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PUTTING ON THE DOG AT RAT'S. (August
10, 2002) So what are we doing drinking killer Cabs on the hottest
day of a hellish summer? Hmm. I guess we're trying to live up to the
ambiance of one of the most surreal restaurants I've ever set foot
The food's good at Rat's and the service
is great, but the star of this show is the setting. Tucked away in
quiet, unassuming Hamilton, New Jersey, it feels like a cultural
annex to Disney World. The restaurant itself (inspired by characters
from The Wind in the Willows) is colorful enough -- sitting
by a storybook lake, all but hidden on this blazing hot day by
swirling mists from hidden swamp-coolers.
But even this pales in my memory,
compared to the 22 acres in back. The dreamlike creation of sculptor
J. Seward Johnson and friends, it's part sculpture garden, part
French impressionist never-never land. Life-size, 3D recreations of
Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party, Manet's Picnic on the
Grass and other classics are set in landscapes exactly like
those you see in the paintings. You look for water-lilies as you
walk over a replica of Money's arching bridge at Giverney. Further
down the path lie a skillion more outdoor sculptures by other artists.
Anyhow, after snapping our fill of
photos outdoors (click here to see a few
views), we cooled off inside and settled into...
***1997 Marcassin Chardonnay "Hudson Vineyard." Oak
blows off in about 15 minutes, revealing complex fruit that's
still pretty primary, plus buckets of mineral flavors. Lingering
***+1990 Zind Himbrecht Riesling Vendange Tardive "Clos
Windsbuhl". Huge stuff. Soaring nose. Lush texture.
Penetrates on the palate. Not showing sweet anymore, but dripping
with petrol and pineapple. Near-perfect performance from a wine that
**+1994 Chave Hermitage Blanc. Bitter almonds and quince with
a long, steely finish. Opens impressively through the course.
**+1989 Raymond-Lafon (Sauternes). Still extremely young,
showing little but sugar at first. Takes a while to show the
botrytis flavors -- then they get exciting. Mighty fine marzipan
aftertaste. Super match to the cold foie gras.
**-1991 Schoffit Tokay Pinot Gris Rangen "Clos St. Theobald".
Not as sweet as the Raymond-Lafon, but reassuringly fruity and
tangy, show big apricot and cumquat flavors.
***+1999 Cuilleron Condrieu "Essence díAutomne". Wow,
this wine is so amazingly fragrant! Honeysuckle, violets, like
spring in a scent-garden. Sweet and unctuous when you sip it. Who
needs goose liver? This is a course in itself.
very tight. Tantalizing cherry-raspberry fruit that hints
but never delivers. Maybe it needs a few more years. Whatever.
Onto the next...
*++1996 Chicotot Nuits Saint George "Les Pruliers."
**+1991 Meo-Camuzet Vosne Romanťe
"Les Brulees." Riot of aromas including game,
raspberry, bacon and red cherry. Shows some oxidation that
disappears as the fruit swells. Nice enough, but stomped by...
***1986 Williams-Selyem Pinot Noir Rochioli Vineyard. A fully
mature classic that delights fans (like me) of Rochioli fruit. Sexy
and silky, featuring tightly focused, ultra-ripe cherry flavors with
no hint of tannin. Mouthwatering finish.
***+1995 Kistler Pinot Noir Cuvťe
Catherine. Seven years from vintage, this is still just a pup.
Super-concentrated, with a tightly coiled core of cherries and
raspberries that only begins to unwind after an hour of swirling.
Balance for aging.
Chocolate fudge spooned over
a bowl of berries. Sensuous texture, like ice cream. Concludes
long and loud, trailing almond nuances. Taste this blind and you'd
be nuts not to guess California Cab, but of course it's French
Merlot. Pleasure-fiends have no trouble naming this wine of the
evening and I can't really argue.
***+1990 Le Tertre Roteboeuf.
***+1990 Latour. Wonderful aromas of tobacco, mineral and
berry. Best nose of the flight, though not the most concentrated on
the palate. One taster disses it for this reason. Aw, c'mon. Look at
what it's up against. This is a great wine with penetrating flavors,
and the first one I finish.
***+1997 Harlan Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. Wine from another
planet. Plays a perilous game and succeeds in spades. Ultra, ultra,
ultra-ripe fruit that's just a shade short of pruney. Texture is
almost syrupy. Fabulous stuff, but is it Cab? I guess I don't care.
This and ***+1989 Petrus may be the most amazing wines I've tasted
all year. WINE OF THE EVENING.
1997 Araujo Eisele Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. RUINED BY
When ***+1994 Dominus doesn't win its flight, you know the
competition's stiff. Lives up to my notes from
a week before, but the Harlan can't be denied.
'91 VS. '94 NAPA CABS.
(August 3, 2002) Of all the endless arguments we grape-geeks bore
our friends with, I personally like to debate Napa Valley's best
Cabernet vintage (preferably with the wines in front me). So far,
we've pretty much narrowed the choice to 1991 or 1994. Tonight we
matched a few of the best from each vintage, head to head:
These two differ the most of all the match-ups tonight.
Mature and kind of kinky, **+1991 offers aromas of violets,
tobacco and a bit of bacon. Pours plenty of fruit on the
palate, with game and herb accents reminiscent of
Bordeaux. But the awesome ***+1994 hasnít changed much
from my barrel-tasting notes. Boatloads of blackberry and black
cherry, charged with a touch of Asian spice. Not even close. '94
'91 vs. '94 Joseph Phelps "Insignia".
'91 vs. '94 Ch‚teau
Montelena. Twenty years from now, these two wines might rule the
Both seethe with blackcurrant fruit, but they're also clearly the toughest on the
table. The ***+ 1991 is so enormous, you might not guess
its tannin-levels until they kick in on the finish. The ***1994
is even more primary and grapey, but seems to linger a little less. Most of us
'91 vs. '94 Dominus. What a high-class problem here! Both are
open for business and each could be WINE OF THE EVENING. Just a tad
softer, the ***+1991 has developed more of the earthy notes
so characteristic of Napanook Vineyard wines. The ***+1994
may be a touch sterner and fruitier. Both dominate (get it?) your
attention, thrill every scent-receptor and transport every tastebud
you possess. Tonight it's a tie. I would guess the '94 may be
'91 vs. '94 Araujo "Eisele Vineyard". Coming after
all the above, the **1991 puts in a disappointing performance. Shows a good deal of the expected black
cherry and chocolate, but thins on the finish. I've had better
bottles. The ***1994 is much
more like the Araujo I love. Like many '94s, it needs a few more
years to open fully. Clear advantage here to the '94.
Just for fun, we also threw in three
foil-wrapped mystery Cabs...
Big, black berry-cherry fruit, shaded by Asian
spice. Broad, generous, deep, dynamite! Slight grassiness
indicating perhaps some Cab Franc in the blend. The flavors alone
are a dead giveaway and the bottle-shape clinches this is ***1999
Joseph Phelps Insignia.
Blind Cab #1.
Blind Cab #2. Somewhat similar to the above, but there's a
bit more red cherry, some licorice and a tinge of mint on the tail.
Lot of substance, excellent coda and seems to me like pure Cabernet
Sauvignon. I guess 1992 Beringer Reserve. Close, but it's **+1993
Joseph Phelps "Backus Vineyard".
Blind Cab #3. Straight-down the middle Cab flavors, in a big
but beautifully balanced package. Fruit, tannin, acid and everything
come up aces. Lots of blackberry, hint of vanilla bean, walloping
Cab finish. Everyone's stumped. It's the amazing ***+1991 Forman
And we did open some whites,
If acid and focus are your thing, you may prefer this to the
near-perfect Chard below. Sharp attack, laser-like fruit,
roller-coaster finish. Out-Burgundies Burgundy. How do they do it?
Choosing is tough, but ultimately this gets my nod for CHARD OF
***+1997 Peter Michael Chardonnay "Point Rouge"
***+ 1996 Kistler Chardonnay "Cuvťe
Kathleen". Pure California and proud of it. Butterscotch
aromas that fan out to mango, papaya and fresh dough. Absolutely
coats the palate. Ample acid, but softer and rounder than the PM.
***1996 Marcassin Chardonnay "Lorenzo Vineyard".
Criticized at first by one taster for being splintery, it rapidly
develops with air and blows off the oak. Bravo. Remarkably similar
in character to the Kistler, but perhaps a tad riper.
**+ 1996 Paul Pernot Bienvenue-Batard Montrachet. Worthy
stuff, but can't even win tonight on its strengths as a Burg. Shows
more minerals and less obtrusive oak than the Kistler and Marcassin,
but doesn't have the stature, while Point Rouge outshines it on its
REACH FOR THE ROSSO.
(July 30, 2002) Hyped to the moon, 1997 Brunellos are
unfindable, unaffordable or both, but we do have alternatives. Lowly
Rossos from the same producers are giving a whole lot of bang for
one-third the bucks. Tonight we tried...
cherry flavors with cherry-blossom fragrance and quite a nice
finish. Opens soft and lush, then just gets juicier as the night
*++2000 Ciacci Piccolomini Rosso di Montalcino.
*++2000 Livio Sassetti "Pertimali" Rosso di Montalcino.
More acidic and structured than the Ciacci, it rewards patient
airing with a bravura performance. Similar flavors to the Ciacci,
even fuller on the palate, though perhaps a little less tempting to
Both blew away a more famous
Italian costing three times as much...
tannic, offering some florals and plum flavors. Okay in its way,
but largely ignored in favor of the far sexier Rossos.
*--1995 Paolo Scavino Barolo Bric del Fiasc.
Also tasted tonight...
**-2000 Vieux Telegraph Ch‚teauneuf-du-Pape
(Blanc) Perfect white for tonight's tough-to-match
broccoli rabe appetizer, it asserts itself and cleanses the palate
with a squirt of lemon, then caresses with almond, hazelnut and
kiwi flavors, finishing well.
GRILLED SALMON (July 18, 2002) I normally shrink from serving
Pinot Noir on the patio, because the aromas get knocked away by any
breeze. But grilled salmon is such a perfect match to the heartbreak
grape that we made an exception -- took out some big balloon glasses
-- and it worked:
beginning to get drinkable. Dark and dense for a Volnay, it fools
some folks into guessing "New World." Cinnamon, allspice
and mineral aromas give interest all the berry flavors that linger
convincingly after every sip.
**1999 Girardin Volnay "Clos de Chene"
**-2000 Capiaux Russian River Valley "Widdoes Vineyard"
is actually gamier than the Burgundy! A hint of sweat on the nose
might fool an unwary taster. But the raspberry flavors are so ripe,
and the texture so silky, that our friends correctly guess the
country of origin. Although slightly smaller scaled than the Volnay,
this wine actually beats it on finesse -- exactly what you wouldn't
Alongside these pretties, **+1995 Sean Thackery
"Orion" (mostly Syrah) seems like it needs another 3
years of cellar time. Sandalwood and seaweed aromas, followed by
buckets of blackberry flavors. Lingering finish that seems more than
a tad tannic tonight.
2000 CNDP KICKS TAIL (July
5, 2002) So if you had a $30 Ch‚teauneuf
du Pape sitting beside a $150 Opus One, which would you drink first?
As it happens, the answer tonight is Opus One, but not by much.
Here's the lineup:
is classic Bordeaux coming into its
own. Generous aromas of leather, currant and tobacco, medium body
and still some tannin on the finish. No blockbuster, but a swell
dinner wine, sized just right for my pheasant and truffled mashed
potatoes. Tough not to drink, but you can hold it for years to
**-1989 Leoville Barton
*+1988 Leoville Barton reveals the difference between the two
vintages. Sterner stuff from sniff to finish, though still
enjoyable. The question is whether it stands to gain anything from
further cellaring. Might lose some tannin, but is there enough
*++1995 Kistler Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast has lost some of its
childhood oomph and gained a little complexity. But you know, I kind
of liked it better as a kid. Good juice, needs drinking, lets leave
it at that. Makes me think I should enjoy my remaining sensational
'97s while they're still fat and sassy.
***+1997 Opus One is served blind and frankly fools me. The
nose is just amazing right now -- violets galore, with a hint of
gaminess. Take a sip and you swoon for the strawberries and ripe
currants. And there's so much finesse to this wine. Maybe that's
what throws me off. I guess it for a heavy-hitter Bordeaux from 1995
or 1990 or maybe, just maybe, very ripe Cabernet Franc from who
knows where. This has got to be the most opulent Opus I've tasted to
But the one I'll be buying more of is **+2000 Domaine de
Beaurenard (Ch‚teauneuf du Pape).
Cherry pie on the nose, followed up by focused flavors of kirsch and
pomegranate. Plenty of alcohol but carries it with aplomb. Huge
concentration, finishes strong. All for about $30! (If the regular
bottling is this good, I'm tempted to hunt down some of the Cuvťe
tasting notes (May-June 2002)