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SATAN'S SWEET SYRUP

I recently responded to a deeply discounted offering of utterly decadent Napa Valley wine... not my style, but I was too curious to resist.

Decadent- (adj.) "reflecting a state of moral or cultural decline" or, alternatively,

"luxuriously self-indulgent." Taken together, it sounds to me a lot like HOTEL CALIFORNIA.

("I remember thinking to myself... this could be heaven, this could be hell.")


Ah, California... blessed (by whomever does such blessing) with unsurpassed natural bounty... a place where the sun shines brightly and crops reliably thrive... a place where, with the slightest effort, both individuals and society as a whole might prosper and grow stronger, right? But oh, California... it also became the source of the most shocking extremes of Godless carnal indulgence.


And along with the all-too-familiar cultural excesses of Hollywood and the LA music scene, California also gives us wines of unprecedented richness.


Back when I was a young whippersnapper in the wine business, the great bottlings from France and Germany were universally considered the finest in the world... and yet California was rapidly recovering from the crippling effects of Prohibition and surging toward equality with the very best. How could an upstart New World region have gained so rapidly on centuries-old European wine-making? It's the climate, stupid.


The desiccated husk of a Dust Bowl farm, 1930's.


Imagine the poor Dust Bowl mid-westerner– cruelly bludgeoned to poverty and despair by the rigors of farming, drought, and perhaps even the wrath of the Almighty. Cresting the last hill on his desperate journey to a new home, he suddenly beheld a vast and verdant Californian valley where all manner of edible flora effortlessly ripen in warm, golden sunshine... it surely must have seemed like Heaven on Earth.

A seductively lush Napa Valley Wine Estate, 2015.


In the dry and warm sunshine for which the Golden State is famous, European wine grape varieties found themselves luxuriating to levels of ripeness unknown in the Old World. That's a good thing, right? Maybe, maybe not... more is more, of course, but more is not necessarily better. Indeed, as I'm fond of politely hinting to the well-meaning parents of thoroughly spoiled offspring, grapes that must struggle to ripen tend to become sturdier, longer-lived, and more interesting wines.


So what kind of grapes emerge from the seemingly heaven-blessed vineyards of the Golden State, where world-class grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir ripen with such enviable ease? And what kind of wines are produced from them? For a perfect parallel of the consequences of an unchecked "more is more" ethos, let us turn briefly to a completely different realm... BODYBUILDING.


Frank Zane, Mr. Olympia 1977-79... certainly ripped and built,

but still within recognizable human proportions. He looks like

he could actually run around the block or play tennis.


Mamdouh Mohammed Hassan"Big Ramy" Elssbiay,

Mr. Olympia 2020-21... nothing short of a human cartoon.


The progression of Californian wine from the The 1976 Judgement of Paris Tasting to the present day uncannily tracks that of competitive muscle-mania. The American red wine that beat the best of Bordeaux back then– the 1973 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon– listed its alcohol content at 13%, a level that would be unthinkably low for a premium Californian red today. Whether because of global warming or "more-is-more" viticultural practices (probably both), 14.5% alcohol seems to be the new floor and 15% (or even more) is quite common. To maintain proper balance, the other components of such wines– the acids, the tannins, the fruity esters– must all be similarly extreme. The result is often wine too mouth-filling to be rightly considered a beverage... wine so powerfully flavored that it overpowers nearly all manner of fine cookery as we know it.


So... why on Earth did I order a wine so unmistakably emblematic of Golden State debauchery? Curiosity, plain and simple. (Okay... that, AND a great price.) The offer came from a company called de Négoce, of whom I've previously written about at length (see How to Buy $60 Wine for $20.) They were offering a very limited quantity of Lot #401, a super-expensive red blend from a tiny winery in Napa. Their "Proprietary Red," an intriguing blend of 60% Cabernet Franc and 40% Merlot, routinely sells for over $200/bottle. I'd never pay that, nor did I– thanks to the market wizardry of de Négoce, they were able to obtain some and offer it under their own label for less than $40/bottle.


Here is their description:


"This fabulously massive 2021 Proprietary Red already has a 98-100-point score out of the barrel from The Wine Advocate, 97+ from Jeb Dunnuck, and a 94-97-point score from Vinous. Glass-staining squid ink. Pours a rich, ripe, meaty bouquet of blueberry, violets, and sage that quickly complexes with gobs of super-ripe black cherry, blackberry pie, coffee, cloves, and chocolate (and I mean tons of chocolate.) Deep, profound, and exotic; immediately rich, luscious, and mouth-coating on entry, but super supple and utterly seamless as the wine silkily glides across your palate with notes of raspberry puree, leather, and rich chocolatey blueberry that unfurl on your palate with an umami-glycerin glee.


Despite the richness, this wine has a fantastically well-integrated tannic spine that sweeps the ripe fruit and chocolatey oak into a long, sustained finish. Yes, this is a massive, lush, hedonistic, palate-staining wine, but it always keeps its head about it. First run juice from an amazing vintage, folks. This is a seamless, exquisitely balanced, and deftly made wine of deee-licious magnitude. 100% New French oak; 60% Cab Franc, 40% Merlot. 100% Single-vineyard sourced; 15.2% alcohol." (Emphasis mine.)


So I ordered a 6-pack... how could I or any other true wine lover resist? (Especially when Andrea & I never spend our own money on dinner or wine in restaurants but rather save it for opportunities like this.) I had to pay up front, and yet I probably won't see this wine until August... which is just fine, because A.) my cellar is currently quite flush; B.) a wine this rich isn't exactly a refreshing summer sipper; and C.) things this rare and special are definitely worth the wait.


When the right time comes... when a snappy whiff of autumn accompanies sunset and September's longer nights renew both our appetites and our thirst for bold red wine... perhaps I'll cue up this great live version of HOTEL CALIFORNIA and pop a cork of this special bottle– this Sweet Syrup of Satan– and maybe pair it with one of the culinary canon's few worthy matches, such as Classic Steak au Poivre.


I promise to let you know how it tastes.


NOTES:


It is hard to overstate the impact of the 1976 Judgement in Paris wine tasting. For American wine-making is was a glorious milestone, with Napa's best bottles finally finding their way onto respectable Manhattan wine lists. For the French, meanwhile, it was as if someone had murdered Jerry Lewis.


Whether or not global warming is caused by human industrial activity, there is no denying its existence; one need look no further than a wine label for confirmation. Increasing temperatures directly lead to higher sugar levels in grapes, which, when fermented dry, leads to higher alcohol levels. 15% is the new 13%, and they're now making wine in freaking North Dakota.


I'm not a huge EAGLES fan, but I certainly appreciate their music. And I think I've figured out an important aspect of their appeal... their guitars SOUND like tequila TASTES.


Château Cheval Blanc in the St.-Émilion district of Bordeaux famously bottles their flagship wine comprised of 60% Cabernet Franc and 40% Merlot. The 2020 vintage sells for $700-800/bottle; description and ratings HERE.


Cabernet Franc is a parent grape of both Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, which perhaps explains the trio's blending affinity. Cabernet Franc is widely planted in New York State, mainly because it survives harsh winter cold much better than do other European grape varieties.


And finally, I should note that this wine futures offering from de Négoce sold out in mere hours. I feel very lucky to have secured some.

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