James Koch found me on the Web the other day and asked if he could send me some wines. I’d never heard of him, but after some quick browsing I learned that he is an importer of small-production wines from Italy, Spain, Austria and Germany based in Pasadena, California. He sells his wines mainly to restaurants and only a few retailers, but will send them to you directly if you call the number on his Web site, wineday.com.
So why am I writing about a rather obscure figure in the wine world whose portfolio is not going to be available in most stores? For one thing, because his wines, based on an initial sampling, are distinctive and memorable and about as far from generic, big-production wines as you can get. For another, I like his philosophy on wine, which we'll talk about in a moment. And, lastly, because you can buy just about any wine that you fancy these days with a few clicks to the machine in front of you.
As I searched around the Web for some intelligence on Koch and his JK Imports, I came across the blog he used to write, “Wine Day,” with the slogan ”Life Is Too Short For Bad Wine.” It’s a line I’ve used myself over the years. Though the blog hadn’t been updated since 2007 (not enough time, Koch told me), it did hold a few clues to his thinking. Here’s one that stuck out: “We've been selecting our wines based on quality, typicity and pleasure (taste) and not on someone else's ratings, points, numbers, scores or opinion.”
Here’s another: “From the beginning we concentrated on restaurants, as retailers (at that time and sadly still today) were asking us ‘What's the Parker number?’ before tasting the wine.” He was referring, of course, to the critic Robert Parker, whose scores and preferences have informed the thinking (or non-thinking) of much of the wine industry for a generation.
By contrast, Koch — and a few others who share his outlook — wants people to appreciate a wine’s non-numerical qualities: varietal authenticity, a sense of place (as opposed to a marketing concept), family ownership; the impression that it costs more than it does (value), and enjoyment and pleasure that “invites you to ask for a second glass.”
And that gets us to the wines I tasted — three of them from the Cantina Sant’Andrea, a winery in Lazio in central Italy. While the region, which includes Rome, is best known for light and often-innocuous whites such as Frascati and Est! Est!! Est!!!, Sant’ Andrea, which is in southwest Lazio close to the Mediterranean Sea, shows what’s possible with the native malvasia, trebbiano and other grapes, as well as with Lazio’s red varieties.
The second white was a 2006 Circeo Bianco called Dune (Circeo is a coastal zone). It’s a blend of 60 percent malvasia puntinata and 40 percent trebbiano. Almost golden in color, this is a bigger wine with a core of pear and tropical fruit, accented by notes of honey, mint and rosemary and a subtle woody backdrop that it gets from six months in oak barrels. It reminded me of an aged white Rioja from Spain and will match with white meats and aged cheeses such as Cheddar. $27.
Yet another revelation was a 2006 red, a Circeo Rosso called Preludio alla notte. This one is 85 percent merlot blended with 15 percent of the native cesanese. The region is redefining itself with reds such as merlot and cabernet sauvigon, and this superb $25 wine shows why. It achieves, with a mere 13 percent alcohol, what so many merlots fail to — a dense, complex, refreshing wine that does, in fact, invite you to try a second glass. This one is all about blackberry, earth, tobacco, cinnamon and brown sugar. It’s softly tannic but with good structure. Enjoy it with lamb, beef and pork.
I’m glad that James Koch found me. The wines — just a few from his portfolio — were a revelation and yes, they tasted more expensive than they were.
Edward Deitch is the recipient of the 2007 James Beard Foundation Journalism Award for Best Multimedia Writing. He welcomes comments from readers. Write to him at email@example.com
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