30 July 2010

2008 Apothic Red

The press release for this wine describes the name thusly:

Inspired by the "Apotheca," a mysterious place where wine was blended and stored in 13th century Europe, Apothic Red offers a truly unique wine experience.

I was curious about the connections with the word apothecary, and found this interesting bit about ancient Rome. From the Popular Dictionary of Architecture and the Allied Arts, Vol. I by William Audsley and George Ashdown Audsley (1881):
APOTHECA. The name given by the Romans to the room in the upper part of a house in which the amphorae containing wine were placed, to be subjected to the heat of the sun from the roof, and the passage of the smoke from the fumarium, above which the apotheca was usually situated. The effect of the warm temperature and the smoke was to mature and improve the flavour of the wine. The word, in its more extended signification, was applied to store-rooms, granaries, and warehouses.
The word also shows up a few times in the works of the Roman poet Horace, like this snippet from Satira V in which Ulysses says to Tiresias:
O nulli quidquam mentite, vides ut
Nudus inopsque domum redeam, te vate, neque illio
Aut apotheca prods intacta est, aut pecus. Atqui
Et genus et virtus, nisi cum re, vilior alga est.
So let's talk about the wine itself... The 2008 Apothic Red is simply from California, not a specific region. $14, 13.1% abv. It is a proprietary blend of Syrah, Zinfandel, and Merlot. This wine certainly stands up and grabs your attention with big berry aromas, followed by plum and cherry flavors. Huge fruit presence with a touch of vanilla. Rich and full-bodied with an edge of sweetness. It reminds me a great deal of the Folie à Deux Ménage à Trois Red, so if you like that wine, I think you'll enjoy this one as well.

As shown, I paired this with a broiled steak and a simple summer salad. Our farmers markets are full of tomatoes and cucumbers right now, and it seems like I've been eating those two vegetables with almost every meal.

Note: This wine was received as a sample.

28 July 2010

Notes on Dinner Party Management

For about a year now, I've wanted to do a comprehensive guide on hosting dinner parties. I keep starting and then deleting it all, because it always goes in a weird direction. Sort of a grouchy Kitchen Confidential angle, which is unfortunate because I really enjoy hosting dinner parties and have it down to such a science that the past few have been practically effortless and I find myself missing the exciting, nervous energy that such events used to evoke.

Here's a few odds and ends that have survived the editing process. I could write an entire book on Why I Don't Invite Children, but I'm trying to steer the project into more positive directions.

* * *

I've hosted about two dozen dinner parties, which I define as six or more guests and multiple courses with matching wines throughout the evening. These were events where I planned the whole menu and prepared everything during the party. Not only was I cooking and hosting, but I was also eating, drinking, and participating along with everyone else. It's a delicate balancing act, and I've learned valuable lessons like putting the smallest portions on my own plate and just going with small pours of wine throughout.

If you haven't done this before and you want to be prepared for hosting a dinner party, I'd suggest the following training exercise:

1) Get ready for a regular weekend dinner with your significant other or spouse, and lay out all the ingredients and equipment you will be using. Mise en place is very important to a smooth dinner party.

2) An hour before dinner, have your special someone randomly remove 25% of the ingredients and equipment and move them out of the house.

3) Fifteen minutes before dinner, a random and unknown number of people show up to join you. At least one person must be a vegetarian, one person must have specific religious objections to certain root vegetables, and one must be allergic to all ingredients that begin with the letter B.

4) If at this point you break down in deep, heaving sobs while an improvised couscous-eggplant casserole slowly dries out in the oven, I would recommend going back and reading The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus. You have to learn to accept the absurdity of certain impossible situations.

* * *

I don't think you can really pull off a proper dinner party unless you've had some colossal screwups and failures in the kitchen. Everybody messes up occasionally, but doing it in front of a bunch of friends, family, and lovely young ladies you're trying to impress is different than burning the toast while making breakfast alone.

I've always admired the first lesson from Juggling for the Complete Klutz. It's called "The Drop". You take one beanbag and drop it on the floor. Since learning how to juggle will involve a lot of objects dropped on the ground or flung across the room, you might as well go ahead and get that out of the way. The same goes for cooking. I'd like to see more beginner advice for things like hollandaise sauce. The first thing you do is make a really buttery set of scrambled eggs. The next thing you make is a nasty egg-lemon soup. Between the two extremes lies the ideal mixing and gentle temperature necessary for a proper sauce.

I'm going to list some of the mistakes I've made during dinner parties. In every case I managed to recover and soldier on, only because I'd previously made similar mistakes and had learned to improvise:

1) Slicing off the tip of my left thumb and going on to cook an entire Thanksgiving dinner for six using only my right hand. Thrusting my entire arm into the turkey to remove it from the brine and rinse it off in the bathtub is now a cherished holiday memory.

2) Making a delicate and intricate garnish out of various herbs and vegetables, then forgetting about it until everyone is halfway through the course.

3) Grilling a leg of lamb and realizing at the last minute that I didn't have any sort of meat thermometer. Lots of poking and prodding and hoping for the best.

4) Desperately trying to make homemade mayonnaise to show off to a group of folks who had never had the condiment freshly made. It's a simple emulsion of egg yolks, oil, and an acid like vinegar or lemon juice. Without the egg yolks, the whole thing will not come together as a sauce, and you'll be standing there like me for five minutes with a mixer, getting nowhere.

* * *

Any interest in further, more detailed musings on the subject? Further topics include Assembling a Good Mix of People, The Importance of Preparation, and How to Get Guests to Help Wash Dishes Between Courses. Or do you have your own cautionary tales of dinner parties gone awry? Go crazy in the comments.

26 July 2010

Liquors from Slightly off the Beaten Path

Raiding a friend's liquor cabinet while housesitting can be an entertaining endeavor, because the brands are always somewhat different from your own and it gives you the opportunity to try something else. Sort of like when you're a kid spending the night at a friend's house and the spaghetti tastes just a little different, and the soap smells strange, and they watch a different channel for the evening news. Just by walking down the street your ten-year-old brain thinks you're in a different country.

With Paul's permission--really more of a mandate--here are two interesting liquors I tried.

Rhum Barbancourt is perhaps the best known Haitian rum, and has received some more attention since the recent earthquake, since it's one of the only Haitian products that you can purchase easily around the world. I've always found Haitian rum somewhat harsh and medicinal, but there are times when you want a bracing edge, and I certainly appreciate the distinction from some of the sweeter spirits in the Caribbean.

This is the 5 star rum, aged for 8 years. Lots of oak here--touch of vanilla, hint of sawdust, but mostly fresh cut oak boards. On the aftertaste you get cream and nutmeg. Most rum in this country is used as a mixer for various cheap and fruity cocktails, but anything aged like this really needs to be sipped and enjoyed on its own, like a fine whiskey. I've had some rums aged over 20 years, and they'll practically melt in your mouth.

I consider it "slightly off the beaten path" because you don't see many other Haitian rums, and as a category it's rare to find a rum labeled in French. Also, the most popular rums tend to come from places that are popular, politically stable vacation spots like Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Jamaica, etc. It seems a little odd at times to enjoy a luxury product from the poorest country in the western hemisphere, but rum has been a prized export for the past 500 years.

Things are different than they were in decades past, but there's still that association that Vodka = Russia. Of course, you can make vodka anywhere you can ferment something and distill the alcohol, but it is still more associated with places where it's too cold to grow grapes and there's not a strong export demand for the local beers. Monopolowa is an Austrian vodka with a Polish name, which definitely sparks my history interest.

It name means "monopoly" (though here referring to a royal license, like all those British products that carry the crown), and was produced by J. A. Baczewski from 1782 until 1939. The name and recipes were acquired by an Austrian company that still produces this spirit using the traditional recipe. While most vodka these days is made from grain, this is a traditional potato vodka.

I really can't give you any tasting notes here, as I'm not a vodka expert and the best stuff has the least flavor and aroma. I can tell you that it is nicely smooth and mixes beautifully. I've tried it in a number of vodka cocktails where it performed admirably.

I can, however, point out something interesting in the design of the label. There is a very light, almost imperceptible yellow polka dot pattern in the background. It's a circle with the initials JAB and a set of scales. I've adjusted the contrast and levels in the image at right to bring out the design, as always click on the thumbnail for a larger version. Doing such a light yellow design on a white background is a tricky proposition, because A) most people can't see it, especially in non-ideal lighting conditions, and B) those that do see it might just think that the label has gotten dirty or mildewed. The third category, of course, is comprised of those from the printing industry who break out the loupe to see what's going on.

23 July 2010

Laurenz V. Grüner Veltliner

To finish out a week of posts based on a single night hanging out with Sam and Michael, here are the two wines that I brought to the gathering. I knew that Michael was a big fan of Austrian wines, so it seemed like a good fit. Normally it's in bad form to show up at someone's house with already-opened bottles of wine, but I figured two fellow wine bloggers who are also wine retailers would understand. Notes and photos were taken earlier in the day so that I could focus on having fun with friends in the evening.

Laurenz V. is an Austrian winemaker focusing exclusively on Grüner Veltliner with five amusingly named styles. Two are reviewed below, and in the same way that Riesling can be made in a wide range of sweetness and acidity, it's nice to see a single producer doing the same with Grüner. I assumed at first that the "V" stood for a lengthy and difficult to pronounce surname, but he is Laurenz Maria Moser the Fifth, member of a family that has been in the wine business since 1124. I love the simple, straightforward design of these labels, and nicknames like "Sunny" are an excellent way to differentiate and demystify a product line like this.

First up is the younger, more casual of the two: the 2009 Laurenz und Sophie Singing Grüner Veltliner, $15, 12% abv. This comes from the Kremstal region in northeast Austria. Crisp lemongrass, light body, very short finish. Made with his daughter Sophie, this is a fun, relaxing wine that is great chilled and would be a perfect match for salads and cold pasta dishes. Think picnics and summer lunches.

On the more serious side is the 2006 Laurenz V. Charming Grüner Veltliner, $27, 13% abv. This is from the Kamptal region, directly north and adjacent to the Kremstal. I was extremely impressed with this wine, and to enjoy this properly you'll want to make sure it doesn't get too cold. Rich, earthy, mineral, long and slightly bitter finish. It is drier than the Singing wine, with less fruit. I found myself craving grilled trout. Because the flavors here are more subtle, you'll want to enjoy this with milder dishes so that those quiet notes are not lost.

This is a great time to be an Austrian wine fan, because the quality is superb, the prices are affordable, and the availability is getting better every day. There are far fewer producers than in Germany, so the selection at the wine shop or on a wine list is not quite as imposing if you're just getting into the scene. I look forward to trying the remaining three Laurenz V. wines in the future.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

21 July 2010

Benito vs. the Cocktail: Bitter Citrus

After our recent Blogger Summit at Michael's place, we zipped over to Bari for cocktails. The owners of the restaurant have touted their impressive selection of liqueurs and amaros from Italy, including Aperol, which is like a milder, lower-alcohol version of Campari. I asked the bartender to make me something with Aperol, and he put together a cocktail incorporating Prosecco and fresh grapefruit juice. (Sorry, I don't know the specific name or proportions of the cocktail, but ask nicely and I'm sure they'll be happy to make it for you.)

The cocktail was great and certainly refreshing on a hot summer night. I made something similar at home using Campari and an inexpensive sparkling wine.

1 oz. Fresh Squeezed Red Grapefruit Juice
1/2 oz. Simple Syrup
1/2 oz. Campari
Sparkling Wine

Combine the grapefruit juice, simple syrup, and Campari in a glass. Add ice, and then fill the rest of the glass with sparkling wine. Stir gently just enough to blend the ingredients.

This got me to thinking... How would Campari work in a Mimosa? I had orange juice and leftover (slightly flat) bubbly, so why not try it out.

Oh, I'm in love with this. I like Mimosas (way more than Bloody Marys if we're talking brunch cocktails), but this adds additional layers of sour and bitter. And if you've previously been scared of Campari, this might be a fun way to work up to it. Just try a splash, then a little more and a little more over the course of a few Sundays.

This would be perfect with a plate of biscuits and white gravy, maybe a little fresh melon and link sausages on the side. I think that bitter and sour character would be a great contrast to the salty/savory/creamy flavors on the table, throwing your palate back and forth between taste sensations.

19 July 2010

2007 Plantaže Vranac Pro Corde

Last week I had the pleasure of spending an evening with the incomparable Samantha Dugan at the home of fellow Memphis wineblogger Michael Hughes. She and her husband had planned a visit to Louisville to visit their son on his 21st birthday, but decided to make a detour in order to meet up with Michael and me and to see some of the interesting sights of our dear River City. We had an amazing dinner of braised lamb shanks, stuffed eggplant (courtesy of Justin & Amy), roasted corn, and other delicacies, all accompanied by a slate of spectacular French wines that Sam brought with her as well as some wonderful Pacific Northwest wines provided by Michael. It was also the first time in ages that I've just sat down and simply enjoyed a bunch of great wine without taking notes, so hopefully Sam or Michael will fill in some of the blanks.

In the e-mails and messages leading up to the visit, she offered to bring me a bottle of wine, and told me to go to her store's website and pick something out. Would I make her day and pick a nice Champagne or Burgundy? No, a leopard can't change its spots and neither can a freckled wine lover. My eyes went straight to the Wines of Eastern Europe section, and I asked her for anything from the former Yugoslavia. She consulted her boss and brought me the 2007 Plantaže Vranac Pro Corde. $17, 13.5% abv. 100% Vranac (which means "black stallion") from the Podgorica region of Montenegro. Pro corde is a sort of Latin tag for "heart healthy", which is interesting because such claims are generally forbidden in the American wine market. The label used to feature a little EKG graph.

This starts out a little tart and tannic, but with only half an hour of breathing it smooths out and reveals its true character. The wine is mild and light with dominant black cherry and black pepper aromas. Touches of leather and chocolate. Cherry and fig flavors follow with a long, smooth finish. A lot of Eastern European wines are far more mild and subtle than you might think. Somehow it went really well with the hearty portion of garlic in the meal shown below.

When Yugoslavia broke up in the 90s, Montenegro was an on again/off again part of Serbia. It's an independent nation as of 2006, and I had intended to do a whole Montenegrin dinner. However, it's difficult to find recipes that specific in English, and Serbian cuisine is a bit more well-represented by the international food writing community. What follows are Serbian recipes and spellings, though my understanding is that variations on these dishes exist throughout the former Yugoslavia.

(Side note: in my research phase I realized that the only person I know of Serbian heritage is an eight year old boy who's a quarter Serbian based on ancestors that came over to the US over a hundred years ago. Grace informed me of the boy's opinion of Serbian food sampled at a family gathering: "They have good cheese." I've always wanted to publish his cheese reviews here--another project for another day.)

I made a batch of ćevapčići, little skinless sausages that are grilled and served with flatbread. Often these are made with some combination of ground meats, but I didn't want to make a lot of them. I stuck to beef and used plenty of paprika and garlic to amp up the flavor. I prepared a tub of tzatziki sauce the day before and served the ćevapčići in the style of a gyro or döner kebab. I threw some onion marmalade on it, and there's a little spiced brown rice hiding in the background. These little sausages are amazing, and pretty easy to make. I think it might be a fun way to play around with different sausage recipes without the grinders and casings and everything else.

In looking over recipes and reading about Serbian food, I kept seeing references to cherries, particularly sour varieties that are preserved, made into spreads, and baked into desserts. I had a lot of sweet Rainier cherries on hand, and decided to use those in višnjak piskóta, a very eggy cake that's sort of like Yorkshire pudding. I added some Luxardo Maraschino liqueur to the batter to increase the cherry flavor. It's good, but probably better for breakfast where the massive egg content makes more sense.

I plan on investigating Slavic cuisine further, since it's such an interesting fusion of Greek, Italian, Hungarian, Austrian, Turkish, and other traditions. In the meantime, sincere thanks to Sam for her gracious gift, and I promise I'll try to pay some more attention to French wines in the future.

Buy from Amazon.com:

The Montenegrin Coat of Arms shown above is a Creative Commons-licensed image from Wikipedia.

16 July 2010

Masi Wines

Masi is a wine producer from the Veneto region in northeast Italy. The Boscaini family has been in the wine business since the late 18th century, acquiring vineyards in this area. They are well known for their traditional Italian wines, but here I'm going to focus on two relatively newer and more innovative wines. Following suit from the popularity of the Supertuscan wines, these are known as "Supervenetians"--a combination of grapes from the Veneto and Friuli that are carefully blended to produce a specific flavor profile.

First up is the 2008 Masi Masianco. $16, 13% abv. 75% Pinot Grigio, 25% Verduzzo. I'd love to see more of this: Pinot Grigio teamed up with a stronger grape to provide some additional body and complexity. The ratio is ideal, because it doesn't let the weaker Pinot Grigio become overwhelmed. Lightly tart, mellow, with aromas of pear and peach. This is nice and light with a hint of sweetness. Lady A is not a huge fan of white wines, but enjoyed this one when served with glazed flounder and braised bok choy/fire roasted tomatoes.

For the second course, we opened the 2006 Masi Campofiorin. $16, 13%, abv. 70% Corvina, 25% Rondinella, 5% Molinara. Aromas of tart cherry, with flavors of fig, licorice, and oak. Firm tannins, short finish. Not too strong, not too light, but definitely full of flavor. (Note: I tried the 2005 Campofiorin last year for my birthday.)

Even though it's summer, I felt a fall/winter dish was best: thick cut pork chop topped with cremini mushrooms and a butter/sage sauce, and roasted acorn squash topped with pecans/Bourbon/brown sugar. You get far enough north in Italy and the cuisine starts blending with that of Switzerland and Austria, so I felt this was appropriate. Plus it was an excuse to get the butcher to custom cut a pair of 2" thick Porterhouse chops. They were brined in an apple cider/mustard/allspice brine, rinsed, then seared and roasted to medium rare. A bit too much for one person, but the leftovers were great.

This week I'm knocking out some dinner writeups that have occurred over the course of a few weeks--I don't have a different woman over for dinner every night, even though it might appear like that from the blog. In any event, for this particular food and wine gathering Lady A brought an assortment of gourmet cupcakes from Muddy's Bake Shop in East Memphis. I always feel a bit like a six year old when eating cupcakes, but these were amazing. My favorites were the Red Velvet and the Snickerdoodle, though they all tasted great. Apparently the most popular is something called the "Prozac", which is chocolate based and sells out quickly.

The ballot for the Memphis Flyer's 2010 Best of Memphis Awards came out today. If you live in the Memphis area and are a fan of these great little desserts, you can vote for Muddy's in the bakery category. And if you look in the blogger category, you might just see a familiar name.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

14 July 2010

A Pair of Rieslings

Rieslings were among the first wines I ever purchased, because they were inexpensive and sweet. Years later, I had the opportunity to try more serious, well-aged Rieslings that were quite expensive and made for a transcendent tasting experience. But let's not forget that there's a broad middle range full of great, food-friendly wines that can appeal to a wide range of tastes and experience levels. Here's two I tried recently when Laura M. and her friend came over for dinner. (As a side note, Laura and I took German together in high school. No, we did not converse auf Deutsch during dinner.)

I served these convenient screwcap wines with two courses, but I left both bottles open throughout dinner. One a little sweeter, one a little drier, I felt it was easier to let the diners enjoy what they wanted.

First up was the slightly sweeter 2008 Fritz's Riesling from the Rheinhessen region of southwest Germany. $10, 10.5% abv. This wine is crisp with light citrus and lime peel aromas. Not too fruity, and not too sweet either. It's really well balanced. The wine is labeled with a distressed, punk font and simple design, and the additional marketing includes a little cartoon character, all part of the movement among some producers to put a more approachable face on German wines.

On the more serious side is the 2008 Kruger-Rumpf Münsterer Rheinberg Riesling Kabinett from the Nahe region, just west of the aforementioned Rheinhessen. $22, 8.5% abv. This wine is a classic Riesling, with aromas of wet granite, apricot nectar, green apple, and a touch of petrol. It goes down as smoothly as silk and has a very mild, delicate composition. If you've been drinking a lot of wines between 13-16% alcohol, it's a breath of fresh air to go back and try something like this that's under 9%. From a label perspective, this is definitely more traditional, and it bears the VDP eagle logo. For $22, this is an impressive bargain, and represents the style of German wine I like best.

The first course was linguine alle vongole, which is becoming a real favorite of mine, and with canned clams it's the kind of dish you can just slap together using odds and ends from the pantry. A little bite from the red pepper flakes makes a natural pairing with the Riesling. The second course (not pictured) was seared swordfish steaks with green beans. Neither dish was really German, but Riesling is so versatile and crowd-friendly that it's not difficult to find a decent match.

Big thanks to Laura M. for bringing homemade cupcakes topped with a lemon icing!

Note: These wines were received as samples.

12 July 2010

Online Cava Tasting + A Great Dinner for Two

On Thursday, July 22 at 7:00 p.m. (CDT), I'll be hosting an online tasting at Whining & Dining, the food blog of my hometown newspaper The Commercial Appeal. Normally I don't post notes ahead of time, but I happened to pick up an extra bottle and decided to serve it for yet another entry in the Dinner with Lady A series.

For this particular tasting, I selected the NV Segura Viudas Aria Estate Brut from the Penedès region of northeast Spain. $12, 11.5% abv. 60% Macabeo, 20% Parellada, and 20% Xarel-lo. This Cava is crisp with firm lemony acidity and nice small bubbles. Not quite as creamy as a high end Champagne, but more in that direction rather than cheaper fizz with giant bubbles. Slightly nutty, with almost an almond flavor in the background. Excellent quality/price ratio, and a good sort of bottle to keep around for casual drinking.

As a twist, I'm also suggesting that people pick up a little 200mL bottle of Crème de Cassis to make a classic cocktail. Kir is just white wine with cassis liqueur, and most people know the bubbly version as a Kir Royale. Technically that's only made with Champagne--with any other sparkling wine it's merely a Kir Pétillant.

How much to add? Just pour a capful in the bottom of the glass, then pour in the sparkling wine. The strength of the kir is really up to personal preference; as long as you're between the color of cooked salmon and smoked salmon you're in the right range. Obviously more cassis will increase the sweetness and black currant flavor, and you can always add some more of either ingredient if you need to balance it to your liking. It's a lot of fun, it's a great use for leftover sparkling wine, and the liqueur will keep forever in the cabinet.

With the Cava, I served blackened barramundi. I've had this fish a few times in restaurants, and have recently discovered it in the frozen fillets section of the grocery store. It's always nice to buy fresh fish, but on the other hand I try to stock up the freezer with a variety of different fish, the kind simply vacuum-sealed in clear plastic with a small white label. Makes it easy to inspect the quality and proportions of the fillet. Here I just brushed it with a little butter, dusted on the blackening spices, and gave it a quick char on each side. This fish was fairly lean, and I went easy on the butter so it wasn't too heavy for a first course. Spicy food traditionally goes great with sparkling wine, and while I didn't pile on the heat here, it was still a harmonious pairing.

With the second course, another bottle of wine was needed. While getting the Cava at Kirby Wines (big thanks to Angela Moon for help selecting both!) I also picked up the 2007 Cupcake Petite Sirah from the Central Coast of California. $12, 13.5% abv. Smooth and relaxing, violets, blueberries, currants, touch of chocolate. Really great value and perfectly aged wine. This wine is so mellow that you'd never guess it came from a powerful grape like Petite Sirah.

I like to try different things with steak. Here I took a thick ribeye, cut it in half to form two smaller steaks, and trimmed them up a bit. Both were marinated in soy sauce and Worcestershire sauce, and then wrapped in bacon. I baked the steaks at low temperature until rare, and then let them rest. When it was time for serving, I threw them under the broiler to crisp up the bacon and produce a nice crust. Quick, simple, and perfect when you're entertaining someone.

I topped the steaks with onion marmalade. This is one of the most stupidly easy things to make, and you're liable to find all the necessary ingredients in any kitchen. Here I used white onions, red and white wine vinegar, and threw in a splash of the red wine for flavor. You really can't screw this up, and it's so delicious. Save the leftovers to spread on toast in the morning, where it makes a nice little onion tart. The carrots were just boiled for a bit, drained, and then pan fried with just a dab of butter and some dried thyme. A simple and elegant companion to the rich and savory steak. Lady A was particularly happy with the way the steak came out, and hadn't had the marmalade before.

Per the usual arrangement, I put her in charge of dessert. Almond croissants topped with a little powdered sugar. About an hour after dinner, I warmed them up in the oven and threw a little ice cream on the side. Oh, pure heaven. Flaky, buttery, rich and delicious.

Once again, a successful and interesting dinner for two with a pair of great yet inexpensive wines. Please feel free to pick up a bottle of the Aria and join us on the 22nd for the online tasting--no login or registration required, just go to the Whining & Dining site, pop open your wine, and join the online conversation about the wine and cocktail.

09 July 2010

Benito vs. the Cocktail: Blueberry Orange Smash

Summer's always a great time for cocktails, but take advantage of seasonal ingredients that are fresh and delicious rather than premade mixes. A smash isn't a clearly defined cocktail category, but generally it builds on the Mint Julep structure: herbs, spirits, sugar muddled together and strained. Mint is probably the most popular cocktail herb, but other smashes can be made with basil, thyme, sage, etc. Here's a little something I whipped up. You might wonder where the sugar is--the blueberries were nice and ripe and the Triple Sec has a lot of sugar in it, so there was no need for additional sweetness.

Benito's Blueberry Orange Smash
½ Cup Fresh Blueberries
5 Mint Leaves
2 oz. Vodka
1 oz. Triple Sec/Orange Liqueur
½ oz. Lime Juice
Twist of Orange Peel

Put the blueberries and mint in the cocktail shaker and muddle the hell out of it. The longer you muddle, the darker the resulting beverage will be. (Just like with grapes, blueberry juice is yellowish, and all the color comes from pressing the skin.) Add the vodka, liqueur, lime, ice, and shake and strain. You can pass this through a filter if you want a more elegant presentation, but I like all the little bits of fruit and herb. It's a reminder that you used fresh ingredients.

My garnish of blueberries on a toothpick with a helix of orange peel is optional, but easy and fun.

07 July 2010

The 2009 Class of Robert Oatley Wines

This is my fourth post on the wines of Robert Oatley from Australia. I keep telling folks, if you think you're burnt out and everything from Down Under is a high alcohol fruit bomb, then you're just not looking close enough. As with prior sets, I was impressed with the pleasant, balanced quality of these wines and how well they go with food. At the $15 price point they're pretty affordable as well, and topped with convenient screwcaps. You're also getting an interesting sampler of three very different Australian regions, both in character and physical distance.

2009 Robert Oatley Pinot Grigio
Adelaide Hills, South Australia
$16, 13% abv
I wondered why this was packaged in a green bottle, since it has such a striking dark gold color. Light citrus and floral aroma, with firm acidity and a full body. I would be hard pressed to identify this as a Pinot Grigio in a blind tasting. Roast chicken and pasta salad all the way.

2009 Robert Oatley Sauvignon Blanc
Pemberton, Western Australia
$16, 12.2% abv
Classic aromas and flavors of grass and grapefruit. Not too tart, fairly well-balanced. And while this wine is practically transparent, it does not taste weak or watered down. I'd say go for a traditional grilled shellfish pairing here and have a good time.

2009 Robert Oatley Rosé of Sangiovese
Mudgee, New South Wales
$15, 12.8% abv
Ah, I love this one. Lovely berry aromas and flavors, with just a hint of plum, medium acidity, round mouthfeel. I'm loving what's happening with Sangiovese and Tempranillo in Australia. Like most dry rosés, this will pair with practically anything, but I found that a simple vegetarian pizza really hit the spot. Next time I'd go the extra mile and make a savory pissaladière.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

05 July 2010

A Wine Self-Education

I recently had a week that involved e-mails back and forth wine winemakers and exporters in half a dozen countries. I had dinner with Lady A on a Thursday, then dinner with Laura and her friend on a Saturday. I'd never met Laura's friend before, and she asked me how I got into the whole wineblogging thing. I gave the 30 second canned answer, but as I was opening up my 15th bottle of wine for the week, I asked myself, "Well, how did I get here?" After thinking about it for a few days, I think I found the answer.

Stamp collecting.

I was never a serious stamp collector as a kid, but it was a neat hobby. Most of what I find enjoyable with wine is what I liked with stamps: foreign languages, geography, history, and this sense of wonder that I get to hold something in my hands from 6,000 miles away that's maybe older than I am. The significant difference, of course, is the social aspect. I've gotten a pretty good reputation for my dinner parties and wine pairings, while I think inviting folks over to look at my First Day of Issue Covers might not go as well.

The stamp collector can be a tragic figure: the loner who explores the world through little squares of paper but never leaves the house. The wine enthusiast has a much more positive public image, especially since the stereotype of the snob is diminishing.

Years back, I'd considered doing a guide for wine newbies, sort of a path to follow if you wanted to expand your palate and learn about wine. But I think Tyler did it better with his book on seasonal wine exploration. Instead, I'm going to offer up my own personal wine history for the sake of anyone that's curious. Is this the best path to take? No. Did it work for me? More so recently than early on. Am I happy with my wine self-education? Absolutely! It's been a blast, but it ain't over yet.

Early 1990s
High school years

I honestly don't remember the first wine I tasted, but I certainly remember the first name I began to associate with wine. Around 1990 or so, Dad started to get mixed cases every Christmas from V. Sattui. They made a Cabernet Sauvignon, a Riesling, a Chardonnay, a Gamay Rouge, a Merlot... Really a perfect mixed case from a great producer. Since this was the start of my high school years, I was doing a lot of cooking at home, and many of the recipes I was learning required a bit of wine. I was given the freedom to use wine as needed, and would usually take a sip from the measuring cup just to see what the flavors were like. I really appreciate my parents trusting me to experiment with wine in this regard, and at no point did I end up drunk and passed out on the kitchen floor. I was an Eagle Scout and did fine in school. I've always admired the European method of demystifying wine at home, rather than our American tradition of encouraging spectacular drunkenness on cheap hooch as soon as the kid moves out.

20 years old

Trip to Italy with the girlfriend at the time, got to enjoy wine during lunch, afternoon snack, dinner, and the inevitable post-dinner conversation in broken Italian with various innkeepers and restaurant owners. Breakfast was the only meal that didn't involve wine, because invariably you got a shot of liqueur in your espresso.

21 years old

After enduring the awkwardness of getting my older roommate to purchase wine for me (mostly cheap sweet Riesling), I spent the eve of my 21st birthday with my parents and Mike Whitfield at a combination cooking class/wine tasting/general party at Mantia's. It was the first time I ever tried a wine over 10 years old, the first time I tried a wine over $100, and the first time I ever saw treasured wines opened up for the sheer pleasure of sharing them with friends.

22-27 years old

These years saw a bit of a decline in wine interest. Because of the people I was working and hanging out with at the time, this was an era of beer and, in retrospect, really terrible cocktails. Zima and cranberry juice? Premixed margaritas? Yep. I'd grab the odd bottle of wine but it was more of a special occasion thing.

28 years old

I got invited to a dinner party hosted by longtime family friend and local wine expert, Mike Whitfield. I brought two absolutely undrinkable wines to the party, but nobody gave me a hard time. I got to try a lot of amazing wines with delicious food, and for the first time in my life I realized the glory of a multi-course dinner party with matching wines. I hosted my first later that year, and have done dozens more since then. More importantly, in 2004 I started attending wine tastings. I discovered that my local wine shop attached to Costco was having regular tastings, and it was a fun way to spend a Saturday afternoon. Try five wines, buy one that tasted good? Why not? Then I discovered the Great Wines tastings, and could sometimes double up on a Saturday. Faced with lots of tasting, I began to look for a digital solution to keep track of the notes...

29-30 years old

I started this blog in January of 2005, solely as a way to keep track of all the wines I was tasting, and I tasted a lot. During those two years, I attended every free or paid tasting I could find, and wrote about every single one. Even if I attended a party and someone broke out a horrible California Chardonnay that had spent years sitting on top of a radiator, I wrote about it. These were not great years for the readers, of which there were few, but around 2006 I started posting stories about dinner parties, or focused on a single wine for a post, and learned the value of quality over quantity.

What happened to my wine tastes in this era? I lost my interest in sweet wines, except for the occasional dessert wine or properly balanced Riesling. I discovered the joys of bitter, earthy, and citrusy flavors. I learned to appreciate the beauty of a good Bordeaux while at the same time learning the fun and value of a Prosecco. Since I had a strict policy of tasting everything, and almost never buying the same wine twice, I broadened my palate considerably during this period.

31-32 years old

This was a time of lots of business travel, and one in which I became interested in things like cocktails and cigars, discovering all sorts of new flavors. The blog became a lot more popular, people started calling me an expert (I'm still not quite comfortable with that title), and my wine writing began to really get noticed locally, nationally, and around the world. It was also during this time that I got to know Fredric personally and started to spend the odd afternoon at his place going through fascinating wines that wouldn't have otherwise crossed my path. I'd grown up reading his restaurant reviews and started to learn more about wine criticism rather than simple tasting. I call this a self-education because of its informal nature, but never underestimate the benefit of a mentor who will point out your error on Beaujolais classification.

Because I got noticed by the industry and began receiving samples on a regular basis, the choice of the wines I was tasting shifted out of my hands. The great thing about this phase is that it forces you out of your unconscious biases. Over time it's easy to get tunnel vision, where you skip entire sections and stick to what's familiar. Also, for the first time, I got to try three wines from the same producer in one setting, or eight wines from one region, or some other grouping. I started to pay more attention to terroir, to winemaker style, and to the impact of mergers and acquisitions.

I think the natural destination for a wine lover is that at some point you narrow your focus and specialize, often in one of the big regions: Napa, Burgundy, Bordeaux, etc. Or that it's best to purchase only whole cases of single wines for aging and collecting. Talking to people ten years ago, I figured that's where you were supposed to go. That at some point you have to put down the Cava and other childish things and stick to Champagne. But I don't see myself ever going there. When I collected stamps, I never focused on bird stamps or war stamps or any one subject. I wasn't concerned about profitability either, I just wanted interesting stamps from as many different places as possible. I see my wine tastes staying pretty much like that, getting ever more spread out as new regions pop up and older neglected regions get a new chance in the American market. I recently told a chef that my ideal wine list would look more like the phone directory at the UN rather than just a set of Cab Savs and Chard.

I get a little flack for that position, but any hobby without some arguments and friendly trash-talking is a boring one. And the way I keep it fresh and interesting is by hopping from grape to grape and country to country with the frequency of a cheap ham radio.

Enjoy your own path, wherever it leads you. Take notes, share the love, and have fun.

02 July 2010

Tin Roof Wines

Sometimes I'll just grab a few table wines at random from the wine shop. My primary motivation is to try something I haven't had before, and depending on time constraints and selection I'll either wander around for an hour looking for hidden gems or I'll just grab whatever's shiny and new near the register.

In the latter mindset I picked up a pair of bottles from Tin Roof Cellars.

The 2007 Tin Roof Sauvignon Blanc is from the Central Coast of California. $10, 13.5% abv. Tart citrus aromas and flavor, with a creamy finish and just a hint of burnt sugar somewhere in the back. So basically, a lemon meringue pie without the sweetness.

The 2006 Tin Roof Merlot is from North/Central Coasts of California, and wasn't as enjoyable. $10, 13.5% abv. Jammy blackberry profile with a harsh tannic finish. No flaws, but really strong and rough for a four-year-old wine.

Served and sampled with breakfast for dinner: a western omelet with sourdough toast topped with blackstrap molasses. I've typically always got the ingredients to make something like this on hand, and an evening omelet is a great way to use up whatever leftovers you've got lying around.