Tom's blog

Appreciating good wine not for everyone

I had the most enjoyable two-hour lunch with Gaia Gaja, the fifth generation Gaja to become involved in the family's iconic Piedmont wine business. The subjects ranged from her family history to the impact of an impudent president (yeah, Italy had one too). So, I'll be posting a couple of these exchanges in the next few days.

 Gaia Gaja

Gaia Gaja

One illuminating discussion centered around the appreciation of a Gaja barbaresco, not everyone's cup of tea.  I like to call these wines "cerebral" because they call on a taster to dig deep into the recesses of his mind to fully appreciate them. There are nuances that evolve in the glass and even more that evolve in the cellar. They aren't as obvious as, say, a full-throttle Oregon pinot noir or an extracted Bordeaux. Instead of clobbering your palate with ripe fruit, a Gaja barbaresco teases the palate. 

Gaia compares drinking her barbaresco to meeting a stranger. "When I drink nebbiolo, I see myself in a room next to an interesting stranger and he's running away. I'm constantly chasing this wine and about the time I catch up, it goes again," she says.

Although the business is a family affair, Gaia's primary role is traveling the globe and working with wholesalers, customers of her family's wine, and trade groups. In her travels, she says many avid Gaja fans want her to taste what they believe are similar wines. But they are not and that disappoints her. Maybe nothing compares to Gaja barbaresco.

The 2011 Gaja Barbaresco I tasted with her was a fresh edition of what I remember from older vintages. The generous aromas included strawberries and red currants -- somewhat ripe but still fresh to me. Alcohol and acidity were in exquisite harmony.

There are few other wines in my experience that reach this level. Many great burgundies do and maybe a few Alsace rieslings.  But Gaja's wines are the Maseratis of the fleet.

I can't imagine pouring these wines to the masses, which is what Gaja was doing when she attended a charity fundraiser in Naples, FL, that evening. Granted, at $10,000 a couple it attracted well-heeled contributors, but who knew what they were tasting?

 

Redirecting pinot palates

 Cushing Donelan

Cushing Donelan

The other night I enjoyed a steak dinner with Cushing Donelan, one of the family members who puts his name behind some of the most exclusive wines in Sonoma County. We were enjoying his 2012 Two Brothers Pinot Noir, an understated wine closer to the likes of Burgundy than California. With minimal exposure to oak and reasonable whole-cluster fermentation, it is a cerebral wine -- one that gets you to think. Contrarily, my palate collapses under the weight of these heavy, extracted pinot noirs from other parts of California.

I asked "Cush" if it's challenging to reach consumers who have been weaned on sweet, inexpensive pinot noir, such as Meomi and Menage a Trois.

"Absolutely," he confessed.

Meomi, now owned by Constellation Brands, makes more than 500,000 cases. Donelan's entire production of 14 wines is a scant 6,500 cases. Meomi cost around $15; Donelan Two Brothers is around $60. 

As consumers flock to the many over-extracted, high-alcohol fruit bombs, is there any hope they will appreciate Donelan's wine? Not likely, but that trend won't dissuade the Donelans who have been true to their cause of making refined pinot noir and syrah.

Fortunately, Donelan has much less pinot noir to sell -- in fact, the only way to get it is through its web site. They'll do just fine, but I have to ponder the thought of pinot noir being defined by the wrong standard.

There are many producers following Donelan's model and I'm thankful every time I ponder a balanced pinot noir. 

More on Donelan's great wines in future posts.

Is it safe to split a bottle of wine -- and drive?

My wife and I like to order a bottle of wine when we dine out. Spread over a couple of hours of leisurely dining, I assume the wine has not rendered me incapable of getting us home. But if I were pulled over, would the police think differently?

Chances are you have wondered the same thing.

I laid the matter to rest recently by using a portable breathalyzer to measure my alcohol content in a simulated dining experience. The AlcoMate Revo made by AK Global Tech is a highly sophisticated breathalyzer that assures accuracy over multiple uses and even has a spare sensor module to quickly substitute as the other one is being recalibrated. Like other breathalyzers, you simply blow into a disposable port until told to stop.

Here was the set-up: I drank  14 ounces of wine -- slightly more than half of a 750ml bottle -- over 90 minutes and with a hearty meal. 

Here was AlcoMate's result: .044 percent alcohol content, well under the .08 level all states use to charge you with drunk driving, measured 30 minutes after I stopped drinking and eating..

Here are the "buts": Some states have lesser charges that can be brought with lower levels. For instance, in Maryland a breathalyzer reading of .07 to .08 could draw a driving while impaired charge with a heavy penalty. Furthermore, a reading of .05 to .07 can be used against you if you are charged with another infraction, such as reckless driving. My home state of Florida has no such additional charges.

But, my .044 reading was safely under even the most strict drunk driving levels.

Secondly, everyone reacts differently to alcohol consumption. I am 6-ft. 4-in. tall and weigh 200 pounds. A woman and a person with more fat will not metabolize alcohol as quickly as a thin male. And, a "drink" is not always equal. A 4-oz. glass of wine is not the same as a margarita with a double shot of tequila, so watch those guidelines that say it's safe to have one drink per hour.

The AlcoMate costs $225 and can be purchased on line. It's far less than your legal fees if you are charged with drunk driving. 

 

Is sauvignon blanc and luxury an oxymoron?

 Tom Gamble, farmer

Tom Gamble, farmer

Last year I met Tom Gamble of Napa Valley's Gamble Family Vineyards. Tom prided himself as being a farmer first and a winemaker second. A very humble man, his wines were anything but. While well-heeled patrons lined up for his expensive cabernet sauvignons at a pricey fundraiser in Naples, FL, I latched onto his Heart Break sauvignon blanc. At nearly $100 a bottle, it was hardly a cheaper alternative to his equally expensive red blends.  But while I have tasted similar red wines at similar prices, I never tasted a sauvignon blanc like this. Unfortunately, patrons had prematurely made up their minds that sauvignon blanc couldn't live up to their standards.

I spoke to Gamble later on the phone and wrote a column about this extraordinary venture. Who would pay this kind of money for a sauvignon blanc? Well, enough people did that he sells out of his small production.

The wine is exquisite with a Bordeaux-like style that comes from two clones -- one from Graves and the other from the Loire Valley. It has exotic, layered fruit that ranges from citrus to passion fruit and a finish that never seems to end. Although it has great mouthfeel, it wasn't heavy on the palate. Like a white Bordeaux, you had to pause and think about what you were tasting. Frankly, I haven't been able to get this wine out of my mind since.

I was reminded of this wine when I recently sampled the 2015 Flora Springs Soliloquy Sauvignon Blanc. At half the price, the Soliloquy delivered a similar exotic Bordeaux style. It's clone is named after the wine and was certified by the University of Davis in the 1980s. Well textured, it has a more creamy mouthfeel, due in part to the stirring of its lees.

There is no reason a good sauvignon blanc shouldn't cost as much as a good cabernet sauvignon. Getting consumers to associate this grape with luxury, however, is a challenge.