Champagne: Not Just for Celebrations

One of the immense pleasures I get from working at B-21 is that I’m surrounded by world class Champagne and sparkling wines. Our selection is the best in Florida and is as good as you will find anywhere in the U.S. I drink it every chance I get, and find that it is one of the most food-friendly of all wines. So, why do so many just buy it for special occasions, or to use as a gift? Here are three reasons to drink more Champagne and sparkling wines:

Champagne Glass

  1. It’s not as expensive as many other “everyday” wines. We have outstanding sparkling wines from California, Italy, Spain and France that are less – much less – than $20 per bottle. And, they are not sweet or dilute like so many commercial wines. Check out our California sparklers, Cava from Spain and the Italian Prosecco shelves. You’ll be very glad you did.
  2. It’s very food friendly. I can’t think of anything better with Asian food, batter-fried fish, calamari, salty foods, spicy dishes or sushi than a dry sparkling wine. For you pizza hounds, give the Lambrusco a try – it’s a better match than you think!
  3. It’s refreshing – especially in the dog days of summer. Most sparkling wines are also a bit lower in alcohol than many table wines, making them easier to drink, and less heavy on the palate. They make near perfect aperitifs because they stimulate the taste buds and appetite.

Now, click on over to B-21 and start shopping. You’re in for a special surprise.

Two Sensational, Authentic Italian Restaurant Finds

Having lived in New Jersey and close to New York City for 30+ years, I’m spoiled when it comes to exceptionally well made Italian food. I’m talkin authentic Italian, not the checkered tablecloth, too much red sauce stuff. So, I was thrilled to discover (after much searching) two terrific Italian restaurants (well, one restaurant and one mom and pop pizza joint) in my neighborhood. For those of you in the Sarasota/Bradenton/Venice/Lakewood Ranch area, these are “worth a detour” as they say.

Chianti Ristorante Italiano SarasotaChianti Ristorante Italiano: This is the real deal, owned and managed by Eduardo (Ed) and Josephine (Josie) who “retired” to Sarasota in 2012 from having been in the Italian restaurant business in San Francisco for the last 30 years. Unable to find suitable Italian cuisine in Sarasota, they opened Chianti Ristorante in the summer of 2012, and there has been a line out the door every night since. Homemade pastas, bread to die for, properly cooked and seasoned vegetables, meat sauces and fresh fish are just the beginning. Every dish is carefully prepared, and no two dishes are the same. Desserts are made on premise. The wine list is suitable, and priced to sell, but I bring my own and pay a $15 corkage fee. If Ed likes my wine enough (and I always offer him a glass), he waves the corkage! Open every day, but reservations a MUST. Located at 3900 Clark Road, Sarasota.

Village Idiot Pizzeria CortezVillage Idiot Pizzeria: This mom (Amanda) and pop (Joseph) pizzeria in a strip mall on the fringe of the historical fishing village of Cortez, is a knock out pizza joint. They only serve salads and pizzas, but my-oh-my what pizzas and salads. Everything made from scratch, including the pizza dough that is made from “OO” flour imported directly from Italy. All pizzas are cooked in a wood-fired oven, and they are to die for. Thin crusts, fresh, top-quality ingredients… these are pizzas to fly across the country to eat, but I can walk to the place. Salads are the best I’ve eaten anywhere in FL. Take your own wine, as they haven’t figured that out yet. Located at 11904 Cortez Road West in Cortez, and open Tuesday through Saturday 4-9 PM.

Dolcetto: The Misunderstood Grape

2010 Luigi Tacchino Dolcetto d'Ovada, Dolcetto
The tank-fermented and aged, medium-bodied 2010 Dolcetto d’Ovada offers beautiful blueberry, black cherry and licorice-infused fruit. It can be served slightly chilled (if you wish) over the next several years.
89 points, Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate (Issue # 202 – Aug 2012)

For some reason, Dolcetto gets no respect. I’m confounded by this as it’s a wine that I always have on hand, and drink every chance I get. I think one of the problems with it is that many Americans think it’s a sweet wine, owing perhaps to its unfortunate name. In Italian, Dolcetto means “little sweet one,” but the wine is not sweet at all. It is a dry, fruity, darkly colored, low tannin, low acid wine that is absolutely delicious with sliced salamis and the hard cheeses common to the Piedmont area of Italy where Dolcetto is made. Another aspect that is especially appealing is that winemakers have not messed with it. Almost none of it is aged in oak, and no one is crazy enough to experiment with new French oak for Dolcetto like so many have done with its sibling, Barbera. It’s a wine that you definitely need to try – particularly if you want a relatively inexpensive wine for weeknight enjoyment. We have nine different ones currently in stock, beginning at just $11.99 per bottle. Once you taste it, you’ll add it to your list of regular wines.

Unknown Grapes You Should Get To Know

All of us are guilty of continually drinking wines that are familiar. You know the ones: Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and the ever-present Pinot Grigio. Today, I want to recommend that you break out of your habits and try a few wines made from grapes that you probably have never heard of, let alone tasted, but will thrill you.

Refosco: This red grape grown in northeast Italy (Friuli), Slovenia and Croatia produces a darkly colored wine with flavors of plum, black cherry, juniper and it often has a pine-scented aroma. It ripens late and is resistant to autumn rains and rot, so it ripens completely even in difficult climates. It will appeal to those of you who prefer big, masculine reds, but this is not a massive varietal. It produces wines of elegance and harmony. Try the one from Moschioni in our Italian section.

Falanghina: This white variety was a favorite of the Romans. It is enjoying a revival thanks to a few dedicated producers who revived it from near extinction. Grown in the Campania area of Italy, it produces medium-bodied wines with flavors of apricot, almond, honeysuckle and citrus. Two producers making different styles of Falanghina are I Pentri and Villa Matilde, both are in stock; the Villa Matilde will appeal to lovers of California Chardonnay. The I Pentri is crisper and a bit drier.

Pecorino: Spelled exactly like the cheese of the same name, this Italian white is a wine you’re going to want to drink all summer long. It comes from the Marche region on the Adriatic coast, and is a more sophisticated version of Trebbiano. Crisp, lip-smacking flavors of white peach and lemon drop supported by the perfect amount of acidity – no wood! Bob and I found one from Tenuta di Tavignano at VinItaly, and we have a bunch of it arriving very soon. Call me to discuss – it will be your summertime go-to white.

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.

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.

Wine Lab Wednesdays with the New Kids on the Block

…No, not these guys. ….But we got it: the right stuff.

New Bs Crystal and Zach
New Bs Crystal and Zach

Our Wednesday night taste ‘n’ talk get-togethers and staff tastings are starting to draw a crowd of wine-lovers.

Customers, suppliers and the staff seem to like going through a dozen or so bottles of wines, some of them good deals on our shelves and some we might buy. It gives everyone an inside insight on the process. By everyone, that may mean Bob, Shannon, Rhett, Mark, myself… and now, the shining new faces on the crew, Zach Groseclose and Crystal Farina, two smart young Tampa Bay wine talents.

Zach comes to B-21 from the Beach Bistro, the gourmet center of Anna Maria Island, and also Eli’s in New York. Crystal has a sharply honed palate, spending several years with local wine merchants and restaurants (if you miss her at Gino’s Italian in Carrollwood, she’s here!) before coming to B-21.

Tonight, J.C. Marin, the amiable rep from Winesellers Ltd., will bring out some Lodi reds, an intriguing Aussie shiraz called the Ripper, and new vintages from Argentina, including organic torrontes and bonarda. Help us taste them and make up our minds. Stop by from 5 to 8 p.m. tonight, and every Wednesday, for the latest buzz on the tip of our tongues. Remember, the longer the hang time, the better the wine …and the conversation.

1,000 wines came to the fair. What wines go with fried bubble gum?

Actually, 1,067 entries showed up for the annual wine judging at the Florida State Fair this year and 62 took home double golds. As usual, the Florida contest draws in a wide net from Minnesota to Florida as well as the major wine regions of the West Coast and abroad, unoaked chardonnay to chambourcin.
So the best of show awards were spread out: Top white was an Edelweiss from Miletta Vista in Nebraska; best red a syrah from Klinker Brick in Lodi; best bubbles went to a brut fron Laetitia in San Luis Obispo.

In Florida wines, the central part of the state did well, Lakeridge Winery in Clermont got a double gold for the 2010 Blanc du Bois. Its sister winery, San Sebastian, got single golds for a Blanc du Bois, a Stover and a port. And Florida Orange Groves in St. Pete, the perennial champ of fruit wines, claimed best of show in fruit for its Mango Mama.

For me, my best of the fair was outside the wine judging. Pork chop on a stick, fried mashed potatoes and the burgers of your dreams/nightmares: peanut butter and bacon burgers, doughnut burgers on a split Krispy Kreme, and the Wild Hog, a bacon cheese burger topped with pork barbecue, fries and slaw. All at one stand. I could have stayed all day.

“At breakfast we discuss what wines to pour for dinner…”

S.SutcliffeThat’s the life or at least a perfect Sunday for Serena Sutcliffe, 20-year head of Sotheby’s international wine department, and her MW husband. Then they go down to the cellar and pull from the French selection and decant a 1970 port.  According to an interview in the Financial Times, it’s off to church, a dim sum lunch, and a long walk to Kensington Garden.  That evening she cooks, he decants the reds and they pre-taste.

“We begin with a glass of Champagne around 8 p.m. and often don’t pour the port until just before midnight.” Sure, Monday will come soon enough “but I find I sleep so much better after a great weekend and a really good dinner with lots of lovely wines.”

Well-said.  P.S. For a wicked Saturday morning pleasure, Sutcliffe indulges a rare squirt of perfume, a no-no in the rest of the week.

Now there’s a cure for the heartbreak of “tattoo teeth.”

Pearly WipesWish I had Pearly Wipes in France last month … or most any Saturday night in the last 40 years.  Drink enough red wine and you don’t want to look in the mirror. Whose teeth are those splotchy red things.  Coupla solutions; don’t look in the mirror, gargle denture cleaner or new Pearly Wipes. Well ingredients are old fashioned baking soda, salt, peppermint. You get a dozen for less than five bucks and a discreet mirror. They’re up front at the store in Tarpon.  Works on coffee stains, lipstick and other sticky residues but its main target is explained by the name of the manufacturer. Available in mint and orange blossom.

Bud Light Platinum: Attitude or platitude?

Bud Light PlatinumDo we need another light beer? Clearly Budweiser does. It needs something in a world where macro beers keep slipsliding away. But “going platinum” is more sleek than craft-y.  The chief changes from old Bud Light is that just-released BL Platuinim is sweeter and packs more alcohol. At 6% it’s a point more than Bud and a bunch more than Bud Light.  No  surprise that micro drinkers at Beer Advocate aren’t impressed but it seems like the kind of youth-oriented alcopop that would have MADD up in arms.  B-21’s got BLP by the case just in time for Super Bowl, When you try one let me know where you rate it on the scheme of precious metals and not-so precious.  BTW, recent taste test of mainstreamers by Consumer Reports named their favorite to be…Coors.

On the Road: Nantes, Oysters and Muscadet

DAY  ONELa Cigale Day One

Nantes — This is the place to start if you visit France in the cold and dark of January. Of course this capital of Brittany ought to be on your itinerary any time of year although it rarely is. A shame. This little city is a lovey example of something we don’t have in the US: modest urban centers that are proud, lively and thriving, complete with handsome neoclassic downtown, moated castle and busy boulevards of fashion boutiques and all linked by a sleek tram system.

But I am here, as are most wine people for two reasons, muscadet and oysters, which are almost the same thing here in Brittany on the cold salty edge of the north Atlantic…And to begin a two-week wine buying trip.  Muscadet and oysters come together spectacularly at a grand old brasserie on the square at the top of downtown Nantes across from Musee Graslin.

La Cigale is in mint 1895 condition, with more moscaic tiles, art nouveaux paintings and odalisques than if Tampa’s Columbia were in the middle of the Gare d’Orsay. La Cigale is a classic brasserie with plateaux of shellfish loaded down with the catch just  hauled in from the Atlantic. To add to the visual appeal, the cook shucking the nights  catch works on the sidewalk outfront.

The  shucker works with five varieties of oysters, and we will have to try them all. The best is the Gillardeau,  today’s designer oyster across France, but they are indeed the essence of succulence. Salty of course, moist and Gillardeau Day Onesubstantive flesh but not watery; its flavor of laser-sharp focus, with a long pleasing finish. Nothing metallic or sloppy, pure oysterlicious. Next best and the only possible rival are the Quiberons, long sharp clean oysters from a special corner or the Breton coast.

They are as good as they should be. The bigger surprises are that coquilles st  jacques are  as exquisite as the oysters (thinking
of coquilles as “”scallops in a sauce” is a horrible misunderstanding) and the chef’s contemporary  skills. He could rest on old brasserie tradition and none would complain but he goes the extra length to source locally and naturally and season globally. Especially with the coquilles as sashimi in a stacked salad of greens, harcot vert, tat soi and chicken. Or a classic raspberry macaroon update with prune  filling and szechuan peppercorns.

Eric and ShermanThe wine for oysters is muscadet. Has to be. The crisp white wine squeezed from an odd grape called melon de bourgogne is the nearly universal grape in the vineyards here at the mouth of the Loire. It is as typical of this rocky coast as oysters, clean and as minerally as the oysters but with a tart counterpoint that pierces the plumpest taste of the sea.

There are hundreds of small producers here, of whom our special guest and host is Eric Chevalier.  Like many young French, he
found the family vineyards struggling and has rescued the family domaine with energy and contemporary style. He’s thin and agile; his red cheeks framed by spiky hair and an unfinished beard that resemble the barren tree on his labels. Yet after dinner he invites us to a movable after party through Nantes at night as much a boulevardier as Maurice, a Chevalier of another time.

Tomorrow we head up the Loire River, the unsung third valley of France, on the path blazed by the intrepid Kermit Lynch, the Berkeley importer, raconteur and explorer of France’s once forgotten appellations, and the surprising future of their humble grapes, Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc.