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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