28 February 2006

A glass raised to Joey's dad...

I mostly post about wine here, though I read a lot of non wine-related blogs. I also read about two dozen webcomics a day (plus things like the archived L'il Abner comics), and several other websites. The good Lord blessed me with the ability to skim things pretty quickly, so I can whip through my daily intake of 118 websites in an hour or two. (Hey, as a kid I used to read two or three newspapers a day.) One website I've enjoyed for the past couple of years is run by Joey deVilla. He's a Canadian/Filipino web programmer by day, accordion player by night. Just got married to a beautiful redhead from Boston. He's a damned good writer and has some amazing stories. He has almost convinced me to take up an obscure instrument and head downtown to get free drinks and kisses from the ladies.

Today, Joey's father passed away. His father was a doctor, a man who worked hard throughout his life and helped untold numbers of people throughout his life. By all accounts a man admired by friends, family, and everyone else. And I have to admit, though I've been following the tales of his declining health over the past few months, when I opened that tab tonight and saw the picture and text, I started to cry.

So tonight, I, like I hope many bloggers, am hoisting my glass to the memory of Joey's dad. Here's to you, and the wonderful legacy you've left.

* * *

I know I've done this in the past, but in the midst of our quibblings over various grapes, we sometimes forget that wine and other alcoholic beverages are traditionally associated with various spiritual rituals: Champagne at the marriage, a beer on the 21st birthday, wine at the anniversary, spirits at the death. Let us not forget that the beverages we celebrate are sometimes meant for joy and sometimes meant for sorrow, but will always provide markers in our memory of taste and emotion.

26 February 2006

Farmer's Markets

I got an e-mail from Adam Mahler asking me to blog about a House of Representatives bill that would involve government support/funding of Farmer's Markets nationwide. I'm in a weird position, as I love Farmer's Markets but disagree with the bill. Allow me to explain.

If the idea is to use such legislation to improve the eating habits and educate the palates of the American populace, this is going to fail. You can't force people to eat good food anymore than you can force them to drink decent wine or beer. Look at the most popular wines and beers in this country, and then imagine legislation that would try to steer them towards better quality, locally produced alternatives. I'll pause for laughter.

Farmer's Markets are generally cheaper than supermarkets, but quality varies wildly depending on where you are. For instance, here in the Mid-South area, I'm limited to fruits, vegetables, and honey for local produce. The honey is great, the tomatoes are awesome (more on that in a moment), and you can't buy freshly shucked crowder peas or purple hull peas in the grocery store. During the spring, summer, and fall, I buy as much as I can from the Farmer's Market, though I tend to focus on peppers, onions, potatoes, tomatoes, melons, and various peas. Most of the other fruits and vegetables actually come from out of state and have stickers on them like you get at the grocery store. I've seen commercial Hawaiian produce at my local Farmer's Market. Outside of those items listed above, most of the offerings at the Market tend to be inferior to the supermarket varieites. Hey, we're in a cotton-growing region; what do you expect?

I don't think federal money is going to help Farmer's Markets much, nor is it going to change eating habits. But if they want to make more money, here's what I'd suggest, and it's something that I plan on trying this spring. I happen to live near a major tomato growing region. Aside from the standard Ripley tomato, it's known that these farmers also plant rows of heirloom tomatoes for restaurants and special clients. Last summer I lucked out and was able to gorge myself on incredible Brandywine tomatoes. This spring, I intend to make friends with a tomato seller (they always send their pretty daughters to market in the big city), and will offer bribes and the promise to pay double the usual rate for any heirloom tomatoes they bring me. If I could get a sampler basket of things like little yellow Tommytoes and zesty Green Zebras and other varieties I'd consider proposing marriage.

Let's note that I always overpay at the Farmer's Market. If it's just a staple item, I let them keep the change. If it's something I really like or can't get in the grocery store, I pay double or toss in a few extra bills. If I find a vendor I like, I reccomend them to friends and family. That's the way a community market is supposed to work.

Quick tips for Farmer's Markets:

1. Focus on crops that thrive in or are unique to your area, such as muscadine grapes here in the South.

2. Sell heirloom or unusual varieties that you can't get in the grocery store, and advertise this somewhere so that the gourmands in the area know about it.

3. Offer samples for God's sake. A piece of cheesecloth will keep the flies off, and don't be afraid to cook something if your local food service regulations aren't too harsh.

25 February 2006

2003 Renwood Syrah Rosé

And for this evening's sipping wine, I'm drinking the 2003 Renwood Syrah Rosé from Amador County, California. Though it was warm and springlike yesterday, it's turned cold again and is currently below freezing. Not exactly ideal rosé weather. But I went ahead with it.

It's got good strawberry notes to it, and all around tastes like a Syrah. However, I find that it's a little strong for a rosé. In fact, it could almost pass for a CDR. I found myself wanting a little more of the full strength of a regular Syrah or more of the light fruit playfulness of a traditional rosé. I guess that's a roundabout way of saying that the balance was off. Still, not a bad wine by any stretch of the imagination, just not my favorite pink wine.

I'll also point out in this review that I recently did something stupid with a wine. I won't say which one, because honestly it didn't impact my feelings on the wine. I'd already had a glass and had written up my notes. But I was going in for a second deep sniff, and since I was watching TV at the time and not paying close attention, I treated the glass as if it were a standard one ounce sample. Force of habit from tastings. But no, it was a full glass. So I sniffed deeply as I dipped my nose into the glass and managed to snort wine up my nose. It burned, I cursed loudly, and it took a few tissues and glasses of water before I was back to normal.

For the record, I really would not recommend trying this.

2004 Rock Rabbit Sauvignon Blanc

Dinner last night was vaguely Italian: campanelle (little bell shaped pasta) with roast chicken thighs, a savory cream sauce, green peas, pearl onions, and quartered campari tomatoes. However for the wine I went for something from California: the 2004 Rock Rabbit Sauvignon Blanc. Their Syrah is one of my all-time favorite wines; versatile, tasty, and affordable. The Sauvignon Blanc did not let me down.

Made in the Central Coast/Sonoma region, Rock Rabbit only produces those two wines. And while it's cool to have a dozen varietals and various price levels (table/estate/reserve/etc.), it's also amazing to find a winery that's so committed to producing two wines so well.

The Sauvignon Blanc is light and fruity, in the style of New Zealand but without the grapefruit flavors. Instead, we tasted peach and hints of lemon. It's an easy drinking wine, and while I served it chilled, it was also delicious at room temperature. And at $10, it's a classy bargain.

I think this would really shine with shellfish, pasta, and a salad including fresh fruit.

24 February 2006

2003 Elsa Chardonnay Semillon

Famigilia Bianchi in Argentina is going through a label change for its entry-level Elsa wines. So a local shop managed to pick up some of the last of the old labels at a bargain price, and has passed on the savings. I was able to get the 2003 Elsa Chardonnay Semillon for a mere $6. I got it primarily for cooking purposes, but it's still a good drinking wine. When I buy wines for cooking, I generally look for something delicious under $10. It's nice to cook with something more expensive (or ideally with the wine you're serving with that dish), but that's not always the best budgetary choice. So whenver I refer to using a wine for cooking on this blog, I'm not insulting it--I only cook with stuff I like to drink, even if it is on the less expensive side.

And I got to meet the winemaker last year. From my notes I liked this wine back then as well.

One odd note: it's got a synthetic cork, which I like, but this cork is solid black. It's not bad or offputting or anything, just odd. It's classier than the neon versions, but I tend to prefer the "cork" colored synthetics.

It's 60% Chardonnay and 40% Semillon. I love this particular blend of grapes, especially coming out of Australia. It's an unoaked, slightly crisp and medium fruit wine, but it's not too heavy. It's got a lovely white gold color, and reduced down nicely for a cream sauce I'm making for some chicken.

I don't generally get excited about South American whites--I have nothing against them, but rarely seek them out. In fact, I think that these days I drink more white wine in sparkling varieties than I do in the still varieties. I'm sure this will change as summer approaches. Today it was in the 60s here in Memphis, so I'm doing chicken and pasta with a Sauvignon Blanc tonight. More on that one after I get a chance to try it.

20 February 2006

2003 Banfi Centine

When you really want a food that you haven't had in a long time, it's a powerful force. Here in my home region of the Southern United States, there's a way to phrase such a longing. For instance, I've recently had a strong desire for lasagne. So in the appropriate company I might say, "I done had a cravin' flung on me for some lasagne." (To all of my readers: please note that I don't normally talk like this. Only while inebriated and around a BBQ grill, smoker, or on a camping trip. My everyday speaking voice is neutral Midwestern.)

Of course, around here we mostly spell it lasagna, but four semesters of Italian have a stronger impact on my orthography. Lasange is quite popular here in the Mid-South, and it was certainly a staple item on my childhood dinner table. It's certainly the easiest Italian casserole out there; one of my favorite Italian dishes is crespelle, but it's hard to build enough enthusiasm to make crepes after getting home from work. My Mom always used the same recipe: lots of onion, ground beef, ricotta, mozzarella, and plenty of tomato sauce.

I was in the mood for comfort food. We had a recent ice storm here in Memphis, and I've been really wanting some hearty casserole dishes. So it was chicken thighs in savory sauce and green beans over the weekend, and I had to have some lasagne tonight. So I used a similar method to my Mom's but some alternate ingredients. I used ground turkey instead of beef; it's lighter yet still provides the texture and protein. I added in a ton of leaf spinach to the two eggs and 15 oz. of ricotta cheese. And I used two different tomato sauces: a mushroom one and a garden one. I think the added veggies help.

Though I've made lasagne many times in my life, this was my first attempt at making one without boiling the noodles first. You just layer the noodles as you normally would, but cover the dish with tight aluminum foil before baking. The result: fantastic. The noodles were perfectly al dente, and it was a hell of a lot easier to build the thing using dry noodles. And I've got leftovers for the next few days.

Oh, and the wine?

So last Friday during my wine-buying excursion I picked up a bottle of the 2003 Catello Banfi Centine. It's a red "Super Tuscan" made of 60% Sangiovese, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 20% Merlot. While cooler this drinks like a Merlot, but once it comes up to temperature the Sangiovese really shines through. There's not a lot on the nose, but a slurping sip reveals some black cherry flavors and some medium tannins. It's hard to describe, but it smells like an Italian red and tastes like an Italian red, but doesn't have the heavy tannic bite and strong aftertaste of similar young Italian reds.

At this point, I've just enjoyed my second helping of lasagne and am in heaven. The wine is matching perfectly. I'm now ready to crawl into bed and call in sick for the next two days so that I can curl up next to my dogs and sleep all day.

18 February 2006

Weekend Wines

I've got Fridays and Saturdays off work... So I tend to do a lot of wine shopping on Friday morning. I picked up a few bottles Friday, and here's the report:

2001 Familia Zuccardi Santa Julia Malbec. Mendoza, Argentina. I'm a sucker for $8 Malbecs from Argentina. This one was a little older than most bargain Malbecs, but despite a ton of sediment around the synthetic cork and shoulders of the bottle, it was a delightful afternoon wine. Still good and plummy, fruit forward and easily drinkable. It's not often than you can drink such a cheap wine after five years of aging and have it still be pleasing. I'd love to try a more recent vintage, or the reserve.

2003 The Lucky Country Shiraz-Cabernet Sauvignon. Barossa Valley, Australia. This is a second-tier wine from the distinguished Australian producer Two Hands. Funny story behind this one. I walked into the store eager to get a cheap Bordeaux that was on special that week. A couple of cases had been lost in the back of a warehouse for a few years and they were eager to unload it. I grabbed a bottle, and one of the seasoned employees that I know well urged me against it. I promised to buy something of equal value as thanks, and asked for a fun Shiraz. He pointed me to this little gem. For $15, this was an amazing wine. Big fruit, medium tannins, great berry flavors and an easy finish. A dear friend of mine treated the girlfriend and me to dinner. I took the bottle with us, and we had the wine over dishes like beef tenderloin and glazed pork chops and risotto. An excellent choice, and a classy looking bottle. 55% Shiraz and 45% Cabernet Sauvignon.

2004 Three Blind Moose Chardonnay. Central Coast, California. I needed an inexpensive cooking wine, and I fell in love with the label. How can you resist a name like Three Blind Moose? It's part of the giant Constellation wine conglomerate. It looks like they're marketing to a young, hip crowd, and maybe it will work... As for the wine itself, it's a fairly standard California Chardonnay, which is what I figured when looking for something to boost a chicken casserole. Lightly oaked and not buttery in the slightest. Big and fruity. Reminds me somewhat of Fat Bastard or Red Bicyclette. Sort of a baseline Chardonnay that's not going to offend the casual drinker, though I think that the tartness and heavy acidity would be a little rough if you were drinking more than one glass. Runs around $10 for a bottle, but it made the sauce taste great.

I'm also sitting on about 30 reviews from tastings that I haven't got around to posting... Maybe tomorrow?

10 February 2006

Barefoot Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon

In my continuing fascination with the bargain rack near the register, I picked up a bottle of the Barefoot Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon. Also got a Chardonnay for cooking purposes tomorrow. I've heard a lot about this wine--I've often heard it referred to as an inexpensive, non-threatening wine for newcomers.

It's non-vintage, and a little sweet. Heavy on the jam and berry flavors, too much for me. Little to no tannins. Welch's grape juice aftertaste. About what I expected for $5. And incidentally, I'm currently drinking it barefooted.

08 February 2006


Three new links this week. The first is from Ricardo Brizuela of Andes Wine Zone, focusing on wines of Chile and Argentina. We had a brief e-mail exchange in broken English and my terrible Spanish. But I love the wines of that region, and he's using the same Blogger.com template as me, so how could I not link him?

The second link is a little closer to home. I got an e-mail from Fredric Koeppel of Koeppel on Wine, and decided to link him here on the site, as I always love a good story. Fredric was the restaurant reviewer for the primary Memphis newspaper for most of my childhood, my teen years, and even those young adult years until the Internet managed to wean me off the daily fishwrap. (Though I've got to admit I still enjoy the Sunday editions of papers like the Boston Globe, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, particularly over a long leisurely lunch at a Mexican restaurant with plenty of chips, salsa, and beer.)

Koeppel's got a professional site, and can obviously afford much nicer wine than the stuff I drink. I also commend him for the almost 100% use of wine label photos to accompany the reviews--if only I had the time!

The third link is to the blog of the talented Alyce Mantia. She's a wonderful woman and great cook who runs a little specialty food store here in Memphis. Pretty much THE place to go for interesting cheeses, such as the lemon Stilton and the "Purple Haze" goat cheese. She's got a great food blog that showcases creative recipes involving wonderful ingredients.

Super Bowl Wines Redux

I'm not much of a sports fan, and neither are the rest of my family. However, we gathered at my brother's house for a party. It was a little funny that we had plenty of wine and no beer, even though the latter probably would have been a better fit for the bratwurst on hoagies. Good bratwurst, though, covered in caramelized onions and mushrooms, with mustard and provolone cheese... slobber slobber...

We drank Yellow Tail Merlot and Chardonnay for a while, and I used the latter for a pan sauce for the brats. Dad brought along a bottle of the 2003 Jacob's Creek Cabernet Merlot. A really nice balance of the two grapes, I thought. Great for casual drinking and having fun. On the grill we also cooked a little meatloaf of sorts, ground venison topped with bacon and onions, wrapped in foil, and cooked over indirect heat on the fire for half an hour or so. Back when I was in Scouts, we called this a "Hobo Dinner". So now I'm going to go into storytelling mode...

Hobo Dinners were interesting yet rarely satisfying meals on camping trips. The adult leaders loved them because the boys did all the work. You'd get a half pound of low-grade, high-fat and gristle ground beef (or elk or deer or buffalo). You'd shape this into a ball or loaf on a sheet of aluminum foil. Then you'd add in some chopped carrots, onion, celery, and potato, obviously meant to simulate a beef stew. Then you'd wrap it up tight, do something with the foil to identify it as your own, and put it on a bed of hot coals. 45 minutes to an hour later, you were ready to eat.

They rarely tasted good. No one ever brought salt or pepper, and the carrots and potatoes somehow never got cooked. The beef tasted pretty bland, not picking up any smoke or caramelization from the fire. It was also easy to poke a hole in your foil and thus let all of the juices out. I even remember one time when it was raining too hard and I ended up eating a baseball-sized lump of raw ground beef and half a raw potato for dinner. In the rain, with the prospect of a night spent in a wet sleeping bag. I'd like to think that experience made me a better man.

It was generally better when we made chili or spaghetti for dinner, though burgers were always incredible. But it was breakfast that was always my favorite. I did a lot of cooking for my patrol, and I'd have multiple burners going with eggs, bacon, sausage, pancakes, toast, biscuits (in a Dutch oven, in the fire), all washed down with slightly-below-room-temperature whole milk, just like God intended. We would go through amazing amounts of food, and yet somehow we were always hungry in time for the next meal.

Man, this is bringing back some great memories. I remember being on top of a mountain in New Mexico, huddled over a one burner stove so that the hailstorm wouldn't put it out or knock it over as I reconsituted some turkey soup from a dried packet. Or the time I made tacos with ground buffalo. Roasting whole eggs in a fire. Roasting a haunch of venison and eating it with friends by just tearing out chunks with knife and hand. Making a cobbler with wild blackberries.

Good times.

01 February 2006

Super Bowl

I'm not a sports fan, but I've got invites to several parties for Sunday, including one from my brother. He jokingly suggested that I bring a special wine, like Boone's Farm. My reply:
Boone's Farm is actually a bit of overkill for Frito Pie. To bring out the nuanced flavors of mass-manufactured corn chips, what you really need is something along the lines of Mad Dog 20/20 Hawaiian Blue, commonly sold within easy walking distance of the hobo community. The sweet flavors of coconut and pineapple (as well as the sharp tang of the blue food coloring) complement the metallic aftertaste of canned chili and the fumes from slowly melting plastic (assuming that you're serving the treat in-bag).

On a serious note, I might bring something. You'd be surprised--a sparkling white wine is the perfect match for things like hot dogs, popcorn, and general snacking. I've seen Andrea Immer on TV drink a $100 champagne with a bowl of popcorn (tossed with black pepper and shredded Parmesan). In fact, I know of a slightly sweet sparkling Chardonnay from the Savoy region of France that tastes like green apples and lemon that would be a lot of fun.