The Natural Wine List Homogeny Rut

A few days ago, an industry friend wrote a Facebook post lamenting the repetitiveness of natural wine lists in Los Angeles. The truth is that it is not just LA, or even all that limited to natural wine or today’s climate. Since I can remember, certain wines and styles that are trendy show up in a lot of similar places. In the mid 90’s, you found the same California Chardonnays – Pahlmeyer, Kistler and if you were “lucky” enough to get any, Marcassin – at all of the “celebrity chef” restaurants in San Francisco.

What makes natural wine a little different is that there has been less choice. When i was creating the wine list for CAV in 2005 there was basically one natural wine importer, Louis Dressner, at least in the Bay Area. Jenny & François hardly had a presence on the West Coast. Neal Rosenthal, Kermit Lynch, Martines, Vineyard Brands and a few others have always carried organic and biodynamic producers but they hardly reflected the growing practices of the entire portfolio.

In 2007, Terroir Natural Wine Bar and Merchant made the gutsy decision to sell natural wines exclusively and the availability had widened but not by much. Jose Pastor converted his Spanish portfolio and pioneered the importation of natural wines from Iberia around the same time. Yet up until five years ago, any buyer who threw their lot in with natural wine was up against limitations not only of selection but quality. While we might forgive or even embrace certain “flaws,” bacterial messes are pleasant to just a special few.

However, over the last half decade, there has been a steady proliferation of both domestic and imported natural wines in the Bay Area. Most of the producers at Califermentation were not around six years ago. Nor was Scuola di Vino, Percy Selections or Trumpet Wine, some of the leading Bay Area rooted natural wine importers. Jolivin, Return to Terroir, Terrell Wines and others evolved so that now nearly all of their producers work without chemicals, commercial yeasts or other additives. Even distributors who are known for partnering with industrial conglomerates often have a few natural wines. Southern Wines and Spirits, the largest wine distributor in the United States, carries Domaine Select, the importer that represents Gravner. Seriously, should you wish to have wines from the godfather of amphora aged natural wines from Italy, you have to do business with the company known as “the evil empire.”

Basically, what I’m saying is that anyone who wants to have a strictly natural wine selection has many more choices today than just a few years back.

So why then do we continue to see a lot of the same wines on list after list and in store after store? Is there a natural wine list homogeny rut? The hammer is going to drop but first, here are a few points to consider.

1) Everyone has different taste but a lot of people can agree that a good many of the same producers make great wine. It’s hardly surprising that Arnot Roberts, Cornelissen, Cos, Dirty & Rowdy, Domaine le Briseau, Domaine de l’Ecu, Derain, Lapierre, Mas Candi, Montbourgeau, Overnoy and Rimbert, to name a quick dozen, seem to be in so many of the same places because all make high quality wines that are popular among natural wine fans. They also have crossover appeal, to different degrees.

2) Related to this is the issue of timing. When an importer gets in a new container, they hit the street and show the wines to the usual natural wine suspects, sometimes all in the same day. With limited sample budgets, this makes sense but it also means that the few natural wine shops and bars are likely to feature the same wine at the same time. Holding wines in storage or aging them is not a luxury that is open to all business owners. 

3) New York is command central for the majority of the relatively large importers and only a portion of these portfolios make it to California. What amazes me though is that I see a lot of the same wines over again when I’m in NY.

4) Loyalty is another big factor. For example, Donkey & Goat has been around a lot longer than most other California natural wine producers, and buyers who supported them in the early days know and have built up a relationship with the owners, Tracey and Jared Brandt. Newer buyers might also have a conceptual loyalty to them for sticking their necks out way back when that goes beyond just liking the wines.

5) Blurring the line with loyalties are business relationships that turn into friendships. All things being equal and sometimes not, buyers are more likely to support their friends than people they don’t know as well or don’t like. And a lot of the same buyers are chummy with a lot of the same wine sales people. This is not news as it is common in many industries.

OK, now the other realities and thanks for your patience.

There is laziness and conformity. Some people will seek out new wines before everyone in California hears about them while others wait until a wine has already been tested in the market or someone who is respected has positive things to say. It’s a tacit ratings system.

Not everyone has the ability to travel but between blogs such as The Feiring Line and Wine Terroirs, and reading up on natural wine fairs throughout Europe, you can get a pretty good idea of which other natural wine producers are out there. Furthermore, if a wine is not available in California or the United States, it can still be ordered or imported. It just takes more work.

France, Italy and California might have the largest concentration of natural wine producers but other countries (for our purposes let’s just say California is a country) have them as well. There aren’t many that are exported but Australia, New Zealand, Germany and Austria have some stellar natural wine producers too and tenacious buyers make efforts to get them.Vinca Minor Carignan

Not least, there is a misconceived, preconceived notion of what natural wine should taste like: light bodied, high acid and if there is VA (volatile acidity) or a poopy smell, so much the better. Natural wine is not about style…it is about practices and philosophy, and happily more people are starting to get this. Broc Cellars Carignan taste nothing like Vinca Minor’s yet both have their takers. Still, there is an over population of natural wines that fit the same mold – carbonic fermentation if its red, skin fermentation if its white, etc… – and especially for younger buyers who do not have a broad frame of reference, this is the expectation and it has resulted in a lot of homogeny and narrow mindedness.

So getting back to the question, why is there so much repetitiveness? It’s understandable to a degree but there could be much more creativity and originality. Some buyers are more adventurous, open minded and persistent. I feel like I should name them but to do that would be dissing others by omission so I’ll leave it at this…as a consumer, you too can just go to the same places and take advice from the same people but if you want to diversify your knowledge, get out of your comfort zone. Do your homework and check out as many places and wines as you can because unfortunately, not enough professionals are doing it for you.           


25 Years in 25 Wines: 1991 and Barbaresco

PART TWO: Discovering Barbaresco

My learning curve in 1991 was steeper than a Mosel vineyard. I think I absorbed more during those 12 months than in the subsequent 24 years. A friend gave me Tom Stevenson’s Sotheby’s World Wine Encyclopedia for my birthday and I pretty much memorized it. I always tell people now that the best way to learn about wine is to read and taste, and with this now very out of date book accompanying me every night before bed and the world of Astor open to me at cost, it was a most studious time.Sotheby's World Wine Encyclopedia

From a vertical of Grange (Hermitage) starting with 1980 to a vertical of Montecillo Gran Reserva going back to 1968, I was exposed to hundreds if not thousands of wines. Probably for the better, most were not of the highest caliber.  The staff was encouraged to go to trade tastings in addition to the weekly store trainings and this made me appreciate what Kevin was doing Astor at even more.

At the shop, we were assigned aisles to maintain (stock and keep neat) so I used this as a way to focus on different regions. It rotated from time to time but Italy was my first assignment and it also became my first love. Even when I was moved to other parts of the world, I kept a watchful eye on my Italian bambinos. Seriously, I cleaned each shelf with Murphy’s Oil, rags and Q-Tips. Maybe I’m a little OCD. 

I should also mention that Bordeaux came along with Italy yet there was no question which section was the store’s priority. If you wanted older Bordeaux, Sherry-Lehmann and Morell uptown were the places to go but if you were looking for Valentini or Bea, Astor was it. Nonetheless, I kept Bordeaux in good shape (Murphy’s oil, no Q-Tips).

courtesy of Andrew Lampasone and Wine Watch

courtesy of Andrew Lampasone and Wine Watch

The problem with Italy is that it has so many grapes and Astor had a better representation at that time than many stores have even today so basically, I drank a lot. From Sfurzat to Marzemino to Carricante, Italy lived in my liver. Yet, Nebbiolo stole my heart and the two wines that were most responsible were the ’85 Produttori de Barbaresco Asili Riserva and ’82 Bruno Giacosa Santo Stefano.

With my discount and tax I paid somewhere in the neighborhood of $23 for that ‘85 Produttori Asili. I remember sitting on my black futon couch drinking it on a weekday night but can’t recall who joined me. Maybe I was alone, watching Operation Desert Storm starring Wolf Blitzer with take-out Chinese food? Fun. Anyway, if I could go back in time as who I am today I’d probably realize how young the wine was and that it would become so much more one day. Yet the inherent, irascible beauty of youthful Nebbiolo and the obvious generosity that lay beneath mesmerized my younger, bright-eyed, oblivious self.

I had the Giacosa Santo Stefano at an Italian restaurant with some of my co-workers. At that time in New York, no one really brought wine into restaurants unless it was BYOB but my father was a friend of the owner so he let it slide. Once again, I didn’t realize that a nine-year-old Barbaresco from a treasured terroir, monumental vintage and outstanding producer would still be in its infancy. This said, it was anything but tight and emitted the classic tar and roses, wild mushrooms and licorice goodness that is Barbaresco. When a wine has not yet reached its peak but is already better than so many others that have you know it’s special. Kind of like Steph Curry. He was MVP last year but this season he’s unreal. Steph

Then as now, Giacosa was way more expensive than the Produttori’s wines and given that the ’82 Santo Stefano cost over $1000 a bottle today I doubt I’ll have a chance to see how it’s developed over the last 25 years, but my life was definitely made richer having had the opportunity to try it. It also cemented Barbaresco’s place in my temple as the high priestess of Nebbiolo.

Before signing off, I want to get back the Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. The edition I devoured was written in 1988 and it is at this point a history book. I don’t mind certain biases because it reflected the trends of the times. This tells us a lot. However, the four-paragraph reference to Georgia, which was still part of the USSR, doesn’t mention amphora at all, even though it was used for thousands of years to age wine in this part of the world. While we might be more aware of what is happening in other countries now than we were then, this still seems like a big omission for a book titled, “World Wine Encyclopedia.” This said, it was still the “cold war” although there was a thaw by the late 80’s. Just a thought. I’ll leave it at that.



For Part One go to:

25 years in 25 wines: 1990







Natural Wines on a Budget

Budget Wines

Popolo di Indie Vino del Popolo Rosso, 2014, P-U-R Marne Jaune, Brea Cabernet Sauvignon, Fattoria San Lorenzo Il Casolare, Le Faye d’Homme Cot, Pheasant Tears Rkatsiteli

Got ‘Dem January Credit Card Blues Again?

I’m going to guess that your credit card bills from December are coming due just about now. Every year, this great post holiday event coincides with other January past time, the premature ending of a month long detox. No judgments here, do what you need to do but keep in mind that you can drink well on the cheap…here are a few tips.

1) Start with types of wines that you know you like. This could mean an appellation, such as Sancerre, or a grape.

Let’s use a grape, Pinot Noir.

> Don’t go to any old store and buy a $20 or under Pinot Noir off the shelf.

> Check out a shop(s) that has steered your right in the past or that has a good reputation. They might tell you, “Well, we have a little problem. There are very few California Pinot Noirs in this price range that we feel we can get behind.”

This is not true of all wines but it often is of Pinot Noir and this why it is a good place to begin. If you are wondering why, supply and demand is one factor but Pinot is a difficult grape to grow, compared to others, and that makes it more costly.
>The salesperson should ask you, “What is it that you like about Pinot Noir?” If she doesn’t, tell her. With this information she should be able to point you towards a less expensive alternative.

>If you are lucky and the store has a couple of Pinot Noirs that are $20 or less, ask what makes them different from one another.

>You might want to jump into the deep end and try something other than Pinot Noir but let the person helping you know what characteristics in a you a wine you like.

2) Look for less expensive wines made from great producers or from wineries you’ve enjoyed in the past

> Let’s take Eric Texier, a highly revered Rhône producer. He built his reputation on his Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Côte Rotie, which sell for $60 and $90 respectively. However, he also makes a number of other wines, some from other regions, that sell for a lot less and are made with the same level of respect for the environment and love and care as his more expensive wines. Texier Côtes du Rhône “Brezème,” both the red and white, are as complex as wines from more prestigious southern Rhône appellations and for $15 his Chat Fou Côtes du Rhône blows most of its local competition away.

3) If the wine is an import, look at the back label.

> Start noticing importers. They put their labels on the back of wine bottles. Even large importers go for the same things over and over again. As far as natural wines are concerned, there are differences, too. Jenny & François tends to be more adventurous and risky in their choices than Neal Rosenthal, which is not an exclusively natural wine importer but leans in that direction. If you’ve had wines imported by Jenny & François that you’ve liked, check out the less expensive wines they import. Same for Rosenthal, etc…

Also, ask a salesperson to recommend wines made with a similar approach from other importers.

4) Notice floor stacks and sale sections but also be suspicious.

> Wines that are floor stacked with, “Only $9.99” are often on sale because they are being pushed out to make room for another vintage. Or, there is overstock. Granted, you are more likely to see this from large companies and admittedly, I have a bias in favor of small business. Yet, smaller shops use them sometimes, too. Either way, if you see floor stacks ask a salesperson who knows what he is talking about before sticking a bottle in your cart.

5) Finally, pay attention to writers you agree with, or not.

> Whether you love, hate or are indifferent to Eric Asimov, Alice Feiring, or anyone else, still pay attention to their tastes so you can calibrate your palate with their’s and see what they are digging at lower price points.


And finally, here are a few $20 and under wines that I’m into at the moment, even though I’m sort of on detox. 


Fattoria San Lorenzo Il Casolare, 2014 ($16) Marche, Italy

Adel 50/50 blend of Montepulciano and Sangiovese with equally weighted fruit and mineral notes.

Cyril Alonso P-U-R Marne Jaune, 2012 ($16) Rhône Valley, France

This Côtes du Rhône is right up there with Texier’s but it has a drop more funk.

Le Faye d’Homme Cot, 2014 ($18) Loire Valley, France

A light, bright, chipper version of Malbec.

Carolina Gatti, El Gat Ros, 2012 ($19) Veneto, Italy

Unadulterated, terroir driven Cabernet Sauvignon.

Coturri Young Carignane 2015 ($20) Mendocino County, California

Fruity, snappy and fun.


Jo Laundron – Domaine de la Louvetrie Muscadet Amphibolite, 2014 ($15) Loire Valley, France)

Bone dry with minerals and citrus.

Cooper Mountain Pinot Gris, 2014 ($15) Willamette Valley, Oregon

Mildly floral with stone and tropical fruits.

Lestignac Blanc, 2013 ($17) Bergerac, France

A conversation piece with captivating spice and oyster shell aromatics.

Herve Villemande Cheverny Blanc, 2014 ($18) Loire Valley, France

Minerally Sauvignon Blanc with a bergamot twist.

Pheasant Tears Rkatsiteli, 2013 ($20) Kakheti, Georgia

Fermented and aged on its skins in 200 year old qvevri (amphora), it has a slight hint of oxidation with dried stone fruits, nuts and chamomile flowers.





Sexism in the Wine Industry

I used to have a litmus test for the women I dated. They needed to know who Che Guevera was. I relaxed that over time but am thinking about instating a new test for anyone I plan on associating with, personally or professionally. You have to know who Gloria Steinem is.

She’s been making the rounds on NPR, etc.., promoting her latest book, My Life on the Road. As I’ve been listening to this brilliant, 81-year-old feminist icon, I am reminded of conversations I’ve been having with younger men and some women who seem pretty clueless about sexism.

Women have made strides, no question about that. More than half of university students in the United States are female and there are other stats you can pull up to show that we are not as unequal as years past yet we still earn less pay and stare at glass ceilings. This is quantifiable. What bothers me just much though are the ways in which women are spoken TO, spoken OF, treated IN conversation and professionally EXCLUDED.

I know that women in many fields have had similar experiences but it is always easier to write what you know. Here are a few situations I’ve seen happen in the wine industry time and time again.

Let’s start with simple conversations. A woman comes across a group of men at a tasting. She walks over but is not acknowledged. She might try to add to the discussion but still, no one even turns his head in her direction so she raises her voice to be heard. She is ignored or glared at, letting her know that her utterance is most unwelcome. Beyond ignoring or talking over women, men are much more likely to interrupt and take over a professional conversation a woman is having with a customer or colleague than they would with a man, basically saying, “I know better.” It often starts with physical gestures, literally entering the woman’s physical space and talking in a louder and more authoritative voice. This happens all the time and while it may not be as obvious as saying something offensive, it is just as disrespectful.

OK, let’s move on to how female wine sales people (reps) are often treated. Granted, being a wine rep is not an easy job, for anyone. However, it is tougher for women than men. If I only had could get miles on Virgin for every time I’ve seen a male buyer be dismissive towards a female sales rep – sometimes women who are older than them, have been in the business way longer and know more – I’d fly around the world several times. You might be thinking that this is just part of the power trip and admittedly, both male and female buyers can be on them (I should know, I was one for 20 years). However, since the beginning of my career until recently I’ve heard male buyers make justifications for treating women differently, starting with this one, “she comes in here dressed like that so what do you expect.”

On the flip side, male sales reps can be just as rude toward female buyers. I’ve had first-hand experience here. If Virgin would give me miles for all the guys who have TRIED talking down to me over the years I’d fly first class.

Then there are the men who think women’s mouths are located on their breasts. Of course, we are going to come across people in our professional lives that we find attractive but that is not what I’m talking about. How would men feel if women stared at their crotches while they tasted wine or answered a question? Does anyone really think that a woman would be sexually interested in someone who is that creepy, let alone give him professional respect?

Along these lines, a couple of years ago, a salesman who works for a big distributor told me, at his company’s wine tasting, he thinks about me in the shower. I mean, really? Hitting on lesbians is not just a form of sexism, it is homophobic and stupid. Unless of course you are convinced that “lesbians love you,” as one male buyer I know has told me, on more than one occasion. Yes, that’s how you get into my good graces. 

And this leads to the one issue people actually do talk about and admit exist: sexual harassment. I know a number of women in the wine industry who have been harassed in one form or another. And, let’s not forget about the elephant in the room, rape. It happens. When a night of drinking is involved it can become dicey but no means “NO” and men should not take advantage of women who are inebriated. Some women have spoken out and good for them. Yet for all who have raised their voices I fear more haven’t. 

You might be thinking that younger men are not as sexist. Wrong. It troubles me that Millennials seem to have even less of a consciousness about it than their older male peers. Perhaps the baby boomers and Gen Xers were better schooled in equality because women’s lib and ERA were in the news more during the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.

Believing that someone is your equal starts with the eyes and ears. Listening to and acknowledging their existence is a prerequisite. This is true of human interaction in general. In my own life, I’ve learned that communication is as much about hearing what others say as it is about voicing your own thoughts and feelings. And I wish that now, in 2016, more of us would just shut up sometimes and let others speak.

I’m not ready to give up. One bad character trait does not define a person and I don’t put condescension in the same category as rape. What I do wish is that there is greater self-awareness. Some men might be lost causes but I’d like to think that most who exhibit sexist behavior just need to be called out. I do see women of all ages who speak up. Yet still, we don’t as much as we should and I think this is especially true, again of Millennials. Maybe this generation doesn’t feel the need to take their male colleagues to task as much because they’ve had more opportunities. To this I say, don’t forget about the people who fought so you could have these chances and rights, and honor what they’ve done by continuing to fight for equality and respect.

So, getting back to Ms. Steinem, if you don’t know who she is, what she’s done and what she stands for, you need to do some reading. This goes for both sexes. Her lifetime of dedication and the tireless work of other women – and many men – to equality have made a huge impact on our society. However, in spite of the gains we’ve made there is still a very long way to go.



The Vinguard’s Top Wines of 2015

Flat StanleyThese are the first ten wines that came to me when I was thinking about the most impressive wines I’ve had all year. I ordered them by price but appreciated all equally, though for different reasons.


1) Purity Syrah, 2014 (Santa Ynez Valley, CA)


I heard of Purity but did not have a chance to try any of the wines before Califermentation. We knew they met the litmus test for inclusion and hoped for the best. As it turned out, they were one of the most talked about wineries, at least among the people I spoke with afterward. Admittedly, part of what impressed me so much was that I did not have any expectations so given the prices, I was pleasantly shocked. With black pepper, violets, ham hock, boysenberries and chalky tannins, this Syrah taste like a California-born child of immigrant parents from St. Joseph and Crôzes Hermitage. For under $25, scratch that, $30, you will have a hard time finding a native son with this much complexity and quality.


2) La Maldición, Il Malvar de la Olla de Marc Isart, 2013 (Vinos de Madrid D.O., Spain)


Marc Isart Pinos is the head winemaker at Bernabeleva, a high profile estate in the Madrid D.O. but in 2013, he started his own label, “La Maldición,” which means “the curse.” Located on a secluded and difficult mountainous site he works with old vine Tempranillo and Malvar, an indigenous white varietal to the area. I’ve had a few other wines made from Malvar that have ranged from insipid to highly strange – and not in an interesting way – but after trying Isart’s version, I’m convinced others can do a better job. Composed of fruit from a century-old vineyard it has a smoky, perfumed minerality with both intensity and vivacity on the palate. For most it might be unconventional but nearly every one I tasted on it has fallen head over heels so if you want to expand your wine horizons in 2016 this is a bottle you should track down.


3) Yannick Amirault Bourgueil “La Coudraye,” 2013 (Loire Valley, France)


Founded in 1977, this Cabernet Franc only winery has always practiced organic viticulture and hasn’t used additions (acid, etc…) since 2003. “La Coudraye” is its most modest wine and this adds to its charm. Made from 30 plus year old vines, it is clean but not sterile with red pepper, sesame seed paste and porcini dust aromas, lively acidity and a long finish. For me, the essence of a winery is found in its every day wines and Amirault has soul.


4) Niki Antadze Mtsvane, 2011 (Kakheti, Georgia)


No one has done as much to introduce Georgian wines to the American market as Chris Terrell and Niki Antadze is one of the most recent additions to his terrific portfolio. Antadze comes from a winemaking family that lost their land during the Soviet era but in 2006 Niki bought a small plot that belonged to his ancestors – and was used to make wine for the Royal family – and embarked on a path of traditional winemaking. Fermented on its skins and stems for six months in clay amphora vessels known as “qvevri,” his ’11 Mtvane is textured but not rough with of tea, guava, lychee and a touch of salinity. 


5) Bloomer Creek Tanzen Dame Dry Riesling, Auten Vineyard, Clone 10, 2013 (Finger Lakes, NY )

Bloomer Creek Tanzen Label

Bloomer Creek Tanzen Label


The highlights of my expedition to the Finger Lakes over the summer were Hermann J. Wiemer and Bloomer Creek. However, since I did not know the latter before the voyage began, they stand out just a bit more. Also, while Wiemer is constantly moving in a more natural direction, Debra Bermingham and Kim Engle of Bloomer Creek took the plunge early on and in a big way. German Riesling is one of nature’s miracles and Bloomer Creek’s 2013 Auten Vineyard is very much in this ilk with lower alcohol and strong mineral currents. It hasn’t fully blossomed but is pretty and no doubt will glow when it comes into its own.


6) Domaine Economou Oikonomoy Liatiko, 2006 (Crete, Greece)


Yannis Economou honed his chops in Barolo, Bordeaux and Germany before returning to the homeland in 1994. Blessed with a parcel of ungrafted vines planted by his family in the 70’s, he turned Economou into a Cretan powerhouse, drawing more attention to the island’s wines, in particular, the ancient grape Liatiko. Economou ferments in stainless steel tanks and ages the wine in neutral wood for two years. He releases them when he thinks they are ready to drink, so yes, the ’06 is the current release. It’s a little rustic – but not too barnyardy – with macerated cherries, truffles and spice. It reminds me a little bit of an older Barolo or Taurasi. There is plenty of acidity so while the tannins are relatively soft, I think it will age well over the next decade but you can drink it now, with pleasure.


7) Domaine de L’Ange Vin “Le Charmes du Loir,” 2012 (Jasnières, Loire Valley, France)


Jean-Pierre Robinot has a magic touch and I could easily select three of his wines for the desert island I will never own. Named after the wine bar/restaurant he opened in Paris in the 90’s, L’Ange Vin’s wines are sourced from Chahaignes, his hometown in the Loire. “Le Charme du Loir” is composed of 25 – 50-year-old Chenin Blanc vines on clay and flint. It was aged in neutral barrels on its lees for 14 months so this coupled with a slight oxidative note adds some richness, creating an almond/peach/apple brioche-like character. With a firm chord of acidity, it finishes dry, leaving traces of floral honey, crisp fruit and an underlying minerality.


8) Shavnabada Rkatsiteli, 2003 (Kakheti, Georgia)


An extinct volcano 2300 feet above sea level, Shavnabada is a mountain that has housed a Medieval monastery of the same name. It was restored in 1992 and the monks have been making wine on the property since 1998. Certified organic, they are old school and ferment and age the wines underground in amphora for years, 12 in the case of the Rkatsiteli. Every time I think of this winery images of Sean Connery from In the Name of the Rose pop into my head. Amber colored, with toasted nuts, spice and dried stone fruits, one door of flavor leads to another – it’s pretty astonishing. 


9) Christophe Mignon Champagne, Extra Brut, NV (Champagne, France)


I’m wondering what took so long for Christophe Mignon’s Champagnes to find their way to California. Dominated by Pinot Meunier, this 5th generation wine grower in the Marne Valley is making what I think is far and away the best $50-ish NV Brut you’ll find at the moment. Mignon follows a lunar calendar and incorporates biodynamic and organic principles into his winemaking but is not certified. He works with 30 parcels and vinifies all of them separately in steel and epoxy lined tanks. After two years of bottle aging, his extra brut is disgorged and given a minimal dosage. Finely balanced, it has a brioche-like note in the nose with hazelnuts, almonds and minerals, it is delicious, classic Champagne at a reasonable price.


10) Arnot-Roberts Syrah, Que Syrah Vineyard, 2013 (Sonoma Coast, California)



Granted, Duncan Meyers and Nathan Roberts have been making wine longer than most other natural winemakers in California but along with Matthiasson, their wines have the most crossover appeal. I carried one of their earliest Syrahs at CAV and while I’ve tried many of their wines since, believe that this is the grape that sets them apart from the pack. “Que Syrah” is right up there with the best from the Rhône so $80 is justified. With an array of spices, smoked meat, berries and freshly rolled tobacco it smells like a gourmet shop and given its structure and balance, will evolve and continue to dazzle for at least another decade.

Here’s to many more discoveries in 2016. 

Happy New Year,


25 years in 25 wines: 1990

Memories from the Bottle


Retro image of closeup of eighties office deskI lived in London and Israel throughout most of 1990 but upon my return, just before Halloween (I remember this vividly as my sister and father were dressing up as Olive Oil and Popeye, respectively that is, for the Village’s parade), I had every intention of becoming a grown up and mapping out my future. This meant going to graduate school, getting my Ph.D. in history and spending the rest of my foreseeable days as an egghead.

In the meantime, I had to pay for my rent-controlled apartment on Horatio Street one way or another and ended up working at Astor Wines & Spirits, as the buyer, Kevin McKenna, had a momentary lapse in reason and hired me. Surrounded by several incredibly smart and welcoming colleagues, I absorbed an enormous amount in a very short time and unbeknownst to me, embarked on a career that has now spanned 25 years. That’s how it all began.

As I think back on this, I realize how much wine and the world it inhabits has changed in the last quarter century. Some of the big and powerful distributors no longer exist and there has been a proliferation of small, specialized importers. Vintage Madeira went from being an unheralded bargain to a trophy wine. Regions have emerged and ancient grapes have been revived. 

From now through the end of 2016, I’m going to write about a wine from each year since I’ve been in the  industry that has stood out, for one reason or another. This exercise might be more for me than for posterity, to see if I can jog my memory and recommit to a writing schedule without distraction. However, since the only time we really know is the time we’ve lived in, I feel I should pass on some of my experiences, not as a wine professional but as someone who has a complicated love for this ancient passion.

So, getting back to 1990, on a late fall day, I was asked if I wanted to come to a tasting at Nick Kramer’s place. Apparently, the Astor staff got together regularly to taste a bunch of wines and on this occasion Cabernet Franc, and blends thereof, were going to be put to the test. Nick, an NYU student who was maybe 20 at the time, was widely considered to be the best taster in the store. It’s unfortunate for the world that he decided not to go into the industry after college as to this day, I would say he is one of the most gifted and also lovely people I’ve come across.

After a busy Saturday in the shop, I trudged over to his three or four floor walk-up on 7th Street off of Avenue A, when the East Village was starting to gentrify and the junkies knew their days on the sidewalks were numbered. Very sadly, two of my colleagues who were there that night, Sophie Fenouillet and Lynn Scott, died, way too young from cancer. I remember Lynn a bit better, possibly because Sophie moved back to France yet the truth is I had a little crush Lynn and when I heard she passed I genuinely felt a sense of loss, even though we did not stay in touch.

Candela Prol, an educator in New York and for sure, a mentor to me at that time, was a permanent fixture at the tastings. Even though she was working at Astor just a night or two a week, her place in the family was solidified. We’ve managed to keep up more or less over the years and she is one of the true individuals in the industry…and I say that in the best way possible. No one will ever accuse her of pretension, posturing or other assorted bullshit that I’ve seen afflict many others over the years. There were a few other co-workers including Peter Viverito, the resident ladies man and a dreaded Yankees fan but an all around nice guy, and Richard (I can’t remember his last name), an older Beat type, who assured me that as bad as the future might seem – we were on the verge of stepping into the first Gulf War – “the arts would flourish.” I think Jake Halpern, who was a friend of Nick’s was also there. He worked at Astor after I left and has since had a long career on the import side, for the last several years with David Bowler. 

We tasted eight wines, more or less, but three stood the test of time: Quintarelli “Alzero,” Château Cheval Blanc and Cosentino Cabernet Franc. Cosentino? Yes, you read that right.

“Alzero” blew my mind. If you’ve never tried it you should chip in with a bunch of people some time and treat yo’ self. It is crazy expensive these days and while it wasn’t exactly cheap then, I think it was relatively more reasonable. Made in the passito style (the grapes are dried on mats for several months before vinification) I’d never had anything like it before and really had no idea that wine could be so ethereal. Funny thing is that I’m not sure which vintage we had though I’m leaning towards the ’85. It’s my story so I’ll stick with it.

Bordeaux has never really been on my top ten list as a region but when it’s good, it’s so so good and the Cheval Blanc we tried was stellar. I’m pretty sure it was from the mid to early 80’s – definitely not older – yet I remember it having so much grace and expression so my guess is that it was not the current release. 

Now you might be wondering what Cosentino is doing in this trio. Why not whichever Loire Cab Franc we tried (there were not that many imported in those days, by the way) or even one of the Long Island bottles we threw into the mix?

One thing I have not mentioned is that this was a blind tasting. We were all pretty shocked when Cosentino was unveiled because, at about $20, it was better than most of the other wines. It had varietal character but wasn’t overly vegetal and held its own against two world-class wines. Did it age as well “Alzero” or the Cheval Blanc? I wish I had the foresight to put some away, but I was young and dumb and didn’t. My guess is no, it probably was close to its peak, but it left an indelible mark on my palate and prompted my lifelong love for Cabernet Franc.

This story could end right about now, but I think I should add an aftermath.

Floppy Disks

Floppy Disks


A few years later I bought a more recent vintage of Cosentino Cabernet Franc for Hayes and Vine (my first wine bar, which opened in 1994). It was very popular, but it didn’t wow me. There is vintage variation, but then I bought the next vintage and again, it wasn’t nearly as impressive as the wine I was introduced to in 1990.

Also around this time, Phelps lowered the percentage of Cab Franc in “Insignia,” which I thought was a big mistake. The ’87 Phelps “Insignia” was one of the best California Cab based wines I’ve ever had but it’s gotten way boring over time, maybe or maybe not because of the blend change. 

As Cabernet Sauvignon’s star continued to rise in the 90’s what little Cab Franc that was made in the state lost its individuality. Those who made a varietal Cabernet Franc bottling often over extracted it and used a nauseating amount of oak. Granted, this was a general red wine trend at the time but some grapes can handle it. I drank a Clos Rougeard last week that was showing a lot of wood at first, but this wine comes from a terroir that can – with bottle age – integrate the oak and make it a fine piece of the collage. Just about every California Cabernet Franc I tasted from 1995 – 2005 was an art school disaster. And, since we all have our own take on art that, of course, is just my opinion.

What makes Cabernet Franc endearing to me then is that it has an unabashedly herbal and yes, sometimes bordering on vegetal, component. Yet is also floral, and though not as subtle as some other grapes, can still be graceful. In the way that the 80’s were bad for women’s hairstyles, the 90’s were unkind to Cabernet Franc; too much volume.

Unfortunately, most California Cab Francs made up through the last five years remained pretty unappetizing. Lang and Reed was one of the few exceptions. I had a tasting of older Cab Francs in 2013 as part of my “The Old and the Restless” series and the L& R’s were every bit as good as their Loire counterparts from Chanteleuserie, Lenoir, etc…(click here for the tasting notes).

The good news is that now, an expanding handful of producers are making super drinkable Cab Franc in California. Ryme, Roark, Matthiasson, Mossik and Broc are a few that come right to mind. It’s a pleasure to see Cabernet Franc take off in the state. Had it not been for that bottle of Cosentino I tried a quarter century ago I might never have paid its potential much regard. While Quintarelli’s Alzero and Cheval Blanc were ultimately more complex wines, the one that left the most lasting impression, was the measly $20 Cosentino bottling from Napa Valley. We never know which experiences will turn into the most lasting memories. 

Until next time…



The Old and the Restless: Cabernet Franc

I thought I published this but alas, no. At any rate, it is a good companion piece to “1990.” So, check it out. And, this is making me want to have a follow up tasting…so if you are interested in attending, shoot me an email,

The Old and the Restless: Cabernet Franc

September 12, 2013


Top Wines of the Tasting

1) Cabernet Franc, Lang & Reed, 2000 (North Coast, California)

2) Chinon, Jerome Lenoir – Domaine les Roches, 2004 (Loire Valley, France) $27

3) A tie between: Bourgueil, Beauvais, Domaine de la Chanteleuserie, 1989 (Loire Valley, France) and Cabernet Franc, Premier Etage, Lang & Reed, 1999 (Napa Valley, California)


Chinon Rose, Baudry, 2012 (Loire Valley, France) $18

Baudry is considered one of the top producers in Chinon. I’ve tried their wines over the years and while I’ve always found them to be beyond perfectly acceptable, they rarely wow me. But, I’m open to what the future holds and tasting older vintages in the future. The Chinon Rose is made by quickly pressing the grapes. It is all Cabernet Franc and hand harvested. It made a fine if not, for me, memorable, introduction to the evening.


Bourgueil, Beauvais, Domaine de la Chanteleuserie, 1989 (Loire Valley, France)

Domaine de la Chanteleuserie makes wine in Bourgueil, Saint Nicolas de Bourgueil and sparkling wine under the Touraine AOC yet it is the wines from Bourgueil for which they are best known. Thierry Boucard and his wife, Christine, are at the helm but six previous generations came before him at Chanteleuserie.

Located in Benais, a small village in Touraine, they have great vineyards. Even the “Cuvée Alouette,” the entry-level wine ($15), is made from 30 plus year old vines. “Cuvée Beauvais” comes from vines planted in 1971 on clay and limestone. At the time this wine was made, the vines were 18 years old so I can only imagine how well the current release will age.

It was fermented in large oak foudres and aged in both wood and tank. While Chanteleuserie adheres to lutte raisonnée now, I am not sure what types of growing practices were followed in 1989.

While the wine seemed to have some age, I don’t think anyone thought it was 24 years old. One thing though, it was an excellent vintage so given its pedigree, I am not surprised that it has been able to hold up. With a big porcini nose, I also got cinnamon, Mexican chocolate, peppers and a hint of star anise. It does not seem to be going over the hill any time to soon though it is probably as good as it is going to get. One person said it was a classic Cab Franc. I agree. It portrayed the non-herbal qualities of the grape. Most were in the old world camp, correctly.

Estimated cost: $30 – $40

Actual cost: NA


Bourgueil, Vielles Vignes, Domaine de la Chanteleuserie, 1983 (Loire Valley, France)

The current “Vielles Vignes” is composed from a vineyard that was planted before 1970. I suspect that this ’83 came from vines that were planted no later than the 60’s. There was more enthusiasm for the ’83 vintage when it came out than now. The acid levels were there, probably accounting for why this wine has held up pretty well. While on the upper edges of the down slope, it still showed varietal character and was not oxidized.

Lean, with a fading finish, it is hanging on with black olives and a hint of horseradish. The group thought it was old world and yes, old.

Estimated cost: $30 – $40

Actual cost: NA


Cabernet Franc, Batic, 2009 (Vipavska Dolina, Slovenia)

Beyond organic and biodynamic, Batic is the first winery in Europe to use a Physics based Cropping System based on fire and air. The PCS blows hot air, 75 degrees, at a speed of 150 kilometers an hour mimicking forces of nature to strengthen the vines. Batic has 47 acres of vineyard land from three towns in the Vipava Valley. Wind can be both a blessing and a curse though in this area it is more of the former. In the higher altitude vineyards (1300 ft), Batic has never had to spray. The PCS is used in the lower areas. Batic manually harvest and only indigenous yeasts are used.

The Cabernet Franc comes from 35-year-old vines. Two vineyards are used, both on marl soils. It was fermented for 30 days in open vats and transferred to Slovenian oak for two years. Minimal sulphur is used and it is bottled unfiltered.

My notes were that the oak was noticeable but underneath there are other things going on. A little stemmy, it is showing spice and ripe blackberries. One person said it reminded them of spun sugar. Another, insecticide in a good way. In general, the wine seems to have good bones but needs time to integrate. Having tasted numerous previous vintages, I think it will evolve and in another five years start to blossom. As the youngest wine in the group, it stood out for sure.

Estimate cost: $25

Actual cost: $29


Cabernet Franc, Lang & Reed, 2000 (North Coast, California)

John and Tracey Skupny made the westward journey from Kansas to the Napa Valley in 1984. Wine, which had become an obsessive hobby, is what led them to California and in 1996, Lang and Reed, named after their sons, was born. While they have spent a lot of time working for Cabernet Sauvignon producers – Caymus, Spottswoode and Clos du Val – they are all about Cabernet Franc driven wines.

Ninety percent of the fruit from the current vintage (2009) is from Lake County.

While not everyone’s top wine, it was the runaway favorite and with good reason. An extremely well made wine, it is still bright and vibrant with both primary and tertiary Cab Franc characteristics. With olives, cinnamon, red pepper and violets there are many aromatic facets that are still very much alive. I got a little bit of a stemmy, almost sticky bud-like quality too. It is a little bit lean on the palate but that is a good thing in my book and perhaps the reason why everyone thought it was from the Loire.

Estimated cost: $60

Actual cost: NA, current release (2010) $24


Bourgueil, Les Perrieres, Catherine Breton & Pierre, 1996 (Loire Valley, France)

The name, Breton, is a synonym for Cabernet Franc. It also happens to be the last name of one of the most respected producers in Touraine. Founded in 1982, they now make wine from Bourgueil, Chinon and Vouvray. The domaine has been organic since 1991 and started converting to biodynamic viticulture in 1994.

The ‘terroir’ wines, like this, are meant to show the character of a specific site. Like many of the grand crus from Burgundy, Les Perrieres is from the middle part of the slope. The soil is composed of siliceous (calcareous) clay and limestone. The vines are now about 70 years old so even taking into account that this is an older vintage, it was still made from mature vines. Hand harvested, fermented naturally in open wood vats and aged in 550 liter barrels for two years, Breton does things the old way, which is now coming back. And, the wines are always oozing with terroir.

There seemed to be a consensus that the wine was aromatically pleasant but a little awkward on the palate. I got star anise, cinnamon, red peppers and a little chalk. It is light and elegant. Sadly, I don’t think the disjointed quality is going to improve. It seems like the components are starting to break down at different rates. However, it is enjoyable all the same.

Estimate cost: $20

Actual cost: $75


Chinon, Les Barnabés, Olga Raffault, 2005 (Loire Valley, France) 

When Pierre Raffault passed away in 1947, his widow, Olga, took over the domaine. A German POW, Ernest Zenninger, who the Raffaults met during the war (he stayed in France upon his release) helped the young widow and became like a second father to her two young children. Today, Olga’s granddaughter, Sylvie, and her husband, Eric, run the domaine. It has been organic for as long as I can remember (let’s say safely since the late 90’s).

I brought this bottle back from the winery in 2005. Made from old vines on sandy gravel, it was whole cluster fermented for 15 days and transferred to 50-hectoliter casks for four to six months.

Les Barnabés is not necessarily meant to age the way that some of Raffault’s other wines can. Without a doubt, this was the funkiest wine, a textbook case of bret, but not everyone found it unpleasant and the longer it sat in the glass, the more the horse stable aroma faded. Some found it to be a bit flat. Truth, I wish I opened it a few years ago as it may have had more fruit then. I loved it in 2006 but it is nothing like the wine I tasted now. I think it was the least impressive of the Loire wines we tasted. Then again, it is all a matter of one’s tolerance for bret, and taste.

Estimated cost: $35

Actual cost: current release is about $20


Cabernet Franc, Premier Etage, Lang & Reed, 1999 (Napa Valley, California)

Premier Etage is made from two vineyards in Napa Valley. Madrigal, the mainstay is in between St. Helena and Calistoga. The fruit is fermented separately.

While the Premier Etage did not show as well as the ’00 North Coast, it is still doing pretty well. A richer, more fruit forward wine, it has kirsch, blackberries and chocolate with a good amount of tannin. I actually think this wine will improve for another few years. At the least, I’d give it until 2015 to see how it evolves.

Estimated Cost: $20 – $25

Actual Cost: NA, current vintage (2005) $40


Cabernet Franc, Rosa Mystica, Owen Roe, 2005 (Yakima Valley, Washington) $42

Named after a 17th century Irish patriot, or you could say nationalist, this is one of the top estates in Oregon. It was founded in 1999 by David O’Reilly and makes a slough of wines from Oregon and Washington. The Cabernet Franc is grown on hillside vineyards in the Yakima Valley. It is hand harvested and sorted.

Once in the winery, the fruit is fermented and punched down twice daily. It spends 19 months in oak barrels of which 3% was new and 9% is a year old.

I’ve always been a fan of Owen Roe’s wines and have considered their Cabernet Franc to be one of the best, if not the top that is made in Washington but was really disappointed here. The nose has an overwhelming acetate aroma (nail polish remover). Some thought it smelled like jet fuel. It was hot and cloying. Whoever said it lacks sophistication got it right. It could do an about face somewhere down the road but it does not seem to me as if there is enough good material to work with. It was flawed and unbalanced. Given Owen Roe’s track record, I’m happy to make an allowance for bottle variation.

Estimated cost: Without assigning a numeric guess, a few of us felt it was probably an expensive wine because wines made in this overbearing style often are. Sadly, we were right.

Actual cost: The current release (2010) sells for $40.


Chinon, Jerome Lenoir – Domaine les Roches, 2004 (Loire Valley, France) $27

This small father and son team is sitting on quite a bit of history. The limestone cave was excavated in the 15th century and the house above was once a convent. And wherever there are nuns…

Purchased by Lenoir family in 1900, they started with just about an acre of vines and now have just fewer than seven and a half. Still, that is pretty small and they make just one wine.

Lenoir is unique in that they the wines are aged for an extended period of time in neutral wood and more time in bottle. Like Rioja, they are often released many years after the vintage. The grapes are de-stemmed and fermented in open wood vats. The cellar is quite humid so spontaneous fermentation is never a problem. After fermentation, the wine is transferred by gravity to large staves where it lives for three years and is bottled unfiltered.

By the time we got to tasting this some of us may have had a little palate fatigue but it showed well, especially coming off the monolith of the previous wine. With violets, minerals, porcinis and dusty tobacco, there is a lot of personality and nuance. One person found it to be too acidic. While that might put some off, it will allow the wine to age well for another ten to fifteen years.

Estimate cost: $30 – $40

Actual cost: $28