28 September 2012

The Label Project

I would call this the ultimate blind tasting, but that title is still held by Fredric's epic Petite Sirah Blind Tasting in 2007, still one of my favorite wine memories of all time. The Label Project is a curious exercise in wine marketing to bloggers: a trio of blank bottles without any solid information, one that started out with a copy of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye as a mysterious first clue. (Given the association with a few very public assassinations, I was mildly disturbed, but even more curious.)

The backs of the labels say "Produce of Australia" with the alcohol content, but no other details. All three have screwcaps and the same front labels. The included documentation was printed on American 8.5"x11" paper instead of A4, another vexing clue. After all, the Australia info only means that the wine was made there; the grapes could have come from anywhere. But I'm pretty sure we're dealing with Oz wines due to the "Railway Crossing" sign and red soil picture clues. (I'm keeping the rest of my guesses secret until the reveal.)

Each of the wines were packaged in individual wooden boxes with wood straw shavings. One had little tasting sprays, another included some fake Polaroids and additional clue cards, and the third included a box of chocolates spelling out the name (as seen at top).

Wine #1
12.5% abv.
A white in a Burgundy bottle. Creamy and delicious, light and mineral. Mild fruit and balanced but floral structure.

Wine #2
14.1% abv.
This and wine #3 are in Bordeaux bottles, which tend to imply Merlot/Cab Sav wines, but could also be Syrah or Zinfandel or damned near anything else. This one has mild black cherry aromas with hints of white pepper and cedar. Light tannins but a tart raspberry finish.

Wine #3
14% abv.
Cassis, leather, and a touch of leather and tobacco leaf. Firmer tannins and a longer finish tinged with stewed fruit.

I'll update this post when I find out the raw truth...

Note: These wines were received as samples.

26 September 2012

2010 Coppola Diamond Red Blend

The latest Coppola Diamond series wine is out... Over the years, I think my favorite was always the Claret, I thought that the Sauvignon Blanc was always underestimated, and that the weirdest was the Alicante Bouschet (which I wrote about right after visiting the winery).

This is a classic, old school California blend that produces a deep purple, rich and fruity wine. There's nothing European about this style, but it is tasty in its own way and reminds us of what wine was like pre-Prohibition as well as during the following decades of at-home wine production among Italian immigrants and their descendants.

But we have the advantage of modern equipment and more scientific winemaking, allowing for a more refined and consistent product. I enjoyed the following wine with a mixed grill of steak and smoked chicken, and the pairing worked out exceptionally well.

2010 Coppola Diamond
Red Blend

27% Zinfandel, 26% Syrah, 20% Petite Sirah, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Merlot
$18, 13.5% abv.

Rich, ripe, bold aromas. Bright red cherries with just a hint of oak. There's a lot of just pure grape aroma--so many wines smell like other things that it's often surprising when one is reminiscent of the grape juice we drank as children. However, it's not sweet at all, but rather has a bold and fruit forward presence and a lingering raspberry flavor. It's brighter and fruitier than most reds you encounter, yet it's somewhat more refined than a lot of the Zin/Syrah/etc. table wine blends that are coming out of California these days. Definitely something fun that breaks you out of tasting a dozen Cabs in a row. Try it out with a big plate of your Mom's lasagne recipe and put a little Dean Martin on the stereo.

Note: This wine was received as a sample.

24 September 2012

Nashville's Blackstone Brewery

Nashville's Blackstone Brewery was founded in 1994 and currently operates a brewpub in the city. The website is being rebuilt right now, but I was excited to see some of their products making their way to the Memphis market. They recently got the contract to brew St. Louis' Schafly for regional distribution.

Blackstone Picnic English-Style Summer Ale
5.2% abv.
A light and refreshing beer, with just the right balance of crispness and mild bitterness. Good pairing with seafood dishes.

Blackstone Nut Brown Ale
5.6% abv.
Relatively close to Newcastle but with deeper malt flavors. Balanced bitterness and a long finish that would be incredible with a grilled burger.

Blackstone American Pale Ale
5.3% abv.
My bitter favorite of the group, with strong, lip-smacking hoppiness and a long, tangy finish. Little spice and citrus notes make it even better. Serve with something like grilled chicken and pineapple where the bitterness and sweetness can play off each other.

Blackstone St. Charles Porter
5.8% abv.
A deep, chocolate-influenced beer with rich malts. Dark brown and slow-drinking, I think it will be even better in the winter months. Definitely a great one for a steak, like a... porterhouse.

21 September 2012

2010 Arizona Stronghold Dayden Rosé

By this point it's not a bit of random trivia that Maynard James Keenan makes wine in Arizona. Most people are more familiar with his work as lead vocalist in the bands Tool, A Perfect Circle, and Puscifer. I saw the 2010 documentary Blood Into Wine and mostly enjoyed it. Parts were a little saccharine, but I enjoyed seeing fellow wineblogger Alder Yarrow in the movie. It was a strange modern technology moment to hit pause while I was watching the doc, write Alder, and hear back from him before I finished watching it.

When it comes to celebrity wines, I'm often not swayed by the importance of said celebrity. I've written about several wines made by world champion golfers recently, yet I know nothing about golf. I love the films of Francis Ford Coppola but have had mixed feelings about some of his wines. When it comes to this one, I'm in the weird position of probably knowing more about Arizona winemaking (an obscure topic) than I do about the music of Tool. That's not a value judgment either way, the music has just never met my eardrums. And while I studied piano and trumpet and sang in the Memphis Symphony Boys' Choir in multiple languages, what I don't know about modern music could fill a... record store. They still have those, right?

2010 Arizona Stronghold Dayden Rosé
Cochise County
89% Zinfandel, 9% Sangiovese, 2% Petite Sirah
$13, 12.8% abv.

Dominant aroma and flavor of strawberries, with a strong citrus element. Strawberry lemonade? That's close, and this is fairly strong for a dry rosé. It reminds me a lot of some of the stronger California pinks I've had in the past, and I prefer the milder, lighter, European-style rosés. But this one did work out quite well with the flavor-forward dinner I served...

In honor of the Arizona origins I went with something a little spicy... I made stuffed cheeseburgers, in this case filled with fire-roasted poblano peppers and monterey jack cheese, topped with baby spinach and sliced Roma tomatoes.

While this burger was quite tasty, I don't think that I'm going to make the stuffed burger (a.k.a. the Jucy Lucy) a regular feature. Due to the nature of the beast you really have to cook it well-done, and I'm more of a medium-rare guy. Also, there's some splitting and spillage opportunties, and... I think it's better to have the cheese and other additions on top of or under the patty of meat depending on where you want the flavor to hit the palate.

19 September 2012

2010 Argento Malbec

When I reviewed the 2009 Argento Malbec two years ago, the unique thing about this wine was the use of a QR Code on the back label. I wondered if it would catch on, and since then I've seen the little blocks everywhere, including on other brands of wine. (Though I'm always a little bothered to see them on the backs of buses and commercial vehicles...)

To update, I still don't use a smart phone, so I don't personally use these codes. However, I do see people using them a lot in the grocery store, or snapping a shot of one from the corner of a poster or advertisement.

As summer is winding down, we're entering the months when I crave heavier and darker reds. Time for slow braises and roasted root vegetables that warm the kitchen and make the entire house smell wonderful. Let's kick off red season with an Argentine Malbec.

2010 Argento Malbec
Mendoza (Luján de Cuyo, Tunuyán and Tupungato)
100% Malbec
$12, 13.5% abv.

Black cherry and chocolate with a firm tannic undertone. A little sour cherry flavor lingers on the finish for a long time. I preferred the 2009 Argento Malbec Reserva, and at just a few dollars more, it's a much better bargain. Still, this one would work well at a BBQ or with a casual burger.

Note: This wine was received as a sample.

17 September 2012

Shrimp and Grits Cooked in Lobster Stock

For my birthday dinner, I found myself craving shrimp and grits. But I wanted to elevate the dish a bit, and I noticed that the local grocery store had a bunch of frozen cooked lobsters. These are usually the slow, old ones that are about to die and are sold off at a bargain price. I prefer steaming live lobsters, but for certain applications the sleepers are perfect and economical. I pulled out the meat, saved the shells, deveined the tails, and munched on a little roe from the female of the pair. All shells were rinsed while diced onion, carrot, and celery were slowly browning in the stock pot.

What to do with all that lobster meat? I chopped it up with onion, celery, yellow onion, and mayo to make a traditional New England lobster roll appetizer. A little lemon juice and paprika added a necessary kick.

Julia was a huge fan of the lobster roll, and I served it with little gherkins of both the mild and hot variety, except that the hot "Zingers" from Kroger were milder than a limp green bell pepper from Subway. Strongly disappointed in the hot pickles, but the lobster salad on a soft butter roll was the perfect combination of creamy, salty, crunchy, and spicy.

Meanwhile the lobster stock simmered away, filling the entire house with the smell of lobster. A deep brown broth was rolling along just below the boiling point...

The lobster stock was strained twice and combined with grits until the proper consistency was acquired. Meanwhile, I browned pork sausage with onion, celery, and garlic and butter, combined with some flour to make a roux. I deglazed with white vermouth and then added a pound of grey tiger shrimp.

At the same time, I was braising some baby bok choy with Chinkiang vinegar and adding duranguense cheese to the grits. Smacked everything around in the various pots and skillets and served it hot and steaming with a quick sprinkle of curly parsley.

The flavor was incredible, and because it's my birthday I'll pat myself on the back. The concentrated flavor the lobster stock and rich cheese really elevated the grits, while the pan sauce made the shrimp sing. Julia found the bok choy a little bitter, but I enjoyed the contrast against the sweet and savory elements on the plate.

I added some dried Aleppo pepper and a few splashes of Trappey's Peppers in Vinegar. While delicious, I wanted a little more zing and heat in the dish, and there's nothing wrong with adjusting seasoning at the table.

Thanks to Michael Hughes of Joe's Wines & Liquors for picking out this wine for me. I was craving Sancerre to go along with this dish but couldn't find any in the greater Cordova area.

2009 Fournier Sancerre "Les Belles Vignes"
100% Sauvignon Blanc
$30, 13% abv.

Pleasant aromas of lemon zest and minerals, with a bright and refined body. Acidity is balanced by a deeper and more complex structure. The minerals linger on the finish. Highly recommended, and a perfect pairing with the low country cooking.

14 September 2012

Let's Get Small

I turned 36 yesterday, and for a variety of reasons I'm focusing on tiny details. Such was the case with the legendary biologist E.O. Wilson, a fellow Eagle Scout who studied ants during WWII because the pins needed to display flies were in short supply due to steel rationing.

On the thirty-sixth anniversary of my birth, I was lying in the grass in my backyard, holding my Nikon D40 digital camera with a zoom lens and a 1970s Minolta SLR lens mounted backwards in front of the zoom. It's a technique called "reverse lens" and is perfect for microphotography, although it works better if you have step down rings to attach everything. I was doing this manually and tilting my head to get clear shots of the ants.

Each of these Monomorium minimum ants are about 1.5 mm in length. Most of these pictures are less than half an inch in width. Through the multiple lenses I could watch them carry individual grains of sand into the colony, as well as individual grains being removed.

I was struck by the clean and shiny carapaces that reflected the blue sky. Beauty can be found in the smallest of places, but sometimes you have to stop and look for it.

12 September 2012

FishEye White Wines

These FishEye wines from Australia are inexpensive and available in multiple formats.

Each of the following wines can be found for $7 (750mL bottle), $12 (1.5L magnum), and $18 (3L Octavin box). That's $9.33/L, $8/L, and $5/L respectively if you're doing some bargain party planning.

2011 FishEye Riesling
12.5% abv.

Not really recognizable as a Riesling. Very mild green apple aroma with low acidity and a round mouthfeel. I found myself drinking it with a spicy Chinese pork and noodle dish.

2011 FishEye Moscato
13% abv.

Pear nectar, a nice bit of acidity and not as sweet as you'd think. Quite pleasant, and my favorite of the trio. I preferred it chilled at the end of a long hot day.

2011 FishEye Chardonnay
13% abv.

Fruity but dry with peach and apricot notes. A decent chicken salad Chardonnay for the mid-week bottle.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

10 September 2012

Rosemary-Meyer Lemon Margarita

I recently tried an all organic margarita mix. Just lime juice, and agave syrup, but it was really disappointing. Too sweet, out of balance, and despite the floating bits of pulp, it was nothing like fresh squeezed. When I make a pitcher of margaritas, I tend to err on the side of tartness, and provide a squeeze bottle of simple syrup (if anyone wants it sweeter) and a bottle of club soda (if anyone wants it weaker and bubblier).

For my little birthday gathering this weekend, I made a simple yet delicious margarita. It's not my own invention, but I've seen it so many places that I can't credit the original inventor.

Rosemary-Meyer Lemon Margarita
3 parts Silver Tequila
3 parts fresh-squeezed Meyer lemon juice
2 parts Triple Sec

Simply combine and stir, and pour over ice. The sprig of rosemary is optional--I love the herbal flavor (and the second glass tastes even better than the first), but some find the piney elements off-putting and don't enjoy getting poked in the nose with a twig.

07 September 2012

Summer Brews

Fear not, dear readers, this wine blog has not abandoned wine. Due to the blistering heat, some wineries and PR firms are deliberately holding back on shipping samples, and I applaud that decision. I've also turned down some samples of wines I've already tried this year and suggested other winebloggers who might enjoy them.

I've been enjoying this late summer beer craving that has done been flung upon me, and happily it coincides with a lot of neat bottles hitting the shelves of my local stores. For this post I grabbed a pair of bottles that are limited editions aimed directly at the summah market, incorporating paler brews with citrus flavors. See how they fared in these two mini-reviews...

Abita Satsuma Harvest Wit
Abita Springs, Louisiana
5.1% abv.

I generally like orange-spice beers, but this one is too subtle. Even the coriander barely shows up. Satsumas are low on sugar and acidity, and you can't taste a lot of the orange until the aftertaste much later. It is a very tasty summer beer, with just a little bit of sweetness, but it's nothing like the true joy of biting into a ripe Satsuma.

BridgePort Summer Squeeze Bright Ale
Portland, Oregon
4.5% abv.

Flavored with lemongrass and yuzu, a tart citrus fruit from Asia. This one brought the tart, bitter, rich flavor that I was craving. Delicious and complex and highly recommended for Indian or Thai or Vietnamese food. Even better when you can hold the condensation-beaded bottle against your head to cool off from the ambient heat and the punch of the peppers in the dish.

Winner by a longshot: the BridgePort. Highly recommended, and grab a squeeze bottle of Sriracha when you pick up a sixer this weekend.

05 September 2012

Simple Pleasure: Chinese Mushrooms

On the way home from work recently, I found myself craving a mushroom-swiss burger, but not one of the oversalted, gloopy monstrosities from a fast food joint. Mini-burgers have been my preferred method of cooking at home lately, so at the store I grabbed the necessary ingredients with a couple of twists. The burger and cheese might be routine, but I was determined to have great mushrooms.

One of these days when I'm living in a house with a gas range, I'm going to force myself to seriously study Chinese cooking. Some pieces of equipment and certain ingredients are filtering their way into my kitchen, but techniques and flavor matching will take time and effort. One thing I've read about is starting from a simple trio of ingredients, sort of like starting soups with onions, carrots, and celery. In this case, I'm talking about garlic, ginger, and green onions. Also, for the purposes of this recipe I used simple white button mushrooms, but in the future will be using more adventurous fungi.

I started out with a hot stainless steel skillet and added a splash of grapeseed oil, which has a decent smoke point and a neutral flavor. Then I added minced ginger and the sliced white parts of the onions, keeping everything moving quickly. Next up, minced garlic cooked just until golden (so as not to burn and become bitter) and then the sliced mushrooms. As they released their moisture and began to soften, I splashed the pan with rice wine vinegar to deglaze and kept stirring. At this point I just needed it all to reduce, so I added a little soy sauce and dark brown chinkiang vinegar. Within minutes, I had perfectly cooked, highly flavorful mushrooms.

They worked great with the burgers, but would have been better with some additional sautéed vegetables over noodles. And there are dozens of different noodles available at the nearby International Market...

03 September 2012

Clayhouse Reds

Going back through my notes I noticed that I've reviewed a lot of Clayhouse wines over the past couple of years. Across the many different varieties I've noticed consistent quality along with affordable prices, which is a great combination. Add in convenient screwcaps and you've got a reliable choice when you stop at the wine shop on the way to a party or casual dinner.

2010 Clayhouse Vineyard Syrah
Paso Robles, California
100% Syrah
$15, 13.8% abv.

Black cherry and black pepper aromas with a bold fruit profile. Slight bite on the finish with lingering tannins. This one was great with pepperoni pizza.

2010 Clayhouse Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon
Paso Robles, California
80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Petit Verdot
$15, 13.5% abv.

This one was actually sent by mistake--the 2009 is the current release and this 2010 will be coming out next year. But I like the combination and the Petit Verdot brought forth a great depth along with some floral aromas. The tannins are still strong here, but I'm excited to see what it's like in another two years.

2010 Clayhouse Vineyard Malbec
Paso Robles, California
100% Malbec
$15, 13.6% abv.

Soft and plummy, good dark fruit flavors but restrained in presentation. Mild and easily drinkable now, and a great bargain. California Malbec is really starting to surprise me.

Note: These wines were received as samples.