Monthly Archives: September 2016

Japanese Whisky And The Problem With Food Festivals

29 September 2016

Suntory Whisky Toki and miso-glazed chickenI had planned on helping to weed the nearby community garden on Saturday, followed by some light packing for my trip to Vancouver. But before bed on Friday night, something told me to check my email. “I’ve been able to secure a ticket for you for Saturday!” a message from a PR firm read.

I felt a most extraordinary and peculiar sensation: disappointment that I would have to forgo weeding in order to attend Chicago Gourmet.

Before I delve further into my perversely skewed priorities, duty requires that I spend a moment describing the delights of Suntory Whisky Toki, a Japanese whisky released this past June. Suntory’s PR firm organized my Chicago Gourmet media pass in spite of sell-out conditions on Saturday, and even went so far as to procure me a “Staff” bracelet when my media pass was stolen from the PR rep.

The very idea of Japanese whisky was met with grave skepticism even just a few years ago, according to Gardner Dunn, the Suntory Japanese Whisky Senior Ambassador. “Eight years ago, I had to convince people it wasn’t made from rice,” he said, as we chatted in Suntory’s shoji screen-clad tent. (The whisky is made almost entirely from corn, with a touch of barley added for its enzymes.)

Oddly enough, this whisky hasn’t yet been released in Japan. I asked Dunn why, and he said, “We think it’s good enough, and maybe we’ll release it there in 2018. We’re not sure.” In the meantime, this Japanese whisky is available only in North America, the market for which it was tailored. “We know what the U.S. consumer wants,” Dunn explained. “I’m seeing a craze for bourbon, rye… sweeter whiskies. That’s why this whisky has a little complexity but is easygoing.”

Suntory Whisky TokiHe’s exactly right. I tried this blended whisky neat, and though it had a fresh and light aroma undergirded with some wood, it felt lush on the tongue. That initial richness quickly gave way to big spice and some fresh tobacco on the finish, and on the whole, it felt very well-balanced. Peat-phobes need not fear this whisky.

It’s pleasant enough neat, but really, it was intended to stand up to dilution in a highball, a cocktail which is reportedly wildly popular in Japan. In fact, I met a man dubbed “Mr. Highball” in the Suntory tent, and he told me that though highballs were an American invention (“Be sure to write that they’re an American invention,” he said), they have become exceedingly popular in Japan, where people drink the mix of whisky and sparkling water with food, “like a beer.”

The Suntory Whisky Toki is big enough and spicy enough that it doesn’t entirely lose its character when mixed with sparkling water, as some whiskies do. With a twist of citrus, it makes an exceedingly refreshing (and low-sugar) cocktail, and it indeed works well with food, as I discovered when I paired it with some savory and bright miso-glazed chicken with Fresno pepper and burnt lemon. “You need to have a soda water with big bubbles,” a companion of Mr. Highball explained. The best, according to her, is Fever Tree.

The whisky costs about $40 a bottle, which doesn’t seem at all a bad value, particularly in comparison to other Japanese whiskies, which typically cost upwards of $70. A search of Binny’s selection revealed only one less-expensive Japanese whisky, the Mars Whisky Iwai.

If you’ve never tried a Japanese whisky, you certainly couldn’t go wrong by starting with some Suntory Whisky Toki.

Chicago Gourmet 1With my duty complete, I turned from the Suntory tent towards the heart of Chicago Gourmet, a sea of tasting booths and hungry people. And tasting mean one thing to me: work. Weeding is like meditation. Tasting I’ve turned into work. It’s pleasant work, to be sure, and I love that it’s part of my work. But delightful though the work may be, it’s still work.

I looked around at all the people who weren’t working, and I can’t deny that I felt a bit baffled. Chicago Gourmet ranks among the city’s most expensive events. Tickets this year cost $185 per person, plus a shameless $22.27 ticketing fee charged by Eventbrite. That totals an insane $207.27 per person.

Unless, of course, you want to spring instead for a Grand Cru ticket. And at this point, why not? Those will set you back $229.57 per person, including fees. That price doesn’t necessarily include seminars such as “The Tao of Tacos,” however. That run for the border costs an additional $106.92.

Chicago Gourmet Line 2You then get access to a beautiful park full of tents offering all-you-can-eat nibbles from notable restaurants as well as numerous all-you-can-sip tastes of various wines, spirits and cocktails. It’s all very fancy.

You also get access to lines. Long lines. And it’s hard to feel fancy when you’re standing in a line — several of them had amusement park-style switchbacks — with an empty plastic plate in your hand. The line for the seafood pavilion alone easily held more than 100 people.

I decided to try a little experiment. I selected one of the shortest lines, the line for Tasting Pavilion #8, to see how long it took to get something on my plastic plate, and whether that something was worth the wait. There were no switchbacks. Switchbacks make me feel like I’m waiting in an airport for my luggage to be searched and my body to be backscattered. Just a line.

Agnolotti, crudo, burger and pork croquette at Chicago GourmetIt took me exactly 15 minutes to make it through, and for my effort, I was rewarded with some overcooked butternut squash agnolotti (actually an agnolotto) with a pomegranate/balsamic reduction, serviceable shrimp and scallop crudo with cilantro and Fresno pepper in a citrus marinade, a decadently rich burger of braised short-rib with peppercorn aioli and baby arugula, and a savory pork croquette with sweet-and-sour cabbage atop a celeriac/truffle oil purée.

I adored the burger. But I know other adorable burgers that can be had for about $15. With fries.

The wine and spirits booths also proved to be hit and miss, and the hits tended to have lines as well. The Prisoner sentenced people to waits of about 10 minutes, by the look of things. But to be fair, those unwilling to wait for Roederer, for example, could walk right up to the Prosecco booth.

I felt unwilling to wait for Roederer, and I didn’t even have to pay for my ticket. How did people who plunked down more than $200 to attend Chicago Gourmet feel about queuing for their Champagne? I just don’t see how it’s worth it, paying that kind of money to access food and drink — after a wait — that’s presented, in many cases, as if it were part of a sales pitch.

Do any of you pay to attend food festivals like Chicago Gourmet? Why not just have a fabulous dinner for $200 a person somewhere? Somewhere that serves food not on plastic plates.

Obviously I’m missing something, because Chicago Gourmet sells out every year. What am I missing? Write a comment and fill me in.

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The German Side Of Lodi

14 September 2016
Dornfelder growing in Lodi's Mokelumne Glen Vineyards

Dornfelder growing in Lodi’s Mokelumne Glen Vineyards

After visiting Lodi, California, about a month ago, I can confirm that it’s hot. Hot, sunny, dry and flat. The soils range from sandy loam to loamy sand, and both types feel, more or less, like glorified dust. Zinfandel, famous (infamous?) for producing jammy fruit bombs, is the signature grape.

I’ve also had the fortune to visit German wine regions such as the Rhein and Mosel valleys, and I can confirm that they are cool, wet and frequently quite steep. Slate permeates the Mosel’s soil and some of the Rheingau’s vineyards, with loess and marl also appearing in the latter. Riesling, the best examples of which display steely nerve and focused acids, is the signature grape.

In short, the terroirs of Lodi and Germany have about as much in common as avocados and schnitzel. Lodi is one of the last wine regions on Earth I would expect to find German grapes.

And yet, there they were in the Mokelumne Glen Vineyards, growing in tidy, defiant rows. The appeared to be flourishing, in fact, like German tourists on a permanent holiday in Mallorca. Even I, someone who regularly seeks out the unusual wines, felt flabbergasted at the sight of Dornfelder grapes ripening happily in Lodi’s semi-desert.

Vineyard co-owner Bob Koth, a former winemaker and paratrooper, explained how he grew to love German wines while visiting his daughter, who lived there for a time as a Fulbright Scholar. He came back wanting to grow German grapes, and that’s exactly what he did, sun and loamy sand be damned. He and vineyard co-owner May Lou Koth eventually converted a pear orchard into Mokelumne Glen Vineyards, where they now grow some 48 different German and Austrian grapes.

Mokelumne Glen Vineyards

Mokelumne Glen Vineyards

Most of the varieties, including true oddities such as Oraniensteiner and Affenthaler, are grown on an experimental basis. So far, nine grapes — Bacchus, Gewürztraminer, Kerner, Rieslaner, Riesling, Weissburgunder, Blaufränkisch, Dornfelder and Zweigelt — have done well enough to justify larger plantings.

Unlike in Germany, ripening the grapes is never a concern. The trick is to pick them after they fully ripen but before the juice turns flabby.

Still, the whole idea struck me as frankly insane. Could wines from these grapes possibly be any good? I sat down in a shady glen near the vineyards with a dozen fellow wine bloggers for a tasting. Winemakers from four different wineries poured (Mokelumne doesn’t produce its own wine).

German varietal wines of Lodi2015 Sidebar Cellers Kerner Mokelumne River: As we tasted this wine, Bob exclaimed, “This is the only place west of Michigan that grows Kerner!” I believe it. The Oxford Companion to Wine mentions plantings outside of Germany in England, Japan and South Africa, but says nothing about Kerner in the U.S. (you can read more about Kerner in this post). This example had a green, spicy aroma. There was a sense of richness, with its ripe fruit balanced by grapefruity acids and plenty of spice. Delightful, and priced well at $25.

2015 Holman Cellars “Uncharted” Bacchus:  I started this blog in 2011, and yet this was my first time tasting its namesake grape, Bacchus! This cross of Müller-Thurgau with a cross of Silvaner and Riesling doesn’t often appear as a varietal. According to The Oxford Companion, “Unlike the more aristocratic and more popular crossing Kerner, however, the wine produced lacks acidity and is not even useful for blending…in poor years since it needs to be fully ripe before it can express its own exuberant flavors.” The Companion also notes that warm-climate examples can be “flabby.”

Lodi Bacchus should by all rights be a real Jabba the Hutt of a wine, but this example had ample lemon/orange acids to balance the rich fruit. I got notes of fresh herbs, like bay and sage, and even some minerality on the finish, both of which also contributed to the balance. Against all odds, I really liked this wine. It offers a lot of flavor for its $25 price tag.

Winemaker Markus Riggli

Winemaker Markus Riggli

2013 Borra Winery Markus “Nuvola” Gewürztraminer: The name of this wine comes from its winemaker, Swiss expat Markus Niggli, and the Italian word for “cloud.” A warm-climate Gewürz sounds like a terrible idea. As The Oxford Companion notes, “Many wine regions are simply too warm to produce wine with sufficient acidity, unless the grapes are picked so early… that they have developed little Gewürztraminer character.” That character is unmistakable — perfumed and spicy, commonly with a strong note of lychee.

Some Gewürztraminers are too perfumed for my taste, in fact, and if you agree, this is the Gewürz for you. The aroma had more of an undertone of flowers — lily of the valley, to my nose — along with notes of dried herbs. The fruit tasted quite peachy, and it even veered into caramel territory, but balance was restored by a shaft of ginger/white pepper spice. The finish felt sweetly chalky. I’m not sure this qualifies as a classic Gewürztraminer, but I liked that the perfume didn’t slap me in the face. A good value for $19.

We also tasted two blends of Kerner, Bacchus, Riesling and Gewürztraminer by Borra Winery, the 2015 Markus Nativo, which tasted delightfully cool and clean, and the 2014 Markus Nimmo, which included a higher proportion of Gewürztraminer. It tasted creamier — almost buttery — but refined spice and a long mineral finish kept it balanced. $19 and $22, respectively.

Hatton Daniels Zweigelt2015 Hatton Daniels Zweigelt: You may not have heard of this dark-skinned grape, but as The Oxford Companion explains, “It is widely grown throughout all Austrian wine regions and can increasingly make a serious, age-worthy wine, even though most examples are best drunk young.” This Lodi example had a classic Zweigelt aroma of ripe red fruit and earth. I wouldn’t call this light-bodied wine “age-worthy,” necessarily, but I liked its cherry fruit, notes of leather and meat, and the quick burst of acids. Some tannins on the finish kept things grounded. $25

I suppose that 50 years ago, it would have seemed crazy to the people of Cahors, France, that their Malbec would grow exceedingly well — dare I say even better — in Mendoza. Now Argentine Malbec is in every corner liquor store. So perhaps we shouldn’t be shocked to discover perfectly lovely examples of Kerner and Gewürztraminer in the wilds of central California. The grapes behave differently there, to be sure, but that doesn’t mean they don’t make tasty wine.

I’m sure people thought Bob Koth was crazy when he said he wanted to grow German grape varieties in Lodi. Some people probably still do. But the proof is in the pudding.

These tastes were provided free of charge as part of the 2016 Wine Bloggers Conference.

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