All posts by Chris Sherman, B-21

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Do you want merlot with that?

Fast food and wine
The American Dream

Maybe not. Wine and fast-food pairing is not so easy for some of the national chains that have tried it, the New York Times reports. Problem isn’t blue nosed prohibitionists so much as personnel and logistics issues, like needing older servers and occasionally bouncers. Still, you can more than caffeine, and fizzy sodas at a few Starbucks in Seattle, at Sonic Drive-In in Homestead, and a few of Burger King’s upscale Whopper Bars, like Vegas, New York City and South Beach. Don’t look for beer or wine in Orlando at Florida’s other Whopper Bar Universal’s City Walk, though they do have bourbon burgers.

I won’t argue whether that unoaked chardonnay or an ’09 CdR is best with Double Whopper or Sonic’s Bacon & Blue hot dog (crisp rose?). I do think that prudery and snobbery combine to opposes the idea of wine with everyday food. Beer has it easier. Beer goes with brats at the ballgame and burgers on the grill, but most of us like a cheap red with pizza. And why not? Saying “Europe does it better” is tiresome but sometimes true. In long road trips from Spain to Germany last year I avoided fast food but stopped in plenty of gas stations. Almost all served drink as well as food. Beer, wine, brandy as well as espresso. Nothing fancier than the cellophane sandwiches. Hard to call that wining and dining “sophisticated,” but it does seem …mature.

It Never Rains in Southern California. But Girl, Don’t They Warn Ya?

tablas-esprit-blanc-lWeather’s boring and easy for winemakers in the U.S., foreigners and other critics say. Sunny and ripe all the time, the argument goes.

Not in the central mountains and far down the coast last year. The AP added it together, killer snow in the Sierra Nevada (May 15! [2011]) and a hard freeze in Paso Robles, then cold and rain all through what should have been a warm and dry May.

“This weather is causing all kinds of problems, but it’s not the first time and not the last,” Santa Barbara County Vintner’s Association Executive Director Jim Fiolek said. “Other products have a more ephemeral lifetime, but ours goes on and on and tells the story of the weather pattern.”

Tablas Creek reported a warm March followed by two all-night freezes in April, very bad news for Jason Haas whose dad founded the place as an American Beaucastel. Last year Haas already lost all grenache, grenache blanc, viognier and marsanne. What plants survived are behind schedule and pushing the prospect of harvests in late October and early November.

Mike Waller at Calera thinks he may pick pinot noir in November. Fiolek took it all in stride, “That’s what makes this business so damned interesting.” Sure there are problems “but it’s not the first time and not the last.”

Not a cheap answer, but I’ll lift a glass of 2011 to that with you, Jim. In the meantime, B-21 has a good stock of that 94-point Esprit de Beaucastel from 2008, grand for both red and white.

Noble grapes? Yes. Royal winery? Harrumph!

No Chateau Windsor in the makings, insists Prince Phillip, despite rumors in the press.

Certainly he and Queen Elizabeth live in grand residences that would make wine labels but it’s Windsor Castle, not chateau, clos or mas.

The estate? Well, yes the royals do have tenants who have planted thousands of vines. Part of the valiant effor to jump start English grape-growing.

Maybe when Charles ascends, home-grown wine will come to Buckingham. Or down the road, Will ‘n’ Kate Cellars?

Ask Prince Robert of Luxembourg. He’d done rather well with Haut-Brion.

Bartender, don’t hose me. My gin deserves real tonic.

Gin and TonicNo. 1 tip for bartenders in 2012: If you’re so artisan-smarty about your cocktails, pop for a few bottles of real tonic instead of that insipid stuff you pump from a gun. Those of us out there who like a decent gin and tonic are way over watered down tonic. I’ve taken to ordering a “g n’ t hold the gin” to taste the tonic before I give it the chance to pollute my gin. When it comes from the gun or a bottle that’s been half empty for a week, it’s not great drinking but it costs less than a shabby cocktail.

Somehow the rush to cool, boutique liquors has led some folks to overlook the well-polished principle that the quality of the mixer must be as good as the booze, if not better. Fresh squeezed orange makes even cheap vodka taste great. Don’t care if it’s Schweppes, Canada Dry or C, give me a shot of quinine and fizz in my gin. Or don’t bother.

Boys of Beaune – Trains, Planes and… Sausage

Getting there is no longer half the fun; with modern air travel it’s twice the pain. Some lessons from the wine-weary travelers:

1) Travel ultra light. Layer, layer, layer; rotating dirty clothes makes them fresh! Well, better to arrange a two-night stay somewhere so you can get a few things laundered. If you over do on anything, clean socks and underwear take up less space and go a long way.

2) Make lots of room for electronics. I feel like a traveling power plant but camera, cell phone and laptop are essential; each needs a charger and each plug needs a converter. And European hotels in old buildings don;t have enough outlets. Take a multi-plug extension cord. Take extra storage capacity for cameras and cellphones.

3) Modern airports everywhere are vast. You may have to walk a mile with your carry-ons. See rule one. European train stations are beautifully efficient, but you still have to haul your bags up into the train. See rule one again.

4) If you have a rollaboard, queue up early for the best shot at overhead space. Wait for the line to go down and you lose.

5) Wear your heaviest shoes rather than pack them. Takes a little longer after going through security but worth it.

6) Don’t go to the market on the last day. If you do, the joys of all those cured meats and charcuterie will vanish at the U.S. border. We tried to eat our way through two pounds of hams, salami and cheese on the train to Paris and the flight back to Chicago. Couldn’t do it. And of course I got into a line at customs run by Officer Hard-Ass. He gave a rough time to every one and of course sent me off for further inspection. I was allowed to keep the cheese, but the last of the meat was confiscated. “Next time eat it on the plane,” the inspector warned. I tried.

I want more pinot blanc!

2008 Becker Pinot BlancPinot is a very big family. Pinot noir is of course the favored child, talented but willful. Pinot grigio is the wild one without a bit of discipline, brilliant one minute and a wastrel the next. But pinot blanc is the quiet one, late blooming but profound, growing up into a charming dinner companion. My latest find is Becker Estate from Rheinpfalz, like a fine white Burgundy with a peachy accent, creamy with acidic zing. Good with shrimp . Better with pork or roast chicken.

2008 Friedrich Becker Pinot Blanc

This pinot blanc is clean, crisp and refeshing. Delicate flavors of citrus, green apple and floral aromas are nicely accented by a refreshing acidity and chalky minerality. – Winemaker’s notes

No crying for beer’s biggest losers

Eight Beers Americans No Longer Drink. That’s the headline from a list (we love em) from the website Indeed many old mainstream brands are worse than flat. We knew that but still… All of the following have seen sales drop at least 30 percent in four years. Biggest losers first and it surprised me that it’s golden fizz is now down 72 percent!

Beer + Trucker Hat = Fizzlin’ flame

1. Michelob

2. Michelob Light

3. Bud Select

4. Milwaukee’s Best

5. Old Milwaukee

6. Miller Genuine Draft

7. Milwaukee’s Best

8. Budweiser

Which explains why most of the mainstreamers especially Anheuser-Busch InBev, have gone nutters in R&D and acquisitions for pseudo craft, imports and odd brews . And also why the Irony Generation has endorsed PBR as the trucker cap of brews.

Semana Gastronomica! With Gintonic for a Chaser…

gintonicI’m still trying to recollect all the glories of Spain for you let me pour you a stiff one. My amiga was so right about the spanish passion for gintonics. They hold the “and” while adding a slew of extras. Very different drink here. Bigger, wildly popular, and painstakingly diverse. I had planned to make a study of them on this trip but didn’t try a one in my first three days of wine tastings. I confessed my failure to the irrepressibe Juan Muga after a day of tasting and a four bottle dinner. Musta been close to 1 am. Great lamb, btw.

No problema, Juan said, we’ll have gintonic with coffee and dessert. The waiter wheels over a gleaming cart and the ritual began. Which gin of a dozen or so, dry or flowery? Juan and I went dry (Seagrams). Which tonic? The hip choice is Fevertree, which must excel in malaria control. Delivery was not the usual sleek long drink but a fishbowl goblet. I passed on a second round. There were more encounters than I could accept in good conscience, often after dinner, some available with extra botanical punch from freshly ground spices. However, a week of professional drinking with Spanish winemakers reminded me of the secret tonic universally loved in the wine world. Cold beer.

What Were We Drinking… With Fire-Crusted Leg of Lamb

barbecued-leg-of-lambFar easier than it sounds. Farm families in the hills overlooking the Mediterranean have have done this for centuries without gas grills from Home Depot. Principle is the same: Score the fat in a diamond pattern, rub with rosemary, salt, pepper and olive oil, insert garlic cloves with abandon. Place on a hot grill (but NOT over a flame, gas, wood or charcoal). Close lid.

In 45 minutes, this half-leg was beautiful, glistening caramel brown, crackling crisp and so aromatic I thought I heard wolves in the distance. Maybe they wanted the grilled fennel (that’s pretty easy too: just cut in wedges, add oil and lemon juice, grill/roast to licorice-y sweetness).

Wine choice just as easy. Any peasant knows the answer is lusty Grenache or Garnacha.

Maybe I love lamb and grilling as an excuse to put off citified stylin’ and go country with the more rustic members of the Rhone gang.

Rustic doesn’t mean roughneck. Grenache from Spain or France loves lamb al fresco, because it has big fruit and spice to match the strong flavors, yet the tannins are simple and friendly.

For me the 2010 Cercius, a Cotes du Rhone from Michel Gassier has perfect, almost like a woodsy sauce of berries. I also had the 2009 Evodia from Calatayud on hand, a perfect barbecue wine, robust flavor and still very easy drinking.

Grenache is like watching a sun leathered cowboy do a two-step in a country bar. Hard-working and graceful too.

Travel Tips from Spain: Pig Out on Gran Reserva Ham

Pata Negra
Pata negra, or "black leg," in Spain

In Spain red wine meets red meat like no where else. Beef sure, but the hams have pride of place. In the states we mistakenly think Italian prosciutto is as good as it gets. That’s only because the food Puritans let in so little Spanish jamon. So in Spain, try it whenever you can, which is breakfast, lunch, and dinner – and tapas – for you won’t find it’s like at home. Jamon Iberico is not pink but blood red, the flesh as silky as the fat; the preferred hams are treated like fine wine, air-cured and cellar-aged up to ten years. The most revered is the black-footed breed raised in many places, but usually finished on a diet of Spanish acorns. The best restaurants display the whole haunch including the hoof as proof it is pata negra. Then a trained server slices it by hand. Rich stuff, but a few slices – less than an ounce – is all the indulgence you need. Or can afford. A whole ham from Joselito of Salamanca, the most expensive luxury jamon brand in the world, sells for 3,000 euros. Very high on the hog.

What Were We Drinking …with Cuban Pork & Black Beans?

Susana Balbo's Facility in Argentina
Susana Balbo's Facility in Argentina

I am always drawn to Torrontés in the Crios line of Susana Balbo. Can’t say why, because I’m still noodling out exactly what this Argentine white is. I like the oddball status (found almost nowhere else) and the fragrance: it shames the sweeetest Gewürztraminer. Now that’s been traced to some old muscat varieties by ampelographers. Now there’s a profession I wish I’d known about in school; “Mom, I want to be a forensic botanist on CSI. …You know, and track down missing parents of lost grapes, using DNA and dusty historical, linguistic archives.”

No matter, Torrontés is bipolar. It starts out with a nose of peaches and flowers and ends crisp and refreshing like a Sauvignon Blanc without the grapefruit. So the big mystery is what foods it likes. It’s easy to make it just an apertif, but in Florida we need cool whites for dinner many a night. So, we pulled out the 2010 Crianza with a night of take-out Cuban; pulled roast pork, black bean soup, and caramelized plantains. Mind you, I doctored the pork liberally with rice vinegar and Cristal so it added a sharp acid punch. A remarkable marriage, the Torrontés had the gumption to cut the fat in the pork, but spice dared the torrontes to let loose all its viognier-like stone, fruit, tropical flavors like banana and a bouquet bigger than a florist’s shop.

Put this is at the top of your list of that grand middle category of Viognier, Pinot Blanc, and Viura that are neither Chardonnay nor Sauvignon Blanc. And keep trying it with various foods. For me, the next stop is Torrontés and Thai.

What Were We Drinking …with Grilled Pork Tenderloin?

2009 Rodney Strong Pinot Noir, Russian River
2009 Rodney Strong Pinot Noir, Russian River

Most wine-foodies talk about pork. The pig still trots a fine line between nutritional demon and meat of the moment. Count me on the side of pork (spare me another boneless, skinless chicken breast). Is pork white meat or red? Such rules are beside the point.

When I grilled one of those long-herbed tenderloins (twenty minutes or so to just shy of medium) it had a taste of flame and was bursting with juice; it called for a medium-bodied red with cherries, berries, and a bit of spice. A little turkey-cranberry action.

Pinot noir, says I, but a tad sweeter than Burgundy so I turned to California. Rodney Strong’s Russian River (91 points, Wine Enthusiast) fills the bill perfectly.

I must qualify that I am talking about modern pork, so lean it could run a triathlon. I dream of fattier days and wish we had an appellation system that would certify old-fashioned pork, the kind with a crust of crispy fat. Then I’d break out the petite sirah.

Who’s Afraid of The Big Bad Outsiders? Not When They Rescue Uva de Troia

Puglia, Italy
Puglia, Italy

That’s right. It’s Marc de Grazia, one of those consultants and importers who supposedly “dumb down” European wines to make them taste the same for “silly American tastebuds.”

If so, why would he go to Puglia and bring back an amazing wine from oddball grapes even the Pugliese credit to Helen’s Troy?

Why? Because, when the world is full of strange treasures, no one wants more Merlot (especially Italy’s endless mosaic of DOCs). This one’s a beauty. Vigna del Santa Lucia Melograno from Castel del Monde. Jammy with black cherries, yet more sleek than rustic, almost Burgundian. It gets 90 points and more from everyone on our staff.

Maybe de Grazia helped polish the original, but this is not homogenization, it’s respect for tradition and terroir, the very peculiar rocky heel of the boot.