VINE CUTTINGS Setpember 2002

News and Notes from the World of Wine



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Move Over, Menus
Chef at Virginia restaurant works with patrons to devise individual dining experiences By Dave McIntyre

Sometimes, Edward Berriman retreats to his sommelier's pantry and indulges in a fit of the giggles. How else to react when he's selected, poured and presented a wine to match a diner's next course, only to discover the chef changed his mind at the last minute and switched the Georges Bank sea scallops for the Hudson Valley Foie Gras?

Creativity is on the menu at Elysium, the intimate, 40-cover dining room at the Morrison House Hotel, a Relais & Chateau property in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, just a cork's throw from the nation's capital. Since last autumn, the restaurant has discarded its daily menus and offered "A Chef of Your Own," an innovative concept that has diners consulting with the chef in the creation of their multicourse meal. Chef Gian Piero Mazzi greets each party and describes the day's special ingredients, and then devises an original five-course menu for each person. While this format places obvious pressure on the 28-year-old, Florence-trained chef, it can also leave Berriman scrambling to find suitable wine matches for the improvised meal.

Berriman has 10 years of wine service under his belt, after more than two decades in the aerospace industry. And while wine and food matching is not exactly rocket science, the "Chef of Your Own" concept has transformed Elysium's wine program. Most diners, having already decided to be surprised by the food, agree to let the sommelier select a wine for each course. Bottle sales have languished as the by-the-glass program has flourished. And the restaurant's buying habits for its 7,500-bottle cellar have changed.

"I have made a distinct effort to buy and serve wines that many of our guests might not buy for themselves," Berriman says. That means fewer Chardonnays and Cabernets and Merlots and more Pinot Gris, Chenin Blanc, Alsatian Riesling, Australian Shiraz, Rhône reds and Banyuls. It also allows him to promote some of Virginia's finest wines that otherwise might go untested on a traditional wine list.

"This program allows people to sample four or five wines they might never have tried, without splurging on a bottle," Berriman says. "We can give them an around-the-world wine tour in the course of an evening."

The hotel and dining room are furnished with Federal-era reproductions, but the "menu" at Elysium is all original, not just every night but for every diner. "Sometimes I try to stay a step ahead of the chef by asking what he's going to do for each table, and then he changes his mind," Berriman says with a chuckle. "It's crazy."

Elysium at Morrison House Hotel, 109 South Alfred Street, Alexandria, VA. Tel: 703/838-8000. "A Chef of Your Own" tasting menu, $67; flight of matching wines, $38 extra.

Bordeaux gets Branded
New ad campaign aims to make Bordeaux more about logo than terroir by Roger Voss

Bordeaux is reinventing itself. In an attempt to compete head-on with the wines of Australia and California, it is creating the concept of "Brand Bordeaux."

To go along with the word is a new logo. Bordeaux's old stuffy image, epitomized by a bow-tie symbol, goes. The new logo is a modern, cool letter "B," which floats on the page. Ideally, it also appears on the wine label. The idea behind the new logo and the emphasis on Bordeaux is, as Eric Dulong, outgoing president of the Bordeaux Wine Council, explains, "We want every bottle to have the idea of Bordeaux clearly on the label. We want to emphasize that we are quite different from American or Australian wines: We are not single-varietal, we are complex, a blend."

The logo is one part of a new advertising campaign, which is starting worldwide this year. In the U.S., the Bordeaux Wine Council is spending $2.2 million on advertising in 2002, a large sum for a generic wine campaign. Australia spends less than a tenth of that on generic wine advertising, leaving it up to brands to spread the word. That is a luxury Bordeaux cannot afford with its thousands of chateaus and relatively small brands.

Already many Bordeaux chateaus have the phrase "Grand Vin de Bordeaux" somewhere on the label. But Jean-Marie de Buhan, export director of Borie-Manoux, the Bordeaux négociant, isn't confident that the brand will spread: "I can't see the classed growths using the logo. They are much more interested in promoting their own name than in promoting Bordeaux."

Q&A with Charlie Melton,
owner and winemaker of Charles Melton Winery by Tim White

The Barossa Valley is the home to Australia's four largest wine companies as well as to dozens of the country's smallest producers; the dichotomy of the valley is best observed when standing outside Charles Melton's functional wooden winery shed in the twilight at harvest time.

Melton's 15,000-case winery on Krondorf Road is run lean: just Charlie, his cellarhand James Ehrat, and two "casuals" at vintage time. They have a modest collection of stainless-steel static fermenters and a few stacks of mainly older oak barrels. Melton started his own winery back in the mid-'80s, after an apprenticeship as a cellarhand with Peter Lehmann.

Wine Enthusiast: Who or what has most influenced your winemaking?
Charlie Melton: PL [Peter Lehmann] and Andy Wigan [chief winemaker at Peter Lehmann]. If you were going to fall into the clutches of two blokes when you started off in the wine industry there couldn't be a better pair. Wiggs has great attention to detail—he checks the ferments every day, tastes every sample. And PL is all that people dream about that's good in the wine industry.
WE: What inspired you to make Nine Popes [Melton's Rhône-style red]?
CM: We had some Shiraz and then we looked at the world model. We saw that in France it was highly regarded, whereas in Australia it was a nonentity used for Port production. So we established a Southern Rhône connection, but I didn't start off thinking, "I'm going to become a Rhône specialist." I'm not that deep.
WE: And what about your latest homage to vin santo, the Sotto di Ferro?
CM: I had a rather drunken lunch with a mate in Sydney who said he had a little block of Pedro [Pedro Ximénez, a grape commonly used to make Sherry] that he didn't know what to do with. So I boldly told him I could make a vin santo-style wine out of it even though I didn't have the foggiest clue how to go about it. Well, the rats got at the first attempt: They gnawed the strings off we'd used for hanging it up in our old hay shed. The next year was a really busy vintage, and by the time we'd remembered about it, all the grapes had shriveled up to nothing. So the 1998 was first year we successfully turned it into a finished wine.
WE: What do you do when you're not making wine?
CM: I'm the archetypical Barossa Valley winemaker. I've got a wooden boat that I keep on the Murray. It's an old, "carvel hull" timber riverboat. I've got three kids under 11 years of age: That takes up a reasonable bit of time. We go fishing and cruising and camping. My wife Virginia hates the river—she's a farm girl from the north. She comes along occasionally, but it tends to be me and the kids.
WE: If you had to take just one bottle of wine to drink on a desert island what would it be? And what book and what music would you enjoy with it?
CM: The music, Elgar's cello concerto. The wine, a 1959 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti—the Richebourg would do. The book? One of Peter Doyle's fish cookbooks, as long as I had a fishing rod.
WE: How do you motivate yourself with each passing year?
CM: When you start a vintage and you see the first wines coming through. And when you know you have enough space in your winery you then can concentrate on your vineyards. Then there's the thrill you get when you line up all the wines at the end of vintage. Every year is different, after all. It's not like you wake up each day and it's the same routine. Anyway, what else would I do?

 

SONOMA SHOWCASE SHAKES AND BAKES, TAKES IN $300,000 FOR CHARITY

The 22nd annual Sonoma County Showcase of Wine & Food, the county's biggest and most extravagant celebration of its gastronomic and vinous treasures, is over, and the thousand people who went are still wiping their brows.

The three-day fest featured round-the-clock wining and dining, socializing and shmoozing at wineries scattered throughout the county, and culminated in a charity barrel auction. But under a blazing sun and with baking temperatures that soared to as high as 110F, the trick was to stay cool while you looked cool.

One of the owners of Iron Horse Winery, Joy Sterling, looked cool and composed in white stretch jeans and a white cotton top with a little white camisole underneath. But with her husband, winemaker Forrest Tancer, splashing wine around as he served it, "I have to stay well away from our Pinot Noir barrel!"

Business was brisk at the Flying Colors tent, where Sebastopol textile artist Amy Smith was selling her natural fiber hats. "You want something that will protect you from the sun, but you also want to look good while you're doing it."

No one went away hungry, as Sonoma's best chefs whipped up lusty fusion tidbits to go with the event's Pacific Rim theme. Chef Eric McCutcheon, of Bacchus Restaurant in Rohnert Park, was serving gingered shrimp with an arugula salad and lemongrass vinaigrette. "People here are wine and food enthusiasts, definitely," he said, "and you have to please them. Shrimp is always a good way to get them to come to your table."

There was a jazz band that played lots of Barry Manilow, and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, which preferred Gershwin. There were also two dozen Chinese dragon dancers who whooped and snaked their way through the crowd every once in a while to shake things up.

The auction raised about $300,000 for various local charities, only about half last year's amount, but no one was complaining. "We're all donating wine that we could otherwise sell, but it's a way of celebrating the grape, and the fact that we can make great wine here," said Walter Schug, of Schug Carneros Estate Winery. Agustin Huneeus, president of Franciscan Estates, was the day's high bidder at $19,000. He won the "Dinner with the First Families"—first families, that is, of Sonoma's Italian heritage: the Foppianos, Gallos, Pedroncellis, Sebastianis and Seghesios.

—Steve Heimoff

Hamptons Winery Previews $100 Bottle

Wölffer Estate takes Long Island pricing to new extreme

In a move calculated to make waves, Wölffer Estate, located in New York's tony Hamptons, has announced it will release Long Island's first $100 bottle of wine next spring. Winemaker Roman Roth describes the wine as "another way of pushing it…if you don't push, people won't look."

Roth credits consultant Jean-Louis Mandrau with encouraging him to try his hand at "something unique, for the collector." Under Mandrau guidance, Roth selected a portion of the estate's oldest Merlot plantings for special treatment:

berry-by-berry selection to eliminate any green or unripe character in the finished wine, followed by fermentation at higher temperatures and with more frequent pumping over to encourage greater extraction.

The result (Wine Enthusiast received a prerelease sample shortly after bottling) is a wine that bears more than a passing resemblance to some new-wave St.-Emilions. Loaded with black cherry fruit and toasty vanilla oak it develops tobacco and herbal nuances over time. Although we may not agree with Roth's assertion that this is a "wine to lay down 25 years," it does have masses of soft, enveloping tannins, which endow it with a lusciously chewy, creamy texture.

Only 100 cases of the 2000 Wölffer Signature Merlot were made, and with a fair portion destined for the winery's library, availability will be very limited. Your best bet may be to check with the winery next spring for a precise release date, then plan to spend that weekend at the beach house—with time for a detour to the winery's Sagaponack tasting room.

Wölffer Estate, 139 Sagg Road, Sagaponack, NY 11962; 631/537-5106.

—Joe Czerwinski

18th Annual KCBX Central Coast Wine Classic Hits High Notes

Showcasing nearly a week's worth of tastings, wine and food seminars, vineyard field trips, winery dinners and auction events, the 18th annual KCBX Central Coast Wine Classic inspired some 7,500 wine lovers, along with vintners, chefs, restaurateurs and sommeliers, to celebrate the wine in California's Central Coast. Revenues from the July event exceeded $1 million and benefited public radio KCBX, in San Luis Obispo.

Framed by the cool, blue waters of the Pacific Ocean and the region's vine-studded hillsides, the festivities unfolded under the direction of the event's founder, Archie McLaren, who outdid himself in assembling an impressive array of wine and food luminaries for the occasion.

They included local and nationally recognized chefs and restaurateurs, including California-based John Ash and New York powerhouse Joe Bastianich (of Babbo and Esca restaurants). San Francisco food radio host Narsai David cooked, poured and chatted, while fine wine auctioneer Dennis Foley—now with Zachy's in New York—presided over a vertical tasting of great California Cabernet Sauvignons dating back to 1935, some of which were from David's personal cellar. Some 100 Central Coast winemakers shared their fine wines, expertise and enthusiasm throughout the week.

Also of note was the attendance of a budding Sonoma winemaker, better known for his movies than his wine. Pixar director John Lasseter (Toy Story, Monsters, Inc.) arrived in his customized RV—complete with giant mounted steer horns—to bid on auction lots at various forums. The cineaste/vintner, who not surprisingly bears a strong resemblance to animated star Buzz Lightyear, will release his own wine sometime next year.

Aside from auction drama, the highpoint (quite literally) was the annual gala dinner at the Hearst Castle, built on a seaside mountain by newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst. The spectacular setting, with its elaborate gardens, views, architecture and art, is now a museum that rarely opens its doors for nighttime events like those enjoyed by Hearst a half century ago. As such, the evening offered Wine Classic guests a unique and intriguing window to history.

Current events were not to be ignored, however. "Given the economic conditions in the United States today, it is extremely gratifying to have the kind of auction results that we did this year," said McLaren. "Thanks to the generosity of our many friends, we will continue our primary mission of education."

The Wine Classic will unfold next year during the second week in July. More information may be obtained by calling 805/781-3026, or on their website, www.KCBX.org.

—Jeff Morgan

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