30 August 2013

Book Review: The Initiates: A Comic Artist and a Wine Artisan Exchange Jobs

The world of Franco-Belgian comics or bandes dessinées would have seemed odd to most Americans 10-15 years ago, but now American adults are lapping up graphic novels like Maus, American Splendor, The Road to Perdition, Scott Pilgrim, and many others. There's a long tradition in France and Francophone Belgium of comics read by all ages, though some are targeted specifically at children or adults (Barbarella was originally a racy French comic from Jean-Claude Forest). And it's important to note that just because a comic is targeted at adults does not mean that it's pornographic or naughty; my beloved American Splendor is mostly about the late Harvey Pekar complaining about life in Cleveland and dealing with cancer and a dead-end job working as a file clerk. It's not the kind of thing that's going to inspire a little kid to draw grumpy old men in the margins of his schoolwork.

The Initiates: A Comic Artist and a Wine Artisan Exchange Jobs
Original Title: Les ignorants: Récit d'une initiation croisée
Étienne Davodeau
English Translation by Joe Johnson
NBM Publishing, 272 pp.

The French title is a little different, referring to ignorants and their story of a cross initiation. The book covers the story of a comic artist Étienne Davodeau befriending a Loire winemaker named Richard Leroy. A lot of the press about this book talks about the two switching roles, but that's not entirely true. Rather, they get to know a lot about each other's work, and while Davodeau is able to put in some real work in the vineyard and winery, Leroy is mostly a spectator to the world of art and printing. That's not a dig against the winemaker--a novice may not be the best grape picker, but it takes a lot of training to do watercolors or run a commercial printing press.

Throughout the course of the story, which covers most of a year, the two teach each other about their passions, and an appendix lists the books and wines that they swapped with each other. The artwork is gorgeous, though entirely grayscale. Yet even in shades of grays and blacks, the artist is able to convey sunshine and perfectly ripened grapes and the odd wine stain on a tablecloth. Likewise, Leroy does an admirable job of explaining complex wine terms and nuances to someone that's never thought a lot about the subject.

It makes for a pleasant afternoon read, and I enjoyed it with a few non-French wines. The translation is quite good and conveyed in easy, colloquial English (I've read many horrible translations throughout the years and can't stand them, but this was beautiful). Highly recommended if you get the opportunity to read it.

Note: This book was received as a sample.

28 August 2013

2011 Gary Farrell Russian River Selection Chardonnay

I was first introduced to the wines of Gary Farrell Winery when I tried the Sauvignon Blanc last year. I realize that a lot of my posts start out that way this year, but I'm finding more and more that instead of sampling a new and unknown-to-me winery, I'm getting to revisit an old friend.

This is a very enjoyable problem to face on my end, but I hope that it does not become dull for my readers. However, I do like to link the older posts, because each time I try a new grape or new winery, I tend to go into a lot of detail. For those of you that love the rambling digressions into history, you can easily read it. For others, a lean and easy review.

This particular Chardonnay was sourced from eight different vineyards in the Russian River Valley: Westside Farms Vineyard, Bacigalupi (Goddard Ranch), Pellegrini (Olivet Lane Vineyard), Rochioli Vineyard, Allen Vineyard, Martinelli (Parnell Ranch), Bowland (Lazy W Vineyard), McIntyre Star Creek Vineyard. Each batch of grapes was selected to bring about an overall balance of elements in the finished product.

2011 Gary Farrell Russian River Selection Chardonnay
Russian River Valley
100% Chardonnay
$35, 14.1%
5,122 cases made

The wine spent 7 months in 40% new French oak, lending a gentle floral profile. I get notes of lemon and tamarind with a little jasmine underneath. Gentle, round body yet the acidity is still present. The flavors are slightly creamy from the malolactic fermentation and the wine has a pleasant, lingering finish. It is reminiscent of Burgundy and Pouilly-Fuissé more than California.

I tried this wine on its own, but I found myself craving old school French cooking, particularly paté and terrines--something with lots of rich and savory ingredients, served at room temperature, and savored with the perfect bottle.

Note: This wine was provided as a sample.

26 August 2013

Lodi Tasting of August

It's been nice getting to know the Lodi wine region through some recent online tastings. I admire the fact that they're willing to experiment with different grapes and combinations and are not bound down by any established rules. Through these four white wines I think you'll see some amazing creativity and exploration.

2012 Acquiesce Belle Blanc
Lodi, California
60% Grenache Blanc, 30% Roussane, 10% Viognier
$24, 13.5% abv.

Such an elegant bottle and label combination. Light with honey, citrus, flowers, dry, mild, gentle finish. Excellent summer salad pairing with good mesclun greens and a sherry vinaigrette.

2012 Upstream Chardonnay
Lodi, California
100% Chardonnay
$15, 13.6% abv.

Amazing acidity, good minerality, really crisp and bright. Delicious notes of lemongrass and citrus peel. Hard to believe it's Chardonnay. This one is a killer match for Thai or Vietnamese food.

2011 St. Jorge Verdelho Seco
Lodi, California
100% Verdelho
$18, 14.8% abv.

Dusky and rich, honey flavors, long, lingering finish. One that I'd serve with a selection of aged goat cheeses.

2012 Borra Vineyards Intuition Field Blend White
Lodi, California
60% Kerner, 20% Riesling, 20% Gewürztraminer
$22, 13.3% abv.

I was really surprised to see a Kerner from California, since it's obscure even in Germany. This specimen is full of spice and dried apricot, really deep and with a note of rich white fruit. Bright acidity, full fruit flavor, yet fairly dry. Serve with your best roast chicken and a platter of red and white table grapes.

Note: These wines were provided as samples.

23 August 2013

August Wines of Germany

It's been a busy month here in the River City, and I'm still a dozen wines behind in my reviews... But a pleasant regular visitor showed up: my quarterly mailing from Wines of Germany. Every three months my doorstep is blessed with a pair of interesting wines from Deutschland. Mostly Riesling, but there have been some other grapes represented in the past.

2011 C.H. Berres Erdener Treppchen Riesling Kabinett
100% Riesling
$20, 11% abv.

Dominant aroma of ripe green apple, but with lower acidity than I was expecting. Instead it is smooth and mellow, with a refreshing character particularly on a hot August afternoon. Normally I'd suggest some complicated dish to serve this with, but a ham and Swiss on rye with a side of potato salad proved to be perfect with this particular bottle.

2009 Hans Lang Vom Bunten Schiefer Riesling Dry
100% Riesling
$22, 12.5% abv.

The second wine was far more complex, with a nose featuring lemon verbena, petrol, and citrus peel. Crisp and clean with a medium length finish. I certainly enjoyed sipping and swirling this for a while, and found that it worked out well with a dish of Peking-style pork and fried rice.

Note: These wines were provided as samples.

19 August 2013

The Dreaming Tree Wines by Dave Matthews

When I first read the press release about wines made by the musician Dave Matthews, my first thought was not about the music but a touch of excitement about trying wines from his native South Africa. Turns out that the wines are actually from the Bear Flag Republic and winemaker Steve Reeder oversees the production.

I have to admit that while I love music, I don't listen to a lot of it, and don't inflict my peculiar tastes on friends and family. I love classic jazz and old school hip-hop. Unabashed fan of Groove Armada and Ben Folds, and I prefer the Baroque artists over the Classical or Romantic periods. Joe Jackson is an underappreciated genius. Yes, I'd like to a hear a little more Elvis Costello when I encounter a radio playing in a coffee shop, but at this point in time, we can all listen to whatever we want through our little iPod earbuds.

When it came time to pick a Dave Matthews Band album to listen to while trying these wines, I knew that I only had one person who could answer this question: devoted DMB fan, my soul sister, wine pourer from California, Miz Please Please Please herself, throw your hands together for the one and only Samantha Dugan of Samantha Sans Dosage.

She suggested 2008's Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King. I made a pepperoni pizza from scratch (let the dough sit for five days--much better flavor!), uncorked the wines and sat down to bask in the music and wine of Dave Matthews.

I'm not going to review the album, because my musical tastes are demonstrably weird and non-mainstream, but I found it a pleasant and relaxing way to spend an hour on a Sunday afternoon. The experience may have even inspired me to check out a few other albums, though it might be a few years. I'm still working through back catalogs of Dave Brubeck projects.

2012 The Dreaming Tree Everyday White Wine
Central Coast, California
42% Gewürztraminer, 33% Riesling, 14% Albariño, 11% Viognier
$15, 12% abv.

Overripe peach, apricot, and floral aromas. Touch of sweetness, low acidity. It's a curious blend that could only happen in California or Australia, but I think that the mix works to create a pleasant and casual summer sipper. Not a great match for the pizza but would be delicious with a chicken salad sandwich or related finger food.

2011 The Dreaming Tree Crush Red Wine
North Coast, California
55% Merlot, 17% Zinfandel, 13% Petite Sirah, 8% Syrah, 7% Other
$15, 13.5% abv.

Blueberries and plums on the nose, with a touch of spice. Big, round fruit flavors with firm tannins and a long finish. A much better fit with the pizza, and at the point at which I'm typing this sentence, I'm listening to the penultimate track "Baby Blue", which is a relaxing and pleasant way to finish the meal and savor the lingering flavors of the wine.

Note: These wines were provided as samples.

16 August 2013

Purple Wine Company Online Tasting

These wines were tasted during a recent online Twitter tasting and video broadcast by the Purple Wine Company, host to a half dozen brands.

The Four Vines wine labels feature a sort of naked lady figure mixed with grape vines. Makes me wonder why J.R.R. Tolkien didn't have some little ent vines in one of the books. During the tasting, I asked if any of these these figures were made into hood ornaments to adorn company tractors, and the answer was no. It could be right up there with the Spirit of Ecstacy on the Rolls-Royce, yet equally tempting for theft.

2011 Four Vines Naked Chardonnay
Santa Barbara, California
100% Chardonnay
$12, 13.9% abv.

Mild and soft, round body with a supple mouthfeel. Dominant aromas of peach and apple with a gentle, barely acidic finish. I found myself craving a little dish of a half dozen steamed clams, topped with garlic and vermouth.

2010 Four Vines Truant Old Vine Zinfandel
77% Zinfandel, 13% Syrah, 5% Petite Sirah, 3% Barbera, 2% Sangiovese
$12, 14.5% abv.

Big red with a firm red fruit profile and strong tannins. Great red cherry and spice with a long, tannic finish. Definitely a good pizza wine.

2011 Alto Cinco Garnacha
Paniza, Spain
94% Garnacha, 6% Tempranillo
$15, 14% abv.

The name is a play on the "high five", though a different phrase is used for that gesture in Spanish-speaking countries. This wine has a bright red plum flavor, bold red fruit aromas, and a mild cherry finish. Low tannins and not much influence from oak. Like many Spanish reds, a great match for pork in its most delicious smoked forms.

Note: These wines were provided as samples.

14 August 2013

Hedges Wines of Washington

I've tried the wines of Hedges Family Estate many times over the years, and was eager to give them a new sip and swirl here in 2013. I was delighted to see that so many of them showed up wearing throwback labels--in this case, a specific design style from the 60s and 70s in the United States, primarily on the west coast. The general idea was to look vaguely European but not adhering to any one country. So you'll see elements of classic German, French, and Italian wine label design all jumbled up. These are more noticeable in the second trio of wines below: elaborate coats-of-arms that don't represent an actual royal house, the diagonal phrase in a different ink, competing gothic and italic calligraphy, gold leaf, etc.

To see some real life examples from the early 70s, check out this vintage book I reviewed in 2007. Alas, I have to remind myself to ignore the fun graphic design and actually taste the wines on their own merits...

2011 Hedges CMS Red
Columbia Valley
49% Cabernet Sauvignon, 47% Merlot, 4% Syrah
$14, 13.5% abv.

Touch of stewed fruit, sour cherry. Mild mouthfeel and a brief finish. Loved this with some stewed pork shoulder.

2011 Hedges Red Mountain
Red Mountain AVA
Cabernet Sauvignon & Merlot
$29, 13.5% abv.

Black cherry and pepper, undertones of plum and blackberry. A pleasant little blend that would go well with a grilled steak on a Saturday afternoon.

2012 CMS Sauvignon Blanc
85% Sauvignon Blanc, 10% Chardonnay, 5% Marsanne
$14, 14% abv.

Crisp and refreshing with notes of apricot and a splash of lemony acidity. Found myself wanting more Marsanne--not because the wine was out of balance, I just love that grape. Serve with Oysters Rockefeller during an appetizer course.

2011 HIP Merlot
Columbia Valley
100% Merlot
$14, 13%

HIP stands for "House of Independent Producers", and this and the next wine focus on a single grape variety from a specific winemaker. This gentle Merlot is definitely made in the French style with mild cherry flavors and a light body, light years away from the bold fruit bombs of California. The first domestic Merlot I've had that I think is appropriate for serving with salmon.

2011 HIP Chardonnay
Columbia Valley
$14, 13.5% abv.

The Chardonnay from this series has a surprising aroma of Meyer lemon, with flavors to match. There is that nice balance between acid and cream, and I served this one with a simple salad topped with dried figs and toasted pistachios and goat cheese.

2011 Descendants Liégeois Dupont Syrah
Red Mountain AVA
100% Syrah
$29, 14% abv.

Lastly, we have a proprietary blend done in a Rhône style. Plum and spice, mild tannins, and a deep, dark finish. A substantial and fruity red that demands a big dish. I had it with a bleu cheese burger, but think that it would be a nice accompaniment to game like venison or duck. Let it breathe and decant for a bit to enjoy all of the flavors of the wine.

Note: These wines were provided as samples.

12 August 2013

2011 HandCraft Cabernet Sauvignon

The HandCraft Artisan Collection features California wines that are made with dashes of Italian grapes under the under the direction of proprietor Cheryl Indelicato with Alicia Ysais, winemaker. HandCraft is involved in a number of charitable endeavors, including raising $100,000 in 2012 for breast cancer research.

I like the label design, with a wave of various vineyard elements moving across the label in a gentle sine curve. Autumn grape leaves, ripe clusters, barrels, etc. In addition to this Cabernet Sauvignon, they also make a Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Petite Sirah. The website features a nice selection of suggested recipes, and I'm tempted to try out the gorgonzola polenta.

2011 HandCraft Cabernet Sauvignon
77% Cabernet Sauvignon, 21% Petite Sirah, 2% Sangiovese
$13, 14.5% abv.

Loads of dark fruit, with black cherry and plum combined with aromas and flavors of coffee and chocolate. A little leather as well, plus a tart, tannic finish. Long, lingering cherry flavors afterward. A great match with roast duck and pan-fried potatoes on a rainy August afternoon.

Note: This wine was provided as a sample.

09 August 2013

Brief State of the Blog Address

I've got a lot of exciting wine reviews coming up, but for those of you that didn't see it on Twitter or Facebook, I just had my first article published at Palate Press:

Southern Pairings: Wines for BBQ, Fried Chicken, Collard Greens and More

At the end of August, I'll be covering the Cochon Heritage BBQ Event here in Memphis for Serious Eats.

I also have a few more wine blogger interviews in the wings, and if any of my fellow wine writers are interested in such an interview, let me know!

07 August 2013

Vinho Verde in August

I continue my exploration of the many varied wines of Portugal's Vinho Verde region with this pair that showed up at the house last week. Given that I'm now living so close to sources of fresh seafood, pork offal, and cured meats that require a five-language guidebook, I'm beginning to think that it's time for me to start studying authentic Portuguese cuisine.

At some point, there's going to be a dinner party invite that begins, "The first course will be eels... If that's a problem, I'm not offended if you decline, because it's only going to get more non-mainstream American after that."

As with Spain, the wines of Portugual continue to amaze me with their ability to pair with a wide range of foods, and even bargain wines like these will just get better and better depending on how much care and flavor you put into your dishes. At the very least, rich cheeses and grilled vegetables topped with sea salt will draw out wonderful tastes when paired with wines such as the two below.

2012 Quinta da Raza Grande Escolha
Minho Vinho Regional
Blend of Alvarinho & Trajadura
$13, 12.5% abv.

This is a fairly traditional Vinho Verde, a little fizzy but oddly (and refreshingly) not sweet. Tropical fruits and a little floral undertone round out the nose, while the body is crisp, dry, and one that goes well with fresh fruit and yogurt. Not suggesting this as a breakfast wine, but as a light afternoon summer snack it works well.

2012 Quinta de Gomariz Espadeiro Rosado
Ave, Vinho Verde
100% Espadeiro
$12, 11.5% abv.

Beautiful light salmon color, mild flavor of wild strawberries, bright acidity and a clean, smooth finish. And it's got some gentle bubbles to it, which I wasn't expecting. I enjoyed it with yet another homemade anchovy pizza as part of my summer project to A) get better at making pizzas and B) sweat in the kitchen. The salt of the fish and the savory elements of my dried mushroom tomato sauce came together perfectly with this wine for great balance all around.

Note: These wines were provided as samples.

05 August 2013

2012 Coppola Votre Santé Chateau Red

One of the newest labels from Francis Ford Coppola bears the name of a popular French version of "cheers". The paperwork mentions that his paternal often said that before drinking wine. Why would an Italian say that? Because she grew up in Tunisia while it was under French control.

Francis, fratello mio, you can't just leave us with that bit of the story! There's got to be more! The 19th and early 20th century saw a lot of displacement of many people, thrown around the globe for various reasons. The Yorkshire veterinarian James Herriot wrote about a few Mongolians who had been drafted by the Soviets, captured in Germany, and placed on farms in northern England. My paternal grandfather spent a few years after WWII on Johnston Atoll, a tiny speck that is pretty far away from Hawai'i, which is already by itself in the middle of a giant ocean. His job was to study the weather for the Navy, which wasn't too rough in an area where it was the same temperature year-round.

I honored the Italian heritage of the wine with a homemade pepperoni pizza, which I thought benefitted greatly from dried mushrooms and salted anchovies in the sauce.

2012 Coppola Votre Santé Chateau Red
Proprietary blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre
$14, 13.5% abv.

This is a classic Rhône-style GSM blend, though more French in approach than the Australian versions of this mix. Bright cherry nose with mild, nutty undertones. Gentle tannins, low acid, and an overall light approach create a great bargain wine that should pair well with lots of summer dishes. I found it refreshing when chilled but also enjoyable at room temperature.

I don't know if the box that I got is available for retail sale, but it was one of the prettiest presentations I've ever received.

Note: This wine was provided as a sample.

02 August 2013

A Few More Homemade Pizzas...

Inspired by my friend Fredric, I decided to revisit my old pizza-making skills, breaking out the peel and stretching the old kneading muscles. And Julia was excited to try some different pies from my home oven, so I asked her to think about what she'd like. Anything, no matter how crazy the topping.

These were all about 20cm/8 inches in diameter, and looking back, the big pools of fresh mozzarella aren't aesthetically perfect but tasted amazing. Before finding out what Julia wanted, I knew that I had to make a fresh clam pizza. My first effort in 2010 was made with canned clams, and I will say that the bag of live littlenecks I grabbed at the international market delivered a lot of great flavor. Garlic, romano cheese, fresh mozzarella, and a dash of basil that I crumbled over my slices. Just about perfect in terms of salty and savory flavors. I opened the clams just a bit in a warm skillet and then shucked them mostly raw on top of the pizza before going in the oven. Much better than the canned version.

Julia requested the following combination: fig, gorgonzola, prosciutto, and balsamic vinegar. I reconstituted the dried mission figs in a little water and balsamic, and the rest came together on top of my homemade San Marzano tomato sauce.

It's a great combination, and the figs and balsamic vinegar provide that little balancing element of sweetness to the other essential flavors. I was tempted to drizzle everything with truffle oil, but my lady does not like the fungus.

On the dough, I took Fredric's recent advice and switched from all-purpose to bread flour (sticking with King Arthur) and after much kneading, rolled out the dough with an empty wine bottle. Despite always having a half dozen empty wine bottles within easy reach of the kitchen counter, I haven't really used them as kitchen implements, and I was surprised at how well it performed for the task. I'm going to save a nice straight-sided Bordeaux bottle to keep on hand for this precise purpose.

The final pizza was built from the various leftovers, and turned out tasty in its vegetarian glory. Gorgonzola, fresh mozzarella, tomato sauce, and garlic. Pretty simple, but it came together well and was even great as leftovers the next day.

I know that my next task is to take my reawakened pizza skills and make a great quattro stagione pizza, or to get my hands on some crazy wild boar guanciale or other awesome cured meats to build something that you'd never get at your local chain pizza joint. Plus, I want to make some monstrous mushroom pizza for my own enjoyment--sliced trumpet stalks, oyster and shiitake mushrooms throughout, and topped with delicate blanched enoki mushrooms for texture. Mmmmm...