The Art of Wine: Dinner at Il Toscano with Rob, Arthur and Shelly

Bob Reina and Art Amster have been teaching wine classes in Queens for a while.
(Update: I oversimplified this a bit.  Here’s the corrected history)
The Art of Wine seminars were founded in the late 70’s by Art Amster, who worked for Wildman & Sons, a prominent distributor. They were held as part of the Great Neck Public Schools Adult Ed Program. Prominent students included Shelly & Carol Rabin, Matthew LaScorsa, and Bob Reina. Those classes were suspended due to a change in liability laws that the school’s lawyers felt put them at serious risk. After Art retired, those students urged Art to re-institute the classes (the laws had softened), which he agreed to do if they took some of the administrative burden off him. By this time, Shelly had put together one of New York’s best private wine collections and become host of some of the country’s most fabulous high-end tasting dinners; Matthew had founded Heights Chateau, one of New York’s best wine stores, and Bob had become a wine writer, educator, and enthusiast (in the midst of a successful career in finance and while becoming one of the most prominent reviewers of high-end stereo equipment and music, a founder of a couple of high-end stereo mags, and a terrific jazz pianist). Art, meanwhile, has become a successful sculptor who exhibits his award-winning work several times a year in group and individual shows in New Year.
The Art of Wine seminars are held in the church hall of Bob’s parish in Douglaston/Little Neck; the priests attend with gusto. The classes are taught by a consortium of Shelly, Bob, and sometimes Matt, with Art as the leader/spiritual guru. Shelly and Matt supply the wine; Carol bakes desserts. I act as concierge. Guest winemakers or distributors often lead part of the class. Everybody disagrees about the wines; hilarity ensues as we bicker and get a touch drunk. Classes are held on two consecutive Mondays, once in the spring, once in the fall. After each session, we hold a ‘graduation dinner’ at one of several area restaurants, places where one of the leaders is well-known. Shelly supplies the wine. You’ve seen – and felt – the results.

Their friend Shelly Rabin, has a fabulous cellar and sometimes supplies wines to Rob and Arthur. This Art of Wine dinner was another one of the co-productions. It was over-the-top leaving the Negress feeling slightly nauseous thanks to her inability to stop before a good thing became too much. Here’s how it played out:

1. Mushroom Spring Rolls, Tuna Tartare, Asparagus Prosciutto Rolls and Shrimp Tempura

Cremant de Bourgogne Bailly-lapierre Reserve Brut NV

Maybe I should have skipped the third tuna tartare, but the wine, a 100 percent Chardonnay Burgundy sparkler, was light and luscious. It was crisp and pleasingly dry paired nicely with the slightly fatty pass arounds.

2. Butternut Squash Soup with Chili and Mint

2008 Les Trois Emmes Stingy Jack’s Pumpkin Cayuga White

This was one strange and unforgettable wine with hints of pumpkin pie spice and eucalyptus. It worked with the squash soup but the consensus at our table is that we had drunk our lifetime quota of this weird little Massachusetts beverage. Rob wanted more. My pal John, who has helped Rob and Arthur with the classes on occasion and has recently appeared in this blog, was of the mind that this wine didn’t go with much.

3. Duck and Chestnut Ravioli with Brown Butter and Sage

2007 Olivier Leflaive Bourgogne Blanc Les Setilles

White Burgundy is a good thing and it went well with the savory flavors in the ravioli, but this was my moment for reflux to rear its ugly head with a vengeance. While our table argued about the merits of the pumpkin white with the previous course, I was sorting myself out in the restroom.  I thought the wine had aging potential, but it was not the best wine of the night.

4. Braised Lamb Shank/Organic Chicken Under a Brick/Smoked Salmon and Horseradish Encrusted Char

1999 Chateau Monbousquet St. Emilion

I chose the lamb shank, which paired very well with this Right Bank Bordeaux. This wine was lush and structured and opened up nicely in the glass. The chicken and fish eaters also liked it, but I would think it might overwhelm more delicate foods.

4. Salad with Pear, Goat and Goat Brie Cheese and Pomegranate

1990 Andre Brunel Chateauneuf du Pape Les Cailloux

This was easily the wine of the night.  Shelly gave he group the last of his stash of this wine. Now there are four bottles left for sale worldwide at prices from $375 to $750 a bottle. This wine was  lovely, but tighter than Jack’s hatband when first poured.  Ray, a Scottish Scotch lover at our table, was not convinced this wine would ever open up. Most of us begged differ. By this point, I was tired and donated the rest of this wine to John (who supplied our corrected history), and he seemed appropriately grateful. I was mindful of the trains so I suspect I didn’t give this wine the proper attention. I knew it was special, but I couldn’t break it down because was I was loaded, tired and anticipating the 90 minutes it was going to take me to get back to New Jersey.

5. Shortbread Round with Maple Chantilly Cream and Warm Sauteed Apples with Raisins

2000 Grains Nobles par Philippe Delesvaux–Coteaux du Layon

1995 Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Vin D’Alsace

The Coteaux du Layon could have stood on its own as dessert with a nectar-like sweetness. The Zind-Humbrecht was less overtly sweet but paired well with the rich dessert. I had one bite of  the dessert and two sips each of each wine. I was tired. My palate was tired. I had a train to catch. Clearly I need to train for these dinners with some sort of fasting/napping schedule. But it was lovely to get to taste some amazing wines and see my friends.

Wine Blogging Wednesday #64: A winter’s Tale of Clos de la Siete and others

This month’s WBW assignment was brought to you by Jeff at Twisted Oak and his blog: Pick a wine or spirit to associate with a winter holiday that wasn’t one of the usual suspects. Well, we so love it when life and art are in perfect conjunction. My fellow MIT alums and I were toasting to IAP, a school holiday unique to Beaverland (I know we changed the mascot to the Engineers but people have to have a reason to keep reading, OK?) IAP, which stands for Independent Activities Period, is a six-week break from academics where you can ski, learn a language or a cuisine, read sci-fi with your friends or other enriching and fun things to satisfy your curiosity. When I was in school, I remember it being a splendid time, especially in 1978 when it ended with 28 inches of snow and no school for two weeks. OK, so I got mono but time off is time off.

Anyway, we alums gathered at Bin 604 on the Baltimore waterfront to tastes wines from “Around the World.” All retailed at the shop for less than $20. Before I get to the wines themselves,  I assure that any stereotype you have of MIT grads and their cronies would have been shattered on the spot. OK, we did talk about “Avatar,” but these days that’s not necessarily a badge of nerd-dom.  With cheese, crackers and bread to fortify us, we soldiered on. Eric, who was doing the pouring was personable and knowledgeable. I tagged teamed with him on some  food pairing suggestions.

First, we had the Gruet Blanc de Noir NV. This New Mexican sparkler is serviceable, rich and toasty with some berry notes. You’re seeing it more and more in restaurants and I would safely say it’s one of the best value American sparklers (Eric also put in a word for Argyle in Oregon). Following that was the ’08 Yalumba Y Series Unwooded Chardonnay, which was crisp and citrus-y with some organizing acid.. The ’08  Castle Rock Pinot Noir didn’t find favor among the big red fans present, but I loved the red fruit on the nose that blossomed into darker, plummy notes on the palate. A keeper at about $13.

I bought two bottles of  the 2003 Rentas de Finca Crianza, a Garnacha-Tempranillo blend from Rioja in Spain. This was riven with red fruit, a mild bit of vanilla with a rich chocolate undercurrent. A very charming wine that cried out for chorizo or roasted lamb tapas. The 2007  Chateau Lauriol Cotes de Francs from Bordeaux is still knitting together. It has some velvety tannin, but it’s still clearing its throat right now. An aria will be sung with a little time in your cellar.

As is the case with any holiday, you make new friends and reconnect with old ones. I bought a half case of the 2007 Clos de la Siete, a Malbec blend helmed by drive-by wine consultant Michel Rolland. This is, as the living Robert Parker would say, fruit forward and dense. But unlike some wines whose fruit content is so overpowering you could be drinking Welch’s, this strikes a nice balance. This is a drink now or later wine. Drunk now, it’s a bit naïve and assertive. A little cellar time brings out a maturity where all the elements fall nicely into place.

I bought some of the Clos and the Rentas, and also added a Garey Ranch Pinot Noir exclusively bottled for the store. Now that’s my kind of holiday.

How to Help Haiti with wine

This speaks for itself and I hope you will help if you can. I know the  people here and, unlike Wyclef Jean, the money will actually end up helping people.

PALATE PRESS: The Online Wine Magazine and Brother, Can You Spare a Bottle? are teaming up to help people turn their love of wine into money for Haitian earthquake relief, with Wine for Haiti. The idea is simple- wine lovers contribute a bottle from their cellar, then bid on the mixed cases. Some tremendous bottles have already been offered, from 1976 Dr. Loosen Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Beerenauslese to a Methuselah (6.0 Liter bottle) of 2005 Rodney Strong Rockaway Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. The generous contributions of wine lovers will all be turned directly into money for disaster relief. PALATE PRESS: The Online Wine Magazine will pay shipping and handling costs to deliver wines to the auction winners.

For more information please read Wine for Haiti at PALATE PRESS: The Online Wine Magazine

Sips and slips: More things over the transom

Now, where was I? The house is suitably clean and there’s some lamb simmering in the slow cooker. It’s perfect time to get back to the little slips of paper with wine information scribbled on them. This system may go back into place since I no longer have a cell phone camera (I am also no longer using brute force to press the keypad, so it’s a worthwhile tradeoff). The first. most dog-eared slip says, “Grand Vins des Cotes du Rhone Cornas 2000.” This somehow seems like a lot of information but also not enough track this wine down. Suggestions are welcome and encouraged.

The next scrap is a little clearer. “Gusto Lunia New Sauvignon Blanc 2000.” This might have been my first NZ Sauvignon Blanc, and I obviously copied wrong since it’s Gusto Luma. The wine is from Marlborough, and I clearly enjoyed it since I was buzzed enough to lose my ability to spell. One online tasting note says this is “pleasing for the price.”

Next, there’s 2001 Provenance Cabernet/ Merlot blend from Rutherford in the Napa Valley. I will admit I don’t remember a thing about this wine. Sometimes the slips have a note like “John’s birthday” or “dinner with Katy at Cru” but there’s nothing here to place this wine in context. I checked the winery site and this must have been a short-lived experiment because it’s not included in their library wines for sale. I may be headed to Napa again next month so maybe I can do some sleuthing and update.

Well, this wine I remember all too well but for the best reasons. The 1997 Yamhill Valley Pinot Noir from Oregon’s Willamette Valley introduced me to the joys of Oregon Pinot Noirs.  Susbsequent vintages have been reliably drinkable. This an excellent wine to share with people who think engorged Cabs are the favorite wines. It will turn their heads for sure.

The last scribble is 1997 Chateau du Prieure from Brouilly. This is a modestly priced Beaujolais that’s pretty difficult to find now. I also suspect that I drank this when it was young and even the Beaujolais crus are not designed for lengthy cellaring. If you can find a more recent vintage, you’ll have some fun with this. It’s a gentle red that’s pleasing and somewhat shy.

Unless I find some more of these under the couch, this  retrospective is pretty much done. I’ll probably check in next for Wine Blogging Wednesday as soon as I find out what the assignment is.

Sips and slips: a drinker’s early history

With 2010 freshly minted and some time on my hands, the Negress decided that the pile of wine papers on her desk needed to be committed somewhere electronically.  I now suggest to all my wine-craving friends to take pictures of labels with their phones so they can remember the wines they drink. But before camera phones and at the last tasting of Spanish wines I did with Helio San Miguel, I took no such precautions. As a result there are some stained papers in a pile and little notepad slips with wine information scribbled on them. The one through line here is that the harder they are to read, the better the wine must have been since I was obviously too busy quaffing it to stop and write down the pertinent information while I was still coherent.  So here are some backstories. Enjoy and feel free to add your own comments:

Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio (2000)? – I know this wine and have found other Italian Pinot Grigios I like better but everyone has to start somewhere. There’s no special occasion noted on the slip of paper so it must have been some regular drinking.

Cabernet Napa Valley 2005 for Katy’s birthday –Now this is the kind of information that leaves wine merchants tearing their hair out. No winery, no name, just a varietal and an AVA. An AVA writ large no less. What was I thinking?

Peter Lehman 1996 Shiraz Barrossa South Australia — This might have been one of the first Shiraz I had knowingly sought out. I wouldn’t mind revisiting this one.

Paul Blanck 1998 Pinot Blanc Edmund St. John — I had this at Bluewater Grill, a place I frequented so often when I was flush and in New Jersey that waiters would bring me samples of the new white wines whenever I came in. There’s nothing here about what I ate or who I was with. But I suspect I had a good time.

Brindland Ranch 1990 Mount Veeder Vineyard Zinfandel — I remember having this wine at Mesa Grill with my pal John, who was one of my first informal wine tutors. This was before Mesa Grill became one of  Bobby Flay’s afterthoughts. I also remember that we were cracking wise and telling stories loudly enough that we suggested to the people at the next table that if they wanted a quiet dinner, they might want to ask the host to move them. They stuck around, which either means we were entertaining or they were terrified of us.

Martin Berdugo Barrica 2005 Ribuera del Duero — The handwriting on this slip was so impervious to subpoena the Negress had to search the web for something close to what I had written down. I found the website and deciphered the Spanish well enough to realize this was a somewhat unusual wine (made from tinto fino grapes). I’d like to revisit this one too.

You have to stay tuned for the next installment since one tries not to make posts absurdly lengthy.