Poured with Pleasure

Bill Marsano’s blog on wine and spirits and cocktails: "If it’s good in a glass, I’m pouring it."

Category: Wine (page 2 of 2)

Price Cuts? Anecdotal Evidence, and an Anecdote

2007 Pahlmeyer Napa Valley Chardonnay Front 

Who’d have thought we’d ever see Pahlmeyer Chardonnay hawked at 40% off? Yes, some other California Cult wines have seen cuts already, but Pahlmeyer was still a bit of a shock. Yet there it was in my newsletter from Grapevine Cottage: the 2007 Pahlmeyer Chardonnay, $41.99 a bottle (under $38 with the 10% case discount). That’s a shock on the order of the one a few years ago when someone at Mondavi unloaded some remnant cases at a fire-sale price. It was the first time Opus One was offered by Trader Joe’s, and likely the last.

Grapevine Cottage is a little outpost in wine-loving Zionsville in alcohol-hostile Indiana, whose legislature never misses a chance to stick it to retailers. For example, if Grapevine Cottage were to ship the bargain Pahlmeyer—even in-state—it would be a felony (only Indiana wineries are allowed to ship): customers must go to the store. The latest legal irritant: Retailers must check the ID of every customer ordering drink every time or risk a $1000 fine. (Restaurants are exempt, suggesting that the law is aimed at store owners.) Nevertheless, GC’s owner, Doug Pendleton, somehow survives, even thrives through good service, good pricing and a durable sense of humor. It helps that he’s scooped the world on the Pahlmeyer. The winery itself is out of the 2007 (Doug is doubtless stalking the ‘08). Online prices from other retailers run from a little less to a whole lot more—but only and always for Pahlmeyer’s second wine, called Jayson.

The Anecdote

Pahlmeyer was pretty much an insider’s secret until 1994 and a fateful meeting at the intersection of Hollywood and Wine. Here’s what happened: At Spago, two movie bigshots were chewing on lunch and a script problem. The script, titled Disclosure, was from a novel by Dr. Michael Crichton, a reliable hitmaker: his latest, of many, had been Jurassic Park, so Disclosure was obviously going to be a big deal. The script, centered on a newly promoted boss who tries to trap a married subordinate in a career-wrecking sexcapade on the office sofa, has a role-reversal twist: The evil boss is a smoking-hot woman, her victim a man. In the book, her lure is blunt and dull. She says essentially, ‘C’mon, I’ve got condoms.’ Not only dull but vulgar. The movie needed something better, something suggestive that oozed temptation. Something box-office sexy.

About then Wolfgang Puck breezed by. He’d just received his allocation of Pahlmeyer and–as smart hosts of smart restaurants do–he was pouring for his A-List clients. The movie men sipped it and much as they liked the taste they especially liked the name. Pahlmeyer–it sounded classy, arcane, hard to get. And so, just like that, it was in the movie.

Hard to get indeed. During shooting in Seattle the go-fer sent to fetch it couldn’t find a bottle anywhere. Desperate (a go-fer’s job is not merely to go but to come back with), he called the winery in the hope of scrounging a freebie. Jayson was not amused. He said, "My chardonnay costs $25 a bottle." And hung up.

Jayson was brought up to speed a little later: the film’s producer called to gently explain the potential value of product placement. Jayson was skeptical. Even the fact that Budweiser had paid a bundle (said to be between $250,000 and a cool, frosty million) to put a can of their suds into Tom Cruise’s hand in Top Gun didn’t impress him. He told me later that the whole business seemed ridiculous. But anyway, he said, ‘I sent him two cases. What the hell.’


Months later Jayson saw Disclosure—and still he wasn’t impressed. Audiences, however, were. After seeing Demi Moore lick her lips over the Pahlmeyer–and Michael Douglas–they rang Jayson’s phone off the hook as soon as they cleared the theater. They stuffed his mailbox. They cleaned him out. ‘I’d made 400 cases,’ he told me. ‘I could have sold 400,000.’ Later releases of the film—to foreign theaters, video, cable and network television–had the same result. "I had to get a new mailbox," Jayson said. "Mail arrived in huge plastic bins." Even today he still gets a few extra orders after Disclosure airs on late-night cable.

Soon the $25 price, to quote the poet-pugilist Mike Tyson, ‘faded to bolivian.’ It has been $70 for some time now, so $41.99 is practically stealing.

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Wine Is a Woman, They Say

‘Literature,’ Ezra Pound said, “is news that stays news.” It looks as if the Gulf Spill will stay news for quite some time, so here’s a headline that’s good news:


Which is only to say that on June 1st, her birthday, the 24th vintage of Marilyn Merlot was released ($29, online) to an audience of adoring fans, hopeful speculators (various vintages are offered on eBay at $15 to $482) and possibly even a few people who’ll drink it. (I’m not hinting that there’s anything wrong with it: The wine almost invariably gets enthusiastic reviews, but it is a star on eBay.)

Marilyn Merlot 08 label

The 2008 Marilyn Merlot label. The image is from a shot issued to ballyhoo the 1950 movie The Asphalt Jungle.

The wines (including Marilyn Cab, Savignon Blonde and others) came about in 1983 when longtime Napa Valley residents Bob and Donna Holder were dining with friends and drinking local Merlot. Here’s the place to put in yada-yada-yada, because next thing you know the idea was broached and events put in train, and by 1985 it was on the market. Good for Bob and Donna, who own Marilyn Wines and actually pay royalties to Monroe’s estate, and who were the first or among the first to put a nifty pun on a wine label. Many have tried for label humor since then. Pity.

A pun is supposed to catch you off guard. It should be flying right by before your brain clicks and wakes up just in time to see its tail lights disappear. Look again: Marilyn Merlot. There’s only one change to the original. The intonation is the same, as is the terminal sound. It’s gone before you know it. Now consider Goats Do Roam. Nice wine, failed name, lousy gag. For one thing, too many changes. For another, you might say ‘Goats roam . . . ’ but surely not ‘Goats do roam . . . ,’ and there’s little hope of making wit from fabricated phrases. As for

Cat’s Pee on a Gooseberry Bush, I’ll say only that anyone who says that what Sauvignon smells like should put his face in a litter box to get closer to reality and farther from strained wit.

I admit to being merely a qualified fan of Marilyn Merlot because as it happens I’ve never tasted it. I admire from afar, as it were. Marilyn is an icon from an age when the word was rarely used. Now it’s used all the time for anybody at all, and it is meaningless to most people. To me it means either someone I’ve never heard of (the intent is to make me think I should have) or someone I’ve heard far too much and wish would go away. For support I turned to The New York Times website and asked a list of stories in which icon had appeared. The site came back with more than ten thousand. From the past 30 days.

I looked at a few of them and concluded that most of the people cited as icons don’t have what Broadway people call legs. No, not the rapper Big Daddy Kane. Not Bobby Plump, despite his Frisbee-sized pork-tenderloin sandwiches; nor even failed NFL quarterback Art Schlichter, even though he was the ‘center of a recruiting competition between Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler.’

No, Marilyn Monroe is an icon who’s stayed an icon. Wine or no wine, she still means something to a large audience, some of whom hadn’t been born before her death in 1962. If Chad Ochocinco, the showboat pass-receiver of the Cincinnati Bengals, thinks he can match that, he’s welcome to try.


Rioja Right Now

A lot can happen in 20 years. Rip Van Winkle awoke still loyal to King George III because he’d dozed through the American Revolution. Consumers lately have been awaking to Spain’s revolution: 20 years ago a few had heard of the two marqués—old standby Marqués de Riscal and newborn innovator Marqués de Cáceres, and few other names. Even the stalwart Yago Sant’Gria, once the favorite of the college crowd, had been elbowed aside by Riunite Lambrusco. Things are different now. As a late-bloomer in modern wine-making, Spain has benefitted from the (expensive and sometimes harrowing) pioneering of others, and these days she makes a much bigger splash than formerly.POST-12

Laguardia: a well-planted outpost of La Rioja.

Fortuitously, that’s partly because of the current economy. Late-bloomers may benefit from the pioneers’ R&D, but risk losing in the market, where they often find the shelves occupied by smug pioneers preening themselves on their foresight. Not this time. Value sells in the best of times, and in the current economy almost everyone’s looking hard at the price-quality equation. And, says Rioja ambassadress Ana Fabiano, “they’re impressed by Rioja’s value proposition.” Which is considerable. Nearly 300 bottlings were presented at a recent tasting in Manhattan’s Puck Building, and although there was an adequate supply $50, $75 and $100+ bottles for those who have more money than Warren Buffett put together, more than a third of the total will retail at about $12, often less.

My venerable colleague Don Cojones, a latter-day Spanish knight and tilter at wind turbines, says that’s expected with Viña Herminia’s or Valdeguinea’s 2008, or Primicia’s 2009 (all 100% Tempranillo)—they’re in the joven category, made-this-year-sold the next. Still, there were others comfortably in the same price range that had some bottle-age behind them: from Diez-Caballero, Clisos, Banda, Torres, Bordón, Ramón Bilbao, Faustino, Beronia, Solar de Randez, Noemus, Antaño, Solnia, Añares, Navajas, Promesa, Lacuesta, Age Siglo and others. The same obtained for whites, mostly made from the Viura grape (a.k.a. Macabeo), and some rosados, too. In short, we paupers do not suffer.

Not to say they stop there. most of the Rioja producers above go on and up from “value wines” to fancier and pricier stuff, in the same realm as Roda, Eguren, Paganos la Nieta, Vivanco, et al.

Riojas traditionally and tyypically have been about 70% Tempranillo with the remainder Garnacha, Graciano and Mazuelo, but there’s been a move to 100% Tempranillo. At this event 100-percenters outnumbered the blends 137 to 92, and more than a third of the blends were 90% Tempranillo or more. This is reminiscent of Chianti Classico producers who in recent years have steadily reduced the percentage of blending grapes, native or international, in order to concentrate on their native star, Sangiovese. Indeed,one of the blends—a 2004 Castillo de Sajazarra Reserva took its Tempranillo to 98%, with the risible remainder being Graciano.

Jake Zeitlin, a rare-book dealer from the last century, used to advertise “Castles in Spain Free with Every Purchase.” My neighbor Doble de Luce, a failed actor and brother of Traje de Luce, a multiply gored bullfighter, says Spanish wine producers ought beg, borrow or steal that slogan.

In La Rioja as in Napa, Winery Architecture with a Capital A

Ysios winery in Rioja Alavesa 2

Santiago Calatrava for  Bodegas Ysios, in Laguardia

 Vina Tondonia

Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid for López de Heredia

Marques de Riscal

Marqués de Riscal ‘s dramatic new winery in Elciego looks like the wrapping the Bilbao Guggenheim came in. Both were designed by Frank Gehry.

Armani Suits Me

There never was much money in wine writing and often there’s decidedly less in wine blogging, but blogging is worth the superhuman effort involved when its admittedly few rewards include dining at Convivio on splendid handmade pasta while the beautiful Egle Armani and the relentless Lisa Klinck-Shea fight over me. In my dreams, anyway.

Egle Capilupi Armani was presenting the wines her husband makes in the Valdadige DOC zone—the valley of the river Adige as it runs south from the region of Trentino-Alto Adige and into the Veneto, where it sweeps east to and through Verona on its way to the Adriatic south of Venice. A wall of low but steep-sloped mountains separates the river from Lake Garda, and the castles thereabouts give this stretch of countryside the name Terra dei Forti, or Land of [the] Fortresses. It’s beautiful territory. I first saw it about two decades ago when I was visiting Masi’s Dottore Sandro Boscaini, [‘the Lion of the Veneto’] and, as with most places in Italy, I’m ready to return any minute.clip_image002 The Illyrians, who originated in Greece, planted the region’s first vines in the 7th or 6th centuries BC and the Ar-manis got in-to the act rather later, but wine is still the fam-ily business.

                 Egle and Al-bino Armani

The current owner (and wine-maker) Albino Armani puts the year 1607 on his labels because that was the year a distant ancestor, Domenico Armani bought a parcel of land with ‘trees and grapevines,’ according to a deed that is the first dated proof of Armani wine-making. There could have been earlier efforts: The land Domenico bought had been his father’s. I mention all this only because here in our still-young republic we often have a short view of historical age, and a little perspective is useful. (I’m thinking of the advertise-ment for a trace-your-roots website in which a delighted customer crows about tracing his family back to ‘before the Civil War!’)

Convivio being known for what the Brits used to call ‘good chop’, I deployed a couple of members of my posse, Al Fresco, the picnic fanatic and outdoor muralist, and Manny Frego, a devil-may-care former cantor in the ghetto of Rome. The pastas were tortelli d’amatrice (wee rectangular ravioli with a sauce of tomato, guanciale [pork cheek], cheese and pepper) and malloreddus (Sardinian saffron gnochetti sauced with crab and sea urchin), and there were rustic fegatini (chicken-liver crostini with onions cooked in marsala). For these Egle unlimbered her husband’s 2009 Pinot Grigio Corvara [single-vineyard] Valdadige D.O.C. (ABV 13%, $20).

It was delightful. Not at all the sort of rinse-and-forget Pinot Grigios produced in  industrial volume in the Veneto, the Corvara owes its firm body and Durante nose (lots of imagepeaches in there) to vines 15 to 40 years old and the use of passito [dried] grapes. Much depends on the weather each year—the percentage (10-20) of the passito grapes used and the manner of drying them. They’re stemmed on the vine and left hanging in fine weather; when humidity threatens they’re laid out in plastic flats and stacked  indoors in the attic-like ventilated drying rooms that are known as frutai.

We went red for the main event–scottadito di agnello [baby lamb chops] and tagliata [sliced steak]. For these Egle brought out the Foja Tonda trio: 2007, 2006 and 2005. The ’07 is D.O.C. Terradeiforti (ABC 13.3%, $20). The ’06 (13.5, $20) and ’05 (13.85%) are I.G.T.s (Indicazione Geografica Tipica), the looser classification that allows for the kind of innovation and experimentation that the French, for example and to their cost, refuse to countenance.

Foja Tonda or Round Leaf is the dialect name of a grape that is only marginally better known as Casetta [Italy has these mystery varieties by the long ton]. This is not the Foglia Tonda found in Tuscany but, says Egle, a variety indigenous to the Adige Valley and cultivated since ancient times until the locals, fed up with its stingy yields, abandoned it. It was Albino who rescued it from extinction.

The 2007—from the first year of D.O.C. status–was pleasing but Al thought it a little shy,  wanting a little more time to develop. The 2006—from the last year of imageI.G.T.—provided what Manny called ‘a happy glassful indeed.’ The ’05, on the other hand, was pretty much other-planetary, a truly delicious wine that we all kept going back too, even through dessert and coffee, and the little ceremony known to wine scribblers as Someone Else Getting the Check.

And then it was all over—Paradise lost! The bottles werfe empty. Egle and La Klinck-Shea ceased fighting over me; indeed, they declared peace and promised to devote themselves to more constructive activities. I could swear that at least one of them mentioned shopping.

Convivio is at 45 Tudor City Place, basically 100 feet west of First Ave. and one flight up from 42nd St. The food, décor and atmosphere were fine and the service excellent. And tolerant: No one called Security, even when we got a little jolly.

Pored Over With Pleasure: Elliott Essman’s ‘Use Wine to Make Sense of the World’

By Bill Marsano. Elliot Essman and I are alike in that we both love wine and write about wine, have James Beard medals for distinguished service in the non-combat beverage zone, take wine seriously but never to the point of being wine bullies, wine snobs or wine bores. Equally we love and admire women and song, indulge in witty (we hope) wordplay. In general we advance the view that wine is the highest expression of the liquid state. But for all that, the idea of using wine to ‘make sense of the world’ seems a bit of a stretch, although wine moderately taken is certainly a morale-builder in most instances. Nevertheless, while entry-level wine-lovers will get a lot from this book, accomplished ones will too. Actually, Essman is using wine as a vehicle to explore his many wine-related interests: philosophy, the senses, desire and lust, the meaning of ‘terroir,’ Samuel Pepys, poetry, tasting notes and just about anything else that imageengages his inquiring and restless mind. We disagree on a thing or two such as wine poetry and tasting notes (which I generally have no truck with), but his analysis gives a good idea of what tasting notes should be. The highlight here is the several chapters tracing the course of his dating marathon in search of the special woman to go with his wine, the woman who would, so to speak, become the wine of his life and the song of his heart. It IS a marathon—there are 26 meetings—and each is deftly thumbnailed. No rants or bitterness or blame here–the globe is granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints, and Essman knows enough not to linger over losses, knows that each of us inevitably receives his portion of what Martin Amis calls “the shrapnel of life.” Hmmm—we disagree on other things too, come to think on’t: ‘terroir’ and long-aged wines: the former having an excess of dubious supporters and the latter suggesting a romantic fiction. No matter. What’s duller that two people endlessly agreeing? Essman is good company because strong as his opinions are he doesn’t bluster or bludgeon. He explores, discusses and (in both senses of the word) entertains. He is good company because, as he explains in his introduction, “My aim is to open up some thought patterns on how wine opens up thought patterns. My goal is to end this book with questions rather than statements.” It’s enough to make anyone feel welcome.

Kosher Today

Poor old Elijah. The 9th Century B.C. (of course) prophet of Israel could raise the dead, call down fire from the sky and ascend to heaven in a whirlwind, but he couldn’t get a decent glass of wine. His was kosher and, says Anat Levy Rushansky, CEO of Israel’s Golan Heights Winery, it was ‘awful.’

It still has that reputation, but these days it’s almost always undeserved. My neighbor Faye Izmir, a Jewish immigrant from Turkey, is at pains to explain: ‘In the ancient times,’ she says, ‘the big difference was Kosher Chardonnay that kosher wine was boiled.’ Oy! Yes, boiled. The reasons seem lost to history. Some people believe that boiling (somehow)  prevented non-Jews or ‘idolators’ from using Jewish wine in pagan ceremonies; others say that it discouraged interfaith socializing. Such speculations seem desperate or (Ms. Rushansky, again pulling no punches) calls such speculations‘crazy.’ In any event, today very few Israeli wines are boiled, and Ms. Rushansky’s Yarden and Galil Mountain wines are not among them. Flash-pasteurization (I’ll come back to this a little later on) is permitted—with religious sanction–as a substitute for boiling. It’s indicated by the word meshuval on the label, and the wine’s taste is not harmed by it. I don’t know anyone who can taste the difference between , say, a Bordeaux that has been flash-pasteurized and one that has not. I’ve never even heard anyone claim that he’s capable of telling the difference.

Although Israel ranks 52nd in world wine production (between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Tajikistan) there’s more good kosher wine around than ever before. It’s made from the same grape varieties, grown in the same vineyards, vinified in the same way in the same wineries. It comes from California, Italy, France, New Zealand, Argentina, Chile, Spain, Portugal, South Africa and elsewhere because once the boiling is dispensed with, there are but two koshering requirements:  1] no animal or dairy products may be used in processing, and 2] no one but Sabbath-observing Jews can touch the grapes, wine or equipment.

The former requirement is no big deal: merely eliminate the usual egg whites, isinglass (fish bladder), casein and gelatin commonly used to clarify and stabilize wine. (A lot of non-kosher producers already eliminate them to make their wine ‘animal-free.’) As for the latter, enter the Flying Kosher Winemakers. (Who knew?) New Jersey’s Royal Wine Corp., the 75-brand kosher goliath, parachutes teams of these specialists into estates all over the world. (The estates’ resident wine-makers remain on hand to supervise, but they keep their hands in their pockets.)

And so today we find that there are kosher value labels, such as Fortant de France, owned by Robert Skalli, who also owns Napa’s St. Supéry, and there are world-famous ones, including Laurent-Perrier, Pommery, Kosher Moscato  Giscours, Léoville Poyferré and Pontet-Canet. Kosher Italians include Bartenura, Batasiolo, Borgo Reale, Cantina Gabriele and more. Herzog, Baron Herzog, Hagafen and more are California-made from Cabernet and co. and are kosher, too. (FYI, kosher wine is also vegan.)

‘Really, you can drink kosher and never know it’ says Faye’s roommate, who calls herself Witch Mazel because she is the leader of a Judeo-Wiccan coven. ‘If you see the little symbol on the label, then you know it’s kosher.’ (The very strict Orthodox Union, for example, uses a capital U inside a capital O.) Kosher-certification symbols,  on front or back labels, are typically near one of the corners.

Another source of ill repute has been traditional sticky-sweet American kosher wine. In the late 19th Century, waves of Jewish immigrants settled on New York City’s Lower East Side, site, in Kosher Chateau Leov Poyferre 1899, of America’s first kosher winery: Schapiro’s. The Northeast’s ruling grape, the hardy and productive Concord, made terrific jelly, as Welch’s discovered, to its profit and delight, but its wine had an off-putting ‘foxy’ taste unless vinified sweet and even dosed with sugar. Sugar by the long ton, in fact. How sweet was it? Sweet enough that Schapiro’s proud boast was "wine so thick you can cut it with a knife."

Gum-drop sweetness has its fans even now amongst those who grew up with it, and they are many because supersweet kosher wine, like communion wine, escaped Prohibition as ‘sacramental’ wine. It became, in its way, traditional—enough so that today some younger American Jews insist on it for Passover. It’s easily identified. Most is made by Mogen David and Manischewitz (mere johnnies-come-lately compared to Schapiro’s) and labeled as ‘extra heavy,’ ‘specially sweetened,’ ‘traditional" or ‘Cream Concord.’ It’s an acquired taste.

Now let’s go back to the past for just a minute. Flash-pasteurization kills bacteria and stabilizes wine—and so does boiling. Now consider that some kosher laws grew out of health concerns. So I’m betting that the ancient Jews of thousands of years ago solved by intuition a problem that no one would understand until Agostino Bassi and Louis Pasteur in the 1800s. And they solved it with pre-Pasteur pasteurization.


Photos: Three kosher labels. Altoona Hills’ status isn’t visible except on the back label. The Bartenura label shows the Orthodox Union’s stamp at bottom right, Léoville Poyferré at lower left, beside the ABV level.


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