Edmunds St. John
by Mark Middlebrook
Steve's version of going postal wasn't entirely unexpected; he had long been a home brewer and winemaker, and before his stint with the U.S.P.S., he worked in the retail end of the wine trade. Over the years, a chorus of his friends, led by Cornelia, had encouraged him to make wine commercially. So, with Cornelia's blessing and support, Steve founded Edmunds St. John winery.
Steve was one of the first California winemakers to focus on Rhône grape varietals like Syrah and Mourvèdre. He was one of the earliest and remains one of the most vocal proponents of terroir in California--of making wines that express as vividly as possible the place where the grapes are grown. In March and April, the crew at Paul Marcus Wines had the pleasure of getting together with Steve over meals to discuss his winemaking and enjoy many of his currently released wines.
Pinc Froid, Syrah, and 12-spice pork ribs
The fun began when Paul Courtright and I joined Steve for lunch at Grasshopper on College Avenue. When we asked Steve how he did things differently than many other California winemakers, he responded: "It's about balance. The wine shouldn't push the food off the table. Wine should invite you to eat - and to drink more!"
And so we did. Steve popped the corks on his 2000 Pinc Froid (a rosé made from Nebbiolo grapes) and 2001 Los Robles Viejos White (a blend of Rhône white varietals - Roussanne, Viogner, and Marsanne - all grown in the Rozet Vineyard near Paso Robles) as our waiter delivered fried calamari and peanut chicken salad.
Steve explained that the first thing he did when he decided to make wine commercially was to taste a lot of wine to find out what exactly he wanted to make. During this oenological odyssey, he found that the wines he kept coming back to were from southeastern France and northern Italy. At the same time, he read some articles about carbonic maceration, a traditional southern French winemaking technique that can yield wines with more distinctive aromas and delicate flavors. He also read an article by Robert Mayberry, author of the book Wines of the Rhône Valley: A Guide to Origins. Mayberry suggested that someone find some old-vine Mourvèdre, Carignan, and Grenache in California and make a Côtes-du-Rhône style wine using carbonic maceration and neutral (i.e., not oaky) aging vessels.
These enticing but discrete hints came together for Steve when he tasted a 1983 Qupé Syrah during a meal at Chez Panisse. (In those days, California Syrah was about as common as vineyard-designated California Cabernet.) Steve describes this as his "aha" moment: "I realized that someone could make good California wine from Rhône varietals. There were too many signs from the universe that I should do this."
As our 12-spice pork ribs arrived, Steve paused to open his 2001 California Syrah and then continued his saga. Syrah was to play a large part in Steve's future, and he, along with others like Bob Lindquist of Qupé and John Alban of Alban Vineyards, helped put Syrah on the map in California. But Steve was at least as captivated by Mourvèdre, the primary varietal in Bandol rouge and an important supporting player in Châteauneuf-du-Pape and other southern Rhône reds. The trick back in the mid 1980s was finding any Mourvèdre (or Mataro, as it was known to California grape growers).
After much fruitless searching, in 1986 Steve discovered the Brandlin Ranch on Mt. Veeder above Napa Valley. Richard and Chester Brandlin were growing old-fashioned grape varietals using old-fashioned techniques that respected the soil and the plants. Steve snapped up the small amount of Mourvèdre that they were growing and used the grapes to make the best wine of his second vintage, in 1986. As Steve proudly points out, François Peyraud of the famous Bandol producer Domaine Tempier said of this wine when he tasted it, "la terre parle" ("the earth speaks").
Since then, Steve has reprised this combination of serendipitous grape sourcing and skillful, minimalist winemaking many times. We asked him how he thinks about the process of making a great bottle of wine.
First is the place - the fruit source. Steve described his job as "finding places that create distinctive grapes". He's concerned about the appropriateness of the grape varietal to the site, of course, but he's looking for more than mere appropriateness; he wants sites that demonstrate a particular, unique character. Steve has managed repeatedly to unearth great, distinctive vineyards that are farmed by people who really know and care about their land.
Second is picking fruit at optimum ripeness rather than hyper-ripeness. As Steve said of winegrowing in the balmy California climate, "you've got power; you don't need to do anything to generate power". In fact, you need to ensure that you don't let this natural advantage turn into a freakish caricature. Steve works with his growers throughout the season, tastes the grapes every week, and then leads the harvesting when he determines that the grapes have fully developed their flavors without losing their fresh acidity.
And finally, Steve says his job in the winery is to "get out of the way". In other words, he ferments the grapes and lets them turn themselves into wine with as little additional manipulation as possible. His youngest barrels are 13 years old, so there's no oak obscuring the distinctiveness of his grapes. He eschews high-tech gear and instead uses old-world winemaking techniques that preserve and accentuate terroir.
The most exciting manifestation of all of this theory at the moment is in Steve's new Los Robles Viejos wines from the Rozet vineyard west of Paso Robles, in San Luis Obispo County. In addition to the white wine mentioned above, there's Los Robles Viejos Red - a blend of Mourvèdre, Syrah, Grenache, and Counoise from the Rozet vineyard. Some of the grapes also find their way into his ever-popular Rocks and Gravel - Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Syrah blended from vineyards in Mendocino, El Dorado, and San Luis Obispo Counties. Steve is particularly enthusiastic about the Mourvèdre from Rozet: "We've harvested grapes for three years now, and each year the Mourvèdre is the best. It makes a wine that has a distinct identity."
The Châteauneuf challenge
Although Steve strives to make wines that speak of where they're grown - which is to say, specific vineyards in California - his models are the wines of the northern and southern Rhône in France. While California wines have plenty of power and luscious fruitiness, many of them lack the specificity, subtlety, complexity, and food-friendliness of their European models. In a friendly challenge to the two best appellations in the Southern Rhône, Steve put his Rocks and Gravel and Los Robles Viejos Red up against several excellent wines from Gigondas and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Most of the staff of Paul Marcus Wines got together with Steve for a tasting and dinner at my house in Oakland. We were joined by Keven Clancy, the representative from Estate Wines Ltd. who sells us Edmunds St. John wines, and Patrick Comiskey, Senior Editor of Wine and Spirits magazine and columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle's wine section.
All of us knew that we were tasting 2000 vintage Edmunds St. John, Gigondas, and Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines, but we didn't know the specific identities of the wines, and we carried out the tasting blind (that is, the bottles were covered up until after we'd tasted and discussed them). The "Gigondas flight" of wines comprised the Edmunds St. John Rocks and Gravel, Domaine de Font-Sane Gigondas, and Château du Trignon Gigondas. The "Châteauneuf flight" contained four wines: Edmunds St. John Los Robles Viejos Red and Châteauneuf-du-Pape from Clos des Papes, Vieux Télégraphe, and Domaine Pierre Usseglio & Fils.
In both flights, Steve's wines showed themselves as worthy peers of their French brethren. Neither of his wines stuck out as being obviously Californian - our guesses about which wine in each flight came from California frequently were wrong. Nor did Steve's wines seem simpler or less food-friendly than the others. (After the analytical phase of the tasting, we tucked into a big pile of grilled meats and sausages.)
As I look back over some of our notes from that evening, my central impression is that all of the wines sat comfortably at the table as peers. We quickly moved beyond the "spot the California wine" game to more interesting questions of how each wine distinguished itself in terms of floral, animal, spicy, sappy, tannic, and acidic qualities. All of these were wines worth drinking and cellaring, wines that invited us to eat (and to drink more!), wines that made our evening together a finer one.
But wait, there's more!
Steve is a man of many talents. Besides making great wine, he's an accomplished singer-songwriter and an inspired writer. To verify the latter claim, visit edmundsstjohn.com and check out any of his newsletters. Then subscribe to the organolepticians, which grants you the privilege of receiving his future newsletters via e-mail. You'll hear about, among other useful things, the annual Edmunds St. John Post-Harvest, Pre-Holiday shindig in December, which is always fun and tasty. The Edmunds St. John Web site also describes Steve's CD Lonesome on the Ground, which we have available for sale in the store.
Note: Steve is also the the object of an article by Patrick Comiskey that was published in the San Francisco Chronicle's wine section on Thursday June 12, 2003.
PMW California Favorites
Edmunds St. John
2000 Pinc Froid ($10.99): This wine is almost too much fun. It's rosé from Nebbiolo grapes, in the style of a northern Italian rosato from Piemonte. The wine is full-flavored, minerally, dry, and just a touch smoky. It's a great aperitif and sit-out-on-the-deck-with-friends wine. It adds an increment of pleasure to any barbecue. And it goes perfectly with 1970s album-length rock songs.
2001 California Syrah ($18): Here's one of the great bargains in California wine - a sophisticated but friendly Syrah for under twenty bucks. It's medium-bodied, supple, clean, and just fruity enough without being excessively grapey. Like all of Steve's wines, the California Syrah plays well with a wide range of foods. We've enjoyed it with grilled meats and even not-too-sweet Asian dishes.
2000 Los Robles Viejos White and Red ($25 each): If you want to know what terroir is about in California, then you'll want to drink and cellar these Southern Rhône style wines from the Rozet Vineyard in San Luis Obispo County. And even if you don't care about terroir, you'll want to drink these wines because they're just so damned delicious! Rich Roussane sings the main melody in the white wine, while meaty Mourvèdre forms the backbone of the red. It would be hard to find a better match than these wines for southern French cuisine and Mediterranean-inspired California dishes.
1999 Zinfandel ($25): Sky makes our favorite Zinfandels year in and year out. This is artisanal wine at its best. Winegrower Lore Olds and his daughter Maya tend their vines just below the crest of Mt. Veeder and make their wine by hand. Sky Zinfandel has plenty of lip-smackingly luscious fruit, but unlike a lot of other Zinfandels, this one is sophisticated, balanced, and a great complement to food. It also ages magnificently - we recently had the pleasure of drinking the 1989 and 1990 vintages up at Sky. So get a few bottles for now and a few more to stash in your basement or closet. You won't regret it now or later.
Brian Babcock's 2001 Santa Barbara County Chardonnay ($16.50) is one unbelievable wine for the money. It's one of our biggest sellers - not too oaky, but with plenty of richness and length on the palate. This is a "go to" wine, meaning that it's a wine for anyone just starting out and a screaming deal for everyone.
We don't normally get excited about Italian-style wines made in California - the Italian originals usually are better wines and better values. But we are excited about the wines that we just started carrying from Palmina in Santa Barbara County. Steve Clifton, of Brewer-Clifton Chardonnay and Pinot Noir fame, is the owner and winemaker.
The 2002 Bianca ($21) is a blend of Traminer, Sauvignon Blanc, Malvasia, Tocai, and Pinot Grigio. Here's Chad's inimitable description: "Sumptuous honeyed notes revolving in perfect circles around further perfect circles of melon and fig. A spicy gasket of viscous cinnamon and nectarine all supported by vibrant acids and perfect balance! Wow. This is an intellectual's entry back into the wonderful world of stuff. Wonderful stuff."
The 2000 Nebbiolo ($32) comes from the Stolpman vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley. This wine leans towards the floral side of Nebbiolo - violets, rose petals, cherries, and a little cedar - and displays that classic Nebbiolo combination of power and elegance. Serve it with braised or roasted meats or simply with a nice piece of aged Parmigiano Reggiano.
Two Days in the California Wine Country
by Chad Arnold
Bright sunlight over an endless vista of curling vines. Bright sunlight that lights further rays which in their turn light other fields of vision. So begins the day. For me, most days begin with doughnuts and questions, and not always in that order! Today's doughnut was a chocolate stuffed oval with multi-colored jimmies on top. Today's question was, "Why should we drink California wine?" George Mallory would quip, "Because it's there." But I would add, "Because it's here."
Last month, two dear deer-hunting friends of mine were married! In addition to reading a 39-page poem composed of 365 couplets of anoximetric bore-o-meter, I was asked to select the wines for the festivities. We drank both New World wines and European wines. Because they were married in Yountville, and because they love great wine, it seemed more than logical to serve some fine California juice.
So, today's easy question of why we should drink California wine has many equally easy answers: because we were all there and because so much of it is so good! And because so much of it is so good, much of it will likely provide pleasure!
What are some of the other reasons? Terrific climate, microclimates, and diverse soil types. A range of altitudes and a range of attitudes from hundreds of talented winemakers. Varietal diversity and perhaps most importantly, exciting experimentation in the vineyards and wineries. But are there even more reasons to drink California wines? Sure. Full flavor, incredible richness, and a hefty alcohol content help. We could drink California wines "for political reasons," or "to support the local economy," or "because a friend made it, and I got it for free." More good reasons methinks.
California winemaking is comparatively young, and in such a stage of development there is great excitement and great potential. Furthermore, because we often toast to the future, we should toast to the future of California by drinking the wonderful wines from diverse regions throughout the state! These seem like good reasons to me! How about you?
At the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the notables drank Madeira. However, they were to some vinous extent saying, "Viva Vitis Labrusca!" They soon realized the error of that way [Vitis labrusca is a native American grape species that has been all but replaced by the European species Vitis vinifera for winegrowing. -Ed.] but have never stopped trying new things or ways of doing old practiced things! Thank the gods for open-mindedness and free expression - not to mention fine soils and sunlight!
But let's not avoid the truly great wines made here because there may be better wines made elsewhere. Great wines are made all over the world. For example if you were to pick one wine (say the Romanée St. Vivant from the Domaine de la Romanée Conti) as the only wine you would ever drink again, you would, I dare say, but will say, be shortchanging yourself of so much great wine. Ugh! What an awful thing to do to such a sublime wine. So, drink as much different quality wine as you can.
For example if you find yourself in a small town in France, say Montlouis, you might be lucky enough to happen upon François Chidaine, who makes a number of incredible Chenin Blancs that are very inexpensive. Furthermore, Chenin Blanc is not something most people would likely pick off the shelf at their local market without threats or assistance. But when in Rome (or Montlouis!) drink the local wines with the same relish that you enjoy the local cuisine. I think it is a policy worth exploring. Sound good?
While not drinking a particular wine is a legitimate un-engagement (assuming you have actually tasted it) of that wine, it is a much more tenuous position to dismiss an entire region or country or hemisphere. Furthermore, it is easier to dismiss something than it is to endorse it. So: There is a distinct relationship between how much you know and how much you like. Lesson: Like a lot and like it alot!
On day 2 of what will be a long and rich marriage, I was asked to "make some calls" as the "wine guy" so that the remaining guests might go wine tasting. Clearly they wanted more wine. Poetry, even in its highest expressions, takes a rumble seat to alcohol. So, I made my first call. The winery I called said they would love to help us, though we weren't asking for help, per say, but they were just too busy (selling wine I guess) to accommodate a group of a dozen or so genial folks with canes and sunglasses. Not an atypical response in my experience.
The second call met with a genial, professional voice. The call was to Miner Family Vineyards, and a gentleman named Villamor Zapata answered and said "Good morning, Miner Family Vineyards, can I help you?" I immediately apologized for my long and digressive poem (not remembering that the gentleman to whom I was speaking was not at the ceremony.) Anyway he paused, I imagine politely, and continued saying that they, too were busy, but that we could come by and taste some wines of our choice if I promised not to bring a copy of the poem. I should say at this point that Paul Marcus Wines sells wines from Miner Family Vineyards from time to time.
Well, we were well escorted through the fancily dressed crowds to a private, sun-lit balcony overlooking the vined valley. Rows of Reidel glasses were on the table. And then the bottles! Rows of them too! We drank the following wines in the following order and re-tasted them in another and then another:
1) 2001 Sauvignon Blanc
20% neutral oak, 80% stainless steel.
539 cases produced.
What a wine! No kidding, a Napa Sauvignon Blanc with nerve and richness, not oaky richness but richness from fruit picked at the perfect time. For those of you who are unsure about S.B., give this beauty a whirl or a swirl!
2) 1999 Oakville Ranch Chardonnay
90% new French oak, spending 10 months in those very barrels.
683 cases produced.
With so much oak, you might be expecting a clumsy, typical Napa Valley Chardonnay. But no. It was quite rich but not lacking in acid. To liken this to a Meursault would be silly; it may remind you of a wine from that town, but this was a Napa Chardonnay, which is one of the reasons it was so good. It was geographically accurate. For example, only wines from Corton Charlemagne remind me of wines from Corton Charlemagne. It should be this way.
3) 1999 "Wild Yeast" Chardonnay
100% Malolactic Fermentation, 100% Barrel Fermented.
14 months in new oak, 75% of it new. Total Acidity .60.
Wow! This was a world class Chardonnay! Rich and harmonious. Complex without being complicated. A complicated wine demands the sipper or swiller to force connections between ultimately discordant elements like oak and fruit. A complex wine shows with great beauty how these elements can come together for the taster. It takes the right understanding of the land and winemaking talent to end up with a great, complex glass of wine. Remember, there are only two kinds of wine in the whole world: Indoor & Outdoor. Sorry for the digression (this was part of the poem). Back to the wine in hand: an utterly fantastic Chardonnay! Available at Paul Marcus Wines for $50.00, it's expensive but well worth it! One to age or to drink tonight! I recommend drinking this one tonight, but it will age gracefully for 3-7 years.
4) 1999 "Stagecoach" Merlot
95% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon.
20 months 80% new French oak, 20% new American oak.
Yes, there is a lot of new wood, but only because there is so much fruit. Balance, baby. This is a sensual, seductive wine that reminds me of an estate in Pomerol. But to its credit it is clearly from Napa. No kidding. Great varietal definition and length. Superlatives are often overused and often overextend the virtues of the wine itself. It is not the idea of the thing but the thing itself. So drink this wine!
5) 1998 "Oakville Ranch" Merlot
75% merlot, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon.
20 months new oak, a mix of French and American.
This is big boy. Or big girl. Whichever. This wine needs time to harmonize, but it's all there. The marriage of great fruit, prime vineyard sites, and aesthetic insight is evident here. But it will be few years before the wood and grape tannins become integrated, and then the good times will roll. I would wait about 5 years to enjoy this fully. And then I would have a few extra bottles around to further the discussion of art and life! (Or at least the next bottle!)
These excellent wines were accentuated by being enjoyed in the Napa Valley, by being in the sun, hell, by the odd circles of birds. It was, however, the company and the conversation (which was not limited to wine!) that gave us the ability to fully appreciate the wines and gave the wines, I think, a fine venue! As birds to a cluster of perfectly ripe Chardonnay, we did continually circle back to the wines themselves.
Because art like love cannot exist in a vacuum and because these wines were art, they were lovely. And because we had walked through the vineyards and felt the sunlight and smelled the air that went into the grapes and into our glasses and into our bodies, we had come perhaps to a better understanding of what it means to enjoy the good life. Perhaps this is yet another aspect of terroir? Nice to think it is.
Wine Parties For Smarties: A Guided Wine Tasting
by Paul Cortright
I had come up with several ideas for tastings, including one that focused on the formal techniques of wine tasting. One evening over dinner, I bounced my ideas off my partner. He's a valuable resource in this discussion, since he has a good knowledge of wine but doesn't take it too seriously. His suggestion seemed like the best: a comparison of common California wines and their French counterparts. The idea was to analyze how differences in climate, wine making, and culture can affect what's in the glass - a conversation that sounded fun to me. This kind of tasting also would give me a chance to clear up the mysteries of French wine labels and help folks get an idea of just what expect from a particular bottle of French wine.
With this theme in mind, I decided to make it a formal, blind tasting of four reds and four whites. I chose Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon for the reds and Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay for the whites, with a California and French example of each of the four types. I chose to do the tasting blind (i.e., with the bottles in paper bags to cover up the labels) so that no one would be tempted to jump to conclusions based on any preconceived opinions in favor or against either California or French wines.
Having chosen a theme and format, I invited four couples over for an after-dinner wine tasting party. That made the total ten people, an ideal number, and with various prior engagements, the group whittled itself down to eight. I offered to supply all eight wines and to host the party at my house, asking others to bring some snacks to munch on while tasting. (Bread, cheese, and pâté are great to have on the table with a tasting - they help clear the palate and put something in your stomach besides wine.) I also borrowed some glasses from a co-worker. The idea was to do two flights of four wines - first the whites and then the reds. I had the luxury of 64 small wine glasses (8 per person), but it would be possible to do this kind of tasting with 32 (4 per person) or even 16 (2 per person). In the latter case, you'd simply taste the wines in flights of two rather than four.
I put a lot of thought into how to facilitate the conversation. I wanted to avoid my tendency to get too pedantic, knowing that no one wanted a lecture. But I also wanted to make sure that there was at least some serious discussion about the wines. I figured the best way to facilitate discussion was to minimize my spiels and ask everyone else questions. There are a few basic questions to ask when tasting wine that can help you start to make distinctions:
- How are these wines similar?
- How are these wines different?
- What do I like about each wine?
- What do I dislike about each wine?
- Which wine do I prefer, and why?
I've experienced firsthand that dazed expression in other people when I start using language to describe wines that is routine to me. I wanted to avoid the pressure that people feel to come up with "good" descriptors and instead ask everyone to say in their own words what they thought of the wines. These basic questions provide a framework for discussion while allowing each person to respond to and talk about the wines in an individual way.
As my guests arrived, I assembled the wines in the kitchen, opened them, and smelled them to make sure that none of the bottles was corked. I put each of the bottles in a brown bag and wrote a letter on the bag (A through H) so that we'd have a way to refer to the wines as we talked about them.
Starting with whites, I poured two Sauvignon Blancs, 2001 Honig from Napa ($12.99) and 1998 Château Reynon Blanc from Bordeaux ($11.99), followed by two Chardonnays, 2000 Handley Anderson Valley from Mendocino ($15) and 2001 Trénel St.-Véran from Burgundy ($12.99). We tasted the wines first in pairs and then together as a group of four. After a few minutes of quietly sampling the wines, we had a short discussion and then ranked each pair according to personal preference.
In a tasting where all of the wines are a single varietal or style, it is common to taste all the wines and rank them from 1 to 8, according to preference or perceived quality. Since the different styles of whites and reds in this tasting are hard to compare with one another, I asked each person to pick a favorite from each pair.
It's no surprise that opinions differed wildly from person to person. I was expecting the more familiar California wines to be favored, but that was not universally the case. The Honig Sauvignon Blanc was preferred over the Château Reynon Bordeaux Blanc, but both the Handley Chardonnay and Trénel white Burgundy had its share of admirers.
For the reds, we first tasted two Pinot Noirs: 2001 Elk Cove Willamette Valley from Oregon ($18) and Heresztyn Bourgogne rouge from Burgundy ($16). (I could've substituted a California Pinot Noir for the Oregon one, but the Elk Cove seemed like the best West Coast Pinot from the store in the price range.) Then we finished with two Bordeaux style blends (wines based on Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot): 2000 Surh Luchtel Mosaique ($24) and 2000 Château Teynac St. Julien from Bordeaux ($19). The Oregon Pinot Noir was definitely the favorite, but the Bordeaux stood its own against its California counterpart.
Tasting a group of wines like this is a great opportunity for friends (new and old) to get together, with a built-in topic of conversation. Of course, after a few glasses of wine, people's spirits are lifted and the conversation can go many directions. I selected a special bottle of wine from my cellar to enjoy after the main tasting - something a bit more complex than the relatively simple, inexpensive wines we'd tasted formally. It was a nice reminder that wine offers us all the opportunity to get together and enjoy our friends.
Editor's note: This article is the second in a series on how to organize and host wine parties. The first article, in our March 2003 newsletter, discussed the types of wine parties and the basic procedures and considerations for any type. If you'd like to host a wine tasting similar to the one that Paul C. did - or something completely different - come talk to us. We're eager to help you select the wines and provide pointers to help ensure that the party goes off well.
Paul M. in France
by Paul Marcus
Burgundy: (always a highlight). The 2001 Côte de Nuits reds are excellent. This is a terroir-driven vintage, which I find exciting. If I had to generalize at this point, I'd characterize the vintage as a very good one, perhaps somewhat similar to the '93s, showing great precision with lots of lift and brightness. Although it is not a super-ripe vintage, the fruit is intense. There's a nice balance to the mouth feel and the specific terroirs sing out brilliantly. Some wines drink well early, but most should be medium-term drinkers (five to eight years). We are especially looking forward to carrying the wines of Confuron-Coteditot, a new producer for us from Vosne-Romanée. His wines are very stylish, clean, and delicious, with the village wines from Chambolle, Gevrey, and Vosne-Romanée drinking very well young. His premier crus are going to be more stunning with a little time.
A good place for lunch in Gevrey is Aux Vendange de Bourgogne, which serves traditional French Burgundian food and has a wonderful wine list from Gevrey (of all places!). It's not that expensive, either. My favorite place to eat is Ma Cuisine in Beaune - it has a super wine list that is unbelievably affordable and wonderful country-rustic food.
Rhône: The wines in the northern Rhône were in fine form, as was the food at Le Chaudron in Tournon. The trip continued into the southern Rhône and then west to Languedoc. Our stops at Château la Canorgue and Domaine de l'Hortus were heartwarming - good people, good wines, good food.
Cataluña (Spain): A two-day detour into Spain was highlighted by a meal at the Michelin two-star Cellar de Can Roca in Girona. The meal began with the sommelier wheeling out three carts the size of painting easels - one each for red, white, and Champagne/rosé wine lists. Needless to say, the choices were superb and varied, as was the food. It featured clams, baby fava beans, skate wings with fennel, salt cod with truffles, goat, and many desserts.
Loire: Then we were back to work and into the Loire, which showed off its wonderful 2002 vintage. It's a very generously flavored vintage with a nice acidity to push those ripe flavors. 2002 is solid and four-square - no arguments here.
Paris: The trip ended where it began, in Paris. The meal at Au Bascou in the 3rd arrondissement was exemplary. While the wine list is not inspiring, the food is. I remember a wonderful smoked tuna in puff pastry appetizer and great main courses that featured goose and milk-fed baby lamb. I can't imagine how one could ever get a bad meal here.
1996 Jacky Truchot Gevrey-Chambertin 'Aux Combottes' ($50): Here's aged, premier cru Gevrey in its prime: lots of secondary aromas and flavors reminiscent of autumnal things - drying leaves, mushrooms, game, spices - and still plenty of fruit and acidity.
2000 Albert Morot Beaune 'Cent Vignes' ($36): This is a young wine that's drinking well now, with Morot's typically graceful muscularity and Beaune premier cru elegance. This wine is a great introduction to red Burgundy, as well as a worthy mid-range bottle for Burgundy lovers.
1997 Denis Pomier Chablis 'Côte de Léchet' ($25): Premier cru Chablis can be a charming thing when it's young - a bracingly tart, stony, lemony palate awakener. But it turns into something else again with some bottle age, as this bottle shows: deeper, more complex, still vivid, but now more suave. This wine takes 45 minutes or so to fully open up after you've pulled the cork, but if you have the patience, you'll be rewarded with a lovely glass of aged Chablis for not a lot of money.