Monthly Archives: February 2013

A Nice Cool Byrrh

27 February 2013

ByrrhI love drinks ressurected from the grave, such as the violet-flavored Crème Yvette or Old Tom Gin. The aperitif called Byrrh (pronounced “beer”) wasn’t dead, exactly, but for years you couldn’t find it in the United States. France stopped exporting it to the U.S. during Prohibition, and for some reason never started again. And so we were left bereft of Byrrh, because as charming as it is to travel to France for a little aperitif shopping, it can get a little impractical.

I had heard of the sweet vermouth-like Byrrh, but I had never tasted it because my aperitif shopping tends to be limited to the northeast side of Chicago. Then one day, there it was! Just standing on a shelf in Binny’s, like nothing had happened. I snapped up a bottle posthaste.

I couldn’t wait to try it, because although at first glance Byrrh appears to resemble many other sweet vermouths, or even Port, it differs in one important respect: It’s spiked with quinine, the anti-malarial compound found in cinchona bark that gives traditional tonic its unique flavor.

I tried it first at room temperature, though it’s traditionally consumed chilled. It had a Porty, richly fruity aroma with something herbal in there as well — a bit of parsley perhaps. I loved the round, luscious mouthfeel which slowly developed into orangey acids and the barest hint of menthol on the finish.

After that taste, there was no question — I needed to see what it would do for a Manhattan. I shook two parts Rowan’s Creek Bourbon, one part Byrrh and a couple dashes of Angostura Bitters with ice, and strained it into a martini glass. It proved to be a balanced but very bright and lively Manhattan. It seemed to end with a deep note from the bitters, but it jumped up again at the last second with a little cedar and mint.

Fun to drink on its own, and fun to mix in a Manhattan — I’d say Byrrh is a winner. And it’s not even that expensive. I picked up a 375 ml bottle at Binny’s for $13. So by God, go out and get some Byrrh!

The World’s Most Unspecial Specialty Drinks

23 February 2013

Westgate Hotel

I’ve never actually written about beer on this blog. It’s not because I don’t drink it, because I do, and it’s not because I have trouble finding unusual beers to try. I live around the corner from Hopleaf, which has some 300 beers on their menu, and just down the street is a wonderful microbrewery called Metropolitan. I don’t write about beer — and I know this sounds like a high-class problem — because it’s refreshing to have a drink that I can imbibe for pure pleasure, without ever having to worry about analyzing its quality or flavor profile.

This brings me to The Westgate Hotel in San Diego (above), the hotel that finally compelled me to break my beer-writing rule. The Westgate is ostensibly a very fancy property, with a lobby decked out to look like an olde time French palace. What a French palace is doing in a converted 1960s office building in downtown San Diego is a question I never did manage to answer satisfactorily.

In a place of such overt luxury, one might expect that ethos to extend into every corner of the operation. And indeed it did, with one glaring exception: the room service menu. Right at the top was this less-than-mouthwatering item:

World's Most Boring Beer Tasting

If someone gave me the task of designing the most boring, insipid, overpriced beer tasting possible, it would turn out pretty much like this. For shame! San Diego is a major microbrewing center! I didn’t have much of a chance to explore that scene, but I did immensely enjoy a Ballast Point Sculpin IPA. Unlike a Bud Light, for example, this beer had some real flavor — it was fruity, bitter and dry, with a grapefruity aroma and aftertaste. Delicious!

So Westgate — listen up. I know guests who stay with you probably don’t care all that much about a sense of place (witness the aforementioned Versailles-like decor), but this Beer Taster is a scandal. Some guests won’t want to venture out of their comfort zone, so keep this flaccid selection on the menu if you must, but for the rest of us, how about taking advantage of the many stellar breweries within a 15-minute drive? This is the beer list of a random bar in Anytown, USA, not the “Specialty Drinks” of an expensive hotel in a major city.

Top Temecula Wineries, Part 3: Doffo

20 February 2013

The inimitable Marcelo DoffoThis is my last post about Temecula, I swear on a bottle of Château d’Yquem! But I wouldn’t do justice to this unfamous region without talking about my visit to Doffo Winery.

On the road out of town to Palm Springs, this winery was my last stop in Temecula, California, but certainly not the least. Argentinean Marcelo Doffo founded the winery in 1997, and his family still tends the 15 acres to this day. Indeed, the Doffo Winery has a very hands-on approach — I discovered the lively Mr. Doffo himself pouring wines in the tasting room, which was decorated with part of his motorcycle and scooter collection.

The tasting room was crowded on my Sunday visit, but not with bachelorette parties. A party did enter the room at one point, and Mr. Doffo did not look especially pleased, perhaps because he suspected they were more interested in getting buzzed than really tasting the wine. The bachelorettes must have taken the hint, because they were gone when I turned around a couple of minutes later.

Mr. Doffo is right to expect his patrons to pay at least a little attention to his wines, which are clearly crafted with heart and skill. I enjoyed all the wines I tasted immensely; they had deep fruit that felt immensely satisfying. Here’s a rundown of what I sampled:

2010 Malbec: This unfiltered wine had dark, dusky fruit and a supple mouthfeel, with some tannins and a touch of something herbal at the end.

2010 Grenache: I was surprised by the perfumy aroma of this wine, which tasted very fruity and spicy. It had some of that fun “Temecula raciness” described by winemaker Clark Smith. Mr. Doffo didn’t use his own fruit for this wine, however — his neighbor grew it. When the original buyer fell through, the neighbor offered Mr. Doffo a smokin’ deal, and he bought the grapes. Mr. Doffo noted that he used Syrah skins to “beef the wine up” a bit.

2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve: Composed of 90% Cabernet, this wine is actually a field blend, with the remaining 10% coming from other grape varieties planted in the same vineyard. It had an enticingly jammy aroma, rich fruit and a finish of chocolate and tobacco. Lush and delicious.

2010 Zinfandel Reserve: Very dark in color, with an aroma of overripe plums. This was a big wine, but very smooth and focused as well. But just when you think you’re out of the woods, a pow of spice punches you right in the kisser.

2010 Zinfandel: Mr. Doffo called this wine “The happiest Zinfandel in Temecula,” and while I wouldn’t presume to compare, I will say that it certainly made me happy. It had an exotic, jammy nose and similarly jammy fruit on the palate. Yet there was good focus, and it never became overblown. It started lush and round before expanding into some powerful spiciness.

2008 Syrah Reserve: There again was that jammy aroma, this time mixed with some caramel. Rich fruit tightened into some food-friendly acids and a some tannins; it expanded in the mouth before restraining itself and focusing.

NV Port: A blend of older and younger vintages, this fortified wine had a deep red fruit aroma that sucked me right in. There was that telltale jammy fruit, and a powerful, almost overwhelming cinnamon spiciness. Dusky but very sprightly.

NV Late Harvest Syrah “Los Nietos”: I had great fun tasting with Mr. Doffo, but I’ll always remember this wine, named for his first grandchild who passed away shortly after birth. It smelled of very sweet raspberries, and it had impressively rich, plummy, chocolaty fruit. There was something green in the middle which gave way to a long, luscious finish. Surely excellent with chocolate.

And there you have it! If you go to Temecula, and I hope you do, you can’t go wrong with Doffo. And for that matter, you’ll surely be delighted with Palumbo and Wiens as well. Happy tasting!

California Cocktail Roundup

16 February 2013

Let’s cleanse the palate after that Melvyn’s debacle, shall we? I had the fortune to sip a number of thoroughly delicious cocktails on my recent trip to southern California. Should you ever happen to find yourself in that chunk of the country — or more specifically, San Diego — here are three bars not to miss.



A Martinez in the Pony Room

This bar in the Rancho Valencia resort draws a wealthy crowd, a fact made abundantly clear to me as I watched the valet park my rental Ford Focus among the Maseratis and Bentleys. Nevertheless, it’s a friendly and lively place, and it has a relatively short but intriguing cocktail list including top-shelf spirits and house-made sodas.

I ordered a classic Martinez (above), which many hold up as the ur-martini. For a long time, it was very difficult to make this very old cocktail properly, because finding Old Tom Gin was nearly impossible. But this sweeter gin is back in fashion (at least somewhat), and well-stocked liquor stores now carry this relic from the 18th century.

The Pony Room uses Hayman’s Old Tom Gin, Dolin Sweet Vermouth, Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur (not to be confused with fluorescent Maraschino cherry juice) and Angostura bitters. The result was strong but very smooth, with some bitterness and then sweetness, with a surprising note of citrus. My server said that The Pony Room doesn’t sell many Martinez cocktails, which is a shame, because they’re both historic and delicious.



The Rabbit at Burlap

Just down the road from Rancho Valencia, in a rather unpromising-looking strip mall, is Burlap, a very happening restaurant and bar bursting with Asian exotica. A giant dragon dance costume hangs from the ceiling near the entrance, and an ornately carved wooden screen, perhaps from India, frames the back bar.

Here I tried a Rabbit, one of the dozen cocktails named after Chinese zodiac symbols. The menu describes it as “Pimm’s #1, house-made basil lemonade, pickled globe carrot,” and I have to admit it was the pickled carrot that sold me. Who wouldn’t want to try that?

The drink actually was even more complicated than it sounds, with star anise and basil leaves supplementing the globe carrot garnish. It was wonderfully fragrant, as you might expect with the anise sitting on top, and it tasted marvelously refreshing. Basil, then lemon, then something green and herbaceous, and a touch of something medicinal in the underbelly. The carrots were a deliciously sour and sweet counterpoint.



Amber Dream at Noble ExperimentThis speakeasy in downtown San Diego was my favorite bar of the trip. It’s a little complicated to get in — you need to make a reservation in advance (ideally, a week in advance), and you can only make that reservation by sending a text message to 619-888-4713. Once your reservation is confirmed, go to a restaurant called The Neighborhood at 777 G Street. Go to the back by the bathrooms, and you’ll see some beer kegs stacked up against the wall. Push on those, and you’re in!

The decor of gilt-frame old-master reproductions and gilded skulls feels rather louche, and the cocktails here are made with extreme care, as in Philadelphia’s Ranstead Room.

Bartender Anthony hand-cracked the ice for my Amber Dream (right), a classic cocktail that I must admit I’d never tried before. It contained Beefeater 24 (in which Beefeater steeps the botanicals for 24 hours, amping up the flavor), Carpano Antica (the sweet vermouth craft bars are going crazy for these days), Yellow Chartreuse (a French herbal liqueur), orange bitters and a strip of lemon zest.

This cocktail took a few minutes to make, and it was worth the wait. It started on a sweet note, but the flavor became more and more bitter. I love the smooth, round texture (achieved with lots of stirring) and the citrusy aroma from the zest. Delicious, complex, and positively delightful.

Also delightful, not incidentally, was the company. I had the pleasure of sitting next to a charming local couple, Ellana and Colin (below), and somehow we ended up chatting about everything from the difficulty of making friends to what it means to follow your dreams. The conversation proved surprisingly honest and open. Was it the drinks? The skulls? Who knows? Anyway, Noble Experiment — go there.

Cocktails with Ellana & Colin


Burlap on Urbanspoon

Top Temecula Wineries, Part 2: Palumbo

13 February 2013

Who knew I would have so much to say about Temecula? Don’t be fooled by the “Part 2” in the title. This is actually my fourth post about this unsung wine region north of San Diego, and I saved some of the best for last. Well, almost last. On the advice of the charming and startlingly young sommelier at the Ponte Vineyard Inn (geez, kids are learning about wine early these days!), I visited two of Temecula’s smaller wineries, Palumbo and Doffo. The intimate tasting rooms provided exactly the sort of wine-tasting atmosphere I like most: Casual, friendly and focused on the wine.

Should you find yourself in Temecula at some point, don’t miss these guys. First, Palumbo:


Matt and Joe at PalumboOn a quiet side road away from the big wineries along Rancho California, this winery was recommended by almost every Temeculan I spoke with. All the fruit for its wines comes from Palumbo’s 13 acres of vineyards, because owner Nicholas Palumbo “believes in producing only what he grows himself,” according to the winery website. And good for him. I don’t know much about viticulture, but it makes sense to me that if you’re not controlling what happens in the vineyard, you’re not controlling what happens in the bottle.

Here are some of the excellent and very focused wines I tasted in the congenial Palumbo tasting room:

2011 Viognier: Fresh, tropical nose. Focused, surprisingly tight fruit followed by tart acids and some exotic spice on the finish. Viogniers can get a little overblown sometimes, but Palumbo kept a tight corset on this one!

2009 Syrah Clone 877: You know it’s serious when clone numbers start appearing. This wine had a meaty, earthy aroma, and again, it showed impressive focus and restraint. A supple mouthfeel gives way to zingy spice, some tannins and a bit of tobacco. Marlene Dietrich with a cigarette.

2009 Shiraz/Cabernet “60/40”: If you hadn’t guessed, this is a blend of 60% Shiraz and 40% Cabernet Sauvignon. It had a soft and jammy nose, rich but tightly wound red fruit, something herbaceous in the middle and a bit of spice at the end.

2008 Cabernet Franc “Catfish Vineyard”: Made from grapes grown on 21-year-old vines, this wine had aromas of iron and earth. It tasted earthy and tight, with focused red fruit flavors, a bit of sweetness, medium tannins, and a finish reminiscent of the aroma.

2009 Tre Fratelli “Meritage”: This Bordeaux-style blend had a marvelously rich and fruity aroma, with some violets in there as well. Woo! A very elegant wine, with impressive focus and non-trivial finesse. Ample fruit was tempered by silky tannins and some acids. Fine balance.

2009 Sangiovese “Due Figli Vineyard”: Brick red, with an earthy, jammy nose that had me itching to give this wine a taste. I was not disappointed. It tasted wonderfully lush, with jammy fruit, a luxurious mouthfeel and a tannic finish. Way to end the tasting with a bang!

Up Next: Tasting amid the motorcycles at Doffo.

A Terribly Unusual Sidecar

9 February 2013

A "Sidecar" at Melvyn'sLet’s take a breather from Temecula for a moment and talk about Melvyn’s, a “legendary” Palm Springs bar and restaurant which used to be popular with celebrity types, most notably Frank Sinatra. According to its website, a poll by a local newspaper ranked Melvyn’s as having the “#1 Best Martini” in the city. In the mood for a good cocktail and a little old-school Palm Springs glamor, I stopped in for a drink.

The atmosphere was pleasant enough, with live piano music and a well-dressed crowd munching on steaks. I pulled up a bar stool and ordered one of my favorite classic cocktails: A Sidecar. The bartender got to work.

A waitress nearby overheard my order and asked the bartender what goes into the drink. He replied, “It’s brandy, triple sec and sour mix, and you pour that into a glass with a sugared rim. It’s basically like a margarita but with brandy instead of tequila.”

The waitress inquired, with appropriate skepticism, “Is that good?” Then she looked at me, and noticing the look of confused horror on my face, she added, “Because I don’t think he likes the sound of that.”

Indeed I did not. “Yes, I was a little surprised to hear your recipe,” I admitted. “I usually use Cognac, triple sec and fresh lemon juice.” (As described toward the end of this post).

“Well, this is how we make it here,” the bartender replied. “Why don’t you give it a try and see if you like it.”

Though I usually draw the line at artificially flavored sour mix, I’m not one to shy away from an unusual interpretation of a drink. I agreed to give this Brandy Margarita/Sidecar concoction a try.

I gingerly took a sip, and it didn’t taste awful. It was rather light, not especially strong and not especially flavorful. I suppose if one had never tasted a real Sidecar, one might think this drink was innocuous enough, if a little boring, and one would probably never order it again.

If one has tasted a real Sidecar, and one most certainly has, this sad cocktail would seem a poor imitation at best. A Sidecar should be bright and citrusy with a round, darkly sweet underbelly. With dead flavors and a watery texture, this drink failed to achieve any of the sprightliness or complexity of the properly made cocktail. Even more upsetting, it contained sour mix, a noxiously green chemical stew with barely a natural ingredient to its name. Not only does the drink taste bad, it’s bad for you.

So congratulations, Melvyn’s. The year is still young, but so far, your Brandy Margarita — er, Sidecar — wins my award for Worst Cocktail of 2013.

To experience the joys of a real Sidecar yourself, add two parts Cognac, one part Triple Sec (or Cointreau if you’re feeling extravagant) and one part fresh-squeezed lemon juice to a shaker with ice. To get the proportions right, squeeze your lemon juice first and use that as the measure of a part. Then shake and strain into a martini glass. Easy! It’s traditional to sugar the rim of the glass, but I’m lazy and I skip that step.

And heck, since blood oranges are appearing in grocery stores now, you might give this Bloody Sidecar recipe a try as well!

Melvyn's Restaurant & Lounge on Urbanspoon

Top Temecula Wineries, Part 1: Wiens

6 February 2013

Should you decide to visit the picturesque wine country of Temecula, California, there are three wineries you simply shouldn’t miss, on any account. All three serve excellent wines which showcase some of Temecula’s true potential.


Blair in the Cellar Room at WiensThis winery has a large tasting room on the main road through the region, and this tasting room no doubt draws the buzz-seeking groups so prevalent at Ponte.

In a very smart move, this winery allows people really interested in the wine to make reservations for a $30 reserve tasting, held at formally set tables in a separate room on the property. I reserved a space for the 10:30 a.m. tasting on a Sunday, and it turned out to be a private reserve tasting — not a single other person had signed up! It was a grand experience, and the wines were, without exception, positively delightful.

2010 Reserve Chardonnay: A pretty gold color, this wine smelled of ripe pears. It had a lush texture and a woodsy start, but limey acids and even some minerals ensured that this was no butter bomb.

2008 Reserve Cabernet Franc: The fruit for this wine came from Paso Robles, but Wiens just sold this vineyard, and so the 2008 will be the last vintage of its Paso Robles Cabernet Franc. It had a sexy aroma of rich plums, a little black pepper and some chocolate. Woo! True to the variety, the wine moved from plummy fruit to something herbaceous to a tannic finish. A pairing of Havarti tamed the tannins, and some olives cured with rosemary and red wine made for a wonderfully bright and briny match.

2009 Chateau Grand Rouge: An unusual Cabernet Franc-heavy blend of 45% Cabernet Franc, 34% Cabernet Sauvignon and 11% Malbec. With a lovely dark red hue, this Bordeaux-style blend had an alluring aroma of chocolatey raspberries. Beautifully balanced, with plummy fruit, soft balancing acids, some rather hefty tannins and a bit of wood. It has some finesse but also a spicy zing — it’s an elegant young thing with a bit of a wild streak.

2008 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon: This blend of 90% Cabernet and 10% Merlot had a darkly fruity nose mixed with something herbal. It exhibited restrained power, with hearty, meaty fruit and a tannic finish. It would surely be magnificent with a good steak, but it also worked marvelously with some goat milk gouda, becoming bigger and spicier.

2007 Reserve Syrah: The aroma of dark plums, chocolate and tobacco had me at first sniff. I also loved the supple mouthfeel and dusky fruit, followed by some acids, white-pepper spice and a touch of tobacco at the end. It tasted even zestier when paired with some smoked gouda.

2009 Reserve Petit Sirah: It’s rather unusual to see this variety as a varietal, but it really worked. Clocking in at a substantial 15.3% alcohol level, this wine had a deep aroma of raspberry jam. Another sexy wine with ample, rich fruit, a spicy finish, and some not insignificant finesse. Some salami-wrapped mozzarella brought out some additional meaty notes in the wine.

None of these wines is inexpensive, but hey, if you’ve got the money, you’ll surely be pleased with any of the above.

Ah crap. I got so excited about these wines, I didn’t leave much room for Doffo and Palumbo. Well, those wineries deserve their own blog posts in any case. The Temecula journey continues!

The Fine Wines Of Temecula

2 February 2013
Kelli at Hart Family Winery

Kelli at Hart Family Winery

The AVA of Temecula north of San Diego had an inauspicious beginning. Vines weren’t planted here because someone thought, “Hey, this is a great place to make wine.” The vineyards were a marketing tool, used to lure prospective home-buyers! The Oxford Companion to Wine explains: “Beginning in the late 1960s, insurance company developers used vineyards as part of their sales pitch to urban-weary escapees from Los Angeles and San Diego.”

In spite of this remarkably unromantic beginning, Temecula has started to come into its own, and some vintners are crafting wines of real distinction. Because of cool breezes from the Pacific funneled through a gap in the mountains, it turns out Temecula vineyards can do a lot more than look pretty for suburbanites.

As I wrote in this post, Temecula’s tasting room experience still has some growing-up to do. A number of venues still gear themselves to birthday and bachelorette party groups looking more to get a buzz than experience beautifully made wines. But at some Temecula wineries and tasting rooms do focus on the wines, as opposed to getting drunk, and many of these are showing off some very fine wines indeed.

I started my second day in Temecula at Hart Family Winery, mostly because its tasting room opened at 9:00 a.m., an hour or two earlier than everyone else’s. I felt a bit apprehensive, I must admit, after the previous day’s unpleasantness, but Hart’s tasting room was small and quiet, and it offered tastings for half the price of Ponte. And the wines weren’t too shabby either!

2011 Roussanne: Rhône varieties seem to do well in dry, sunny Temecula, and this Roussanne was no exception. It had a green, juicy aroma, juicy fruit and acids, and it ended on a clean mineral note.

2011 Cabernet Franc Rosé: I’m a sucker for good rosé. This example was fruity and fun, with some lemony acids and a touch of stone. Works for me!

2011 Montepulciano: Temecula’s Italian varietals also tended to taste great, including this lovely little number. I liked its nose of earth and raspberries, its ripe red fruit and its food-friendly acids.

2010 Sangiovese: I thought for a moment that I might be in Tuscany when I sipped this brick-red beauty. It felt focused and earthy, with well-balanced acids and an irony finish.

2009 Tres Hermanos: This Rhône-style blend of Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah had tightly wound, plummy fruit and hearty tannins. It had me hankering for a bowl of ratatouille.

2010 Syrah: I didn’t detect too much bouquet here, and the wine felt a little tough. I bet it would benefit from some decanting or some additional age.

2010 Aleatico Port: I felt especially excited to try this port, made from the very unusual Aleatico variety. This grape, a red relative of Muscat, originated in Italy, where it’s grown mostly in Lazio and Puglia, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine. The island of Elba also exports a sweet red wine made from Aleatico, and the grape is “surprisingly popular in the central Asian republics, notably Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan,” the Companion notes.

I still don’t fully understand how this odd duck of a variety ended up in Temecula, but there it was. The port had a thrillingly rich, raisiny aroma and a beautiful dark magenta color. It started sweet and smooth, then moved to an intriguingly chalky midsection before finishing with a surprising blast of spice. Delightful!

There’s nothing like a good port right after breakfast. Feeling much restored, I set off towards my next tasting. It proved to be the complete opposite, in every way, from the craziness of Ponte.

Up Next: An unexpectedly private tasting at Wiens, some intense focus at Palumbo, and sipping amid the motorcycles with vivacious Marcello Doffo.