Archive for April, 2012

The Cousiño-Macul winery in the Alto Maipo, Chile has been around for over 150 years and have thrived for generations on making good wines, being technologically forward-thinking, and growing to meet international demand. While a pretty big winery, all of their fruit comes from their two substantial estates and they are willing to bottle some interesting stuff—a brilliant bone-dry Riesling, for one (though it is not available in MD anymore  =[ ).

Here’s some notes on a couple I recently tasted:

No grey area here.

Cousiño-Macul Sauvignon Gris 2011

Origin: Valle de Maipo, Chile

Composition: Sauvignon Gris 100%, 13.9% alc.

Appearance: silver-tinged pale straw

Nose: peach, pineapple, sharp mineral

Palate: rush of ripe pear, peach, and grapefruit with a a vibrant back-palate prickle and a sea-salt fade

Overall, a fascinating and refreshing wine. A well-executed example of a grape typically relegated to workhorse blending duty. Could see this as a nice pair for a good ol’ Maryland crab cake but it’s not too robust to compete with a simple salad, either.

Classic Chilean Cab

Cousiño-Macul Antiguas Reservas Cabernet Sauvignon 2009

Origin: Valle de Maipo, Chile

Composition: Cabernet Sauvignon 100%, 14.2% alc.

Appearance: translucent ruby—cleanly filtered and crystalline

Nose: currant, plum, cinnamon, and vanilla

Palate: rich, black cherry; a lot of licorice throughout; a long leather/licorice finish through very firm tannins; a bit hot on the back-end

A New World Cab-lover-on-a-budget’s Cab. It’s evocative of smoking a cigar in a big burgundy leather wingback chair at some exclusive men’s club that you slipped into while no one was looking during your gig as a cocktail waiter. Despite its clarity, this is one dense wine. Not as hedonistic as, say, boutique Napa Cabs, but gives the people what they want for a pittance. You should be able to find this for around $18, or around $15 on sale.

I’ve been watching the “Classic Albums” series on Netflix streaming obsessively over the last few days. The first was Phil Collins: Face Value, followed by Iron Maiden: Number of the Beast, Steely Dan: Aja, Lou Reed: Transformer and, Metallica: The Black Album. All of the installments—even the ones about albums that I don’t even have an emotional attachment to (The Black Album and Number of the Beast)—are quite good. Today, I very consciously watched Cream: Disraeli Gears and Classic Artists: Cream while enjoying a fitting pairing: Sierra Nevada Ruthless Rye.

November 1967 brought the seminal second album from Eric Clapton/Jack Bruce/Ginger Baker British blues-rock supergroup, Cream—Disraeli Gears. Cream was already a magical coming-together of three (nearly) equally brilliant musicians (as well as lyricist/splitting maul, Pete Brown) in their own right that had established a strong following in the UK as well as the US. This new album, featuring hits, “Strange Brew”, “Tales of Brave Ulysses” and “Sunshine of your Love” and a slew of oddball original songs and rearranged blues classics masterfully produced by Felix Pappalardi and engineered by the late genius, Tom Dowd, would be the band’s greaest success and harbinger of the end of the band. The blazingly bright psychedelic cover art by Martin Sharp is the time and band encapsulate.

It should be noted that I am generally indifferent towards Clapton (largely diminished as a result of the yawn-inducing creative direction of the last thirty-plus years of his career) though his sound was ideal for this band at its time. However, I feel that Baker is one of the greatest jazz/rock drummers ever to pick up the sticks and the Bruce was the great rock singer during his tenure with Cream time and a superb bassist. It’s a shame that the guys couldn’t, or, more to the point, wouldn’t, work to repair their dysfunctions.

These videos are tons of fun. It’s always entertaining to hear Atlantic co-founder/VP of A&R, Ahmet Ertegun wax nostalgic about his “discoveries” (though his relentless fawning over “golden boy” Clapton is ridiculous). The Classic Artists video features lots of great interview segments with Clapton as the typically uninteresting, gentle, diplomat; Bruce as the haggard, personable old man in a dirty suit coat; and Baker as the hilariously acerbic, belly-acher. One can tell that by the time of the 2005 reunion concert at the Royal Albert Hall/Madison Square Garden that Bruce and Baker were still at loggerheads (or, more likely, Baker spitting acid and Bruce just dismissively absorbing it), but all worked out just fine.

What is more fitting a psychedelic blues-rock album from 1967 that includes the track “Strange Brew” than, well, a strange brew? In this instance I chose Sierra Nevada’s Ruthless Rye (largely because it was already in my fridge). The beer features great modern/old-West “cover art” by an Aussie artist (Ken Taylor) just like Disraeli Gears. Here’s the skinny on the beer:

12 oz. bottle poured into a New Belgium globe glass
Appearance: rich, hazy, reddish amber with a quarter-inch light beige head
Smell:  broadly green/herbaceous overtone, floral hops, spicy and yeasty
Taste: dark, toasty malts and piney/citrusy hops in balance
Mouthfeel: rich but well carbonated to help dissipate hop bitterness

Overall, a bit disappointing. The rye is just hinted at with an earthy spiciness that one has to concentrate to notice. My hope was for more obvious rye presence given that it is, ostensibly, a rye beer. Certainly very drinkable and a nice, darker-malted IPA, but I would expect a bit of actual, you know, “ruthlessness” given the name. The overall balance makes it good for a couple of these in a session at 6.6%. This is a spring seasonal that is on its way out, but you may be able to find a six or twelve pack hanging around somewhere.

Worked for de-glazing the pan and steaming Italian sausages from Wagner’s Meats with sauteed red onions and green peppers on Challah rolls (most ingredients by way of the Baltimore Farmer’s Market). Served as a fine pair for the finished meal, too, holding up to the strong flavors well without competing.

Just plain good Merlot…upright.

Origin: Paso Robles, CA

Composition: Merlot (86%), Malbec (7%), Zinfandel (7%)

Appearance: dense Crayola red-violet with an opaque core and blue-tinged edges

Nose: ripe brambly berries, vanilla, tobacco

Palate: immediate hit of ripe cherry-berry fruit; a nice acid-driven mid-palate, oak vanilla, cinnamon and leather finish; overall medium-bodied with satiny body and velvety tannins

Ancient Peaks has historically been a top Paso Robles grower first and awesome winery second, but the qualitative gap is narrowing. A recent meeting with founding family member and VP of Sales & Marketing, Amanda Wittstrom-Higgins, revealed that the philosophy of the company on the whole is not likely to change any time soon—Ancient Peaks will always be focused on providing the best fruit possible from its Margarita Vineyard (which features broadly varied vine plantings on dramatically diverse soils).

The 2010 Merlot is a pleasant surprise. Elegant and smooth for a Paso Merlot coming in at a reasonable (for the region) 14.5% alcohol. Unlike many Paso Robles reds, there is no alcohol heat—particularly surprising given that it is not overripe and jammy. This is all about balance. Ripeness is there but not at all overbearing as it is held in check by ample acid. Most importantly, it is exactly the kind of wine that should bring back one-time Merlot lovers in droves. The wine is a perfect expression of food-friendly, but eminently quaffable California Merlot at a great price.

You should be able to find this at about $17.

Following is a repost of a recent wine review from my Facebook wine group, Armin’s Wine Stuff. Going forward, reviews will be here first and reposted to FB.

I have tasted through the last four vintages of this wine. This marks a change in direction stylistically.

Artesa Carneros Chardonnay 2010 shows that Mark Beringer is willing to take what has been a historically (in my opinion) over-rich and chewy, buttery/oaky Chardonnay in a more elegant direction. Perhaps ramping down incrementally from Artesa’s long-established sweet tropical punch slathered in butter, sprinkled in cinnamon and served on a vanilla-soaked bookshelf (not to say that style isn’t worth a sip on certain occasions), this wine shows a few steps in a more restrained direction. The fruit is not as ripe, showing pineapple and mango underneath pear (where prior iterations may have been the opposite). The oak is less liberal—I can only assume (since their website is not updated with tech sheets on the 2010 release yet) that the fermentation/barrel program is similar to 2009: 65% French oak (25% new)/35% stainless steel—than prior vintages which showed much more new oak. The mouthfeel is more mineral and thus more bright and vibrant (curiously, 2009 and 2007 tech sheets show a similar malolactic fermentation regimen, so who knows what differs for 2010).

All-in-all a lighter, cleaner and truer representation of the fruit less adulterated than prior vintages without trying to be anything other than Carneros Chardonnay. It succeeds at what it is trying to be, it just isn’t my cup of tea. Certainly not bad (and decidedly a step in the direction of my taste). Wine Enthusiast hit it with a typically fawning 92 points. I give it a 3.75/5 (yeah, it’s a quarter-star—what of it?!?).

Paired quite nicely with a homemade creamy Chicken Piccatta with loads of garlic, dill and capers on egg noodles and pan-sauteed Brussels sprouts with white Balsamic vinegar. Kickin’ it old-school.

When most people drink it is, typically, socially. We drink in bars or at parties or at home with friends and there is, often music in the background. Drink and art are inextricably entwined throughout history. Cultural change reveals itself most clearly through movements in art and, less noticeably through our preferences in food and drink (ex.: the 17th century Baroque proclivities for ornate music, grandiose architecture, and dramatic paintings/sculpture were tied to a prevailing taste for ciders, and sweet, opulent, fortified wines like Madeira).

It stands to reason, then, that this blog will also feature posts of a broad cultural nature going forward. A review of wine or whisky should be no different than a film or music review here—they all are consumed similarly: with thoughtfulness, passion, and, hopefully, a degree of pleasure while evoking emotional responses and long-standing preferences. Therefore, I offer my first CD review:

Paint by Number$Andrew Luttrell Band

Baltimore, Maryland-based singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist, Andrew Luttrell’s (Coal Mountain Ramblers, Luttrell-Noon-Wenger, Luttrell-Grimm Acoustic) first eponymous band release, Paint By Number$ (March 1, 2012), profoundly embodies its title while frequently straying outside the lines. Luttrell wears his myriad influences on his sleeve proudly throughout 10-tracks of, largely, American folk-rock, following the color code with a measure of irreverence and playfulness that keeps the 42-minute album lively and intriguing to the last.

Over the years, Luttrell has explored folk, jam-band/classic blues-rock, and bluegrass with equal enthusiasm and all are present here paired with an obvious love and knowledge of art history. The opening track, “Landscape Plains”, an imagining of the sad goings on out of view of Van Gogh’s paintings in a moden context, gives the listener an idea of the eclectic journey ahead as it is immediately reminiscent of recent-era Mark Knopfler playing an Ennio Morricone spaghetti-western soundtrack filtered through the crispness and atmospherics of Hugh Padgham production (in this case, actually produced by Luttrell and Christopher Freeland). Those kinds of incongruous associations continue on through the album and, generally, just plain work.

Visual art references abound in the aforementioned “Landscape Plains”; the modern alt-country character-study of a young theologian at a crossroads, “Sister Goes Bad”; and the Gram Parson’s-tinged impassioned love letter to art history, “Making Senses”. The relatively new idea of “corporatocracy” rears its ugly head on “Three’s A Crowd”, a straight-ahead socio-political commentary in the vein of the matter-of-fact vocals and Texas honky-tonk rock of James McMurtry. “Blink” is a pretty, plaintive lullaby most evocative of Neil Young’s finest delicate works. There’s a little nod to The Beatles/George Martin, too, in the swirling, backward interlude, “Abstract Recessionism”.

The party gets jumpin’ on the privacy/protection/paranoia jam-rocker, “You’re Stealing My Car”—the hookiest tune on the disc— swimming in Trey Anastasio and Bob Weir-styled guitar from Luttrell and Shane Grimm, respectively. The cleverly titled illustration of the uncertainty of living day to day, “Sara Sota” recalls the recent sneering southern blues-rock of Tom Petty while the dark, class-struggle commentary, “Draggin That Line” captures the grimy intensity of Cream/Blue Cheer/Big Brother & the Holding Company.

The supporting band of skillful new and long-time collaborators in the band bring plenty of established talent to the table—particularly notable are the juicy guitar of Grimm and Kirk Kness’ gently tidal organ on “You’re Stealing My Car”; Dave Hadley’s pedal steel, and Kevin Kutz’ fiddle on the bluegrass-inflected reflection on living in an uncertain place during less certain times, “Thursday Morning Two Forty-Five”; and Mark Hutchins’ driving bass, and Chris McGraw’s explosive drums on “Draggin’ That Line”. However, the whole thing is carried throughout by Luttrell’s guitar virtuosity, effortlessly gliding from lilting alt-country; to playful, modal jazz-informed jam-rock; to heavy blues-rock without a hitch.

Clearly, the experience is meant to be presented in physical media as a simple digital download will never bring the visual parallels intended with CD packaging. The gatefold sleeve features a playful cover art collage by Kat Rafferty and the booklet is replete with Luttrell’s abstract and representational paintings and drawings, too, which frequently correlate to the included lyrics.

Baltimore’s indie music scene has been, justifiably, garnering international exposure for a range of dream-pop, electronic, experimental indie-rock, and Americana. Too many artists here seem to slip through the cracks. This town is full of talented players and several of them, led by the admirable song-craft and deft musicianship of Luttrell, appear on this CD. Andrew Luttrell Band grabs armfuls of classic rock forms, throws ’em in a bottomless Felix-the-Cat-style bag of tricks and brings them to you with no pretense.

From a beverage perspective (this is, predominately, a beverage blog, after all), this album demands bourbon with a beer back. The basics can be so refreshing.

Mike and Ike in Pastels

The New York Times broke a story yesterday about the new $15M marketing strategy by Elevator Group for candy maker, Just Born’s venerable Mike and Ike brand. It got me thinking about corollaries statements I made in my last post here:

“Hopefully, as a result, I will live to see a day when beverage purchase decisions are made by virtue of real choice between one honest product over another rather than having to sift through what is lab-generated and cleverly marketed to even get to the “real stuff”.”


“The winners of this new consumer model will be those that don’t have to spend millions constantly sourcing new fruit contracts and creating new brands and ridiculous back-stories for wineries that don’t really exist.”

The new Mike and Ike campaign uses, essentially, the same tactics that the large wine conglomerates are using to capture millenial drinkers. The specific premise of the campaign is to create a back-story about Mike and Ike (two non-existent characters) as long-time friends whose relationship has gone sour and are openly vocal about their disagreements. This will play out in traditional print and billboard media as well as, most importantly, via carefully orchestrated social media flamewars on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and whatever the kids are into these days.

Large national and international wine concerns—Constellation Brands, Diageo, E & J Gallo, Treasury Wine Estates, and a host of others (I’m sure I’ll post lists of the household-name brands owned by the major conglomerates at some point)—create brands every year. This is done, in large part, to profit dramatically on excess juice produced by same-owned vineyards or purchased/contracted fruit from other growers. Let me be clear: there is nothing wrong with this. In essence, these products fill a void for cheap, everyday wine for a large base of consumers for whom a low price outweighs any measure of quality and help those companies keep their premier brands afloat. My concern with many of these pop-up products is the way they are marketed.

The conglomerates know that most consumers simply do not pay attention to where their favorite wine comes from, who owns it, or how it is made. This connects to what I always say is the greatest wine lie ever sold: wine is a natural product (a topic for a dedicated future post, to be sure). Very little about these wines is natural from production to sales. Part of the fabrication process is the marketing. This often starts with focus groups to get some sort of feel for what a specific demographic wants, is followed by brand creation, image development, and target marketing. Somewhere in there, the least important step, wine formulation (don’t be fooled, many of these wine products include flavorants and colorants), takes place.

The latest example of that methodology is Beringer’s (via owner, Treasury wine Estates) new Be. brand. This clever bit of board-room wine making is meant to appeal to millenial women—theoretically, young, impressionable, easy-to-capitalize-upon 20-somethings who respond to simple, emotional cues like “flirty” and “radiant” and, apparently, wines that only come in pastel colors. And it will work, because Beringer had a focus group of their core audience for this stuff pretty much create the brand image from scratch. But what happens when that core audience grows out of the brand in a couple of years? Another with a different image will take its place.

Mike and Ike is doing the same thing. Realizing that their core audience has forgotten them, they are throwing an extra 120-times the cash over last year at capturing a similarly impressionable demographic (slightly younger on the whole, and slanted toward male, but there is some overlap into consumers in their early 20’s).

As I said, it’s all fair-play in my book, but at some point this teeters on the edge of flat-out lying to get your business. Personally, I prefer a wine from a specific place, made by a specific person with no agenda other than making a good product at a fair price. The best I can hope for with these target brands is that they will be gateways to something better as the consumer grows.

How do you feel about being pandered to in this way?

Those of us born in the USA from the mid-60’s through late-’70’s have always been viewed as a lost generation. It has become an increasingly inaccurate assessment as this generation of “slackers” slip into our 40’s and quietly lead future generations by example. From a drink perspective, we are the generation that fed the craft beer boom, revived cocktail culture, and created a sizable market for organic options.

Perhaps, our next legacy will be passing on a desire for transparency, honesty, and integrity in consumer products (more specifically, for the purposes of this discussion: wine, beer, and spirits). We have touched on this issue with the trend toward organic/biodynamic products as well as with a tendency to seek out producers with our generational DIY ethic. We intuitively pursue products made by those who create their products in their back yards and market by word-of-mouth and (somewhat counter-intuitively) via the internet rather than in laboratories, by focus-group suggestion and traditional marketing media. While we embody this ideology, it will be the next generation—Generation Y or “Millenials”—that will have to pick up the mantle and make “integrity” the watch-word of beverage consumerism for the next 30+ years.

Why? Because millenials have (and will have) greater buying power. They already have far greater numbers (70+ million to Gen X’s 41 million). While income is currently terrible for both generations (largely due to unemployment), the outlook can only be brighter for millenials during their core, informed drinking years (those years after college when tastes are established and patterns emerge). This will be a generation that can change the practical functionality of a broken industry decisively for the long term.

Hopefully, as a result, I will live to see a day when beverage purchase decisions are made by virtue of real choice between one honest product over another rather than having to sift through what is lab-generated and cleverly marketed to even get to the “real stuff”. This is a subject that will persist throughout the life-span of this blog, so I felt it fitting that it be the first content post.

The impetus for this commentary was (as is often the case with me) a discussion on a LinkedIn forum regarding this article. Here is my response to the article:

“The Millenials will be the first true “explorer” generation that will not, as a general rule, get caught in a predictable wine-consuming pattern later in life and lean on one grape or brand for 30+ years as did boomers and, to a lesser extent, Xers.

The clearest example of that theory is being borne out in craft beer. I use the craft beer boom as the leading example because wine is a big-ticket start-up proposition and is still, largely, an “old money” (or generationally handed-down business) or a product of the less ideologically embraced acquisitional model of the beverage conglomerates. As such, the wine business is more proprietary/less open and ideologically cooperative as craft brewing.

As a backlash to boomers sticking with what their fathers drank and continually building the “big three” (Bud, Miller, and Coors), gen-Xers started brewing beers with flavor, honesty, and integrity borne out of a love of sharing good beer more than a love of its profit potential. They work together, often across oceans, to create new ideas and build an international understanding that there is something “more” to be had as producers and consumers through community acting together than by being insular and hiding factual information from peers and consumers (which is the long-held and current legacy of conglomerates like InBev and Constellation and is why they are in steady decline). This ideology of open access to ideas and information is most embraced by millenials and most craft brewers are smartly marketing primarily to them via social media and in-person interactions at beer festivals and such. That palpable honesty and openness is what will continue to grow craft beer’s market share driven by millenial consumers.

The principal difference between the growth of craft beer and the marketing analysis that tells us that Moscato is a growth varietal amongst millenials is that the former is ideologically rooted and sustainable while the latter is merely financially opportunistic and fleeting. Marketing Mosacto to millenials is the same as Malbec last year and Pinot Grigio the year before that and Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc the year before that. All it really accomplishes is giving bulk growers a means to sell off their excess fruit for a few years. In short order, millenial consumers will move on. In the short-term it may be to a different varietal or region, but, ultimately, they will begin moving in divergent directions.

Individual experience is what drives millenial consumerism more than any prior generation and there are few industries with as many avenues for exploration and tangential paths at wine. The abundant availability of information and opinions to be found and shared today will drive millenials in completely different pinball-like paths, crossing and bumping into each other seemingly randomly.

The winners of this new consumer model will be those that don’t have to spend millions constantly sourcing new fruit contracts and creating new brands and ridiculous back-stories for wineries that don’t really exist. Honest and true winemakers with a connection to their land and local history, and with passion for making good wine with the fruit that makes the most sense for where it is grown will return to prominence.

The lemming is drowned.”

What are your thoughts?

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