30 December 2011

Happy New Year!

The end of the year is upon us, and while the clock hasn't quite struck midnight, I've got a busy weekend in front of me. In fact, the whole holiday season has been rather hectic with work and family and all sorts of other things, and I've barely had a moment to stop and smell the boughs of holly. For that reason, I'm taking the advice of Fredric and extending the holidays until Twelfth Night. Not only is there historical precedent, but you also get the opportunity to hang out with your Eastern Orthodox friends who celebrate Christmas a little later. Stretch New Year's Eve to Chinese New Year later in January, and you're even better.

As long as I"m mentioning Fredric, be sure to check out his annual Twelve Days of Christmas series on Champagne. You'll get great recommendations from someone who really knows his authentic bubbles.

For my part, I offer up a bunch of posts on proper Champagne, Prosecco, and a whopping 42 posts on sparkling wine, though there's probably some crossover on those categories. My general advice: if you can spare the cash and have a significant other plus another couple that might enjoy the wine, shell out at least $40 for a decent Champagne, and if possible, pick a Grower Champagne. If you're looking for affordable fun for a group of people, grab an assortment of Cavas in a variety of sweetness levels. If you just need fizzy wine to be splashed around at midnight and served to people already too far gone to know what they're drinking, you can have pallets of the stuff delivered for next to nothing.

On another note, during this holiday season, I've left the pen and notebook at home. I've still dutifully tasted and noted samples sent to me, but for wines that I picked up and took to parties or bottles that I sampled at various houses, I took no photos or notes. Oh, people asked me to talk about them, and I did to the best of my ability, but mostly I just said, "What do you think about this wine? Do you like it? If not, it won't hurt my feelings and I won't make fun of you." It was relaxing to simply sit back and enjoy a glass of wine without thinking about linking the winery and writing the PR rep and updating links to the notes on Twitter.

Not that I don't enjoy all of that, and it's part of why I keep scribbling away on this virtual parchment. But we all need perspective, and we all need time to sit back and remember that time with friends and family is wonderful, and if said time can be improved with a little fermented grape juice, all the better.

Dear readers and friends and families, please have fun this weekend, drive safe, and I look forward to a prosperous and engaging 2012. Damn the Mayan calendar, I've got too many things I still want to do.

P.S. Let me explain the photo... It's an old one from five years ago. We used to have a rosebush on the front porch that would dutifully produce a single peach-colored blossom once a year. Not in January, but it was an interesting annual event. I always loved seeing it and took a bunch of pictures each time it bloomed. I always felt that the "Pleasantville" effect was the best way to display it. Sadly, the plant died a few years back.

28 December 2011

Benito's Beet Shrub Cocktail

A man walks into the bar and says, "Barkeep, I'm in the mood for something classic, something that goes back to the colonial era." The bartender grins and replies, "We have hard cider and rye whiskey, both of which were quite popular at the time. I can also make you a flip or a nog of some sort..." The man shakes his head and says, "No, just mix some moonshine with pickled beet juice and that'll hit the spot." Shortly thereafter, the man was thrown out of the bar and onto the sidewalk.

Surprisingly, this isn't as weird a request as it sounds. A shrub is an old-fashioned syrup made from ripe fruit, sugar, and vinegar. It was a great way to preserve fruit and shrubs served a variety of purposes in the kitchen and the bar. I had a jar of pickled beets that was almost emptied of beet slices but still had a lot of delicious liquid in it. The ingredients were simple: sugar, beets, vinegar... Not an official shrub, but it'll do, and I love the flavor. Thousands of years ago, lower class Roman soldiers had to drink vinegar instead of wine. These days it's a trendy cocktail ingredient. No telling what folks will be using two thousand years from now.

Benito's Beet Shrub Cocktail
2 shots Moonshine (or 80 proof clear liquor of your choice)
½ shot Brandy
½ shot Pickled Beet Brine

Combine ingredients in shaker with ice. Shake thoroughly and strain into a cocktail glass. Enjoy the magenta beet stains on your tablecloth.

I considered calling this a "Devil's Cosmopolitan" but I really like beets and didn't want to impugn them. As weird as this thing sounds, the flavors and aromas really balance out well: the moonshine, brandy, and beet brine are all a little sweet, but the vinegar in the brine balances that out. And then the beet flavor provides both a beautiful color and a little earthiness that you more often associate with whiskey cocktails. This will never catch on or be popular, but if you find yourself with the ingredients lying around, I'd suggest giving it a try. When it comes to brine-based cocktails, this one can't be beet.

26 December 2011

December Rieslings

On the Friday before Christmas, I was on my home from work and looking forward to dinner and a movie with Julia. I had a pair of Rieslings chilling back at the house, but wasn't in the mood to cook. I was instead in the mood for something very specific: Vietnamese soup. She'd never had phở before, and I was looking forward to that particular culinary introduction as well as satisfying my own craving for some thinly sliced beef in hot broth with lots of other goodies.

We started off with gỏi cuốn and tương xào followed by phở gà for Julia and phở tái bò viên for me. (Or those soft rice wrapper rolls with shrimp and lettuce, chicken breast and chicken broth for her and sliced beef plus meatballs in my bowl.) The joy of phở is customization, and she kept hers light and simple while I went crazy with a little bit of every ingredient and some additional Sriracha sauce. Outstanding dinner, made even better by the Riesling. I tried the wines before the soup and once with the soup before I added additional heat. Both performed well at all stages of dinner.

2009 Clean Slate Riesling
$11, 10.5% abv.
Lightly sweet with with medium acidity. The nose has hints of peach and orange blossom, but nothing is terribly strong. It is an easy-going and extremely affordable white wine with a long, pleasant finish. Julia preferred this one, and I thought it was a great contrast to the bean sauce that came with the rolls.

2009 Weingut Hans Lang Riesling Dry Erste Gewächs
Hattenheim Wisselbrunnen, Rheingau
$50, 13% abv.
Erstes Gewächs means "first growth" and is a relatively new VDP classification denoting a quality dry wine from the top vineyards in Germany. Petrol and wet rocks with light green apple hints in the background. Low acidity, dry, with excellent balance. As it warmed, it developed some lovely earth tones and a wonderful depth. Long finish, highly recommended. My favorite of the two, though toward the end of the meal the Sriacha and jalapeño slice blocked out some of the more subtle tones in the wine.

This is by no means a new wine pairing idea, but it was really delicious and the wine contributed to making an already great dinner even better. Which is what wine is supposed to do.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

22 December 2011

Christmas MMXI

Merry Christmas, y'all.

I've always loved this photo I took in 2004 the night that my brother proposed to his now-wife. Memphis experienced a a rare White Christmas and the proposal took place on the top floor of The Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis. The ballroom was still decorated for Christmas and with, for some reason, Canadian flags. I have a lot of great pictures from that whole experience, but I revisit this photo often. I've lived my whole life in a metro area of a million souls, something considered "The Big City" by everyone in a 300 mile radius, but still not big by city standards. While I've spent time around Christmas in smaller towns, I've only twice done so in bigger towns: 1996 in Rome, Italy (4.5 million metro area) and 2005 in Boston, Massachusetts (7.5 million metro area).

I mention the photo because it was an odd experience for me: snow and city sidewalks, but in my hometown. Yet the sidewalks weren't busy, because downtown was completely deserted that night. There's no one best way to spend the holidays. It mostly comes down to a frame of mind and your surroundings. So with that in mind, I will issue one of my best Christmas wine recommendations: get off the damned computer and spend some time with friends and loved ones. If you decide to pick up a few bottles for the season, stop in at your local wine shop and be really nice to your retailers. They've been dealing with a lot of stupid questions and angry shoppers, and won't really get a break until January 1. There's over a thousand posts here totaling more thousands of wine recommendations. If you need additional help, smile and tell your retail employee that you really appreciate him or her working during this tough season, and then say, "I need a good [red/white] wine in the price range [whatever you are looking to spend]. I would also be interested in a good sparkling wine in the same neighborhood."

To everyone, whether you come here for the wine or food or cocktails or occasional rambling essays, I hope you have a great holiday season, and fear not, this blog does not take vacations. I'll be back next week with some words about New Year's Eve and Orthodox Christmas and Japan's celebration of construction workers during 手斧初式 on January 4. There's something out there for everyone.

In the meantime, have a great time, and pet your dogs, hug your friends, and go out of your way to be nice to someone that might be having a rough time, like the guy working at the gas station on Christmas day, or the waitress at the Waffle House taking care of those who don't have anywhere else to go for dinner.

Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail, too,
And God bless you, and send you
A Happy New Year,
And God send you a Happy New Year.

21 December 2011

Pine Ridge Vineyards

I had four great wines leftover from the Crimson Wine Group TasteLive Event and had Julia coming over for lunch. Time to break them all out and enjoy some good food as such wines deserve...

We started with a spinach-yogurt soup with a vegetable broth base and a healthy splash of the Chenin Blanc/Viognier blend. I had to play around with this some, but sea salt, white pepper, (maybe a little Madras curry powder) and a final grating of nutmeg delivered a delicious soup more reminiscent of saag paneer than something out of a red and white can. The two white wines were enjoyed with the soup, saving the reds for...

Ferran Adrià. El Bulli. I'm not a big fan of molecular gastronomy, though since I haven't actually tried it, I can't judge the various foams and powders. And I once passed over an offer to pick up the other half of an El Bulli reservation (made a year ahead of time, and the couple divorced before the promised anniversary dinner, the settlement leaving the lady with both halves of the seating). It would have involved flying to Spain to have dinner with a complete stranger that involved driving up a mountain and.... That wasn't a good life choice at the time for a variety of reasons, mainly because it was short notice and would have cost a fortune.

But recently I was enchanted by one of Adrià's staff dinners featured on Serious Eats. It looked simple yet delicious, and I left it as an open tab in my Chrome browser for a couple of weeks. Couldn't stop staring at it, and had to make it. Fire roasted peppers, thin slices of pork loin (often sold as thin boneless pork chops around here), and a simple blend of olive oil, parsley, and garlic.

This is one of the most delicious things I've had in a long time, and it's so stupidly simple I don't know why it isn't a staple on menus all over the country. Cheap, as well. And one of the best parts is that the oil blend really accentuates a great parsley flavor, which you often don't get from mere garnish. The prep is simple, the execution doesn't demand too much, and if you're concerned about roasting peppers you could always use the jarred version.

But let's not forget to talk about the wines, which were incredible.

Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc & Viognier
79% Chenin Blanc, 21% Viognier
$14, 13% abv.
Crisp and acidic, lemony touches. I've always enjoyed these grapes for table whites, and while this one verged on tart, I think it would be a great picnic wine, a term I use with high affection. Serve with cold chicken and potato salad and that acidity will have a perfect complement.

2009 Pine Ridge Chardonnay Dijon Clones
Carneros, Napa
$34, 14.1% abv.
Light and mild with tropical fruit aromas that give way to a light peach flavor and a smooth mouthfeel. Great balanced acidity and overall structure. It rested in French oak for nine months, but bears no resemblance to caramel popcorn or buttered toast. I Can't Believe It's Not Burgundy. It went well with the soup and the first few bites of the pork, but I was very excited to revisit the reds.

2008 Pine Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon
Rutherford, Oakville, & Stags Leap, Napa
100% Cabernet Sauvignon
$54, 14.1% abv.
Cherry pie, touch of spice, black cherry, black pepper, long finish. An excellent, well-structured Napa Cabernet Sauvignon that had mild tannins and provided a fruit note that went great with the fire roasted peppers.

2008 Pine Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon
Stags Leap, Napa
91% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Petit Verdot, 1% Merlot
$80, 14.7% abv.
Plum, cassis, touches of cedar and chocolate, tannins are still firm but they're going to be oh so delicate in a few years. Outstanding balance and I find the grape combination fascinating. Highly recommended, and the next time I have this wine it will be with a rack of lamb or a bone-in pork loin roast.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

19 December 2011

Stillhouse Moonshine Clear Corn Whiskey

I was offered a sample of moonshine, and coming from Tennessee, I was familiar with the process. I made a phone call to ask about log cabins. "I'm looking to put up a little two room cabin in the backyard. It only needs a small water heater, something that holds about a quart." I gave the man my address, and just like a child who stays up late on Christmas Eve waiting to hear sleigh bells, I was pretty sure I heard the rumble of a souped-up Dodge Charger around two a.m.

During Wolfie's morning constitutional, I was delighted to find a jug of 'shine hanging on the oak tree in the backyard.

Well, that's the way it used to happen. Moonshine is getting a bit more respectable (and legal) these days, and you can walk into a store and purchase it. Now, I do need to clear up a few definitions. Moonshine® is the brand in this case, and this is a Clear Corn Whiskey made by Stillhouse in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Put this product in a barrel for a few years and you've got regular whiskey. Some would argue that this is not technically moonshine because it is a legal product, and there are other debates about having a protected status just like for aquavit or grappa or any number of other regional white spirits. There are several of these products out on the market, either early sales for a new distillery (selling the clear liquor while waiting for the whiskey to age) or providing an option for people to try an authentic American spirit without shady late night deals or having to know the right people who have an adversarial relationship with the IRS and BATF.

Stillhouse is a collaboration between third-generation distiller Chuck Miller and celebrity chef Adam Perry Lang.

Stillhouse Moonshine Clear Corn Whiskey
$40/750mL, 40% abv.
It's clear with a slightly yellow tinge and has a sweet corn aroma. It's fairly mild on the palate, with a light sweetness. That means that when using for mixing purposes, you're going to want to think rum more than vodka or whiskey. I found that it went very well with citrus flavors (adding balancing bitterness and acidity). Frankly a dash of grapefruit bitters and a splash of sparkling water made for a pretty refreshing cocktail, but you'll be good with a wedge of lime or lemon. Or you can go old school and use the traditional mixer Mountain Dew, now available in a wide variety of flavors.

P.S. This is made in Culpeper, Virginia, a small town of under 10,000. On a Scout trip in 1989 we camped out one night at a miniature golf course in Culpeper. Our Scoutmaster was a master of working out deals for places to sleep for free, which during my run included tennis courts, public parks, parking lots, and many other odd places.

Note: This jug was received as a sample.

16 December 2011

NV Villa Sandi "Il Fresco" Prosecco

In my continuing effort to encourage more sparkling wine consumption throughout the holiday season (not just in the space between 2011-12-31 11:59 pm and 2012-01-01 12:05 am), I can't neglect the affordable and fun Prosecco of northeast Italy. A classic of the Veneto region, I wish I'd started on this stuff as opposed to the really cheap $3 California bubbles Who Shall Not Be Named Here.

There's a lot of variety within the category of Prosecco, but for the novice what you're going to find is a fairly simple and tasty sparkling wine that is great with appetizers, fun with fried foods or popcorn, and is inexpensive enough to open on a Tuesday night while you're watching TV after work.

Like Cava, Prosecco represents a philosophy of bubbly as table wine: an everyday accompaniment to good food rather than something saved for an event. And there's nothing wrong with saving a special bottle for a holiday or anniversary. But there's lots of celebrating this holiday season, and no reason to wait until the last minute to let the corks fly. (Well, don't do that because it's dangerous, but you get the gist.)

NV Villa Sandi "Il Fresco" Prosecco
DOC Treviso
$13, 11% abv.
Lightly toasty aroma with a bit of lemon twist. Barely sweet, which was a surprise to me but not overwhelming. Strong acidity, so I recommend pairing this with something sweet that has a bit of fat to it, like pig candy (served as an appetizer at family Thanksgiving this year, and yes, I got to try this wine with said dish). Also keep in mind as a fun picnic wine for the spring and summer.

Note: This wine was received as a sample.

14 December 2011

Sandeman Founder's Reserve Port

Sandeman has been around since 1790, when an ambitious Scotsman named George Sandeman decided to head for Iberia to get involved in the growing Port business. The Brits and American colonials and many others had a great thirst for sweet, fortified wines like Port, Sherry, and Madeira that could survive a long sea journey that would destroy more delicate standard wines. That's why you see so many well-known Port houses with less-than-Portuguese names like Graham, Niepoort, Dow, Taylor, etc.

Celebrating over 200 years as a Port producer, this year Sandeman issued their Founder's Reserve in a variety of decorative tins that showcase artwork from the 1920s, including the iconic painting of "The Don" that remains as a symbol of the company today. My sample tin features The Centaur by Jean d’Ylen from 1926. D'Ylen was a French commercial illustrator famous for his Art Deco posters for French beer companies and Shell Oil, as well as his multiple ads for Sandeman. (More examples can be found on the company website.) As much as I adore the history of commercial art and advertising, particularly when executed with great skill, I'm even more enchanted by the centaur luring a redhead with two bottles of Port that he keeps just out of reach. And he's bearing the weight of a human torso, horse body, and lusty lass all on a single hoof! I wonder if it's Chiron, but whoever it is seems to be having fun.

Sandeman Founder's Reserve Port
Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Amarela, Tinta Barroca, Tinto Cão
Aged 5 Years
$20, 20% abv.
This is a great entry-level Port that is bright red, fruity, and sweet. Black cherry flavors dominate with a slight bite that diminishes as you swirl the glass and the evening lingers on. It's not overly sweet or syrupy and works as a lovely accompaniment for white cheeses, creamy desserts, or even ice cream. And the tin makes it an excellent Christmas present that won't break the bank. Because I like the artwork, I'll be keeping the tin on the shelf long after the last drop has disappeared from the bottle.

Note: This wine was received as a sample.

12 December 2011

2008 Aurielle Cabernet Sauvignon

In 2009, I got an opportunity to try a sample of the 2006 Aurielle Cabernet Sauvignon. I elected to surprise my brother (who works the night shift) with a gourmet steak dinner first thing in the morning. We had a blast with that meal, and it's in my top ten personal wine moments.

I had the chance to try a more recent release of the Aurielle, and while I considered various ways to enjoy it, I eventually looked at all the ingredients I had in the kitchen and decided to make a great steakhouse burger. Hand-ground sirloin, served with homemade mayonnaise, chipotle mustard, colby cheese, tomato, and romaine lettuce. Served with some pickled beets (for the Aussies), Claussen pickles, and a healthy dose of pommes frites.

This is a serious red wine, but I made a serious meal to go along with it, and after a long weekend of entertaining and other chores, it was an amazing way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

2008 Aurielle Cabernet Sauvignon
Napa Valley
100% Cabernet Sauvignon
$90, 14.9% abv.
Rich and full of deep black plum aromas. The alcohol is present on the nose but not noticeable on the palate. Soft dark fruit flavor with hints of leather and coffee and firm tannins. Long, lingering finish, and definitely a wine that you want to sit back and enjoy over the course of a few hours. Outstanding balance and highly recommended.

It was a phenomenal match with the meal, as humble as it may appear on the outside. But putting everything together in just the right way resulted in a perfect and memorable meal, and one that I won't be forgetting soon.

Note: This wine was received as a sample.

09 December 2011

Terroir of Soave

I got to participate in an online tasting with Giovanni Ponchia, the head œnologist of the Soave Consortium. This is one of the most creative approaches I've ever seen with a tasting: four wines representing different soil types in the Soave region of northeast Italy. It's amazing how much the type of agriculture in an area depends on what happened millions of years ago. This part used to be under the ocean, this part was lifted up by a volcano, glaciers scraped this region down to bedrock, etc. Here in Memphis I sit atop a bunch of clastics (siltstone and shales) that have developed from the late Mesozoic (70 million years ago) to the present.

Soave is a great, food friendly wine that's pretty affordable and easy to find. It pairs well with lots of things and I've served it in the past at Thanksgiving and Christmas to people with all levels of wine experience who have enjoyed it. Here are four tasty examples, with some notes on the soil.

2010 Vicentini Terrelunghe Soave DOC
80% Garganega, 20% Trebbiano di Soave
$8, 12.5% abv.
Calcareous: containing calcium carbonate, chalky
Light acidity and a round mouthfeel with, yes, a chalky mineral finish.

2009 Cantina di Monteforte Vigneto di Montegrande Soave Superiore DOCG Classico
100% Garganega
$14, 13% abv.
Basaltic: volcanic
Floral nose with high acidity and a crisp, tart finish. Apricot flavors.

2010 Cantina di Soave Rocca Sveva Soave DOC Classico
100% Garganega
$15, 12.5% abv.
Calcareous & Basaltic
Fruity nose of banana and pineapple, mild acidity and a mineral finish.

2010 Fattori Danieli Soave DOC
100% Garganega
$14, 12.5% abv.
Basaltic & Tufaceous: the latter term refers to a type of limestone
Tropical fruit, balanced acidity and a long, soft finish.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

07 December 2011

Barefoot Bubbly

I've said earlier that my big advice and my hope for the holiday season is that you don't wait until New Year's Eve to pop open some bubbles. But the topic of sparkling wines scares many people. I say grab a mixed case of inexpensive (not cheap) bubbles and bring at least one bottle to every gathering you attend this month. To pre-empt a few questions:

1) Am I going to hurt myself or others when I open it?

Don't point it at your face or anything fragile, and just hold the cork while slowly twisting the bottle. Keep a firm grip on the cork, and in a few seconds it will just pull itself out. Better to practice on inexpensive bottles before you try to open a classic vintage Champagne.

2) Why should I pay $100 for a bottle of wine when $50 spills on the floor (or scantily-clad floozies, as music videos have taught me everything I know about opening bubbly)?

Keep the bottle vertical, and don't shake it, regardless of what you've seen on TV. Another good reason to get a lot of practice this month with inexpensive bottles.

3) Don't I have to wait for a really special occasion?

I often think of inexpensive sparklers as grape soda. Does grape soda need a special occasion? No. Have fun and let the bubbles tickle your nose.

4) You say avoid cheap wine, but I can find rounded bottles with foil caps for as low as $3 a bottle. Why not those?

They taste awful, even with lots of orange juice and Tom Collins mix to hide the flavor. There's drinkable stuff starting at $10. Which leads me to...

Barefoot Bubbly. It's fun, it's not expensive, and it's easy to find. Here are three that show off some standard types of sparkling wine. I don't have the alcohol percentages or grapes used in these wines, but I'm going to keep the reviews simple this time for the person that is still a little intimidated by sparkling wine. Start small, and in a year you'll be arguing with me about obscure grower Champagnes.

NV Barefoot Rosé Cuvée
Just because it's pink doesn't mean it's sweet. This is a fairly dry rosé that I found to be delightful with a grilled cheese sandwich (with some ham and sliced pears in there). Strawberry and lemon flavors, crisp and tangy like lemonade.

NV Barefoot Moscato Spumante
The sweet member of the trio, this is full of honey and musk and will appeal the most to those who almost never drink wine. Serve with some cheesecake and raspberries and feel guilty the next day.

NV Barefoot Brut Cuvée
The driest of the three. Dry just means "not sweet", and this one is crisp and toasty with good acidity. If you like inexpensive Chardonnay, you'll enjoy this wine. Serve with your salty appetizers like popcorn and bruschetta and pretzels.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

05 December 2011

TasteLive with Benziger Pinot Noir

Last week I joined other winebloggers around the country to attend a virtual TasteLive event with Rodrigo Soto, Vice President of Winemaking for Benziger. In this online tasting, he showcased four of his high-end Pinot Noirs. Glancing back over my notes I see that in the past three years I've tried over two dozen different wines from Benziger, and yet somehow they still manage to surprise me.

These are all fairly small production wines, but you should be able to order them from the links below. These are all showing well now but should be amazing in a few years.

2009 Signaterra Pinot Noir
San Remo Vineyard
Russian River Valley
$49, 14.5% abv.
693 cases produced
The first Pinot Noir of the evening was tart and crispy with an overall profile of overripe strawberries and a touch of cream on the finish. As it breathes, there is more of a cranberry nose and flavor.

2009 Signaterra Pinot Noir
Bella Luna Vineyard
Russian River Valley
$49, 13.8% abv.
1,291 cases produced
My preferred bottle of the two Signaterras, this one was smooth and mellow with touches of plum and leather, deep and meaty. It has a short and delicate finish that makes you crave the next sip.

2009 Benziger de Coelo Pinot Noir
Quintus Vineyard
Sonoma Coast
$75, 13% abv.
475 cases produced
Smooth and light with gentle strawberry notes, delicate, brighter than the previous two wines. Still pretty young tasting, and I'd be interested to see how it matures. Fun side note: if you google Quintus and Benziger, you get the British musician and conductor Quintus Benziger.

2009 Benziger de Coelo Pinot Noir
Terra Neuma Vineyard
Sonoma Coast
$75, 13% abv.
465 cases produced
Far and away my favorite of the tasting, and one of the best Pinot Noirs I've had in ages. Red cherry initial nose but with an earthy depth and a hint of mushrooms. On the palate I got raspberry seeds and stewed fruit, just wonderful. It made me crave very rare rack of lamb with just a little rosemary. Highly recommended.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

02 December 2011

Radio Radio

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for tuning in to XBWR... Radio Free Benito broadcasting at 88.5 MHz on your FM dial. East of the Rockies, I hope you enjoy the following song. West of the Rockies, I will provide the shortwave frequency and the special password for entrance to the "Shameless Self Promotion" side of Benito's Wine Reviews. In the meantime, let's take a quick trip back to 1979 with this track from a British guy with an Italian pseudonym and a Memphis connection, and why does that sound a little familiar?

I hope you've enjoyed listening to Elvis Costello, but now we're turning over our show to KOTO-FM out of Telluride, Colorado. Hostess Maribeth Clemente of Travel Fun and the Bonjour Colorado blog decided to interview a wine blogger for her show, and she picked... now this is a surprise... yours truly.

I was happy to be selected, not just for the opportunity to rant about wine to a radio audience, but also because I'm a big fan of public and community-supported radio in all of its various forms. If you've always wanted to put a voice with the words I fling upon this virtual page, you can get a big dose of it in this interview. I had a lot of fun with it, and was glad to talk about my excitement surrounding this blog and my hobbies.

Just scroll to the bottom of this link, right past my smiling mug, and you can hear me ramble on about wine and food and cooking on car engines for half an hour.

Many thanks to the enchanting Maribeth Clemente for this opportunity, and I hope this is not the last time that we get to chat about wine.

30 November 2011

Biltmore Wines for the Holidays

These are the third and fourth wines I've tried from the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina. (See previous reviews of the 2009 Biltmore Estate Reserve Pinot Noir and the NV Chardonnay Sur Lies.) While the grounds are home to vineyards, the grapes for these two wines came from California while the winemaking took place in North Carolina. In the future I'd love to try more of the Tar Heel grown and vinted wines from this interesting bit of architectural history.

2010 Christmas at Biltmore
Grapes sourced from California: Gewürztraminer, Muscat Canelli, Chenin Blanc, Riesling
$12, 12.5% abv.
The label was designed by Meagan Warren of Matthews, NC, the winner of a design contest they held for the first time last year. I haven't been to the Biltmore for Christmas or at any other time of the year, but as a child I attended a lot of tours of holiday-decorated mansions (to my mind, anything with more than four bedrooms, but including some legitimate Victorian and Gilded Age wonders). The bottle obviously makes a good Christmas party gift, but it's a legitimately good wine. Despite the presence of three sweet grapes, it is only mildly sweet and the Chenin Blanc gives it a good structure. A crowd pleaser that will appeal to the wine enthusiast as an enjoyable sipper.

2007 Biltmore Estate Blanc de Blancs Brut
100% Chardonnay from the Russian River Valley
$25, 12.2% abv.
Méthode Champenoise
A skillfully made sparkler with medium bubbles, firm acidity, and a slight toasty nose. It holds up very well with food, particularly with salty/savory appetizers. The label is dignified (which I think is important for New Year's Eve or classier parties), the structure is serious, and it's got a fun story behind it.

Also note the first appearance of my beloved moose mugs this Christmas season. I prefer sparklers in wine glasses, then flutes, then in coupes, but on the second day a splash of leftover bubbly in a moose mug is worth the odd looks from friends.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

28 November 2011

Thanksgiving Roundup

I had a lovely Thanksgiving weekend, and hope you did as well. I spent Thursday with my immediate family: Mom and Dad; my brother, sister-in-law, and niece (the latter two were recipients of butterbeer); and The Roommate. Let us not forget the canine contingent: Wolfie, Bailey, and Heidi. Dad smoked a small turkey breast, but the big draw was a medium-rare smoked ribeye roast with fresh horseradish sauce. Lots of classic side dishes like my Mom's wonderful sweet potato casserole. We all sluggishly moved from the dining room to the living room and slumped into a variety of couches and easy chairs. And that's what the holiday is all about.

Every year after Thanksgiving, I like to grab a cheap turkey and a few other odds and ends from the store. This began years ago when The Roommate lamented the lack of leftovers associated with attending a big family gathering, so I began doing a small Thanksgiving dinner on Friday or Saturday so that we'd have good stuff to eat for days afterward. And then I began doing little twists here and there. This year, I fabricated a turkey and threw the breast in the oven while saving the legs and wings for the smoker. Four hours with apple wood later, I had some damned fine bird.

Julia joined The Roommate and me Saturday for lunch, where I started out with melted brie. And since she hasn't stopped raving about it, I made Julia another batch of sweet potato-green apple soup (this time I used a whole bulb of roasted garlic, and it was wonderful). I decided to have a little fun with the sour cream garnish. The appetizers and soup were served with a basic sparkling wine (more in a future post!), and the crisp bubbles were a nice contrast against the rich cheese and soup.

I kept the main course pretty simple. Fresh cranberry sauce, steamed vegetables, and intensely flavored turkey. The smoked portion was marinated and basted with Wicker's while the breast was rubbed down with a tandoori spice blend and roasted in the oven. I liked the smoked version better. Served with amazing Pinot Noir, details later.

What of the starch-heavy sides? The gravy? I like those things, but on a second Thanksgiving I like to keep things a little lighter and fresher. I want to make the turkey taste great on its own, to the point that no other additions are necessary. Those smoked wings? Probably going to go in a big pot of collard greens this week.

After a few movies (and I fell asleep during one*), it was time for dinner, and I threw together a delicious little sandwich with the leftovers: smoked turkey, cranberry sauce, and brie grilled on good whole grain bread. The combination is wonderful, but I felt the need to add a little horseradish mustard to mine. And there's enough remnants in the fridge that I can throw together another one of these right now if I want. Yep, I think I want.

* * *

It's been rainy and grey the past couple of days, but inside it's been warm and glowing with the fellowship of family and friends. Cheers to everyone this holiday season, and I hope you get to eat and drink well in December.

*I missed about 45 minutes of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. I will catch up soon.

25 November 2011

Mumm Sparkling Wine

There's a lot of advice that gets tossed around during the holiday season when it comes to wine, but this year I'm thinking a lot about sparkling wines. They're fun, they're tasty, and the format encourages the group to finish off the bottle. Plus, they match with just about everything.

Consider bringing two or three chilled bottles of bubbly to your next gathering, and let novices practice opening them (with proper instruction and supervision, of course). Enjoy them with food. Lay waste to the myth that you can only drink fizzy wine when the clock strikes midnight or someone gets married or a new ship needs launching.

Here I've got two tasty examples from Mumm Napa, an American offshoot of the well-known French Champagne house.

NV Mumm Napa Brut Prestige
$22, 12.5% abv.
51% Pinot Noir, 46% Chardonnay, 2% Pinot Meunier, 1% Pinot Gris
The splash of Pinot Gris is interesting, though I cannot admit to detecting its presence on my own. However, I love méthode champenoise wines with a big dose of Pinot Noir. This is dry and crisp with a light nose and a refreshing flavor on the palate. A great all-purpose sparkler that looks classy on the table.

NV Mumm Napa Brut Rosé
$22, 12.5% abv.
85% Pinot Noir, 15% Chardonnay
I've had this one several times, and it's a favorite to serve at the beginning of dinner parties. Wild strawberries and just a hint of lemony acidity on the tongue. Beautiful salmon color along with small bubbles. Dry but fruit-forward with excellent balance. I've typically had this with appetizers, but I think it could work well with dinner if you're able to wait that long.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

23 November 2011

Rieslings from Selbach & Pfeffingen

Time once again for a pair of bottles from Wines of Germany. They usually send one sweet and one dry wine, though this time they really outdid themselves on the sweet side. The older I get, the more I appreciate the versatility of Riesling. I used to just get excited about pork and apples and sauerkraut, but that's thinking too small. And, of course, good Riesling can be enjoyed by novices as well as more experienced wine lovers, which makes it great for parties and dinner parties.

Selbach & Pfeffingen sounds like the name of a firm that makes carbon fiber spoilers for Formula One race cars, but they're two separate wine producers from Germany.

2009 Selbach Riesling Dry
Mosel-Saar-Ruwer Region
Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete
$10, 11% abv.

There have been a few vintages of this "fish label" Riesling, a great example of one of my favorite trends in German wine: simpler, friendlier labels. And I can say that with all the pineapple, jasmine, and tropical fruit in this wine that it would be perfect wine to go along with something like grilled grouper with a mango salsa. I also got the oddest craving for Cuban food while I was drinking it, which makes me think about a theme dinner centered around a love story between an East German gymnast and a Cuban boxer during the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow.

The magic of wine is that it sometimes inspires the most bizarre thoughts. But speaking of magic...

2004 Pfeffingen Herrenberg Riesling Beerenauslese
Pfalz (Palatinate) Region
$45/375mL, 6% abv.

I was proud to serve this at the October CATNGA Summit with Samantha and Joe, and both of them enjoyed it. Overripe peach and a whiff of petrol, with bright acidity and an intoxicating, slightly musky aroma despite the very low alcohol content. Elements of clover and a light floral nose. Firm sugar but not overwhelming. While I do not have a sweet tooth, some of my favorite wine memories involve incredible botrytized wines with a decent bit of cellar time on them. 2004 wasn't that far away, but this particular wine has aged gracefully. Highly recommended if you can find it, but if not, try to enjoy a good Beerenauslese or Trockenbeerenauslese. It will be a memorable experience.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

21 November 2011

Flying Cauldron Butterscotch Beer

I don't review a lot of soft drinks on this blog, though if you are interested in a critical evaluation of an American classic from the wine lover's perspective, I highly recommend Fredric's series on root beer. I'm going to admit to drinking diet sodas when I need a hit of caffeine or something--no health issues, but The Roommate is a Diet Coke fiend and I've gotten used to it over the years. When I do go for the full sugar verions, I tend to prefer those made with cane sugar or agave syrup and all natural ingredients. And thankfully the products from Reeds, Inc. fall into that category. (I highly recommend their Extra Ginger Brew.)

Flying Cauldron Butterscotch Beer is a butterscotch-flavored cream soda, made with heavy winks and nods to the Harry Potter franchise without violating trademarks. In the books, the young wizards drank butterbeer at The Leaky Cauldron. I'd always assumed it to be some sort of cross between a small beer and hot buttered rum, something mildly alcoholic and consumed by British teenagers. But the official word is that it's a non-alcoholic soda, and the licensed version is sold at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter Theme Park in Orlando, Florida.

The text on the side of the bottle reads:

Since 1374, the Flying Cauldron has been making this magical brew for under aged wizards or wizards who are young at heart at their brew pub in Hogsbreath, England. The recipe has changed little over the cenuries. It has the perfect combination of spells and quality natural ingredients. Add a scoop of vanilla ice cream to create our Giggle Potion.

It's cute, and I'm looking forward to giving the extra bottles to my niece at Thanksgiving. I haven't tried "Giggle Potion", but the soda definitely delivers on the butterscotch, both in aroma and flavor. Imagine drinking a cream soda and sucking on a Werther's Original at the same time. It's too sweet for my personal tastes, but I think 10 year old me would have gone crazy over the stuff. And the fact that it's all natural is a nice touch.

For testing purposes I did add just a bit of rum to a second glass. I wouldn't really recommend it--throws the balance off and just tastes odd. So unlike the ginger beer I can't really suggest this as a cocktail ingredient, but that's not what it was made for in the first place. You can order the butterscotch beer online, and it might be a fun addition to a Christmas gathering or party for small children.

Note: This soda was received as a sample. Hogwarts coat of arms courtesy of Wikipedia image and Creative Commons License.

18 November 2011

Thanksgiving 2011

Ah, Thanksgiving. A magical time to gather with friends and family, and one of the major holidays that begs for an obligatory wine post, article in the paper, or a thousand quizzical e-mails from loved ones. At right is a photo from my cherished Thanksgiving of 2005, when I began my prep work by slicing off the tip of my thumb and then cooked an entire feast with just one arm. I wrote up the full story at the time, but I do warn that it is not for the squeamish.

So what about the wine pairing? I've always felt I hit upon the perfect strategy in 2008, and haven't had the inspiration to revise it since. My Thanksgiving Buying Guide for the Wine Novice still stands pretty well. Don't spend a lot of money per bottle. Think PIGS: Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain. It holds up today.

I'm going to add one suggestion this year: introduce somebody to wine. Maybe it's your cousin's new husband or an aged aunt or a kid home from college, but when you've done your duty and have a half dozen bottles open on the table, ranging from sweet to dry and red to pink to white and bubbly and still, you've got a great opportunity to show that wine is not just a single flavor or experience, but is a broad range of sensations. And when that spark catches (and it may not), you have the opportunity to say, "This doesn't just have to be for special occasions. Wine can make a Tuesday evening spaghetti dinner special and elevate it above the routine."

Next week, travel safely, enjoy dinner, and hug those who are close to you. Whether there's a glass of wine in your hand or not, cherish the time together gathered in mutual feasting and fellowship.

16 November 2011

Vodka Tonic

New Amsterdam is the standard cocktail gin here at Casa de Benito. It has an excellent citrus note, good balance, and a respectable quality-price ratio. It's a curious sideline in the Gallo portfolio, but I was honestly impressed with the product when I first tried it. Recently the vodka showed up around here, and I decided to give it a whirl.

New Amsterdam Vodka
Modesto, California
$22/1.5L, 40% abv.
Distilled from "midwestern grains". The vodka is smooth with just a little bite on the finish. Aromatically there's just a touch of wheat, though when blended in cocktails it serves as a solid neutral spirit. Highly recommended as a good standard bar vodka, and I will always love the art deco design of the bottle.

After sampling it straight, I decided to make a vodka tonic.

Vodka Tonic
1 part Vodka
1 part Tonic Water

Stir with ice, strain into glass.

Really? Do I need to have a recipe here? I admit that this is low-grade supermarket tonic water, but while I love the bitter sting of quinine, I dislike the heavy sweetness of even the good organic blends. Diet tonic water is a weird product, because it tastes sweeter than the HFCS stuff but has a disagreeable chalky element. However, this cocktail is one of the classics, and even with a basic tonic water, it made for a quick and refreshing cocktail on a Saturday afternoon. The lemon peel curl is optional but, in my opinion, always appreciated.

14 November 2011

Liquid Gold

If you open a lot of bottles of wine, it can begin to feel routine, almost mechanical. You uncork, sniff, swirl, take notes, sip, slurp, spit, take more notes, and rinse with some water before moving on to the next one. But even then, there are opportunities for recapturing the magic.

After a long Saturday date that included lunch and dinner, I was mulling over dessert and decided to introduce Julia to her first botrytized wine. I had this little half bottle of 2009 Royal Tokaji Mád Cuvée at the right temperature, and poured it into small brandy snifters. I didn't start talking about noble rot, but instead talked about all of the elements I got from the wine: clover blossoms, honeysuckle, balanced sweetness and acidity. Drops of sunshine. Summer in a glass.

It was the fifth or six bottle of wine I'd opened that day (I was working through samples), and that was the first one that really struck her and smelled interesting and distinct, not just like generic wine. I love tasting with people that are new and curious about this subject, and when there's a real epiphany it's delightful to watch. Plus, who isn't happy to taste a Hungarian dessert wine?

2009 Royal Tokaji Mád Cuvée
Mád, Hungary
75% Furmint, 15% Muscat, 10% Hárslevelű
Residual Sugar is 138.8g/L, placing it in the 5 Puttonyos level
$20/375mL, 9.5% abv.
Slightly musky but not overly so, with dominant aromas of honey, honeysuckle, and overripe peach. Little hints of jasmine. Exceptional balance, and considering how much sugar there is you wouldn't know it because of the bright acidity. This is a great bargain, and is highly recommended for the holidays. Serious wine drinkers as well as novices will appreciate it, and the attractive bottle is just begging for a simple ribbon tied around the neck.

(I've danced around the name a bit, because this isn't technically a Tokaji. The grapes and method are right, but by law it's a késői szüretelésű or late harvest wine. In America this specific wine is known as Mád Cuvée after the town, while in Hungary it goes by the name Áts Cuvée after the winemaker. But for all serving and pairing purposes, treat this like a Tokaji and enjoy the savings.)

I'm almost treating it as an afterthought at this point, but we also really enjoyed this white wine earlier in the day:

2010 WillaKenzie Estate Pinot Blanc
Yamhill-Carlton, Willamette Valley
$21, 13.5% abv.
An aroma of freshly cut Bartlett pear with a mild profile. On the palate it has a light fruit character with mild acidity and a good mineral finish. Later as it warms up, elements of wet stones and apricots show up. Quite lovely. I served this with a homemade chicken soup and crostini, where it made for a simple yet delicious Saturday afternoon lunch.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

11 November 2011

Book Review: 神の雫

The Drops of God
Vertical, 2011
(First Japanese edition in 2005)
$14.95, 423 pages
Story by Tadashi Agi (the pen name used by the brother-sister writing team Shin and Yuko Kibayashi)
Art by Shu Okimoto

After becoming popular in Japan, Kami no Shizuku was released in French as Les Gouttes de Dieu, and just recently in English as The Drops of God. Why France first? It's not just the wine connection, but rather that France has a vibrant comics culture that spans all ages and subject matter. Even Barbarella was a popular French comic before it became a trippy vehicle for Jane Fonda.

Japanese comics have exploded in popularity in the past 20 years, moving from an obscure hobby for lonely comic book fans to something consumed by boys and girls of all social strata. There’s action stuff and overcute stuff. Some serious, some goofy. It’s become a challenge for librarians that are excited to have kids reading, but have to learn about a whole new world of literature and keep up with a frequently changing roster of what’s popular or not.

Reading manga can be confusing if you haven’t done it before. You start at the “back” of the book and read starting with the panel in the top right corner, moving left and then down and back to the right side of the page. Even within the panels you have to remember to read the word balloons on the right side before those on the left. Occasionally the art style will shift from dramatic and realistic to tiny cartoonish chibi characters with massive eyes and overemotional expressions. (Frankly I’ve always thought that technique could punch up Mary Worth in the newspaper.)

This series fits into a different niche, more like the graphic novels that have attracted mainstream adult attention and have found homes in films and documentaries. Things like Maus, Ghost World, Road to Perdition, American Splendor, etc. No superheroes or magical powers, just compelling stories that happen to have pictures with the text.

The book opens in a restaurant where a young female sommelier is struggling with a difficult and pompous customer over Romanée-Conti. The 1999 is closed and the customer is angry. In swoops our dashing hero Shizuku who demands a decanter and pours the wine “as fine as a silk thread” from a great height without spilling a drop. The sommelier swoons at his technique as he presents the now aerated wine to the customer who can finally experience the “scent of a hundred flowers combined”.

We learn that Shizuku is the estranged son of a famous wine critic, who forced the young boy to learn everything about wine without ever actually drinking it. Then the father dies—but wait! A week before his death, the old man adopted a younger wine critic, and this critic and Shinzuku must compete to solve the mystery of the twelve heaven-sent wines and the one bottle only known as “Drops of God”. The winner will gain control of a wine collection worth ¥2 billion (US$18 million). And so the saga begins…

When I first heard about the series, it seemed like a silly concept, but apparently it revitalized the wine trade in Japan. The manga uses images of real wines, they talk about real regions and specific vintages. You could really manipulate the market through the writing choices.

I'm not quite through this first volume in the series, but I found myself really enjoying it. They do take a break from the expensive collectibles to occasionally just enjoy everyday wine. There's romance, there's intrigue, and an underground network of mysterious wine experts who assist Shizuku in his quest. There's a poetry in the descriptions that is amplified by full page spreads demonstrating the visual image associated with the nose of that specific wine.

Do I recommend it? I'd suggest picking up the first volume to add to your wine library. It's a curious product: you have to know way more about wine than I do to have direct experience with the high-end Domaines and Châteaux featured. But you also have to interested in reading a 400 page comic book (backwards). I don't know who I would give this as a gift to during Christmas, but I'm probably going to read the rest of the series. Definitely worth checking out if you have a comic book shop near your local wine shop.

P.S. I grabbed most of these images online, and one of them doesn't have the official translations. I would make my own but it would involve cutting the spine off the tight paperback, and I don't want to do that.

Note: This book was received as a sample.

09 November 2011

Vinho Verde, Mas Não Verde

Because it's not easy being green, the folks at Vinho Verde Wines US sent along a white and a rosé from the northern wine region of Portugal famous for young, fresh wines. I'm always excited to try something off the beaten path, but I also got to add a few grapes to the life list with these wines.

Once again, Vinho Verde isn't really green, but most people just think about the slightly verdant, fizzy, low alcohol wine with a good dose of sweetness. It's a fun party wine and a great way to introduce people to wine in general. But the region also produces regular whites and reds and, new to me, a rosé.

2010 Casa de Vila Verde Branco
Vinho Verde
Blend of Arinto, Trajadura, Avesso, Loureiro, Azal Branco
$10, 11.5% abv.
Dark apple aromas and flavors with a bit of overripe peach. Tart and acidic but with a smooth finish. Just a touch of sweetness. Enjoyed with chicken and pasta, but should be great for a wide range of poultry dishes.

2010 Great Sense Vinho Verde Rosado
Vinho Verde
60% Touriga Nacional, 40% Espadeiro
$6, 10.5% abv.
Just barely fizzy, and bone dry. Ripe strawberry aromas and flavors, with mellow mouthfeel followed by a sharp tang on the finish. I was concerned that a six dollar pink wine was going to be sweet and rough, but I'm surprised at how much I enjoyed this with a little crusty bread and brie on a sunny afternoon. Excellent picnic wine.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

07 November 2011

A Modern Gentleman's Guide to Entertaining a Young Lady

I do not mean to overestimate any skill in this area, but based on my various dinner parties and one-on-one dinner dates that I've posted here, I tend to get a lot of questions and e-mails from guys around my age that just want the perfect recipe and wine pairing that will impress women. I tend to counter with, "What woman and what does she like?" I'm tempted to write this post in the style of Esquire circa 1954 (there was a big trunk of old issues in my garage growing up), but I'm reasonably certain that anyone suggesting that a man cook outside of the setting of a BBQ would have been fired posthaste.

The following are a few generic tips for the advancement of civilized behavior amongst my brethren, and many thanks to dear Julia for volunteering as dinner companion.

Set the table
This is by no means a perfect table setting, and the plastic jug chilling the sparkling wine was done more out of convenience than anything else. It's not overly complicated, but it shows you have it together prior to the guest's arrival. I've got a bunch of mismatched dishes and glasses, but try to have at least two of everything. Putting the "little plates on the big plates" is an old French expression for a fancy dinner, but it separates your meal from the everyday rummaging through a bag of fast food.

Have a sparkling wine on hand. Cocktails are great but you need to pace yourself. Spend at least $20 and very politely get someone at the wine shop to pick out something appropriate. If the two of you are novices, go a little sweeter like with a Moscato d'Asti. If you're entertaining a relatively experienced wine drinker, slide over to Samantha's blog and learn about great Champagnes. Now, if your date is an expert like Samantha, you probably need to let her pick out the wine. Sit down, shut up, and listen hard, young man.

There are no recipes that will save you, for a date or otherwise--technique is all that matters
Man up and learn how to cook. End of story. Rudyard Kipling should have include a line in "If" about being presented with three random ingredients, an aluminum pot, and a single burner on top of a mountain. I'm sure he'd have talked about the Khyber Pass, but I would like to think he'd appreciate my own attempt to boil water at nearly 3600m/12,000 ft. in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, hovering over the cook pot so that the fire doesn't go out while getting pelted with hailstones. Let the record state that nobody went to bed hungry that night.

That being said, if you don't know about cheese and wine pairings, start simple with a small wheel of brie topped with honey and walnuts. Here I substituted a British treacle for honey, but use what you've got on hand and warm it up in the oven prior to serving with a decent baguette.

Homemade soup is your friend
Soups are some of the easiest things to make but often impress, and usually they're better if you make them the day before. Make it taste great and serve small portions. Find out a vegetable that she likes, and then figure out how to turn it into a soup. I'm not going to teach you how to tie your shoes, pal, but here were my specific requirements for Saturday: not a cream soup, and sweet potatoes are a go. So I oven roasted two sweet potatoes, two green apples, and then simmered the roasted mush with chicken broth, white wine, and a Madras curry spice blend I had on hand. After a few hours of simmering I blended the hell out of it until it achieved a uniform yet appealing consistency. For serving, a grating of nutmeg followed by drizzles of sour cream with a knife drawn through them. (It's easier to do this with a full bowl, but even in a ramekin I appreciate the random splashes of contrast.) It turned out how to be a big hit. Tomato soups are stupidly simple, but don't double up on your ingredients over the evening. For example...

Learn how to cook pasta
Even the most incompetent of guys will claim to be able to boil noodles and warm up a jar of sauce. And they are wrong. In this case, Julia wanted chicken and broccoli as part of a main course. For timing purposes, I prepared homemade marinara sauce ahead of time from imported canned San Marzano tomatoes, shallots, and garlic. A few splashes of wine, but a good red sauce doesn't require much more. I'm not going to go into full sauce technique, but when you cook your pasta, drain it but don't rinse it. Make sure you save some of the cloudy pasta water.

Throw the pasta in a medium low skillet with your protein and vegetables and a little olive oil, ladle in some of the sauce, ladle in the pasta water, and stir until you get painfully hungry, which should occur within five minutes. Adjust with salt and peper as needed at the last minute. Here I used blanched broccolini and roasted chicken thighs, combined with some great gemelli and my own marinara. Learn how to do it right and people will say, "Wow! So the pasta itself is supposed to taste good? I never knew that!"

Allow the lady to provide dessert
If you're a talented pastry chef or if you work in a gelateria, ignore this. But if you're doing all the cooking, give her the opportunity to be involved in the process. The standard is that she will pick out something delicious from a bakery, such as Julia's selection of wonderful cannoli from The Fresh Market. (By the way, I love their Tiramisù.) Sometimes an aged relative will be invoked to provide something like banana pudding or a peach cobbler or turtles or seven layer cakes or some of Grandpappy's homemade peach ice cream. If you live in the South you are in for a treat. For anyone that had the sad misfortune to be born north of the Mason-Dixon line I can only weep in regret and hope that you are able to come down here and redefine your entire concept of dessert.

Now... what wines to pair with each course? If you're cool enough to get free samples from around the globe this is not an issue. But for everyone else, if you get an idea of what you are going to cook for dinner, find a wine shop that you like and trust. Present a list of courses--not every ingredient, but broad strokes about dinner. Use the following words: "Here's what I'm cooking, here's what I'm willing to spend per bottle. Can you pick out some bottles that fit?" He or she is going to probably present you with some varying options. Just say, "You pick, I trust your judgment." This will accomplish a few different things. First off, you'll get some great wine. More importantly, you're going to make that salesperson's day. Even more importantly than that, you're going to establish a wine buying relationship with someone that involves mutual trust and respect, and that person is going to go out of his or her way to point you towards amazing wines or even things that aren't out on the retail floor. And the discussions about scheduling the wine and food ahead of time? That's always great to use for any possible lulls in conversation during the actual dinner.

* * *

Gentlemen, go forth and impress.