Splendor in the Glass

Arturo Ciompi's blog on wine

Is “Bottle Shock” the new “Sideways”? The Judgment of Hollywood

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Clock icon February 21, 2012

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Bottle Shock

The story of “The Judgment of Paris” has hit the big screen.  Long the provenance of wine geeks, this is the tale of Steven Spurrier, and energetic British citizen whose training took place at Christopher & Company, England’s oldest wine merchant.  By 1970, he had opened his own shop in Paris.  Les Caves de la Madeleine quickly gained recognition as a first-rate store, run by the energetic, quixotic Francophile.

In 1976, perhaps in part as a publicity stunt, and in confluence with America’s 200th birthday, Spurrier decided that a blind tasting of French and California wines–to show off the merits of each–would be a fun idea.  The French obviously agreed.  It would be yet another medium in which to express the superiority of French wines, and an especially practical way to humiliate those California upstarts.

Well, the rest is history, and a tidal wave of folklore has grown from it.  Utilizing a panel of nine distinguished French judges, the result was a Napa Valley Cabernet besting famous Bordeaux reds.  A Napa Chardonnay did the same compared to venerable Burgundy offerings.  No manner of bluster or post-tasting apologies could dim the raw truth: the panel not only found many California wines superior, but even mistook many of these offerings as French.  “Ah, back to France!” exclaimed judge Raymond Oliver as he swirled and sipped a Napa Chardonnay.  “This is definitely California, it has no nose,” spouted another judge, as he quaffed a Batard-Monrachet.  (I had a reality check when I read the original Time magazine article written shortly after the tasting: “The U.S. winners are little known to wine lovers, and rather expensive ($6+).”  Oh, boy!  Life *and* prices were awfully good in the ’70s.)

Yet I never imagined that this event, important as it was for California’s emerging credibility, could be fodder for a feature length film.  A documentary?  Surely.  But this tale, adored by industry insiders worldwide, is now a movie called “Bottle Shock”, and it makes one wonder what Hollywood will do to spice it up.

A blind wine tasting is about as romantic and exciting to watch as a Mah Jong tournament.  Look!  Here are folks sniffing, drinking, and spitting.  (Special effects and slow motion might enhance the expectoration.)  Sex? I can imagine a bit of hanky panky amid the dark, humid aging barrels, or a post-contest romantic interlude at the Place de l’Opera.  Plus, I’ve seen the movie’s trailer, which features couples kissing amid the vines and a pretty young thing taking off her T-shirt in an attempt to flag a passing car.  (Shades of Claudette Colbert’s leg in “It Happened One Night”.)  But the vehicle turns out to be a police car.  Oops, my bad.

“Bottle Shock” centers on the Barrett family and their estate, Chateau Montelena, a great California cult winery that was having a hard time staying afloat in the mid-70s.  The Judgement of Paris actually helped them turn their business around.  And thank goodness!  It was their Chardonnay that won big in Paris and, as a wine lover with three bottles of their now even more celebrated Cabernet in my own cellar, I’m a beneficiary.  Real life arguments persist as to who was really responsible for Montelena’s ’76 success: the winery owners or radical winemaker Mike Grgich? This remains a sore point to this very day.

Prominent actors in the film include Alan Rickman, Bill Pullman, and Rachael Taylor, with former “Law and Order” cop Dennis Farina spouting home-grown wine aphorisms (“I detect bacon fat laced with honey melon”).  Danny DeVito plays a cameo as Grgich, and Grgich himself appears in several scenes at the chateau.  The real Jim Barrett, owner of Chateau Montelena, appears in the film as a vineyard owner who pours a wine sample for Rickman.

I’m hoping against hope that this will not be a jingoistic film where America conquers France.  It’s fair to ask why the French wine coterie ever agreed to such an event.  Chutzpah and history, I imagine, but there remains a lesson that French winemakers know, and that American winemakers should keep on the front burner.  During the past 30 years, America’s explosive emergence among the new world order of great winemaking is a dynamic story.  But, last time I checked, the wines that garner bids of thousands of dollars a bottle at auction are still French.  They remain the gold standard, like it or not, that they’ve always been.  Plus ça change……

(July, 2008)

Everybody Loves Raymond—Or, Do They?

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Clock icon February 18, 2012

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Off Zinfandel Lane, in the heart of Napa Valley, lies Raymond Vineyard and Cellar.  The Raymond family’s lineage intertwines with that of the Beringers, Germans who established their California roots in the 1870s.  Roy Raymond Sr. began working at the Beringer property in 1933.  By 1971, using his share of the profits from the sale of Beringer Vineyards, Roy and his family established a new winery on a 90-acre parcel three miles down the road.

After many vintages, the Raymond name is well-established and known for making exemplary regional wines.  My tasting notes constantly repeat the theme of balance and approachability.  However, is there a special trait, a spark of electricity, or something “pinpointable” that makes these wines stand out?  Here’s the rub: the answer is NO.  Dynamism is not the forte at Raymond.  I liken the situation to the first time that a person drinks a good, German riesling.  “Boy, this is good stuff!” exclaims the novitiate, but a month later, the discovery is forgotten.  So it is with Raymond: people forget.

Despite high standards and quality, these wines don’t grab you by the throat and scream “Here’s Raymond!”  In tasting their lineup, I could not help but think of how few estates can give you what approaches a written guarantee of quality, as can Raymond.  I think you’ll like what’s in their stable.

Raymond Vineyard

Raymond Vineyard

2000 Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Reserve–nice lemon grass nose with crisp, wonderful acid levels.  Slight chalkiness on the palate, but a really good finish and ticklish refreshment.  It has a direct, lean (in a good way) profile that’s perfect for summer fare.  Much better than any of the California sauvignon blancs I’ve tasted recently. Highly recommended for meals of crustaceans and non-0ily fish.

2000 Chardonnay, Napa Reserve–A subtle, almost shy nose of melded fruit and oak.  Clean flavors are pleasurable with butterscotch elements.  Exemplary balance in an understated but very attractive drink.  A fine choice for summer pastas and simple grilled poultry.

1997 Chardonnay “Generations”, Napa Valley–Rather overt style, but not a punch in the nose.  Nicely balanced bouquet.  “Sweeter” (read: lush) and with more purity than the Napa Reserve.  Flavors are also richer with more oak prominence that lingers on the back of the palate.  With 100% malolactic fermentation, itcould be too much for some consumers.  An intense, concentrated drink that is far from being old, even after four years in the bottle.  Only 1000 cases produced.

1998 Merlot, Napa Reserve–A distinctive black cherry nose with depth and virility.  A good mouth texture and middle-weight style.  Plenty of fruit but a rather tight, tannic finish.  This could speak of the toughness of the ’98 vintage.  Nonetheless, an excellent effort.

1999 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Reserve–Good intensity on the nose with ripe blackberry and a touch of vegetables.  Excellent concentration on the palate.  Dry, Rutherford bench dustiness with a beautiful grain and flavorful aftertaste.  Despite the undercurrent of the veggies, this is a finely etched Cabernet, capable of three years improvement in the bottle.

1997 Cabernet Sauvignon, “Generations”, Napa Valley–The flagship wine of Raymond and a top notch ’97.  Very focused and penetrating with a big, but not obvious, bouquet.  Dark fruits on the nose, beautifully integrated and still holding much in reserve.  A silky, sleek, and “fluid” drink.  Superb balance and a delectable finish.  Invites a new sip immediately, and again, and again!  A pleasure to drink now with at least five years of development ahead.

I had little sympathy for the 2000 Estates Chardonnay, which smelled of strange root vegetables.  Nor did I care for the 1998 Estates Cabernet Sauvignon, which had a flat, inexpressive bouquet and a mean, lean flavor profile.

Many of you may know the Amberhill line that Raymond produces as their bread and butter commercial moneymaker.  The wines are good values.  The samples I reviewed here are the cream off the top.  I doubt they will ever be 98-point winners in blind tastings, because Raymond simply doesn’t make wine in a knock-out style.  Still, they are textbook examples of their region and heritage, easily overlooked–but that would be a great loss.

(July, 2002)

Stalking the Wild Sciacchetra

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Clock icon December 1, 2003

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The sign says, “Don’t leave our castle without drinking our wine/It is called sciacchetra and will make you very happy”

In the Italian region known as the “Cinque Terre” (“Five Lands”), uniqueness abounds.  These fishing villages on the western coast of the province of Liguria were, until this century, approachable only by sea.  Now, narrow roads with hairpin turns can be driven, white knuckled, to reach them.  Starting form the Appenine Mountains inland, these hillsides descend precipitously until the final peaks hurl themselves into the Ligurian Sea.  A few natural harbors are home to color-splashed towns carved right out of the rocks.  Each is distinctive due to the varying shapes of the inlet they inhabit.  Their beauty is best appreciated from the ocean; from the patchwork quilt of Manarola to the aching, singular wonder of Riomaggiore.  Nestled directly behind them, rows of vines and olive trees rise straight up the mountainside.  This is certainly back0breaking viticulture.

Liguria produces the second smallest mount of wine of any Italian province.  The Valle d’Aosta is last, but that mountainous region (formerly known as Savoy) bordering France and Switzerland is mostly pre-Alpine rock formation.  Instead, Liguria has become such a desirable destination for Italians to spend the summer that more and more land, Italy’s most precious commodity, is turning into housing.

The whites of Cinque Terre are perfumed but very dry, astringent, and tough.  They beg for fish.  The reds are amazingly grapey and fresh, rather Beaujolais-like.  Their grace suits seafood as well.  However, the prized wine of the area, a wine surrounded by mystery, superstition, and drama, is called Sciacchetrà (shah-keh-TRAH).  The rules for how it is to be made have changed little over the years.  It is a sweet dessert wine of at least 13.5% alcohol.  It is readily available at wine shops as a local specialty, but does this wine have anything to do with the legends of old?

The grapes used are whites named vermentino, bosco, and albarola.  I have in past columns mentioned what a unique bouquet and flavor the vermentino has, and I’m convinced it’s a big source of the excitement of this wine.  The grapes are de-stemmed and mat-dried for a long period before being pressed.  During fermentation, the more the yeast is allowed to consume the grape sugars, the drier the wine becomes.  The must is then aged at least one year in small oak barrels.

I tried three commercial bottlings purchased at a local wine shop.  They were a 1998 Sassarini ($16.50); a 1997 La Cooperativa delle Cinque Terre ($22.50), and a 1996 Giumin di Arrigoni ($27.00).  The Sassarini was the lightest both in color and texture.  It was faintly sweet with nice acidity and a pleasant apricot overtone.  The co-op wine may have been my favorite. It had a deep yellow color, higher alcohol, and more viscosity with a balance of nuttiness, sweetness, and lilt.  The Giumin hinted at grander things: light gold, ample, deep bouquet, and a full flavor that unfortunately had some oxidation and funkiness.  Maybe the vintage was troublesome, but it didn’t quite work.

Now comes the kicker: many locals told me that the “real” Sciacchetrà was still being made, but only farmers up in the hills.  Most didn’t know–or wouldn’t say–from whom, how, or where it was obtained.  But they all agreed total production was around 200 bottles a year.  I attempted feverishly to make connections.  I let it be known (to the 5,000 population village of Levanto) that a native son, now a wine writer living in America, needed to know.  I used my family connection card and tried to find out whether favors might be owed.  (So I stretched a little–I was really born in America, but this was a crusade!)

One day, a bright-eyed leprechaun disguised as a 78-year-old fisherman named Mauro showed up in front of our house with a gift.  He said he was a good friend of my cousin.  He gave me a tall bottle with a cork that looked like a worked-down Champagne stopper and a hand written label which was brief and to the point: Sciacchetrà 1994.

I had read in older reference books that Sciacchetrà could age for decades and that its alcohol level was listed at 17%–unfortified.  It had the same cachet as Tokaj Essencia, an elixir of such power, strength, and vitality that it was said to rejuvenate Hungarian kings on their deathbeds.  Schiacchetrà was considered just such a rarity.  One whiff of this bottle and the old rules and mysteries came gushing out.  It had a bouquet of blossoms and honey, like a garden in July, bursting with myriad of scents, and yet with the weight of overwhelming tropical aromas and musk.  It was unexpectedly lithe and graceful, not at all syrupy.

To this day I don’t know from whence it came, but this wine of antiquity reared its brilliant head and proclaimed, “Questo è vino!”

Red vs. White: A True Blind Tasting

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Clock icon October 1, 2002

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Calvin Trillin once wrote a mirthful article in The New Yorker magazine (http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2002/08/19/020819fa_fact) about the difficulty of guessing blindly whether a wine is red or white.  Shouldn’t it be easy?  I’d like to think so, but some of the results he reported indicated otherwise.

He wrote: “I first heard about the color test given at the University of California Davis, whose department of viticulture and oenology is renowned in the wine world. […]  The folks at Davis poured wine that was at room temperature into black glasses, thus removing the temperature and color cues that are a large part of what people assume is taste.”  Trillin went on to say that well-known, respected winemakers who have taken the dreaded test got scores such as three of five or three of seven.

In my blissful ignorance and shameless hubris, I decided to meet the challenge right between the glasses.  I tried eight wines: three whites, four reds, and one rosé.  I didn’t choose a Gewurtztraminer or a zinfandel; both should be easily identifiable by their distinctive, telltale bouquets.  I attempted to guess not only red from white, but also which of the eight wines I had just tried.  I included wines from three countries, figuring that would make it more difficult.  (It did.)  I had never tasted six of the wines I had chosen, so I couldn’t identify a style.

I thought the rose, served at room temperature, would be a problem.  I included a wine that was syrah-based from Australia, and one from California.  Could I tell them apart?  How would a warm chardonnay stack up against a similar sauvignon blanc?  Not so easily as it turned out.

Since I don’t own black glasses, I was literally blindfolded and led into the room after my wife poured the wines.  I used coffee mugs rather than wine stems.  This took away from appreciating the bouquet properly, but they were all in mugs so each suffered an equal disadvantage.  I took my notes via a tape recorder, and here they are.

2001 Ca’ del Solo Big House Red:  Red.  Big, rustic fruit bouquet with a definite blended feeling.  Deep, warm and rambunctious.  Red and good.  Recommended.  Ca’ del Solo.

2000 Cline Cellars Oakley Vin Gris:  Fragrant, sweet fruit.  The briskness of a white.  Delicious blended flavors.  Thought it was a white but the deeper fruit profile and process of elimination made my decision the Cline rosé.

2000 Quivira Sauvignon Blanc, Fig Tree Vineyard:  White.  Ripe fruit, pears and a lemony bouquet with good oak background.  Drinks smoothly with a melony quality and refreshing, balanced finish.  After comparisons with the chardonnay and pinot grigio, I finally guessed Yering chardonnay.

2001 Ecco Domani Maso Canali Pinot Grigio:  White.  This is a wonderful, fruit-laden white.  As fresh as spring.  A smooth drink with a hint of lemon-lime on the finish.  I kept comparing it with the sauvignon blanc, but I decided it was the pinot grigio.

2000 Wolf Blass Red Label Shiraz Cabernet:  Red.  Warm, chocolatey bouquet with melted oak under ripe, extravagant fruit.  Drinks very well, with leathery, smoky flavors and extroverted fruit.  It didn’t taste like a blend, but like pure shiraz.  I toyed with the Ca’ del Solo red and even the merlot.  On the second try, I was sure it was the Wolf Blass.

20001 Ca’ del Solo White:  The most fragrant and fruity example of the day, it should have been easy.  But was it the Ca’ white or the rosé?  On second taste, musky fruit and the tropical qualities came through.  I guessed the Ca’ del Solo white.

1999 Lockwood Merlot, Monterey County:  Red.  Direct, dark bouquet.  A refined wine that has a slight herbal overtone that adds character.  Plum and cherry flavors with a spicy finish.  I toyed with the shiraz before naming it merlot.

2000 Yering Station Chardonnay, Victoria:  Rich, rounded bouquet with a nutty and polite oak background.  An expansive drink, full of intensity, warmth, and a minerally finish.  For a moment, I thought this could be a red.  Because of its purity and un-oaky quality, I somehow guessed it was sauvignon blanc.

How did I do?  First of all, all the wines were good and recommended.  I identified all the reds from the whites and even the tricky rose.  According to the University of California Davis, I did great.  However, the final tally was six identified correctly and two wrong.  To quote Oscar Wilde, I’m not young enough to know everything.

I thought the chardonnay was the sauvignon blanc.  How could that be?  Try it sometime with unfamiliar wines and see for yourself.  Connoisseur and novice alike can have fun playing a similar party game.  Why not choose four wines–two whites and two reds–and see how it goes.  This may become the Trivial Pursuit of the millennium, or, more likely, a grownup version of pin the tail on the donkey.  If you do try, please let me know the results.


(October, 2002)

Argentina: A Wine Primer

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Clock icon January 1, 2002

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A quote from the 1983 edition of “Hugh Johnson’s Modern Encyclopedia of Wine” reads, “There can be little doubt that a politically stable Argentina will one day re-establish itself as one of the world’s most important sources of wine.”  In 2002, little has changed.  Once the most prosperous of South American nations, Argentina has had four straight years of escalating recession.  It has recently defaulted on a staggering debt of $141 billion.  This nation of 36 million people has experienced looting, riots, and runs on the banks (which are unable to liquidate the deposits of their customers).  There have been five new presidents of Argentina in the past several weeks, and recently the national currency, the peso, has been devalued by 30 percent.  These are volatile, treacherous times for this nation and, as the unrest affects all manner of commerce, so the wine industry must also scramble to keep its products afloat and not halt the continuous improvement and desirability of its wine selections.

In comparison, the stability of neighboring Chile has allowed a smooth, purring mechanism to promote its wines and reach new customers.  The ability to be aggressive in marketing has been a great strength to Chilean exports.

In an across-the-board comparison of the wines from these two giants, I invariable come down on the side of Argentina.  The texture, purity of fruit, and the overall distinctive terroir character is much more pleasurable to my palate.  Certainly wines from Erazuriz, Almaviva, and Lapostolle, as well as the bargain Veramonte wines, are gems of Chilean provenance, but many of their exports are thin, insipid, and “so what” in nature.  Argentina’s quality over the entire range is seldom disappointing.

Argentina is the fifth largest producer of wine in the world.  The land is graced with a warm, dry climate.  Irrigation is used frequently.  Ninety percent of the wines are grown in the province of Mendoza, which is located in the Midwestern part of the country.  Some cooler, more hilly, and mountainous areas are being explored and planted to try and achieve more intensity in their product.  In the meantime, Argentina makes excellent cabernet and chardonnay, but it’s the indigenous and long-planted unusual grapes that make some of the most exciting wines.  Malbec, Torrontes and Bonarda are among the lesser known but exciting wine grapes in the hands and the soil of Argentina.

Argentina has had major investors giving millions of dollars to improve and replant its vineyards.  Among these entrepreneurs are Allied Domecq, Seagram, Moet et Chandon, Pernod, and the Lurton family of Bordeaux.  Whether further investment will continue is highly dependent on how Argentina copes with its terrible financial and political problems.  If she can ever be calm, solvent, and organized, I predict the money will pour in.  The sky’s limit hasn’t come close to being reached in this perfect land for the grape.


(January, 2002)

Cyprus is Home of Romantic Vintages

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Clock icon October 9, 2000

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Beautiful Cyprus

The recent political unrest in Greece, Turkey, and Cyprus would lead most historians to say, “What else is new?”  For more than 4,000 years, Cyprus has been a main player in the ancient history and society of the Greek empire, a supplier of copper to the Egyptians, and over the last 800 years, a political soccer ball between the Greeks and the Turks.  In fact, the island, which is a mere 90 miles west of Lebanon, is settled and governed by both countries.

One thing that has never changed, however, is the fertility of the land and the blessed agricultural fecundity of its mountainsides and valleys.  This is predominantly true in the southern half of the island, where wine has been made without interruption for millennia.  Even during the reign of teetotaling Muslims, the enlightened abstainers allowed vineyards to flourish.  One gregarious ruler in particular encouraged production, all the while earning and welcoming the indisputable title of “Sultan Selim the Sot”.

From the base of Mount Olympus and the Trodos Mountains to the seaside region around the port city of Limassol, a variety of wines are made using indigenous grapes.  They are red Mavron and Opthalmo, and white Xynisteri and Muscat of Alexandria.  Around 1500, cuttings of these grapevines were transported to Madeira, Sicily, and Hungary, where they flourish to this very day.

In recent times, new grape varieties such as Grenache have been carefully introduced into the vineyards.  I say “carefully” because the disease of Phylloxera has never touched Cyprus, and so all vines are still planted on their own, ungrafted rootstocks.  This is a great rarity in our modern world.  The vineyards cover 100,000 acres, a significant 10 percent of the island’s total agricultural area.

Cyprus is the legendary birthplace of the goddess Aphrodite and her influence is still felt in the place names, product names, and everyday activities touched by the goddess of love.  Its red wines are deep, full colored and textured with a nice tannic grip, so perfect to accompany the strongly flavored, spicy Cypriot food.  The whites are also full with special flavors: a combination of the unique native grapes and the wild yeasts that produce a fascinating profile. Most are dry.

The most famous wine was once called Nama, but is now named Commanderia after the 12th century errant knights of Templar.  It is a mixture of red Mavron and white Xynisteri grapes that are sun dried and aged in earthenware jugs, or, more recently, cement tanks.  This new wines is then added to older vintages where in time it takes on the smoother character of its older teacher.  (This, by the way, is called the “Solera” system.)  Commanderia is an unfortified, high (16%) alcohol amber wine, dark, velvety, and mellow with a rich, toasty, luscious flavor.  Some local, unexported bottlings can be exciting indeed but require a special trip.  The exported version is still very tasty if not as saturated and age-worthy.

The city of Limassol has been called “the Bordeaux of Cyprus”.  Its port location is home to the four largest blenders, bottlers, and shippers of Cypriot wine.  They are the firms of Keo, Sodap, Etco, and Loel.  Most wine from Cyprus is a result of the production of hundreds of farmers and the skillful blending procedures of the aforementioned firms.  Only in the last few years have estate bottled wines begun to appear, and none are yet available on the international market.

Here are some examples that are available locally:

  • Thisbe–this is a very fresh, fruity white.  Very light in texture and
  • dry to medium dry.  Made from Xynisteri grown around the city
  • of Limassol.
  • Aphrodite—Dryer than Thisbe, although neither is sweet.  A little
  • more full-bodied with intriguing flavors also supplied by the
  • Xynisteri grape.
  • St. Panteleimon—A blended white with a flowery bouquet and a
  • slightly sweet flavor.  An excellent choice for highly spiced or
  • amply garlic-infused fare.
  • Othello—Those who know me are aware of what I will now
  • reveal: this is the wine that got me through graduate school.  It is
  • a solid, satisfying, deep red of enormous charm  and versatility.  I
  • used to buy it for $2.19/bottle (or $1.98/case if I was in the money.)
  • I still find it to be delicious and a great everyday choice.  It is made
  • from Mavron and Opthalmo grapes.
  • Commanderia St. John’s—Made from the grapes of 15 specified
  • vineyards, this is perfect after a meal or cozily settled down in a
  • rocker with a good book.  Sweet but creamy, and so shippable.

Be on the lookout for these fascinating wines.  They are also readily available in all of our local Greek restaurants.


(October, 2000)



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