More Culinary Wine Adventures...

More Culinary Wine Adventures...
For more of Randy's tasting notes and gibberish-free ruminations, visit

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Frasca Food and Wine: to thine own self be true

Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder, CO

(Blind tastings)... seem such tomfoolery... Such tasting conditions have nothing to do with the conditions under which the wines will presumably be drunk, which is at the table, with food.  When a woman chooses a hat, she does not put it on a goat's head to judge it; she puts it on her own.  There is a vast difference, an insurmountable difference, between the taste of a wine next to another wine, and the same wine's taste with food. - Kermit Lynch, Adventures on the Wine Route

What does it take to become – like Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder, CO – a #1 restaurant in the eyes of both critics across the country and your surrounding community?  This past January 2015 I took two sommeliers, three executive chefs, and four general managers employed by the TAG restaurant group in Denver to Frasca for dinner.  Our mission:  to get a feel for what makes a restaurant like Frasca work.

Since 2004 Frasca has been owned and operated by Master Sommelier Bobby Stuckey and his Chef/Partner Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson.  What makes Frasca unusual is that it is focused almost exclusively on the cuisine and wines of Friuli-Venezia Giulia.  If there are influences from outside the realm of Northern Italy, the emphasis still rests squarely on the delicacy, subtle earthiness, and sense of balance, clarity and delineation similar to what you find in dishes and wines from Friuli-Venezia Giulia.

At a Master Sommelier's restaurant, uncompromised crystal

This means no long lists of Bordeaux grand crus or the usual big-name American brands associated with “serious” restaurant wine programs.  Instead, you find wines that are comparable, on a sensory level, to the lighter, crisper styles of Friuli-Venezie Giulia:  white and red Burgundies, German and Alsatian Rieslings, Grüner Veltliner from Austria, and smatterings of alternative style American wines such as Ryme Vermentino, Arnot-Roberts Syrah, Scholium Project Rhododactylus, and Pinot Noirs by a Copain or Eyrie.

Yet in 2013, Frasca garnered a James Beard Award for Outstanding Wine Service.  The locals also get it, because every year since 2010 Frasca has been voted Colorado’s top restaurant by Denver’s 5280 Magazine.  As TAG’s Davin Tata put it, after our experience:  Is Friuli a town of great culinary traditions and innovation?  Possibly.  Was anyone in Boulder clamoring for Friulian food and wine in Boulder before Frasca opened?  Probably not.  Is their commitment to their identity unwavering?  Absolutely!”  

The author with Frasca sommelier Carlin Karr

At Frasca, adds Tata, “you find the narrowest of focus” – from pasta handmade daily and company sponsored trips to Friuli each year, to13 different kinds of stemware cleansed in a dishwasher devoted exclusively to wine glasses, housed in a 20 x 20-foot “polishing room,” complete with a “sommelier’s table” (there is also a chef’s table in the kitchen).

Our dinner at Frasca started off with a match that would strike a theme throughout the night:  a dish that is not terribly complicated, and a wine that might be considered light and simple by today's standards, where 90-something points are awarded to the biggest, brashest, most oak driven wine.  

Yet together, the wine and dish made a powerful statement in respect to the aforementioned qualities of delicacy, subtle earthiness, balance, clarity and delineation:  a plate of salumi and frico caldo (cheese crisps) served with the 2013 Scarpetta Frico Bianco – the wine made from the Friuliano grape, which delivers an equilibrium of minerally, flowery and peach skin sensations that unfailingly enhances the palate slaking salty/sweet taste of Italian ham.

Divine simplicty:  montasio and Miani Ribolla Gialla

This was followed by a montasio (creamy cheese soup), which was given a lift by a fleshy, modestly tart edged 2011 Miani Ribolla Gialla Pettarin from Colli Orientali.  Frasca sommelier Carlin Karr explained, “Ribolla Gialla is a rare, thick skinned varietal that delivers the 'heft' that the soup begs for, and the wine itself elevates the match.  Miani, arguably Friuli’s most legendary winemaker, always gets a laser-like focus and intensity in his Ribolla.”

For the next course of gnocchi served with slivers of cotecchino (charcuterie), Ms. Karr chose what she calls a modern day “fantasy field blend” from Colli Orientali:  the 2012 Ronc di Vico Titut Blanc – a silken, seamless blend of Friulano, Chardonnay and Sauvignon, which had just enough viscosity, weight and acidity to carry the gnocchi and fatty sausage.
Our final course was a meaty, lean yet pillowy pork loin, served with the 2011 Petrussa Merlot from Colli Orientali, which combined the delicacy of a white wine with the deep, savory note of classic reds.  Karr explained, “I know many sommeliers think of Merlot as passé... but Merlot has been grown in Friuli since the Napoleon era, and we love the Petrussa for its pure, light, feminine qualities, and scent of red apple skin – a natural for pork loin.”

There are many reasons why Frasca is a #1 restaurant:  unerring wine/food mentality, fanatical team service, perfect lighting, luxurious crystal, uncompromising wine service.  But above all, observed TAG General Manager Jason Borders, “What struck me most was that they hire the best talent in the industry, and stick to what they do best.”

So stop and think again, and let that sink in:  what Frasca Food and Wine does well is live up to its full name, food and wine.  The focus is not on powerful wines or landmark dishes, meant to stand on their own.  Perhaps some of them do at Frasca, but that's besides the point.  Frasca's only real ambition is to present wines and dishes that taste divine with each other.  

What a concept - not exactly original, but so very rarely tried or executed.  In fact, I can count the number of American restaurants that do this on one hand.

Just goes to show how far you can go when you remain true to yourself! 

The TAG team at Frasca

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Spanish grape obsessions for all the right (culinary) reasons

Bokisch grown Albariño (Clements Hills, Lodi)

Gastronomic Grapes

TAPAS – Tempranillo Advocates Producers & Amigos Society – is turning out to be a very good thing for the wine business.  Especially for those of us coming at it from food backgrounds.  Notwithstanding the many Spanish imports that are obviously built for show (i.e. 100 point scores), there are still few wines in the world that can shock you by the way they drastically alter sensations in the context of food as much as those made from grapes like Tempranillo, Garnacha, the Touriga Nacional and Franca, etc.

Among white wine grapes falling under this Iberian umbrella, Verdelho and Torrontés are just beginning to turn New World winegrowing into a brave new one, and someday I’d sure love to see things done with grapes like Verdejo, Mencía, and even Vinho Verde grapes like Loureiro, Trajadura and Arinto, in parts of the West Coast. 

As it stands today, the grape that I believe has made the most dramatic statement thus far, in terms of both quality and sheer culinary usefulness, is Albariño:  twenty years ago, a relative obscurity to American consumers; but today, a grape that is approaching the familiarity of a Pinot Gris/Grigio (but hopefully, never with a budding contempt).

Child labor and Albariño friendly food (Bokisch home ranch)

I first began working with Albariño in Hawai`i in the mid-nineties, finding its combination of tropical perfume, dryness, citrusy acidity and minerality to be a perfect match with dishes incorporating the briny tastes of island fish (especially moi, onaga and opakapaka) and fresh sea vegetables (like limu and ogo).  Albariño responds particularly well to tart ingredients (particularly in seviches and adobo style seafoods); and the use of vinegars and citrus juices is certainly common enough in the Southeast Asian as well as Japanese (re ponzu) cuisines contributing to the Islands’ cross-cultural culinary heritage.

Starting in 2006, I spent a couple of years as a fish out of water, doing restaurant and retail consulting back East – specifically, the coast of Georgia, Winter Park in Florida, and Memphis, the birthplace of Elvis – where I didn't have nearly as varied a culinary culture to work with.  Yet typically medium bodied Albariño worked for me in many a multi-course wine event as a good 'tweener – something capable of bridging the gap between, say, a seafood appetizer served with lighter white wine and an other-white-meat course calling for a fuller bodied white like Chardonnay.

For example, we might start a meal with grilled wild gulf shrimp washed down with a light, snappy champagne, progress to a zesty Albariño with blue crab cakes and sweet corn relish, before moving on to a heavier Chardonnay with a butter fried fish or creamed chicken and mushrooms (in Southeastern U.S., their idea of “light” cuisine is our “heavy”).  In this context, as a between-wine, Albariño serves a role similar that might also be filled by a good Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Grüner Veltliner, or dry style Rieslings from Germany or Alsace.

But there are differences advantageous to Albariño:  Albariño is markedly crisper than Pinot Gris, with a more expansive, readily appealing stone fruitiness (i.e. peach, apricot, nectarine-like).  The acidity of a good Albariño is on the par with a Sauvignon Blanc, but you won’t ever find weedy, bell peppery, or even sweet pea-like, notes of pyrazine in an Albariño (not that pyrazines in themselves are a major negative – but it is a differentiation).

Liz and Markus Bokisch, enjoying paella in Lodi

Natural acidity is a plus for Albariño, but it is rarely so sharp that it bites.  A good Grüner Veltliner, for instance, can be just as perfumed and minerally as an Albariño, but also typically more austere in its acidity.  Both Riesling and Albariño are flowery and citrus scented; and in fact, in some quarters Albariño is still said to be a clone of Riesling supposedly transplanted by twelfth century German monks (a good story, but a mythical one).  Be as it may, even the zestiest Albariño is rarely as tart, or fusel oil-like, as a dry style Riesling; and in fact, an Albariño is typically more viscous, sometimes even creamy in texture, in a way Riesling never is.

Finally, in recent years Albariño has also been likened to a "light-weight Viognier," which is not just insulting, but absurdly inaccurate.  Although the flowery fruitiness of a good Albariño may be somewhat Viognier-like, the minerally notes typical of Albariño are almost never found in Viognier.  Classic Albariño tends to be lighter in weight than a Viognier, and is also decidedly zestier in acidity – two qualities giving it a distinct advantage over Viognier in terms of seafood versatility (which is not to say Viognier is not as food-worthy - it's just a different animal, begging for more aggressive, meatier matches in a fashion closer to Chardonnay than Albariño).

To deepen your understanding of Albariño, you do need to get a feel for its native Rías Baixas in Galicia, occupying the northeast corner of Spain directly north of Portugal along the Atlantic.  Unlike the rest of Spain (associated with dry, hot landscapes), Rías Baixas is green and verdant; which also means heavy rainfall, high humidity, temperatures rarely above 86° F., but almost never below 50º.  Albariño makes up close to 95% of Rías Baixas' plantings (about 7,500 acres total) simply because it is the only grape with thick enough skins and high enough phenolics to thrive in these severe conditions.  Although vineyards were traditionally trained on pergolas to circulate air and avoid rot and mildew, modern day trellising and opened canopy management is what does the job today.

Like all great wine regions, Rías Baixas is a convergence of climate, soil and grape adaptation.  Of its five recognized sub-zones, the finest is said to be Val do Salnés, a gently rolling, alluvial basin situated at the northern end of this DO (i.e. Denominación de Origen).  This is also the coolest, wettest section of Rías Baixas, but Albariño responds positively to Val do Salnés' well drained, rocky, pervasively granitic soils (even trellis posts are made out of granite rather than wood).  In Rías Baixas, Albariño's lime/peach fruitiness, flinty minerality, and occasional salinity (undoubtedly derived from the sea salt saturated air) are as much reflections of the grape as terroir.

American Breakthroughs

So how has Albariño fared in the U.S. thus far?  In 1996 Louisa Lindquist (wife of Bob Lindquist of Qupe) planted the first commercial block of the grape in the Ibarra-Young Vineyard (leased from Charlotte Young and Miguel Ibarra) in Santa Ynez Valley, but Havens Wine Cellar (defunct since 2009) produced the first commercial California bottling that I know of:  a '99 made from a two year old Carneros/Napa Valley planting (the first vintage of Lindquist's Verdad Albariño was a 2000).

Both Lindquist and Havens were inspired by the relatively cool, coastal, Rías Baixas-like climates of their respective terrains, and the results have been both brilliant and uneven.  Early vintages of Havens captured intensely honeyed, lime and pear-like aspects of Albariño; but on the palate, the grape's intrinsically high acidity, tough skins and dark seeds have been borne out by sharp, grapefruity, mildly bitter, ultimately austere sensations.

I enjoyed the early Verdad Albariños a bit more:  similar to the Havens bottlings, but lusher in the nose - juicy pear and traces of minerality tinged with orange/lemon essences - and on the palate, the zesty, mouthwatering flavors possessing all but the rounded, viscous, textured juxtapositions Rías Baixas grown Albariños seem to attain with ease.

In 2000 I paid my first visit to Abacela in Southern Oregon's Umqua Valley; a hillside vineyard dedicated to Spanish varieties – especially Tempranillo (although a source of intense Syrahs as well).  Since the mid-2000s Abacela’s Albariños have gone through some growing pains – transitioning from thick, golden, blowsy whites to paler, crisper models – and certainly bear watching. 

2011 Albariño harvest (Bokisch's Terra Alta Vineyard)

However, here in 2012, the plantings I'm most excited about have been those of Markus and Liz Bokisch in Lodi.  The Bokischs are major grape growers in the region; farming some 1,300 acres, mostly in the hillier eastern sections of the AVA (in sub-appellations like Jahant and Clements Hills), supplying some 115 different winery-clients.  But don’t get too excited:  out of all of this, less than 60 acres of Bokisch Ranches are planted to Spanish grapes; the bulk of it Albariño (now up to 35 acres), and the balance consisting of Tempranillo, Spanish clones of Garnacha and Garnacha Blanca, Graciano, and Monastrell (a.k.a Mourvèdre). 

There's some salient history behind the Bokischs' devotion to Spanish grapes.  In the late nineties Markus was charged by Joseph Phelps Vineyards to source Rhône varieties for the winery's Vin de Mistral line.  It was while driving back and forth between Napa Valley and Lodi that Markus first felt the spirit:  the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta reminding him of the Delta de l’Ebre in Spain where many of his close relatives still live (although Markus was raised in California, he spent many childhood summers in Catalonia).  After leaving Joseph Phelps, Liz and Markus moved to Spain to work in the Spanish wine industry for a spell; returning to California in 1995 to start their Lodi-only grape growing business.

Less than 1% of what Bokisch Ranches grows ends up being bottled under the Bokisch Vineyards label, specializing strictly in Spanish style wines (although a 2011 Verdelho has just recently been added to the portfolio).  The Bokisch reds, if anything, have been steadily improving.  Surprisingly, their best wine early on in the game was probably their Graciano – making a velvety, if loosely constructed, varietal red – which stood out as something very unique (the Spanish having drastically reduced their own usage of Graciano – especially in Rioja, where Tempranillo has recently taken over, even in vineyards once devoted to Garnacha).  But in recent vintages, the Bokisch Garnacha has become brighter and prettier, and the Bokisch Tempranillo, undeniably svelte and elegant – both varietal bottlings now easily outshining their Graciano and Monastrell.

Early vintages of Bokisch Albariño were estate grown blends from two of Lodi's sub-regions:  one from a 3 acre "mother block" (behind their home) falling within the Mokelumne River AVA, a flat site sitting in relatively deep, sandy alluvial loam typifying Lodi's oldest growths; and the other from their Terra Alta Vineyard in the Clements Hills AVA – the latter, a slightly higher elevation appellation, marked by sloping, shallow, volcanic gravelly loam over hard clay, typical of the eastern side of Lodi where it transitions into the Sierra Foothills.

Bokisch Albariño, 2011

Since the summation of degree days in Lodi is low Region IV – a warm Mediterranean climate, resembling center-of-Spain more than coastal (Atlantic) Spain – it has been interesting to see how the originally cold-climate adapted Albariño has adjusted to this part of California.  As the vines have gotten more mature, so has the Bokischs’ grasp of the grape.  As recently as in the 2008 vintage, the Bokisch Albariños were fairly big (over 14% alcohol), hugely aromatic wines – gushing with tropical flowers and fruits (pineapple, orange, tangerine, mango, grapefruit) – that could make even a Viognier taste small by comparison.

Since 2009, however, Markus Bokisch began to trust more in the grape by picking considerably earlier (closer to 20°, 21° Brix, as opposed to 22°, 23°); which according to Bokisch, required “a leap of faith, but necessary to making wine lower in alcohol and higher in acidity.”  What transpired for Bokisch are Albariños that are significantly lighter (around 12% alcohol), crisper and finer, while still possessing all the honeyed, citrus, tropical flower and wet stone fruitiness you look for in the grape.  The lithe and lovely 2010 Bokisch Albariño was a breakthrough, and the currently released 2011 is even better!

Because Bokisch is a supplier of grapes, other American producers have also benefited.  The 2011 Odisea Dream Albariño, for instance, is sourced from Bokisch’s Terra Alta Vineyard, and is a dry white of such lemony zest and spare yet flowery charms, it just screams for raw oysters or seviche.  Says Odisea winemaker/owner Adam Webb, “I want my Albariño for braised octopus, steamed clams, or anything with the smell and taste of salinity.” In fact, Webb swears he smells “ocean air” even in Lodi’s Delta region.

At last year’s 2011 TAPAS Grand Wine Tasting in San Francisco, there were several other American grown Albariños showing parallel progression:  notably, a moderately full, honeysuckle-like yet lemony crisp 2010 Abacela from Earl Jones’ Umpqua Valley estate; and an even steelier, breathier 2010 by another Lodi grower, Harney Lane Winery.

Not to be outdone, the 2010 Verdad Sawyer-Lindquist Vineyard Edna Valley Albariño may very well be the finest rendering of this grape in California yet; emanating citrus and honeyed peach in precision-cut, crisp, silken layers (also significant is the 2008 Verdad Santa Ynez Valley Tempranilo, which has the fleshy, meaty roundness of the grape, along with more unique qualities of cassis, red rose and jasmine tea infused by crafty blending of Grenache and Syrah).

Going by the recent track records of these groundbreaking winegrowers, you can’t be surprised if you see even finer and more food-worthy wines emerging in the next few years to come.  What a nice turn of events indeed – this recent Spanish grape obsession!

Markus Bokisch and spit roasted goat

Friday, January 6, 2012

The glorious synchronicity of Merlot and csirkepaprikas

Syn•chro•nic•ity:  the experience of two or more events that are apparently causally unrelated or unlikely to occur together by chance and that are observed to occur together in a meaningful manner (see Carl Gustav Jung).

Despite what Miles, that fellow in Sideways, might have said about it, there are still many good reasons why you should drink ultra-premium California Merlot, which is the same reason why some of the state’s most prestigious winemakers – like Bruce Neyers and Selene’s Mia Klein – still specialize in the grape:  it makes wine that can enthrall the senses the way Keira Knightley eats up a camera.  Resistance is stupid.

Equally stupid is the combination of a good, drippy, juicy Merlot with a good, drippy, juicy red Hungarian csirkepaprikas, or chicken paprikas

Thomas Fogarty in Santa Cruz Mountains

But first, let us single out one contemporary classic:  the 2006 Thomas Fogarty Santa Cruz Mountains Merlot (about $32).  I know, I know – this is not one of the big boys (Duckhorn, Pahlmeyer, Blackbird, etc.).  But if you’re still stuck on labels, you’re in the wrong place, my friend.  Let the unconcious souls gleefully discover what the Fogarty Merlot is all about:  a unique, high altitude/low attitude, mountain estate grown style of Merlot that combines a fisted core of un-watered down fruit and tannin with all the outwardly soft, silky extravagance – plush black cherry laced with cinnamon, savory and allspice – of a classic Merlot.  Textbook.

“The ‘perfect marriage’ of food and wine,” said the late Roy Andries De Groot, “should allow for infidelity.”  While the standard choice for a good Merlot is red meat, my all-time favorite match for a full, lusciously fruited Merlot is something white (albeit, clothed in bright paprika-red):  classic, Hungarian chicken paprikas

Mr. De Groot, if you’re wondering, was the once widely read blind gastronome and Esquire’s Handbook for Hosts author; and in his heyday, the swinging sixties, he was also the first magazine critic to use a 100 point wine scoring system (not Robert Parker!).  It was De Groot who once proclaimed his recipe for paprikas – browned with goose fat, then braised with onions, garlic and, finally, a sauce pigmented by generous doses of the mildly spiced paprika chile before thickened in the end with sour cream – to be one of the most glorious dishes in the world; and for a matching wine, he prescribed a good Pomerol.

Rarely having a Pomerol on hand, most of the time during the past thirty years I have been substituting a good California Merlot for my csirkepaprikas; finding the combination equally glorious and, yes, synchronistic – needing no real causal connections to explain its sensory meaningfulness.  Is iustus est.

Over the years I have also taken some liberties with De Groot’s original recipe (I don’t, for instance, usually have the goose fat on hand); and of course, the variations come every time the bird hits the pot.  This is, however, a close, and proven, approximation:

1 whole 4-5 lb. chicken, disjointed (thighs and back necessary for flavor)
3 tbs. unsalted sweet butter
1 lemon
2 large sweet onions, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
6 large white mushrooms, thinly sliced
4 thin slices pancetta (or two strips thick bacon), sliced in squares
½ cup white wine
¾ cup chicken stock
Half bunch Italian parsley, chopped
Hungarian sweet paprika
Olive oil
Ground peppercorns and salt to taste
1 pint sour cream
10-12 oz. wide egg noodles

Rub chicken pieces with salt and juice of halved lemon, and set aside.  In a large pot (preferably cast iron or Le Creuset), brown pancetta or bacon with drop of olive oil over medium heat. Add butter, and when melted sauté the onions and garlic until wilted.  Add paprika (2 to 3 tbsp.) and stir into onion mix until it attains a fiery red color. Immediately add chicken pieces two or three at a time, browning them until both sides are impregnated with the paprika.  Add sliced mushrooms, followed by white wine (burn off some alcohol), and then chicken stock. 

Lower temperature, cover pot with lid, and let it simmer for about 45-60 minutes, smelling the wafting perfume while enjoying your glass of Merlot and, for syncretic purposes, some sensuous vocals like Diana Krall or Madeleine Peyroux (the sensory build-up, a good reason for having at least two bottles on hand).

Remove chicken pieces, and stir in sour cream until the sauce reaches a creamy consistency, adjusting seasonings to taste.  Add back chicken pieces, stir in most of chopped parsley, and over low temperature let pot stew for final ten to fifteen minutes while egg noodles are boiled al dente.

When noodles are drained, place in large, wide bowl and coat with half of paprika cream sauce; lay chicken pieces over noodles and top with rest of sauce. Garnish with rest of chopped parsley, and serve.

Oh, and Miles... you don’t know squat.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The underappreciated joys of Zinfandel and cheese matching

Lodi winegrower Ron Silva talking simple pleasures
Lodi's ZinFest Wine Festival last May 2011 was a good excuse to talk about one of my favorite subjects:  the underrated joys of Zinfandel and cheese matching.

The seminar was called Lodi Wine is Cheese Central Friendly, and it involved four different artisanal cheeses presented by Cindy Della Monica, proprietor of Downtown Lodi's spanking new specialty cheese shop, Cheese Central.

To get get everyone warmed for this organoleptic excercise, we began with a little chat on the sensory components that help us understand just how get the best possible wine and cheese matches.  Beginning with the fact that wine and cheese matching is always best understood when you are conscious of the five basic sensations found in all foods and wines -- the sensations of sweet, tart, salty, bitter, and umami (or "savory") -- plus the effects of what we perceive through smell as "flavor."

Lodi's Cheese Central
Some of the guidelines touched upon:
      • There are probably more cheeses that taste better with white wine than with red, despite the old adage that red wines are best with cheese.
      • Derived as they are from milk, cheeses give milky and acidic sensations, which explains why white wines wines varying from soft, creamy textures to sharper, acid edged qualities do well with softer, creamier, or slightly acidic/tart, young cheeses.
        • But in the firmer, longer aged, deeper colored and richer flavored cheeses, elevated amino acids tend to come into play, which is why red wines do well with richer, deeper flavored aged cheeses (since unlike white wines, reds are fermented with their skins, automatically giving them deeper flavors, along with oak qualities from barrel aging that match easily with caramelized sensations in aged cheeses).
        • The higher amounts of amino acids in cheeses are what gives them a strong taste of the sensation called umami (also re Deconstructing Umami), and the longer aged and deeper flavored the cheese, the stronger the taste of umami in the cheese. This is is why cheeses such as Parmigiano, Manchego and Cheddars are often grated onto foods like pasta: because high umami sensations accentuate food flavors, in the same way that red wines made from grapes like Zinfandel and Sangiovese do.
          • By the same token, this is also why sweeter wines do best with cheeses aged with Penicillium molds that create the strong, salty tastes associated with blue cheeses: because salty sensations in foods are always balanced by contrasting sweet sensations in other foods or in wines.
                • Earthy, organic, umami enhanced aromas and flavors in cheeses -- particularly those made from sheep or goat’s milk, or else most variations of raw milk cheeses -- find pleasing notes of similarity in wines of parallel qualities (re Wine & Food Matching - Science or Art?). This is why the herby/grassy flavor common to wines like Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon, the flinty or fusel aromas found in Rieslings, the round stoniness of many Chardonnays, the mushroomy/foresty notes of Pinot Noirs, and the meaty, even gamy or leathery notes typifying many reds made from grapes like Tempranillo and Syrah, all do well with distinctly earthy sheep, goat, or raw milk cheeses.
                • Once you get into the grand tradition of cheeses doctored up with additional flavors – like all the varieties of herb crusted Chèvres, peppercorn coated crèmes, cider washed rinds, stout soaked Cheddars, or even truffled Boschettos – the gloves come off, and all the varieties of red and white wines criss-cross in accordance to the dominant flavors that are added. For instance, it makes sense that cheeses coated in black pepper strike partnerships with peppery wines like California Zinfandel and Syrahs from around the world. Italianate herbs (i.e. rosemary, oregano, basil, etc.) will find matches with wines of Italian orientation (like those made from Sangiovese and Nebbiolo). High umami, truffled cheeses practically scream for high umami, earth toned reds like Pinot Noir, or certain types of Chardonnay (especially those from France's Burgundy region).
                The relationship between wine and cheese is not just natural and historical, it is also sensory to the point of religion: you don’t have to fully understand it to believe it works.

                So what are the best wine and cheese combinations? “Bests” do not exist, but there certainly are a lot of matches that simply make sense.  So speaking in terms of specifically Lodi grown Zinfandels, the matches Cindy and I presented at the 2011 ZinFest:

                ZinFest cheeses: Bermuda Triangle, Barely Buzzed, Mimolette and Valdeon

                Mimolette with Uvaggio’s 2009 Primitivo
                France’s rare Mimolette cheese, made from cow’s milk, comes in an orbular shape and tanned crust; and when you slice into it looks, for all the world, like a cantaloupe, with its vivid orange flesh tinted by annatto, with a lush, round yet moderately firm, faintly hazelnutty flavor somewhat like Edam, with a savoriness similar to a good Parmigiano. The traditional wine match for Mimolette is a soft, fruity white wine, like a Moscato or Chenin Blanc; but the aged quality of the cheese is deep enough to also embrace a red wine of some sturdiness, especially softer, gentler, fruit forward style of Zinfandel such as the Uvaggio Primitivo (the Primitivo grape being a clonal variation of Zinfandel, producing rounder, fruitier expressions of zinfulness).

                Bermuda Triangle with m2’s 2008 Soucie Vineyard Zinfandel
                The cutting-edge, triangular shaped Bermuda Triangle cheese is a (modern day) classic Chèvre, made from goat’s milk, and crafted by Cypress Grove in Arcata, California. As such, it is almost creamy soft, yet slightly sharp, tangy, and pungently earthy/grassy (as goat’s milk cheeses tend to be). It is also crusted and infused with silvery streaks of vegetable ash, which accentuate the earthy qualities, making them an accessible positive. The m2 made pretty much a “perfect” match because of its own, singularly defined qualities: it is one of the rounder, lusher styles of Zinfandels grown in Lodi – juicy and creamy in texture, plump in blackberry flavors – yet firmed up in the middle by modestly muscular tannin and a handsome oakiness. But what makes it especially unique is the pungently earthy, loamy, almost mushroomy aromas and flavors derived from the Soucie Vineyard grapes – virtually no other vineyard in Lodi produces a zin of such pronounced qualities – which rang striking notes of similarity with the earthiness of the Bermuda Triangle. 

                Barely Buzzed with LangeTwins’ 2009 Lodi Zinfandel
                Made by Beehive Cheese Co. in Uintah, Utah, Barely Buzzed is an amazingly original, Cheddar style cow’s milk cheese rubbed with intoxicatingly smoky, densifying Turkish grind coffee, adding eye opening volume to the crystallized butter/butterscotchy, caramelized taste of this intensely aged cheese. All well aged Cheddars fall squarely in the “best-with-red-wine” category (which is why wines like Cabernet Sauvignon and red Bordeaux are traditional Cheddar matches), but it was the ultra-rich, smoky/spicy (like strong black tea tinged with exotic jasmine/dried plum/allspice nuances), round yet voluminous qualities of this ‘09 zin that -- sourced primarily from the stately, thickly gnarled trunked 100 year old vines of Lodi's Lewis Vineyard -- that truly made the match.

                Valdeon with Van Ruiten’s 2007 Late Harvest Zinfandel
                Even if you’re not partial to blue veined cheese, it’s hard not to love Valdeon from Spain: made from a mix of cow’s and goat’s milk to produce a creamy, lusciously soft and silky style of blue that is extremely fine and subtle in the characteristically earthy/salty/sharp qualities of cheeses aged by Penicillium. But a blue cheese it is; and as such, it is best matched by wines with a pronounced degree of sweetness. The Van Ruiten Late Harvest zin fits that description, but its natural sweetness and body is only a third of what is found in, say, a traditional Port; and so it is a sweet red wine that barely falls into the category of “dessert wine.” But with the mild and elegant Valdeon, that parsimoniousness is just right: the subtle qualities of the cheese only emphasizing the natural, joyously juicy, wild berry qualities of the wine, and the wine adding just enough sweetness to balance the salty undertones of the cheese.

                100+ year old Lewis Vineyard Zinfandel vine

                Saturday, June 26, 2010

                Summer is for barbecues

                Who doesn’t associate summer with barbecue? It’s an American thing, but you might also consider it a return to primitive instincts; reminding me of one of Woody Allen’s classic quips about food in general: “Why does man kill? He kills for food. And not only food: frequently there must be a beverage.”

                In our case, preferably a good wine, ideally matched with…

                Smoky baby back ribs or pulled pork with tomato based barbecued pork

                Grill smoked pork with classic tomato based barbecue sauces – laced with vinegar, brown sugar onions, and often, chili spices and Worcestershire – cordially invite wines with equalizing doses of tannin and alcohol to absorb the pork fat, and picquant, almost sweet fruitiness to balance out the sweet, sour, hot sensations in the sauce. This is why I’ll never understand the criticism of warm climate red wines by wine geeks who obviously can’t relate to wines in terms of food contexts, because there’s nothing like, say, big, fat, juicy, jammy zinfandel with classic American barbecued pork. In fact, in my experience: the bigger, fatter and jammier the better!

                Always having an oral fixation (as a baby, my drool was famous), my rib preferences have always been for the soft, chewy cartilage on the bone ends; custom grilled for fruit laden red zins, especially from Lodi (current fave-raves: Harney Lane, Abundance, Earthquake, Macchia, m2, and Klinker Brick), although the snappier Sonoma grown zins (like those of Acorn, Gamba, Bella Vetta, Mauritson, Davis Family, Quivira, Valdez, and Ridge Lytton Springs) always do just as well for me. Why? Lush, almost sweet berry jam fruitiness combined with snappy acidity, blackpepper/clove spices and thick, meaty bodies typical of classic zinfandel make the consumption of sweet/spicy/vinegary pork barbecues all the more luscious – one of the most natural wine and food combinations in the world.

                Slabs of dry rubbed ribs

                In Memphis where I once lived, each specialty barbecue house has its own “secret” rubs (variations of paprika, onion powder and cayenne, and taking it from there), and it’s in the roasting mediums that you get further distinctions. My favorite were the slabs by Central BBQ, which always come out of slow-cook ovens extremely earthy and caramelized: lessons in sensory overload (you can also order “wet” slabs in most barbecue joints, but sauces can blur the subtleties – yes, even jackhammer sensations have refinements – of dry rubs).

                The best wine matches for dry rubbed slabs are thick and meaty, with enough tannin and chewy wood to absorb the fat and stinging red pepper spice. Sounds like a job for petite sirah, and it is. For starters: those of Earthquake, Rosenblum and Two Angels deliver the uncontained tannin and sweetness of fruit (like peppery blueberries) you expect in this grape; although my current favorites petites are those of Truett-Hurst in Dry Creek Valley, Carol Shelton’s Rockpile Reserve, Amador County’s C.G. di Arie, and Parducci’s True Grit from Mendocino, and from the Sierra Foothills, the killer petites of Cedarville, Miraflores and Lava Cap.

                Pure syrahs, of course, often have enough cracked pepper qualities to dial in the red and black peppery spices of Memphis dry rubs.  The syrahs of Paul Lato, Jaffurs, MacPrice Meyers, and Skylark in California, and Quady North, Del Rio and Spangler in Southern Oregon are among the most peppery I have recently found (for an expanded rundown on top West Coast syrahs, see Syrahs, Syrahs, Syrahs). Then again, there are never enough excuses to reach for an actual petite sirah… so there!

                Barbecue Chicken

                In Hawai`i we call it huli huli chicken (usually halves marinated in mixtures of soy sauce, lime, ginger, Hawaiian sea salt, brown sugar or honey, and a touch of cayenne or sambal, before char-grilling). In Memphis, I found that the whole chickens were usually rubbed with mixtures of salt, pepper, paprika, cayenne, white or brown sugar, dry mustard, garlic and onion powder, but it was the slow roasting that really did the trick: the meat absolutely inundated with nostril penetrating smokiness, served with thick, phenomenally expressive sauces (spices touching all the taste buds – sweet, spicy, sour, bitter and umami).

                The fruitiness of softer style zinfandels (like Jesse's Grove's Earth, Zin & Fire, Michael-David’s unbiquitous 7 Deadly Zins, or better yet, Laurel Glen's ZaZin) makes an the effortless match, but the more blatantly sweet oaked, smoky, sun ripened fruit forward qualities typical of Australian shiraz might be even better. I’m always partial to the syrahs of winemaker Sparky Marquis (co-originator of Marquis-Philips), who now makes an amazing South Australia shiraz under the Mollydooker label. Other top, value priced choices: Torbreck’s Woodcutter’s, d’Arenberg’s Footbolt, and Gemtree’s organically grown Tadpole.

                But if the day is a 90° or 100°+ scorcher, don’t underestimate the power of good ol’ fashioned white zinfandel (the watermelony fresh, off-dry De Loach has always been my favorite) with smoky, spicy chicken. Another great summery choice: classic, off-dry riesling from Germany (look for Zilliken’s Butterfly or Pfeffingen’s Pfeffo), Down Under (like the Margaret River’s Leeuwin Estate or New Zealand’s Villa Maria), or the Pacific-Northwest (Chehalem in Willamette Valley and Pacific Rim in Columbia Valley make the finest).

                Soy based Asian style barbecues

                Japanese teriyaki, Mongolian and Korean style barbecues always start with marinades of soy sauce, garlic, ginger and sugar; and after that, the variations are endless (additions of beer, chili spices, sesame seeds, Worcestershire, hoisin, pineapple, saké, rice or white wine vinegars, mustards or wasabi, ponzu or yuzu, green onions or mint… you name it, it’s done), and usually involve either thinly sliced beef flank or sirloin, or (in the case of Korean kalbi) short ribs of beef.

                Since soy sauce is basically a salty/umami sensation, the best balancing sensations in a wine are either residual sugar (i.e. slightly sweet whites, like that of rieslings) or unabashed fruitiness in red wines made from zinfandel, syrah or shiraz, or gamay noir – the latter, the grape of France’s Beaujolais region). When it comes to Beaujolais, virtually any brand or type will do; although I am partial to the more deeply aromatic and flavorful bottlings of Beaujolais’ grand crus, which you find labeled under village names such as Morgon, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Chénas, Chiroubles, Régnié, Juliénas, Saint-Amour, Brouilly or Côte de Brouilly.

                My absolute favorite Beaujolais reds? Those of Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant: beginning with luscious, sprightly Domaine Dupeuble Beaujolais and the full, fleshy, grandiose Domaine Diochon Moulin-à-Vent, and ending with the earthy yet exuberantly fruited, unfiltered, unfined, unnothinged Morgons by Domaine Thévenet or Guy Breton.

                Ah, summer… ah, barbecued meats and wines!

                Friday, June 18, 2010

                Sing while you enjoy your wine and food (favorite culinary songs)

                What are your favorite eating and drinking songs? There must be a million of them; but then again, not. But these days the vast library in the internet sky allows you put your favorites all together in once place, making for one, big musical food, wine, beer, whiskey, and coffee fest.

                Yet for all the eating and drinking songs in our own language, one of my favorites is actually French – La Danse de Limonade, performed by the Savoy-Doucet Cajun band – that starts:

                Mon j'aime cousine, mon j'aime cousin
                J'aime mieux la cuisiniere

                (I like my girl cousin, I like my boy cousin

                But I like the cook the best…)

                … and then goes on to describe the typical Cajun dance party; where the girl, in her innocent voice, describes how she gets “drunk like a big pig,” begs her friends to force her to drink lemonade, but in the end needs to turn to Hadacol (a snake charmer’s medicinal, popular in the 1940s) to recover.

                One of the oldest classics is Bessie Smith’s circa-1920s Gimme a Pigfoot (… and a bottle of beer… give the piano man a drink because he’s bringing me down), although I think Ferdinand "Jelly Roll” Morton’s Wining Boy Blues – composed and first performed in the New Orleans brothels that employed him – pre-dates Smith’s Pigfoot. The way Morton once told the story of how he came up with the bluesiest wine song ever written:

                When the place (Hilma Burt’s on Basin Street) was closing down, it was my habit to pour these partly filled bottles of wine together and make up a new bottle from the mixture. That fine drink gave me a name and from that I made a tune that was very, very popular in those days…

                I'm a wining boy, don't deny my name,
                I'm a wining boy, don't deny my name…

                Hate to say it, but it reminds me of exactly what we used to do when I first got into the restaurant business, mixing leftover wines and making coolers out of them (I’ve since acquired “good taste”… I think).

                Otherwise, I wouldn’t exactly call most of the songs written about wine “great.” After a while, for example, the repetitive cycle of UB40’s Red Red Wine – penned, but evidently never performed, by Neil Diamond – starts to wear thin. Diamond’s Cracklin’ Rose (… you're a store bought woman), on the other hand, still sounds fresh today, more than thirty-five years after it hit the charts. However, Eric Burdon’s Spill the Wine now seems as dated as his Sky Pilot, as do Dean Martin’s and Mel Tillis’s renditions of Little Ole Wine Drinker Me. But if there was any song that plucks the heart strings of a wine lover, it would be Jesse Winchester’s little known, under-appreciated (hey, just like a French vin de pays!) Little Glass of Wine:

                Little glass of wine, a good thing you are here
                You're warm on my lips, warm as a tear

                A comfort to the fool who's restless in his mind

                The lover's trusty potion, little glass of wine

                The most sing-able wine song ever written? For that honor, I nominate Jerry Jeff Walker’s Sangria Wine, which even contains a recipe for the best sangria and suggested sangria-friendly foods:

                In Texas on a Saturday night
                Everclear is added to the wine sometimes

                Some nachos, burritos and tacos
                Who knows how it usually it goes…

                It goes... I love that sangria wine
                Just like I love old friends of mine

                They tell the truth when they’re mixed with the wine

                That’s why I blend in the lemons and limes

                Is that poetry in a bottle or what? Well, maybe I think so because I love to sangria too much. Almost as elegiac as the names of the best she-done-left-me-and-drove-me-to-drink country songs; like George Jones’s If the Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will) and Jerry Lee Lewis’s What Made Milwaukee Famous (Made a Loser Out of Me).

                Eating and drinking songs are just like wines – it’s difficult to name your favorite. But I’ll give it a try, dividing them into four categories. Going by the names of my favorite performer(s) of each respective song:

                Favorite Eating Songs

                1. Diana Krall/Nat King Cole - Frim Fram Sauce
                2. Leon Redbone - Mr. Jelly Roll Baker
                3. Bessie Smith – Gimme a Pigfoot
                4. The Andrews Sisters – Hold Tight, Hold Tight (Want Some Seafood Mama)
                5. Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys/Asleep at the Wheel & Dixie Chicks – Roly Poly
                6. Ry Cooder – Crow Black Chicken
                7. Diana Krall – Peel Me a Grape
                8. Michael Franks - Eggplant
                9. Taj Mahal/Lovin' Spoonful – Fishing Blues
                10. The Coasters/Loudon Wainwright III – Smokey Joe’s Café
                11. The Kinks – Skin and Bones
                12. Dizzy Gillespie – Salt Peanuts
                13. Michael Hurley – You’ll Never Go to Heaven
                14. Jimmy Rogers/Merle Haggard – Peach Pickin’ Time in Georgia
                15. Hank Williams Sr. – Jambalaya
                16. Jack Johnson – Banana Pancakes
                17. Ka’au Crater Boys – He `Ono
                18. Groucho Marx, Danny Kaye, Jane Wyman & Jimmy Durante – Black Strap Molasses
                19. Booker T & the MGs – Green Onions
                20. Dan Hicks & the Hot Licks – I Don’t Want Love
                21. Dusty Springfield/Chrissie Hynde & UB40 – Breakfast In Bed
                22. Average White Band – Cut the Cake
                23. Presidents of the United States – Peaches
                24. The Mamas & the Papas – Sing for Your Supper
                25. Bob Dylan – Country Pie

                Favorite Wine Songs

                1. Jimmie Rogers/Jackson Browne & Bonnie Raitt – Kisses Sweeter Than Wine
                2. Jerry Jeff Walker – Sangria Wine
                3. Jesse Winchester – Little Glass of Wine
                4. Jelly Roll Morton/Leon Redbone – Wining Boy Blues
                5. The Band – Strawberry Wine
                6. Neil Diamond – Cracklin’ Rose
                7. Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen – Wine Do Yer Stuff
                8. Arlo Guthrie – Lightning Bar Blues
                9. UB40- Red Red Wine
                10. Eric Burdon & War – Spill the Wine
                11. Marsha Thornton – A Bottle of Wine and Patsy Cline
                12. Emmylou Harris – Two Bottles of Wine
                13. Cerys Matthews – Chardonnay
                14. The Fireballs – Bottle of Wine

                Favorite Drinking Songs (Non-Country)

                1. The Andrews Sisters – Rum and Coca Cola
                2. Lil’ Bob & the Lollipops/Los Lobos – I Got Loaded
                3. Leroy Carr – Hustler’s Blues
                4. Savoy-Doucet Cajun Band – La Danse de Limonade
                5. Flaco Jimenez – En El Cielo No Hay Cerveza
                6. Billie Holiday – Riffin’ the Scotch
                7. Mississippi John Hurt – Coffee Blues
                8. The Kinks – Demon Alcohol
                9. Damian Junior Gong Marley – One Cup of Coffee
                10. Jimmy Gilmer & the Fireballs – Sugar Shack
                11. Harry Nilsson – Coconut
                12. Randy Newman/Bonnie Raitt – Guilty
                13. John Prine – They Oughta Name a Drink After You
                14. The Doors – Alabama Song (Whiskey Bar)
                15. Billie Holiday/Frank Sinatra/Dolly Parton – I Get a Kick Out of You
                16. UB40 – Bring Me Your Cup
                17. Adam Carroll – Of Milwaukee’s Best
                18. John Lee Hooker & Bonnie Raitt – One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer
                19. Nouvelle Vague – Too Drunk to Fuck
                20. Loudon Wainwright III – Drinking song

                Favorite Country-Western Drinking Songs

                1. Merle Haggard/George Jones – Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down
                2. Gram Parsons – Kiss the Children
                3. Kris Kristofferson/Johnny Cash – Sunday Morning Coming Down
                4. George Jones/The Byrds – You’re Still On My Mind
                5. Hank Thompson/Merle Haggard – Wild Side of Life
                6. Rhonda Vincent – Drivin’ Nails In My Coffin
                7. The Flying Burrito Brothers - Juanita
                8. Louvin Brothers/Johnny Cash – Kneeling Drunkard’s Plea
                9. George Jones – If the Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will)
                10. Ernest Tubbs – Pass the Booze
                11. Kitty Wells – Death at the Bar
                12. Hank Williams Sr. – Honky Tonkin’
                13. Tommy Alverson – Uno Mas Cerveza
                14. Garth Brooks – Friends In Low Places
                15. Leon Russell/Hank Thompson – A Six Pack to Go
                16. Daryle Singletary/New Riders of the Purple Sage – Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (and Loud, Loud Music)
                17. Jerry Lee Lewis – What Made Milwaukee Famous (Made a Loser Out of Me)
                18. Louvin Brothers – The Drunkard’s Doom
                19. Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys – Lone Star Beer
                20. Hank Williams Sr. – There’s a Tear In My Beer
                21. Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen – Lost In the Ozone Again
                22. Loretta Lynn – Honky Tonk Girl
                23. George Strait/Poco – Honky Tonk Downstairs
                24. Tanya Tucker – Somebody Buy This Cowgirl a Beer
                25. Loretta Lynn – Don’t Come Home a’Drinkin’ (with Lovin’ on Your Mind)
                26. Alan Jackson – It’s Five o’ Clock Somewhere
                27. Tom T. Hall – I Only Think About You When I’m Drunk
                28. Joe Nichols – She Only Smokes When She Drinks
                29. Wanda Jackson – Tears Will Be the Chaser for Your Wine
                30. Charlie Rich – Sittin’ and Thinkin’
                31. George Jones – These Days (I Barely Get By)
                32. Brooks & Dunn – You Can’t Take the Honky Tonk Out of the Girl