Washington, DC's Logan Circle neighborhood has become a trendy residential area the last few years as the city's renaissance continues to spread. Culture has come to the 'hood, too, along with gentrification, in the form of art dealer Giorgio Furioso, who convinced some the city's best art dealers to relocate to the area. Furioso purchased a former car dealership at 1515 14th Street NW and turned it into an art showcase. On the ground floor, he created Viridian, a restaurant that features art on the walls and an artistic sensibility on the plates. Chef Antonio Burrell offers mostly organic, vegetarian-friendly cuisine, which succeeds when he resists the temptation to fuss with the food. Here's my review of Viridian in DC magazine.
[Note: Chef Burrell left the restaurant in November 2006. There is no indication my review had anything whatsoever with his departure. The new chef is Jeff Orel. I have not revisited the restaurant since the change.]
The other night I was in Zola, the espionage-themed restaurant in DC's Penn Quarter, leafing through the wine list while sipping a nice Riesling, waiting for my party to arrive. Ralph Rosenberg, the beverage meister of Star Restaurant Group who created the list, spotted me taking notes and promptly interrupted. (The restaurant is adjacent to the International Spy Museum, after all!) When he saw that the left-hand pages of my binder were blank, Ralph let out a growl of frustration. It seems diners at Zola steal the tasting notes Ralph inserts to help sell his disparate wines from around the world.
I've heard of silver spoons disappearing from restaurants, or fancy pepper grinders. At Lima, a night club/restaurant hybrid in DC, I alerted the manager one night to the absence of soap in the men's room, and he told me that their chrome soap dispensers disappear on a regular basis. (That's why most places have the soap dispensers tacked to the wall, I guess.)
If all Zola is losing to theft is wine notes that can be easily printed out from a computer, they're lucky. But it baffles me that people steal anything. Mrs. McIntyre didn't raise her little boy that way. If I were a sociologist I might draw some conclusion about the crisis of parenting in our country. Or maybe as an old political science student I could tie this to Washington ethics in an Age of Entitlement.
But I'm neither of those. I'm just a common sense guy, and this strikes me as stupid.
Cousino-Macul, the oldest family-owned winery in Chile, is celebrating its sesquecentennial this year. Since its founding in 1856, the winery has emphasized Bordeaux varietals and European style. And, impressively, value pricing. The Finis Terrae, a Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot blend, is an annual bargain at $20, easily the match of many a more expensive wine. And those of jaded by nondescript $15 California appellation Cabs treasure our bottles of Cousino-Macul Antiguas Reservas.
Arturo Cousino, the sixth generation to head the winery, came to the United States recently to mark the anniversary. He brought with him a new wine, Lota, which will now become the winery's flagship, the family's first entry into Chile's high-priced wine sweepstakes. (It should sell for about $60.) Named for the seaside mining town where the Cousino family made its fortune in the 1850s, Lota is 85% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Merlot. About 40% of the grapes come from the winery's historic vineyard in Santiago, with the rest coming from the new estate in Buin, further south in the Maipo Valley.
The disappointing thing about Lota is that only a little more than 700 six packs were produced. The wine offers stunning Bordeaux aromas of cigar, currant and blackberry, with some woodspice mixed in. The palate is full and long, and the flavors linger like a favored friend at a dinner party. Crafted by winemaker Matias Rivera with French consultant Pascal Marty, Lota is the grandest expression yet of the Cousino-Macul style: European elegance matched with New World ripeness.
For the past two decades, Cousino-Macul wines have been imported into the United States by Billington Imports, the company created by Alfredo Bartholomaus, who has been credited by no less than Robert Parker with popularizing the wines of Chile and Argentina here in the States. My profile of Alfredo in DC magazine can be found here.
(The photo shows, from left to right, winemaker Matias Rivera, Arturo Cousino and Alfredo Bartholomaus. Photographed at Cousino-Macul estate in Santiago, March 2005.)
For years I've been a fan of Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon fame, ever since he entranced me with a Roussanne that turned out to be a Viognier when someone took a closer look at the vines. My favorite of his wines has been the Big House line, especially the Rhone-like Big House Red that proved California can indeed make delicious wine for $10 a bottle.
Like many of Grahm's fans, I was disappointed when he announced this summer that he had sold the Big House label. A few weeks after his announcement, I met with him at the offices of Bonny Doon Vineyards in Santa Cruz, California. Grahm spoke at length about his determination to focus on premium, estate-grown wines farmed biodynamically, as well as the transformative power of fatherhood. The maverick who held a public wake for the cork and derided Robert Parker with the mock headline, "The Emperor Has No Nose!," now says, "I need to shut up and make wine." Read my account of the interview in WineLine 57.
Dry Creek Valley has always been one of my favorite appellations in Sonoma County. I love the intensity and variety of the Sauvignon Blancs and the juicy, chewy depths of its Zinfandels.
Last month I had the opportunity to explore Dry Creek Valley and meet with several grape growers and winemakers. Tasting their wines, I made a few discoveries and got reacquainted with some old friends. Here are some labels to look for:
RUED: Fifth-generation growers, the Rued family took the plunge into winemaking a few years ago when the “grape glut” pushed prices low. They now boast a spanking new winery on Dry Creek Road just in time for the harvest and of course to welcome visitors. Their 2005 Sauvignon Blanc is fantastic - just grassy enough to show the varietal’s character, with apricot and passion fruit flavors, great body and a long finish. Classic Dry Creek Valley Sauvignon Blanc. Their 2003 Zinfandel is almost as good - creamy in texture and flavor, low on the spice - think raspberry gratin in a glass. Fill in your own pun here, but you will not rue the day you purchase these wines.
DUTCHER CROSSING: The 2005 Sauvignon Blanc from this new winery a little further up the road could not be more different than the Rued. Blended with 10% Semillon, 8% Viognier and 2% Roussanne, this version bursts with tropical fruit flavors and aromas. Think of it as a “new California” style. The 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon Proprietor’s Reserve, which is 25% Syrah, features soft berry flavors, vanillin, and cassis on a medium finish.
UNTI VINEYARDS: This young winery is making a serious stab at the leadership mantle of California’s Rhone Rangers. The 2004 Grenache had me thinking of the best of the Southern Rhone, empowered by California exuberance. Then I tasted the 2003 Syrah and my imagination soared to the Northern Rhone. These are not knockoffs of Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Hermitage, for they have the California emphasis on fruit flavors, with terroir secondary. (Oooh, I’m gonna get it for that ...) These are California expressions of two wonderful grapes, and they make delicious wines. [Note to readers in the D.C. area - these Unti wines are available at The Vineyard in McLean, Va., for about $29 each.]
ALDERBROOK/TERLATO FAMILY VINEYARDS: This winery began in the early 1980s as a specialist in white wines. Within the last few years, however, a majority share was purchased by the Terlato family of Paterno Imports fame. They have steered the winery toward red wines from its property near Healdsburg, at the confluence of the Dry Creek Valley, Alexander Valley, and Russian River Valley appellations. The 2003 Dry Creek Valley Syrah is surprisingly elegant for the grape, and for the grape in California. It features bright, high-toned blueberry and coffee notes, with soft tannins and a surprisingly long, fruity finish that does not want to quit. I would normally say this is the type of wine that will stand out at dinner but not in a group tasting against bigger, brawnier wines, except that it won a Gold Medal at the Orange County fair. So there are some good judges out there ... Future vintages may be under the Terlato name but will still be made in the same way by winemaker Brian Parker; either way, keep it in mind, this is a delicious wine.
As I write this, Ernesto is pounding the Mid-Atlantic region. I haven’t talked to any winemakers in Virginia, where the best wine regions were supposed to get up to 6 inches of rain today, but I suspect they may be relieved as the storm tracked a little further east than expected. So now I wonder if it will spin out to sea and head up to Long Island, which received several days of steady rain last year just as many wineries were preparing to harvest their Merlot. Let’s hope not.
For the past few weeks, we had little or no rain, warm but not real hot days, and unusually cool nights. Not great pool weather for August, but excellent conditions for growing wine grapes. The temperature variations from the hot afternoon to the cool early morning are ideal for ripening grapes and retaining acidity to give the wines structure and vibrancy. But what Mother Nature gives, she can take away. Strong winds and rains right at harvest time are never good; they are not necessarily destructive, however, if the next few days return to the favorable weather pattern. Then, as long as the grapes don’t swell up and burst, they may recover quite nicely.
Since Ernesto seems to be less fearsome than forecast, he could even turn out to be a blessing, if any grapes were stunted by the drought of the past several weeks, these rains might stimulate the final ripening process.
But this is my idle speculation. I tend to think of weather patterns in terms of how they affect the wine harvest. Pretty pathetic, eh?
And of course we oenogeeks tend to think of California as immune from the vagaries of weather. Not so, the weather is just different there. The heavy rains come not right before harvest but when the vines are dormant, much more favorable. But this year, California felt Nature’s intense stare with a heat wave in July that pushed temperatures well over 100 degrees F for 11 days in a row, with two of those days reaching 115 degrees - at least in the Dry Creek Valley, where I visited in August. The heat was most intense in the late afternoon.
The effects of such intense heat? Sunburn, literally. The grapes, which had not quite reached veraison, the point where they turn from green to golden or black, are stunted from the heat and wither. But of course this is an uneven process. As Andrew Forchini, grower at his family’s winery on the east side of Dry Creek, explained, the sides of the vines facing the afternoon sun were most affected by the heat. He showed us vines that were shriveled and worthless on the west side, but still holding gorgeous, full fruit on the other side. So the extent of the sunburn depends on the orientation of the vine rows and the leaf canopy. Growers can moderate the effects with irrigation, but only so much when the heat is that intense.
In short, yields may be down a bit because of the heat, but quality should not be affected. Forchini shrugged off the losses as he tasted some of the healthy grapes that would go into his family’s Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Other growers on the west side of Dry Creek told me they were not greatly affected by the heat wave, because their vineyards are on east-facing slopes and therefore shielded from the afternoon sun by mountains to the west.
So there you have it - another reason not to buy into any broad generalization about weather and its effect on a particular vintage.