Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Botanist Gin

So... I occasionally am invited to certain events due to my ways with the words, my blogging prowess, knowing the right people, and so on and so forth . One of the these latest was a promotional event for The Botanist Gin, a relatively new entrant to the game from the Bruichladdich distillery on the isle of Islay in Scotland.

A week before the event, and knowing that I was going to this thing, I queried one of the best bartenders I know about the spirit. That would be Juan from Fauna in Uptown, Oakland. "I really like it," he said, reaching for the bottle. Next thing I know, I have another glass with a short pour of Bruichladdich next to it.

The gin and the whisky were remarkably similar in some ways, with both having an apparent sweetness and great body on the palate. It's a little like when you hear two bands from the same small town and they both seem to have similar influences. Maybe they have influenced each other. The Scotch was just moderately aggressive in terms of peat smoke as Islay whiskies go, and the gin was also juniper-forward, somewhat London-dry style with a good bit of herb and spice components. Fairly conservative, but showing nice spice and mint notes that distinguish it, but place it firmly in a centrist, functional, non-eccentric territory. As in, "I'll have a The Botanist martini with an olive garnish," I think my dad would appreciate this gin, and I do, too.

I have a feeling that this gin, just like another developed by one of the other great Scottish distillers, Hendrick's, might just have legs. It really does show the mark of an expert distiller and a tasteful recipe. And the packaging is pretty sharp, no small matter that last bit.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Review: J. Lohr 2013 Cuvee POM Red Wine Paso Robles ($50)

This supple, Merlot-driven red blend gets some fresh blue fruit highlights from the addition of some Malbec and is generally artfully blended and developing quite nicely. It has aromas of blueberry, plum, raspberry and coffee, and is velvety on the palate, with the generosity and ripeness that you expect from Paso Robles fruit, but it's not as sweet and overripe as some reds from the region. I'm not surprised these Bordeaux-inspired reds from J. Lohr do very well in wine competitions. This is another great effort from a low-rainfall, very good vintage. (92 points)

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Review: Baxter 2014 Run Dog Vineyard Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley, CA ($52)

I recently had the pleasure of writing a story about the bounty of Anderson Valley for the San Francisco Chronicle recently. I am lately swooning over the wines from this cool part of Mendocino County in Northern California. There are a number of extraordinarily talented, youngish winemakers forging a sleek, elegant, refreshing style of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. One of them is  California educated and Burgundy trained Phil T. G. Baxter. I first tried his wines a year and a half ago on a weekend tour of Anderson Valley with my beloved Elise. On that weekend, Baxter's wines seemed to have a profound duality of new world freshness and just a hint of old world earthiness and rusticity. This latest bottling of the Run Dog Vineyard Pinot Noir is breathtaking. In this case, I'd go so far as to throw the old world reference out the window. This is a minimalist new world endeavor by my estimation. Only three barrels (less than a thousand cases) were made. It is very much a "less is more" wine with zero new oak, vibrant violet, lavender and blueberry aromas, focused, lively raspberry fruit notes and superb overall balance. It's just drop dead delicious, and the kind of new wave California wines that belongs in any discussion of the world's best Pinot Noir. At $52 a bottle, it still seems like a relative bargain. Track it down here(96 Points)

Review: Hazelfern 2015 Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, Oregon ($34)

The lucid, transparent red color of the wine betrays its Oregon roots right away, and I have to admit that I'm taken by the direct, purity of Pinot Noir fruit here. There's a bit of coriander spice from oak on the nose, but the wood flavors are subtle and very well-integrated. There are supple, bright pomegranate, cherry and raspberry fruit flavors layered with forest floor and light toast notes. At this price I'm not going to try to make a case for it being a bargain at $34, but it's a lovely Pinot Noir and the price seems justified to me. (92 points)

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

New Shell Maine Lobster Aims for San Francisco

I don’t really do that much writing about solid forms of nutrition, but last night I had an invitation to a food event that I just couldn’t turn down. It was a Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative event at The Progress in San Francisco. I figured it would be worth the trip across the bay, and it was.

Here on the West Coast we don’t really have any great substitute for lobster. The Caribbean has its spiny lobsters, Western Australia has smaller, fresh-water marron, and Northern Europe has langoustines. Maybe the closest sort of regional substitute we have is spot prawns from Santa Barbara, and that’s not even apples to apples, and they’re not local to the Bay Area either.

According to one of the public relations folks I spoke with last night, that was the rationale behind this event. San Francisco is a fine dining epicenter where you don’t often see lobster on the menu, probably because it has to be shipped all the way across the country from the East Coast (live or frozen).

The fact that Maine lobster isn’t local can be a strike against it in the Bay Area, where many chefs like to use local product. But let’s face it, a lot of us love lobster, and rules are meant to be broken.

The main purpose of the event was to explain the seasonality and sustainability of Lobster harvesting to those of us who know a lot about oysters, but a lot less about lobster. It was also to explain the difference between “Hard Shell” and “New Shell” lobster.

In mid-summer to mid-fall, Maine lobsters molt, or shed their shell, as they out-grow their old, well-hardened shell in favor of a new, more flexible slightly bigger shell that will continue to calcify over the next year. Some people refer to these freshly molted lobsters as ‘Soft Shell,’ but I don’t really like that term, because the shells are still pretty firm, even though they are more flexible and easier to break by hand. They aren't nearly as soft as soft-shelled crabs, where you can just eat the whole thing, shell and all. 

“New Shell” seems like a more accurate moniker to me, and the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative (made up of Maine lobster harvesters, dealers and processors since 2013) wants you to ask for New Shell lobster by name.  I suspect it won’t be long before you start to see “New Shell” lobster distinguished on dinner menus around the country to note the ideal season of the lobster harvest.

What’s the difference? Fortunately some Maine lobster men (lobster fishermen, not men with lobster claws for arms) were on hand to show me and a few hundred other guests the difference first hand, offering samples of both Hard Shell and New Shell lobster side by side. When you taste them next to each other, the difference is pretty clear.

Hard Shell Maine lobster is firm in texture with a mildly sweet flavor. It’s essentially what you generally would expect from Maine lobster. The New Shell lobster is discernibly more tender and sweet from tail to claw. It’s pretty easy to see how an in-season New Shell lobster would be preferable, or considered a distinct delicacy. It's better.

Here is a good article about New Shell Lobster and how it is different from Hard Shell lobster.

Maine lobster man explaining the difference between Hard Shell and New Shell.

Going in to this event I really didn’t know much about how sustainable the lobster business is in Maine. I was pleased to learn a few things about the long-standing historic self-regulation of the lobster trade in Maine that has made it a very sustainable enterprise that has led to substantial recent rebounds in the lobster population. Based largely on an honor system of throwing back undersized lobsters, egg-bearing breeders and even over-sized breeders, the Maine lobster industry has generally done a great job of policing itself and creating a sustainable lobster harvesting program. Read more about that here in this Food Republic article.

I also want to note that the food, drinks and service at this event were all extraordinary. The space was teeming with guests, everyone from writers like me to restaurant employees of all stripes, and a few celebrated chefs like Roland Passot of La Folie

The Progress just does not disappoint. I had a feeling we weren't going to be eating mini lobster rolls, and I was not disappointed. The menu was far reaching, with a lot of great, small lobster dishes. I think this is still one of the most forward-thinking, creative restaurants on the West Coast. 

I was particularly blown away by the pure lobster salad on the half shell, the tempura, the sweet corn pancake and the tacos al pastor. Everything else was damn good, too. 

Here's the menu:

And the staff at The Progress did an incredible job of serving up tons of food, delivering it to a very crowded room and clearing small plates all at the same time. Hats off to Jason Alexander, the GM and Chef Stuart Brioza for serving up some brilliant Maine lobster dishes at a feverish pace and making it look easy. 

I've only had one full-on dinner at the Progress - it was with my darling Elise for her birthday. It lived up to all of the hype. I can't wait to get back there again under less hectic and cramped circumstances.

The Progress Chef Stuart Brioza (L) chatting with a guest.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Kingston Family Vineyards Revisited: Cool Climate Wines from Chile,Ten Years Later

Around ten years ago I had the pleasure of writing up a profile on Kingston Family Vineyards, a cool-climate estate based in Chile's Casablanca Valley for the San Francisco Chronicle.

The article was more or less assigned to me by Jon Bonne, then wine editor of the Chronicle. Courtney Kingston came to my place, a little shack in Bernal Heights, and told me what her family was up to in Chile, with the counsel of California Pinot Noir veteran winemaker Byron Kosuge (formerly of Saintsbury).

At the time, the story could have fairly been called premature. Kingston's wines were absolutely good and interesting, but not necessarily mind-blowing. They were adventurous and curious in the best possible ways, at least in my estimation, and the wines were definitely in an elegant style represented by only a few wineries in Chile.

But it was also a timely article, because at the same time that American winemakers were working closer and closer to the cold Pacific Ocean coast in California, winemakers in Chile were doing the exact same thing, albeit mabe a few years behind. In both places, the ocean is quite cold because of the prevailing currents, and that cold water temperature exerts a dominant influence over coastal climates. Very few people swim in these oceans without a drysuit. The pictures that you see may look sunny, but trust me, the water is freezing cold - much better suited to sharks and seals than humans.

This movement toward the coast in South America also marked the first major investments of Chilean winegrowers in Pinot Noir, a grape they were really not familiar with to date, and Syrah, another first impression. Both the Californian and Chilean winemaking cultures were exploring what was possible on the climactic fringes, more elegant expressions of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc than had been created to date.

Ten years later, Courtney tracks me down, proposing something of a reprise, if you will. Flattered by the prospect, I was happy to see her again, and also to taste the wines. Courtney is still residing in the south bay. I have since relocated from Bernal Heights, where I met her last time, to updated, improved digs in West Oakland.

This time she has Kingston's winemaker since 2015, Amael Orrego, in tow. Orrego is Chilean, but he worked at Flowers Vineyard and Winery on the Sonoma Coast, which is near ideal resume fodder, because Flowers was one of the first and most successful growers of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay on the coldest fringes of Sonoma County's Pacific coast. Having first-hand accounts from one of California's cold-climate pioneers must have tremendous value for someone attempting to translate the same feats to a South American setting.

Orrego has convinced the Kingston family to convert the estate vineyards to certified organic - that's still in process. It takes about three years of growing without artificial fertilizers or pesticides before the vineyards can be certified organic.
L to R Amael Orrego, Byron Kosuge, Courtney Kingston.

Byron Kosuge (formerly winemaker at Saintsbury, currently of B. Kosuge fame) has been Kingston Family Vinyeyards' winemaker and consultant from the start 15 years ago and continues to play an important consulting role. Kosuge deserves credit for steadily improving quality over the years.

Courtney Kingston says the family still sells about 2/3 of its grapes to other wineries and that demand is pretty good. She says they have kind of modeled themselves after Hirsch Vineyards on the Sonoma Coast in that way.

Kingston is still a pretty small brand that mostly finds its way onto the wine lists of knowledgeable sommeliers these days. "A lot of times, we're the only Chilean wine on the list," says Kingston. "Our wines don't really sell at retail. We don't have that kind of marketing budget. Our tasting room was really intended just for our buyers or distributors. We didn't expect actual visitors, but suddenly they started showing up."

These days the winery is experimenting a bit with some different clones of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah that have become available in Chile. "We also planted some Gamay and Viognier and a bit of Merlot.

The wines are named for horses on the Kingston family ranch in Chile.

Check out a three minute video (with lots of pretty horses) about Kingston Family here.

My memories of the wines from ten years ago are not perfect. But my impression is that the wines have improved somewhat. The Pinot Noirs and Syrahs seem more complex and more artfully made. The vineyards are more mature, and that's almost certainly a factor.

Kingston 2016 Sauvignon Blanc 'Cariblanco' Casablanca Valley, Chile ($20) Made mostly from mature vines planted in 1999, this is a subtle Sauvignon Blanc with pretty, taut pear, mineral and coastal saline flavors. Amael says there's very little sulfur used, just a bit before bottling. I like it, but I almost with it had some more exotic notes given the vineyard location and region.  (88 points)

Courtney says that one of the challenges of making Sauvignon Blanc in Chile is that much of it is made as a commodity and low priced. I understand the price pressure aspects of that argument, but I appreciate the directness and simplicity of the best Chilean Sauvignon Blanc. I think the low-end consistency and stylistic thread is actually a long-term advantage for Sauvingon Blanc from Chile, and the exotic qualities of some of the most extreme cool-climate Sauvignons justify a higher price point for those seeking something special.

Kingston 2016 Chardonnay 'Sabino' Casablanca Valley, Chile ($30) The Chardonnay is interesting. It is much less reliant on new oak than you might expect, but gets added body and texture from full malolactic fermentation. While 100% malolactic fermentation makes some California Chardonnays flabby and dull, it makes perfect sense for a leaner, cool-climate Chardonnay like this. "Its so high acid that it needs malolactic," says Amael. Notes of caramel, hazelnut over citrus, apricot notes. Fermented with wild yeast. Very elegant and precise.  (91 points)

Kingston 2016 'Tobiano' Pinot Noir Casablanca Valley, Chile ($24) "I believe we understand the variety better than we did, and make it more pure and fresh," says Kingston. This is the entry level, especially pretty Pinot Noir with cherry, raspberry, blueberry, violet notes. It's light, clean, fresh, and balanced, only 12.5% alcohol. There's almost no, if any, new oak on it. I really like this on a gut level. (91 points)

Kingston 2016 'Alazan' Pinot Noir, Casablanca Valley, Chile ($30) 82% whole cluster (including stems). More spice by virtue of the stems for sure. Still fresh, more layers of deep red fruit and pretty blueberry fresh notes. More texture, too. Not heavy at all. This is really good. The vines are maturing and we're better expressing the place.  (93 points)

Kingston 2015 'Bayo Oscuro' Syrah, Casablanca Valley, Chile ($38) Pretty bold, with great acid. WE do make it with hand punch-downs, low extraction, we just age it a bit longer in barrel.It has blackberry, bacon, blueberry, notes, red currant, cranberry. Great focus, all the hallmarks of quality Syrah. They also use some whole cluster influence, using the stems, which adds some spice and tannin. Really nice (92 points)

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Review: Valdivieso 2015 Valley Selection Grand Reserva Sauvignon Blanc, Leyda, Chile ($17)

Wow, this is some pretty exotic stuff! Leyda is a very cool-climate, rugged region that's only about twelve miles from the coast, and it produces some really intriguing Sauvignon Blanc. This one has some of the exotic fruit flavors you might get from a good New Zealand wine with opulent aromas of kiwi and passion fruit, juniper, lime and grapefruit, but there's more minerality on the finish. If you're a fan of Sauvignon Blanc, wines like this from Leyda are worth seeking out. (92 Points)