Two extraordinary expressions of Sémillon in Houston & baby lobster with hazelnut sauce @TonyVallone

From the department of “there are worse jobs in the world”…

chateau lavilla haut brion

On Tuesday night, thanks to the generosity of a Houston collector and wine writer, I had the opportunity to taste one of the most extraordinary white wines I’ve ever had, the 2005 Château Laville Haut Brion blanc.

So many collectors generously taste me on their Italian lots but few bring out the French for me.

I was impressed by the delicate oxidative note on this wine, which was more pronounced when first opened but lingered gently as the wine opened up and revealed its stone fruit and sublime minerality.

What a thrilling bottle of wine!

brokenwood semillon

From the sacred to the profane…

After dinner, I headed to my favorite Houston wine bar, Camerata, where David Keck poured me another expression of Sémillion, this one from Hunter Valley, Australia.

I don’t remember where Jancis Robinson said that Sémillon is Australia’s great gift to the wine world but her observation leapt to mind as I tasted this fresh, bright, mineral-driven wine. And the even better news is that I can afford it!

David changes the btg list at Camerata on a daily basis but this is what he was pouring on Tuesday when I dropped by.

Camerata has swiftly become the Houston wine scene’s flash point for its renewal of learning. And I had a blast swapping stories with another one of my favorite Houston wine professionals, Sean Beck, whose lists at Back Street Café and Hugo’s are always winners for me (Hugo’s, btw, is one of the best Mexican restaurants in the country and Sean’s superb wine list there takes it from A to A+ for me; Champagne and ceviche, anyone?).

best lobster houston

Wednesday morning found me at Tony’s, meeting with my good friend and client Tony Vallone, who insisted that I try a new dish that he was debuting that evening: garlic basted baby lobster tail with orzo, creamed hazelnut, and an antelope jus.

The the combination of ingredients in this dish was as surprising as it was stunningly delicious.

The thought of hazelnut and seafood evoked Piedmont, where Ligurian and Langarola flavors often mingle.

Tony and his team are doing such cutting-edge work and I’ve had so many incredible, unforgettable meals there (and I say this as someone who dines regularly in New York, Los Angeles, and Italy).

And Tony’s encyclopedic knowledge of Italian cuisine always puts my own to the test (literally!). Our weekly kibitz is always a highlight for me.

tony vallone houston

The dude is a national gastronomic treasure, up there with Alice Waters, Darrell Corti, Danny Meyer, and Sirio Maccioni.

Why the local media there penalizes him for having been around so long (since 1965) and for his immeasurable success is a mystery to me.

But hey, what do I know?

Tony, I have the deepest respect for your gastronomic knowledge and I cherish our friendship… I love you, man.

Wines I drank with Russian spies in LA at Marouch

Above: The 2000 Chateau Musar white (Sémillon) was FANTASTIC at Lebanese/Armenian restaurant Marouch in Los Angeles last night. At 10 years out, this wine is just coming into its own: oxidative and richly aromatic, with gorgeous nutty and stone fruit flavors.

Strained diplomatic relations between the two countries and the delicate nature of my mission as cultural attaché do not allow me to reveal the names of the persons with whom I dined last night. Let it suffice to say that they were all ethnic-Russian Jews who — at some point in their lives — have harbored sympathy for the Communist Party and/or own or have at one time owned a copy of Chairman Mao’s “Little Red Book.”

Above: Not to be missed at Marouch, the fried sardines. Serge, a wonderfully convivial host who came to this country more than 30 years ago, allows corkage in his fine establishment, which I cannot recommend enough.

Owner Serge Brady blew our communist party away with his superb cooking. I can’t believe I’ve almost reached 43 years of age without knowing about his restaurant. Amazing… While I was waiting for my friends, I sipped the Musar and noshed on turnips pickled in vinegar and red wine and cured olives. Perfection… simple and utterly undeniable and inconfutable perfection…

Above: My decoder ring was embedded in the Fattouch (Lebanese Salad).

Among other bottles opened last night, it was the Pascal Janvier 2009 Coteaux du Loir Rouge “Rosier,” made from Pineau d’Aunis, that captivated our senses more than any other. Some of my companions preferred it chilled, but espionage, my friends, is a dish best served température ambiante. Lip-smacking delicious wine. [PHOTO UNAVAILABLE FOR SECURITY REASONS!]

Above: Secret messages where imprinted in the Bastourma (Armenian Salami), which melted in your mouth after the for-your-tongue-only information was decoded.

But as if to prove the axiom that the signifier precedes the signified, it was another bottle brought by Comrade H, its contents now defunct, that contained the logogriphic dispatch with our orders.

Need I say more?

Get to Marouch AS QUICK AS YOU CAN!

In other news…

Readers of Do Bianchi have asked for it and here it is. A short video of The Grapes debut performance last week by the lovely Gross sisters (with whom I attended La Jolla High School). Enjoy!

Eating crow: Australian wine that I truly loved


Above: No trip to San Diego is complete without a Jaynes Burger at Jaynes Gastropub.

It was the white wine that first intrigued me and lured me in. And then it was the red — gritty and tannic but just old and wise enough — that seduced me.

For many years it seemed inconceivable to me that I would even approach Australian wine, let alone like it. When my band Nous Non Plus played in Germany last year at a Green party conference, I even tried to talk some young attendees out of drinking the famed critter wine, telling them that its consumption was diametrically opposed to their ideals.

But as some of the exchanges of the last few months have taught me, the extremes of extremism go the way of the historical avant-garde and Yale school deconstruction: after you kill the author (or the winemaker), you ultimately are left with nothing, n’est-ce pas?


Above: Chef Daniel made a wonderful yellow tomato coulis vinaigrette with his seared scallops. The pairing with the 1986 Semillon was off-the-charts good.

Well, it’s time for me to come clean: on Saturday night I hosted a wine dinner in San Diego at Jaynes Gastropub where I poured 6 Australian wines that I truly loved. Three bottlings of older Semillon, including Mt. Pleasant 1986 Lovedale Semillon, and three bottles of older Shiraz, including Hardy’s Eileen Hardy 1998.

The whites — including the 23-year-old — showed beautiful acidity and white fruit and all were at about 11% alcohol. The Tyrell 95 and 96 were still babies in the glass but opened up beautifully as they arrived at room temperature and aerated: they drink more like red wines than white.

The reds were gritty and tannic, with integrated wood, but with approachable berry fruit and woodsy flavors. The only wine that seemed a little bit “slutty,” as we sometimes say in the business, was the crowd-pleasing 2001 Tower Barossa Shiraz. But I have to say that I liked it. It wasn’t overly jammy and although it lacked the structure of the Hardy, it was fun and easy to drink and not offensive in the way that some of the commercially produced wine that I’ve seen from Australia.

So, there! Do I have to write a recipe for eating crow? What would you pair with crow anyway?

All I do know is that the 1999 Hardy’s that I discreetly opened and paired with the Jaynes burger the night before was decadently brilliant.

Lacan, Petrarch, Nietzsche, Fiorano, and hieroglyphic wine

Above: I love this image of the 1994 Malvasia by Fiorano, snapped by Tracie B in her apartment the other day. It’s a quasi-film-noir take on a hard-to-wrap-your-mind-around wine. One of the things that intrigues us about wine is its mystery: who made it and how and why? A glass of wine can be like Lacan’s hieroglyphs in the dessert.

Twentieth-century linguist, semiotician, and father of late-blooming French psychoanalysis Jacques Lacan famously asked his readers to consider how they would react in the following situation (perhaps a great premise for an ersatz reality show?):

    Suppose that in the desert you find a stone covered with hieroglyphics. You do not doubt for a moment that, behind them, there was a subject who wrote them. But it is an error to believe that each signifier is addressed to you — this is proved by the fact you cannot understand any of it. On the other hand, you define them as signifiers, by the fact that you are sure that each of the signifiers is related to each of the others.

(This passage is often cited in explaining Lacan’s theory of the “precedence of the signifier,” in other words, the notion that the word or symbol or sign always exists before meaning does.)

In some ways, protohumanist Francis Petrarch said the same thing when he wrote that as a young man, he could read Roman orator Cicero’s writing and he was enchanted by the words, their sounds, and their elegance, even though he could not (yet) understand what they meant.

Above: Tracie B’s contribution to our dinner Saturday at Italian Wine Guy’s was her excellent carbonara. It paired stunningly with the vibrant 92 Fiorano Semillon. Carbonara is another example of a trace of the past that has lost its meaning. No one knows for sure the origins of the dish or they etymon of its name.

As with literature and writing (even writing on the wall), we sometimes assign meaning to things not because we know the meaning intended by their authors or creators but because we simply come into contact with them. Nietzsche wrote about this in The Twilight of the Idols as “the error of imaginary causes,” as in dreams, when, for example, external stimulus (like a canon shot, as Nietzsche put it, or perhaps the song playing on a radio alarm clock) enters our subconscious:

    The ideas engendered by a certain condition have been misunderstood as the cause of that condition. We do just the same thing, in fact, when we are awake.

What do any of these things have to do with one another, beyond me stringing together a seemingly arbitrarily compiled handlist of philosophical and epistemological musings?

Every wine wine we approach and draw to our lips is a mystery, a riddle of the Sphinx. Every glass of wine is Lacan’s desert hieroglyph, Petrarch’s Cicero, and Nietzsche’s waking dream — ay, there’s the rub… And so were the three bottles of Fiorano white that Tracie B and I opened with Italian Wine Guy over the weekend as our birthday gift to him (and a thank you for all that he’s done for both of us, professionally and personally, over the last two years).

Above: Deciphering Fiorano through the prism of Italian Wine Guy aka Alfonso’s superb stemware, paired with his take on petto di pollo alla milanese. Photo by Tracie B.

A great deal has been written about the fascinating wines of Fiorano (Eric’s 2004 article was the first piece about these wines in English) but I think that Eric put it best when he called them “bygone wines”: they are wines that will never be made again. In part because wine is no longer produced in that fashion on the Fiorano estate (outside Rome) and in part because today, few if any would ever consider making white wines intended for such prolonged barrel aging. They are a trace of another time and era in winemaking. They are “classic” inasmuch as they will never be made again. They are a mystery, a conundrum that keeps us thinking. We know they exist and have existed (and we will know that even after we have drunk them all). We know someone made them but we will probably never know what he meant by them.

All we do know for certain is that they’re delicious.

Calls in California for Balance and Nature (and dinner with a “national treasure”)

Above: dinner with “national treasure” Darrell Corti (right) and Josh Greene, editor-in-chief, Wine & Spirits Magazine at Sacramento’s Waterboy.*

Tuesday morning I headed up from La Jolla to Sacramento to attend the opening sessions of the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium. The convention represents California’s largest gathering of winemakers and wine-grape growers and I was lucky enough to receive an invitation to the 34th annual meet of CAWG (the California Association of Winegrape Growers) where Darrell Corti — one of the nation’s foremost authorities on American and European wine — was guest speaker.

Earlier in the day I ran into Napa Valley public relations legend Pamela Hunter, who had just come from Corti Brothers, Darrell’s grocery and wine shop. We were introduced by another wine professional and when we made the connection that he was our mutual friend, she pointed out rightly that Darrell ought to be considered a “national treasure”: his worldly erudition, encyclopedic wine and food knowledge, and unwavering graciousness are matched only by the cornucopia of foods and wines he has introduced to the U.S. through his taste-making however modest store. Ruth Reichl and Colman Andrews have called him the man “who knows more about food and wine than anyone else in the world.”

Above: Unified Wine & Grape Symposium participants.

In his address, Darrell asked the CAWG members to reflect on the “tradition” of California winemaking, warning them not to become complacent. In California, he said, “we can make whatever we want wherever we want”: he urged them to consider replacing ubiquitous Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon plantings with other international grape varieties that will show better in the warm Californian climate. Aglianico, he suggested, might represent an alternative to Cabernet.

He reminded the group of wine-grape growers and winemakers of the “concept of 10.5 – 13.5% alcohol table wines” and the era before “overripeness and terroir became confused” (in an episode now dubbed “Zingate,” Darrell made headlines last year when he announced that he would no longer sell wines with an alcohol content over 14.5%).

“Have we abrogated the quality of wine to the wine press?” he asked, urging growers to reel in brix levels (the brix scale is used to measure the sugar content of grapes; simply put, the more sugar in the fruit, the higher the potential alcohol content of the wine). “You have to grow good grapes to make good wine,” he told them. And “as they say in Italian, buon vino fa buon sangue,” literally, “good wine makes good blood,” in other words, good grapes and good wine make us healthy.

Above: our unforgettable repast began with a Webb and Farinas 1970-1998 Sherry, “Blended Fino and Baked Fino Solera,” one of the last bottles ever made by the University of California at Davis, Darrell told us.

Before I caught a plane back to San Diego the next morning, I managed to find a seat among the 800+ audience at Wine & Spirits ed-in-chief Josh Greene’s “State of the Industry” talk. Josh spoke of the new trend of younger sommeliers who are “hand-selling” once exotic international grape varieties to the Cabernet-Merlot-and-Chardonnay set. The Loire Valley, he said, represents the most alluring wine-producing region for this new generation of restaurant professionals. Naturally made, food-friendly wine from Italy and France, he told the group, is becoming more and more popular among America’s wine directors and he urged producers to consider natural winemaking.

“It’s a risky way to make wine,” he noted. “You can’t always make wine commercially like this, but there’s a growing market for it. The question is how to make a wine that’s balanced, has concentrated flavors, and a distinct expression of its place… and then figure out how to make money doing it,” he added, drawing a chuckle from the packed house.

Gauging from the positive reception of Josh’s excellent talk, there might be hope for Californian wine after all.

Click here to read Josh’s notes from his address.

Above: this 1986 Mount Pleasant Semillon from Darrell’s cellar blew me away. It was full of life, brilliant acidity, and vibrant minerality. But the show-stopper was a magnum of 1983 Cepparello by Isole e Olena, a great bottling of (pre-barrique) Sangiovese from a vintage overshadowed unjustly by 1985.

I loved the session title ““How to Have a Mostly Worry-Free Interaction with TTB Resources” (the TTB or Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau regulates wine sales in the U.S.).

Grass-roots organizers were also in attendance.

I can’t reveal whose car this is (but I bet you can guess). I really dig the old-school blue California plates.

* On my way out, one of the waiters told me that the restaurant was named after the band The Waterboys, but I’m not sure I believe her.