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February 3, 2012 0 comments Articles & Reviews, By Jonathan Cristaldi

From Slow Wine to Speed Tasting

Slow Wine 2012 NYC

“No thank you, I think I’ll have a beer,” said my shadow to me. “Six more weeks of winter,” I said to no one there.

This particular week, the wine trail has lead me to Over-Done-It-Land, but in high fashion! Beginning with Slow Wine, a movement by the Slow Food folk to showcase wineries they “particularly like for the way it interprets Slow Food values (sensory perceptions, territory, environment, identity).”

All the vintners featured at the Slow Wine Tasting were Italian and so it was at the Metropolitan Pavilion on Monday, January 30th that I tasted my way through Piedmont, Chianti and Chianti Classico. I’m a tried-and-true lover of California wines, but the young Nebbiolos and Chiantis gave my west-coast palate a run for its money. Many of these wines were showing clean, bright noses with complexities that will most certainly develop with more time in the bottle. I was particularly struck by the lack of “animal” or “barnyard” qualities in many of the Piedmontese wines. It’s no secret that Italy has had to clean up its act.  A little over a decade ago it was next to impossible to fine consumer magazines talking up “good value” and “Italian” in the same issue. The tides have changed.

Reality check: the Slow Wine event was similar to other pavilion-tasting extravaganzas, done many times over year after year. Trade, press and consumers show up, get checked in and bounce around the room often without much care for any linear narrative tasting. I’ll say this: from a consumer standpoint, there’s great value if you’re a connoisseur studying to achieve the title of Sommelier through an accreditation. Suddenly there’s 400 wines for you to taste through and develop sense memories for. If you’re a retailer it might be a good opportunity to discover a new brand. If you’re press you might find that undiscovered vintner or client if you’re on the other side of press. However…

I really have to ask: what’s in it for the winery? They commit to many of these tastings, often paying to participate and supplying wine. I have yet to see the right balance of value + reasoning at events like this. Perhaps I need to organize one of these pavilion tastings, eh? Show everyone how it’s done! And make it worth a vintner’s time. Keep your eyes and ears pealed for a Noble Rot inspired airline hanger tasting extravaganza.

Slow Wine aside, I enjoyed one of the best chicken dinners of my life with an avid connoisseur who lives in a princely palace in DUMBO. We’re not talking BBQ chicken or herb-roasted spit-fire grilled chicken, we’re talking his own classified, “transvestite” chicken. Don’t let the name deter you. It was one of the best chickens I ever did eat. And, dang, I can’t remember how he prepared the bird – which was likely his intention as he poured, glass after glass of these absolutely brilliant wines:

PNX is a label that only members of the Mondavi club receive. #sogood

Robert Foley's "The Griffin" one of my favorite wines.









Abe Schoener, winemaker extraordinaire! 500ml, fanciness.

And more Abe...Chuey it was and served at cellar temp, just right.









And Wednesday, I had the privilege to audit a tasting group of some of NYC’s top Sommeliers (from Oceana, Eleven Madison Park, Corkbuzz, Del Friscos, etc) as they practiced for the advance certificate exam. Because these chaps typically work lunch service or have to prep for dinner service at their perspective haunts, the group meets at 9:00am most Wednesdays. And proceeds to blaze through 12 wines. The test goes like this: in front of you are six glasses of wine; three white and three red. You have 25 minutes to run through every detail of then you can, from color, clarity, a laundry list of criteria about the nose, the wine on the palate to the final test: Name That Wine! + the region and the year from whence it was born unto fermented grape juice!

I was humbled by the experience. The array of wine-speak vocabulary was overwhelming and impressive and the best part: they really know how to have fun and make fun of themselves. Favorite quote: “The wine is total schlunk!” and across the room: “I hate that I know what you mean when you say schlunk. I know exactly what you mean!”

I only captured the first six we tasted through, and I was allowed to sample the wines too while each candidate was administered the test exam. A great, great week for tasting some stunning wines and for reminding me why at the end of the day great winemakers prefer a cold brew.














Saumur Champignyo!

January 12, 2012 0 comments Articles & Reviews, By Jonathan Cristaldi

Bloomberg’s List – a Reminder of Prohibition

And in this the January of 2012, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the Duke of New York City, The Earl of West and East Sides, set out to on a crusade:

Limit the sale of alcohol in New York City! Pardon?

According to yesterday’s New York Post exclusive, the Mayor’s office and the city Health Department’s Partnership for a Healthier New York City have set out to, “Reduce the exposure to alcohol products and bar advertising and promotion in retail and general (trains, buses, etc.) settings (stores, restaurants, etc” in New York City.”

For the time being, one of the goals of this initiative is most alarming to the libation community: “…reducing alcohol retail outlet (e.g. bar, corner store) density…”

Let’s discuss: Firstly, this statement needs a bit of clarification and for good reason. Bars, corner stores and retail shops in New York, are for the most part are privately owned small businesses, family-run, dedicated to serving a desirable product to their community.

If the Mayor wants to talk about outlets that perpetuate alcohol abuse, maybe he should first talk to the idiots responsible for Prohibition. Of course that movement had it’s merits, which I don’t need to discuss. Go read “From Demon to Darling” by Richard Mendelson if you want to debate the good and bad of Prohibition, but the fact remains and is the oldest vicious cycle on the books: take it away, hide it, force it elsewhere and you create more of a problem (booze, drugs, sex, M&Ms). To this day, I will devour an entire accessible over-sized bag of M&Ms because my mother used to hide them.

The solution to alcohol abuse is not to close down small businesses (bars and retail outlets) in New York or to limit the sale in restaurants and corner stores. Now wait! Could we use a bit of vetting? Maybe. But let’s define what kind of libation-based establishments provide a good presence and which are in existence for the mere sale and distribution of swill to abusers! And not every liquor outlet situated behind inches-thick bullet-proof glass need be shut down. Some of those outlets are run be devoted folk who are trying to present alcohol as a treat to enjoy over a meal, or with friends and doing so in areas where people regularly demand they hand over their enjoyable products under threat of frightening devices (guns, knives and amateur hip-hop dancing).

We’ll also have to define abusers. Who is abusing alcohol, Mr. Mayor? And why? Again, I direct you to History. And I ask you to consider the American adolescent vs the European adolescent and I blame your father, grand-father and great-grand father for not adopting a more European-centric mentality toward alcohol. For Christ’s sake! There was a religious group posting billboards in Upstate New York a few years back demanding the drinking age be raised to 25! What kind of a world have your fore-father’s created?!?! Agh!

To be clear: I’m not poking fun at underage drinking, which of course is never a good thing if it is for abusive reasons (and drinking Yellow Tail is abusive to your system, believe me). But is the solution to close down and ban limit establishments that sell alcohol? To offer “$$$” to advocacy groups who will do your dirty work of encouraging communities to close down every joint in these here square miles that houses vagabonds and devil-drinking mixologist-sommelier booze-hounds?!

Will you repeat History Mr. Mayor?! Or will you learn from Hamlet and Ophelia’s mistakes? Two young lovers, crossed with the curse of an elixir they knew not how to treat. Had that been a properly mixed cocktail, they might still be alive today.


January 2, 2012 2 comments Articles & Reviews, By Jonathan Cristaldi

Out With the Old [World], in with the New [World]

"The Idea of Order at Key West" by Wallace Stevens

On this beautiful sunny second day of the year Twenty Twelve, I pause momentarily to savor my last sip of Old World wine. That’s right: I’m never drinking another drop of Old World wine again. Ever. Said Jonny Cigar, to no one there.

The sun here in New York is beating down a dry heat over this lovely city abounding with parks, vineyards, orange orchards, apple orchards, plum orchards, walnut trees, banana trees and beaches that expose aqua blue ocean surfs.

Perhaps it is Twenty Twelve or possibly I’m reminiscing of Old New York, long before the Indians inhabited its hills and the pilgrims plundered the Indians. Longer even before New York looked like New York – when it was a tropical paradise millions and millions of years ago, part of Eurasia or Europa. I remember those days fondly, ya know?

The photo of Steven’s poem is merely to suggest that I do not understand Inhuman or the veritable Ocean, but feel confident enough to proclaim that:

Old World wine is silly, okay?

New World wine is not silly. It’s a combination of all these words: Delicious, delightful, delovely, delirious, delectable, disposable, deplorable and at times existential.

That’s right folks, you heard it here first: Out with the Old, and in with the New [wines].

Never, ever, as long as you all shall live will I ever drink another New Old World wine again. Someone has to take a stand, ya know? It’s a new year and already resolutions are alive with promises like this one from Matt Lewis (@brooklynbaker): “wine budget must be less than food budget this year.”

That line is enough to give me a small self-induced heart attack. In retaliation of nothing in particular, I’m declaring war on Old World wines and with good reason.

Good Reason(s):

  • Many Old World Wines are confusing.
  • Many Old World Wines smell like a barn floor or horse that’s been i’th’rain too long methinks.
  • Many Old World Wines are trying to be like New World Wines.
  • I can’t afford the Old World Wines I might like to try – might!
  • I can’t speak the language of many Old World Wines and hence, cannot understand them.
  • The market for well known Old World Wines is competitive and I’m not all that competitive unless we’re talking iPhone Pool and my wife. Then, it’s “go time.”

Okay. I’ll probably drink a couple Old World Wines at some point in time this year. Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large and contain multitudes.

And now for something completely different: Photos of the wines I had the pleasure of drinking this Holiday Season.

Left to Right: Delicious and we had two bottles, didn't actually drink, I think we drank this one, delectable was the Vin Santo. All wines hail from the cellar of Mr. Brad Wells who happens to be the father of my wife. Mr. Wells has shared numerous bottles of wildly delectable Old World Wines. Whenever in his house he pours something outrageous, hard-t0-come by and honestly aged - never a dull moment for the palate.

Pol Roger 1999. We def drank this. I drank most of it because it was very good. Mr. Wells is not a huge bubbly fan, never has been, and hence, there was more to go around. Wowy wowy yum.

The Nightcap. On the rocks. I was just one years old when this rummy made it to bottle.

December 19, 2011 0 comments Articles & Reviews, By Jonathan Cristaldi

Wine Poetry: Wallace Stevens vs. Jonny Cigar

By Wallace Stevens

When the elephant’s-ear in the park
Shrivelled in frost,
And the trees on the paths
Ran like rats,
Your lamp-light fell
On shining pillows,
Of sea-shades and sky-shades,
Like umbrellas in Java.


By Jonny Cigar

When the Cabernet-Sauvignon in the valley
Shrivelled in sunlight,
And the drunks in the bike paths
Peddled in flats,
Your flash-light fell
On fermenting must,
Of grape-shades and barrel-shades,
Like ice-cubes in wine.

November 23, 2011 1 comment Articles & Reviews, By Jonathan Cristaldi

2011 Harvest Recap: Part Two of Three – Swanson Vineyards

Welcome to part two of our three-part mini-series, “2011 Harvest Recap,” I’m your host and the chap who worked the Harvest, Jonathan Jonny Cigar Cristaldi and sometimes Why.

That’s a bit of an old joke and it’s not very funny. Shall we then?

We turn now to the score of an old Parisian Salon and boutique winery tucked away in a garden paradise just off Manley Lane in Rutherford, CA. Mind you, I had a unique situation worked out in wine country: three days a week working at Alpha Omega in the cellar and three days a week working the Salon at Swanson Vineyards.

Moroccan wood, agate in-lays, a table suitable for a king, and this is how you feel when tasting wine at Swanson. Like a king, or a queen. And me: the court Jester, ahem Salonniere, 'scuse me.

Look up:

Art adorns the Salon walls by local Calistoga artist Ira Yeagre.

Integral to the Harvest experience, I was convinced that work in a tasting room was equally essential to my understanding of the industry from the ground-level up. Now, I’ve been to many-a-tasting rooms at many a-winery and have been plenty-a-disappointed. Tastings are typically whirl-wind experiences, like In-and-Out Burger. They get you in, they say, “Here’s our Cabernet, it’s so delicious, it tastes like blackberry soup with a dollop of graham cracker crème fraîche, a richy rich mouthfeel and goes nice with Turkey.” Then they say, “On the other side of the card is information about our Wine Club. If you sign up today we’ll give you a shoulder rub and charge your card a magical price, derived from our Wheel-of-Fortune-esque wheel of fortune.” And before you know it you’ve lost $30, a bit of pride, and have an empty feeling in your stomach because you didn’t pick up the hint of “late-afternoon simmering prune.” Well, clearly you’re not cut out to taste wine. Why don’t you stick to Coors Light?

NO, good wino. You will not stick to Coors Light. You will persevere.

At Swanson, the Salon was designed to experience wine the way the Swanson’s like to experience wine: slow, over bites, around a table with friends. Conversation and storytelling, blended together to create a memorable experience and truly let the guest spend a bit of time with the wine. Lucky for the Swanson’s they have winemaker Chris Phelps who happens to make fu#%ing incredible wines. And I know because I had to taste them before every appointment, and when day-in-day out one is tasting the same wine, one has the opportunity to look for nuance and to understand the concept of “structure” in a wine.

But let’s backtrack a moment, because someone in the back row asked a great question: “How did you end up at Swanson?” Great question!

Through a series of humorous miscommunications with the former Marketing Director (I thought she was the daughter of Elizabeth Swanson and she thought I was a spammer) and after numerous follow-ups, I was granted a meeting! I thought I was heading there to talk about a potential Noble Rot collaboration while she thought I was interviewing for a job. After 20 minutes we figured it all out and became fast friends realizing we had come to the valley on similar missions.

A few weeks later I received an invitation to a small private gathering at the winery. My contract with Ram’s Gate was about up and I was in talks with Alpha Omega, so I had no expectations of this event other than to meet the family and taste more of the delectable Swanson wine.

I took it as an opportunity to “dress up.” I had been living in jeans and tucked in button-down shirts. My vests had gone to the wayside. Napa is not a valley of style, sorry Napa! But they know that: they’re farmers. It’s not a three-piece-suit-kind-of-town. Though if you ask me, anything other than a three-piece suit is out of place, alas!) So, off I went to Swanson, even wearing a bow-tie. And then it happened:

The distinctly and stately Clarke Swanson, a man who could very likely have been King of the Napa Valley had this been 15th-Century Europe, wearing a double-breasted suit jacket, complete with pocket-kerchief appeared in the Salon. Was it possible that this man was my real father?! Had I been raised in the trailer park in upstate New York accidentally? Had I been sent down the Napa river as an infant, my mother picking grapes saw me coming, saved me, and fled to the Catskills? Nay. But, my word, we hit it off right away. Then followed Clarke’s wife, the inimitable, warm, friendly, humorous and enchanting Elizabeth Swanson. A sixth-generation New Orleanian and what I call a “pleasant hurricane,” one that envelops you in welcoming winds. Groucho Marx might have met his match with Elizabeth Swanson. And finally I met their daughter, Alexis, whose name adorns bottles of Swanson Cabernet. Like her parents, boasting a winsome personality, she and I engaged in quick-witted quick-speak and in a matter of minutes it was decided that I would likely be working as a Salonniere in the Salon.

Just like that. See what a three-piece suit and bow-tie does for you in Napa Valley? In New York people just hand me their dirty dishes.

And so, from late August through the last day of October I was several days a week working in the Salon, hosting by appointment only, hour-long tastings. One such tasting was chronicled in photos here by Carolyn C. Burgess, a friend of Alexis, in her October 23rd posting.


Landing on the Swanson crushpad, so-to-speak, was the absolute perfect scenario pour-moi. The tastings were like short performances. I had one hour to entertain, delight, revive the senses and educate the good guests that came-a-shuffling through the gates. I learned the Swanson story in and out and selected which wines I would pour on a daily basis. And my co-winery workers made the daily routines thoroughly enjoyable. A group of smart, supportive brilliant people (they laughed at my jokes, and if they were laughing at me at least they were laughing and for that they are diamonds in my book). They shall be named: Mindi, Ella, Rosemary, Lin, Grace, Samantha, Holly, Logan, Chris and Jamison.

These good folks made coming to “work” a treat. I even whistled while breaking down boxes! And they supported my unconventional approach to the Swanson experience, which certainly included Dean Martin and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

I have to single out one of the dames: Ms. Mindi Burnett. If e’er there was evidence that the world is truly small, look no further! Mindi was my Salonniere-marathon-trainer. And on the second day of my trailing her, dotting her brilliant performance with frivolous Henny Youngman and Dean Martin quotes, we were setting the table for the next group of unsuspecting tasters. I was telling Mindi about my days at Oxford and Juilliard. She didn’t believe a word of it, “You didn’t go to Oxford!” she accused! And I admitted she was right. I had been to The Tisch School of the Arts. Okay: that was a lie too. I went to SUNY Purchase. “I went to SUNY Purchase,” said Mindi. And here I thought the tables had turned and she was pulling my leg, but in fact it was true and all made sense! She had that familiar look; though I couldn’t place it. Well, turns out I had seen her in many productions because Mindi had attended the acting conservatory at Purchase. Our paths never crossed, however she has a lovely memorable visage and our hair parts in the same direction, hence we became fast friends. I even knew her husband! I mean: really? All the way out in Napa Valley, at a tiny off-the-beaten path winery, a fellow Poorchoice alum? The odds, the odds! My horse for the odds!

Amazing. Grace. How Sweet… the wine. Let me tell you, faithful reader, what I learned from my experience working in the Salon:

Namely, consumers are like George Seurat’s favorite thing: a blank page or canvass. They come in with varying degrees of wine education, but are open to hearing it all again or learning what they don’t know or informing me of what they do know. The tasting room is the front line for a winery and it is essential to put on a good show. If the show is lacking, the experience is dull and forgettable and hence the worst enemy of any brand. And when you’re working a table of eight people from all walks of life, with different goals (some are there to taste, some to buy, some to guzzle and some to simply have a wine country experience), you’ve got to play your cards right. It’s like Blackjack. As the dealer you have an obligation to the house to win and still you have to help the other players along, make suggestions to the novice, and be on par with the experienced.

The tasting room is also a place to truly develop one’s communication ethic. It’s also a great place to work on a vaudeville routine. And in my case, the only place where wine can be described by referencing various lines from The Great Gatsby. In the case of the Swanson Salon, the only place where I can comfortable say I’ve several more bottles of our $140 Face Cabernet, and I’d be happy to open one so you might taste (and I might taste with you!)

Look: Chris Phelps was hired in 2003 to make wine at Swanson. They’d been around since 1985 producing exceptional wines and Chris’s experience (Petrus, Dominus, Camyus, et al.) brings a lovely marriage of talent and quality to the wines and the take-away experience. It’s fascinating to see how different Chris runs a cellar from the way Jean Hoefliger at Alpha runs his cellar. Different winery designs will dictate different approaches. Different backgrounds will do the same. Prior to Chris joining forces, Marco Cappelli was winemaker and continues to make the dessert wines. Marco makes, in my humble opinion, the greatest Noble Rot wine on the face of the United States continent.

A Noble Rot late harvest Semillon from Lake County.

How perfect? They make the highest-rated Noble Rot wine in all of the U.S.!!! Meant to be!


On my final day, Chris and the team made Merlot burgers. After all, the Merlot is what Swanson is known for.

Left: Chris Phelps, eating a Merlot burger. Yum.

Playing in the courtyard: the brilliant barrel organist Michel Michelis, whose career includes performing with Cirque du Soleil, a French gypsy band and numerous other credits among them one wildly interesting gig as the voice of Tomber in Disney-Pixar’s Cars 2.

Michel Michelis

My final second to last “Salon” tasting was held in the courtyard and looked like this:

A Salon Tasting in the Courtyard at Swanson Vineyards

My last day was an interesting last day. I was at the end of my stay in Napa, having accomplished what I set out to do: work the Harvest from cellar to tasting room and beyond. I was inwardly emotional, but outwardly the performer. I’d made great friends and found a wonderful sense of community and I think that anyone who wants to collect a wine that tells a story, that is the epitome of community – also happens to be delicious and age-worthy – should collect (and of course drink) Swanson wines. Visit them, make an appointment in the Salon, be inspired and become a member of their family. Tell ’em Jonny Cigar sent you. You won’t regret it. I look forward to visiting the valley and stopping by, who knows, maybe even hosting an impromptu Salon tasting!

To hear my interview with winemaker Chris Phelps visit Noble Rot Talks.

And certainly check out

Closin' Time...

Pocket Squares given to me by Elizabeth Swanson as a parting gift!


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