May was a good month to taste wine at Ralphs downtown and here are some of the highlights:
Cellar Night. When you see these two words on the wine tasting calendar at Ralphs you probably expect some high-end Gallo wines and maybe a well-chilled Reunite. I mean it’s Ralphs Market, right? If you think that, you haven’t met Mike Berger, the impresario of downtown wine tasting. For him Cellar Night means a trip to the locked, built-in wine cellar which keeps in optimal condition the most valuable bottles in the vast inventory under his purview. There he will select a breadth of flavors to astound even the palates of regulars who have come to expect surpassing experiences at his tastings. He will also take into account the preferences of his expected clientele and design delights specifically for each cherished guest. And, as he showed on May 23rd, he’s willing to make adjustments on the fly. That means popping more corks to insure that “no palete is left behind”. Mr. Berger possesses that almost extinct quality of hospitality that can make any receptive stranger feel as though he or she is a long-lost friend.
On Cellar Night he knew to expect Lori, the striking Vietnamese woman with the perfect skin who loves Champagne, so he had ready a superb Carneros sparkling wine, Frank Family 1998 ($55). The vintage indicates it was “on the lees” for seven years before final bottling hence the price, do to production costs, and the resultant yeasty, toasty complexity.
Anticipating Julia, the attractive, statuesque blond with classic features, the Silver Chardonnay 2006 ($42) was chilled and breathing. It’s from the Santa Lucia Highlands where it got those amazing tropical flavors, voluptuous mouth-feel and 14.2% alcoholic content.
Then it was time to consider red wine , let’s see….I hope he had me in mind when he selected the fine Columbia Crest, “Walter Clore” 2003 ($47). It’s a Bordeaux-style blend from Washington State (which is on the same latitudinal parallel as Bordeaux, France) and the complex character derived from 48% Cabernet Sauvignon, 45% Cabernet Franc and 7% Merlot is earthy and aromatic and less like California wines in that the deep berry and cherry flavors are more subtle.
A nod to Dave Quan, the serious looking Gas Company executive with the great hair, the easy smile and excellent sense of humor, perhaps was intended when Mr. Berger selected the stellar Sbragia Cabernet Sauvignon, Cimarossa Vineyard 2005 ($70). This comes from Howell Mountain, one of the premier Cabernet sites in Napa Valley. Deep, deep black cherry, classic olive-branch, spices and steely character come together in this wine to deliver what one hopes for in a Napa Valley Cab.
Then there was lust. Michael~David, “Lust” Zinfandel 2005 ($55) a wine category favored by Dan Norton, creator of Mad Vanilla (see Archives). This is a small production, massive Zinfandel with explosive raspberry/blackberry flavors, wild earthiness and juicy mouth-feel. Alcohol is around 15% but most won’t notice because of the huge flavors.
All of the reds were opened in advance and poured into decanters so that they could “breathe” and show poise beyond their youth. There was even more than the usual selection in the trays of delicacies Mr. Berger always provides (see Archives, The Extrodinary Case of Mike Berger), about ten different savory items selected to pair with the vastly different wines. But of course he, with a finger to the pulse of the group of about fifteen patrons, recognized an unspoken hankering for Champagne. He excused himself for a moment and came back nearly undetected with another ice bucket and a small celebrity of a bottle. This was done early on in anticipation of his guests’ desires.
Well chilled before most of us realized it was “on deck” he began pouring the Heidseick & Co. Monopole, Brut NV ($60) around 7:00 p.m. This wine was rated in the top 100 wines of the year in 2007 and scored 91 out of 100 points in Wine Spectator magazine. Mouth-tickling tiny bubbles, minerality, long on the pallete, refreshing and toasty, this was a spot-on sparkler. As usual, he was on his game.
Mr. Berger also accommodated another guest who said she preferred her chardonnay a little less “fruity”. He produced without delay a Frank Family Chardonnay 2006 ($33). This was an absolutely delicious Napa Valley wine with green apple, pear and a flinty mouth-feel. She and the rest of us, who appreciate chardonnay, were delighted.
I didn’t get to go to as many of the tastings in May as I would like to have but it’s always an unbelievable deal. The Cellar Night was ten dollars and I don’t think I could have gotten the food at another bar’s happy hour for that. The wine I consumed would have been $80, before tip, in anyplace I know. By the way, he always refuses gratuities.
The Bordeaux tasting (also $10) was exceptional: Château Brane-Cantenac 2004 ($111) and Château Lascombes 2005 ($105). These two wines come from the same sub-district (called a commune in French) in Bordeaux that have been around since before the birth of our country and in 1855 they were ranked as two of the best 16 wines in their highly distinguished commune, Margaux. A perfect comparative tasting of two of France’s top cabernet sauvignon-based blended wines, save for the one year difference in vintage. Just a handful of us there: Stan Lerner, Dave Quan, the always entertaining Jesse Rhines and a few others. Again, it was a $75 to $80 value for those two wines alone.
Sushi and Sake nights are so successful they’ve had to raise the price to $12 for June, because the turnouts are so good and the sushi and sake flow like water at Vichy.
You can’t get prompter service in any bar downtown. Just come in, there’s no waiting. You’ll get equipped with a complimentary glass, the food is already served and the wines are the best of their type downtown. There is only one Mike Berger, your gracious host, and he gets it right every time.
Ralphs Market wine tastings $6 to $12
Mon, Tue, Fri. & Sat. (Plus, Wed. June 3rd) 5pm to 8pm Mike Berger, host
Recommended for June:
“David Bruce” ($12 ) Tonight!, “David Mirrasou” ($6), “Viognier and Alternative Whites” ($8), ), “Red Table Wines and. Meritage” ($9), “South American and Spanish Wines” ($10), “Italian Wines ($9), “Big Cabs for Dads ($10), “Chateau St. Jean” ($7), “Zinfandels” ($8), “90-Point Wines ($10) and “Sake/Sushi ($12)”.