Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Chateau Meyney Mini-Vertical

Although I have not fully recovered from the head cold that has afflicted me this week, I thought it would be a good idea to begin to get back in shape for our exciting weekend of gastronomic joy with our friends. To that end, I braised a beef pot roast for four hours and served it with new potatoes. Stephanie produced another enjoyable green salad for a side.

We had consumed all of the wine we purchased last week, so I dropped by one of the local wine shops on my way to pick up Stephanie from work. They had a variety of solid Bordeaux wines from the mid-nineties at nice prices (especially considering what many of those wineries' new releases go for these days). I chose a bottle of Chateau Meyney St. Estephe 1995 and a half bottle of the same winery's 1996. These two vintages are both highly regarded among Bordeaux drinkers and highly debated. While to most tasters they don't have the style or concentration of 1990 or 2000, they are generally well liked. Often tasters do not agree on which vintage produced the better wines.

Chateau Meyney is a "cru bourgeois" estate on the left bank of the Gironde River. The "cru bourgeois" appelation means that in 1855, its wines were not highly enough regarded to merit classification among the best wines of the region. Nonetheless, it regularly produces wines of excellent quality and value. Like its neighbors in the Medoc, it is made from mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, with smaller amounts of Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

The 1995 was very nice. It was still dark plum colored, with a medium-full body and lots of nice fruits remaining on the nose. While some signs of maturity were setting in, they made for a pleasantly balanced wine ready for current consumption. It was a delicious, classic Bordeaux for a great value (~$26).

The 1996 was not holding up as well. Because half bottles allow in the same amount of oxygen as whole bottles but distribute it over only half as much wine, they tend to mature much more rapidly. This seemed to be the case for our bottle. Its color was tinged with more rust than was the 95, but it still appeared to be healthy. The aroma and flavor, however, indicated otherwise. The wine smelled and tasted of truffles, earth, and malted barley syrup. Stephanie described it as molasses. While I wouldn't normally find these characteristics objectionable, they completely masked whatever fruit the wine may still have had to offer. Although the 96 Meyney might still be delicious in whole bottles (or better yet, magnums), this half bottle was not doing well.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Stephanie's Sunday Dinner

I was feeling a little under the weather on Sunday, so Stephanie offered to prepare another multi-course feast to cheer me up. Again, I was barred from entering the kitchen after about four o'clock. I spent the afternoon watching football and trying not to notice the enormous amount of noise coming from the kitchen. For all her beauty and talent, Stephanie can be a bit clumsy.

When the first course arrived, I completely forgot the sound of clanging pots. She presented shrimps steamed in parchment with parsley-garlic-smoked paprika sauce and a roasted orange pepper sauce. The sauces married perfectly, and the shrimp were tender and delicious (not to mention artistically plated).

Stephanie's main course offering was seared lamb loin chops with a wine and cream pan gravy served with a puree of potatoes and white beans. The lamb was perfectly cooked and delicious in its own right, but when paired with the rich sauce, it was truly outstanding. This was Stephanie's first attempt at a pan sauce, and it was a resounding success.

Dessert, a course that we don't often take, was a delightful chocolate-raspberry-oreo "truffle." Stephanie prepared oreo crusts, upon which were placed raspberries and a covering of chocolate ganache. They were simply scrumptious (and they have continued to be for the past couple of days).

Due to my cold, I took it easy on the wine, although we did pour a nice value Cab Franc from the Touraine region of the Loire Valley. While my illness prevented me from appreciating half of the taste of the food, Stephanie's fine cooking made that half really wonderful. I only wish I had been healthy enough to taste the other half.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Dom. Jean-Marc Bouley Volnay 1er Cru Clos des Chenes 1996

I must begin this post by apologizing for the lack of blogging on my part recently. It's of course not due to any decreased wine consumption, but rather increased post-meal laziness.

This Bouley is a nice one to get back on track with. Stephanie and I found this nine year old wine from one of Burgundy's southern regions for only $10 at the House of Glunz. I guess they were trying to unload some old stock. Normally, this wine would have sold for $20-30. Ninety-six was a great vintage for red Burgundy, so I expected that even a wine from a lesser vineyard would still be holding up pretty well. I was mostly right.

As red wines will tend to do, this one had lightened significantly in its color, turning a pleasant rust color along the edges. Older wines also lose much of their fruit flavors and aromas, as these are morphed into mature notes of earth and leather. Such was the case for this pinot. What must have been bright bing cherry flavors had now become dried fruit and damp earth. Only a medium-bodied wine to begin with, this one as mellowed considerably, with little remaining tannins and reasonable acidity.

I was a bit surprised by how mature this wine seemed. Other 96s have not tasted so old, but I don't think it's anything to worry about. Probably just the producer's style. Nonetheless, it proved an enjoyable match with Stephanie's finger sandwiches, made to mimic the ones we'd had at High Tea that afternoon at the Peninsula Hotel. I'd also recommend it with coq au vin or braised pork.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Domaine Moureou Madiran 2000

Sorry for the significant blogging hiatus lately. No real excuses; just postprandial laziness. Tonight, I grilled lamb rib chops and asparagus and served them with new potatoes. It's nice when I can prepare everything on the grill; it means I don't have to scrub any pots. Todd at Sam's recommended this Madiran to match the lamb, and it performed admirably enough.

Regular readers of the blog (I'm looking at you, Charlie) will notice that we have been drinking a lot of wines from Madiran and its neighbors in southwest France. These wines tend to be an incredible source for good value wines made in the traditional, old world style. Madiran wines are primarily made of Tannat grapes, which sound like what they taste like, i.e., tannic. This one was no exception.

Unlike a similar wine from neighboring Irouleguy, also made of tannat, the Moureou was pleasantly drinkable when complimented by the fat from the lamb. It was a full-bodied and well-extracted wine, with enjoyable fruit and nut flavors.

Stephanie says: Almonds and woodiness on the aroma. The tannins made reaching the flavor difficult, but I thought I detected black cherry and blackberries, and more woddiness.

The tannins were certainly present, but they were the kind of tannins that could be moderated either by age or rich foods. We tried the latter, and given the wine's price (~$14), we might toss a few in the cellar.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Chateau Caronne Ste. Gemme Haut-Medoc 2000

"Man Alive!," as Fukui-san used to say. Stephanie and I celebrated our -1st Anniversary (we hope to be married a year from now), and I created a tasting of beef short ribs. I purchased short ribs from both the Paulina Meat Market, a fancy butcher shop that carries lots of wonderful meats, and from the local produce market, Farmer's Pride Produce, on the corner of Chicago Ave. and Western Ave. The former cost $8.50/lb. and the latter $2.20/lb. They were cooked identically - simmered for two hours in a braise of onion, leek, carrot, garlic, red wine and chicken stock - but they were butchered differently.

Stephanie and I both agreed that while the farmer's market beef was fattier, it was much tastier and more tender. So much for the extra $6/lb. To compliment the short ribs, we roasted some asparagus and Stephanie prepared her new favorite side dish, fingerling potatoes steamed over thyme then smashed and fried like platains (from Lora Zarubin's cookbook, I'm Almost Always Hungry..

Stephanie chose this bottle of Bordeaux last week, and I thought it would go very well with the short ribs. I was correct. For a "cru bourgeois" level wine (this means that the property is not considered to be as good as those labeled "grand cru" and thus costs much less, ~$18), this one was remarkably well-balanced and structured. A blend of 60% Cab Sauv, 37% Merlot, and 3% Petit Verdot produced a medium-full bodied wine that balanced the sweetness of the ripe 2000 vintage against modest tannins and acidity. The nose offered the slightest hints of herb, prune, and fig. Although the finish was not especially long, as one might expect from such a wine, it was well-built and perfect for beef. Not a long-lived wine, this is a gem to buy by the case.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Chateau Fort de Roquetaillade Graves 2004

Tonight I prepared my first dish from Paula Wolfert's amazing cookbook, the Cooking of South-West France. First published in 1983, Paula's book will likely become one of my favorites, with its recipes for boudin noir, daube of oxtail, and cassoulet. As an initial attempt, I tried her Basque-inspired recipe for pork braised in milk. A boneless center loin of pork is slowly cooked in milk, seasoned with leeks, onions, and carrots. It is served thinly sliced with the reduced cooking liquid. As I side dish, I prepared Thomas Keller's fancy version of a ratatouille, with squash, zucchinie, and tomatoes over onions and bell peppers. While the pork was a touch on the dry side, it was perked up immensely by the sauce and nicely balanced by the rich vegetables.

Paula recommended a white Graves to match the dish, and we just happened to have one chilling in the cellar (actually I chose the dish knowing that we had a bottle of Graves). Graves is a small region in southeast Bordeaux that gets its name from its gravely soil. While the red wines of this region are some of the biggest names in Bordeaux, many of the whites are overlooked. The whites are made from Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, and they tend to be drier and more minerally than their cousins from the Loire, California, or New Zealand.

Tonight's Roquetaillade was a characteristic example, offering notes of citrus and white peach, backed by an acidic, minerally core. As Stephanie mentioned, the fruit was in perfect balance with the acidity, making for a delightful sipping wine and one that worked especially well with our dinner. Like many of the great white wines of France (from Burgundy, Alsace, or the Loire), those from Bordeaux are capable of aging nicely. And for less than $15, this is one that could be stashed away pretty easily.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Domaine Ricard Le Vilain P'tit Rouge Touraine 2002

Stephanie and I spent a lovely late summer afternoon enjoying the nice weather outside while our chicken stock simmered away on the stove. I used some of the stock to produce a lamb stew with fingerlings, carrots, and turnips. Stephanie prepared a mixed green salad with scallions, heirloom tomatoes, and parmigiano. We chose this Cabernet Franc from the Loire to pair with the lamb.

I was a bit surprised by the heft a cool-climate Cab Franc showed, and I suspect that there might have been a bit of viticultultural tomfoolery going on (i.e., winemaking methods may have been applied to enhance the wine's extract and potential alcohol beyond its natural development). It was meaty and tight, with a medium-full body. To my palate, it seemed more like a California wine than one from the Loire.

This much ripeness and strength would have been more appropriate with grilled beef than it was with stewed lamb. It overwhelmed some of the lamb's subtlety, but I would expect better results with a nice tri-tip.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Chateau d'Aydie Ode d'Aydie Madiran 2001

One of our local wine shops had a big Labor Day sale on French wines, so we picked up a variety of bottles that we wouldn't normally select. Last night, for example, we drank a white wine from Gascony that proved too sweet for a delicious tuna "nicoise" prepared by Stephanie. Tonight we tried this Madiran with smoked ribs, Stephanie's famous cole slaw, and ciabatta with goat butter, hoping that the smoky Tannat grape would pair well with the ribs.

Madiran, located in southwest France, has been gaining more public attention as the region's wine makers strive to tame the tannic Tannat, often by blending it with Cab Franc. The folks at d'Aydie were sadly unsuccessful in 2001, though. The wine's tannins were softened by the fat in the meat, and there was some characteristic smokiness. But in the end, the grip from the tannins proved too strong, to the point where they completely masked the fruit. If you're so inspired, feel free to lay a few bottles down for a while and see what happens. For only $12 or so, you don't have much to lose. But if it's enjoyable Madiran you're after, try the wines of Chateau Laffitte-Teston.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Lunch at Blackbird

I spent the better part of last night on the phone with our financial adviser guy discussing all of the possible bad things that could happen to us. To repay me, Stephanie invited me to join her for lunch at one of Chicago's finest restaurants - Blackbird. This was particularly special no only because Blackbird was the 2004 James Beard Award Winner for the best restaurant in the Midwest, but also because Stephanie took an hour-and-a-half lunch break (75 minutes longer than her normal lunches).

To say that the food was exquisite would not do it justice. I should start by mentioning all of the things I passed up on the menu: gazpacho with tuna, confit of sucking pig, skate wing and jonah crab, croques madame and monsieur, bouillabaisse, and lamb t-bones. You get the point - deciding what to eat was incredibly difficult. Stephanie, devoted fiance that she is, made my task easier by ordering two items that I would have ordered instead of the ones I ultimately chose - "seared maine diver scallops with new crop fingerlings, scallions, guanciale and uni vinaigrette" with two enormous slices of truffle that were not listed on the menu and the "braised prairie gove pork belly sandwich with spicy coleslaw, bread and butter pickles, dijon, and arugula salad." Both were phenomenal. The former was perfectly prepared, with layers of delicate, contrasting flavors and a powerful aroma of truffle (it reminded me of the time that Charlie and I deep fried scallops in truffle oil). The pork belly sandwich was also superb. The meat was unimaginably tender, the slaw was great, and the bread was perfect. There were, perhaps, too many pickles on the sandwich, and the salad left something to be desired (although it was no doubt intended as a palate cleanser between bites of the very rich pork).

By now, you must certainly be asking yourself what I chose. No more delays. I selected two appetizers. First, the "charcuterie plate with country-style pate, boudin blanc, pickled spring salad, and walnut mustard." What a choice! The pate was just lovely - an fine blend of meat, fat, and savory herbs - and the sausage was great, perhaps the best I've ever had. The salad included pickled leeks and haricot verts. I followed this with "sous vide greengold acres farm chicken breast and sauteed sweetbreads with braised baby leeks and gribiche." These were, without question, the best sweetbreads I've ever tasted - a perfect blend of crisp coating and rich inside. I have been waiting to try some "sous vide" something after reading about it in all of the magazines (it requires vacuum-sealing foods in plastic for slow poaching at low temperatures), and the chicken certainly lived up to my expectations. Although the two small slivers didn't provide much opportunity to think about the flavors, they were amazingly tender.

Lunch prices are decidedly reasonable at Blackbird, although dinner gets a little more expensive. The wine list is impressivly stocked with cult cabs and big name burgundies (and they even had 5 chenins), but the wine prices are high - more than 100% over retail. The by-the-glass list could also have been more substantial and offered more playful wines to match the clever food preparations. Our service, by a young lady named Meredith and her crew was exceptional. They were all friendly and helpful, and Meredith made all the right recommendations. We shall return soon.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Ridge Zinfandel Paso Robles 2003

While I was in New York, Stephanie drank our bottle of Ridge Geyserville, arguably California's best zinfandel (technically zin blend). She felt guilty and replaced it with Paul Draper's Paso Robles offering. She had to work late tonight, so I mourned her absence by cooking duck breast in a cranberry and woodear mushroom sauce with chive polenta and sauteed zucchini. This was an enormous magret duck breast I purchased from Whole Foods at $17 per pound, and like a previous sample it proved to be rather tough despite impeccable preparation. It will most likely be my last duck purchase from Whole Foods.

The zin was a fine pairing despite showing less character than its cousin from Geyserville. At a mere 14.8% alcohol, it was much more drinkable and food-friendly than other Cali zins (see my previous posting on Turley Old Vines 03). The wine's back label notes that in the warm Central Coast region, the grapes reached optimal ripeness before the tannins and acidity had sufficiently developed. Despite a variety of viticultural techniques designed to increase tannin and acidity, it seemed a tad short on the finish. Duck was perhaps the best choice for this wine, but it could also work with grilled ribeye or a heavily spiced quail.

Frecciarossa Sillery Oltrepo Pavese 2004: a white Pinot Noir from Italy

During my absence, Stephanie procured a number of interesting wines for up to taste this week (although she did dispatch a much anticipated Ridge Geyserville), including this white Pinot Nero (Noir) from Italy. As many readers may know, pinot noir is a major component of french Champangne, where the skins are removed after harvesting to produce a white wine. In fact, the French even make white Champagne entirely of Pinot Noir grapes, which they call Blanc de Noir (i.e., white from red). Stephanie was intrigued by this Italian wine, as I certainly would have been, and brought home a bottle.

To accompany the wine (many people have wine to accompany their meals, whereas here at Chez Harris-Buccafusco we have meals to accompany our wine) we sauteed red snapper fillets and served them with a basil, caper, tomato sauce and mashed potatos and green salad with heirloom tomatos on the side. The fish and wine were a lovely match. As Stephanie predicted, the wine tasted a bit like flat Champagne, but this did not detract from the experience. It had a nose reminiscent of the heftier bubblies, with hints of dough and yeast, and a crisp, slightly acidic finish. Although perhaps not as long and complex as a Champange might be, this was an excellent dry white wine suitable for any pairing where Champagne would be expected. It could also serve as a substitute for those who claim that the fizz in champagne gives them a headache, although this should not be understood to legitimate such sentiments. Who cares if it gives you a headache, it's Champagne!

My Big Apple Adventure

I apologize for lack of recent blogging, but I have just returned from a wonderful trip to Manhattan. On Thursday, I met up with my brother Marty, a producer/editor (a.k.a. "prediter") at MTV, and we enjoyed an enormous lunch of cheeseburgers at McHale's. I left him to return to work, and I strolled around midtown for the afternoon, stopping briefly for some snails and a glass of provencal rose at Brasserie Marseilles. That evening we went out for ribs at Bluesmoke with his girlfriend Lindsay and roommate James.

Marty left early Friday morning to shoot the Video Music Awards in hurricane-threatened Miami, and I began the morning with a trip to Davidoff to meet up with my great friend Kellette. He is responsible for having introduced me to wine after my brewery in Atlanta closed in 2000. We had a nice diner breakfast before I set out for the International Center for Photography to see the daguerreotypes of Southworth and Hawes (this was the nominal purpose of my visit). Afterwards, I again joined Kellette, this time with his lovely wife Islandria, for a tour around the warehouse district and a stop at his local wine shop. We then headed downtown to a Spanish joint named Bar Jamon, which perfectly lived up to its name. We enjoyed marinated sardines and squid, a tasting of three ages of manchego, olives, and serrano ham with glasses of wine (I had sherry). By way of digestion, we took a stroll through the neighborhood and smoked cigars, along the way bumping into Tony Bourdain, who carried a dog in a purse and who proved to be much nicer than his gruff TV image would suggest.

Kellette, Islandria, and I eventually made it back to their place after a brief stop to pick up some cold cuts and cheese for dinner (it was now close to 10pm). They produced a wonderful spread of traditional and spicy salami, aged provolone, proscuitto, basil, and tomatoes and we did a small tasting of three lesser known french red wines, a Saumur, a Corbieres, and a Cahors, the former winning top honors for its delicate texture but complex midpalate. The night ended around 2am with Ashton Super Selections, Kellete having been awake for 27 straight hours by this point.

I awoke in the late morning on Saturday and headed south from Marty's apartment on 50th Street down to the aforementioned Mr. Bourdain's Brasserie Les Halles for what I imagined would be brunch. Upon seeing the menu, however, I was unable to pass up the more savory dishes and choose some very tender pork rillettes, delicious pigs' feet, and a sorbet trio. I skipped wine in favor of the lovely french pressed coffee.

After lunch I wandered down to the market in Union Sqare and tasted some artisanal cheeses from New York and some splendid apple cider. Continuing south, I stopped in Washington Sqare Park to do some reading and watch some incredible bocce. Later that afternoon I met up with Lindsay, who was gracious enough to entertain me in my brother's absence. We had a brief tour through the east village (where I shopped in vain for the perfect gift for Stephanie) and then took a cab to her fabulous apartment on 1st Avenue at 62nd Street. Lindsay recommended a thai restaurant in the area, where we had panang chicken and I introduced her to the pleasures of Gewurtztraminer.

Lindsay left to hang out with some friends, but Kellette, phenomenal friend that he is, managed to get off work just as I was wrapping up with Lindsay. He met me at Merchant's, one of the few remaining New York bars where smoking is still permitted. He is well-loved by the staff there, and we were treated wonderfully. I smoked a limited edition Fonseca with some uncharacteristically uninspiring Lagavulin 16, and Kellette smoked La Flor Dominicana with equally disappointing Macallan 12. After our usual long and meaningful conversation we said goodbye some time after 2.

I enjoyed my trip immensely and am very grateful for the wonderful friendship and entertainment provided by all of my New York friends. It was a superb wine, ham, and cigar filled weekend that I will not soon forget.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Qupe Syrah Central Coast 2003

Preparation for tonight's dinner began rather early, as I began to smoke a pork loin around 4 o'clock. While waiting for it to finish, we had an appetizer of truffle pate and olives. I also prepared green lentils with roast corn and red onion.

We chose the Qupe syrah to match the smokiness of the pork and were well pleased. Although the airing of Blossom: E! True Hollywood Story added little to the event, dinner turned out quite well. The Qupe was medium-full bodied, with considerable smoke and oak on the bouquet. I detected hints of chocolate, coffee, and berries, but Stephanie refused to discuss the wine because I made obnoxious comments about Blossom. I think she liked it, though. Try it with grilled quail or pasta with duck.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Chappellet Chenin Blanc Napa Valley 2003

With the help of Stephanie's new birthday present, the Amuse Bouche cookbook by Rick Tramonto, we prepared a dinner exclusively composed of small appetizers. In no particular order, we had 1) "linguini and clams" (sauteed littleneck clams with long julienne strips of blanched cucumber); 2) carmelized onion tartlettes; 3) crab quenelles with three sauces - roasted red pepper, roasted yellow pepper, and picoline olive; 4) beef carpaccio with cumin-espresso crust and champagne grapes; and finally 5) "cucumber salads", invented by Stephanie. The last of these consisted of hollowed out heirloom grape tomatoes filled with minced onion, celery, and cucumbers, drizzled with olive oil. Truly a spark of inspired genius. Feel free to check out our photo album of the dinner.

We began the meal with a delightful Picpoul de Pinet from the Languedoc region that we had used to steam the clams. For $7, it's hard to beat this wine for pure fruit and crisp acidity (although this one seemed rounder than previous vintages).

We chose the Chenin as the best accompaniment for a variety of courses, and we were quite pleased. Chenin is an unfortunately under-appreciated and under-produced varietal that can often provide far more class and substance that sauvi blanc. We have lately had the pleasure of drinking some fine Savennieres and a delicious off-dry Chenin from Ken Forrester in South Africa. Chappellet produces a decidedly dry version, with a racy acidic finish. Nonetheless, the wine opens with so much ripeness that you'd think it was a sweet wine. This wine sees some oak and accordingly had a rounder, fuller body than most sauvis. Stephanie notes sweet dough aromas, followed by a dry, minerally finish. It could pair with a great variety of foods, particularly spicy asian dishes and seafood pastas.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Turley Zinfandel Old Vines California 2003

Today is Stephanie's birthday, so I prepared a mildly special dinner - grilled doublecut pork chops with a roasted red pepper sauce and orzo with grilled zucchini, onions, eggplant, and bell pepper. These were specially raised pork chops, with considerably more fat than the grocery store brand. They were succulent. I also purchased a special wine - the normally exorbitantly priced Turley Zin, which I found for a relative bargain.

I wanted a reasonably well-extracted wine to balance the heat and sweetness in the sauce, and I got at least that from the Turley. This is, of course, the California zinfandel, and it showed its roots. At 16.4% alcohol, we could barely hold on the for the ride. The wine was intensely ripe and had almost no tannin or acidity, but it did have some interesting complexity. A wine this big is hard to describe - suffice it to say that there were characteristic zinfandel notes of blueberry and spice. Frankly, it drank like dry port - which is not entirely a bad thing, if that's what you're after. While it shows none of the potential for aging that fine port does, it would certainly be a fine match for a cigar.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Keller's Service Charge

The New York Times reports that Thomas Keller, arguably the world's greatest chef, will be instituting a mandatory 20% service charge for all guests at his Manhattan restaurant, Per Se. Keller has been charging 17% for service at his Napa Valley restaurant, the French Laundry, for years, but it didn't become newsworthy until it happened to New Yorkers. Almost everyone seems to be upset by this development, especially diners who cherish the ability to decide the value of the service they receive and waiters who, although they don't want to admit it publicly, are reluctant to pay taxes on all of their tips.

One issue seems to have been ignored in the many discussions of Keller's move, i.e., the propriety of charging a fixed rate for wine service. At Keller's restaurants, all diners choose from one of two menus and receive basically the same amount of service - the larger and more expensive menu requires the waiters to serve and clear more dishes than the smaller, cheaper menu, so it is reasonable for the waiters to receive more net tip. (For example, the waiter serving the cheaper $100 menu would receive $20, and the waiter serving the $200 menu would receive $40, but the latter would do twice as much work.) It doesn't work this way with wine. At Keller's restaurants, the same care and attention are paid to bottles of wine costing $50 (there are a few half bottles for that price) as for those that cost $500 (thus, it is not a case of receiving better service, such as recommendations, decanting, better stemware, &c.). Under Keller's new service scheme, waiters and sommeliers pouring from expensive bottles of wine will be making much more money than those pouring cheaper bottles of wine, although both will be doing the same amount of work. Under this scheme, if Diner A orders a $100 bottle of wine, Server A will make $20; but when Diner B orders a $500 bottle of wine, Server B receives $100 - for the same effort.

Stephanie pointed out a situation in which the discrepancy is perhaps more absurd. If Diner A orders five bottles of $100 wine, Server A will make the same $100 that Server B received for pouring just one $500 bottle. This situation is unfair to both servers and diners.

As a practical matter, diners generally tip the same amount regardless of what they spend on wine - always 20%, for example - so Keller's scheme may not make much difference. Nonetheless, it's an unfair and irrational system that penalizes servers and diners. So what's the answer?

Easy. Institute an across the board "corkage fee" for opening and serving all bottles of wine whether $50 or $500, purchased at the restaurant or brought from the diner's cellar. Under such a system, diners would get what they paid for and waiters would be appropriately compensated for their efforts. The tools are there, just use them.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Mocavero Puteus Salice Salentino Riserva 2000

Taking a cue from my mother (who adopted many classics of Italian-American cuisine when she married my father), I decided to make spaghetti and meatballs. Needing to expand a little beyond Mama's kitchen, I chose to make the meatballs with ground lamb. Stephanie continues to impress with her salad-making capacity, this time producing a basil champagne vinaigrette with lettuces and shaved cucumbers.

Having decided to make the spaghetti, I put Stephanie in charge of selecting a suitable Italain wine to accompany the meal, and she performed admirably. I often shy away from Salice Salentino, fearing the overripe fruit-bombs that often come from this region in the heal of Italy's boot. The Mocavero, however, was a welcome surprise.

Although the nose burst with ripe fruit, pushing towards port or even balsamic, it drank beautifully with the meal. The wine passed through a variety of stages, at some points seeming cab-like, and at others as soft as pinot, but always decidedly Italian. Stephanie detected cranberries and remarked that "this is the kind of wine that feels good in your mouth." I couldn't agree more. And at about $15 a bottle, it'll feel a lot better than most of the increasingly expensive barberas and chiantis coming out of Italy.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Domaine De La Tour Boisee Minervois 2003 & Chateau Mas Neuf Costieres de Nimes 2003

Tonight we had a blind tasting of these wines from Southern France. Chris poured the wines and left the room, remembering which wine was where; I labeled the wines with a star and triangle, and mixed them up, noting where each "shape" had begun. During dinner and our first glass of each wine, we both took blind notes on each "shape," without discussing our impressions. You'll find our comments below.

For dinner, we served a salad of "nested" Boston lettuce with lemon dijon vinaigrette and fried string potatoes, followed by grilled veal rib chops with a pearl onion sauce. On the side, we had white asparagus wrapped in Black Forest proscuitto.

Domaine De La Tour Boisee Minervois 2003
Stephanie: I think I prefered this wine, which is unusual, as it was slightly sweeter and less meaty. The accompanying food was surprisingly delicate, and went well with a lighter, sweeter wine. Both wines seemed appropriate for Southern France; neither was terribly surprising, which is probably a good thing.
Neither wine was very tannic.
Color: bright purple/ruby
Aroma/Flavor: brown sugar and yams; slightly floral; peaches; white chocolate; sweeter than the Chateau Mas Neuf.

Chris: This was a rather ripe offering from the Minervois (certainly more so than the Coupe des Roses tasted earlier this week). I noted ripe berries, oak, and cola on the aroma which carried through to the flavor. This was definitely the riper wine, made in a more "international" style. It was well made, but it was perhaps less characteristic of southern France than the Mas Neuf. I would recommend beef or duck with this one.

Chateau Mas Neuf Costieres de Nimes 2003
Aroma/Flavor: slight meaty/bacon flavor and aroma; rocky/steely; cooked raisins.

Chris: I preferred this wine, both in the abstract and with the veal (not to mention that it was cheaper). The aroma reminded me distinctly of the southern Rhone, with smoke, cherry, and that indescribable citrus aroma that one often finds in Chateauneuf du Pape. As Stephanie notes, the color was more garnet than violet, and the body was lighter. It was a pleasant match with the veal, finishing surprisingly long with notes of earth and licorice. Although perhaps too dry for a sipping wine, this is one to buy by the case.

Stephanie's Six Course Dinner

It's been a week since Stephanie decided to prepare a six-course feast for us. I'm still not sure what inspired it, but I hope the inspiration strikes more often. I was forbidden from entering the kitchen after 2 o'clock until the end of dinner at 9:00 (at which time I was allowed to enter and do the dishes).

We began with oysters fried in two fashions, in flour and in cornmeal, with a red pepper remoulade. This is the second time that Stephanie has fried oysters, and they were wonderful once again. I was less pleased with the Il Prosecco NV we had with it. I remember it being brighter and more flavorful. This bottle was not as interestingas I recall.

Next we had ceasar salad in crouton collars. This was a gorgeous presentation, with the large romaine leaves standing straight up from a hollowed out slice of toasted baguette. Stephanie made this one especially for me, knowing how much I enjoy real ceasar salads with plenty of good anchovie flavor.

Stephanie then prepared a corn soup with lime, cilantro, and avocado. I'm still not sure how she did it, but this turned out to be one of the best soups I've ever had - worthy of Thomas Keller. The flavor was so rich without any cream. The bottle of Henry Pelle Pouilly-Fume 2003 that we chose to accompany it failed to live up to the soup, however. In the hot 2003 vintage, Pelle did not tame the heat - the wine was flabby, even sweet, with not mid-palate or finish.

Our entree was a phenomenal halibut fillet baked in parchment. The fish was perfectly cooked, and its sweetness was accentuated by a bottle of Cakebread Chardonnay Napa Valley 2003. A classic Napa chard, but in this case, that wasn't a bad thing. The oak was modest, nicely playing with the ripe fruit and mild acidity. The Cakebread was also a great wine with the corn soup.

Unfortunately, we didn't have any wine left for the final two courses - basil vanilla ice cream and goat cheese with truffle honey. The latter would have been expecially nice was a Quartes de Charmes. I hope Stephanie decides to do this again soon.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Chateau Coupe Roses Minervois la bastide 2003

Since Chris is getting slack (and watching the Dolphin's pre-season game) I thought I'd do a little posting of my own. I'm still learning (as I imagine I will always be) so bear with me. This will be brief.

Last night Chris cooked Thomas Keller's simply roasted chicken, which has become quite a staple in our house. Lightly crisped on the skin, pure juice inside. Side dishes were glazed parsnips and a salad of baby spring lettuces dressed with good balsamic vinegar and olive oil, salt and pepper. It really pays to buy good balsamic, even if its a little pricier than your garden variety vinegar. Trust me on this one. You can probably find something decent in most national grocery stores, although we buy ours at Whole Foods or order it on line. Earthy Delights has a good selection on line for this and other gourmet items. I recommend you check out their website.

The wine was Minervois 2003 la bastide, which Chris tells me is a region in Southern France near Roussillon (sp?). The producers or winemakers are Franciose Frissant Le Calvez & Pascal Frissant. That may have more meaning for you than it does for me.

I understand this wine is likely composed of Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvedre, and perhaps some of the other less widely known varieties from the region, as well. We didn't choose the wine specifically for the dish; it was just something we picked up on a whim and had in the "drink-now cellar." For fifteen dollars, it's not a bad buy. It wasn't as noticeably fruity as many of the wines we've had from the Rhone. The dominant notes on both the aroma and palate were olives (Chris) and black pepper (me). There was a woodiness to the wine, but without oak, and some subtle, dark fruitiness that could be described as not-terribly-ripe black cherry, maybe even a little prune. I wouldn't recommend this wine with anything terribly flashy, as it would overwhelm the wine's subtlety. Not my favorite wine, but we'd buy it again.


Thursday, August 04, 2005

Domaine des Baumard Savennieres 2000

We have been eating out the past few days, and there has been no interesting wine to speak of. Tonight, however, I ignored my research in favor of a delicious dinner. We began with a chilled watercress soup, which had a creamy body but an immaculately delicate savor. It would have served better between rich courses than as an opening course. Our main course was olive oil poached sea bass with poached scallions and roasted asparagus. With the additional meat on the bones, I prepared a fried bass cake. We were rather pleased with the results of these new techniques.

Although Charlie had suggested a number of potential matches (including gruner veltliner and sauternes), I chose a lovely chenin blanc from the Loire valley. Baumard is one of the best Loire producers, and most of his wines are quite reasonably priced (this one retailed for $20). Stephanie and I enjoyed a bottle of their Clos du Papillon recently, and I had a glass of the magnificent Quartes de Charmes at Michael Mina in San Fransisco.

The entry level Savennieres was delightful, opening with a rich thrust of oak and musk melon. At five years old, the wine was beginning to show some age - it was a lovely gold color, and its characteristicly bracing acidity had mellowed in favor of mature earthly notes. Although unusual for this bottling, I detected a hint of botrytis.

When cold, this wine matched the sea bass rather well, but as it warmed, the rather dense body and hints of botrytis called out for richer cuisine. At a younger age, it would have been excellent, but if you find one from this vintage, live a litte, and try it with pork.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Backsberg Chardonnay South Africa 2002

Stephanie and I spent an enjoyable weekend entertaining her brother and sister-in-law. After a truly phenomenal lunch at Hot Doug's on Saturday, we came home for a dinner of grilled squid and grilled pork loin roast. On Sunday, we held a party in honor of the departure of my friend Kevin for D.C., and I prepared grilled chicken a la Mina - jerked, barbecued, and Italian herb - with Stephanie's homemade guac and an orzo pasta salad.

After this weekend of fine eating, Stephanie requested that we keep tonight's dinner on the lighter side. Accordingly, we began the meal on our patio, shuckers in hand, staring at half a dozen kumamoto oysters each. Although they weren't impeccably fresh, the kumis (as Stephanie calls them) would beat most other varieties straight from the sea. For a main course, I served wild sockeye salmon, grilled only on the skin side, leaving the top incredibly succulent and moist, with asparagus and rice. We chose the Backsberg chard to accompany it.

Stephanie and I have been fans of Backsberg's wines for a while now. The "Pumphouse" Shiraz and the inexpensive Sauvi Blanc are very nice wines. The chardonnay, however, was much less enjoyable. Its aroma opened with rich oak and vanilla, but these couldn't mask a distinct note that reminded me of taleggio cheese. Like the aroma, the body was rich, but the wine's body showed no sophistication or structure.

Throughout the nineties, wineries looking to make quality wines for budget-conscious consumers went to incredible feats to make their inexpensive wines taste like Mersault and Montrachet. Often this included the addition of inappropriate amounts of oak or oak chips. More recently, a number of wineries have realized that consumers are well pleased by inexpensive wines that allow the fruit flavors to show through without overwhelming oak and vanilla. The Aussies, and even some South African wineries have excelled at this. Backsberg, unfortunately, seems to have missed the boat. There's fine fruit in this wine, but it doesn't come through sufficiently to make it food-friendly. Oh well.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Why no ratings?

My regular readers (Hi Mom!) may be wondering why my wine reviews have not been accompanied by numerical ratings of the kind used by Parker, Spectator, etc. I have decided to forego the use of such ratings for a variety of reasons related to my situation vis a vis the wine industry and my particlar wine philosophy.

Numerical wine ratings can be a tremendously useful method for wine critics to quickly and easily articulate their general opinions of a wine. They are especially useful in situations such as Mr. Parker's, where the ratings reflect the opinions of a single palate (ignoring his assistants) and are thus more consistent over time and across regions. Although I imagine that my palate is very different from Mr. Parker's, or Mr. Suckling's or Mr. Laube's, for that matter, their wine ratings are useful to me when I want to get the general sense of a wine's quality relative to its competitors. They are also useful to many wine buyers who simply want to know that they are getting a decent bottle, because they make for attractive Point-of-Sale references. My goal, however, is not to create easy to use P.o.S. or to rank an entire vintage of Bordeaux based on relative quality. I am not a professional member of the wine industry, and I don't need to write as if I am. Instead, I want to give readers some thoughtful comments about a wine's characteristics and quality when consumed in a specific context, i.e. as a part of a meal.

This brings me to the second point about why I have eschewed numerical ratings. Stephanie and I consume almost all of our wine as an accompaniment to the meals we cook. For us, as for many people, wine is most valuable not as an abstract flavor conveyancer but as a meal-specific accoutrement to general gustatory pleasure. It is in this meal-specific context that I buy wines, and it is in this context that I want to write about them. Most often, when I go to the wine shop, I have some idea of the meal or meals that I will be cooking, and I search for bottles that will pair best with them. Or, if I buy a variety of wines for the cellar, I do so anticipating their suitability for potential dishes. Accordingly, the most important aspect of a particular wine is not its abstractly measured quality in comparison with other wines, but rather its potential to match the foods that I am cooking. While a particular bottle of 1er cru burgundy might provide gobs of abstractly measured pleasure in Mr. Parker's tasting room, I am most interested in whether it will taste like what I think burgundy should taste like. It does me no good to bring home a 96 point burgundy to match with simply cooked veal if the wine actually tastes like Australian shiraz.

Given the above mentioned considerations, I have decided to produce reviews that I hope will be useful to people in the situation I most often find myself in - on the way to the wine shop or facing the cellar with a particular meal in mind. Thus, my reviews will generally consist of a short statement of a wine's general characteristics - its color, body, aroma, and taste - as well as a few more particular notes about certain aroma or flavor components that might be useful when considering whether the wine will match certain dishes. In addition, I will almost always include the meal that I served the wine with and my opinion of its suitability for that or other meals. Lastly, I will try to give an overall sense of whether the wine met my expectations. Accordingly, the best wines will often be described as "classic" or "typical" this or that, because if a wine tastes like a what it is supposed to taste like, I will be more successful with my wine and food pairings. After all, that's what all of this is really about.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Clot de l'Oum La Compagne des Papillons Roussillon 2002

As I begin to write, Stephanie is kindly rinsing the dishes that very recently contained a delicious meal. Today was our first cool day in weeks, so I took advantage and did some slow cooking. I prepared duck and chicken cassoulet with white beans, carrots, and smoked sausage. We were quite pleased with the results, particularly when accompanied by a loaf of peasant bread. Although I intended to serve two wines with the meal, the onset of a minor cold convinced me to only open one. The white cotes du rhone from Dom. de la Solitude will have to wait until another night.

This syrah from the Roussillon was a lovely match for the meal. The aroma bursts with cigar tobacco - seriously, not just hints of tobacco, but honest to goodness I just stepped into a humidor tobacco. Despite this powerful aroma, the wine's palate was really pleasant, with more tobacco, along with black pepper, olive, dried meat, and blueberry notes. The medium-full body and the substantial tannins would perhaps be better suited to a richer dish, but it proved to be a superb accompaniment to the cassoulet. I probably should have taken Charlie's advice and gone with a Cahors or a Madiran.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Warwick Three Cape Ladies South Africa 2002

Tonight's dinner began with delicious smoked salmon "sandwiches" - smoked salmon, microgreens, and sprouts sandwiched between thin crisps of baguette with lemon-caper creme fraiche. Our entree was grilled tri-tip sirloin, sliced, and served with glazed mini-yukon gold potatoes.

We had been waiting to try the Warwick for a couple of weeks. Stephanie purchased the '01 for our cellar - it was to be her very first vertical - and although she didn't know it, the wine received considerable praise. When we went to buy the new '02, we noticed that Wine Spectator had given it a rather bad score (82 points, if memory serves me correctly), so instead of purchasing our normal alotment, we grabbed a single bottle to evaluate. I was quite pleased with the wine and its pairing. The aroma began with decided bacon notes from a lavish amount of oak, but with the steak, the wine was in pleasant balance. The finish was a bit severe for my palate, although it might soften with a couple of years in the cellar. Stephanie's tasting experience was marred by a fly who wished to join us but who ended up in her glass and eventually her mouth. Trooper that she is, she recovered sufficiently to detect brown sugar and baked beans on the aroma and palate. As South African wines go, this one is not the cheapest (~$25), but I think it shows promise for short-term cellaring. Warwick's wines certainly tend more towards the Australian model than the French. This is not, however, a wine for cocktail parties or casual sipping - have a nice meal.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Paul Coulon Dom. de Beaurenard Cotes du Rhone Rose 2004

Stephanie and I purchased new bistro style plates tonight and prepared a matching meal. We started with an orzo pasta salad with lobster, tomatoes, parsley, and a lemon-garlic sauce. Then we enjoyed grill-roasted chicken with sugarsnap peas. The Coulon rose was a fantastic match. The wine opened with hints of oak and strawberry. As it warmed, Stephanie detected cotton candy, rose, and crab apple. As roses go, this one was lush, with great fruit, a long finish, and a beautiful glycerin-y body. Just the thing for grilled chicken. I would recommend it with most summertime dishes - king salmon, pastas, chicken, and pork.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Powell on the perils of organicism

Julie Powell has published an interesting article in today's New York Times on the perils of the organic food movement. According to Powell, while proponents of organic produce, hormone-free dairy, and cage-free poultry have succeeded in highlighting many of America's problems with poor diet and obesity, they run the risk of conflating gastronomic choices with moral worth. To radical organicists, the mother who buys her children hormone-treated milk because it's half the price of the stuff at Whole Foods is bordering on child abuse. This extremist attitude "gets [Powell's] hackels up."

Powell is no doubt correct about the obnoxiously condescending attitude of some organicists, but she too easily brushes over a huge problem in America today. People do eat too many things that are bad for them, and changing people's diets should be a major concern for folks who think and write about food. While we can certainly get carried away by our own gastronomic superiority, we should be encouraging quality foods as one method for altering dietary practices. As demand for quality, organic food increases, supply will expand, and eventually prices will start falling. We have already begun to see this. Our Dominick's stocks a considerable selection of organic produce, most of which is cheaper than that available at Whole Foods, and a few of the local produce markets have large organic sections. Often, the price difference between organic produce and "standard" produce is negligible. Thus, choosing quality products loses its economic disadvantages.

The wine world provides an intriguing example of this phenomenon. Many of the people who buy expensive organic foods are the same ones who have driven the expansion of worldwide production of high-quality wines. As we all know, more wineries are producing both more and better wines than ever. And although wealthy buyers have bid up the prices of certain pedigreed and cult wines beyond the reach of most Americans, this general interest in wine has dramatically increased the quality of standard table wines. We are importing great wines from previously unexplored regions, and enormous wine conglomerates like Gallo and Kendall-Jackson are responding by increasing the quality of their basic bottlings.

The lesson for the organic food market would suggest that although wealthy, snobby types will always seek out the rarest items and bid their prices up to unreachable levels, a general public interest in quality foods will eventually create a better and cheaper supply of these goods to more people. It's certainly not unimaginable that soon, large food purveyors and distributors will begin producing good food at reasonable prices. The message of quality food is certainly one worth spreading.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Terlano Pinot Bianco Vorberg Riserva Alto Adige 2002

Stephanie chose this wine, and I'm not sure what logic she used in doing so (nor is she, for that matter), but it showed very well. We had take-out sushi, and the wine's open character complimented the entire array of fish and appetizers. Although it's label noted that it had spent a year in oak, the wood on aroma didn't overpower the wine and added a layer of depth missing from many pinot blancs. I noticed a hint of stone fruits on the palate, and Stephanie detected a note of dandelion.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Pinot Tasting

Tonight, Stephanie, my loving fiance, and I created a minor pinot noir tasting from three half-bottles, and I'd be happy to share my notes. As this is my first wine-related post, it will give you a chance to appreciate my particular palate. Feel free to disagree. All wines were served at the same temperature in identical glasses, and accompanied a delightful dinner of grilled pork chops, roasted yukon gold potatoes with rosemary and shallots, and grilled yellow and green zucchini.

Cherry Hill Winery Estate Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2003 - The bottle opens with a warm aroma in the glass and a distinct alcoholic tinge. At first the wine struck me as a classic example of the plushly textured Oregon pinots that I love, but as it opened it took a decidedly Californian turn - opulent, but flabby fruit, etc. This is not the kind of wine I enjoy, with food or on its own. The fruit was overdone, overwhelming an immodest degree of oak.

Willamette Valley Vineyards Vintage Select Pinot Noir 2002 - For the first 20 minutes, this wine showed almost no meaningful aroma, except a slight hint of alcohol and ester. On the palate, however, it proved to a be a delightful beverage - classic Oregon cherries and red berries. A medium-full body was buoyed up by, to my taste, an immoderate amount of oak, creating a rather spicy finish, with notes of bacon fat and licorice. A fine wine, but for the oak.

Dom. Amiot Guy Chassagne-Montrachet Vieilles Vignes 1999 - You wouldn't know you were drinking a 6 year old wine from the color - just as dense as the much younger Oregonians. The wine opened with a pleasant aroma, showing off both its lingering youth and its oncoming maturity. The fruit was still present, but it was mingling nicely with the first hints of truffle and damp earth. Surprisingly bold for a burgundy, this wine held up nicely after the meal, as well. The palate was in perfect balance - what oak there was only served to highlight the depth and purity of the fruit. This is the kind of wine I really enjoy.

Each of these wines cost between $12 and $18 per half-bottle. My favorite is clear. The 99 burgundies are really starting to show well these days, particularly those from the lesser-regarded Cotes de Beaune regions like Santenay, Volnay, etc. Stephanie and I have been drinking a number of these recently, and they are performing beautifully - lingering fruit balanced by approaching maturity. For village and 1er cru level wines in the 20 to 30 dollar range, these are excellent buys - if you can still find them.

Welcome to Cask79

Welcome to my new weblog devoted to the machinations of everyone's favorite microorganism - yeast! On this site you will find my regular postings on the wines, beers, whiskies, and other fermentables and distilates that I enjoy and dislike (although I hope there will be far more of the former). Although you surely don't need another "expert" telling you what to drink, I will offer my opinions for those who may appreciate them - friends, guests, etc. Please send me your comments on my opinions or on any other related matters.