Syne Wine

With the advent and wane of holiday reveries, it’s nearly impossible to escape the maudlin strains of “Auld Lange Syne” and not allow ourselves, in somber or cheerful mood, a reflection on what we leave behind and contemplation of what is before us. At Local Flavor, we’ll take a cup (albeit, a tastevin) in kindness yet, ponder some wines that filled it and share our chronicle of regions, rumors and trends of note.


      The autumn brought ominous news of the falling worldwide supply of wine, a Chicken Little ruckus that should be taken with a grain of sulfite. The fox in waiting may well be the mega beverage industry hoping we’ll fill our cellars and their pockets. Global warming notwithstanding, those of us who intend to put a dent in the world’s wine supply can do so with alacrity.

      As with any art form, wine affects us sensually and emotionally, but it doesn’t have to be lofty to be significant. As Noel Coward once observed, “Strange how potent cheap music is.” (Listen to the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling.”) Similarly, I can as clearly recall reading Fleming as Faulkner. Our daughter recently sent a text from college. She was working on a project about sentimental value and asked about a bottle of wine we’d given her mother one Mother’s Day. We bought it for the label: a 1950’s photo of four little girls posed on a Vespa. One of those girls grew to become its winemaker. Her family’s Cascina Castlet Barbera d’Asti, from Piedmont, is as charming a wine as it was a present. Perceiving how it reverberated for our daughter was a serendipitous return on a $15 purchase. A much sought-after bottle was handed to me on my birthday by a friend and client. It wasn’t wrapped, the label was wrapping enough: Domaine Jean-Louis Chave 2008 Hermitage. What made it particularly memorable is that my friend had inscribed it, as you would a book, by using a special marker pen, a fun way to personalize a gift of wine (available at

      Let’s admit there’s nothing like a splurge. Recently, an acquaintance came to Santa Fe, the brother of a friend, to accompany his only child to college orientation. The last time we three gentlemen were together—one student and two starving actors—was 1984. We chipped in to buy the inaugural release of Opus One, a collaboration of Mouton Rothschild and Robert Mondavi. The Bordeaux-style Cabernet blend from Napa currently fetches as much as $500. Our 1979 vintage was $60, a lot of money to us at the time, and at a kitchen table in a Greenwich Village walkup, we opened it with reverence. I really can’t tell you what it tasted like, only that it was elegant and luxurious and didn’t disappoint. Thirty years later, two of us sat with a bottle of Louro do Bolo Godello from Rafael Palacios (the price of our share of Opus), a savory, mineral-rich white from the hilly Galicia region in Spain and toasted to old acquaintances not forgotten.

      Could there be a more apropos year-end wine than sparkling? It even brings its own noisemaker. New Mexico had a visit from the head winemaker of Maison Ruinart, which was founded in 1729 and is the oldest house exclusively producing Champagne. He told me he was anxious to try some vintage Gruet, as he unceremoniously extracted the cork from his Blanc de Blanc with a burst like a backfire. “Americans are always trying to keep it quiet. In France we let it pop.” He should know.

      Being the mate of a wine professional can have its disadvantages, and Leslie is a frequent wine widow during evening and weekend events, left behind on trips, or worse, conscripted to endure wine dinners with ceaseless haut-caloric dishes and palaver. But as a bunch, we oenophiles are keen to share. When I mentioned I’d be doing an article on the year’s notable wines and moments, without hesitation she said, “The 1995 Krug!” At a welcome-home party, a fellow geek arrived with a magnum—at 1.5 liters, the equivalent of two bottles—of legendary Krug Champagne. He could have made a mortgage payment with what it cost, but we remain awed and grateful. The distinctive aroma of fresh rye bread filled the nose. On the palate the Brut was characterized by a creamy finesse of almond pastry richness and vivid intensity. Is your glass slipper half empty, Cinderella? Cheer up, your purse won’t be. When midnight chimes, you can open a Crémant de Limoux, from southwestern France, a sparkler made primarily from Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc, zingy and satisfying at $15 to $20.

      Chefs and sommeliers give a lot of attention to pairing food with wine, and results can be transformative.  A dinner gathering evolved on a summer night, with a cadre of geeks fond of wine and each other. The theme was Tempier Bandol Rosé, and we’d managed to assemble seven vintages—a vertical—from this mid-nineteenth century vineyard on the French Mediterranean coast, where generations of Tempiers live and work as they always have done. Made from Mourvedre, Grenache and Cinsault, with its distinctive ecru cursive label on clear glass bottles, the Rosés stood in tableau as the evening sun illumined their myriad hues of rose, copper and salmon. The bold, spicy wines smelling of earth and herbs became a personality in the conversation, as if the winemaker were at the table. I don’t recall what we ate. It matched well. Don’t underestimate a spontaneous pairing of wine with folk.

      Visiting wineries can be hit or miss.  Rote spiels from tasting-room employees begin to sound alike and looking at fermenters, storage tanks, and sorting tables is only edifying the first time around.  However, spending an hour with an impassioned winemaker like Carl Wente amid his Livermore Valley vines this past summer at Murrieta’s Well or in Napa listening to the beguiling, if ironically named, Jonah Beer, Frog’s Leap Winery general manager explain the common sense of biodynamic farming by trespassing onto a neighbor’s conventional vineyard was a crash course in viticulture. As you drive the bucolic back roads of the Willamette Valley south of Portland, you’ll spot names of the region’s Pinot Noir pioneers, Erath, Ponzi, Chehalem, Adelsheim, Eyrie, Elk Cove. Recently, the Jackson Family wine consortium from California purchased four vineyards in the area. A game-changer, many fear. (Not unlike the chain reaction of small independent wine shops in Northern New Mexico about the onset of mega-store Total Wine.) Belle Pente Winery, in the Yamhill-Carlton district, is owned by the O’Donnell family; a family of three, including a teenage daughter with dreams of being on Broadway. Sheep grazed along the winding driveway as Evan Martin, a young man who apprenticed into assistant winemaker, and his wife Sarah, a horticulturist, pushed open a gate in welcome. It occurred to me here is the new generation; fresh faces of the individualistic Willamette Valley.  Once inside you tour the winery by turning around. Cases are stacked ready for market, a kitchen laboratory lined one wall, and a whiteboard calendar listed chores and events. Evan pulled corks on a vertical of two wines: the Reserve from vines on the hillside outside the door, and Murto, a bottling from grapes grown in neighboring Dundee on a remote, magically beautiful vineyard carved from a wooded slope. The 2011 and 2012 vintages sampled directly from barrels were fresh with potential, while the mature wines gave a comforting sense of continuum, affirming Oregon as one of the great regions for Pinot Noir.

       Mrs. Malaprop, the moribund character in Richard Sheridan’s Restoration comedy The Rivals, has a way of using a word that is the exact opposite of what she means. But while you laugh, it somehow makes sense, as when she says, “Our retrospection will be all to the future.” As the year flips at the tick of a midnight clock, it will be your own remembrances and expectancies that matter. Moments, like sips of wine, too often pass without tribute—at least, they do if we aren’t paying attention.

      There’s a resolution.

Story by James Selby

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