Diamonds In The Rough
I get a little confused sometimes about what to eat. Yesterday I had lunch at Zuni Cafe, in San Francisco, (whose Chef-owner, Judi Rodgers, has just been awarded the James Beard award for Best Restaurateur, for, I think, the 2nd time) while I was out selling wine, and I had Caesar salad, and a wood-fired oven pizza with tomato confit and ricotta salata. Naturally, I was pretty happy to eat such a lunch, and I washed it down with tastes of a couple of the red wines I was offering my customers to taste, (’99 Matagrano Sangiovese and ’01 California Syrah) both of which performed like champions. Today at lunch I was scrounging in the fridge for something, harbouring the vague hope that whatever I settled for might give me some fraction of the pleasure I’d encountered the previous day.
To complicate matters, today started off with the receipt of a fax from one of my distributors, ordering the very last few boxes of our 2001 Rocks and Gravel. I’m sure my banker would be happy to know that I’d sold it all so quickly, but at least part of my heart sank when I calculated that I’d come to the end of this wine, since it had been such a jet-propelled success. As it happens, I finally got the 2002 Rocks and Gravel into the bottle a mere two weeks ago, and I’ve been nervous about whether the supply of ’01 would hold out long enough for the ’02 to settle down in the bottle. So I was facing lunch with some anxiety about whether I could provide my customers with the level of pleasure to which they’ve become accustomed. I felt compelled to check in on the new bottling to see if, by any chance, it might have managed to elude the usual nastiness of bottle shock.
Normally, when you bottle a wine, within a week or so it comes apart at the seams. The various facets, and components in the taste of the wine seem to decide that they just can’t bear to be seen together, so one time when you taste the wine the fruit has gone to lower Slobovia. A week later, you can taste a little fruit, but the alcohol seems to have doubled. One week you only taste oak. Etcetera. Usually, after about six weeks or so, a truce is called, and it seems the various parts have decided they can’t live without each other, and they decide, somewhat tentatively, to be friends again. It might take six months to a year after that to get all the details worked out, and then, finally, the wine really begins to sing, and, lo and behold, it can sing harmony with itself, kind of like those Himalayan throat singers.
When I peered into my refrigerator, today, I found the remains, roughly half, of a can of As Do Mar tuna, an Italian product, canned in pure olive oil, and some greens left from Sunday that had been washed and stored in an airtight bag, and some very good olive bread from a local bakery, in the form of a kind of mini-baguette. And some Fontina Val d’Aosta cheese. “This,” I said to myself, with some relief, “will do the trick.” It might have been better with some green beans and roasted red peppers, but, as they say, beggars ain’t cowboys.
The 2002 Rocks and Gravel is unusual, in that we made no wine from Grenache in that season, and Grenache, of course, is normally the foundation on which Rocks and Gravel is constructed. Things didn’t work out, Grenache-wise, in 2002, so we revamped the design, building on Mourvèdre and Counoise, rounding out and filling in with Syrah. (Except for Gamay, we produced only two red wines in 2002: Rocks and Gravel, and California Syrah. It was, because of heat spikes, and various other weather-related issues, a problematic year in most of our red wine vineyards.) The Mourvèdre, a bit more than 60% of the blend, gives the wine shape and underpinning, with some spice and the sense of meat that’s always just below the surface with Mourvèdre. The Counoise (roughly 30%) lifts the wines’ expression, accentuating bright raspberry fruit and good acidity. The Syrah adds weight and texture, and some smoke and spice as well. And, somehow, the overall impression comes off as faintly Burgundian. Go figure.
The phenomenon of bottle-shock usually works to suppress the aromatics in a wine, yet the first impression from the first sniff from this stuff, two weeks later, is of freshness, and of very lively fruit, in a taut frame. Tasting with the tuna, greens and olive bread, the fruit comes forward, nicely delineating cherry, pomegranate, raspberry, and a faint suggestion of something between thyme and mint. The innately earthy (oceanic?) attributes of fish are met by the earthy elements in the wine, so it’s really only the high-toned side of the wine that shows in this combination. Oh, yes, did I mention, they tasted great together? People have come to think that fish pairs best with white wines, mainly, I think, because the white wines that work so well with fish are usually lean and bright in character, and when red wines pair equally well, it’s usually for that same reason.
After I finished the tuna, I wanted to try the ’02 Rocks with cheese. I think people think of cheese and red wine as a natural wine and food combination, but I’ve seen so many red wines mismatched with cheeses that I’m always wary of the temptation to pair them. Yet, if the pairing works, it’s doubly satisfying. The Fontina succeeds in bringing forward the earthier side of the Rocks and Gravel, showing off the peppery, underbrushy, resiny side of the wine that seems so appropriate for such a Southern-French oriented blend, and confounding the notion that this wine might bear any resemblance to something from lands farther to the North, where Pinot Noir is “le roi des vins.”
For a wine just two weeks in the bottle this baby sang out pretty good (by the time you get your hands on the stuff, it’s gonna be rockin the joint) , and the lunch, even following my meal at Zuni, was filled with pleasure. Who could ask for anything more?
Angels in Heaven’s choir
Never made a sweeter sound…
(Wildfire April 2004)