Monthly Archives: September 2011

French Breakfast

30 September 2011

When I arrived at Gourmet Chicago, I made a beeline for the Pritzker Pavilion’s Choral Room where Roederer Estate was hosting a sparking wine seminar. Here, no line of people clogged the door — I could just walk right in and take a seat behind four empty glasses filled with anticipation.

I’ve had tasty California sparklers before, but I never thought they really compared with true Champagne. Our presenter, Xavier Barlier, agreed, noting that “because the climate of California is not so severe, the [sparkling] wines don’t achieve the finesse of Champagne.”

Well, the wines we sampled seemed pretty darn tasty to me. I was surprised to see them poured into white wine glasses instead of the more traditional flutes. Barlier liked the elegant look of flutes, but he called them “straight jackets,” arguing that the sparkling wine doesn’t have room to expand and express all of its aromas and flavors. “Better to use Chardonnay glasses,” he advised.


Odd According to Bon Appetit

27 September 2011

Andrew Knowlton (center), with the rest of the Bon Appetit team

I interrupted my grazing at Chicago Gourmet to interview Mr. Andrew Knowlton, the Restaurant and Drinks Editor of Bon Appétit Magazine. (Chicago Gourmet, for those unfamiliar with the festival, is like a smaller, $150-per-person version of The Taste of Chicago. Thank goodness for press passes.) 

Knowlton looked far too trim for someone with his enviable job title, and I couldn’t help but wish he had been a bit more portly. Putting these ungracious thoughts aside, I asked Knowlton if he had discovered any off-the-beaten-track wine regions lately.


The Pegu Club

23 September 2011

An old friend sent me a script to read, and I needed a little nipper to make sure my editing skills were at their peak. I went through the cocktail menu in my mind to come up with something appropriate for the occasion. But then I thought, eh, the heck with it. I had some extra limes on hand, so I shook up a lovely Pegu Club.

This cocktail, named after a colonial British club in Rangoon, Burma, has nothing whatsoever to do with my friend or the script he sent, but gosh, it’s delicious. It’s elegant, but it has a whiff of the exotic, composed of gin, orange curaçao, fresh lime juice, Angostura bitters and orange bitters.

Eric Felten introduced me to this cocktail in 2007, back when he was writing his excellent weekly “How’s Your Drink” column. Felten confirms that this cocktail did indeed originate at Rangoon’s Pegu Club, though if it exists, this genteel (and at the time, whites-only) watering hole no longer exists. It either burned down during a 1941 Japanese air raid, or was taken over by the Burmese army. It’s rather odd that Wikipedia can’t definitively say whether it still stands, but then Burma isn’t the most open of countries. You can view an old postcard of the club here.

New Yorkers (of any race) can visit a lounge called the Pegu Club in Soho any time they like, and imbibe what is doubtless a stellar version of this cocktail. But those of us stuck in the provinces can make a perfectly delightful version at home:


The Abouriou Interview

20 September 2011


Old World Winery's Abouriou Vineyard

One person I particularly enjoyed meeting at the Wine Blogger Conference this past July was Mr. Steven Washuta, the Assistant Winemaker at Old World Winery in the Russian River Valley. During the second “Speed Blogging” session, he poured a particularly memorable red, the 2009 Abourious. It’s not every day one gets to try a 100% Abouriou, after all. Indeed, I’d never even heard of this varietal until he poured some in my glass.

This wine was more than just a curiosity; it tasted really delicious (you can read my notes from the Speed Blogging session here). I wanted to know more.

Odd Bacchus: How did you end up becoming an assistant winemaker? And what exactly do you do at Old World Winery?

Steven Washuta: About three years ago I decided that engineering wasn’t my thing, so I dropped out of college in Atlanta and moved to Walla Walla to enroll in Enology and Viticulture classes. I graduated in June of 2010, but I came down to Sonoma County on my spring break to look for jobs. A friend from Portland had found Old World and recommended I try the wines; I was in the right place at the right time. [Winemaker] Darek Trowbridge was looking to hire someone for a few different functions, including winemaking and sales, and I fit the bill. Besides helping in the winery I also do tours and tastings, marketing materials, some accounting, and a little bit of everything else.

OB: What is Abouriou? And why did you and Darek decide to produce it?

SW: Abouriou is a grape from Southwest France. It’s hard to find a lot of info on it, and I’ve met very few wine professionals who have even heard of it. The main region in France is Cotes du Marmandais, and there they blend it with the five Bordeaux red varieties as well as Syrah, Gamay, and Fer. The vineyard is an old Martinelli vineyard, and Darek is part of that family. We had the opportunity three years ago to take it over and he jumped on it. We weren’t sure what to do with it, but the barrels from 2009 were so amazing on their own that we couldn’t blend it. We’re getting ready for our 4th harvest on this vineyard.

OB: Tell me about the Abouriou vineyards in the Russian River Valley – what’s the landscape like there, and why did you plant the Abouriou where you did?

Old, Thick Abouriou Vines

SW: We actually have no idea why Abouriou is there. We didn’t plant the vineyard – we think it’s about 70 years old and we just assume the Martinellis have used it as a blending grape in the past. The site itself is awesome – it’s on a slight south-facing slope right under Jackass Hill, which makes Martinelli’s most expensive and well-known Zinfandel. It’s in a small valley surrounded by tall trees in the coastal area of the Russian River Valley, but it’s somewhat blocked off from the breeze and gets pretty hot during sunny days.

OB: Is Abouriou a tricky, finicky varietal to work with, like Pinot Noir, or is it pretty consistent from year to year?

SW: It’s hard to say because we haven’t been working with it long. It ripens fairly early – last year it came in just a couple of days after our Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris; I expect it to be pretty consistent, but thus far the 2010 in barrel definitely has a different character than the bottled 2009. I expect some more of the same orange-peel type spice to start coming out with more maturity though.


The Messy Heel Of Italy’s Boot

17 September 2011

When writing about a wine for this blog, I like to do a little casual research, consulting the tomes weighing down the coffee table. Usually I find they’re in general agreement about a particular varietal or region and I glean various complementary tidbits of information from each.

However, in the case of Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot, my two favorite sources conflicted so completely, I didn’t know what to think. Both The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia by Tom Stevenson and The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson agree that “a great many ordinary wines are still produced” (Stevenson) in Puglia. Beyond that, it’s as if I were reading about two different wine regions.

Stevenson concedes that in the 1970’s, most of Puglia’s wines “were seen fit only for blending or for making vermouth,” but he strikes a much more optimistic tone than Robinson, noting that Puglian winemakers “radically” transformed the industry and “various changes have greatly improved the situation.” Lower yielding varieties have been introduced, he explains, and winemakers moved “away from the single-bush cultivation, known as alberello, to modern wire-trained systems.” All in all, Puglia shows “renewed promise.”

Robinson sounds an altogether more pessimistic note, mourning the demise of single-bush cultivation. She points out how “Many growers have taken subsidies from the European Union to grub up their vineyards but, unfortunately, many of these were of low-yielding bushvines, while those remaining tend to be high-cropping inferior varieties planted on fertile soils.” Even in DOC zones, “High yields are the rule, and a significant number of DOCs have lost credibility with excessively tolerant production limits.”

What to think? I turned to my old standby, André Dominé’s Wine, for a tie-breaking opinion. (more…)

Out-Of-Control Controllata

14 September 2011

The deliciously cool evenings of September call for light, fun reds — it’s still too warm to crack open the really serious stuff. While picking up a few odds and ends at Trader Joe’s, I noticed a $7 bottle of 2007 Epicuro Salice Salentino, a sunny red from Puglia, and for a Denominazione di Origine Controllata Riserva, it seemed like a steal.

Until, that is, I read up a bit on the Italian wine classification system. According to Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine, the DOC classification system was created in the 1960’s, when Italian wine was arguably at its worst. New wines and new techniques fit poorly into the government’s system, and subsequent revisions to the system have helped but little (Super Tuscans being a notable exception). Even now, innovation continues to be stifled by poorly designed government regulations.

So much for my system of seeking out wines with Controllata, Riserva or Controllata e Garantita on the label.

In any case, $7 seemed hard to beat, the inconsistencies of the DOC structure notwithstanding. I suspect it was so inexpensive because it was already old; wines like this aren’t really meant to age. I uncorked it and hoped for the best.


Drinking And Driving

9 September 2011

When taking a road trip, bringing along the appropriate beverage is crucial. And though my paternal grandfather reportedly used to declare, “You’re never really too drunk to drive,” I err on the side of caution and pack some non-alcoholic treats.

My current #1 road trip drink is Reed’s Extra Ginger Brew, an “All Natural Jamaican Style” ginger beer. Sold in packs of four bottles, this ginger beer, unlike regular ginger ales, is “carefully brewed and aged like fine wine in small batches by [Reed’s’] expert brewmasters,” according to the website.

However they make it, the ginger beer tastes delicious, with small bubbles and a powerfully spicy ginger kick (sure to keep you awake while driving). It lacks caffeine, but since caffeine is a diuretic, that can perhaps be an advantage.

Once you reach your destination, you can save any leftover bottles for the trip home, or even better, make a proper cocktail. My favorites are the Dark ‘n’ Stormy and the Moscow Mule:


A Glass Half Full

7 September 2011

When a men’s room flood shorts out a circuit panel and your office building loses power for two days, there’s just one thing to do: Braise some celery and open a half-bottle of Zinfandel.

We slow-braised celery (seriously) with onions, garlic, tomato paste, fresh black olives, red pepper flakes and a hefty dose of olive oil. There’s no denying it’s an unorthodox dish, but it tastes absolutely delicious — hearty, savory and spicy, with a wisp of bitterness underneath. You can find the recipe here.

I reheated some for a light dinner, and I looked around in my collection for something big to pair with it. I found some good candidates, but I was dining alone, and opening a full bottle seemed a bit of a waste. Even I can’t put away an entire bottle. Or, well, it seemed unwise on a weeknight, certainly. Fortunately, I had a half bottle of what turned out to be a delightful 2009 Tin Barn Vineyards Zinfandel.

Zinfandel from Sonoma’s Russian River Valley can hardly be classified as obscure, but half bottles of anything other than dessert wines are still surprisingly rare. Even the largest wine stores tend to have just a corner devoted to them. It’s odd and unfortunate, because half bottles come in quite handy.

I frequently drink alone for this blog, I will freely admit, and it would be ever so much less wasteful to uncork half bottles. Typically, I’ll taste only about 1/3 of a full bottle before calling it a night. I’ll spray a blanket of inert gas on the remainder, which sits undisturbed on my counter or in my fridge for approximately four days, after which time I feel less guilty about pouring it down the drain. A half bottle solves this problem, allowing me to proceed with my important blogging work guilt-free.


The City’s Most Frustrating Wine List

3 September 2011

Some restaurants and bars are not especially interested in putting together a thoughtful wine selection, and I don’t have a problem with that. In certain establishments, wine won’t be a big seller, no matter how enticing the list may be.

Much more annoying are the restaurants that do make an effort to offer a range of different wines, but render them virtually inaccessible because of a poor menu. Exhibit A:

I like the two different sizes of glasses are available, allowing one to create a customized flight of wine. But what will actually be in that flight remains a mystery, unless the customer happens to know the specific winery names.

I write a wine blog, and I know two, maybe three of these wines by name. How can I order something unusual if I don’t even know what country (let alone region) most of these wines are from? That Ferrari Carano Chardonnay could be from some obscure, exciting region in Italy, or it could be some run-of-the-mill Napa “Chard.” The 14 Hands Merlot could be from California, Australia, Chile, Argentina… It’s actually from Washington, which makes it a much more interesting choice in my book, but how could I possibly know that from this list?

Restaurants: If you take the time to assemble a fine selection of wines, don’t shoot yourself in the foot with an opaque wine list. There’s more to wine than just the varietal. The winery name, varietal and place of origin are all necessary pieces of information for the wine consumer. I don’t really need the vintage, unless it’s unusually old, and heck, I barely even need the winery name.

Poorly written menus affect the bottom line. Because when faced with a list like this — and I don’t think I’m alone — I just order a beer.