Ridge Carmichael Ranch, Buchignani Ranch, and Dusi Ranch

Three Objects of My Affection: Ridge Carmichael Ranch, Buchignani Ranch, and Dusi Ranch

It being Valentine’s Day Weekend, I thought I’d pen a love letter to one of my favorite wineries of all time, Ridge Vineyards.  

I’ve had a long relationship with Ridge. The first time I went to visit my ex-boyfriend’s parents in France, I went to Astor Place to pick up a bottle of wine. I told the sales clerk my situation – the dad had an expansive cellar of Burgundy and Alsace, but had never tried an American wine he’d liked – and, without a word, he led me to Zinfandel section, pressed a bottle of Ridge Lytton Springs into my hands, and walked away.  At least this is how I remember it. He probably said something like “try this” but in my mind it was a silent, solemn moment, one that gave me complete confidence that this was the right choice. Alas my ex and I broke up before his dad ever broke out the Ridge, but I’d like to think he enjoyed it.

Then there was an accumulation of happy coincidences that made me think that perhaps I was destined to fall in love with Ridge – like when you discover that guy have a crush on has a cousin who went to your summer camp or grew up one town over from your college roommate. I found out that Ridge winemaker Paul Draper went to my high school. Christopher Watkins, poet/friend of Lenn/former operations manager at Roanoke Vineyards is now the tasting room manager at Ridge Monte Bello. And my girl Jancis is a fan. (OK, so this one isn’t a coincidence as much as it supporting evidence of Ridge’s overall awesomeness. Kind of like getting the stamp of approval on your boyfriend from your very coolest friend.)

And then there are the wines. There are two sides to Ridge. First, and most expensively, there is Ridge Monte Bello, one of California’s consistently great Cabernet Sauvignon wines. At least that’s what they tell me – sadly, I’ve never tried it. While not super culty, it still starts at around $150 a bottle and is not easy to find, although I just put my name on the winery’s waiting list. (There’s also a Monte Bello Chardonnay. Matt Kramer calls the latter “unquestionably one of California’s finest renditions” in his very smart book New California Wine, a great title for anyone who’s interested in the subject.)

The other, more accessible side to Ridge is the range of wines made from Zinfandel and, to a lesser extent, Rhone varietals, including Syrah, Carignan, Grenache and Mourvedre. Sourced from a variety of single vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Paso Robles, Dry Creek Valley, Russian River Valley, Alexander Valley, and other regions in Sonoma and Napa, each of these wines has a specific sense of place, while sharing some common ground: pure, intense fruit, a subtle use of American oak, and the ability to wear their substantial weight well. These are big, high-alcohol wines, but they’re not clumsy or overly oaked, probably because they usually have a nice thread of acidity to keep things from getting too out of hand. Think of what a nice squeeze of lime juice does Mexican food or how vinegar cole slaw complements a pulled pork sandwich and you get a sense of the role acidity plays in wine.

The other nice thing about Ridge wines is the price: they’re usually in the $30 range, which is very reasonable for site-specific, well-made California wines. See if you can pick up a Ridge York Creek and Ridge Lytton Springs from the same year – neither should be too hard to find in good stores – invite some friends over, and compare and contrast the two wines. It’s an amazing education for about $70.

In fact, if you’re looking to learn more about wine, seek out any producer that makes consistently good vineyard-designated wines from a single varietal. If Pinot Noir is your thing, I’d recommend Dutton Goldfield, which we also visited this summer. Get on the mailing list, go in with a bunch of friends, and see if you can tell what the differences are between the wines. I’m on Ridge’s mailing list for its small production Zinfandel and Rhone-varietal wines and plan on having some friends over in a few months for a Ridge blowout. However, if I ever get on the Monte Bello list, I’m keeping that sucker to myself.

 


Here are some pics and quick notes from the tasting I referred to in my last post. The theme was lesser-known French wines in the $20 vicinity.  Tasting notes for the sake of tasting notes aren’t that helpful, but I’m also including some advice that I gave the participants in a follow-up email.  The second point below is particularly important. I’ve found that no word is as confusing to casual wine drinkers as “dry.” Some aren’t aware that it has a specific meaning (i.e., not sweet — according to the EU, no more than 4 grams of sugar per liter), while others have a tough time distinguishing sweetness from flavor profile. So while a wine may smell like something sweet — passion fruit or chocolate, for example —  the wine itself may not be. It seems incredibly counterintuitive, and it’s no wonder people find it confusing. If you’re one of them, try the little Sauvignon Blanc/German Riesling experiment described below. (Plus I’m all for boosting the consumption of good sweet German Rieslings. Highly recommended for Saturday afternoons watching a ballgame in lieu of lemonade or beer.)

1. Quincy, Adele Rouze, 2007, $19.99. Fresh, dry, crisp, with grassy, citrus and mineral notes.
 
2. Cour-Cheverny, Philippe Tessier 2005, $19.99. The very obscure varietal is Romorantin. Full-bodied, high in alcohol, slight spritziness — notes of apple, caramel, molasses, and a slightly bitter finish.
 
3. Cahors “Le Combal” Domaine Cosse Maisonneuve 2004, $18.99.  High tannin, moderately high acidity, medium body, earth, mushroom, truffle, sausage, game.
 
4. Vin de Pays Cotes Catalanes Calvet-Thunevin, “Cuvee Constance” $17.99. Full bodied, high alcohol, moderate tannins and acidity. Prunes, cooked berries, cherry cough syrup.
 
–Pick up a Quincy or a Sancerre and taste side by side with a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Similarly, try a Cahors and an Argentine Malbec side by side. Wine people like to talk a lot about “Old World” (aka Europe) style wine vs. “New World” (everywhere else) and these tastings should cement pretty firmly in your mind what that contrast is all about. Try without food first and then with and see what happens. If you choose pretty typical styles for the Cahors and Argentine Malbec, which wine you like better probably indicates how you feel about tannins — the Cahors is going to be pretty tannic, the Argentine wine much less so.
 
–As we discussed, sweet/dry isn’t as intuitive as one might think. When you do your Sancerre/NZ tasting, also pick up a German Riesling with some residual sugar (ask the person at your wine store for help). The NZ wine will probably be dry on your palate but smell like sweet fruit (pineapple, passion fruit, etc.) The German wine may or may not smell like as many sweet things (it might be more lemony/citrusy) but it will taste sweet on your palate. Making the distinction between “fruity” (smells/tastes like ripe fruit) and “sweet” (the wine has a certain level of sugar in it that you can taste) is huge, and will help you find white wines that suit your taste. A lot of people say they like dry whites when what they mean is, they don’t want a wine that’s too fruity.

 


Someone asked me a great question at a tasting I held last week. I was trying to make the point that nearly everyone has the requisite tools to understand and appreciate wine: a sense of smell, a sense of taste, and a basic level of critical thinking. Plenty of people feel comfortable offering their opinions on movies and books, I said, even if they’re not film experts or book critics. One of the participants, a commercial director, piped up. “But what if I like the wine equivalent of a Rob Schneider movie?”

Excellent point. The goal of my nascent wine education program is to get people more focused on their own palate and what they like, and less preoccupied with specific wines and varietals. I’d rather help someone understand that she likes medium-bodied, food-friendly reds with moderate tannins than lecture her for two hours on terroir and Pinot Noir.  In my experience, that kind of information overload is intimidating for the casual wine drinker. But my friend’s question made me realize that the alternative can be equally scary. Great, help me find out what I like, but what if  I find out I like total crap? What if I have bad taste

I’ve been thinking about this conversation all week, and here’s where I’ve landed: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with liking “Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo” or its vinous equivalent, as long as you understand where it falls on quality spectrum, and why. Most of us already have the vocabulary to explain why, for example, “Tootsie” is a better movie than “The Hot Chick.” They’re both about a guy in drag, but “Tootsie” has better writing, better acting, better everything. It’s a completely defensible position to say you know that “The Hot Chick” is, in comparison, a piece of crap, with vastly inferior dialogue, cruder humor, and zero redeeming value – but you still enjoy it. Fine. Similarly, I’m OK if you like  an $8 Australian Shiraz that tastes like fruit soup spiked with brandy, as long as you get that the wine’s lack of balance, subtlety, and complexity put it many, many rungs below a Hermitage. The issue is, a lot of wine drinkers don’t have the vocabulary to articulate those kinds of distinctions. And that’s where I come in.

The other question that’s been plaguing me all week: what would be the wine equivalent of a Rob Schneider movie? Anyone?


In honor of our tenth pseudo-anniversary (Paul & I met on New Year’s Eve ’98), we decided to host an intimate, fahncy dinner party. Paul’s one rule was that guests had to commit to our party for the entire evening, none of this “I’ll stop by for 45 minutes before going to my former office mate’s party in Park Slope” business. My personal mantra was “no hummus.” Not that I have anything against hummus — far from it — but New Year’s Eve is no time for the cheap and cheerful chickpea.

Happily, both of us got our wish. From 12.31.08 7:30-PM to 1.01.09 1:55 AM, Paul and I and three of our friends had a wonderful and hummus-free evening. Here’s the rundown:

We started with almonds fried in olive oil and sprinkled with paprika and salt. We dug it, although Paul thought it was a waste of olive oil. (I reminded him that it’s a Spanish recipe, and those folks practically bathe in the stuff. In Seville I once saw a guy drink olive oil out of a water glass.) Our other appetizer was rounds of cornbread with slices of country ham and chutney. The recipe called for homemade apple-melon chutney but 1)this is a no-melon household and 2)making chutney from scratch was not in the cards, given how much other stuff we had to do. Instead, Paul warmed up some mango chutney (thank you, Sahadi’s) and mixed in some minced apple. A great variation on the unbeatable country ham + starch theme. We paired them with a blood orange soda (thank you, Trader Joe’s) and Prosecco cocktail.

Dinner proper started with a little gift from the chef, aka the previous night’s roasted root vegetable and cumin soup (a Paul creation) served in assorted shot glasses. A little thick for the shot glasses — spoons were required — but otherwise, a success. The first course picked up elements of the snacks and the soup: a crab, mango, apple, and cilantro salad served between layers of cumin-spiced apple chips and drizzled with apple-cilantro-shallot dressing. This is one of those recipes that telegraphs “fancy dinner party” but is actually pretty easy to make. OK, the apple chips are a kind of a pain and require a mandolin and a Silpat — plus crabmeat is, you know, not cheap — but otherwise, it’s very easy elegance. The DVF wrap dress of cold shellfish apps. We paired it with a Sepp Moser Riesling Gebling 2005, which I’m actually sipping right now as I write this. Austrian Rieslings are dry, mouthwatering, and substantial–plus this one has some citrus, smoke and spice that all married well with the dish.

Our main course was seared venison loin with black currant sauce, spaetzle, and a “tangle of tart greens” (I’m quoting the recipe — from the Inn at Little Washington cookbook — not my own whimsical turn of phrase). So a few things. First, and most importantly, it was delicious. I mean, delicious in the way things at restaurants are delicious, where the chef is balancing tangy and meaty and soft and crunchy. The meat got a black peppercorn and juniper berry rub, which struck me as a cool northern European touch. (Plus, we used to have a juniper berry tree/bush? at our summer house, and it’s one of my favorite smells ever.) We had a spaetzle emergency earlier in the day — our local purveyors were fresh out — and our friends who live in Yorkville brought some from their ‘hood. The “T of T.G.” was tart and green, as advertised, but the key to the dish was really the black currant sauce, and the key to the black currant sauce was really the black currants.

Which brings me to a funny story. You may or may not know that black currants are completely unrelated to the kind of currants most of us are familiar with, i.e., the little raisin-like guys found in scones. In fact, those are raisins, whereas black currants are berries that come fresh and frozen and, boozily, in the form of creme de cassis. They are also nearly impossible to buy in the U.S. I tried all the usual suspects — Fresh Direct, TJ’s, Whole Foods, etc. — but no luck. Turns out black currants were illegal until a few years ago because they were a “vector of white pine blister rust,” this according to Wikipedia, but were de-criminalized in 2003 in New York thanks to the efforts of one Greg Quinn, a horticulturist, farmer, chef and black currant advocate. Something about Greg’s quixotic currant campaign appealed to me, and before I knew it, I was ordering a $15, 5-lb bag of frozen currants from Greg’s farm – plus another $15 for second-day UPS delivery. (Check out www.currants.com if you’re interested. And email me if you have any currant recipes. 5 lbs is a lot of currants.) 

I related my newfound currant knowledge to our guests as we enjoyed the venison and a few bottles of 2006 Hopler Zweigelt, which had some nice sour cherry flavors and was an appropriately Mitteleuropean choice. We had a few more laughs about it over our cheese selection (Ibores, aged Cheddar, and a Brie-like guy from the U.S.) and dessert, a flourless chocolate cake with homemade vanilla ice cream. I know, flourless chocolate cake, such a cliche, but there’s a reason why everyone does it — it’s great! At midnight we toasted with a bottle of Charles Ellner NV Brut — lemon zesty, yeasty, and peppery.  At some point in there–things started getting very fuzzy around the cheese course–we opened a 2005 Ridge Zinfandel Nervo. We sent our guests off with hugs and kisses and Ziploc bags of frozen currants. 

A crazy post-script: next day one of our guests was chatting with her father about the dinner and turns out her dad, who is neither a horticulturist nor a farmer nor a chef, is FRIENDS with Greg Quinn, the currant guy. What are the odds? Seriously. I’m taking it as a good omen for the New Year.


In my last post I gave a mediocre review of my T-giving wines, including a Joel Gott Chardonnay. Two weeks ago I had the chance to try the wine again, and a revision is definitely in order. How could I have missed the lemon curd deliciousness?  

Probably because the first time I tried it I was sneaking tastes between setting the table and whipping up cranberry upside-down cake, and the second time around was during a very relaxed tasting. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that context matters, but it’s amazing how much it matters. Time matters, too. We talk a lot about how time affects wine, but not enough about how time affects our experience of wine. Tasting wine quickly — whether gurgling and spitting 30 wines at an industry event or trying to fit in a few nips before your guests arrive — is kind of like speed reading. (Which makes me think of that dumb Woody Allen quote…”I took a speed reading course and read ‘War and Peace’ in 20 minutes. It involves Russia.”) There’s definitely a place for it, but a lot gets lost.


Cranberry Upside-Down Cake Avec Decorative Rosemary SprigHad to feature a picture of my chef d’oeuvre, this cranberry upside-down cake. I also made an apple-almond-phyllo creation that was pretty good, but this cake was definitely the winner. There is something about upside-down cake that people can’t help but like. It’s the golden retriever of the dessert world. Homey, all-American, lovable.

If only I could have said the same of my wine selections. They weren’t bad, per se, but they weren’t anything to blog about. The most notable thing about my wine selection this year was how hard it was to pick them out. Given the Current Economic Climate (and the fact that we were hosting 12 people), I was committed to spending under $20 a bottle. I picked up a Joel Gott Chardonnay, an O’Reilly Pinot Gris, and Hedges’ CMS Red. Pretty middle of the road. Had I wanted to spend more money, if turkey weren’t so bland, and if I weren’t sick to death of the taste of under $30 West Coast Pinot Noir, I suppose I would have had more options. I stole a few furtive glances at the France and Italy sections, but I don’t care what Eric Asimov says — Thanksgiving is for American wines, period.

Walking home from the wine store and feeling ambivalent about my selections, I started wondering why there aren’t any wine stores, or wine bars, in New York City that just specialize in American wines. There’s Vintage, of course, for New York wines, but how come some enterprising person hasn’t started a business that just features the best of the USA? Now that it’s “cool” to be patriotic again, perhaps the time is right.


Some Good News

25Nov08

The economy’s had me in a bit of a tizzy lately.  Basically, I wake up each morning thankful that I have a job. I’m trying to cultivate what Oprah might call an “attitude of gratitude” so on that note, a few bright spots. I had dinner the other night with Philip James, the very clever founder of Snooth, a great wine recommendation Web site. I met him at Lenn’s Roanoke Wine Bar event (yep, that’s me in the purple sweater) last month and was happy we got to reconnect. He’s confident that the wine retail business is going to weather the current storm fairly well, alcohol being a vice that people turn to in times of trouble and all. My wine consumption and appreciation are fairly constant (that is, high) so I forget that other people’s consumption might vary depending on external factors. Philip, who’s from the UK, also shed some light on the whole bad British teeth phenomenon: no flouride in the water and socialized medicine providing no incentives for frequent orthodontic intervention. So yay, I’m retroactively grateful for my 4th grade braces and bite plate — go USA.

In other good news, can’t wait for T-giving, particularly picking out appropriate wine matches. Lenn asked me the other day what I was drinking and shamefully, I haven’t even begun to think about it yet.  Definitely American, and definitely something, shall we say, “value oriented” as there will be 14 of us. A fun project for tomorrow — more TK.