The BEST underground wine newsletter? The Underground Wine Letter!

Mon Coeur vineyard

We started “tasting wine” in 1978. We frequented a wine shop in West LA up the street from the Wine House which had recently opened. The shop was located in a bungalow that was once somebody’s home on Cotner. It was the outlet store for The Wine Merchant owned by Dennis Overstreet and located in Beverly Hills. His BH store had all the celebrity clients. The outlet spot was for the lumpen proletariat of LA’s budding wine scene. In 1978 the collector’s find was any Napa Cabernet from 1974. The first wave of Napa Cabernet producers was emerging that included Diamond Creek, Caymus and Ridge. Heitz Cellar was an old guard hot ticket along with BV Georges De Latour. The real sharpies were hunting down old vintages of Inglenook. The good thing about the Cotner store was the Saturday tastings which were loosely formed, spontaneous events. Once a sufficient threshold of aspiring snobs was present somebody bought a bottle and opened it right there in the store. The store clerks were not like the info-matics you find today in upscale wine versions of Target like Total Wine or BevMo [ed. he prefers Total Yawn]. The store clerks at the Cotner store were geeks, folks like the ones buying wine except they had to work somewhere and living in LA was still pretty cheap in the late 1970s so a wine shop was good as any other minimum wage shithole. And you could drink interesting wines when the air got thick with opinions and burning curiosity.

A familiar group soon formed that was not getting enough wines on Saturday at tastings that often went 6 bottles deep. The group met on Tuesday evening and referred to itself as the Tuesday Night Tasters, TNT. 50 Tuesdays in a year the TNT was lit. There were themes: any Bordeaux, 1st Growth and Super Seconds Bordeaux, Mosel Rieslings, Napa Chardonnays, and on and on. People sharpened their snobbery opining on all sorts of stuff. Opinions were not limited to wine which, for a clique of strangers, made for some very fun evenings. Wine truly fed it all.

As everyone learned more about wine and wine regions the demand for more information became urgent. There were limited choices including the Wine Spectator, the Wine Advocate and the Underground Wine Letter. Everyone understood the Wine Speculator was an advertising wet dream written for dummies. The scoring system was stoopid, the reviews were top heavy, and the topic of how useless was the magazine was often explored with vigor. The Wine Advocate presented the smart person’s alternative and was respected for its tough reviews. But the newsletter of choice was as quirky and funky and interesting as was TNT. tBoW was a subscriber to the vanilla hued 10 or 12 page issues printed on thick stock. There were no photos. Maybe an illustration every now and then. It was very plain in presentation; whether a conscious decision or not the plain look sent the message they were serious wine collectors.

The writing and information was exactly what was missing from the wine scene: thoughtful, well articulated opinions on wines readily available for the most part even if many were often beyond $$ reach. One of my favorite articles skewered the first release of Opus. Not only did the writer ding the wine for being blended from sourced juice while pretending to be uniquely estate, he also let Mondavi have it for pricing the wine at a level unheard of for Napa Cabernet. The piece was titled “Hocus Pocus Opus”. The Underground Wine Letter took on the Wine Spectator’s 100 point system which it saw as nothing more than a device to communicate simply to buyers what they should own. The point was the Wine Spectator created trophy wines as everyone waited for the first 100 point wine. The Underground used a 20 point system which included half points. A 20 point system suffers from the same inherent flaws as 100 points, one of the most obvious being a score of 1 or 10 or 0 or 80 is ever assigned. If the lowest score ever assigned is 15 on the 20 point scale then it is really a 6 point scale, 12 with half points. Has the Wine Speculator ever assigned a score below 85? I doubt it.

I stopped subscribing in the 1990s. Not sure why. I guess it had something to do with growing tired of California wines and looking more at exotics from Italy, Spain and the unfashionable regions of France like the Languedoc. We also became more aware of smart importers whose tastes suited our own. A good way to go when choosing wines. Imagine my happy surprise when by accident I came across the digital Underground Wine Letter. And now it is free. So I am a reader once again. You should also look at it. The same guys appear to be involved. The level of writing is downright academic. The style is stuffy in the most professorial manner. And the reviews and articles are still full of historical and regional information that is exhaustive…and exhausting. Not breezy enough for the NY Times. Perfect for relaxed reading with the goal of gaining knowledge about wine. Some of my old reservations still apply. There does not appear to be much sympathy for price points and the fascination with the California wine industry seems somewhat quaint, especially the producers they seem to favor. You can read about vintage upon vintage of LA Tache but don’t expect any reviews of McKenzie Mueller or CORE [ed. they did review Uvaggio!]. Despite the picky drawbacks, these guys still make a lot of sense. No more 20 point scale. Today they go with something purely descriptive. Checkumout.

Here are some notes on wines we tasted recently.

1999 McKenzie Mueller Cabernet Franc $ unavailable: Bob Mueller is a favorite producer; too rustic or rugged for some palates. We find his style to be masculine without being overbearing. His wines are more like a powerful strong safety than a monstrous defensive lineman. And they tend to age VERY WELL. In fact, they seem to be built for aging. We have had this bottle in the cellar awhile. The nose rushes out of the bottle like it just robbed a 7-11. It is spicy and aromatic with whiffs of blueberry and vanilla. The first flavors confirm the blueberry fruit and the sharp spice. This is not acidic. It is beautifully balanced. Bob really is a master winemaker. Blueberry yogurt. Has some of that Napa cedary character we found in the 1987 Dunn Howell Mountain we had in mag about 10 years ago. This has more pure fruit. It is just beautiful and it is drinking perfectly right now. We were on this wine list for many years but stopped when we just had so much in the cellar. Now I am thinking we need more McKenzie Mueller wine, especially the aged ones. 14.9%

JL Chave tasting at Palate: Langdon Shiverick is the importer for Chave’s Rhone wines. David Shiverick is pouring eight selections on a Saturday in November. Wine impresario Steve Goldun of Palate Wine Merchant – a favorite haunt – gets these guys in the shop and we often stop by to try. Read here about JL Chave. [ed. we refer to the Wine Doctor often; one of our favorite sources for wine info and suggest you do as well] David introduces the wines pointing out the Chave house has been making wine in France since the 15th century…from father to son and always from and to a Jean Louis Chave. How detrope! Chave uses only neutral oak so we describe the wines as pure.

2009 Jean Louis Chave Selection Celeste Saint Joseph $29: 100% Rousanne. Really like this wine too. Stoney [ed. he refuses to use the M word – mineral – in any form when talking wine]. Bought some.

2009 JL Chave Selection Mon Coeur Cotes-du-Rhone $19: A blend of 80% Grenache and 20% Syrah. The entry point. We really like it. Middle weight, lots of flavor, serene. Very good value for a wine made by one of the top three producers in the Rhone. We bought. We tasted recently and our first impression was confirmed. 14.8%

2007 Offerus JL Chave Selection $25: 100% Syrah. Tannic, very high toned but also quite ripe. Sweet baked bread, cherry and pumpkin. Not for us but others love it. Pretty nice price. 13.8%

2008 Saint Joseph Domaine Jean Louis Chave $38: Getting into the Domaine wines. Prices increase as wine gets more dense and select. These are estate wines even though I am pretty sure David said estate wines are unusual in the Rhone. But is the price worth the wine? Lots of pepper and fruit. A dense wine. 13%

2007 JL Chave Selection Farconnet Hermitage $75: The big ticket for this tasting. 100% Syrah. Clearly the alpha wine in this lineup. Drinking wonderfully. Full, tannic and balanced. Rich in flavors, “cut” says Langdon which refers to the acid presence being crisp. tBoW would say the wine is fresh. 13%

tBoW says there is a whiff of brett in the Mon Couer. David makes a revelatory statement. “Usually there is ‘brett’ in these wines. Many consider ‘brett’ a flaw in wine but even Abe Lincoln had flaws.” Hmmm. Then we share that as a rule we would prefer wines without brettanomyces. The recently opened bottle of Mon Couer (this month) did not show any brett.

Here is a video of an interview with Jean Louis Chave – 2011 edition – by a couple of Brits. The accents are not too tough and I like seeing Jean Louis and the abandoned phylloxera vineyards he is rebuilding. Mostly I want to do my own interview with Jean Louis!

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