Pet peeve No 1: What could be more idyllic than a summer evening on the patio of a Michelin two-star restaurant in Provence, France, spent enjoying the brilliance of a great chef and a bottle of extraordinary wine?
That was the setting in my mind's eye when I booked a reservation at the fabled l'Oustau de Baumaniere in Les Baux-de-Provence last month. The weather cooperated spectacularly. So did the chef and the sommelier.
The five-course tasting menu was exquisite, and the bottle of 1993 Bonneau du Martray Corton-Charlemagne was a gem. Reality set in when tables all around lit up and puffed away at one cigarette after the other throughout the night.
As blue smoke wafted over each dish and literally brought a tear to my eye, I wondered why anyone would foul the air so enthusiastically when the taste and smell of l'Oustau's many delights was presumably what drew them to Baumaniere in the first place.
In cooler parts of the year, most of the dining takes place inside, where smoking is prohibited. On my way out, I asked a manager why the restaurant thought it was fair that one dining couple's 700-euro experience could be spoiled by another dining couple's need to smoke throughout dinner.
He shrugged. "It's the law," he told me. "If people sit outside and choose to smoke, we have to let them."
Pet Peeve No. 2: The other recent event that raised my blood pressure several points was an attempt to uncork a bottle of white wine from Portugal that came with a wax capsule. The capsule on a wine bottle, typically a foil that is easy to cut and remove, is there for sanitation as well as decoration.
I suppose a wax capsule serves the same purpose, but it seems the look is more important than anything. Normally I'm OK with that because most wax capsules are somewhat soft and cut easily with the blade from the waiter's corkscrew. But some are brittle and nearly impossible to cut without shards of hard wax landing on the floor and making a complete mess.
Why would a winery make opening one of its bottles so difficult? Beats me.
Wines are rated on a 100-point scale. Wines are chosen for review because they represent outstanding quality or value, and the scores are simply a measure of this reviewer's enthusiasm for the recommended wine.
Dutcher Crossing 2014 Syrah, Hidden Hill Vineyard, Alexander Valley ($43) -- If more domestic syrah tasted like this, there would be a run on the grape. Dutcher Crossing has it dialed in with its 2014 Hidden Hill Vineyard Syrah from the Alexander Valley. Pretty aromas of blueberry, boysenberry and currant are complemented by the well-measured use of oak that lends just a hint of wood spice and virtually no bitter wood tannin. The balance is exquisite, and the finish is long and sensual. Rating: 96.
Kendall-Jackson 2014 Merlot, Vintner's Reserve, Sonoma County ($24) -- Longtime K-J winemaker Randy Ullom has done wonders with the vintner's reserve program, consistently crafting impressive wines despite the significant volumes. The 2014 Vintner's Reserve Merlot is an excellent example. Well-balanced and refined, it has an elegant mouthfeel, is very dry and shows nuances of red currants and plum. There is a touch of wood spice and beautifully integrated tannins. Rating: 93.
Le Volte 2015 Le Volte Dell'Ornellaia, Toscana IGT, Italy ($31) -- It has been apparent for a couple of decades that the Tuscany region in Italy is an exceptional location to plant merlot, particularly in the Maremma district west of Montalcino. This vintage of Le Volte is 67 percent merlot, with cabernet sauvignon and sangiovese making up the difference. The merlot provides the flesh; the cabernet provides the structure; and the sangiovese provides the bright acidity that allows this wine to soar. Notes of tart cherry and plum dominate on the front of the palate and lead to a spicy finish. Rating: 92.
Martini 2016 Prosecco DOC, Italy ($21) -- The trend in Prosecco in recent years has been toward the drier brut style, but the extra-dry vintage Prosecco from Martini is a stunner that's exquisitely balanced despite the greater dosage level. This is a bubbly with bright fruit aromas of green apple and lime, a creamy texture and a crisp finish. Rating: 92.
Penfolds 2015 Max's Shiraz-Cabernet Sauvignon, South Australia ($25) -- This wine tribute to Max Schubert is shiraz-dominant, and it shows in the intense blueberry aroma on the front of the palate. Darker fruits such as blackberry emerge mid-palate, and the finish shows a touch of attractive wood spice. Well-balanced and inviting, this is a red that can be enjoyed now or savored and cellared easily for another six to 10 years. Rating: 90.
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