Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Bitter End of 2016

Every year around the holidays, I make a batch or two of some kind of liqueur to give as presents, and occasionally throw last year's batch up for grabs after a year of aging. This year, there are three. 

Last year's chamomile liqueur aged gracefully, and is now akin to a fruity, potent sauterne with the sedative power of a Benadryl. While I still prefer it made with Steve McCarthy's Clear Creek Williams Pear Brandy as I've done in the past, The Fidelitas Obstler Pear and Apple Eau de Vie held up well and developed with time. 

One of my favorites is still in testing. A classic Amaro heavy on the gentian and wormwood, with galangal, iris root, and angelica. The base infusion is flavored with dried seville orange peels, but I felt it needed a darker fruit for the base syrup. At THIS point, I'm heading toward black cherry, although I recently discovered a source of frozen red currants. Maybe both?

And finally, my classic Earl Grey Liqueur. I've made this one since 1999 every few years, and is an important ingredient in my Earl Grey martinis. It's based on a product that Twinings tried to market here in the US back in the eighties that I fell in love with and have never forgotten. Usually, I use blood orange peels, but this year's will be brighter using tangerines. And of course, I only use Twinings, infused into california brandy, with orange blossom honey, citrus peels, and sugar. Tea strength is determined by a classic British tea service. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

A Grape By Any Other Name Would Taste As Complex

Recently, I had an opportunity to taste a cult wine from Linne Calodo, a Paso Robles winery that specializes in "GSM" wines, Rhone style blends containing various percentages of Grenache, Syrah, and perhaps one of my favorite grapes, Mourvèdre.

While the 2014 blend was primarily syrah, the mourvèdre was pretty evident to me, adding a depth of character beyond the predominate pepperiness of the Syrah: baked blueberries, a touch of camphor, and a meatiness I would sooner pair with bison over a beefsteak anyday. I had flashbacks to a pairing I did at the James Beard House many years ago using Matt Cline's "Small Berry Mourvèdre," a wine that's stuck in my memory for its intensity (yes, that's a recommendation, and it's still available on their website at last peek for $70, $56 for wine club members). One of the waiters––and a wine savvy one at that––said he'd never heard of Mourvèdre, and I assured him he'd had it many times, and just not known it's name. This grape appears in many of my favorite wines over the years, at least in some small part, if not in it's entirety (like the Small Berry):

  • Bonny Doon Le Cigare Volant (see previous post)
  • Mas Amiel Cuveé Specialé 10 Ans d'Âgé, a delightful fortified dessert wine that the French pair with chocolate when the rest of the world isn't watching. so they can keep it for themselves
  • Domaine Tempier Bandol, my traditional Thanksgiving pairing with giblet gravy and sausage stuffing
  • Château Beaucastel Châteauneuf des Papes (and the Perrin Brothers' various American blends from Tablas Creek, and their more traditional Perrin Reserve Côtes du Rhône)
  • Ridge Geyserville, where Paul Draper always referred to it by its other name, preferred by the immigrant farmers in California, Mataro)

So YES, you've had this grape, so don't be afraid of it. It's humble beginnings in California as a table wine wine/jug wine can be ignored, thanks to the likes of Rhone Rangers like Cline and Randall Graham, who returned it to it's pre-phylloxera glory (it proved difficult to graft to American rootstocks and remained a blending grape for many years). And while it's European offerings known as Mataro or Monastrell might remain a mystery here in the states, give them a try! Less expensive bottlings may be a little bitter or gamey for American tastes, but try them with food!

Friday, July 15, 2016

I've waited long a Neuf!

OK, here goes nothing. It's too late to run out to Publix for a bottle of cheap Sardinian Cannonau, and I was in the mood for something a little spicy. Being unable to find the bottle of blended Malbec my sister brought me, I reached to the bottom of my wine cooler, past the Argyle Winery Nuthouse Pinot Noir that still needs a few years, and pulled out .......

A 2001 
Bonny Doon Vineyard Le Cigare Volant.

15 years old now. Am I too soon? Am I too late? 

While it probably could have gone a FEW more years, there was a 50/50 chance it had not survived a bout of improper storage, let alone the trip from NYC. I figured I'd better try it. Barely a tannin left in tact. so I think I made the right decision.

Nose of stewed plums, black cherry, and ...hmmm....medium-rare venison. Fairly heavy on the palate with blackberries, purple plums, juniper, licorice and hints of cognac. Long black cherry finish, crab apples, szechuan peppercorns. and an interesting tartness similar to Indian green mango.

Needs a red meat, but not necessarily beef, which would mask the more interesting flavors. Bison, Venison, Ostrich maybe? Spring lamb. OCTOPUS! Big Eye Tuna or Bonito. Chocolate with hazelnuts. Dry Spanish or Sardinian cheeses.

This IS the American answer to Chateauneuf des Papes, but with a chemistry unique to the winemaker and the previously (to Randall Graham) underutilized Santa Cruz area. Buy it if you see it, just don't drink it right away. Get a vertical. 

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Heller Highwater

Many years ago, at my first sommelier job, I picked an obscure, organic Cabernet from Monterey as my house pour. The distributors had never heard of such a thing, but promised to get me a good "by the glass" price for an obscure product. That wine was Durney Vineyards "Cachaqua" Cabernet Sauvignon, now known as Heller Estate.  The name was the Native American  pronunciation of "Cache Aqua," the Spanish name for "Hidden Waters" as the vineyards are fed by underground springs. 

When I first encountered the Cab, as a waiter, it was sent back by a table as not being "California Enough."


The bartender left it behind the bar for the somm to taste the next day, but forgot to cork it back up. When we arrived the next morning, the entire bar area smelled like blackberries. From that day on, I decanted the wine whenever anyone ordered it by the bottle. The other waiters asked me why I would decant a then-$35 bottle, and I said "Walk by the table in 15 minutes, and you tell me." The cloud of blackberry aroma was evident from five feet away. Imagine a house wine that not only doesn't go BAD, but gets better when open for a day or two!

This post is NOT about their Cabernet.

Heller deals in a variety of Bordeaux grapes, from the usual Cab, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, to the more unusual-and-terribly-trendy Malbec. And my personal favorite, and little gem of the Carmel Valley (they use it at Bernardus Vineyards as well....go for the grapes, stay for the spa).

A few years back, I was perusing Facebook, and the good people at Heller, fellow trivia addicts that they are, posted a contest to win a couple bottles of wine. Being an old College Bowl man, I handily won, and picked the two bottles I couldn't get from stores: Cab Franc, and Petit Verdot. I aged them and finally broke into them this year. 

This is a BEAUTIFUL wine with all the things I love about the grape: light earth, mulberries, Geraniol, violets, and on the end, as the wine opens, a touch of roasted game. If ever there was a wine to serve with duck, almost any preparation, or roast pork done with, oh, say, cherries or pomegranate, this IS it. 

$50 AT THEIR experience  says I doubt you can find it in stores.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Sticky to Them: NotMuscat

NotMuscat wine cocktail.

It's not Muskrat, Muskie, or Muskets either. 
In the last few weeks, many of the guests who have received complimentary "afters" at my current employer, The Federal Food and Drink, were treated to a wine cocktail I make, that I refer to as NotMuscat.

After many requests to sell bottles of this potion, something I'm not legally allowed to do (currently), I've decided to post the recipe. Keep in mind, this is far easier to make in a restaurant than it is at home, and many people may just want to give up and go buy a bottle of Andy Quady's delicious Elysium, the dessert wine which my cocktail is designed to mimic. But if you're throwing a party, and really must have some in large batches, here's the recipe (in a batch sized for home use, as opposed to my smaller bar service batch):


9 oz. Pinot Noir (Trader Joe's/Two Buck Chuck will do)
9 oz. Sangiovese (I recommend Danzante for it's availability and price, although, in a pinch, the Perrin Brothers La Vielle Ferme Rouge Cotes du Ventoux will do quite nicely)
6 oz. Lemongrass Syrup (see recipe)
2 capfuls (about 1 oz.) Rose Water (available at most middle eastern markets)

Combine in a large pitcher or decanter, and stir gently. Bottle in a standard wine bottle, although you MAY have to do some tasting to prevent lack of cork space.

Lemongrass Syrup

3 large blades of fresh lemongrass
5 cups white sugar
1 quart boiling water (preferably distilled or mineral water such as Gerolsteiner or Acqua Panna)

Bruise lemongrass (with a rolling pin or bottle) and chop.

Combine with sugar and toss to distribute. Let it sit at least an hour, if not overnight.

Add boiling water and stir until totally dissolved. Let cool until very warm.

Puree mixture with an immersion blender. Cover and let it rest overnight.

Strain through cheesecloth or a napkin (Bounty paper towels work nicely).

Refrigerate and keep on hand for sweetening anything from yogurt to iced tea.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

In the Nuthouse

No, no, I may be mad, but I'm not nuts.

Although I'm a little crazy for a particular Pinot Noir from one of my favorite producers in Oregon, Argyle. Housed in an old hazelnut processing plant, Argyle has been making delectable Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Riesling, as well as some excellent sparkling wines (ah, for the days when they were the dirt-cheap bubbly, but they've won a few too many awards, and the price just keeps going up!).

The Nuthouse Pinot Noir has always been one of my favorites, and although I miss their more humorous labels, the current label reflects their quality and dedication to the grape. I fell in love with it in 1997 when I was the sommelier at POP in Union Square, and this is their 20th anniversary vintage.

Has it really been that long? I wish I had stored a few cases back then.

Total Wine & More may still have a few bottles lying around, although their website may not reflect actual store inventory.

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Bitter Truth

OK, I just tested my batch of Amaro. The herbs have been soaking in grain alcohol for about a month now. After filtering, the color is an odd sort of greenish brown, it smells like jet fuel, and has an acrid, bitter taste that causes your nostrils to flare and tastes like you just licked fresh, hot asphalt.

In other words: It's perfect.

My sevilla orange peels arrived this afternoon, and I added about 8 grams of fresh chocolate-mint from my garden, and 16 grams of peels. I will most likely need to cut the bitterness by diluting with brandy. I'm shooting for something close to Amaro Nardini, with licorice, mint, orange, and a chocolatey finish. I'm using Iris root instead of actual licorice root, as there are several potential health issues from real licorice. And I believe they're using a dark caramel syrup base, probably with black-strap molasses instead of corn syrup.

 I think I'll call it Amaro Nonrico.