31 December 2010

King of the Lobby and the Sam Ward Cocktail

Happy New Year, everyone! I hope you all have a safe and happy celebration this weekend. It's easy to think that we've invented the concept of big parties, but even a brief glance at history will show that there is nothing new under the sun, and if anything there were times and places where folks partied harder than you can possibly imagine.

King of the Lobby: The Life and Times of Sam Ward, Man-About-Washington in the Gilded Age
Kathryn Allamong Jacob
$33, 240 pages, The Johns Hopkins University Press

Several months ago I received a review copy of a book about the famous 19th century lobbyist Sam Ward. His sister was Julia Ward Howe, known for writing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic". It came to my attention because of his massive dinner parties--he built a career in post-Civil War Washington manipulating politics through truckloads of food and drink. It's always been fascinating to read about the Gilded Age, a period of rapid growth and technological progress in the latter part of the 19th century. The situation in the rural South was much different, such that when the Depression arrived it wasn't really a big transition. It's interesting to compare the stories from my family of the era versus the wonders of the modern age seen in the big northern cities. Even what we think of as "The Old West" took place during this time period as well, a situation much closer to the colonial frontier era.

I'm not going to go into a lot of detail on the book--if you're interested in the politics of this time period like I am, you'll love it, but if you're coming at it from a food and beverage standpoint, that's not the main thrust of the book. There's that standard shock and awe at the volume of food served at some of these occasions (a dozen courses, hundreds of oysters, game and meat and multiple soups and cigars and several desserts), washed down by gallons and gallons of wine, liquor, and Champagne... followed by an equally big breakfast feast the next morning for a different set of politicians. The mind reels and the stomach quivers.

While not mentioned in the book, there is a drink named after the subject of this book. It's a little unusual, but very tasty.

The Sam Ward Cocktail can be prepared two ways, both shown here. In each case you take a lemon, Chartreuse, and shaved ice. The top photo shows a simple cocktail mixed in a glass with the juice of half a lemon, some peel, and a shot of Chartreuse. For the more fun version, take a lemon and cut it in half. Carefully cut off a bit of the bottom so that it will sit flat. Over a bowl, carefully dig out the tough membranes, but reserve the juice and pulp. Pack it full of shaved ice and pour in the lemon juice and Chartreuse. (You will get very sticky while doing this.) You need to serve it right away before the ice melts too much. It's sour, sweet, herbal, and cold, a real treat on a hot day, or something unique to perk up your cocktail party. Be sure to give old Sam a toast before consuming.

28 December 2010

Bargain Bubbles

The New Year is right around the corner, and as such, everyone scrambles for advice on sparkling wines. A fundamental problem with giving advice here is that it takes some time and practice to really appreciate good Champagne, and good wine doesn't need to be sprayed over a crowd or hastily gulped before a kiss that you'll regret in the morning.

As I see it, there are three tiers.

Tier I: You are a Champagne aficionado but can also appreciate the occasional oddball like a Crémant de Limoux. Check out Samantha Sans Dosage or Fredric's annual 12 Days of Christmas review of sparklers. They know a lot more about the subject than I do, but more importantly get to taste a lot more in this category. (And if you're in Memphis, stop by Joe's in Midtown and ask for Michael. Tell him I sent you.) I rarely receive samples of sparkling wine, and most weeks it's all I can do to keep up with the still wine that shows up at the house.

Tier II: You want something drinkable, that might even work well with food, but is not expensive. This is where I'm going with the details below.

Tier III: You merely need something that is fizzy, contains alcohol, and may or may not be based on grapes. There are plenty of options around $4/bottle that can be purchased by the truckload, and the unscrupulous can make do with a box of Chardonnay, some sugar, and club soda.

I think both of the wines reviewed here fit nicely within Tier II. First up is an entry from California...

NV Barefoot Bubbly
Brut Cuvée Champagne
$10, 11.5% abv.
Lots of crisp lemony aromas, with an undertone of lime peel. Tart, with firm acidity and big bubbles. Great in mimosas. This one is going to be easy to find anywhere, and while I didn't enjoy it as much straight, I liked it as a cocktail ingredient. If you're going to make mimosas, make sure to use orange juice without pulp in it. Otherwise you get a mess. And if you decide to incorporate elements like gin or liqueurs, keep an eye on your guests.

Of the two, I really preferred this entry from Italy, but then again, I absolutely love Prosecco.

NV Villa Sandi il Fresco Prosecco
$13, 11% abv.
Valdobbiadene region in northeast Italy
Very lemony, dry, crisp but not tart, toasty aftertaste. Smaller bubbles than the above, and better overall balance. This one was great with lunch food like sandwiches and salads--I've always been happiest with things like Prosecco and Cava that are such wonderful pairs for casual food.

In addition to the above, here are over 30 posts about sparkling wine that I've written over the years, most of which are in the under $20 category.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

27 December 2010

Sheep Go to Heaven, Goats Go to Hell

Ah, among the first South African wines I ever tried was this little oddity with name based around the goats on the vineyard as well as the classic French wine region Côtes du Rhône. (Indeed, that closeness resulted in a lawsuit that eventually fell apart.) The last time I had this it had a plurality of Pinotage, a third, but it looks like they've phased it out over time.

The wine now comes with a screwcap enclosure, and the label has been redesigned to reflect a more minimalist appearance, using an ancient Mesopotamian drawing of a goat. (Mesopotamia and South Africa are a good 7000 km/4300 miles apart, but let's not get into that here.)

2008 Goats Do Roam Red
$11, 14% abv.
61% Syrah, 14% Cinsault, 13% Mourvèdre, 8% Grenache, 4% Carignane.

The current wine is full of blackberry and plum, big purple profile. Tannic bite on the finish. After breathing it is much different. With just a few hours of decanting, it becomes a mild and soft wine with muted fruit flavors. Sometimes you'll want one or the other, but the joy of slow, natural breathing is that you can find a sweet spot that might appear around the 2.5 hour mark.

I served this with a savory winter dinner with my pal Paul. Lamb shoulder braised in chicken stock, this red wine, and a bit of butter, combined with onions, diced tomatoes, and various seasonings. I let everything stew for a few hours, let it rest overnight, removed most of the fat, and warmed it up for dinner the next day. For side dishes I've got a batch of homemade cranberry sauce (punched up with clementine peels and juice) and Brussels sprouts sautéed with bacon, chicken stock, and white wine. It's the kind of unbelievably savory dinner that makes the whole house smell great, and you wake up in the morning still tasting the succulent flavors coaxed out of the lamb bones.

P.S. If you enjoyed the title of this post, please take a listen to the song of the same name by CAKE. "Now I just want to play on my pan-pipes / I just want to drink me some wine."

24 December 2010

Merry Christmas, Y'all

Christmas in our fair River City is usually warm and sunny. Snow is rare these days, and whatever we get tends to happen in January or February, as in the picture at the right. Wolfgang's genetic hodgepodge includes a probable dose of Siberian Husky, and he's always happy when the temperature dips below freezing.

Growing up it was hard to reconcile the Currier & Ives mythos with a home town that sometimes involved mowing the grass well into November. But as I've gained friends in Chile, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa through this blog, it's become easier to associate Christmas with sunny weather. With that in mind, Wolfie and I wish you a Merry Christmas, and hope that wherever you find yourself this holiday season, you are surrounded by loved ones and good cheer.

22 December 2010

A Whiter Shade of Vinho Verde

I love the classic early 90s Irish film The Commitments, and I've even seen the related quasi-sequels The Snapper and The Van, back when you had to drive out to a dark, grimy theater in the weird part of town to watch foreign movies. You kids with your Netflix and iTunes don't know how easy you have it. I watched Chasing Amy surrounded by senior citizens, but I'm not going to explain here why that particular experience was so odd and uncomfortable.

The reason why I bring up The Commitments is that there's a scene where the keyboardist is practicing on the church pipe organ*, and he's playing "A Whiter Shade of Pale". He and the band manager are discussing the line about the Vestal Virgins, stating that they don't understand it, and the priest surprises them, saying, "I never understood that either. It's a very peculiar lyric."

In my usual roundabout way, the title of that song popped into my head when I unboxed a sample of white Vinho Verde (paradoxically darker than the green variety). I know that the Portuguese region also makes a red wine in addition to the popular light fizzy wine, but I still wasn't expecting it. Even after tasting thousands of wines in my lifetime, I'm still surprised occasionally.

2009 Casa de Vila Verde
$10, 11.5% abv.
Proprietary blend of Arinto, Loureiro, and Trajadura.

Lots of lime and orange pith and peel, with a slightly bitter edge. Crisp and fruity, tart acidity, and a short finish. There's a mineral edge on the aftertaste that I like, though with every sip I find myself craving salt and cured meats. You don't always have to match a wine to a food of its country of origin, but this would be incredible with a big pot of mussels and chorizo with a few loaves of crusty bread.

*My childhood church, being of the ancient Scottish Presbyterian variety, had a massive pipe organ that required a lot of 18th century maintenance. The one and only time I was given access to it (not during a service--the sanctuary was empty) I started playing my favorite song that I knew from piano lessons: Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer", thanks to my great-grandfather's love of ragtime. (Of course, he was a kid when that was new and popular.) The woman who was in charge of our little group of choir singers was not a fan, and as I was forcibly removed from the bench, I heard the words that I will never forget to my dying day: "YOU DO NOT PLAY JAZZ IN A PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH!"

Note: This wine was received as a sample.

20 December 2010

Buried Cane Wines

In November, I wrote about Middleton Family Wines, a company with winemaking operations in California, Western Australia, and their home state of Washington. Representing the Evergreen State are these bottles from Buried Cane. I don't normally quote directly from press releases, but here's the detailed explanation for the name, which has to do with the cold winters of the region that tend to split and damage grapevines:
Fortunately, savvy Washington farmers have an insurance system to protect their vines from the cold. Using the earth’s natural insulation, we allow a shoot to grow from the base of the trunk every spring. The green shoot lies along the ground during the growing season, developing the buds that can bear new shoots and grape bunches the following year. The shoot hardens off into wood in the fall, and is now called a cane.

After harvest, we bury every cane with a mound of earth. The heaped dirt provides insulation and protection from the deep Washington cold all winter long. If we suffer a freeze that damages the mature vines, we dig up the buried cane in the spring. The canes will have fresh buds capable of producing a crop that same year, and we don’t have to wait two years to grow another crop.

2008 Buried Cane Chardonnay
$12, 13% abv.
90% Chardonnay, 5% Pinot Grigio, 5% Sauvignon Blanc
Fruit forward, firm acidity, peach, melon, short crisp finish. The Middleton wines are all about proper blending, and I think this is a nice mix. Aged in stainless steel, it's a light and refreshing white wine. It's easy to get bored with Chardonnay, but something like this reminds you of the versatility of the grape. In the spring this will be great with grilled seafood.

2008 Buried Cane Cabernet Sauvignon
$13, 13.4% abv.
75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Malbec
Great whiff of green tomato leaf on the top, one of my favorite wine aromas. This is produced with an eye toward a Bordeaux style, and with a bit of breathing dark scents of plum and blackberry emerge. Dark fruit flavors follow, making this a great accompaniment for well-seasoned steak.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

17 December 2010

The Naked Grape

"There are eight million stories in the Naked City; this has been one of them."
The Naked City (1948).

"With my naked eye / I saw all the falling rain / coming down on me"
"Naked Eye" by Luscious Jackson

"Jane, since I've met you, I've noticed things that I never knew were there before... birds singing, dew glistening on a newly formed leaf, stoplights."
The late, great Leslie Nielsen in The Naked Gun (1988).

Use of the term "naked" in advertising is always a bit odd, as it rarely refers to what we in the South might call "nekkid". Rather, it's usually about openness or honesty. Here The Naked Grape
is the name of a line of Gallo wines that also includes a Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay in addition to the two listed below. These are fairly basic table wines that are priced under $10 and appear to be aimed at luncheons, wedding receptions, and similar events.

NV The Naked Grape Pinot Noir
Proprietary blend of Pinot Noir, Tempranillo, Grenache, and Alicante Bouschet. (This might be the oddest Pinot blend I've ever encountered)
$9, 13% abv.

Strawberry and raw beef, touch of brambles. Light and smooth with no discernible tannins. The finish is so short that you can forget you've taken a sip, but there's a little aftertaste of black tea that shows up.

NV The Naked Grape Pinot Grigio
Proprietary blend of Pinot Grigio, Gewürztraminer, Viognier, and Riesling.
$9, 12.5% abv.

Lemon and tarragon, citrus and tangy with a short finish. Ideally suited towards light seafood, pasta, and salad courses.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

15 December 2010

2007 Seven Artisans Petite Sirah

A couple of weeks after the big PS I Love You tasting, another stray Petite Sirah showed up at Casa de Benito.

Not only was it nice to try another Petite Sirah after the break, but it also allowed me to round out the selections from the Artisan Family of Wines. I reviewed the other two in July 2009. This particular one comes from the Suisun Valley AVA, a wine region directly to the east of Napa County.

Like with a lot of the other Petite Sirahs, I enjoyed serving this with some braised lamb shoulder and Brussels sprouts, though I think it would be fun to pair it with buffalo.

2007 Seven Artisans Petite Sirah
Suisun Valley
$17, 14.9% abv.

Dominant jammy aroma of blackberry and plum with just a little bit of mint. On the palate the wine has big tannins, dark plum flavors, and a long lingering finish. I found that it retained a bold profile even with two hours of breathing. It would be interesting to see how this holds up with another two or three years of cellaring.

It's been a while since I've talked about bottle design, and this is a striking example. The dark brown glass and dark wine render the bottle almost solid black, with gold ink applied directly to the surface of the glass. The distressed handwriting font happens to use a long s, though I can understand why they wanted to avoid the confusion of Artiſans.

The wine does not come with a foil or plastic capsule. I'm guessing that it was a design choice to maintain the simple gold on black look, but there are some winemakers who are beginning to phase them out. There are some minor cost savings to be had, and there's also an environmental concern: the glass and metal have to be separated before recycling. I won't particularly miss them if they go away--originally they were put on bottles to protect against rats chewing the cork or infestation of cork weevils. On the list of things that keep me up at night, cork weevils rank pretty low. Some producers put a disc of wax on top of the cork, which I absolutely hate. Over time the wax becomes brittle, resulting in a mess when you try to open it. The heat shrink plastic capsules? I'm somewhat indifferent, but at least they tear off easily.

In this case, the cork survived over time, the wine was not oxidized, the bottle looks great, and everything worked out. And no cork weevils either! I still prefer screwcaps for casual everyday wines, but this is another interesting option. Some traditions need a critical examination, like the practice of sniffing the cork or dropping lead pellets into wine.

Note: This wine was received as a sample.

13 December 2010

The Latest Pair of Rieslings

Rieslings were one of the first wines I ever tried, and certainly among the first that I purchased legally in the United States when I turned 21. Part of that was leftover from German class in high school, part of it was my German-descended roommate at the time, but the biggest factor was the fact that something sweet, light, and inexpensive was perfect for an inexperienced palate. This is a good and bad thing, because people can end up avoiding Riesling for a few years before they discover the broad range of styles that are able to be coaxed out of a single grape.

This happens with other styles of wine: you start with fizzy, or pink, or sweet (maybe all at once!), and then move away from them for a few years. Later, when you know more about wine, you discover the joys of proper Champagne, rosé, and well-made dessert wines. It's the way that someone will consider Chardonnay a simple starter wine early in life and in retirement spend vast sums on vintage white Burgundy.

Recently I've had the opportunity to receive samples through Wines of Germany. I like their promotional strategy: send out two wines every couple of months, one sweeter, one drier, and typically in the $15-20 range. Here are the latest arrivals:

2008 Weingut Ökonomierat
Johann Geil I. Erben

Riesling Kabinett
Bechtheimer Rosengarten
$15, 9% abv.
Notes of green apple on the nose. These flavors follow through on the tongue. It's lightly sweet with a crisp finish. With only 9% alcohol, it's a perfect mid-afternoon wine with a late lunch, or something to go along with a salad course at a longer dinner.

2008 Weingut K.F. Groebe
Westhofener Aulerde
$17, 13% abv.
This wine bears the VDP eagle. Aromas of apricot and minerals. Nicely dry, with firm acidity and a floral aftertaste. I paired this one with a bacon-wrapped pork filet and some braised greens.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

10 December 2010

Benito vs. the Cocktail: The Alamagoozlum

The other day I was nosing through my copy of Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails: From the Alamagoozlum to the Zombie 100 Rediscovered Recipes and the Stories Behind Them by Ted Haigh, a.k.a. Dr. Cocktail. I wanted to try something different, something that might take advantage of the various odd bits and ingredients I've accumulated over the years. At some point you stare at that bottle of obscure liqueur and wonder if it will ever get finished. After flipping around at random, I decided to start at the beginning, and realized that I had everything necessary to make the first one listed: The Alamagoozlum.

Haigh credits the recipe to The Gentleman's Companion written by Charles H. Baker, Jr. in 1939. Baker gave this cocktail the full name of "J. Pierpont Morgan's Alamagoozlum: the Personal Mix Credited to that Financier, Philanthropist, & Banker of a Bygone Era."

The Alamagoozlum
½ Egg White
2 oz. Gin
2 oz. Water
1½ oz. Rum
1½ oz. Green Chartreuse
1½ oz. Simple Syrup
½ oz. Orange Curaçao
½ oz. Angostura Bitters

Combine everything with ice and shake it, shake it, shake it like a Polaroid picture. As with any egg white-based cocktail, it takes a lot of effort, and generally you know you're getting there when the tinkle of ice hitting metal turns into a dull thud, meaning that the contents have become one thick, foamy mass. This is very strong, and will serve two or three, but I'd recommend splitting it among even more. The flavor is interesting, but it's not something that you can drink much of, and given the long list of ingredients, you might as well share it with several people. On top of that, egg white cocktails tend to get sort of nasty as they warm up, and this one is so strong that it's difficult to finish a normal serving before it becomes funky.

It ends up tasting like a chocolate soda, which is amusing as it contains no chocolate. The dominant flavors are provided by the Chartreuse and the solid half ounce of bitters. As most of you know, I love bitters, but only a few drops at a time. This quantity provides a stinging, almost medicinal bite to the cocktail. I can't exactly recommend it unless you're just curious or enjoy saying the word "Alamagoozlum!" out loud. There's too much going on, and I can't imagine how many of these you'd have to drink before developing a taste for it. And then you're stuck with loving a cocktail that very few friends or bartenders would be willing to make for you or join you in consuming.

P.S. It is the most unusual shade of burnt siena, a color I've never had the chance to use as a descriptor since first getting a 64 box of crayons as a kid. Thanks, Crayola!

08 December 2010

Vinho Verde

The first time I ever heard of Vinho Verde was a little indirect. I was typing up a very odd wine list for a restaurant. I don't mean odd in the sense of being eclectic and exotic, but rather that every grape name was horribly misspelled and there were Chardonnays in the red column. The owner had opted for a simple color categorization, so you had Red Wines, White Wines (confusingly containing dessert wines and sparklers that were not marked as such), Pink Wines, and finally a category of Green Wines, with a single entry: Vinho Verde. I shrugged it off as some misunderstanding, but looked it up when I got home. Despite the name's literal translation, Vinho Verde isn't green, and while it's usually served very young, it's not Beaujolais Nouveau young.

It's a good starter wine for people since it's a little sweet, low in alcohol, inexpensive, and pairs well with lots of different food. It's just barely fizzy, so you don't have to be careful opening it. Just enough to make it a little more fun. I've found it to be a big hit at family holiday gatherings for just those reasons. I'll usually say something like, "If you like lemonade, you'll love this." Takes the fear of wine out of the equation.

2009 Grinalda Vinho Verde
$13, 11.5% abv.
55% Loureiro, 32% Trajadura, 13% Alvarinho (Albariño)

Crisp and tart, very light when it comes to bubbles. Dominant aroma of green apple, and medium sweet. I decided to pair it with some spicy shrimp tacos from Humdingers, the first time I'd tried Vinho Verde with something hot. It was a great match, and it's a wine that's not often thought of in those eternal discussions about what to pair with Mexican, Thai, or Indian food.

2009 Broadbent Vinho Verde
$11, 9% abv.
50% Loureiro, 40% Trajadura, 10% Pedernã.

Apple and pear, crisp acidity, restrained sweetness. The mineral elements and balanced acid/sweetness gives this the profile of a nice little Riesling. This had the stronger bubbles of the two, and I found myself preferring it overall. It's probably the most serious tasting Vinho Verde I've had, while still remaining a fun, casual wine. I served it with Chinese takeout--nothing special or authentic, just random fried rice and steamed dumplings. Again, the crispness worked well with the greasy/savory food.

Note: This Broadbent wine comes in a very tall, thin bottle that looks lovely, but may not fit in some carrying bags or wine storage units. I'm not complaining, but it's more of a warning to watch out for the top of the bottle. Like telling a tall friend to be careful walking under the chandelier.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

06 December 2010

The Joys of Turkey Without a Holiday, Plus Sauvignon Gris

In years past I've cooked a turkey on the weekend after Thanksgiving, for the purpose of having some leftovers. This year, I decided to roast the bird almost two weeks ahead of time. Why? I was impatient and wanted some dark meat, and The Roommate would enjoy the white meat for her lunches.

I'm of the opinion that everyone should roast a turkey at some point during the holidays that's not for an actual holiday feast. Declare a random Saturday in December "Eating Day" and invite some friends over to enjoy some good food and wine without the complications of Thanksgiving or Christmas. Inviting someone over to your house for Christmas dinner is a big commitment, and involves that person missing time with his or her family. But if you just say, "We're gonna eat some turkey on Saturday", then things flow more smoothly.

I roasted the bird in my usual fashion (rubbed with olive oil, stuffed with slices of orange and apple) and made simple side dishes of homemade cranberry sauce, peas and corn, and a little salad. For the big starchy casseroles, I generally wait for the holidays. As delicious as they are, there's no way the two of us can finish one at home. I had the pleasure of serving this with a curious little wine...

2009 Cousiño-Macul Sauvignon Gris
Maipo Valley, Chile
$11, 13.5% abv.

Big and fruity, with a round, musky profile. Dominant flavors of apricot and peach, with low acidity. I was really excited to try this grape for the first time, and it was fascinating. Very unique, yet not completely alien. Don't let the name fool you: this is nothing like a Sauvignon Blanc or a Pinot Gris.

So what is Sauvignon Gris? It's a mutation from Sauvignon Blanc. Since it's darker than a blanc but lighter than a noir, what's the color in between? Gris, or grey. But the grape is actually pink. For that matter, white wine grapes are green or yellow, and red wine grapes range from blue to purple to nearly black. Meanwhile, pink wines come from red grapes, which, as we've said, may be as dark as black. With France it gets so fun. Cheval Blanc is a red wine, Cordon Rouge is a white sparkling wine... Pardon my shouting, but I ABSOLUTELY LOVE EXPLAINING THIS TO NEW WINE DRINKERS. It's a total "Who's on First?" routine.

03 December 2010

Book Review: Opus Vino

I think every wine lover needs to have a couple of massive tomes in the house. A few old school, huge reference works that cover the world of wine. I store mine on top of my wine fridge, but others may choose to keep theirs with the cookbooks, or in the room where most of the wine tasting happens.

One such book, and a recommendation for a Christmas gift for the wine lover in your life, is Opus Vino. $50, 800 pages. Weighing in at 3.3 kg/7.2 lbs, it's a big 'un. This comes from Dorling Kindersley Publishing. I mention this because I've long been a fan of the DK books--clean design, great photographs, and the wide range of subjects are produced for all age levels. The specific intent of Opus Vino is not to go over grapes or regions in great detail, but to focus on representative producers within those regions. With each section you get a brief overview of the history and style, followed by dozens of paragraph-length profiles of producers.

The maps are spectacular. At right is shown the two page spread for Argentina. The left page shows the wine regions of Argentina, while the facing page goes into detail just on Mendoza.

The book also provides non-insulting coverage of emerging or lesser-known wine regions. And I'm not talking about something like Cahors in France, I'm saying that they have brief but informative chapters on Japan, Brazil, and Cuba, along with information about producers and individual wines. I actually found the information on Switzerland very helpful while tasting my first Swiss wines recently.

Now, some may ask, "In the age of the internet, why bother with a dead tree edition?" Here are my personal reasons:

1) Although I've gotten lost for hours clicking on links on Wikipedia and TV Tropes, I still find that I learn a lot by flipping through printed reference material. I've discovered that I love having dinner with this book, since it's big enough to lie flat and I can just open to a random section.

2) It exists as a snapshot in time. As you add wine books to your library over the years, this becomes a lot of fun. I have older books that suggest that "There's little chance this California novelty production will ever be seriously consumed or collected." Likewise you'll read about a producer, and then in a book 20 years later you'll read about the son taking over the winery--the son who was shown as a pimply faced youth in your older book. This is part of the reason why I collect Atlases. I can get up to the minute, highly accurate maps online, but if I want to see what the entire world looked like in 1985 versus 1955, I'm much better off with my big old books. Because of copyright considerations, not all of this information makes its way online in single, easy to read collections.

3) It's great for friends who are new to wine. There's a wealth of information online, but you need a certain knowledge level about the subject and a certain familiarity with half a dozen languages to work your way through it, not to mention the experience required to distinguish reviews from press releases from solid information. A pretty, well-constructed book is a much more friendly experience, whether as a loan or as a gift.

Note: This wine was received as a sample.

01 December 2010

2009 Argento Malbec

I fell in love early and hard with Argentine Malbec because of the generally great quality price ratio. QPR is going to vary from person to person, but in my experience a $10 Pinot Noir from anywhere is going to be a waste of your money while a $10 Malbec is going to be a decent middle-of-the-week, red meat wine. On the other hand, there are people who would never touch a pink wine under any circumstances, while there are those who happily shell out $100 for a bottle of Chateau d'Esclans Garrus. One site that focuses heavily on the importance of QPR is Dr. Debs' Good Wine Under $20.

Now back to the topic at hand...

2009 Argento Malbec
Mendoza, Argentina
$13, 13.9% abv.

Plum and prune, touch of spice, dark fruit flavor, medium tannins, slightly tart finish. As with many wines in this weight class, it smooths out with some breathing, though there's no need for hours of decanting. I found it to be a great match with a grilled lamb shoulder chop and a wedge of blue goat cheese. The name Argento is Italian for "silver", from the Latin argentum. The country Argentina was named after a combination of real and rumored silver deposits spoken about by early explorers.

This wine features a QR Code on a Cellar Key tag around the neck. Unlike scanning a one-dimensional UPC barcode (which isn't always useful without access to a centralized database), two-dimensional barcodes can contain a lot of custom information. It could carry a short message, or a web link, or an e-mail address. All sorts of things. Scan it with your smartphone, and you've got more information about the wine.

If you scan this 2D barcode, it reads

That's a weirdly long shortcut to this page: http://www.thecellarkey.com/argento/malbec/

For those of you who regularly use these, check out my special message in the code at right.

This is the first time I've seen one of these on a wine bottle, but you can see these little patchwork quilts popping up all over the place these days. Unlike previous attempts like the CueCat, this doesn't require any proprietary equipment or software, so anyone can create a 2D barcode and more and more phones are able to read them. From a design standpoint I hope these stay off the fronts of labels, but they could be amazing for the back of the label. A quick scan, and you can scroll through brix and harvest dates and oak types and specific grape/vineyard percentages, tons of detailed information that's not useful to 95% of the wine buying population.

Note: This wine was received as a sample.

29 November 2010

Cameron Hughes Online Tasting

This is the second time that I've received a sample set of 50mL bottles packaged by TastingRoom.com. While this particular set isn't available for sale, it was a very convenient way to zip through six wines during a recent online tasting. I still prefer to sit with a single, full-sized bottle and try it with some food, but for some of these events that involve half a dozen or more wines in the space of an hour, this packaging method is a lot more convenient and reduces the amount of wine that gets poured down the drain.

Cameron Hughes is a négociant who buys excess grapes or finished wine from wineries around the world, and then blends and packages them in various ways. It's a great way to make wine without owning actual real estate, and is also helpful for the farmers, who have a market for their extra capacity. Because the lineup is going to be a bit different every year, and has expanded into international wines, the bottles are released with lot numbers instead of nicknames. In general I dislike this because if you look at a bottle of Bin 458 or Lot 103, those numbers don't tell you anything useful. And you could have separate wines from two different producers that were both Lot 150, but one would be a Chardonnay and the other would be a Merlot. As the selection grows over time, the numbers can run together for consumers--Cameron Hughes is up to around Lot 240. This is an area where some detailed information on the back label is crucial to help differentiate the wide range of products.

As well as their online store, these wines are sold in Costco and Sam's Club throughout the country, as well as other grocery stores in those states where such sales are permitted.

2009 Lot 151
Columbia Valley
70% Riesling, 30% Chenin Blanc
Crisp and fruity aroma, medium sweetness with a pineapple character. This is the only Washington wine out of the group, everything that follows is from California.

2008 Lot 176
Los Carneros
95% Pinot Noir, 3% Tempranillo, 2% Syrah
Light strawberry aroma, mild, low tannins. Refreshing but not a lot of complexity.

2007 Lot 175
Napa Valley
100% Merlot
Black cherry, plum, a little black pepper.

2007 Lot 179
Napa Valley
50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 50% Syrah
Big and meaty, with some cedar and black plum.

2007 Lot 161
Sonoma County
60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Cabernet Franc, 10% Merlot
Light red cherry, extremely mild and light. Little brambles on the finish.

2007 Lot 172
Atlas Peak, Napa Valley
95% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Malbec
Touch of bacon fat, cedar, black cherry, firm tannins, little licorice and black tea. Really want to see this with more age.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

26 November 2010

Cupcake White Wines

When it comes to California and Cupcakes, my first thought isn't wine, but rather Google VP Marissa Mayer, also known as the Cupcake Princess. That has absolutely nothing to do with the wines below, but I thought I'd share.

2009 Cupcake Chardonnay
Central Coast, California
$12, 13.5% abv.

Apricot and pineapple, touch of sweetness with a big fruit profile. After some breathing the fruit settles down somewhat, and you're left with a soft, round wine. Not a lot of oak. It's the kind of wine I'd serve with a salad and a croissant/chicken salad sandwich on a warm afternoon.

2010 Cupcake Sauvignon Blanc
Malrlborough, New Zealand
$12, 13.0% abv.

Grapefruit pith, tart acidity, touch of lime curd, bright and clean. Serve with any shellfish and you're in business.

Funny thing with this one: I always taste wines as blind as possible. This means that I don't read the labels, don't read the paperwork, or look up anything about the wines beforehand. I'll take a look at all that later. When it comes time to taste, I'll just pull red or white as needed, and jot down notes while I'm tasting. I don't want to be influenced by price or composition or anything else. Obviously I'll have some idea based on region and grape, but it's the best I can do to ensure a level playing field in the absence of a fleet of attractive young interns who will catalog, open, and decant said wines so that I may try them truly blind. (Ladies interested in an unpaid wineblogging internship, let me know.)

While trying the Sauvignon Blanc, I kept thinking, "This really doesn't taste like California." I'm not an expert on these things, but I've tried a few wines... a few thousand at this point, I've lost count. And then I actually looked at the label and discovered, "They snuck in a Kiwi wine here!" I had just assumed that Cupcake = California, and hadn't thought that they might be producing international wines under that marque. A cautionary tale? A lesson? Not really, just that sometimes your nose and tongue will surprise you when the brain isn't paying attention.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

24 November 2010

AGWA de Bolivia Coca Leaf Liqueur

Every year around Thanksgiving, my thoughts turn towards the foods that are native to the New World. Cranberries, potatoes, turkeys, corn, squash, even chiles, peppers, and tomatoes. For your holiday entertainment, let's take a look at another native New World crop that doesn't often show up on the Thanksgiving table.

* * *

Back when I was a kid, and the Just Say No campaigns were in full force and Miami Vice featured cocaine plots and embarrassing pastel shirts on a regular basis, there were those whispers around the playground. "You know, Coca-Cola has cocaine in it!" "No it doesn't, it used to, but it doesn't anymore." "Yeah, but if you buy the stuff in the bottles it totally has cocaine in it. My cousin told me." "Your cousin is full of crap." Before the Internet, such arguments were settled by throwing pine cones at each other.

Since the current recipe is a secret, we don't know how much safe, denatured coca leaf extract remains in modern Coke, but for a history that goes past classic American soft drinks, you have to look at the coca-based herbal liqueurs of 1820s Bologna, produced and distributed by the powerful de' Medici family. Before that, the leaf had been cultivated, chewed, and steeped in South America for some 3000 years.

So it was with an interest in history that I approached the mini-bottle samples of AGWA de Bolivia Coca Leaf Liqueur. $35 for a standard 750mL bottle. Yes, it's approved for sale in the EU and the US, and it does not contain any cocaine. And at only 60 proof, it's actually lighter in alcohol than many other cocktail ingredients.

I first tried this over ice. Light (but artificial) green in color, and an unmistakable aroma. I opened up a can of Coca-Cola next to this, and it was amazing to isolate that particular ingredient. I expected it to be sweet (in the tradition of oddly colored, unusual liqueurs), but there's only a touch of sweetness involved. There's something that makes the back of your mouth tingle, and sort of a grassy, almost minty finish. There are over 30 other components in this herbal liqueur, including green tea and ginseng. At the end it reminds you of an iced glass of herbal tea, and is quite nice.

Later I tried one of the suggested cocktail recipes, making a traditional 3:2:1 margarita with AGWA in place of the Triple Sec. While there was nothing wrong with the finished cocktail, I felt that the tequila and lime juice completely overwhelmed the more delicate flavors and thus it was not an ideal showcase for it.

The coca is grown and packaged in Bolivia, but is processed, blended, and bottled in the Netherlands. Why? Up until 1931, the Dutch were manufacturing industrial levels of cocaine thanks to their coca plantations on the Indonesian island of Java. They have some experience in this regard, and while the cocaine is extracted for medical purposes, the remaining byproduct can be used as a flavoring in beverages like this. (In the US, coca is processed in the same fashion at a factory in New Jersey to produce the flavoring for Coca-Cola.)

There's an illusion of an illicit thrill that's being attempted on the marketing front, an alternate green beverage for those that have tried but hated Absinthe. Some of the ads feature a humorous warning sign stating that it contains coca leaves, and when you mention Bolivia and Amsterdam together like this, most people aren't thinking about llamas and wooden shoes.

Note: This spirit was received as a sample.

22 November 2010

New Products from Fee Brothers

When I first got interested in bitters, I purchased a sampler set of Fee Brothers bitters from Amazon and wrote about them. I was contacted by some of the family that still operates the 150-year old company, and based on my interest and experimentation with cocktails, I've had the pleasure of receiving samples of their new products over the past two years. I don't receive any financial compensation for this, and there's no quid pro quo involved, but I like the fact that a company is resurrecting very old cocktail ingredients while also pioneering new ones.

Fee Brothers Plum Bitters are out just in time for Christmas, with a flavor profile based around an English plum pudding. When VP/Production Manager Ellen Fee makes a new bitters recipe, it's not just a matter of throwing some fruit in alcohol for a while. Fruits have different flavors in the skin, pith, flesh, and seeds. These elements have to be balanced, but beyond that the natural fruit aromas and flavors are combined with proprietary blends of herbs and/or spices much in the same way a perfume or secret BBQ sauce is blended. Here, the aroma is like a plum liqueur combined with a little cinnamon, cloves, and other holiday scents.

While I don't know if plum or prune bitters are an old tradition (references are scant), the execution is definitely old school. I found that it made for a rather festive Manhattan that is perfect for the winter months. I'd also suggest a dash or two in a cup of hot tea, and based on the tradition of Korean/Japanese plum liqueurs, there might be an option for some interesting Asian fusion cocktails. (As I'm not a fan of sake and don't have access to soju, I leave this as a suggestion for other mixologists.)

Years ago the Dirty Martini came into fashion, and folks everywhere were splashing some olive brine into their gin or vodka. More recently, individual bottles of olive brine have shown up so that you don't have to worry about drying out your olives.

But fads move along quickly in the cocktail world, and one of the new trends is based around pickle brine. This is something with a long but odd history. Drinkers of pickle brine were either weird old guys or star athletes. (Indeed, before Gatorade, pickle brine was common for some football teams and is still recommended for avoiding muscle cramps.) The traditional method of bar consumption is the Pickleback: down a shot of whiskey followed by a shot of pickle brine. I really dislike doing shots--I prefer to savor what I'm consuming, but I gave this a try. Between the two varieties shown here, I much more preferred the Zesty Deli Dill Pickle Brine over the Sweet Midget Pickle Brine. (This goes along with my preference in actual pickles--I like them sour, salty, spicy, and sometimes hot, not sweet and mild.)

Performing the Pickleback with the Zesty Deli was interesting but surprisingly tasty. Some sweetish Canadian whisky followed by the hot spicy brine. It will definitely open your eyes, and between the two liquids, your palate gets to experience practically everything possible in a few seconds. The Sweet Midget did not work as well; again, much of this is based on my personal tastes. I also tried a splash of the Zesty Deli in a martini where it provided a unique zim zam zoom! Cold gin really brings out some of the cucumber flavor, and the only odd thing is that the flavor combination makes me crave hard boiled eggs. That would make for an ugly garnish, but a little dish of deviled eggs, celery sticks, and some cheese cubes would be great here.

This blurry screenshot will take a little explaining. Jean Shepherd was the writer and radio personality responsible for the classic 1983 film A Christmas Story. (In 2008 I visited the house where the movie was filmed.) There were two other semi-fictionalized movies based on stories of his childhood, and all three feature entirely different casts. Few have seen It Runs in the Family (My Summer Story), and I think even fewer have seen the source of my screenshot, Ollie Hopnoodle's Haven of Bliss. In OHHOB, the main character Ralph is played by Jerry O'Connell (Stand By Me, Jerry Maguire). His father--The Old Man--is played by James B. Sikking (Hill Street Blues, Doogie Howser, M.D.).

It is mentioned that The Old Man liked to drink pickle juice from the jar, both because he liked the flavor and felt that it warded off colds. In this scene, the family is having a picnic while the car's radiator cools down, and in his agitated state he demands the pickle jar for a quick pick-me-up. Based on that scene, I remember taking a swig from the pickle jar every now and then when I had a craving for something sour and salty. Yes folks, TV can make kids drink pickle juice. Call your congressman today.

Note: These products were received as samples.

19 November 2010

Cru Beaujolais Completion

I'm skipping the Beaujolais Nouveau this year. I'm not angry, I'm not making a stance about the issue, but I've been disappointed the past two years, and recently I've tasted eight great Crus, all with a couple of years' worth of age on them. If I'm at a party and someone pours me a glass of Bojo Novo? I will accept it happily and drink merrily in the spirit of friendship. But instead of the usual posts this time of year about the Nouveau, I'm delighted to be able to write about some amazing wines that are from the same grape, region, and cost only a few bucks extra, but taste incredible.

I was happy to participate in another TasteLive event showcasing Beaujolais, but honestly one part of this really drew my attention. I finally got the chance to try the last of the 10 Crus... After digging around in bins and shelves for years, in six different states during various travels, the Côte de Brouilly shows up on my doorstep as a sample. Many good things have happened to me because of my scribblings upon this site, but finishing off the Beaujolais region was particularly special.

2006 Christophe Pacalet Côte de Brouilly
$17, 13% abv.
Wild strawberries, very light aroma, equally delicate body, and a finish that's almost gone before you realized you took a sip. This isn't a criticism--sometimes I like a wine that lasts for hours after one taste, and sometimes I prefer one that disappears like a shooting star.

2005 Pascal Granger Earl Juliénas
$24, 13% abv.
Tart raspberries, decent tannic structure, a bold wine. I've generally been happy with the Juliénas I've had in the past, and fortunately it is one of the Crus that is more well known and easy to find around the country. Trivial note: this region is named after Julius Caesar, a reference to the development of the area as a wine region during his reign.

2007 Louis-Claude Desvinges Morgon
$20, 13% abv.
Surprising dark plum aroma, full dark fruit flavor. Little smoky, touch of raw beef. The theme of this tasting was to highlight the "masculine" side of Beaujolais, and this was perhaps the best representative of that style.

2008 Domaine Diochon Vieilles Vignes Moulin-à-Vent
$21, 13% abv.
Plum and ash, light, with a touch of tartness on the finish. Very short finish, mild and mellow overall. This is one of those melt-in-your-mouth wines that disappears quickly, leaving only a trace of acidity. I've read that the wines from this windmill-named region can last ten years or more, but I was pleased with the performance of this one at such an early age.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

17 November 2010

Redmon Wines

I recently had the pleasure of attending a private wine tasting at the home of Bill & Juli Eck, a pair of wonderful people that I've just recently met here in my home town of Memphis. My initial encounter was through Juli commenting on my food posts and my admiration for her photography. For years the Ecks have been friends with a pair of Napa Valley winemakers, and finally managed to get them to come here for a visit. What followed was an unforgettable evening of food, wine, and fellowship. Lady A and I stayed until nearly eleven, but I have a feeling things could have run until the wee hours of the morning.

Redmon Wines is run by the husband-wife team of Lisa Redmon-Mangelson and Scott Mangelson. It's one of those uniquely American stories: her family ran A&W hamburger joints in Napa and bought some local property, his family ran dairy farms and orchards in Orem, Utah. Starting with a 1999 garage wine, they began making high-end Cabernet that earned a 97 from Wine Enthusiast with the 2006 vintage. Lisa joked that her family was the only one that moved to Napa to get into the root beer business, and Scott joked that there aren't many graduates of Brigham Young University that have gone into winemaking.

Their philosophy is small, high quality production, with only as much expansion as they can personally handle. While they do not currently have an organic certification, they do engage in sustainable viticulture and are incorporating organically-grown grapes into their upcoming releases. They employ a double sorting process, in which the grape clusters are hand-picked to remove anything that's not a grape or stem, and then the clusters are run through again for a second round of manual inspection. And those are only the grapes that have survived to the picking process--they allow the weaker grapes on their 40-year old vines to fall off naturally, and only produce wine from the strongest clusters. Because of the limited quantities of these wines, you're probably not going to see them on the shelves of your local shop. Instead, your best bet is to order through their online store.

Briefly, I must mention the appetizers that Juli sent out in waves during the tasting: deviled eggs topped with salmon roe, crab cakes with remoulade sauce, pinwheels stuffed with a bratwurst-mustard filling, dates stuffed with bleu cheese and wrapped in bacon, individual Beef Wellingtons in puff pastry, and I'm sure I'm forgetting something... It was all incredible.

2008 Redmon Chardonnay
Carneros, Napa Valley
$35, 14.5% abv., 185 cases

This is not a heavily oaked wine, and certainly not the caricature that many California Chards have become. On the other hand, it's not a clean and crisp unoaked wine. Instead, they've established a harmonious balance that reminded me of Pouilly-Fuissé. There's a touch of buttered popcorn, and some toast and toffee, but none of these are overpowering. The acidity is balanced, and the wine has a bit of that elusive "old church" aroma that I think will develop with another couple of years.

2007 Redmon Cabernet Sauvignon
St. Helena, Napa Valley
$65, 14.5% abv., 254 cases

Pure Cabernet Sauvignon here, with dark plum aromas. Smoky, spicy, with firm tannins. There's lots of black fruit, and it has a deep, rich structure with a long finish.

The 2006 Redmon Cabernet Sauvignon is, I believe, sold out, but we got to taste one of the remaining bottles.
St. Helena, Napa Valley
$50 on release, 14.5% abv., 354 cases

My favorite of the evening, full of figs and tea and with a remote hint of green bell pepper. There are great blackberry flavors present without being overly fruit-forward. This is one of those wines that you can sit with for a while and contemplate with each sip, and very Bordeaux-like in its execution.

2008 Redmon Cabernet Blend
Rutherford, Napa Valley
$49, 14.5% abv., 249 cases
81% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9.5% Cabernet Franc, 9.5% Merlot.

A new project from the winery, this particular bottle was a barrel sample and was decanted for some time prior to serving. Too early for me to evaluate, but I did enjoy what the Cabernet Franc is bringing to the mix, and it's a classic Bordeaux blend.

During the Q&A session, I commented on the clean, minimalist design of the label, particularly the Cabernet Sauvignon with a red logo and red and white text printed directly on the glass. The dotted "r" design stands for Redmon but also describes their early head-trained vines, that cascaded over on one side to maximize exposure to sun depending on where the vine was planted. The design you see today has evolved from some earlier labels, and reflects their own concepts and ideas combined with the efforts of a talented graphic designer.

15 November 2010

Soave and Thanksgiving

Around this time of year, every wine writer feels obliged to write the Thanksgiving Recommendation List, and every publicist amends their press releases to say, "This wine would be great with Thanksgiving dinner!" Frankly anything will work, and everything will fail in some way. If only you care about wine, bring something you want to drink. If your family doesn't care, don't force a vertical tasting on them. If there's a little curiosity in between, I still stand by my 2008 advice: Think PIGS. Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain. And with that in mind, I do think that Soave from Italy's Veneto region does go pretty darn well with turkey, ham, stuffing, and even your aunt's green bean casserole with the fried onions on top.

Made primarily from the Garganega grape, I've always enjoyed Soave. It's nothing like Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, the two most common white grapes you'll encounter. It's easier to pronounce than other Italian whites like Verdicchio: so-AH-vay.

The other thing that is crucial for Thanksgiving is that these wines are not hard to find. You should be able to find a Soave in any decent wine shop for $10-15. And if you decide not to take it to the family gathering with you, it is even better late Thursday night with leftovers.

2009 Montresor Capitel Alto Soave Classico
80% Garganega, 20% Trebbiano di Soave
$15, 12.5% abv.

Orange blossom with a touch of grass, light citrus flavors, a round body, and a short finish. Mild and delicate. Beyond poultry and associated dishes, Soave goes very well with mildly seasoned seafood. If you buck tradition and serve a big roast salmon instead of a turkey, this will still work.

The second Soave of the lineup is a little stronger...

2009 Fattori Giovanni Motto Piane Soave
100% Garganega
$15, 14% abv

Tropical fruit, flowers, firmer, stronger, a touch of minerals, with a nice round mouthfeel. Fermented both in oak and stainless steel. Between the two, consider this one if you prefer bigger, bolder flavors, but it's still a relatively light wine.

Something that I think is crucial when it comes to a party or big dinner situation is that Soave continues to be balanced even at room temperature. There are some inexpensive Chardonnays, for instance, that become sour and almost painful to consume as they warm up, and can turn off people who don't try a dozen different wines every week. You're not going to have that problem with a lighter wine like this, and it will be an interesting change of pace for those relatives that are scared to venture beyond Pinot Grigio.

Note: These wines were received as samples.