February 2006 Archives

Bygones Be Gone

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I was mad at Pat Kuleto before I ever met him.

It wasn’t that he did anything bad to me personally. He didn’t actually do anything bad at all. But he was the guy responsible for taking chef Nancy Oakes out of her quiet, intimate little restaurant out in the avenues in San Francisco and putting her in a big, ostentatiously Parisian bistro downtown.

Oakes’ previous place, L’Avenue, was the kind of place you rave about to your friends, then hope they won’t tell anyone else. Suddenly Oakes was in a big place, on one of The City’s more visible corners, where everybody could find her. Even the name of the new place, Boulevard, was a sting. Boulevards are bigger than avenues, and noisier, and more heavily trafficked.

Years later, when Kuleto opened Martini House restaurant in St. Helena, they had about five different openings for the press and I somehow managed to miss them all. Sure, I noticed that Kuleto had picked yet another chef, Todd Humphries, who cooks the way I like best: full-flavored dishes that stay light on their feet and make wine sing. But I was, you know, busy.

When Kuleto opened a winery in Napa Valley, I somehow never got around to writing about it, either. Just another rich white guy buying his way into the wine business, I told myself. Not important.

The first time I met Kuleto, I told him why I was mad at him. He laughed out loud. “I was mad at me too!” he said. “I loved L’Avenue. I hated to see it go. But Nancy was going under there and I didn’t want to stop eating her food. So we set her up in a big enough place to succeed.”

It was a pretty good response, so I decided to stop being mad at him and taste his wines. They turned out to be pretty tasty. Very tasty, in fact. And they score highly in some other areas that matter to me.

For one, they’re very reasonably priced. (Of course this is relative for Napa, but how many Napa Valley Chardonnays are getting 90+ points and going for $30?). They’re also relatively moderate in alcohol compared to other serious Napa bottlings. Chardonnay under 14%, Zinfandel under 15%, other reds in between. Full-flavored yet light on their feet.

Third, they’re getting better -- not just year to year with the new releases, but in the bottle. One of America’s better-known wine magazines should polish its spectacles and revisit its 83 point score for Kuleto’s 2002 Syrah. Lovely wine, great balance, with the hearty earthiness of Syrah’s origins polished to a rich patina rather than painted over with American oak. It was one of the better Syrah debut bottlings of recent years in my notes, and the 2003 should be every bit as good.

So I’m not mad at Kuleto anymore. In fact, he’s okay in my book. Heck, I wonder if Martini House is open tonight…


- Thom Elkjer
Check out my regular wine coverage at www.winecountry.com.

Respect for Tradition

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The winemaker at Kelham Vineyards in Napa Valley was taking me into a back room for some wine samples because I couldn’t stay to taste. It was a fairly typical moment considering how many wineries I visit, but this time I spotted something completely unexpected. It was a handmade jig for aligning labels on wine bottles.

The tool was obviously designed and built by a craftsman to improve the speed and accuracy of his own work. If you do any kind of wordworking, ceramics or craft of your own, you know what I mean. The tool had a beauty all its own, combining simplicity, functionality and humanity -- you could see that from the unmistakable patina on the wood, evidence of use by human hands.

I turned to the winemaker, Hamilton Nicholsen, and asked “Are you guys labeling your own bottles here?” It seemed impossible that the owners of a Napa Valley estate winery were hand-labeling bottles in a store-room, but tools don’t lie.

He shrugged and said “We do everything here.”

I started to test the meaning of “everything,” and it turned out Nicholsen wasn’t kidding. He and his brother Ron not only handle responsibilities in the vineyards and winery, they had remodeled their house into a family-style tasting room -- where their mother was pouring wine for visitors at that very moment. Their father had been growing grapes in Napa for a long time and was still at it, now that the family was making its own wine. When I asked about the odd color of the impressive new winery building across the way, Nicholsen apologized. “That’s the primer coat,” he said. “I just haven’t had time to finish painting it.”

It occurred to me that he had probably made that labeling jig in the store-room, too. Or his father had. Or his brother. Or his mother.

When I looked at the wine samples, I noticed that the Cabernet Sauvignon was from 2001, the Sauvignon Blanc from 2003. Both, in other words, had been given a year or two more barrel age than most wines, even from Napa Valley. Nicholsen explained why.

“We make our Sauvignon Blanc to peak between six to ten years of age, and our Cabernet is made to be at its best from ten years to fifty years. That’s what André Tchelistcheff said Napa Valley should do, and we respect that.”

To hear these words coming out of the mouth of a young winemaker made my heart glad. I meet so many who are looking to break the mold before they understand it. They don’t have to care about tradition because the barriers to entry in the wine business are shockingly low these days. A good score from the right critic and you’re set, regardless of where the wine came from or what it represents. For these winemakers, the legendary Tchelistcheff is the answer to an exam question, not an inspiration to exemplary enology.

So I asked Nicholsen where he went to school to study winemaking. "Here in the valley," he said. "I learned from other winemakers." I should have seen that answer coming.

At Kelham Vineyards, the traditions most of us long to find honored in the wine business are in fine shape. A hard-working family with roots in the region, mature vineyards that produce estate wines, and winemaking that aims at Napa Valley’s highest standards.

Plus some crafty tools in the back room.

- Thom Elkjer
Check out my regular wine coverage at www.winecountry.com.

Zig Zag Zin

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Not too much in the wine business makes my jaw drop anymore, but it almost hit the table the other day in Ukiah. I was there getting an update on the progess of Mendocino County’s Wine Commission, which could potentially work the same magic on Mendo’s reputation that the Lodi Woodbridge Winegrape Commission did on Lodi’s.

Well actually, Lodi didn’t have a reputation before, so the magic would be different. Because Mendocino County certainly has a reputation for something other than wine. Something as leafy as a grape vine, and that is harvested in the same season, but which is generally consumed drier and hotter (and sooner). If you’re already lost, please click over to another blog. If not, read on.

So I sit down with Tim Thornhill and Paul Dolan, who are partners in Mendocino Wine Company. They both own vineyards in the county, and they’re also co-owners of Parducci Wine Cellars and a number of other brands. They would dearly love to see Mendocino’s reputation rise, because it would satisfy them emotionally, psychologically, and, oh yes, way financially.

Dolan sets down a bottle of their new Italian-style red blend, called Tusk ‘N Red. (Pronounce it “Tuscan.”) Nice package, evocative of Chianti labels but with a whimsically placed elephant in the Italianate scene. A nice wine, too, blended from Sangiovese, Carignano, and other grapes favored by Mendocino’s Italian immigrants in centuries past.

Then Thornhill puts down a bottle of their new Zinfandel, called Zig Zag Zin.

Now, if you’re of a certain age or subscribe to a certain joie de vivre, you are probably already forming a mental image of a slender cardboard package with the folded filmy papers inside. The lettering is faintly exotic in style, the corners are decorated with little curves, and there is some kind of dervishy-looking guy winking out at you from the label.

For those of you who are not forming this image, Zig Zag is the most popular brand of, um, cigarette rolling papers. And these guys have created a wine label that looks for all the world like a Zig Zag rolling paper package. Same shape. Same size. Same curved corner cuts. Same lettering. Same bright color. Unbelievable. I stared at the label, then at Dolan and Thornhill. They shrugged back, as if to say that they are as surprised as I am.

Turns out they were surprised. “We expected to get rejected,” Thornhill tells me, “but apparently none of the regulators in Washington right now lived through the Sixties or Seventies in California.”

Of course, Zig Zag Zin is not a wine for morally righteous bureaucrats in Washington. It’s a fun, friendly Zin for the rest of us. So naming it after an icon of the counter-culture makes sense – especially when you’re coming from a county in a region known as the “Emerald Triangle.” If you want to build up Mendocino’s reputation, why not start with something it’s already known for?

I did get a good update on the Wine Commission thing (state legislation has passed and the county's winegrowers vote their approval next month). But I'm still amazed at that bottle on my desk. Heck if it doesn't give me the munchies just lookin' at it.

- Thom Elkjer
Check out my regular wine coverage at www.winecountry.com.

It was a dark and rainy late winter night in the Italian city of Siena. We had arrived late to our hotel and the patrona had frowned when we asked about a place to eat. It was low season, she reminded us, so dining might be difficult. She made a few calls and sent us back out into the night. We wound up in a tiny restaurant off some stone steps that seemed to be carved out of the massive stone buildings on either side.

Because it was late, the owner of the restaurant told us he would simply bring us dinner – no selecting from the menu this time. A moment later he returned and put an open bottle down on the table. At first I was taken aback, but then I saw that the small amount of wine missing from the bottle was in a glass in the owner’s own hand. He was giving us the wine he had opened for himself.

That was 20 years ago, and I have never forgotten it.

Start with the name, “Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.” The noble wine of Montepulciano – a noble town in its own right. The grape, he told us, was Prugnolo Gentile (which I later found out was the local name for Sangiovese). The producer’s name, Avignonesi, also had an unmistakable ring of authenticity. This supposition was confirmed when the restaurant owner told us the winery’s cellars were some of the oldest in Tuscany – which meant some of the oldest in Italy and therefore Europe.

The wine itself was the sunlight of Italy in a bottle, with the red cherries and summer heat still shimmering in their warm sweetness. Yet there was also a serious earthiness that bespoke history, tradition, and rocky hillsides trod by simple men and their beasts of burden. I can remember that wine in my mouth like it was yesterday – and I can well understand why the restaurant owner chose it to end his long day.

For years I would make the rounds of the handful of winesellers in the Italian quarter of San Francisco to see if they had the wine, but I was disappointed far more often than satisfied. Or the wine would show up on a restaurant list at an absurd price. Somehow the handful of lire I once spent on a rainy winter night for this wine stuck in my mind as the price I should pay, so I could rarely bring myself to fork over a fistful of dollars.

But now the drought has ended.

Brian Larky has signed Avignonesi to his Dalla Terra Winery Direct business, which cuts the importer out of the mark-up chain that pushes prices relentlessly up as wine moves from foreign producer to U.S. consumer. Avignonesi Vine Nobile di Montepulciano is now available stateside for around twenty bucks, which means when I want to dress up dinner on the weekend, I can relive one of the happiest wine moments of my life without breaking the budget.

Larky’s working the same magic with a number of other Italian producers who used to be priced past the $20 point where consumers are often reluctant to go. He's also bringing in plenty of great wines around $10 - or less. The wineries he selects are small, family-run, and expert at producing heavenly wines without hellishly high alcohol. So ask about Dalla Terra at your local wine shop and give both yourself and Larky a boost.

Now if he could just do something about Napa Cabernet…

- Thom Elkjer
Check out my regular wine coverage at www.winecountry.com.

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