Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Guest Column -- Wine and Dinner of the Month Club – June 2010

Another mouthwatering entry from Jeff, halfway through his gift to Christine the Pie Queen…

The wine this month was a very nice Beaujolais paired with a recipe suggested by Mike at TNV. I put together a small cheese plate for an appetizer and a very simple, fruity dessert perfect for the warmer months. You may remember that last month we had Thai grilled chicken. This month we are sticking with the Asian theme. Enjoy.

Assorted Cheese and Fruit Plate

Thai Grilled Beef Salad

Mango and Melon Dessert

Henry Fesse 2007 Moulin-a-Vin Beaujolais

I started by making the mango puree for the dessert and putting it in the refrigerator to chill. I then opened the wine and had a brief panic when the cork broke in half while still in the bottle. I figured that couldn’t be a good sign, but I was able to get the rest of the cork out and found finding the bottom of it wet and the wine just fine. The wine had good fruit with a nice soft finish and not a lot of tannin. It went great with the appetizer and the main course.

Next, I got to work on the cheese plate. I set out some grapes, sliced pears, and bread as well as three different cheeses that I picked up at our local Kroger: brie, boucheron, and morbier. They were in that order as far as pungency. The brie was creamy and smooth while the boucheron, a goat’s milk cheese, was a little more pungent but very tasty. The morbier was even more pungent – so much so that we couldn’t even eat it. I told Christine it smelled like feet. She said she didn’t mind that because she loves stinky cheese. But after smelling it, she described it as something dead and rotting in the ocean. I think we finally agreed that it smelled like feet, if you wrapped the feet in a dead jellyfish and let it sit in the sun on the beach for a week. In retrospect, perhaps we got a bad block of cheese, so we just stuck with the two other cheeses and the fruit and it all went very well with the wine.


After the appetizer, I started preparing the main course and side dish. I prepared the beef for the grill and, at Christine’s suggestion, put some sliced zucchini in a foil packet with some olive oil, graded ginger and garlic. I also threw in some seasoning – Trade Joe’s 21 Seasoning Salute to be exact – which added a nice zing. I wasn’t going to make the zucchini, but we had it to use and Christine is always pushing the healthy stuff on me. I put the beef and zucchini on the grill and prepared the rest of the salad ingredients, including some shredded mint from our backyard. After six minutes I turned the beef, let it cook for another six minutes, and then took it and the zucchini off the grill. I sliced the beef and added it to the other ingredients in the salad. I plated it up and we sat down to dinner. The wine went very well with the myriad of flavors in the salad and we finished the bottle. (Note from Christine: This was one of my most favorite meals so far – try it!)


After the main course, we took a little break and Christine relaxed by the pond while I cleaned up and prepared the dessert. I put some of the pureed mango in stemmed glasses and added watermelon balls with a sprig of mint for garnish. The dessert was cool, light and refreshing - a perfect ending to another great meal.


Here’s a quick preview of next month. I’ll be doing barbecued pork ribs to go with a zinfandel, and I might just have a recipe from a special guest contributor to this guest contributor. Check in and see how it turns out.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Sweetly Logical Fallacy

When I do wine tastings, a lot of people say, “I don’t like dry wines – I only like sweet wines.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with liking sweet wine. A person’s taste is…well…personal. However, the notion of a wine as either “dry” or “sweet” is little more than a logical fallacy – the same fallacy used so effectively by certain political parties: the false dichotomy.

In case you haven’t taken a philosophy class lately, a false dichotomy is presenting two alternatives as an either-or choice, even though other alternatives exist. “You’re either with us or against us” is a classic example, because rarely are things that clear cut. (Unless you’re a Teabagger …)

Yes, one can think of “dry” and “sweet” as the ends of a range, but using “dry” and “sweet” as the way to describe a wine is a false choice. Why? Because not only are there countless shades of gray in between the two, but there are also other ranges that play into wine’s flavor that get lumped into “dry” or “sweet” – so one can’t simply isolate the level of sugar and call it a description.

When most people start learning about wine, they gravitate towards the varietals they’ve heard people talk about over and over: cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, white zinfandel. For many, the first experience with red wine is with big ol’ California cabs, and the high level of tannins isn’t an easy thing to deal with initially. So, after what probably wasn’t a pleasant experience, they ask someone about the wine and get “Oh, red wines are dry wines. That’s why they taste so strong.”

There’s a similar effect with chardonnay, especially California chardonnay. A mouthful of butter-covered charcoal can be a rough start. (Yes, oaky chardonnays are tannic whites.) They hear, “Yep. Chardonnay. That’s a dry white wine.” Our poor newbie then turns to the bottle of Beringer White Zin. It tastes sweet and easy to drink (and brings back memories of high school Boone’s Farm adventures) – so they stick with pink syrup and now have a prejudice against a huge slice of the wine world.

Seriously, think about how bitter your first espresso was. Coffee’s bitterness also comes from tannins. (Mine was in a coffee shop in the Mission District of San Francisco. Took me 45 minutes to drink the damned thing…and it wasn’t exactly enjoyable.) While the bitterness of tannin can have a “drying” effect – it’s not what makes a wine “dry.” A wine’s dryness or sweetness comes from sugar, not tannin.

Think about how wine is made. As I’ve mentioned before, when yeast is added to the grape’s juice, the yeast eats the sugar, farts carbon dioxide, and pisses alcohol (until it dies of either starvation or alcohol poisoning). If the yeast consumes all of the sugar in a vat of juice, the wine is totally dry. When a winemaker stops the fermentation before all the sugar is consumed, what’s left over is the residual sugar. The more residual sugar, the greater the level of sweetness. If you’re looking at the specs on a bottle of wine, the amount of residual sugar is either presented as a percentage or in grams per liter. (Take g/l, divide by 10, and stick a % on the end if you want to convert.) Dry wines will be under 1% residual sugar, if they have any at all. Off-dry wines will be between 1-5%. Sweet wines will be 5% and up. Also, the higher the residual sugar, in general, the lower the alcohol content.

Why would a winemaker leave residual sugar in a wine? A winemaker worth his or her salt strives for balance in wine. The balance of dry and sweet is an important factor. Too much sugar and the sweetness overwhelm everything else. Not enough and other flavors can take over, rendering a wine unpleasant. The balance for sweetness is acidity. To keep a sweeter wine balanced, the acid level needs to go up. Too little acid and too much sugar makes for a white zinfandelish experience.

As for red wines, “dry” and “sweet” don’t really apply, since there are very few “sweet” reds. Most red wines contain virtually no residual sugar. If you’re describing a red, you’re going to be more interested in the level of tannin than the sweetness, so there’s not really a complement to the “dry” of tannin – other than “not tannic.”

(There’s also another reason why winemakers leave residual sugar. There’s an old saying: “A little sugar covers a lot of flaws.” These winemakers are either unlucky or lazy.)

But let’s get back to the whole dry/sweet question. Stepping outside the world of White Zinfandel, word association with “sweet wine” usually lands on Riesling. If we just want to look at the real difference between sweet and dry, white wine is the easiest place to get an illustration – Riesling especially. While the fruit and other flavor characteristics are certainly varied, let’s just focus on the sugar levels for now. I looked at three Rieslings.:

  • Pierre Sparr 2008 Riesling Alsace (bone dry)
  • D’Arenberg 2007 “The Dry Dam” Riesling (off-dry)
  • Mönchof 2006 Estate Riesling QbA (sweet)

If you decide to try these side-by-side-by side, start with the driest and work your way to the sweetest. Pour, swirl, and sip. The differences will literally leap out of the glass at you.

First, the Pierre Sparr. A lot of folks have “tooth achingly sweet” as their mental reference for Riesling. A sip of this will throw that notion out the window. There’s almost no sweetness to this wine at all. There’s plenty of fruit and a little bit of a mineral finish, but the yeast has done its work here. This is common with Rieslings (and most other whites) from Alsace. The general wine style is very dry. Residual Sugar – basically none.

Secondly, try the D’Arenberg. This is a good example of a wine that’s “off-dry,” which means that there’s a little bit of residual sugar as a balancing agent for the other flavors. In this case, the D’Arenberg is a fairly acidic wine, so a little residual sugar tames the tart “bite” that acidic wines often have. The sugar is more of an honey undertone than sweetness right up in your face. Residual sugar – 1.1%

Finally, the Mönchof. You could certainly class this one as a sweet wine. The residual sugar level is about 5%, which also yields a lower-alcohol wine. The acid level is similar to the D’Arenberg – but the acid in this case prevents the wine from becoming syrupy. If you want a general idea of the level of sweetness and flavor, think baked apples with a little less sugar. It’s still reasonably well-balanced and quite pleasant. (And, at under 10% alcohol, you could almost have it for breakfast.)

To go back to the beginning, to help someone transition away from the world of Black Tower, Beringer, and other such syrups, I’ll usually slide something along the lines of the D’Arenberg or a friendly sauvignon blanc. I might then let them try a merlot or zinfandel if they’re willing to go red. Once they’ve made that transition, it’s a quick jump to broadening the horizons – which is the point of trying new wines, after all…

Monday, June 21, 2010

Cherries Jubilee II – Electric Boogaloo

Some of you may remember the happiness that was our “Cherries Jubilee” dinner. As a refresher, the Sweet Partner in Crime and I were lucky enough to inherit a couple of cherry trees when we bought our house. These trees produced absolutely delicious pie cherries year after year. The previous owners of the house never picked the cherries, apparently. One of our cross-alley neighbors told us that her mother used to look out from the back porch and bemoan the fact that “all of those beautiful cherries are going to waste.”

Well, we certainly weren’t going to let that happen again.

Unfortunately, last year, one of the two cherry trees bit the dust. Whether it was lingering effects from the drought a few years back, disease, or that it was just its time, we had to take the old boy down, leaving one very misshapen tree.

Enter Christine the Pie Queen, her husband Jeff (whom you know from the “dinner of the month” guest column series), and a couple of their friends from Wisconsin – who just happened to own an orchard. The orchard owners agreed to come over last winter and do some tree surgery, pruning the remaining tree into a shape where it might have a change for survival. We held our breath and waited for spring.

The tree apparently survived and enjoyed its “haircut” – this year, the tree was not only extremely healthy, but produced an embarrassment of riches cherry-wise. We gave quarts and quarts away, but not before keeping enough to do another cherry dinner with Jeff & Christine.

We started with Jeff’s ”cherry cocktails.” We were a bit skeptical at first, but this mélange of citrus vodka and cava, garnished with bourbon-soaked cherries was also delightfully refreshing. This was served with an amuse-bouche of pesto-stuffed mushrooms. (Yeah, one dish without cherries…so it goes.) We lingered over these tasties for awhile before heading to the dinner table.

The Sweet Partner in Crime followed up with a fresh arugula salad with apples, toasted walnuts, goat cheese and dried cherries. We opened a bottle of Villa Maria 2008 Riesling from New Zealand to go alongside. The Riesling brought a little sweetness to set off the bitterness of the greens and the tartness of the cherries. Needless to say…yum.

We took a pause here for a palate cleanser. Christine had done a tart cherry granita, a wonderfully refreshing little palate awakener – and perfect for an evening with temperatures in the nineties.

The entrée – well, there are few things in the world that go better with cherries than duck, so we decided to prepare a quacking good course. Duck breasts with shallot and dried cherry sauce over saffron rice pilaf. We paired this with the Casa Marin 2006 Litoral Vineyard Pinot Noir. Considering the noises of sheer yummitude coming from around the table, I think the whole shebang ended up tasting pretty good. As a general rule, almost any kind of food that incorporates cherry flavors will be good with pinot noir, especially good pinot noir.

Finally, whatever sacrifices Christine made to the Pie Goddess were obviously warmly accepted, because the confection she put together was one of her best. Cherry pie. Plain and simple. And just about perfect. Alongside, a delectable dessert wine: Dashe 2007 Late Harvest Zinfandel. Neither pie nor wine lasted very long, and I opened a Frangipani 2004 Late Harvest Zinfandel to finish off the evening. It was good, but it wasn’t nearly as tasty as the Dashe. Still, by that point in the evening, going with something that didn’t require too much thought (considering our collective level of cognitive function by this point) was probably the best strategic move.

All in all, cherry-covered decadence and delightful anticipation for next year…

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Fraud, Wine, Porn, Cash.

Some of you may remember the piece I wrote a bit ago about the wines of adult film actress Savanna Samson. Savanna was goodly enough to give me a chance to interview her. I didn't, however, find her wines particularly good -- which put me at odds with Robert Parker. Parker's 90+ score on her first wine gave her instant street cred in the wine world.

Fast forward a bit. Vine reader (and Phi Kappa Sigma fraternity brother) Nate L. forwarded me this article from Slate about the sale of high-end counterfeit wine. This article intertwines with the central story in the excellent read "The Billionaire's Vinegar." (This is a must read for wine aficionados and history buffs alike.)

In any case, one of the first names in the article is Daniel Oliveros, which sounded very familiar to me for some reason. I should have known it immediately -- but that's Savanna Samson's husband (her married name is Natalie Oliveros), and this little conspiratorial exercise in selling fake wine involved not only Oliveros, but Parker as well.

I don't want to cast too many aspersions here -- and I don't want to engage to fully in the sort of guilt-by-association stuff that so many other folks use as "journalism," but I've learned enough to know that the world of high wine Illuminati is a very small one.

Savanna's wine was an Italian red. According to her, Parker was tasting Chateauneuf-de-Pape at the time and happened to agree to give Savanna's wine a taste while he was in the midst of going through that spread. It seems quite the lucky coincidence that Savanna a) was able to squeeze her wine into this tasting, even though it was unrelated and b) that she just happened to be in the same place to garner such high praise from Parker.

I've got no problem with someone using his or her connections. This is a world of shameless self-promotion, after all -- but, at least in my mind, this calls into question a lot of the "objectivity" of the folks who move the wine world with a swirl of a glass.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Juice Box Wines

I’ve written a couple of times before about box wines. Many of them are excellent values for everyday drinking. The only drawback to them is that they tend to be…well…boxy. The usual size of these is three liters, which is the equivalent of four bottles. The packaging is ingenious, since it’s basically airtight and wines will last a long time, especially while refrigerated.

One drawback, however -- while that size is handy to have around the house, it’s not particularly portable. Smaller versions have been popping up in some stores. J-Mac (not to be confused with J-Woww), one of the Vine’s regular readers, suggested: “It's summer, buy a couple of those "juice boxes," and have a picnic…” Not a bad idea!

The smaller versions come most frequently in one-liter containers, so there's an extra glass or so per carton compared to a regular bottle. You also can find them in 500 ml or 250 ml sizes, so they do start to approach the size of a Capri Sun. If you've got kids and you buy some of these, make sure you check closely when packing lunch. I’m not sure how well pinot grigio pairs with 4th grade civics.

These packages are also considerably lighter than glass bottles, so they make much more sense when you’re heading out to the local park, woods, levee, or anywhere else you may want to spread a blanket and enjoy some good company. In Europe, winemakers have been putting out this kind of smaller packaging for years, but it’s yet to catch on in the U.S. (although I think that will probably change in the future).

I headed to the local beverage superstore and picked out a few of these to sample. Here’s what I came home with:

Three Thieves "Bandit" 2008 California Pinot Grigio -- not half bad. Pleasantly peachy nose. Fairly substantial for a pinot grigio. Some weight to the palate with apple and peach flavors. A little bit of residual sugar, clearly. The finish is fruity and slightly sweet. It's not as acidic or tart as many pinot grigios, but I don't think that's the idea here. The purpose is clearly to create a wine that is food-friendly and inoffensive. Success recorded. For $5-8 a liter, an excellent value, especially when you're comparing it to other bottles of pinot grigio in the $4-6 range. It blows those away.

Vendange "Tetra Pak" (NV) California Chardonnay -- There's a saying I've heard somewhere in my travels: "A little bit of sugar covers a whole lot of flaws." This Vendange is a lovely illustration of just that. Since it's inexpensive California chardonnay, I expected either a load of oak or cream, with some fruit. I was one for three. Very little, if any, oak. No butter. Some pear flavors, but the nose is odd, and there's a residual sweetness that's probably there to cover the fact that, well, not a lot of care went into the making of this wine. It's leftover juice, fermented, sweetened a bit, and packed up to sell at about six bucks a liter. After a glass, my stomach hurt a bit. Give it a pass unless you're making spritzers.

French Rabbit 2004 Vin de Pays d'Oc Pinot Noir -- I'll admit I was looking forward to a portable pinot. I didn't have high expectations, of course. I just hoped for a light, food-friendly red that I'd be able to put a little bit of a chill on and slug on. Cracked it, poured it...and almost spit my mouthful across the monitor. This was an absolutely horrible wine. The whole point of having one of these "tetra paks" is that a wine is supposed to stay fresh. If this was "fresh" wine, I don't know who'd like it. Sour, acidic, and horrifically unpleasant. My immediate thought was to take your $8-9 and buy yourself a sixer of Smithwick's or something. You'll be better off. Bleah.

Something nagged at me, though. The Vendange and the French Rabbit seemed so “off” that I couldn’t believe a winery would actually send those out into the world. I was at my local Kroger and decided to pop into their wine store. They had the Vendange, but not the French Rabbit. Instead, I picked up the Alice White (NV) South Eastern Australian Shiraz.

The Alice White was, for all intents and purposes, the same as the Alice White that you’d get in a bottle. Straightforward, fruity, drinkable, and non-thinkable. Decent enough if no one’s looking. But my second go-round with the Vendange was a different experience. There was less sweetness and none of the weird nose. It still wasn’t my favorite chardonnay – even at that price point – but it was much more palatable.

So, what happened? My theory – the inexpensive wines are the ones handled with the least care. At some point along the line, these containers were probably left to sit in a hot truck or on a hot palette somewhere – and the wine began to turn to vinegar. In the French Rabbit’s case, that process was rather far along, I think.

I won’t name names, but I’ve had “vinegarized” box wine on a couple of other occasions from this same beverage superstore. I would be willing to give the French Rabbit another try, but I haven’t been able to locate it anywhere else around here. I’ll update this entry when I get the chance to give it another go.

Just the same, like many of the inexpensive wines out there, as long as you don’t need to think too much about what you’re drinking, you can probably find something at least decently quaffable to pack along in a cooler or a basket. No breakage, no worries, and easy cleanup. Any of you have experience with these you’d like to share?

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Quickie: In Praise of Unsolicited Recommendations

I’ll readily admit that I don’t always remember all the names of folks who come to the table when I’m doing a tasting. Talking to these folks, I often will get recommendations that I’ll try, but I often won’t get a chance to thank that person.

Such was the case with this Sella & Mosca 2005 Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva. This wine was recommended by a very knowledgeable woman I spoke with in the Covington DEP’s, but I have absolutely no memory of her name, unfortunately.

Cannonau is a grape grown mostly in Southern Italy (this one’s from Sardinia, surprise, surprise…). It makes generally light reds that can resemble Chianti, but there’s not usually so much of a chalky quality. She told me, “Just try this. It’s not spectacular, but for the price and an Italian meal, it’s killer.”

Well, I tried it. I made ribollita the other night and cracked open this bottle. It turned out to be a wonderful pairing.

So, many thanks to you, whoever you were. I sure appreciated your insight – just as I’m happy to take recommendations from any of you out there who have some ideas. Have a couple of columns coming down the pike based on just those, so stay tuned…