Thursday, April 3, 2014

Three Easy Easter Cocktails

Easter will soon be here, and Easter Brunch is always one of the busiest Sundays of the year.  Why not boost your check average by offering some festive Easter themed cocktails?  Sure, Bloody Marys and Mimosas are brunch standards, and the Chocolate Martini might seem to be a natural for a holiday that is so connected to candy.  But here are three libations that take things in a slightly different direction, yet are still evocative of the Holiday.

Easter Grass
Begin by rimming a Collins glass with lemon and colored sugar, and fill with ice.
In cocktail shaker combine the following:
1 oz Limoncello
1 oz Melon liqueur
1/2 oz London Dry Gin
3 oz Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand

Shake gently and strain into glass.  Fill to top with lemon-lime soda pop.
Garnish creatively with lemon slice, jellybean and lemon and lime zests.

The Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc gives this drink a nice grassy, citrus note that is accented by the gin and Limoncello.  The melon liqueur and lemon-lime soda balance things by providing sweetness.

Pink Ribbon
In a cocktail shaker muddle the flesh of 1/4 pink grapefruit and 1 Tsp light agave syrup
2 oz gold Tequila
1 oz Triple Sec
2 oz Ruby Grapefruit juice

Strain into rocks glass filled with ice.  Fill to top with dry Prosecco.  Garnish simply with grapefruit wedge.

This play on the classic Margarita shakes things up by adding the lovely color of pink grapefruit.  The Prosecco float gives it a pop, and lightens everything up.

Funny Bunny
In cocktail shaker muddle 1 large, sliced ripe strawberry and the juice of one lemon wedge
1 Tsp simple syrup
1 oz Cognac
1 oz Ginger liqueur

Strain into Champagne flute and fill to top with dry Prosecco.  Garnish with strawberry slice and lemon zest.

This cocktail can work well for large batches for brunch service if strawberries, lemon juice and simple syrup are pureed together in advance, then strained.  Mix with Cognac and Ginger liqueur, and hold.  Simply pour into flute and top with Prosecco for service.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Wine Review: 2011 Ventana Chardonnay

One of the things I have noticed as I explore my enjoyment of wine is how malleable my palate has become.  I find that wines I may have written off a year or two ago now capture my interest, and conversely, styles that I was once enamored of are no longer as captivating as they once were.  Chardonnay is a perfect example.  For a long time, I eschewed the typical California style of Chardonnay; the big, buttery tones born of  extensive malolactic fermentation, long maturation in new American oak, the broad and heavy mouthfeel and viscosity that have come to define the style.  For a long time, I wrote this style off; I considered it, at best, a style best paired with food.  Fettuccine Alfredo, ravioli in cream, and roasted poultry all seemed the de rigeur accompaniment for this style of wine.  I could not envision this style as something to be enjoyed alone.

I admit, I have turned a corner.  It is difficult for us to pinpoint the moment when our tastes change.  Sometimes in life, we make have a moment of reflection, and all of a sudden, something we used to not care all that much for becomes something we enjoy.  You move north and appreciate the beauty of a fresh snow.  Somebody links a youtube video to your Facebook page, and you finally understand the raw, swaggering appeal of the Dead Boys.  You take a ride in the back seat of the Bluesmobile and you have a real connection to outrunning Illinois Nazis.  (Yes, I once took a ride in the back seat of the Bluesmobile.  Buy me a beer, and I'll tell you a colorful story).  That's where I'm at with Chardonnay. 

The 2011 Ventana Chardonnay is an approachably priced bottle of wine, going for $15USD in my market.  It shows a lovely pale gold in the glass, with a rim that fades quickly.  The nose is typical of  warm California appellations: lots of topicality, with notes of lemon pastry, mango and banana. 

On the palate, there are similar elements: tropical flavors such as mango, pineapple and a subtle citrus tone. There is ample acidity, but it doesn't have that big malic bite of green apple; there is a pleasant creaminess without being a popcorny butterbomb.   A touch of vanilla shows up, demonstrating a light hand with the oak ageing, and there is just the subtlest hint of almond on the finish.  It has a body that is round without being weighty, and is dry but not astringent.  Integration is the key here.  I would say that this is a very well balanced wine. 

No single element dominates the tone here.  This will work well as a cocktail wine for those who favor this style, and it will excel as a food wine for folks who might enjoy this with heavier white meat dishes.  It is a good example of California Chardonnay, without being overly obtrusive.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Beer Review: The Obligatory 2014 HopSlam Review

It's that time of year again, and by the time you read this, there probably won't be any HopSlam left on the shelves for you to buy,   I know that this is a source of irritation for a lot of you out there, because there are a lot of people who would like to try this beer, but aren't obsessive enough to call a their retailer 15 times a week, or to monitor all the beer geek twitter feeds in their town to see where it has gone on sale.  I don't know what to tell you, folks.  There is so little of this beer produced, it is allocated to retailers in such tightly controlled dribs and drabs, and it is bought up obsessively by its fans that it makes it really difficult to get your hands on any.  I myself was only able to purchase a single bottle. 

My bottle was packaged on 1/16/14 and purchased on 2/ 5/14.  Unlike last year (and you can read that review here), I decided to spare no time in drinking and assessing it, and to see what nuances it revealed while at its freshest.

I'll admit, the beer did show much, much better when drank young.  I'd say that this is not a style suited to aging.  The freshness of the hops give this beer greater balance than it had when assessed last year.  But one thing I will say as a testament to the craft of the brewers at Bell's, is that there is remarkable consistency shown across the batches years apart. 

The color is still the lovely honey-copper, it shows great clarity, and the slight head still left ample lacing.  There were aromas of pine and resin and a slight malt character on the nose.   The big bitterness on the palate hit all the expected notes of citrus pith, pine and an undertone of honeyed, malty sweetness.  The 10% ABV didn't lend the beer any overt booziness.  As a whole, the beer just seemed more balanced, more integrated, than it did when I belatedly sampled it last year.  It lacked any of the metallic notes which put me off then.  My advice: enjoy this beer in its youth.  By holding on to it for five months before drinking it last year, I did it a tremendous disservice.   The nuances were much more appreciable this time around.  And, of course, my palate is evolving, and I'm becoming a bit more used to the ever increasing amounts of hops in the IPA arms race.

Don't get me wrong: this is still an over-the-top hop bomb of a beer.  If you aren't an IPA aficionado, you can leave this one for the greedy maniacs who follow the delivery truck around, buying it up at every store they distribute to (and don't lie, fellas, I know you do it.  I've SEEN you do it.  STOP.  Please).  I think it's definitely worth trying, just so you can see what all the hoopla is about.  But I'll admit I have a slightly different feeling towards it than I did last year. 

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Wine Review: 2009 Bogle Phantom

One of the interesting developments in the wine industry is the profusion and increasing popularity of proprietary red blends.  All varietally labeled wines have legal guidelines, essentially "truth in labeling" laws that govern minimum amounts of the named grape that composes the wine.  For instance, if you pick up an American Pinot Noir, Federal law stipulates that at least 75% of the wine in that bottle be made from Pinot Noir grapes.  This allows the producer 25% latitude to blend; perhaps he mixes in a little Grenache or Zinfandel to give a little more color or to fatten it up.  Maybe a winemaker blends 5% Gewurtztraminer into his Chardonnay to give it just a touch more body and residual sugar, or uses a touch of Merlot to soften the tannins of his Cabernet Sauvignon.  The laws vary from place to place: while the Federal requirements allow 25% latitude, some places are more strict about things.  Oregon, for instance, requires a minimum of 90%.  The global standard seems to be balancing at 85%, which is where Argentina, Australia and the EU have decided to draw the line.  And most American wines, especially ones that have an eye towards the export market, adhere to this 85% standard.

But what if you want to blend several different grapes to make your wine, and not meet that minimum percentage?  This is a centuries old tradition in some of the world's greatest wine regions.  If you are familiar with the wines of Bordeaux or the Southern Rhone (amongst others) you know that these places are a blender's paradise.  The differing conditions of each vintage's weather (or market conditions for that matter) result in winemakers who may adjust their blend form year to year.  Usually, these wines are named by their region of geographic origin, their AOC, but you have to know a little bit about the AOC in question to decipher what they are composed of.   Sure, I'm a cork dork, and I know the authorized varietals for a lot of these Old World regions, but a lot of people just looking to pick out a bottle at the grocery store do not.  While that may give me a bit of job security, it doesn't help a winemaker move units.  Producers have begun to incorporate percentage lists into their labeling, naming the grapes that go into the mix,so that people with less wine knowledge can feel a little more comfortable and informed about what they are buying. 

This type of blending isn't confined to just the Old World either.   A lot of New World wineries are producing wines that mimic the recipes of these famous European AOC's.  In these cases you will recognize wines labeled with names borne out of tradition.  You will see the words Claret or Meritage on wines from the USA that are produced in the fashion of the wines of Bordeaux.  There are a lot of GSM's out there, echoing the blended wines of the Southern Rhone.  But if you look at the fine print, scan the label for the grains of truth that lurk under all the design and packaging,  there are two words that say it all: RED WINE.  All this means is that there is not enough of any one grape to make the minimum percentage requirements for varietal labeling.  It is in no way is a judgment of quality, simply the legal term under which these wines are classified.

In the fight for market share, wine producers have been locked in an arms race to develop wines that will capture the public's attention with clever packaging, and have a flavor profile that has wide appeal.  Rather than worry about capturing a customer that seeks a varietally labeled wine, the objective of these brands is to solicit a customer based on drinkability and good shelf appeal.   These wines are completely unfettered by laws regarding grape composition, barrel regimens or geographic restrictions, as wide areas of fruit sourcing are a typical feature of this breed.   The only requirement is that they taste good.  This frees up a winemaker to do pretty much whatever she wants, to blend in whatever she likes, and to age it however she sees fit.  As long as it results in a wine that will taste good and sell well, there are no rules.  Basically, it is a unique concoction that falls under the umbrella of Proprietary Red Wine.  Now, that's not a legal term, but an industry designation that lets us know that we have a custom blend, unique to its producer.  These wines represent a win-win symbiosis for the producer and consumer: producers have an outlet for their creativity, and consumers have something that pleases the palate and the wallet.  Sometimes, these wines present  the winemaker with an avenue to use juice that might not have made the cut for their varietal wines.  I think of them as the pound puppies of the wine world; while they aren't purebreds, lots of them make for really good dogs.

This has become a HUGE category in the North American wine market, and the popularity of these types of wines has raised some eyebrows abroad as well.  You are beginning to see more and more of these types of wines on the shelves that hail from the globe's southern hemisphere, and while some  European countries are a bit wary of this trend (I'm looking at you France), others, notably Italy, have embraced the concept and run with it.   Proprietary Red Wines are found all over the price spectrum.  The vast majority populate the under $15 bin, and do extremely well there.  Some are considerably more, and others can be found locked behind glass where they keep the show-stoppingly pricey stuff.

Today's selection is an offering from California producer Bogle.  This averages about USD$18 in my neck of the woods.   The wine is comprised chiefly of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah, with just a touch of Mourvedre thrown in.  There are no exact percentages given, but a little digging on the internet reveals that the composition does shift a bit from vintage to vintage. The only regional reference on the bottle is California, which indicates that the fruit used in this bottle could have been sourced from anywhere in the state. 

It shows powerful color extraction, a dark purple in the glass that fades only slightly to a dark ruby at the rim.   There is a reasonable power to the nose, with aromas of dark chocolate, tar, a hint of leather and plenty of black fruits.  There is a distinct scent of vanilla, which indicates some time in oak barrels (followup reading on the producer's website indicates I was right, the wine spends time in a mix of one, two and three year old American oak barrels).

On first examination, the wine has a brightness to it, a zip of acidity, that helps it defy its weight, but this fades with a bit of time in the glass, and the body and density become a little more dominant.  Dry, and with bountiful fruit, notes of blackberry and plum are right at the forefront, but savory tones dominate at the finish.  It doesn't have a huge peppery component the way a lot of Zinfandel dominant blends do, nor is it jammy, but it embraces some of the best qualities of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah, without falling prey to some of their more typical shortcomings.   The solid structure of medium+ tannins is, I imagine, provided by the Mourvedre, a grape that can punch above its weight when it comes to adding structure in a blend.  At 14.5% ABV you would think that this would show considerable alcoholic heat, but I didn't think it an issue, though it's possible that I'm just becoming inured to high ABV wines.  The finish hangs on without lingering, isn't overly fruit driven, and the oak regimen gives this wine a lovely polish and  integration. 

There is definitely a savory character to this wine that I find very enticing.  While not exactly animal in the way I think of when I taste certain wines that have that leathery, gamey note to them, there is something dark and musky at work here.  Nicely complex, this wine would pair beautifully with hearty winter foods.  Its savory character would make this a natural pair for smoked meats, hearty stews or Steak au Poivre.  For those who like the stouter offerings of the wine world, this would even do well as a cocktail bottle, or as something to be enjoyed after dinner, while relaxing in front of the fire.  It definitely shows the possibilities of this breed of wine, which is to say no breed in particular, and demonstrates that not all proprietary red blends are created equal. 

Monday, January 20, 2014

Three Strategies To Maintain Your Sales Momentum After The Holidays

With the holiday season behind us, restaurateurs see sales dip in January.  Our customers, suffering the spending hangover that follows December’s parties, often radically curtail their expenditures.    We are presented with the challenge of maintaining sales momentum, and often, burning through inventory that went unsold during the holidays.  Here are three strategies that you may find useful:

Sell Bottles, Not Glasses:  Train your servers to upsell a customer to a bottle instead of going BTG (By-The-Glass).   Appealing to frugality, it isn’t hard to convince a table that if they are drinking more than three glasses they will save money.  This also allows you to direct guests to wines that are not on your BTG list, thus moving items that might otherwise underperform.   Selling bottles during slow periods  helps minimize the waste caused by half-used bottles of BTG wine going stale. 

Drink Specials:  Have a few cases of sparkling wine that didn’t move on New Year’s Eve?  Use them in a specialty cocktail that’s attractively priced.   Cull some of the underperformers on your wine list and compile them into a “Special Selections” table tent to bring them to a guest’s attention.   Determine which night of the week is the slowest and institute half-price BTG night; this may sting a bit at first, but it gets people in the door and into the seats and can transform one of the slowest nights of the week into one of the busiest.   

Wine Dinners:   By focusing on a particular country, region or producer, you can tailor your event to attract both regulars and new customers.   Thanks to the symbiotic relationship sales reps and restaurants have, distributors often will be happy to help you with staffing and promotion.   Many times, they will provide a portion of the wine that guests will taste, and while local laws on this vary widely, the event can allow them to pre-sell wines that can be picked up later at either your establishment or from a retail partner.   This allows you to generate sales without purchasing inventory in advance, and helps them move product during a sluggish month. 

These three strategies can help you turn inventory into revenue instead of letting it sit gathering dust.  None of them weaken your brand, or deflate your position in the market.   They can help you shake off the post-Holiday hangover, and start earning again.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Beer Review: Evil Twin Molotov Cocktail

Evil Twin is a beer company that was founded in Denmark, but has relocated to Brooklyn, New York.  A contract brewery, they have their beers produced by 10 different breweries in six different countries.  They are generating a lot of buzz in the beer world, making small-batch, tough to find concoctions.  As we all know, rarity translates to desirability, especially considering the constant one-upsmanship so prevalent among beer aficionados.  I was recently given a 12oz bottle to sample, so I figured I'd take a moment to tell you all about it, and to do a little gloating too.

First off, I love the name.  A beer named after one of the world's most famous improvised explosives?  Count me in.  And it's an appropriate name, too.  This beer clocks in at a near unbelievable 13% ABV.   That's as strong as most wine; a 12oz bottle has more alcoholic punch than two bottles of normal beer, so be careful, kids.  I drank this on an empty stomach, slowly, and felt a noticeable buzz by the time I finished it.  This is definitely a sippin' beer, not something you are going to crush by the multiples while tailgating.  The label designates it as an Imperial IPA, "brewed with natural flavors," but nowhere on the packaging does it identify said natural flavors.  I can only guess what the adjuncts are. 

It pours a hazy orange into the glass and has a finely beaded, yet thin head which recedes a bit leaving spotty lacing.   The nose is complex, with aromas of sweet citrus (think Tangerine or Satsuma), some cereal notes, and what I imagine a freshly harvested wheat field must smell like.  There is also a noticeable scent of booziness.

I suggest bracing yourself for the first sip.  Mrs. Gilbert reached over and took a big gulp of this, without having any idea of what to expect, and, well, let's just say she was completely taken by surprise.  There are big, big hop notes here, but the brewers have obviously used so much malt to achieve the stratospheric ABV that there is an almost cloying sweetness to it.  It is sticky sweet, but that is balanced by the very drying effect of the hops.  Where most IPAs have that citrus pith bitterness to them, this has more flavors of citrus flesh; more Florida orange or tangerine than grapefruit.  And of course, running through it all like a vein of fire is the booziness.  The finish is lingering, mouthcoatingly sticky, as the considerable malt content glues itself to your lips.  This is not a beer I'd recommend drinking if you have an impressive moustache. 

In the end, I don't really know what to say about this beer.   Is this a novelty beer?  Well, it certainly is in danger of being perceived as such, considering the name and ABV, but it is extremely well crafted.   I have to caution that it is a beer for which you will need to be prepared to get a bit outside of your comfort zone.  It is definitely a sippin' beer, and for me a "one and done."  I'd recommend that everyone who gets the chance should try it, but I know that there will be a lot of people who will only drink it once, check the box, and never drink it again.  On the other hand, I know some people who will freak out and feel that this is the best thing to ever come in a bottle.  But one thing is for sure: this is a pitbull of a beer, a big brew in a small package.  Buckle your seatbelt.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Happy New Year's! ...And Some Champagne

Gilbert Spills It would like to extend heartfelt wishes to all our readers, and wish them the best for 2014.  2013 was a mixed bag for Your Humble Narrator, with some disappointments and some new opportunities.  But I've set myself some goals for this year, and plan on working hard to achieve them.

I had to work on New Year's eve, so I saved my celebration for New Year's Day.  With the madness of December finally over, I had a chance to relax, and spend a little time at home with Mrs. Gilbert.  I picked out  a really nice bottle of Champagne to enjoy, and as absurd as it sounds, served it with our traditional New Year's Day meal of  black eyed peas and cabbage. 

The Champagnes of Pol Roger have been one of our go-to's for some time now; we popped a bottle of the Vintage when the Millenium turned, and we drank a bottle of the Sir Winston Churchill on my 30th birthday.  A competitor had a very attractive price on the Brut Reserve, so I quietly asked a friend who works there to put a bottle aside for me, and I slinked over to pick it up on my lunch break.  Pol Roger has a reputation for being a favorite of the British Royal family, enjoying the status of being served recently at William and Kate's wedding reception.  Aside from these celebrity endorsements, Pol Roger also enjoys the distinction of being one of the few Grande Marque houses to remain family owned.  In addition, despite it's status as a Negociant-Manipulant, they own over 50% of the vineyards from which their grapes are sourced.

This wine is sourced from properties all over the Champagne region, and combines all three of the Champagne grapes: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier, in almost equal proportions.  The juice is comprised exclusively of the first pressing of the grapes, or the "tete de cuvee."

I'll confess that I don't have as refined a palate for sparkling wine as I do when it comes to still wines.  It is more difficult for me to identify the nuances of a glass of champagne than it is a still wine, possibly due to the CO2 that the wine gives off, and the tingles it engenders on my tongue.  I can pick up the broader notes, but something about the effervescence causes my taste buds a considerable amount of confusion.  This has led to my adopting a celebratory rather than contemplative attitude towards sparkling wine.  I try not to over-intellectualize the fizzy stuff, and instead  just relax and enjoy it.  That's not to say I just swill it down like a heathen,  but I don't exactly pull out the tasting notebook and attempt to tease out and identify all the nuance.  I'll also confess that because I don't get to drink a whole heck of a lot of Champagne, I'm not as practiced at it as I'd like to be.  

In the glass it shows a lovely lemon gold with a fine bead, and creamy mousse.  I always think of Champagne as being like a piano keyboard, with bass tones at one end, alto at the other, and tenor tones in the middle.  This Champagne plays at the higher end of the scale, with lots of citrusy acididity.  There are some mid-tones at the finish, a little toast and nuttiness.  In all, it was wonderfully enjoyable, and I highly recommend it.  It was an elegant way to begin what I hope is a wonderful year.

Standing in front of Pol Roger on the Avenue des Champagnes, Epernay, in 2010

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Thoughts on the Kurniawan Verdict

Rudy Kurniawan is guilty, but there is plenty of guilt to go around. 

If you haven't been following it in the press, Rudy Kurniawan, the wine counterfeiter, was found guilty last week on mail and wire fraud charges.  He will be sentenced in the spring.  It's really a fascinating story, and has some lessons in it for any who care to learn them. 

1.  Do Your Homework. 
One of the big "A-ha!" moments in the discovery of the fraud was when Kurniawan tried to sell wines from a vintage that never existed.  Laurent Ponsot, one of  the people instrumental to the prosecution's case and who has been dubbed the "new Sherlock Holmes of wine," testified that Kurniawan placed for sale at auction bottles of his family's label from vintages years before his grandfather had purchased the land.  And Mr. Ponsot wasn't the only one.  Other vintners disputed whether or not vintages he sold were ever produced as well.  I'm not just offering advice to would-be criminals here.  The people who were all set to pay exorbitant sums for these wines, or the auction houses who were ready to sell them, probably were as unaware of these discrepancies as the man who counterfeited them.  Which leads me to my next point...

2.  If People Want Something To Be True, They Will Believe it, Evidence To The Contrary.
Part of the problem with this case is the gullibility of the buyers.  All of a sudden, some young kid pops up on the scene, flashing a taste for the good life and pouring rare, old wines, and nobody gets suspicious?  Seriously?   People were so eager to believe that these aged bottles were popping up on the market, that "Um, well... um... I'm Asian and my dad's rich?" was a suitable answer to the question "Where did you get your hands on these?"  Obviously, people did get suspicious, but the fraud continued for some time before people became suspicious enough to start looking at things with a critical eye.  Which plays into another pointer...

3.  Don't Be Greedy.
Kurniawan could have probably gotten away with it had he not been so damn greedy.  His frauds were in furtherance of living a posh and unearned lifestyle.  Had he been more modest in his aims, he quite probably would be free today.  I mean, think about it.  How much bogus juice do you have to pump out to get your house raided by the FBI?  The astonishing volume of rare wines Kurniawan counterfeited directly led to his capture and prosecution.  And his need to be seen and recognized by the wine world's cognoscenti made him a very visible and easy target.  A more modest and anonymous criminal might still be mixing forgeries in his kitchen right now.  Because, let's face it...

4.  There Is A Lot Of Fake Wine Out There
In a way, Kurniawan's prosecution is an obvious warning sent by the world of wine to the multitude of counterfeiters out there.  Both sides of this court case have never disputed what a widespread problem forgeries are.  In a way, these forgeries are an almost perfect crime.  They bring in huge sums in return for relatively small expenditures, and frequently go undetected by the victims.  Because the wine in question is seldom consumed upon receipt, and sits as a trophy or an investment in a dark cellar somewhere, and may be flipped from collector to collector several times, the crime can go long undiscovered, and the criminal will be long gone before anyone realizes they have been ripped off.  And even then, it may not.  Who really knows what to expect when they open a bottle of Burgundy from the 30's?  Could you, or anyone you know, tell the difference between a clever forgery and the real McCoy?

There's a lot of big, big money flying around in the world of old and rare wine auctions, and each time an oenophile millionaire bids up the price of these items, they make this a more inviting environment for fraudster criminals.  I know that sounds a lot like blaming the victim, but the fact of the matter is, scammers are always looking for an easy score, and rare wine auctions are a target-rich environment.  See point #2.  But one of the things I wonder about these guys who are throwing down ten large on a bottle is, considering the problem the wine world is having with fraud, don't they know that...

5.  Provenance Is Everything.
Seriously.  Who spends this kind of money without establishing some sort of chain of custody proof of where this wine came from?  You just take someone's word for it?  Wow.  Can I interest you in some beachfront property in North Dakota?  It's legit.  I promise.  This whole criminal case makes me think that there are a lot of people who are not doing the due diligence required, not the buyers, not the auction houses acting as intermediaries.  See #1, and #3.  Determining the legitimacy of an item begins with determining where it came from, and where it has been for all these intervening years.  Would you but an attic's worth of art without sending in an expert to validate that it really was painted by Picasso?   See #2.  It is a shocking thing to say but I'm beginning to believe that...

6.  If You Want A Collection, Start Building It From Scratch.
The prevalence of forged wines is making me think that perhaps the best way for a collector to build a collection is the old fashioned way: buy wines on release, and put them down.  If you can't reliably source these wines, don't buy them.  The good thing is, many producers are now incorporating several anti-forgery measures into their packaging, because counterfeiting is not limited to aged wines.  Buy stuff from a reputable retailer with whom you have a relationship, so you know you have the genuine goods.  Counterfeiting has eroded public trust in aged wine and the auction market.  I was in a wine shop in France last year that had millions upon millions of dollars in inventory, most of it antique, crammed into a space the size of my garage.  I asked the proprietor how long they had been in business.  12 years.  Where did the wine come from?  Auction.  Ah.  Well, I'm not really in the market to buy 30 year old bottles that cost more than two first-class round trip tickets to Paris, but if I was, I'd be buying them from a cellar where I was assured that they had been purchased 30 years ago, and have been comfortably sleeping in place since.   But more to the point, even though I understand that the super-rich are quite different than you and I, and have different tastes, I have to wonder...

7.  Who Wants To Drink This Crap Anyway?
Really.  I can't be convinced that a wine produced in the 1920's is going to taste very good.  Sure, my experience here is limited, and the oldest wines I've had were only 40 or so years old, but who wants to taste an 80 year old wine?   We aren't talking about Port or Maderia or Sauternes here, either.  We are talking about Pinot Noir.   And I am aware that while the Burgundies he sold are getting the press, a lot of the wine Kurniawan forged was Bordeaux, which does have a presumably lengthier window of drinkability.  But still.  I guess that a lot of the people wealthy enough to buy wines like these are older than I am, and that #6 may not really be an option for them.  I just honestly can't understand the seduction of a wine that has this kind of extensive age on it.  I've had 12 year old wines that I felt were over the hill, I can't imagine what an 80 year old bottle must be like.  It seems to me that the appeal lies chiefly in displaying the item in question, more than in actually drinking it, in which case, an empty bottle might do just as well.   Which leads me to wonder...

8.  Who Else Was Helping Him?
There are people out there who have access to empty bottles of rare wine.  Who is to say that once the original contents of these bottles are consumed, the bottles are not "recycled" by the unscrupulous?   And while Kurniawan had some obvious gaps in his intel, he also put up for auction some bottles that were known to be coveted in certain circles.  I have a hard time believing that this criminal, somehow unlike other criminals, operated in a vacuum, flying solo, without the aid or assistance of others.   I suspect that there are people in the wine world who have the contempt for people wealthier than they that is bred by suffering the whims of millionaires.  How attractive to them might such a forgery scheme be?  Many of the comments on many of the news stories covering this case can be summed up as the all too predictable sentiment of  "Oh, those poor millionaires.  Boo-hoo.  Ha-ha."   The ultra-rich get little sympathy from people who simply can't conceive of spending a semester's worth of college tuition on a single bottle of wine.   So I don't see it as being all that improbable for a sommelier somewhere to recycle a bottle to a forger for a modest gratuity.   Which leads to  #4.

All of these things do lead to a lot of negatives for the wine world.  Exposing the fraud of Kurniawan exposes a phenomenon that is undermining a lot of honest and profitable businesses.  And while a lot of people have little sympathy for a bilked millionaire, it is important to remember that fraud is fraud is fraud, and the wealth of a victim doesn't determine the criminality of a crime.  I can't repeat that loudly enough.   A FRAUD IS A FRAUD IS A FRAUD.  And Rudy Kurniawan is a criminal.  And he's going to get punished.  But it is germane for us to examine a culture that has made this fraud so easy and so lucrative.  Without asking the right questions, the wine world can expect to see more of this type of fraud.  And it won't be stopped simply by sending one flamboyant criminal to prison. 

Friday, December 13, 2013

Wine Review: 2009 Domaine Audoin Marsannay Cuvee Marie Ragonneau

Ever since Mrs. Gilbert and I travelled through the Burgundy region of France, we've made no secret of our love for its wines.   The persistent problem we encounter is that our pockets aren't quite deep enough to indulge our love the way we'd like to.  But every now and then, we splurge, and pick out  a red Burgundy, just for the hell of it.

I was unexpectedly granted a three day weekend recently, and we took an impromptu trip up the western part of North Carolina.  We rented a cabin in the mountains, and took some time to unwind, hiking in the woods, reading, hot tubbing and listening to the last of the leaves fall.  I also did a little scouting for places to go fly fishing when the weather warms back up in the spring.  This was the bottle we took along.

Marsannay is a village in the Cotes de Nuits, and has no Grand or Premier Cru vineyards.  In fact, this village is the most recent addition to the rolls in the Cote de Nuits, receiving  AOC status in 1987.  Due to the lack of big-ticket named vineyards here, prices stay somewhat closer to earth, and the winemaker's reputation can be the main driving force behind price and demand.  I obtained this bottle for a quite reasonable $36 USD.

It shows a medium ruby in the glass, with just a tinge of garnet at the rim.  The nose is closed upon first inspection, but with time in the glass begins to open a bit.  There are aromas of black olive, sweet potato, sweet spices and a hard-to-pin-down scent of dried fruit somewhere between red cherry and cranberry.  Despite being an '09, this wine is already beginning to show a touch of maturity. 

Lighter bodied, and with a pronounced acidity, this wine is all subtlety.   It is marked by its lack of dominating character.  Nothing about this wine, save perhaps its acidity, really pops.  Rather than coming out of the glass and announcing itself with clamor, it draws you in.  The drinker attempts to tease the secrets from the wine, taste after taste, trying to pin down its character.  This is a light and acidic Pinot Noir; at first, almost too tart and dry.   But it reveals itself better, and other elements begin to surface, with more time in the glass.

If you are used to the huge, voluptuous super sexy California fruit bombs, this will give you pause.  It's Audrey Hepburn, not Gina Lollobrigida; your elegant older Aunt, not your brother's next ex-wife.  It is a wine for contemplation, not hedonism.  There are some solid tannins here, which make this a good companion for heartier fare.   I think it will mature well, as its rather close-to-the-vest character will deepen, and the integration of its components will show even better.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Highland Brewing Cold Mountain Vertical Tasting

Tonight, we do something that we have never done here before at GilbertSpillsIt:  taste a current release seasonal beer against one from the previous year.  Last year, after writing a review of the 2012 release of Highland Brewing's Cold Mountain, I bought a 22oz bottle of the beer to squirrel away.  You can see my review of last year's release here.  I brought it out to taste against the current iteration.

Last week, Highland released the 2013 Cold Mountain, and I grabbed a couple of bombers before they hit the sales floor (what can I say, membership has its privileges).   Tonight, I decided to taste them side by side.  I've never done an aged beer tasting before,  As you might expect, my level of patience, when it comes to beer is significantly shorter than when it involves wine.

I helped host a tasting a good six or eight months back with the brand rep from Highland, and I told her of my intentions to do a 2012 vs. 2013 Cold Mountain tasting.  She told me "Well, it's not really made for that."  I guess what she was trying to communicate was that they didn't make the beer in a style to withstand periods of cellar aging (which most beers aren't, but some are).  She kept telling me to "go home and drink it tonight."  I ignored her.  Here's the results.

On the left, the 2012, on the right, the 2013.    As you can see, the packaging is identical, and the color of the beers is extremely close.  The main difference between the two is that the older beer show a slighter degree of turbidity and haziness.  The 2012 has a slight bit of sediment at the bottom of the bottle.

When poured, the 2012 had a slightly less active head, and what little was there diminished more rapidly, and left less lacing.   The 2013 had a much more active head, left greater lacing, and persisted longer.  Both gave a satisfying hiss of escaping gas when opened.

2012:  There are dark notes of cold coffee on the nose; despite the relatively light brown/ copper coloration, this smelled much darker, deeper and danker than it looked.   There's a good bit of toasty nut character, and a strong hop bitterness comes through on the finish.    Almost a bit of metallic steeliness.  Because these were large-format bottles, there was a LOT more turbidity when the second portion of the bottle was poured into the glass. 

2013:  The fruit and spice notes come through more on the nose.  Lovely red tinged amber coloration.  This seems much lighter and fresher on the palate than its older brother.  As the brand rep said "it's not made to be aged", and this shows that.  This beer simply displays much FRESHER than its older brother.  There are more subtle fruit notes, spice notes, and it is not dominated by the "cold-coffee" character that rules the 2012 vintage.

I can't say that there's any extensive difference, or especially, improvement, when this beer is aged for a year.  Optically, the major difference is in turbidity.  The 2012 showed considerable haziness over the 2013, especially when viewed with the assistance of a flashlight (older on the left, younger on the right). Yeah, I know it isn't a professional lighting job, but hey, I do what I can.  Flavorwise, it does drop off a bit with time, but not into the realm of unpleasantness.  The 2012 was still quite palatable, still very enjoyable.  .

All in all, I'd have to say, drink this while it is young.  It can take a year of cellaring, but it isn't optimal.  For a beer that advertises cranberry, raspberry, hazelnut and vanilla adjuncts, it is pretty subtle for a winter warmer.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Wine Review: 2011 Louis Latour Pouilly-Fuisse

My father has an inappropriate joke regarding the pronunciation of "Pouilly-Fuisse," and it dates back to the 70's, so if you've been in the wine world for a while, you've probably encountered this humorous and bawdy mispronunciation. 

Pouilly-Fuisse was one of the first White Burgundies I was exposed to early in life.  Burgundy is a region in central France, south of Dijon, and produces almost exclusively two reds and two whites: Pinot Noir and Gamay for the reds, and Chardonnay and Aligote for the whites.  Gamay and Aligote most definitely play second fiddle to their more renowned siblings, so when we talk of White Burgundies or Red Burgundies, it is understood that we are talking about Chardonnay or Pinot Noir.  Pouilly-Fuisse is a village in the sub-region of Maconnais, known almost exclusively for white grapes.  Chardonnays from the Maconnais aren't as prestigious as their more northerly cousins from the Cote de Beaune, but don't share their stratospheric prices, either. 

I believe this contributes to the cachet and enduring appeal it enjoys among American wine drinkers.  Typically, it shows some oak treatment and a touch of malolactic fermentation, without being the heady, voluptuous butter bomb that we are accustomed to from California, making it accessible, yet different.  It also benefits from a historically recognizable name, as well as being within the price range of reasonableness, and thus its ensured popularity.

I am always drawn to Pouilly-Fuisse because I like a mild oak treatment and subtle malo on my Chardonnay.  And while my palate is in a constant state of evolution, and I'm (finally) coming around to the more aggressively oaked, fuller-bodied California expressions of the grape, I still favor subtlety over the "turn it up to eleven" approach.  Pouilly-Fuisse achieves a good balance.   I don't have to relegate it to the dinner table the way I do a lot of the aforementioned California "Chateau 2 X 4" oak grenades.  It works as a cocktail wine or with food. To be concise, it walks the line, and well.

We drank this as a dinner wine, paired it with the crab cakes described in the last post, and it performed excellently.   This is a Louis Latour wine, one of Burgundy's largest negociant houses, a winery that sources fruit and makes wine from an insane number of properties in the region.   Able to take advantage of economies of scale, this producer can release wine of fine quality and keep the price  reasonable.  I picked this up at a big box membership retail club for right at $15 plus tax, which makes it eminently affordable, especially considering the quality. 

The wine shows a light golden straw hue in the glass, and displays aromas of tree fruits on the nose: sweet red apple and pear come immediately to mind.   The same notes arrive on the palate, along with a nice creaminess and a subtle acidity.  The oak treatment is restrained, suggesting older French oak  It had  a medium body and a pleasant fleshiness, both light on it's feet, and voluptuous.  It has a desirable roundness, not as lean as a  St. Veran, or clean and mean like a Chablis.

This wine is an affordable and enjoyable entrance into the world of White Burgundies.  If your preference is for California Chardonnay, you won't be put off by this, and in fact may come to appreciate the lighter hand of French winemakers.  If you like crisp and bright wines, this will show the desirable aspects of barrel aging and malolactic fermentation.  If you just want a nice wine to have with your white meat Sunday dinner, or something delicious to crack open when friends stop by, you won't be disappointed in this bottle.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Crab Cakes with Parsley and Horseradish Aioli

I've had a hankering for some crab cakes for a few weeks now.  An old friend of mine has a fishing camp on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, and routinely pulls crabs from the lake.  Ever since he posted a picture of some homemade crab cakes on his Facebook page a little while back, I've been wanting to make some of my own.  Of course, my crabmeat comes from a can, but you have to work with what you've got.  If you can spring for the jumbo lump, more power to ya, but I generally buy the backfin.  Just please, for the love of god, don't use crab sticks.  That's not crab at all, and is an abomination in the eyes of Poseidon, Lord of the Sea.

I made these with a parsley and horseradish aioli, served alongside some pan roasted baby 'taters and some asparagus spears.  I paired it all with a 2011 Latour Pouilly-Fuisse (review forthcoming). 

Crab Cakes
1 lb of crabmeat, whatever grade you can afford, picked clean of shells
1 egg
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1 Tbsp lemon juice
2 Tsp Old Bay Seasoning
4 pea sized blobs of Harissa paste (hot)
1/4 Tsp fresh minced garlic
a few turns fresh ground black pepper
1 cup saltines, crumbled fine

Whisk the mayo, egg, Old Bay, Harissa, and garlic together.  Add the crabmeat, and gently incorporate the wet ingredients, being careful to do as little damage to the nuggets of crab as possible.  The larger the pieces of crabmeat the better.   When everything is coated and damp, tighten the mixture up by adding the crumbled saltines a little bit at a time.  Form into patties of desired size.   I like them to be about an inch thick, and the size of a beer can lid.  Cover and refrigerate.

Parsley and Horseradish Aioli
1 egg
1 1/2 Tbs Dijon mustard
2 Tbs finely chopped fresh curly parsley
2 Tbs finely mince yellow onion (sweet if possible), or shallots
1 Tbs prepared Horseradish
1 cup olive oil and vegetable oil mixture (I like a 1:2 ratio, but feel free to get creative)
White and Black pepper and salt, to taste

Method of production is standard for emulsified sauces: combine egg, Dijon, horsey, parsley and onion, and mix well with immersion blender.  While blender is going, slowly add oil in a thin stream from a spouted measuring cup.   Keep the blender going, circling around the bowl, until ingredients are emulsified.  Check flavor, and adjust seasoning with salt and peppers.  Cover and refrigerate until service.

Service Production
Steam asparagus spears as normal.  I don't need to spell that one out for you, do I?   Take baby potatoes and peel a strip of skin away from them around the center.  Get a cast iron skillet on high heat, and fry potatoes in a mixture of whole butter and olive oil.  Season generously with S&P, and place in a 400F oven for 20 minutes.  (Periodically, remove the skillet, give the pan a few rotations, flipping the 'taters, and return to oven).  Upon removal, throw in a generous handful of chopped parsley, and a little squirt of lemon juice. 

Make a mixture of 1 cup crumbled crackers and 1/2 cup white flour, and season with either Tony Chachere's or Old Bay, depending on your regional preference.  You could use Chef Paul's if you want to rock it OG style, or Emerils Essence if you watch a lot of TV.  Whatever, they're your crab cakes.  

The crab cakes will be slightly damp, so there's no need to dip them in egg wash.  Just gently roll them in the dry cracker/flour mix, and send them immediately to a hot skillet with a mixture of butter and olive oil in it.  Don't overload the pan.  Sauté until beautifully golden brown on each side, flipping only once.   Try and time everything right, and have your 'taters, asparagus and crab cakes ready for plate up all at the same time.   Top crab cakes with a healthy dollop of the Aioli.  Serve, preferably with a lovely white wine.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Our First Birthday!

That's right, Gilbert Spills It officially turns one today!  While this project was incubating for a couple of weeks before it became public, the very first post was published a year ago today. 

It has been an interesting year, and I'd like to thank everyone who reads.  I've had over 13 thousand hits in the last year, and I can gladly report that they aren't all spambots and my parents.  This blog has helped me accomplish some of the goals that I had in mind when I started it, others I am still working on, and there have also been some totally unexpected outcomes.  It is still very much a work in progress, and there are more developments on the way. 

If there is one thing I have to complain about, it's that I don't post here enough.  I aim for once a week, but I often fall short of that goal.  Thrice a month seems to be closer to the mark.  I'm working on it, what can I say? 

I'd like to thank everyone for their support, their readership, and I'd also like to encourage you to comment more.  When I got this started, I thought there would be a little bit more of a conversation here.  But at least everyone's feedback is positive.  I'll take that.  Hell, I'm just glad y'all are reading. 

So in celebration, open up a nice bottle tonight.  And tip your waiter.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Beer Review: Oktoberfest Shootout

This is a time of year that I greatly enjoy.  As summer begins to wind down, Fall seasonal beers start hitting the shelves.  And Fall seasonal beer is almost universally synonymous with Oktoberfest. While I'm a bit late getting to it, I decided to do a comparative review of  some Oktoberfest themed seasonal release beers that are available this time of year.

Without going into a mini dissertation on Oktoberfest, its history and traditions, it's in many ways the archetypal (positive) image that many Americans have of Germany:  Oom-pah bands, pretzels and Wursts, dirndls and lederhosen, and of course, lots and lots of beer.   The traditional style consumed at the Oktoberfest is Marzen, an amber ale that translates neatly as "March" beer.  The beer has its origins in Renaissance Bavaria and was traditionally brewed in the early Spring, and then cellared over the warmer months.  It was released in the late summer, and was naturally the beer that was on hand when King Ludwig had his initial wedding party, and every subsequent Oktoberfest.  (You gotta love a people that say "Wow, that was a great party.  We should do that again next year."  And then do.  For several hundred years.)  It has since become tied to the tradition, and is now also known as Festbier.

Marzen beers are some of my favorites, as they embody some of the qualities I seek most in beer: malt character, amber coloration, moderate hop usage and drinkability.   While some styles of beer are "one-and-done" types for me, I could easily grab a seat at the big tables under the tent and drink Mass after Mass, swaying to the Polka band all day long. 

This week, we will concentrate on three beers made in this style that are produced here in America.

Yuengling Oktoberfest
Yuengling is a beer that I had never heard of until I moved to North Carolina, and unless you live in an Atlantic state, you probably have never heard of them either.   Touting themselves as "America's Oldest Brewery," they are a major regional player on the East Coast, but lack distribution moving West.   They compete very well against the Big Three MegaBreweries, and have a reasonably priced, nicely done amber lager.  It's my go-to 12 pack when I'm just looking for inexpensive beer to stock the fridge with, or pick up on the way to a barbecue.   They make occasional forays into seasonal beer territory, and their Oktoberfest is one of their better known and more sought after.

It pours the expected orange amber and throws a decent head that lacks retention or lacing.   Everything appears to be going well, and then it just falls flat.  There is very little malt character, just a hint of maltiness, and an almost tinny hop character.  This just feels like a poor attempt at doing something different.  I wanted to like this, I really wanted it to succeed, but it just feels like a feeble attempt at a craft beer.  There is only a slight bit of differentiation from their average Lager: a shade more color, just a bit more body, but not really that different.  And certainly not different enough to justify the price difference.  Don't get me wrong, this is not a bad beer, it just doesn't wow me. 

Leinenkugel Oktoberfest

Leinenkugel is a brewery operating out of Wisconsin that I first came into contact with on a Labor Day weekend trip to Milwaukee over 20 years ago.  At the time, I was a bit perplexed by the name, but I have since learned to pronounce and properly spell it. 

Their Oktoberfest, is an enjoyable example of the breed.  Considering the significant Germanic and Eastern European cultural influence on the people of Wisconsin, I'd be disappointed in them if they were to turn out a substandard beer.  The hops are subtle, and the malts a bit on the light side, but this is an immensely quaffable Marzen style offering.  I was pleased to see that it had slightly better head retention than the Samuel Adams.

Samuel Adams Oktoberfest

Of the three reviewed today, this is the winner.  While the head subsides quicker than the Leinenkugel, the malt character of this beer is superior to any of the others reviewed today.   As you can see from the photo, it shows just a bit darker in the glass.  Hops are there, but subtle, playing rhythm to the lead.

Sam Adams, or The Boston Beer Company, depending on the level of corporate formality you are comfortable with, represent the dreams, and envies, of a lot of craft brewers out there.  While they get a ration of manure for being "too big," or  "sellouts," fact of the matter is, they were one of the first microbreweries (as we used to call them) to become a regional player and then to develop a national presence, and then to finally become a serious concern and competitor against the Big Three.  And they keep it real too, reinforcing their craft beer street cred by perpetually releasing a gaggle of small batch, seasonal and limited release "mad beer scientist" eccentricities.  Say what you want, take it or leave it, but this is a company that walks the line: they make good stuff, market it widely, and aren't afraid to take risks and diversify their product line.  Plainly put, they kick ass. 

Yeah, I know October is almost at a close.  The Oktoberfest in Munchen has been finished for three weeks.  I know I'm remiss in this post.  But hold on jest a minit, cowboy.  I went shopping today, and all three of these beers are still available on the shelves TODAY.  Sure, they'll rotate out soon, as your retailer burns them down (possibly at reduced prices, so strike while the iron is hot!) to make room for the winter warmers, but you can still find them. 

If you like balanced , malty libations, go and get it while the getin' is good.  And feel free to pass over with a 6 pack.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Wine Review: 2010 Hess Select Cabernet Sauvignon

Here at Gilbert Spills It we do take requests.  An old friend of mine from back in the day is a reader, and shot me a note on Facebook.  He explained that this is a wine that is in heavy rotation in his household, that he and his wife enjoy it on a regular basis, and that if I were to review it, he would have a better understanding of my palate, and would gain a bit more perspective on my other wine reviews.  I asked him to kindly send a few bottles my way.  Well, he didn't send me any free wine, but as I was out shopping last week, I saw this on the shelf, remembered our chat and picked it up for 14 bucks, plus tax.

Back in the summer of '10, I had the pleasure of visiting the Hess winery in California's famed wine country.  They're a pretty big operation, and make wine from both estate vineyards as well as source fruit from growers in the area.  In addition to having a substantial and interesting collection of contemporary art, they have one of the best tourist experiences in Napa.  There is a 15 minute video that takes the viewer on a computer simulated, bird's eye perspective flight.  You zoom over the digital topography, up from the San Francisco Bay all the way to Mt. Veeder, giving you new appreciation for all the talk about cooling fogs from the sea.  It also allows you to comprehend the geography of the region in a way that simply looking at a map and driving around does not. 

The 2010 Hess Select Cabernet Sauvignon pours a near opaque purple into the glass, with a rim that fades only slightly to an intense ruby.  There are widely spaced tears left after swirling.  The nose is heavy on black fruits: blackberry, blueberry and plum with secondary notes of anise and spice.  Despite having a moderate ABV of 13.5%, the nose is rather pronounced, leading me to believe that the powerful aroma is driven by fruit and extraction, and not simply alcohol's ability to lift notes on the wings of volatility. 

On the palate, there are firm tannins backed by a full body.  They relax a bit as the wine opens, but remain present and powerful throughout the entirety of the bottle.  There are lots of black fruit flavors as well, plenty more notes of blackberry, plum and cassis.  The spirited acidity keeps this wine from being plodding or overly weighty, giving it balance and recompense. 

Unless you are a person who relishes the fuller, bigger side of the wine spectrum, this might be a bit much for someone who is just looking to enjoy a bottle by itself.   I believe this would show best with a meal, preferably a red meat, and not as a cocktail wine.   The tannins and body make this a perfect companion for the dinner table, and it is affordable enough to put into heavy rotation, as my friend does. 

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Wine Review: 2007 Chateau La Nerthe

I have recently been drinking a lot of wine that has come in at a rather modest price point, as I've been trying to watch my wallet.  We all know how easy it is to let the wine budget get a little bit out of control.   But I recently decided to reach into my cellar and pull out something a little nicer than average. 

What came out was a 2007 Chateau La Nerthe Chateauneuf du Pape.  I picked this bottle up for about $40 sometime last year.  I have a bottle of the 2009 squirrelled away, but I wanted to try the more mature bottle first.   If you're  a longtime reader, you'll know that my love of Rhone Valley wines is no secret.  I had the good fortune to travel there in the summer of 2012.   I have long championed the region as one of the top price to value AOCs in France; you will pay less for a top rated wine from the Southern Rhone than for a similarly rated wine from other heavy-hitter areas in France.   Of course, it's also just a style I really enjoy, and I find the GSM wines of the Southern Rhone to be some of the most friendly and versatile wines in the world.

One of the neat things about the Chateauneuf du Pape AOC is that 13 grape varieties, red and white,  are permitted for use.  The big players (in the red wines, at least) are Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre and Cinsault.  Curiously, Carignan, one of the main players in other, neighboring, sub-regions of the Southern Rhone, is not permitted for use in Chateauneuf du Pape.  ( I always remember this with a little mnemonic: "There is no carrying on in the Pope's house.")   Because winemakers are given such a wide latitude with permitted varieties, CDP and the Cotes du Rhone in general are a blender's paradise.  Wines differ from Chateau to Chateau and often from vintage to vintage.  Of course, there are broad similarities across the region, but each producer's wine is unique.   

The 2007 Chateau La Nerthe is composed of 48% Grenache, 29% Syrah, 22% Mourvedre, and a lonely 1% of Cinsault.  Characteristic of a hot weather clime, it clocks at 14.5% ABV.  It pours an opaque ruby into the glass, and turns to garnet at the rim, evidencing just a bit of age.  The nose is reasonably powerful, jumping out of the glass at you, probably helped aloft by the high alcohol content.   There are scents of cooked red fruits, oak and exotic spice.  At first taste, this wine showed powerful tannins, almost uncharacteristically strong for a wine from this region (the hand of the winemaker at work?), but they did relax considerably as the wine opened up.  Still, this is a Chateauneuf du Pape that weighs in on the brawnier, more muscular side.  Opulent and heady with flavors of tobacco, hoisin, and cooked dark cherries, this wine shows great complexity, and works its magic slowly.   There is enough acidity to keep it lively, but it is the deft grace of a middleweight boxer: spice and tannin that are the stars of the show here.  Fruit characteristics, while present, are not at the forefront. 

I wonder how this wine will do with a few more years of aging.  I know that I may not be in agreement with everyone on this point, but I've always considered Chateauneufs to be wine enjoyed while still on the more youthful side.   I've been disappointed more than once by slightly over-the-hill wines from the Southern Rhone, and I was afraid that this wine was getting near the pivot point where things begin to decline.  However, I think this Chateau may be what changes my mind on that subject.  The structure here makes me think this could easily survive several more years of storage.  I think  a little more age will mellow the tannins and contribute to this wine's savory character.   I'm still very much an amateur at studying the intersection of wine and time.  It's something that really takes practice.  And again, it may just be that this wine will merit more cellaring.  A CDP from another producer may not. 

This wine would be a great accompaniment for more robustly flavored dishes, notably beef or lamb.   It strikes me a cool-weather wine, as well.  I can envision myself enjoying this on the deck on an autumn evening, a piping hot dish of Oeufs en Meurette in my hands, watching the leaves fall. 

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Wine Review: 2010 Domaine des Huards Cour-Cheverny

One of the things I always say about the world of wine is that the more you learn, the more you realize how little you know.  There is such an ocean of the stuff out there, so many producers, and the ever changing vintage variations that make each iteration of product different from its predecessors.  And then there are the unexpected varieties, the obscure local grapes that you've never heard of.

French AOC laws dictate what grapes are allowed to be grown in a particular region, along with regulations regarding winemaking techniques and other minutiae.  And once you learn the big, broad strokes of a particular region, you can get a good idea of what to expect.   But what a lot of people don't realize is that within the broad strokes of any given AOC, there are a lot of footnotes and grandfather clauses. 

Such is the case with the wine we discuss today.   While we generally think of the Loire Valley as being dominated by Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc, there are small parcels of ancestral varieties that are still hanging on.  The Romorantin grape, once widely cultivated for centuries, has retreated in popularity and has made its redoubt in Cour-Cheverny, a small AOC northeast of the city of Tours.  When I was told of this ancient holdout, a wine I had never heard of, cultivated in only a tiny piece of the immense Loire, I had to try it. 

It has a color of very pale gold and a lovely fragrant nose that suggests citrus fruits and just a hint of something vegetal, or herbal.  It has a weight to it on the palate that is a bit surprising, as it's light coloration didn't suggest a lot of body.  The palate explodes with lemon and bright acidity, but this is tempered by the heavier mouthfeel.  On the finish there is a powerful minerality that lingers for some time. 

This wine could easily be mistaken for a Sauvignon Blanc, but the heavier body would give me pause in a blind tasting.  It is almost as if it is the bastard offspring of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.  It made for a great seafood wine, as we served it with mussels and shrimp.  If you are looking for something interesting and unexpected to serve your guests, and if you can find this, this is a delightful wine and a great conversation starter.   And you can do your part in preserving a heritage grape. 

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Developing A Wine Training Program For Your Staff

Depending on the type of establishment, a restaurant's wine list can range from the rudimentary to the encyclopedic, but it is always an effective tool for the generation of high margin revenue.   Getting your FOH staff to utilize it effectively, to drive maximum sales, can be a difficult task.  Because our industry attracts such a diverse workforce, we cannot expect a universal level of wine knowledge from our employees.   A good wine training program is essential for those operators who wish to turn cellar inventory and maximize profits. 

While higher end restaurants with extensive lists and huge cellars can afford to hire a full-time sommelier, as well as expect their hires to arrive with a certain level of conversance, the vast majority of restaurants cannot.  Geography and the state of the economy can play a role in this.   Depending on where in the country you are located, and the strength of your local job market,  your FOH staff may consist of restaurant veterans or novices, or a mixture of the two, all of whom possess differing levels of knowledge about the product they offer.  You can't expect a 22 year old college student to have the same level of wine knowledge as a  grizzled 50 year old professional waiter.   And even if you do have the good fortune to have a sommelier on staff, they cannot service every table in your establishment that wants a glass or a bottle.  Sure, they come in handy for getting a customer comfortable with dropping the big bucks on a bottle from the Captain's List, but they can't talk about every glass of Chardonnay that goes out of the bar.  Having wait staff that can answer questions, make recommendations and speak with a fair degree of intelligence about your offerings is crucial to making your guests comfortable, and getting them to spend money.  In order to help your staff find the right bottle or glass to suit a customer's price range and preferences, they need to know their list, and that requires training.

Because the world of wine is so broad, and can be so intimidating for many, an effective wine training program works best if it is a continuing process, and is broken down into small, easily digestible bites.   A lengthy and intensive single session "Boot Camp" approach may work for new hires already familiar with the subject, but will be overwhelming for a novice.  It also does nothing to reinforce the knowledge of long time employees.  With time, even your better employees will forget their impressions of a wine, or disremember facts.   By making wine training an ongoing, continuous process, the learning never stops; new hires are brought up to speed, and seasoned veterans stay sharp. 

We can't expect everyone on our staff to have an equal passion for wine, but having a good working knowledge of what you offer is not too much to ask.  It is our responsibility to give our staff the tools they need to do their job.  By incorporating ongoing training into the weekly routine, information is  more easily retained by your staff.  A great time to do this is during pre-shift meetings.  By focusing on specific subjects, and doing controlled and limited tastings (small pours and spit cups required!), your waiters will remember concrete talking points that they can relay to the guest and use to sell your list. 

These sessions should vary, so as not to become dull, and can include a variety of approaches.   Discuss a single wine, and some clever facts about the producer (why is a French winemaker working in Chile?  why is there Braille embossed on the label?), do a compare and contrast of Old World and New World wine styles (Chablis vs. a California Chardonnay, Shiraz vs. Syrah) or focus on a particular region (What are the dominant grapes in southern Rhone wines?   German Riesling 101).   You can also do a quick and dirty guide to pairing a dish you offer with a couple of different selections from your BTG list.  The possibilities are multitudinous, but should focus on short, concrete and easily retained factoids that your staff can communicate to your guests.   Many times, your wine reps will be happy to give you fact sheets, shelf talkers and other educational materials that you can use to educate your staff.   They may even be willing to come in and conduct some of these sessions themselves. 

We often lose track of the fact that our service staff is really our sales staff.   Their primary responsibility is to take care of the customer, but they should also be maximizing your profits by separating customers and money, and doing it with a smile.  Higher check averages result in more money for you, and more money for them, and the wine list is one of the most effective tools they have to drive sales.   A confident and informative server will always sell more than one who simply points to the most expensive item on the list.   By arming our staff with knowledge we can put the guest at ease.  A server who can communicate pleasure in a wine and do so confidently will translate into a customer confident that they have been guided to the right wine for them, and ultimately pleased with their selection.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

WSET: Pass With Distinction! And Some Champagne...

Well, the results are in.  After waiting for an interminably long time, my WSET test results arrived in the mail.   I'd had an informal confirmation via email, but I wanted to wait until I had my certificate in my hot little hands before I started crowing about my results online.  I have talked about this certification before, most notably in this post, but to refresh your memory, this was a certification I spent my winter and spring taking classes and studying for.   Like other wine certifications, everything rode on the grade of one all-or-nothing examination.  The exam is broken into two sections, theory and tasting, and a grade is issued for each, as well as an overall grade.  Unlike previous certifications I've taken, (the Certified Specialist of Wine, namely, on which I scored a 94%, thankyouverymuch) there is no numerical grade given.  There are only degrees of success.  One may Pass, Pass With Merit, and Pass With Distinction.   Think of it as roughly analogous to passing with an A, a B, or just passing. 

I am pleased to report that I passed the tasting element With Merit and the theory portion With Distinction, and received an overall grade of Pass With Distinction. 

There is nothing like having one's hard work pay off with success and recognition.   All the time and brainpower I dedicated to this certification last winter and spring was well invested.  It is wonderful to get to enjoy the dividends.  And when one gets good news, what do we do?  We celebrate.  With Champagne, naturellement. 

We broke out a bottle of Pierre Moncuit Blanc de Blancs NV (non-vintage).  This was a bottle that we brought back with us from France on our last trip, in the summer of 2012.   I regret to inform you that this is not widely available in the USA.  Someone, somewhere probably has some to sell you, but for the majority of my readers, this unfortunately won't be something you can just stroll down to your local wine shop and pick up.   We paid about 30 Euro for this in Reims.   Be reassured that Champagne costs what Champagne costs, no matter where you are in the world, and it isn't any cheaper in France.

True Champagne is always a bit of a treat around here.  While I love the bubbles, I don't love the price tag, and often you'll find Cremant de Bourgogne, Spanish Cava or Italian Prosecco in our glasses, because, quite frankly, true Champagne is expensive.   The pay-to-play for a bottle of Champagne starts at about $25, and can go from there to the stratosphere.  And like many aficionados, the price of the things we love often exceeds what we are able to regularly afford.  I don't think I'm alone on this, and this is a big reason why Champagne is considered a celebratory drink.  You might put the cheap fizzy stuff from California in your Mimosa, but you save the good stuff for the special occasions. 

This was a lovely bottle of Champagne, but then again, aren't they all?  I always say that standing in the Champagne aisle of a wine shop is like standing in a room full of beautiful women: some guys like brunettes, some guys prefer blondes, and personally I've always been fond of redheads, but when it comes down to it, they're all delightful.

The Pierre Moncuit NV Blanc de Blancs had the fine bead and small bubbles that are a sure giveaway for a Champagne of great quality.   They continued steadily the whole time we enjoyed the bottle, evincing quality again.  The nose was dominated by green apple, a hint to its Blanc de Blanc designation, and it had an intricate complexity on the palate.   Austerely dry, with a clean lemon acidity, notes of apple, citrus and mineral presented themselves upon first taste.   Further notes of yeast and a biscuit breadiness evolved, along with some hazelnut tones.   A chalky mineral finish lingered on persistently after each sip.  Beautiful.  If you can find this, pick it up.  Spend the money, open it for a celebration, but get it if you find it.

Would you like to know more?

Like all French wines, there is some vocabulary to learn if you want to decipher what comes from where and how good it is.  I could spend all day  and write a chapter about Champagne and sparkling wine production, but I'll try and help you understand some of the nomenclature with a quick and dirty bit of Champagne demystification.  

We can start with the big stuff.  First off, this is a CHAMPAGNE.   Now, most people, myself included, casually use that name to describe any wine that has bubbles in it.   But Champagne is a protected geographic designation, and that's why I am often heard using the term true Champagne.   While only fizzy stuff is produced in this region of France, and all Champagnes are sparkling wines, not all sparkling wines are Champagne.   Lots of places around the world make bubbles, and there are a couple of methods employed to produce effervescent wines, but to be a Champagne, you must be from Champagne.   There are lots of other rules regarding production even within Champagne, making the French naturally very protective of this word.   And while there are still some holdovers from the USA who continue to label their products as "California Champagne, " they'll find their wine getting poured into the harbor if they try and import it into the EU. 

What's so brutish about it?  Because Champagne evolved from a sweet wine into a dry wine with each refinement of production technology, there is always a designation of dryness on the label.  While it's counter-intuitive, Extra-Dry is not the driest level of Champagne.   I'll spare you and I won't get too technical with grams of sugar per liter here,  but most of the Champagne you'll encounter on the shelves of your local shop will be from one of three categories: Brut (the driest), Extra-Dry (dry, but with just a barely perceptible bit of residual sugar) and Demi-Sec (noticeably sweet).   There are other gradations that subdivide here, but they don't pop up as much.

Ok, what's it made from?  Champagne production centers on three grapes, one white, Chardonnay, and two black, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.   Rose' Champagne is labeled as such, sometimes there is no mention of the grape composition at all, but sometimes white Champagnes carry an additional level of designation.  You'll see the terms Blanc de Blancs and Blanc De Noirs.  All that this means is that the Champagne is a white wine made from white grapes (meaning 100% Chardonnay) or black grapes (meaning 100% of either or both of the black grapes).  By controlling the amount of time the juice sits on the skins, it is possible to make a white wine out of black grapes.  Sometimes a Blanc de Noirs will have a slight onionskin tint to it, maybe just  a shade of salmon, but it won't be the definitive pink of a rose. 

What do you mean by Non-Vintage?  Most Champagne will not have a year on the label.  The vast majority of Champagne is made from a blend of wines that were pressed in different vintages.  That's how any given Champagne producer can achieve a consistent flavor profile year after year after year, by blending from different lots of juice.   Yep, they have tanks of wine, just sitting around for years, waiting to get blended.   The Cellar Master is the guy (or often panel of guys) who makes this blend, called the Assemblage, and arguably has the best job in the joint.   Although, I've always believed that people with this sensitive of a palate are born, not trained, essentially gifted, but that's a different post.  In a really, really good year a house can declare a vintage, and release a wine made from grapes that were all harvested in a single year, but even then, they always hold a little back, for use in future blends.  Vintage Champagnes will always have a year displayed prominently on the label.  You'll also pay more for them.

Where did it come from, and how does it rate?  Wines that carry  just the designation of Champagne may be sourced from vineyards all over the region, but by reading the label closely, there are sometimes additional levels of distinction you may ascertain.  There are a few geographic sub-regions in the Champagne delimitation, the names of which you probably won't see on a label.   But, within these regions, there are several villages which hold the qualitative designations of either Grand Cru  or Premier Cru, whose names you will sometimes see.   While the above terms Grand Cru and Premier Cru mean different things in each of the various French wine regions where they are employed, in Champagne it all has to do with the quality of the grapes and the price they fetch at market.   The grapes for this wine came from Grand Cru vineyards in the village of Le Mesnil Sur Oger, meaning they are from one of the 17 top rated villages and vineyards in all of Champagne. 

Got your reading glasses on?   Each Champagne producer is issued a number by the French Government that must be printed somewhere on the front or back label, generally in a tiny, tiny font.  It can usually be found down by the sulfite warning.  There is a 2 letter prefix to this number: either NM, CM, or RM.   These letters tell us about how the Champagne producer comes by their grapes.  Champagne is dominated by many big producers, the big recognizable names, who purchase grapes from small growers.  In fact, the lion's share of the grapes grown in Champagne are turned into Champagne by firms who don't own much, if any, land.  This is designated with NM for Negociant-Manipulant, meaning a grape-buyer/ wine maker, someone who negotiates the price of grapes and then manipulates them into wine.  The opposite of this is an RM, or Recoltant-Manipulant, or a grower who vinifies their own grapes.  These are the true small-batch, artisanal producers of the region, many of whom got into the wine biz because they were tired of settling for the prices that the big houses felt like paying them.  And then there are the CM's, or Collective-Manipulant producers, which are collective associations of growers who pool their resources to fund a production facility.   The Pierre Moncuit is a RM.  RM's and CM's are most frequently grouped along geographic lines, with their wines generally coming from one of the better rated Grand Cru or Premier Cru villages.

Head spinning yet?   You probably didn't know so much information could be found on such a clean, unadorned label such as this one.  There's a whole lot more I haven't covered here.   This post doesn't even begin to go into the Methode Champenois,  the actual process of making Champagne, much less all the minor rules concerning sur lie aging, dosage levels, and all of the other, more detailed elements of the AOC requirements.  There are also the myriad rules and requirements concerning sparkling wines from other places in the world.  But I'll make you a deal.  If you pass over with a bottle of cold Champagne, I'll be happy to tell you about them.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Fig Preserves

Late August always brings an abundance of fresh figs to Chateau Gilbert.   The house we bought some years back was formerly occupied by some people who were serious gardeners; it is both a blessing and a curse, for while we have something flowering in our yard every season of the year, we know nothing about gardening, and the upkeep can feel like a labor of Sisyphus.  One of the plants that we inherited when we bought our house was a mature and amazingly large fig tree.  It is easily two stories tall and has a diameter of better than 30 feet at its widest.  To give you some idea of scale, you can see our rain gutters cutting into the frame, about halfway up in this picture, and at the bottom is the top of an Adirondack lawn chair.. 

In a particularly productive year (as this one was) we can pick gallons of raw figs from its lower branches, without even attempting to pick what is at the upper reaches.  I'm sure that every bird, squirrel and assorted other critters in the neighborhood enjoy this bounty of fruit, and frankly, they're welcome to it.   While I eat them raw, use them in appetizers and salads, and even throw them into smoothies, it is impossible to eat the figs fast enough, as they have a limited shelf life once picked. 

Thus, fig preserves.  Since we have started making these, I have not had to buy a single jar of jam or jelly.  I can easily put up enough preserves for a year, and have plenty enough to give away as gifts.  They're pretty easy to make, too.  I have a canning pot and a set of canning implements that I picked up at a garage sale, so my start-up costs were pretty low, and mason jars and lids are widely available at grocery stores and big box retailers here. 

What You Need:
A mess of fresh figs                                
white granulated sugar
lemon juice
fresh lemons

Mason Jars and new lids
a potato masher
a hot water bath pot, preferably with rack
canning tools: magnet probe, wide mouth funnel, jar tongs, etc
clean dish towels
large, nonreactive pot

One thing I reckon I should point out here is that this is a noticeably unscientific recipe.   The amount of sugar, lemon juice and lemon peel that you will use here is entirely dependent on the amount of figs you are turning into preserves.   You'll have to adjust the level of sugar to your individual taste, but please remember, sugar is an antimicrobial agent; a high sugar level is one of the HUGE factors in preserving your preserves.  If you just want to make fig paste, refrigerate it, and eat it soon after production. 

Also, if this is your first experiment with home canning, I highly recommend that you consult some other sources before attempting this.  A spoiled, canned product can be one of the most lethal things in your home, and one of the least obvious.  Sanitation and bacteria control are deadly serious subjects, and I urge you to read up on the subject before undertaking this endeavor.  On the other hand, we are not engaging in a tech-heavy project here: this is stuff that was done safely a hundred years ago by people of less education than ourselves.  If you learn the basic rules and follow them, you can do this with an easily achievable level of safety, and can confidently enjoy safe preserved foods.

First, wash the figs well.  Make sure that there are no insects clinging on.  Next, slice the stems away from the fruit, and place the fruit in a large nonreactive pot over medium heat.   Add a substantial amount of sugar, and a good squeeze of lemon juice.  I use the kind that comes in the little plastic lemon, but if you want to use fresh squeezed, well then, get down with your bad self.   As the heat begins to cook the figs some, they will begin to render up a little fluid, so mash them into a pulp with your potato masher (be careful not to scratch your nice pots). 

Meanwhile, remove the zest from a couple of lemons, chop it up, and add that to the mixture.   After removing the zest, use a sharp paring knife to cut the pith away from the lemons, and slice the lemons into wheels.  Using the tip of the paring knife, remove the seeds, and add the lemon wheels to the preserves.  They won't hold their shape, so don't get your hopes up.

It will take a fair amount of time on the stove for the fig mixture to cook and reduce.  The figs will render a lot of water, so be patient, keep the fire at a moderate to low temp, and stir frequently, so they wont stick and burn.  Taste, and adjust the sweetness.  Using a large silicon spatula, squish the remaining whole figs, and as they break apart, the heat will help them break down.   Some people use pectin to thicken the mixture and produce a tighter end product, but I don't.   Figs have a naturally high level of pectin, and I don't like my finished product to be too tight.  Again, depending on your level of patience, you can end up with a juicier or tighter preserve all by controlling evaporation  and cook time. 

While things are cooking, place your lids in a boiling water bath, and have your pre-cleaned jars in a separate boiling water bath as well.   When the preserves have reached your desired level of sweetness and the desired consistency, remove a jar from its boiling water bath and ladle preserves into the hot mason jar.  Quickly retrieve a lid from its water bath, and after making sure that the rim is clean and has no preserves on it, secure the lid on the jar.  Using a kitchen towel to keep from burning yourself, tighten down the lid.   Repeat until all your jars are full. 

When all the jars are full, load up the rack on your canning pot and carefully place into the boiling water bath.  Return the water to a boil, and keep all the jars submerged for a half-hour.   If you have a pressure cooker rig, that is even better, but for sweetened or acidified items I find that the hot water method suffices.  After a half-hour, remove from the boiling water, and retighten the lids.  Set them out on the counter and allow them to cool overnight. 

This batch made one quart, three pints and nine cups of preserves.  I hope the casting directors from Doomsday Preppers don't call me.