"Irreverence is easy--what's hard is wit."--Tom Lehrer
Thursday, December 6, 2012
The Quality of Gramercy is Not Strain'd
Gramercy Wines I’m Yammering About:
2009 Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley $50
2010 Syrah Walla Walla Valley $55
2010 Grenache Olsen Vineyard Columbia Valley $55
I think the first wine made by a sommelier that I ever tasted was Bonaccorsi. Michael Bonaccorsi, who died suddenly and at a very young age in 2004, was sommelier at Spago Beverly Hills when he started his own label, I think around 1999. I’ve always been of the opinion that it should be illegal for sommeliers to make wine. Punishable by law. No prison time, but you’d have to listen to Michel Chapoutier speak, or serve 100 hours of community service, which is a shorter sentence. Be a winemaker or be a sommelier, for God’s sake, don’t try to be both. I never met a waiter in a steakhouse yet who wanted to be a butcher. Besides, sommeliers are not artists. If anything, they’re librarians. They buy things and put them on shelves, hopefully with some discernment. Wine lists are just card catalogues.
Mike Bonaccorsi called on me at work one day with a couple of bottles of wine for me to taste, a Chardonnay and a Syrah, I think. I bought several cases for the restaurant, more out of professional courtesy than passion for the wines. They were good, but not great that first vintage. But I liked Mike. Everyone liked Mike. Don’t think I ever bought wine from a sommelier again. You know, it’s odd, but some of the most narrow-minded wine lovers I know are sommeliers (though Mike was never that kind of guy). You’d think they’d have more eclectic tastes, but they don’t. They might like wines with lower alcohol, or wines that are extracted and more intense than John Malkovich in musth, or wines from some obscure region like Coullioure or Waiheke Island or Ecuador, but they don’t appreciate them all. Sommeliers can be downright militaristic about their wine preferences. I tried to like everything.
Gramercy Cellars is new to me, though the winery has gotten lots of favorable press. Since I left the sommelier racket, I simply don’t read much press. Reading wine press is like death, only without the beckoning Light and cool wooden box. But somehow I ended up in the Gramercy Cellars Wine Club. I think I read about the winery on Paul Gregutt’s blog (the coward, giving up blogging for family and money—what kind of sickness is that?). Or maybe I saw the label and just liked that it reminded me of the classic old horror film, “The Omen,” starring Gregory Peck. I think that’s the film where somebody gets impaled on a metal fence like the one on the Gramercy Cellars label—skewered and left for dead like the truth on FOX News. Whatever happened, I recently received a shipment from Gramercy Cellars, which turns out to be the winery of a Master Sommelier, Greg Harrington. But a very nice Master Sommelier. I was reminded of Mike Bonaccorsi.
I placed a reorder with Gramercy Cellars, six bottles. About an hour after I placed the Internet order, I received an email from Greg asking if I was buying the wines for review on my blog and offering to send me the wines for free. My first thought was, “He reads HoseMaster of Wine™?” That’s scary. Like seeing your sexting photo on Tosh 2.0. And you just stepped out of a really cold lake. I responded to Greg that I had been contemplating doing more wine writing on my blog, but that wasn’t at all what I was doing with the reorder. I don’t solicit wines, and I don’t have a tab on my blog that says “Where to Submit Samples” as if I were a fertility clinic. Though plenty of jerkoffs read my blog, I don’t necessarily want their samples. Anyhow, that wonderful Master Sommelier shipped me the six bottles at no charge, and with no expectation of a review. What was he thinking?
When I encounter a new winery, I’m always looking for style. Any good winery has one, every great winery has one, and the rest of the sorry wines produced in the world have all the style of that guy you see on ATM surveillance cameras. And you can’t get any sense of style until you taste several wines from that new winery. So I started tasting my Gramercy Cellars wines in no particular order and with no particular agenda, except I wanted to drink them with a meal, and over the course of a couple of days. I don’t think I’ve ever had a young, great wine that wasn’t better the second day. Like chewing gum.
With a selection of wines in front of me from Gramercy (Every time I type Gramercy, I hear Marvin Gaye in my head. “Ah, Gramercy, mercy me/Ahhh, things ain’t what they used to be, no, no/Where did all the blue skies go?/Poison is the wind that blows from the north and south and east.” I just have great Gayedar, I guess.), I gravitated first to the 2010 Grenache Olsen Vineyard. I love Grenache. Not the sort of cheap crap from Spain that tastes like hard cherry candy. I can drink that stuff, some of it is pretty tasty for the tariff, but I don’t think of it as Grenache. It’s often from vineyards more overcropped than JFK assassination photos.
Grenache, for me, comes down to Chateau Rayas. I cannot open a bottle of Grenache without comparing it to that legendary Chateauneuf-du-Pape. I love Rayas. I would marry Rayas and birth little Rayasses. I dream about Rayas, and wake up stickier than the floor at a Justin Bieber concert. I first tasted Rayas in 1987. I was with three other wine guys having dinner at Pacific Dining Car, where I was the sommelier. We occasionally convened there and would bring the best wines we could to try to top each other, bring the consensus best wine on the table. It wasn’t a blind tasting. Half the fun was drooling over the famous labels on the table. That first night I tasted Rayas, which sealed my doom and made me a Rayas buttboy, there were a couple of other very memorable wines on the table, 1985 Sassicaia and 1974 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard. And then there was the 1978 Rayas. It changed my life. The ’85 Sassicaia was truly remarkable, and the Martha’s was still in its infancy and a brilliant bottle of wine, but the Rayas was majestic. I’d never heard of it. You can argue about the greatest Grenache on planet Earth, but not with me. It’s Rayas. Yes, Rayas went through some tough transition vintages after Jacques Reynaud died and his nephew took over, but it seems he has the place back on track recently. If you have a Life List of great wines you hope to taste, you must have Rayas on it. I hope I can land some of the 2010. But I was saying…
Gramercy produced all of 95 cases of their 2010 Grenache. It’s very nice, and it’s clear to me that Greg Harrington loves Grenache, but it’s no Rayas. Nor did I expect it to be. That's asking far too much. During dinner, a bit of lamb loin, I kept mentioning Rayas, hoping the Rayas fairy would drop by with a glass or nine. It’s never fair to compare a wine like Gramercy Grenache to a legendary wine from your memory, but that’s what we do. I don’t want to drink wines that I don’t have high expectations for, anyway. I do drink them, but I wish I didn’t have to. Drinking those sorts of disappointing wines is like buying a book by Dan Brown—you know it’s going to suck, why buy it? The guy writes like Mickey Spillane with brain damage. But there are days you just make mistakes.
I did have high expectations for the Gramercy Grenache, just from the alliteration. And it was quite good. I’m anxious to try another vintage of it. The 2010 left me yearning for a more powerful finish is all. The lead-up was terrific. There's beautiful Grenache fruit here, bright red and fresh. Over and over I kept mumbling to my wife, “It goes down nice, but it doesn’t have a great finish.” “Yeah,” she said, “tell me about it.”
Based on the Grenache, I was very eager to taste the Cabernet and the Syrah. If the Grenache fell short for me, I still very much liked the style—restrained, fresh, impeccably balanced, and beautifully layered.
A few nights later, after a rat ate my Prius, I decided to open a bottle of each and taste them with a Chateaubriand I’d roasted. We’d drink half of each bottle with our meal, then drink the rest of each bottle the following night. With young wines I don’t bother to gas them or pump them over night. That’s sounds a little too much like you’re holding teenagers hostage in your basement.
I wonder how many Cabernet Sauvignons I’ve tasted in my life. I’m certain more than any other variety. It’s my wine equivalent of French fries. But I still love Cabernet. I don’t buy it as often as I once did though. Is there another grape variety around the world that so often underdelivers when it comes to price versus quality? When Cabernet comes up you often hear opinions like, “When it’s good, it’s really good, but otherwise, it’s overpriced.” Forget Rayas, it’s more like Jose Reyes. Constantly underperforms.
Drinking the Gramercy 2009 Cabernet (and I’ll just assume that everyone understands how different it is to drink wine than to taste it) with dinner I must have said three or four times, “I think this will be really good tomorrow.” It had that sort of muscle and acidic structure that I thought would fill out over night. It was darn good Cabernet, though, with that whisper of tobacco that I find fulfilling in fine Cabernet. I love Columbia Valley Cabernet, and have often expressed the opinion that Washington Cabernets will one day equal, even surpass, the great wines of Napa Valley. But, as good as this wine was, it didn’t dramatically improve. It didn’t deteriorate either, which is a good sign. I get the feeling after tasting his wines that Greg Harrington’s passion is the Rhône varieties. That’s obvious from his lineup, but I sensed it when I tasted the Cabernet. Winemakers always say their wines are like their children and they don’t have favorites, but now and then you can tell which kid is the one that would make Sophie’s Choice easy.
Or maybe the Cabernet suffered alongside the 2010 Walla Walla Syrah. I wouldn’t even blink at the $55 price tag for this wine. Simply put, this is brilliant wine. In the great big world of Syrah, it’s vastly underpriced. My HoseMaster brain thought of it as Raymond Chandler might have:
“I smelled the blood when I walked in. The wind was blowing, that hot wind that blows across the city urging neglected housewives to sit on their husband’s face, only with a pillow in between him and the twin hills of Côte-Rôtie. I was nervous as a dog with a bladder infection. It was dark, a saturated kind of dark, and I could smell meat and blood and smoke. There was a familiar taste in my mouth. Fear. But I like the taste of fear. It means you’re alive.”
The second night the Syrah went from bombastic to fascinating. Like a guy who is the life of the party the first night, but the second night he’s not “on” and is far more interesting. It was sensational with my simple little Chateaubriand, which was also nice and bloody, and the second night, well, it overwhelmed the roast chicken, but was still wondrous. And I think there's still some for sale on the website. It comes with my enthusiastic recommendation. Yeah, I know, so what.
If you read all the way to here, you might want a link:
After 19 years as a Sommelier in Los Angeles, twice named Sommelier of the Year by the Southern California Restaurant Writers' Association, I moved to Sonoma County to explore the other aspects of the wine business. I've spent, OK wasted, 35 years learning about and teaching about and swallowing wine. I am also a judge at the Sonoma Harvest Fair, San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and the San Francisco International Wine Competition--so I can spit like a rabid llama. I know more about wine than David Sedaris and I'm funnier than James Laube. Stay tuned for an informed but jaded view of everything wine and everything else.
I'm living proof that alcohol kills brain cells.
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