I remember it like it was yesterday: a very cold and crisp morning in the first days of April 1995, and we were just getting warmed up after tasting at Lynch Bages at 8:30 a.m. and then Mouton-Rothschild at 9 a.m. As our leader Bill Blatch drove slightly uphill past vines and white gravel less than a minute from Mouton I could not see the château hidden behind the large trees. I asked Bill where are we going next, and he said Pontet-Canet. I was very excited. I had never been to the historic 5th growth. I then asked Bill why we were going there for the first time. His answer was that the 1994 Pontet-Canet was the finest wine made there in a long time and warranted the visit. Of course, he was right; the 1994 Pontet is one of the great successes of the difficult vintage, and the estate has improved every year since. The name of Pontet-Canet is well known as vines have been in the ground there since before 1725. The estate had a fine reputation before dropping in quality in the years just prior to the 1855 classification of Bordeaux. The classification itself was based solely upon the track record of quality and price, hence Pontet was placed as a 5th growth. The quality rose to the point where the wine was selling at 2nd growth prices. The 1929 was a legendary wine. Unfortunately, as for most of Bordeaux, tough times were ahead. Ponet-Canet did in fact become very well known as a “brand” but for all the wrong reasons—for being the non-vintage, barely drinkable wine served in the French railroad cars. In 1975 the estate was sold to the Tesseron family, and today the wines are outstanding under the direction of Alfred Tesseron. Alfred’s quiet revolution started in the winery with a more strict selection in the ’80s and in the last 15 years in the vineyard. The style of Pontet-Canet is masculine, loaded with dark purple fruit, and in today’s wines it is very pure, long and elegant. Many customers are newcomers to Pontet and can feel the conviction in my voice when I recommend it in orders along with the greats like Cos, the Pichons and the Léovilles. For me, Pontet-Canet’s style is like Léoville-Barton: dark serious wines of longevity, quality and value personified. And now you can add consistency! The proof of Pontet-Canet’s great success of late is easily seen and expected in the famous vintages of 2000 Ch. Pontet-Canet ($49.99) and 2003 Ch. Pontet-Canet ($59.99). But the real proof is in the stunning 2002 Ch. Pontet-Canet ($29.99), 2004 Ch. Pontet-Canet ($39.99) and 1998 Ch. Pontet-Canet ($26.99), from years when mother nature made it difficult to make a fine wine. Please feel free to call me anytime with questions or advice on the wines of Bordeaux at ex 2723 or Ralph@klwines.com. Cheers and Toujours Bordeaux! —Ralph Sands
It is time for our buyers to start scouring the far corners of the wine world finding great value wines for our stores and our loyal customers. First, Jim Chanteloup, Elisabeth Schriber and myself visited Australia in January. We focused mainly on the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale areas. February sees Jeff Vierra off to the Loire while Greg St. Clair and Mike Parres head to Tuscany. In March, Keith Wollenberg goes to Burgundy, and Anne Pickett travels to Spain. A big contingent (Clyde Beffa Jr, Ralph Sands, Chip Hammack and Steve Bearden) goes to Bordeaux in April to taste the “superb” 2005 vintage and then travels to the Southern Rhône. Late April sees Gary Westby tasting in Champagne. That’s over 150,000 miles, and we are only into April. Many more trips after April! All in the name of finding special wines for our special customers. —Clyde Beffa Jr
I called my real estate agent the other day and told her I desperately needed to move from Long Beach to Los Angeles proper. In particular, to the 8000 block of W. Third St. No matter that this is an unprepossessing mélange of fortified store fronts, overpriced boutiques and seedy bars about as commodious to residential living as the inside of a recycling bin. This is the place for me, because this is the home of A.O.C. Wine Bar, my new favorite spot to eat in all of Southern California. You are smirking. I can tell. It’s true I cannot claim to have eaten in all or even half of the top restaurants down here. Maybe there are a few places as good or better than A.O.C. But none of them, I wager, are better for me. Let’s begin with the name, an allusion, of course, to the French system of wine appellations. A.O.C., baby, you had me at hello. Wine is a big part of the experience at A.O.C., and the wine list is justifiably dense. It’s not the longest list in the world, not by a long shot, but it is filled with an extensive selection of wines by the glass and by the carafe (making it easy for our table of three to try a little of everything) as well as esoteric, food-friendly and, most importantly, well priced by-the-bottle items. It is a pleasure to turn through the narrow pages of this wine list just as it’s a pleasure to sit in one of the narrow, spare and comforting rooms in this bi-level restaurant. There is a notable absence of flash in the place. The walls are creamy and mostly unadorned. The table settings are white on white tablecloths. Many of the tapas-style plates come out of the kitchen in little cast iron pans with white napkins tied around the scalding handles. The servers wear little makeup, even the women, and are dressed in white button-down shirts. So down to earth is the vibe at A.O.C. it comes as a shock to leave the place and to find yourself once again in the heart of L.A. Do not be fooled by the ‘Wine Bar’ tag on the end of the restaurant’s name. The food here is not at all secondary to the wine. It is serious food, and at the risk of sounding like someone from Berkeley, it is soulful. The plates are all small and meant for sharing, a nice concept in theory. In practice there were a number of those plates on all three of my visits to A.O.C. that didn’t make it across the table. As befits a place serving serious food, the menu changes daily. And yet everyday there will be a thoughtful assortment of cheeses in all four categories (goat, sheep, cow and bleu), charcuterie plus fish, meats and vegetables from the wood burning oven. On our most recent visit to A.O.C. we ordered one of the additions to the printed menu. It was described as a holiday sausage, a boudin blanc ($13), made in house from pheasant and pork grinded to a fine paste and thickened with oats that had themselves been plumped in cream. It was one whitish sausage in a little white dish, a candidate for the most expensive sausage ever eaten, and it was heavenly. Next a similarly itty plate containing two crostini topped with chicken liver ($8) arrived and were eaten so fast by my table mates I did not stand a chance. No worries, I happily monopolized the ‘salad’ of shaved carrots, smashed and whole chickpeas, oven roasted peppers and prickly sweet seeds of pomegranate all tied together with a snappy crème fraiche dressing ($9). Ha ha! To wash these first gems down we enjoyed a carafe (about three and half glasses) of the 2004 Kracher “Illmitz” Pinot Gris ($16), which was pure acid and minerals along with grapefruit and slate. Not your mother’s Pinot Grigio! We also opted for one glass to share of the Jean-Louis Chave Crozes-Hermitage Blanc “Sybele” ($9.50), a richer, rounder white and the ideal wine to match the next barrage of dishes, which included the arroz negro ($13), a cast iron portion of rice as black as the serving dish, topped with a handful of tender calamari rounds and a spoon of melting aioli. It was salty and deep, tasting of seas and secrets. Oh! Another addition to the printed menu, the oven roasted arctic char ($14) was served again in cast iron, topped with the sweetest skinless peppers and a profound sauce that hinted at herbs, fish skin and salt. The char was pink and salmon like, but without salmon’s too frequent fishiness. Oh! Oh! Drained were our glasses and ignited our palates, and so we ordered anew! This time a bottle of the wonderful 2002 Jacques Puffeney Arbois Rouge ($56). “It’s a rose!” exclaimed one of my companions, and he was only partly wrong. This was a red so lightly colored it would have been dismissed by many an L.A. wine snob as being too pale to be any good. How sad for they, because this pallid little number absolutely delights, making up for its lack of color with an array of woodsy, fruity aromas and a palate impression that reminds one of red Burgundy, Barolo, Rioja and a touch of something…. Valle d’Aosta, all at once! You know that strawberry jam, the French kind, with the plaid lid?? On the palate it has surprising glycerin. It holds on to your tongue. And yet it is totally lacking in tannins. How bright! How vivid. How alive! Yes, the ideal red to finish the fish courses and become our bridge to the next array of dishes, which included a grilled quail ($18), so tiny and defeated on its white plate, and yet so shamefully crunchy and good, a dish of Italian broccoli ($8), which was perhaps too salty, and yet cooked to such a toothsome perfection the salt was easily overlooked, and lastly an absurdly tasty order of potatoes cooked in duck fat ($8). Fat might be the theme of our dinner at A.O.C, either that or salt (more than one dish was over salted, though only on one of our visits). And what better way to add some unneeded fat to your diet than cheese? We chose one from each category, a Brillat Savarin, a sheep’s milk Everona and a curious aged goat cheese called Cana de Cabra ($15 for the three). They were nicely tepid and served without accompanying nuts or bits of fruit. Just white cheese on (another) white plate. And none the worse for it, either. Finally, our wine glasses emptied once more, we picked at the dessert one of us felt compelled to order. It was a sliver of dark chocolate cake ($10) served alongside two little slivers of peanut nougat and very thinly sliced caramelized persimmons. There was nothing wrong with any of it, and yet it was the weakest link in the meal. Or perhaps we were just full at that point. Or maybe, yes that’s it, we were too sad to enjoy the cake. Our meal at A.O.C had come to end and now all we had to look forward to was that long congested drive home on the 405. That realtor chick better get a move on. Got foodie tips on the scene down here? Please post your comments! --Elisabeth Schriber A.O.C. Wine Bar 8022 W. 3rd St Los Angeles, CA 90048 323.653.6359
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