Thursday, December 27, 2007


The word on the street is that Absinthe doesn’t really cause madness, that it’s a rumor spread by French doctors a century ago. Well, you can’t prove it by us.

As you may have heard, Absinthe has recently been cleared for sale in the United States, and it has set off a frenzy. First there was the madness to get any at all, and then there were articles in the New York Times and the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle, touting the Absinthe that was going to be released by Alameda’s St. George Spirits. Nothing like a little publicity to get things stirred up.

The release date was announced as December 21st and we were named as a retail source for this elixir. This is just what a retail store needs just before Christmas—a whole bunch of people calling up trying to buy something that isn’t for sale yet. We did what we could—we took names and numbers and promised to call people when it got to us. We got only 56 bottles from St. George and they were gone within 24 hours.

We did open one bottle for ourselves, and is a truly fascinating drink. We found that the St. George Spirits Absinthe Vert certainly didn’t need any help from a sugar cube, although water gave it the signature creamy louche and opened up the flavors. The herbs wafted from the glass, with anise and licorice leading (it was reminiscent of Good and Plenty candy, really, and one of our tasters kept wondering out loud, “Why am I thinking of my childhood?”). For all that, we didn’t drink enough to see any green fairies, although we had to be careful with this 120 proof cocktail.

We still have the French Lucid Absinthe in stock, and we’re looking forward to the next batch from St. George, due in February. Hopefully, the world will have calmed down just a bit by then.

Monday, November 19, 2007

October was such a busy month for us, we had the Signatory Single Malt Scotch tasting and WhiskyFest the very next day. We had a marvelous time and had a chance to rub elbows with some of the top players of the Whisky world. We're already looking forward to next year's WhiskyFest!

Wednesday, October 31, 2007


There are wines out there that are so sought after, you sometimes doubt if they really exist at all. Lord knows we think some highly touted wineries are the fictional creations of frustrated novelists posing as wine writers.

      Some of these wines do actually exist, but arrive in such small amounts that even we don’t publicize them much. Take, for example the 2003 Shafer Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon. If Napa Valley has first growths, this wine is surely one of them. We get a healthy allotment of this wine because we’ve been around a while, but even a healthy allotment is 12 to 18 bottles. Some customers try to get us to hold them for them, but we don’t, although we let those who ask know when it arrives. We don’t post it on our web site, we don’t put it in our catalog (by the time the catalog is in a customer’s hands, the wine will be long gone). It’s a $300 bottle of wine, but we know it’s going to vanish.

      Shafer Hillside Select is one of the wines you have to keep an eye out for, you have to have an idea when it will be released (for future reference, it’s an October release), and then you have to get on the phone and give us a call. Because if you miss it, it’s gone for a year.

Thursday, October 11, 2007


As Americans, we tend to love the maverick—you know, the slightly wacky, shoot from the hip type who forges their own destiny. The world of winemaking, beer-brewing and whiskey distilling are full of these sorts, and we genuinely enjoy their company.

Just to give you an example, we recently received a shipment of Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey and we noticed an odd thing on their labels. Each label is signed by the distiller or assistant distiller who bottled that particular batch of whiskey. The label also has a comments section, and one of them read “listening to Patsy Cline”. Another said “riding in Estes Park”. We wondered about this, so we wrote to the distillery to find out what was up with these labels. Here’s what they wrote back to us:

“Our head distiller, Jake Norris is an avid music fan, so he writes on the label what he was listening to while working in the distillery. His hope is that a consumer could put on the same music, pour a glass and they could share a moment together.

“David Nice, assistant distiller, is a wild man on a fixed gear mountain bike. He will write what he’s planning to ride while in the distillery or even take some labels on his adventures and describe what and where he was riding. Whoever purchases the Estes Park will have a bottle that’s already been on an adventure.”

We thought you might enjoy hearing about what these particular mavericks were thinking when they came out with their one of a kind labels.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Fall is Here!

There is definitely a chill in the air and in a few weeks its time move our clocks back. This week-end we were in the mood for a little window decorating. We usually hire some one to perform this challenging task but we decided to tackle it ourselves, it only took us about 3 hours to do it (not bad for first timers) and we're pretty proud of the end result.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Reflections In A Glass of Whisky

So I was sitting there with a dram of Aberfeldy 17 year old single malt Scotch whisky the other evening, looking at the bottle. This surprisingly intricate midlands single malt was bottled by Gordon and MacPhail, one of several independent bottlers involved in the whisky trade. I realized that most people don’t really understand what single malt Scotch whisky is for.

There are roughly 120 different single malt distilleries scattered around Scotland’s highlands, Midlands, Lowlands and assorted Islands only about half of which bottle what they produce under their own names. Many of these are owned by the same parent companies—Diageo, United Distillers, Allied-Domeqc, that sort of thing (and these companies keep buying and selling each other’s assets). Now most of these companies produce more than a few different brands of Blended Scotch whisky, your Cutty Sark, Chivas Regal, and Johnnie Walker blends to name the best known. Single malt whiskies exist to service these blends.

The flavor profile of the Johnnie Walker blends derives from the different single malts used as “top dressing”. The base of the whisky is single grain spirits, which is produced in column stills, usually in the Lowlands, from whatever grain is in surplus at the time. This makes for a cheaper base. The single malt scotch whiskies then come into play, to add flavors and dimensions to the blends. In the case of Johnnie Walker the most prominent single malts used are Clynelish, Talisker and Cardhu.

Wait a minute, you say, Cardhu? I thought that didn’t exist anymore. Aha, says I, the distillery does exist and it still produces single malt whisky, but it doesn’t produce enough to service the demand for the Johnnie Walker blends and still have some to bottle as a single. The parent company tried to get around this by bottling a vatted malt under the Cardhu name, but it created such an uproar in the whisky world that the plan was shelved.

Now this brings me back to my bottle of Aberfeldy. It was bottled at cask strength, 113 US proof, so I added a bit of water to it, and it was just lovely. The only way you’ll see Aberfeldy, or many other smaller producing single malt Scotches, here in the US is in an independent bottling. When there is a surplus of a malt, barrels are sold off, and there is a great trade in these. When there is a shortage, some rare malts will become harder to find. There are many distilleries (Rosebank, Dallas Dhu, Port Ellen and Brora, to mention the most deeply lamented) that have been torn down. However, there are even some casks of these gems floating around, and the only way we’ll see them is if an independent decides to put it in a bottle. Some of the leading bottlers are Cadenhead, Signatory, Murray McDavid, MacKillop’s Choice and the aforementioned Gordon and MacPhail. These folks provide a wonderful service of bringing drams to our glasses that we might otherwise never get to taste. We should raise a glass to them!

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

France's Hidden Jewels

Sometimes our reputation precedes us. This can lead to an embarrassment of riches.
Yesterday evening Denis Lesgourgues, the owner of the single largest estate in Armagnac, dropped by our store. Chateau de Laubade holds more land than any other vine grower in the region and has since 1974. They produce a lovely VSOP Armagnac bottled after 6 to 10 years which could legally qualify as an XO), and an XO Armagnac bottled between 15 and 25 years old. These are lovely, refined spirits, distilled predominately from Folle Blanche (although there is Bacco and Ugni Blanc as well). He also poured several single vintage Armagnacs (1982, 1977 and 1952). These older brandies were made mostly from Bacco, which they feel age better over the long term.

One thing that happened, while our visitor was here, was that this young Frenchman just marveled at our selection of Armagnacs. One thing that he pointed out is what tremendous value we’re offering, rather accidentally, on these lovely brandies. We made our purchases, for the most part, when the dollar was stronger, so our prices are much lower than, perhaps, they ought to be. This was certainly nice to hear.

About five minutes after the Monsieur Lesgourges left us, Herve Pellerin from the Calvados house of Lecompte stopped by. He had been prompted by our good friend Charles Neal, who told him he had to see our store. Before he started marveling at our Calvados selection, we told him about our previous visitor. “Denis was here? I must call him!” he said, breaking out his cell phone and tried to call him, but apparently was exiled right to voice-mail.

Herve poured his 2 year old Calvados, a brilliantly fresh and lively spirit that smelled like an apple orchard in early Fall. Sadly, his Calvados isn’t yet available in the US, but we can expect to see it sometime next month. We love Calvados around here, and we can’t wait until it turns up.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Good Ole Bolly

Before I start telling you about other ways in which we get spoiled in this business, I do think you should know that it is hard work. We have the days when 200 cases of champagne drop on us. In this virtual world, one of the things we tend to forget is that wine, champagne, Scotch whisky, Armagnac, Cognac, Calvados, even vodka, have to get here physically. That means that a truck drives up to our warehouse or our street door, and it get unloaded, and we have to put these things away. That means lifting 50lb. cases (champagne), 40 lb cases (almost anything else) and sometimes building stacks that are taller than we are. You can break more than a sweat doing this sort of thing.

Feel sorry for me yet? Good.

Now, let me tell you about lunch yesterday.

Champagne Bollinger had sent their marketing director to town. 20 of the elite (ah, shucks) wine professionals in town were invited to lunch at a restaurant so hot as to not even have been reviewed. The lunch was lovely, with designer ravioli and a choice of albacore or duck (I’ll tell, I had the duck. I always do). The champagnes were as lovely, if not lovelier than the food.

Bollinger is, of course, a grande marquee champagne. That means it is one of the top houses, and has been for more than a century. They make a big, bold and powerful bubbly, with lots of yeast, toast and ripe red fruit on the nose, all inlaid on a backbone of steel. The reason for the steeliness and in general the size, of Bollinger Champagne is that the wine is based mostly on Pinot Noir.

Champagne Bollinger, immortalized in Britain’s “Absolutely Fabulous”, makes a brilliantly bold non-vintage known as Special Cuvee. Laced with bread dough and toast, along with hints of dark-hearted fruit, there are few other non-vintage champagnes that show off the power that “Bolly” brings.

We also got to taste the 1999 Grande Annee, the vintaged champagne that Bollinger puts out. Still tightly wound, it showed itself off like a snake, teasing you in with hissing toast and light apple fruit and then making a leap into the steel of the back palate. This was a lovely companion to the spearmint and seasonal green ravioli with a citrus based sauce. We also got to revisit the 1996 Bollinger R.D. which is just the 1996 Grande Annee that has been sitting on its lees for several more years. The depth and complexity of this wine was a lovely match for the duck.

Two lessons to take away here: We work hard, physically, and earn these occasional rewards. And Pinot Noir makes for a terrifically food-friendly champagne!

Friday, September 21, 2007

An Afternoon with Mr. Park

Sometimes this job is very nice. Yesterday afternoon, just after lunchtime, Dominic Park walked in the store. Mr. Park is the British owner of the Cognac house, Maison Park, and he brought something interesting for us to try.

He had a barrel sample of 1932 vintage Maison Park Cognac. This was at cask strength, which after all that time was only about 84 proof (42% abv), unadulterated with caramel coloring or boisé. It was a beautiful experience and a privilege to taste.

What’s interesting, though, is that Maison Park doesn't bottle this brandy by itself. It serves as a component part of their Vieille Grande Champagne Premier Cru bottling. Mr. Park didn't think there was enough acid or alcohol left for a balanced drink. We agreed, although reluctantly, after considering the beauty of the Premier Cru bottling.

It reminds me of another experience with another Cognac producer from Pierre Ferrand. They poured some 1914 vintage Cognac for us to try. It was history in a glass, and fascinating. But then they poured some of their Ancestrale blend, which was composed of brandies from 1928, 1929 and 1931. The difference was astonishing! The depth and complexity that the multi-vintage blend was just riveting.

What this leads us to believe is that a great deal of the art in Cognac is in knowing which brandies will marry together to offer the kind of experience that such a luxurious drink should offer.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Heidsieck-Monopole Champagne Tasting

What a night, it was so great to see everyone. Our annual Champagne tasting was just fabulous!

Here are some pictures Karen took. We have to say that the 1996 Heidsieck Monopole was amazing and who can forget the 1998 Rose, tre elegance!