April 2007

Editor’s Note


Fined & Filtered:
Wine bars
with bottles to go;
Italy's critical wine

Year's Best
American Pinot Noir
Tuscan Reds

Critics' Picks: Best Buys

Drinks: Peter Meehan
on vodka trends

Spirits: Flavored vodka

Urban Bourbon Excursion
by Pableaux Johnson

Chilean pinot noir
by Joshua Greene

Austria 2005
by Peter Liem

Short Finish Farm workers
talk biodynamics
with Patricio Tapia

Restaurant Wines
Overview by Philippe Newlin

Pinot Noir
tasted: 167 reviewed: 50

tasted: 112 reviewed: 64

tasted: 147 reviewed: 89

Tuscan Reds
tasted: 287 reviewed: 107

tasted: 211 reviewed: 140

tasted: 54 reviewed: 26

American New Releases
tasted: 307 reviewed: 71

International New Releases
tasted: 117 reviewed: 47

tasted: 1,402 reviewed: 594

18th Annual Wine & Spirits Restaurant Poll
"It's good times in the wine industry," exclaims Jim Rollston of Cyrus in Healdsburg. "There's a rising tide-more people are drinking wine, especially with meals." He's not the only one who thinks so: According to the sommeliers at 338 of Zagat Surveys' most popular restaurants in this country, diners' enthusiasm for drinking wine with their meals is way up. Were you to take a table at almost any one of America's top restaurants, you might feel out of place not ordering wine with your meal.
     That dramatic rise is reflected in how restaurants currently define themselves. Consider cabernet sauvignon and the great American steak house: With cabernet now the most popular variety in America's most popular restaurants, 45 of our respondents identify themselves as steak houses (compared to 16 two years ago)-both are more popular than ever. You can bet that many of those steak house diners order a glass of cabernet with their ribeye.
     Americans' enthusiasm for wine and food doesn't stop with the steak house. Our conversations with sommeliers at such broadly defined restaurants as regional American (118), French (67), Italian (53) or Asian (23) painted a more complex picture. Besides pinot noir, now the second most popular variety, the influx of regional Italian and Spanish wines into the diverse American market has enabled sommeliers around the country to craft the most exciting wine lists we've seen in the history of the Poll...

Last year, it was tapas. This year, it's izakaya. The concept is similar: a buzzing atmosphere fueled by small plates and long drink lists, with no preconceived notion of what makes a meal and how it should be eaten. Instead of paprika-hued tapas served with small glasses of chilled Sherry, these Japanese drinking houses offer soy-sauced skewers of meat and sesame-sprinkled salads served up with a range of cold sakes.
     That's right: It's no longer necessary to speak Japanese and know the right businessmen to find great sake joints. Like sushi bars, they are turning up everywhere, some in settings that put modern American restaurant design to shame.
     In the following pages, our writers have highlighted some of the most exciting cities for an izakaya crawl. We start with New York City, where Francis Lam scrambles to keep up with Manhattan's sudden izakaya mania-at least, until he finds bliss in chicken skewers at a yakitori joint. In Vancouver, ground zero for Japanese culture in North America, Jamie Maw tracks a full-blown explosion of choices, and down the coast in San Francisco, W. Blake Gray catches an izakaya scene that's only beginning to blossom, but is already worth checking out. Read on to find your way to great sakes and tsukune bliss...

Think Local
Where does your food come from? This seemingly simple question has been pondered so thoroughly in media lately, it's nearly become an obsession. Concerns over health, the environment and flavor have fueled a demand for organic food, and by extension, "natural" wine. None of this is inherently bad, but as with any hot trend, there's a rush to meet that demand. Suddenly organic produce is everywhere, even in big chain stores. And wherever the big chain stores go, there's a massive supply train of trucks and tankers to make sure they can deliver their goods at the cheapest possible price.
     Particularly when it comes to eating and drinking, these modern conveniences seem engineered to obscure our connection to the places we live. One way to reconnect with our roots is to make an effort to eat and drink locally.
     As it turns out, a growing number of chefs are looking to their own neighborhoods for the ingredients they cook with as well as the wines they serve. The chefs on the following pages have connected with their specific communities by going local, and, in the process, have created restaurants with a real sense of place...

Beyond Riesling
As though clawing their way south toward Pennsylvania, western New York's Finger Lakes reach out across the site of a 500 million-year-old seabed. When glaciers gouged their way along the riverbeds of this region in the last ice age, deep water, shale and fossil lime became their bequest to late-20th-century vintners. Recent climatic trends may further play into the hands of this young viticultural zone, as an imaginative band of vintners usher in the new millennium with the most diverse and distinctive wines yet to grow in these soils.
     Classic European vinifera vines transformed the Finger Lakes from its role as a supplier of table grapes and bulk wine; these arrived a mere half-century ago due to the visionary tenacity of Ukrainian-German immigrant Konstantin Frank and the employer who took a chance on him, Charles Fournier. Received opinion and early experience indicated that Vitis vinifera couldn't withstanding the region's bitterly cold winters and humid summers. But Frank proved that with the right rootstocks and viticultural methods, vinifera could become commercially viable.
     In 1976, fourteen years after Frank founded Vinifera Wine Cellars and at a time when Finger Lakes wine producers were feeling the effects of California's rapid growth, New York passed a State Farm Wine Act that set the stage for a proliferation of family wineries. Mosel-born Hermann Wiemer had already planted an unprecedented 140 acres of vinifera. His nursery of vines as well as his ideas became the seedbed for a generation that has confirmed this region's potential. Frank had established his vineyards along Lake Keuka, nearest the traditional commercial center of Hammondsport. But the pioneers of vinifera soon moved eastward to Lake Seneca and Lake Cayuga, driven by terroir. Critical criteria for success here are the thermal retention and reflective capacity of deep lakes and shale soils that offer excellent root penetration and drainage. The huge surface area and 600-foot depth of Lake Seneca dwarfs Keuka. Furthermore, the terrain permits vine-growing close to the water, and calcium from a concentration of fossilized marine life insures the catalytic presence of active lime.

Postmodern deliciousness
the world according to Clark Smith

The Persistence of Tunnel Vision
Perhaps the most telling characterization one can make of Clark Smith is that, despite his reputation as a visionary, he found out about Hurricane Katrina after George W. Bush did. On August 26, 2005, Smith and his wife Susan flew into New Orleans to meet with a wine distributor, vaguely aware that something was brewing in the Gulf of Mexico. The next day, as Katrina swelled to Category 3 status and Bush declared a state of emergency for southern Louisiana, the Smiths got the feeling that something was amiss when they went shopping and saw merchants boarding up their storefronts. A day later, Mayor Ray Nagin ordered the evacuation of the city, but as Smith later told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, "It was too late to get a car." The couple weathered the storm in a French Quarter hotel, subsisting on canned vegetables and hard-boiled eggs and collecting rainwater as it dripped through the ceiling. They finally escaped with the help of an NBC-TV crew, appearing on the "Today" show to talk about their experience (which Smith said "enriched my life").
     To his colleagues and acquaintances in California, this episode said a lot about Smith. "Clark has a certain sangfroid," observes Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyards. "It's a kind of can-do scientist's mentality-a wonderfully detached view that, even if he's about to die, he doesn't take it personally."
     "He's like a horse with blinders on," adds Mark Lyon of Sebastiani Vineyards. "He's not looking at the periphery-he's just going for the race."
     Smith is best known as the cofounder of Vinovation, the Sonoma County wine-processing company that adapted the process of reverse osmosis for use in wine. Originally advanced by the U.S. Navy for the desalination of seawater, "R.O." was also used in the 1980s to dealcoholize wine by forcing it across a membrane to separate the flavor and color components from the water and alcohol. In 1992 Vinovation devised a way for the process to remove acetic acid, the volatile component in oxidized wine that can turn it into vinegar; soon thereafter, he and Vinovation cofounder Rick Jones introduced a method of using R.O. to adjust (as opposed to eliminate) a wine's alcohol content.
     These two services-along with Conetech's "spinning cone" column, another dealcoholization process-helped revolutionize modern winemaking, freeing vintners to pick fruit when the flavors are most intense without having to worry about the heat, bitterness and debilitating potential of excessive alcohol. Half of all California wine is now said to undergo some form of high-tech alcohol adjustment, and Vinovation bills itself as the largest wine consulting company in the world, claiming over a thousand clients...

Dialing in...on Pinot

American pinots are flooding into restaurants. Wine lists that once included just a handful of pinots from Oregon or the Russian River Valley are now stretching for two and three pages, packed with upstarts from Santa Barbara, Anderson Valley and the Sonoma Coast. Restaurants in pinot-growing areas may offer 50 or more bottles from their home turf alone.
     With so many new offerings from pinot regions up and down the West Coast, pinot drinkers-even educated ones-can be stopped short by the sheer number of choices. I reached my own breaking point recently, when asking a waiter what the differences were between two Russian River pinots on a 20-plus bottle menu. "Um, they're both really nice," was his answer. Okay, nice how? And, are they both going to work with my duck? And, was he willing to bet his tip on it? Two minutes later, my waiter returned with the bottles so I could read the labels myself. Suffice to say neither of us ended up very happy after the meal.
     It was time to call for some serious backup. Enter the sommeliers: Mark Bowery (Albion River Inn, Mendocino Coast, California); Ken Collura (Andina, Portland, Oregon); Geoff Kruth (Farmhouse Inn, Forestville, California) and Wendy Van Horn (Wine Cask, Santa Barbara, California).
     Armed with forks in one hand and corkscrews in the other, I knew these four could quickly bottom-line the best qualities of their own regional pinots, as well as suggest how to pair them with food. Call them a well-versed link between the vineyard, the kitchen and your wineglass. Suddenly, I was seeing a light at the end of the wine list...