Friday, May 27, 2011

Booze in the News - May 27, 2011

Avoiding the Rapture since 2010.

Snooze in the News: A Delaware man is really bad at burgling. But awfully good at drinking. Bradley M. Furchak is currently being held at Sussex Correctional after a Long Neck, Delaware woman awoke to find her house broken into, and the alleged perpetrator snoring on her couch, having consumed several beers from her own supply. When voice-threatened, Furchak- despite his lapse in stealing judgement- had the wherewithal to hang on to one of the beers as he fled the scene. He was soon after taken into custody, where he was quickly sobered to the crushing fact that he lived in Delaware.

105 in the pink: When most of us think of pink wine, a $2.95 bottle of Boone's Farm Strawberry Hill comes to mind. Or perhaps Sutter Home White Zinfandel, if you last name happens to be Rockefeller. So imagine is someone took that money out of the mason jar you'd been saving to visit Branson and blew it on one bottle of pink wine? It's feasible. Badass blogger Katie of Gonzo Gastronomy recently delineated the latest from Provence's Château D'Esclans: a bottle of rosé retailing for $105. Sure, it's small production. Yeah, it's complex. Of course it's produced by son-of-wine-royalty Sacha Lichine. But you know what's it's not? 34 bottles of Strawberry Hill. And when Molly Hatchet is busy flirtin' with disaster through the blown-out speakers in your Trans-Am, you know you can't drink just one.

Going Commando: True, sometimes alcohol leads to lewd and destructive behavior. Governator, we saw the writing on the wall years ago...

Thursday, May 26, 2011

It's not like you're looking very badass anyway.

When the girl driving the refreshment cart regretfully informed us that she was all out of Bud Light Lime, we lamented in only having chilled white wine to drink...

That, and a few errant "regular" Bud Lights, like Bud Light Lime for those who don't give a damn about the dangers of scurvy.

Needless to say, sipping crisp white and drinking flavored malt beverages does little to toughen the already lily-livered image of golf. I honestly feel the need to bite the cork out of a dusty bottle of whiskey from unknown providence, slug it down, punch a bandito in the face, shoot some guy on a balcony so that he falls through a cheaply-constructed banister, then line up that 14-footer with a slight right-to-left break.

All that being said, I do enjoy me some golf, and whiskey neat makes a terrible thrist-quencher on a 90 degree South Carolina day under the oppressive anger of the sun. But a chilled, slightly effervescent Vinho Verde does wonders.

This "green" wine- named for its youth rather than it's color- hails from the Minho region in northern Portugal. It's made from a variety of nearly 20 grapes, and- as the name suggests- it's built to drink young. Practically a watered-down vodka tonic, the citrusy, minerally, low-alcohol tipple is mighty refreshing, and is tailor-made to slake the thirst of parched golfers. That being said, duffers should be tilting those bottles with prudence, as Vinho Verde tees off with around 9-10% ABV. Granted, while this is very low by wine standards, it's pretty much like sipping some of the strongest beer around...

...yet that buzz may be critical, because you- the golfer- are likely walking around in ridiculous garb.

Damn, golfers are comfortable in their own skin.

Listen, once one is dressed like a circus clown in public, there should be no more insecurity about anything else. So next time the course is sold out of Bud Light Lime, reach for a bottle of chilled Vinho Verde you've cleverly stashed in one of those random pockets in the golf bag. Why not? The desire for Bud Light Lime is a clear indication that you don't give a damn about looking tough drinking to compensate for the not-toughness of your alleged sport. And it tastes good.

And drink it straight from the bottle. Because you already look like a buffoon.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Teaching Wine?

It ain't rocket science. Unless we make it so.

Like a tortoise trying to teach snails how to sprint, I undertook my first crack at hosting a wine tasting for a group of locals about a week and a half ago. For this guy, it was an absolute joy. From picking out wines, conjuring up pairings, building tasting sheets, and maps, and powerpoint presentations...

...I'm a nerd. And I would enjoy doing none of this for the day job. Alas, heating and air conditioning lack the sex appeal of fine wine.

But it was all an undeniable labor of unconditional love, and I hope the crowd had half the fun I did slinging it all together.

Yet, while I encourage wine be used for fun more than anything else, there is a burning desire within my evangelical spirit to have taught something. I really hope that insight was gained, perceptions were shattered, and at least one participant was left with a need to learn more about the fermented grape. There exists a seemingly endless universe of new and different within the world's bottles... how could I not want someone else to join in the exploration?

My hopes- however- are far from a slam dunk. Like so many first dates, rambling jokes, and (needless to say) blog posts, I may have veered toward over-complication, muddying what would've been a good thing- if I had kept it simple. The battle has long-raged that blogs have come to "democratize" wine, bringing it to the masses. Blogs and bloggers are releasing what is, essentially, a food product from the snobby vice-grip of the old guard's obscure tasting notes and arbitrary scoring systems. Or at least that's one side of the debate.

Honestly, I think there's a place for both opinions.

The bottom line is that wine education needs to match the knowledge and desire of the audience. And, thankfully, my group was gracious enough to give me some pointers, as I am neither a polished individual nor above constructive criticism:

1) For the most part, assumptions are bad. The geek-set can get caught up in what it sees as commonplace, but may be voodoo to others. I was asked to explain the methodology of tasting (why the swirling? the sniffing? the swishing around in the mouth?). All great points that I will be sure to address at the next one.

2) Didn't think folks would want to take notes. I wrote off the event as a social gathering. I was pleased to hear that some wished they had a way to jot down tidbits of knowledge. I was equally displeased that I was too ham-handed to provide at least some bits of graphite to let the crowd scribble. Point taken.

3) I think visual aides are good. While no one wants to see another damn powerpoint while not at the office, it can be tricky to explain where Rias Baixas lies on a map. So, when you think you're clever and create such slides, make sure the projector works. D'oh.

All that said, I think there were some breakthroughs. Vinho Verde slapped thoughts of what an $8 wine can be right in the chops. Tavel rosé shocked much of the crowd when it tasted nothing like White Zinfandel.

Ultimately, wine had resulted in good conversation, conviviality, and merrymaking. It had brought the crowd together. Even if that's all that happened at this event, then I consider it a rousing success.

But for future events, I'll know to cover the basics, the geeky, and make sure that I'm doing my due-diligence to advance knowledge, without perpetuating the cryptic nature of wine.

That's assuming there are future events. And assumptions, as already noted, are generally bad.

Friday, May 20, 2011

So What?? So Let's Dance!

I've skipped town to go golfing with the boys. Obviously, our golf trips end up exactly like this scene from Caddyshack. And for the record, our excursions NEVER end up like ANY scene from Caddyshack 2. For shame, Caddyshack 2. Replacing Rodney Dangerfield with Jackie Mason is like replacing the venerable Dr. Vino with... me.

In lieu of the conventional cold beer on the course this year, I'll be cracking some Vinho Verde to see if it refreshes and simultaneously improves/deteriorates my golf game the way only cold beer previously could.

Ever taken some wine out on the golf course? What'd you bring, and did it work?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Pairing Conundrum, part 2 (of... well, how many sequels did "Police Academy" have?)

For the record (and for the sake of continuity), this post was supposed to go out last Friday, hot on the heels of "The Pairing Conundrum, part 1", a meandering, bloviated monologue on how to make your food taste better, your wine taste better, and your food & wine taste better together. There were more points to make, but- as I said- things got wordy.

Alas, stars were crossed that day. A now-infamous Blogger crash led into a day planning for a wine tasting, a day prepping for and executing a wine tasting dinner, a trip to Dahlonega wine country, and some other flotsam and jetsam that threw my noble intentions way off-course.

I apologize, and I'll make the excuse that Blogger backed me up horribly. It's not a good excuse, but it sure is a textbook example of passing the buck. On with the show...

I hope you've never heard it this way before: wine pairing is like a Liger. Take one majestic creature, the Lion (aka, "food", or perhaps the "mane" course... I immediately regret saying that). Put it together with a beautiful and cryptic beast, the Tiger (a metaphor for wine... misunderstood, powerful, and beautiful).

A perfect wine and food pairing becomes the Liger, a transcendental beast of the animal kingdom. Yeah, I agree it's perhaps the worst metaphor yet, but when's the next time I'm gonna get to talk about Ligers? You've gotta work with me here. And how could I not post that pic? Prize for the best caption...

Anyhow, I mentioned a couple pairing tips last week, and I wanted to continue with some more, but I'll do them one at a time (with total disregard to timeliness or continuity), because I really do talk too much:

Do you like red meat, and to hell with what your doctor says? Get on the good foot with tannins. I need to study more food science. I've heard it a million times. I've read it a million times. But I haven't seen a good explanation of the chemistry behind why red meat and tannic red wines go so well together. Either that, or I'm too lazy to really research it at the Charlie Sheen-ish hours when I write these posts.

All I know is that red meat is very high in protein. This is due to the fact that it (beef, lamb, duck, etc.) is comprised of slow-twitch muscle, which is used for long, extended periods of activity. For that reason, slow-twitch muscle must be high in myoglobin- a protein that stores plenty of oxygen to fuel these hard-working fibers. Myoglobin is reddish in color, so that's why red meat looks bloody (it isn't bloody bloody, by the way). But, clearly, this stuff is very high in protein, because of the myoglobin. So, there's part one.

Some red wines are high in tannin. Tannins are phenolic compounds from the skins, seeds, and stems of wine grapes. There are more tannins in red skins, so red wines tend to be more tannic. This is especially true for thick-skinned grapes, like Cabernet Sauvignon, Tannat, etc. When the juice is in contact with those big, fat casings during fermentation, the phenolic tannins are extracted into the wine. Winemakers can also add tannin to a wine by adding stems to the fermentation, or by aging in new oak barrels (as oak contains tannins). However, for the purposes of this stinkin' post, lets just say it the skin's the thing.

So, you've got a myoglobin-laden piece of meat and a heavily-extracted Cabernet Sauvignon. They're going to go great together because...uh, because the internet says so. Supposedly, tannins bind to the proteins in meat and make those proteins more flavorful. Likewise, the proteins supposedly soften the tannins, making them less astringent and more smooth. I don't know how this works, but I do know one thing: red meat and heavy red wine sure are tasty together. Next time you see your pimp and bring home beef steak or lamb, try a Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Nebbiolo-based wine, or Tannat (looks for producers from Uruguay or Madiran in France for these massive wines). Oh, and there's some Tannat grown in Georgia, too. Boomshakalaka.

As an added bonus, phenolic compounds contain lots of antioxidants, so tell your doc you'll only eat that terrible red meat with lots and lots of booze... know, for your health.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Pairing Conundrum, part 1 (of many?)

Wine blogs address the concept of pairing wine with food as ESPN approaches Yankees vs. Red Sox, or as James Suckling discusses his home in Tuscany: on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on (for accuracy's sake, I need to type it some more) and on and on and on and on (okay, point made sophomorically).

-on and on and on-

The debate arguing wine and food goes back to Roman times, leading to the creation of the phrase, ad nauseam. But surely there's an explanation for all the tiresome discussion. Is it because drinking alcohol leads to diarrhea of the mouth (that is to say, lively discussion), and eventually to hunger, which leads to late-night junk food, that leads to... [awkward pause]?

In my opinion, which you're gonna get whether you like it or not, the reason for all the discussion is because it's a subject that's hotly debated, and that generates opinions, interest, and talk. Wine pairing is rooted in a practice that can either elevate both the food and the wine to new, ethereal heights, or it can decisively ruin both.

The balancing act is like concocting a hit early-80's sitcom. Combine the gruff, cantankerous comedic stylings of a Ted Knight with the lovable buffoonery of a hapless, effeminate Jim J. Bullock, and the pairing soars on the wings of Too Close for Comfort into the hallowed halls of television lore.

Conversely, if the pairing creates tension and disharmony, things go totally awry, and you end up with the doomed Homeboys in Outer Space (thanks TV Crunch for the inspirato on that one).

Here's the rub: everyone has different tastes. Just like what might resonate with television audiences, some pairings are going to work on paper (Homeboys in Outer Space is clearly a hilarious concept), but they just don't cut the mustard at the dinner table, or when the Nielson ratings are published. Ultimately, we're all individuals, and we all like what we like, so hitting a home run every time is like James Suckling not mentioning that he lives in Tuscany... probably ain't gonna happen.

I'm wrestling with this neurosis now, as I'll be hosting a wine pairing dinner for a large group on Saturday. I keep changing things up, overanalyzing, and researching the best matches. I know what I like, but will the crowd follow suit?

Fortunately, wine pairing doesn't have to be pure voodoo. There are some basic, food-science concepts that can be employed to hedge your pairings, increasing the odds of success. I'm gonna cover a couple here, then do a couple more in another post, because I both need more blog fodder, and this is a topic that causes bluster and filibustering (as I alluded to earlier):

1. Acid is good: wines with higher acidity stimulate one of the primary senses of the tongue, giving the sensation of the palate being cleansed. Furthermore, like squeezing lemon onto a bland piece of fish, some acidity can enhance the flavors of many foods. Acidic wines can usually stand up to tough-to-pair acidic foods (like a vinaigrette, for example), and they're great with fatty dishes, as fat can coat the palate, and the wine seems to clean things up for the next bite.

There are a few tricks to picking out a high acid wine. Knowing which grapes have naturally high acidity (Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, etc.) is one way. Understanding cooler climate growing regions can also help. Grapes don't ripen as much in these cooler climates, leaving more acidity in the fruit. Another good tip is to check the alcohol level on the bottle. Lower alcohol (roughly, below 13%) is a pretty good indicator that the wine still has some dialed-down pH. This has to do with the fact that- as grapes ripen- acids decrease and sugars increase in the fruit. Sugar is converted into alcohol during fermentation, ergo, more sugar, more alcohol, less acid (provided there's no manipulation, which is another post).

2. When things get spicy, sugar and fruit are good, but alcohol is not: a little sweetness can temper the heat of spicy foods, and even dry wines that are very fruit-forward can fight the good fight, as fruitiness can be perceived by the palate as sweetness. However, the latter can be tricky, as dry, fruity wines often are the product of very ripe grapes, which means there was a lot of sugar during fermentation, (generally) equating to higher alcohol. High alcohol turns spice into straight-up HOT, burning the throat and killing all flavors. If you need proof, make yourself a Prairie Fire shot and see what happens.

For all these reasons, most German Spätlese and Auslese Rieslings do wonders with buffalo wings and Popeye's chicken. They are usually around 8% alcohol, with some residual sugar in the final wine. Furthermore, Riesling is naturally very high in acidity, so that jives with the tasty fats in fried poultry bits (see reason #1).

I'll have a list of what I'm pairing with what for Saturday's tasting on the Suburban Wino Facebook page. Please stop by and let me know you opinions. I'm open to suggestions, but I already have all the wines, so wiggle-room is limited.

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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Bubbles alone do not a Champagne make.

Looking at the title of this post, my grammar has devolved to Yoda-esque sentence structure. Perhaps I'm quickly becoming a shriveled wine curmudgeon, relegated to cryptic tidbits on the fermented grape, designed to put frustrated winos on the path to righteousness.

Or, maybe there's wisdom in the header; a critical piece of knowledge that fledgling wine-Jedis must heed in order to restore balance to the vinous Force...

Probably the former, but bear with me here, because what I'm about to say is very important:


Please, repeat this statement again, as I didn't hear you the first time with this ridiculous Yoda hat covering my ears.


One more time, because I can hear someone out there calling a bottle of Tott's Brut "Champagne", and my blood is about to boil (cementing the preceding suspicion that I have- indeed- become a wine curmudgeon).


I really need to quit being a jerk about it and put some explanation behind the mantra, because we've probably all been conditioned to think otherwise. "Champagne" is not necessarily a style of wine. However, it is a wine. A French sparkling wine from the region of Champagne, to be more specific.

The French- generally speaking- are really hung up on sense of place. They feel that a wine should speak to where it comes from: the vine configuration, the soil composition, the slope upon which it is planted, the orientation towards the sun, the climate, and the surrounding geography and geology. For the French, this terroir (basically translating to all that stuff I described) is what one should smell, taste, and feel when enveloped by a great wine, so much more so than the grape from which it is made. To this end, the wines of France have traditionally been labeled by places, rather than by grape varieties. Bordeaux is a region, not a grape or necessarily a style. Burgundy is a region. Champagne- not so coincidentally- is also a region.

Situated in the northeastern part of Gaul (I'm scratching for synonyms for "France" at this point), the Champagne-Ardenne region is subjected to a rather cool climate, producing grapes (mainly Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier) with lower sugar levels and higher acidity. These grapes produce wines of extraordinary freshness, and the addition of bubbles only amplifies the palate-cleansing sensation of Champagne. And how do those bubbles get there? A secondary fermentation in the sealed bottles create yeasts' two primary byproducts- alcohol and carbon dioxide. The latter contributes to the fizz. Check this out if you want to learn more about production methods (there are several), as I have trouble keeping it brief.

Any other sparklers not produced in the Champagne region of France are simply not "Champagne". Disagree? Tough shit. Blame terroir.

That being said (quite crudely, for emphasis and questionable comedic value), some would want to fool you. Many California producers (Korbel, Cook's, and formerly Paul Masson, for example) listed "Champagne" on the bottles for years. The French sought to protect the name, and made treaties a few decades ago to only allow bottles from Champagne to be labeled "Champagne". However, a deal was struck to allow a few producers in California to keep the name, as long as bottles were labeled as "California Champagne". Confusing, ridiculous, and perpetuating the cryptic nature of wine in general, in this guy's opinion.

Despite not leveraging the marketing clout of some famous dirt, there are many excellent sparkling wines produced outside of Champagne that are worth a try. This is especially true when considering that the real stuff usually fetches a pretty hefty price, thanks mostly to marketing and rap videos. But lets say you're name isn't Skee Lo, and you just want a mimosa to get your Tuesday morning started. Surely something more affordable is out there:

Crémants: French sparkling wines made outside of Champagne are called "Crémant de [region]". So a bubbler from Burgundy would be Crémant de Bourgogne, from the Loire would be Crémant de Loire, and Alsace would be Crémant d'Alsace, and so on. They are all generally made in the "Champagne method" (secondary fermentation in the bottle), and offer good value and interesting flavor profiles, as all are made from the allowable grapes of their respective regions. Also sometimes called Mousseux.

Cava: the sparkling wine of Spain is generally made from the Parellada, Macabeo, and Xarel-lo grapes (and increasingly, Chardonnay). They are also made in the traditional method (aka "Champagne Method"), and offer ridiculous value, usually going off shelves for under $10.

Prosecco: an inexpensive and pleasing Italian sparkler, made from the Glera grape.

Sekt: German bubbly, often made in the Charmat method, meaning secondary fermentation occurs in large stainless-steel tanks, and then that wine is bottled under pressure to keep the bubbles from escaping.

Cap Classique: South African sparklers made in the traditional method.

American Sparkling Wine: avoid the cheap stuff (think college headaches) and search for producers who make quality wines in the traditional method. Some easy-to-find bottlings include Domaine Carneros, Domaine Chandon, Gloria-Ferrer, Gruet (from New Mexico!), Iron Horse, J Vineyards, Piper-Sonoma, Roederer Estate, Scharffenberger, and Schramsberg (among others). Many are owned by French Champagne houses, so they try to keep with the same level of quality.


...glad I got that off my chest. I don't mean to get feisty about it. Sometimes, there's just an ax to grind.

Or maybe it's a lightsaber.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Hazy and Busted in the Second City

Last time I was in Chicago was 1989. I was 10 years old, preferred dinosaurs to baseball, McDonald's to Portillo's, and chocolate milk to Burgundy (I credit good parenting for that last one).

To me, the Second City was a giant lake, a tall building named after the store where my parents sourced me burlap-like "Toughskins" jeans, a cool museum full of prehistoric bones, and a boring visit to my mother's great-aunt's 90th birthday party (but I suppose 10-year-olds and 90-year-olds just don't mix). I had no idea what wonders Chicago had to offer an adult. Particularly one with a penchant for cocktails and low-density lipoproteins.

It is a big city of friendly folks (like Manhattan with good, Midwestern sensibilities), yet the city center seems condensed. I felt I could walk everywhere, and everywhere is flat. Which is needed, as the rest of one's time can best be passed gorging like Joey Chestnut in training. In more flattering words, Chicago's food scene is incredible. Again, it's a walkable, flat city, that's chilly and on the water, and full of amazing food. I'd make the shoddy metaphor that Chicago is San Francisco for people who think hills are stupid and tiring, sans Nancy Pelosi, plus even shadier politics.

Those not insecure about looking like tourists can indulge in the fire-kissed delights of the Weber Grill, a restaurant that employs real charcoal kettles indoors, and probably a few carbon monoxide monitors as well. You can call me a tourist all you want, as long as your shoving pretzel rolls with cheddar-butter in front of my face- the perfect prelude to juicy cheeseburgers (here's where the metaphor dies: Midwestern dietary philosophy takes a MASSIVE detour from that of Northern California. I swear these people do not give a f**k about what goes into their bodies. And that's coming from a deep-fried Southerner. I mean, cheddar-butter?!).

Speaking on bad eating habits, "dragged through the garden" Chicago-style dogs (left), juicy, grilled onion-slathered Polish sausages, unbelievably heavy deep-dish pizza, and "beefs" (Italian beef sandwiches) pepper the landscape of the Windy City, offering delicious, affordable junk food to all with complete disregard for doctors' orders. Portillo's, Gino's East, Mr. Beef, and an outpost of Al's Beef (among other tasty culinary disasters) sit within a few blocks of each other. Conveniently, a Walgreen's sits central to all of these places, making multiple runs for Rolaids and Lipitor manageable.

But there's more to Chicago than stuff that tastes particularly good at 3 AM. Frontera Grill lives up to the hype for Mexican-lovers. Bartender Mike is whipping up some ridiculous old-school cocktails like Sazeracs and Negronis at Sable. We also (of course) found ourselves in unbelievably unique wine-and-food meccas like Pops for Champagne (an all-sparkling wine bar... insane), The Bluebird, and the Purple Pig (perhaps my new favorite place on planet Earth). These spots featured what I consider the calling card of good wine lists: tons of stuff I've never seen before. As much as so many places want to sell me Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay for five times the retail price at the Piggly Wiggly next door, I really appreciate the extra effort when a restaurant's list is unique and interesting. And I'll probably spend more money, wanting to try new things (which happened. Ouchie.)

More than the the food and the drink, though, we had the incredible pleasure of tilting some glasses with Atlanta friends Capo and Jess (pictured right, as Capo blesses an absurd amount of pork product at The Pig), who happened to be in town. Furthermore (thanks to Twitter), I was able to connect with local winos Mike T, Douglas, Sasha, and one of my favorite (former for the most part, now that he's "in the business") bloggers, the excitable Sam Klingberg of Broke Wino fame. I continue to be impressed by the folks I meet in-person, with whom I initially connected online. Anyone who says social media is anti-social is a buffoon. I can pretty much go to any city in the U.S., and there'll be someone there to introduce me to a terrific local hangout, assuaging my insecurity about looking like a tourist (huge camera-in-tow notwithstanding).

Like any big, hip city, a drink runs about $9-13. And there are lots of nice restaurants who prey on the business-dinner crowd. If you come to visit (and you should), bring some papers, or a high-limit credit card. Chicago ain't cheap, but it sure is fun. I ran like I was still in my 20's, and I woke up like I was not in my 20's. But I had a blast doing it and can't wait to get back. Granted, it will probably be with the kid(s), so wine bars and mixologists will have to wait.

Good thing I still like dinosaurs and McDonald's.