Summer 07 Ends, Eating Raoul’s and Drinking 1990 Chinon

September 26, 2007

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The summer of 2007 will be remembered — in my mind at least — as the summer that I quit my full-time day gig (September 7 was my last day as Marketing Director at the group that runs Centovini, I Trulli, and Vino), the summer that Nous Non Plus went back to France for the second glorious time, the summer that I turned 40, the summer of my official mid-life crisis, and the summer that I fell in love with Cabernet Franc and Chinon.

The seemingly endless and at-times-painful summer of 07 (for there was a promise that unraveled sadly, as well) came to an end on Sunday, September 23 at 5:51 a.m. (or so they say), the day after Yom Kippur and the day after my mother’s birthday.

The night before I left for California (to spend Yom Kippur and my mom’s birthday with the family) was a summery evening in New York and the city was bustling with the last notes of warm-weather partying. I found myself downtown with a wine biz bud and we couldn’t get a table anywhere: Blue Ribbon was packed to the gills, Balthazar was as bustling as Belshazzar’s Babylonia, and a Bellini sludge sparkled and shimmered as it oozed over the sidewalk at Cipriani into the gutter.

The solution? Raoul’s… where the colorful characters and the Negronis (with maraschino garnish) took the edge off a thirty-minute wait for a table. Our reward? The best seat in the house — the deuce in the corner of the dimly lit garden — and a wine list that included a 1999 Lopez de Heredia Viña Bosconia (“the best Burgundy in Rioja,” our skilled and sharp-witted sommelier noted), and a 1990 Domaine Olga Raffault Chinon Les Picasses, both at very reasonable prices.

I had never been to Raoul’s, a true downtown New York experience where locals with thick eastcoast accents and full heads of hair (some real, some faux) gather, an authentic 1970s scene, too upscale for Scorsese’s Mean Streets but not mundane enough for Allen’s Manhattan.

The Viña Bosconia was light and fresh and went well with my frisée salad (laden with lardoons and topped with a runny egg).

The 1990 Chinon was simply sublime. I’d been drinking Chinon all summer (in Paris and New York) but had never had the chance to drink any older vintages. The 1990 single-vineyard Raffault teemed with the wonderful vegetal flavors that Robert Parker seems to despise — he once wrote infamously, “I have found the majority of these wines (made from 100% Cabernet Franc) to be entirely too vegetal and compact for my tastes” — and it paired beautifully with my steak au poivre, the house specialty at Raoul’s. The wine had a delightful freshness — impressive for a seventeen-year-old wine — and we enjoyed every drop.

By June of 1990, I had finished my first year of post-grad studies at the Università di Padova (where I met my friend, cineaste and novelist Mauro Gasparini, whose excellent blog, I recently discovered). I spent the rest of the summer in San Diego living at home and working as a bike messenger, preparing for the doctoral program at the UCLA Italian Department where, in September, I began teaching Italian language.

I never could have imagined that the summer of 2007 would find me working as a writer and a copywriter on the New York food and wine scene. But stranger things have happened. Hopefully, even stranger things will happen yet.

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Above: Eating Raoul, 1982. Isn’t funny that the male lead works in a wine store? Well, it seems funny now.


Mexican Nebbiolo? A night with family at Restaurante Romesco in Bonita, CA

September 24, 2007

Above: the smoked Sea of Cortez marlin, thickly sliced, was a show stopper at Restaurante Romesco in Bonita, CA.

The Parzen family traveled southward from La Jolla yesterday evening toward the Mexican border to beautiful Bonita (about 10 minutes from the Otay Mesa border crossing) where we celebrated Judy Parzen’s birthday at Restaurante Romesco, a wonderful, elegant strip-mall restaurant that bills itself as a “Baja Med Bistro.”

Above: grilled tacos stuffed with shrimp and mozzarella.

Micah and Marguerite, Tad and Diane, and yours truly raised a glass to celebrate Judy’s birthday (actually the day before, September 22, which happened to fall on Yom Kippur this year). It had been so long since we’d all been together as a family for a holiday and although we’re all sad about how my life has been changing, it was great to be together as a family for the holiday and our mother’s birthday (the last time was four years ago… but things were a lot different then…).

Menu highlights: excellent smoked Sea of Cortez marlin, thickly sliced and drizzled with vinaigrette (made in Ensenada, our waiter, Omar, told me); tacos stuffed with sliced tongue that had been braised in a tomato-chili sauce, very tasty; grilled tacos stuffed with shrimp and mozzarella (I didn’t think I’d like the combination of seafood and plastic cheese, partly, I must admit, because the dairy-seafood combination is a taboo in some parts of Europe, but this taco was fantastic); and piping hot churros, just firm on the outside, their dough creamy on the inside, rolled in cinnamon sugar.

Above: the dough inside the churros was creamy and the dish came with a demitasse of Mexican hot chocolate and a caramel dipping sauce.

The wine list is nothing to write home about. We drank a very forgettable Albariño and commercial and regrettably barriqued Tempranillo, both from Spain. But the cellar at Romesco also features some Baja California wines and when the waiter told me that his favorite was a Nebbiolo, I had to try it.

The 2002 Nebbiolo by winery L.A. Cetto is proudly aged “14 meses en barrica de roble francés” according to the website (14 months in French oak barriques). For those who know me and read my blog, you know that I’d rather drink mayonnaise soda* than barriqued (oaked) Nebbiolo. The wine was concentrated and alcoholic and didn’t taste anything like Nebbiolo. Only a handful of Californian winemakers have grown Nebbiolo (mostly in Central Coast) and I was truly surprised to see that someone was doing it in Baja California. I can’t say I liked the wine but was impressed by its novelty. I wonder how it would have shown if it hadn’t been barriqued. One of the unique things about Italy and its wines is that while international grapes (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot in particular) have been cultivated and vinified in Italy with great success, native Italian grape varieties have yielded disastrously disappointing results abroad. You can take the grape out of Italy but you can’t take Italy out of the grape… I guess.

Above: my sister-in-law Diane, left, and Judy share a laugh.

But I believe in drinking wines appropriate to the occasion and the place, and, ideally, wines made by and for the people who prepare your food. It was exciting to drink “locally” and to discover what Baja winemakers are doing. Our waiter, Omar, whose wine service was very good, was proud of this bottle and I was proud to taste it at this excellent restaurant.

Above: brother Micah and my sister-in-law Marguerite.

And… you know… to quote a phrase, sometimes it’s not the wine you drink but whom you drink it with and where that matters.

You may have known that all the time, but I’m learning it these days.**

Above: brother Tad contemplates Mexican Nebbiolo.

*Life’s like a mayonnaise soda
And life’s like space without room
And life’s like bacon and ice cream
That’s what life’s like without you

– Lou Reed

**Love is so simple
To quote a phrase
You’ve known it all the time
I’m learnin’ it these days.

– Bob Dylan


No Place Like Home

September 23, 2007

After all the recent (and drastic) changes in my life, I didn’t have anywhere to attend High Holy Day services in NYC and so I decided to come home, where I spent Yom Kippur with my brother Tad, his wife Diane, their kids, and my mom Judy at Temple Beth El in La Jolla, where I had my Bar Mitzvah some twenty-seven years ago (when this now thriving congregation worshipped in the living room of a house on La Jolla Scenic Dr.).

The services were good, my fast was easy, and it was great to be with my immediate family (hadn’t spent the holidays with them in way too many a moon). Rabbi Graubart, who plays a pretty mean Havdalah service on 6-string (Yom Kippur fell on the Sabbath this year), gave a good sermon on forgiveness (citing the story of Joseph and his brothers), something the world — and my life — is in need of (both to give and to receive). We broke the fast at Tad and Diane’s, where, after dinner, I played guitar with my nephew Cole, who’s getting really really good.

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Above: the view from Bahia where I grinded down on a Carne Asada Burrito with Guacamole and drank a beer with my bro Micah.

Today (Sunday), I went to one of my all-time favorite taco stands, Bahia Don Bravo on La Jolla Blvd., with my brother Micah, who, like brother Tad, is a super successful lawyer based in San Diego (he also has a Ph.D. in anthropology from Case Western).

I found this crazy site called Burritophile that lists the address and phone number etc. And I thought that I had too much time on my hands!

The weather is beautiful today (we’re about to go down to the La Jolla Cove and jump in the water) and we sat outside where we both ate Carne Asada Burritos with Guacamole and drank a Negra Modelo.

The burrito’s chopped onions, cilantro, tomatoes, and guacamole were fresh and the beef tasty. And, man, that beer tasted good as we gazed out at the water (which was looking particularly beautiful today, with different layers of blues and greens).

Life sure has been crazy lately and it’s been a really, really hard time for me. It’s good to know that some of the good things in life don’t change… like a Carne Asada Burrito and a beer on La Jolla Blvd. a few blocks from my old elementary school, Bird Rock Elementary.


“The Big Test for High[ly] Alc[oholic] Wines”

September 20, 2007

A few days ago, my older brother, Tad Parzen (a top-knotch lawyer who owns and runs a governmental/educational/legal consulting firm in San Diego, CA, and who has worked with a number of the state’s biggest school districts), introduced me — via email — to the wine program manager at Jonathan’s, a gourmet grocery and wine store in La Jolla where we grew up (and where Tad, his family, and my mother still live).

Since I had just read the recent article on Darrell Corti and “Zingate” in The San Francisco Chronicle, I sent him the link and asked for his perspective. Here’s what he wrote back:

“Hey Jeremy, The Corti Bros. are definitely stirring the proverbial wine pot out here, but the high alc wines just keep coming. I’m a fan of both old world rustic elegance and new world lush, lip smacking wines. The big test for quality high alc wines is their ability to maintain appropriate amounts of acidity and minerality. [italics mine] Obviously, balance is the key. When people ask me why domestic wines have more fruit and alcohol than the old world versions, my cliche’d response goes something like: when did you start drinking coca-cola and when they tell me, I generally say that is when europeans had their first glass of wine. Speaking of trends, for every 1 bottle of old world wine purchased at the store, at least six domestic bottles are purchased. Definitely stop by the shop next time you’re out here…

Happy drinkin,
Patrick”

I like his analogy about Coca Cola: Americans (and Californians in particular) want their wine to taste like soda pop and not like wine… and I guess there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, as Patrick points out, “for every 1 bottle of old world wine purchased at the store, at least six domestic bottles are purchased.”

But I am disconcerted by the notion that a highly alcoholic wine can be balanced. With today’s technology (whereby fermentation is accelerated and whereby the water and alcohol in wine are separated — through “reverse osmosis” — and then blended back together), it’s easy to make wine with high alcohol content.

Minerality and good acidity come from nature, from the fruit and the land, and can only be achieved naturally (although many Californian winemakers, even high-end wineries, actually acidify their wines by adding acid! Why do you think that so many people complain of headaches after drinking fancy Californian wine?).

In fact, the highly alcoholic wines of California are by their nature imbalanced and don’t taste like wine. They smell like alcohol and they taste like “tobacco”, “chocolate”, “boysenberry pie”… To me they taste like cough syrup.

Californian wines can tend to have higher alcohol content in part because of the California wine country’s warm climate. But it is the Californian winemaking style — and not nature — that creates “new world lush, lip smacking wines,” wines that — in my opinion — have no business be served at a meal because they lack the balance that makes wine an organic element in the human diet.

Time for me to get off my soap box? Yes, indeed. There’s nothing inherently wrong with liking Californian and California-style wines and Patrick is right to sell and serve his customers wines that they like. De gustibus non est disputandum.

In all fairness, I have tasted many Californian wines that I like, notably older Cabernet Sauvignon from producers like Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Corison and others (Keens, my favorite steakhouse in Manhattan, has a wonderful vertical of Corison going back to the early 1990s). And Darrell Corti has introduced me to some excellent Sonoma Coast Syrahs.

It is a pity, nonetheless, that generations of wine lovers will not know the truly mineral flavors of a great Chablis or the tar and manure aromas of an earthy Barbaresco. But, then again, maybe I’m crazy to want my wines to taste like rocks and shit.


Zingate? A Voice of Reason in a World Gone Mad

September 18, 2007

A few years ago, on a memorable sojourn at the Castello di Brolio in Chianti Classico, the Baron Bettino Ricasoli (great-great-great grandson of the “Iron Baron” Bettino Ricasoli, who reshaped the landscape of Tuscan viticulture in the late 19th century) urged me to visit Darrell Corti in Sacramento, telling me that he was perhaps the most erudite and refined collector of Italian wine that he had ever met. The following year, when I went to make a recording at The Hangar in Sacramento (a great studio), I drove to the other side of town to Corti Brothers, the wonderful gourmet food and wine store co-owned by Darrel. When I introduced myself, Darrell produced a copy of my Maestro Martino translation (UC Press, 2005), which he sells in his store, and asked me to sign it.

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Above: the erudite Darrell Corti in the wine section of Corti Brothers.

Since that time, I have seen Darrell in Sacramento and New York on a number of occasions. His knowledge of wine (and Italian wine in particular), his erudition, his mastery of Italian, and his worldliness are a model to which I aspire. Whenever I have had the chance to discuss wine with him, I come away — as if by osmosis and not by reverse osmosis! — enlightened in ways that surprise and enrich me.

And whenever I travel to Sacramento to record, I shop at Corti Brothers every chance I get: Darrell’s selection of olive oil is among the finest I’ve ever seen and the servers in his charcuterie department never mangle the prosciutto by slicing too thickly or thinly.

Darrell has been in the news lately, following an episode that has been dubbed “Zingate.”

Last week Olivia Wu published this story in The San Francisco Chronicle where she reveals that an internal memo on Darrell’s tasting policy was leaked to the press. But the fact of the matter is that Darrell openly tells wine salespersons that he won’t taste with an alcohol content greater than 14%. As Darrell has told me directly, he feels — and I agree wholeheartedly — the California “modern” winemaking style has spun out of control, with wines that have been deconstructed and reconstructed to have excessive alcohol content and flavors that have nothing to do with wine.

I loved this passage from the interview:

“Look at the description of wine today. What’s the first word? Chocolate! Wines are supposed to taste like fruit. It’s like food these days. They used to make something with three ingredients. Now the chef puts in 12 ingredients. And sometimes they cancel each other out. The same is happening to the wines.”

Thank goodness for Darrell Corti, a voice of reason in a wine world truly gone mad.

I also found this article on Zingate and Darrell, worth checking out.


Style Wins over Substance: Downtown Cocktails

September 10, 2007

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Last Thursday I joined a wine-and-cocktail-savvy crew (including my new friend Jordan Mackay, who is possibly the funniest wine writer I know) for a crawl through the East Village and the Lower East Side.

First stop was PDT (Please Don’t Tell), a speakeasy style, super-affected, reservations-only bar connected and related to Crif Dogs on St. Marks (Crif Dogs’ website doesn’t seem to be working but maybe they’ll get that together one of these days). You have to go through the hot dog joint to a faux phone both where you then call and they let you in.

The bartenders at PDT are very creative and the shelves are stocked with unusual bottlings, like the bitters collection above. Our bartender poured us a taste of Lucid, which is purported to be the first legal American-made absinthe.

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Frankly, the drinks weren’t that good (mostly sugary to my palate) and the chili dog tasted like a whatever NYC street vendor dog with bland tomato sauce on it.

Flash photography is not allowed and I got kicked out after I took the above photo of the weasel (?). Evidently, PDT’s decorator is really into taxidermy.

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Next stop was Death & Co. (above), which is also a super-stylized and affected place. I really liked the look and feel of this 1920s tavern and its quasi-Edward-Gorey feel. I genuinely enjoyed my cocktail, a Company Buck, which is made with dark rum and housemade ginger beer. Our waiter was glib and professional and really knew her stuff.

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The end of the night found us at Little Giant where I was very impressed by the wine list but underwhelmed by the yes-I-hate-to-say-it way too affected food (panzanella with steak in it? oy…).

I made the mistake of ordering a 2003 Sassella by Sandro Fay, which was too modern (for me and my dining companions). I had never tasted the wine and, hey, you win some and you lose some. But the 1989 white Rioja by Lopez de Heredia (above), which we ordered upon being seated, was stellar. I had only tasted the winery’s whites back to 1994 and this was, by far, the best I’d experienced.

After so many cocktails and bottles of wines, our crew had achieved a certain brio and the confluence of a lot of style and some substance seemed to have blurred the lines between aesthetic experience and downright, pure-and-simple fun.


Tommaso’s: “No good wines… just good bottles…”

September 6, 2007

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Above: Tommaso Restaurant is located in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, one of New York City’s thriving Little Italys.

Words of wisdom were imparted to us last night by restaurateur Tommaso Verdillo of Tommaso Restaurant in Brooklyn where I joined Alice Feiring, Elizabeth Spiers, and Lawrence Osborne for some old wine, great food, and a truly enjoyable and stimulating confabulatio.

Tommaso and his restaurant may be counted among NYC’s best-kept secrets and so be it. Perhaps because Bensonhurst, Brooklyn (one of New York’s true Little Italys) seems so exotic to the uninitiated, perhaps because Tommaso hasn’t received the attention his food and his wine list deserve, his excellent cooking and thrilling-if-ecclectic cellar (a true trésor of old wine) just aren’t on the culinary radar of Manhattanite would-be gourmets.

When it became clear to Signor Tommaso that we were there to raid his cave, he warned, “You never know how these bottles will drink. There’s a wise, old saying: ‘there are no good wines… just good bottles.’” And he’s right: when it comes to old wine, even when provenance is unquestionable and a given bottle has been cellared properly, age invariably increases the chance that a bottling will have gone bad.

The menu and pairings:

Polpettine di Riso and Mozzarella in Carozza

St Joseph Offerus 1999 Chave

Porcini-Filled Tortellini dressed with melted Castelmagno Cheese

Corton Bressan Grand Cru 1983 Chandon de Briailles

Spiedini alla siciliana (breaded and skewered veal served with roast potatoes)

Barolo Le Rocche di Castiglione Falletto 1986 Bruno Giacosa

While the mozzarella in carozza was superb, the tortellini were by far the stand-out dish (I couldn’t resist sopping up the melted Castelmagno in my dish).

The St Joseph lacked the depth that I expected from such a highly touted producer but was good (granted, this is the winery’s “entry-level” wine). The 1983 Burgundy was very tired and had lost most of its body and acidity but its astoundingly low price made it well worth the experience (there are some great bargains on Tommaso’s list).

When we asked Tommaso about the Giacosa Barolo on the list, he told us he would go down in the cellar to see what was actually there. He returned with three bottles and proposed that we open the 1986 Barolo Le Rocche di Castiglione Falletto.

The 1986 harvest was a sleeper vintage, he explained, probably because it was overshadowed by the more famous and much warmer 1985. He and Bruno Giacosa were old friends, he said, and the winemaker had often spoken to him about the underrated and underappreciated ’86. The fact of the matter was that none of us had could remember having tasted ’86 Giacosa. And while I’ve tasted many excellent bottlings of Barolo Falletto by Giacosa, I’d never tasted the cru “Le Rocche di Castiglione Falletto.” (I’ve just discovered this excellent Table of Bruno Giacosa Barolo by nebbiolophile Ken Vastola. It reveals that 1987 was Giacosa’s last bottling of this cru.)

Now in the autumn of his life and career, Bruno Giacosa is one of Italy’s most revered winemakers and many would argue that his wines are among the best Italian ever (the 1990 Red Label Barolo Falletto is certainly one of the best wines I’ve ever tasted in my life). According to legend, Giacosa never studied winemaking. Tommaso told us that during the 1960s, before Italy’s economic miracle reached the Langhe hills (where Barolo and Barbaresco are made), many winemakers were forced to abandon their vineyards and travel abroad to find work to support their families. Giacosa, he told us, generously offerred to make their wines for them while they were gone, thus ensuring that their land would not be snatched up by unscrupulous speculators in their absence. This experience, he said, allowed Giacosa to refine his skill and knowledge and helped to shape his legacy as one of Italy’s greatest vintners.

Although it showed admirably for its age, the 1986 Le Rocche di Castiglione Falletto was tired (it had some good fruit left in it but the tannin had faded). It would have been better a few years ago and I wished we had opened the 1990 Villero (another cru I’ve never tasted from Giacosa). But the price was reasonable and the experience truly memorable. And after all, our simpatico host had gently warned us beforehand, “there are no good wines… just good bottles.”

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Above: Barolo Le Rocche di Castiglione Falletto 1986 Bruno Giacosa paired with Spiedini alla siciliana and roast potatoes at Tommaso’s. The bottle of 1986 Giacosa didn’t have the government warning “front label” on the back of the bottle (yes, it’s called a “front label” by the TTB, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, even though it appears on the back of the bottle). But it did have a strip label that reported the following text: “Experience, love and passion allows [sic] us to obtain this product of the highest quality coming from grapes chosen and selected exclusively by us.”


Under the Bridge Downtown

September 2, 2007

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Above: live eels at the daily market under the Manhattan Bridge (on the Manhattan side) in Chinatown. One had slithered its way out of the tub. Most of the vendors sell produce but there are also a number of seafood mongers (sea snails, fishes, and seemingly any sort of sea creature). There are also a seamster and a cobbler. Sometimes I feel just like that eel.

Under the bridge downtown
Is where I drew some blood
Under the bridge downtown
I could not get enough
Under the bridge downtown
Forgot about my love
Under the bridge downtown
I gave my life away.


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