In her unyielding passion for spreading the good word of wine, Angie Cheatham of Augustan wines has assembled a stellar lineup for her annual summer wine series; the first of which was held Wednesday at M Waterfront Grill in the Venetian Village of Naples. The topic for session #1 is “Deconstructing Mendoza” with guest Master Sommelier Andrew McNamara and it is with the enthusiasm of a freshman going to my first college class that I pack up my laptop and camera to head south. To my own embarrassment and irritation I arrive late (misread e-mail) but with her effortless grace, Angie glosses over my faux pas and tucks me into my seat with five glasses set up with blind-poured Malbecs. A plate of intoxicating paella swoops in from the right and I immediately burry my nose in glass #1.
It’s difficult to catch the nose at first because I am still coming off the adrenaline-fueled, traffic-cursing lateness issue. Plus the aroma of the paella is conspiring to have my salivating palate dilute the wine once I finally taste it. The format is; try them all without food, then with food, then discuss. It is an interesting exercise; but more interesting is the conversation. The group is comprised of wine buyers, sommeliers, and retailers for whom this is a welcome break from the doldrums of off-season. It is sort of like a gathering of people who speak the same language but have few to speak this language with. We all agree number four is the the most fruit-forward, Parker-pleasing of the group. Number three has a cork issue I believe. Numbers one and five seem to be everyone’s favorites, and number two is good but not earth-shattering. Another thing the table agrees on is that the wines all were better with food.
The name Paul Hobbs is dropped more than once, as seems to be the case when anyone discusses Argentinian wines. It sometimes feels like he is the consulting winemaker, winemaker, owner or investor in everything from Argentina. All eyes turn to Master Somelier Andrew McNamara when someone asks what, exactly, is the influence of Hobbs on Argentinian wines?
“Not much, really,” says McNamara, “I mean he is one of the most recognizable names from the United States associated with the area, but as far as him influencing the winemaking it is very little if at all. He certainly has no influence on how other wineries make their wines, but even in wines where his name is attached there’s a notable difference between them. Number four is completely a Paul Hobbs wine, over the top, fruit forward. He is the winemaker there, but he’s the consulting winemaker on number five which is a completely different Malbec. I think the name Paul Hobbs is used to sell wines and make buyers more confident to sell it to their customers.”
People also like ratings and there is a brief discussion about making wines to please Robert Parker, the ubiquitous score-giver. Some comments include:
“He (Parker) has to have huge wines because his taste is completely gone.”
“I hear he smokes and drinks coffee between tasting, how could you taste anything?”
“If it isn’t a fruit-bomb he won’t like it, and it’s there are winemakers who make really heavily extracted wines just to get a 90 plus from him.”
Among the wine folk, liking a fruit-bomb is akin to liking kool-aid. It’s not cool. Still, droves of consumers are led to them by wine critics who say what is good and what is not- the pied piper being Parker- and the bombs continue to be produced (and consumed) and people keep drinking it and many learn to like it.
“But it kind of makes sense, you know, I have members who drink buckets of coffee and smoke cigars all day on the golf course, their taste is probably just like Parker’s,” says a sommelier from a Naples country club.
The next group of wines are all Cabernet Sauvignon, all Mendoza again. M Waterfront’s chef Brian Roland dazzles us with a flatbread topped with duck confit, Serrano ham, dried figs, chevre, port reduction, and arugula.
The first of the Cabs is exactly what wine people want to like. It is lean and acidic and very European in style, which is to say it is the anti-fruit-bomb. As with European style wines, it really comes to life with a thoughtful nibble of flatbread.
The second Cab is good alone and with food, the third Cab is my all around favorite, the fourth Cab, interestingly, is great with the goat cheese on the flatbread more so than the duck, and number five brought up an issue for me- green peppers. I don’t like them, and this wine has a distinct flavor of green peppers so naturally, I am surprised when Mr. McNamara reveals that this is his favorite. I just figured that I would have the same taste as the most refined and educated palate in the room….but alas, I feel a little like a 17% alcohol Australian Shiraz swilling neophyte. I have to ask, “what is good about that wine?”
“It is varietally correct, and very balanced,” he says.
“But it tastes like bell peppers,” I protest.
“Cabernet Sauvignon is supposed to have an herbal, vegetal quality when it is picked at the right time. Oftentimes it’s overripe when it’s picked because people are trying to achieve the fruit forwardness. We end up loosing a lot of what Cabernet Sauvignon is really supposed to taste like.” He explains very gently as to not bruise my ego. Duped by ratings seeking producers, I firmly resolve to re-examine Cab armed with my new nugget of wine wisdom.
Round three is three wines, neither Cab nor Malbec, and they are paired with a beautiful lemon panna cotta topped with wine-stewed berries, hazelnut paste, and vanilla sea salt gelatin cubes. Between the sweetness, the creaminess, and the earthy hazelnut, each bite alters the wines tremendously, and in most cases for the better. Shocked, I like the Cab Franc the best of the three, which really has a green pepper nose, so it is back to the drawing board for me and my palate and my prejudice against peppers. I do this once every few years or so- jolt out of a self-dug pigeon-hole of “what I like” and open the ol’ mind to new flavors. I always advocate that for others but fail at actively doing it for myself.
We discuss regions within Mendoza and Argentina’s evolving definition of place. Not unlike California several years ago, Argentina is beginning to recognize and market sub-appelations within its most famous Mendoza region. The most exciting of which being the high-elevation Valle de Uco which is producing stellar Malbec. Only now are these areas being recognized outside of Argentina so labeling requirements are likely to follow.
All in all, it was an exciting day to look closely at an exciting wine region and to consider the business surrounding it among people who enjoy sharing and listening in equal proportions. The event, like a good wine, had great balance. I learned and enjoyed soaking up information from everyone at the table, not the least of which being Mr. Mc Namara and our hostess Angie Cheatham..