Monday, December 27, 2010
But yes, there is a point to this entry. I never thought I’d be a cruise person. Lots of stereotypes about what a cruise “is” lingered – until we did some research and ended up on a Celebrity cruise a few years back. I’m sold.
I’m not a big “shipboard activities” person. I could care less about shows or the “Hairy Leg Contest on the Lido Deck.” When I’m on vacation, I want to unplug – and if I can get good food and wine, so much the better.
Celebrity seems to have carved out its niche with “great service, foodies welcome.” The main dining room had good-to-excellent meal selections every night and the service was sparkling. The SPinC and I especially enjoyed our conversations with our sommelier, May Casapao:
She was very helpful with wine selections and she was one of the most pleasant people (even on the run, which she often was) that I ran into on the ship. She made good suggestions and that smile never left her face.
Our other dining room staff members were solid, as well. Our waiter Melvino (his glove was actually on fire when I took the picture) and assistant waiter Juan provided top-notch service:
I can’t claim encyclopedic knowledge of cruise lines. Celebrity is a little more expensive than lines like Carnival, but it’s so very worth it if you’re looking for an experience like the one we wanted – pampering, limited numbers of “family friendly” attractions, good itinerary, and exceptional food choice. You get to see plenty and you only have to unpack once. Good times.
Hope everyone’s had a good holiday thus far! See you in 2011!
Saturday, December 11, 2010
The Sweet Partner in Crime’s well-timed conference in San Francisco gave me the perfect opportunity to take a couple of days off, zoom westward, and whisk her away up US 101 North. We plowed past the familiar stops in Napa and Sonoma to drop anchor in Cloverdale, California, gateway to Mendocino County.
Mendocino County is just north of Sonoma County. Cloverdale, about 90 miles north of San Francisco, is actually just on the Sonoma side of the county line.
We chose Cloverdale because it was the vertex of the two major roads – US 101 and CA 128 – heading up into Mendocino County wine country. The well-known 101 goes up along the Russian River towards Potter Valley and Redwood Valley. CA 128 snakes upwards along Dry Creek from Cloverdale towards Boonville and into Anderson Valley before ambling over to the Pacific Coast Highway.
We hitched the wagon at Vintage Towers, a Queen Anne B&B tucked away in a neighborhood a couple of blocks from the main street. It had everything you’d want…great interior, delicious breakfast prepared by Mary Stuart while her husband Don entertained, great spaces to relax, and necessary amenities. By the last, I mean that we were able to get a good enough wi-fi signal to watch the Duke-Colgate game on ESPN3 after we got there.
After we got settled and watched the game, we walked a couple of blocks to Piacére for dinner, a local Italian place. The owner/chef is Hispanic, but he has a serious flair for La Dolce Vita. We started with the most enormous barbecued oysters on the half shell we’d ever seen, topped with diced garlic, clams, parsley, olive oil, and finished with roe. The SPinC had veal & prawns in a lemon butter sauce and I had a “seafood of all sorts” pasta in a tomato-basil sauce. We washed this down with a bottle of Chianti. Mindblowingly good.
We decided to take the Anderson Valley “fork” on our first day. Empowered by an absolutely delicious breakfast at Vintage Towers, we packed up the rental car and headed northward. Our innkeeper made an offhand reference to 128 as “Mario Andretti Highway.” I’ve driven lots of curvy roads before. After all, I cut my driving teeth whipping a 1969 Peugeot 404 around the hollers of Eastern Kentucky. I figured that this would be no big deal.
I discovered that our new friend wasn’t kidding. If you like switchbacks, this is the road for you. Narrow, twisty, speed limit of 25 that’s not a joke. That sort of thing. We forged on, though, buoyed by the promise of scrumptious pinot noir. After about 35 minutes of winding through gorgeous scenery, Anderson Valley opened up before us.
The overall vibe of Mendocino, and Anderson Valley in particular, is very different from Napa and Sonoma. Napa has become, for the most part, an overpriced tourist trap. As Napa wines, as good as they can be, became more and more overpriced, it became the glamour region. Sonoma prided itself on being “not Napa.” They cultivated a laid back image, which made it very popular with wine lovers who wanted to avoid busses of bachelorette parties doing wine shots. But with success and increased visibility comes the need to live up to one’s press clippings. Sonoma seems to be shading from “laid back” into “hipster” territory. Too cool for school in many ways.
Mendocino, and Anderson Valley in particular, is geographically buffered from casual wine tourists. It’s a little too far from San Francisco for an easy drive – especially since you have to go through Napa and Sonoma to get there, so most people stop short. Once people get to Cloverdale, CA 128 can be a daunting trip, so the folks who make the trip really want to be there. The tasting rooms, as a result – at least on this weekend, were less crowded and we were able to spend more time chatting with folks and relaxing over our tastings. The majority of the wineries we visited used “organic” productions – certainly in process if not in certification.
Our first stop was Foursight Wines, a small operation run by the Charles family. Turns out that their grapes are the “Charles Vineyard” grapes from Papapietro Perry’s pinot noir – one of my faves. We spent quite awhile talking to Kristy Charles, who had come home after working in the world of public relations to work in the family business, bringing her husband along with her. They take their name from the number of generations that their family’s worked that plot of land. “Welcome to our dream,” they say. The low-yield, handpicked wines, fermented with wild yeast instead of cultured strains were an absolute delight. The highlights for us were the “Zero New Oak Pinot,” an elegant, meticulously balanced pinot noir and their Sauvignon Blanc, which was bright, lovely, and lean – very much along the style of a good white Bordeaux.
We spent quite a bit of time at Toulouse Vineyards working our way through their solid range of selections. We met the winemaker, Vern, just outside the door and had a friendly chat with him in the gathering drizzle of this gray day. Toulouse focuses on pinot noir with a few other wines with grapes sources from elsewhere. Their pinots were a more fruit-forward with a little more pepper. Their estate pinot (my note says “exquisite!”) was a glass of velvet with a finish of crème brulee. We had a chance to taste the unfermented pressing that went into the 2008 pinot. 2008 was a rough year for many winemakers in Anderson Valley because of the wildfires. The smokiness certainly comes through in the juice. Many people will turn away from that vintage – I would recommend that you give it a try. It gives an interesting twist.
Another highlight was Roederer Estates, the American production from Louis Roederer, the Champagne house that produces Cristal. We were tended to by Shyla and Pat in the tasting room. (It was Pat’s first day, and she did really well). Roederer Estate’s sparkling wines are some of the best values out there for “midpriced” sparklers. At Roederer, I learned that there’s cache in doing 1.5 liter bottlings of vintage bubbly over the normal sized bottle. The larger bottles carbonate more slowly, yielding a smoother flavor when tasted side by side. That said, of the wines poured, I preferred the 750 ml versions. I liked the bit of sharpness. Their L’Ermitage vintage bubbly was spectacular. Creamy, complex, and luxurious. They also were tasting some still wines, and their still chardonnay was a bargain for a high quality wine.
We made a stop at Standish Winery, which was founded by a direct descendent of Miles Standish (quite a path from Puritan to Premier Cru, no?) The 2007 Bosc Block Pinot Noir was superb – lots of fruit and menthol with plenty of Burgundian-style earth and chocolate to finish. More interesting was Michelle, our tastress, who had moved to the woods of Mendocino County from Columbus, Ohio. She left woodworking school to work in the tasting room.
Another winner was Drew Winery. The tasting room is in what appears to be an opulent, somewhat out of place Spanish villa in Philo. Turned out that the villa was once an interior design firm. The tasting room itself was very understated, as were the lovely, quietly fruity viognier and pinot noirs. However, for me, their 2007 Valenti Vineyard Syrah was an absolute rockstar. Subtle, peppery, and finely balanced, it’s simply a fantastic wine.
Our last stop of the day was Londer Vineyards. Londer Vineyards produces pinots in the $30-70 range and their tasting room is attached to a swanky art gallery. We pulled in there just as a heavy rainstorm was getting cranked up. There we met Joe Webb, one of Londer’s winemakers and the husband of Kristy Charles from Foursight (where Joe also moonlights). He ran us through their offerings. They had a very solid gewürztraminer and some really fantastic pinot. Their “Anderson Valley” pinot, made from grapes chosen from across the county, was the best value we found on the trip. Normally $30, they were selling it half-off by the case on the day we were there. We stocked up.
When we finished at Londer, rain was falling in literal sheets. I gripped the steering wheel hard and slowly crept down the side of the unlit mountain, trying my best to ignore the fact that there was no guardrail. Freeway driving was much easier. We’d had reservations that night at the restaurant in the Boonville Hotel, but we cancelled them, thinking discretion was the better part of valor. We ended up at Tian Yuen, a Vietnamese noodle place in Cloverdale that ended up being very, very yummy. A quick drive from there back to Vintage Towers and we were ready for some rest. After all, we had another full day coming up…
On the second day of our little jaunt through Mendocino County wine country, we were accompanied by Sid, a friend of mine from back in the Usenet days of basketball discussion boards. An Oregonian living in San Francisco, he’d never been through Mendocino wine country and wanted to see what was about. We were more than happy to have him tot us around in a Prius.
The “other fork” of the road from Cloverdale is a much smoother ride up Highway 101. The viticultural areas along that stretch tend to be warmer as they’re farther inland, away from the cooling influences of the ocean breezes. The climate is better suited for growing heartier grapes such as cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay rather than the more delicate pinot noir and gewürztraminer in Anderson Valley. The wines in these regions tend to be less expensive and a little more readily available than their Anderson counterparts.
After a couple of false starts, we found ourselves at Lolonis Winery. Lucky us! Lolonis is an organic producer with an understated warehouse of a tasting room that happened to have a fabulous spread of cheeses for our snacking pleasure. We were their first visitors of the day this Sunday. “We figured everyone would be in church!” they said. Lolonis’ trademark is the ladybug, since they use these cute little critters as pest control. We had long talks with Lori the winemaker and with Petros Lolonis, the owner, who is one of the most charming gentlemen to whom I’ve ever had the pleasure of speaking. He’s quiet & thoughtful – the same adjectives I’d apply to his Redwood Valley Merlot, which at $18 a bottle is a steal. Their petit sirah and late harvest zinfandel (the latter is Cuvee Lorrane, named after the winemaker) are also excellent.
(During our visit to Lolonis, we discovered that we were smack dab in the middle of the Taste of Redwood Valley Holiday Wine Open House and Sale. Oh, darn…)
From there, we made our way to Oster Vineyards, tucked away down a back road. The tasting room is a low, wooden barn where Teresa & Ken Oster make exactly one wine, cabernet sauvignon. When they’re not picking grapes, they’re picking bluegrass tunes – and the wine and music certainly complement each other. Their cab is a balanced, approachable cab with a little bit of a rustic bite at the end that will mellow with a little time lying down. Lots of good berry and tannin even now.
The other winery highlight of our trip was McNab Ridge, where Joseph Parducci does some varietals that don’t show up very often. They make a carignane that smells like a chocolate truffle and a pinotage that’s pretty rugged around the edges but has a really nice heart of blueberries. Their 2006 Reserve Cabernet was just a luscious wine – their first ever reserve offering. There’s “Zinzilla!” – a biga zinfandel that they make year after year. An asskicker. They also had a barrel tasting available of their 2008 cabernet. As I mentioned in the last entry, 2008 was an interesting vintage in Mendocino because of the wildfires. Everyone calls it a “rough vintage,” but is that barrel was any indication, I’m personally going to be seeking out wines from that year. I think that they’ll be unique wines.
A few of the other places we hit on the second day:
Cole Bailey – At the top of a hill at the end of a twisty, muddy driveway sat a somewhat ramshackle tasting room where Bob Anderson held court, pouring his “Sesquipedalian” cabernet and sauvignon blanc. His name may not ring a bell, but he’s better known by his fraternity nickname – “Otter.” Bob was in Alpha Delta at Dartmouth – the inspiration for the Deltas. No, he didn’t say, “Bob Anderson, winemaker – damned glad to meet you,” but he was a very nice guy. His sauvignon blanc was very pleasant, as well. In case you’re wondering, a “Sesquipedalian” is “a sophistical rhetorician inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity. In other words, a poser who uses fancy-pants words when simple ones would do.” Alternatively, a wine writer.
Frey Vineyards – Frey claims to be “America’s first organic vineyard” and the winery and tasting room have the exterior look of a commune. While they may be the first, they’re certainly not the best. They’ve become a destination winery for hippies and hipsters. They’ve spent more time culturing their “organic” image than on the quality of their wine.
Giuseppe Wines – a fourth generation winery in Mendocino, Giuseppe was certainly the most lively place that we stopped. They’re focused on making good table wine for Italian cuisine with American grapes. Their Zinfandel isn’t subtle. It’s around 15% alcohol and is crafted to mirror big Barbera, from what I can tell. On the day of the open house, they had a big spread of food out, and this is apparently nothing new. Spaghetti dinners are regular occurrences.
McFadden Vineyard – We didn’t make it to the vineyard itself, but we enjoyed their tasting room. Stick to their sparkling wines and their smooth, subtle whites like their 2006 Riesling. Very tasty.
The three of us also had a very good late lunch at the Ukiah Brewing Company & Restaurant. All the homemade beer and delicious vegetarian pub grub (no…seriously…it’s really fricking good) that you would ever want.
Sid ran us back to Cloverdale for our last evening at Vintage Towers. We relaxed a bit, then headed to La Hacienda, a locally owned Mexican restaurant in Cloverdale. Basic Tex-Mex. Mexican food and beer were a nice change after snorking wine for two days, although the SPinC didn’t much care for her quesadilla.
Alas, our little wine weekend had to come to an end. We were up early the next morning on our way to SFO to head home. Mendocino certainly made its mark on us, though. I used to think that heading back to Sonoma would be my wine destination of choice, but Mendocino certainly has its appeal. I’d head back there in a heartbeat. And if you’re looking for something new, I’d highly recommend this jaunt.
And with that, the Vine is going to take a bit of a sabbatical. Time to recharge the batteries.
See y’all in the new year. Cheers!
Wednesday, December 08, 2010
Sparkling wine is like any other vino in terms of quality. There are super-cheap headache producers, everyday bottles, and loveliness to pull from the cellar when something magical is going on. I won’t touch the first and I’ve talked enough about the second in other columns. Today, we focus on the good stuff.
Sparkling wine, more so than any other type of wine that I can think of, has a “top end” dominated almost exclusively by wines with strong name recognition. Let me demonstrate with a quick game of word association. What’s the first wine that pops to mind when I say “good cabernet sauvignon?” Just answer, don’t think.
Were I able to magically see all your answers, I’d probably have a list of hundreds of brands with prices ranging from fifteen bucks to hundreds. Now, try it again. Do the same thing for “good bubbly.” No thinking – just whatever comes to mind.
I can practically guarantee 95% of you immediately pulled something from this list: “Dom Perignon,” “Cristal (or Louis Roederer),” “Krug,” or “Veuve Clicquot.”
These names rise to the surface for a reason. Yes, they’re excellent wines – and they’ve been excellent wines for decades. Because so few wine makers, relatively, make sparkling wine – the top end sparklers prices’ end up inflated simply because of name recognition. Hooters puts a $200 bottle of Dom Perignon on every menu for a reason, no? You won’t find any of those wines for under $60-70.
The other notable fact – all of these wines are Champagnes. There’s romance in the word “Champagne” which adds several dollars to the sticker price. As we’ve discussed here before, most sparkling wine is not Champagne. For a wine to be truly “Champagne,” it must be made in the Champagne region of France using “Méthode Champenoise” – a particular technique for carbonation and aging. (“That Champagne’s not Korbel” is actually an indication of quality.)
There’s a good reason why these wines are as expensive as they are. Wines made in the Champagne are, on average, more complex and of higher quality than similar wines made elsewhere in the world, even if the same production methods are employed. However, there’s plenty of excellent sparkling wine made in other places without as much notoriety.
During this festive season, there are plenty of occasions for bubbly. Some of those occasions might call for a “better than everyday” sparkler. I have a couple of ideas, and I asked some of my local friends in the wine biz for recommendations on some bottles that would be appropriate for when “good” bubbly is on the menu, but you might not want to blow all of your gift-buying cash in one place.
Baumard Crémant Brut-Carte Turquoise ($17-23) – from Anjou in the Loire Valley, a blend of chenin blanc and cabernet franc has a crisp flavor of apricots and a very clean finish.
Charles Ellner Brut Reserve Champagne ($30-50) – a classic Champagne. Plenty of earth and yeast on the nose with long flavors of vanilla and honey on the finish.
Piper-Heidsieck Brut Champagne ($40-55) – one of the “just below the top” producers in Champagne. A little more fruit than many, but a consistent, high-quality product that’s been around for many, many years.
Delamotte Brut Champagne ($40-55) – the flipside of the Piper, this one is tart and crisp. Long and complex. The word that I see over and over again in reviews of this wine is “stylish.”
If I’m getting a good bottle that’s not from France, I’m looking to California:
Roederer Estates L’Ermitage Brut ($35-55) – I had the good fortune to visit this winery on a recent trip to California. Roederer Estates is the California branch of Louis Roederer, creator of Cristal. However, for about $80 less a bottle, you can take the cage off a bottle of this beautiful sparkler. Probably as close to Champagne style as I’ve had from an American bubbly. I highly recommend.
Mumm DVX ($40-55) – From Napa Valley, this is the high-end bottling from this very well-known winery. Like Roederer, they put together some very solid $20 bubbly, but if you need something a little higher end with a bit of an edge, the DVX is a yearly award winner.
Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs ($25-40) – K2 calls Schramsberg the “King of the California Sparklers.” Their Blanc de Blancs is a very flavorful, apple-laden blast of flavor that’s a real bargain at the price. I was lucky enough to get a couple of bottles of this as a wedding gift. It doesn’t disappoint.
Iron Horse Russian Cuvee ($25-40) – This sparkler is near and dear to my heart, as I had a chance to try it on our very first trip to wine country. From Sonoma County, this is a little fruity and would probably land in the “extra dry” rather than “brut” category (meaning there’s a little bit of residual sugar). This wine was designed for the Reagan-Gorbachev summit meetings at the end of the Cold War. It’s especially good with a few pomegranate seeds in the glass.
There are also some excellent values from Germany and Argentina, and there’s any number of good producers of Prosecco from Italy. Bottom line? Talk to your local wine merchant. If his or her first recommendation when you ask for “good bubbly” is Dom Perignon, go elsewhere.
Tuesday, December 07, 2010
After our forays into hard and soft cheeses, the time has arrived to have a peek of the most polarizing province of the cheese kingdom, stinky cheeses. They’re sometimes known as “pungent,” “blooming,” or “blue” cheeses. So, what are they, and where the heck does that smell come from?
As we discussed in the other entries, cheese is created by allowing milk to curdle, separating the curd from the whey, pressing the curd into a certain shape – then, usually, aging the cheese for a certain period of time. The older the cheese, the stronger or sharper the taste and smell usually become. Stinky cheeses are all aged. What makes them different from, say, cheddar?
With most hard, longer aged cheeses, the chemical and bacterial makeup of the cheeses prevent the formation of various kinds of mold and bacteria. With stinky cheeses, the growth of that mold is not only desirable – it’s encouraged! There are two major processes a cheesemaker uses to “stink up” a cheese: from the outside in and from the inside out.
The “outside in” cheese is usually referred to as a washed rind cheese. Once the cheese’s rind forms, the entire block of cheese is cured for a period of time in brine and/or other substances which can bear mold – usually some type of alcohol. Beer, wine, and brandy are common additions to the wash, along with certain spices. Curing the rind in this solution allows the formation of a certain type of bacteria that imparts the stronger flavors and scents to the cheese. A washed rind cheese can be soft or hard. While the rind usually has a very strong scent, the cheese itself is often somewhat mild. Examples are Limburger, Munster (not Muenster!), and Taleggio.
The “inside out” cheeses are known as inoculated cheeses. An inoculated cheese begins its change from normal to noxious early in its lifetime. While the cheese curds are still loose, they’re injected with a specific type of mold – one from the Penicillum genus. This mold has been used to stinkify cheeses for over 2000 years. As the mold propagates, it forms veins through the cheese, altering the texture, flavor, and odor. “Blue” cheeses are in this category, although the mold can also be brown or green, depending on the specific type of mold involved. Common examples of this type of cheese are Roquefort, Stilton, and Gorgonzola. (As a side note -- this is the same type of mold from which Penicillin was first synthesized when it was discovered that certain bacteria don’t grow in the presence of the mold)
We chose three cheeses for our tasting, along with some “classic” wine pairings:
- Taleggio (pairing: Alsace Riesling)
- Stilton (pairing: Australian tawny port)
- Roquefort (pairing: Sauternes)
You may be looking at those pairings and thinking, “One of these things is not like the other.” You’d be right. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Sauternes, it’s a sweet, expensive French wine that was simply unbelievable, flavorwise. Sauternes is a “botyrized” wine, meaning that the grapes have also molded with “noble rot.” There are other, less expensive, wines made in a similar fashion. Ask your neighborhood wine person. As an alternative, an Auslese Riesling or a ruby (rather than tawny) port will work. Still, follow the link above if you want to read how that wine made our eyes roll back. Otherwise, onward:
Taleggio – A cow’s milk cheese named for Val Taleggio, the valley in Lombardy, Italy, from where this cheese hails. It’s a washed rind cheese, traditionally sponged with seawater once a week during the 6-10 week aging process. The finished product has a whitish rind like brie, but the two smell nothing alike.
I was introduced to Taleggio via one of my coworkers who simply told me, “It’s good stuff.” When I unwrapped it, I have to admit to a moment of dubiousness. There’s no better way to put it – the stuff smelled like feet. However, once I got some of it on a cracker, my opinion rapidly changed. The cheese does have an earthy funk to it, but it’s light. It’s creamy and the flavor is nicely balanced. Very tasty on its own.
Matched with the wines, the Riesling was the best pairing by far. The wine amplifies the funk and brings out some more complex flavors in the cheese itself. However, I would suggest a slightly sweeter Riesling rather than a dry one. The cheese turned the wine somewhat too sharp and metallic. Even just an off-dry Riesling would be enough to keep out the potential unpleasantness. As for the other two – well, I have in my notes, “Poor Taleggio.” Both the Sauternes and Port absolutely overwhelmed this cheese. In my opinion, this would be a great cheese to melt into risotto or some kind of pasta sauce, but on its own, you may get a bad match if you put it on your holiday cheese plate.
Stilton – Another cow’s milk cheese that you’ll find colored either white or yellow. For a cheese to be legally Stilton, it must be made in County Derbyshire, Leicestershire or Nottinghamshire, England. Interestingly, the village of Stilton is not in any of those counties, but instead in the nearby County Cambridgeshire, thus rendering it illegal to produce Stilton in Stilton, for reasons known only to British royalty. Also, Stilton must be made from pasteurized milk rather than raw. (I assume this is to prevent unwanted bacteria from growing.) Stilton is made by piercing the cheese blocks with needles, allowing air bearing the mold into the core of the cheese. Aging of the cheese takes about nine weeks.
On its own, it’s a very full-flavored cheese with a strong salty flavor. The traditional food pairing with Stilton is pears. Sure enough, the two of them meshed very well. The pear-sweetness was an excellent balance for the funky, salty cheese. The traditional wine pairing is port. It was very good. The flavors meshed nicely, and, again, the sweetness of the wine balanced the cheese. The Riesling was pleasant enough. Both experiences, though, paled next to the Stilton with the Sauternes. A little of the cheese, a pear, and the Sauternes was eye-crossingly good. However, I wasn’t trying it with $70 port, so it might not have been the fairest comparison.
Roquefort – This cheese is produced from sheep’s milk and comes from a specific region in the south of France. The particular mold that gives this cheese its particular flavor is found in the soil of nearby caves. The traditional method of making this cheeses involves leaving loaves of bread in the caves until they’re consumed by mold. The moldy bread is then ground into powder and mixed with the curd. The cheese is then aged for about five months. It’s a white cheese, crumbly, and shot through with the mold, which is usually a bright green.
The initial smell of this cheese can set you back a step, but the flavor is one of super creamy goodness. It’s very earthy and salty with a rich consistency and a buttery finish that just goes on and on. “Buttery, yummy mold in your mouth” was a comment from one of us. The Riesling and Port were only average companions for the Roquefort. Neither was particularly outstanding – but few things prepared us for the Sauternes. All of the flavors are very powerful, but they all work together. They practically rotated on our tongues, trading back and forth between the earth and the sweet. After a couple of bites, they settled down, meshing into a combination that simply demanded savoring over a long period of time. Which is exactly what we did, happily.
Friday, December 03, 2010
Robert Parker, for those of you unfamiliar, is the single most polarizing figure in the wine world. His major contribution to society is the 100-point wine rating scale that you’ve probably seen on the shelf in your local wine and spirits store.
Most wine writers, including myself, don’t care much for Parker – somewhat out of professional jealousy, really, since he came up with a good idea before the rest of us. Largely, however, because it creates a paradigm by which wine can ostensibly be judged objectively,effectively rendering our flowery prose obsolete.
An objective rating does give people permission to try new wines without fear that they’re going to get a bad bottle. A novice wine drinker will assume that the 92-point bottle that they paid a boatload for will be 92-point quality, wherever and whenever it’s opened.
Parker scores his wines at tastings. Controlled settings. Controlled pours. Controlled access. Empires rise and fall on the swirl of Parker’s stemmed glass. But does where you’re drinking wine, who you’re drinking it with and why you’re drinking it in the first place make a difference? I wanted to investigate if these factors play any part in one’s perception of a certain wine.
Honestly, I’m all for the Parker corollary of not being intimidated by a wall of wine in a store because you have at least some idea of what to expect. But is one man’s rating scale universal? Is it even worthwhile to think that way? There’s just something about the notion of one man’s palate and judgment being universal that doesn’t sit well with me.
Studying wine perceptions
In 2008, a group of scientists from the California Institute of Technology and Stanford University ran a fascinating study that hasn’t received the attention it deserves. Why? Because it turned the notion of wine and objectivity on its ear.
In the study, a group of participants were given samples of five cabernet sauvignons and informed that the wines ranged in retail price from $5 to $90. The participants were given a functional MRI brain scan while they tried the wines to see what was going on in their cerebral cortexes.
So, what’s the kicker?
The wines were not what they appeared to be. There were only three distinct wines among the five samples. Two of them were not priced at their normal retail. One was higher and one was lower than actual. What did they find?
“The results showed that increasing the price of the wine increased the participants’ subjective report of the pleasantness of the flavor. However, the MRI scans also showed a higher level of oxygen-level-dependent activity in … the medial orbitofrontal cortex.”
Since I’m not a doctor, I asked Barry Southers, head MRI instructor at the University of Cincinnati’s Advanced Medical Imaging Technology program, for a translation:
“This means the medial orbitofrontal cortex, believed to be a pleasure center of the brain, had increased brain activity (or simply, increased oxygen in the blood going to that region of the brain) when the subjects believed the wine to be more expensive. Basically, they are saying if it is more expensive, people generally feel this is a better tasting wine because the brain believes it.”
In a separate test where the participants weren’t given the prices and were simply asked to go on flavor alone, the $5 wine was rated highest. So, scientifically, marketing affects price, price affects perception and our minds bend the results of those perceptions into a reality that may not be, you know, real.
Into my own hands: a blind tasting
I was so fascinated by this study that I decided to do my own version. I invited a dozen or so of my thirsty wine-drinking friends over and set up my own little test, sans the MRI scanner.
I set out five carafes of wine, labeled A through E. All of them were red blends from Washington State of similar construction – blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. I put them into two groups.
A and B were identical wines from Renegade Wine Thieves which retail for about $40. I told people that one wine was $15 and the other $40, but I didn’t say which was which. I put C, D, and E in a group. C and E were both a $25 wine called Script and Seal. D was a red blend from Hogue Cellars that you can snag for $8 in most Kroger stores. I said the three wines were $8, $15 and $35, but again, didn’t identify which was which.
I had my guests complete a short survey after tasting the wines. Thanks to some statistical assistance from the Sweet Partner in Crime (a quantitative researcher in criminology in her other life), I ran the data.
When I asked which was most expensive in the first pair, the group split almost evenly between A and B. People’s preferences correlated. 80% of the people who said A was more expensive said they preferred it. People clearly thought there was a difference in flavor – making comments that one wine was “smoother,” “fruitier” and “more complex” than the other.
Among the three-wine grouping, the wine most frequently listed as most expensive was D – which was actually the Hogue, the least expensive of the group. Looking at the identical wines, the findings were similar to the A/B choice. People who thought C was most expensive tended to prefer it, as with E. Interestingly, 100% of the people who listed E as their first or second choice identified C (the identical wine) as the least expensive.
So, what does all this mean? Fun with perception, semi-pseudoscience and an entertaining evening aside, all my partygoers know me well enough to figure that I was probably up to something, so that may have swayed their perceptions (one survey was left blank except for “Dude, they were all the same wine!”).
Much like the difference between Miller Lite, Bud Light and Coors Light, the partygoers’ brains identified differences between identical tastes because I told them there were differences to be found. And, in most cases, people’s preferences tended to follow the wines that they thought were higher priced, and thus, higher quality. One person commented that she selected the wine she thought was most expensive because she liked it the least, which doesn’t change the substantive conclusion in the slightest (this person tends not to like “snooty” wines, so she figured the one she preferred most was the least expensive).
A change of scenery
Even though we have a scientific method for proving that perceptions are mutable, we don’t generally drink wine out of unlabeled carafes and we know what we’ve paid for a bottle we’re uncorking, more often than not.
So, what happens to the flavor and the perception if we “keep the wine constant” in different settings? I thought I’d find a decent bottle in a few different locales. I settled on Steltzner Claret, a red blend from Napa that you can score reasonably easily for around $18.
Thanks to the largesse of DCP’s dear publisher, I had the opportunity to dine at a Dayton institution, the Pine Club. As we nestled cozily into a corner table amidst the 50s décor, I felt a little like Don Draper – minus the skinny tie, multiple infidelities and ubiquitously acrid stench of Lucky Strikes.
When my bone-in filet arrived, I had a glass of Steltzner right by my side. As I made my way through the meal, the wine turned out to be an excellent, flexible pairing with everything from the perfectly-cooked steak, to the creamed spinach, to the rye salt sticks.
I realized I hadn’t paid much attention to the intricacies of the Steltzner during much of the evening. It was there and it was good, but it wasn’t the centerpiece of the meal. The Pine Club isn’t a place for lingering and tasting notes. It’s a place for boisterous conversation and the consumption of mass quantities of cow. At a dining establishment heavy on scenery and the indulging of various carnivorous fantasies – wine should be seen and not heard. It worked wonderfully.
As part of my “other life” when I’m not writing about wine, I had to attend a conference in Columbus. I eventually made it home after sitting in interstate traffic for a couple of hours. My wife was kind enough to put together dinner – roasted swordfish steaks with asparagus sautéed in butter, garlic and crystallized ginger.
Like a good wine writer, I tried to break down what I tasted in the wine. I thought the wine had more of a depth than I remembered from the Pine Club … I tasted more dark fruit. I asked myself, “Is that blackberry or currant?” Then I stopped and asked myself, “What the hell am I doing?”
Instead of the combo hustle/bustle of happy hour and an early dinner, there was quiet, there was swordfish and there was room to appreciate what I had in my glass. Yes, I was able to be more analytical, but since I had time to experience the various flavor pieces, they all stepped up and let themselves be known. The wine’s flavors were the same, but the atmosphere gave the wine a different vibe.
Merlot, he wrote…
So, as I sit here at my desk and tap out the last few lines of this little tale, remnants of a nice big glass of Steltzner sits not far from my left hand. I’ve been sipping on it while I’ve been writing this article. Drinking wine engages both taste and smell – the senses most closely tied to memory.
While I may not have my own functional MRI handy, I can guarantee that blood is rushing to memory centers in my brain. I can close my eyes and see the Pine Club’s wood paneling and hear the buzz from the bar. I can feel again how tired I was eating my swordfish and picture my wife’s sympathetic smile.
But the flavor of the wine itself as I’ve been writing? Couldn’t really tell you. I’ve just been drinking it while my attention was focused elsewhere. Stopping for a moment, I can tell you that it’s a medium-bodied blend that’s a less tannic alternative for a Napa wine. Nice full fruit with a chocolaty, coffee-filled finish. And it went really well with my evening’s dark chocolate after I finished this draft (by the way, Parker gave it an 87).
Breaking a wine into its component parts is a skill. There’s certainly a call for that sort of thing. I enjoy learning the differences between wines and being able to articulate how various flavors mesh. There’s a necessary limit, however. One can describe the wavelengths of light in a sunset as well, but why bother? A glass of wine is always as good as we believe it to be.
Thursday, December 02, 2010
Tuesday, November 30, 2010
I picked up the bottle at Vator Splash, a venture capital event in San Francisco for start-ups. They were giving away the bottles to anyone who asked, so I grabbed one for you.“The bottle” turned out to be Cannonball 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, a California blend sourcing grapes from all over the Northern California wine growing area. They say their wine, like the cannonball dive itself, “doesn't discriminate against body type, race, religion, political affiliation, social status, or fashion sense.” So, it’s built to be an approachable, affordable quaff.
I cracked it, swirled, and was greeted with a spicy, plummy nose. The wine is made to be sold in the $15 price range, and it’s nicely balanced for that price point. Many $15 Cali cabs are either tannic thunderheads or fruity messes. This one’s quite light for a cabernet, very approachable, but a little light initially. It deepens once it gets some air, so I’d probably recommend decanting. Once you do, you’ll get some soft, lasting tannins on the finish. A very easy drinking wine that goes well with meat or chocolate. Nothing amazingly out of the ordinary, but a very solid value.
Monday, November 29, 2010
Hearty congratulations to Nancy and Ron! Check them out here.
Saturday, November 27, 2010
Ah, the time of the year when big dinners, social events, and travel plans thicken on the calendar like grandma’s gravy. If you’re anything like we are, you’re always grabbing a bottle of wine or two to carry along. A few folks have asked me for wine suggestions, so I thought I’d shoot along a range for you to choose from, depending on your taste and the evening’s event.
One caveat with these recommendations, however – these are all meant to be general wines that go well with a range of dishes. They’re not supposed to be “perfect” wines, because with the wildly varied spreads that you might get at many parties, there’s no such thing. You’ll just want to look for something that falls squarely into the “good enough” category.
Friexenet Extra Dry (NV) Cava – The Swiss Army knife of sparkling wine. One of my fallbacks for years. The trademark black bottle is available just about anywhere. Light, crisp, and flavorful. I prefer the Extra Dry to the Brut. (Remember, brut is actually drier than extra dry…) The dab of residual sugar makes it a more flexible food wine. Also a fabulous mixer if you’re doing cocktails like kir, bellinis, and the like – or if you need a mimosa to start the next day.
Riondo (NV) Prosecco – Prosecco, an Italian sparkling wine, makes an absolutely perfect aperitif. Light, floral, and pleasantly tasty with flavors of pear and peaches, it’s a great way to start out any event. Also an excellent brunch wine, if you’re looking for a solid choice along those lines.
Santa Rita “120” 2009 Sauvignon Blanc – From Chile, this very light styled sauvignon has a very high acid content, so it will handle most lighter foods with ease. It’s also a pleasant, refreshing sipping wine if you’re in the need for something along those lines. Packed full of grapefruit and flowers, it’s a nice “open as needed.”
Terra di Brigante 2008 Falanghina – Sannio, the home of this tasty little number, is the province adjoining Campania, where Naples is located. A very pretty nose of green apples and peaches. Nice amount of body with some gentle acidity and a backbone of light oak. The finish is crisp and slightly oaky. Another refreshing option on its own. It holds its own with grilled pork and fish dishes, especially if lemon sauces get into the act.
Louis Jadot 2009 Beaujolais-Villages – Another wine you can absolutely rely on when you have no clue what to expect on the other side of the door. For a red wine, Beaujolais is about as flexible a wine as you’re going to find. Beaujolais can sometimes be a little watery, but the Jadot is a bit firmer than most of its counterparts. Strawberries and cherries greet you with a fair amount of acidity backing them up. Serve it slightly chilled.
Hahn 2009 Pinot Noir – I almost hesitate to put this under the “lighter red” section, since for a pinot noir, it’s pretty substantial. Most pinot noirs at this price are either watery messes or lacking in any kind of complexity. They’ve done a nice job here. Big, smoky cherry flavors in a wine that could almost, almost pass for a light-bodied zinfandel. Very approachable either right out of the bottle or next to a plate of almost anything,
Pacific Rim 2007 Columbia Valley Dry Riesling – Any time I host a meal where I know there’ll be folks who aren’t huge wine drinkers, I try to make sure that I have a couple of bottles of dry Riesling stashed away. Dry Riesling (or “trocken” if you’re in the German aisle) usually still has a little bit of sweetness to make it a crowd pleaser with many, but with enough complexity to be interesting to corkheads. The Pacific Rim is a solid bet. Plenty of orange and apple with some mineral on the finish. If you’ve got something spicy (whether Asian, Hispanic, Indian…doesn’t matter) to serve up, this wine hangs in against the heat.
La Vieille Ferme 2009 Cotes Du Ventoux Rosé – Heavier whites are tough. Chardonnay, the obvious choice, has flavors that are often too strong to be good “general” wines. I thought I’d avoid that quandary by going pink, since there are few better food pairing wines than dry rosé. Rosé works as a food wine because of the same principle as light whites – in general, wines with higher acid contents cut through food more easily. The red wine grapes that create rose give it a little more oomph than a white if you’re looking for something a little more substantial. This wine has plenty of tart cranberry and citrus flavor with a pleasant mineral backbone. Don’t fear the pink!
Charles Smith "The Velvet Devil" 2008 Merlot – Charles Smith’s wines don’t leave much to the imagination. This is a big hearty wine from a big-spirited man. Merlot is usually a good bet for reds with muscle, as it pairs equally well with heavier meats and chocolate. The Devil has a big nose of blueberries and violets. The body yields more forward blueberry flavors along with a hint of bacon. (And that's not a bad thing in the slightest.) It’s a little tart at the end with a long, nicely balanced-but-tannic finish.
Marquis Phillips 2007 Roogle Red – A tasty blend from Down Under. It’s half Shiraz. The other half is Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Petit Verdot. Another worthwhile choice for either red table wine next to steak and mushrooms, as a chocolate accompaniment, or just on its own. The wine’s nose is big and plummy with a full body of dark fruits. The finish dries out the fruit with some substantial tannin. Make sure you either give this wine time to breathe or decant it. If you don’t, your first sip will be a mouthful of tannins – but give it some room and it wakes up really well.
Have a great holiday season and be careful out there!
Thursday, November 25, 2010
[For your Thanksgiving dining pleasure, here’s the latest entry from the Naked Vine’s intrepid contributor Jeff. We here wish you and yours a wonderful holiday!]
This month’s dinner features a very nice French pinot noir combined with lamb skewers. There were a couple hiccups along the way, but we enjoyed the results. This is another dish I’m sure we’ll revisit and, if you do it right, it’s pretty easy. Most of the work can be done the day before.
- Roasted Garlic on Crackers with Cranberry Citrus Martinis
- Grilled Lamb Skewers with Garlic Yogurt Sauce
- Baked Eggplant with Feta Cheese
- Vanilla Poached Pears
- 2007 Mongeard-Magneret Bourgogne Pinot Noir
I hadn’t actually planned an appetizer, but Christine had gone to Findlay Market in the morning and picked up a roasted garlic bulb at the farmer’s market. You simply squeeze the soft garlic out of the cloves onto crackers for a tasty bite. Add in a little creamy cheese and you have a simple, but delicious first course. I dug around in the liquor cabinet and whipped up a quick and tasty cocktail – citrus vodka, triple sec, and cranberry juice cocktail martini.
Next I started the main course. I was doing fine, until I got to the part about marinating the lamb overnight. Hmmm, wish I had remembered that beforehand. As it turns out, you can put the lamb in a sealed plastic bag with the marinade and massage the meat to force the marinade into it and speed up the process. It turned out fine, but an overnight soak would undoubtedly have made the flavor more intense. The garlic yogurt was simply plain yogurt with garlic and mint folded into it. You want to make this a few hours ahead so the yogurt can take up the flavor of the garlic. This step could also be done the day beforehand. For the eggplant, I cut it into thick slabs, brushed on some olive oil and baked at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes, sprinkling feta cheese over the top for the last five minutes. The lamb cubes were taken out of the marinade and skewered with onion pieces and cooked on the grill. I cooked them for about four minutes, turned them once and then cooked them for four more minutes, and they turned out perfect. I also cooked up some rice for a side and placed the skewers on them for serving. We had already opened the wine and I poured fresh glasses for dinner.
For dessert I made poached pears. They were supposed to soak in a hot liquid until soft, soaking up all the flavors of the liquid. It was pretty simple to make the poaching liquid, but I apparently had the wrong types of pears, which didn’t soften adequately. For the record, use either bosc or Anjou pears, not bartlett. It took a long time for them to cook adequately and they were still a little on the crisp side. They were tasty, nonetheless.
So, there were a few kinks in the evening, but all in all the food turned out great. And once again, the wine was delicious and I would certainly recommend it.
Wednesday, November 24, 2010
The Naked Grape is a new line of wines from Grape Valley Wine Company in Modesto, California. They do four varietals: Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Sauvignon.
According to the press release from the winemaker, Hillary Stevens, “More and more people are looking for ways to simplify their lives…we’re happy to assist in that venture by providing wines that stay true to the fruit in the bottle and provide an utterly uncomplicated sipping experience.” The wines are also described as “easy to enjoy” and “focusing on what’s important and stripping away the rest.”
What all does this mean? Since I was sent a bottle each of the Pinot Grigio and the Pinot Noir to sample, I hoped to sort out the quote.
One thing to remember: just because a wine has a varietal name on the label, it doesn’t always mean that you’re entirely drinking what you’re thinking. For example, when a wine from California has “pinot noir” on the label, the law requires that it has to contain 75% pinot noir. However, once you get to 75%, any other grape in that 25% is fair game.
There’s nothing new about blending grapes. All French Bordeaux are blends. Wines are usually blended to enhance certain flavors or add complexity. In this case, these wines were blended in such a way to remove complexity and make the wine more straightforwardly fruity. Why would a winemaker do this?
As the press release also states, “When it comes to The Naked Grape, there are no pairing rules – all of the wines taste great alongside any type of food.” Such a statement makes me skeptical, because I can’t imagine cracking a pinot grigio with a flank steak – but uncomplicated wines do tend to make easier pairings. So, what did we think?
The Naked Grape California Pinot Noir (nonvintage) – As I mentioned, this wine is at least 75% pinot noir, but the rest of the blend is composed of Tempranillo, Grenache, and Alicante Bouchet. It’s light bodied and acidic, and there’s a considerable amount of fruit when you first take a sip. However, the flavor slammed its brakes on the back of my tongue. This wine had one of the shortest finishes I’ve ever had. There were cherry flavors along with a “bite” that reminded me a little of a Beaujolais. Uncomplicated certainly was an applicable moniker. Its uncomplicated nature served it well with food. After trying it with a bite of new potatoes with butter, salt, and parsley, the Sweet Partner in Crime stated: “You don’t find many wines that pair well with salt.” As a dinner wine, it was workable.
I understand (I think) what the winery’s trying to do. They want to make a table wine without calling it a table wine to avoid the connotation of “cheap wine.” (And it’s relatively inexpensive – it’s $9 a bottle.) But “uncomplicated table wine” is probably a better moniker. I think if they were up front about it – even putting that on the label instead of a varietal, they’d draw a more “accurate” audience.
For a relatively generic drinking experience, it’s a decent enough quaff. That said, at a $9 price point, I think I could find something a little more interesting for my palate.
[Many thanks to Marieke at Hunter Public Relations for giving me the chance to sample these wines.]
Friday, November 12, 2010
Four wines are in the queue – Hahn’s Chardonnay, Meritage, and Pinot Noir – along with Cycles Falcon Zinfandel. A pack of these wines is available at DEP’s in Ft. Thomas and Covington for $35.
On Wednesday between 7-8, taste ‘em and tweet ‘em. Want more info? Contact Kevin “K2” Keith at firstname.lastname@example.org
See you then!
Thursday, November 11, 2010
At the turn of the century – the 20th century, that is – while futurism was giving birth to dreams of flying cars and regular trips to the moon, a highly modern dining option emerged: fast food. The first fast food restaurants were called automats.
Automats were a staple of big city life until the 1950s. A customer would walk into an automat and face a wall of vending machines. Instead of Dolly Madison snack cakes and Snickers, you could score yourself a hot, usually well-prepared meal and dessert for the change in your pocket. Find something you liked, drop in a few nickels, and snag a table. Dinner.
Automats largely died in the 1950s with the rise of the suburbs, superhighways, and a pair of golden arches. In North Dayton, however, the Cork & Vine Wine Market and Lounge is resurrecting the automat concept with a delicious twist – the Wine Station.
“Basically, the Wine Station is a self-serve wine sampling system,” explained Matt Thatcher, the Cork & Vine’s director of operations, “This allows us to open some finer wines and give people the chance to try some things we ordinarily wouldn’t be able to open and offer by the glass behind the bar.”
Visually, the Wine Station is the love child of a wine fridge and a cappuccino maker. Behind one of twelve windows are bottles of wine – six white, six red. Above each window is an LCD display, indicating the price of a sample.
“You can get a 1 oz taste, a 3 oz half, or a 6 oz. full glass. A taste can range anywhere from $1.25 up to $4-5,” explained Thatcher, “Not that they’re all that expensive. We’ve got a range of things in there from a $12 bottle of Riesling to an $80 bottle of shiraz.”
The Wine Station, designed by Napa Technologies, preserves the wine and pressurizes the bottles with argon gas, creating a neutral atmosphere in which the wine won’t spoil. Hypothetically, the system can preserve a bottle of wine for 60 days after opening. To use the station, a customer would pre-load a Dave & Bustersesque “Smartcard” with an amount from $5-500. The screen displays the amount deducted for each choice.
I don’t sample $80 shiraz very often, so I inserted my card and went for a 1 oz. taste. I held my glass under the spout, pushed the button (the taste was $3.75), and with a whoosh and a gurgle, I had myself a nice little pour.
“We try to make sure things aren’t uptight here,” added Kara York, shifting her newborn in her arms as I swirled my wine. “With the area, a lot of people seem to be kind of intimidated by wine, so between the WineStation and the wine flights we offer, people really get a chance to try some new things.”
So I took a sip of this shiraz (Clarendon Hills 2004 Liandra Vineyards Shiraz if you’re curious). Seriously -- just this side of mindblowing. Imagine your palate resting on a dark chocolate Temper-pedic mattress. I’m personally glad that we didn’t know about the Wine Station during the recent wine cellar addition that the Sweet Partner in Crime and I did. The endeavor might have become a little more expensive.
From the outside, Cork and Vine is doing its best with its somewhat nondescript location, sharing a strip mall building in York Commons near the junction of I-70 & 75 with a Petland, a GameStop, and a Cincinnati Bell Store. They’ve put in an outside patio for folks to relax. Inside, however, they’ve successfully pulled off a “friendly industrial” look, with dark angular shelves, white leather couches, fireplaces, and a contemporary bar area.
In addition to the wine sampling, Cork and Vine also sells wine, as it’s linked with the Liquor and Wine Warehouse next door. “You can pull any bottle off the shelf and drink it right here with a corkage fee. [Currently $6]”
York explained that the owners saw North Dayton as fertile ground for a fine wine store. “There are a lot of people up here who want to get into wine. They’ve really discovered this place over the last year. We have a lot of local folks coming in, but we also have people that travel from a ways after they’ve heard of it. They want to learn more.”
In addition to the Wine Station, the Cork & Vine offers a full bar. While meatloaf and green beans aren’t on the menu as at the old automats, they have their own tapas-ish appetizer menu with antipasti, flatbread pizza, soup, salad, and dessert . As an additional sampling aid, they also offer a number of wine flights, also in one or three ounce pours. York said that they offer flights from big cabernets to sweet wines, “but we try to gently steer people away from white zin.We switch out the flights so that people will have something new to try every week or two.”
North Dayton’s home to any number of hotels and conference centers, so the Cork & Vine offers trolley service. Yes, an actual trolley. “It’s a pretty neat thing,” said Thatcher. “Basically, if you’ve got a group, call us up and make arrangements. If you’re within five miles of the place, we’ll pick you up, bring you here, and take you home when you’re done. A pretty convenient setup on any number of levels, you could say.”
I agreed. And went back for another whoosh and gurgle of Clarendon.
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
I really didn’t expect to spend $70 on a bottle of wine. Really.
I’m in the midst of putting together a three-part series of columns on wine and cheese, as you know. (If you’ve not read the entries on soft cheeses or hard cheeses yet, follow those links.) I was starting on the third – stinky cheeses. The Sweet Partner in Crime and I had the luxury of a rare free weekend during this crazy part of the year, so we had the opportunity to take an afternoon, relax, and gorge on wine and cheese. The cheeses we picked were Taleggio, Stilton, and Roquefort.
I have a great book, What to Drink with What You Eat, by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page. We call this our “Book of Armaments” for wine pairings. There have been a few times I’ve disagreed, but for“classic” pairings, they’re spot-on. They made some suggestions – the Taleggio called for an Italian red, which I didn’t want, so I went with Riesling; the Stilton’s classic was port; and the Roquefort – labeled in bold, all-caps, with an asterisk (translation – make sure to try before you die!) – was Sauternes.
I gulped a bit. Sauternes is a sweet, white wine made in Bordeaux from Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscadelle grapes. Because of the climate in this region of France, there’s a fungus called Botrytis cinerea (also known as “noble rot”) that attaches itself to the grapes, causing them to partially raisinate while still on the vines. There’s not nearly as much juice. An entire vine might yield enough juice for a single glass of wine. The wines taste sweet and have basic flavors of apricot, peaches, and honey.
Because the yields are so small from the concentrated juice, Sauternes and other “botrytized” wines are ridiculously expensive. A bottle of Château d'Yquem (the most famous Sauternes producer) will set you back $200+. More “pedestrian” versions can be had for around $70.
Considering the high costs, just realize this wine exists because some lazy winemaker with baskets full of moldy grapes said, “Screw it…let’s press these bad boys and see what we come up with!”
I had no intention of purchasing a Sauternes. I’d consider a bottle a ridiculous luxury, since I’m not a huge fan of dessert wine. I couldn’t imagine dropping that kind of coin on a bottle that I wouldn’t just drink. I went back to the Book of Armaments and found that Riesling & late harvest Zinfandel were acceptable with the Roquefort.
A’wine-shopping I went. Picked up Riesling and headed over to the dessert wine aisle to get a bottle of tawny port. I snagged it and happened to glance at the next rack of bottles. There they were, the Sauternes, beckoning. The lowest price was $50 for a half bottle. I must have stared at these bottles for ten minutes until the epiphany came:
“Go big or go home.”
I picked out a bottle in the middling price range. Chateau Clos Haut-Peyraguey 2001 1er Cru Classé Sauternes. 2001 was the year the Sweet Partner in Crime met yours truly, so I was hoping that would be good karma.
There are maybe a dozen bottles of wine that have left me utterly speechless. The SPinC called it an “Apricot-honey flambé.” I simply closed my eyes, slowly rolled my head side to side like Stevie Wonder, contemplating the fruity silk explosion rolling across my palate.
I expect sweet wines to be syrupy. The Sauternes was certainly thick, but because the viscosity is from glycerol (a product of the noble rot) rather than excess sugar, it’s the sheer power of the fruit flavors themselves that create the sweetness.
We were both stunned but said that we couldn’t imagine just drinking a bottle of this by itself. Along came the cheeses and assorted noshables that were to complement the cheeses & the wines. The Roquefort and the Sauternes were every bit as heavenly as I thought it would be. Roquefort is a powerful blue cheese, but the Sauternes was strong enough to hold up solidly, deepening and accentuating as the thick wine and the creamy cheese worked together as a delightfully melty experience. The port was listed a classic pairing with the Stilton, but something about the combination of the Stilton & pears with the honey of the Sauternes was one of the most unique, wonderful flavor combinations I’ve tried.
Then came the topper. The “perfect pairing” with Sauternes is foie gras, which is goose or duck liver paté. Not exactly something you can snag at Kroger, but I was able to find a substitute that was slightly less expensive and close enough. I first tried it spread on a cracker, but the flavor was cut too much – then I tried it again…just a big hunk of the paté, followed by the Sauternes. I almost fell over in delight.
The combination of those flavors – sweet, savory, salty, bitter, sour, fruit, meat, depth. Like perfectly cooked steak and cabernet, the sensation cements the fact that I can’t be a vegetarian. This pairing was nothing short of sexy, causing me to blurt out:
“Holy crap! That tastes like sex feels!”
This was a major moment of blissful exaggeration, and I’m lucky not to have received a well-placed backhand from the Sweet Partner in Crime. Seriously, it tasted naughty. Foodgasm.
Sauternes isn’t going to make my regular wine rotation anytime soon. We go through a lot of wine, and Sauternes is too delicious to be anything but savored. I also have no idea where this Sauternes ranks on the “absolute scale of Sauternes,” and I don’t care. We wrapped ourselves in unexpected decadence for a glorious evening.
Sunday, November 07, 2010
Well, I’ve had a good run with the monthly dinners, but at some point good fortune runs out. That’s pretty much what happened with this month’s entrée. I would still recommend trying this dinner and the wine was excellent. Just give yourself plenty of time and don’t get frustrated, like I did.
- Chesapeake Bay Classic Crab Cakes with Smoked Gouda Béchamel
- Steamed Asparagus and roasted sautéed red potatoes
- Pumpkin Cake with Apple Cider Glaze
2007 Lily Chardonnay
First, a little context. Due to Christine’s travel and some of our other commitments the only night available to make the October meal was Sunday, October 31. This was Halloween, and in our neighborhood that means about 300 kids traipsing by our house between 6 and 8 pm. I didn’t want to wait until afterwards for dinner, so I decided to make it beforehand. This put me under a little time pressure. The shrimp cocktail was easy enough. I just boiled fresh, deveined shrimp for about three minutes and then removed the shells. I put some ice in Margarita glasses with cocktail sauce and arranged the shrimp on the rim of the glass for a nice presentation.
On to the crab cakes, where my troubles began. The recipe was easy enough to follow, but I did not do a good enough job emulsifying the oil in the mayonnaise to keep the crab meat together so when I drenched them in the bread crumbs, they just fell apart. I got a little (okay, a lot) frustrated and finally just mixed the crab meat and bread crumbs all together like a loaf. The result was that, instead of a nice bread coating on the outside of the cakes, there was about four times as much bread crumbs as necessary mixed all the way through the cakes. I also had to add another egg to keep the cakes “glued” together. The result of course was cakes that were dry and a little tasteless, though they did look okay. However, the smoked Gouda béchamel turned out well and was particularly good on the asparagus, which I steamed. The potatoes I boiled whole for about 10 minutes and then sliced and sautéed them in olive oil with dried rosemary. One other issue I encountered was timing everything to be ready at the same time, and I think I used every pot, dish and inch of counter space in our kitchen, as you can see from the picture.
The dessert actually worked out well and was super easy. Just mix a can of pureed pumpkin with a box of yellow cake mix and bake. That’s right, just those two ingredients. No eggs, no milk, no water, nada. Once it is cool, mix up the glaze and drizzle over the cake. Both Christine and I were amazed how moist it was without any extra liquid or eggs. Enjoy, and we’ll see if things turn out better next month.
Thursday, November 04, 2010
Last time, we looked at where cheese comes from and looked at a few soft cheeses. I thought we did a pretty decent job of reviewing the cheeses, but my Uncle Alan is a big fan of Brie de Meaux – which I panned. As he put it, “Grasshopper, you have learned much about the grape, however your understanding of the mysteries of God's other great gift is f’d up.”
He may be right, and he’s got free rein to put together his brie recommendations in this space. (Seriously.) Still, it takes different strokes to move the world, yes it does, and as I’ve always said, let your palate be your guide.
This time around, we’ll look at some hard cheeses. As we discussed last time, the basic process of cheesemaking is to allow milk to sour and curdle, allowing the solids to settle out into curds, leaving the liquid whey behind. The curds are then pressed into balls, blocks, or logs; the whey is drained off; and you’ve got cheese.
A cheesemaker will sometimes add a complex of enzymes called rennet to the curdling milk. Rennet can be found in the stomach of any mammal. It greatly speeds up the coagulation of the solids in milk, allowing the body to begin working on digesting the proteins and fats. The rennet added to cheese is normally harvested from the stomachs of kid goats or cow calves.
When rennet is added to a batch of curds and whey, the curds form more quickly and more tightly. The whey is then drained away and the curds are put into molds for pressing to extract more water. When the water is gone, the bacteria still in the cheese actually act as a preservative, allowing aging. As a cheese ages, the flavors gain complexity.
We looked at a range of cheeses from semi-firm to hard. Again, we tried to pair with wines that were suggested as “classic pairings.” For this tasting, the Sweet Partner in Crime and I invited our friend, The Hanging Chad, to assist us with our tastings. Our cheese board:
- Mild cheddar (pairing: oaky California Chardonnay)
- Sharp cheddar (pairing: young California Cabernet Sauvignon)
- Gruyère (pairing: French extra dry sparkling wine)
- Parmesan (pairing: Super Tuscan – blend of sangiovese and merlot)
Let’s get it started:
Cheddars: Not to be confused with the TGIFridays-esque restaurant chain – cheddar is one of the more ubitquitous cheeses. It was originally made in England in the town of…wait for it…Cheddar. Cheddar Cheese differs from many other forms of cheese because of the “cheddaring” process, in which the curd is kneaded with salt and then sliced into large blocks, which are left to age anywhere from a few weeks to a few years.
In general, the longer the aging, the sharper the Cheddar. Mild cheddar is usually only aged for a couple of months, while sharp cheddar can be aged for over a decade.
Do not confuse actual cheddar cheese with various “cheese foods” like Easy Cheese (“Fromage Facile” if you want to be hoity toity) labeled with the name. Cheddar cheese has a somewhat pungent flavor which gets amplified as the cheese ages. Cheddar cheese is normally either white or very pale yellow. Those bright yellow cheeses you see all have additives – usually annatto or paprika
Starting with the mild cheddar, which just tasted like…well…cheese, the addition of the chardonnay was a good one. The wine brought out the full flavor of the cheese, which includes some smokiness. The smokiness was mellowed with some cream and the fruit emerged in the wine. The two went well together. The cabernet was also a pretty good pairing. The flavors were certainly complementary, but in a more full way. The sparkling wine was just OK. As Chad said, “The sweet dullness of the cheese thumps through the bubbly, but doesn’t do much else.” As for the Super Tuscan – it tastes like one of those “wine/cheese balls” you can get. Not particularly interesting.
The sharp cheddar with the cabernet was a mixed bag among us. I really liked it. I thought it made the flavors meld pleasantly, while both Chad and the SPinC thought it was considerably worse than the mild cheddar and cabernet. The chardonnay simply made the cheese and wine go “flat.” It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t much of anything else. The bubbly made a combination that was much too pungent. As for the Super Tuscan, it amplified everything. Or, as the Chad cribbed, “Too much tang in the ting tang, too much zing in the zing zang.”
Gruyère: Gruyère is a hard cheese made from cow’s milk. Gruyère originated in Switzerland. Interestingly, Swiss Gruyère is a solid cheese, while French Gruyère is governmentally mandated to have holes. (The cheese from Switzerland that traditionally has holes is Emmental.) After Gruyère is pressed, it’s brined and then ripened at room temperature from two months. It’s then cured for between 3-10 months. It’s often used in cooking, as its flavor typically amplifies flavors in foods without overpowering them. It does have a somewhat distinct “funk,” which adds an earthiness to food.
With the sparkling wine, the cheese gave up the noise and gave up the funk. The flavors all blended nicely. Or, as Chad so nicely put it: “It made a great cheese sauce in my mouth.” With both the Chardonnay and Cabernet, the experience wasn’t as good. We all thought the Chardonnay clashed badly. I noted that it was an “absolute waste of alcohol” to mix these two, and I thought that the cabernet forced the cheese to submissively go belly up on my palate. Similar comments came from Chad and the SPinC, but mine were funniest. With the Super Tuscan, we all agreed that it was ok but unspectacular. About as neutral a pairing as you could find.
Parmesan: Parmigiano-Reggiano is actually the name of this cheese, if you want to be most accurate. Parmesan is the French bastardization of the word, but has come to mean most Italian-style hard cheeses that are cooked rather than pressed. Cooked? When this cheese is made, once the rennet is added and the curds have dropped out, the temperature of the vat in which this occurs is raised to about 130 degrees, further speeding up the curdling process. The curds are then drained, heavily pressed, and put in a brine bath for about three weeks. After brining, the cheese is aged for 10-36 months before it is deemed ready for consumption…and we consumed it.
With the recommended Super Tuscan, we thought it was OK, but not fabulous The strong flavors in both meshed reasonably well, but it didn’t blow any of us away. With the Chardonnay, the SPinC simply said, “Clash. Ugh.” Chad and I concurred. The Cabernet was too sharp. Chad found it particularly problematic, saying that his mouth was on “dessicative fire.” The bubbly didn’t work, either. The flavors seemed to fight. Bottom line, it’s great with pasta or in various foods, and drizzled with balsamic vinegar it’s pretty good – but find another cheese for board purposes.
Next time, we conclude with the stinky cheeses.
Sunday, October 17, 2010
(Note: This series goes out to Dr. Randa. Here’s your daggone wine & cheese column…)
Wine and cheese are inextricably linked. Both are the delicious products of well-managed fermentation. Both can be found at almost any gathering where noshables are present. And there are darned near endless varieties of each.
(The two are also at the core of one of my favorite sports quotes of all time. The immortal Sam Cassell called the assembled at UNC-CH’s Dean Dome a “cheese and wine crowd” during his Florida State days. It’s an apt descriptor of the usual level of crowd noise there.)
An important note of irony – as much as we think of wine and cheese going hand in hand, it’s exceedingly difficult to “perfectly” pair wine and cheese. There’s so much variation in individual wines and cheeses that it’s nearly impossible to say with confidence, “This type of wine always works with this type of cheese.” This difficulty gets compounded when you have multiple cheeses with a wine. Still, in the name of science, let’s press on.
There’s a basic process in most cheese production. Milk is allowed to ferment (sour) at room temperature. Certain kinds of mold and bacteria can be added during the fermenting process to impart more distinct flavors. The milk then separates into solid curds and liquid whey. The whey is drained off, the curds are pressed and often salted, and there you have it -- cheese. (Specifically, at this point, it’s cottage cheese – which was Little Miss Muffett’s “Curds and Whey.”)
For firmer cheeses, an enzyme called rennet is added to the fermenting milk. This accelerates the curd separation process. The curds are then often cut into small cubes and pressed into balls or logs. Soft cheeses stop here. Harder cheeses are pressed into molds and squeezed tightly, forcing out more of the whey and creating a firmer, drier product. This, in turn, allows the cheese to cure for a longer period of time. The harder the block, the longer a cheese can age.
Cheese can be classified in any number of ways – by location (much as many wines are); by texture; by flavor; by price; and so on. For our purposes, I’m going to use a three part classification: soft cheese, hard cheese, and stinky cheese. I’ll pick some cheeses for each category that you should be able to find without too much difficulty, along with what is normally considered the “classic wine pairing” for each. Just for fun, we’ll try each cheese and each wine together. Let’s start with soft cheeses. We chose these three:
- Fresh mozzarella (pairing: Chianti)
- Brie (pairing: extra dry sparkling wine)
- Chevre (pairing: Sancerre)
For information’s sake, Sancerre is a delicious, minerally sauvignon blanc from the Loire in France. It’s a little on the pricey side, but I was in the mood to splurge for this experiment. You could substitute a less expensive French sauvignon if you wanted. Extra dry sparkling wine usually works better than brut in my experience. The Chianti should be young. Aged Chianti will lose its complexity. How did things work out?
Fresh Mozzarella – While Mozzarella can be made from cow milk, it’s traditionally made from the milk of the domesticated water buffalo. Until I met the SPinC, I thought you only found mozzarella in baked pastas and on pizzas. I was used to seeing it shredded, imprisoned in a plastic bag instead of fresh, capable of being eaten alone. It’s a “clean” tasting cheese – which is to say that it doesn’t have much of a flavor in and of itself other than “milky and slightly granular.” With the Chianti alongside, it was OK. The cheese calmed the acidity of the wine a bit. It was decent but lacked something, so we ended up making little sandwiches with bread dipped in balsamic vinegar and olive oil, some fresh basil, and hard sausage. (Basically, we used all the things Chianti tastes good with.) It didn’t disappoint. With the sparkling wine, the yeasty flavor of the sparkler came out, but it wasn’t all that interesting. The Sancerre showed as far too acidic. There wasn’t enough flavor in the cheese to balance the wine and the gentle flavor of the wine got lost. Recommendation: mozzarella is a much stronger complimentary player. Consider serving it Caprese salad-style – with basil, tomatoes, and really good balsamic vinegar – instead of just by itself. Stick with Italian reds if you want to pair it.
Brie – The best known soft “party platter” cheese. You’ll usually see this cow’s milk cheese with a white rind, which is the product of the addition of rennet to the curd. The rind is edible if you’re so inclined. The cheese has a lasting, creamy, buttery flavor with a little bit of funk to it. Sparkling wine is the recommended pairing. The bubbles cut the fat & funk and mellow the flavor of the cheese. It’s pleasant. The Sancerre makes the cheese more funky, and the complexity of the wine is completely lost. The Chianti was a disaster. The chalkiness and acidity of the Chianti was as complementary towards the cheese as your average Kentucky basketball fan is towards Christian Laettner. Recommendation: like you need another excuse to bust out a bottle of bubbly.
I made an initial bobble with the brie. I initially bought a chunk of “Brie de Meaux,” an aged brie. When brie is aged, it gets very strong flavors – including ammonia (which is created in the fermentation process.) It’s supposed to be good soaked in café au lait, but I’m not that brave. It was disastrous with all the wines. Stick with the cheaper brie. Brie de Meaux…Neaux.
Chevre – Chevre is French for “goat.” Goat cheese has a tarter flavor than most cow’s milk cheeses because of the makeup of the milk itself (which is actually close to human milk). It often reminds me of buttercream frosting in consistency. There’s a little funkiness to it, but it’s largely a smooth, creamy experience. Sancerre is the pairing here for good reason. There’s something about the makeup of the two together. Fruit, creaminess, tartness, minerality – all balanced and working together as a heavenly, fluidly balanced combination. While there may be no “perfect” pairings, this is close. The sparkling wine was interesting. The thick buttery consistency initially gets stripped away by the bubbles and a blast of minerality & yeast, leaving sweetness and cream behind. An interesting, lively combination. As for the Chianti, my first comment was, “That’s really kinda nice!” An acidic vs. buttery contrast, but still pretty decadent. Recommendation: If you’re doing a soft cheese on a platter and you don’t know what kinds of wine you’ll have, you can’t go wrong with chevre. Easily the most interesting, wine friendly cheese that we had.
Next up – hard cheeses.
Sunday, October 03, 2010
“Do you like dogs?”
The Sweet Partner in Crime and I had been dating for a few weeks when she invited me to swing by her place for some food and a glass or three of wine. My family had had dogs while I was growing up, although my sister was much more interested in them. I like pooches, though, and since I had some obvious ulterior motives, I answered in the affirmative. She continued:
“Well, I’ve got two of them, and they’re pretty big.”
Yeah, yeah – so what? Big dogs? I can handle big dogs. I came to the front door, knocked, and heard them bark. The Sweet Partner opened the door and my life changed forever. Before I could take a step, I was nearly bowled over by 70 pounds of fast moving black fur. Paws to chest, face to face, and major greeting kisses. A relationship was born. The SPinC eventually warmed up to me, too…
(Side note: I was also bowled over by Jessie Red, who had no less of an impact…)
The SPinC got Mooch from the county animal shelter when he was a few months old. He’d been turned in twice, so finding my sweetie probably saved Mooch from an early dirt nap. He was a handful -- willful, listened when he felt like it, and always on the prowl for some kind of mischief. (As the SPinC said recently, “A quarter of the words I said to him were “NO, MOOCH!”) He was an unrepentantly bad boy who had a sense of duty and honor that would draw salutes from many Marines. He saw his life’s purpose in perimeter patrol wherever he found himself, protecting all in his sight from the hellborn threat of cats and squirrels.
Mooch didn’t look like any other dog I’d seen. He was a strikingly handsome mutt – the neighborhood bitches couldn’t get enough of him. Some posited that he might have had some golden retriever blood, but we didn’t buy that. Retrieving wasn’t his thing. But if a cat found its way into the yard? Mayhem. Mooch knew trigonometry. When he chased a cat, he’d run them towards the highest fence in the backyard. The critter would invariably try to jump the fence and end up sliding back down. Mooch was ready. When the cat hit the fence, rather than follow, he immediately calculated the precise end of the cat’s unfortunate parabola – and he’d run straight to that spot and wait, mouth open. We figured him for a German shepherd/Australian shepherd mix. Where the jet black came from? Anybody’s guess.
He earned his name with his somewhat unconventional yen for people food. Our kitchen needed constant Moochproofing. We like good food, and Mooch developed a refined palate. Mooch would turn his nose up at table scraps. He wouldn’t eat fat cut trimmed from any kind of beef or pork. Ham held little interest for him. But bring seafood anywhere within a block of the homestead, Mooch goes nuts. Salmon skin was his closest touch of heaven. We could never get him to stop playing our heartstrings for fish. (And it occasionally worked.)
Anything on the counter was fair game. I diced some tofu for a stir fry, left the room for a second, and came back to the sight of Mooch, both paws on the counter, face down, going to town on a pile of soy protein. I also have clear memories of watching Mooch effortlessly snag a roast beef sandwich from the unsuspecting hand of my father (an easy target for such subterfuge).
The Sweet Partner and I usually end our day with some two-bite brownies and some good red wine. We really enjoy them – you know who else does? Mooch. We made the mistake of leaving some of these brownies on top of the sofa. This was in Mooch’s older days when he wasn’t getting around very well. He’d not climbed any of the furniture in several years. This time, though, we came back to an empty brownie container and an old dog with a new craving after he answered the brownies’ siren song.
I always joked with the SPinC that her adoption of Mooch paved the way for my entry into the family. When you get right down to it, Mooch and I were a lot alike. We’re both somewhat obnoxiously alpha, a bit twitchy, always keeping eyes out for a million things, and with attention spans that a fish can put to shame. We also try to make sure everyone’s safe, show a great deal of passion, love fiercely, and will do just about anything for a good scritch. Mooch was the first dog that I ever really understood. He was the one who made me really understand what a “dog person” was. I think we ended up training each other.
We put Mooch to rest a few weeks ago. His first, well-deserved break after fifteen years of constantly protecting the family. We buried his ashes in the patch of hostas where he used to love to flop while we were on our patio. (We’d also been keeping his big sister’s ashes, but we decided to put the two of them together. They’d always been inseparable.)
Mooch was the Sweet Boy and the Smoocher -- the eternally mobile speed bump in the kitchen. He greeted us every morning with bright eyes and furiously wagging, blackflowing tail that looked like it could have been on one of the squirrels he kept away. He always appreciated the chance the Sweet Partner gave him to show that he’d be a good part of a family. Just as I appreciated being a part of Mooch’s life. He taught me so much.
I was lucky enough to be scratching him behind the ears when he passed from our world.
Goodnight, sweet prince. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
Bad Dog Ranch 2005 Petit Sirah – A pretty easy call to look at this wine. Big nose of prune and cedar. Lots of dark fruit on the palate, but the flavor slides away a little quickly. Interestingly, the fruit returns on the finish along with some very solid but well-balanced tannins. A solid value petit sirah.
Boekenhoutskloof 2009 “The Wolftrap” Red Blend – Who knows? Maybe Mooch was part wolf? This red blend is from South Africa. Made up of syrah and mourvedre, with a little viognier thrown in for good measure. It has an unexpectedly vanillaish nose and was quite tart initially. Although it was lighter bodied and more acidic than I expected, this wine went exceptionally well with the aforementioned two-bite brownies.
Magnificent Wine 2008 “Fish House” Columbia Valley Sauvignon Blanc. We raised a glass of this to him over a pot of shrimp, mussel, & asparagus risotto. The wine went perfectly with the meal, but we would have had a difficult time eating this if Mooch had been around. He’d have been at the table, smiling broadly, asking for a bowl of his own.