Wine sales in N.Y. supermarkets? The idea doesn’t go down smoothly

Here in New York, we can’t just go to the supermarket to pick up a bottle of wine, as folks can in 35 other states. That’s because wine sales are permitted only in liquor stores, and the owners of those stores – 2,754 of them in New York -- have fought off attempts to encroach on their businesses for three decades. Now the idea has come up again. Gov. David Patterson has called for the change in his 2010-11 budget proposal, saying it could bring in significant revenue for the state, and the battle is raging once more. Below, I offer a possible solution.

But first, it’s worth noting that a Siena College poll this week found that 58 percent of New Yorkers support supermarket wine sales, while 39 percent oppose it. The liquor-store lobby says the proposal will put 1,000 stores out of business and eliminate many more jobs, while supporters say it will lead to significant economic development by expanding wine sales, creating jobs in New York’s wine industry (few people realize that it ranks third in production after California and Washington), and by helping the state’s vintners better compete with wineries from other states  and countries.

Here in New York City, at least, wines from New York, whether from Long Island, the Finger Lakes, the Niagara Escarpment or the Hudson Valley are, on the whole, poorly represented in liquor stores. Retailers will tell you that there just isn’t the demand for them. It’s no wonder when you look at the domination by California and European wines.

So how about this? Perhaps one way of satisfying both sides in the dispute is to set an inventory requirement for New York wines in supermarkets of,  say, 15 or 20 percent. This would give the state’s wineries more exposure to consumers and might lessen the perceived damage to liquor stores, many of which all but ignore New York wines in the first pl ace. What do you think? Should New Yorkers be able to buy their wines in supermarkets? Please leave your comments below.


Steak and whine

Have you ever ordered a steak, medium-rare, let’s say, only to find it woefully under or over cooked? Did you have the nerve to send it back, or to ask for a new steak done the right way? Uncomfortable, isn’t it? Well, this recent GQ.com review by Alan Richman of his experience at the storied Sparks  steak house here in New York is absolutely priceless.


What we’re working on …

Have to be brief today, but in coming posts:

A re-introduction to the wines of southwest France, which include many indigenous varieties that are largely under the radar in this country;

Some winning chardonnays from California at various price points;

And some new releases from Chile, which I’ll be tasting on a panel tomorrow for Wine & Spirits Magazine.

Look for these and more stories on the wines of France’s Loire Valley in coming days. And don’t hesitate to send me a comment with your thoughts. Cheers.


Barolo and the last of the tomatoes

It was a bit young, but we enjoyed an excellent Barolo the other night with a hearty ragu I created from sweet and hot Italian sausage (Premio, made in Rochelle Park, N.J., is the local brand I prefer) and the last of the tomatoes I picked last fall near our house on Long Island and froze for use over the winter. FreezingBaroloin Ziploc bags, I have found, is a whole lot easier than traditional canning, and the tomatoes maintain their sweet taste many months later. Alas, we’ll now have to wait until late next summer to experience those sweet, locally grown tomatoes.

In any event, the wine was the 2004 Barolo from Silvano and Elena Baroli, an excellent, surprisingly accessible example, given its youth, of the great nebbiolo grape from Italy’s Piedmont. It was full of earth, truffle, and dry tannins, along with dark cherry, blueberry, coffee and chocolate notes – a wine to sip, savor and contemplate that will, of course, become more refined with age.  Around $40. Imported by Dalla Terra Winery Direct, Napa, California. (Received as a press sample.)


The pinot file: Gallo, France, hit by fake wine scandal

There was a good deal of buzz about this when I was in France the week before last, and now the shoe has dropped on a dozen French wine producers and traders in one of the biggest wine scandals to hit the country in years.

The growers and businessmen in the Languedoc-Roussillon region claimed to be supplying pinot noir to, among others, E. & J. Gallo, the California-based wine giant, for its hugely popular Red_BicycletteRed Bicyclette brand that sells for about $9.

Yesterday, a court in the region found the 12 guilty of fraud for churning out several million gallons of wine that was labeled pinot noir but was, in reality, much less expensive merlot and syrah, which are common to the region while pinot noir is not. The defendants received suspended jail sentences and were fined up to $244,000.

The story is getting a good deal of attention here and in Europe, with The Guardian, in its lead, summing it up exquisitely: “The  Californian wine buff testing his glass of wine in the sunshine might have noticed many things from his mouthful of Red Bicyclette pinot noir: "dark fruit aromas," as the website proudly proclaims, or "flavours of black cherry and ripe plum.” But if he had paused a little longer and maybe sniffed a little deeper, the connoisseur might have detected another, rather different note: the bitter taste of being had.”

In a statement, Gallo said it was “disappointed” to learn of the guilty verdicts. It said it was no longer selling any of the wine in question to its customers and that the only pinot noir “that was potentially misrepresented to us would have been the 2006 vintage and prior.” It’s doubtful that much of it still around.

Here's the bigger problem: the French are trying mightily to improve their market share and to overcome the inherent difficulties that Americans and others have in deciphering the language of the labels and the country's complicated and highly regulated appellation system. Buying up millions of gallons of cheap “pinot noir,” bottling it as “Vin de Pays” and putting the grape variety and a cute picture on the label, as Gallo did, was a blessing for the French -- a way way of making their wine more accessible to the American masses. At least that’s what everyone figured until what was in the “pinot noir” bottles turned out to be fake. Americans hate feeling cheated and I suspect that both the French defendants and Gallo will share the blame in the minds of consumers.

There has been no suggestion that people were harmed by drinking the phony wine, at least not physically. The harm is in the fact that everyone who bought a bottle of fraudulent Red Bicyclette Pinot Noir trusted that they were getting what they paid for – from the growers and the brand. That trust was broken.

The French make some of the very best wines in the world, as I was reminded in a week of tastings in the Loire Valley earlier this month, mostly with small family-owned producers. For them and the vast majority of French growers and industry executives, integrity and reputation are everything. It will be a shame if they have to suffer because of the dishonesty of a few bad players.    And yet, this is also a wakeup call to the fact that the misdeeds of a few can end up hurting many more.


The first rosé: a taste of spring

jlc_capebleue_bot I must say that I enjoyed tasting the first of the 2009 rosés to come my way, even as it snowed (yet again) here in New York. I don’t know about you, but this is about the time when I start to get just a little tired of winter, despite the good skiing we’ve had and the excitement of watching the Vancouver Olympics games.  And so, Jean-Luc Colombo’s 2009 Cape Bleue Rosé from near Marseilles in southeastern France came just at the right time and made me imagine the warmer days that lie ahead.  

The $12 wine, a Vin de Pays de Mediterranée, is light copper in color and is a blend of 40 percent syrah, 40 mourvèdre and 20 percent counoise. With notes of raspberry, cherry, yellow peach, this is a bright rosé with minerals and a bit of citrus and green herb on the finish. Enjoy it as an aperitif and with broiled fish, chicken and lighter vegetable dishes. A welcome taste of spring. Imported by Palm Bay International, Boca Raton, Florida. (Received as a press sample.)


Valentine’s Day: a “sinfully delicious” red for chocolate

“Sinfully delicious” is usually a term we reserve for chocolate, but it’s a wine from Italy that’s making me think of it tonight.  It’s the  Lambrusco Grasparossa from Medici Ermete’s Le Tenute Bocciolo, a sweet (but not too sweet) slightly sparkling wine that will  be an absbocciolonewolutely gorgeous match for dark chocolate cake this Valentine’s Day. The wine is from the Emilia-Romagna region in Italy’s north, specifically the Colli di Scandiano e di Canossa zone between Parma and Modena.

This deep red wine is a true quaffer, a sublime, low-alcohol (7.5 percent) grape drink that brings to mind Welch’s on a very basic level but that offers beguiling sweet blackberry, plum, earth and subtle herbal notes. The finish is actually dry and slightly tannic. The current vintage is 2007, which you’ll find stamped on the very bottom of the back label. Once opened, make sure you pour yourself a healthy glass of this because you’ll find others gulping it down. The suggested price, $20, makes it a steal. This one gives the largely out-of-fashion Lambrusco a good name and, beyond chocolate, I can easily see it with prosciuttos and and salamis. Imported by JK Imports, Pasadena, California. (Received as a press sample.)


Video – a French view of screw caps

While the use of screw cap closures has been embraced by many wine regions, especially for white wines meant for quick drinking, the French have been a bit slower to replace the cork. I spoke about the subject last week in the Loire Valley with Isabelle Moreau, head of exports for Monmousseau, the big sparkling wine house that also offers a range of still wines, mainly for the French market, and has begun to use screw caps on some of them. As you’ll see, Isabelle is animated and passionate and was a delight to talk with. I’ll have more from our conversation in coming posts.

Dry Valentine’s sparklers

As Valentine’s Day approaches, I can’t think of a more classic pairing for chocolate cake than pink or red sparkling wines. To prove the point, I’ve been pairing slices of the belated chocolate birthday cake my wife baked for me with both dry and sweet bubbly this week. A couple of dry wines stand out.


Look for Nicolas Feuillatte’s Champagne Rosé Brut. This salmon-colored wine with a suggested price of $48 is fresh and yeasty on the nose with perfumed raspberry, cassis and citrus notes. It’s light on the  palate with strawberry and lemon notes and a creamy finish. Clean and focused with fine bubbles. The blend is 60 percent pinot noir, 30 percent pinot meunier and 10 percent chardonnay.

Cava from Spain is one of the world’s top sparkling wine values, and Freixenet is the leading brand, well-known for its under-$10 wines. A nice step up is Freixenet’s “Elyssia” Pinot Noir Brut rosé, at $18.  Its fruity aromas suggest cranberry and yellow peach; in the mouth a Maraschino cherry note, a little bitterness and very ample acidity make for an interesting and rewarding combination.

Look for some “sweet” suggestions in my next post. (Wines received as press samples.)


The superb Montlouis

I had a delightful tasting and lunch in France last week with Lise and Bertrand Jousset, a young couple who have been farming about 26 acres in the Montlouis-sur-Loire appellation since 2004. Mountlouis has been overshadowed for most of its history by its larger and more famous neighbor, Vouvray, but Lise and Bertrand are among those demonstrating why tiny Montlouis is making its mark producing some of the most exciting chenin blancs in this part of the Loire Valley.


For one thing, they are farming and making their wines organically, though Lise says you will never see the word “organic” on their labels. While an increasing number of winemakers here and elsewhere use organic certification as a badge of honor and as a marketing tool, the Joussets beg to differ. “We don’t want to use ‘organic’ to sell our wines,” Lise says. “We want people to buy our wines because they like them, not because they’re organic.” She adds, “There are a lot of industrial wines that are organic. We don’t want to be mixed with these people.”

The Joussets’ wines, made from chenin blanc grapes from 40- to 130-year-old vines, speak for themselves, as I quickly found out  in the small cellar below their house, tasting five or six 2009 barrel samples from various vineyard parcels, some of them still fermenting. The fruit, though still a bit bitter in some cases, is ripe, concentrated and altogether delicious and another sign of the quality of the ’09 vintage that I found in a week of tastings in the Loire Valley.

The vineyard lies on soil with a good deal of flint, or silex as its known, which gives the wines a precise, focused quality. I liked all three wines from the 2008 vintage, the dry Premier Rendez-Vouz, with lush pear, honey and minerals, still a bit bitter at the end reflecting its youth; the Trait d’union, a semi-dry chenin with a good deal of tropical fruit and a touch of banana supported by firm acidity; and the racy, more austere and profound Singulier, made from some of the oldest vines on the property, which has a superb finish.

Chenin blanc, as I was reminded time and again in my tastings last week, not only benefits from but really requires aging to enjoy fully, and the point was emphasized when Bertrand served the 2005 vintage of Singulier at lunch in the couple’s kitchen. The food highlight was a simple soup that Lise had made with pureed carrots, potatoes and leeks and flavored with what Lise called some some “bones,” or veal scraps. The wine, with a few years of bottle age, had lost its edges and made for a sublime pairing.

The Joussets’ production has been and will remain small. They’ve been making 20,000 to 25,000 bottles a year and will go up to about 40,000 this year. But that will be it for now. As Bertrand explained, “We want to keep it a human winery. I like to work the vines myself. I don’t want to be a businessman.”


Bubbly for breakfast

On our second day at the Loire Salon tasting here in France we concentrated on a few of the great names and appellations of the region as well as some lesser known areas and producers. We started off with a “breakfast of bubbles,” as our guide, the highly knowledgeable and delightful Ross Wassermann, put it. Many Americans may not know that the Loire Valley is the second-largest producer of sparkling wine in France after Champagne, and that the wines are made throughout the region from chenin blanc combined with other grapes. The appellation Crémant de Loire is the biggest for sparkling wine and also the most prestigious, though by no means a household name beyond France or even the Loire itself. IMG_4850  François Régis de Fougeroux thinks that’s starting to change. He’s the young general manager of one of the best-known Crémant producers, Langlois-Chateau in Saumur (the property was founded in 1885 by Edouard Langlois and his wife, the aptly named Jeanne Chateau, and has been owned since 1973 by the Bollinger Champagne house). As he poured for us today, Régis de Fougeroux said he believes the wines are becoming better known and are increasingly perceived as having “authenticity,” as he put it. “People are now asking for a ‘Crémant,’” he told us. It’s no wonder. The wines can be quite distinctive, are refreshing with their crisp acidity and cost a good deal less than Champagne.

Three from Langlois-Chateau stood out for me. The basic Crémant de Loire Brut, made from 60 percent chenin blanc, 20 percent chardonnay and 20 percent cabernet franc, is zesty and fresh with pretty, lemony fruit and a bargain at about $20. The 2003 Crémant Reserve is made from the same blend and has a somewhat longer finish and more minerality. The 2002 “Quadrille”Crémant Extra Brut, though nominally drier than the Bruts, is actually richer and more Champagne-like in practice with its long, creamy finish, achieved from extended contact with the lees, the remnants of the yeasts and solids of the grapes. The Quadrille is made with four varieties -- 50 percent chenin, 30 percent chardonnay, 15 percent cab franc and five percent cabernet sauvignon.

We also enjoyed some nice Crémants from Louis de Grenelle, also located in Saumur, and for me the standout was the organic “Louis” Brut, which was at once refreshing, creamy and citrusy, reminding me of lemon meringue. Our “breakfast” was a tasty one indeed. I’ll be posting on more great wines from the Loire Valley in coming days.


Loire Valley 2009s: an exceptional vintage

Just finished my first day of tastings here in France at the Salon des Vins de Loire in Angers, a big trade event where hundreds of Loire Valley producers are pouring their newly released or soon-to-be released wines. Headline: the 2009 vintage is excellent, with great fruit and balance in both the reds and whites. Some highlights:

Lucien Crochet’s 2009 white Sancerre reminded me why sauvignon blancs from the Loire Valley are the benchmark with which others are compared. It’s a model of elegance and balance. Sancerre’s reds are made from pinot noir, and  Crochet’s  2006 “La Croix du Roy” Pinot Noir speaks well for Sancerre’s ability, with certain producers and in certain vintages, to make distinctive pinots with both ample fruit and high acidity. It’s a style that I, for one, prefer.

Domaine du Closel 003

From Chinon, Bernard Baudry is making some of the most delicious cabernet francs in the Loire Valley – or the world (his son Matthieu is seen holding one of them on the right). Cab franc can be dominated by the variety’s “green” notes, but in Baudry’s wines they are in the background. One focuses, instead, on the concentrated red fruit and violet notes and the minerality of the wines, which show nuanced differences depending on whether the grapes are grown in soils with gravel, clay, limestone or chalk, all of which are found in Baudry’s vineyards. Four of his   Chinons – the basic Les Granges as well as Les Grezeaux, Le Clos Guillot and La Croix Boissee – are must buys in ‘09 when they are released beginning in a few months or so.

Other highlights included a sauvignon blanc, pinot noir and rosé of pinot gris from Domaine de Reuilly in the small Reuilly appellation in the southeast Loire; several Saviennieres, both dry and sweet (the grape is chenin blanc) from Domaine des Baumard; a dry chenin blanc (Les Chanteaux) and Chinon (Les Graviere) from Couly-Dutheil; and another sauvignon blanc, the 2008 Pouilly-Fumé from Chteau de Tracy.