29 June 2009

June Dinner Party

I had a bunch of wines that needed tasting, and felt it was time for a big dinner party. On this occasion I had the pleasure of dining with fellow Memphis blogger Michelle who writes about life downtown in her "Notes from Memphis". I think it's a good idea to cycle some fresh blood through the dinner party crowd, and I also am a strong believer in cross-subject blogger gatherings. No need to cluster together in little cliques, this isn't the 10th grade lunchroom.

We kicked off the event with a tray of appetizers and a bottle of the Mumm Napa Blanc de Noirs (now renamed the Brut Rosé). Made from Pinot Noir, it's a lovely pink sparkler with wonderful raspberry and floral aromas. Crisp raspberry flavors with bright acidity. Beautiful summer bubbly.

So what's on the tray? Clockwise from top left: olives, marinated mushrooms, Edam, Tomme Des Pyrenees, Cahill's Irish Porter Cheddar, Saint-Nectaire, Humboldt Fog. The Humdboldt Fog was runny, stinky, and bold-flavored, but was a huge hit at the party.

The slightly granular soup you see here is homemade cream of asparagus soup, made with just leeks, asparagus, chicken broth, and cream. What it lacks in Cambpell's consistency it more than makes up for in fresh vegetable flavor. I served it with the first of three wines from Viña Carmen in Chile. This is the 2007 Chardonnay from various valleys, 14% abv, $10. Green apples, wildflowers, honey, and a nice round mouthfeel. Only 20% was fermented in barrels, leading to a balanced oak presence.

Carmen is an organic winery, and with this line they are using bottles that weigh 15% less than their standard counterparts. Lighter and more environmentally friendly packaging is a growing concern among wine marketers, and the thickness of the glass is a change that doesn't spark the kind of debate like corks versus screwcaps.

Fish course! Mahi-mahi cooked with olive oil, white vermouth, a splash of orange juice, and sliced fennel. Served with fresh sliced Crenshaw melon and garnished with some of the raw chopped fennel fronds. I personally thought the fish was a little on the dry side, but it might have just been my piece. The melon helped balance out the flavors well, providing a nice touch of sweet to contrast against the fennel.

I thought a pink wine would be fun here, so I picked the 2008 Carmen Rosé, 13.1% abv, $10. Half Shiraz and half Cabernet Sauvignon from the Maipo Valley. Lemon and cranberry flavors, with a full fruit approach and a short finish. Lightly sweet, but still fully on the dry side.

I love a good salad, and try to change up the ingredients to keep things interesting. Here I've got bitter Italian greens with diced pears, soft goat cheese, and a little vinaigrette. I drizzled each salad with a bit of honey that came by way of another new dinner guest, Grace's neighbor Bob. He raises bees in his backyard and jars his own honey. You may think you're eating local with your farmer's market honey, but mine came from less than 3 miles away. The salad was a big hit of the evening, one of those combos that seemed to make everyone happy.

What better choice than a lightly dry German grape? The 2008 Carmen Gewürztraminer, 13.5% abv, $10. A curious blend of 87% Gewürztraminer and 13% Semillon from the Curico Valley. Green apples and spice (nutmeg and pepper), light and refreshing and drier than a lot of the inexpensive bottlings of this grape.

Paul, who once again graciously permitted the use of his house for this dinner party, also contributed the ribeye roast. Very simple here, served with some lightly boiled cream peas from the Farmer's Market and a little fresh horseradish sauce.

We were privileged to enjoy a spectacular red with this course, the 2005 Château Lanessan from Haut-Médoc. Thanks to Dave R, who sent along the wine but was unable to join us. 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc and 5% Petit Verdot, and from an historic vintage. Hints of tobacco, green bell pepper, with an underlying flavor of black cherry and plum. There's nothing quite like a good Bordeaux, and towards the end of the evening as my cooking duties come to a close I can sit back, relax, and get lost in the glass.

With a half hour spent playing Apples to Apples, we were recovered enough to finally sample dessert. My brother and his wife brought along a gigantic and delicious apple pie from Costco.

I felt it was a great time to have another gift wine, this one from wine researcher Tracy Rickman. Months ago she gave me a bottle of the 2006 Tobin James "Liquid Love" Late Harvest Zinfandel. This is a beautiful dessert wine for people that don't want to drink something with the consistency of pancake syrup. The Zinfandel grape is fully present and discernable, and the wine is sweet but not overly so. There is a solid strawberry/raspberry profile here, but I love the fact that it contains that depth of flavor that you get from crunching down on raspberry seeds.

The general jollity went on for another hour or so, with everyone slowly slipping into the contented calm provided by a four hour long meal with six courses. Thanks to all those who participated, and I look forward to more fun this summer as various fruits and vegetables come into season. Who knows? I might even do a completely vegetarian dinner party one of these days...

26 June 2009

Benito vs. the Cocktail: Whiskey Peach Smash

Three factors came into confluence for this post: 1) I had a new set of stemless cocktail glasses; 2) I had fresh peaches from local producers at Jones Orchard; and 3) I wanted to try out a recipe from my autographed copy of Imbibe! by David Wondrich, a gift from The Squirrels.

Combine the above with a well-stocked bar, and it was high time for the Whiskey Peach Smash.

There are many variations on this recipe, all attributed to the same mixologist: Dale DeGroff. I used the one in the book, and was quite happy with it. It's tart, refreshing, and lightly sweet, but some may want to add some sugar or simple syrup. Consider it a Georgia twist on the classic Mint Julep.

I will also note that after muddling the ripe peaches it's almost impossible to strain this drink, so be prepared to crack apart your cocktail shaker and pour it old school.

Whiskey Peach Smash
makes one cocktail

5 mint leaves
2 peach slices
½ lemon, quartered
1 oz. Orange Curaçao
2 oz. Bourbon
1 mint sprig + 1 slice peach reserved for garnish

Muddle together everything except for the Bourbon and garnish. Add ice and Bourbon, shake, and strain into the glass of your choice. Garnish with the peach slice and sprig of fresh mint.

* * *

If you're going to be at the upcoming Tales of the Cocktail convention in New Orleans, keep an eye out for buttons with my "Cocktail Geek" design. With my full support and permission, the folks at Fee Brothers printed up a bunch of the buttons for handing out at the conference. If you get one, or see one, let me know!

24 June 2009

Ribeye Roast, Before and After

Paul and I ended up cooking a ribeye roast recently after a trip to the Memphis Farmers Market. Now, the beef came from Costco, but the new potatoes, the red spring onions, and the fresh shiitake mushrooms all came from the market. The potatoes (some as small as a marble) were cooked in cast iron with butter and rosemary, the onions were slow cooked in foil for several hours with the beef, and the mushrooms were briefly sautéed in butter.

For wine we opened, and decanted for several hours, the 2006 Coppola Claret, $20, 13.7% abv. 82% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Petit Verdot, 4% Merlot, 4% Malbec, and 3% Cabernet Franc. Deep black cherry and blueberry flavors, hint of violets, with a smooth and luscious mouthfeel. It manages to have a full dark fruit aroma and flavor without being a typical California fruit bomb.

The following day, it was time for sandwiches. Cold, sliced, rare ribeye roast is one of the most wonderful things in the world. I'm surprised that it's not forbidden by major world religions.

(It should be clearly evident that I was starving in the first photo, resulting in terrible composition, while in this one I had enough time to set it up properly. Bear in mind that whatever I shoot for this blog, I eat--no fake food or props here on BWR.)

The sandwich is made from thick-sliced, toasted sourdough from Panera, the aforementioned rosbif, redleaf lettuce, Campari tomatoes, aged sharp cheddar, and a generous slather of horseradish mustard. Add in a side of rosemary and garlic frites, and this is definitely in the top five sandwiches I've eaten in my entire life.

23 June 2009

Tuesday: Ask Benito!

It's Tuesday, time for Uncle Benito to open up the old mailbag to see what burning questions are bouncing around the interwebs.

Q: Why is there a closeup of a microwaved cheese pizza at the top of your blog?
Matthew Sparks
Vancouver, Canada

A: That's not a pizza, it's a photo of the sun. Frankly it's blazing hot down here in the South, and I figured it was time for a change of pace after the Green Winemaking Series and my matching spring header. I like to change it seasonally, no idea if I'll stick with this one for the summer. Try pruning an overgrown olive bush when it's 95ºF (35º Canadian) outside, and you'll get real intimate with our local star.

Q: Is your name really Benito?
Thelma Dalrymple
Sioux Falls, South Dakota

A: I mostly go by Ben in real life, but between a trip to Italy and finding myself in a few confusing social situations with other Bens, the Benito nickname took hold in the late 90s. Besides, Benito is a name that can be understood by virtually anyone on the planet, as opposed to the phonetic "ben" that means mountain in Gaelic, older sister in Gujarati, son in Hebrew/Arabic, a common verb in German, and many other unrelated things in dozens of other languages. Ben is a universally basic morpheme that has caused a lot of confusion in the past. Benito was an obvious pick for the name of this blog. Plus it's fun to have this suave, epicurean alter ego.

I'll happily respond to Ben or Benito, I really don't have a preference at this point.

Q: Why don't you use scores, ratings, or some other metric to judge wines? What's your opinion on the popular 100-point scale?
Timmy Jenkins, Age 9
Kenosha, Wisconsin

A: Thanks for writing, Timmy! Always be sure to get your parents' permission before reading wine blogs. To answer your question, if I'm at a wine tasting where there's a dozen or more wines, I use the following system:

- Don't like it
-/+ It's neutral, neither bad nor good
+ I like it
++ I really like it

That's mainly to help me remember later which ones stood out and which to avoid, but I don't publish those marks. If I really like something I'll say it's "highly recommended", or I'll gush about it for a while, but that's the extent of it. A few years ago I altered my editorial policy a bit and stopped writing about wines I don't like. It's really not worth the effort, and most of the "bad" wines on the market these days are simply boring, not technically flawed. I'll make an exception for certain wines from the former Soviet Union.

Scoring is a contentious issue in the wine world. I don't necessarily disagree with scores that have been issued to wines, but the math gets weird with the 100-point scale. Few scores below 80 get published, so you've basically got a 20-point scale with a lot more attention paid to the minute differences in 95-100 versus 85-90.

Ideally, I'd like a system modeled on boxing, or more specifically Olympic boxing with its geographical element. What insanity is this? With boxing, you've got different weight classes. Nobody wants to watch Lennox Lewis fight some guy that's 5'0" and weighs 100 lbs. The latter could be a phenomenal boxer but when matched against a heavyweight champ it's a blowout. Imagine scores (100-point, ABCDF, stars, whatever) in divisions like this:


In such a system, a truly flawless, delicious, and inexpensive Sonoma Chardonnay could get a perfect score, where under the current regime it's always competing against the likes of Montrachet. Now, don't get hung up on the categories I listed there--that's just an example. In fact, I think it would be even better if each publication or blog used its own metrics (clearly listed and explained, of course) and categories. If you only write about Italian wines, you can drill down to very specific regions and grapes, whereas someone who only rarely writes about Italian wines would just lump them into Italy/Red and Italy/White.

The problem is that this is a lot of work and requires a lot of record-keeping, and it eliminates the cachet that comes with that coveted "Wine Spectator 95 Points" shelf tag. If you walk through a wine shop and look at two wines, one that scored a "B+" and the other that scored "3 out of 4 Grapes", it doesn't help you much. In that regard, such a wide range of scoring and classification methods would be about as useful as the various medals won by wines at competitions around the country: trumpeted by the producer but largely meaningless to the consumer.

Faced with the Sisyphean prospect of reforming the entire wine criticism world into a purely logical and top-down structure as outlined above, I take the rational approach and simply choose not to award scores to the wines reviewed on this blog.

Got a question for me? Drop it at benjamin.a.carter@gmail.com with "Ask Benito" in the subject line. If I don't answer it on the blog I'll get back to you personally.

22 June 2009

2008 Chateau de Campuget Rosé

I'm falling a bit behind on my summer rosés--there are lots of wonderful ones out there that I really need to try. The other day I had to give this one a shot... The 2008 Chateau de Campuget Rosé, $12, 13% abv, 70% Syrah and 30% Grenache. From Costières de Nîmes in coastal Southeast France. Cherry and watermelon Jolly Ranchers, pleasantly balanced acidity and a crisp, short finish. In short, everything you could possibly want from a fuller-bodied dry pink.

That's a thick veal chop in the photo, resting prior to grilling. The Roommate doesn't permit veal in the house, and isn't real fond of lamb. I respect her wishes, but when I'm housesitting or in a restaurant, all bets are off. Hell, if I'm at somebody's house and a Girl Scout comes by selling veal shoulders I'll buy the whole lot without even haggling. This rarely occurs.

Rosé and veal go well together, and I paired this with some deli creamed spinach and pasta salad. Throw a little jazz on the stereo, crack open a good book, life is bliss.

19 June 2009

2007 Κούρος Πάτρα

Longtime readers will know that I'll stroll right past dignified Burgundies and refined Bordeaux to check out the stranger wines on the edges of the retail space. The kinds with funny names, dusty labels, and typically decent prices. Such a recent perusal led me to a little Greek wine hiding behind a few other bottles...

The 2007 Kouros Patras is from the Peloponnese region of Greece, the big peninsula that includes such historical cities as Corinth and Sparta. $10, 12% abv.

It's made from the Rhoditis grape (Ροδίτης), which means "burning rose". Frankly it sounds like an embarrassing rash, but it's a pinkish red grape used in white wine production.

Despite the preconceptions you might have about Greek wines, this is very light, dry, and mild, with canteloupe and pineapple flavors. Short finish, very refreshing. While a dinner of avgolemono, olives, and grilled fish would have been appropriate, I ended up drinking this with stuffed green peppers and macaroni and cheese from the deli. What can I say, it was a comfort food kind of evening.

17 June 2009

Robert Oatley Wines: Act III

This is my third review of Robert Oatley Wines, rounding out the full product line. My favorite is the Shiraz from the first tasting followed by the Rosé of Sangiovese from the second, but these are both solid performers. In an age of bombastic wines from the land down under, it's nice to see a full slate of wines that don't get above 13.5% alcohol. It's a relief and reminds us why we fell in love with Australian wines in the first place.

Just to make things fun, the following reviews are presented in haiku form.

2008 Pinot Grigio
$20, 13.5% abv
Currency Creek, South Australia

Apricot, grapefruit
Bright flavors of spring garden
Bubbles cling to glass

2007 Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot
$20, 13% abv
51% Cabernet Sauvignon, 49% Merlot
Mudgee*, New South Wales

Black cherry, pepper
Color of plum leaves in fall
With long smooth finish

Pinot Grigio is a pretty lightweight grape, and while I prefer my white wines with a little more force, this is one of the better expressions of the grape that I've tried. With the light flavors and splash of lemony acidity, a refreshing and healthy dinner was in order. Salmon, rice blend with chopped kale, and a Campari tomato that had completed its role as a prop for the top photo. This would be an excellent match for any light seafood lunch. (This bottle makes a cameo appearance in my ChillinJoy review.)

The Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot was sampled a few days later, when heartier fare was necessary. A thick ribeye, split between two diners, a little cold potato salad, and fresh roasted red corn. If you see red corn at the store, give it a try. It's got a deeper and fuller flavor than the yellow or white varieties. During these hot summer months, it's a good idea to put a little chill on your red wine to get it down around 65ºF. This blend was made for red meat, and I'd love to try it again with some thick lamb chops.

*From a press release, I finally found out what the curious name Mudgee means. It comes from the Aboriginal word "Moothi", meaning "the nest in the hills". I grew up surrounded by Cherokee and Chickasaw place names like Tchulahoma, Nonconnah, Neshoba, and Loosahatchie.

15 June 2009

Green Winemaking Tour: Gundlach Bundschu

I've tried hard not to pick favorites when writing about this Sonoma wine tour, but my final visit of the trip ended up being one of the most rewarding. Mere hours before I was scheduled to fly out of SFO, I zipped over to Gundlach Bundschu.

Sonoma kept surprising me with its natural beauty, and this was no exception. This little valley managed to take you out of the real world for a short time. I even turned off my cell phone and just sat on the trunk of the car for a while, taking in the gorgeous scenery. My grandfather used to do this on our long trips--we'd pull over and turn off the engine, or take a break from a hike to sit on a cliff for a while in pure silence. I didn't appreciate it much as a child, but now I understand why these moments are important in today's ever busier and noisier world.

There's no way I could do justice to the 150-year history of this winery in this review, but I'll note that they survived not only Prohibition but also the loss of a million gallons of wine during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Despite the long history, the current generation of this family winery has embraced all sorts of new approaches to wine. Jeff Bundschu was not only co-founder of the 90s-era Wine Brats movement, but has also embraced wine blogs such as his recent video interview with friend and fellow wineblogger Hardy Wallace of Dirty South Wine.

Marketing Director Susan Sueiro was kind enough to answer a few of my questions, such as the identity of the little dog that wandered into my photo. That's Cartucho, Spanish for cartridge. Sueiro elaborated, "He is a Chihuahua mix and the loyal shadow of Pedro Garcia, an assistant supervisor of our vineyard crew, named for the quick, erratic paths he takes through the vineyards. He's out there every day with the guys, assisting the barn owls with gopher eradication and, I can personally attest, doing his best to chase away any women that dare approach."

On the green winemaking front, this winery goes to incredible lengths. They are able to reclaim up to 70% of the water used on the property, which is a major issue in water-strapped California. A combination of man-made ponds and natural wetlands complement careful water management strategies. There are other unique structures, like solar powered fans on the property that prevent frost damage as harvest approaches.

Speaking of solar power, there are two arrays on the property that provide a total of 110 kilowatts of power and account for the majority of the winery's electricity needs. Of the 80kW array, Sueiro notes, "Sadly, we ripped out a young block of perfect Dijon 117 Pinot Noir to put that in."

Like some of the other wineries I visited, Gundlach Bundschu is a little off the beaten path but definitely worth the time for a visit. Again, allow yourself some time, bring a picnic, and enjoy the beauty, peace, and quiet.

As a dry rosé fanatic and one who was trying to limit the number of bottles I'd be bringing home, I had to choose the 2007 Gundlach Bundschu Tempranillo Rosé which was uncorked for a recent dinner party (this wine was served during the appetizer course and enjoyed with the salad). $22, 14.5% abv. Apricot, rose petals, raspberries, lemon. Bright and refreshing, like a nice pink lemonade. Not the fake stuff pumped out of some factory in New Jersey, but take homemade lemonade and add a dash of puréed raspberries or strawberries, maybe even a bit of cranberry juice.

Wines Sampled at the Vineyard

For more details and ordering information, check out the Gundlach Bundschu website.

2006 Chardonnay Rhinefarm. Light pear, flowers, lightly buttery, touch of toast.

2006 Pinot Noir Rhinefarm. Earthy, ripe strawberries, nice acidity, tart and crisp.

2005 Tempranillo Rhinefarm. Earthy, touch of barn, light, low tannins, short finish. Bright raspberry flavors.

2006 Merlot Rhinefarm. Round, cherry, black plum.

2005 Mountain Cuvée Rhinefarm. Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Cabernet Franc. Jam, blueberries, blackberries. My favorite of the tasting, highly recommended.

2006 Zinfandel Rhinefarm. Leather, pepper, ash, bacon.

2006 Syrah. Black cherry, black pepper, very nice and begging for grilled meat.

2006 Cabernet Franc Rhinefarm. Deep berries, peppery, lingering tannins.

2006 Cabernet Sauvignon. Black plum, meaty, cinnamon, toasty, chocolate.

2005 Vintage Reserve. Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot. Deep, inky wine with black currant and jam aromas. Each year for the Vintage Reserve, a a different artist is chosen for the label. In this release, RK Rowell was chosen. During the same 2005 season that saw great grapes for Gundlach Bundschu, Rowell lost his home in Hurricane Katrina and temporarily relocated to Memphis. (It all comes full circle, right?) His work Stompin’ Tchoupitoulas was selected by Gundlach Bundschu for the label of the 2005 Vintage Reserve.

12 June 2009

2004 Mandrarossa Nero d'Avola

Looking at the e-mail I've received over the years, I'd have to say the biggest category is comprised of questions about weird little $5 wines I tasted four years ago. As in, "Where can I find this wine in Delaware?" and "Can you arrange a tour of the winery and send me a case of this no-name Merlot from California that hasn't been made in half a decade?" I always respond politely, I never imagined that merely spelling the names of these wines correctly would make this site the top result in Google searches.

A close second, surprisingly enough, would be my 2008 review of a Nero d'Avola, a lesser-known Sicilian grape that is growing in popularity, though distribution is still small. At least twice a month I get an e-mail asking about this grape, and the traffic to that post is consistently heavy.

I decided it was time to write about another, so I picked up a bottle of the 2004 Mandrarossa Nero d'Avola.
from Sicily, $15, 13.5% abv. Deep, dark red, firm tannins, black cherry and a hint of cedar. It softens up with some time and air, but it's definitely a rich and full-bodied red wine. The low alcohol is a refreshing change from some similar powerful reds, allowing you to focus on the unique character of the grape. I served it with some New York-style floppy pizza full of various pork products. Lord have mercy, what a combination. I've had these wines with burgers, hanger steak, calzones... It pairs well with manly bar food for those times when you're not in the mood for a draught of dark stout.

There are a handful of other Sicilian wines trickling into the mainstream market these days, so if you're interested in trying something that's not too bizarre but is also a little unfamiliar, keep an eye out for the big island south of the boot.

11 June 2009

Online Tasting + 2006 Water Wheel Memsie Red

It's time again for another online tasting with The Commercial Appeal! On Thursday, June 25 at 7:00 p.m. Central Daylight Time, we'll be trying the 2007 Alexander Valley Dry Rosé of Sangiovese. I reviewed the 2006 two years ago and am looking forward to giving this another shot.

Stop by the Whining & Dining blog at the appointed hour if you'd like to join us. Do I have a unique match with this wine? Nope, because dry rosé goes with everything. I'm anxious to see what folks pick to eat with the wine.

A couple of months ago, I led the group in trying the Water Wheel Memsie White. You can read the transcript for details on the unique white blend, but I decided to give the sister wine a chance as well. The 2006 Water Wheel Memsie Red comes from the town of Bendigo in Victoria, Australia. 70% Shiraz, 16% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Malbec, and 6% Petit Verdot.

Light at first... Black cherry and pepper, as expected from the heavy dose of Shiraz. Slightly meaty, with a few jammy undertones. After a while more blackberry flavors develop, and it's pleasantly mild for a young wine with fairly strong grapes. It was a great match along with a cold, rare roast beef sandwich with lots of horseradish.

I've considered hosting a live tasting on this site, but the interesting, oddball wines that I like aren't always available nationwide (or worldwide), and there's issues with the time zones. But I might try a sort of virtual wine party at some point, maybe a Saturday afternoon. Drop in, talk about what wine you're drinking and whatever snacks you've got, shoot the breeze, etc.

10 June 2009

Wine Gear Review: ChillinJoy

I've mentioned this before, but when it comes to wine gadgets I only review those products that I can see myself using in real life. I'm sure that the magnetic ring that goes around the neck of a bottle will align my chi properly, but personally, I'm not interested. However, this item piqued my curiosity...

I got a chance recently to try out the ChillinJoy, a specialty bag for chilling, cooling, or simply insulating a standard 750mL bottle of wine (or any similar-sized bottle containing the beverage of your choice). Inside the bag are three pockets that hold blue freezer gel packs, and the gel packs can be removed so you don't have to put the entire bag in the freezer.

You can use it to chill a bottle of wine, but where it works best is maintaining a constant temperature of a cool wine. Think picnics, think concerts in the park, think keeping that white Burgundy at the right temperature en route to a dinner party (and through the appetizer and soup course, allowing it to be perfect with the smoked trout). It should also be noted that during the weekday you can use it to keep a bottle of water, tea, or your soft drink of choice cool while you're at work.

The ChillinJoy is made out of real Neoprene--the same thing quality dive suits are made from--and it features a handy detachable shoulder strap. Additionally there are two Velcro-enclosed pouches on either side that allow for storage of various wine gadgets, bottles of bitters, whatever you need to pack for a trip. But all that aside, my favorite feature is the hole in the top that allows the neck of the bottle to protrude. This has a negligible impact on temperature, but does permit you to pour and serve the wine without removing it from the bag. While this doesn't allow you to show off the label to your friends, it's not really an issue for the casual whites and sparklers you might enjoy on a hiking trip, for instance.

The bag comes in green or blue, and can be ordered from the website for $29.95.

08 June 2009

Green Winemaking Tour: Simi

When I checked with local wine expert Mike Whitfield about wineries to visit in Sonoma, he strongly suggested Simi. Mike's advice has never led me wrong when it comes to wine, and because it opened about an hour before other wineries in the area, Simi was my first stop on the Sonoma tour.

Founded in 1876 by Tuscan immigrants Giuseppe and Pietro Simi, this winery is a true legend of Sonoma. There's not that many wineries you can point to as strong producers before Prohibition that are still widely represented throughout the US today. Simi follows sustainable winemaking practices and responsible agriculture. As part of their commitment to the wine and food culture of Sonoma, they host a bi-annual festival known as Forage that highlights local foods alongside the well-crafted Simi wines.

After the tasting I took a moment to relax outside by the fountain and take some notes. For someone used to the deciduous forests of the Southeast, it's fascinating to be around redwoods. That's the barrel room in the background, and the tasting room is directly to the right. In addition to tours, the winery plays host to weddings, picnics, and other related events.

The fountain looked familiar... Back in 2007 I reviewed a wine book from the mid-1970s called The Treasury of American Wines by Nathan Chroman. It's an overview of American wineries at the time, and it's a fascinating read. On page 148, as part of a section on Simi, there's a picture of then owner Russell Green sitting on the edge of the fountain. Green took over after the 66-year run of Giuseppe's daughter Isabelle Simi, who assumed responsibility of the winery at the age of 18 following the deaths of her father and uncle.

There's a lot to see and do at Simi, and as with many of my visits I could have spent a week there. They're a well-respected winery with a long history, yet there's still a friendly, personal aspect to the interactions you have with the employees, many of whom have been there for a decade or more. Just like walking into someones house for the first time, it's pretty easy to tell when the people love being there.

Wines Sampled at the Vineyard

For more details and ordering information, check out the Simi website.

2006 Sauvignon Blanc. Just a bit of citrus peel, smooth and refreshing. Very restrained without being too mild.

2006 Alexander Valley Chardonnay. Butter and vanilla, caramel, just a little popcorn.

2006 Pinot Gris. Ash and hay, lemon, clean finish with a firm structure. Fuller body than a lot of Pinot Gris.

2006 Los Carneros Chardonnay. Hint of smoke, apple and lemon flavors, tangy finish.

2006 Russian River Chardonnay. Full of tropical fruits, honey, lemon, mango, passion fruit. Really incredible.

2006 Dry Creek Zinfandel. Red raspberry, seed aromas. Light and mild.

2006 Landslide Cabernet Sauvignon. Named after the effects the Sonoma Mountain had on the soil during its volcano phase. Ginger, spice, earthy, clay. I could waste an entire afternoon with this wine. Definitely my favorite of the lineup, highly recommended.

2004 Alexander Valley Reserve. The flagship wine for Simi. Hints of vanilla with medium tannins, restrained dark fruit flavors and outstanding balance.

05 June 2009

Benito vs. the Cocktail: The Last Word

When resources and trade are limited, the human mind is capable of amazing improvisation. Examples would include maintenance of classic American cars in Cuba, Amish engineers adapting electric tools to run on compressed air, and nearly every plot of the TV series MacGyver. The results are not always elegant, but creative solutions do emerge. Such is the case of cocktails invented during the Prohibition era here in the US.

One example is The Last Word, an oddball that likely was invented to take advantage of widely-available illicit gin and more complex spirits that were hidden in basements or smuggled across borders. The recipe is simple, equal parts of four ingredients:

The Last Word Cocktail
1 oz. Gin
1 oz. Fresh Lime Juice
1 oz. Maraschino Liqueur
1 oz. Chartreuse

The last two ingredients are not common in the modern kitchen (much less the modern bar), but if you're like me and have these on hand, it's worth trying out. In many respects it's a variation on The Aviation. The Maraschino and Chartreuse, two unrelated liqueurs that should not work together under God's benevolent gaze, somehow balance each other out here. There is a creamy, nutty, herbal, cherry flavor that is complicated to explain and forces you to take another sip.

This cocktail has the unique property of being obscure and looking like a cheap green margarita from a distance, even though the color is fully natural. It's hard to look cool among the other cocktail hipsters if it appears as though you've just opened the spigot on the big jug of pre-mixed Cuervo Margaritas. Perhaps it needs a unique garnish, like a page from the Z section of an old dictionary torn out and wrapped around the stem.

04 June 2009

2007 Stift Gœttweig Rosé Messwein

Quick side note: After reading the interesting comments on yesterday's steak tartare post, I remembered the first time I had raw ground beef, but it wasn't by choice. Scout Camp, 1988. I was eleven that summer. It rained for a solid week, and we all got used to sleeping in leaking tents, putting on wet clothes, and generally not being dry for days at a time. One night we had to cook over a campfire, and someone had chosen the old favorite we called "hobo dinners": ground beef and various vegetables folded up in a foil pouch and cooked for about an hour in glowing coals. They were pretty good when cooked right, but with a fire that just couldn't survive the torrent of rain, each young Scout ended up with the following on his plate: a third of a pound of raw beef, slightly gray around the edges, slices of raw onion, and slices of raw potato. On top of that, we got to eat it in the rain.

It is by far the most miserable meal I've ever had in my life, but like many such experiences, it builds character and trains you to be prepared for the worst.

For another odd story, I recently grabbed a bottle of the 2007 Stift Gœttweig Rosé Messwein from Austria. $15, 12% abv. I'd never had an Austrian rosé before, and thought it might be some obscure grape, but it's just Pinot Noir. Also, the language on the bottle was full of a lot of lingo that wasn't in my basic Wörterbuch back in high school.

When I got home, a quick Google search revealed that I'd purchased a bottle of communion wine (Messwein = mass wine) made by Benedictines at a mountain monastery. I checked with my friend the Monsignor before I opened it up. He assured me there were no penalties for a Protestant enjoying said wine since it hadn't been consecrated yet. With that, I gave it a pour and a taste. It's really light and mild, and completely dry. Delicate wild strawberry aromas and flavors, smooth and refreshing with a short finish. Perfect summer wine, though you'll want to pair it with milder fare. We enjoyed it with some light appetizers, and finished off the bottle with the heartier dish below.

That's a spinach and spring mix salad, topped with a vinaigrette and a luscious, 1.5 inch cube of pork belly. Not salted, not smoked, just raw pork belly that had been braised for around three hours. I adapted a recipe from Emeril that worked out pretty well. Pork belly is a glorious ingredient and it was the first time that most of the diners had a chance to try it in its virgin, non-bacon form. It's rich and you don't need to cook a lot of it, but fortunately it freezes well and the leftovers can be used for all sorts of applications in the future.

03 June 2009

Benito vs. the Raw Beef: Steak Tartare

I've said this before and I'll say it again: one of the joys of cooking is that you don't need to travel to a fancy restaurant to try a fabled dish if you've got access to the proper ingredients and have the requisite skills and determination. With that in mind, I recently attempted steak tartare. Naturally, I followed Bourdain's recipe from the Les Halles Cookbook.

My first introduction to the dish was actually on the playground in elementary school. Lest you assume that I attended an elite branch of the Lycée Français, this culinary lesson took the form of arguments over them damned Europeans eating raw beef, and eventually a library encyclopedia settled the issue. For years afterward I assumed that the French and Germans always ate raw meat. Fast forward to 2009, and I've become that which terrified me. And I like fresh mayonnaise on my fries. What happened to that all-American lad?

While we're talking about childhood, I'll also note that this dish will disappoint both of my parents. Mom has strict rules against raw meat and raw eggs, and Dad can't stand mayonnaise. (Family dinners are harmonious, fear not--Mom's steak just goes on the grill long before the rest of ours, and Dad just avoids cold salads that are bound together with mayo.)

But I did make the mayo from scratch, and divided the batch into two parts, one of which was seasoned with Sriracha. I left the diced shallots and cornichons on the side to allow for desired mixing at the table, but I loved the presentation of the egg yolk sitting in the pile o' meat.

Want to improve the flavor of your frozen fries? Add some garlic cloves and rosemary during the last few minutes of cooking and toss it all with some good sea salt. Not perfect, but quite nice. Serving them in a parchment paper cone is purely optional, but aesthetically pleasing.

Steak tartare is a lot of work, and I'm not sure that it's worth it for a casual dinner. Mincing the steak by hand, trying to keep everything cold... On top of that, you only need a little bit per person. For some reason, I can easily consume a properly roasted rare 16 oz. prime rib, but I was defeated after three ounces of tartare. It's so rich, so flavorful... think about the difference between eating a grilled filet of salmon and the equivalent amount in sashimi. It's delicious, but if you're not used to consuming a lot of raw flesh it tires you out quickly.

For the wine, I popped open the 2004 Dog House "Zeke's Zin" from the Central and North Coasts of California. $9, 14.4% abv. It's 76% Zinfandel, 11% Syrah, and 9% Petite Sirah. It's got a big blackberry jam profile with hints of coffee afterwards. Still pretty strong after five years, but with a couple of hours of breathing it smoothed out nicely. And proceeds from these wines go to Guide Dogs for the Blind.

I was initially attracted to this wine not because of the producer or the grape, but because it featured a little e-collar around the neck. Any dog owner has come to recognize this item with a mix of sympathy and humor. Even The Roommate, who eschews all forms of alcohol, thought it was adorable, and loved the printing on the collar that said "Two paws up!"

Both of my dogs are fine, but in honor of the pups out there that are recovering from various surgeries, I pulled out their old e-collars for a photo. (The collars were removed shortly after and both boys got treats.) That's Macbeth the fox-red Labrador on the left and Wolfgang the mutt on the right. Two good dogs who guard the wine stash when I'm away from home.

I picked up this wine at Whiskers Wine & Spirits in Cordova. The owners are animal lovers and are engaged in various fundraising activities for the local Humane Society and other related causes. In a gesture that might bring a tear to your eye, they've got an entire wall devoted to a memorial mural called the "Rainbow Bridge" where customers can post photos of deceased pets.

01 June 2009

Ghost River Brewing Tour

The Green Winemaking series returns next Monday--two more Sonoma wineries to go! But for a little change of pace, how about some "green" beer that has nothing to do with St. Patrick's Day...

I got an invitation recently from the good folks at Slow Food Memphis to attend a brewery tour and beer tasting at Ghost River Brewing in Downtown Memphis. Checked with my buddy Paul, and the words "free beer" had barely left my mouth before he agreed to come along.

Pictured here is founder of the brewery and co-founder of local brewpub Bosco's, Chuck Skypeck. He led us on the tour, and about every fifteen minutes, made sure that a new tray of cold beer samples was distributed throughout the crowd. We all became big fans of Chuck.

He spoke a lot about the importance of water in brewing beer, and how local differences in minerals and hardness/softness of the water are responsible for the varied styles around the world, from the thick dark Irish stouts to the light and refreshing Czech pilsners. Other components are also key to making beer with real flavor (something this country ignored for a big chunk of the 20th century), principally malts and hops. The former is produced from sprouted barley, and the latter is a cousin of the marijuana plant that provides flavor, bitterness, preservative qualities, and a low-level soporific effect. So if you've ever gotten relaxed and tired after a couple of beers, now you know why.

Brewery tours are a lot of fun because the schedule of production from start to finish is on the order of days and weeks, not months and years as with wine. Since beer production is not tied to the seasons or centered around a harvest, it's just as interesting to take a tour in the winter as in the summer. And good breweries tend to have interesting memorabilia and history in them, like this collection of old beer cans, trays, and steins from all over the country.

Since I've been writing about green winemaking a lot recently, it's important to note that a portion of all sales go to the Wolf River Conservancy in the interest of preserving the water quality that is so important to brewing quality beer here in the Mid-South.

Here one of the brewery employees taps a keg of Hefeweizen, an unfiltered German style of beer.

Ghost River currently produces four varieties, and I sampled all of them:

Ghost River Golden was presented in its not-quite-finished state, but was still delicious. Just lightly bitter, moderate body, and probably the easiest to transition to if you're used to macrobrew lagers.

Ghost River Hefeweizen had classic citrus flavors and spice aromas. Think cloves stuck in an orange around the holidays. It tastes great plain, but some people like to serve it with a slice of lemon or orange. Do whatever makes you happy.

Ghost River Brown Ale reminded me a little of Newcastle, in that it's nutty with touches of coffee and chocolate flavor.

Ghost River Glacial Pale Ale was my favorite, because I love a good hoppy beer with a decent bitter profile. Toasty, full-bodied, with a crisp finish.

You can purchase Ghost River beer at the brewery in a half gallon jug, a 5 gallon keg, or a 15.5 gallon keg. Or check out one of the many bars and restaurants around town that have begun carrying this hometown beer.