Oct 2009 issue

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PAGES (7-14) October 2009

NOTEBOOK, CALENDAR, HOT PICKS

Notebook

RESTAURANT INDUSTRY OUTLOOK

The National Restaurant Association (NRA) reported a July gain in its Restaurant Performance Index (RPI), the first increase in three months. A monthly index that tracks the current and projected health of the U.S. restaurant industry, the RPI increased 0.3% in July to 98.1, but remained below 100 for the 21st consecutive month, signifying that he industry is still in a period of contraction. The index is based on the NRA’s monthly Restaurant Industry Tracking Survey, which is distributed among restaurant operators nationwide to determine existing and anticipated market conditions.

The Current Situation Index, which measures four industry indicators—same-store sales, traffic, labor, and capital expenditures—rose 0.2% in July to 96.8, its first improvement in three months. For the period between July 2008 and July 2009, 26% of restaurant operators reported a gain in same-store sales, up from a record-low 22% in the previous month. In the capital-expenditures category, 40% of the respondents said they purchased equipment, expanded, or remodeled between May and July 2009.

Measuring restaurateurs’ six-month outlook for the same four indicators, the Expectations Index was up 0.5% from June to 99.4 in July—again, its first gain in three months. In July, 31% of operators said they expected to have higher sales in six months compared to the same period last year, whereas only 24% reported the same expectation in June.

Operators were even more optimistic about the direction of the economy, with 32% predicting conditions would improve within the next six months, up from 24% in the previous month. Of the respondents, 42% said they planned to make a capital expenditure for equipment, expansion, or remodeling within the next six months. “Although restaurant operators continue to report soft same-store sales and customer-traffic levels, they are more optimistic about improving conditions in the months ahead,” said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research and information services for the NRA, in a release.

STATES INCREASE WINE TAXES

While 11 states have rejected tax increases on wine this year, six have passed legislation to raise their excise taxes. Illinois, New Jersey, New York, and North Carolina have approved tax increases on wine per quantity distributed, while Massachusetts and Kentucky have changed their sales tax codes to include wine bought at retail stores. In Illinois, taxes placed on distributors increased from 73 cents to $1.39 per gallon for wine, from 19 to 23 cents per gallon for beer, and from $4.50 to $8.55 per gallon for spirits. In North Carolina, the excise tax was raised from 21 to 26 cents per liter for wine at 16% alcohol by volume and below, and from 24 to 29 cents per liter for wine with 17-24% alcohol. In New York, the tax on a gallon of wine increased from 19 to 30 cents, while in New Jersey, an extra 25% levy was enacted on wine and liquor sales. Retailers in Massachusetts must now add 6.25% sales tax to alcohol purchases made in their stores; in Kentucky, alcoholic beverages are now subject to a 6% sales tax.

“We’re actually increasing prices right now,” said Don Sritong, owner of Just Grapes in Chicago, on Sept. 1, the day the tax increase went into effect in Illinois. “There was another increase earlier that we absorbed, and this one kind of pushed us over the top.” Sritong said that while he can’t predict what effect the tax increase will have on consumer spending in his store, he thinks customers will notice the results on wines at the sensitive price thresholds of $9.99, $19.99, and $24.99. “We had a meeting this morning to discuss how to handle consumer inquiries on why wines they’ve been buying forever at $9.99 are now $10.49,” he said, “and the staff is instructed to communicate that we’re literally just transferring the extra tax. With consumer awareness of the tax increase, I hope they know it’s not us trying to make an extra dollar, but a direct result of this increase and the last that we absorbed.”

APPELLATION UPDATE

The U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) this month approved a petition from Wes Hagen, vineyard manager and winemaker at Clos Pepe Vineyards, for establishment of the Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara American Viticultural Area (AVA). Although “Happy Canyon” was originally proposed as the name of the AVA, the TTB decided a geographical modifier was needed to avoid confusion. The region comprises 23,941 acres, 492 of which are planted to winegrapes in six vineyards: Cimarone, Grassini, Happy Canyon Vineyard, McGinley, Star Lane, and Vogelzang. Its primary varieties are Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Syrah, and Sangiovese.

As the farthest inland of the grape-growing regions in the Santa Ynez Valley, Happy Canyon has the warmest climate, with Pacific coastal breezes blocked by a north-south ridge. Elevations range from 500 feet in the southwest corner to 3,430 feet in the northeast corner of the AVA. Alluvial soils are found at the lower elevations and in the canyons, with more upland soils at higher elevations and on peaks and hilltops. “The warmer temperatures combined with attenuated marine influence allow for significantly more growing hours over the course of a year,” said Kurt Ammann, manager of consumer direct marketing and sales for Star Lane Vineyard. “The area is also defined by its high magnesium soils, which are derived from rocks that once made up the ocean crust. These rocks have been metamorphosed to produce serpentine rock during the collision of continental and ocean plates; serpentine soils reduce vigor and help to stress the vines.”

“For Bordeaux varietal growers, the designation was essential," said Doug Margerum, founder of Santa Barbara's Margerum Wine Company, which sources most of its Sauvignon Blanc from Happy Canyon. “The growing area is perfect for these varietals, and they do not succeed as well in the larger AVA of Santa Ynez Valley. Much like Sta. Rita’s application to clearly define where Chardonnay and Pinot Noir thrive at the west end of the valley, it was important to delineate the east end of the valley for warmer-climate grapes.” The TTB ruling becomes effective Nov. 9; according to Margerum, Happy Canyon Vineyard will probably release the first red wine from the new AVA, its 2009 Chukker, in March 2010.

WASHINGTON WINEMAKER DIES

David Lake, MW, died at his home in Issaquah, Wash., on Oct. 5. Known around the world as the longtime winemaker of Washington’s Columbia Winery, Lake had battled several ailments, including cancer and a heart condition, toward the end of his career and after his retirement in 2005. He was 66.

Born in England, Lake began working in the wine trade there in 1969. He earned the Master of Wine certificate in 1975, then spent a year studying viticulture and enology at the University of California-Davis. After brief stops at Oregon’s Eyrie, Amity, and Bethel Heights wineries, Lake joined Columbia (then known as Associated Vintners) in 1979 and immediately began to apply the classical instincts that would make such an impact on the reputation of wines of the Pacific Northwest.

Among Lake’s innovations were the first plantings of Pinot Gris, Syrah, and Cabernet Franc and the first vineyard-designated bottlings in Washington state. His signature style involved uncompromising elegance rather than raw power, while still reflecting distinct qualities of terroir. For example, Lake’s first commercial Syrah, the 1988 Columbia Red Willow Vineyard, gave notice of the grape’s potential in the arid, silty loams of the Columbia Valley; today, Syrah is the third-most-widely planted grape in the state.

I found Lake’s judicious use of Cabernet Franc, in particular, to be such a key, harmonizing element in his Red Willow Vineyard Merlot that I later asked him to travel through our restaurants in Hawaii. Using both barrel samples and bottlings, he afforded our staffs and guests the rare opportunity to experience the art of winemaking. To me, the finished wines epitomized David Lake’s personality: generous, inspiring, and unfailingly elegant.
—Randy Caparoso

LATEST VINEXPO RELEASES

I made my way around Bordeaux’s Vinexpo in April to discover what intriguing new wineries and releases I might find.

The dynamic Symington Family Estates has rolled out two 2007 Douro Superior reds: the fresh and gluggable Pombal (Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, and Tinta Roriz), and the inky-purple and dense Quinta do Vesuvio (70% Touriga Nacional, 30% Touriga Franca). “The best vintage I’ve ever witnessed,” said Dominic Symington of the 2007s, both table and fortified. After tasting through the company's best-known Ports, I concurred.

The Guibert family’s Mas de Daumas Gassac has released its first pink fizz, called Rosé Frizant, a vin mousseux made by the cuve close method. It’s 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from 2008: vivid pink, quaffable, forward, and a bit tannic, with 11% alcohol. Not serious, yet fully fresh and enjoyable.

The Champagne house of Leclerc Briant is transitioning to fully organic with its 100% Pinot Meunier cuvée, La Ravinne. Displaying fine perlage, this soft wine slips down easily, with a low dosage at 5 grams per liter. The estate will be fully Biodynamic in a few years.

Across the lake from the main part of the fair was the popular Renaissance des Appellations tasting, where I took time to reminisce with Julian and Carol-ann Castagna of the Beechworth district in Victoria, Australia. Julian poured his first sparkling Shiraz, from 2005—the best of its type I’ve had by a wide berth. Serious stuff for what’s normally sloughed off as cheap.

Even a photo of his recently departed uncle Jean hanging above him didn’t subdue consummate marketer Etienne Hugel. I lunched not once but thrice at his stand, which was notable for the wide range of delicious Asian foods available to pair with Hugel’s library of outstanding Alsatian wines.

Across the aisle from the Castagnas, alongside Movia, was a Georgian winery I’d not yet encountered: the Prince Makashvilij estate, which fashions a clay-jar-fermented version of Rkatsiteli from an acre of organic vines. The 2007, a vast improvement from the winery’s first commercial vintage of 2006, was perhaps a harbinger of things to come.
—David Furer, CWE

LAUNCHES AND ACQUISITIONS

Nicolas Jaboulet and the Perrin family have established a “boutique négociant, specialized in the production of Northern Rhône wines.” According to Jaboulet, the partners will soon release their first four wines, a 2008 Hermitage Blanc and 2007 Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie, and St. Joseph reds, under the label “Nicolas Jaboulet, Perrin Frères.” They expect to expand to other appellations, including Crozes-Hermitage and Cornas, with the 2009 vintage. As his first venture since leaving the Northern Rhône’s Paul Jaboulet Aîné, Jaboulet began working on this project with the Perrin family, owners of the Southern Rhône’s Château de Beaucastel, some six months ago. “We are convinced by the importance of the terroir and that each wine must have its own personality,” said Jaboulet. The wines are barrel-aged in the Perrin family cellars in Orange before bottling. In addition to selling them in France, Jaboulet said he plans to export, with “the United States definitely a market where we want to see our wines.” Vineyard Brands, importer for Château de Beaucastel, is set to take over the account.

Artisanal winery Betts & Scholl has been sold to spirits company Castle Brands. As part of the deal, RIchard Betts, MS, will become vice president and head of Castle Brands' new wine division, and Dennis Scholl will join the board of directors. Beginning in 2003, the pair worked with Barossa Valley’s Rusden winery to produce a Grenache and a Riesling, then entered into winemaking projects with Domaine Jean-Louis Chave to create a Hermitage; Randy and Debbie Lewis to produce a Napa Syrah; and Bobby Stuckey, MS, and Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson of Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder, Colo., to launch the Scarpetta label for Friulian whites. “Now we’ve reached a critical tipping point,” said Scholl; “either we have to grow internally or seek a strategic partner to help us take our wines to the next level. Castle Brands is the missing link.”

COMINGS AND GOINGS

Chef Joseph Calabrese’s French bistro, Café Touché , has opened in Chicago’s Edison Park, with David Ligon as general manager and sommelier. Jason McLeod is the executive chef at Balsan and Ria , both opening last month in Chicago’s Elysian Hotel. Michael Pellegrino is the new executive chef at Max’s Wine Dive in Houston. Tony Esnault, formerly of Adour Alain Ducasse in New York, has been named executive chef at Joachim Splichal’s Patina in Los Angeles. Jason Neroni has left New York’s 10 Downing Street to become executive chef at Blanca in Solana Beach, Calif. Elsewhere in New York, Fabio Trabocchi, former executive chef at Fiamma, has become the executive chef at the Four Seasons ; chef de cuisine Jonathan Benno is leaving Per Se in January, to be replaced by sous chef Eli Kaimeh. Opening in the city this month are Bistro Vendôme by Pascal Petiteau, former chef at Jubilee, and his wife Virginie, and Peter Poulakakos’s Vintry Wine & Whiskey, a high-end bar serving light food, wine, and American, Scotch, Irish, and Japanese whiskies. Also set to open in New York is The Breslin Bar and Dining Room from Ken Friedman and chef-partner April Broomfield, where beverage director Dennis O’Connor will offer 100 wines priced below $100. Danny Meyer’s Maialino (Italian for “little pig”) will open in November under chef Nick Anderer in the Gramercy Park Hotel. Café Boulud has reopened with an updated interior designed by Jeffrey Beers, including two new private rooms and the adjacent Bar Pleiades. In December, Pierre Gagnaire will launch his first U.S. restaurant, Twist by Pierre Gagnaire , in the Mandarin Oriental Las Vegas at CityCenter, featuring a design by Adam D. Tihany and a classic French menu with a modern flair. Coppa by partners Ken Oringer and chef Jamie Bissonnette has opened in Boston, with Courtney Bissonnette as the general manager and wine buyer. San Francisco’s SPQR reopened late last month after a two-week hiatus to usher in chef Matt Accarrino, who has replaced Nate Appleman. Also in San Francisco, David Lynch, recently of New York’s The John Dory, has become director of wine and beverage at Quince . Filling Quince’s former space in the city will be Baker and Banker , by chef Jeff Banker and wife Lori Baker; Doug Johnson, formerly of Postrio, will be the wine director and manager, and an on-site bakery is planned. Restaurateur Mitchell Sjerven and winemaker Doug Margerum plan to reopen the Wine Cask restaurant and adjacent Intermezzo wine bar next month in Santa Barbara, Calif. In Atlanta, The Dining Room in the Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead, has closed. Former sous chef Chuck Voudouris has replaced Dale Ray as executive chef at Loftin’s 1116 restaurant in the Versace mansion of Miami Beach, while Ray has moved on to Mustards Grill in Napa, Calif. Michael Jordan, MS, general manager of Disney’s Napa Rose restaurant, is leaving the restaurant industry after 35 years to start a wine company called Word. Ken Forrester Vineyards has become a member of the Biodiversity Wine Initiative.

Hot Picks

VALUE WHITE

2007 Morgan Chardonnay Metallico, Monterey $20
Light gold in the glass, this wine has a lively nose of crisp apples and unripe pears with a hint of guava. In the mouth, it is crystalline in quality, with restrained lemon-curd, cold-cream, green-melon, and wet-slate flavors that slide refreshingly across the palate. A hint of buttered sourdough toast creeps into the finish, which, like the rest of the wine, can only be characterized as refreshing. Sold as “unoaked,” but actually aged in neutral oak on the lees for several months. A great value. www.morganwinery.com .

HIGH-END WHITE

2001 Gravner Ribolla Gialla Anfora, Friuli $90
A distinct and vibrant medium-orange color in the glass, this wine smells of something otherworldly—a concoction of roasted nuts, bee pollen, orange-blossom honey, and an elusive floral aroma. In the mouth, it’s unusually silky without being heavy on the tongue. Awash with a myriad of flavors ranging from wet dirt to orange Creamsicle, tangerine zest, and pine sap, the wine is a Technicolor dreamcoat of flavors that all but force a smile. Despite being made from white grapes, it has a distinct, light tannic structure that gives it a muscular quality. Excellent acidity and a minute-long finish seal the bargain. Outstanding. Importer: Vias Imports, www.viaswine.com .

VALUE RED

2007 Quivira Vineyards Grenache Wine Creek Ranch, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma $22
Medium-to-dark garnet in the glass, this Grenache smells of ripe plums and cherries with a dash of bright strawberry. In the mouth, it is bright and juicy, and its core of cherry, plummy fruit has a vibrant, pure quality. The acidity marries well with a lightly dusty earthiness that lingers on the pleasant finish. This wine benefits greatly from air—I recommend decanting it or pouring big, sloshy glassfuls and adding a little breathing time. Grown from impeccably farmed Biodynamic vineyards by one of the most environmentally conscious producers in California. www.quivirawine.com .

HIGH-END RED

2007 Patton Valley Vineyard Pinot Noir Cuvée Lorna Marie, Willamette Valley, Oregon $75
A light garnet in color, this wine has a perfumed nose of rich forest floor, exotic spices, raspberries, and plum. It’s ethereal on the palate, with a gorgeous texture and weightlessness. Perfectly balanced with great acidity, the wine’s primary flavors are of mulberry and raspberry, with aromatic secondary flavors of cedar, forest duff, and a darker, earthier note that underlies everything and holds through the finish. Delicious. www.pattonvalley.com .

ALDER YARROW
Founder and Editor
Vinography.com

VALUE-SPARKLING

La Tordera Prosecco di Valdobbiadene, Veneto $15
Prosecco is a shining star, newly adorned with Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) status for Conegliano Valdobbiadene and Colli Asolani and DOC for the nine surrounding provinces (wines made outside the DOC will have to use the grape name, Glera). In light of rising Champagne costs, Prosecco has also taken up permanent residence on many wine lists as a sparkling by-the-glass option. La Tordera is subtle and seductive, with notes of lily, white rose, white nectarine, Asian pear, and lemon. Importer: Tesori Wines, www.tesoriwines.com .

HIGH-END WHITE

2007 Biblia Chora Ovilos O, Pangeon, Macedonia $50
This blend of 50% Assyrtiko and 50% Sémillon, crafted by partners Vassilis Tsaktsarlis and Evangelos Gerovassiliou, has a complex nose of sea spray, pine, chalk, Meyer lemon, quince paste, dried pineapple, dried apricot, pistachio, and sage. On the palate, it is medium-bodied and creamy, with underlying notes of pine, lemon, and apple; bright acidity; and subtle, seamlessly integrated oak tannins. Very distinguished. Importer: Cava Spiliadis, www.cavaspiliadis.com .

VALUE RED

2004 Luis Cañas Rioja Crianza $16
Here’s a terrific by-the-glass option to pair with more elegant, refined dishes. While not a blockbuster, this medium-bodied, entry-level Rioja offers notes of tomato, plum, and tobacco, with a slight hint of spicy-oak vanillin. Because it is a small-production, limited-distribution wine, you can rest assured it won’t end up case-stacked and deeply discounted in the chains. Importer: Henriot Inc., www.henriotinc.com .

HIGH-END RED

2005 Nico by Luca Malbec, Altos de Mendoza $125
This world-class red combines the concentration, structure, polish, and longevity of a top-notch Bordeaux with immediately appealing ripe fruit. Argentine Malbec grown in these high altitudes doesn’t get jammy or sweet; it ripens slowly over a long growing season, so the fruit is full yet not in your face, and the color and tannins are beautifully developed. I love the interplay of blueberry and violets with the expensive, toasty oak, but most of all I love the balance. Decanting is recommended for aeration. Importer: Vine Connections, www.vineconnections.com .

CATHERINE FALLIS, MS, ACWP
Planet Grape LLC
San Francisco

VALUE WHITE

2007 Domaine Costal Chablis Les Truffières, Burgundy $25
What happens when a great domaine (Jean Collet) with a rare surplus of juice teams up with a talented winemaker (Bernard Raveneau) and a smart businessman (Kermit Lynch)? A miracle of amazing-value Chablis. This wine is already a classic, with aromatics of limestone, wet rock, and tart citrus. On the palate, it has a profound attack; the texture alone will keep you awake and sharp-witted all day. Complex, bone-dry flavors of minerals and raw almonds dance on the palate. It’s beautifully balanced and medium-bodied, with a lingering finish. Importer: Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant, www.kermitlynch.com .

HIGH-END SPARKLING

N.V. Alfred Gratien Champagne Brut Classique, Épernay $55
The 145-year-old Champagne house of Alfred Gratien may be humble, but it crafts some of the most distinctive cuvées in the region. This non-vintage version is a blend of nearly equal parts Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier with a dose of Pinot Noir, all from grand cru vineyards. The barrel-fermented base wine remains in cask until spring, resulting in a wine of unique character, with a chalky, toasty nose and a round yet minerally palate. Although it is profoundly expressive and flavorful, it exhibits an elegance and finesse that only the top Champagne producers routinely achieve. Importer: Domaine Select Wine Estates, www.domaineselect.com .

VALUE RED

2007 Can Blau, Montsant $14
To say this wine is a tremendous value is an understatement. Ah, Garnacha grown in the mountains of Tarragona! A deep purple-red, it explodes with plum, blackberry, and spice aromatics; on the palate, it’s full-bodied, richly textured, and savory. Despite the impact, the wine is balanced, with a smooth, long finish. It’s distinctly Spanish, but if you pronounce the name in French, it sounds like a party. Importer: Jorge Ordoñez Selections, Dedham, Mass.

HIGH-END RED

2007 Couloir Wines Pinot Noir Roma’s Vineyard, Anderson Valley $44
Grapes from an organically farmed vineyard at 1,850 feet above the Anderson Valley floor make this elegant, restrained Pinot Noir. The wine shows classic aromatics of cherry, mineral, and earth; the acidity and structure harmonize to create a fine, complex taste sensation. Only eight barrels were produced, but the wine is well worth seeking out. Especially if you ski the steep stuff. www.couloirwines.com .

CHRISTIE DUFAULT, ACWP
Sommelier
RN74
San Francisco