Is Luc Morlet the future of high-end California?

From the department of “nice work if you can get it”…

best foie gras recipeAbove: my friend and client Tony Vallone’s foie gras torchon with “pear cracklings,” crispy pear skins.

Last night found me a guest of my friend and client Tony Vallone at his flagship Tony’s for a wine dinner featuring the wines of Morlet Family Vineyards.

After reading up his California estate, I was impressed by the glowing praise and the across-the-board astronomic scores the wines have received from all sides of the wine writing establishment.

Robert Parker, Jr. has called him a “genius.” Honestly, that doesn’t really score a lot of points with me personally. But then when I saw that Antonio Galloni also wrote about Luc’s wines with superlatives like “off the charts” and scores to match, I began to inuit that Morlet has resonated broadly with the California wine intelligentsia.

I’d tasted a few of Luc Morlet’s wines previously at Tony’s but I had never tasted his top wines and I was very curious meet Luc and taste with him.

ma douceAbove: Luc’s Sonoma Coast Chardonnay Ma Douce illustrated his deft hand at barrel fermentation and barrel aging. He talked at length about the importance of not filtering. This isn’t a wine that I can afford but I thought it was gorgeous and enjoyed it immensely. Parker called a previous vintage “staggering.”

Luc, who was born and raised in Champagne, where his family continues to produce barrel-fermented wines, didn’t seem keen to talk about the fact that he is one of the premier cooperage brokers in California today. Understandably, he wanted to keep the focus on his wines and he wanted to connect with the well-heeled crowd that gathers at Tony’s for dinners like this.

But it’s abundantly clear that his experience in Europe and his expertise in cooperage has set a high new bar for the use of barriques in California, where, historically, winemakers have often favored oakiness in their wines.

Luc’s Sonoma Chardonnay Ma Douce and his Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir Côteaux Nobles were both fantastic. And they perfectly illustrated how restrained, thoughtful use of oak can deliver wonderful balance and extreme elegance. I liked the wines a lot.

(Luc will be speaking about cooperage and pouring barrel samples today at the Houston Sommelier Association, btw. It should be a fascinating tasting and he’s a great speaker.)

crescent island duckAbove: Tony and his chef Kate McLean are geeked about the Crescent Island duck they’ve been serving at the restaurant. I loved its balance of gentle fattiness and earthy flavor. It was a great pairing for Luc’s Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Mon Chevalier.

In the short time I got to speak with Luc intimately, he was eager to talk to me about the Knights Valley AVA where he is growing Cabernet Sauvignon.

It lies in between Napa and Sonoma and the community there has resisted heavy investment in viticulture.

But there are a few growers who have planted to vine there and Luc is one of them.

It’s on the west side of Mt. Saint Helena, he explained, the highest peak in the area, and so it has the ideal elevation and temperature variation for the cultivation of Bordeaux grapes.

I liked the Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Mon Chevalier a lot but I think the wine will benefit from more bottle aging. Here the oak was evident and not yet entirely integrated into the wine, which is from Luc’s 2011 harvest. I hope I’ll have a chance to revisit it in a few years: with great acidity and earnest, classic Cabernet Sauvignon flavors, there’s no doubt this wine will represent yet another great effort from Luc’s cellar.

As he talked to me about Knights Valley, I became more and more convinced that Luc and his approach to winemaking could very well be the future of high-end wine in California.

Whether he’s raising wine in a little known appellation tucked between Napa and Sonoma or whether he’s illustrating the expert application of cask fermentation and aging, he seems always to be one step ahead of his contemporaries.

As the “new California” has begun to reshape the viticultural landscape there, Luc and his “old world” sensibilities align nearly seamlessly with the tastes of current-generation collectors and winemakers.

Very interesting wines. I just wish I could afford them!

Wine highlights from last week in California

jeremy parzen prosecco col fondoThanks to everyone who came out to my Bele Casel tastings in California! And special thanks to Jill at DomaineLA in Los Angeles and Jayne and Jon at Jaynes in San Diego for hosting.

Prosecco Colfòndo is always a great excuse to get together and reconnect. It was super fun to taste with you.

Of course, I tasted a lot of wines while out in California. Here are some of the highlights.

praesidium 1998 montepulciano abruzzo bestThe 1998 Praesidium Montepulciano d’Abruzzo was stunning, fresh and bright in the glass with evolved tannin. So glad to see these compelling wines in California.

gatti prosecco col fondoIt was also great to see that Carolina Gatti’s Prosecco Col Fondo is now available in my home state. There are now a handful of Col Fondo wines in the U.S. and the number continues to grow. Hers fall on the crunchier side of the category and I love them (she’s also the sweetest lady and very active on social media).

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How a bag of weed launched the biodynamic movement in California

robert kamen wine

Wax on, wax off. Yes, Robert Kamen (above) is the dude who wrote the iconic line. He’s also written numerous screenplays that have been made into Hollywood blockbusters.

Yawn. That’s the least interesting part of the story.

In my view of the world, what’s really fascinating about Robert is that he inadvertently and unwittingly financed California’s biodyanmic movement.

Robert comes to Texas every year to speak a wine dinner at the swank restaurant Tony’s in Houston, owned by my friend and client Tony Vallone.

He’ll be there next week, doing his song and dance for the petroleum crowd, but I’ll be in Italy doing a job for a client of mine (the event is already sold-out btw).

So I called him the other day and asked him about how, why, and when he decided to hire Phil Coturri — the father of California’s biodynamic movement — and if he had intended to play the role of the movement’s financier.

The story’s been told many times. Back in 1980, Robert sold his first screenplay and went up to Sonoma to party in celebration. A few weeks later, using the money from the script, he purchased the property that would ultimately become his Kamen Estate, now famous for its “mountain Cabernet” and a line of wines that commands respect among wine professionals who might otherwise write off yet another Northern Californian wine produced by a “Hollywood guy.”

But don’t use the binomial “Hollywood guy” around Robert. It really gets under his skin.

“Look at the wineries owned by ‘Hollywood guys,'” he said to me, obviously ticked off. “They planted vineyards. I planted a farm.”

“We don’t just grow grapes here. Six months of the year, Phil grows grapes. The other six months of the year, he grows cover crops.”

“When I hired Phil [in 1980],” said Robert, he wasn’t “thinking in terms of the future. I just didn’t want to do things that were deleterious to the property.”

At the time “Phil’s rap was so compelling. And it was just fortuitous because the organic movement was just picking up then.”

I asked if he saw himself as pioneer in organic and biodyanmic farming in the Northern California wine community.

Yes, he said, “but I’m not a proselytizer. I’m not a crusader.”

Today, he told me, the Kamen estate in Sonoma (replanted in 1996 after a fire destroyed the vineyards) is the model that Phil uses to show other grape growers who are interested in converting to organic and biodynamic farming.

His farm “was the laboratory” for the biodynamic movement. Today “it is the showcase,” said Robert.

So why, I asked, did he hire Phil in the first place?

“After I sold my first script and came up here, we partied all night long on the property” that he would buy a few weeks later.

“I wanted to meet the guy who grew the pot we smoked… because I wanted to buy more. It was that good. And that guy was Phil.”

I asked Robert if it was okay for me to post this information on my blog. He said, sure, go ahead.

I can’t post the words that he reserved for our president and the federal government’s attitude regarding the states’ legalization of medicinal and recreational marijuana. But that’s another story.

And although it really has nothing to do with this story, I just have to share one last nugget.

When I asked Robert where Phil learned to grow grapes, here’s what he said.

“Phil’s a farmer — an Italian farmer. In 1974, he went to work his first harvest at Mayacamus. And the guy who taught him was named Joe Miami. I’m not making that up.”

When a Hollywood New York screenwriter tells you that he’s not making shit up, you KNOW it has to be true.

Why I went to Italy & why I still go back (thank you Sir Roy)

roy strong italy

Above: Sir Roy Strong was the person who suggested I go to Italy and study Italian (image via the London Evening Standard).

Samantha’s heart-wrenching post this morning, “In the name of the father,” got me thinking of my own fatherless teenage years and a man who played a very important — however brief — role in my life, Sir Roy Strong.

People often ask me why I’ve devoted my life to the study of Italian language, history, and culture (before enogastronomy, I spent nearly more than ten years studying Italian prosody, narrative, and cinema, and lived and worked in Italy for most of that time).

The answer is Sir Roy.

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the world’s most gooey grilled cheese sandwich

best grilled cheese sandwich

Tracie P and I are always trying to come up with ways to include more and more vegetables in Georgia P’s diet.

The number-one strategy is to incorporate them in dishes she already likes (pasta, quesadillas, etc.).

For her dinner last night, I sautéed diced, unpeeled green zucchine in butter with a garlic clove and pinch of kosher salt.

After deglazing with white wine and allowing the alcohol to evaporate, I added a finger of chicken stock and simmered for about 5 minutes. I strained the zucchine and then finely chopped until I achieved a light paste.

Then I assembled the sandwich on whole wheat bread, with a delicate schmear of mayonnaise, two slices of white cheddar cheese, and an even spread of the zucchine paste.

I fired the sandwich in our cast iron skilled, greased with extra-virgin olive oil, over high heat.

Georgia P was SO excited when I served it to her. I think it’s safe to say that it was the best and most gooey grilled cheese sandwich she’s ever had.

Tasting Mourvèdre with Michael Christian of Los Pilares, San Diego

michael christian pilares

As fate would have it, San Diego winemaker Michael Chirstian (above) and I met for the first time in February 2012, just a week or so after Alice wrote up his wine on her blog.

A few short weeks later, his Los Pilares label went from relative obscurity to the commercial limelight when Jon Rimmerman of the Garagiste asked very loudly: “Is this the future of California wine? … This is the most exciting wine I’ve tasted from the Golden State in many years. It is actually alive… with a fire that I simply cannot (and have not) found in anything from California in so long.”

By the end of the year, Jon Bonné included Los Pilares in The San Francisco Chronicle “top 100 wines in the west” list.

Michael and I have stayed in touch over the last year as his star has risen to heights that I don’t think he imagined when he first sent a sample of his wine to Alice.

On Friday evening last week, he stopped by Jaynes Gastropub where I was pouring wine and playing music. Conversation ranged from Montaigne to Pasolini to the immense success of his wines and the way that they have resonated among California wine enthusiasts.

The celebrity and attention certainly haven’t gone to his head as he’s continued on his quest to make food-friendly, wholesome, and delicious wine in San Diego (the most unlikely of appellations). The problem is that, these days, you can’t find his wine because it’s all snatched up on release.

He tasted us on his “personal-consumption” Mourvèdre (bright and fresh, meaty but not too heavy in the mouth) and told us about a new project for a carbonic-macerated Syrah.

Check out this interview that he did with Alice about a year ago. His attitudes and approach to winemaking haven’t changed a bit. And the wines have only gotten better and better.

I’m very excited to see (and taste) what he’ll do next. And you should be, too…

The Whaling Bar, temple to political incorrectness & backdrop of my childhood, to close

whaling bar la valencia

Above: Friend Jayne Battle of Jayne’s Gastropub in San Diego shares our pain in saying goodbye to the beloved Whaling Bar at La Valencia hotel in La Jolla, where I grew up.

With the thought of its closing burning it my mind, it’s painful for me to explain the role that the Whaling Bar played in my life.

It was the setting of my childhood, the place where we went to eat with my grandparents who lived in La Jolla and my grandparents who came from Indiana to visit with us.

It’s the one restaurant where my grandma Jean (my mother’s mother) loved to go. And it was the restaurant where, as a six-year-old, I watched in amazement as my zaidi, Rabbi Parzen (my father’s adoptive father), ordered every dessert on the menu, including “Baked Alaska” and “Napoleon.”

whaling bar mural

Above: The theme of the Whaling Bar is — you guessed it — is whaling. Click the image (take from the hotel’s website) to enlarge. The entrance is decorated with a handsome collection of carved and engraved whale tusks. Can you think of anything more politically incorrect? Well, yes, I know, you can. But they sure don’t make them like this anymore.

It’s where Mrs. Lipschitz — grandmother of Marc Lipschitz, a Hebrew school friend of mine — eats dinner every night (she lives in the hotel).

And it’s one of the first places where I took Tracie P the first time I brought her to La Jolla.

It’s also where Raymond Chandler drank during one of his most productive periods (I grew up in the house next door to the house where he lived, although he was long gone by the time my family moved to San Diego).

Here’s what my friend David Klowden, a San Diego-based writer, posted on his Facebook the other day:

    Dear Friends–Please join me on Saturday, Feb. 2nd for cocktails at 8pm at the venerable Whaling Bar in the Hotel La Valencia in La Jolla on the last night of its existence. This bar is where the greatest hard-boiled noir writer of them all, Raymond Chandler, hung out a lot during the 1940s & 50s during the time he wrote The Long Goodbye, Little Sister & Playback. Famous folks like Gregory Peck & Dr. Seuss liked drinking in here. Its well-preserved & always empty dining room has been one of my favorite secret writing spots for years. I hope you can be there to help me give the gorgeous little bar a proper send-off before it heads to oblivion so Ray Chandler can have a gimlet there once again.

And here’s one of the many photos he’s posted recently:

whaling bar la jolla

If you happen to make your way to La Jolla before it closes, be sure to pop in and see the room for yourself and have a cocktail.

It’s one of those wonderful rooms, a trace of another era in Americana…

At St. Vincent (San Francisco), David Lynch is a Dædalus among sommeliers

Our meal at the amazing St. Vincent in San Francisco — conceived and directed by Daedalian sommelier and wine writer David Lynch — began with two eggs: one bathed in beet and horseradish, the other in curry and turmeric. If only for their Technicolor, I knew that I wouldn’t be disappointed by the food and wine that would follow.

Had I the means, I would gather all the young wine and restaurant professionals in the U.S. and take them to San Francisco to see how it is superbly done by David Lynch, one of the leading sommeliers in the nation right now (as always), veteran of some of the most storied venues in the contemporary history of American restaurateurship.

Granted, David knows me and my palate, and so when I asked him to pick out a wine for us, I wasn’t surprised when he swiftly delivered the Clos du Papillon Savennières above, “not as extreme” as our beloved Joly, he noted, but no less nuanced or thrilling (and perhaps more graceful and focused).

I was equally impressed by the deft hand of chef Bill Niles, to whom David graciously attributed sole authorship of the menu. The “She Crab” (actually lobster in the current season) was adorned with a dollop of sea urchin liver, Carolina rice, and corn chowder. I ate every last drop.

The eggplant roulades, alone, would be worth a return trip. I loved that chef Niles peels his tomatoes for this dish and I’d be remiss in not noting that this was possibly the best tomato I’ve tasted all year.

Chef Niles may draw from a Technicolor palette of culinary experiences and techniques but he also seems to love some of life’s simplest “street-food” pleasures, like this classic pretzel. I dug the juxtaposition of the elegance of his eggplant and the sheer pedestrian delight of the pretzel.

David named his new restaurant (opened just a few months ago) after St. Vincent of Saragossa, one of the patron saints of grape-growers, often invoked by wine- and vinegar-makers.

(Of course, I couldn’t help myself from reading up on why St. Vincent is considered patron of wine and vinegar.)

He is often depicted (St. Vincent, not David) with vines or grape bunches. Although there’s no element in hagiography that would associate him with grapes or grape-growing, his feast day, January 22, is celebrated in wine-growing France as the beginning of the vegetative cycle.

There are a number of French sayings uttered on that day, like quand Saint Vincent est beau, abondance pour le tonneau (when [the weather on] Saint Vincent is fair, there will be [an] abundance [of wine] for the casks).

Like so many examples of pseudo-Catholic folklore, his association with wine is purely arbitrary and can be attributed to the date of his commemoration (in the Greek Orthodox Church, he is remembered on November 11).

There’s nothing arbitrary about the way David runs his new restaurant and it was fantastic to watch him in his habitat (as the Italians say), greeting a guest, explaining a menu item, and serving a Savennières to a very happy wine blogger…

Image via La Chouette.

A16 still rocking it big time (and an awesome Gaglioppo rosé)

Above: A16 was opened in 2004 and continues to stand apart even after eight years on the cutting edge. On Saturday night, with the restaurant packed to the gills, the margherita pizza — a litmus test for any Italian restaurant — was exceptional.

One of the things that impressed me the most about my trip to San Francisco last week was the complete and utter across the board professionalism of the food and wine professionals I met with.

Even though you’ll find some of the greatest expressions of American and pseudo-European gastronomy in New York and Los Angeles, there is no U.S. city — in my view — that can rival the confluence of world-class service and informed, intelligent, and thrilling wine and food that you find in San Francisco.

When I visited A16 on Saturday night, I was greeted at the door by wine director and owner Shelley Lindgren, who was holding a tray with three spritzers on it.

In the bustle of this high-profile restaurant at 8 p.m. on a Saturday night, a guest proceeded to brush by her, knocking the tray to the floor and the cherry-red spritzers all over Shelley’s white pants. Without missing a beat, Shelley looked up and smiled at the guest, who was mortified. She told her, “o please don’t worry about it! It’s no problem at all! Please enjoy your dinner.”

There are many reasons why A16 continues to pack them in every night. And this is just one of them.

Above: I was so geeked to taste this rosé from Gaglioppo, a wine that I’d been reading about all summer on Shelley’s Facebook. Friggin’ delicious… and a perfect pairing with my pizza.

I owe so much to Shelley. When she opened A16 back in 2004, she was the first wine director in the U.S. to offer her guests an exclusively southern Italian wine list. At that time, no one thought it could be done. Naysayers would ask: what are you going to do about white wine? what about sparkling wine? where are you going to source all the wine you need? and what about wines for your reserve list?

A lot has changed since then. There is a lot more southern Italian wine available in the U.S. today and more and more producers of fine wines from regions like Campania and Basilicata and Calabria are finding their way to the U.S. market.

But there’s no doubt in my mind that Shelley’s work has had a lot to do with this new wave of southern Italian wine in Italy. And there’s no doubt in my mind that her legacy made it possible for me to create my dream list at Sotto in Los Angeles.

“You know,” I said to her jokingly when she visited our table, “one of the reasons why I’m here is so that I can poach wines from your list.”

“That’s what it’s here for,” she told me, “that’s what it’s all about.”

Chapeau bas, Shelley. In my book, you are a model of food and wine professionalism.

Stay tuned: David Lynch’s new St. Vincent is on deck for tomorrow…

Ready or not: 07 Produttori del Barbaresco Asili vs. 07 Chiarlo Tortoniano

Unfortunately, it happens all the time: you find yourself at dinner with a good friend (in this case, a best childhood friend) who is new to the wine world and who insists on tasting you on a wine that they’ve discovered with no regard for your personal tastes or palate (how could she or he know?).

It’s exactly what happened when Yele and I visited a restaurant in La Jolla the other night with a close high school friend of ours (a Hebrew school friend for me; that’s how far we go back). I had a bottle of 2007 Produttori del Barbaresco Asili in my bag: however young in its evolution, I wanted to taste a bottle from my allocation just to check in with the wine, see where it’s at in its development, and indulge in one of my favorite wines of all time.

Said friend, who had eaten at said restaurant a few nights earlier, wouldn’t listen to our gentle admonitions and he insisted that he allow him to buy our table a bottle of Chiarlo 2007 Barolo Tortoniano in 375ml.

The 2007 Asili was extreme in its tannic expression and frugal with its fruit. California, where I maintain my cellar, gets a smaller allocation of Produttori del Barbaresco crus and I’m thrilled that I was able to get a case of this wine. I probably won’t revisit it for another few years but there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s going to become one of the gems of my collection. The practically winterless 2007 vintage in Langa has delivered some of the most muscular, opulent expressions of Barbaresco that I have ever tasted (remember when Tracie P and I tasted the 07 Asili with Bruno Giacosa on our honeymoon?).

My experience with Langaroli wines from 2007 was a stark counterpoint to the bright cherry cough-syrup fruit of the 2007 Tortoniano by Chiarlo. There’s no doubt that this is a well made wine but it’s just “not my speed,” as I like to tell folks when I politely decline to taste a given wine. The tannin was well-balanced in the wine but I just couldn’t get past its yeasted quality and its softness. It wasn’t bad (in fact it was very elegant). But it simply didn’t reflect the appellation or the vintage. It tasted more like a high-end Russian River Pinot Noir than it did Langa Nebbiolo — at least to me.

Having grown up in San Diego, I often find that my peers took paths in life widely divergent from mine — in wine tastes and ideology. Actually, I should say the opposite: I spent my entire adolescence leaving Las Vegas La Jolla, heading to Mexico, to Italy, to New York, and now Texas.

It’s often hard to taste wine with them. But ready or not, I love them just the same.