Wednesday, April 28, 2010

But what if your name doesn't happen to be "Eddie Money"?

I have to confess. I've got to come clean with you.

Despite all my talk on this site about access to luxuries like Royal Crown Cola and perhaps a ritzy dinner on special occasions at Sizzler, the wife and I are not wealthy. Are we thankful for what we have? Of course. Are we better off than many in America (and especially the world), and do we try to give back to the less-fortunate when we can? Yeah. I think that's the least we can do as human beings.

That being said, things are tight right now, as I'm sure they are for so many out there. In particular (for the purpose of this post), there are really talented wine bloggers out there who are just trying to make ends meet; maybe stalking the super-rich, just trying to steal a sip of vino from discarded bottles in the trashcans of mega-stars like Bronson Pinchot, Curtis Armstrong, and Willie Aames. Those fat cats take everything for granted...

For this reason, some really wonderful people created the Wine Bloggers' Conference Scholarship (in particular, Thea from Luscious Lushes ...if you're on twitter, you will always be entertained by following @winebratsf). Anyway, the WBCS allows bloggers to apply for a scholarship that covers registration for the Wine Bloggers' Conference, airfare, and lodging. Considering the 2010 Conference is in remote Walla Walla, WA (but worth being remote: the Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah- among others- coming out of there is ridiculous), airfare is mighty expensive, and hotels are few. All-in-all, the expenses can equate to close to a thousand dollars+.

I fully intend to be a big supporter of this effort in the future. Right now...well, here's what's going on:

- first child being born in June. These baby-stuff manufacturers really relish in having your number. Maternity clothes? Are they sewn from the wool of unicorns or something?!
- the wife and I have started a company, and start up costs generally precede positive cash flow.
- don't buy a house in 2006. I imagine this advice will not be helpful to anyone at this juncture.

Luckily, I know we've planned relatively well, and we'll be fine. Things are just tight right now for extracurricular activities, and right now is when the Wine Bloggers' Conference is going down. I need to make it clear that I'm not illustrating these points to ask for money. I'm breaking it down to communicate that there are certainly other bloggers- most more talented that me- who are probably in similar situations. Many of them- scholarship applicants- have been "wait listed" for funding (myself included) to get up to Walla Walla and develop themselves into even better, more influential, and- most importantly- more entertaining writers to keep you amused when a productive day of work just doesn't seem to be a rational choice.

So, if you've been looking for a cause to donate, thank you for having a generous spirit. Yes, there are certainly more noble causes; I don't think a blogger who doesn't make it to Walla Walla will succumb to river blindness. But, if you are a supporter of the arts and the proliferation of human creativity and self-expression, then I humbly ask that you consider donating to the Wine Bloggers' Scholarship. Whether the funding goes to myself or another worthy blogger, it will certainly go to good use.

Click HERE for more information...

Sunday, April 25, 2010

We didn't cook a dog. Dogs have personality.

Jules: Pigs sleep and root in shit. That's a filthy animal. I ain't eat nothin' that ain't got sense enough to disregard its own feces.

Vincent: How about a dog? Dogs eats its own feces.

Jules: I don't eat dog either.

Vincent: Yeah, but do you consider a dog to be a filthy animal?

Jules: I wouldn't go so far as to call a dog filthy but they're definitely dirty. But, a dog's got personality. Personality goes a long way.

Okay, all you North Shore Animal League folks can relax. It's not a dog we cooked. It's a lamb (P.E.T.A. folks continuing not to relax). However, you have to admit that it does look like we've got Fido hooked up to the spit:

So, dog lovers, rest easy. Lamb lovers (and I'm not talking about "lamb with a side of potatoes"), sorry. Lamb lovers (as in "lamb with a side of potatoes"), here's how it's done:

1 whole lamb (about 25.30 lb.), head off*
Kosher or Sea Salt
6 lemons, halved
3 or 4 footlong branches of fresh rosemary
thin copper wire
6 oz. lemon juice
6 oz. red wine vinegar
1/4 cup chopped garlic
2 tbsp crushed black peppercorns
1/4 cup rosemary leaves
1/4 cup oregano
32 oz. olive oil (extra virgin or regular)

*when I cook whole hogs, I usually get head-on, because the cheeks offer some of the best meat on the animal (and the ears and tongue are good eatin' too). With lamb, the heads are heavy, but I don't believe they bring as much meat to the table, so I opt to leave them off rather than pay for the extra weight.

1) Dig a 4' x 2' pit, or block off an area with bricks or stones on a non-flammable area of your your yard. For example, doing this in a bed of pinestraw would be a bad idea. Build a fire with charcoal (not the lighter fluid-infused kind, unless you like meat that tastes like lighter fluid) and/or wood (I used both). Once the coals are ashy, move them to the perimeter of the rectangle, leaving the middle empty.

2) Unwrap your mummified lamb (make sure it's thawed; you can order them in at a butcher shop and have them hold it for you until thawed, as most come in frozen...unless there's a farm around the corner from you). Rub the inside and out with salt. Fill the cavity with the halved lemons and rosemary sprigs. Close the body cavity with the copper wire.

3) Mix the lemon juice, vinegar, garlic, peppercorns, rosemary, oregano, and salt-to-taste in a large bowl. While whisking, drizzle the olive oil into the bowl to create an emulsion. This "vinaigrette" will serve as your baste for the lamb.

4) Secure your lamb to your spit with the meat forks on the spit rod and tie the legs with copper wire and secure to the rod. We also used some additional copper wire to wrap around the middle of the beast. Secure the spit rod to your rack (we made one out of 3/4" iron gas pipe's about 4 feet wide). Position the lamb about 18-24" above the fire, depending on how hot it is. We also put a pan in the middle of the fire pit to catch tasty drippings. The area in the picture to the left is where I'm burning more wood to create coals to shovel onto the cooking fire when those coals get low...about every hour or so.

5) When your small grill rotisserie motor does not have the power to turn the lamb, curse momentarily, and then get creative. We tied some twine to the neck and positioned the lamb on its side over the fire, then secured the twine at that angle on the top post of the spit rack. The lamb only needed to be repositioned about every 30 minutes.

6) Every time you reposition the lamb, make sure to baste liberally with the olive oil mixture. I make a "mop" out of a stick and some strips of a dishrag. You can also buy mini mops at BBQ supply stores.

7) Your lamb should be done in about 3-4 hours, but the best way to check is with a meat thermometer. Stick it in the thickest part of one of the legs, and also in one of the shoulders. 145˚ means medium-rare. 155˚ is medium. 165˚ is well-done. Once mine hit mid-rare, I boosted the coals underneath, basted it up, and positioned the critter on each side for about 10 minutes to crisp up the skin.

This was my first go at it, and I was happy with the results, but I'd like to try it again with a proper rotisserie motor. There's definitely an element of "feel" when it comes to cooking the beast evenly, and I moved coals around to the thicker parts, as well as just kept an eye one what was cooking and what wasn't. In the end, it ended up a little more cooked than how I would want a rack of lamb at a restaurant, but everything was very moist and tender, so I wasn't complaining. The dogs didn't complain either; they clearly knew it was a lamb and not one of their own...or they just didn't care.

For wines, I alway encourage folks to drink what they like. When I'm messin' with lamb, I gravitate towards big reds: Syrah in particular. Zinfandel is also a nice pairing, or a smoky Malbec or Tempranillo-based red wine. For something a little lighter, a Grenache-based wine would be good. Here's a lineup of what we knocked back, bellies full of an animal with no personality (otherwise, we wouldn't eat it...maybe):

Friday, April 23, 2010

Meat me in Southwest Georgia

Mosey into many of the small towns in the Southeast (or nationwide, I'm sure), and the obligatory speed traps along state and local highways will force you to stop and look around. Beyond the Hardee's, McDonald's, and Subway (at EVERY exit and in EVERY small town), one will notice local- and often very odd- eateries and fooderies (new word, yo) along the way.

Sorry I said "yo". It won't happen again.

With all due respect to two of my favorites: Bate's House of Turkey in Greenville, AL (a full-on, Thanskgiving-style turkey dinner right off the exit on I-65) and Gresham Bar & Grill, Disco, and Auto Sales in Athens, GA (no explanation necessary), there's a Chevron gas station in Warwick, GA that offers just a little more than a full tank:

I get goosebumps every time I read that slogan. Genius is not flattering enough of a word. But Stripling's is much more than a convenience store...

And when have you ever walked into a gas station and seen this?

Full service butcher shop? Okay, not good enough for you? How 'bout this?

Homemade pickles of endless providence (watermelon rind being a particularly regional delicacy)? You got it, sport. But, perhaps you're looking to step up your road trip noshing to Bourdain-esque levels...

A patchwork of salty pig parts! Just throw it on the radiator, and in no time, you've hit flavor country, my friend. Nothing gets that gas pedal moving like a belly full of Souse.

In all seriousness, Stripling's has a 40 year+ tradition of sausage making and butchery. This location opened in 1991, and if you do find yourself in Southwest Georgia (in particular, on GA 300 between Cordele and Albany), and you've got a powerful hunger for something to snack upon, it really is hard to beat an RC Cola and a bag of their homemade beef jerky. Salty, chewy (but not tooth-loss chewy), without a hint of overdone liquid smoke or artificial flavors you can find in commercial beef jerky. Maybe if I were in the passenger seat, I'd have to crack a bottle of smoky Argentine Malbec or Spanish Rioja to go with a pound of this magic. Kudos to Hudson from Two Friends Imports for turning me onto Stripling's jerky.

Indeed, walking around in here, the folks were giving me weird looks for taking photos of meat. I get it a lot. Perhaps they don't think too much of a chubby guy snapping shots of food...

...or maybe they realize that I simply never sausage a place.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Clogged arteries, blurry photos, and creepy video documentation

Last Sunday saw me rubbing hooves with the "high on the hog" socialites of Atlanta at Cochon 555.

5 chefs.

5 hogs.

5 winemakers.

5 years off my life: with items like "Pork fried funnel cakes with lard powder and lard caramel", how could one expect a clean bill of health when waddling out of this pork-centric mecca to excess? Pour on a generous plying of booze (mostly Pinot Noir, a great pairing for piggies, if not still a little too "fashionable" in my book) from good folks from Domaine Serene, Buty Winery, Jasmine Hirsch of Hirsch Vineyards, and a familiar face: former Atlanta native Boyd Pearson, now with the Willamette Valley's Anne Amie Vineyards (definitely one worth seeking out in town for those price/value seekers).

Yeah, I know that's only 4 winemakers. Gamble Family Vineyards called the audible and didn't show up. From the name of the winery, could the organizers have expected anything less?

Luckily, most of the portions were bite-sized, and I didn't gorge, feeling sheepish and ab-challenged while hanging out with milk-drinking stallions Wine Tonite! and Eat It, Atlanta. Despite my curves, 'twas a great time had by all. Chefs Kelly English, Todd Mussman, Kevin Rathbun, Mike Lata, and event winner Sean Brock (and their crews) delivered, and the wines did not slouch either. While Pinot Noir was the focus, watch out for great Bordeaux blends (both red and white) coming out of Washington's (Walla Walla) Buty Winery, who may have slipped in under the Pinot-stained radar and stolen the show.

I'll tell you who didn't deliver: my camera. All too apparent that the new Canon I've been pining for gets kicked up the priority ladder. Sorry cholesterol meds. I'm sure you see this post as a thinly-veiled flirtation to be "more than friends", but the fancy camera's wearing the shorter skirt right now. Luckily, some decent video from the Flip MinoHD and a little help from Roger Waters made for my most disturbing video yet!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Jer[oboam] was a Bullfrog

I have no cool or humorous frog reference. Not a good Three Dog Night one, either. Sometimes, when I have an idea for a post, I just put in the title, then come back and write it later. Clearly, I thought a play on "Jeremiah was a Bullfrog" (the first line from Three Dog Night's "Joy to the World") was something rather clever and/or amusing.

Now I'm sitting here, thinking, "this is a really stupid name for a post." But, I suppose I'm stuck with it.

Anyway, after spending a fun-filled weekend in birthing and labor classes, I can't help but focus on the impending arrival of my baby daughter. More specifically, the celebration associated. Not surprisingly, I feel toasting with a proper bottle of Champagne or sparkling wine seems quite appropriate. My problem is always doing something with restraint, or at least on the level of normal human beings. I want to celebrate BIG. I want to completely leapfrog everyone else when it comes to the scale of jubilation.

"Leapfrog"...bang! Frog reference realized. Must've been those pork chops I ate for dinner last night. Don't let those wily Fish Industry marketeers fool you: pork is the REAL brain food.

Okay, so I'm gonna welcome my daughter into the world in a big way, and there seems to be nothing better than a giant bottle of bubbly. Luckily, the Champenoise have a knack for such an opus. In fact, one can find sparkling wine in a literal plethora of sizes. "Jefe, would you say I have a plethora of Champagne bottles?" Yes, El Guapo, and here they are:

Split: 1/4 bottle, or .187 liters
Demi: 1/2 bottle, or .375 liters
Standard: 1 standard 750 ml or 3/4 liter bottle (known in liquor as a "fifth")*
Magnum: 2 standard bottles, or 1.5 liters
Jeroboam: 4 standard bottles, or 3 liters
Rehoboam: 6 standard bottles, or 4.5 liters
Methuselah: 8 standard bottles, or 6 liters
Salmanazar: 12 standard bottles, or 9 liters
Balthazar: 16 standard bottles, or 12 liters
Nebuchadnezzar: 20 standard bottles, or 15 liters

*ever wondered why it's called a "fifth"? Me too. 750 ml is actually about 1/5 of a U.S. gallon. Quiz a hobo the next he asks you for a fifth. If he gets it right, he gets the booze, and a little education.

**funny side-note. When I was memorizing these bottle sizes during my CSW certification, someone suggested the following mnemonic to remember the bottles larger than a standard: Magnum, Jeroboam, Rehoboam, Methuselah, Salmanazar, Balthazar, Nebuchadnezzar = MJRMSBN = "Michael Jackson Really Makes Small Boys Nervous". I know, it's terrible, and it doesn't really apply anymore, but not matter what I do, I always run it through my head to remember the bottles. Damn mnemonics!

While I can't say for sure why these wines are put in all these different bottle sizes (other still wines are put in larger bottles too), I suspect it has something to do with presentation. I've heard some say that the wines age better in larger bottles, but I also think that people have always relished the novelty of showing up with a giant bottle of wine at a celebration. It's like being a prop comic. Imagine being the Gallagher of the wine party? It'd be totally awesome, except for the Gallagher part.

In Champagne production (or any bottle labeled "méthode champenoise", "traditional method", "cap classique", or any variation/translation of those), a secondary fermentation occurs in the bottle to create the fizz. However, in some of these huge bottle sizes, such a process is a little unwieldy. Therefore, the wine undergoes secondary fermentation in standard bottles, and then they are emptied into a pressurized tank, treated with dosage, and the wine is loaded into the crazy Gallagher bottles. This process is known as transvasage. Half bottles, standard sizes, magnums, and jeroboams require secondary fermentation in the bottle; transvasage is not allowed.

And so, I'm on the lookout for one of these "large formats" (as the geeks call them). Champagne and sparkling wine are all about celebration, and I can't think of a better occasion. Either that, or I just want to relate with my baby child, thus the need for nursing from a bottle. While I'm leaning towards a bottle of Taittinger (one of my favorites), I'm open to any recommendations any of you may have!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Why I love "United Slurps"

If you spent most of your days in Los Angeles, why would you venture out beyond your warm, smoggy amniotic sac to catch a buzz? Tons of great and affordable* bars in town, wine shops offering all the small production, craft wines that don't leave the state of California (which accounts for 90% of the nation's wine production), and only a couple hours drive from world-class wine regions like the Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Rita Hills, and Paso Robles. Plus, when your average speed of travel is 1 mile per hour, drinking in the car is probably not even dangerous. Nay, it's encouraged.

*denotes sarcasm. I blame you hipsters for driving up the price of crappy Pabst Blue Ribbon. Quit drinking it to be ironic.

Okay, "to catch a buzz" is a crude way of defining what the folks at Swirl, Smell, Slurp are trying to do (check out our collaboration HERE). The enigmatic "She" and "He" of this operation have struck out on a quest to taste wines from all 50 states. Dubbed the "United Slurps of America", this painstaking process involves contacting wineries nationwide, procuring product, navigating the logistical minefield that is state-by-state shipping law, booking local bloggers and other rascals to themselves wrangle identical product, tasting (or "slurping", as they say, though I've never been complimented on my audible slurping ability at any wine tasting outside of Woodstock, GA), evaluating, writing, and posting. All this while being honest, but positive enough to maintain interest in participation from potential winemakers.

Sounds like a lot of trouble. Trouble that's greatly appreciated. These folks don't need to be venturing out. Hell, they may be ridiculed for such actions. Why go to the trouble to drink the pedestrian plonk of fools: wistful wine lovers trying in vain to reproduce France, Italy, and California closer to home?

But maybe it's not that simple. Maybe the winemakers and vineyard managers in West Texas, in Michigan's Leelanau Peninsula, in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, and on Georgia's Dahlonega Plateau are trying to do something unique. Maybe they're working the land with unique grapes like Seyval Blanc, Chambourcin, and Tempranillo ...trying to find what fits each area's unique climate, geography, and soil. Perhaps all the toil and effort (which is MORE THAN SIGNIFICANT in the process from grape to glass) is simply intended to express...terroir.

Is there beauty in a wine that expresses- exactly- a vine-draped piece of dirt in Iowa? Isn't the fact that no other bottle of wine on earth can truly reproduce what comes from that infinitely unique square of terrain a thing of beauty? Something worth exploring? At the very least, worth trying? We can make broad assumptions- based on our limited knowledge and experience- of where a wine should find its genesis, but we simply cannot KNOW without a personal, sensory evaluation. We may not realize what we're missing out there. Wine is the ultimate in subjectivity, and the notes, recommendations, and even warnings of others simply cannot decide for us.

So I applaud Swirl, Smell, Slurp for undertaking the ultimate evaluation; for not going the easy or familiar route and approaching the bounty of America without pretense or expectation. I'm proud of Georgia. Ben Simons is proud of Texas. Grace Hoffman is proud of Iowa. Shannon & Cortney Casey are proud of Michigan. Dezel Quillen is proud of Virginia. Brian Kirby is proud of all of the "other 46". And I think I speak for these wine lovers and the producers in our respective states when I say, "thanks for stopping by."

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A week on the road...

...perhaps I'm no good at relaxing. Sitting around at an amazing resort; a place we could never afford on a pleasure trip (wife was working), I felt trapped. I'd never been to Southern California, and I was surrounded by so much cool stuff, so I had to venture out. In the queue are some great experiences that still need documenting, some great folks, and- of course- incredible food and wine. For now, just sit back and slum with me:

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Temecula, CA: Not founded by the Germans

While slumming out on the left coast, I figured that being an hour or so from the Temecula Valley obligated me to visit. Besides, my winey-senses (similar to "spidey-senses", but less super heroish and more likely to cause weight gain and staining of the teeth) were going bananas. And on that note, I hoped the wine I was seeking wouldn't smell too much like bananas, a sign of ancillary products of fermentation- namely esters- giving those aromas...

...yeah, you've just been bamboozled into a little education on fermentation. Zing!

Anyway, I wanted to do a little research on the area before I arrived. Temecula's just not on the map like Napa, Sonoma, or Central Coast. However, nearby visitors from Los Angeles and San Diego frequent the tasting rooms, much like Atlanta visitors do with Dahlonega wineries on the weekends. Oddly enough, due to its proximity to San Diego, I was surprised to hear that Temecula and its wine industry was not founded by the Germans. Actually, some of California's first wine grapes were grown to the west in Mission San Juan Capistrano. In the 1960's, modern grape growing and winemaking began in Temecula (at the south end of the Temecula Valley, which runs northwest up to Riverside). Now, there are over 20 wineries in the area (but unfortunately for Mr. Burgundy, not a freshly-made glass of Scotch in site).

Energized by the nourishing fat coursing through my veins from an In-N-Out Double Double, Animal-Style, I mustered the energy to visit three local wineries, all recommendations sourced to me by SoCal natives: Ponte Estate, Baily Winery, and Hart Winery, all situated off the same stretch of Rancho California Rd, east of the town of Temecula. No matter what the wines ended up being, the scenery was worth the visit. A view panning up from the twisted old vines (some 50 or more years old) showcases the snow-capped Sierra Nevadas. I had to remind myself that this is the same nation where I live; everything is so different from the East Coast.

As for said wines, there were a few pretty consistent themes: big, ripe, tannic, and uncomplicated. There were a few funkier numbers, including Hart's Tempranillo (the main grape in Spanish Red Rioja, a leather and farm funk explosion) and Mourvèdre (a grape of France's Rhône valley, known for its tobacco nuances and earthiness). Baily also had a pretty serious Meritage (a Bordeaux-style blend, meaning a red that must be comprised of only Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and/or Malbec; and only the first three in this case). However, most were heavy on fruit aromas and flavors and 14%ish alcohol levels, indicative of a hot climate. That being said, the acidity was pretty good in many, suggesting that the cooling patterns at night from the high mountains and breezes from the Pacific clearly do their work to keep the grapes from over-ripening. In the vineyards, many grapes fatten up, but the most prevalent seemed to be Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cab Franc, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Tempranillo, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Roussanne, and some Italian varieties, including Sangiovese and Barbera.

In the end, having successfully spit out over 20 different wines from 3 different producers (the roads heading through the coastal ranges are no place for a wine-buzz behind the wheel), I determined that Temecula was worth the visit. I'm sure many readers of this blog (okay, both readers of this blog) get out to Los Angeles metro or San Diego for business or pleasure, and as I'm a believer in drinking local, I recommend taking the quick trip to this area. They're doing what they should be doing: making fun, accessible wines that cater to a heavy tourism business, and pricing them (for the most part) within reason, meaning almost all under $30 a bottle. They're not trying to be Napa; they're not trying to be Bordeaux. The winemakers of Temecula are producing from what the soil, the climate, and the weather provide (aka, the terroir), just like the best producers in Napa, in France, in Georgia, and- yes- in Germany, too. Prost!

Monday, April 5, 2010

The West Coast is the Better of the Two Coasts?

Sitting in the lobby, looking over the waves of the Pacific crash against the rocky outcrops that seem so foreign to what I've known as "the beach". Unfortunately, I've yet to see Snoop here, as I'm eager to make a case for the benefits of my beloved East Coast.

But, from a wine perspective, I am a little giddy. Sure, I have tremendous respect for the unique offerings of every square inch of land peppered with vines (if you don't believe that, read my last two posts, and especially the comments), but the incredible access to acreage under vine in California is every wine geek's dream (sort of like Snoopy here with a bona fide doctor's diagnosis of glaucoma). California's production accounts for around 90% of the United States' wine production, so they ain't skeered (a phrase you don't hear 'round these parts) to throw up some vines. Consider the fact that Oregon, Washington, and New York are making a TON of wine, so that hopefully puts in perspective the fact that California is making a s**t ton of wine (Mom said I was cussing too much on the site).

For now, my base of operations is Laguna Beach. Definitely posh. Overly so; making a humble suburban wino feel a bit out-of-place. I had a $17 bowl of oatmeal this morning. The gummy bears in the mini bar are $6. I'm drinking a $30 glass of 2005 Chateau Montelena Cab right now. So much for a concept of the value of the dollar. I guess oatmeal's very rare here.

But, my options are endless: Temecula to the southeast (I've gotten an overwhelming "meh" from folks on the wine there, but if they're making wine unique to their terroir, I'm obligated by my convictions to respect it), Los Angeles to the north (where I may try to run into great new wine bloggers Swirl Smell Slurp if I apply myself). Santa Barbara County's up the road another piece, banging out really great Pinot Noir, Syrah, Chardonnay, and other wines often labeled "Central Coast".

For now, my mind's not made up on where this trip will take me. So many options, and I promise to document for your amusement. Until then (like the mutha flippin' Dee oh double G), just chill... 'til the next episode.