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So much of enjoying beer, wine, or liquor is discovering your own palate—and then training and improving that palate. It should be a pleasurable journey of discovery and not intimidating or snooty.
If you hone your basic tasting abilities, you’ll eventually know when a product exhibits quality even if you do not like it. And getting beyond personal preference helps define and improve your tasting skills, qualifying you to have knowledgeable opinions.
A great exercise—and a good way to learn more about your own likes and dislikes—is to practice evaluating spirits at home. It’s the same as drinking, but with a little more purpose. In trendy parlance, let’s call it mindful boozing.
I recently judged for the American Craft Spirits Association in Louisville, KY, a massive palate testing and training exercise, and there are many aspects of the experience that easily carryover into the home bar.
Here are some steps for evaluating spirits that will help jumpstart your drinking awareness.
To set up, take any three or four bottles from your shelf and pour an ounce of each into glasses. Tulip-shaped tasting glasses are best, cognac glasses are also good, but whatever you have will do. The bottles can be anything you have on hand, although if you have three different bottles in the same category—say, three whiskeys or three gins, tasting them directly side-by-side will teach you the most. An expanded version of this exercise is to invite over a friend who also has three bottles, and judge six against each other. If you want to be competitive, bag the bottles, number them, and conduct the tasting blind.
Put a pitcher of still, filtered water near you. Have a pen and a white sheet of paper at the ready—you will take notes.
While you evaluate, think about awarding medals. This is silly since you already own all three, but the trial will sharpen your overall awareness. At the end, you must rank them. Forget points, and instead think about medals like this:
Gold is a bottle I would keep and covet in my own bar
Silver is a bottle I would give as a gift to a friend
Bronze is a bottle I would buy off the shelf
To call this whole process a ‘tasting’ is really inaccurate since a huge part of the exercise is to check color and nose—to conduct an overall sensory evaluation. Hold up a piece of white paper behind the first glass and jot down what the liquid looks like. It can be clear/colorless, or it can be an ambrosial burnt umber reminiscent of Bob Ross’s best lonely farmhouse bathed in autumnal sunlight. Whatever it is, it tells you a lot about what you’re about to sip.
Next, the nose. If you’re sniffing a pour of gin, note its aromas and jot them down. Is it floral? Does juniper pop out? If it does, you might be dealing with a London Dry style. If it’s malty, you may have a Genever. If you’re nosing a whiskey, give it a deep whiff with your mouth open. Inhale through both mouth and nose simultaneously. If you’re not getting much aroma because your glass is too deep, try covering it with a small plate, leaving it for a few seconds, removing the plate, and then smelling again. Whatever you do, try your hardest to get a sense of what is in the glass, and jot down whether it is pleasant and welcoming or if it’s flat or off-putting.
Be guided by your nose. It will set the expectations for what you are about to sip.
Do not add water before your first taste. Give the liquid a sip and swish it around in your mouth—suck a little air into your mouth and sort of chew on the liquid. Yup, awkward. But try it anyway. If you’re sipping whiskey, or say, mezcal, this first sip is going to snap your taste buds to attention and really whack them over the head. You may not taste much because your mouth is overwhelmed. Wait 45 seconds, and then take another sip. This time, your palate is more receptive and you can taste with more depth. The spirit will seem softer, and not as much of a shock to your tongue. Wild, right? The two sips 45 seconds apart are really different.
Take into account the liquid’s viscosity–whether it is oily, whether it’s big and thick (which tells you about its proof), and then jot down the flavors you can decipher. There’s no right answer here, although some people get quite adept at identifying notes like ‘saddle leather’ and ‘tire fire,’ or vegetal notes like spinach and watercress. If you find yourself at a competition, fellow judges will share their wackiest flavor descriptors (unrecorded, it’s just a humorous diversion) as a bit of sport. “Rancid caper,” came up at ACSA, as well as the more abstract– but nevertheless highly descriptive –‘abandoned hope.’ Not good smells. Luckily, those off-flavors are the rare exceptions.
Next, add a bit of water. A good rule of thumb is somewhere between 20-30%. In your remaining tasting liquid, that’s just a few drops or less than a half a teaspoon. By lowering the ABV, especially with higher-proof liquors, more flavor notes will appear. What your tongue first perceived as merely hot and burning will now be mellowed enough to pick out a host of swirling nuances. Write the flavors down. Look for depth. Look for complexity. Note the finish—is it long or short? Are there any surprises between the aroma and the taste?
Whew, this was hard work. Now rank your bottles. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a bourbon, a gin, and a tequila—rank the bottles anyway. It’s important to hone your evaluative skills and decide—if you had to—which one of these you’d take to a desert island over which others and why. If you’re doing this exercise with a friend, argue it out until you agree (or agree to disagree) on the ranking of the six bottles.
Now you know more about the spirits in your bottles and about you than ever before–but you’re not done. Over the next few days, try the spirits in a few classic cocktails. Get to know how each spirit plays with others. Does one like sweet vermouth? Does another like an herbaceous kick of Chartreuse? If you have two bourbons, make a mini-Manhattan with each and decide which you like better. Playing with the spirits in conjunction with other ingredients will reveal even more than the tasting, and exponentially increase your awareness of your own palate and what’s in your glass.
Permanent link to this article: http://andredarlington.com/?p=5086
Natural Products Expo West is the world’s largest natural products show, with over 2,600 exhibiting companies. For you food shindig watchers, that’s even larger than the massive New York Fancy Food Show, which clocks in at 2,400 exhibitors. Of course, there are products at ExpoWest as well as nosh, but people make the comparison because there is quite a bit of crossover.
Now having finally been to both, what do I think the biggest difference is? ExpoWest has a palpable boundary-pushing element. It’s not just about great food, it’s food on the edge–whether that edge is packaging, increased environmental awareness, emerging diets, or social change. If one has to dig to spot macro trends through the gourmet melee that is Fancy Foods, they positively leap out in Anaheim.
The Expo began in 1988, and growth has been exponential. To put those 26 years of burgeoning natural products market in the United States in perspective, Amy of Amy’s Kitchen fame was an infant at the first show and now works the company’s booth. In that time, the natural foods segment has grown into a $137 billion dollar industry. In 2000, more natural foods began to be sold at conventional retailers than at alternative spots like coops.
What’s more, what was once an organic movement sideshow is now not only mainstream, but the growth segment in food sales overall. There’s big money to be made, and with that comes big players jockeying to find the next thing.
What were some of the identifiable trends this year? Coconut everything, including a bacon-flavored version that was delightful; gluten free everything, especially instant noodles; the Paleo Diet continues on, most notably delivering great all-natural, nitrate-free jerky; vegan everything; bottled waters with supposedly healthy additives; chips, or more generally, convenience-packaged snacks; yogurt everything—it’s big and getting bigger; turmeric in everything; and finally, a nebulous segment that producers are chasing, and which I’ll call ‘mindful moms’—the ladies that make the household decisions and want to get chemicals, meat or other industrialized nasty bits out of their children’s lives. These busy mothers presumably buy things like natural detergent and recyclable toothbrush-head systems.
But there was another bigger, reality-confronting undercurrent this year. Remember the hullabaloo over so-called ‘peak oil,’ the point at which the earth’s petroleum extraction reaches the maximum threshold and then goes into precipitous decline? The recent shale oil and fracking boom has temporarily put it out of everyone’s mind, but it was news for a while.
Well, it seems to be happening with chicken. As a planet we may have reached peak cluck.
Some of this feathery upheaval has to do with the fact that protein consumption itself is on the rise, and much of this growth will have to be non-animal.
But the forces conspiring against chickens are vast and compelling. The main problem is that while a small number of consumers are purchasing organic free-range chicken eggs, the vast majority (99%) of chicken eggs and meat still come from giant confinement facilities. And these factories have become vectors for diseases like Avian Flu. Worse, the poultry industry’s reliance on antibiotics is beginning to threaten human survival—these confinement factories play a part in creating so-called Superbugs, diseases immune to antibiotics.
So smart money is on the prowl for a protein source that doesn’t involve the egg.
One company with a laser-like focus on ‘peak chicken’ is Hampton Creek, a Silicon Valley startup that’s hunting for plant-based compounds that can replace the overused, ill-produced oeuf. It’s founder, Josh Tetrick, delivered a fascinating keynote address at ExpoWest, and his reasons for leaving eggs behind seem obvious enough that he’s got the backing of Bill Gates and China’s most successful businessman, Li Ka-Shing.
This was an unexpected macro trend, if you can call it a trend, which gave ExpoWest attendees pause—and serious food for thought.
Permanent link to this article: http://andredarlington.com/?p=4227
2013 was my year of coffee. Before last year, I’d gotten my buzz on at good cafés and had a perfunctory setup at home: French press, Krups spice grinder, dark roasted whole beans I kept in the freezer. Essentially the same setup as my parents’ in the 90s.
I knew this was all wrong, of course. I’ve been drinking coffee from 3rd wave spots for years, the kind of places where bearded baristas work perfect extractions from seasonal beans. I’ve developed a taste for the bright flavors of these fresh beans–and I’ve never scoffed at intense coffee folks the way the rest of the media likes to: good baristas are pushing palates forward.
Still, things were slow to advance on my kitchen countertop.
That changed when an espresso machine—a DeLonghi—came into my life. At about the same time, I was working on an article about Madison’s burgeoning coffee scene, and was spending time with coffee guru Trevor Gruehn, now at Kickapoo Coffee Roasters.
I’ll be honest, the DeLonghi isn’t great for coffee 3.0 purposes: you can’t control the temperature, its weak pump isn’t good at getting water through finely ground beans, and the basket is a frustratingly odd size for a tamper.
But, with a little fussing I was getting good shots. Better coffee than ever before, anyway. And that was encouragement enough.
I’d learned the next step was to grind the beans with a burr grinder, not the spice grinder my generation grew up with. The whirling blades of a spice grinder cut the beans, while a burr crushes them. The blades make for an uneven grind, and can even singe the beans. By contrast, you can set the grind size on a burr, and achieve consistency and balanced extraction.
My pro coffee friends suggested I look on Ebay for a conical grinder. Instead, I wimped out and picked up a relatively inexpensive Capresso conical burr grinder at Bed, Bath, and Beyond for $85.
What a difference it made, truly. Ditch your 80s spice grinder–it’s not good for spices either (which should be ground in a mortar and pestle). Just chalk the machine up to pre-developed American food culture and down-cycle it.
By this time, I was biking regularly to the best coffee shop in Madison, Johnson Public House, on the prowl for seasonal beans which are shipped-in regularly from top roasters around the country: Heart, Handsome, Stumptown, Counter Culture, Intelligensia, Madcap, and Verve. I’ve tried them all.
I started keeping notes on the 12 oz. bags I was picking-up for around $20 a pop. I grabbed whatever was freshest or what the baristas recommended I try, reasoning that if it wasn’t my type of bean—how did I know my type of bean?–I’d learn to love it.
And I did learn to love it: the sheer variety, the aromas, the flavors, and the stories surrounding the origins.
In the early months of the year, I have to say I’d already discovered a memorable favorite in a Handsome Coffee Roasters blend called ‘Dandy.’ Maybe I liked it because I already had fond memories of visiting the Handsome shop in Los Angeles; maybe the beans simply worked best in my functionally challenged DeLonghi; maybe I unconsciously like the name and the packaging. I think it’s just a great daily blend. [However, Handsome considers Dandy an ‘Adventure’ choice, as opposed to a ‘Comfort’ one.]
Whatever the reason for my affinity for these beans, I ordered directly from Handsome before the holidays so I could share my newfound coffee obsession with incoming relatives. The package never arrived.
Calling to check up, they explained there’d been a glitch in their ordering software. They’d be happy to resend.
So what unexpectedly arrives? A box with five 12 oz. bags: Dandy, Dapper, San Sebastián, San Vincente Late Harvest, and Cristobal Fernandez Late Harvest. All roasted on December 23rd.
I’ve spent the past couple of weeks trying all of these coffees in rotation. While I enjoy them all, based on remaining bag weight (assuming the lightest bags are the ones I’ve been reaching for most), the ‘Comfort’ roasts have lost out, and ‘Adventure’ roasts have won handily: Dandy and San Vicente Late Harvest are by far the preferred cups compared to Dapper and San Sebastián.
However, one bag is almost gone, and that is the Cristobal Fernandez Late Harvest from San Vincente Mill, Santa Bárbara, Honduras. This special roasting positively sings– the aroma of the beans, the flavor of the espresso it makes–is stunning. There’s a raspberry nose the intensity of which I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced before, followed by rich, caramel flavor.
After so much use, my DeLonghi is now barely limping along—there’s duct tape, don’t ask—but it still works well enough to extract this last (it’s sold out), best coffee of 2013.
Thank you, Handsome, for ending my year of home coffee exploration with fireworks.
Oh, and if you’re still stuck in bad home coffee habits, get your beans out of the freezer. If they were supposed to be frozen, you’d be buying your coffee in the freezer aisle. It wrecks the oils.
[A note: I’m in no way connected to Handsome Coffee Roasters. They didn’t know they were sending the package to me or that I’d write about it.]
Permanent link to this article: http://andredarlington.com/?p=4116
I quit my day job to write full time this year. It was a scary decision, and almost a year later I’m still at it. I feel lucky.
My focus has shifted from food to wine– thus many of the best restaurant experiences this year involved a hunt for bottles not dishes. That being said, a complete restaurant experience is still what I look for. And having a handle on what’s happening nationally—and internationally—on food menus is as important as ever.
This list is shorter than last year for the sake of attention spans, not because there were fewer worthy meals. I’ve kept to more-or-less public meals in restaurants—i.e., a friend’s 50th birthday celebration was a truly memorable meal, but it was a private affair not to be duplicated.
A local story this year was that while my hometown of Madison seemed to grab the national media attention, Milwaukee was the big deal. That long-smoldering city finally reached critical mass to become a major dining destination, and great press is sure to follow.
I had exceptional meals in Milwaukee at c.1880, Crazy Water, Blue Jacket, All Purpose, Eddie Martini, Odd Duck, Bavette, Braise, and more. Early in the year, Odd Duck convinced me that its worldly-small-plate-frenzy format was breaking new ground nationally. Later, the wine list at All Purpose convinced me that Milwaukee is finally shedding its staid past.
Other truly memorable meals around the country: Bristol, Vera, Au Cheval, Sepia and Spiaggia in Chicago; Farm:Table, Maki, Bar Tartine, Maven and Great Eastern in San Francisco; Goose & Gander in St. Helena; Ippolito’s, Ekta, and Sang Kee in Philadelphia; The Wisconsin Room at the American Club in Kohler; and Fugu, The Madison Club, and Nostrano in Madison. Not to mention a number of unforgettable meals in Portugal and in Paris. It’s been yet another great year of exploration.
Below, the most memorable meals of the year in more-or-less chronological order:
1) L’Etoile – MADISON
Dinner with a winemaker always brings a depth to a meal that reminds us what it’s all about: care, conservation, people, and the pursuit of perfection. James Beard chef Tory Miller delivered a knockout pairing of pheasant and chili sauce with Gilles Robin’s St. Joseph Syrah that sent shivers down our spines. I wrote about the dinner here.
2) Rich Table – SAN FRANCISO
Thoughtful, accomplished, and even a bit dazzling in an understated way. All of the dishes were good, but a whole small sardine threaded through a potato chip was as inventive as what I’ve seen happening in Los Angeles. The dish may have been inspired by Bouley, but it plays as smart and reborn. Completely engaging restaurant–just what you always hope a dinner date will be.
3) The Grill at Meadowood – NAPA VALLEY
Meadowood was under construction and Chris Kostow had just had a baby. The famed restaurant was closed, but I had a surprisingly satisfying lunch seated outside near the croquet green. So maybe luxury can sometimes buy happiness.
4) Slanted Door – SAN FRANCISCO
The sun was streaming in from the bay, the oysters were cold, the Yellowtail appetizer was stunning, and there was a bottle of Wind Gap Pinot Gris. Paradise.
5) Zuni Café – SAN FRANCISCO
I ate at Zuni one more time before Judy Rogers passed away. I drank a glass of Sandhi Chardonnay, and had the perfect shaved celery and anchovy dish– among other dishes. Still one of the best restaurants in the United States after all these years. Rogers is sorely missed.
6) CIA Greystone – ST. HELENA
The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone is like Hogwarts for foodies. After the Vintner Hall of Fame induction ceremony, guests strolled into the instruction kitchens where a bevy of students made dishes at their workstations. I wandered, sampled, and watched the CIA in action.
7) Pig in a Fur Coat – MADISON
In take after take for America’s Best Bite, I bit into chef Dan Bonanno’s fantastic food–and then reacted on camera until it became a strange meta-meditation on the act of eating. Bonanno’s restaurant has come into its own this year, and I had another knockout meal there with Sandy D’Amato, formerly of Sanford restaurant in Milwaukee, and his wife, Angie.
8) Pearl & Ash – NEW YORK
Pearl & Ash was the big wine-world opening of the year, and it delivered. Sitting at the bar and running through the wine list is a glorious thing.
9) Vernick – PHILADELPHIA
It’s been a big couple of years for New York chefs decamping to Philly. Prodigal son Justin Bogle returned from Gilt to take over the former Le Bec Fin space and create Avance. Eli Kulp left the Torrisi scene to take the helm at Fork. Enter also Philly native Greg Vernick, who cooked at Jean Georges and worked in the Vongerichten empire before cooking at Talula’s Table, and now at his own place, Vernick. This perfect gem didn’t get the national press nods it should have. Everything from service to food was laser-perfect.
10) Morgan’s Pier – PHILADELPHIA
This meal might have been the year’s biggest surprise. In an outdoor restaurant that seems like it could be the set of a bad bromance, chef George Sabatino is serving ingenuous, well-crafted dishes so good they require your complete attention. Yet another restaurant in Philly more eyebrow-raising than anything I had in New York. A trend.
11) Avec – CHICAGO
A late night visit to Avec to partake of a whole fish preparation reminded me of what’s so great about Avec. Chef Erlin Wu-Bower is on fire.
12) Forequarter – MADISON
My friend and forager Brett Laidlaw wrote the beautiful cookbook, Trout Caviar. He came to Madison for a book signing, and Forequarter prepared a menu from his recipes. The execution was stunning.
13) Wild Rice – BAYFIELD
Dinner with winemaker Ryan Zelpaltas was the occasion, and we had an excellent meal paired with his wonderful wines. Sitting in the restaurant’s gorgeous space, you’d think you were in a metropolitan food mecca–if there wasn’t a forest outside. I wrote about the dinner here.
14) Papavero – MADISON
The American Cheese Society conference came to Madison, and with it, my sister Madame Fromage. We set up a cheese dinner with famed cheese shop DiBruno Bros from Philadelphia and local Madison favorite, Papavero. Chef Francesco Mangano loves cheese, and created a cheese-a-thon menu for the ages.
15) Tempest – MADISON
From service to food to wine, Tempest was the site of a spot-on meal with New York Times Bestselling wine writer James Conaway and his family.
16) Flor de Sal – MIRANDELA
A five our hour lunch hosted by Joao Roseira of Quinta do Infantado. Chef Manuel Goncalves cooked spectacular neo-Portuguese dishes to accompany the region’s best wines. I wrote about the experience here.
17) Pedro dos Leitoes – MEALHADA
Mealhada, Portugal, is the suckling pig capital of the world. An entire town—really, a whole region–is devoted to the culinary perfection that is crackly pork skin with velvety, tender meat. The area consumes 3,000 suckling pigs a day. It was a culinary pilgrimage of the first order.
18) Quinta do Barracao- VILA FLOR
This farm and guesthouse makes or grows its own olive oil, marmalades, cheeses, fruits, almonds, meats, and even wine. “The cork in the bottle is harvested from the farm,” said the proprietor as he poured me a glass. A total local dining experience.
19) La Mascotte – PARIS
Dinner with the legendary wine negociant Peter Vezan, and his lovely wife and child. Multiple courses of classic French cuisine, piles of bottles, and a rousing French rendition of the Beatles song ‘Michelle’ at the bar—not to mention Vezan’s many colorful stories—are just a few of the things I will remember forever about this feast.
20) Sardine – MADISON
Winemaker David Autrey of Westrey, Sardine owners Phillip Hurley and John Gadau, Kitty Bennett and Jason Denham of Prima Wines made for great dining companions at this glorious repast.
21) Sanford – MILWAUKEE
Sandy D’Amato’s dinner and book signing dinner was a quintessential Wisconsin dining experience. It was also a great reunion between Robert Whitlock of Import Wines and D’Amato. Each was the other’s first major order. Good Stock was my favorite culinary memoir of the year. I reviewed it here.
Permanent link to this article: http://andredarlington.com/?p=4093
I am seated in the elegant dining room of Flor de Sal, the award-winning restaurant in Mirandela, a city in Portugal’s remote Trás-os-Montes region. Barefooted and in a T-shirt and shorts, Joao Roseira, proprietor of the port house Quinta do Infantado, is arranging bottles and gathering spittoons for our wine tasting. Host and ringmaster, Roseira has brought together an entourage of Portuguese wine and food professionals for a private, four-course lunch by chef Manuel Gonçalves.
I am in Portugal to visit Roseira at Infantado, but also to meet Rita Ferriera Marques, the young winemaker named a “30 under 30” notable by Wine and Spirits Magazine in 2011. I was on the way to her winery in the far-flung eastern end of Douro Superior when Roseira contacted me over Facebook Messenger to suggest that we should instead meet at the restaurant. Marques was nearby scouting for grapes to purchase after hail damaged one of her vineyards.
Rita Marques’s vineyards sit in the cool climate Teja Valley, an area that can be 15 degrees cooler than the adjacent hills just minutes away. Significant diurnal temperature variation also means slower grape maturation, and the soils are a mix of granite and schist. It’s a recipe for fresh wines with good natural acidity.
Ironically, because of the valley’s higher elevation and cool microclimate, according the Port grape grading system (A is the top), the fruit here ranks a lowly C. In the past the grapes were sold in bulk, but Marques began making wine from the family’s vineyards after completing her oenology degree in 2004. What was poor for Port has proved exceptional for balanced table wine.
The excitement surrounding Marques is palpable as I begin to taste with Roseira and his friends. Marques is characteristically late, giving us the opportunity to discuss her winemaking in context. “Rita is what Dirk was in the 90s,” offers a wine writer from Oporto next to me. “She combines similar intuition with solid science.”
It’s a big statement. He means Dirk Niepoort, Portugal’s most famous winemaker, and the man who started a revolution in Douro with a bottling called Robustus in 1990. It proved the region’s potential for table wine, and Michael Broadbent hailed it as ‘the ‘Latour of Portugal.’
Another notable point we discuss is Marques’s labels. Her winery is named Conceito (pronounced kon-shee-too), meaning ‘concept,’ and all of her labels bear images with large black holes in the middle of them. They’re striking, but have no meaning until someone explains: “She refuses to finish the labels until she is satisfied with her wine.”
Marques finally arrives in a grey American Eagle T-shirt and skinny jeans. Her long, straight black hair accentuates her large eyes and gives her a look that could be described as punkrock or goth if those genres existed in Portugal. She is quiet, well spoken and intense.
“I make gastronomic wines, not wines for competition,” she clarifies straightaway. We are now tasting her Bastardo.
The grape is called Trousseau elsewhere, and has had a recent run of popularity in wines from the Jura as well as in a bottling by California producer Arnot-Roberts. Originally, the high sugar, low acid grapes were used to bulk-up cheap Port. In Marques’s hands it is pure, bright and surpassingly beautiful.
“The problem here has been that winemakers study in Bordeaux, which has not enough sun, and then mistranslate that to Portugal, which has too much sun,” Marques says. She adds: “I do everything to keep acid and make the wine crisp.” Luis Antunes, Marques’s husband, a wine critic and science professor, leans over and says, “Rita’s is some of the freshest wine in the entire country.”
Joao Roseira rarely sits down during the feast he has arranged, which extends over five hours. He is busy pouring wine, jumping back to the kitchen, or joining in conversations around our huge table. He leads our pairing tour, playing both Portuguese ambassador and pied piper.
Marques and I are seated next to each other, and discuss topics like batonnage, the French practice of stirring wine lees. She uses the method on her Alvarinho, which she makes from 50-year-old vines and possesses striking clementine-like flavors.
It is during the fish course, an expertly prepared sardine fillet on a bit of bread that the hunt for food-friendly wine in the often over-ripe Douro region comes into focus for me. Her white, the Conceito Branco, is minerally and flinty, a great expression of the granitic terroir from which it comes– and brilliant with the dish served. A blend of the traditional grapes Rabigato, Codega do Larinho and Viosinho, it is lithe and long with a clear Burgundian influence.
Rita Marques’s elegant and fresh wine—the result of a gastronomy-first philosophy– makes perfect sense to an outsider but faces obstacles in the Douro. For instance, her Bastardo is the wrong color according to the local wine board. And her use of traditional pressing lagares along with temperature-controlled steel tanks is a daring blend of old and new.
It was Marques’s cool climate vineyards that led me to seek her out, but the shift to less ripe fruit is as hard to swallow for entrenched interests in Port country as it is in Napa Valley.
The casual yet grand lunch proved to be only the start of a weekend of wine and port feasts. Joao Roseira, Rita Ferierra Marques and her husband Luis Antunes, invited me to spend the next few days with them exploring the area’s culinary and vinous traditions.
They are consummate hosts. Never once did Roseira wear shoes.
Permanent link to this article: http://andredarlington.com/?p=4082
Jon Bonné arrived in California to take over the wine pages of the San Francisco Chronicle in 2006. He originally hails from New York, grew up on Old World wine, and by admission harbored grave doubts about the state of California’s wine industry when he landed.
The fact that he wrote judiciously about the wines of the Pacific Northwest when he was at Seattle Magazine didn’t matter to entrenched California wine interests, which immediately considered him—and still do– a hostile outsider.
Since then, Bonné has gone on to established himself as a critic of national import. Many in the wine industry follow his articles as closely, if not more closely, than the newspaper wine writer of record, Eric Asimov at the New York Times.
Much of the reason for this, I believe, is that Bonné is one of those rare critics who are the right voice in the right place at the right time. There is a revolution in taste underway, as his forthcoming book The New California Wine: A Guide to the Producers and Wines Behind a Revolution in Taste makes explicit. And Bonné is on the ground in the primary battleground state of California, there to accurately tell the tale.
For the past thirty years the United States has been in the clutches of a baby boomer generation that has been convinced of the usefulness of the 100-point wine-rating system first espoused by Robert Parker of the Wine Advocate. Parker had his flash moment during the big 1982 Bordeaux vintage, after which he transformed himself from an attorney into something of a one-man Consumer Reports of wine.
Parker’s palette is unabashedly tilted toward bold, pleasurable fruit-forward wine—hedonistic is the word the mega-critic likes to use. It is a style that Bonné dubs Big Flavor, and its anti-intellectual, unbalanced slant has meant that over the years some winemakers have produced two types of wines–one for European taste, which they claim is more restrained and refined, and another for Americans.
In California, Bonné picks out the warm year of 1997 as the moment when Big Flavor reached a point of no return. Parker rated many of the huge wines from that vintage highly, and the “more is more” mentality translated into an arms race between ever bigger-flavored bottles of expensive Cabernet.
This is, unsurprisingly, around same time the country became enamored of gas-guzzling SUVs.
What started as a benign attempt to create a ‘rational’ wine rating system, and thus assist consumers in their purchases, became over the decades a restrictive wine regime.
The Parker-points way has been a boon to producers and salesmen because the system creates stability, predictability, and a clear set of characteristics as goals. It is the perfect fit for a technologically inclined American wine industry that approaches grape growing in terms of margins, efficiency and manipulation.
Parker’s once-admirable Nader-like advocacy for consumers in the wine marketplace has had the unfortunate side effect of reducing wine to a commodity product like toasters or vacuum cleaners. It also has created an opportunity for winemakers to target Parker’s palate and aim specifically for high ratings, thereby reaping big financial rewards.
Big Points for Big Flavor are technologically achievable in the field and lab with Big Money. Wineries fueled by the financial industry and dot-com cash depend on fail-safe techniques to achieve the ripeness of flavor demanded by Parker and other critics: irrigation, formulated yeasts, extensive use of the herbicide Roundup, and the addition of any number of the 200 additives allowable by US law (such as Mega Purple for color).
The vineyards themselves became chemical war zones as grapes are treated like any other cash crop, albeit one with an added rating system and a monster marketing apparatus.
But in quality restaurants, sommeliers long ago had had enough. Despite commercial success in exclusive retail outlets, cult mail-order lists and steakhouses, Big Cabernets and the buttery, Big Chardonnays that accompanied them were difficult to find in smart wine programs in New York.
This is because golden-era, Parker-esque wines–despite all the hype–are wretched partners for food. They lack the balance necessary to make any sense outside of the point system from which they spring.
A number of budding wine aficionados over the past few decades increasingly began exploring lively European wines, a journey of discovery made possible by a growing bevy of importers like Kermit Lynch, Louis/Dressner, and Neal Rosenthal. After tasting Old World nuance, it was hard not to agree that Big Flavor was falsely sustained by a parochial American wine regime.
Even in Napa Valley itself, the epicenter of Big Flavor, bartenders and sommeliers would say of the area’s huge cabernets: “We sell them, but we don’t drink them. They’re for tourists.”
The attention of sanity-based wine drinkers first moved to Sonoma from Napa, and then largely abandoned California altogether to focus on the wines of the Pacific Northwest. When in 2010 Bruce Schoenfeld finally asked in his Travel+Leisure article “Is Walla Walla America’s New Wine Capital?” many readers had believed this to be true for almost a decade.
The Great Recession was a tipping point that not only sent a shudder through the Big Flavor wine regime, but also revealed a generational shift in wine taste that had been long fomenting. Bonné claims the breakthrough year was 2011. Already in 2010 he had written an article exploring the changes afoot in California in a Saveur article that would become the inspiration for The New California Wine.
With the advent of Instagram in 2010, I began seeing visible anecdotal evidence of an emerging set of trendy California bottles captured in sommelier-friend photos across the country. Grapes and styles once alien to domestic wine appeared: Trousseau, Cinsault, as well as so-called orange wines like Wind Gap’s Pinot Gris. Abe Schoener, former St. John’s dean turned winemaker, had been making exploratory wine since 2000.
The general revolution in taste that had been already long underway as a generational and economic shift elsewhere finally had hit producers in the Golden State.
The impact of the sea change in taste became more evident to me when in a 3rd tier Midwestern city like Madison, Wisconsin, Andrea Hillsey, a former sommelier, opened Square Wine Company in 2012. Her store is devoted entirely to wines with an Old World sensibility, and she carries domestic bottles that are in keeping with this aesthetic.
Much of the excitement at her shop centers around the new crop of Californian wine that Bonné and Asimov have mentioned in articles over the past couple of years: Arnot-Roberts, Scholium Project, Matthiasson, Litorrai, and others. The excitement over these bottles among a young group of budding wine aficionados was, and still is, palpable.
Conversely, the Bordeaux-style blends that were, and largely still are, California’s benchmark—and comprised young consumers’ parents’ favored choice—are not discussed. The Bordelaise, never ones to miss a trend, launched BurdiGala in New York last year to combat the growing problem: baby boomers are in fast decline, and their children are not consuming in the same way.
To call the big change afoot a revolution in taste is a bit of a misnomer. What becomes clear in Bonné’s book is that it is also a revolution in philosophy and practice. The book dives headlong into a discussion of the clashing practical approaches to winemaking, and this forms a substantial portion of the book’s well-written and über-informative pages.
As Bonné describes, the change from power to grace in the glass is also a change to minimal intervention rather than technological control, to indigenous yeast rather than predicable inoculation, to creativity rather than efficiency, to dry farming rather than irrigation, and to biodynamically farmed vineyards rather than ones that have been desertified with Roundup.
Bonné tells this story at ground level, sometimes vineyard by vineyard. He zeros in on Tegan Passalacqua, a winemaker and vineyard scout who is re-discovering forgotten vines that have become interesting test sites for the new generation of creative winemakers.
Bonné explains the fact that these ‘new’ obscure grape varietals showing-up on hip restaurant wine lists are actually a rediscovery of grapes that pre-date Prohibition. The vineyards were always there, but they languished in the era of Big Flavor. Obscurity isn’t the point, diversity and creativity is.
There is the story, for instance, of the relatively obscure grape Trousseau, once used to plump-up American-made Port, but now used to make a stunningly beautiful, and justifiably famous, Jura-style wine by Arnot-Roberts.
The book is divided into three sections. Bonné first lays the groundwork for understanding what’s at stake, what the differences are between the practitioners he highlights and those of Big Flavor. This is followed by a section covering each of California’s major wine areas, with details on the important players in each area. Then there is an in-depth guide to important new wines by varietal. Finally, a series of helpful maps.
Bonné is taking the full story of the current wine renaissance public in a way that his articles could not. The book is, for all practical purposes, the new generation’s winemaking philosophy IPO.
The fact that there is nothing directly manifesto-y about the book makes it all the stronger. Bonné goes straight for Big Flavor’s jugular by telling an entirely new story. And he tells it, I think, as well as it could be told: clearly, evenly, concisely.
It could be argued that not since Frank Schoonmaker advocated for quality by focusing industry attention on varietals has a critic been positioned so closely to a set of ideas and a group of winemakers whose time has come. Certainly, I can’t remember the last time I read a book about wine with quite so great a sense of thrill—as if a lot of smaller stories I’d worked to gather on my own were bundling into one.
The last such book might have been Kermit Lynch’s Adventures On the Wine Route, which set the tone for an entire generation of importers that are now also getting their due. It seems no accident that Lynch’s memoir from 1988 is being reissued alongside Bonné’s book this November.
A recent New York Times Magazine article on Lynch confirmed the zeitgeist in the form of a question: “For the longest time, the Robert Parker way of thinking about wine was ascendant. Now the Kermit Lynch way is in fashion. Why do you think that happened?”
My fear is that the revolution in taste may be more of a moment than a movement. As Bonné notes, just three companies produce 64% of California wines sold in the United States. While we can rejoice that a small cadre of winemakers is beginning to produce wines of character in sustainable ways, this is not the story of the vast majority of grocery store bottles.
There is also a macro-economic picture to consider: the US has been priced out of the Bordeaux market that it has impacted since the 1950s. Big Flavor’s marketing efforts have moved on definitively to China. Robert Parker sold the Wine Advocate to Asian investors this year, which is also the regime’s new clientele. The new California wine is appearing in the bloody aftermath of the US’s markedly decreased global relevance.
Worse, there are signs that some of the great producers (new and old) are following in the footsteps of their Big Flavor predecessors and selling-out. The investment group of former Screaming Eagle co-owner Charles Banks has recently purchased Wind Gap, Qupé and Mayacamas.
But even if the revolution proves to be more of a moment, Bonné has written a book of remarkable depth that will be of interest to this new generation of wine consumers. Let us hope it is the landmark it deserves to be, and an inspiration for other winemakers to listen to the land–and what the terroir has to say– rather than telling it with chemicals.
The wine book of the year– if not of a few more yet to come.
Permanent link to this article: http://andredarlington.com/?p=4059
The Dao region of Portugal sits on a high plateau surrounded on three sides by ancient granite mountain ranges: the Serra do Caramulo, the Serra da Nave and the poetically named Serra da Estrela, the mountains of stars.
The highway into the mountains gouges through openings and runs along ridge tops with steep drop-offs. Eucalyptus grows in the high hills, its dark grey-green mixing with the colors of olive trees and conifers, its scent blending with the smell of cut pine. The air becomes piercingly fresh and spa-like.
Soon the road narrows and traffic slows. Lumber trucks crawl behind even slower tractors, which enter and exit the road with alarming frequency. Drivers roll car windows down, happily stoned from inhaling the pungent air.
The town of Seia sits on the edge of the Serra da Estrela, once a natural boundary for ancient fiefdoms. The land is sparse and dotted with small castle enclosures built on glacial boulders the size of large houses.
Vineyards in the Dao are protected from the Atlantic weather systems to the west. They sit tucked-in at an elevation of 200-900 meters, and are planted in granitic soils with sand and clay. The good soil drainage and the temperate weather means high acidity and wines of great elegance, subtlety and finesse–more balance than raw power. It is for this reason that the region is sometimes compared to Burgundy.
Celebrated winemaker Álvaro Castro and his daughter, Maria, make some of the best wine of the region– and of all of Portugal. Their vineyards are just north of Seia. At Quinta de Sães they have a winery and house. A windswept hilltop holding, Quinta da Pellada, sits above. They also own a block of Quinta de Passarela.
Álvaro was away and Maria met us. More precisely, she had to collect us at an abandoned restaurant a mile away after we got lost.
Maria has a quiet, birdlike quality that makes her seem shy. But as she talks about her vineyards, this is revealed to be a melancholic nervous tension, a surface effect of great attentiveness, passion and commitment.
The Castro’s 1980 Toyota Landcruiser would not start, and so we hopped into Maria’s Volvo station wagon and very slowly threaded our way up the hill to Pellada.
The hilltop is breathtaking, with a semi-circle view of the surrounding valley below and the mountain ranges beyond it. The Romans grew grapes here, and Touriga Nacional, a grape that has broken out as a leading Portuguese varietal was born in the Dao.
When Maria was young she lived and went to school in Lisbon, coming to the vineyards on weekends. Her father stayed with the vines. Today, she also lives with the vines, and her children reside in Lisbon. Because of the economic downturn, her husband is currently working in Brazil.
In the heat of the afternoon, we retired to a beautiful pool house that the Castros have built out of reclaimed granite blocks. There are ancient, massive millstones set in the entryway floor. The building is tasteful, elegant and unpretentious, with modern architecture blending organically with the area’s history.
“We can’t go on fashion,” Maria says. “It’s important that the industry doesn’t try to be trendy. We make quality and style.”
The proof is in her wine.
We started with a branco, Quinta de Sães Reserva 2011, a blend of Encruzado, Sercial and Bical, which I believe sees a little stirring on lees. It is delicate with compound minerality and good acid. It is reminiscent of white burgundy–say, a Montrachet. It is lithe and elegant with a lingering finish.
Next, we sampled a Quinta de Sães Reserva Estagio Prolongagado 2009. The majority of the grapes for this wine come from a field with over 50 varieties in it. I loved the cherry fruit and pencil shavings. This is also very burgundian in its bright, cheerful yet very complex characteristics. It also has good acidity.
Finally, a Quinta da Pellada 2010. Dark, anise notes with complex medium-berry fruit and layered tannins. It is a bold, gracious wine begging for food.
Maria’s son was now biking precariously around the edge of the pool.
It is reported that only 5% of the land is under vine in the Dao. This is surprising to me after tasting the Castro’s world-class wine. The terroir seems suitable for greatness.
When I drink a Quinta da Sães back in the United States, it comforts me to know that an unassuming and experimental father-daughter team is making spirited, thoughtful wines on a windswept hilltop under the Mountains of Stars.
Permanent link to this article: http://andredarlington.com/?p=4040
The Portuguese American Journal did a beautiful job of finding pictures for my story intertwining EM Forster’s thoughts on character with a visit to Coimbra’s oldest boardinghouse. It was published yesterday. For a link to the story, please click below:
I will add this picture of a postcard from the pensao on which the brother’s wrote their names.
I could have written about these two amazing characters in any number of ways, but EM Forster’s scene in A Room with a View kept leaping to mind.
And Forster’s discussion of flat and round characters, along with James Wood’s criticism, is a topic relevant to an overnight encounter with many different people temporarily under one roof– much like they are thrown together in stories and novels.
A thanks to my editor Carolina Matos at the PAJ, and to Eduardo and Jorge.
Permanent link to this article: http://andredarlington.com/?p=4032
I first encountered the wines of Mas Jullien in books. Neal Rosenthal discusses the Julliens–father Jean-Pierre and son Olivier–in a chapter on succession in Reflections of a Wine Merchant. The problem of succession, of who will take over the winemaking in the next generation, is a big issue everywhere but is especially so in France.
Napoleonic law divides parcels, children frequently don’t share their parent’s passion, and it is not at all clear that beloved wines will live on. In the market these lost wines, whose maker has passed, whose parcels from which they were made have been divided, become ‘ghost’ bottles–wines that are no more and never will be again.
In the peculiar case of the Julliens, the son inspired the father. When Jean-Pierre saw his son’s success he broke away from the cooperative to which he had been selling. But Jean-Pierre’s wines, made for easy pleasure, didn’t approach what Olivier does. Olivier is one of the earth’s maniacal perfectionists.
It is unfortunate, then, that Lawrence Osborne’s great book, The Accidental Connoisseur, like Rosenthal’s, focuses on Jean-Pierre. In fact, when Osborne visits, Olivier is away and Osborne writes that he was glad: “It’s often said that wine is about fathers and sons, but within that equation the fathers are often more interesting than the sons.” Based on the wines of the Julliens, however, these words are patently false.
Osborne does relate a wonderful encounter with Jean-Pierre, one of the book’s best moments, in fact, but I can’t help but feel it was a lost opportunity.
In a recent tasting of a number of significant bottles from the Neal Rosenthal portfolio, Olivier Jullien’s de l’Herault Blanc screamed, shrieked, kicked, pounded, cajoled, seduces and bewildered its way to the top. Only a magnificent Bernard Levet Côte-Rôtie ultimately held its ground against it for my interest.
The Mas Jullien white to me tastes like, and apologies for the abstraction, pure Art Nouveau. Not just the lithe, nude maiden forms of the advertisements we all know, drawn looking over their shoulder with whiplashed hair, but the museum sum of it–the decorative forms terminating into organic vines, the Fin de Siècle furniture, the music of Debussy, the poems of Mallarmé.
The book is a ‘spiritual instrument’ says Mallermé, and the bottle of wine can be too.
The de l’Herault Blanc is a blend of Grenache Blanc and Carignan Blanc, along with Chenin Blanc, Viognier, Clairette and Roussanne.
Jullien reportedly buys or trades parcels, replaces vines with trees to restore ecosystems; he does, in short, whatever is necessary to achieve greatness.
We live in an impossibly divided world in which a select few drink so much they are barely ever moved, and everyone else is barely given access. The fact gives me pause often, especially tasting wines with such style and vision. Who among us appreciates it, truly? It’s a meteor shower viewed from Central Park.
Kieth Levenberg of Cellarbook wrote an article declaring the end of the tasting note. The written note, he argues, has been replaced by snapshots of bottles on Instagram & Facebook.
If this is true, it may only mean that esoteric descriptions masquerading as information have been usurped by mute trophy pictures.
Sure, we’d like to know what’s in the bottle. But so often that was just so much lifeless information, its own form of trophyism. The picture provides even less to us, except as a notation of what was drunk by whom, and sometimes with whom and when and where. The wine is stripped. Down gullets instead of into mouths. Who isn’t guilty?
Faced with this reality, the real task of today’s taster, of today’s wine writer, of the critic, of the note, is to return bottles to the world. Not to describe them in Wine-ese, or to mount their proverbial horns on the walls of social media for all to see, but to contextualize them, to provide details that make them interesting and restore their value.
The new note must restore the bottle to the world. Against our reductivism. Or, as Walter Benjamin puts it in his essay ‘The Task of the Translator,’ it should produce the echo of the original. Not kill it with an ‘informative’ description or Instagram picture the way a lepidopterist pins butterflies, but dignify it, give it purpose, restore its sense of place, enliven it.
A bottle must breathe, and our approach to wine must too.
On his website Neal Rosenthal calls the wines of Mas Jullien “among the most important and compelling wines of our portfolio.” It is unfortunate that Rosenthal and Osborne both skipped exploring Olivier Jullien’s work in their books.
The work stands as proof that our officious notes and trophy photos are not the right way to approach wine.
Permanent link to this article: http://andredarlington.com/?p=4016