Tony Poer on Vacqueyras

Tony Poer has been in and around the wine business since college. He got his start working as a garçon at Willi's Wine Bar in Paris, France in the early 90s. He then moved to San Francisco to pursue a retail and restaurant wine career. He has held wine-buying positions at such establishments as Silks at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Hayes & Vine Wine Bar, and the fondly remembered (by some, anyway) Flying Saucer. Tony and his family live in downtown Napa. He is the National Sales Manager for Meyer Family Cellars in Mendocino County.

Vacqueyras, the Cure for Complacency

Last fall, a friend of mine, a sommelier in the Midwest, asked me to name my favorite wine. What a question! It depends which way the breeze is blowing. At that moment, near Lake Michigan, it was probably blowing south, though not yet from the arctic. "Vacqueyras," I replied.

Opaque and spicy, Vacqueyras is usually mentioned alongside the more famous wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas. If pressed, I'd say this trio of neighboring appellations in the southern Rhône Valley constitutes my "favorite" category of wines. I find Vacqueyras particularly delicious. Two standouts are Château de Montmirail and Domaine le Sang des Cailloux, both distributed around the Bay Area. They're extremely fine examples of what can be done with the grenache variety in the right environment.

Beaune Imports in Berkeley has imported Montmirail since the early 90s. The '05 Cuvée de l'Ermite, tasted for this article, is an atypical blend of 50% each grenache and syrah (the varieties mourvèdre and cinsaut are also allowed and frequently used in Vacqueyras). 2005 was an exceptional vintage in the Rhône, and l'Ermite seems to have it all: a great balance of fruit, tannin, alcohol, and acidity. Like most fine Vacqueyras, it starts out fruity, though not at all jammy, and then turns smoky-gamey with air. It is in the end a fantastic food wine.

Dan Dawson, owner of Back Room Wines in Napa and my local Vacqueyras purveyor, is a chef at heart. He likes it with a couple of birds readily available and skillfully roasted in restaurants all over northern California: chicken and squab, both with thyme and wild mushrooms.

Another guy who might be cooking more if he were working less, Nopa's sommelier Chris Deegan told me, "L'Ermite's stone and herb flavors remind me of a dish I would want to cook." He suffers through it instead with one of his favorites from the Nopa menu: flatbread with spicy sausage, caramelized onions, and Gruyère cheese. "Montmirail," he added, "does a great job of highlighting the multiple flavors in food."

Christie DuFault, the sommelier at Quince Restaurant whose abilities to pair and communicate food and wine leave my head spinning, is a huge Vacqueyras fan. She's carried both Montmirail and le Sang des Cailloux on Quince's wine list. While she finds Montmirail's versions "dense and dark with amazing depth of flavor," Christie confessed to me that "le Sang is especially wild or sauvage - it reminds me of fun times in Provençal fields." Hmm.

Compared to l'Ermite, the '05 le Sang des Cailloux Vacqueyras is, indeed, a wild wine. It's about 70% grenache, with the balance syrah, mourvèdre, and cinsaut. Where l'Ermite is tamer and smokier, le Sang is heady, rich, and a bit stinky, with complex aromas of black and green olives, barnyard, and blackberries. Tasting it over two days, I noticed the "animal" aromas dissipated with aeration, but the ripe stone fruit flavors seemed to gather strength. Although it's fairly potent stuff, at 14% alcohol (the same as the Montmirail), le Sang registers about 2.5% less booze than many Napa Valley cabernets. Er, I mean zinfandels.

"The wines of Vacqueyras fit effortlessly on our wine list and with our menu," my old friend Sean Diggins, wine-buyer for Café Claude, recently told me. "They make a perfect fit with the cuisine we usually think of as classic bistro fare." He added that, though the prices for Vacqueyras have crept up in recent years, they can still be found at "bistro prices."

It's an opinion shared by Graham Blackmore, general manager of Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant in Berkeley, who imports le Sang des Cailloux. It cost twelve bucks in the mid-90s, but it only hovers around $30 today, and with a free-falling dollar at that. It has, in my opinion, little competition in its price-quality category. Graham calls le Sang des Cailloux "an antidote to complacency."

So, here's to a rebound in our currency against the mighty euro, and to the ongoing availability of Vacqueyras, one of France's least complacent wines and one of my favorites, whichever way the breeze is blowing.