30 July 2007

2003 Newton Napa Valley Claret

2003 Newton Napa Valley Claret. 60% Merlot, 24%Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Cabernet Franc, 5% Petit Verdot. Despite the classic composition, I wasn't overly thrilled with this one. Somewhat woody and vegetal, really firm tannins after four years, difficult to ascertain fruit components. Perhaps in a few more years? Just not quite what I was expecting for a $20 Napa Claret.

I sampled it with a whole heaping helping of my various cherry tomatoes (red, yellow, pear shaped), all split in half and drizzled with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and homegrown rosemary, served alongside a bit of cold roast beef and bread.

28 July 2007

2003 Bell Claret

The 2003 Bell Claret is a Napa Valley wine made up of 83% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Cabernet Franc, 3% Merlot, 1% Petite Verdot, 8% Syrah. The decision to add Syrah is intended to make it more enjoyable early on, even though this wine would age well. Four years on, I think it could still go for another four or five years in the cellar. Lovely black cherry and prune flavors. Big full-fruit nose.

This is bottle 19,037 of 20,395. That's something fun about small batch wines: out of the 300 million people in the U.S., only twenty thousand can enjoy this wine... or forty or eighty thousand if you're sharing. It's also nice having met the winemaker a few years ago. Bell remains one of my go-to producers when I want an elegant, finely crafted wine in the $20-30 range.

Speaking of handcrafted treasures made in small batches, the necktie in the photo came from the good folks at Cyberoptix. I've got ties in my closet that date back to the 1940s, and felt it was time to throw a little fresh blood into the mix. I stumbled upon the Clipper Ship design from Cyberoptix and loved the silver/black ink combination. They have a wide variety of other ties with interesting designs. Were I a doctor I would load up on variations of the Medic.

This isn't a paid testimonial: I purchased the tie on my own and got tons of compliments the first day I wore it. Ah, the romance of the open seas... It's also worth noting that my favorite part of visiting Amsterdam had nothing to do with marijuana or prostitutes but rather involved seeing the Scheepvaartmuseum (Maritime Museum), where I was able to gaze upon the treasures of the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie and see a first edition atlas compiled by the great Joan Blaeu. A modern copy of this atlas is one of my most prized possessions.

26 July 2007

2006 La Grenouille Rouganté Pink

I've been slack in my pursuit of dry rosés this summer. But here's a great one with which to resume the hunt. 2006 La Grenouille Rouganté Pink from Frog's Leap in Napa. It's 98% Valdigué and 2% Petite Sirah. I grabbed this because it looked like a French rosé, and then I see the details on the label. That name, by the way, means something like "the blushing frog". Strawberry and watermelon are the dominant flavors, and it's got a touch of almost fizzy acidity.

23 July 2007

2005 Bogle Sauvignon Blanc

Operating here in the $10-20 range of everyday wines, Bogle has never let me down, and I'm always eager to try out new varieties as they appear on the shelf. For instance, I recently noticed and picked up a bottle of the 2005 Bogle Sauvignon Blanc. Monterey and Amador Counties, California, $10. The website suggests a citrus profile, but I found it missing tart, citric notes on the nose and palate. Instead there was a lovely aroma of peach, with smooth, well rounded, fruity but still dry flavor. Light and refreshing, and almost perfectly clear. Great summertime wine. I had a glass with some chicken enchiladas accompanied by plenty of hot sauce.

18 July 2007

Golden Mama & Little Mama Tomatoes

Here's a look at some of my Golden Mama and Little Mama tomatoes in varying stages of ripeness.

The Little Mamas are anything but: some are five or six inches long with that odd nipple on the end. The flavor is classic Roma but obviously better from the garden than from the store. I love the ripening pattern, as in the early stages they look like big chile peppers.

The Golden Mamas are definitely intended for cooking: firm meat, not much juice. I was surprised to see one starting to ripen with a red blush, but the interior remained bright yellow. Both of these varieties are known as paste tomatoes, meaning that they're great for salsa and tomato sauce.

As long as I'm here, I ought to point out some of my mystery maters from the Mystery Garden. I had assumed that these were Fourth of July tomatoes based on the size, but part of me thinks they may have crossed with the Brandywines. Though they're similar in size to the Fourth of July tomatoes, these ones are ribbed, not smooth, have six or more chambers rather than three, and are much deeper in flavor.

Here's a shot of slices from all three varieties, cut up using my Henckels tomato slicer. These were all dusted with Kosher salt and eaten by hand. Fresh tomatoes don't have time for forks.

16 July 2007

2005 Redheads Yard Dog

Much has been made of the "cute animal" trend on wine labels. But what of ugly animal labels? I submit to you one of the ugliest labels I've ever seen, featuring a dog that I'd be more likely to chase off with a bat rather than pet. This is the 2005 Redheads Yard Dog from South Eastern Australia. 15% alcohol, comprised of 46% Petite Verdot, 30% Merlot, and 24% Cabernet Sauvignon. Sort of a Bordeaux in reverse, where the minor blending grapes are brought to the front. It's not marketed as such, but I'll call it a claret agonistes. Why not combine an anglicized French word with Greek? No editor is paying me, I can do what I want.

This $12 screwcap wine has a surprisingly light nose. It does not present itself as a dark flavor bomb given the prevalence of Petite Verdot. After breathing there are pleasant aromas of leather and blackberry jam. On first opening the wine has a bit of a cinnamon burn effect on the tongue--later this mellows and you get more of a mild cinnamon toast flavor in the background. On the front you're mostly going to taste dark berries. If you decide to try this wine, I'd suggest at least an hour of decanting before drinking.

That combination of cinnamon and jam takes me back. When you're a small child you get used to certain flavors in your house. As far as toast was concerned, we were a butter and strawberry jelly family, or butter and cinnamon sugar kept in a small Tupperware container and frequently replenished by Mom. I remember spending the night with a friend across the street. In the morning--after we'd stayed up past midnight playing with Star Wars figures and listening to a bootleg Eddie Murphy tape swiped from his older sister--Brian's Mom fixed us toast. A layer of butter, a layer of grape jelly, and then a dusting of cinnamon sugar to top it all off. It was a bizarre yet tasty mix that I haven't thought of in nearly 25 years.

Brian's Mom died of cancer a few years after that, the first tragedy of my otherwise happy childhood. Much in the way that Proust's madeleines brought back so many memories, so can an unusual little wine from Australia with an ugly label bring back bittersweet recollections of my youth in the Whitehaven neighborhood of South Memphis. I can remember riding on bikes and trying to play baseball with three people and wandering around the sidewalks every 5th of July picking up the spent carcasses of firecrackers, unrolling the tightly wrapped shells to gaze upon Chinese newsprint while the ozone burn aroma wafted upwards...

* * *

I served it with a ribeye and some blue potatoes fried in brown butter. I got blue potatoes from the Downtown Farmers Market and was amazed by the patterns present inside. I had assumed that the tubers would be solid blue like Terra Chips, but these were tasty regardless. Not that they tasted blue or anything, but there's a big difference in homegrown and fingerling potatoes versus the standard russets that fill our supermarkets.

I still have potato plants growing in the mystery garden, I'm anxious to see how they turn out.

13 July 2007

2005 Francis Ford Coppola Rosso Classico

This post is now horribly dated, but I figured I might as well publish it. —BC

The 2005 Francis Ford Coppola Rosso Classico is one of the $10 bargain offerings from the great Coppola wineries. This wine is an interesting blend of 51% Zinfandel, 29% Syrah, and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. It's got the aroma and flavor of a cherry turnover: some combination of cherry jam, pastry dough, butter, and matching flavors with a hint of sweetness from the Zinfandel. Quite pleasant, though the first couple of sips can be harsh.

I wasn't saving this for a special occasion, but I did think it would be fun to drink along with the last episode of the Sopranos. I was in the hotel room, had a pizza delivered, and sat down to enjoy everything together. The pizza was great, the wine was fair enough, and the episode turned out to be a major disappointment, ruining a great Journey song for all time. It's been all over the news for the past two weeks, I'm not going to rehash it here. After nearly ten years, I expected better.

In the scene depicted in the photo, Tony Soprano is feeding or petting a dog. James Gandolfini's receding hairline should be easily recognizable.

11 July 2007

Benito vs. the Farmers Market: Big Ol' Squash

The gigantic summer squash and baby onions you see at right were purchased at the Downtown Farmers Market. What to do with such bounty? I added a few cans of fire roasted tomatoes, some ricotta cheese, my own herbs, and made a squash gratin. I would call it lasagna, but that would be a
. I'm going to get that word in the dictionary at some point.

I sliced up the squash on a mandoline, one of the only kitchen gadgets that I'm genuinely afraid of and hide so that no one will accidentally hurt themselves. It's fun, don't get me wrong, but I just see neat piles of bloody fingertips whenever I pull it out of the cupboard. When making the dish I treated it much like lasagna: layers of thin zucchini slices, then ricotta and herbs, then tomatoes, crookneck slices, then sautéed mushrooms and the baby onions, etc. The top layer included both crookneck and zucchini slices along with some grated Romano cheese.

The end result? Really good, but somewhat watery. I drained off the excess liquid, and am looking forward to the leftovers. I think it would make an interesting side dish, though I had it as my main course for dinner alongside a salad for an all-vegetarian meal. On top of that, nearly all of the ingredients were either grown by me, purchased from the farmers market, or organic.

For the wine, I pulled out a 2005 Saint-Véran, an unoaked white Burgundy. It's got a rich fruity nose, along with a tart acidity, good minerality, and full mouth feel. A bit of carrot cake flavor on the finish, oddly enough.

08 July 2007

Black Krim Tomato

The Black Krim tomato won't win any beauty contests, but it is delicious. This particular tomato is the first to come off of my Black Krim plant. It suffers from two afflictions that can plague heirloom varieties: growth cracks and green shoulders. The former has to do with odd watering patterns (it's been consistent, I promise), and the latter is caused by really hot temperatures (nothing I can do about that). It's a little difficult to tell, but the lower half of the fruit is a deep purple/chocolate brown color. If this tomato showed up on a grocery store display, nobody would touch it. People would alert the produce manager and young children would cry.

Here's what it looks like on the inside. Really dark in places. The tomato has a deep, meaty, savory flavor, and it only takes a touch of salt to help enhance it. I've got a lot of other developing fruit on that vine, and I'm anxious to try some more.

So what to do with such a beast? Why not incorporate it into an experiment?

I decided to expand upon the concept of frisée aux lardons. This time I boosted the amount of greens, used a strip of bacon, and sliced up half of a thick rare-roasted ribeye per salad. Add to that chunks of the Black Krim, thin slices of baguette toasted in bacon grease, and of course a couple of poached eggs.

The final product looks something like a garbage plate, but it was really quite good. For future improvements, I would have used a spring mix rather than frisée for the greens. It's good but only in small quantities. A huge plate of it is like trying to force down a bunch of tree trimmings. The steak and touch of bacon made for a nice change from the crispy pork belly, and the tomatoes were a nice addition. I would highly recommend such croutons in the future.

The wine selected for the evening was the 2002 St. Francis Claret. 66% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Zinfandel. Does it still count as a claret if it doesn't use the Bordeaux grapes? In any event, it did have some interesting characteristics, namely a hint of green tobacco that I wasn't expecting from California. The flavor was full and round with lots of blackberries and blueberries. I enjoyed the wine but thought that the Zinfandel was, even in small amounts, powerful enough to knock out some of the more delicate flavors of the other grapes.

06 July 2007

Napa Grape Tomato

For the past two weeks, I've been munching on some vine-ripened Napa Grape tomatoes. All of my other plants have green fruit on them, but the Napa Grapes were the first to ripen. These guys are small but incredibly sweet, with a crisp snap when you bite into them. Some other tomatoes are shown in the bowl, namely Yellow Pears and Sun Golds that have been abundant in the mystery garden.

The great thing about cherry tomatoes is that there's always some ready to eat. I normally keep a bowl in the kitchen where they make a great snack or can be incorporated into a multitude of dishes.

04 July 2007

Benito vs. the Farmers Market: Kudzu Jelly & Goat Cheese

Here's two local treasures that I picked up from the Downtown Farmers Market. While I still love the Farmers Market at the Agricenter, the one downtown has a lot more stuff and for those that don't like downtown, fear not: it's way on the south side, so you've got free parking and nobody's hitting you up for spare change.

First up, we have Kudzu Bloom Jelly from Mississippi. For those of y'all that live outside the South, kudzu is a vine native to Japan that was introduced to the Southeastern United States in the 50s to help control erosion. It did the exact opposite, and without any local predators, the stuff grows uncontrollably. I've heard of people doing useful things with kudzu, but until this past weekend, I'd never seen it with my own eyes. Hence my inability to pass up a jar of Kudzu Bloom Jelly.

I tried it on a toasted English muffin with a little butter. Good stuff, if a little hard to define. It's somewhere between apple and white grape jelly, though some compare the flavor to crabapples. It's tasty and has a lovely natural color to it. I'd love to surprise somebody with it, particularly if they've lived around here for a long time.

Next up we have goat cheese. I've probably consumed my own weight in goat cheese over the years, but this is the first local product I've tried. From Bonnie Blue Farm in Waynesboro, Tennessee comes this little tub of homemade goat cheese. And it's some great stuff. Creamy and tangy and not overly earthy. I spread some on baguette rounds along with some slices of my Yellow Pear tomatoes and homegrown oregano. I'm anxious to try some of their feta cheese the next time I'm downtown on a Saturday morning.

02 July 2007

Early 4th of July Celebration (Continued)

I'm back to finish the story, and restore my good name after the White Zin post.

On the second night of the R family gathering, they took care of all the cooking. I had to be in Murfreesboro that afternoon for my own family get-together, which was a lot of fun. Plenty of pulled pork BBQ and great picnic fare. That evening it was back to the R family estate where we had barbecued salmon and grilled lamb, braised beets and homemade macaroni & cheese, a caprese salad, and some other things that I'm forgetting. Great food and great wines, but first...

One of the big highlights of the weekend was getting to meet--and take some portraits of--the newest addition to the R family. We're all looking forward to raising a glass with him in a couple of decades. Which means that I'll be 50 when he's of legal age. Whoa.

Mike fixed a round of Washington Apple cocktails. A Washington Apple is made up of Crown Royal, Apple Pucker, and cranberry juice, shaken and served over ice. To be fair, this is not the kind of thing I would have ordered in a bar. But I was amongst friends and it was available, so why not give it a try? The end result was oddly delicious: no one flavor stands out amongst the others; they all marry together to taste something like a candy apple but not as sweet.

On to the wines! I started off with the 2003 Georges Dubœuf Juliénas, and thus got to knock off another Cru Beaujolais from the list. Only three left to try. It was light and pleasant with cherry jam aromas and flavor. Good fruit structure, not too heavy or watery, elegant balance.

At some point I opened the Chateau Aux Arcs Zinfandel I'd brought along. Several people found it a pleasant surprise, and it improved well with several hours of breathing. I'm not saying every Arkansas wine is going to be a masterpiece, but that particular winery has some amazing potential.

Next up was the 1999 Jamison Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Couldn't find any online information here, but it was peppery and spicy with firm tannins that have held up for quite a while.

Time for another Bulgarian: the 2003 Uniqato Melnik, a full red version of the Melnik grape. And for some reason I can't get past that name: Melnik. It reminds me of Yiddish slurs like nudnik and schmendrik, or perhaps some MAD parody of wine. Anyway, the bottle produced medium tannins and an overall tone of black cherry, along with an earthy quality that made it a perfect match for the grilled lamb. At some point I'm going to have to go to Sofia and sample Bulgarian wines alongside the native cuisine.

MVP for the evening in my opinion: the 2001 Ridge Three Valleys. A Sonoma wine comprised of 50% Zinfandel, 15% Petite Sirah, 15% Carignane, 11% Maturo (Mourvedre), and 9% Grenache. Let's skip the elegant Bauhaus label design using the Optima typeface that has stood the test of time and move on to the flavor: blueberry with perfectly mellow tannins and hints of tartness. A real joy throughout the evening: my last sip was around midnight, after a cigar. One of the ladies present was kind enough to pour a quarter glass just so I could taste it one last time. If any wine has made me want to build a house with a dedicated wine cellar, this was it.

My notes stop there, and as near as I can recall no more wines were opened. Definitely the bottles of Port and Scotch were revisited on the second night of festivities. (Tom, I owe you a bottle of The Balvenie--that was some amazing whisky.)

I once again want to thank the R family for their gracious hospitality during that weekend. They ply me with good wine and food and conversation all weekend, and all I have to do is cook a meal. I look forward to next year. Dave might dig a pit and we'll roast a whole pig.