Thursday, September 27, 2007

Build a Better Burger

Fall is in the air. Grills across the country fire up for tailgates, cookouts (They're not "barbecues" -- "barbecue" is a noun, not a verb, people.), and any other reason you can think of to put victuals over flame.

Thanks to Harlan Weikle at Rick's Place, I've been asked to provide some commentary for Trinchero/Sutter Home's annual Build a Better Burger contest. This nationwide gathering of recipes is down to ten finalists -- five in the "beef" division, and five in the "alternative" division. The finals are Saturday, and if you want to see a liveblogging of a burger competition, they'll be doing that on their website.

I'll be posting thoughts after the contest is over -- and as I try each of those recipes. You can see the finalists' recipes here. My early handicapping leans towards the Argentinean Burger with Chimichurri Sauce (which just screams for a Malbec) and the Little Italy Sausage Burger (Zinfandel for me, please).

Got favorite burger recipes to share? Have at it...

UPDATE: The results are in! I was dead on with the Little Italy Sausage Burger, but the grand prize went to the Sweet Hot Thai Burger. With this one, I'm of several minds. Dry rose or an extra dry sparkling wine would work well here. Gewurztraminer's also a possibility. As much as I love red wine with burgers, I would have a hard time here -- the tannins would clash. You'd have to go with a non-tannic red, and they'd probably get run over by the flavors. I'd like to try this with the Monsoon Valley Shiraz Harlan mentioned in his post. Wonder if we can get Thai wine around here...

So, we're all set for the next grilling session. Enjoy!

Monday, September 24, 2007

"There's more than corn in Indiana..."

The Sweet Partner in Crime and I needed some rest.

Without going into too much detail, I'll simply say that this was the least relaxing summer either of us can remember. Thankfully, as the season wound down and things began to calm somewhat, we decided we needed to get away for a few days. We'd heard about some wineries in neighboring Indiana, and we figured "Why not?"

This trip was about relaxation. The wineries simply provided structure for our wanderings. Our expectations weren't sky high for the wine itself. Why? Our experiences with "nontraditional wine growing areas" haven't exactly been stellar. Many times we've bought a bottle because it was the best wine at the tasting room but, as a friend of mine often comments, "That's damning with faint praise." The best of the wines are generally mediocre and twice as costly as they should be.

There are now wineries in all 50 states, but there's a reason the "traditional" locales make most of the wine. Vinifera grapes are persnickety. They generally need a very specific climate to produce at their best. Certain places (read: "Pacific Coast, Finger Lakes, and a few other patches") support that cycle. Outside these areas, climate and terroir make growing many kinds of grapes problematic. The blast furnace summer days and high humidity of the South and Midwest aren't exactly ideal.

Sometimes a place gets lucky. A grape used sparingly somewhere finds a spot and becomes a winner. Think Malbec after moving from France to Argentina. Other times, science comes to the rescue -- discovering a hybrid grape that can thrive in a new climate. Unfortunately, many of these hybrid grapes simply don't produce quality wine.

There's also a winegrowing saying: "A little sugar makes up for a lot of mistake." When we've visited many small wineries, almost universally the best seller is some version of syrupy sweet Concord-tasting grape juice with a little alcohol, or worse, a berry wine of some kind. (There are a few decent fruit wines we've found, but they're the exception.)

With taste expectations at a minimum, we set off down the Indiana Uplands Wine Trail. Our itinerary wasn't to crash around to every winery in the state. We just wanted to see what we could at our leisurely pace.

We were heading down US-150 when I spied a little sign on the side of the road in Hardinsburg which simply said "Winery" with an arrow pointing down a narrow road. Couldn't resist. Three miles later, we arrived at Vinetree Farm Winery. They opened up their tasting room for us and Patricia (who had some wonderful watercolors for sale in the tasting room) poured for us. She and her husband started the winery because they wanted "fellowship beyond just square dancing." Their wines, named after local friends, animals, and landmarks, were reasonably good. The highlight was a Vidal Blanc (one of the aforementioned hybrids, often used for ice wine) called "Lorretta." A little sweet, but still refreshing.

After some time rolling through the small towns in rural Indiana, past Patoka Lake and the nearly-abandoned town of Birdseye, we stopped at Winzerwald Winery in Bristow. I'd seen their website before and was intrigued by their logo:

Wine and pretzels -- a great combination. We met Donna Adams, who owns the place with her husband Dan. They did a number of very decent wines, several with German varietals I'd never heard of -- Lemberger, Liebfraumilch, Black Riesling, and several others. These wines were certainly distinctive -- definitely worth trying. Our favorite was their 5th Anniversary "Schaumwein" (German for "sparkling wine") that would have fit in nicely with the semi-sparkling varietals. The wine was crisp and only a little sweet. We tried it with [I can't remember] and we agreed on the quality. A very pleasant sparkler -- especially in the heat we've been having. They also did a very nice straight-up Gewurztraminer, which was semi-dry and nicely spicy.

The next day led us down a number of twisty roads to eventually land at Huber in Starlight, Indiana. The winery is a small part of this "agricultural entertainment complex." U-Pick fruits, cheesemaking, an ice cream factory, a kid's park, a huge wine-related gift shop, a café, and on and on. Our experience had typically been that the more extraneous stuff there was at a winery, the lower the quality. We were pleasantly incorrect. Huber did a number of very decent hybrid wines -- Seyval Blanc (similar to Sauvignon Blanc and grown widely in England), Traminette (a hybrid of gewürztraminer), and Chardonel (a Seyval/Chardonnay cross). They also have an on-site distillery, and their reserve apple brandy was nothing short of impressive. I was reminded more of scotch than brandy -- but I plan to pick some up for wintertime.

Our last stop in Indiana was Turtle Run -- a small winery outside of Corydon. Turtle Run was, at least for me, the highlight of our discoveries. Nestled among rolling hills, winemaker Jim Pfeiffer constantly tinkers with varietals and blends to create some very solid, relatively inexpensive selections. His Chardonel is "in the style of a French Burgundy," and he's dead on. We had that with a grilled swordfish and some saffron rice, and it was delicious. His Summer Solstice (a blend of Chardonel and Traminette) is the "prettiest" wine that I had on the trip.

You may notice that all of the wines I've mentioned are whites. I think white wine grapes must be much more forgiving -- because very few red grapes, in my opinion, grow well outside of the "usual" places. The most common red grape is Chambourcin -- and I've yet to find one of those I'd actually pay for. I've seen some cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon, but they've not generally been anything outstanding. (Although Smith-Berry winery in Kentucky seems to be on the right track.)

We also had a wonderful night's stay and some delicious cookies at the Leavenworth Inn, had a fantastic burger at Pinky's Pub in Paoli, and discovered that West Baden is "The Carlsbad of America."

Mike's recommendations:

Vinetree Farms Winery "Lorretta" White -- $11
Winzerwald Gewürztraminer -- $15
Huber 2006 Seyval Blanc -- $12
Huber 2005 White Blossom -- $15
Turtle Run 2006 Summer Solstice -- $14
Turtle Run 2005 Chardonel -- $14

I believe all these wineries are able to ship out of Indiana, so if you're curious about wines grown outside the "normal" places -- these would be well worth a purchase. Even better, take a drive and visit. And tell them The Naked Vine sent you.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The New York Times is horning in on my action...

The New York Times' wine writer, Eric Asimov, has penned an article, "Happiness for $10 or Less." Sheesh. You'd think that a writer for the Grey Lady wouldn't need to bother trying to upstage my little blog...

In all seriousness -- I enjoy Asimov's wine writing. He's one of the few unpretentious ones out there in a major publication.

He did posted the question for comment, "What's the best bottle of wine you've had for under $10?" So, I'll follow suit...all you folks out in NakedVineLand -- what's the best bottle you've had in that price range?

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Make Wine Not War

A bit behind on putting this up -- Vine reader James Armstrong (the "Strange Man for a Strange World" on my blogroll) forwarded this op-ed from the New York Times. You think wine's not a serious business here in the States? In France, they're setting off IED's over frustration towards the government's strict production laws, the "wine lake," and exporting difficulties. Have a read -- it's fascinating, albeit very sad, stuff.

Changing LINKS

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Tiny Bubbles...

Will summer ever end?

Perhaps you're luckier in your neck of the woods. Because just across the river from Cincinnati, it's frickin' hot. And humid. And dry.

(What does the cheap wine man mean -- humid and dry?)

Yep. Every day's the same for the last two months. Highs in the 90's. Muggy. But no rain. Ever. We're over a foot of rain short, and everything is dry, brown, and dead. In a normal summer, I'd expect that the heat and humidity would get blasted down occasionally by a good long rain shower -- but we've had nothing. We sit, plastered to the Weather Channel, watching the radar -- which often resembles a doughnut with I-275 as the hole.

I'm whining, aren't I?

In any case, everyone searches for a way to beat the heat -- to find some kind of refreshment, while at the same time not making you heavy and sleepy. For the obvious answer, let us turn to Brigitte Bardot:

"Champagne is the one thing that gives me zest when I feel tired."

Of course, the Woman God Created was French, so she wouldn't be considering other sparkling wines. We here at the Vine are neither Francophile nor Bardotophile enough to rule out other nationalities of sparkling wine. In fact, if you're looking for relief from the heat, looking outside France is a good idea.

Why? Many sparkling wines made outside of France are considered "semi-sparkling." These wines aren't as carbonated as full sparkling wines. There's a definition which includes the pressure within the bottle -- under "three atmospheres" of pressure is considered semi-sparkling. For our purposes, a semi-sparkling wine is very lightly carbonated and generally lower in alcohol, which means you can drink them most any time of day without getting tanked. (Now, once you go for the second bottle, all bets are off.)

I know many folks think beer when it's blazing hot, but sparkling wine's lighter than the lightest light beer, colder than other wines, as refreshing as sparkling water, and quickly makes you forget that there's anything wrong with the weather. One thing to remember about sparkling wine (aside from the hangover if you're not careful) -- while it's good to keep a bottle or two around, it's best not to store them in the fridge. After a week or so, the cold will kill the flavors. Just get up in the morning, realize the weather's going to be ugly, and put the bottle in. Your wine will be plenty cold by lunch.

I don't know if these would put the pep back in Brigitte's step -- but they work for me:

Gazela Vinho Verde -- One of the few Portuguese wines that you'll find these days. Vinho Verde translates as "Green Wine." The name refers more to the age of the wine than the color. The wine looks almost clear. The wine's a blend of red and white grapes and is intended to be drunk within a year of bottling. It has a light citrusy nose that moves easily into a slightly tart flavor. I'd call the Gazela a "sauvignon blanc lite" with its flavors of grapefruit and lemon. It's a little dry on the finish, and the dryness is amplified by a slight carbonation. Technically, this wine's not a sparkling wine, but I see bubbles when I open it, so it counts. It's extremely easy to drink and, at only 9% alcohol, you could "Drink this one for breakfast," as a wine mentor of mine used to say. The Gazela is easily locatable in your wine store -- the bottle's very distinctive. I found this on sale for $5. A great value, and a nice wine to have lying around.

Borgo San Leo Prosecco Brut -- I've become hooked on Prosecco as this summer wears on. I think it's one of the most refreshing wines out there. Prosecco is an Italian grape that can be used for either fully or semi-sparkling wine. I've not run into many of the full-sparkling versions of the grape. The Borgo has a light, crisp nose of apples and a little yeast. It's fruity and dry to the taste, again with a slight yeast taste. The dryness was unexpected, even with the "Brut" tag. I thought it would be sweeter, but it was much more like Champagne. It's certainly much less sweet than most Prosecco. Finish is very dry, but pleasant. For $9-10, it certainly helps ward off the heat.

René Barbier Mediterranean Pétillant Wine -- An interesting marketing ploy for a decent wine. "Vin Pétillant" is the French term for semi-sparkling wine (as opposed to "Vin Mousseux" -- full sparkling). You need to read the fine print to see that this wine is actually Spanish in origin and is from Friexenet, maker one of my standby sparkling wines. This wine reminds me of a Spanish version of vinho verde. The flavor profile is very similar, except that this one has more of a flavor of apple then lemon, as well as a little bit of a yeasty flavor more reminiscent of a full sparkling wine. Again, under 10% alcohol and refreshing. I also found this for under $5.

You could line these three up -- Gazela, Barbier, Borgo -- and have a very interesting side-by-side-by-side progression. They'd come across as cousins. Of course, you'd then have three bottles open, so try it with friends.

Stay cool, pour some bubbly, raise a glass, hope for rain, and heed the words of Tom Waits:

"Champagne for my real friends and real pain for my sham friends."

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Thinking Inside the Box

A few months ago, longtime Vine reader and neighbor Christine the Pie Queen asked, "So, when are you going to do a column on box wines." I mentioned to her that planned to do one for April Fool's.

"No, seriously," she said with an edge in her voice that gave me goosebumps. This is, after all, a woman who hiked the state of Vermont in five weeks, and offhandedly asks questions like, "Hey, are you guys interested in a triathlon?"
She was correct, of course. My experience with box wines had been unpleasant for the most part, but it made sense for me to give a take. After all, it is the least expensive wine delivery system.
So, how do they get the wine in there? The wine's not really in the box, of course. There's an aluminum or plastic pouch inside the box, tapped with a small spout of some kind. These containers are officially called "casks," although they're known in Australia as "goons."
Box wine tends to be of lesser quality than bottled wine -- but there are advantages. Once you open a bottle of wine, you're committed. The wine starts to oxidize almost immediately, and your wine will lose quality rapidly. Box wine never touches air until it hits the glass, so it can keep consistent quality until needed (although you can't age box wine). One of our friends termed box wine "Homer Simpson wine -- you push a button, and there it is!"
They hold up to five liters of wine, but the most common size we'll see is three liters. Three liters is equivalent to four regular-sized bottles. And there's the rub. I drink a lot of wine, obviously, but having three liters of a generally-not-great wine lying around for just myself and the Sweet Partner in Crime isn't what I'm looking for. Generally, you'd get these containers for larger gatherings -- or if someone is distracted, gone for work, or just lame enough to need a wine that will last for a month.
Still, the obvious reason was to par-tay. Thus, the First Annual Labor Day Box Wine Extravaganza was born. Christine and I each got two boxes of wine, and we went from there. The cast of characters:
  • The Sweet Partner in Crime and I.
  • Christine and her handyman husband Jeff.
  • Katherine, a mutual friend.
  • Marlene & Steve, our Francophile neighbors.
We did our best to take notes on our tastings, but by the end of the evening, predictably, we lost track of who said what. The quotes tell the stories well enough.
The wines:
  • Angel Juice 2005 Pinot Grigio
  • Banrock Station 2006 Chardonnay
  • Black Box 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Black Box 2006 Shiraz
(Christine and I bought our wines separately, so we ran with what we had.)
First up, the Angel Juice.
  • "It's lawnmower wine. You know, for a hot day in the yard." (Which led to: "What? You mean you'd put it in the lawnmower?")
  • "It'll drink, but there's not much body."
  • "It's so light -- it's not really much of a wine."
  • "It's like Crystal Light -- the Wine of the Astronauts!"
  • "Kinda bitter -- like the seeds are crushed up in it."
  • "It says 'honeysuckle and citrus' -- I don't get either. More lemon rind than lemon!"
  • "It quenches your thirst -- but I won't say much beyond that."
  • "One word: Wimpy."
We did find that it went reasonably well with food. Pesto paired well for some reason.
Then came the Banrock Station. Honestly, we all wished we'd just stayed on the train…
  • "It smells like honey wine or cider."
  • "It's sour. There's no oak -- none. It's just bad, bad, bad."
  • "It's like a golden shower for your mouth."
  • "I wouldn't cook with it."
  • "It tastes like battery acid."
  • "It's a cut above Mad Dog."
  • "I'd give it to a homeless guy so he could get a change of pace."
Truly an awful wine -- unanimously one of the worst we'd had collectively. More optimistically, the suggestion was made: "Maybe you could make a spritzer out of it." (You couldn't.) Christine made the best suggestion: "Well, at least you could recycle the box…"
With palates collectively in shock, we were worried as we edged towards the reds. The Black Box wines -- we were dubious -- but we went forward. We were too invested to turn back:

  • "This isn't bad!"
  • "It's not complicated -- but it's decent." (Surprised nods all around.)
  • "It's versatile. This is good wine for a party."
  • "It's inoffensive -- it would go with a lot of things. There's enough fruit and tannin to be interesting."
  • "It passes the cube test. If it's really hot, you can put ice in it and it's still drinkable."
Black Box's Shiraz followed suit:
  • "It's nondescript, but you really could drink it with anything."
  • "It's a really simple wine."
  • "Hey! This goes pretty well with chocolate!"
  • "It's good."
  • "It's yummy -- has a little bite to it, unlike that chardonnay, which just bites."
  • "It's far too easy to dispense!"
We made a dent in all four. The Cabernet had the least left by morning. The chardonnay was the cheapest ($16), while the shiraz was the most expensive ($24). Since there are clear levels of quality, if you're willing to drop $20 or more on a box, you'll probably end up OK.
One last note on the Banrock: We did follow Christine's recommendation:

UPDATE: While this has little to do with box wine, the Sweet Partner and I enjoyed some "regular" wine last night at Red, a restaurant in Cincinnati's Hyde Park district. Two thumbs up from us. The food was excellent (we had a filet and halibut, along with some of the best bourbon bread pudding outside of Lexington), the service was on par with the food, and the atmosphere was classy without being stuffy. Their website is fun, too -- allowing you to see the presentation of all their entrees. Give it a go for a special occasion.