It’s not hard to gather opinions from America’s sommeliers; in fact, just try to stop them from rhapsodizing about their latest favorite. Sometimes, it seems, there are way too many opinions in the wine business.
But at such mega-tastings as last June’s annual Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, CO, those who arrived armed with a little advance warning about the good, bad and ugly inside the tasting areas would have been saved some wandering. That’s why the American Express restaurant trade program that gathers some of the trade’s better-known palates is one of the most popular events for wine professionals who attend.
“A consultation with these people about the wines here would cost at least $5,000,” moderator Evan Goldstein, vp pr for Seagram Chateau and Estates said. The five wine service pros he referred to—Andrea Immer, director of beverages for Starwood Hotels and Cheers editorial advisory board member; Karen King, beverage director for NYC’s Union Square Cafe, winner of the 1999 James Beard Award for best wine service; Madeline Triffon, beverage director for Unique Restaurant Group; Joseph Scalice, co-owner of NYC’s March; and Josh Wesson, all around wine quipster and owner of Best Cellars, a NY-based retail wine shop chain focusing on values priced around $10—spent part of two days scouring Aspen’s wine tents on the hunt for new favorites, with good values an essential part of their search.
Immer hunted down desert and sparkling wines. Her criteria? “I looked for good value dessert wines that can be poured by the glass. People say dessert wines don’t sell, but that’s because customers don’t know about them, and having some by the glass would help.” She advised restaurateurs to price both more aggressively to boost sales and carve out a niche.
Immer’s three sparkling favorites: Laurent Perrier non-vintage Grand Siecle (she called it a good prestige cuvee for the millennium, about $125 per bottle; 1990 Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Cuvee Speciale (“all the breed of a great vintage.”) about $50 per bottle; and Nino Franco non-vintage Prosecco Rustico (“Soft and quaffable by the glass alternative, banana and tropical and pear notes.”) about $12 per bottle.
Immer also picked three dessert favorites: Broadbent Fine Rich Madeira (“Slightly sweeter than Rainwater, smoky and fig molasses flavors–great character!!”) about $12 per bottle; Broadbent Rainwater Madeira (Fig nose, subtle nut and fig palate, not at all cloying; perfect aperitif at a good by the glass price.”) about $12 per bottle; and Peter Lehmann Semillon Sauternes Botrytis (“not cloying and very true Aussie Semillon–lemon oil and mushroomy character. Great distinctiveness.”) about $16 per 375 ml bottle.
VALUES AMONG WHITES
The American white wines available at the event presented a range of style that was “pretty incredible,” said Joseph Scalice, who picked up the assignment. “But I was disappointed that most were chardonnay and sauvignon blanc.”
His three top F&W American whites? 1998 Justin Sauvignon Blanc Paso Robles (“Crowd-pleasing versatile wine, light-bodied with melon and peach aromas that carry through onto the palate. Good acidity.”) about 12.50 per bottle retail, $106 per case wholesale; 1997 King Estate Pinot Gris (“With its light straw color and aromas of spice, flowers and peach, this wine dances onto the palate with tropical fruit and melon, great balance and a high note, lingering finish.”) about $13 bottle, $108 case; and 1997 Staglin Family Vineyard Chardonnay (“A top notch full-bodied wine with rich layered fruit [sweet peaches, lemon zest and spice]. Wonderful now with a long life ahead of it.”) about $40 bottle, $312 case.
Josh Wesson was very upbeat about the range of international whites available. “The trends bode well for restaurant wine buyers,” he said. He picked one or two whites from eight countries: From Australia, 1998 Coldstream Hills Sauvignon Blanc, about $15 bottle, $120 case, and 1998 McPherson Semillon-Chardonnay (“A tremendous by the glass option”), $7 bottle, $55 case.
From Chile, he picked 1997/98 Los Boldos Chardonnay, $7 bottle, $55 case (“Shames new world chardonnay, yummy and balanced.”) For French whites, he tapped 1997 Domaine Rifle Pinot Blanc, $12 bottle, $96 case (“I was overwhelmed by the depth of fruit and flavor–no oak.”) From Italy, Wesson liked the “unoaked value” 1997/98 Borgo Conventi Collio Pinot Grigio, $18 bottle, $144 case; a 1997 La Lastra Vernaccia, $15 bottle, $120 case, and 1998 Castello della Sala Chardonnay, $11 bottle, $84 case, all great by the glass candidates, he said.
He praised all the Terry Thiese Estate German wines at the event, and cited two New Zealand offerings: a “stunning” 1998 Grove Mill Riesling, $14 bottle, $108 case; and a “great summer luncheon white” 1998 Nobilio White Cloud, $9 bottle, $80 case.
From Iberia, he selected Portugal’s 1999 Famega Vinho Verde (“I defy you to find a better summer white wine value.”), $6 bottle, $48 case; and two Spanish whites: 1998 Oro de Castilla Verdejo Rueda, $9 bottle, $72 case, and 1998 As Laxas Rias Baixas, $15 bottle, $120 case.
Karen King’s assignment was American reds, the second largest contingent at Aspen, and she “tasted like a banshee, over 100 wines.” Diminished oak and tamed tannins overall were evident in the wines she tasted, which she interpreted as the American winemaker’s effort to produce wines ready to drink right away. The American reds had a solid turnout with “few headturners,” she said. She also deplored the apparently unstoppable juggernaut of the homogenous international red wine style.
Her picks: 1996 Miner Cabernet Sauvignon (“Nose of tar, plum and smoke, palate balanced, concentrated black fruit and spice, with a long juicy finish.”), $50 bottle, $400 case; 1997 Ancien Pinot Noir (“Nose floral, meaty, black cherry and complex, a meat and berry palate.”) $32 bottle, 248 case; and 1996 Staglin Cabernet Sauvignon (“Nose of pretty herbal notes, high toned black fruit, elegant layers of herbs, smoke and black fruits with long finish.”) $50 bottle.
Finally, Madeline Triffon tackled the international red category, picking more than three from most nations. Her Australian favorites: 1997 Lindemans Cabernet Sauvignon Bin #45 (“Deep fragrance of leather and fruit., good rich mouthfeel, some vegetal tones, but okay.”) $9 bottle, $84 case; 1996 d’Arenberg “Red Ochre” (Spicy, lotsa pepper and red raspberry fruit. Wonderful!”) $9 bottle, $72 case; 1996 Penfolds Cabernet Bin 407 (“Nose floral! A surprise, delicious, decadent cassis flavor, and spice.”); and a 1997 Glatzer Zweigelt (“Reminiscent of both zin. and syrah–young, fruit-packed. Neat!) $14 bottle, $118 case.
Among the wines she favored from Spain were 1990 La Rioja Alta Reserva Vina Ardanza (“Lovely color gradation, firm juicy acidity, complex; not overoaked, refreshing with food.” $25 bottle, $180–200 case; 1991 Bodegas Farina Fin de Reserva (Tempranillo and cabernet, stylish, good acid and tannin ‘cut.'”) $15 bottle; a 1995 Bodegas Aroyo Ribera del Duero (“Concentrated color and flavor [black cherry] New World style, Merlot option.”) $23 bottle; and for value, 1995 Coto de Hayas Crianza Bodegas Aragonesa Campo de Borja (“Delicious; sweet, fresh red fruit flavors (plums and cherries.”) $6-7 bottle.
From Portugal, she picked three reds: 1997 Casal Branco Terra de Lobos Ribatejo (“Light bodied, fresh cherry flavor–[Valpolicella-esqe] spice and earth nose, delicious! Easy, with character.”) $6-7 bottle, $48 case; 1996 Jose Maria de Fonseca Periquita Terras do Sado (“Light-bodied, quite a lot like a light crisp Pinot Noir.”) $9 bottle, $52 case; and 1995 Eugenio de Almeida Cartuxa (“Lovely extraction, alcohol–touch of leather/animal–juicy medium bodied–international appeal.”) $12 bottle, $90 case.
Italian picks included 1996 Felsina Chianti Classico Berardegna (“Clear, clean, great fruit—raspberries, and snappy acidity. Young, ambitious.”) $18 bottle, $160 case; 1993 Bolla Creso del Veneto (“Nicely evolved color, subtle, smooth, medium-light, bottle age opportunity.”), $15 bottle, $120 case; and 1994 Ceretto La Bernardina (“Nice spice! Sweet fruit. Some heat, stylish.”) $45 bottle, $350 case.Her three French re ds: 1995 Les Fiefs de Lagrange St. Julien (“Good depth–tannic grip, earthy, herby.”) $25 bottle, $180 case; 1997 Bouchard La Vignée (“Lean, crisp, refreshing—very good pinot noir character.”) $10 bottle, $106 case; and the 1996 Bouchard Vigne de L’enfant Jesus (“Very good depth of flavor. Plenty of Burgundian terroir.”) $63 bottle, $613 case.