Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Dreaming of Wine in America

Mi Sueno, which means “my dream” in Spanish, is the realization of the dream and vision of Rolando Herrera. In what is a great American story, Rolando was born in a small village in Mexico, and looking for a better life, moved to California in 1975. His life in the wine trade began humbly enough as a dishwasher at Auberge du Soliel, then on to line Cook at Mustards’ Grill where he began to appreciate the magic of great food and wine. At the age of 17 he took a summer job working as a laborer building a stone wall for Warren Winiarski of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, and was then offered a job working the harvest with the provision that he attend school in the afternoons. It was the beginning of a career that included 10 years at Stag’s Leap (the last seven as Cellar Master), assistant wine maker at Chateau Potelle, Winemaker at Vine Cliff and Director of Winemaking at Paul Hobbs. At each step along the way he absorbed his experiences, learning different aspects of winemaking, grape growing and marketing, developing his own vision which evolved into Mi Sueno.

“Each stop played a significant role in refining my style of winemaking. Stag’s Leap was the foundation. It was here that I learned to appreciate the smell of the grape must and the feeling of being surrounded by barrels of fermenting wine. In addition, Warren taught me the value of attention to detail as well as to respect and enjoy the product we were making. At Chateau Potelle I was introduced to French winemaking techniques, including all-natural fermentation. I also learned that while anyone can make wine, to craft a truly unique and special wine, winemaking becomes more of an art form. My tenure at Vine Cliff provided me, for the first time in my career, a chance to be in complete control of the final product.” 

Eventually Rolando’s brother Ricardo joined him, having spent 10 years developing his talents as Cellar Master at Dominus and Assistant Winemaker at Screaming Eagle. Today they have a vineyard management company, and farm 40 acres of their own vines as well with terrific vineyard sites in Napa, Carneros and the Russian River Valley.

The wines are sold to us by Juan Prieto, owner of Vinifrance Imports, and Juan’s story is just as good as the Herrera’s. His family, solid middle class Cubans, lost everything when Castro and the communists came to power, nationalized private property and took their family business. After many hardships, they were finally able to leave Cuba and made their way to America with little more than the clothes they left with. Through hard work and drive, Juan and his family got him through school with a degree in Psychology which today is where he mainly makes his living. But his love of wine and food drew him to the wine business, and he began to travel, ask questions and learn everything he could. Eventually this led him to winemaker Michael Havens, a great long time friend of mine and Napa Winemaker, who subsequently led him to me about 20 or so years ago to ask advice about getting into the wine business. After giving Juan as many reasons as I could think of for not leaving his bread and butter job to open a wine distribution company, he went ahead and did it anyway. Today he has a great portfolio of artisan growers whose style and approach to winemaking we heartily endorse, making wines we love for their purity, expression, and natural approach, and of course, for their sheer brilliant quality. But he still has his day job!

We both work with on the French supply side with importer Olivier Daubresse, who aside from introducing us to some of our favorite French producers (Pascal Maillard, Guillon, Grivot and many more) has by far the most precise palate I have ever tasted with. With what I would call total recall and utter sensitivity, he is able to discern subtle changes that often the winemakers themselves don’t pick up in their wines. Travelling with Olivier is part and parcel to what I love about this business. I have spent long days the cold cellars in France together working on blends and selecting wines to import where you can see the relationship of respect and open communication between Olivier and his growers (Olivier pulls no punches!). This trust and understanding is based on a pursuit of excellence and results in our ability to source truly great wines (and share them with our clients!). Long, grueling days in cold cellars (I know, tough job!) are rewarded with lingering lunches and dinners, often with the winemakers digging deep in their cellars for magnificent wines in a spirit of sharing, mostly tasted blind, that challenges your senses and truly makes you think about what you are tasting. Vintage, soils, grapes, terroir, winemaking; how did these flavors and nuances arrive at the place and time we are drinking them? Every great wine tells a story of the year and conditions they were grown, the grapes and the soils and climate of the vineyards where they were grown, and the winemaking and care of the winemaker. 

Olivier’s personal story begins in the north of France, in a region best known for industry and far from wine country. As he tells it, the French social structure is a somewhat stratified system where upward mobility is difficult in terms of education, employment and career advancement, with layers of tradition and bureaucracy often creating impediments. So like many, Olivier went into the service industry, in his case the wine trade as a Sommelier, where he worked his way up to Wine Director of one of the best restaurants in France. He, like Rolando, found that his spirit was yearning for a better life in a place where his entrepreneurial ambition could be more easily realized, and eventually made his way to America. With stints at Bouley and Daniel in New York, he eventually left to follow his own dream of creating a business to import the small family owned estates he loved. These stories remind me, in a time when there seems to be so much negativity and doubt, of what a great place our country really is, with possibilities that exist here and nowhere else in the world. 

So what does all this have to do with wine? Not much, really, but it does reflect a little on my approach to it in a business sense. While the quality absolutely has to be there, wine is about more than just what's in the bottle, and definitely more than reading the press, checking the scores and ratings and stocking what is popular. It's about choosing to work with people who believe in what they do, who have a passion so strong they are willing to take risks and walk a sometimes difficult path to accomplish their goals. When you surround yourself with people with these characteristics and philosophy, quality usually follows - but on to the wines!

What I love about these wines is that they are a summation of all the experience and talent from the Herrera's years learning their art, and yet they sell for a fraction of the price of the wines from the places where they learned it. In addition, while they have California exuberance, they are also restrained and elegant, balanced, plush and deliciously drinkable. All are extremely limited production and worth getting to know. 

Mi Sueno Chardonnay Carneros 2006 – The grapes for this wine are grown in the cool Carneros region, and the resulting wine is balanced, with good ripeness and lively tropical fruit, creamy vanilla and a clean finish. About 35-40% new oak keeps it in check and allows the delicious fruit to shine through. Incredible value! $39/bottle

Mi Sueno Chardonnay “Ulysses Vineyard” 2006 - The Ulysses vineyard is known for fantastic Chardonnay fruit that ends up in wine from top producers Paul Hobbs and Aubert. Here, Rolando Herrera brings his own interpretation based on his experience with the site from his time as Director of Winemaking at Paul Hobbs. Rich and full, but with restraint and only moderate oak, hints of apple, nutmeg and vanilla. Tiny production – excellent quality! $49.50/bottle

Mi Sueno Carneros Pinot Noir 2007 - This wine was first made by Mi Sueno in 2002 with purchased fruit, but discontinued it until their own vineyards were mature enough to provide the fruit. Planted on white soils with lots of lime it has lovely aromatic of red and dark cherry, lively fresh and mouth filling on the palate - California fruit (but in check), with fresh acidity underneath and a silky, smooth middle and finish. Lovely! Tiny production. $45/bottle

Mi Sueno El Llano 2006 - This is a blend of between 20-35% Syrah with the balance Cabernet Sauvignon, depending on the vintage, from vineyards near Caldwell's in the Coombsville area of Napa. Deep and dark, with cedar components and focused dark fruits both on the nose and palate. Long, solid and balanced, with just enough oak to compliment but not dominate. $45/bottle

Visit the shop online at 56 Degree Wine to check price and availability.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

A Short Film Clip of Barrels, Stainless Steel, and Cement Tanks

The following is a short clip to test the video upload - just some stainless steel tanks, old cement tanks at Feytit Clinet in Pomerol, new cement tanks, wooden upright fermenters, barriques and barrels being toasted at Muga, who still toast their own. Thanks for indulging the test!

Friday, March 20, 2009

It's Spring!

Friday marked the vernal equinox, the official change of season from winter to spring, and while winter doesn't seem to want to let go, signs of change are in the air. Sunset is later, it's trying to warm up, and I've sufficiently forgotten how frustrating golf is to want to go out and flog the ball again. Food and wine is definitely a seasonal affair chais nous, and about now I begin to have a yearning for lighter, fresher foods and wines to match. In this
case we decided to mark the moment with a take out lobster dinner from our favorite fish monger, Metropolitan Seafood.
We started with Oysters Rockefeller, steamed clams with drawn butter, chilled shrimp, stuffies (as baked stuffed clams are known in Rhode Island), 4 whole lobsters, and a couple of freshly steamed Maine crabs Nick recommended to my wife. While there isn't much meat in the carapace, their sweet, large claws are reminiscent of stone crabs, and gave the lahbstahs a run for the money! Coleslaw, potato salad and warm crusty French bread filled in the rest. If you haven't done it, this is an easy, fun, one phone call dinner with no prep and easy clean up after. We'd hoped to do it outside but it was just too cold so "had at it" in the kitchen. Hot lobsters, cold salads and sides, kids having a blast and entertained for hours - how great is that? Metropolitan seafood rocks! Visit them in the shop on Old Route 22 in Clinton or online at Metropolitan Seafood, not just for lobsters but for the best selection of fresh, super high quality seafood I have found anywhere! Sign up for their emails to find out what's fresh a couple of times per week.
All this was washed down with a starter of Domaine Landrat - Guyollot Pouilly Fume La Rambarde, $22 a mineral, herbal, cool, crisp and focused wine with brilliant acidity and freshness that will make you think you are in the bistro in Hemingway's "A Movable Feast" where he impeccably describes the beauty of eating oysters. This is classic Sauvignon Blanc from one of the places that does it best! Oysters, shrimp, clams - bring'em on! 
With the Lobsters we moved on to the Domaine Pollier St. Veran "en Messie" 2007, $16.50, a truly artisanally crafted and affordable white Burgundy made by the husband and wife team of Daniel and Christine Pollier from a three acre parcel of 15 and 22 year old vines. Only about 10% new oak keeps the focus on the terroir and not the wood. Creamy but with brilliant underlying acidity and mineral undertones that keeps this fresh and exciting on the palate and carries its stony apple fruit well. Since we're not drinking as much Puligny these days, this "poor mans" version is now our "go to" everyday white Burgundy.
In the coming months, both when dining out and at home, I'll be looking for spring-themed ingredients: new potatoes, asparagus, mushrooms (morels), spring lamb, whatever seafood the lads at metro seafood tell me is fresh and delicious, ramps, sorrel, watercress, artichokes, peas, and on dishes, recipes and menus that capture the essence of spring. As far as wine goes, a shift happens here too, as if my palate senses the change of clime and seeks equilibrium and balance. Crisp cool Loire valley whites, Txakoli from the Basque region of Spain, Albarino from northern Portugal. Mid weight reds too, Cru Beaujolais, Burgundy (always!), Chinon (and I had a Sancerre Rouge that was lovely!) and a host of old-school lively, wines from Valdeorras and Galicia in Northwest Spain that will make their way to the shop and hopefully be available through the spring and summer, and of course the fresh crop of Rosè wines soon to arrive! Be sure to visit the shop, either in person or online at 56 Degree Wine.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Another great dinner at Fascino

This Montclair restaurant is two for two with me now, having had my second great dinner here in less than a month. This last visit the food was spot on again, and a great line up of wines didn't hurt either. Truly family owned and operated, this evening we had the tasting menu which was excellent. We started with one disappointing white Burgundy from the '99 vintage which was showing premature age, then off to the races with the rest of the line-up. While we jumped around from one grape and appellation to another, the common thread through all of the wines was they way they spoke with an understated elegance, each absolutely true to their terroirs, with deft wine making in evidence that let the nature of the wines shine through. Only downside was that we held this dinner about ten years to soon in the case of the reds, each wine quite youthful and really only showing a glimpse of what's to come. Still, a great evening!

Chassagne Montrachet Virandot 1999, Marc Morey - Deeper gold than expected, definite sign of oxidation on nose and palate. Had it just a few weeks before and it showed beautifully, hopefully just an off bottle.

Condrieu Vertige 2006, Cuilleron - Lovely aromatic nose of peach, apricot, hints of fennel, vanilla; concentrated, complex and seductive without being cloying or fat at all. Continued to improve for at least 30 minutes in the glass. Sensational Condrieu. Available at the shop $140/bottle. Had this with a sea scallop crudo, light, fresh, sweet, scallop nicely offset by a very delicate chive/almond vinaigrette - perfect!

Chambolle Musigny Les Sentieres 2005, Groffier - Lots going on here, complex and layered, still such a baby but with extraordinary promise. Smoke, cherry, and a concentration of fruit well supported by ripe tannins and good acids.

Cote Rotie Mason Rouge 2006 Vernay - Medium deep ruby, lovely smoky, perfumed nose, violets, earth, elegant, needed some time in the glass, but it is amazingly supple and fine. 12.5% alcohol. Would love to revisit this in 5-10 years! Available at the shop at $135.

Barolo 2000, Bartolo Mascarelo - No black strap extracted deep purple color here, just medium garnet with even a little brick, this is unrelenting old school Barolo. Surprisingly accessible at first but the tannins actually seemed to come forth as it spent time in the glass. Taut, structured, almost nervy tannins supporting dried cherry, wild herbs (tarragon?), hints of dried flowers. This is a wine to make you take a sip, think about it, and be compelled to come back again and again to it.

Saumur Champigny Le Bourg 2004, Clos Rougeard - Cool Cabernet Franc, focused, intense, tons going on here but right now it is pretty locked down. Has lost what little baby fat it once had and seems to be going into its shell a bit, but still quite impressive. Cool, elegant, textured, but it might be time to leave this alone for 4-5 years to develop. This is the top cuvee here (all are pretty good!), this is the oldest vines (80 years and more), and is aged in 100% new Allier oak made by a local cooper. One note is that when first tasted on release it seemed the oak was more present, now it seems to have been absorbed and integrated into the wine. Organically farmed basically forever. For more on Rougeard, one of my all time favorite wineries, visit Polaner Selections. available at the shop, $105/bottle.

Monbazzillac Cuvee Madame 1999, Chateau Tirecul - lovely amber color, lush explosive nose of creme brulee and caramel, vanilla, smoky-sweetness. Rich, concentrated and delicious! I'd call it poor mans Y'Quem, but it ain't cheap!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Vins de Garde - New Wines for the Cellar

"Vins de Garde" is an ongoing list of some of the best wines I have recently tasted that are perfect candidates for the well rounded cellar. Updated as needed, many are available at the shop, at least at time of posting, but as with so much of the small grower wines we carry, many are pretty limited in supply. This week focuses on some great value wines that offer the opportunity to stock the cellar with affordable wines that will provide excellent drinking in the 4-10 year period without breaking the bank. Please feel free to comment or contact me with any questions on wine in general, storage, or advice in stocking your cellar! To see if these wines are still available visit us at 56 Degree Wine or click on the link to the wine below. Cheers - Chris

Earlier this year we offered the 2001 Ada Nada Barbaresco Elisa, a lovely wine just beginning to come into its own and display some of the secondary developments in aroma and flavors that only the patient ever get to taste in great Nebbiolo. It sold out immediately, but it provided a great window into what we can expect from the recently released 2004, which is now available.

Ada Nada Barbaresco Elisa 2004 - The winery was founded in 1919 and is now run by the fourth generation Annalisa and her husband Elvio. Located just east of Alba in the Barbaresco hills in Treiso, they also have run a lovely Agritourismo the opened in 1997 after they restored the family farmhouse. Here they craft lovely traditional Barbarescos that are neither too rustic nor too modern. The Elisa vineyard is a sub-section of older vines in the Valeirano vineyard (think La Spinetta, but this is half the price), with its classic clayey, calcareous white marl soils that are of ancient marine origins. The 2004 has lovely dried cherry tones, moderate tannins that are fine grained and ripe, hints of leather, spice and rose with a great long finish. Could be enjoyed now with a decanting and a big fat veal chop on the grill, but best between 2010-2015. Better yet, it's only $42 per bottle.

Chateau Lauriol Cotes de Francs 2005 - This wine wine is the second label of Chateau Puygueraud, the Thienpont family's estate in the Cotes de Francs ( think Pavie Macquin, Puygueraud, Larcis Ducasse, Bellevue in this side of the family, and Le Pin and Vieux Chateu Certan on the other), the smallest of all the Bordeaux Appellations. The vineyards here are mainly clay and have a little limestone too. We have sold this for about 5-6 months now but recently tasted it again with Francoise Thienpont on a recent visit he made to the shop. In the short time since we last had it it has relaxed its rustic grip just enough to be somewhat approachable now, but also giving a glimpse of where this super value price Bordeaux might be headed with five or so years in the bottle. It is lovely old school Bordeaux, cool and structured but not "green" at all. Dark ruby purple, with tea and plum tones and a deep, restrained elegance. Solid, dense, dark fruits, earthy, classic Bordeaux. It is about 80% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Franc. At only $19.50, it's a steal! Who says age worthy Bordeaux has to be expensive?

Les Chenes de Macquin 2006 Saint Emilion - Second labels have always had a place in my stingy Scottish heart (and cellar) for their ability to deliver 2/3 or more of the character of some of their senior relatives at about 1/2 the price. Also owned by the Thienpont family, this wine (second label of Chateau Pavie Macquin) definately fits the bill. Only made in certain years (none in 2008, 2007, 2004) only about 700cs were made of the 2006 making it a pretty rare find. It is from younger vines and barrels that for what ever reason do not fit the final blend for the Pavie Macquin, it is classic St. Emilion with lovely sweet, red fruits, aromatic, creamy berries and vanilla/oak compliments. Lovely, elegant, juicy, red fruits. Classy, approachable now but a far better bet is to hold it until at least 2012-2016+. About $40 per bottle.

To learn more about these wineries visit the following links:

Chateau Lauriol
Ada Nada
Chateau Pavie Macquin