I came across this book by chance while wandering the quaint touristy downtown section of Half Moon Bay, where they have the famous pumpkin harvest festival every autumn. Published a few years ago, this is not one of those stuffy-Oh-Lafite-Oh-Latour-can-do-no-wrong Bordeaux snoozers. Instead here Echikson examines the region from the Left Bank perspective of garagistes, new wine makers and those trying to update the stuffy and often dowdy image of this celebrated wineland.

just plain, yet charming rot on a fence in springtime California

just plain, yet charming rot on a fence in springtime California

I love the title: Noble Rot. Of course, that’s the name for the desirable pourriture noble, the grey fungus that attacks the white grapes of Sauternes, thereby transforming them into the sweet dessert nectar formerly prized around the world. These unctuous stickies have suffered a steep decline in popularity with the 20th century rise of dry table wines. Sauternes and the flagship Château d’Yquem remain exalted but struggle.

The plight of that Superior First Growth has a special place in this well written, light yet informative book—here I almost wrote “novel” since the Yquem story itself is so convoluted and bizarre that it seems like fiction. This, then, represents the second form of “noble rot:” the gradual, painful-at-times, yet inexorable decline of once great châteaux.

Of course, as the subtitle suggests, most of the book deals with attempts to fight off the lethargy, and, dare I say, greed, that has apparently overtaken Bordeaux in past decades. Focused on the ”new”-ish “garage movement” primarily based in the St Emilion appellation of the Left Bank, the book champions American Robert Parker and those local winemakers that want to make more powerful, ageworthy, nuanced wines, instead of the typical plonk that has allegedly been foisted on the world marketplace for ages.

Whether you believe old school Médoc has fallen behind the times or not is largely irrelevant here. Though there’s little doubt in Echikson’s mind that a refreshing breath of change is called for.

The book introduces you to some key players from traditional Bordeaux—Alexandre de Lur-Saluces from Yquem primarily, but with cameo appearances by Paul Pontallier director of Château Margaux—and some new-wavers like Michel Gracia in St. Emilion and Yves Vatelot, from Left Bank Château de Reignac and visionary at the Margaux estate, Château Lascombes. These people and their stories completely bewitched me.

Sadly, I’ve hardly ever tasted Bordeaux. And, when I’ve done, often it hasn’t left much of a favorable impression on me. But this book made me really excited to expand my horizons. And really, isn’t that enough?

Certainly, others might find Echikson’s opinions inaccurate and distressing. Nobody wants to think that their prized wine and fabulously valuable and venerable estate are junk I suppose. So for you, I offer my third take on the title: noble rot is nothing more than glorified nonsense.


1994 Château Léoville Barton

1994 Château Léoville Barton

Unfortunately, I don’t really have any friends with ready-to-drink cellars filled with red Bordeaux who are clamoring to invite us over for some tasting. (If in fact you are out there, I wouldn’t mind an invite soon!) My parents aren’t really big wine drinkers, but when they do, their tastes run toward Tuscany. Too bad. How will I ever decide whether or not I like Bordeaux? Recently I read somewhere that the best thing to do is to buy an older bottle from a reputable wine merchant and try it out. So today marks my first stab in that direction.

I got this bottle of 1994 Château Léoville Barton from K&L Wines in San Francisco. To me it was a considerable splurge for a random bottle of wine, costing about 80 bucks. I read now on the K&L web site that Robert Parker and Wine Spectator both thought that the wine had a numerical rating of 90, if that means anything to anyone. All of the critics think that it should be ready to drink now.

The wine was an opaque dark purple with aromas of cedar and Hegui rather unflatteringly thought the scent of “natural tobacco bug repellant to use on collard green plants.” This had medium body with a very long finish. We noted metallic notes, red fruit and a lot of refined tannin. Hegui concluded after a few tastes, “It’s not my cup of tea.” In fact, he refused to drink more and I was forced to open another bottle of 2009 Saint Cosme Côtes du Rhône, which remains a crowd pleaser at my house. I actually liked the Bordeaux.

Stephen Brook, in his book, Bordeaux: Medoc & Graves, characterizes the reds from the 1994 vintage as “dark, quite rich, and tannic: but they mostly lacked finesse and flair.” He goes on to conclude that 1994 is “another vintage that failed to meet its early promise.” He specifically writes that the 1993 and 1994 Léoville Barton are “not bad, but neither are they exciting or that distinctive.” Hmm…

I didn’t know any of this before buying the wine. I hadn’t even read what was on the K&L site, though by the numbers and the general summary there, I would probably have done the same and gotten the bottle. Really, I just picked it up having ordered some 2008 and 2009 Léoville Barton as futures. I thought that this might give me a hint about what to expect in two decades when those wines are ready to taste. Now I wonder if they will fail to meet their early promise, too, and won’t be that exciting or distinctive? Gosh, I hope not!

So much for early ratings and it’s back to the drawing board with Bordeaux!


Aaah, Bordeaux! I am enchanted with the idea of you.

Bordeaux Châteaux is a marvelous book: full of the romance of that greatest of French wine regions. Published to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the world-renowned Grands Crus Classés in 1855, the book overflows with poetic and loving descriptions of the various châteaux that form that classification, interspersed among rich and startling photographs that make this book the perfect coffee-table accent for your favorite Bordeaux admirer. I love it.

Bordeaux Chateaux has all the romance of a beautiful sunrise

Bordeaux Châteaux has all the romance of a beautiful sunrise

The purple prose might be too much for some. Here’s an example from the chapter on the fairly obscure, to this American reader, Fourth Growth, La Tour Carnet:

Let places speak for themselves. Observe them objectively and try to understand how they work. Learn about their history, seeking keys to the present in the traces that survive from the past. Lastly, abandon oneself completely to their pervading spirit, let oneself be lulled and even entranced by it. It is true, of course, that this method is easier to follow in a place that is lovely, impressive, expressive. La Tour Carnet is all this and more. The overall appearance of the place is literally too wonderful for words.

I, too, am almost speechless.

I’d originally gotten the book after reading and writing about the 2009 Bordeaux frenzy. People really are wild about this place and its wine. After the drink, the mansions have to be the most celebrated thing about this superlatively lauded region. Why not do some “sight-seeing” from home, as I slowly pay off my massive wine-futures-laden credit card?

I was immediately drawn to Bordeaux Châteaux, not because of the writing, but, rather, due to the stunning photographs. Each property from the 1855 classification has its own chapter, organized, of course, by growth (though don’t look for pretentious Léoville-Las-Cases here). The text briefly summarizes the history of each place, makes some (generally very positive) comments about the state of the wine and the property, and, occasionally, some remarks regarding touring said facility.

Though it is true that the book mentions that various properties have been in decline, most of these, miraculously, are recovering, re-born, or undergoing much needed investment to return to their historical grandeur. This is not an “objective” analysis, despite protestations to the contrary. It’s all about Team Bordeaux. But that’s fine. You can seek criticism elsewhere, if you must. Turn these pages for the beauty and luxurious splendor that name evokes.

Not to completely minimize the writing. The book is informative. For example, I was fascinated to learn that the only “tower” currently on the property at Latour is a dovecote. And who would have imagined the difficulties encountered by Emmanuel Cruse in renovating Château d’Issan, a property of such historic significance that the buildings themselves cannot be changed in any way. How then does one move large modern equipment into spaces designed hundreds of years ago through doorways built for horse-drawn carts? Apparently, it’s challenging.

The chinoiserie design of the château at Cos D’Estournel made me think of some marvelous over-the-top vineyards in our very own Napa and Sonoma Counties. How nice to realize that, in fact, we’re following French oeonology footsteps in property design as well as in vineyard and wine production techniques. Perhaps with all of the money being invested in Bordeaux in the last few decades, sometimes with American capital, the French may even be following us? They’ve Euro-Disney already.

In a way, that concept both inspires and depresses me. The book depicts a vinous fairy-tale that’s quite compelling. I’d truly enjoy an extended visit along the “Route du Vin.” But would it, in fact, be much different from California? Moreover, it is hard to look at the grand décor of Lafite-Rothschild or Château Margaux without thinking, “costume,” just like here. Everything seems so sales-pitchy somehow. That is sad.

I’ve the sense that the writers are aware of the problem. Frequently, they refer to a château’s wine making philosophy in the context of balancing the “traditions” of the past all the while looking toward the future. Sure, it’s business, but it’s also something so much more.

As a promotional tool, Bordeaux Châteaux delivers. You’ll want to drink the wine and visit the area, both of them, very often. That’s alright, isn’t it? I think so.

Bordeaux Châteaux: A History of the Grands Crus Classes since 1855
Preface by Hugh Johnson
Texts by Jean-Paul Kauffmann, Dewey Markham, Cornelis Van Leeuwen and Franck Ferrand
Photography by Christian Sarramon
Published by Flammarion


fries with eyes AKA manjuba

by Heguiberto on November 16, 2009

fries with eyes AKA deep fried smelt

fries with eyes AKA deep fried smelt

This weekend we went on a fish eating binge. On Friday we dined at Sanraku before seeing the new movie, “Precious.” The movie was excellent in a very disturbing way. And as per usual, the meal was divine! We had a beautiful sushi a la carte comprised of taco (octopus), albacore tuna, yellow tail, uni (sea urchin) and nasu (eggplant) nigiri. We also ordered a few rolls: cucumber, fried oyster and wasabi. The wasabi roll was a surprise with its intense heat blasting through your nasal cavities. Some people say this is a pleasing sensation? Every time I overdose on wasabi, after the suffering, I start laughing at my own foolishness. I’ve only myself to blame for the delicious, excruciating pain. I always promise not to do it again, yet the very next time I OD once more. This ordering of the wasabi roll was Steven’s idea but I could have said no. Well my point is that after indulging in fish on Friday I was still not completely satisfied, so for Saturday dinner we had seafood again!

fresh smelt

fresh smelt

That afternoon we went shopping in the Mission at Sun Fat. I got some clams to make them in white wine sauce, essentially the same way as I made the mussels in Chablis. By chance, while browsing around the shop, I saw that they had fresh smelt. I immediately thought about summertime on the beach in Brazil. There this tiny little fish is called ‘manjuba.’ A perfect day at any Brazilian beach, as far as I’m concerned, includes baking in the sun with friends and family, drinking watery beer and caipirinhas, and eating deep fried fish. I’ve been home sick lately. I guess this cold weather makes me want to migrate South with the birds. (I can’t wait for my upcoming trip there in January!) I simply had to get them!

It is a bit naughty eating this because it’s deep fried. We don’t do much deep frying at home, but every once in a while I think it’s okay. The smelt turned out pretty delicious. I served them with tartar sauce.

Oh, I’m borrowing the name of this post from a similar dish from a restaurant I went to a couple of years ago. They thought that the fried smelt looked like French fried potatoes with eyes. It’s a cute name that’s catchy. Though, I think that the fried fish are much more interesting looking than mere fried potato. Anyway, here it is:

Fries with Eyes AKA Manjuba

1lb smelt (manjuba), rinsed and patted dried with a paper towel
1 cup corn flour
black pepper
¼ tsp chili pepper
oil for frying (canola, corn, or grapeseed)

deep frying smelt

deep frying smelt

For the tartar sauce:

2 tbsp mayo
1 tsp yellow mustard
1 tbsp buttermilk
1 tbsp capers, rinsed and coarsely chopped

In a medium pan heat enough oil to fill the pan about ½ inch. Mix corn flour, salt, pepper and chili pepper together. Transfer smelt to corn mix. Shake off excess flour. Add smelt to pan, frying them in batches about 3-4 minutes per side on medium-high heat. Do not over crowd pan. Remove from pan and let fried fish rest on a paper towel to remove some excess oil. When all of the frying is done, arrange on a platter and serve with tartar sauce and lemon or lime wedges.

For the tartar sauce, mix all ingredients together and serve.

We’re not in Brazil here so instead of beer, we had our “fries with eyes” as an appetizer with a beautiful bottle of inexpensive white Bordeaux, Chateau Ducasse 2008. I used the same wine for the clam dish that I served as the main course, accompanied by olive bread for dipping. Mmmm! I do love seafood!

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think globally, eat locally?

by Stevie on August 3, 2009

Bordeaux/Burgundy: A Vintage Rivalry” by Jean-Robert Pitte, M B Debevoise (translator)

“The Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey into Terroir” by Amy Trubek

I’ve been on a French wine kick for the past couple of years and lately I’ve been trying to learn more about red Burgundies. It was my good fortune then to come across “Bordeaux/Burgundy.” Pitte is a geographer and food and wine critic with many years of experience writing about and drinking fine French wines. This is an enchanting book: both fact-filled and a delightful historical and cultural exploration of French wine and culture.

do you think that I could produce fine wine with this terroir?

do you think that I could produce fine wine with this terroir?

The ‘rivalry’ between these regional French wine powerhouses seems to be of long-standing though the origins of the debate are shrouded in mystery. More than just a battle between wine styles, it seems to have taken on a cultural meaning in France perhaps akin to the almost irrational way that fans at the World Cup strongly cheer for one team over another. One quote from a Parisian journalist that Pitte mentions should suffice to give you the idea:

I had probably never drunk a single glass of wine when I chose my camp once and for all: Bordeaux rather than Burgundy. Once and for all! But one lives and learns. Since then I have learned to put some Burgundy in my wine…The palate must give way to the mind.

Pitte looks to the particular histories of these two wine producing areas as the main source of the not always so friendly competition between them. Aside from being in different locations, Burgundy was heavily cultivated in vines and producing fine wines long before Bordeaux had earned such a reputation. Pitte stresses the consumer markets for these wines as the key driving force in shaping their production. Historically Burgundies were sold in Paris, the old Duchy of Burgundy and Central Europe; Bordeaux wines in England and Northern Europe. Market and economic forces then influenced which vintners prospered and which failed.

This flies in the face of the often talked-about idea that terroir is mainly due to the land and climate that the vine experiences with human actions relegated to a small part of the equation. Pitte doesn’t reject terroir. Instead he emphasizes the effects of man over nature in the creation of fine wine. Much of the book is then a development of this ‘radical’ idea.

It’s easy to be persuaded about the importance of money allowing the development of fine wine estates in Bordeaux and vineyards in Burgundy. At first glance, it seems tough to reconcile the land issue. Pitte suggests that many parts of Bordeaux and Burgundy are underdeveloped and with more capital could produce wines to rival the finest in Romanee-Conti or in the Medoc. From this he concludes that there’s nothing that special about the actual ground that these famous vineyards grow in. One spectacular example is the revival of Chablis, which had languished for decades but now produces fine wines that are demanded throughout the world. He also finds numerous other plots of ground that are underdeveloped for various economic reasons. Chablis is an exciting example about the lesser influence of ‘the land’ for another reason: for many years, winemakers in Chablis would ship in soil from other regions of France to make up for the erosion that plagues the area. Yet no one doubts that these wines are still ‘Chablis.’

Another controversy that distinguishes Bordeaux from Burgundy is the grape varieties used and whether or not wine blends are made. Instead of falling back on the somewhat circular reasoning that the vines grown in these places are perfectly adapted for these areas, Pitte again looks to history as a guide. In 1395 Philip the Bold decreed that only the red noirien grape could be planted in Burgundy. Severe punishments were levied against any producers that ignored this ban. The noirien, now called pinot noir, of course took over as the main red in the area. There was nothing inevitable about pinot noir’s domination of red Burgundy beyond politics. It’s just in hindsight that it seems perfect.

Of course, these reds are only pinots, a very different situation from Bordeaux where numerous reds: cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc and others are blended in an endless array of mixtures. The difference here is merely cultural and is not due to some magical aspect of the climate and land. Pinot noir itself could probably be grown in Bordeaux, and certainly chardonnay could. It’s likely that some Bordeaux varieties could thrive in Burgundy, too. History and culture doesn’t allow this, not biology.

Pitte misses the mark as far as I’m concerned when he comments, quite briefly, on American and New World wines. Though he argues that international wine consumers, especially Americans and Japanese, are much savvier than we used to be, he dismisses wines from the Americas, Australia and New Zealand as “vins technologiques” which excessively focus on the taste of the varietal rather than the terroir in which the grape is produced. I’ve tried numerous Californian wines and must disagree. There is a distinct Western Paso Robles taste that is noticeably different from Alexander and Dry Creek Valleys in Sonoma County; which are different again one from the other. I suspect that Pitte simply has not had the good fortune to discover these fine wines where he lives. Too bad for him!

This question of the possibility of an American conception of terroir is the focus of “The Taste of Place.” This short book by an anthropologist and chef is not as beautifully written as Bordeaux/Burgundy but is engrossing in its ideas about the roles of the consumer, the producer, the restaurateur and the land in the creation of a uniquely regional American cuisine.

Trubek looks uncritically on the French model for wine production and classification as a starting point for her analysis of the American scene. Unlike Pitte, who makes a nuanced argument about the emphasis in the terroir debate over man versus land; Trubek argues from the perspective of universal ‘brands,’ which she characterizes as “generic,” versus ‘the taste of place.’ The latter is meant to correspond to terroir in the French sense. She includes wines and all other types of agricultural products in her argument, thus expanding on Pitte’s model.

Brands for Trubek are placeless food products that have a universal consistency that wouldn’t be found in a terroir-driven form of agricultural production. It is clear that she is for ‘un-branding’ American food. Starting in the U.S. with a look at the Bay Area, she cites Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in Berkeley as a pioneer in reawakening Americans to the benefits of regionally distinct foods. Trubek champions the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and other similar farmers markets around the country as spaces in which these regional foods can be discovered.

Trubek attacks this problem in a few different ways. Focused for a good part of the book on restaurants, both because many people eat out often in America and restaurant chefs can be very influential taste-makers, she looks at an interesting case in Wisconsin. L’Etoile restaurant in Madison has built its reputation on creating seasonal, Wisconsin-centered regional food for decades. Restaurant owner and chef Odessa Piper developed relationships with local farmers in an attempt to create a specifically local cuisine that expresses Wisconsin-ness. Trubek writes in particular about the black hickory nut, which is a traditional nut from that region of the country that isn’t found elsewhere. The nut has a long history in Wisconsin though has been gradually losing ground, it seems due to the difficulty involved in harvesting it. At L’Etoile, it is used in numerous dishes as a signal expression of the state.

This idea that place can be reflected in local cuisine through the use of specific ingredients indigenous to an area holds center stage in the last chapters of Taste of Place. In Vermont, Trubek’s state of residence, maple syrup is named as a quintessential expression of Vermont-ness. The syrup has a complex history which Trubek elucidates well. I do believe her when she writes that different maple syrups produced in different regions of the state have different tastes that allow a blind taster to identify where they’re from. This hearkens back to the original wine model of terroir.

One difficulty with this expansionary model of taste of place as applied to all foods is the struggle to distinguish flavor variations within any particular kind of produce. Most of us can appreciate that Granny Smith, Golden Delicious and Fuji apples, for example, have distinct textures and tastes. But can you tell where they were produced or see variations from year to year in these items just by eating them, analogous to wines? I’m sure that I can’t.

Reading Trubek, I was struck by the ways that regional American cuisines with long histories get such short shrift. Creole and Cajun foods from Louisiana, Sonoran Mexican food in Arizona and New England clam bakes are just a few of the many expressions of locality in food that one commonly encounters in this country. These better known regional cuisines often use locally grown or caught products, very similar to the L’Etoile model in Wisconsin. Certainly they’re all quite unique. Aren’t these showing “taste of place?”

More troublesome still, I can’t quite see the difference between foods and wines that express ‘terroir’ and those foods and wines that are merely brands. After all, when you get right down to it, aren’t Bordeaux, Burgundy or Vermont Maple Syrup all famous brands? What’s so bad about brands, really? Is it the idea that they have to be mass-produced and uniform in shape and taste that’s off putting? I’d say that most brands vary if you really think about it. Why else do we try on Levi’s jeans before getting a new pair? Even McDonalds and Starbucks, two American worldwide super-chains offer variable menus from store to store. Say what you want about the Big Mac, but I love Starbuck’s drip coffees, branded or not.

I guess that I’m pro-terroir but I’m not anti-brand. Brands are very useful as a means of communicating about products to consumers that may not know—or care—about all of the complex details involved in an artisanal product. Perhaps over-reliance on any one or a few brands is the real problem with American consumers. In that sense, eating locally and increasing our awareness of other kinds of foods makes perfect sense.

My last objection to these terroir/eat locally crusades is that it becomes too limiting. If I truly just eat locally, then I’ll never enjoy mangoes, Thai food or French wine again. I don’t want to live in that world. Why not some middle way? Can’t we try to eat the freshest ingredients—which often mean those things produced locally—with our eyes and minds open to all of the wonders that come from other local cuisines around the globe?

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