium 2 Below


Just poached some fresh salmon in beer, using a recipe I found on the Food Network,
but supplying a different beer. It was, I say modestly, pure dynamite. The best salmon I’ve eaten in many a year.

The recipe calls for “12 ounces beer.” I expect the creator envisioned a BudMillerCoors light lager. Not for me. Peering into my beer refrig, I reached for a Sam Adams Boston Lager. But then I realized that’s a golden pilsner with plenty of hops.

So, instead I picked up a bottle of New Belgium 2 (Degrees) Below**. Not my favorite beer of the winter crop, it has a dry, rough finish and I suspect coriander spicing. But New Belgium says no, it’s made with roast malt, Sterling and Liberty hops, cooled almost to frozen, then more hops were added during fermentation. Hmmm.

Anyway I have several bottles left from a sixer I bought, so I thought, why not. The hops are lost in the taste, so it wouldn’t make the salmon bitter. It was a champion food moment at my house.

Basically, the salmon in poached in the beer on the grill.
My hat’s off to cook Sandra Lee. Great recipe – with my choice of beer. Oh yes, I used a frozen garlic cube rubbed on the salmon and a bit of kosher salt. I cut the amount of brown sugar in half and used only about a half dozen thin slivers of butter. The salmon was wild coho salmon.

Here’s the recipe from the Food Network.
Beer Salmon
Recipe courtesy Sandra Lee
Show: Semi-Homemade Cooking with Sandra Lee
Episode: Weekend Gathering

1 (12-inch) tail piece salmon fillet (about 1 1/2 pounds)
2 teaspoons garlic salt
3 tablespoons brown sugar
4 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
1 (12-ounce) bottle beer

Preheat grill to medium-high heat.

Using aluminum foil, create an oblong cooking tray (approximately 13 inches by 8 inches by 2 inches) to be placed directly on grill. Place salmon fillet in center of tray. Season first with garlic salt, sprinkle with brown sugar, and then cover with pieces of butter. Top with sliced red onions. Pour beer of choice into tray to just below the highest point of the fillet. Cover tray with aluminum foil to envelope fish completely. Place tray on grill, cover with lid, and grill for approximately 8 minutes or until just cooked through.
Recipe, copyright, the Food Network.

Posted on Monday, February 19th, 2007
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