Saturday, December 31, 2005

The Ultimate Flying Machine

A Singapore Airlines 747-400 at Heathrow. On Singapore Airlines, the First Class passengers are in the front of the plane downstairs, and the top is used for Business Class.

Lufthansa puts its First Class cabins on the upper deck, and the front seats downstairs are for Business Class.

This is Lufthansa's First Class cabin on the Airbus 340, which I took from Munich to Washington. The strange looking metal boxes open up to accommodate the seat backs when they are converted into beds.

I recently had occasion to fly long haul in first class on two airlines that are considered among the world's best:
Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines.

Both experiences were magnificent, and there was very little to complain about with either airline, but, to my surprise, the marginally better experience was Lufthansa. I will put details on the food and wine in a later posting, but, here is how I rate the experience in the following categories:

Food -- Lufthansa

The clear winner is Lufthansa. On Singapore Airlines, my main course was Lobster Thermidor; on Lufthansa I had goose. The goose was succulent, tasty, and something different. On the other hand, the sauce around the Lobster Thermidor on Singapore was a little bland, and there really was not much meat in the tail at all. A very disappointing offering!

Both airlines offered a great salad. But on Singapore, we were given a bottle of excellent virgin olive oil that I found much nicer than the prepared potato dressing on Lufthansa.

Both airlines offered caviar as one of the appetizers before the main course.

The dessert on Lufthansa was a Passion Fruit Consomme with Buttermilk Mousse. Wonderful!

Champagne -- Singapore

Nobody does better than Singapore Airlines. There is no better music than "Would you like the
Krug or the Dom Perignon?" Lufthansa served a Cuvee Rare from Charles Heidsieck. Good, but I much preferred the Krug.

Wine -- Tie

This is difficult, and I think I would rate them equally. Singapore Airlines provided me with a 1998 Cos d’Estournel, which I enjoyed immensely. On the other hand, The William Wine (2000) from Graham Beck in South Africa was something different, and it was delicious although it is a much cheaper wine.

Lufthansa also offered an interesting dessert wine, Silvaner Eiswein, Weingut Guntrum, Nierstein 2004, which is described here. It is really nice to have a dessert wine that is an alternative to Port, the only dessert wine offering on Singapore Airlines. I award my "prize" to Lufthansa largely because I loved this wine so much.

Lounges -- Singapore

Singapore Airlines’ First Class passengers get to use Virgin’s Clubhouse at JFK, which is one of the best lounges I have ever been to. I have described the lounge and put up pictures here. I used Lufthansa’s lounges at Heathrow, Frankfurt, and Munich, and I really don’t like them very much. I understand that Lufthansa has upgraded the on-ground experience for its first class passengers at Frankfurt, and Munich will follow. This is a badly needed upgrade!

Singapore Airlines disappoints in one respect. After a transatlantic flight, it is nice to be able to have a shower and use a good lounge. British Airways has an arrival lounge at Heathrow that I think is a gold standard. Singapore seemed to offer nothing to arriving First Class passengers in Frankfurt. Finally, I was able to get into Lufthansa's Business Class lounge, but only because of my Premier Executive status with Star Alliance, but I had to wait almost an hour to get a shower.

Sleeper Suits -- Singapore

It is pretty much standard practice to give first class passengers sleeper suits on long haul flights. Singapore's came from Givenchy in a very useful bag. It was 100% cotton and very comfortable. For some reason, on Lufthansa gives you only a shirt. It was nice, but somehow incomplete.

Seats -- Lufthansa

The seats look wonderful on Singapore airlines, but I actually found the Lufthansa seat to be a bit more comfortable.

In-Flight Entertainment Systems -- Unknown!

There was so much to do on the plane! Eating, drinking, and sleeping took up most of the time. I also used the excellent
Connexion system to check my e-mail. So I did not switch on the entertainment system on either flight. (Both airlines had in-seat power for my laptop.)

Both airlines have extremely attentive flight attendants, who seem to anticipate every need! I would love to fly Cathay Pacific in First Class! it is said to be wonderful, and I wonder whether that is the best First Class product that money can buy.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Iron Bridge Wine Company

The Iron Bridge Wine Company
10435 State Route 108
Columbia, Maryland 21044

410-997-3456 Phone
410-997-3807 Fax

For a Google map, click here.

I have also written a more recent review here.

Columbia, Maryland, is not the best place for restaurants. There are too many chains. I was so excited when the Iron Bridge Wine Company opened a couple of years ago. The only problem with it is that it is so popular that it often really difficult to get a table. (If this account sounds a little too enthusiastic, please know that I am not connected with this place in any way.) They don't take reservations.

One of the best things about this place is that they sell wonderful wine. Many places sell good wine, but how many seek out interesting undiscovered wines? South African Chenin Blanc, for example. Modern Greek wines. Well priced wines from Spain. They sell many of the high priced, popular wines too, but whenever I go to the Iron Bridge, I feel I am going to learn something new and discover a new wine. Best of all, they put a bottle on your table for just $5.00 above retail -- I love that! They also have a variety of "wines of the month" at around $10.

The next best thing is that they have a short menu. They do a few things well. Tonight I had a Venison and Foie Gras Pate, which came with a nice little salad with walnuts and balsamic vinegar. The main course was rack of lamb ($16), which I ordered rare. I could not stop chewing away at those bones! It came in a delicious Hollandaise/Beaujolais sauce.

Dessert was a pumpkin panacotta. Very rich and delicately spiced with cinnamon and vanilla and a silky texture.

My only caveat about this place is that you need to get there early because it fills up. It just shows what happens when someone decides to offer excellent food and wine at a reasonable price -- none of the main courses cost more than $16! I also find their lunch a little disappointing -- the menu is mostly sandwiches, which is OK when you are working, but sometimes you feel like a "real meal."

For readers, looking for other reviews, notice that Iron Bridge is written as two words. Many people searching for this restaurant seem to write "Ironbridge." I have also noticed that a lot of people are searching for the "Ironbridge Winery." The Iron Bridge Wine Company does not make wine -- it is just a wine bar, restaurant, and an outstanding retailer of wine.

Embassy Suites -- New York City

On a recent visit to New York, we stayed in the Embassy Suites hotel in the financial district of New York.

All four of us were traveling together and it was nice to have the extra space that Embassy Suites gives you. The standard suite at this chain of hotels, which is part of the Hilton group, is a bedroom and an adjoining living room. The bedroom is like a standard full service hotel room with a televion, and the living room has a sofa, a table, a microwave, and another television. The sofa can be turned into a bed for the night, and they provide plenty of pillows, sheets, and blankets to make it comfortable. Unfortunately, this hotel has no swimming pool.

Our rate was $209 per night, and that includes a full breakfast and a cocktail hour. Parking was $50 per night.

The beds were great, and it was nice to have a good duvet instead of blankets. I loved the soap, conditioner, and shampoo from Bath and Bodyworks in the bathroom.

There are some rough spots at Embassy Suites (plastic glasses for the cocktails, for example), but I think that it was a very good deal at a busy time of year. The hotel was absolutely full of tourists. The breakfast and the cocktail hour were very crowded, and it took some time to get our breakfast and drinks.

Recommended especially for families of four!

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Getting to New York from Baltimore

Sometimes we like to spend a couple of days in New York, but when all four of us in the family go, it can be expensive. We have tried various ways of containing the cost, including staying in hotels in New Jersey, but it is so nice to have a night or two in Manhattan.

In 2004, we went to New York on the day after Thanksgiving. This time we took a bus from a company called Dragon. Everything worked out really well. The cost was only $35.00 per person. We decided to repeat this and spend two nights during the holidays this year. We had a lot of fun, but the bus experience was a disaster!

We found that the Dragon bus was full, but there were seats on a bus run by a company called Eastern. I bought the tickets on line, and I printed them out. We arrived in good time, and the bus was there, but it was absolutely full. After a lot of arguing, the driver gave me $80 back. Then we went and bought tickets from Greyhound. The bus showed up about half an hour late, and it was also full.

At this stage we gave up, and went to New York in the car. I am not going to try the bus again!

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Thursday, December 29, 2005

Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse -- JFK

Imagine you had to spend a whole day at an airport. Where would you least like to be? If you had asked me a week ago, I think I might have said New York's John F Kennedy (JFK). My recent experience was completely different.

I went to London via a rather interesting route. On the first day I took a flight from Dulles Airport (IAD) to JFK, where I arrived at about noon. My next flight was on Singapore Airlines to Frankfurt at 9:30 (FRA). My third flight left JFK at about nine in the evening and arrived in Frankfurt the next morning at about 10:30. The last flight was on Lufthansa from FRA to London (LHR). My return journey was from LHR to Munich (MUC) on Lufthansa, and then I flew back from MUC to IAD. The whole experience allowed me to try five airline lounges, three airlines, and five different planes.

My experience at the Virgin Lounge in New York was so incredibly pleasant that I thought it was worth a posting. When I go to the lounges in the United States, I find I am underwhelmed. I go to United's Red Carpet Clubs quite often because they allow people with Gold Status (Premier Executives) to go if you are traveling internationally, but quite honestly they don't offer a lot.

Here are a few pictures of the Virgin Clubhouse at JFK:

At the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse the staff are wonderful -- they are so friendly and go out of their way to make sure that you have a good time.

Getting work done is easy at the Clubhouse. They have wireless connections to the Internet for customers with their own laptops, and they also have a a Macs, printers, and a fax machine for people who want to work.

The nicest thing is the way they organize food. Some of the best lounges that I have ever been to put out extensive buffets, but in my opinion, it is so much nicer to sit down and have a restaurant style meal. I really like the way there was a menu on the table, and everything was presented beautifully. I ordered the crab quesadillas. The champagne was Mosaique from Jacquart.

For dessert, I had an assortment of cheese and crackers with a glass of port.

I will put more pictures of the lounge up in another posting. Comments are invited -- what is the best airport lounge you have ever been in?

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Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse Pictures -- JFK

This is a follow up to a previous posting on the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse at JFK. This is really one of the best club lounges in the world! Other contenders include the Emirates First Class lounge in Dubai, Singapore Airlines in Singapore. I also love the arrival lounges offered to BA passengers at Heathrow. This is certainly the best Business Class lounge that I know of.

There are excellent shower facilities!

There are quite a few choices about how you can spend your time while waiting for your flight.

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Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Les Halles, Downtown, New York

One of the best gifts I received for Christmas was one of Anthony Bourdain's books. I have already read Kitchen Confidential, and I am really enjoying Bourdain's other book.

So, I was very pleased that our dear friend, Dr. C, invited all four of us to Les Halles (downtown) when we went up to New York. As some readers may know, Bourdain was chef at the now famous chain of Les Halles restaurants.

First impressions are good. The decor really does look like a real French brasserie -- lots of wood, marble-topped surfaces, and a bar wih beer taps. Like waiters in France, the people who serve at the tables look as though they know how to cook and sport immaculate white aprons that prove that they don't.

The menu is pretty short -- the food is on the front, and the wine is on the back. (I approve of short menus!) The food is pretty much standard brasserie fare -- steak frites, confit de canard, vol au vent, coq au vin, and so on.

I started with pan-seared foie gras ($12.50) with caramelised apples. It was excellent except that the toast on which it sat had lost all of its crispiness and was soggy. Then, I had the onglet (hanger steak) with the frites ($17.50). The steak was great, and the fries really are memorable. Les Halles is famous for its frites. Fried in peanut oil, they really are something special -- crispy on the outside, but you can taste that it is a real potato as you bite into the middle. Dessert was profiteroles ($6.00) -- I found the sauce floury and the choux pastry almost rubbery. They were not all that good. The better choice was probably Dr. C's choice, the creme brulee, which was pronounced outstanding.

Other dishes include hamburgers ($12.50), Confit de Canard with truffle sauteed potatoes ($14.50), steak tartare with frites ($14.00), and a good selection of moules frites ($14.50) with a variety of sauces.

Dr. C had the Coq au vin, and pronounced it excellent. Iran had the french onion soup ($5.50), which looked passable.

There is a good and short wine list with a nice showing of Bordeaux reds (my first love). We had a Chateau Meyney (1997) -- an off year but an excellent wine. I was just a little bit disappointed with it. It was very good, but did not compare with the infinitely better 1995 that we drank two days earlier.

In summary, it was a good meal -- I would recommend it if you are staying in the area, but I would not go out of my way for this restaurant.

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Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Washing glasses between wines

There is one thing I have stopped doing. If I am drinking one red wine followed by another red wine, I will not rinse the glass with water before pouring out the next wine. It simply does not make sense to me.

If there is a residual taste of something else, I prefer it to be another red wine rather than tasting traces of chlorinated water.

The best option, of course, is to use another glass!

(A nice glass is important. I love Riedel glasses, and I will review some of them in a future posting.)

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See, smell, sip, swirl, swallow (or spit), summarize

A recent article in the Wine Spectator provided useful tips about how to taste wine. It pointed to four or five "S" words that you need to go through to appreciate a wine. I think I have actually lost that edition, but the point is a very good one. I liked the principle, and I have reconstructed the thought here.

  • SEE Take a good look at the wine. How does the color compare to other wines? Darker or lighter? Is it clear or cloudy? Look at it in the glass. Does it seem visous and drip down the glass like oil? Or does it have a watery movement against the glass. Hold the wine up to a light to get a better look.
  • SMELL Take the time to sniff. Is it a nice smell? Nothing rotten? What does the smell remind you of? (Talk about it to your wine drinking companion.)
  • SIP Tast the wine slowly. What is your first impression? What flavors does it remind you of? Have you tasted something like this before?
  • SWIRL Make the wine touch every part of your tongue? Different parts of the tongue register different flavors.
  • SWALLOW (or SPIT) Then what happens? Does the flavor linger? What is the after-taste like? Pleasant? Or do you detect something nasty?
  • SUMMARIZE Put your impressions into words. Don't worry about sounding silly. This is very tough to do -- I suspect language was around before wine was, and language simply is not a very efficient tool to talk about wine, but it is all we have!
Those are actually six "S" words. Since I have taken the time to go through each of these steps pretty systematically, I think my enjoyment of wine has increased. I suspect that people don't enjoy wine as much as they might simply because they don't take the time to focus on what they are drinking.
Try this and see if it makes a difference. It works for me!

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Tuesday, December 20, 2005

James Estate Shiraz, 2000

This wine is recommended. I paid about $8.00 for it at the Iron Bridge Wine Company in Maryland.

Deep red to look at, it is very plummy, dark berry-like in flavor. It borders on the Christmas pudding type of wine, but it is a wonderfully rich wine to have in winter weather. There are some oak/vanilla overtones. Delicious but certainly not subtle or elegant. Very good value for the money.

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Monday, December 19, 2005

Two Tone Farm Cabernet Sauvignon, 2002

You expect to pay a lot for Napa Cabernet, but this wine is a real bargain. It is from Napa, it is Cabernet, it is delicious and it is cheap.

Two Tone Farm Cabernet Sauvignon comes in a nicely designed bottle complete with a screw top (which I like). The wine is dark red and looks brilliant when you hold it up to the light. It has classic Cabernet blackcurrant tastes with some minty overtones. You can distinctly taste the tannins, and there is some smokiness to the flavor too. A wonderful balance of fresh forward fruit with amazing complexity for such a low priced wine. Very nice long finish. A wonderful bargain for only $9.00 a bottle.

This is so good that I bought a case immediately after tasting it. Very highly recommended. (I have heard that it comes from Beringer, but have not chased down its origins.

For people in Maryland, I bought this wine at my beloved Iron Bridge Wine Company, where I got a 20% discount for buying it by the case so I wound up paying only $7.20 a bottle.

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American Wine in England

I have recently come back from a short trip to England, and I am not surprised that even knowledgeable English wine lovers do not really have a very favorable impression of American wine. Most of the American wine that finds its way on to English supermarket shelves seems to be cheap mass produced stuff. For example, the national supermarket chain, Tesco, which is a splendid place to buy wine, sells Blossom Hill, Corbett Canyon, Mondavi Woodbridge, but nothing I would cross the street for except possibly the Ravenswood Zinfandel!

There are specialty wine shops like Berry Brothers and Rudd that sell the good stuff, but it seems such a shame that the English seem to enjoy few opportunities to get their hands on the best American wine.

For example, Berry's sells Ridge Lytton Springs (2003) for 19.15 pounds, and the Monte Bello (2000) for 85.11.

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Friday, December 16, 2005

Wine Temperature

I confess to spending too much of my life drinking red wine too warm and white wine too cold. (I remember my parents putting red wine close to the radiator to make sure it was at room temperature!)

Some wine lovers get very precise about this, and, obviously rules about red wine and white wine are gross overgeneralizations. A white Burgundy, for example, is best enjoyed at higher temperature than a Portuguese Vinho Verde. Or a fine Bordeaux should be warmer than a Beaujolais.

But generally speaking the wine writer -- I think it was Jancis Robinson -- who suggested putting reds in the refrigerator a few minutes before opening and removing whites from the refrigerator a few minutes before drinking did me a big favor.

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Thursday, December 15, 2005

Château La Roque Coteaux du Languedoc Pic St.-Loup Cupa Numismae 2001

I bought a case of this wine for less than $20 a bottle when it was first released. I had a bottle tonight with Iran. When I first had this wine, I liked it, but I wondered a little bit what the fuss was all about.

But tonight it was absolutely marvelous. When I pulled it from the cellar, I found it was just a little colder than usual. The weather! The wine is a blend of Syrah and Mourvedre. It still has a delicious wild berry taste -- it is very, very fruity. (That does not mean sweet!) There is also some dense and interesting complexity -- leather, vanilla. The tannins have softened, and it slips down the thoat so easily. The vanilla and the raspberry flavors almost make you think of raspberries and cream. (Alcohol is 13.5%)

It might be tough to find the 2001 now, but I will certainly seek out other years of this wine. It is a very refined wine at a low price.

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Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Silvaner Eiswein, Weingut Guntrum, Nierstein 2004

I love dessert wines, and I really enjoy good ice wine.

Most of the ice wines I have had have been from Canada, but, on a recent flight from Munich to Washington, I had the opportunity to try this truly remarkable Eiswein from Germany from Louis Guntrum, a winery on the banks of the Rhine that has been in the same family since 1648.

In Germany, the law requires ice wine to be made from grapes that are picked when the temperature is below -7 degrees centigrade, and they have to be pressed while the grapes are still frozen. This contrasts with other "ice wines" that can be artificially frozen after picking. The point of making wine from frozen grapes is to achieve concentration and sweetness. Basically, the water in the grapes freezes, but the sugars and other solids don't so they can be easily separated.

This wine is remarkably complex. There is wonderful balance between sweetness and acidity, and a very nice nutty flavor (hazlenuts?).

I have not discovered where I can find this wine in the United States, and I have no clue what it costs, and I would appreciate comments from anyone who knows. When I looked at their website, they seem to make all sorts of wines from grapes not often associated with Germany -- I would love to try more!

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Montana Sauvignon Blanc, 2004

I really am becoming very fond of these New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs. On a recent trip to London, I tried the Sauvignon Blanc from Montana. It cost about ₤7.00, and it was just another delicious wine. It had a nice fresh taste, lots of tropical fruit, and the familiar gooseberry taste. I have not seen it in the United States, but I know you can get at Oddbins in the UK. Very highly recommended.

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Saturday, December 10, 2005

British Airways Disaster?

This picture taken by Mr. B looks like a near miss. Actually, it was a British Airways Boeing 747-400 at about 2:00 pm on a perfectly normal approach into London Heathrow (LHR) viewed from Richmond Green.

Who says cameras never lie?

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Sunday, December 04, 2005

Affordable Wine

Many of my posts are about affordable wine, and affordable means something a little different to everyone. This is what I mean by affordable.

I try to make sure I have some wine on hand for drinking every day, and I try to keep those bottles under $10. On the weekends, I tend to drink something a little bit more special, and my price limit creeps up to about $20. Then there are wines for very special occasions, and I will go up to $30.

If anyone is trying to build up a cellar, the most important tip that I can give anyone is to keep a plentiful supply of cheap wine on hand. This stops you from being tempted to use the good stuff when you simply feel like a glass of wine, but you are not in a frame of mind to appreciate a serious bottle.

Funnily enough, and I know this is a little irrational, I simply don't take white wine as seriously as red (except for sweet wines.) I just won't spend as much on a white wine as on a red wine. The most expensive white wine I regularly buy is Conundrum. It's an interesting California wine that is a fascinating blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Muscat Canelli, Sémillon and Viognier. It costs around $24.

I sometimes buy Champagne, but I try to keep the cost down. One of my favorites is Montaudon, and that usually goes for under $30.

I have a fondness for sweet wines, including Sauternes, Vouvray, and Canadian ice wine. I tend to break my price limits with these wine, and buy at the $30 to $40 level, conveniently forgetting that this frequently buys you only a half bottle.

This is from the perspective of someone living on the east cost of the United States. Californians seem to get a lot of wine more cheaply, particularly when it is from California.

I have a few valuable wines. Some of these are presents from generous friends. Others are wines I have seen at amazing prices, and pounced. For example, I managed to get a lot of the 1989 and 1990 Cos d'Estournel for only about $25 a bottle in about 1993.

The most expensive wine that I have ever bought for myself was probably the wonderful ice wine from Henry of Pelham in Niagara. I bought it at the winery, and it cost about $55 (Canadian) -- this works out to about US $80 or so per bottle (considering the rate of exchange at the time and the fact that this is a half bottle.)

What does affordable mean to you? What is the most you have ever spent on a bottle of wine?

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Friday, December 02, 2005

Nobilo, 2005, Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand

The most expensive wine evening I have ever had went something like this. All the guests were challenged to bring the best possible wine to a dinner party, and we would vote on the best wine. There would be a prize for the winner. The rule was that no wine should cost more than $15.

I was determined to win. I think I must have tried at least twenty wines for this party to be sure I was backing a winner. Finally, I decided to bring Nobilo's Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand. So that was how I spent about $300 to win a corkscrew! Many of the New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs come with a screw cap making that hard-earned corkscrew unnecessary anyway!

Anyway, some years later I bought the same wine (Nobilo, 2005, Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand), and we drank it last night. How perfect this wine was! The color is pale light straw. Swirling it around the glass brings out the classic Sauvignon Blanc aroma -- freshly mown grass and gooseberries. With the Nobilo, there is also a lot more -- tropical fruits, mango, passion fruit, and pineapple. The other thing is the burnt aroma. It smells of butterscoth and caramel too. This is a wonderfully pleasant wine to drink I highly recommend it!

There are other excellent Sauvignon Blanc wines from New Zealand. Although I feel the best known cult wine, Cloudy Bay, is a bit too expensive, there are other excellent wines at very keen prices. My favorites include Villa Maria and Kim Crawford.

What is your experience with New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc? I find that it is wonderful party wine. It is not too expensive, and everybody seems to like it.

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Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The Mistake in Sideways -- Cheval Blanc, 1961

Like many wine lovers, I loved the movie, Sideways. It was one of those films where I really felt the script was the star, but there was an inconsistency that I thought was a mistake.

People will a remember what was perhaps the most memorable line of the movies, "If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am not drinking any f***ing Merlot."

Wine lovers who saw the film will also remember that Miles had a treasure in his collection of wine -- a bottle of 1961
Cheval Blanc that he wound up drinking in a fast food restaurant out of a paper cup. It was quite a nice touch that someone with roots in California would turn to the old world for his favorite wine. But Cheval Blanc is a blend of Cabernet Franc and Merlot. Wouldn't it have been better if Miles had been sitting on an old Burgundy? Or was this a deliberate and clever irony?

What do you think Miles should have been drinking?

Chateau Cheval Blanc is arguably one of the best and most expensive wines in Bordeaux, and 1961 is regarded as one of the best years of the 20th century.
Robert Parker gave it a score of 93, and gave the wine this comment:

"I have consistently mistaken this wine for a great Graves in tastings where it has appeared. Opaque dark ruby/garnet with a rust-colored edge, this wine has a big, full-blown bouquet of burnt tobacco, and earthy,gravelly scents. On the palate,it is sweet, ripe, full-bodied, extremely soft and supple, and clearly at its apogee. I have noticed above-normal bottle variation with the 1961 Cheval Blanc, but the best bottles of this wine are marvelously rich, lush wines. Anticipated maturity Now - 1997. "

It is also interesting that this film influenced the sale of wine. Merlot went down, and sales of
Pinot Noir, which Miles loved, went up. When Merlot is good, I love it, but I must admit I sort of agree with Miles. Drinking Merlot at the lower end of the market is frequently disappointing. A notable exception and a delicious and cheap Merlot is Columbia Crest's Grand Estates Merlot. I bought a case of the 2000, and it is priced at only around $10 a bottle.

I regret that I have never had any year of Cheval Blanc.

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Learning about wine

People often ask me where I go to learn about wine. There are all sorts of ways to learn about wine, but here are three. The first takes ages, but you learn a lot. The second takes a moderate amount of time and you learn a moderate amount; and the third takes almost no time, and you learn a little.

  1. Focusing (for years) I learn very little if my drinking habits are all over the map. When I want to become serious about a type or class of wine, I make a point of drinking that wine frequently for several years. For example, I spent about four years drinking mainly Rioja, about four years drinking mostly California Cabernet Sauvignon, about five years drinking bordeaux, about five years drinking Zinfandel, and about three years concentrating on sweet wines. I have had shorter periods with a focus on Pinot Noir, Champagne, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Loire white wines, sherry, and wines from Alsace. (This focus also means that there are serious gaps in my knowledge!) But the real point is that you learn to trust your palate -- a good wine surely is a wine that appeals to your taste.
  2. Wine Spectator The Wine Spectator is a splendid publication. They review thousands of wines and provide balanced, fair, and accurate descriptions. I have been reading it almost cover to cover for over twenty years. I must admit that I am a little ambivalent about their devotion to scoring every single wine, but that is a subject for another posting. In December every year, they produce a list of the 100 most exciting wines of the year. Getting that list at the end of November is something I look forward to every year.
  3. Berry Brothers and Rudd Berry Brothers and Rudd is a wonderful London wine merchant. They have a very knowledgeable staff, a good list, and they keep their wine well. On their website, they have a quiz that I take that occasionally to make sure I can still recall the facts. (Actually, this website is a wonderful place to learn about wine in other ways as well.) Berry's also has a shop in Terminal 3 at London airport!
But the one point that I cannot emphasize enough -- you learn about wine with your mouth. Reading and listening are good things to do, but the proof of the vintage is in the drinking!
Please add your comments about how you learn about wine!

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J's Cellar

J has got be the luckiest man in the world. Not only does he have a beautiful and loving wife N, but he also has an amazingly good collection of wine. This is how he got a large portion of his cellar...

A few years ago, J acquired a small wine refrigerator that holds about forty bottles. His wine buying habits really do require more than a forty-bottle refrigerator so he started dreaming about getting another larger one. N was at our house wondering what to buy him for his 40th birthday. She suggested buying him a much bigger wine refirgerator, which I thought was a splendid idea. And then I had another even more splendid idea. J and N are the friendliest and most hospitable people you could ever hope to meet, and their wide circle of firends spend many evenings at parties at their house.

J wanted to have a big meat-eating party because he has resolved never to eat meat again after turning forty. I suggested that the guests should be asked to fill J's new refrigerator with wine, and each of their friends would bring a bottle to the party.

To make matters simple. I made up a list of wines with the help of Mills, a wine shop (highly recommended) in Annapolis, MD. Each guest was sent the list with the invitation to the party. The guests were asked to phone Mills with their choice of gift. Mills put a label on the back of each bottle identifying the person who had given the wine. I picked up the wine, and we put it in the refrigerator, and so a refrigerator full of wine was J's present for his 40th birthday.

So, on the big day, when the ribbon was cut, not only did J get a new (and large) refrigerator, but it was also filled with wine. The list combined a few classics, wines that I think are particularly good, a few value wines, and wines from regions that J likes (Rhone, Burgundy, and Languedoc).

I can't remember all the wines in this collection, but they wines included among others:
Things got even better than that. After a few days, the refrigerator stopped working, and J called the manufacturer. They sent the part, but somehow could not organize the repair. J complained and the company sent him another refrigerator and told him he could keep the broken one! He installed the part himself so he now has two big refrigerators, one full and the other empty, and one little one.

The three best wine gifts that I have ever received are a Chateau Leoville Barton (1982), a Chateau Cos d'Estournel (1982), and a bottle of Dom Perignon (1990).
What is the best bottle of wine you have ever been given?

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Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Villas Macondo, Tamarindo, Costa Rica

We went to Costa Rica for our summer vacation this year. A memorable hotel was Villas Macondo in Tamarindo.

We had a nice clean apartment with two floors. On the bottom floor, there was a living room, a kitchen, and a toilet. On the top floor, there were two bedrooms and a bathroom. The place was spotlessly clean, and everything worked. The one-bedroom apartments have air conditioning but, ours didn't. (That didn't bother me!)

The staff have a friendly dog, who wanders around and is willing to engage in conversation with anyone who give him the time.

This was our two-bedroom apartment. The cost in early August was about $100 a night. We stayed for a week.

This place is very highly recommended. Tamarindo is a lovely place!

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Best Paella in Costa Rica -- Kelly Creek Hotel

I used to live in Spain and often yearn for one of the delicious paellas that I used to enjoy there. Funnily enough, I recently found a perfect paella not in Spain, but in Cahuita, a beautiful little town on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica. The place is called Kelly Creek.

The restaurant is small, and we actually had to go twice. On the first night, we were too late, and the owner (manager and chef) politely told us that we could come the next day, but we ought to make a reservation.

As we wandered around the little town the next day we saw our host collecting the ingredients, and when we arrived in the evening, we had a fresh and perfect paella with all the little bits of seafood that make a paella nice -- clams, mussels, calamares, shrimp, and so on. The rice was cooked to perfection, and I think it had been cooked over an open fire. It was lovely.

We washed down our paella with jarras of sangria. The owner took pains to emphasize that this was actually a better paella than you get in Spain. He cooks in small quantity; he shops daily for the freshest ingredients; and, being Spanish, he knows how to make a paella that is 100% authentic.

The owner is a great artist as well. We also had a lot of fun in the restaurant looking at the owner's pictures. Every space on the wall is covered with his paintings of scenes in both Spain and Costa Rica, and there are also several pictures of his wife. He also takes the time to tell you all about the wild life found in the creek and in the adjoining national park.

We also decided to stay the night in one of the hotel's four rooms. We got a double/double for all four of us. The hotel is all wooden, and it is all in good taste. It does not have air conditioning, but there are good ceiling fans and mosquito nets. The room was about $50 for all four of us. We had a good breakfast in the restaurant the next morning.

Another nice thing is that is absolutely next door to the Cahuita National Park, which has a great beach.

If you are thinking of going to Cahuita, it is a very special place. I very highly recommend both the hotel, and the restaurant. And if you are there say hello to the hotel's parrot for me!

For an updated site, visit

La Bastide de Dauzac, 1997

I don't think there has been a year when I have bought more lottery tickets than this year. The "megamillions" game prize has soared a couple of times, and I have been tempted to buy a few tickets. Thinking rationally, I know that I do not have the smallest chance of ever winning, but five dollars buys a little dream. I dream about helping people out, having the luxury of not having to work, traveling more, and all the other things that most people dream about. As for my wine life, when I fantasize about winning the lottery, sometimes I think that the quality of my wine life would actually go down if I won lots of money. I am lucky enough to drink a wonderful wine at least once a week, and, if I am lucky, it can be even more often than that. The real pleasure, though, seems to come from finding those hidden bargains -- the wines that nobody else has discovered. If I won the lottery and could afford to drink Chateau Mouton every single night, the pleasure of the hunt for that wonderful undervalued wine would evaporate with the money.

Seeking out underpriced wines involves some specific techniques that many underpaid and overworked wine lovers know about, and I thought it might be useful to document a few of them here -- I will get to my comments on La Bastide de Dauzac in a second.

1. Undervalued Grapes

The most expensive wines from California tend to be based on
Cabernet Sauvignon for reds or Chardonnay for whites. Avoiding these grapes, you can find some wonderful bargains. For example, several wineries make wines based on Sauvignon Blanc, and this can give you access to the work of some of California's top producers. Try the Sauvignon Blanc from Ferrari Carano, for example. Other Sauvignon Blancs include Groth, and others. Other frequently undervalued grapes include Chenin Blanc, Zinfandel, Viognier, Tempranillo, Petite Syrah, and Grenache. How about the Chenin Blanc from Dry Creek Vineyard or the Petite Syrah from Bogle?

2. Up-and-coming areas

When you buy from the world's most highly prized appellations, you can expect to pay top prices for your wines. These areas include Napa, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany, and a few others.
Jancis Robinson made an interesting remark in one of her books when she bought a piece of property in the Languedoc -- she actually bought there to get away from the world of work. Within a few years, the Languedoc emerged as one of the most exciting places that produces wine in the world! So much for her desire to escape!

I have picked up treasures from New Zealand, Spain, South Africa, Argentina, Lodi, and Washington state. There are, of course, many other bargain areas, and it is fun to discover them before the rest of the world does.

3. Off Years

You have to be careful here, but I have had some marvellous wines from the very top producers at wonderful prices. For example, a couple of years ago, there was a 1987
Cos d'Estournel on the wine list of an excellent restaurant (Russells in Bloomsburg, PA). The restaurant keeps their wine well, and the wine turned out to be delicious.

I have tasted a first growth Bordeaux only twice -- once, I bought a 1987
Chateau Lafite from the duty free shop on the border between Canada and the United States, and I also once had a bottle of 1984 Chateau Latour. I would not have missed these opportunities for the world. (Both 1984 and 1987 were off years in an otherwise wonderful decade in Bordeaux.)

4. Second Labels

Top wineries sometimes have a second label. They often do this to make sure that when you buy Chateau Lafite, for example, you really are getting a top-quality product. So they make a second label called Carruades de Lafite, which is often excellent wine. It is like being a dog eating some of the scraps thrown from the king's table!

This technique works especially well for Bordeaux wines. Often you get "almost the real thing" for a fraction of the price. My successes in this pursuit include drinking Les Forts de Latour, the second label of Chateau Latour, Sarget de Gruaud (Gruaud Larose), Le Pavillon Rouge (Margaux), Petit Cheval (Cheval Blanc), and Bahans Haut Brion (Haut Brion). Many of the big names in Bordeaux have second labels -- check them out.

La Bastide de Dauzac is the second label of Chateau Dauzac.

5. Treasure Hunting

Just occasionally, you find a bottle that has somehow found its way into a shop where wine lovers rarely go. Tucked away in a corner, there is a bottle of something really special. It is a few years old, but lying on its side, and extremely low. (I once got a bottle of Chateau Nairac, 1983, for less than $10!) But these occasions are like winning the lottery!

Now, back to the subject of this post, La Bastide de Dauzac, 1997, which is Chateau Dauzac's second label. Chateau Dauzac is a fifth growth Bordeaux in Margaux. It is planted with 58% Cabernet Sauvignon, 37% Merlot, and 5% Cabernet Franc. In a Margaux, you hope to find elegance, balance, and finesse with perhaps less power or concentration than some people like.

Perhaps the moral of this story is that you should not try to apply more than one of these techniques at a time. After all, La Bastide is a second label, and 1997 was not a very good year for Bordeaux. The wine was a horrid, mean little wine. It tasted weedy and stalky -- a little bit astringent. It was still tannic, but it did not have any of the fresh fruit that you get in a younger wine.

It was not off, but it just was not a very nice wine. A real disappointment!

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Friday, November 25, 2005

Chateau Musar, 1988

I have not bought Chateau Musar for a long time for several reasons. First, it is hard to find, and when you do find it, it has become increasingly expensive. Second, I have heard stories that it is not what it once was. Also, I have been influenced by a number of people who seem to know wine who say they just don't like it. Finally, there are many people who say that it is now made in a different style -- the old style was highly eccentric and best drunk after years of aging. (Interestingly, the price was still on the bottle -- $14.99.)

For those who don't know, Chateau Musar is a wine from Lebanon. It has a rather fascinating story -- all through the troubles in Lebanon, they continued to make Musar except for 1976 and 1984. (Also, none was made in 1992, but this time this was because it was a bad vintage.)

It is made mostly of Cinsault and Cabernet Sauvignon, and also a little of Carignan, Syrah, Mourvedre, and Merlot. It is aged in French (Nevers) oak. The 1988 was clearly made in the old style and was exactly the kind of Musar that I know and love.

People sometimes complain about too many wines tasting the same. It would be unfair to make the criticism of Musar. Some people hate it; some people love it, and everybody agrees that no other wines tastes like it. (Heitz from the Napa Valley is another wine that is unique!)

I drank it tonight without guests -- just Iran and myself. I did it this way because I worried that it might have gone off and I did not want to offer a bad wine to guests. Besides, once I opened a bottle of Musar that was simply perfect, and one of my guests claimed that it was off, but he failed to appeciate the eccentric style of this wine.

As I swirled it round the glass, I noticed that it was lighter in color than I would have expected -- it looked more like a Pinot Noir, but it was not showing its age with that tell-tale brick color around the edges. My worries about its being over the hill were not well founded. The bouquet was very berry-like with the scent of herbs. As I tasted it, I wondered at the complexity of this wine, the fruit suggested that it would have been happy waiting to be drunk for several years. The oak was obvious, and it also had a caramel, burned taste that I found most attractive.

I can imagine the person seeking another technically perfect California Cabernet hating this wine, but for me it was something completely different. I have a wooden case in my cellar with a vertical collection of Musar, and I am now down to 10 bottles. Tonight I resolved to fill the two empty slots.

For an updated site, visit:

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Chateau Larose Trintaudon, 1990

Larose Trintaudon is interesting. With 175 hectares, it produces huge amounts of wine (800,000 to 1 million bottles annually), and they use machines to pick the grapes. It has an Haut Medoc appellation, and uses about 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, and the remaining 5% is Cabernet Franc.

I used to buy several bottles of Larose Trintaudon every year, and I found a bottle of the 1990 in my cellar. Although I know that it is not a good idea to hang on to anything except the best wines, and this wine is, after all, a $10 bottle of wine, tonight's experience made me question that wisdom.

What a delight this wine was! It was complex; you could still taste the tannins, and there was the distinctive signature taste of Cabernet Sauvignon fruit. The finish was amazing, very very long. Then there was the bouquet; tobacco, smoke, and there was still the fresh vanilla scent and taste of the oak. I am so glad I kept my Larose Trintaudon for so long and I wish I still had some left.

But the lesson here for me is not to be afraid to keep even some medium priced wines for a long time. If you keep them well, you discover some complexity that is not there when they are young. Bordeaux is my favorite of all wines, and it seems that they really do well.

My oldest wines are probably from Chateau Musar, the Lebanese phenomenon. I will be drinking some of these over the next couple of months hoping they did as well as Larose Trintaudon. (I have about a dozen bottles of Musar going back as far as 1985.)

For an updated site, visit:

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Trentadue Petite Syrah, 2002

Most of the wines that I describe on these pages are really everday wines. My biggest pleasure in wine is seeking out those wines that nobody else has discovered. As the holiday season gets closer, I find the price that I pay for wine creeps up a bit. This wine is more expensive than what I consider a price for everyday wine -- I am not sure exactly how much it is as I had a single glass in a restaurant. (I usually try to keep my everyday wines under $10.)

Tonight I ordered a glass of Trentadue Petite Syrah. It came in a big round glass and I remembered to systematically go through the steps that when remembered, give you the best enjoyment from wine -- See, Sniff, Sip, Swallow, Summarize! As I swirled it around the glass admiring its nice dark color, I began to wish I had better glasses at home. The sniff was good -- a nice clean earthy smell. This wine is obviously pretty high in alcohol, but I did not see the bottle. As I sipped, it seemed to be rustic in the best sense of the word -- certainly not smooth. The tannin was pretty obvious, but it was not unpleasant although I wondered whether a few years in the bottle would help. Leather, chocolate, coffee also came to mind. The dark berry fruit combined with the oak completed the taste. I would love to come back for more!

I often wonder why this grape is called Petite Syrah -- the bigness of these wines suggests "Grande!"

I paid $9 for the glass at the Iron Bridge Wine Company near Columbia, MD, a fabulous restaurant that I will write about in a future posting.

For an updated site, visit:

Monday, November 07, 2005

Viňa Alarba 2004, Catalayud, Spain

I am always looking for wines that you can drink every day. This wine cost less than $7.00, and it is wonderful. It is made of old vines that are a minimum of 50 years old. The taste is distinctly European. Although I have had New World wines that are made with Grenache (called Garnacha in Spain), the dry peppery taste is never there. If you don’t know what I mean, try this wine. I bought two cases. You can drink it every night without worrying about the price, and it is really good.

For an updated site, visit

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Powers Syrah 2000, Washington State

Powers Syrah 2000, Columbia Valley, Washington State

When I want to buy a wine at a low price, I find that the wines from Washington rarely disappoint. There seem to be so many that cost less than $20, and I was especially excited to find the Powers. Somehow, Syrah seems to be perhaps the most exciting grape to use in American wines these days. It is often well made, and an interesting departure from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

When I opened the bottle, the smell seemed almost overpowering (forgive the pun!). This wine is relatively high in alcohol (13.9%), and you get wafts of alcohol as you swirl it in the glass and sniff it. I only paid about $10 for it, and I was not expecting that much, but I really enjoyed the big fruit. We had it with Stilton, and after a bit of Stilton, it tasted almost sweet – reminding me of Port.

I had never heard of this wine before, but I recommend it. It is different. It has some interesting complexity – that sort of tar and leathery taste that you find in some of the Rhone reds. Delicious!

For an updated site, visit:

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Ridge Geyserville, California, 1999

This wine is dark and serious. It almost seemed a shame to drink it -- I think it was not yet quite at its best. Although we often think of these wonderful Ridge wines as Zins, this wine is only 68% Zinfandel. The rest is 16% Carignane and 16% Petite Syrah. It had this wonderful deep taste -- made me think of dark berries! And what a long finish.

The Ridge Geyserville 1999 is a wine to remember. If you have it, keep it a little longer if you are storing it well. But if you drink, it now (late 2005), you will definitely enjoy it. It's a wonderful wine.

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I just came back from a trip to Orlando. I stayed at the Coronado Springs resort, which is part of Disney property. What a horrid place it is! They put me in a smoking room, and the room had this awful smell -- mold and tobacco mixed together.

As I sat in the dreary room I decided that hotels actually rate themselves. They should not be measured by stars but by bottles. Walk into the bathroom of any hotel and they tell you exactly where they stand. The lowest category of hotels provide one bottle -- shampoo. Go up the scale and the two-bottle hotels give you conditioner as well. The three bottle hotel gives you lotion. Four-bottle hotels give you body wash. And, if you stay at the Ritz Carlton, you get mouth wash as well.

Nobody really cares about the bottles, but they serve as a useful statement. They tell you so much about the rest of the hotel!

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