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Patrick Comiskey


Los Angeles, California

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Patrick Comiskey is a senior contributor for Wine & Spirits Magazine where he serves as chief critic for non-California domestic wines and contributes articles on the wines of California, Oregon and Washington. He is at work on a book chronicling the American Rhône wine movement. Patrick is a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times, Bon Appétit and Wine Review Online, his work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Food & Wine Magazine, Executive Travel and Robb Report. An MFA graduate of Brown University, Patrick has bachelor’s degrees in English and psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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How Kermit Lynch Taught Americans How to Drink Wine Image

Forty years ago, Kermit Lynch abandoned the handmade purse industry and opened a wine shop in Berkeley, Calif., and in doing so, became one of the great innovators of the field.

Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant has made household names of wineries such as Vieux Telegraphe, Clape, Tempier, Coche-Dury and Jean Foillard, places whose greatness he magnified by combining them in an import portfolio that was at once grand and idiosyncratic, driven by Lynch’s personal taste and unfailing eye for authenticity. Kermit Lynch taught Americans, and Californians in particular, not only what to drink, but how to drink. He brought together wines of grandeur, pleasure and charm, and he helped us understand how to read those pleasures and charms.

Kermit Lynch. Credit: Courtesy of Kermit Lynch Wine Merchants

Kermit Lynch. Credit: Courtesy of Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant

It may be said that Lynch was one of the first great American terroirists. The concept of terroir existed, of course, before him;  he did not invent it. But he was among the first American importers not only to embrace its properties, but to articulate its mysteries in the marketplace. In his aesthetic, in his newsletters and books and, of course, in his selections, he taught an entire generation of wine drinkers to appreciate it.

When Lynch started making his trips to Burgundy, Provence and the Rhône Valley in the early ’70s, the concept of terroir expression was still very much a French idiom, both indistinct and relatively indescribable — few Americans knew enough about the concept to give it a name.

From the start, Lynch started to notice differences between wines grown in one place and wines grown in another. He also noticed that the contrast was much starker in tastings that took him outside the reach of the négociant system, France’s system of wine brokers who purchased fruit and wine from growers and bottled their own wines with it.

Lynch was fortunate to enter the wine business just as the négociant hegemony was being partly dismantled, and small, newly minted domaines were being founded as growers broke with négociants and made wine on their own. The contrast in the wines was startling.

“It took a while,” he says, “but the notion of terroir finally dawned on me with respect to the domaines. When you get to domaines you notice a difference in the wines, you taste their Bourgogne Rouge and it really does taste different from their Mazis-Chambertin. I’m not saying they’re not different with a négociant, but with a domaine the difference was huge. The answer of course was the terroir — it was a different part of the hill.”

Mentored by Richard Olney

Lynch’s other great good fortune was his early friendship and association with author Richard Olney, whose appreciation for wines “of character and personality” was famously instructive to the young importer.

“Everything in his cellar was just magical,” says Lynch. “He had a different way of tasting than anyone else back then; he took just as much pleasure in a well-made cru-Beaujolais as a First Growth — to him, a well-made Morgon was just as exciting as an old Latour. That really opened my eyes.” In time, Lynch could recognize instinctively what Olney did in wines of character, and a kind of terroir language started coming to him. He was still years away from describing a wine’s minerality or soil inflection or the vicissitudes of cool — or warm — climate, but the differences in character were apparent and increasingly vivid.

“To me, there was definitely a difference between a Côte Rôtie and a Cornas and a Hermitage — but it took a while to figure it out.” As such his early language, he admits, was perhaps more imagistic then, even flowery. There’s a passage in “Adventures on the Wine Route” — which reads in spots like a bildungsroman devoted to terroir expression — where he compares Saint-Joseph, Cornas and Hermitage to heroines in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”: Saint-Joseph in the role of Zerlina, Hermitage in the role of Donna Elvira; Cornas is Donna Anna.

Even now, his language drifts into the realm of dramatis personae: “Côte Rôtie was always more ethereal, jewel-like,” he says. “Cornas was more of a brute. It was a thing they expressed, year after year, through vintage and vinification.”

Further lessons in terroir awaited him in the Loire Valley, through the lens of Chenin Blanc. Lynch was routinely amazed at how the wines of Vouvray and Savennières were so dramatically different — and that the principal difference between these two places was the soil, and the mother rock from which it was composed: In Vouvray, Chenin is grown in limestone; in Savennières, it is grown in schist.

“Aromatically, a good Savennières can have a note of more exotic fruit, something you can never quite figure out what it is —  is it plum? Is it quince? It’s something you recognize but have rarely tasted. Vouvray, to me, is always more simple, sometimes peaches, or pears. It has other things but doesn’t share that quality.” Texturally, too, the wines differed from each locale: “In Savennières there’s always a little bitter note in the aftertaste,” says Lynch, “it’s always a bit harder, sharper, more crystalline. That’s the schist. You’d never use the word ‘sharp’ when describing a Vouvray; there’s more grandeur, a more expansive feeling — the limestone.”

As I say, these distinctions existed before he came to them, but Lynch’s attention to their subtleties, and his ability to convey these in his now-famous newsletters allowed thousands of wine lovers to grasp this grand and elusive concept, terroir. His success spawned dozens of worthy imitators, and changed the way wine is perceived in this country. For that we should raise a glass to Kermit on the occasion of his 40th. Salut!

Top photo: Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant, in Berkeley, Calif. Credit: Courtesy of Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant

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Napa’s Riches Spill Over at Auction Image

I don’t think there is a better way to take the pulse of the Napa Valley than to attend the wine auction, the joyous, boisterous, modestly garish celebration it throws for itself each June. Held at Meadowood, the Valley’s premier resort, Auction Napa Valley is an opportunity for the community to garner funds for the region’s less privileged, and in this it was a very successful year, raising more than $8 million to support everything from medical and dental clinics to music programs in Valley schools.

Excess has always been built into the auction. Excessive bidding, of course, is encouraged: From the moment a lot is announced, the bidding sets off at a furious pace, the increments are steep and quickly reach the stratosphere in $5,000 and sometimes $10,000 leaps. When the gavel falls, anywhere from $100,000 to $400,000 later, some humanitarian has pulled off in a few seconds what most fundraisers take months to accomplish. Its value, then, cannot be overestimated.

This was my first Auction in eight years, and what struck me was how much the event had evolved in that time. It is still one of the grandest events in the world for oenophiles, drawing potential buyers from all over the country and the world — I met attendees and potential bidders from Tulsa, Okla.; Boston; Washington, D.C.; Cape Town; Tokyo; Shanghai; and Seoul, ready to show off their largesse.

And yet, displays of largesse were relatively nominal this year. There seemed to be fewer fat cats in attendance, or maybe the cats aren’t as fat as they used to be. A balky economy is partly to blame. Cult wines once in short supply are now much more widely available, and don’t command the interest or the prices they once did. Having said this, barrel lots from Scarecrow and Melka Wines, with Shafer, a perennial powerhouse, went for spectacular sums. Were they worth it? In the 2010 vintage they were excellent wines, and it hardly mattered.

Cheetah has his moment in the sun at Auction Napa Valley. Credit: Courtesy of Auction Napa Valley

Cheetah has his moment in the sun at Auction Napa Valley. Credit: Courtesy of Auction Napa Valley

In auction lots there was a curious development: the Valley’s putative central output, wine, was frequently relegated to a supporting role, just one enticement among many in sumptuous, heaped upon packages of untold extravagance. Each lot seemed more grandiose than the next, so much so that old-fashioned lots, involving lunch, a little face time with a winemaker and a nice bottle or three, seemed almost quaint, or relatively unimaginative.

This year, packages included vacations in Tuscany, Thailand, New Orleans, Paris, Bordeaux and London. There were African safaris (for which a cheetah was flown in and displayed) and jaunts on an America’s Cup catamaran. Even the trips themselves came with impressive swag; a trip to Monaco included a luxury watch and a 1.02 carat diamond ring. It was a year when you could bid on dinner with football legends such as Joe Montana, or drive home in a refurbished 1960 Jaguar XK Roadster, with three jereboams of cabernet rattling around in the boot. The top lot, which went for some $460,000, involved a private concert for 28 people by the Grammy-Award winning country pop band Lady Antebellum, in the company of six prominent Napa winery families and their wines. That’s a bit less than $17,000 a ticket, if you’re counting.

It was, in short, all about the loot, with conspicuous enticements overshadowing the Valley and its wines, which, lest you missed the messaging, are synonymous with luxury. While this may be a trend for wine auctions (the recently held Naples auction, purportedly the largest in the country, offered similarly flamboyant bibelots), sitting there, it occurred to me that if Auction Napa Valley took “wine” out of its name (and the official title on the auction’s website came close to doing just that), the omission might go unnoticed.  The Auction is now more synonymous with aspiration than anything else, and there is a bittersweet disconnect between the message and the medium. And that medium, in case you couldn’t tell — that vibrant, powerful, expressive, moving medium-in-a-glass, produced in one of the most spectacular wine regions on earth — is what I’m in the game for.

That is why the barrel tasting, held at Jarvis Winery on the Friday before the gavel auction, and showcasing the 2010 vintage, was worth more to me than any one-carat diamond. The 2010 vintage is going to be one of the benchmark vintages in California for years to come, a cool vintage that resulted in cabernets of almost effortless balance, low alcohols, natural elegance even in youth. Great wines from Honig, Meteor, Chappellet, Cardinale, Tetra, Spottswoode, as well as the top-bid wines Shafer and Scarecrow, serve to remind that Napa’s messaging can sometimes transcend the merely aspirational.

Top photo: Bidders compete at Auction Napa Valley. Credit: Courtesy of Auction Napa Valley.

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Lou: A Love Story Image

The wine bar nearest my home, called Lou, is changing hands. It is one the first successful wine bars in Hollywood, its uniqueness derived from the peculiar and singular appetites of its founder and namesake, Lou Amdur, without whom its name and its sensibility will change, certainly. In a way, Lou is like the battery charging an intricate, quirky toy contraption entirely of his own design. In another way, Lou and the place he created are indistinguishable.

Lou is a former software engineer whose sojourns to Paris in the mid-’90s led him eventually to discover that city’s alternative wine bars — establishments like Juveniles, Willi’s and the bistrot à vin of Jacques Mélac. Inspired, he spent the next decade planning to replicate the feel of such places in a Los Angeles venue.

A uniquely Los Angeles spot

Of course, not counting various local faux châteaux, L.A. can’t aspire to the inherent charm of Paris. So Lou didn’t try. Instead, with his architect Barbara Bestor, he created an environment befitting Hollywood, a set-like fantasia resembling not Paris at all but a wonderland all to itself.

The bar was located in a somewhat sketchy Hollywood neighborhood on Vine Street, in a strip mall, between a bodega and a laundromat. For many Angelenos, the location left a lot to be desired. Lou had no valet, no host or hostess, no reservationist and a tiny parking lot, obliging some to park a distance from the entrance; many were out of their comfort zone well before they’d reached the front door.

But when you walked through that door, you could not help but marvel at the space within. The entire room was suffused with a soft pink glow from floor-to-ceiling curtains silkscreened with pink flowers. A kind of winter forest wallpaper adorned the north wall, and on its opposite was placed a wall-sized chalkboard, where the menu was replicated, along with curious drawings that hinted at the mysterious alchemy that brought wine from the vine to the glass. A most impractical tube amplifier relayed downbeat lounge tunes from bands like the American Analog Set. It was, in a word, atmospheric: The transformative disorientation of walking through the door was mildly euphoric all by itself, leaving you primed for a singular experience.

So, too, in its way, did the wine list. Lou’s tastes were modest, and quite catholic at first; he sought out the sort of authentic wine he’d found in Paris, but he was mindful of his clientele’s predilections. “I felt I had to have wine representative of different customer’s desires, with a domestic Chardonnay, some Cabernet Bordeaux-style wine. It was my feeble attempt at understanding other people’s tastes.”

A move toward minimally handled wines

Within a year though, he realized his own tastes were taking him in a different direction. In a glass of Morgon by Jean Foillard, Lou experienced a modest epiphany — affordable, accessible and completely unique to its place, cru-Beaujolais was the sort of wine that gave a kind of effortless pleasure, a wine that everyone could grasp even if they were unfamiliar. He looked for other wines like the Morgon, and discovered dozens, mostly underappreciated in the L.A. market.

“I realized,” he says, “that all of the wines I loved had these things in common: that they were responsibly farmed, they were fermented with native yeast, they were minimally handled, I realized these things made them wines I want to drink.” Within a year, (“when I knew I wasn’t going to go belly up,” he says) he started to populate his wine list with them.

Lou made it safe for Angelenos to embrace the unknown, with wines that were inexpensive, delicious and fairly screamed of place: Pelavergas from Piedmont, Muscadets and rustic reds from the Loire, Rotgipflers from Austria, obscure blends from the hinterlands of California and Oregon. (In homage to the Foillard, there has been a cru-Beaujolais on the list since his first encounter with that wine.)

His customers have followed his peregrinations around the underappreciated with great enthusiasm. It has been the sort of place where a guest would come back on successive nights, with new groups of friends, to turn them onto something they’d had the night before. There have been misfires, certainly. “It kills you inside when people make a face and push the glass back and say, ‘I don’t like that wine,'” he says. “But when you love something and you know it’s good, it’s great to give it a wider audience.”

Of course Troy Stevens, the new owner, will possess an energy all his own, and there’s no reason to think he won’t find his own unique clientele. But it won’t have Lou and it won’t be named Lou, a place that went defiantly against the grain of our big box, chain-store wine culture: It was a place that created, in the grim banality of a strip mall, a thrilling terroir all its own.

Zester Daily contributor Patrick Comiskey is a senior contributor for Wine & Spirits Magazine, where he serves as chief critic for non-California domestic wines and contributes articles on the wines of California, Oregon and Washington.

Photo: Lou Amdur. Credit: Anne Fishbein

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Virginia (Wine) Lovers Image

Let’s face it, when it comes to wine, Californians are chauvinists. Oh, we’ll grant that they make some pretty good wine in Oregon — if you like Pinot Noir. And we hear that producers in Washington state make a few Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah bottlings that deign to compete with our own; maybe, just maybe, we’ll try one of them one day. When we learn, however, that the rest of the country — every state, including Alaska — produces wine, and that some of it is actually very good, eyes tend to roll, and a film of condescension veils whatever faint praise we can muster.

So to grant that Virginia wineries not only can stand on their own but aspire to stand alongside Bordeaux and the Napa Valley; to acknowledge that no region outside of France is more dedicated to the Viognier variety, to concede that with wines from the Finger Lakes these are perhaps the most competent wines on the Eastern seaboard — well, it’s enough to make a California chauvinist scoff — and reach thirstily for a glass.

Recent explosive growth

In just five years, the wine industry in the Commonwealth has doubled, to nearly 200 wineries, from Leesburg to Danville. A great many of these lie in what is known as the Piedmont, the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, situated in and around Charlottesville and bearing the historically significant appellation name of Monticello. It’s an area that would be worthy of touring even if there weren’t a drop of wine to be found — there are gorgeous farms, country roads, thickly forested hills and valleys and scores of historically significant places to stumble upon.

Partly for this reason Virginia wine country, what I’ve seen of it, is wonderfully hard to pin down. It is wine country, for sure, but it’s wine country filtered through farm country and horse country and hunt club country and Civil War country and, most important, Jefferson country — Jefferson, America’s first wine geek — about whom we’ll come back to in a moment.

A place for all types

The diversity of land use here perhaps accounts for the diversity of wine lovers, too. I’ve never seen anything quite like the demographic of a Virginia tasting room, where outdoorsmen in camo gear commingle with former debutantes and polo enthusiasts, duck and deer hunters elbow to elbow with Beltway weekenders and ladies who lunch. If Ralph Lauren wanted to start a winery, he’d be wise to come to Virginia.

He hasn’t, but singer Dave Matthews has, a winery called Blenheim, with an estimable reputation. And Donald Trump recently swooped in to buy the troubled Kluge Winery, now re-gilded with the Trump moniker. Steve and Jean Case, of the AOL Cases, performed a similar rescue on Sweely Winery in nearby Madison. But perhaps the biggest recent splash has come from newcomer Rutger de Vink, who established RdV in the Blue Ridge Mountains in 2005. His inaugural 2008 Bordeaux-style blend, from vines only in their third leaf, sells for $88 and has been touted by Jancis Robinson as the wine that will “raise the bar for other vignerons in the native state of America’s most famously wine loving president.” You can debate the tariff all you want, but it almost doesn’t matter: Nothing says you’ve arrived like a Napa Valley price tag.

A climate that straddles California and France

Virginia’s climate isn’t terribly different from parts of France, and many of the producers there put forth that their wines, the reds in particular, fall in just between the lush richness of California wines and the relative austerity of French versions. In recent tastings, two red varieties showed the consistency and promise to assert themselves: Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.

It’ll take just a whiff of a Virginia Franc to prove you’re not in California — the wines’ savory scents and grainy tannins suggest the Loire in their lighter iterations, the Right Bank in warm vintages. Either style is supported by plenty of red fruit, good lift and energy, with tannic precision. Add Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon to the blend and you have an even more convincing Bordeaux surrogate, like Octagon, the classic Monticello red from Barboursville Winery (named for a Jefferson-designed estate — now in ruins — preserved on the property). Like Bordeaux these aren’t wines made for youthful exploitation; in older vintages, what with cedar and sage accents adorning fruity cores of plum and cassis, they will reward the patient collector.

The surprise red is Petit Verdot, a grape normally used in blending whose function is largely structural — sturdy, broad and tannic, yielding a fairly monolithic wine of almost impossible inkiness — California versions are the vinous equivalent of staring down a deep well. Iterations in Virginia are enlivened by brisk acidity and a lighter body, while still managing to be the weightiest red the region has to offer — and a boon to wine tourism as a result.

The state’s most visible category however remains Viognier, a white Rhône variety established here by Dennis Horton in the early ’90s. In a culture somewhat constricted by gentility and politesse, Horton is a welcome respite, a profane, iconoclastic vigneron who earns his keep as a defense contractor and who goes his own way, not caring one way or another if anyone follows. On a recent morning visit — a Swisher Sweet lit at his lips, the first of the day still smoldering in the ashtray — Horton described hitting upon Viognier as an ideal grape for Virginia in naught but the most pragmatic terms — no romance, no epiphany story — no, he selected Viognier because of its thick skin and loose clusters, a grape whose the morphological wherewithal would allow it to endure the region’s short, humid summers without succumbing to bunch rot.

And it makes a wine, not surprisingly, nothing like a California Viognier. These are considerably leaner, with lighter body and lower alcohols, with brisk acidity and a wiry texture maintained by a regional preference, by and large, for restricting malolactic fermentation. They remain focused in their flavors as well, rarely crossing into stone fruits, though coming achingly close. The best of the Viogniers I tasted — a splendid 2010 from Andrew Hodgson’s Veritas, made by his daughter Emily — seemed to hint at peach flavors without altogether arriving, falling back to flavors of mango and pear, tantalizing and graceful.

There is no record of Thomas Jefferson planting viognier in his vineyard at Monticello, though there is little doubt he was familiar with the variety from Condrieu and at Chateau Grillet. After many years of trying, of describing to friends “the great desideratum of making at home a good wine,” Jefferson’s efforts at viticulture went largely unrewarded, done in by phylloxera, mildew, pests and his own inexperience. “Though an old man,” he conceded, “I am but a young gardener.” But he kept at it until his death, a man ahead of his time, bestowing a mantle of expectation that is, at long last, bearing fruit two centuries later.

Zester Daily contributor Patrick Comiskey is a senior contributor for Wine & Spirits Magazine, where he serves as chief critic for non-California domestic wines and contributes articles on the wines of California, Oregon and Washington.

Photo: RdV Winery, in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Credit: Steven Morris

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Champagne From 8 Angles Image

1. When the bottle comes to the table, it’s like the arrival of a very beautiful woman who is a little late, but not too late. Her flushed state, flustered mildly at being the center of attention, only heightens your expectation of her company.

As she is readied, all talk ceases, a little mental space established for anticipation. You glance at the bottle, the lustrous sheen of its foil, the slender cursive of its name on the label, gleaming slightly from an interval in ice. You ready your glass. Celebration is in the air.

It is the holidays, and your glass is a flute, and in a moment your flute will contain something that for more than 300 years has signified an inimitable pleasure. If you’re ready, your first sip of Champagne awaits you.

2. You loosen the foil, twist the metal cage restraining the cork, lay the cage carefully on the table like a tiny footstool destined for a curio cabinet. You hold the cork in the crook of your thumb, turn the bottle as you grasp the punt, easing the cork from its sheath, leaving it to swell in your hand as you hear the tiny gasp the bottle produces as it releases its first breath. You catch that sharp, almost acrid wisp of yeast as it escapes, having been trapped for many long months and not yet possessing the expansive aromas that oxygen will soon bestow upon the wine’s perfume.

For God’s sake, do not let the wine bubble over. Do not spill a drop. You may wish to practice on a few lesser bottles — Cremant, Mousseaux, Lambic — before you open a bottle of great Champagne.


Recommendations from wine critic Patrick Comiskey:

2002 Dom Perignon Brut: citrusy, concentrated, thrillingly mineral.

2004 Louis Roederer Brut Cristal: stony, driven, sensuously rounded.

MV Krug Brut Grand Cuvee: opulent, deep, profoundly structured.

1995 Charles Hiedsieck Brut Blanc des Millenaires: toasty, nutty, voluptuously expansive.

NV Pierre Peters Blanc de Blancs Brut Grand Cru Reserve: pristine, precise, finely herbal.

NV Vilmart & Cie., Grand Cellier Brut: floral, appley, luxuriously honeyed.

NV Agrapart & Fils Blanc de Blancs Brut "Les 7 Crus": lemony, nutty, beautifully composed.

NV Larmandier-Bernier Brut "Terre de Vertus": bracing, stony, intensely long.

3. If you can, put your ear to the flute and listen. In fine crystal, the wine can be faintly musical, percussive. Other sparkling wines effervesce, but compared with great Champagne the sound they make is a thick, crudely eruptive spume.

Champagne does not possess that sort of aggression. Its mousse is finer, quieter, more delicate. It is telling you to lean in, and so you must.

4. After the wine settles, it is transformed into something more composed, the mousse as measured and elegant as a candle flame. The word for this is perlage, a beautiful word that describes roughly how the bubbles look and feel. But there is something about the sound of the word itself that suggests it was invented for this very experience. In fact, it serves as an analog for the sensuality of the bubbles as they strike your mouth. That’s perlage as in “pearl,” perlage as in “ah,” as in that beautiful “zh” sound of the French “g.”

As for the sound itself: The perlage of Champagne is like the sea on a summer’s day from some distance, the sound of the waves retreating softly into low tide. It is not a crashing but a distant, rippling hum. If you try to hear it, you cannot.

5. It is not quite gold, the color, but it is a word you want to use. Of course, the color is brighter than this: cereal chaff, the back of an autumn gingko leaf, glints of straw and lemon pip, bits of shortbread. It is paler than gold, in every way lighter.

6. Breathe it. You cannot exactly smell Champagne; something about how the gas escaping the surface gets in the way. So you breathe it, with your mouth slightly open so your mouth can smell it too.

As the wine comes up in temperature, the aromas become easier to detect, they lift up to you the way warm air rises in an orchard on an autumn morning. Like most great wine, if you try to isolate the scent you’ll be frustrated; if you try and describe it, you will lose the sensation of smelling it.

But words will gather anyway, and you may say them to yourself: lemon, pomelo, sea foam, limestone, almonds, hazelnuts, warm bread, pastry dough, brioche, tarte tatin, a crisp apple, a perfectly ripe pear. Let the words come and go. Do not attach to them. As the wine takes on air they will obsolesce anyway. Be Zen about your glass of Champagne.

7. You taste it. There is a flood of autonomic pleasure, hurried along by the wine’s tart edge. There are flavors, immediate flavors, but mostly the sensation is casually shocking, as if your tongue has just been slapped, your taste buds jolted by an electric current borne of fizz and acidity. The wine, meanwhile, is just waking up. After a moment it seems to snap to a kind of attention, gather itself in your mouth until finally the flavors — toast and toffee, pear and apple, lime and yuzu, laced with minerals — form and harmonize, lengthen and fade. That astonishing movement from chaos to clarity is one of great Champagne’s great acts.

8. Despite the extraordinary global reputation Champagne enjoys, despite its synonymity with celebration, despite the prestige that goes along with just saying the word, these are not demonstrative wines. In the glass Champagne isn’t about power or posturing. The best possess a richness shot through with such penetrating acidity that that opulence never feels heavy or indulgent. Like a thundercloud, there’s an incredible sensation of weight and mass, and yet it floats above you without effort. Tension and grace are the lead attributes. It is the anti-sumo: with the elasticity of an acrobat, the tensile strength of a yogini who veers into an impossible position, teetering into the only place where everything can fall into place.

And then it’s all over, until the next sip.

Zester Daily contributor Patrick Comiskey is a senior contributor for Wine & Spirits Magazine, where he serves as chief critic for non-California domestic wines and contributes articles on the wines of California, Oregon and Washington.

Photo: Champagne in flutes. Credit: Mark Gordon

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Wine for Thanksgiving Image

Another Thanksgiving is upon us: Whatever will we drink? Even if that question isn’t boring a hole in the back of your head, it behooves you to have a strategy to come at this wildly ungainly meal.

When it comes to marrying the meal with wine, Thanksgiving is never easy. A mashup of bitter and sweet, sour and salty, rich and richer, dishes of varying weights and textures are thrown together like the gaudiest of holiday wardrobes, leaving attempts at pairing, as I wrote here last year, feeble or palliative, “an omnivorous varnish heaved upon the meal like so much paint upon a Jackson Pollock canvas.” I can’t think of a single wine that can get you from start to finish. But there is, I think, a single variety, which, in all its global variants, might be up to the task. A grape so versatile that it may serve as your go-to variety for the meal of all meals.

I’m talking about grenache, one of the world’s most ubiquitous varieties, inhabiting everything from the world’s humblest peasant wines to some of its most profound, a wine that has not only several shades of red but also shines as a pink and a white (if you grant me that Grenache Blanc, an isolated mutation, is roughly its twin).

Best of all, Grenache is quite literally a global phenomenon, a grape grown wherever enough sunshine and warmth allow full ripeness, which means not only it is ubiquitous, but it bears a range of flavors that can meet the mashup head-on.


Let us start with Rosé. Of all the red grapes employed to go pink, perhaps the most effortless conversion comes from Grenache. The variety produces Rosé wines that are fruity but not overbearing, bright and vivid, with an energy and charm that few other pink wines can match, and are sturdy enough to serve at the holiday feast.

Many of Spain’s Rosados are made of all or part Grenache. An entire appellation in the southern Rhône, Tavel, devotes itself to Rosés made largely with Grenache, wines of a piercing maraschino red with bold, intense flavors that can make for an ideal accompaniment to a turkey leg. Closer to home, look for pink wines from Verdad and Beckmen, both Rosé specialists.


In the last decade, California had devoted hundreds of acres Grenache’s white sibling, Grenache Blanc, owing in part to Tablas Creek’s efforts in propagating Rhône varieties. It has adapted well, and may even be more expressive here than in France; here it retains more acidity than most other white Rhône varieties, gives lift to white blends and carries a lemony scent in the glass — an ideal Thanksgiving aperitif. The Central Coast winery Tangent, I believe, produces the most in the state; Tercero winemaker Larry Schaffer may have the surest hand in the state with the variety.


At its best, red Grenache is nothing if not exuberant: alive with vibrant red flavors of cherries, red plums, strawberries. What it lacks in gravitas it often makes up for with a kind of frisky, almost frivolous energy. That is often how they play out in Australia, where the best stocks of old vine grenache are in the McLaren Vale (seek out bottlings from D’Arenberg and Yangarra). Among domestic producers, Stolpman and Unti are making some of the more exciting monovarietal bottlings in the state.

Winemakers usually ground that friskiness by blending in more structured varietal components, most often Syrah, Mourvèdre and Carignane, to provide some depth to the flavors and frame the heady vitality that Grenache frequently brings to a wine.

This is a global practice; in Rioja, Spain, Garnacha provides lift and spice to the otherwise dour Tempranillo. In Priorat, wines of unvanquished power are given a core plumminess with Carignane. A similar formula is followed in Roussillon, on the French slopes of the Pyrenees, wines with a succulent core of dark red fruit flavors, and lingering impressions of licorice, olive and bay.

In Australia the blends are known as GSMs, for their component parts, Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre. The red raspberry scents of Grenache are anchored by darker blue hues of the latter two varieties. The same practice is increasingly common in California and Washington, where those three varieties are used in different percentages to produce wines of charm and depth, in wines such as Z Cuvee from Zaca Mesa, Bonny Doon’s Le Cigare Volant, Villa Creek’s Avenger, Tablas Creek’s Patelin and Gramercy Cellars’ Columbia Valley blend, “The Third Man.”

The pinnacle of blended Grenache-based wines is in the southern Rhône and is centered in three appellations: Vacqueyras, Gigondas and Châteauneuf du Pape. Here is Grenache in all its glory, showcasing the power, headiness and complexity that the variety is capable of. While more than a half-dozen varieties can be employed in blends from these places, it is most often paired with Mourvèdre, Syrah and Cinsault. Despite rich, vibrant fruit, the wines tend to act as vectors of minerality reflecting the complex soils of each region; it is a place where a single producer might make a wine from one or all of the subregions; for Gigondas and Vacqueyras, explore the wines of Montirius, Paul Jaboulet and St. Cosme; in Châteauneuf du Pape, splurge on the wines of Ogier, Beaucastel, La Nerthe and Vieux Telegraphe.


Grenache is even helpful when it comes to the dessert course: Roussillon is home to one of France’s most distinctive sweet red wines, the portlike, Grenache-based Banyuls. Ideal for the savory pie course — one of the better known is from Domaine du Mas Blanc — or if you can find it, seek out the haunting Banyuls from Jacques Laverriere, “Clos Chatart.”

Pecan pie and other caramelly creations are best accompanied by an Australian Tawny, a grenache blend harvested late and aged in barrels to render a toffee’d sweetness in the wines, smooth, rich and satisfying, like Yalumba’s celebrated Museum Reserve.

Zester Daily contributor Patrick Comiskey is a senior contributor for Wine & Spirits Magazine, where he serves as chief critic for non-California domestic wines and contributes articles on the wines of California, Oregon and Washington.

Photo: St. Cosme in Gigondas. Credit: Patrick Comiskey

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