26 February 2010

NV Demestica White

I was sharing a bunch of wine samples with some friends recently and decided to throw in something odd. Not a lot of Greek wine is sold around here, and I figured it would be a chance for a half dozen people to try their first one. By chance one of the guests brought olives and dolmadas, another provided spanakopita, so we had a perfect match waiting for us.

The NV Demestica White is a basic table wine produced by Achaia Clauss on the Peloponnesean peninsula of Greece. $10, 13% abv, made from Rhoditis, Sideritis, and various unspecified white grapes. Spicy nose with a touch of tar, pear and pineapple. A bit musty like an old library, with a fruity flavor reminiscent of yellow raisins but not sweet. Definitely something different, and it turned out to the be favorite of one of the guests. It's ideal for a long period of snacking, and I would even recommend it for tapas.

This wine is pretty common, served in a lot of Greek restaurants, and while it's not going to be replacing Chardonnay anytime soon, it's certainly interesting, tasty, and worth trying if you want to expand your wine horizons a little.

Side note: Clauss doesn't sound Greek, does it? A Bavarian named Gustav Clauss moved to Achaia on the Peloponnese in 1854 and over the next few decades began to export Greek wines.

24 February 2010

A Pair of Argentine Malbecs

Red wines from Argentina continue to be a great bargain due a combination of increasing yields and a declining peso. I worry at times about a backlash--sort of like what is happening with Australia, but for the time being I think a $10-15 Malbec is great as a middle of the week, casual wine. Here's two that I've tried recently.

2007 Antigal Malbec from the Mendoza region of Argentina. $15, 13.9% abv. Light nose of blueberries and leather, with a later touch of of strawberry cream pie. Mellow flavor with mild berry elements and a short finish.

I served this with a steak and a weird tuber. The purple sweet potato is identical in flavor to a regular sweet potato, though after baking it's an inky, nearly black purple. It definitely looks different on the plate, but I don't know that it's any better than its orange cousin.

Next up is the bottle that came along with the rosé I reviewed Monday. Xavier Flouret imports wines from several countries including Argentina under a common brand. This concept can be confusing for the novice winelover, but it's not really an unusual practice. And it's usually a good way to find new wines. If you like one, there's a chance the others were selected with a similar philosophy in mind. There are currently a dozen wines under the "X" label with plans for a dozen more.

2006 Xavier Flouret La Pilar $15, 13.5% abv. From the Uco Valley of Argentina. Lots of plum, with a jammy rich dark fruit profile. It is rich and smooth, and sips quite easily even without decanting or breathing. One thing I liked about this wine was the proper aging. Four years isn't a huge amount of time, but a lesser wine would have died out by now. This was in a great sweet spot, and while it's hard to say how future cellaring would impact it, this bottle is perfect to drink now.

There are some truly spectacular Malbecs out there that will run you over $50, but I get a lot of enjoyment out of these that are priced below $20. Sure, you can make roasted rack of lamb or seared liver, but an inexpensive Malbec is phenomenal with a simply grilled burger or even pasta with tomato sauce and spicy sausage.

The Xavier Flouret wine was received as a sample from Cognac One.

22 February 2010

2008 Xavier Flouret Nationale 7

It was difficult for me to open this wine. Not because of the cork, but because it's just such a breathtakingly beautiful color that I didn't want to empty the bottle... But at the same time, I had to know how it tasted. Ah, the eternal conflict of wine.

This little beauty is the 2008 Xavier Flouret Nationale 7, $20, 13% abv. From the Côtes de Provence AOC, made in a spot on the coast between Marseille and Nice in the southeast corner of France. No oak, all stainless steel. 45% Grenache, 40% Cinsault, 15% Tibouren. A very light and delicate wine, and you'll want to resist the urge to serve this too cold. As it warms up a yellow cherry and violet aroma arises. Light strawberry flavors with just a bit of acidity towards the finish. If you ever talk to someone who wants a gentle transition into French wines, or maybe is trying to break out of the Pinot Grigio rut, I'd strongly recommend this wine.

I served it with a homemade white clam pizza. I haven't made crust from scratch in a while and it was a pleasure working with the dough again. A splash of olive oil, a healthy dose of garlic, a can of chopped clams, fresh mozzarella, and shredded spinach. Lovely light dinner to go along with such a beautiful wine, and the seafood/coastal wine connection seemed appropriate.

As stated above, one of the grapes is Tibouren. It just so happens that this is my 150th confirmed grape. I've tried more, but for bragging purposes I stick to those I've got documented here on the blog, minus duplicates like Trajadura/Treixadura. And coincidentally, #150 is a weird, rare, obscure grape with a confusing history.

A few hours of research in different languages revealed alternate names, such as Guesserin, Gaysserin, Lou Defiouraire, Tiboulen, Tibourenc, Antibois, Antibouren, and Antibourenc. (Some of these names only show up in an 1881 catalog of European grapes. I consider the variant Tribouren to be a persistent typo.) The latter names were useful in that they pointed towards the French Riviera city of Antibes, founded by Greek settlers in 500 B.C.E.

English sources I found claim that the grape came to France via Greece, while French sources claim it came from Chaldea (part of Babylonia near modern day Kuwait). It's possible both are true, since many grapes moved from the Middle East through Greece to the Mediterranean and then throughout Europe and later the rest of the world. It's grown primarily as a blending grape for rosés in Provence, and I didn't find evidence of it being planted anywhere else in the world. Well, a German source makes reference to a Tibouren grape grown in Armenia, but that it's unknown if there's a relationship. And the Italian take on the whole thing is just confusing and full of speculation. (If anyone wants to tackle the Niçard or Provençal sources, be my guest. Life's too short to learn the 40 minor dialects spoken in France.)

Having run out of languages, source material, and without physical grapes, leaves, or DNA to test, I have no definitive answer about the grape's origins. Perhaps some ampelographer will figure it out in the future. While the hunt was fun, perhaps I was overthinking it... After all, this is a light and refreshing wine for enjoying on a sunny afternoon, even if you're not on the expensive beaches of Saint-Tropez.

This wine was received as a sample from Cognac One.

19 February 2010

Winebloggers In The South

After five years of blogging about wine, one steps back and wonders what to do next. Obviously the main site is important and isn't going away, but there is a desire for something more. And in lieu of trophy wives and sports cars, I decided to build a secondary blog. (Note to companies that promote trophy wives and sports cars: yes, I'll accept samples for review!)

Winebloggers In The South or WITS is intended primarly as a set of links for, well, winebloggers in the south. I built this because it didn't already exist. There are lists out there containing most of the thousand English language wine blogs (and trust me, I've seen nearly all of them in the research phase), and winebloggers scribbling away in the various states that aren't California or New York tend to link some of their nearby fellow bloggers, but I wanted a site that would focus on Southerners.

Do I think that those of us in the South are better wine writers? Not necessarily, but I feel that we have a unique perspective combined with a rich literary history and a cuisine that can be both rewarding and frustrating when it comes to fermented grape beverages. There's also something to be said for the "art through adversity" angle: it's easy to be a wine lover in California, but harder in "flyover country". Get far enough away from a major metropolitan area and there's a good chance you're the only wine fan in your neighborhood or social circle. We have to put up with weird laws left over from Prohibition on top of our weird laws left over from the Civil War. We have to combat ignorant stereotypes about wine in our communities while simultaneously fighting ignorant stereotypes about the South around outsiders. Above all we really want to share our love of wine, in our own distinct voices and with our own diverse perspectives. I'm hoping to learn things like how wine fits in with the Caribbean fusion cuisine of Florida, or in a beer and cocktail-focused city like New Orleans.

I'm looking to include winebloggers who currently live and write in the states listed: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. Why these? I picked the states that say "y'all" and swapped Kentucky for Oklahoma. So far I've found sites from all of the states except for Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana--there's bound to be some out there, and I'm hoping that those bloggers or their readers will contact me and let me know.

Other reasons for doing this:
  • I really want to highlight some cool blogs I've found, and my list of links was getting unwieldy.
  • I want to stand up for the idea that yes, Southerners can know what they're talking about when it comes to wine. We also wear shoes and have indoor plumbing, despite what popular culture tells you.
  • It's an experiment in branding and social networking and other stuff. I'm tracking hits and responses and links from day one, which might be of use in future wine blog studies. If the whole site is a failure at the very least I can leave it up as a set of links to great blogs. And by the way, it's really hard to design something "Southern" without resorting to the Confederacy, symbols of a specific state or football team, or something else that might cause problems.
  • I can do profiles on some of these sites, I can post oddities that might not fit here on BWR, or I can just ignore the thing for weeks at a time. Again, the primary purpose is as a list.
  • My greatest hope is that it promotes cross communication between various WITS. Like I said, in this part of the country it's very easy to feel like you're all alone in your wine appreciation. And just in the short time since I've launched this project I've found that a bunch of these folks from Georgia and Texas are pretty friendly and are way more active on the social networking front than I am. The more we talk to each other, share ideas, and link one another, the better we all fare when it comes to the broader enterprise of wineblogging.
Cheers, y'all!

P.S. Yes, it's been two weeks since I actually reviewed a wine on "Benito's Wine Reviews". Fear not! Next week is mostly wine!

17 February 2010

Orange Margaritas

I love blood oranges. Can I tell the difference between the flavor in a blind tasting? I don't know, I've never tried. But I always think of them as having a deeper, more robust flavor than the regular old navel oranges we eat on a regular basis. And blood oranges produce a particularly beautiful juice. You can buy it bottled sometimes, but as with any other citrus fruit it's always best when freshly squeezed. Naturally I used my cast aluminum exprimidor for this.

Benito's Blood Orange Margarita
2 parts Fresh-squeezed Blood Orange Juice
2 parts Tequila
1 part Cointreau
Dash of Lime Juice

Estimate about one big blood orange per person. Juice the oranges into a measuring cup and then add that amount again in tequila, and half that amount for the Cointreau. Combine in a shaker with ice and strain to serve. I like it on the rocks so the drink mellows over time. If you're making a lot, mix the ingredients in a pitcher, then pour over ice or shake individual cocktails as needed. If you just leave ice in it the whole thing will just get watered down.

Now, this will be on the tart side, which is the way I like it. The Cointreau has enough sugar to blunt some of the tartness, but some may desire additional sweetness. Feel free to use sugar or simple syrup. The latter is useful because it can be added by the individual drinker to his or her desired sweetness.

Here's another example using regular oranges and a cheaper liqueur:

Margarita de Naranja al Benito
2 parts Orange Juice
2 parts Tequila
1 part Orange Liqueur
Dash of Lime Juice

Orange liqueurs come in two main types: clear, made with neutral spirits (Cointreau, Triple Sec, etc.), and dark, made with brandy or Cognac. Here I used DeKuyper Orange Curaçao, from the dark category. The brandy sort of smooths the edges off the citrus, resulting in a rounder, less tart beverage. Again, if you prefer things on the sweeter side add sugar or simple syrup. Or agave syrup if you want to be all organic about it. Too strong or you just want to stretch it out? I love adding in sparkling water or club soda, particularly when it's blazing hot outside.

Yes, you could throw all this together in a blender with some ice and get a frozen margarita. But I think that doing so really waters down the beverage, and makes it too cold to properly appreciate the various flavors. If I'm drinking a cocktail, it's not for the purposes of getting drunk: I want to enjoy the flavors of the discrete ingredients combined in a proper fashion to produce a work that is greater than the sum of its parts. Turning a cocktail into an adult squishy defeats the purpose.

15 February 2010

Benito vs. The Pimento Cheese Burger

Sometime during elementary school, you start to notice people with weird food preferences. I say "weird" because they obviously conflict with the rules set down at your home. "Can I have OJ on my cereal instead of milk?" "No! Are you crazy?" Mom and Dad make the decisions about dinner, and there are certain Things You Just Don't Do. Then one day during lunch a kid breaks out a peanut butter and pickle sandwich and you look on in horror while he chomps away. Of course, he's just following the rules of his household, and your bologna and mustard sandwich looks equally weird.

I bring this up because, after a lifetime of living in the south and a lot of experience with pimento cheese, I only recently found out that some folks put it on hamburgers. Even better: there was a place nearby that sold these things. Childhood revulsion at breaking the food rules eventually gave way to, "Why not, I'll give it a try before I criticize it."

Now, I might have to explain this for the Yankees and other Ausländern. Pimento Cheese is a mix of shredded cheese, mayonnaise, sweet peppers (like inside olives), and various seasonings. Traditionally it's served with crackers, celery, or in the most common form, sandwiches. Just a layer of the spread between two slices of white bread, often with the crusts removed and then cut into triangles. Anyone that's ever had to make a hundred of these for a church gathering knows the joy of snacking on the crusts while you try to make perfect finger sandwiches.

Jim & Nick's is a Birmingham, Alabama based chain of BBQ restaurants, and it takes some guts for a resident of the Yellowhammer State to come to Memphis and try to sell 'Q. But even I must admit that they do a great job, and I'm quite fond of their beef brisket. Don't believe me? Check out the review by my friends the Knipples, who note the restaurant's support of the Southern Foodways Alliance.

What about the burger? I felt strange ordering it, felt strange looking at it when I got home, and bit into it with some trepidation. Lesson #1: pimento cheese went everywhere and Wolfie got some of the bits that hit the floor. It's messy if you're not paying attention. That being said, it was really good. Good as in, two hours later, I wanted another one. Unlike most supermarket pimento cheese, this had some real bite to it, with sharp cheddar and some hotter than normal peppers. The cheese doesn't really melt over the burger; if it did so it would most likely separate in an unpleasant fashion.

I really don't know why this isn't more popular, aside from the mess factor. It's a stupidly obvious food combination and a perfect way to use up leftover pimento cheese after you've finished making three hundred triangle sandwiches for Wednesday night Bible Study. My fellow Southerners: you don't have to try this at Jim & Nick's, but I urge you to try it sometime this spring or summer. I believe you'll be pleasantly surprised.

12 February 2010

Beer Week: Beer Wars

I love documentaries, and the more obscure the topic the more I like it. Professional Scrabble players? The Donkey Kong championship? Tilt: The Battle to Save Pinball? Move over Avatar, I'm going to watch an entire film about the font Helvetica.

Thus I was excited to receive an advance DVD copy of the 2009 documentary Beer Wars, written, produced, and directed by Anat Baron. Baron is the former General Manager for Mike's Hard Lemonade and, despite an allergy to alcohol that prevents her from drinking beer or other spirits, has a deep interest in the way the modern beer industry works and the barriers to entry for smaller competitors and new products. Anat Baron answers questions about the film in a detailed interview on 29-95.com.

A few quick stats:

In 1873 there were 4,131 breweries in the U.S. By 1983, the number had dropped to 80, and those were controlled by only 50 companies. The number has risen above 1,500 thanks to the removal of some regulations in the late 70s and the subsequent craft beer movement. But even today, two companies control 78% of the beer in America: Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors.

When a smaller company is bought out by one of the big two, it's possible that the original brewery will be shut down and the beer will be replicated at a larger factory in a different state--but with no change to the name, label, or advertising. Rolling Rock was an example used in the film: brewed in Latrobe, PA from 1936-2006 and successful enough to becomes nationally distributed. It was bought by Anheuser-Busch and production was moved to New Jersey. Likewise, tons of Coors was brewed here in Memphis for over a decade, with our flat landscape and artesian wells producing that "Pure Rocky Mountain Spring Water" flavor. (The "terroir" of beer is largely water, which makes up 90-95% of the beverage.) If someone bought Moët & Chandon and moved Champagne production to a plant in Nebraska without changing the name or packaging, there would be rioting in the streets and it would dominate wine discussion for years.

It's one thing to get big through buying up smaller companies and being successful at what you do. It's another thing to do it through writing state and federal laws to maintain oligopolies. There are old laws leftover from the days of Prohibition that determine who controls beer distribution in every state, and which beers you're allowed to consume in your area. The National Beer Wholesalers Association is a lobby that maintains these laws across all party lines and all states. They donate to every single Congressman in the country in order to maintain the status quo, making them one of the most powerful lobbying organizations in the country. (Baron did find one Oregon Representative that hadn't accepted NBWA funds, but only because he hadn't been offered. He got campaign funds from them during his following election cycle.)

The end result of this is that you want to sell a beer in bars or grocery stores, you don't have many options. The companies that distribute Anheuser-Busch InBev products tend to stay within the family, so you have to beg for truck and shelf space from the companies that carry MillerCoors products. You can't just sell directly to the bar, restaurant, or grocery store.

Imagine if national and local laws were twisted in such a way that 78% of all meals consumed in the United States were either at McDonald's or Wendy's. Independent restaurants would have to work under the good graces of those two. And say it only became legal to cook at home in 1979, assuming your individual state allows you to. Where would American cuisine be today? It sounds crazy, but once one drop of alcohol is involved, reason and common sense go out the window.

The worst part of this conglomeration has been the fact that American beer was largely turned into a generic, tasteless product: a light lager without bitterness or discerning flavor. In my favorite scene, bar patrons who only drink either Coors Light, Bud Light, or Miller Lite are invited to a blind tasting. Baron (on the right in the above photo) admits it's not scientific, but none of the people tested can pick their preferred brand out of the three.

The documentary is not all doom and gloom and railing against corporate interests. There are success stories, particularly Dogfish Head. On the left side of this photo is Sam Calagione of Dogfish, who in 1995 at the age of 25 used everything he owned to start a brewery... not knowing that it was illegal to brew beer in Delaware. He got the law changed mere days before opening the facility. Today Dogfish makes some of the most creative beers in the country. There's a few of the old holdouts who, like Shiner, survived Prohibition and the conglomeration of the 50s and 60s. It was great to see the Yuengling brewery, which has operated in Pennsylvania since 1829. The Boston Beer Co., maker of Samuel Adams, is the biggest and most successful independent brewery in the United States. It currently accounts for one-half of 1% of the U.S. beer market.

I'm not angry at distributors, some of whom are personal friends of mine. I get irritated when the system prevents me from trying something I'd like, or how beers have to be downgraded to 3.2% alcohol for Utah, or how Sam Adams' Utopias is illegal in 13 states. Nor am I telling you to go to hell if you prefer macrobrews. Drink what you like. But if you're interested in flavor, creativity, and dynamic innovation, check out the independents. Try your local brewpub, or homebrewers' association, or just give a chance to one of those crazy-looking beers you see in the store. OK, in the last case there's a good probability that it's owned by the big two anyway.

Unlike wine, truly world-class beer can be made practically anywhere and the only limit is the imagination of the brewer. You may have to look a little harder, but great beer is worth the search.

As of February 1, 2010, this movie is available everywhere, including iTunes and Netflix. You can also watch it on Amazon using your web browser for $3.99.

And with that, Benito's Beer Week comes to a close... Fear not, I've got some more interesting brews sitting around and there's always something new to try, and I'll sprinkle them around throughout the year, just like all the other crazy non-wine topics I cover. In the meantime, pick the right glass, don't chill it, and enjoy the golden barley goodness. Prosit!

Cover and screen images ©Copyright 2009 Ducks in A Row Entertainment Corporation. NBWA logo is a registered trademark, used here via Wikipedia with more details on fair use rules.

I received this DVD as a sample.

11 February 2010

Beer Week: Three Beers From Three Floyds

More beer treasures thanks to the benevolence of Dave and Thomas Rickert and the occasional deliveries by the former. Cheers to you both, gents. Sláinte!

Three Floyds is an irreverent brewery based out of Munster, Indiana near Chicago. They've got a brewpub and a faithful following in the Midwest. I previously reviewed their Apocalypse Cow alongside some Sloppy Buffaloes, but was happy to try some other offerings.

Alpha King is the current flagship of the Three Floyds line, coming in at 6% abv and 66 IBUs in a standard 12 oz. bottle. It's a classic IPA, strong and bitter with a touch of orange peel. Tastes surprisingly like a fresh draft brew from a pub. The great part is that this is so light, smooth, and refreshing that it disappears quickly. I rarely quote directly from company tasting notes, but the information is important: "This ale is brewed with Centennial, Cascade, and Warrior hops giving it an intense citrus aroma and a crisp hoppy finish." Hell yes. My beer contains Warrior hops. Much like Conan, it knows what is best in life: "To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women."

The Broo Doo was one that I kept laughing at, and The Roommate found terrifying. She's not cool with Troll Dolls, and I had to knock this one out early so it didn't sit too long in the fridge staring at her every time she reached for a Diet Coke. 7% abv, 80 IBUs, 22 oz. bottle.

Spicy, low on the bitter scale despite the high IBU rating, with an earth/wheat profile. Translucent with lots of suspended particles. Beautiful amber color, smooth drinking, with just a little bite of bitterness on the finish. This is a good example of how a heavily hopped beer doesn't necessarily have to be that bitter. Other elements came into play here, leading to a well-balanced beer. Though I have to admit that the label, a mix of 80s kitsch and Grateful Dead typography with just a dash of Barbie's Malibu Dream House, is not going to appeal to the average beer drinker or even the committed beer geek.

Lastly, I finally got the opportunity to try the Dark Lord, the most acclaimed of the Three Floyds beers and the one most likely to disappoint my childhood Sunday School teachers. The white wax indicates that this was the 2009 release. This 22 oz. bottle has a whopping 13% abv, putting it in the wine category for many states. If you are fortunate enough to get a bottle of this, hang onto it until you can enjoy it properly. While it needs to be served and consumed like a Port, it's not going to hold up as long once the bottle is opened. Grab two or three friends if necessary so you can enjoy it before the magic dissipates.

This is an Imperial Stout. I've reviewed a few of these, but if you are a newbie to the world of beer tasting, I will give you one bit of advice. When you are served your first Imperial Stout, SIT DOWN SHUT YOUR MOUTH ZIP YOUR LIPS AND LISTEN HARD. After the host has explained it to you, take a sniff and then sip it slowly.

Tasting notes: very Port-like in aroma, body, and flavor, but dark as molasses. There's an espresso and bitter chocolate flavor, with notes of raisins and spice. Sweet and thick, but balanced against the strong bitter elements in the hops. Definitely an after-dinner drink, and one that will require sharing and long contemplation. I can't imagine drinking a whole bottle by myself. Note that this is only sold from the physical brewery once a year, so it's a special, rare beer. I said similar things about the Ten Fidy on Monday, but this one is far sweeter, making the Port comparison even more apt.

Fun thing to do with this beer: when you're done and there's those last two or three drops clinging to the bottom of the glass, fill it full of water. You will now have a glass of liquid the same shade as Budweiser. That's how dark and concentrated this beer is. In its undiluted state it practically absorbs all light that comes near it.

After tasting through several beers in one day, I was staring at the Dark Lord label and wondered why the Russian word for beer was apparently Иуук. And I knew that the Russian word for "Russian" sounded nothing like "Kgyynft". It should be Русский, pronounced "Rooskie". SHENANIGANS! Somebody just used a Cyrillic font for the fake Russian here on the label. Though I will admit that this is somewhat less annoying than the standard N=И, R=Я laziness.

That's not a slam on Three Floyds or their graphic designers, hell, it's possibly just an intentional joke meant to irritate Russians in the Chicago area. Regardless of the quirky designs, these are seriously incredible beers that deserve critical attention and stand among the most impressive beers I've ever quaffed. Certainly check them out if you're in the area or if you've got a friend willing to do some cross-border smuggling for you.

10 February 2010

Beer Week: Shine On: 100 Years of Shiner Beer

Shiner Beer is a true American success story. Founded by a group of German and Czech immigrants in a small Texas town a hundred years ago and driven by the fascinating Kosmos Spoetzl, the brewery survived Prohibition through the usual creative methods*, made it through the great blanding and conglomerating of the 50s-70s, and has emerged as a distinct and respected beer producer with a devoted regional and national following.

I was introduced to the modern flagship beer Shiner Bock back when it first hit Memphis. Dad had enjoyed it in Texas, and it hit a few local bars in bottles and draft around the time I turned 21. I liked Shiner Bock because, unlike the cheap Southpaw and Red Dog I'd drink with my friends, it had actual flavor and wasn't just something cold to drink with pizza. And it was around $5 per 6-pack, not an expensive beer by any stretch. Later on I tried a few more of their beers, and enjoyed the specialty brews that appeared in the leadup to the 100th Anniversary in 2009. (I considered attending the centenary celebration, but got tied up with other commitments.)

Speaking of that... The book in the picture is Shine On: 100 Years of Shiner Beer by Mike Renfro. It's a big coffee table book about the history of Shiner, ending with a school yearbook-style gallery of the current 55 employees. Frankly that's one of the most amazing things about this book: fifty-five smiling workers, all wearing their work shirts with their nickname on a patch. Many of them have been their for decades. "The brewmaster, Jimmy Mauric, he's been there 30 years, starting from the bottom, unloading sacks of corn and hops at age 17, and working his way up." You don't see that much these days.

The book contains a wealth of old photos and oral history, and is written in a casual Texan vernacular that I found refreshing. It's not hokey or forced, but rather a very honest way of telling the story. Renfro lives in Dallas and provides an authentic, local perspective.

I had to take a picture of the book next to one of the beers. Shiner Bohemian Black is a re-release of the 97th anniversary beer with a new label. 4.9% abv, 18 IBUs. It's got a dark roasted coffee aroma and flavor, medium bitterness, with a light finish. Similar to Guinness in that it looks far stronger than it tastes. In fact, despite the color this is a relatively light and refreshing beer that goes well with pizza, BBQ, burgers, and all sorts of other good grub that folks eat down here.

Are you a fan of Shiner? You might also be interested in my reviews of Shiner Helles and Shiner Kölsch.

*There are hundreds of amusing stories of how various wineries and breweries survived the brutal repression of the Prohibition years. Shiner sold a lot of ice. If you knew someone at the brewery you could show up on the right day and get two or three cases of "ice" if you wanted. A team of snitches was employed in surrounding towns to alert the brewery to the revenoors. In case of inspection, the tanks were dumped into the nearby stream.

09 February 2010

Beer Week: Sierra Nevada Porter

Ah, beer and bratwurst. A match made in heaven.

Among the many beers and treasures Dave brought back from far off Deutschland was a tube of Develey Mittelscharfer Senf, a medium spicy mustard. It feels a bit odd to squeeze it from a toothpaste tube, but it's cleaner and has a better "aim" than plastic squeeze bottles. I also like my mustard on the hotter side, yet this is far superior to anything that comes in a bright yellow bottle. Add in some Swiss on a steamed bun, a little sauerkraut, baked herbed fries, and you're in business. As for the beer...

Sierra Nevada of Chico, California was one of the pioneers of the craft brewing trend back in 1980 and has maintained independence and high quality since then, even as its popularity has soared. While they're best known for their Pale Ale, I popped open a Sierra Nevada Porter to go with this meal. 5.6% abv, 12 oz. bottle. It's toasty and nutty with medium bitterness and a short finish. While this is definitely dark it's not overpowering, and has a nice toffee element from the malts. It's a good introductory porter if you're looking to get into more full-flavored beers.

They also make one of my absolute favorite beers, Bigfoot. It's a traditional Barleywine, a more powerful, higher alcohol style that was more popular a hundred years ago, but has found a new audience today.

08 February 2010

Beer Week: Oskar Blues Ten Fidy

A week of beer reviews deserves a design that looks it was ripped off an Ohio Brauhaus that had been marred by decades of cigarette smoke. Thus, the Benito's Beer Week logo.

* * *

Recently I've had the opportunity to try a lot of independent beers, so this whole week is devoted to beer reviews. And there's enough good beer and beer media (just wait!) to fill up five days this week, so check back Tuesday and Thursday if you're interested but normally only read MWF.

As always, this does not signal a change of theme here--I've done dozens of beer reviews, and other winebloggers like Fredric are getting in on the action. There's a lot to appreciate in good quality beer, and it's a fun change of pace after reviewing a lot of wine.

Let's kick off this Bierwoche with a curious brew I received as a sample: Oskar Blues Ten Fidy, 12 oz. 10.5% abv, 98 IBUs. Made in Lyons, Colorado, this is notable for being a serious "big beer" that's packaged in a can instead of a bottle. Oskar Blues does this both to protect the beer from light damage and for the environmental benefits (easier recycling, lower shipping weight, less space required, etc.).

This is a powerful Imperial Stout that has a very bitter profile with very few of the sweet elements you see in some implementations. Coffee and chocolate dominate the nose and palate. It's thick and dark with a rich brown head, and a hint of burnt orange peel that's very enchanting. Drink this at room temperature after dinner. Treat it like Port; I think it's far too strong to consume with a meal, and you won't be able to appreciate it as much.

I tried it both in the brandy snifter pictured above and straight from the can--definitely go with the snifter, or a wine glass. I mean, yeah, you can drink it from the can, but you're not going to get any of the experience of swirling and sniffing between sips. Just because it's in a can doesn't mean you have to drink it like that. We rarely drink straight from wine bottles. At least, not in public.

The website features a detailed location directory which will let you know specific stores and bars serving their products. I'm looking forward to trying some of the other interesting cans like the amusingly named "Mama's Little Yella Pils".

This beer was received as a sample from Oskar Blues. In full disclosure of other gifts, I received some awesome stickers.

05 February 2010

Three Wines from Dave

My friend Dave Rickert was in town again, and came bearing gifts of the liquid variety. I've mentioned him in the past, and how his hobby of collecting wines during his U.S. Army service in Germany has ended up exposing me to a lot of fascinating bottles. We gathered over at Paul's house with some delicious ribeyes and set in on three great wines.

First we tried the 2007 Castaño Monastrell from Yecla in Southeast Spain. $10, 13.5% abv, 100% Monastrell (Mourvèdre). Delicious aroma of bacon fat, rich currants, touch of cedar, smooth. Minimum tartness, follow through on flavor of currants with a short finish. I really enjoyed this wine, and it showed how Mourvèdre can have an aromatic, mellowing influence on Rhone wines. (Also, if you're interested in this grape, check out Vine Geek's Mourvèdre Mondays, a year-long project he just started.)

Next we opened the 2005 Tintara Cabernet Sauvignon from the McLaren Vale, Australia. $18, 14% abv.
Black cherry, green bell pepper, herbs, firm tannins. Flavors of licorice, with tart cherry skin aftertaste. It's one of the only Australian red wines that had a strong Bourdeaux/Claret profile to it, and it's certainly an amazing wine for the price. I'd love to see how this one develops over time.

Finally we got to the Bordeaux that had been decanted an hour earlier... the 2000 Château La Louvière, €24 in Germany a few years ago, 13% abv, from the Pessac-Léognan subregion of Graves. 64% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 3% Cabernet Franc, 3% Petit Verdot. Truly a spectacular wine and one that required a lot of thought and examination over the course of a long evening. Lots of tobacco, green tomato leaves, touch of cherry and black pepper. Tremendous balance and structure, just so well put together... This bottle had been properly aged thus far, but could probably go for another 5-10 years.

Afterward we were treated to another delicacy. Dave's mother, Ann Rickert, made her famous Caribbean Fudge Pie, a 1960s-era recipe involving walnuts and a rich chocolate filling. I could only manage a small slice, but it was incredible. Thick and decadent, it was a great way to finish the meal. And chocolate does go well with great red wine, but at this point we'd moved on to an assortment of Ports, Sherries, and whiskies. Unfortunately, I don't have the recipe, but I might see what I can do.

03 February 2010

Benito vs. the Cocktail: Tomatillo Bloody Mary

I'll come right out and say it: I don't like the Bloody Mary cocktail.

I've had plenty at different restaurants in different states, but frankly I'd rather just drink tomato juice and have a shot of vodka and a salad on the side. But if this blog demonstrates nothing else, it's that I'm open minded. If someone ever fixed me an elaborate Bloody Mary with Absolut Peppar and heirloom tomatoes and a foot-high garnish that's a shish kabob of shrimp, boiled eggs, and five different vegetables, I'd drink it and give it a fair chance.

In a recent issue of Saveur, there were a dozen different Bloody Mary recipes. Most were just variations on the same theme, but the Tomatillo Bloody Mary caught my eye. I like tomatillos and the rest of the fresh ingredients listed, and the recipe was just too damned weird to pass up. In the grand tradition of desperation recipes like Buffalo Wings, it seemed like the late night creation of a guy stuck with only a bottle of vodka and a jar of salsa verde.

And that's precisely what it is. In fact, just ditch the vodka and you've got a really delicious salsa verde. It's too thick to drink easily, and while I like the flavor well enough, it isn't really refreshing or relaxing like a cocktail should be. After just a few sips I felt like I'd been doing shots of pulpy wheatgrass juice down at the smoothie bar, trying to humor a pretty vegetarian chick. (Ah, to be 22 again...)

Maybe it would work better as a weird amuse bouche before dinner--call it a cold vodka green tomato soup, for instance. Frankly I'm thinking that this recipe was either a cruel joke in the style of Penn & Teller's Swedish Lemon Angels or an unfortunate Nihilartikel.

Final verdict: I still don't like the Bloody Mary. If anyone has the perfect recipe that will convert me, feel free to post it in the comments and I might tackle this topic again in a few months. It's going to take a while to get the taste of green salsa and grass clippings out of my mouth.

01 February 2010

Alvear Solera 1927 Pedero Ximénez

I hated sherry in my early 20s. Maybe it was the cheap stuff I was buying, but I tried Amontillado, Cream Sherry, and several other styles, and didn't like any of them. I was nearly 30 before I found one I liked, and I think it might just have to be a flavor you grow into. Lately I've been craving it, and at the recent dinner party I used sherry and sherry vinegar throughout the meal.

One I would highly recommend is the Alvear Solera 1927 Pedro Ximénez. $20, 16% abv, 375 mL bottle. As the name implies, it's made from the Pedro Ximénez grape in Spain's Jerez region. In fact, the word "sherry" is an English corruption of "Jerez". The Brits are also responsible for turning "spaghetti bolognese" into the delicious sounding "spag bol".

What about the 1927 part? How can you buy such an old wine for $20? Well, that has to do with the other word, Solera. The Solera method involves blending older and newer barrels to achieve an ideal and affordable mix. When you purchase a fortified wine made in this method, it's some combination of (in this case) 80 years worth of vintages, but not equal parts of each. The percentage of the oldest wine is going to be very tiny, but it's there. Different countries have different laws regarding such blends and how they can be labeled, and similar methods and labeling are used with products like whisky and vinegar.

The wine is very sweet but balanced, with rich aromas and flavors of stewed fruits, raisins, and an element of beef broth. Truly perfect for a cold winter night. I've had this at a wine tasting, but most recently revisited it at Grace Restaurant where several of us at the table enjoyed it after dinner. I decided it was time to grab a bottle of my own.