Imbibing in High Style
A round-up of three months of sexy sipping with the Baroness
The Night They Invented Champagne
There are parties and then there are hall-of-fame blow-outs, meant to seal a brand into your psyche as the ultimate for celebratory times. At the end of March Dom Pérignon threw such an all-stops soirée for the launch of its Dom Pérignon Rosé Vintage 2004. The brand took over the historic Walter de Maria space on the Lower East Side and completely redecorated it into what they dubbed the Dom Pérignon Kingdom. Guests entered the fortress through a guarded station and were taken up in an antique metal cage elevator operated by an attendant wearing a cap out of The Grand Budapest Hotel. The second floor exposed a Fellini meets Cirque du Soleil fantasy with performers on stilts costumed as octopuses and an assortment of otherworldly art pieces which meandered through the loft. Another showpiece was the chef de cave of Dom Pérignon, Richard Geoffroy, who stipulated his precious vintage be served in white Burgundy crystal glasses. The evening culminated in a full-on sexy cabaret show with actors from The Box nightclub and the play, Sleep No More. The final performance was a strip tease act where a woman, dancing with an enormous pink balloon, stripped down to her bejeweled G-string and then magically enveloped herself inside the giant womb-like balloon. As a finale, she burst the balloon launching a shower iridescent pink confetti over the audience.
STRANAHAN'S COLORADO WHISKEY HITS MANHATTAN
This winter has been particularly active with spirits launches and limited-edition releases of old elixirs. Here’s a round-up with highlights of the very best events.
*While the wine world certainly has its share of cult wines, you rarely hear about cult spirits. This winter a true cult, Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey, hit Manhattan shores. From the Rocky Mountain state, where it has been on everyone’s lips, Stranahan's just launched this year nationwide. Rob Dietrich, Stranahan's Master Distiller, came to Manhattan at meet with a small cabal of whiskey enthusiasts at Blue Smoke for a night of ribs and whiskey.
Dietrich, strappingly handsome with curious facial hair forming into accentuated sideburns-cum-beard, seemed straight out of central casting for a cult whiskey purveyor. We tasted the Stranahan’s regular edition---made from Colorado-sourced malted barley, Rocky Mountain water from Eldorado Springs and aged in new American white oak barrels---and then sampled the coveted “Snowflake” limited edition, which comes in a tall stately bottle with a large metal shot glass closure.
Each time there is a release of Snowflake in Colorado, fans, called Stranafans, line up all night to get one of those hand-numbered and hand-signed $100 bottles. The edition sells out within hours. The fact that the whiskey is 94 proof might have something to do it. But it also might be the flavor from the double barrel treatment. Dietrich explained that Snowflake is first aged for two years in white oak char #4 barrels---he makes a particular note of the char---and then is finished in barrels that once held Sherry, cognac or tequila.
PORTOBELLO ROAD GIN
*Portobello Road No. 171 Gin launched in the U.S. with a spirited party at the Lion in the West Village. The gin is made in small batches as an old-style London Dry Gin. With forward juniper and violet floral aromas, it unfolds with citrusy flavors and a warming cinnamon spice note on the finish. London, the home of gin distilling, is experiencing a resurgence of interest in artisanal gins. Exclusive gin bars have opened following the hot trend in Spain with their G&T bars where you can customize your drink choosing from dozens of small-batch gins and a number of different tonics and garnishes.
Tequila gets very smooth and seductive when it is long aged. At another wild party I tasted the oldest tequila every released: Patrón Extra Añejo 7 Años. Patrón Production Manager Antonio Rodriguez from Jalisco, Mexico handed out cut crystal small glasses with sips of the precious, $300-a-bottle, limited-edition new release. I, along with the other journalists, worked our way around the room at the Prohibition-era speakeasy Bathtub Gin in Chelsea tasting flights of reposado, añejo and extra añejo expressions side by side—quite an educational intoxicating experience.
Seven year old tequila might be old but in the Port world it’s just at the beginning of life. I had the thrill of tasting a new limited edition: Sandeman Cask 33 Limited Edition. Out of 40 barrels in the Sandeman cellars on the banks of the Douro River, they chose a single cask of Tawny Porto with wines of up to 70 years of age. George Sandeman himself was there introducing the treasure at a dinner at one of my favorite venues, The Modern Private Dining Room. So what did a 50 year old fine Very Aged Tawny Porto taste like? Super concentrated, complex and honeyed. Tasters declared all sort of descriptors: marmalade, floral, nutmeg, walnuts, cumin spice. The March 2015 release (with 685 bottles worldwide by allocation at $610 a bottle) coincides with the celebration of Sandeman’s 225 years anniversary, a house known for its aged Tawny Ports.
Wine Wine All the Time
How many dinners can one wine writer attend? That’s what I always ask myself. I got my answer on a particularly packed week. I had booked every night with a different winemaker, winery or wine region. And after four dinners and one lunch (with a charming Italian countess), I had had enough. I canceled the week’s final dinner (rescheduled it for a morning tasting). Even with a constitution of steel, I sometimes can’t lift another glass to my lips.
This week in question was what I term “Italian with a side of California.” Every region seems to have its time slot on the Manhattan calendar. Bordeaux usually arrives for a few weeks in the winter and the appearances divide between the Right Bank’s Saint Emilion Grand Cru gang and the Left Bank’s aristocrats with their parade of esteemed growths. The folks down under—New Zealand, Australia and South Africa---usually kick off in late summer since the seasons are reversed. The Brunello, Barolo and Super Tuscan consortiums have their February Italian wine week which culminates with a black-tie party at the Pierre thrown by the esteemed Dr. Lucio Caputo.
Here’s a little round-up of the best and the brightest.
A Feminine Napa Cabernet
We think of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon as a masculine wine with its strong tannins and powerful structure. But the other day I was enthused to come across a truly feminine Cabernet during a dinner party to showcase Hoopes Family Wines.
The vivacious Lindsay Hoopes, who recently took over the management of her family’s winery, poured me the 2012 Hoopes Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon ($75). Displaying a dark red color, the wine had a sensuous mouth feel with soft tannins and seductive rich blackberry and cherry flavors finishing in savory notes of leather and spice.
Hoopes Family is right now is an all-female operation. The winemaker, Anne Vawter, knows how to craft a wine with soft plush tannins and lots of personality. From Walla Walla, Washington, Vawter worked as an assistant for four years to Heidi Barrett, the winemaker behind some of Napa’s greatest cults, Screaming Eagle, Dalla Valle Vineyards and Grace Family Vineyards. Lindsay Hoopes stopped by New York on route to Japan, where her wine is a hit since the Japanese are especially fond of feminine nuanced Cabernet.
A Lesson on Champagne: It’s all about Mouth-feel
I met another kindred female spirit, Elise Losfelt of Moet & Chandon, one of 10 winemakers working under Cellar Master Benoit Gouez. She had come to New York to give journalists the first taste of the house’s newly released 2006 Grand Vintage Rosé. Grand vintages are a big deal. They are made in good vintage years and are aged on the lees for seven years.
With “2006” written in large letters on its label, the Grand Vintage Rosé was poured with fanfare. It had a floral note of rose petals and flavors of black currant, dried apricot and a hint of clove and cinnamon spice. The taste was enticing but, according to Losfelt, the pleasure of Champagne is mostly in the bubbles.
“The truth is in the mouth,” Losfelt said. We take another sip. “It’s generous on the palate with a little lift at the end.” she said guiding me through the intricacies of tasting the Grand Vintage. “This cuvée has uplift. For a few seconds, doesn’t it seem to suspend in the air?” Her suggestion made me feel the sensation vividly. “Now do you sense a strong horizontal pull from the bubbles?” Yes, I did. Losfelt and I couldn’t stop discussing the various sensations that great Champagne gives. Dom Perignon is known to have a precarious balance in its effervescent energy between pointed and rounded sensations. Krug releases its textures and flavors like a symphony with different instrument sections weighing in. Yes, it’s all so cerebral---the pleasure of the delicate bubbles.
The Italians’ La Dolce Vita Soirée
I look forward to Dr. Lucio Caputo’s black-tie Gala at the Pierre ballroom every year for the American Society of the Italian Legions of Merit. Why? Because it is so old-school Italian with ceremonial speeches honoring major figures both Italians and Italian-Americans, bestowing metals and taking ceremonial photographs. There’s always a band and lively dancing between courses and feels like an Italian wedding or a movie scene out of The Godfather. The wine aristocracy who were honored with gold metals included Jacopo Biondi Santi, Piero Antinori, Cesare Cecchi and Gianni Zonin. Mario Andretti received a Grand Award of Merit. He is the only driver to win the Daytona 500, the Indy 500 and the Formula One World Championship and had 111 major career victories. Dinner was catered by the executive chefs of Le Cirque and the Pierre and each course had impressive wines: a sparkling from Zonin, Tenuta ca’Bolani; a luscious red, Jacopo Biondi Santi Sassoallora; and a dessert wine, Tenuta La Gigliola, Vino Santo Lo Stoiato.
The “Biodynamic” Countess
Countess Ginervra Venerosi-Pesciolini is the winemaker of Tenuta di Ghizzano, a vast organic estate in the Pisan Hills that has been in her family since the 1300’s. The Tuscany property spans 850 acres with olive orchards and fields of grain, 250 acres of woods and 50 acres of vineyards. The beautiful Countess, who resembles Sophia Loren, is fearless, having taken the radical step of turning her vineyards to biodynamic viticulture. It was an outlandish idea to her Tuscan father, she said. She’s been biodynamic since 2006.
“I want to produce healthy wine,” she said, over lunch at the organic restaurant Quartino Bottega Organica over baked polenta with creamy mushroom sauce. “In the 70’s everyone was using chemicals to fight fungus. Chemicals cost a lot of money and throw off nature. With biodynamic practices you invest in the soil for the future.”
Ginervra started off with organic and sustainable framing and collaborated with a famous Italian enologist Carlo Ferrini as a consultant. She uses only indigenous yeasts, she says, “Because I want a completely natural expression of the place where I am.” She doesn’t use herbicides, chemical fertilizers of any chemicals whatsoever and started planting mustard and oats to repel pests and lots of cover crops and herbs to bring biodiversity.
The Countess is indeed a maverick being both a woman winemaker and biodynamic in macho Italy. “When I started 25 years ago, I was the only woman winemaker in the whole area. In Italy it is hard to break into the male winemaker society.” The area where she is farming is a new ITG, a subzone of Tuscany called the Tuscan Coast, formed in 2010.
We sipped her “Super Tuscan,” Nambrot 2007, which has 30% Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend. It was well-structured with vivid bright fruit and went well with our tagliolini with Gorgonzola. “The 2007 vintage expresses a lot of perfume, great elegance and good length and just a touch of smokiness. I call it my Tuscan Pomerol,” said the sexy biodynamic countess.
Grape Growers take on a remarkable sustainability effort in Lodi
Sometimes I like to applaud the grape growers rather than only the winemakers. I came across a remarkable story this winter about Lodi, an AVA in Northern California which produces 25% of all California wine grapes. Lodi is a leader in the state’s green movement with an astounding 30,000 acres of vines “certified green.”
In January Governor Jerry Brown presented Lodi with a GEELA award, the state’s highest environmental award, honoring the Lodi Winegrape Commission for its “Lodi Rules for Sustainable Winegrowing.”
What makes this tale especially interesting is the switch of roles. Usually it’s wineries that engage in marketing and promotion so it is notable that the growers took on this role. Granted the region has more growers (750) than wineries (85) and over 100,000 grapevine acres across seven sub-AVAs.
I met with Camron King, Director of the Lodi Winegrape Commission and Craig Ledbetter, a Lodi winegrape grower, and they had quite a story to tell. In the late 80’s eight longtime grower families started the commission to bring the region to sustainability in an effort to market Lodi and its world-class fruit. Ledbetter’s family was one of the original eight who pioneered this sweeping green initiative.
And it’s been a win-win for all. High quality fruit means the wineries pay more per ton for grapes. Wineries using sustainably grown grapes can use the desirable seal of “Lodi Rules” on the bottle. What distinguishes their sustainability program is it has third party verification and the fees cover the programs costs (making even the program sustainable).
A word on the wines: Lately Lodi wines are trending not only for their old vine Zinfandels (vines between 65--130 year old, pictured above from Maley Brothers Wegat Vineyard) but for their wines from esoteric Iberian and German varieties. Besides the most established name wineries sourcing fruit from Lodi ---Turley, Forlorn Hope, Scholium Project, Bonny Doon--- the region boasts a number of boutique wineries getting noticed for their use of unexpected varietals: Borra Winery ( Kerner), Acquiesce Vineyards (Picpoul Blanc and Rousanne from this all-white producer,) and Lange Twins Winery (Teroldego).
Longtime Grape Farmer Launches a Wine Brand
Tom Gore Vineyards is the first wine named after a grape farmer (first in California but not necessarily in France). The new brand launched this spring with a kick-off dinner held at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico, NY—a celebrated farm-to-table restaurant with a vast farm on the property. How appropriate that farm-to-table meets “farm-to-glass.” A second generation grape grower acting as viticulturist for wineries throughout Northern California, Gore uses mostly Sonoma grapes from Alexander Valley and Dry Creek for his brand. I tasted his creamy chardonnay with its tropical fruit and toasty notes, which matched well with a dish of winter squash in a yogurt sauce sprinkled with toasted almonds. Gore’s most impressive debut expression, the 2012 Field Blend ($40), from a single vineyard combining varieties Petit Verdot, Malbec, Merlot, Cabernet and Tempranillo, and aged 22 months in French oak. This wine was savory with dark fruit flavors and subtle tannins—a great pair to the Stone Barns pastured lamb.