Mr. Ravenswood himself greeted me waist high in his pool. He had told me I might find him there as I make my way to his pool house for my stay. He said he wanted to grab some exercise before our Cru Carneros II commencement dinner/last year's taste-off (I'll explain this in more detail later). As I swerved though roses, shrubs and Oak trees, crunching over practically polished pebbles, the world suddenly opened and leapt into my lap. Atop a hill in Somona perched Joel Peterson's impeccably detailed Craftsman style home. His large lap pool and my quarters the pool house benefited from this sweeping view. So as much as I tried to look Joel in the eyes, I struggled because of the depth and longevity of his view that spread and stretched down to the tide flats. There was just too much tootin’ topography to take in on a clear day. I quickly blew the dust off my now betamax looking digital camera (clearly outdated in the age of credit card size cameras) and imagined all the gorgeous photos I could take submerged in varying light and cloud configurations. Eventually Mr. Joel Peterson, founder and head wine-maker of Ravenswood Winery, toweled off and climbed into a fluffy maraschino cherry red robe. As he turned, I notice there were some extravagant ninja-like symbols embroidered on the back, which threw me off, indeed, as they didn't seem to match his outward middle age and even temperament. However, this excited me—character in the raw. The mystery nudged me along. For all I knew, he could be a professional Ninja star thrower, a renowned sword collector, a firecracker nut, or even a closet thigh-master junkie; the options were truly endless, but the quest for more information scorched each step I took with my heightened curiosity. Clearly in my short stint working with him, I wouldn't learn all I'd love to know about this domestic icon, but hopefully, I'd walk away with engaging stories from his past and a better understanding of wine-making from his perspective. Within minutes Mr. Mystery Zin man appeared in saggy, faded Levi 401 jeans and leather hiking boots- He was on a mission to keep the deer from demolishing his budding balls of color, his prized roses, by applying some stinky chemical. I must say, it was nice to see a financially successful man taking an active role in his own garden. I smiled—even more character for me to chew on. From the candy red robe to earth tone leisurewear, I certainly was in store for more surprises. After Joel’s stink patrol, he invited me up from some champagne. We sat and got acquainted, talking of his non-conformist kids, his past as a chemist, his parent's proclivity toward French wines throughout his childhood, his father’s perpetual and very advanced wine tasting groups, his wife's travels, my dogs, my past jobs (which made him tilt his head in wonder), his political and religious predispositions, and mine; needless to say, we got along famously, and so it became clear where his flair for expression came from. Marinating in our fast friendship, we zipped off to Domain Carneros for dinner with the group and also to meet last year’s group and listen to the judge’s taste and analyze their pinots. This was a blind test, where other prominent Carneros pinots were included as well. I quickly realized I was poorly dressed for the fall chill, as such I hurried to the first mushroom heat lamp. There I began to meet some of last year’s participants. Energy and goose bumps were certainly abound, as most jogged in place, as they tasted through a sampling of Carneros wineries out on Domaine Carnernos’s luxurious patio. Soon, we were herded into a near by room for the beginning of the taste off. How did group one, Pinot envy fare against group number two, Pinot Rage. Each of these groups had a two-day behind the scenes, hands-on harvesting experience. Their wine, through the guidance of mentors to the likes of Larry Hyde and Michael Havens, was crushed, fermented, aged, and matured; and now, a year later their wine was in bottles and ready to sample. Momentum was building as this would be my fate, and shortly this year’s groups and mentors would be selected. I was called to Joel’s group and was surrounded by eight other restaurant wine directors, sommeliers, etc. We congregated around a long dinner table and began to talk strategy. Scott Wallace and Jeff Stewart from Buena Vista accompanied us and served to be a wealth of information, as the fruit we would pick the next morning was to come from Buena Vista Ranch. They both brought samples for four different Merlot clones and wines that had been made from that clone the year before. Our first task was to decide on one clone or rather to conjure up a blend of the various clones. This was difficult, as the mind wanted to latch on to the taste of the finished wines made from LAST YEAR’S grapes, instead of relying on the taste of this year’s fruit. We had to really get a group consensus on the end result. Did we want a more lush and fruit-forward merlot, or did we want an acidic, structure, earthy merlot. Fortunately, just based on the fact that this fruit was coming from Carneros predetermined some of the overall flavor profile. Despite any of our decisions, we were dealing with a cool climate and grapes that inherently had a good amount of acidity and structure. We ended up going with a 50, 40, 10 breakdown. We all favored a more structured style, but of course keeping balance as the ultimate goal. As a group we tackled the misty morning at Buena Vista ranch, each of equipped with a tub, gloves and a vine knife. I will report that no one left with any missing digits. It was hard for me not to be so discriminating. I was on the hunt as it were for the perfect cluster, coming from the strongest vine, with the perfect plumpness and no molding or raisining. That didn’t last long. What did last long was the incredibly sticky mud that married to my tennis shoes, by 10am the mud rose ankle high. Our handy tractor trudged along, tootin’ our grape collections until we were officially done with our first task. Next, we were off to the Ravenswood crush facility where we sample tons of different wines in various stages of fermentation. We then crushed our grapes, and began to discuss all the other decisions Joel would have to make on our behalf throughout the year. We decided on native yeasts, three punch downs a day, some initial oak chips added to mitigate the typical Carneros green-vegetal aspect that can dominate. We talked extensively about the prolific use of Oak adjunct or supplements use in today’s market. Joel talked very openly about how many like to deny the use of oak ships and other cost-cutting procedures most all employ. He told us that to make a wine that would sell for say ten dollars, you’d have to use these types of techniques, otherwise you are dealing with the cost of barrels that run up to $1,000.00 a piece. No one can make money in that respect unless the cost of the bottle is considerably higher. He agreed that the romanticism is diminished in many a mind, but that this is the competitive state of affairs. Getting back to our decisions, we agreed to employ the saignee method to create a bit more flavor concentration, and finally we agreed to use some new oak only initially then move it into neutral oak for the remainder. The sun was schizophrenic that day. By 11am it had turtle headed out of its hovel. By noon, it was a sugared toddler, playing hide-and-go-seek, and by 1pm it was in full Jack-in-the-box mode. I felt the sun’s full assault as we concluded our Cru Carnernos II at Ceja Winery in Carneros. We all enjoyed a wonderful wine-pairing lunch outside and in the middle of Ceja’s vineyards. The sun pulled its childish pranks, local chefs were on panel discussing cuisine and ideal wine-pairings, but mostly we were focused on the food in front of us after a laborious morning’s work. It would be a year before we’d all get to taste our group’s end result. We all exchanged cards, pats on the back and "safe travels." Ultimately, we’d just have to linger in the reality of winemaking: delayed gratification! --Keelyn Healy
The Judgment in Sauternes: The Best of Napa and Bordeaux Vintage 1995 That was the question posed by President-Fondateur, Francois Mauss to a special session of the Grand Jury Europeen held at Ch. Guiraud in Sauternes on September 28th. On the surface it would not seem all that difficult; but what if you took 20 of the greatest wines from Napa (actually 18 as Arrowood is from Sonoma and Ridge from the Santa Cruz Mountains) and 20 of Bordeaux finest wines along with 1 ringer, and tasted them blind from a great vintage like 1995 in both regions? The Jury, consisting of 30 or more people and was a mix of Trade Professionals, Journalist (like Anthony Hansen and Neil Becket from the UK and Joel Payne from Germany), Sommelier (like Andreas Larsson from Sweden) as well as talented amateurs (like Jim Dove from Mo. and Kevin Shin from DC.); 15-22 from continental Europe and 16 from outside Europe. The tasting would try and determine the overall quality of each wine by writing a tasting note, giving the wine a score from 0/100 and then determine if the wine was from Napa or Bordeaux. Seemingly and easy task, but in reality it was not that easy. When I finished it was quite a relief and as I wandered out into the garden for the unveiling of the wines, the facial expressions from my fellow tasters seemed to mirror a much tougher than anticipated but exciting and great tasting experience. It was a busy week for me. I left on Monday, arrived Tuesday late afternoon at Ch. Lascombes in Margaux, wandered aimlessly thru the vineyards, chewing on the grapes and noticing the striking irregularity in the grapes and the bunches. There was a lot of shatter from grapes that were close to ripeness but had absorbed too much moisture from recent heavy rains and bunches that had been sunburned to beyond raisins from the cutting of leaves that had been done on one side of the vine, as well as signs of Botrytis. 2006 will clearly be a vintage of sever selection at every stage of the winemaking process. Certainly some very good wine will be made in 2006 as the Merlot grapes that rolled off the final sorting belt at Lascombes, and into the mystical looking tank of white fog, a result of the dry ice spray on the grapes as they headed to their cold soak pre maceration, looked almost perfect! Wednesday was a nice visit and tasting at the impeccably run estate of Ch. Preuillac in northern St-Estephe, followed by lunch, nap and dinner. Thursday morning was a visit and tasting at Ch. Brown located in Pessac, another estate owned as is Ch. Preuillac by Jean-Christophe Mau. A light, but delicious lunch at Claude Darroze in Langon, and then it was off to the Grand tasting at exactly 4pm. By the time you are reading this, all the wines and the full scientific results from numerous angles will all be finished and posted world wide at www.grandjuryeuropeen.com. I ended up tasting 37 wines, not counting the ringer and identifying 28 correctly, here are few of my exact notes that I think you will find interesting. At an event like this you do not have to order desert as it comes to you automatically in the form of humble pie! Listed below are my exact tasting notes, just as I wrote them down, nothing else, my guesses and results of the wines. For the tasting a total of four bottles of each wine was needed, and professional sommelier checked every one. Unfortunately there were some off bottles of three wines, and random tasters were given a taste of the good bottles. To keep everyone off balance, Cheval Blanc was in the tasting twice. The total wines I tasted were 37 and one of those was a ringer, which turned out to be wine #16. We had exactly 2 hours to complete the tasting and then it was outside in the garden for the unveiling of the wines. #1 Very minty, lively and fragrant, the sweet middle fruit, lacks some soul in the middle and is a little short, pleasant wine, maybe Araujo? I guessed CALIFORNIA and 87/100…it was SCREAMING EAGLE #2 Fine, high toned nose of Cassis and dark cherry, these flavors continue on the palate and hit all the right spots, long complex and sweet finishing, great Pomerol? I guessed BORDEAUX and 90/100…it was HARLAN ESTATE #3 High toned herbal nose, medicinal smelling, lean in the middle, the finish stops, don’t care for this. I guessed BORDEAUX and 81/100 it was HAUT BRION #4 Spicy Cabernet nose, fresh and classic, just enough sweetness, fine and elegant. Superbly balanced, just a touch short and woody on the finish. I guessed BORDEAUX 93/100 it was LAFITE ROTHSCHILD #5 Sweet smack of fresh raspberry and red currant fruits, well balanced and not overdone in any way, very fine Ca. wine. I guessed CALIFORNIA 92/100 it was MONTELENA ESTATE #6 Ripe, sweet herbal nose, sweet candied toned fruit on palate, hint of whiskey barrel on the finish. I guessed CALIFORNIA 88/100 it was ARAUJO #7 Leafy nose with dried fruit aromas, dry middle fruit, high acid and quick drying finish. I guessed BORDEAUX 86/100 it was ARROWOOD RESERVE SPECIALE #8 Restrained nose of spice and earth, the wine tightens very quickly and is short finishing. I guessed BORDEAUX 84/100 it was PETRUS #9 Fresh and spicy nose of Cabernet with hints of maritime/ocean freshness, very strong and elegant at the same time. I guessed BORDEAUX 93/100 it was LATOUR #10 Big, soft and ripe! Round and silky smooth, no hard edges, fine richness as well as balance. I guessed CALIFORNIA 94/100 it was LA JOTA ANNIVERSARY RESERVE #11 Huge fruitball, BUT attractive and tasty as well as balanced, very low acid. For the waffles or pancakes? I guessed CALIFORNIA 90/100 it was SHAFER HILLSIDE #12 Lovely pure/restrained fruit, strong wine with fine elegance, long life ahead. I guessed BORDEAUX 93/100 it was CH. PALMER #13 Slight hints of mint, eucalyptus and wild herbs, tasty middle fruit and finely balanced. I guessed BORDEAUX 91/100 it was CH. TROTANOY #14 Round, sweet nose with oak, deep jammy fruit, low acid, could be fresher but very nice wine. I guessed CALIFORNIA 90/100 it was MONDAVI RESERVE #15 Big sweetness and high alcohol hit on the nose, disjointed and very dry with hints of decay. I guessed CALIFORNIA 84/100 it was HAUT-CONDISSAS #16 Over the top nose, baskets of strawberries and boysenberries, dries out super-quick, not my style, Valendraud? Colgin? Perplexing…I guessed CALIFORNIA 85/100 it was PINGUS FROM SPAIN #17 Perfect ripeness, sweetness and balance, lovely texture in the mouth, Wow is this Cheval Blanc? I guessed BORDEAUX and 94/100…it was ABREU # 18 NOT TASTED—it was Ch. Margaux #19 Very ripe, almost portlike hints, soft texture, well balanced and tasty. Low acid. I guessed CALIFORNIA 90/100 it was CH. VALANDRAUD #20 Dried herbs with medicinal aromas? Flat out weird and short, bad sample? I guessed BORDEAUX 79/100 it was LA MISSION HAUT BRION #21 Lively nose of Frambois, very fresh and fragrant. Very nice balance, elegant and tasty, tough call. I guessed CALIFORNIA 93/100 it was SPOTTSWOOD #22 Very nice sweet fruit and dried herbs on the nose, dry, elegant and fresh on the palate, superbly balanced. I guessed BORDEAUX 92/100 it was SPRING MOUNTAIN #23 Sweet candied fruit, Merlot? Straightforward, earthy and warm, a bit woody on the finish. I guessed BORDEAUX 89/100 it was CH. CHEVAL BLANC #24 Maritime freshness jump out at you, very attractive, strong, elegant and nice and compact, fine claret! I guessed BORDEAUX 89/100 it was CH. MOUTON ROTHSCHILD #25 NOT TASTED—it was Diamond Creek Volcanic Hill #26 Sweet fruit of wild herbs and spice, a little chunky, tasty, sweet finish. I guessed CALIFORNIA 89/100 it was BERINGER PRIVATE RESERVE #27 Sweet fruit with hints of anise/licorice, earth and wild herbs. Rich, sweet, with good fatness in the middle of the wine, but not overdone! I guessed CALIFORNIA 90/100 it was RIDGE MONTEBELLO #28 Sweet, blackberry jam fruit on the nose, lush and sweet on the palate with low acidity, although it keeps its balance, very nice. I guessed CALIFORNIA 91/100 it was STAGLIN FAMILY #29 Very herbal and quick drying wine, rather simple and short finishing. I guessed BORDEAUX 78/100 it was CH. LE BON PASTEUR #30 Cedar box nose, very herbal and lean on the palate and the finish. Not exciting. I guessed BORDEAUX 88/100 it was DOMINUS #31 Mint and eucalyptus aromas as well as medicinal notes, short finish. I guessed CALIFORNIA 88/100 it was PAHLMEYER #32 Big dumb nose with broad masculine fruit, a powerful wack of drying tannins on the finish. I guessed CALIFORNIA 89/100 it was PHELPS INSIGNIA #33 Sweet herbal nose, with smoky hints, bright, fresh and elegant, good life ahead, very well balanced with a spicy long finish. I guessed BORDEAUX 93/100 it was Ch. AUSONE #34 Wow, big fruit bowl aromas of guava, passion fruit, pomegranate, not my style, but on the palate it is silky, very tasty and that great taste carry’s thru the long finish. I guessed CALIFORNIA 94/100 it was COLGIN #35 Hints of coffee and caramel, slight development, but not on the palate! Rich middle of earthy/old vine fruit, will develop for a very long time; serious Bordeaux! I guessed BORDEAUX 94/100 it was (again) CH. CHEVAL BLANC #36 Super sweet nose of ripe cherries, wow, very complex on the palate, round and opulent, dense and intense at the same time and it all stays in balance! I guessed CALIFORNIA 95/100 it was PRIDE RESERVE #37 Sweet mulberry fruit and decay on nose, extracted dry tannins, flabby and out of balance. I guessed BORDEAUX 80/100 it was CH. CRIOX DE LABRIE #38 NOT TASTED- it was Le Tertre Roteboeuf #39 Gorgeous and fragrant aromas of spicy Cabernet, finely tuned wine, strong and long, this is fantastic, long aging, classic Bordeaux! I guessed BORDEAUX 96/100 (the highest score I gave) it was CH. LEOVILLE LAS CASES #40 Pure, intense, deep rich fruit (of sweet Merlot?) with the baby fat still around, good structure in the middle. Will be long lived, fine. I guessed BORDEAUX 95/100 it was CH. ROLLAND DE BY (by far the biggest surprise of the tasting to me, but that’s why you taste them blind) ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- A few afterthoughts… In my opinion both sides of the world showed fantastically; clearly showing that the perception of the top wines in the world are in fact just that, top shelf! I finished the tasting with just a few minutes to spare, I had marked a couple of wines to go back and taste again, but I decided to stay put and go on the first impression and not start doubting myself. That being said and being the competitor that I am, even at 50 years of age, I must tell you that I’m still a bit pissed off that I missed a couple of these wines, because if you read my notes on #2 it screams California and conversely the “portlike hints” on wine #19 I should have identified as the “great garage wine of Valandraud”. I do not use the term “great garage wine” lightly or in jest as we have tasted hundreds of these type wines in the past and most of them smell like they will have tremendous amounts of attractive sweet fruit; until you put the wine in your mouth and your almost knocked to the ground by wood and super extracted tannins and a wine void of natural fruit and good taste. Valandraud consistently bucks that trend. In preparation for this tasting of which I was a late invitee, (someone got very ill and I was offered the spot) I did not drink a Bordeaux wine for 2 weeks, a record for me, but I did taste a 1995 California wine every other night. I would like to thank Francios Mauss, Bruno Finance and the GJE for the unique opportunity of judging this event; as well as the support from the ownership of K&L Wine Merchants, Paul Draper from Ridge vineyards, my good friend and customer Lee Brokaw and the well wishes from so many clients. Please feel free to contact me with questions or advice on the wines of Bordeaux at ext#2723 or Ralph@klwines.com Cheers and Go Niners! --Ralph Sands
Fourteen years ago, as a college student ‘studying’ abroad in Rome, my classmates and I would frequently joke about our evening plans. “What should we have for dinner tonight?” one of us would ask. And the answer, inevitably, “How about Italian?” In 1992 it was possible to sniff out an outpost of some exotic repast. After seven months living there, for instance, I uncovered an Indian place in Trastevere and heard tell of a tapas joint, though it never materialized in the flesh. But the City was still remarkably homogeneous in its citizenry, and the food followed suit. Not that we could complain. We all ate extremely well. At neighborhood trattorie, cross town restauranti, and dozens of pizzerie, we gorged ourselves on the best food we had ever collectively had. And so it was doubly confounding to find, after countless bowls of pasta in limitless preparations, endless plates of marinated eggplant and zucchini, the obligatory whole fish alla griglia and portions of porchetta, pancetta and of course prosciutto, that we hungered for something, anything other than Italian. Preparing for a visit to Rome in Septmeber of 2006, I heard tell of Rome’s new ‘international’ style. Friends returning from there spoke of Irish pub food, French bistros, Cantonese, Ethiopian, and most alarmingly of all—fusion. This panoply of multi-ethnic foods is all well and good in a place like San Francisco, but Rome! I hated to think of my City, The Eternal City, home to not only the Pantheon, but also to Papandrou’s Greek Palace, to Campo dei Fiori as well as Chokichi Sushi. In the face of this new and ‘improved” Rome, how could I possibly relive my Italian debauches? I needn’t have worried. Yes, Rome is slightly more modernized, but there is still PLENTY of amazingly good, traditional Italian and/or Roman food. What follows is a short list of the standouts. If you go to Rome in the future, do seek these places out. Hosteria del Pesce Via di Monserrato, 32 39 06 6865617 Just down the street from the Piazza Farnese, this place is easy to miss. The non-descript, unmarked door is just about blocked by a few plastic ice buckets full of tiny clams, live langoustines and bracingly fresh fish. Inside the place is very lively, casual and loud. If you haven’t guessed it from the name, this is a fish place. And that’s all they have. Cold seafood platters, pasta tossed with seafood, and then more seafood. Everything is insanely fresh. We even ate entire raw shrimp, heads and all! The wine list is all Italian, naturally, almost completely white, and very well priced. The staff are great and quite patient (there isn’t really a menu. Just tell them to bring whatever they suggest; it will be wonderful!). Reserve in advance. La Sora Lella Via Ponte Quattro Capi, 16 39 06 6861601 Located on the Isola Tiburina, in the middle of the Tiber river, this place is old world, though elegant, and serves a slightly updated take on Roman food, which means salt cod (or baccala) and slow roasted meats, as well as some of the best pasta dishes we tried in Italy. The wine list is impressive, too. Romantic tiny dining room. One of my dishes, ravioli filled with cheese and tossed with a sauce of pureed black truffles, was among the top five things I have ever eaten in my life! Reserve in advance. Trattoria St. Teodoro Via dei Fienili, 49-50-51 39 06 6780933 A quick walk from the Forum, this is just the place to carb load after a grueling morning of ancient roman sightseeing. Very local, which is surprising given its proximity to several big tourist destinations. Most the people eating here for lunch seemed to be Italian government officials, all men, and all dressed impeccably, of course! The food is refined classic Italian, with an emphasis on fish, and the pastas are all superb. The wine list is long and impressive in all regions of Italy. There is even a water list for various mineral waters, still and sparkling! Not cheap, but serious food. Roscioli Via dei Giubbonari, 21-22 39 06 6875287 This wine bar is easily reachable from Campo dei Fiori, right in the center of historic Rome. There is an amazing selection of cheeses (you can order a European cheese plate, an Italian plate, or a regional plate, with cheeses from only Lazio, say, or Umbria), sliced cured meats and, of course, wines. Just the place to check out for a ‘smaller’ size meal. And the hipster staff includes a young woman from Canada, which makes ordering something from the wine list a whole lot easier. Enjoy! --Elisabeth Schriber
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