Daily Dish

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Category: Patrick Comiskey

Getting to the bottom of a glass of Champagne

Champers Let’s say you’re one of those rare wine lovers who can resist the many charms of Champagne long enough to wonder about it; like, what is Champagne, the place, like? What goes into making it? Who goes to the trouble of making it? What are they after? Why does it taste the way it does? And most important, how do they get all those bubbles into the bottle? 

The answer to many of these questions can be found on a fine new website called Champagneguide.net, authored by winewriter Peter Liem. (I must disclose that Liem and I both serve as correspondents for Wine & Spirits Magazine.) Three years ago, Liem decided to move to Champagne, becoming one of the only wine writers writing in English to do so currently. He settled in the village of Dizy, in a small flat nestled among vines and growers. Since then, by his own account, he has been "making a nuisance" of himself in the cellars and salons of the region, interviewing winemakers, tasting wines, taking meticulous notes and drawing very contemplative conclusions about the wines, the villages and the overarching style a given house aims for. The result is one of the more fastidious, comprehensive and useful tools in English you may ever have at your disposal for getting at the mysteries of what is otherwise a very mysterious region.

While still under construction, and under constant revision (of a possible 5,000, there are only about 100 handpicked Champagne houses profiled here, so Liem’s "updates" may never be finished), there is already an impressive amount of information on the site, usefully arranged. In most cases, the history of the domaine is explored, as well as an objective assessment of its desired style, what is found in a typical blend, which villages and vineyards it may come from, and how many vintages of the base wine – the still wine used to create the sparkling wine – you’ll find included in the non-vintage blend.

Extensive, detailed tasting notes of all current wines accompany the profiles – more than 600 in all – and they are routinely thrilling. “Its powerful depth is buttressed by firm acidity,” he writes about Tarlant’s Cuvee Louis Extra Brut, “and an intensely chalky minerality that persists throughout the finish, feeling vivid and almost forceful in its tenacity.” Liem’s notes break down the region’s wines with an effortless precision that just may make your next sip of bubbly something to ponder.

-- Patrick Comiskey

ChampagneGuide.net is available by subscription for $89 a year, about the cost of a fine bottle of vintage Champagne. A sample page can be found here:


Photo credit: Erik Unger / Chicago Tribune


Pairing with sherry: Craft LA competes in Copa Jerez

Sherry_2The Sherry Council of America, a Washington D.C.-based advocate group for the Spanish wine, recently held a sherry and food pairing competition at the Astor Center in New York. Five teams of finalists, including Matt Accarrino, chef at Craft in Los Angeles, and sommelier David Lusby, competed with specially prepared dishes and sherries to match.

Even by the standards of most wine geeks, sherry geeks are extreme. The wines, made by a special aging method in the torrid vineyards of Jerez in Andalusia, Spain, are virtually ignored by the general public, usually written off as sweet or silly, equated with those breathy television ads for Harvey's Bristol Cream in the '70s. Nothing is further from the truth, but convincing people of this in a restaurant setting is no small feat....

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Surfas fills hole with cheese counter

SurfasYou know that gaping hole that used to greet you near the registers at Surfas in Culver City, where the coffees used to be? Well, it was filled, finally, last week -– with cheese. After weeks of construction, a gleaming new cheese and charcuterie counter is now open for business, its own island in the expansive specialty food and restaurant supply store.

Tucked near the freezer case, it’s staffed by cheese-o-philes eager to give you a taste of any one of the 80 cheeses in stock, including ripe Delices de Bourgogne, a cocoa-rind Cardona goat’s milk cheese from Carr Valley Cheese in Wisconsin, and my current favorite, a smoky, nutty Gouda-style called Vlaskaas, from the Dutch company Beemster. A small selection of charcuterie, which includes Fra Mani salumi and jamon iberico, will expand in the coming weeks.

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Vintners Hall of Fame inductees at Greystone

Wine_2 This morning, the Culinary Institute of America announced the most recent inductees into its Vintners Hall of Fame. Didn't know there was one? It's housed in the Napa Valley at the institute's august Greystone campus in St. Helena, and was created to recognize California's most important contributors to the wine industry, reflecting some of the state's most influential winemakers, leaders and journalists.

Established only in 2007, the Hall has had some catching up to do. They've established a foundation of pioneer winemakers going back to the 19th century, including Sonoma entrepreneur Agoston Haraszthy, Napa growers Gustave Niebaum and Charles Krug, the great post-Prohibition winemakers Andre Tschelistcheff, Georges de Latour and John Daniel, and more contemporary figures, such as Robert Mondavi, the Brothers Gallo, Paul Draper, Miljenko Grgich and Darrell Corti.

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A peek into XIV's wine list

XivMichael Mina's latest restaurant –- called XIV ("Fourteen"), in case you'd lost count –- amounts to a slight departure from other Mina efforts. Then again, every Mina venture is a slight departure from the last. But how does Mina tweak his wine program for each new locale?

The wine list at XIV is orchestrated by Mina's wine director, Rajat Parr. Parr got his start as a busboy at the recently closed Rubicon Restaurant in San Francisco, where master sommelier Larry Stone once held court, assembling one of the greatest wine lists in the country, as well as training and inspiring close to a dozen of California's most prominent sommeliers and wine professionals –- Parr is a Rubicon alumnus.

Tasked with populating 14 wine lists, Parr operates with a fair amount of leverage, the kind that allows him to travel to Champagne annually to blend a proprietary "Cuvee Michael Mina" in the cellars of the exquisite grower producer Chartogne-Taillet. In many other Mina ventures, Parr has assembled the wine list equivalents of novels –- tomes with a breadth that reminds one of Dickens or Bulgakov. At XIV, however, Parr has composed, for him, a short story.

The list here is surprisingly (relatively) brief –- fewer than 250 wines –- accounting perhaps for the peripatetic attention span of your average Sunset Strip patron. But Parr has covered his bases. He describes it as "200 of my closest friends," which includes artisanal California producers like Steve Beckmen and the Peay family, as well as a selection of wines made by his fellow and former sommeliers (for example, Stone's Sirita Cabernet or Spago somm Kevin O'Connor's Lioco "Michaud" Chardonnay). And Parr isn't afraid to include a few from his own burgeoning label, Parr Selections.

XIV, 8117 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 656-1414.

-– Patrick J. Comiskey

Photo credit: XIV

Wines for camping

Two weeks ago my wife and I were wandering the Utah wilderness, car-camping at a pretty, rustic campground in Capitol Reef National Park. For desert rats like us these were wonderful days, hiking up creek beds and into box canyons of Navajo Sandstone, looking for Indian petroglyphs, poking around for troves of jasper and gypsum and petrified wood.

And then there was the food situation.

Peer into the cooler around, say, the third day of 95-degree heat, and it’s easy to be discouraged. The bag of peaches you so carefully selected at the U-Pick look a little like assault victims for all of their bruises and slights; that wedge of waterlogged English cheddar has been slowly liquefying (really, have you ever known a Zip-Loc that does not unzip in a cooler? either that or they’re water-soluble) and then there’s the salami that has been silently outgassing in its own special sealed plastic sheath.


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Didier Dagueneau, 1956-2008

Pouilly_3We learned this morning of the death of Didier Dagueneau, one of the most gifted and iconoclastic producers in France's Loire Valley. It’s reported that he died when the ultralight single-engine plane he was flying stalled just after takeoff –- a daredevil demise of a man whose winemaking was every bit as daring.

Dagueneau made wines mainly with Sauvignon Blanc grapes from the inland Loire region called Pouilly-Fumé, but his wines bore no resemblance to other wines in the region. Dagueneau’s Sauvignons, given fanciful proprietary names like Silex and Pur Sang, were the product of some of the most meticulous, radically natural wine-growing in the Loire Valley. He embraced organic farming long before his fellow vignerons (growers) had even considered that option, and in 1993 was one of the first in the region to adopt biodynamics at his family estate in Saint-Andelain....

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Daily Dish is written by Times staff writers.