Thursday, April 10, 2014

Nothing Could Be Finer Than Some Wine From Carolina in the Morning

Raffaldini Wines I’m Using to Talk About Myself
Raffaldini NV “La Dolce Vita” $16
Raffaldini 2012 Pinot Grigio Swan Creek $15
Raffaldini 2012 Vermentino Riserva Swan Creek $19
Raffaldini 2011 Sangiovese Swan Creek $18
Raffaldini 2011 Sangiovese Riserva Swan Creek $23
Raffaldini 2011 Montepulciano Riserva Swan Creek $29

I received an invitation late last year to a comparative tasting of Italian varieties, notably Montepulciano, at Raffaldini Vineyards. Sounded fun, the only catch was that Raffaldini Vineyards is in North Carolina. I have no idea how I ended up on their invite list, but I sent a note to Thomas Salley, their Media Relations guy, expressing my regrets at being unable to attend, given that I wasn’t sure North Carolina was an actual place. Eventually, Mr. Salley offered to send me samples of Raffaldini’s wines. Yes, Virginia, there is a North Carolina.

Comparative blind tastings are a classic marketing tool in the wine business, and in thinking about the Raffaldini wines, I flashed on how many I’ve attended over the years. In some ways, they rely on the same principles as magic (performed by "The Great Raffaldini!")—misdirection, the human ability to convince yourself you can’t be fooled, and outright lying. This is why I love them. But, like magic, most of the fun goes away when you know how it’s done. You know that the magician didn’t actually saw the woman in half, or make her levitate, or decapitate her, unless you’re watching a bad rerun of Peter Falk as “Columbo,” but you just can’t quite figure out how it was done. You read a book on magic, find out, and now the tricks are suddenly stupid, replacing you.

Almost anyone who’s been in the trade long enough has attended a Robert Mondavi blind tasting featuring Mondavi Reserve Cabernet versus First Growth Bordeaux. You sit and taste six wines, try to guess which are which, rank them in order of preference, and wait for the big reveal. Just like Three Card Monte, the dealer can’t lose. Plus, the opportunity to taste a First Growth or two gets buyer butts in seats. Obviously, if the tasting group of sommeliers and wine buyers chooses the Mondavi Reserve as the best wine, it’s a win for Mondavi. But even if the Margaux, or Latour, or Lafite, manages to eke out a victory, Mondavi wins. Why? Because the Mondavi is cheaper. By a lot. So a wine salesman can say to his customer, “I just had the Mondavi Reserve blind next to Margaux. The Margaux won, but the Mondavi was second, and it’s half the price!” Just using Mondavi and Margaux in the same sentence is a win for Mondavi.

It also brings up an interesting semantic point. Well, interesting to me. Salespeople will tell you an expensive wine is “cheap.” A really cheap wine they will tell you is “inexpensive.” Used car salesman talk. For example, “Mondavi Reserve is cheap compared to Chateau Margaux!” sounds better than, “Mondavi Reserve is inexpensive compared to Chateau Margaux!” You want to leave “expensive” out of it. But a basic wine that sells for under, say, fifteen dollars is never referred to as cheap. “This is gorgeous Merlot, and it’s really inexpensive!” is better than “This is gorgeous Merlot, and it’s really cheap!” So always remember, those $100 bottles are cheap, your every day bottle of Trader Joe’s Reserve Shoe Polish is inexpensive.

Wine shops love to rig blind tastings too. It’s so easy to do. Let’s say you’re throwing a blind tasting of ten California cult Cabernets. One of those wines, Spottswoode, let’s say, you were only allotted a single case. You know it’s a great wine, but you do NOT want it to win. You want a wine you have a lot of to win. What do you do? You put it first. The first wine in a blind tasting only rarely wins. Most people, even if they know a lot about wine, can’t believe that the first wine can possibly be the best wine on the table with nine more wines left to taste! So it won’t win. But whatever does win will have won over the Spottswoode, making it truly amazing wine. Even if it’s not. How do you make the wine you want to win actually win? Lots of ways. But the easiest is to say, first of all, that you, the owner of the shop, don’t know the order of the wines being poured. Of course, you do know. When a magician asks a member of the audience, “Have we ever met?” and the audience member says, “No,” what makes you believe him? He’s a shill more often than not. It’s the classic “willing suspension of disbelief” that entertainment often relies on. So you, as owner, know which wine you want to sell. You’re at the front of the room, and all eyes are on you. All you have to do is to pick up the glass of the wine you want to move, smell it, raise your eyebrows as though greatly impressed, close your eyes, nod appreciatively, sip it, smile, spit it out, and make furious notes. Your crowd, who sees you as guru, will pick up on your cues, though you’ve never said a single word. And, magically, that wine drifts to the top of the voting. Believe me, this always works.

In my sommelier days, I had little patience for stupid marketing pitches that relied on blind tastings. One of my least favorites was a new winery telling me, “We tasted our 2007 Cabernet blind against Harlan Estate, Montelena, Opus One, Bryant Family, Colgin and Screaming Eagle, and our wine won! So we think $150 is a fair price.” Who falls for that crap? I’d reply, “Wow! Really? A wine you made for your personal taste, that you’ve tasted thirty times, actually won? Amazing! I have a suggestion. Next time, taste your new, unproven, no track record Cabernet against wines that cost $50. It will still win, and you can charge $60, which is what it’s actually worth.” That wine sales technique is really a version of “the vineyard is right next to…name a famous vineyard.” Such horse shit. And in the next breath, they tell you what makes their wine unique is its microclimate, it’s terroir—forget that it’s next to Petrus now, in other words, and focus on how singular it is. 

The truth is that wines are not made to be compared to other wines. We all do it, for a variety of reasons, but that doesn’t make it right. The longer you are involved with wine, the more experience you bring to every bottle you taste, and that’s certainly invaluable, but comparing Lafite to Margaux, or Rayas to Beaucastel, is wrongheaded. Making purchasing decisions based on blind comparative tasting makes me think of paraphrasing Richard Pryor (who was paraphrasing Chico Marx in “Duck Soup”), “Who you gonna believe, me or your lyin’ palate?”

I’m pretty sure at this point Thomas Salley is really glad I didn’t believe in the existence of North Carolina and show up to his Raffaldini tasting.

For no valid reason, I brought low expectations to tasting wines from North Carolina. Though I’ve certainly tasted North Carolina wines blind in various wine competitions, the Raffaldini would be the first North Carolina wines I’ve tasted intentionally. I have to say, I was often surprised by the wines, and in a good way. The wines, while all over the place from a quality standpoint, certainly reflect an owner and winemaker dedicated to quality. The motto of Raffaldini Vineyards is “Chianti in the Carolinas.” Are there any wineries on the west coast with mottos? Maybe. Didn’t Saintsbury used to say “Beaune in the USA?” Maybe there should be more. “Get yourself a DAOU Jones.” OK, maybe not.

The first wine I tried was the Raffaldini 2012 Pinot Grigio. Pinot Gris/Grigio is a variety I am not particularly attracted to. When you talk about Pinot Gris, everyone uses Alsace as the shining example, but most of the time I find those wines are just Tokay. Italian Pinot Grigio can be refreshing, even compelling, but not very often. Given all the superior Italian white varieties—Fiano, Garganega, Arneis, Greco, Tocai Fruilano--it seems odd to get worked up over the ubiquitous Pinot Grigio. It’s the dullest grape at the party, the one trying so hard not to offend anyone--it’s a grape wallflower. Yet the Raffaldini had quite a bit of personality, though it reminded me texturally of Alsace Pinot Gris more than Italian Pinot Grigio. Thick textured, aromatically like a fruit cocktail, the apple and canned peach character was appealing, and there was a nice backbone of acidity, though my overall impression of the wine is that it is a bit clunky, like a kid wearing shoes a size too big for him. However, it was damned nice with the Petrale sole I had sautéed for dinner. In fact, it lit up with the food, found its footing as it were, and I came away with a much better impression of it. Which, of course, is why you drink wine with food. For fifteen bucks, you could do a whole lot worse, and only occasionally better.

The Raffaldini 2012 Vermentino Riserva, don’t think I’ve ever had a Riserva of Vermentino before this, it’s sort of like today’s special being french fries, was a joy to drink. I remarked to my wife that it reminded me of a white wine from Navarro, all the fruit intensity backed by racy acidity, a great purity of flavor and a mouthwatering finish. The nose was floral and very bright, peach blossom and apricot, and even had a trace of saltiness. But I was taken aback by how alive and delicious it was on the palate, and by the richness and sexiness of its texture. This is gorgeous wine for any state in the Union to produce. Here’s an odd statement, it’s the best domestic Vermentino I’ve tasted. Not sure how much weight a statement like that carries. It’s right there with best black hockey goalie, but there it is. I’m a little surprised in this era of California producers fixated on varieties like Ribolla Gialla, Grenache Blanc and Arneis that there aren’t more Vermentinos out there. Such a lovely grape, if not the most complex, and the Raffaldini Riserva is a marvelous example of its many charms. Liguria in the Carolinas!

You just can’t be Chianti in the Carolinas without Sangiovese. You can’t be Brunello in the Boonies either. The Raffaldini 2011 Sangiovese isn’t bad. It isn’t thrilling either. In its defense, I could say that about a lot of Sangiovese, especially domestic Sangiovese. I’ve heard people say they’ve had wonderful domestic Sangiovese, but I can’t say I’ve tasted very many lately. The original Atlas Peak project ruined the California Sangiovese market—those were abysmal wines mostly. Now it seems like an afterthought of a variety in the state. The Raffaldini was pleasant, a bit on the ponderous side on the palate, but had Sangiovese’s blend of ripe red fruits, mostly cherry here, and a bit of bitter almond skin on the finish. What was strange was that on the second night I put my nose in the glass and immediately flashed on a Rioja Crianza! Where did that come from? Sitting overnight hadn’t done it any favors, yet it smelled like a very traditional, American-oaked Rioja. It was probably me.

The Raffaldini 2011 Sangiovese Riserva seemed like it was trying too hard. Hey, I’m a Riserva, I need to impress. People expect “more” from a Riserva, though how they define “more” is always suspect. Often, in Cabernet from Napa, for example, it means more new oak, or longer time in new oak. Over the years, I’ve found that in a lot of varieties of domestic wines, I prefer the non-Reserve wine. Too often, the Reserve wines are for status seekers, are for the people who have to go top shelf even if they have no idea what’s on that shelf. It reminds me of my best friend going to buy tickets for the circus (what’s more fun than going to the circus drunk, which we did when we could?) and getting talked into four seats in the “Owner’s Box.” Turns out the Owner’s Box, at an extra twenty bucks a seat, was two feet from the regular seats. They saw him coming. That can often be a winery’s Reserve. Anyhow, the Raffaldini Sangiovese Riserva had a raisined character to the nose, it reminded me of ripasso in a very vague sense, but also some nice dark red fruit and an unusual spiciness. It has nice energy on the palate, but, well, it’s muddled. Sure, it’s easy to drink, but I thought it lacked varietal definition. It did hold up well overnight, still displaying that energy, but it just seemed like they tried to make too much out of the materials they had at hand. Though, to be fair, it’s Sangiovese from North Carolina, so it’s way better than you think.

Montepulciano seems like a good choice for North Carolina. It’s one of those grapes that’s pretty resistant to downy mildew (which one can get from Robert Downey, Jr’s career path) as well as bunch rot. And if you’ve ever had your bunch rot, you know how nasty that can be. I like Montepulciano, though it’s so often pedestrian unless it’s in the hands of someone like Valentini. The Raffaldini 2011 Montepulciano Riserva is an interesting wine. It wasn’t until after I spent a few days with it that I read that it’s done in appassimento style, the style of Amarone, where the grapes are allowed to raisin, sometimes on mats, sometimes hanging from hooks, but dessicated in order to concentrate the wines. It’s an ancient technique, borrowed from dentists’ offices, and, done properly, it’s very labor intensive and delicate work. The Raffaldini is impressively robust, and very dense. It’s a bruiser, and really needs something very hearty and smoky to eat to match it. I can’t think of a Montepulciano anything like it. It’s a very interesting style choice, and, here, it’s a Riserva for a reason. It will have a very long life ahead of it. The question isn’t whether it will age, the question is, will it evolve? I wonder. But as I said to the gentleman who sent me these wines, “It’s one to Lay Down, Salley.” But if you’re a fan of, say, mammoth California Petite Sirah, or of Amarone, you will find this wine appealing. It has very dense blackberry fruit, with notes of espresso, and a nice touch of mild bitterness to the finish. Maybe a bit monolithic for my taste, but, really, considering the appassimento style, and the work involved with that, it’s very impressive winemaking. Very impressive. Just don’t serve it thinking it’s your basic Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. It’s a million miles from that.

Lastly, there’s the non-vintage Raffaldini La Dolce Vita. When I opened the shipping box holding the Raffaldini wines, it was a surprise to see one of the bottles closed with a beer cap. It was La Dolce Vita, a sweet, frizzante white wine made, it seems, in the style of Moscato d’Asti.  There’s no Muscat in the wine, it’s mostly Traminette, a popular hybrid that genetically can claim eight different species of vitis in its family tree (we’ve all had dogs like that), and it weighs in at only 7% alcohol. Fun wine, really. I’m sure it sells like crazy in the summer out of the tasting room. It doesn’t have the refreshing sparkle that Moscato d’Asti has at its best, but, hey, what a great poolside drink, or the wine to serve that person in your life, and we all have one, who only likes sweet wines. Simply put, it’s delicious, and filled with charm, a mouthful of juicy peach nectar flavor.

I couldn’t resist a chance to talk about wines from North Carolina. There are about 160 wineries in North Carolina now. That’s amazing, really. The Raffaldini wines gave me newfound respect for what vintners are trying to do there. I enjoyed all of the wines, at least on some level, and the Vermentino Riserva and Montepulciano Riserva are distinctive and worth trying if you run across them. If you want to add North Carolina to your life list of states from which you’ve had wine, Raffaldini would be my choice.



Kiley Evans said...

Kind words, Ron, and very much appreciated. Robert Downey mildew...hilarious!

Eric Degerman said...

Seems as if Kiley Evans, former winemaker at acclaimed Abacela in Oregon, has a pleasant portfolio to work with.

Thomas said...

So now you gave away the whole blind tasting thing. Geez, are you trying to kill the wine business?

That Vermentino intrigues me. I am a fan of that grape variety and your description of the Raffaldini version is exactly what I expect from the wine. But I know they don't sell them in upstate New York retail outlets.

Have to wait until I make my next trip to No. Carolina...which is about as often as I date Scarlett Johansson.

David Pierson said...

Man, was that ever an eye glazer.. made me pine for one of Walder's 9.5's...

Thomas said...


Thanks for the post. You ended up on our contact list because we admire your writing style and perhaps, most importantly, choice of vocabulary.

Thomas said...

Wait a minute: I didn't say that.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Nice wines. None of them were boring, and I dread boring wines. Each wine had something interesting to say, unlike me.

Thanks for chiming in.

Very nice wines from Raffaldini. I'd forgotten about Kiley's tenure at Abacela--it does explain some of the quality. The fruit gets some credit.

I liked the Vermentino a lot. Get the other Thomas (Salley) to send you a bottle. Delicious.

I'll send you a refund. Can't wait for your blog.

David Pierson said...

It's coming! It's coming! And I'll consider it an honor if you barbeque my blog! Had it up for a bit, ya should have read how I got booed out of a theatre when I tried to take on Anthony Bourdain's bs..

Ron Washam, HMW said...

I think you spoke for most of my audience when you talked about how dull this piece is. I don't mind. For me, these Wine Essays are a chance to do something different--actually talk about wine. Which, for the most part, is dull on the face of it. Drinking it with friends is wonderful and energizing. Talking about it to friends is dull. I try to inject some thought into these pieces, but it's simply a writing exercise for me.

Let me know when, or if, you restart your blog. Or you can have this one if you want it.

David Pierson said...

I could never replace your wit! Wouldn't even try.. but hopefully give some people a chuckle.. funny, I was cleaning up my email and read one of your old columns where you wrote you got no interest in writing mind numbing, boring, useless wine descriptions. When I do my blog I was going to do what mama says, if you don't have something nice to say.. but realized that's not doing anyone any favors.. I once interviewed Alan Richman and he said, "Restaurant reviewing is not getting better and that disturbs me.. we're the Supreme Court justices, we have to have high standards and hold restaurants to them.. and you can say the same for wine reviewing.. so let the fur fly! Jus try not to be cruel...

Ron Washam, HMW said...

I've panned quite a few wines in these wine essays. I always review all of the wines I'm sent, not just the ones I like. I don't think anyone makes horrible wine on purpose, except producers of Gruner, but now and again one turns up. But, for the most part, because I don't accept unsolicited samples (I don't list my home address anywhere on the blog), and I don't solicit samples otherwise, the wineries who contact me tend to be pretty good. If one contacts me that I know stinks, I don't accept the samples. The last time I panned a particular wine, the person who sent me the wine completely agreed with my opinion of it, and showed my thoughts to the owner and winemaker to help prove his own point.

When you don't use some kind of scoring system, you have to choose your words more carefully to communicate your opinion of the wine. Numbers aren't just foolish, they're also a lazy shortcut. Words give context and perspective, not just definitions of quality, or lack of it.

I seem to end up getting just the right number of wineries sending me wine to do a Wine Essay once a month. I spend a lot of time with the wines, and that's fun for me. And I do it for myself, not my common taters. For youse guys, I write stupid jokes.