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.

04 November 2011

Rutherford Wine Company

The Rutherford Wine Company is based in Napa but offers a range of wines from around California that go from stately reds at $75 down to basic table wines at $8. Prior reviews from this company include pairing cactus paddles with the Lander-Jenkins wine and the bargain Round HIll bottles.

We're going to be in the $15-25 range here with a few recent releases.

2010 Predator Old Vine Zinfandel
100% Zinfandel
Lodi, California
$22, 15% abv.
When this wine first arrived, I just saw the dark black label and the name "Predator" and thought it was a bit sinister. Weeks later I saw the ladybug logo and loved it. If you ever get a good magnifying glass and watch ladybugs eat aphids in your garden, you'll have a newfound respect for them. It's like watching a grizzly bear eat salmon but right in your own backyard. This wine has loads of dark berries, a big fruity jam profile, and just a touch of sweetness. Would be interesting with roast pork that didn't have any sort of a sweet glaze to it.

The Lander-Jenkins wines are made from sustainably grown grapes.

2010 Lander-Jenkins Spirit Hawk Chardonnay
95% Chardonnay, 5% Muscat Canelli
$15, 13.5% abv.
Mild dried apricot and ripe peach aromas. Tangy but with a round mouthfeel. It's about 1/3 oaked, so you don't really get much of an oak presence. There's a touch of chalk and minerals on the finish. Would be great with lightly smoked chicken, also not a bad choice for Thanksgiving this year. Not too acidic, not oaky, should be a crowd pleaser.

2009 Lander-Jenkins Spirit Hawk Cabernet Sauvignon
96% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1% Merlot, 1% Syrah, 1% Zinfandel, 1% Petite Syrah
$15, 13.5% abv.
Big overripe blackberries and a touch of smoke. Strong black cherry flavor and a dash of plum. Medium tannins and a tart berry flavor. I found it unbalanced on the first day but smoother and mellower on the second day. Serve with grilled red meat where it will stand up and fight back.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

02 November 2011

Wódka & More

The story of Wódka is a curious one. It's the Polish word for vodka, but this particular brand was part of the Soviet-era liquor industry. Most of those products are justifiably forgotten to history (and countries like Hungary and Bulgaria are finally able to make decent wine again). It just so happened that the old factory made some pretty solid vodka, and so recently production was restarted and the bottles entered the American market in 2010 as part of a trend in "cheap premium" vodka to counteract the ultra premiums like Grey Goose.

The website uses taglines like "Movie Star Quality, Reality Star Pricing", which is a clever little slogan. But then the next ad is "Escort Quality, Hooker Pricing", and there's a photo of a sheep wearing a sombrero. I'm not offended, but I can't say that would have been my first pitch at the marketing meeting. But I love the simple, original label with distressed type. And though most will be purchasing a standard bottle, this little 200mL number was great for sampling purposes.

Przedsiębiorstwo Polmos Białystok
Distilled from rye
$10/750mL bottle, 40% abv.
There's only so much you can say about a vodka, but I very much enjoyed this spirit. It is really surprisingly smooth for a vodka at this price point. There's no discernable aroma or flavor, just a mild alcohol note. No sweetness or rough edges, just a clear and round neutral spirit.

I had a simple vodka martini that was enjoyable (though I always miss real gin), but where I would use this is as a standard cooking vodka to keep in the pantry. It's for those times when you want to make fruit infusions like limoncello, or need a splash of vodka in the tomato sauce, or to use it as the secret ingredient in pie dough. And no reason not to enjoy a cold shot or a crisp clean cocktail while you're at it.

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A few mini-reviews of other new spirits I've tried recently:

Bernheim Original Straight Wheat Whiskey
Bardstown, Kentucky
$40/750mL, 45% abv.
This is the first wheat whiskey on the market since Prohibition. Bourbon has to contain at least 51% corn and the remaining grains can be made up of rye or wheat. A wheat whiskey must contain at least 51% wheat, in this case soft winter wheat. It's smooth and earthy with aromas of baked bread. Smooth and delicious but not sweet like Bourbon. Definitely an interesting change of pace.

Brandon's Gin
Little Rock, Arkansas
$30/750mL, 40% abv.
Rock Town is the first legal distillery in Arkansas since Prohibition. This year they've just released their first whiskey, but since you have to wait a few years for barrel aging to happen, new distilleries often sell vodka and other clear spirits for a few years to keep the operation going. They also offer an "unaged whiskey" called Arkansas Lightning that is a wink and a nod to the legal moonshine trend. The gin is good but not terribly complex. Light botanicals and maybe disappointing if you prefer more heavily seasoned gins, but on the other hand, a good introductory gin for those just making the move from vodka.

Whitley Neill London Dry Gin
Birmingham, England
$30/750mL, 42% abv.
"Inspired by Africa, Made in England". This gin contains two curious components sourced from Africa: the citrus-like fruit of the baobab tree and Cape gooseberries. 5% of the proceeds go to Tree Aid, a charity that supports reforestation projects in some of the poorest regions in Africa. Other botanicals include juniper berries, coriander seeds, lemon peel, orange peel, angelica root, cassia bark, and orris root powder. While the baobab and gooseberries provide a firm citrus foundation, the dominant aroma is juniper. It's been a while since I've had a juniper-heavy gin, and it was great to try again. I prefer this one neat as opposed to in a cocktail, just like with Hendrick's or some of the other more interesting gins out there.

Note: These spirits were received as a sample.