wine and Food

Stealing a Wine's Soul

winelab.jpgI could not believe my eyes. I had to read it twice: “and to my palate even the best paired food gets in the way of a pure and unadulterated one-on-one experience with the wine”

It made me a bit sad. How had the wine experience become so sterile? The comment was made on The Robert Parker Forum by a frequent poster there. It should come as no surprise that such a anti-wine and food comment should come from a forum dominated by points. The world where a giving a wine 89 points instead of 90 can actually devastate its sales.

For millennium humans have chosen wine as the perfect compliment to a fine meal, as a healthy everyday beverage and as an agricultural product worthy of connoisseurship, collecting and study. Yet somehow, in just a few decades of wine appreciation in America we have reduced it to points and a beverage whose appreciation is only confused by food. 

Perhaps we should try to remember that like cooking, while there is art in wine it is not art in itself. Wine is the highest form of agriculture, not a pure art like music or painting. As an agricultural product, its highest appreciation and purpose is to be enjoyed at the table. Taking wine away from the dinner table to be considered only on its own or in competition with other wines rips the soul that Mother Nature has put there out of the wine. Of course, there is enjoyment in pure tastings; verticals, horizontals and every other permutation, but we should not confuse those real pleasures with wines real purpose.

I can’t help myself. Every bottle of wine I pick up makes me think of what to cook. Every trip to the market where I discover wonderful fresh ingredients takes my mind to my wine rack. At a restaurant I can’t help but select my meal and wine with equal attention. It is this harmony of wine and food that brings a wine’s character to its highest level. Everything on our table comes from the earth and wine is just one more color on nature’s delicious palette. 

The appropriate attire for wine appreciation should be white linen napkins, not white linen lab coats.

Grilled Fresh Anchovies and Sardines - WBW #23

wbwlogo_6.jpgThe years I spent living in Italy changed my concept of Barbecue forever and so my take on this Wine Blogging Wednesday topic takes a decidedly un-American twist. My version of Barbecue now brings up the vision of my friend Massimo sweating over a very smoky fire of real wood instead of charcoal, sipping on a big bottle of Becks and rapidly turning the fresh fish on the grill. While every smoky bit of seafood he tossed on the big platters was delicious, for me nothing could beat the rich, oily taste of the fresh anchovies and sardines.

Massimo marinates them briefly in extra virgin olive oil, onions, lemon and rosemary before tossing them over the hot, smoky fire for just a few moments per side. The results quickly made me forget ribs and burgers. Fortunately for me, in the USA Oriental fish shops are a good source of fresh anchovies and sardines - at least if you ask for them.

While crisp Oregon pinot gris is certainly a great choice for these little beauties, I usually find myself going back to the zesty Italian whites I would have shared with Massimo on such an occasion. While you want plenty of acidity to balance their richness, you also need a bit of body to match their full flavor. This year  a bottle of 2004 Cesani Vernaccia di San Gimignano (imported by the ever reliable Montecastelli) was the perfect foil. With a firm backbone of acidity expanding into  round, mineral, almond and fresh pear aromas and flavors,  this is no simple tourist San Gimignano white, but a wine that will grab your attention - at least until you pop the next anchovy into your mouth.

Too Much of Good Things

It was an “in” place with a “name” chef. Racy architecture and mind-dulling pulsing modern Muzak. Everything designed to stimulate every sense possible. The only things missing are simple, clean flavors, that have no chance of survival in these food discos.

There is this compelling and uncontrolled American feeling that more is better…

  • more noise
  • more flavors
  • more color
  • more, more, more…

My tuna tartare was overwhelmed by ginger, so what was surely sashimi grade toro was reduced to a searing ginger intensity that destroyed both fish and wine. Every course that followed was cursed by similar excess and obliteration of the prime flavors the dish was supposed to offer. After all, shouldn't tuna tartare taste more of tuna than ginger? What is sad in this more is better insecurity, is that the same chefs producing these excesses are also going out of their way to find the finest raw materials – then burying them under more and more of everything instead of letting their true character and elegance show through.

The same goes for winemakers today, who are harvesting some of the finest fruit ever produced, only to bury it under layers of oak and over-manipulation. The rule for chefs and winemakers should always be that the freshest and most expressive raw materials should be left alone to show their greatness. Add accents and highlights, but don’t destroy their essence. Cooking and winemaking should be like adding the proper frame to a great painting.

Oddly enough, the wine I ordered that night was just the opposite of the over-manipulated food. The  2000 Woodward Canyon Winery Walla Walla Valley Merlot (its OK to order merlot in Washington) was balanced and graceful. It was a wine full of edges and angles, unlike the insipid merlot offered by most producers today. It reminded me of the days (almost 30 years ago) when I discovered wine. A time when merlot was an interesting and compelling varietal only taking the lead in wines from Pomerol and Saint Emilion, before merlot became the wine hated in Sideways - and for good reason. This was a beautiful bottle, lean and firm with great complexity throughout. It was the best part of the meal and I saved my last glass to appreciate after the noisy food left our table in peace.


Food and Wine

Nascar explosionFood and Wine: two words that seemingly go together like ham and eggs. Yet the reality of wine today is that more and more of it does not go well with food. As chefs continue to push the envelope of complexity, the wine industry seems to be veering in two divergent directions. One branch is going down the road of clean, industrial stability with flavor profiles determined by market research and the other going down the points-driven feeding frenzy of more-is-better powerhouse wines.

I recently purchased a bottle of 2003 Peachy Canyon Zinfandel, and it convinced me that when push comes to shove, I’d rather go with blander wines with my meal than wine that could double as fuel for the NASCAR circuit. A clean, if somewhat boring, Zinfandel at 13% alcohol, actually compliments a meal better than the Peachy Canyon that weighed in at a combustible 15.5%. Strange as it seems, commercial can be better than artisan when it comes to wine.

This it the greatest danger of today’s points driven wine criticism. Ultimately it will always reward wines that are at their finest on the first sip or two. However, these very same wines dull the palate after a half-a-glass and do nothing to enhance the food on the table. Not only do they not enhance it, they conflict with food – they very thing a wine is created for in the first place.

Balance, refinement, elegance are all attributes that are as important in the kitchen as they are in the cellar.

Wine Solo

They walked up to the bar of a very elegant restaurant and asked for the wine list. After a few minutes they ordered a bottle of Talbott Chardonnay - and that was it. Food was not part of the equation. Not much attention was paid to the expensive bottle of wine. In fact, the only comment made was that it was too warm and they asked the bartender to ice it down. The two of them finished off the bottle without taking a bite.

This drinking wine without food is something I often forget people do unless it happens right in front of me. It is so out of my range of thinking. I just can't separate the two. The fact, of course, is that probably most American wine drinking is done in this way - as a cocktail not as a part of the meal.

This makes an interesting dilemma for winemakers as making wine for cocktail purposes is not the same as making wine that compliments food. The result of this dilemma are an awful lot of "dry" white wines that are not dry at all, as they contain significant residual sugar. That sugar tastes pretty good on its own, but pair that sweet chardonnay up with some oysters and the match is less than spiritual.

The beverage wine industry has nailed down the cocktail wine style perfectly producing sweet chardonnay, flavorless pinot grigio and merlot without a interesting edge to be found. These wines disappear down the palate without distracting the drinker with a lot of character that could interrupt the conversation.

This is why wine drinkers on a budget, that still want interesting wine that goes well with food, almost always have to look to Europe for their bargains as making wine to match well with food is too deeply ingrained in their society to be totally overwhelmed by industrial winemaking. Lovely, reasonable priced wines can still be found in places like Macon, Beaujolais, Loire, Abruzzo, Le Marche and Piemonte among many others.

It is a shame that the American wine industry has totally abandoned this type of wine.


Cutting Edges- Produttori dei Barbaresco

Dinner last evening provided a good excuse for nebbiolo - not that excuses are required. Portland's (OR) Caffe Mingo offers particularly satisfying Italian inspired comfort food -- just the thing required for the cutting edge provided by traditionally-styled nebbiolo wines. Owner Michael Cronin has assembled a short, but well chosen wine list to accompany his flavorful fare and the moderately priced 1996 Produttori dei Barbaresco Riserva Montestefano immediately tingled my palate.  These Produttori Riservas are not only a great value, they are a time machine, as they take you back to the way Baroli and Barbaresci tasted decades ago. While many claim the "traditional" description, the Produttori are one of the few who actually practice it authentically. These are wines full of cutting edges and modern-day descriptors of ripe cherries/blueberries/blackberries do not come to mind.  The 96 Montestefano on its own was still lean, tight and unyielding (it needs another 5 or 6 years), but Cronin's food and an hour of decanter time created a true symbiosis as the edges of the Montestefano balanced complexity brought alive the richly warm cuisine.

These days the attention always seems to be on a wine's front, while ignoring its edges. However on the edges is often where the real complexity hides.  The Produttori dei Barbaresco wines may have little front, but they have dramatically satisfying edges.


Stemming the Rise of Greasy Wine Glasses

A couple sits down next to me at an elegant wine bar and order a zinfandel and a merlot. The waiter returns with two huge balloon Riedel glasses. The women reaches out with long, painted and manicured fingernails and grabs the entire bowl of the gigantic glass with her small hand. Protruding strangely from her fingers is the long and untouched stem, which sticking out in this fashion threatens the chin of her companion. After a few sips the once glistening glass is now covered with fingerprints that, combined with the lipstick marks on the lip, make the elegant glass dirty and dingy.

 What is this phenomenon? In this era of glasses the size of decanters why do so many people still insist on grabbing the entire glass and ignoring the stem? This is like carrying your suitcase in your arms instead of using the handle. It seems so clear that the stem is connected to a wine glass so you can hold it, it seems very odd that so many people still insist on grabbing the bowl with their entire hand. With the size of todays glassware you need a big hand to successfully hold the entire bowl with comfort.

There are reasons for the stem on a glass besides the elegant look. By handling only the stem the glassware remains sparking clean so that you can enjoy the appearance of the wine and using the stem keeps the heat of your hands away from the wine. 

I know this fits into the unimportant pet-peeve category, but no one seems to be able to explain this behavior. Perhaps Riedel "O" glasses will take over the market. 

My Christmas Present to Me - 1974 Clos du Val

Taking advantage of the Holiday to bring out some old wines from my cellar, I grabbed a lone  remaining bottle of 1974 Clos du Val, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. This was a wine I did not intend to keep this long, but it somehow had escaped a corkscrew for  almost thirty years after I brought it home. I did not expect much.

 The first sniff changed my expectations with a rush. There was still clean, bright black cherry fruit layered in with the cedary, earthy aromas of elegant old cabernet sauvignon. The wine absolutely filled the palate being expansive and elegant at the same moment. The freshness of the fruit was nothing short of astounding and the complexity humbling. The finish made you long for the next sip. I drained the last drops with a mixture of pleasure and sadness.

When I purchased this wine I was a wine neophyte full of wonder. This bottle brought that wonder back to me. Certainly there can be no better gift to give yourself.

Happy Holidays to All

Happy Holidays to all visitors and subscribers to this blog. I sincerely thank the hundreds of subscribers and thousands of visitors that have taken part in The Wine Camp Blog since its launch in November. I remain committed to offering an alternative voice to the established wine media here and on The Wine Blog Forum. It is your interest and support that makes all of this worthwhile.

May the next year bring you good luck and fortune and let's hope that there is more peace in the world in 2006.

Lazy Wine Buyers

Never has there been a time when there is so much interesting wine to drink. That's why there can be no other explanation for a poor wine selection than laziness. Not even cheapness can be used to explain away bad wines as there are too many good cheap wines to keep track of these days. Others plead the need for continuity, but tasty big production wines fill the shelves. No, bad wine lists are the work (or lack thereof) of the lazy. Either too lazy to educate themselves or just too uninterested to take the time.

A recent trip reminded me of this as I was served a really terrible 2002 Joliesse California Cabernet Sauvignon on United Airlines. This burnt smelling and raisin flavored wine was their only red wine choice. United loves to show photos of the famous chefs and sommeliers they use to help them select their wines, but I find it hard to believe that such a mediocre wine ever passed the lips of those famous names. What can be the excuse for selecting such a wine out of all the wines possible? Laziness. They think that just because most people pay little attention to the wine going down their throats, that it just isn't worth their time to do any better. Certainly they can get away with it, but along the way you would think you would run into someone with a little pride. 

Of course, you have to wonder about the people at Joliesse too. With all the lovely, ripe fruit in California, this is the type of wine that they come up with? No Joilesse, United Airlines and all the others like Trader Joe's have only one excuse for the plonk they peddle.


Terrabianca Extra Virgin Olive Oil

terrabiancaevoobottles.jpgThe Terrabianca estate in Tuscany is loaded with style, after all the fashion industry provided the financial fuel for this beautiful estate. However, never satisfied with just good looks, the Guldener family has pursued quality both inside and outside of their bottles. The wines of Terrabianca are justifiably famous as each is of superb quality, but wine is not the only excellent liquid that Terrabianca puts into bottles. They also produce a delicious extra virgin olive oil from their Il Tesoro estate in Maremma on the Tuscan coast. To make things more interesting, Terrabianca offers some perfect stocking stuffers (mine please Santa), a range of flavored oils that comes in an assorted gift set of six 100 ml. bottles. The package includes one bottle each of Terrabianca extra virgin olive oil plus bottles of their oil flavored with oregano, basil, white truffles, hot peppers or rosemary. These oils add an easy creative touch to your cooking - and like all things from Terrabianca they look good on your shelf too.

I Was Big Glass Gluping

The Riedel explosion has done much more good for wine than bad, but one negative aspect has been the onslaught of giant wine glasses. My recent experience at Thanksgiving not only exposed me to many wines I would never drink on my own,  but it also brought home the change in the way people drink wine today as compared to  a few years ago. In a typical exercise in American overreaction, we went from glasses that were too small to glasses that are just plain huge. I am reminded of The New Yorker cartoon where a man is drinking from a huge glass of wine and comments that his doctor has recommended he cut back to one glass of wine a day. While I understand (and agree with)  some of the Riedel philosophy that the space amplifies the aromas, all to often most wine glasses these days are just big. While the exacting designs of Riedel and other fine wine glass producers without a doubt improves the wine experience, most other (read cheaper) glasses don't do anything for wine except to hold more of it. Many glasses used today make the host look cheap if less than a third of a bottle is poured into the glass. This phenomenon works well for mass-brand-wine-beverage producers as they are more interested in consumers that gulp than those that savor. Bigger is not always better when it comes to glasses.  Invest in fine quality glasses of medium size if you don't want to own dozens of different types of glasses for each and every type of wine. A great wine shows its character in any well designed glass, but can be lost in a glass whose only quality is its size.

Thanksgiving Mix and Match

With families thousands of miles away, holidays take on a different personality. This year for Thanksgiving we were kindly adopted by a friends family in Portland. It was a full-blown, traditional Thanksgiving feast and the thirty plus guests attacked it ferociously. The tables were filled with a mishmash of all of today's most popular wines and there was shiraz, merlot and lots of labels with bright funny animals. I cannot resist trying to taste every wine in such a situation as these are bottles I would never buy on my own.  The wines were generally what I expected, but what stood out to me was the fact that almost none of them matched well with kaleidoscope of food on our plates. What I also noticed is that no one else in the room other than me seemed to give a hoot. The  wines flowed, stomachs stuffed, bottle after bottle emptied with nary a comment about how they matched with the food. It is at these moments that you really see what a wine geek you have become and how separated you are from the way most people experience wine. You also clearly understand how millions upon millions of cases of (what I consider) awful wine can disappear down the throats of wine consumers. There is indeed two segments of the wine business: first there is the wine beverage business and then there is the fine wine business. The second is microscopic in comparison.