Opening a bottle of wine is a lot like scratching off the scratch-off stuff on a lottery ticket. It carries a feeling of suspense, of the hope that great things are about to happen. They are not always realized, of course, and while millionaire status may never arrive, a good bottle of wine provides pleasure.
And speaking of pleasure, I recently had a delightful experience with two bottles of Joseph Phelps Cabernet Sauvignon. As a wine writer, I occasionally open two, or even three, bottles with a meal, so as to compare and contrast different vintages, the same vintage from different California counties and things like that.
The Phelps people make outstanding wine. Their best usually carries the Insignia label, and I have a bottle waiting patiently to be tasted next month. But I opened a pair of the Phelps Napa Cabernet Sauvignon recently, one from 2006, one from 2007, and I was struck by what a difference a year makes. Each wine retails for about $50. The '07 showed good plummy aroma and pleasant berry overtones on the palate. But it was hard, with tannin that interfered with the rich Cab flavors, and a relatively short finish. On the other hand, the '06 had used that extra year to great results. The aroma was a little bigger, but the flavor truly showed the benefit of age. The wine was big, filling the mouth with berry and cassis notes, and its richness hung around in a lovely, long finish. A sheer delight. A wonderful companion to rare roast beef, and don't open the '07 for a year or so.
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ANOTHER FINE TASTING: Zaca Mesa, the Santa Barbara County winemaker, is big on Rhone varieties, and a pair from the Santa Ynez Valley are superior representatives of the 2007 vintage. The Z cuvee ($20) is a blend of Grenache (52 percent), Mourvedre (31) and Syrah (12), a classic Rhone blend; the Syrah ($25) a powerful example of what a single grape beings to the bottle. The spring and early summer were cool, and harvest began about four weeks later than usual.
Both are still rather young, so tannins are strong, especially in the latter. The aroma sings of various types of berries and a little tobacco, the palate is rich with blackberries, the finish lengthy. The blend covers some of the tannin, and its dark color comes from the Mourvedre, which also adds a note of pepper on the tongue. The Grenache acts to lighten the body, as compared to the heavier Syrah, and it brings red raspberry to the flavor palate, and I preferred it to the Syrah. These wines are perfect with a rack of lamb, but they do well with a range of foods.
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AND NAPA MAKES THREE: Napa Cellars makes a Reserve Chardonnay ($35) from grapes grown in the Mt. Veeder APA, one of the smallest appellations at only five square miles. The wine, however, is a delight. Crisp and elegant, it leaves a hint of sparkle on the tongue and provides a finish unusually long for the wine. The "ordinary" Chardonnay, from other Napa Valley vineyards, is tasty and easy on the palate, just with a slightly shorter finish. Both pleasant as aperitifs, or with broiled chicken or scallops.
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HERE'S TO BEER: I like beer, but I drank so much of it in my college days and my softball days that I simply had to put this vice behind me for a while. But the growth of craft beers and different styles brought me back into the arena. For a period of my life, I spent summers in the Chicago area, and I struck up a friendship with Goose Island beers, partly because the brewery also housed a theater, so I could deal with several interests in one visit.
But the HandleBar, a bicycle-oriented bar in the Grove at 4127 Manchester Ave., did a beer-and-food dinner recently and the fact that it involved Goose Island beers piqued my curiosity. Jonathan Jones and Anna Sidel, who describe themselves as "kitchen gurus," prepared three pizzas and other courses to accompany seven different Goose Island products, and everything worked nicely.
I like the light feeling of hefeveisen, or wheat beer, so the Urban wheat ale got things off to a good start. We went on to IPA white cheddar soup with Honker's Ale, a bitter that I thought was a little too strong for the soup, but all the other pairings went smoothly. Spinach salad with walnuts and roasted beets was joined by Maltilda, a Belgian-style pale ale, a nice complement.
Three pizzas--roasted winter vegetables and fontina; shrimp, ricotta, feta and tomato sauce; andpancetta, goat cheese and caramelized onions--were accompanied by, respectively, English-style Mild Winter Ale brewed with rye; Sofie, a Belgian-style farmhouse ale; and Pepe Nero, a farmhouse ale brewed with black peppercorns. Tasty, well-balanced pizza, smooth, tasty ales.
Dessert involved some delicious, home-made, winter-spiced thin cookies, crisp and small with a hint of ginger and molasses. Pere Jacques, a dark Belgian-style dubbel, balanced it perfectly.
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CURTAIN CALL AT THE CHASE: The annual winter wine-tasting extravaganza to benefit the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis certainly drew a lot of people to the Chase-Park Plaza the last weekend of January. Crowds like those make it difficult to do much serious tasting. There is so much wine, and so many people to chat with, and so much conversation that it's difficult to concentrate. And after a while, of course, the palate gets so over-stimulated that fatigue sets in and judgment steps away.
My longest visit was with the wines of Nicholson Jones, made by Julien Fayard, who also makes wine for his own label, Azur. Fayard is from Provence, the French region that borders on the Mediterranean, probably my favorite place on Earth. He showed two 2009 Azur wines, a Rose and a Sauvignon Blanc. The Rose brought memories of lunches in Riviera cafes, looking out to sea. Fayard did not list the grapes, but it tasted like Grenache, light and fruity, with some other Provencal grapes, like Cabernet Franc, Mourvedre or Syrah, added to the blend. The 100 percent Sauvignon had crisp, citrus flavors.
The Nicholson Jones label, simple and rather austere, covers some rich, elegant red wines, priced under $30 a bottle with an exception for the 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon from the Clare Luce Abbey Vineyards in the Napa Valley. Priced at about $37, it's a big, rich Cab with all the hearty flavor one expects.
Fayard also makes Provencal blends in the Cellar Arts series, like the '06 Napa Cuvee, which includes Petit Verdot (27 percent), Cabernet Sauvignon (25), Syrah (25) and Merlot (23). The '07, due for release next month, starts with Syrah (25), then involves Cabernet Sauvignon (22), Cabernet Franc (19), Petit Verdot (18) and Merlot (16). It's a little bolder, with strong blackberry overtones. He also has a delicious Rutherford Reserve, a 52-48 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
And as I wandered and tasted, I was much impressed with the Taittinger Champagne, the Cain Five red blend, the Pinot Noir from Freestone, Ridge's offerings of its Montebello and Lytton Springs wines and a Cask Cabernet from Rubicon.
It was a worthy event, staged nicely for a delightful afternoon.