29 April 2009

Benito vs. the Cocktail: Metropole

REMINDER: My online tasting will be held at The Commercial Appeal's Whining & Dining blog Thursday night at 7:00 CDT. The wine for this event is my dear sparkler of choice, the Domaine Ste. Michelle Blanc de Noirs from Washington state. The name sounds like a mouthful but it's as American as apple pie... and in that spirit, the suggested dinner pairing is fried chicken. Enjoy it hot or cold, bone-in or boneless, spicy or plain. If you've never had a sparkling wine with fried food, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

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One of the joys of studying classic cocktails is that once you establish a solid bar there are thousands of options available. Most of those options will be terrible, but the trial and error of creative bartenders over the past two centuries has saved us the chore of figuring out what works and doesn't. That doesn't mean innovation can't still happen, but it's always worthwhile to examine what works before trying something new. For this week's featured cocktail, I chose the Metropole, and used David Wondrich's simple recipe:

The Metropole
1½ oz. Cognac or Brandy
1½ oz. Dry White Vermouth
1 dash Orange Bitters
2 dashes Peychaud's Bitters

Combine in a cocktail shaker with ice, stir, and strain into a martini glass. Despite the optical illusion in this photo, I only used one cherry as garnish. Seeing two has to do with the natural properties of light; if you see three or more, call your doctor.

This is a very light and delicate cocktail, with a nice balance between the sweet dark flavors of the Brandy and the light herbal flavors of the Vermouth. In fact it's really a classic European apéritif, and whether or not you'll enjoy this depends heavily on your love of Vermouth. I, for one, can drink it straight--use good stuff, like Noilly Prat, and keep it fresh. A bottle that's been open and slowly oxidizing on the back shelf of a bar is going to taste nasty, which is perhaps the reason why so many Americans can't stand the product.

The drink is named after the Hotel Metropole in New York (as opposed to the nearby Metropolitan Hotel with a similar signature beverage), and the recipe goes back to the turn of the last century. The word itself refers to the capital of an empire, but in French métropole is a specific geographic and legal term for the French motherland in Europe, as opposed to its overseas territories. Everything outside of mainland France and the island of Corsica is called la France d'outre-mer or overseas France. This latter group includes Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, tiny parts of the French Republic off the coast of Newfoundland. That's one of my favorite bits of geography trivia, that just a little over 500 miles from the Maine coast you can be in France.

27 April 2009

Green Winemaking Tour: Preston

When I got back from Sonoma, lots of people asked me about my experiences out there, and I'd give a quick rundown followed by a cryptic sentence: "At one vineyard, I was ready to renounce all worldly possessions, throw on some work boots, and become a farmer." That place was Preston of Dry Creek.

It's a bit off the beaten path. Were it not for the reassuring chirps of the GPS I might have given up after the tiny bridges and one lane roads, but eventually I found myself in heaven. Growing up in the city and suburbs, you see these fairytale images of farms, with cows and goats and dozens of different vegetables growing all on the same couple of acres. Then you visit a real farm, and it's just cotton as far as the eye can see, or corn, or wheat... Now, that's the way that modern farming works, and I've got a lot of family growing those crops that keep this nation clothed and fed. But that pastoral image gets shattered, and you forget about it until visiting a place like Preston. There were sheep grazing between the vines, chickens here and there, lots of vegetables, cherry trees, apple trees, peach trees... they even grow a little wheat, and grind it on site where it's blended into some of the whole-wheat breads made at the main house which, of course, features an old stone hearth oven.

Preston is not only Certified Organic for the grapes; it also extends to the olives, fruits, and vegetables grown on the property. Some of their organic products are available online, but others are just available for sale to visitors. And even though I'm more of a dog person, I took a moment to hang out in the courtyard with the vineyard cats, who really didn't give a damn about my 1800-mile journey from Memphis. The staff at the winery, on the other hand, were some of the warmest and friendliest that I met while I was out in Sonoma.

Preston was a real eye-opener in terms of all the different crops that could be grown organically on the same small patch of earth, but it's also notable in being a company that intentionally lowered its production to focus on a higher quality, more sustainable product. Preston has been in operation since the mid 70s, but ten years ago they went from making 25,000 cases a year to only 8,000, and distribution scaled back as well. (For the record, I don't think their wines are currently available in the Memphis market.) This move coincided with a renewed focus on organic winemaking, and the approach spread to all aspects of the farm. Right before my visit, the local newspaper had just published a story about Preston. Fortunately the article is available at The Press-Democrat site, and yes, it features video of the sheep grazing among the vines.

If you're in the area, Preston is certainly worth a visit. Bring a picnic lunch, give yourself time to take the tour and then relax for a bit. And follow the instructions on the door: don't let the cats into the tasting room.

Wines Sampled at the Vineyard

Further details and ordering information for these wines can be found at the Preston website.

2007 Madame Preston. A Rhône-style white blend of Rousanne, Viognier, and Marsanne. Lovely floral and peach aromas on this wine, and I'm really kicking myself for not bringing any back home with me.

2007 Barbera. Black cherry, black pepper, earthy and mild. Not quite the Italian expression of the grape, but great in its own unique way.

2007 Zinfandel, made with a touch of Petite Sirah. Wild and fruit forward, fascinating.

2006 L. Preston Red Blend. Another interesting Rhône-style blend, this one made from Syrah, Mourvèdre, Carignane, and Cinsault. This was a beautifully complex wine, full of earth and minerals and spice, with background elements of black cherries and plums. This was my favorite of the tasting, and is highly recommended.

24 April 2009

Robert Oatley Wines Redux

In January, I wrote about two wines from Robert Oatley in Australia. Recently I got a chance to try two more of his wines, a Sauvignon Blanc and a Sangiovese rosé. As most readers should know by now, I never turn down a dry rosé, and I'm finding Sauvignon Blanc a lot more interesting than Chardonnay in the way that it's made around the world.

The last time I wrote about these wines, I praised the label because of its elegant design and the obvious difficulties that must have been involved in printing it. Recently I heard from the print shop that produced the labels--a sales manager from Adelaide wrote and confirmed that yes, the labels were a complex project, but they were able to pull it off. Ladies and gentlemen, a round of applause for Collotype. Oh, after three bottles have been opened and the table is getting convivial we might toast the winemaker, but how often do we celebrate the graphic designers, bottle producers, and label printers? Ultimately they are the public face of the entire wine industry, responsible for the final point at which a customer hefts two different bottles and makes a choice.

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My "brother from another mother" Paul brought over a pair of pies from Memphis Pizza Cafe, an awesome local place that makes glorious thin crust pizza. We paired the white with the Alternative Pizza (mozzarella and cherry tomatoes) and the rosé with the Supreme (a little bit of everything). Both worked exceptionally well, though these wines are fairly food-friendly and should adapt to a wide range of dishes.

2008 Robert Oatley Sauvignon Blanc from Western Australia. $18, 12.5% abv. Equal parts Pemberton, Frankland and Margaret River (my dear Barbara grew up near the Margaret River wine region). Like a lemon meringue pie--citric, lemony beginning with a soft and creamy finish. Hints of butter somewhere in there, with a touch of orange, and just a little grassy flavor. It's distinct from the full-grapefruit Sauvignon Blancs from New Zealand, more delicate and restrained in character. And you've got to love that lemon sorbet color when the light hits it right.

2008 Robert Oatley Rosé of Sangiovese from the Mudgee region of New South Wales. $18, 13% abv. It's produced using the saignée method, which refers to letting the juice bleed off after limited contact with the skins. I tried this both chilled and at room temperature; it really depends on what you're serving as to what pairs better, but for flavor you get more out of it when it's warm. Initial aroma of overripe strawberries, with an earthy aroma that emerges as the Sangiovese stands up. Without the bold tannins and dark fruit flavors, you get to enjoy a different side of this grape. Beautiful salmon color--I still maintain that pink wines are the most visually fascinating.

There are two thoughts that spring to mind when I'm tasting these wines. The first is, thank God for screwcaps. I seriously hope that the next generation of wine drinkers assumes that all "drink now" wines will be enclosed with screwcaps.

The second thought is the sheer wonder of drinking wine from Australia. Granted, there's loads of it in the American market, and gallons of it have passed my lips. However, I've never lost that feeling of magic that comes from trying a wine from far away. These grapes ripened upon the sunburnt country; by night they rested under the Southern Cross, a constellation I've never seen with my own eyes. But on my tongue I'm savoring the water and flavors of a continent on the other side of the world...

22 April 2009

Benito vs. the Cocktail: Bijou

A while back, MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow mixed a Bijou on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. (Watch the video!) Maddow is a fan of the classic aspects of mixology, and I'm glad she's out there spreading the gospel on some of the lesser-known cocktails. Someone has to take a stand against the flood of sugary, neon-colored abominations popular with kids today.

For the first attempt, I followed Maddow's recipe:

Bijou Cocktail
1 oz. Gin
1 oz. Sweet Red Vermouth
1 oz. Chartreuse
Stir in a shaker with ice, and strain into a martini glass. Add a dash or two of orange bitters.

(The labels were obscured in the video, but it looks like she was using Regan's Orange Bitters #6. Also, I prefer to add bitters to the glass, not the shaker--no need to dilute those or let any of the essence remain behind in the melting ice.)

The result was heavily aromatic with a deep licorice element, and big green flavors from the dose of chlorophyll in the Chartreuse. This has a big percentage of alcohol, so watch out. It's got a unique and distinct flavor, but you might want to make one for yourself before pouring a dozen for a cocktail party. A Manhattan is a similar cocktail that's a lot more approachable for most folks.

When I first saw New Amsterdam Gin, I was hesitant. I'd read a few reviews that described it as "gin for people that don't like gin", and as someone that is happy to drink straight such lovely gins like Citadelle and Hendrick's, I saw no reason to try this newcomer. But my friend Fredric tried it out, and with my trust in his experienced palate, I took the leap. It's nice and smooth with a citrus element to it. Not the most complex gin out there, but it's good for the price and excellent for cocktails.

Chartreuse is a powerful, herbal, French liqueur originally made by Carthusian monks and currently produced under deep secrecy as to the ingredients. This bottle was kindly provided by my friend Paul, who got really interested when I first mentioned the recipe. It's flavor is quite intense, and so for comparison I made a more modern adaptation of the Bijou, using 1 part Chartreuse, 1 part Sweet Red Vermouth, and 4 parts Gin. This is much smoother and provides the same Bijou flavor in a much lighter fashion.

If you want to try one of these at home, be cautioned: a 750 mL bottle of Chartreuse costs $55 and isn't necessarily as versatile as say, Dry White Vermouth. Of course, my living room is starting to look like a Victorian pharmacy, making this an incredible gift that I'll really use for cocktail research. For those unwilling to take the plunge, keep your eyes open. If you're in a well-stocked bar that leans more towards the older style of cocktails, and you see the four ingredients, kindly ask if the bartender will make one for you, and let your taste buds travel back one hundred years.

20 April 2009

Green Winemaking Tour: Coppola

While in Sonoma, I visited all types of wineries, everything from tiny Mom & Pop vineyards to massive operations able to handle tour buses and large groups. One of the larger and more well-known wineries in the area is the subject of today's Green Winemaking report...

Coppola has two winemaking facilities, one in Napa (formerly Niebaum-Coppola, now Rubicon Estate) and the second is in Sonoma. Called Rosso & Bianco, this Geyserville property is a member of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance. While Rosso & Bianco is not Certified Organic, the CSWA advances a series of green ethics regarding responsible use of the soil, fair treatment of workers, and engagement with the surrounding community.

The facility was under major renovation during my visit (improvements including a restaurant are underway), so my access was limited. But I did enjoy the bar-style tasting room, where I sat on a stool and looked up at a collection of memorabilia from various Coppola films, including the famous hat worn by Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now.

There are lots of bottles available for tasting at the winery, though over the years I've tried and written about many of them. I stuck to the few that were unfamiliar to me, though up on the shelf they did have a bottle of Carmine, the 3 liter wine in a jug that retails for $175. (Sorry, it was not available for sampling.) It's an interesting bottle with a story behind it involving young Francis attempting to carry a jug of wine with a pencil threaded through the finger loop. The pencil snapped and the wine crashed to the floor, and young Francis went without cannoli that night. The wine is sold with a pencil tied to the loop. In a creative nod to sustainability, there are refill events during which you can have the Carmine bottle refilled with this special edition red blend.

I wanted to highlight an interesting Coppola selection that's just recently hit the market. The 2007 Coppola Alicante Bouschet is made in Lodi, California. $19, a delightful 13.5% abv. Pure Alicante Bouschet, a French hybrid of Grenache and Petit Bouschet (the latter a cross between Teinturier du Cher and Aramon). There's a lot of this grown in Europe and the US, but you rarely see it in a single grape wine.

As a fellow blogger and Captain of the Dirty South Mothership has said about certain bottles, this wine brings the funk! It doesn't smell bad, but it's got a prominent aroma to it, and the tasting notes from around the web are all over the place. Here's what I got: snapping a green sasasfras stick, steamed artichoke and asparagus. Once it breathes, berry aromas tend to dominate, but those enchanting vegetal characteristics are still present. The flavor is oddly light, with cherry tones and a very short finish. Don't get me wrong, I'm in love with this wine for its alluring nose. I could smell this wine for days, and I did--the last glassful stuck around for almost a week. It's just such a pleasure to try a wine that's not simply cherry or vanilla.

Wines Sampled at the Vineyard:

2007 Francis Coppola Reserve Viognier, Russian River Valley. Peach and pear aromas, floral. Grassy, herbal notes, with a slightly firm aftertaste.

2007 Francis Coppola Reserve Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast. Strawberry dominates, with a smooth, light, and refreshing flavor profile.

2006 Director's Cut Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley. Vegetal, with a touch of bell pepper on top of the black cherry. Bordeaux inspired but with California fruit-forward characteristics.

2006 Francis Coppola Reserve Syrah, Dry Creek Valley. 96% Syrah with a 4% splash of Viognier, a classic combination. Blackberry and pepper aromas with just a touch of lilacs. Firm tannins but a smooth finish. My favorite of the tasting, and highly recommended.

17 April 2009

News + The Manhattan Project

A couple of quick news items:

First up, frequent commenter and fellow wine blogger Samantha Dugan has moved her site from Yahoo back to Blogspot. The new address for Samantha Sans Dosage is http://sansdosage.blogspot.com/. While I'm mucking around with bean-stuffed potatoes and Serbian prune brandy, she's tasting great Champagne and fine Burgundy. I think you'll find the new site easier to read, and definitely easier for commenting. Stop by her new site and show some love for the west coast sister.

Secondly... I've got another online wine tasting coming up. Thursday, April 30th at 7:00 p.m. (Central Daylight Time). Again, this will be held over at Whining & Dining, a blog affiliated with my hometown newspaper The Commercial Appeal. This time it's fried chicken and sparkling wine. Get your bucket or box o' chicken, and pick up a bottle of the non-vintage Domaine Ste. Michelle Blanc de Noirs. Chill the wine ahead of time, chill the chicken if you prefer yours cold, and join us at 7:00 to chat about it. Just keep a napkin handy so your keyboard doesn't get greasy.

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Now, about the Manhattan Project... My buddy Paul and I have been enjoying Manhattans as a nice pre-dinner beverage for the past year, and lately I've been mixing it up with different bitters. Since I have ten different bottles at home, I decided I needed to go through all of them. Note that this is not a review of which bitters are inherently good or bad, just which ones are best for this particular cocktail. Grapefruit didn't work so well, but would be great in a Sea Breeze or a traditional Margarita (i.e., not a green beverage mostly comprised of corn syrup).

For the sake of science, these were all tested over the course of a few weeks, using the following baseline recipe:

2 oz. Maker's Mark Bourbon
1 oz. Noilly Prat Sweet Red Vermouth
(stir the above in a cocktail shaker with ice)
1 maraschino cherry*
2 dashes of bitters

Here's the reviews of 10 Manhattans with 10 different bitters:

Commonly Available Bitters
  • Angostura: The baseline bitters found everywhere, turns it almost like cola or root beer
  • Peychaud's: Medicinal, bracing. Outside of a Sazerac it's hard to find a good use for Peychaud's. Inside of a Sazerac, it's too dark. With apologies to Groucho.
Fee Brothers Bitters
(see a previous post for more details)

  • Lemon: Too overpowering for a Manhattan; too bright and citric
  • West Indian Orange: Quite good, a decent standard
  • Old Fashion: A great standard like the West Indian Orange but with more spice and depth
  • Rhubarb: Too delicate for this cocktail, the Bourbon completely overwhelmed it
  • Grapefruit: Too tart and distracting, it throws off the entire balance of the cocktail
  • Mint: Oddly fun--it impacts the aroma more than the flavor, but it had its own crazy charm
  • Cherry: For this I omitted the cherry from the cocktail, but the bitters provided a great flavor without the syrup texture and sweet edge
  • Peach: The surprise winner of the group. Wow. Peach and cherry go together in dessert, but here they blend in a new and unexpected way. This is the one to use when you want to amaze your friends with the power of bitters.
*For additional fun, buy a jar of maraschino cherries and strain out all the red juice. Then pour your bourbon of choice over the cherries, and let sit. Over time the cherries take on a great flavor, and when you're done you've got a sweet Bourbon-Cherry syrup that you can use over ice cream or in some other dessert.

15 April 2009

Rosa d'Oro Wines & The Return of California Girl

California Girl, the pseudonymous character on this blog formerly known as The Girlfriend, left town last June but just came back for a week-long visit. A dinner party was mandatory, and I had some California wines made from Italian grapes that I was dying to try. An Italian menu seemed like a natural fit, with one small hitch: California Girl does not eat tomatoes in any form, and she's not big on pasta. Now there's lots of Italian cuisine that doesn't involve tomatoes or pasta, but it was still a unique challenge.

For the evening's wine lineup, I had three wines from Rosa d'Oro of Kelseyville, California, plus an unrelated Italian sparkling wine in the middle. Rosa d'Oro is is Italian for "Golden Rose", and the Buttitta family has been growing grapes in California since the 1950s. In addition to wine, they also produce olive oil and single-grape vinegars, though the latter are currently sold out. Think about the bragging rights at a dinner party when you can whip out the Dolcetto vinegar.

The Rosa d'Oro wines and olive oil can currently be ordered from the website--check back later this year for the vinegar.

After an antipasto course of real bruschetta (just sliced crusty bread that's been toasted, tapped on the hot eye of the stove for grill marks, then rubbed with raw garlic and drizzled with olive oil) and a selection of salami/capicola/sopressata, it was time for the main feast...

As always, click on the photos for larger versions with more detail.

Primo piatto: Risotto with bay scallops, shrimp, and crawfish tails. Pretty easy to make, and using Kitchen Basics Seafood Stock provided great depth of flavor. I kept the risotto and vegetables separate from the shellfish, which I seared off in a skillet with butter before placing on top of the rice.

For the wine, I chose the 2007 Rosa d'Oro Dry Muscat Canelli, $16. Muscat Canelli goes by several different names, including the charming Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains, or "white muscat with small berries". It's an old grape, reliably tracked back as far as ancient Greece and Rome. While often developed into sweet wines, here it shows the grape's dry yet fruity side. Light and enchanting aroma of pears, lemon, and flowers. Dry and delicate, but fruit forward with touches of lime and that distinct Muscat duskiness.

Insalata: This isn't Italian, but it was two days before Easter and I figured it might be fun to put something whimsical on the table. Half a quail on a bed of mesclun greens, drizzled with balsamic vinaigrette, and a small nest of alfalfa sprouts with half a chicken egg. Yes, a whole quail egg would have been more appropriate, but I had chicken eggs in the fridge that needed cooking.

I love to throw in a sparkler in the middle of the meal. This is the NV Rotari Rosé Talento Trento, a metodo classico sparkling wine from near the Italian Alps. It's 25% Chardonnay and 75% Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir), giving it that little salmon blush we all love from blanc de noirs. This is crisp with massive bubbles, and has a bright, tart raspberry aroma and flavor to it. Excellent for cutting through the savory quail.

Secondo Piatto: Braciole and baby Brussels sprouts pan-fried in bacon. This is my second attempt at braciole, and since I didn't have the option of braising it in a rich tomato sauce, I roasted it on a rack. It's more rare than you see with a lot of braciole, but I had a choice between rare and tender or another couple of hours until it was falling-apart tender. The stuffing of ricotta, spinach, and fresh herbs is difficult to see here, but it provided great flavor. I served both of the reds with this course, with my fellow diners going back and forth between the two. Opinions varied, but the Refosco was my favorite of the night.

2007 Rosa d'Oro Primitivo, $18. Primitivo is the same grape as Zinfandel and its original Croatian name, Crljenak Kaštelanski. While wines bearing these three names may be made in different styles, the DNA evidence proves that they're all the same plant. This particular bottle was smoky, with a dusty nose full of black plum, a touch of jam, and a bold black cherry flavor that was a hit around the table.

2007 Rosa d'Oro Refosco, $24. You don't see a lot of wines made from Refosco here, except occasionally in blends, but just because there's not a whole section for it in the wine shop doesn't mean you shouldn't look for it. This particular wine had a fascinating aroma of nutmeg, raisins, stewed fruit, and a touch of toast. It had very mild tannins with deep flavors including cocoa and blackberry. Highly recommended.

Dessert was provided by my brother and his wife, and the evening stretched on for a few more hours. Good food, good wine, good friends... la dolce vita.

13 April 2009

Green Winemaking Tour: Ridge

While I was puttering around the Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma County, I had a list of places I should check out, and I allowed myself some time for discovery. I was driving down a little two-lane road and saw a sign for Ridge. I had to stop, pull over, and confirm that this was the Ridge, specifically the western operation. One of the legends of Sonoma wine history, and I basically tripped over it.

I was a bit early, but I marked the location on my map and came back a couple of hours later. This proved to be a wise decision, as I got to take a tour of the facility with a pair of lovely young women from Springfield, Missouri, led by Ridge Winemaker John Olney.

We walked through the whole process, starting with the Lytton Springs vineyards where the wine is blended "in the field", i.e. grapes are planted in a certain ratio, harvested, and made into wine, rather than gathering the separate varieties and mixing after the juice is pressed or the wine is made. This is a wonderful Old World technique that has been developed over decades at Ridge, and the results are spectacular. I asked Olney about the different ripening schedules of the various grapes, and it turns out that they harvest when there's an ideal balance in sugar levels between the Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, and other grapes. Some have more sugar, some have less, but they've learned to plant a harmonious proportion that produces a great wine.

It's often easy to spot organic vineyards. Conventional ones have a lot of bare dirt between plants and rows (look at the far background of this photo), and organic ones have lots of native flora (the foreground of this photo). Ridge is just now getting its Organic Certification, but has been using sustainable methods for some time. We toured the barrel room, where stacks of Missouri oak barrels reach heights of 30-40 feet. It's nice and cool in the barrel room, making it a popular spot during the summer months.

What was my favorite part of the tour, even including a look at a library of bottles going back three decades, all set in the glorious Bauhaus style using my beloved Optima? Meeting the winery dog, a loving Rhodesian Ridgeback who doesn't have a ridge. She was a sweet dog and it was fun to scratch her head while drinking wine. Since much of my own wine consumption is done in close proximity to my own dogs at home, it marked a special point in the trip.

Once I got home, I dug around in the cellar and pulled out a Ridge that had been hiding for a while. This is from the vineyards east of the area I visited, and is a Bordeaux-style blend than a Zinfandel blends I sampled at the winery, but I was still excited to open it. The 2000 Ridge Santa Cruz Mountains is from the Monte Bello Vineyards and is comprised of 64% Cabernet Sauvignon, 28% Merlot, 8% Petit Verdot. Green bell pepper, leather, spice, touch of coffee and cherry. Complex, yet smooth as silk. It's a fascinating wine that will go with any well-prepared red meat you can cook, but itt's almost better after dinner, when you can relax and appreciate it while winding down. From my experience, Ridge wines tend to age fairly well under less-than-ideal circumstances, and if you're in a smaller wine shop looking for hidden treasures, Ridge bottles are generally a good bet.

You can stop by at either of their properties to visit and taste, but check the link for times and dates.

Wines Sampled at the Vineyard

More detailed tasting notes, prices, and online ordering information can be found at the Ridge website.

2006 Chardonnay - Santa Cruz Mountains Estate. Jasmine, floral, mineral. Restrained and delicious.

2005 Buchignani Ranch. 96% Zinfandel and 4% Carignane. Plum aromas and a touch of ash. Lovely.

2006 Pagani Ranch. 88% Zinfandel, 7% Alicante Bouschet, 3% Petite Sirah, and 2% Carignane. Nice touch of spice, with elements of raw bacon. A good meaty wine that begs for lamb, and my favorite of the tasting. Highly recommended.

2006 Lytton Springs. 80% Zinfandel, 16% Petite Sirah, 4% Carignane. A bit vegetal, with black cherry aromas and a hint of spice.

2006 Dusi Ranch. 100% Zinfandel. Red apple, cherry, plum, and cinnamon. Stock up on this for Thanksgiving.

2007 Geyserville. 58% Zinfandel, 22% Carignane, 18% Petite Sirah, and 2% Mataro (Mourvèdre). Bright and crisp. Tart raspberry profile, lots of plucky flavor here.

2007 Three Valleys. 76% Zinfandel, 8% Petite Sirah, 7% Syrah, and 6% Grenache. Fruit forward, with a firm strawberry jam aroma and flavor.

10 April 2009

Benito vs. the Porterhouse: Vertical Steak

One of the reasons why I've never been attracted to restaurant work is that I get tired of cooking the same ingredient the same way, over and over again. Even when I perfect a technique through practice, I'm generally ready to move on to the next challenge. In this case, I decided to cook the steak vertically. It wasn't thick enough to stand up on its own, so with the addition of a bamboo chopstick I was able to provide some stability. I slow cooked the 2½ lb. monster at the "Warm" setting of the oven (around 175°F) until the probe thermometer read a lovely rare 125°F internal temperature.

I was pleased with the final result. The major benefit of this method is that it slowly renders out some of the fat while providing even cooking all around. Downside? You can really only do it with a thick Porterhouse or T-Bone. I think a ribeye hung from a hook or string might just fall off due to tenderness. The steak carved up nicely, easily feeding three people with leftovers for salads the next day... and one diner gnawed on the bone for some of those hard-to-reach morsels. (No shame in that, I've done it myself many times.) For sides, I steamed broccolini with lemon wedges and roasted my dear golden beets for an hour before slicing them up and further cooking with olive oil and Chinese five-spice powder.

We tried a couple of wines that evening, but the others go along with future themed posts. However, the odd man out was the NV True Earth Red Blend $13, Mendocino, California. 52% Cabernet Sauvignon, 43% Merlot, 5% Petite Sirah. This is a 100% organic offering from the irreverent guys at Three Thieves. Black pepper, cherry, creamy finish, tart raspberry elements. On the old Venn diagram it falls smack dab in the center of bargain, organic, and mass-produced, what some call "corporate organic". But it's a fun little wine that will be great with burgers from the grill later this summer. Whether those burgers are made from cheap ground beef or free-range buffalo is your choice entirely.

08 April 2009

Recession Dining: Jacket Potatoes

And now for something completely different...

After decades of reading British literature, watching British movies, and even dabbling in the cookery of the scepter'd isle, I only recently learned about jacket potatoes, the English version of a stuffed baked potato and a favorite of cooking-deficient university students in the land of Shakespeare and Churchill. While we Yanks tend to go crazy with the cheese and sour cream and bacon, Brits will throw damned near anything into a baked potato. This list includes, but is not limited to, canned tuna, spaghetti sauce, leftover Indian food, and cole slaw. Next Fourth of July, sit down the kids and explain that weird potato fillings are a great reason to be thankful for the Revolution.

For my first authentic jacket potato, I decided to go with the classic recipe: butter, cheddar cheese, and canned beans. And of course I picked up an imported can of Heinz Baked Beans, which, if you've ever ordered the "English Breakfast" while abroad, you've probably had cold along with eggs and sausage. The can is so iconic and identifiable that you can easily spot expat Englishmen in the store. When you're shopping for groceries, pay attention. If you see more than two cans of these beans in a cart, walk up and say, "Pardon me, but what part of England are you from?" You'll get one of two answers, either 1) "Gorblimey, I'm from Kentworthingstonshire!" or 2) "How did you know my spouse is British?" Bonus points for grabbing the last can off the shelf to see if the stiff upper lip survived the trip across the pond.

My verdict? Surprisingly delicious. Piling starch on top of starch doesn't sound like a good idea, but somehow it works. And it must be noted that I split this among three people as a side dish, though in theory it's a standard budget dinner for one. I would recommend substituting some other brand of baked beans, and enhancing them with mustard, Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce, molasses, etc. The old tinned Heinz beans are serviceable but bland if you've been raised on the savory and sumptuous BBQ beans of the South.

06 April 2009

Green Winemaking Tour: Quivira

During my recent visit to California, my focus was on environmentally-friendly winemaking. Vineyards can be USDA Certified Organic, Certified Biodynamic, an individual or other private program may be followed, or the winery may simply use sustainable methods without the paperwork. While there are arguments about the benefits and differences between these various philosophies, all have the same goal: to produce wine with fewer negative impacts on the environment.

One of my first stops provided me with great insight on the whole concept. Quivira Vineyards is located in the Dry Creek Valley. As an independent operation they've been making wine since 1987, but the property has been used for growing wine grapes since the 1960s. I spoke to winemaker Steven Canter about his winemaking methods, his philosophy, and about the land.

He explained that green winemaking is more than just avoiding pesticides, it's a holistic approach to agriculture. Using what's on the land and building a balanced ecosystem, but also extending that philosophy to include topics like pay and health care for the grape pickers and others that work at the vineyard. It's about not being a drain on the surrounding community in terms of pulling resources, but rather building a self-sustaining system that improves and benefits the area. For instance, instead of artificial fertilizers, chickens eat weeds and bugs, and the composted manure is used to help grow vines. And this natural, nitrogen-rich fertilizer isn't trucked from halfway across the country--it's right on the property.

Since I'm not from the area, I had a lot of questions about the local wildlife and its impact on the grapes. Canter said that deer sometimes nip the buds off vines in the spring, and rabbits occasionally chew through driplines, but that there's little significant impact from the wild animals. It's a beautiful area, nestled between the hills and mountains. With the peace and quiet, reliance on traditional farming methods, and tender care of the land, it's easy to forget where you are. Or when you are for that matter; a lot of these green winemaking techniques were the standard for agriculture for millennia and are being rediscovered by the present generation.

Quivira is Certified Biodynamic, meaning that they go a step beyond organic. Factors such as rhythm of the seasons and natural fertilizers come into play; indeed, the methods for making compost read more like recipes than a chemistry textbook. Canter pointed out that while this is the way they feel they can best make wine and take care of the land, he doesn't think that such methods should be forced on anyone. It may be easy to feel like you've got to tiptoe around the organic movement like vegetarians at a BBQ, but these are good folks doing amazing things with the land they farm, and working the land in such a way as to preserve it for future generations.

I can't thank Canter enough for his patient explanation of this worldview, which proved invaluable for the remainder of my trip. If you're in the Healdsburg/Dry Creek area, visit Quivira and be amazed.

Wines Sampled

Due to the number of wines tasted on this trip, the notes will be brief. Further tasting notes, ordering information, and prices can be found at Quivira's website.

2007 Quivira Sauvignon Blanc - Barrel Complete. Partial use of acacia wood barrels, which is unusual. Creamy, vanilla, hint of citrus. Balanced and smooth, a nice change of pace if, like me, you've been drinking a lot of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. This was my favorite of the tasting, and is highly recommended.

2006 Quivira Zinfandel - Dry Creek Valley. From 50 year old vines. Plum, earthy, tasted like it would go exceptionally well with wild game like venison.

2006 Quivira Mourvèdre - Wine Creek Ranch. Touch of berries and ash, very rustic. Tasting grapes like this on their own help you understand Rhone-style blends so much better.

2006 Quivira Syrah - Wine Creek Ranch. Blueberry and bacon notes. Food-friendly wine that ought to work with a wide range of dishes.

2006 Quivira Petite Sirah - Wine Creek Ranch. Medium tannins, touch of tea, lovely black cherry aromas and flavors. Petite Sirah grows well in this area, and is often mixed into Zinfandel in small quantities.

Note: For the next couple of months, my Monday posts will focus on this topic, with each post highlighting a specific winery. And thanks again to the Four Points by Sheraton of San Rafael for sponsoring my stay in the area.

03 April 2009

2006 Galil Mountain Barbera

To a lot of people, kosher wines are associated with heavily sweetened Concord grapes, much in the way that many folks think all pink wines are sweet. But in reality, there are a wide range of flavor profiles and sugar levels on both fronts, from syrupy-sweet to bone-dry. Personally I prefer my wines on the drier side, and in the past few years I've seen more and more kosher wines that appeal to those palates. One example is the 2006 Galil Mountain Barbera from the Galilee region of Israel, distributed by Yarden. $18, 15% abv, 100% Barbera. Certified Kosher for Passover. Lots of black cherry on the nose, with full plum flavors but a very mild and soft mouthfeel. Tannins are barely present, making this an incredibly smooth wine, probably great for Thanksgiving. I think the perfect pairing would be a properly roasted duck with a little pink in the middle of the breast. It's a great wine, and smells more Italian than you'd think--there's just a whiff of that Chianti tartness.

I'm not Jewish myself, but in the interest of keeping with the theme and in honor of the upcoming holiday, I decided to cook an old Italian Passover recipe. My kitchen is admittedly treif, much less properly prepared for Pesach, but ingredient-wise I stuck to the traditional ingredients. Jewish-Italian cooking is something of a historical and culinary curiosity, as Judaism has had a rough history in the country and Jews currently comprise only .075% of the present population. Scacchi (pronounced SKA-kee, means chess in English) looked like a pretty good bet, though when I was trying to convince friends to come over for dinner I had to describe it as "lasagna, but without pasta, tomatoes, or cheese". Matzo are used in place of noodles, and alternating layers have either a meat or vegetable filling. I followed the linked recipe with a spiced beef/raisin mixture and a spinach/mushroom mixture, though I replaced a lot of the onion with smaller doses of shallot.

It's an odd sort of dish, but it worked out great. Needs a bit of salt, but I had some kosher flakes on hand. Improvements? I think it might be better to mix two of the eggs in with the meat mixture, as most of the egg wash runs off into the dish. Also, given the size of commercial matzo, you end up with basically two separate 6"x6" stacks. You'll need more than a cup of chicken broth to soften all the matzo. Don't skip the pine nuts, they really make the dish.

An Italian grape grown in Israel and kosher recipes in Italy? It's not as strange as it sounds. One of the problems with the way geography is taught (and thus how it gets perceived) is in compartmentalization. Specifically regarding the subjects of this post: Italy is taught as part of Europe, Israel as the Middle East, and Morocco/Tunisia/etc. as part of Africa. In reality, they're all part of a Mediterranean region that's shared a lot of culture and food over the course of human history. You can start with olive oil and citrus fruits and find dozens of other common threads throughout these cuisines.

Ranting aside, I wish everyone a Happy Passover! !חג שמח

01 April 2009

Benito's Exciting 2009 Martinis

There are certain prudes and old fuddy-duddies out there that say Martinis can only be made with gin. And some of these weirdos even use Vermouth! As if anyone would drink something that sounds like a rat poison--Vermin Out, am I right? We all know that the Traditional Martini is just vodka and ice with an olive on a little plastic sword. But that gets boring fast.

Fortunately, bars and restaurants across the country have learned that anything counts as a Martini. You can serve nonalcoholic beer in a cocktail glass and--presto!--it's a Near-BeerTini! After months of experimentation at the Benito Cocktail Lab, here are my four favorite Nouveau Martinis:

The Rotini

Several of our researchers have spent time in Italy, and if there's one thing that Italians love in their cocktails, it's pasta. Rumored to be a favorite of Lucrezia Borgia, this modern adaptation combines 1⅞ oz. grappa and 1⅛ oz. vodka with a few pieces of cooked rotini pasta (the exact number depends on the lunar calendar and most recent score of the town's futbol team). Recommended for the carb-craving after breaking up with a woman who was strict about the Atkins diet, or as an authentic companion to the antipasto classico italiano first dish of fried mozzarella sticks and marinara sauce. Other pastas can be substituted, but lasagna noodles are difficult to work with. Consider serving shooters in plugged manicotti tubes!

The Light Sweet Crude

Despite the rush for alternative energy sources, most of our cars still run on good ol' Texas Tea. In honor of this viscous life blood of our economy, our team chose to combine 1⅓ oz. freshly brewed espresso, 1¼ oz. blackstrap molasses, and 2⅝ oz. black rum. In lieu of garnish, float a skim of olive oil on top for that rainbow sheen of a Wal-Mart parking lot after it rains. My beloved readers, this cocktail would sprout chest hair on one of them nekkid dogs from Mexico. The sugar/caffeine kick will keep your heart racing for hours, the alcohol will slow things down enough that you don't enter cardiac arrest, and the olive oil will ensure smooth sailing for that egg and pig ear burrito you had on the shady side of Amarillo.

The Orchard Cropduster

Many popular cocktails are all about fruit and rum. We're getting back to the farm here with a glass of raw kumquats. The bartender stands on a stepladder and uses a spray bottle to mist a combination of Barbados silver rum and a dash of orange bitters over the fruit. For effect you can make airplane noises with your mouth, but our marketing department is working on a toy airplane that sprays the liquor. Depending on your clientele the delivery plane can be a Grumman Ag Cat or the Rockwell Thrush Commander. Get to know your local ag pilots before ordering one or the other.

The Vacuutini

Inspired by molecular gastronomy, this martini serves to deliver the essence of the cocktail in a way that will challenge your bourgeois preconceptions. Combine top shelf Russian Vodka (only if it's made west of the Ural Mountains), Lillet Blanc, and a few drops of an organic Pinot Grigio in a cocktail glass. Swirl in a clockwise direction 15 times and then pour the entire drink down the drain. Cover with plastic wrap and place in the freezer. Serve after the contraction of air pressure has pulled in the plastic. Upon serving the customer can remove the plastic and lick the inside of the glass like a desperate teenager cleaning up after his parents' cocktail party. Cutting edge mixology meets ironic nostalgia. Here at the Lab we're working with Swiss glass experts to develop a special set of stemware that will amplify the Vaccutini experience.

Confused web-searchers or newer readers might want to check out my April 1 articles from 2007 & 2008. And check out the Dregs Report for more hijinks.