29 May 2009

Book Review: 99 Drams of Whiskey

As I first opened up this book, I heard the voice of some long dead Scottish ancestor in my head. "Ach, nae colleen ken owt aboat ye hweiskeee..." To which I replied, "Whiskey isn't just a man's pursuit, Angus. If the movie Thelma and Louise had been about two smart women on a whiskey tour, I would have seen it a dozen times in the theater and later purchased the deluxe collector's edition DVD."

I'm talking about 99 Drams of Whiskey: The Accidental Hedonist's Quest for the Perfect Shot and the History of the Drink by Kate Hopkins, known to the blogosphere as The Accidental Hedonist. Kate and her trusty sidekick Krysta toured the distilleries and sampled the whiskeys and whiskys of Ireland, Scotland, Canada, Pennsylvania, and had the dignity and clarity of mind to conclude their journey with the Commonwealth of Kentucky and the Great State of Tennessee.

In addition to tasting notes in each chapter, this is a frequently hilarious story about researching a great topic, and in the great tradition of travel literature, the best parts are when things don't go quite right. Troubles with the GPS, being surrounded by tourists, difficulties with the increasingly surreal airline industry... I've been there. Kate pulls no punches, and tells the truth no matter how grisly.

Someone once asked Governor Schwarzenegger Conan the Barbarian, "What is best in life?" He replied, "To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women." While those activities are not frequently on my agenda, I'd like to think I did pretty well here: good book, good Scotch, good cigar, good music.

The cigar was a Montecristo No. 4 from... well, I don't know precisely where it came from. Just in case it wasn't entirely legal, I did my patriotic duty and destroyed it. By burning. Slowly, over the course of an hour. The Scotch is leftover from our Burns Night celebration, a gift from my father who really knows his whisky. This is The Macallan 12 year old, aged in Sherry oak casks from Spain. Nice and dark, rich flavors with a hint of spice and vanilla, and an aroma that will last for days. And while savoring this perfect late afternoon, I listened to The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner by Ben Folds Five.

Having all of these elements in place is not required when reading this book, but if you have even the slightest love for the dark liquors, you will get mighty thirsty while turning pages. Ideally you'd want to match your whiskey consumption to the geographical chapter of the book, but I found that even a glass of wine worked well in a pinch.

* * *

Kids, back in the early days, The Daily Show was hosted by Craig Kilborn. He wasn't the strongest interviewer in the world, so the writers developed the concept of "The Five Questions", trivial or goofy queries that he could posit to celebrities. In this spirit, I always try to ask questions that go off the usual script, something that hasn't already been asked a million times or addressed in the source material. Kate was kind enough to respond:

#1: Which musician or musical group would you recommend listening to while reading this book?

"As for Music, Dropkick Murphy and Flogging Molly are what we had on our iPods as we traveled, but I would also suggest a bit o' Frank Sinatra."

#2: Have you found a perfect dessert pairing with a good Scotch?

"A great pairing with Scotch Whisky is dried ginger believe it or not. Chocolate bars can also work well, but I'd avoid pastries or anything with cream."

#3: Which city provided the most unintelligible dialect of English for American ears?

"Glasgow, by far. But it still wasn't as bad as many people would have you believe."

#4: Irish coffee: real whipped cream or the fake stuff from a can?

"Irish Coffee is a waste of good whiskey. But, if you must have some, forego the whipped cream all together."

#5: What's your favorite type of glass for serving whiskey?

"A clean one ;-) In all honesty, I like a smooth Scotch glass, as I like adding an ice cube or two to my whiskey."

* * *

With Father's Day approaching, this would be an outstanding gift if your Dad is a guy who appreciates a good whiskey. Or if you're a novice to the whole scene, this will save you thousands of dollars in travel, allowing you to pinpoint your favorite spots in the future. At just over 300 pages, this is not a textbook, not an encyclopedia... it's an entertaining read for anyone who appreciates a good travelogue.

28 May 2009

Benito vs. the Cocktail: The Aviation

Always in search of a new flavor sensation, I turned my eyes towards a Prohibition-era favorite, The Aviation. Plus, this pushes the bull testicles off the top of the site for anyone that was repulsed by that.

Now, I must admit that to do this properly, and by the original recipe, you have to use ¼ oz. of Crème de Violette, a rare bluish-purple liqueur distilled from violets. But I omitted it here. Why? It's hard to find, expensive, and I'm not even sure if it's available in the Memphis area. On top of all that, it has very limited uses even among serious cocktail fans. I think if I purchased a bottle today, in fifty years my grandchildren would be throwing out a mostly-full bottle and wondering why on earth Granpa Benito held on to the damned thing so long.

I followed the recipe from Gary Regan's wonderful article in the San Francisco Chronicle:

The Aviation Cocktail
2 oz. Gin
½ oz. Maraschino Liqueur
½ oz. Fresh Lemon Juice (don't use the bottled stuff!)

Combine in a shaker with ice, shake the hell out of it, and strain into the glasses of your choice. Despite my photo trickery, this cocktail is clear, with little flecks of lemon pulp and ice scattered throughout. It's got an amazing flavor, a little sweet, a little tart, with an underlying nuttiness and complexity from the cherry pits used to make the Luxardo Maraschino. Note that this is a completely separate product from the red syrup found in jars of maraschino cherries. We're talking about a sophisticated product with hundreds of years of history that was beloved by European monarchs including Napoleon and Queen Victoria.

While I made the cocktail as an experiment before a dinner party, I was surprised at how popular it was. While I prefer to savor my cocktails and take them slow, I saw these disappearing quickly around the table, and ended up making three batches during the evening. Bear in mind this is a fairly strong cocktail, so pace yourself.

27 May 2009

Benito vs. the Bull Testicle: Criadillas Fritas

I'm going to try to avoid puns and bad jokes in this post, but feel free to go nuts in the comments.

In the grand tradition of nose-to-tail dining, using every part of the buffalo, and searching for new flavors and cooking adventures, I eventually arrived in the international market staring at a package of bull testicles (huevos de res). Among the thoughts that raced through my mind were, "Why are there three of them, and where in the hell did that big bastard on the left come from?" With a dinner party approaching and a few adventurous diners, I decided it was time to cross this particular ingredient off my list. And for the amusement and education of my readers, I'm going to provide step-by-step instructions.

The big one (El Gordo) weighed nearly a pound. Holding it was a humbling experience. Sort of like how staring into the night sky throws things in perspective.

The first step is to peel away the membrane. It's tough, it doesn't want to come off, and the whole mass is so slippery that it's miserable all around. In fact, I could only peel the two smaller ones--El Gordo was so tough and unwieldy that I tossed it aside, and it will be ground up for dog treats at a later date.

Once the testicles have been peeled and the various ducts have been trimmed, they start to look a lot less weird, more like some cut of poultry than the nether regions of a bull.

Since I figure the Spanish know their bull parts pretty well, I decided on criadillas fritas, one of many preparations in regions fond of bullfighting. The first step in this recipe involved simmering the peeled testicles for ten minutes with onion, pepper, allspice, and a dash of white wine vinegar. Remove the testicles from the water and cut into quarter inch slices. As you can see in this photo, they look somewhat like liver at this stage. Get your oil ready, and set up two bowls, one containing either a flour mixture or breadcrumbs, and another with an egg wash. Dip in the egg wash, dip in the flour or crumbs, and then fry to desired brownness.

Here's the finished product. Doesn't look any scarier than a pack of chicken nuggets, right? I served these simply to three of my friends as an appetizer with cocktails. All started out with just one, and upon discovering that they were not terrifying, had more. None were leftover at the end--success! Several of us found that they were much better with hot sauce. It's not a matter of covering up any flavors, but they're a little bland and needed something extra. More than anything they taste like fried chicken livers, just minus the heavy liver flavor. The texture is nearly identical, a little mealy.

I'm glad I conducted this kitchen experiment, but I don't see myself doing it again anytime soon. The flavor's nothing to get excited about, the peeling/cleaning is difficult, and the mere mention of this project scared off several potential dinner guests. But I've always maintained that there's more to life than just pork chops, chicken breasts, and hamburgers. Cast your net a bit further, and try some of the obscure delights that are permitted by your religion and local laws.

Photo credit for the first two pictures go to my friend Paul, who was holding the camera and cracking jokes while I tried not to cut myself.

25 May 2009

Green Winemaking Tour: Benziger

Another side trip on my Sonoma tour felt a little more like part of The Lord of the Rings than "Take Exit 15 and turn right". But the trusty GPS led me through back roads, hills and dales, and delivered me safely at Benziger.

That's B-E-N-Z-I-G-E-R. It often gets misspelled or mispronounced as "BenZINGer", and also gets confused with the giant Beringer. I think they ought to quote Destiny's Child on the back label:

Say my name, say my name
You actin' kinda shady
Ain't callin me baby
Better say my name

This winery is tucked away in the hills of Sonoma Mountain and has an impressive commitment to green winemaking. Check out the solar panels on the parking lot lights. But that's not just window dressing, the environmental consideration is present in far less visible forms, such as massive water reclamation and use of biodiesel for farm equipment.

Likewise, all of the family-run winery's products fall into three categories: Certified Sustainable, Organic, or Biodynamic. The three-tier system is due to a process of growth and development since the founding in 1980, and in 2000 they became the first Certified Biodynamic winery in Sonoma County.

If you're planning a visit to Benziger, I'd suggest allowing for a full afternoon. As mentioned earlier, it's a little off the beaten path, but once you get there the winery provides a wide array of tours and activities. Due to time constraints I only scratched the surface, but one of the options that looked really fun was the tram tour. I saw whole families arriving to tour the vineyards, though they also offer options for the serious wine lover as well. For instance, the primary tasting room is integrated into the gift shop and has room for lots of people at the bar. However, if you'd prefer to taste the biodynamic and higher-end selections, then for a little extra you can retire to a separate, quieter room for a more focused wine-tasting experience. (The wines listed below, except for the Carneros Chardonnay, were all tasted in the latter room.)

When I got back home, I tried the 2007 Benziger Carneros Chardonnay, $15, 14% abv. This is a full-bodied, voluptuous and smooth California Chardonnay. I think someone once compared this style to Marilyn Monroe. Lots of apricot and pear, with a little tangy grapefruit finish.

I served it with a pasta dish made from various leftovers. Get everything ready in advance and this is done in ten minutes. Boil water and start the angel hair pasta. Sauté diced onion and garlic until clear, add in diced rotisserie chicken, chopped red kale, cherry tomatoes, and rosemary. Throw in a half cup of the pasta water to help wilt the kale. Once the pasta is ready, drain it and throw the pasta in the skillet with everything else, stir it around some, and add a dash of wine vinegar or sherry vinegar. That's it! (Variation: Skip the tomatoes, rosemary, and vinegar, and substitute snow peas, mushrooms, and soy sauce, and you now have an Asian noodle dish instead.)

Wines Sampled at the Vineyard

For more details and ordering information, check out the Benziger website.

2007 Sauvignon Blanc. Stone Farm. Organic, farmed by viticulture students. Grass and lemon, grapefruit and spice, stainless steel fermentation.

2005 Chardonnay San Giacomo Reserve. Oak, butter, caramel, bit of popcorn.

2006 Pinot Noir de Coelo. Biodynamic. Touch of strawberry, smooth as silk. Quintus Vineyard.

2005 Benziger Reserve Merlot. Cherry, pepper, restrained.

2005 Benziger Cabernet Sauvignon, Stone Farm Vineyards. Plum, black pepper, slight tannins.

2006 Puma Springs Cabernet Sauvignon. Dry Creek. Lots of cherry, bright flavors, light tannins.

2005 Oonapais Sonoma Mountain Red. Name comes from the Miwok name for Sonoma Mountain, sacred to the tribe. Lots of obsidian in the soil. Tomato leaf, green bell pepper, dark plum flavors, very Bordeaux-like. My favorite of the tasting, highly recommended.

2005 Tribute. Flagship wine, and the 2001 was the first Certified Biodynamic wine in California. Mild cherry nose, touch of ash, very balanced.

2005 Joaquin's Inferno. Zinfandel, named after the vineyard manager's complaints about farming high up on the hill, out of reach of mechanized equipment and on a steep slope. Plum, spice, lovely balance.

2003 Dragonsleaf Vineyard and Summer Ranch Port. Full blackbery jam aromas, but a rather mild flavor for a fortified wine.

22 May 2009

2007 Cooper Mountain Pinot Gris

When the market is full of a lot of big, buttery, and full-fruit California Chardonnays, it's nice to step back and try something with some restraint and delicacy. Oregon is well known for its great small-production Pinot Noir, but don't forget about their whites. For example, I got to try the 2007 Cooper Mountain Pinot Gris Reserve from the Wilammette Valley of Northwest Oregon. 13.5% abv, and an absolute steal at $15. It's Certified Organic and Biodynamic, and was the first winery in the Pacific Northwest to grow all of its grapes under those certifications.

Let's also celebrate the fact that as of July 1, Tennessee residents will be able to order this wine and many others via the Internet! Hallelujah!

Light body, mineral flavors and a touch of wet stone aroma. Nose of violets and other florals, and a mild fruit flavor that includes a touch of lemon on the finish. Excellent all-around balance as regards flavor and acidity. Stainless steel fermentation lets you focus on the wine and its natural flavors instead of oak, which would overwhelm a wine like this.

I've really been craving mussels recently, but I've had bad luck lately trying to get them at my local Costco. There are some other sources around town, but $10 for a 5 lb. bag of good quality mussels from Prince Edward Island is a deal that can't be beat. This past Friday I was successful in my quest! In scrubbing and scrutinizing the mussels before dinner, I only had to toss out three for broken shells, and the few that didn't open might not have cooked long enough.

I turned to Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook, which features five classic preparations for mussels. I picked the one that seemed best for a hot day: moules à la portugaise, which is flavored by cilantro, onion, garlic, and chorizo. Serve with some nice crusty bread and a few ears of roasted corn with chile-lime butter, and you're in business. I used fresh, raw chorizo here, which provided great spice and savory flavors.

20 May 2009

Benito vs. the Cocktail: Pinky Vodka

I'm going to start out with an admission: I'm not a big fan of flavored vodka. Many flavored vodkas are sweetened to some degree and use artificial flavoring, which detracts from the cocktail you're fixing. Now, I've had some incredible flavored vodkas, such as the Polish Żubrówka or buffalo grass vodka. And homemade limoncello is great, but only if you're using real lemons. Unfortunately most of these bottles are just shortcuts for busy bars, and the home cocktail enthusiast should take the time to squeeze some fresh limes or mash up a few raspberries. It will taste so much better.

But gin is essentially a flavored vodka, and I love gin. Why? Because the better ones are made with a harmonious blend of botanicals, herbs, and spices, and they taste great and add complexity to the right cocktails. Or take something like the peculiar Hendrick's, which is flavored with rose petals and cucumbers. With this mindset I was enthusiastic about trying Pinky Vodka.

Pinky is a flavored vodka from Sweden, that, at least in my mind, leans more towards the gin side. It was formulated by wine fans, and is completely dry. As with a good gin, the full recipe is secret, but we do know that it includes wild strawberries, rose petals, violets, and nine other botanicals. It has a lovely light floral aroma with just a hint of the strawberries. And the color is truly striking; everyone who has seen the bottle in my house has remarked on it.

Looking through the various recipes that came with the press kit, I settled on the Beau Jardin (pictured above), attributed to the World Café of Santa Monica, CA. The recipe is quite simple: 4 parts Pinky Vodka, a splash of dry white vermouth, a splash of simple syrup, and a sprig of rosemary. Shake all together with ice and strain in cocktail glasses, reserving the rosemary for garnish. This worked out pretty well, as it took inspiration from a martini. The rosemary was a nice touch, and I love the current renewal of interest in using fresh herbs in cocktails.

However, I thought it was still not quite right. This is such a delicately flavored vodka, it has no relation whatsoever to a cheap jug of watermelon-flavored swill used for Jell-O shooters. No, this is a subtle ingredient that could be easily and quickly overpowered by other ingredients. So I developed my own recipe, because I'm cool like that:

Benito's Original Extended Pinky Cocktail
2 oz. Pinky Vodka
½ oz. Lillet Blanc
Dash of Fee Brothers Rhubarb Bitters*
Club Soda or Sparkling Water

Combine the Pinky Vodka and the Lillet Blanc in a tumbler or highball glass with a few ice cubes. Add a dash or two of Rhubarb Bitters (or substitute orange, darker bitters might be too much for this cocktail). Stir with the ice, and then top off to desired strength with club soda or sparkling water. Garnish with a slice of lime if you're in the mood, and it would work just as well strained in a cocktail glass if you prefer that presentation. Hopefully the name tells you how to hold the glass while you're enjoying it.

The benefit of this latter recipe is that it lets you enjoy the flavors and aromas of the vodka without the strong hit from the alcohol, and the Lillet Blanc adds just a touch of sweetness and white wine flavor without overpowering anything. Check out Pinky if you get a chance, and try a splash straight or over ice before you decide how to use it. Remember less is more when it comes to cocktails, and you'll be happy.

*I don't know why it just occurred to me to use the rhubarb bitters with a strawberry ingredient. They're such a natural pair.

18 May 2009

Green Winemaking Tour: Cline

One of the wineries that was on my "must see" list while I was in Sonoma was Cline Cellars, and this was due in large part to that red truck in the picture, parked in front of the vineyard. While Red Truck has been sold off from the main Cline operations, it was my first introduction to the winery, and the wines were fun to take to family gatherings where the crowd was perhaps more familiar with antique vehicles than red wine. It was an approachable, enjoyable wine at a good price. I haven't had a bottle in years, but I still appreciate its role as an excellent gateway wine.

The winery was founded by Fred Cline in 1982 but in Oakley, California. In 1991, Fred relocated the operations to Sonoma, site of the facility pictured here. The focus is primarily on Rhône grapes and Zinfandel, and I'm glad to see them growing things like Carignane and Roussanne. There's more to Southern French grapes than just 15 different bottlings of Syrah.

In one of the odd conflicts that can arise over the various meanings and philosophies of various green movements (and public/private certifications), Cline developed its own program known as Green String. It fits in well with similar methods of sustainable agriculture: all natural farming methods, use of sheep to trim the weeds, ethical integration with the surrounding community, etc. The website includes more information on topics such as irrigation and cover crops.

Cline was an interesting winery to visit, because it's a large operation but you don't just stroll into one monolithic building. The tasting room, pictured above, is modeled on an old farmhouse and has a porch that wraps around the building. There are ponds and walking paths and other buildings hidden among the trees, and I doubt I saw 10% of the property. So while there are the facilities to accommodate large groups or weddings, it's also possible to enjoy your visit on a smaller, more individual scale. I arrived a bit early and spent a peaceful half hour relaxing on the porch, going over my notes from the previous day.

I brought home a bottle of the 2008 Mourvèdre Rosé. $15, 13% abv. You don't often see this grape by itself, but in a rosé to boot? I couldn't pass it up, and deliberately didn't taste it at the winery so I'd have a surprise when I got home. It's got a plum aroma, with hints of cranberry. Crisp and acidic, with a tart finish. It's a fuller bodied pink wine, and works pretty well for lunch if you've got something like a roast beef sandwich.

Wines Sampled at the Vineyard

Further details and ordering information can be found at the Cline Website.

2007 Pinot Gris. Touch of Chardonnay. Apricot and peach, floral, more body, more punch than I usually see in this grape.

2007 Viognier. Various northern California vineyards. Musky, peach, and pear.

2007 Los Carneros Viognier. Very delicate, touch of herbal flavor.

2007 Cashmere. Rhône-style Grenache/Syrah/Mourvèdre blend, and part of the proceeds go to a breast cancer charity ($20,000 donated in 2008). Developed as a natural pairing for poultry, such as Thanksgiving dinner. Smoky, touch of blackberry, smooth and mild. My favorite of the tasting.

2007 Mourvèdre Ancient Vines. Firm aroma, full vegetal, earth, barnyard.

2007 Ancient Vines Zinfandel. Black cherry, raspberry, mild spice flavors.

2007 Heritage Zinfandel. Contra Costa. Nice spice and light berry flavors.

15 May 2009

Benito vs. the Sugarcane

A few weeks ago I picked up a single piece of sugarcane at Mercado Latino, the international grocery store at Winchester and Kirby. Sadly, a 5'8" guy with a red beard carrying a stalk of sugarcane slightly taller than himself looks like a humorous outtake from The Lord of the Rings.

What do you do with it when you get home? Well, I'm going to assume that you're not going to refine your own sugar or distill rum. You probably want pieces of sugar cane to use as garnish for a mojito or just because you're curious. And I'm going to tell you to be really careful. During the whole preparation stage, I was sure I was going to lose a finger. It's one thing to lop off sugarcane with a machete; it's another to cut and trim it carefully in a kitchen. There's an excellent online tutorial if you'd like some pointers.

I didn't need a hammer with my blade. I used an Asian-style cleaver that was handmade by a friend of my father named Tom Erwin. Dad gave it to me as a gift back in 1997, and if you click on the photo you can see that date etched in the blade near the handle. Also, there's a bit of oxidation, which is natural with carbon steel. I don't use this knife a lot, but if I have a venison haunch or pork shoulder to deal with, I know what I'm pulling out of the drawer.

A few whacks between the joints, and then carefully stripping down the sides, and I had more than enough fresh sugarcane. Just understand that I drew on my lengthy experience in cutting wood with an axe rather than any kitchen techniques--sugarcane is solid, not hollow like bamboo. If you're not paying attention there's a good chance of hurting yourself, damaging a countertop, or ruining a cutting board. Whatever you do, everything is going to get sticky. It's worse than being around little kids on Halloween.

I carved out short skewers, which I used for chicken thighs and tiger shrimp. Honestly, the sugarcane didn't add much flavor, but the diners enjoyed the meaty flavor that soaked into the cane. I don't see myself doing much cooking in the future with sugarcane, but I'm glad to know how to use it. And it's a culinary ingredient with a long and fascinating history.

This otherwise unremarkable member of the grass family has had a huge impact on humans and the political map of the world over the past 500 years. France traded away most of its Canadian holdings in favor of Caribbean islands that could produce sugar. The "triangular trade" between West Africa, North America, and Europe was all about sugar and fueled the devastating legacy of slavery in the Western hemisphere. Even patterns of Moorish Muslim conquest in Europe and North Africa can be traced by plantings of sugarcane.

That's right, nations have risen and fallen, peoples have been enriched and enslaved, and borders have shifted all because of the human sweet tooth, and a sugar-rich grass that originated in Southeast Asia.

14 May 2009

Rare Thursday Post & Endorsement

I'm considering using Tuesdays and Thursdays for some mini-reviews and other announcements. All of the long-form posts that you've come to know and love here at BWR will stay on the Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule. But right now I've got 20 posts that I've written and are sitting in the queue, meaning I could go on vacation for two months and not have to write a blasted thing.

But I enjoy writing... I've just tried to keep it to a manageable level that my readers are willing to digest within a given period of time. You really don't need to hear my wild ramblings about complex math that I write at three in the morning. (Y'all would be surprised at some of the things I compose, and then delete when viewed in the light of day.)

While I'm here, I think it's an excellent opportunity to throw my support behind Hardy Wallace (author of the Dirty South wine blog) and his campaign for an internship with Murphy-Goode.

Not only is he a fellow--and founding--member of my Facebook group*, but I think the West Coast wine establishment needs more Southerners in the mix. Who are the other competitors in this race? To quote another famous Georgian, "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn."

Check out Hardy's site devoted to this endeavor, and show a brother some love.

*Southern Winebloggers That Reference Parliament Funkadelic

13 May 2009

Sally Dinner

Sally is a longtime friend who goes back to the early post-high school days, and since she lives in Nashville nowadays we don't get to see her as often as we'd like. But on those visits, we attempt to make the most of our time as possible, and this time was no exception. After a viewing of the new Star Trek film on opening day, we headed back to Paul's place to get ready for the rest of the festivities. (Short review of the movie: it's the single best thing with the word Trek attached to it that's ever been made. And I've seen and read a lot of Trek.)

We started out with a round of Pegu Club cocktails, and once everyone arrived, I unloaded the appetizer course: roasted dates with garlic and almonds, pickled herring, and pictured here, white asparagus with Hollandaise and prosciutto. Right now it's Spargelzeit in Germany, and I thought it would be fun to do a traditional white asparagus dish. It's got a milder flavor than green asparagus, and it's fun to mix things up once in a while.

The primary wine for the evening, as the ladies mostly enjoyed cocktails, was the 2005 Clos du Val Chardonnay from the Carneros AVA of Napa. $22, 13.5% abv. Little toasted marshmallow aroma, hint of vanilla, balanced acidity, mild yellow apple flavor, low oak. All in all a pleasantly restrained California Chardonnay. This one has been sitting in the cellar for a couple of years. I wasn't avoiding it or saving it for a special occasion, but it had become almost like a Shakespeare compilation sitting on the shelf: admired, respected, occasionally referenced, but not savored often.

Inspired by an escarole salad I had at Fredric's, I blended that with another trend that was popular a few years ago: the green salad with strawberries and balsamic vinegar. I combined escarole and watercress, both bitter and heavily flavored, with sliced ripe strawberries and green onions. I made a vinaigrette from balsamic vinegar, olive oil, Dijon mustard, honey, and a dash of pepper. I think my kitchen mojo was in fine form that night, because I created a perfect balance between bitter and sweet. Really quite good, and afterwards I wanted to take a head of iceberg and just kick it down the street. Has there ever been a better time to be a lover of flavorful greens in this country?

The main course looks, admittedly, mundane. Noodles and red sauce with a bit of meat? Let me break it down for y'all...

I used good small-batch rigatoni, cooked to perfection. For the sauce, I made my own using canned organic San Marzano tomatoes, garlic, and a little oregano and thyme. Nothing else. And the meat was the big hit of the evening. The day before, I'd loaded up an enameled Dutch oven with four pounds of short ribs, a can of tomato sauce, and a bottle of beer. It cooked on low heat for a full eight hours, after which I removed the bones and let it cool. In the morning, I removed most of the fat, and that evening reheated it for dinner along with some sautéed cremini mushrooms. (Short ribs are almost always better the next day.) I only put a couple of ounces on each plate, yet everyone was full and on the verge of groaning afterwards. Heavily concentrated flavor, rich, silky mouthfeel, mmmmmmm....

I made dessert for the first time in ages, and for theatrical effect I did a batch of Bananas Foster. We turned out all the lights and I lit the rum to the wonder of all around. It's not the kind of thing you'd want to eat every day, but once in a while it's a fun and delicious treat. My twist on the recipe: after it cools a bit and you spoon it over the ice cream, add a few big crystals of sea salt. You get that nice salty-caramel flavor combination that tickles all the right parts of the tongue.

A good time was had by all. We sat around the living room with full bellies and additional glasses of wine, and reveled in the fellowship that comes after such a meal. Thanks to all who participated, and we gotta do this again soon.

11 May 2009

Green Winemaking Tour: Mazzocco

While I was running around Sonoma, I didn't have a set schedule or plan. I picked a few places ahead of time and then fell upon most of the rest, trying to keep with the theme of green winemaking. In the latter category would be Mazzocco. I knew that Fredric had mentioned this winery a few times, and as it was close to Ridge I was already in the neighborhood. I pulled my rental Buick into the parking lot and prepared myself for some Zinfandel.

Mazzocco isn't Certified Organic or biodynamic, but they do practice sustainable winemaking and follow many of the ethics supported by the other wineries I visited while on this trip. I really love the fact that they encourage birds of prey to settle in the area as a natural control for rodents. I'll take owls and hawks over cats any day of the week. And while no one mentioned it or made a big deal out of it, I appreciated the xeriscape design of the area around the tasting room (see the photo below). For instance, when I go to New Mexico I'd much rather see a rock garden with cactus than a lush lawn. If you really need that thick green patch of earth, move someplace like Memphis where, without any watering or fertilizing, the grass is so strong that you can throw soup bones out there and the lawn will digest them before the dogs can get them.

Founded in 1984, this Dry Creek winery is run by Ken & Diane Wilson with winemaker Antoine Favero. Although it's a bit newer than other vineyards I visited, some of the vines go back fifty years. They produce 150,000 cases each year, with bottles that range from $30-150. I would strongly recommend trying one of their wines if it's available in your area, at whichever price point is comfortable for you.

Charlotte, who was running the tasting room that day, had a lovely accent and as a linguistics fan I had to ask where she was from. "Austria," she replied. "Ah, Österreich!" I exclaimed. It's been my experience that Austrians appreciate hearing the native name of their country, the "Eastern Kingdom". "Ja, Österreich...", she continued, with the lovely Viennese pronunciation. My German is rusty and I'm afflicted with a guttural Schleswig-Holstein accent, but it's nice to get a chance to speak it once in a while.

If I learned one important lesson at Mazzocco, it was that Zinfandel is an extremely versatile grape when handled properly. Looking back over my posts for the past few years, I've noticed that I haven't tried a lot of Zin lately. At some point I got bored with high alcohol, thick, jammy Zins. Those wines have their place, but they become difficult to pair with food and can blast away the flavor of other wines on the table. In Dry Creek, I discovered that Zinfandel can be light, even refreshing at times. It's a good lesson in examining your wine habits and giving a grape a second chance.

The following wines are almost entirely Zinfandel, with a splash of Petite Sirah.

Wines Sampled at the Vineyard

Further details and ordering information can be found at the Mazzocco website.

2006 Lytton. Bright red cherry aromas, light, refreshing, creamy finish.

2006 Stone. Cream and black cherry, touches of seeds and skins for deeper flavor.

2006 Warm Springs. Earth and spice, blackberry flavors stand out.

2006 Warm Springs Reserve. Blueberry, touch of jam, roast coffee, touch of toast.

2006 Smith Orchard Reserve. Dry and restrained, touch of tea, chocolate and cherries, made me think about Sachertorte.

2006 West Dry Creek Reserve. Baked bread, dried cherries.

2006 Pony Reserve. Very light, more cherries and cream.

2006 Juan Rodriguez. Very light and delicate, soft cherry flavors in the background.

2006 Kenneth Cole. Just a hint of tannins here, with beautiful red fruit flavors of cherry and strawberry.

2006 Antoine Phillippe. Beautiful plum and spice aromas, medium body with a long finish. My favorite of the tasting, and highly recommended. At $120, it's a reminder that small production, higher price wines aren't just about hype and popularity.

08 May 2009

Benito vs. the Cocktail: Cosmopolitan

I can't imagine Humphrey Bogart ordering a Cosmopolitan. I'm not going to attack anyone for their preferences, but this falls into the "make it fruity and sweet so you can't taste the alcohol" category mostly desired by Girl Drink Drunks. But it's a useful cocktail to know, both for entertaining female guests and because the basic proportions and principles are a good baseline for improvising your own cocktails. You never know when you may find yourself stranded with just a few ingredients. And let's be honest, use quality components and it tastes pretty good.

Thanks go out to my partner in crime Paul, who tweaked and adjusted the ingredients over time to come up with the following eponymous recipe:

The Cosmopaulitan
1 oz. Vodka
1 oz. Cranberry Juice
1/2 oz. Triple Sec
1/4 oz. Lime Juice
Combine in a shaker with ice, shake or stir, and strain into martini glasses.

Ask for it by name, tovarisch!

Side note: I thought I was being clever by playing around with the ingredients and substituting pomegranate juice for cranberry juice. Later I discovered that this is... gulp... "Oprah's Favorite Pomegranate Martini". And I wanted to call it a Pogo.

Now, what about the basic cocktail recipe that I mentioned earlier? Others have written about this at length, and in general a lot of cocktails boil down to the following formulas:

2 parts spirits + 1 part liqueur + 1 part citrus juice
3 parts spirits + 2 parts liqueur + 1 part citrus juice

The Cosmo is loosely tied to the first formula. If you get bored some weekend afternoon and have the ingredients at hand, grab a shot glass for measuring and try a few of these combinations. Like Thomas Edison, be sure to keep notes on what works and what doesn't, and expect many failures. But with the 2:1:1, you can get a great Margarita. Use decent Tequila:Cointreau:Orange Juice, and hit it with a squeeze of lime. Boom! You can no longer appreciate green slushies mixed with cheap liquor.

And of course, once you discover some combination that works for you, say, Gin:Amaretto:Guava Juice*, then you can scale it to serve as many people as necessary. It's the beauty of math: with accurate measuring utensils, you could make a great cocktail in a thimble or in a swimming pool.

*I just made that up, but if anyone tries it please let me know.

06 May 2009

Green Winemaking Tour: Rodney Strong

First, a quick note. Tracy Rickman is an Auburn University doctoral student studying wine blogs. A few months ago I participated in a conference call along with other wine bloggers, and I got a chance to meet her when she joined us for my Burns Night dinner. She's a wonderful person and it's been great working with her since the beginning of the year.

As part of her research, she has created an online Wine Blog Survey and is looking for readers of wine blogs to answer a few questions. If you get a free ten minutes and feel like helping out with an interesting project, follow that link and answer the questions. Research like this will be vital in the coming years as blogs and other new media become a bigger and bigger part of the wine journalism scene.

* * *

Rodney Strong was one of the bigger places I visited in Sonoma, and was on the opposite end of the spectrum from the little farmhouses I'd seen. It's a large, modern building with big fountains out front, ample parking, and spacious guest facilities. For instance, check out Rob Cockerham's visit for a story about a combination wine and chocolate tasting.

Founded in 1959 by Rodney Strong (a professional ballet dancer who saw a better future in the wine business), the winery has grown considerably over the past fifty years. From humble beginnings the company has emerged with a slick look and a large portfolio of wines. In the self tour, you're able to take your time and read the displays about the history of the winery while looking out over large, industrial-size steel tanks and oak barrels. While it's not certified organic, the winery employs various green technologies and is committed to sustainable viticulture.

One particular area of pride is the massive 766 kW solar energy installation, the largest in the wine industry. It provides clean electricity for the winery operations, and is part of a continuing plan to become carbon neutral. Follow that link and you can watch a video about the Rodney Strong solar project.

If you're visiting Rodney Strong, it's pretty easy to find and doesn't require any wild trips through dusty back roads. And if you've got the time, you can walk across the parking lot to taste sparkling wines at J Vineyards and Winery. Unfortunately, I did not visit J--Rodney Strong was my last stop of the day, and at some point you have to realize the limitations of the human palate.

Wines Sampled at the Vineyard

More details and ordering information for these wines can be found at the company website.

2006 Reserve Chardonnay. Mineral, light fruit, touch of pear.

2007 Estate Chalk Hill Chardonnay. Yellow apples, butter, and lots of oak.

2006 Reserve Pinot Noir. Overripe strawberries, touch of tannins, firm finish.

2007 Estate Pinot Noir. More acidity than the Reserve, lighter, seems like a great lunch wine for something like grilled salmon.

2005 Alexander's Crown Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. Green bell pepper and tobacco aroma, smooth and peppery, full mouthfeel. My favorite of the tasting, recommended.

2006 Alder Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. Black cherry dominates, medium tannins.

2006 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. Very delicate, with berry aromas. Made on a much smaller scale.

2005 Meritage. Very Bordeaux-like, with lots of berry and vegetal complexity. Using all five red Bordeaux grapes, there's a lot going on with this wine.

04 May 2009

Tasting with Fredric: Ridge Vertical

Note: I'm going to delay my usual Monday green winemaking post until Wednesday to post this vertical tasting recap. Bear in mind that the following Ridge roundup was written before I read Fredric's article. I think it would be educational for our mutual readers to digest our two views on the same tasting. Somewhere, a grad student is mulling over a thesis concept based on these two differential approaches. And if she's in her thirties and is available, let the record state that I'm the single one. I contribute the following post to the scientific community, and salute those lasses with glasses that know the difference between the actinide and lanthanide series.

I've been to a handful of private wine tastings hosted by dear friend and fellow blogger Fredric Koeppel. I normally don't write about these, because I assume he's going to write about the bottles at some point and I don't want to steal his thunder. However, on this particular occasion, and with his explicit permission, I feel compelled to put virtual pen to virtual paper...

When I wrote recently about visiting the Ridge Winery, I noted that "Ridge wines tend to age fairly well under less-than-ideal circumstances". This was based on enjoying a few bottles around ten years of age that had sat in closets or in the back corner of a wine shop, i.e. not in a climate controlled cellar. Fredric sent me an e-mail shortly after with a combination of a challenge and invitation: in the early 90s he'd purchased a six-bottle vertical of Ridge's Geyserville Zinfandels (1984-1989) that had bounced around various domiciles since then, and suggested a lunch meeting to pop them open and test my theory. Even if I had to print a retraction later, there was no way I could refuse.

When the day arrived, Fredric was in the middle of fixing lunch. I carefully opened the wines--old corks can be messy and delicate, and to my credit only two corks broke, but I managed to keep the debris out of the wine. One bottle had leaked slightly, but this had no negative impact on the wine inside.

We started out with an escarole and scallion salad, lightly tossed with a vinaigrette. To cleanse the palate and awaken the tongue, Fredric poured a German Riesling, the 2004 August Kesseler Lorcher Schlossberg Kabinett. Lovely little white with a firm pear and petrol aroma, and a rich pear and mineral flavor. The touch of sweetness played well against the bitter greens in the salad.

The main course was a dish of braised oxtails, using a recipe from the famed Lutèce in Manhattan. This was deep, savory, and soul-stirringly delicious, but I kept getting distracted by the six glasses of wine arrayed in front of me, representing the ages of 7-13 in my own childhood. Those years really encapsulate the magic time between "too young to know what's going on" and "having to start shaving". A half dozen years full of riding bikes, digging holes in the backyard, and trying to make my little brother laugh during church, which inevitably got us both in trouble.

These wines were primarily Zinfandel with varying percentages of Petite Sirah and Carignane. We started with the 1989 and moved back in time, though all wines were tried several times over the course of the afternoon. Colors were fairly constant, with the brick/garnet of an older red wine.

1989 - Started out unpleasant, with a funky aroma that suggested a flaw. But with breathing, this established itself as a decent wine.

1988 - Probably a textbook case of California Zinfandel, properly aged. It had all of that great Zinfandel flavor and pepper, plum goodness, but with the mellowed tannins and delicate acidity of age.

1987 - My favorite of the tasting, and the bottle I took home with me. This one ended up with a fascinating Bordeaux character, full of green bell pepper, tobacco, leather... Very mild mouthfeel and a slightly tart finish.

1986 - It started with a peppery zing but mellowed into almost a Burgundy-like wonder with mild black cherry and strawberry austerity.

1985 - Lots of cherry, with full fruit flavors, and it got even better with time.

1984 - Sort of a tea and blackberry aroma, but this one was perhaps just past its time. It was the only one that I thought didn't get noticeably more interesting over the course of the tasting.

Since I'd actually walked in the fields were these grapes were grown, it was a special experience. And I don't often get to taste wines that are 20+ years old--it was fascinating to watch them open up and blossom over time, behaving in ways that no 2 year old current release ever could.

* * *

A couple of hours after the bottles were opened, Fredric and I were still sitting around, sipping the wines and swapping tales. He spoke fondly of spending time twenty years ago tasting incredible wines with "Big" John Grisanti, the late patriarch of a local Italian food dynasty. Big John would call him and they'd waste away an afternoon or evening with well-preserved treasures from California and beyond, oblivious to price or circumstance. Fredric got a certain twinkle in his eye that, I'd like to think, I've shown when discussing certain magical wine experiences with my friends.

As I sat there swirling wine that was harvested and vinified when I was still in elementary school, I realized I was benefiting from a generational return of favor. So to Fredric Koeppel, Mike Whitfield, my father, and the others who have helped shape my wine education and pull me out of the young, bargain wines, I thank you.

* * *

From "The Factory Song" by the band Seven Nations, I quote this stanza:

I share this cellar with five of my friends
When the big bell rings our day's at an end
We clear our throats from the dusty air
The machinery's din we always hear

01 May 2009

Chilean Sauvignon Blanc

Back in November I reviewed a half dozen Chilean Carménères. Now, just in time for Memphis in May, I've got another half dozen Chilean wines, this time focusing on another Bordeaux grape that took root and flourished on the other side of the equator, Sauvignon Blanc. For those of you outside the Mid-South, Memphis in May is a month-long series of events around the city around the theme of an honored country. For 2009, that country is Chile.

When I reviewed the reds, I a made a whole themed dinner around the wines, but this time I decided to focus on six different dishes spread out over the course of a couple of weeks. It was a delicious journey, especially since most of them were takeout and required minimal time in the kitchen (we all need a break from time to time). Sauvignon Blanc is a pretty versatile grape that goes well with lots of things including salads, chicken, and milder game, but I've always loved it best with fish and shellfish. None of these dishes are Chilean, but should be available in some form to a wide range of customers in the United States.

All of these wines are good bargains under $15, and will be great to purchase for enjoying during the hot summer months ahead. Plus, with one exception they're all enclosed with screwcaps, convenient for taking to the family BBQ or other outdoor event where a corkscrew may not be available.

For more information on Chilean wines, be sure to check out Wines of Chile, and as always, click on the photos for bigger, more detailed versions.

2008 Luis Felipe Edwards Reserva Sauvignon Blanc
$9, 13% abv, Central Valley

Orange peel aroma, with a rich and round mouthfeel. Tart finish. As it warms up, you get a stronger aroma of that orange peel, close to marmelade. This could be a fun breakfast wine, in the sense of "with Sunday Brunch" and not "on the way to work with an Egg McMuffin®". I served it with grocery store sushi, one of my favorite guilty pleasures. Hey, sushi was originally the fast food of Japan; it's a bit more authentic to buy it from a deli than from an expensive restaurant.

For the sake of my epicurean friends: yes, I've had the good stuff, the obscure stuff, the mind-blowingly incredible sushi. But just because the best hamburger I ever had was a blend of Kobe beef, short ribs, and foie gras doesn't mean that I can't appreciate a decent grilled burger from a mom and pop joint for a few bucks.

2008 Carmen Classic Sauvignon Blanc
$10, 13.5% abv, Curico Valley

Big peach aroma, apricot flavors and a big, fruit-forward taste. Touch of basil in the aftertaste, and I'm always happy to see those little herbal touches in a wine. I paired it with two delectable fillets of fried catfish. While this is not understood well among Yankees and other outsiders, those of us born and raised in the South are occasionally susceptible to a powerful craving for fried catfish. I tend to like it with a crisp cornmeal crust that includes a lot of black pepper, and I dose it up with loads of Tabasco or whatever other vinegar-based hot sauce is within reach. For side dishes I like one that's creamy (mac & cheese or cole slaw) and one that's bitter (like collard or turnip greens).

2008 Emiliana Natura Sauvignon Blanc
$11, 13.5% abv, Casablanca Valley, made from organically-grown grapes

Strong red grapefruit juice aroma, with flavors to match. Tart acidity, short finish. Once you spend some time with it an earthy undertone is present. Firm and bold enough to stand up to heartier fare.

Served here with a pair of crabcakes atop a bed of broccoli stalk slaw and a chipotle mayonnaise. Alas, the saucing didn't work out great for this photo layout, but I wanted the mayo to work double duty for the slaw and the crab. Once consumed it was delicious, and the smoky chipotle matched nicely with the tart wine.

2008 Concha y Toro Casillero del Diablo Sauvignon Blanc
$12, 13% abv, Central Valley

Soft grapefruit aromas, round and mild mouthfeel with a brief finish and a lemon curd aftertaste. This is probably the softest and easiest drinking of the batch, which unfortunately means it wasn't a great pairing with the dinner here: garlic chicken along with seafood dim sum and a bevy of ramekins filled with Chinese mustard, wasabi, and hoisin sauce. (If you get the chance, make your own wasabi paste using one of the blends from Penzey's. It will clear out your sinuses for weeks afterward.)

The wine was tasty and the food was savory, but the latter overpowered the former. It's still wise to experiment with food/wine pairings; you never know what will work or not. As the Vulcans say, Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.

2008 Botalcura El Delirio Reserva Sauvignon Blanc
$13, 12.5% abv, Casablanca Valley

Ah, bonita. Very light and mild, just a hint of honeysuckle and clover. Clean and crisp mouthfeel with a short and round finish. As it warms up I get just a hint of magnolia blossom on it. I had to check with my dear Hispanophone friend Grace on the translation for this wine, as my Spanish vocabulary is tiny and mostly confined to food terms. From Italian and French I pick up a lot, but I sometimes miss nuance. El Delirio is, in fact, Spanish for delirium or delusion. I thought there might be some more poetic meaning, perhaps the quail on the label meant something, but no. On the language note, Botalcura means "large stone" in the Mapundungun language of the indigenous Mapuche people of southern Chile.

This was my favorite wine out of all six, and is highly recommended. I served it with one of my favorite weekday dinners, an omelet made with diced ham, cheese, and a good salsa featuring peppers like guajillo or pasilla.

2008 Undurraga Aliwen Sauvignon Blanc
$13, 13% abv, Maipo Valley

As with the previous wine, part of the name comes from the Mapuche: Aliwen is a legendary sacred tree connecting heaven and earth, similar to the tradition of Yggdrasil. The name of the winery itself comes from the founder, Don Francisco Undurraga, who brought French and German grapes to Chile. What do I keep telling y'all? HISTORY IN A GLASS! Take a moment to gaze upon the golden or crimson fluid in your chalice and do a bit of research. You'll emerge with a greater appreciation of the land and people that brought that wine to your lips.

This wine is well balanced with mineral and golden apple flavors, medium acidity and a light but refreshing finish. I was very happy with it, and it paired well with the grilled dinner including chicken thighs and shrimp (each skewered on sugar cane spears*) and fire roasted red peppers and asparagus. It was a great way to say goodbye to the last of the Sauvignon Blancs, and say hello to summer.

*More on sugar cane in a future post!