News and Notes from the World of Wine

Barrel Design Puts New Twist On Bâtonnage

Nearly all of the world's best Chardonnay is barrel fermented. Most of it is also stirred on its lees, a process known as bâtonnage in France. During bâtonnage, a winemaker inserts a long, metal rod inside a barrel and stirs up the lees, or solids, in aging wine. The process is believed to increase flavor and complexity.

Grgich Hills Winemaker Ivo Jeramaz

But it's not so easy to evenly stir up all the solids sitting on the bottom of a 60-gallon barrel. Working through a 2-inch bunghole does not encourage an efficient mix of the lees with the wine. A French company called Oxoline has invented a system by which entire barrels are rotated in order to disperse the lees evenly.

"It's a technique that helps us preserve what is already in the grapes," says Jeramaz. "Gravity is the best way to move wine, or lees, inside or outside of a barrel."
The barrels are mounted on small rollers, which make them easy to rotate by hand. (A forklift is the only other way, really, to move a full barrel otherwise.) The barrel bungs are locked shut with a small screw to prevent the wine from spilling as the barrel rotates. Because the bungs are never opened, less oxidation occurs in the Oxoline-method barrels. "I've found 15 percent improvement in the same cuvée," Jeramaz noted. "The wine is smoother and less bitter."
This journalist required firsthand evidence, and Jeramaz gladly obliged. Indeed, in a random sampling of the same wine—some in Oxoline barrels and some in traditional barrels—the Oxoline barrel samples seemed richer, fuller and more lush than those stirred in the traditional way.

Twenty-seven years ago, Grgich Hills co-founder Mike Grgich made Chardonnay history when the wine he made for Chateau Montelena beat France's best white Burgundies in the Paris Tasting. We'll soon see if this new system helps put him and his winery back in the benchmark category.

—Jeff Morgan


Spring Fling Alert

You want to spend $450 on a bottle of Lafite and your honey just doesn't understand?

Maybe it's time for a trade-in., a Walnut Creek, California-based Internet dating service, can help you find your soulmate—that is, someone who loves wine as much as you do.

Launched in July 2003, the San Francisco-based dating Web site organizes a variety of monthly events, including wine tours in Napa and Sonoma, wine tastings and winemaker dinners at local restaurants. Most of the site's 600+ registered users are based in the Bay area, so lovelorn enophiles elsewhere won't be able to find love until next month, when the Web site reaches out to wine enthusiasts in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

—Ha-Kyung Choi

Robuchon's New Counter-seating Hotspot and Wine Club

It's true that most American wine shops can also give pairing advice. But how many of them are associated with a Michelin three-star chef?

Chef Joël Robuchon (top) goes comparatively casual with L'Atelier

Since last summer, the only restaurant with any buzz in Paris has been L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, a counter with 38 seats and a no-reservations policy. The buzz has been such that Parisians and visitors willingly endure a wait of 30 minutes or more for a chance to dine on food created by Robuchon, who closed his fancy, eponymous Right Bank temple of gastronomy nearly six years ago, pocketed his three Michelin stars and retired.
In his new place, he has created a formula that top chefs everywhere might envy. (Indeed, an Atelier has already opened in Tokyo.) The place is small enough to allow exacting standards, careful preparation and a certain amount of experimentation to prevail. Touches of Spain and Italy enliven a menu grounded in classic France. And its very informality—bar stools and paper placemats, and an open kitchen that permits chefs to interact with customers—dispels the reverent hush so often found in the atmosphere of three-star bôites. Buzz indeed.

L'Atelier's movement away from its precursor's stuffiness is especially evident in the wine list. Though the list emphasizes France (especially Burgundy), Italy, Australia, Chile, South Africa and California (think Kistler, Ridge and Shafer) are also represented. For Americans this international approach to the wine list is hardly a novelty. But in France, and certainly in Paris, it's still not the norm.

L'Atelier sells almost 50 wines by the glass, ranging from Château Latour 1997 ($68) to the bargain-priced Domaine de la Grande Olivette 2001 La Jasse, a Vin de Pays des Cevennes ($5.50), which is a favorite of sommelier Antoine Hernandez. Hernandez has been a sommelier for Robuchon for 20 years; you'd do well to heed any suggestions he may have.
The menu, which features a wide array of tasting portion-sized small plates, is an invitation to sip wines by the glass. The wine you might enjoy with the the warm coddled egg enveloping earthy chanterelles may not be the same you'd savor with what might be the world's best clams, baked in their shells with young garlic and mushrooms. Tasting portions range in price from $6.75 to $27; an appetizer-sized bowl of velvety gazpacho, and entrée of langoustines roasted with basil in parchment, are more expensive ($11.50 and $51, respectively). In the open kitchen with Robuchon, when he's on hand, are Philippe Braun from Laurent and Eric Le Cerf from L'Astor, both of whom worked with Robuchon and garnered two Michelin stars for their restaurants.

Though the seating is all at the counter, the subdued, dark brown, black and burgundy décor of L'Atelier creates an elegant and intimate setting. The best seats, if you're not dining alone, are at the corners of the sleek, almost ebony, counters, making for easier conversation. The open kitchen-and-counter seating arrangement affords diners ample opportunities to talk to servers and chefs, who are all dressed in black jackets instead of classic kitchen whites, to avoid distracting customers.

For those who might want to purchase a wine that complemented the meal, there is also a wine club, La Cave de L'Atelier, which will deliver most of the wines from the wine list at less than half the restaurant price. There is a 24-bottle minimum, and shipping is extra. For now, this service is only available in France. But with it, for those who can plan ahead, there is also the opportunity to receive wine-pairing suggestions from Hernandez and his team. What, exactly, should you serve with grilled rougets with eggplant, followed by a veal shank in red wine? The experts at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon will provide the answer. And the wine.

L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, 5-7 rue Montalembert in the Hôtel Pont Royal, 6th Arrondissement, Paris. Open for lunch and dinner daily. A meal for two, with wine, is about $120. Telephone 011-33-1-42-22-56-56. Information on La Cave de L'Atelier is available from 011-33-1-40-62-73-79 or

—Florence Fabricant


Q&A Bill Samuels
The man behind Maker's Mark

Born into a family steeped in the whiskey business, and raised in Bardstown, Kentucky, Bill Samuels, Colonel Jim Beam's godson, seemed a natural to follow his father's footsteps as a distiller. But the path he took to his present position as president of Maker's Mark, the famous wax-sealed Bourbon, was nothing if not circuitous.
In the 1950s, while his father was reinventing the family business, Samuels headed to California to study rocket propulsion. His budding career came to an abrupt end when he accidentally launched a rocket into one of his employer's buildings.

Afterward, Samuels returned east to pursue a law degree at Vanderbilt University, and started working for his father "for a year." That year has stretched into almost four decades. Today, Bill Samuels is one of the most recognizable faces in the American distilling industry.

Wine Enthusiast: How does rocket science help you sell Bourbon?
Bill Samuels: Oh, it doesn't have anything to do with it. I never gave the family business a thought until I blew that building up.

WE: You're known for your irreverence. Is Bourbon somehow more fun than other spirits?
BS:I don't like to debase anything, because every time I do I get shot, but if how to bore people's bag off were the responsibility of the malt whiskies, they'd get an A+.

WE: Didn't you, at one point, put a sticker on the pull tab that breaks the wax on the neck of the Maker's bottle? What's the story behind that?
BS: After the first two or three bottlings in the fall of '59, we got a rash of bartenders raising hell, saying that they had cut themselves on a knife trying to get the bottle open. That's when we had a sticker on the pull tab that said "Pull Me." Now I don't want to say Kentuckians are dumb, but when we eventually [were distributed] outside of Kentucky we didn't have to put the stickers on.

WE: You are the only Bourbon distiller who doesn't bother with line extensions, aren't you?
BS: For us, it's not honest. It would be like saying, "Oh, by the way, there's a better Maker's Mark over here but we're going to charge twice as much for it."

WE: There's a movement to package premade cocktails these days. Do you foresee a time when we'll see a bottle of premixed Maker's Mark and Coke?
BS: I would never say never, but it will never happen as long as my signature is on the bottle. Now, I'll tell you that the flavor of cola is a great complement to Bourbon, but nobody mixes it right. It ought to be about four parts Bourbon to one part Coke.

WE: What's Bill Samuels's Manhattan?
BS: The secret is Carpano Sweet Vermouth. It's the perfect mix with Maker's Mark, body without bite. Mix four parts Maker's to one part vermouth, no bitters, and a teaspoon and a half of cherry juice. And I do it on the rocks for the strangest reason: We have a lot of really good rugs in the house. We entertain a lot of business people and they always want to have what I have, and the last thing I want is one of these guys spilling on the rug.

—Stephen Beaumont

Paraíso Off a Dirt Road, and Down a Jungle Path Ikal del Mar is magic on the Riviera Maya

On Mexico's tourist-trodden Riviera Maya, the best resorts are those without prolific signage on Highway 307. A glimpse of paradise (and a glass of wine at check-in) is what you'll find once you arrive at Ikal del Mar, an idyllic hideaway between Cancún and Playa del Carmen.

The resort's 29 private villas, all with private pools and king-sized, mosquito-netted beds, are situated off a mazelike jungle path such that you rarely see other guests. Fitting, because the treatment that you'll get at Ikal del Mar (which means "Poetry of the Sea" in Spanish) is so attentive that you and your partner feel like the only ones there, anyway.

One of Ikal del Mar's 29 private villas

In a word, you're spoiled. Doting staff all know who you are, which villa you're in, and when you're occupying that villa. You may only be at the resort's private beach for 15 minutes, but upon returning to your quarters you'll notice that the never-seen chambermaids (you start to think of them as fairies, really, because you have to wonder how they know when to visit) have replenished your Molton Brown shower amenities, cleaned out your hairbrush, turned down your bed and placed a romantic poem atop your pillow in your absence. Every time you leave, they'll sneak back in, tidy up, and leave treats. (Go ahead, test them—leave the cap off of the toothpaste and see what happens.)

Azul, the resort's open-air restaurant, has a top-notch menu, heavy on fresh seafood. I loved the shrimp stuffed jalapeños ($14) and tuna tostada ($14) appetizers so much that I skipped the more filling entrées on successive visits. Those with bigger appetites should try the Ikal Tuna ($22), two thick slices of fresh fish, seared and dressed with a Kalamata olive sauce. The wine list's most adventurous offerings are recent vintages of Chateau Camou and Monte Xanic, two of Mexico's best-known wines. But if the idea of a warm Mexican Merlot on a spring evening doesn't suit, pop open a cool bottle of the local Yucatecan beer, Montejo. It's already in your villa's refrigerator. These chamber fairies—they think of everything.

Ikal del Mar, Playa Xcalacoco, Riviera Maya, Mexico. Reservations Tel.: 888/230-7330; Five-night Poetic Experience package is $2,509 through April 30.

— Daryna Tobey


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