Friday, October 28, 2011

The Champagne Diet

Once again, I'm on some sort of diet.  "Don't call it a 'diet'," my in-shape friend said, cramming another chicken wing into his gaping maw, pieces of poultry flotsam flecking my anemic plate of vegetables.  "It's 'eating right'."

Have another wing, you rabbit-metabolism SOB.

But, he's right.  I can't call eating better a diet.  It really is a matter of making better choices, and doing them regularly; not as a quick fix.

And usually, "eating right" consists of cutting out all the things a Southerner with Irish roots who loves Italian food thrives upon:  fried vittles, pork fat, pasta, bread, cheese, potatoes, and...

Alcoholic beverages.  Beer and wine.  The good stuff, packed with calories.  Diet cola and Bacardi rum are given no quarter in my household, and the combination of the two is about as appealing as Lindsay Lohan + Playboy ("hey mac, don't forget to airbrush out the crack pipe and 99¢ Jack-in-the-Box tacos").

Therein lies the rub.  Tomorrow (well, today) is International #ChampagneDay.  Wine lovers around the world will pop corks and celebrate the hallowed home of sparkling wine.  Then, they'll get on Twitter to discuss, share, and enjoy with hundreds of others in the nerdiest way possible:  on Twitter; marking their tweets with the 'hashtag' #ChampagneDay, creating a searchable, consistent thread connecting all the myraid conversation.

But, despite the ribbing, these Twitter tastings do create a community around a common theme:  drinking, then posting regrettable comments online.  It's the American way!

Never being one to thumb my nose at America, I think I'll be taking a temporary break from carbohydrate purgatory to indulge in perhaps my favorite beverage.  Maybe this one?

A tempting possibility.  Schramsberg is one of the original sparkling wine houses of California.  They make phenomenal bubbly from the classic grapes used in Champagne:  Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (and perhaps the lesser-known, but important, Pinot Meunier grape as well).

Schramsberg furthermore makes all it's wines in the "traditional method" (or Méthode Champenoise, if you don't mind irking at least one Frenchman).  Basically, this means that the grape juice is fermented into a still (non-sparkling) wine, and then added to the bottle with a mixture of yeast and some sugar, creating a second fermentation in the bottle, resulting in the fizz.  This is the most classical (and most expensive) way to make a sparkling wine, and it results in a product of superior quality, taste, and complexity.

Alas, if I were to consume the jewel of Napa's sparkling crown, I would not be properly celebrating Champagne.  See, Champagne is a region of France, to the East-Northeast of Paris.  The name "Champagne", although so often used to describe a style of wine (and Champagne and other sparklers are most certainly wine), technically has nothing to do with the fact that the wine has bubbles.

Wines from Champagne are called "Champagne" because it is believed they express the place itself.  The French call the concept terroir.  Certain specific places have the climate, the soil, the orientation to the sun, the... je ne sais quoi to create great wine, and those very places are felt to be much more important than the grapes themselves.

In the States, we've been conditioned to buy wine based on the grape variety on the label.  Not a problem, but it has rendered the concept of terroir difficult to us.  However, just like "San Francisco Sourdough" from Albuquerque is not really San Francisco Sourdough, sparkling wines from anywhere other than Champagne, France, are not "Champagne".

To this end, I'll be tucking into a bottle of Perrier-Jouët Brut (the "Brut" referring to the level of sugar in the wine... this one being pretty dry), provided to me as a sample by the Champagne Bureau.  I'll be curious how it stacks up to some of the phenomenal, smaller-production Champagnes I've had recently.  Don't think I've tasted the PJ before, so I'm looking forward to dunking my whiskers.

Granted, some readers may know me as a bit of a Champagne-elitist, avoiding the heavily marketed stuff in favor of lesser-known "farmer fizz".  While true, I've also been known to wear wolf shirts.  And anyone who runs with the wolf shirt pack is most likely an indiscriminate drinker.  Like this guy:

(photo credit:
No way he's turning down a free bottle of booze. In fact, he's probably listening to the Atlanta Rhythm Section right now.

As am I. In my wolf shirt. With bottle in hand. Wanna fight about it?

Sorry, sorry. That was the wolf shirt talking. I love you all, and hope you'll pop a bottle as well tomorrow (today).  Happy #ChampagneDay!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Sonoma Coast

On a recent trip out to Napa during harvest, I realized I spent a hell of a lot of time in the car (didn't help that it was raining most of the time).

In fact, I came to the conclusion that I spend an awful lot of my life in a car.

Getting out of that vehicle- in good weather or bad- can be quite good for the soul.  Especially when exiting at land's end... the seemingly endless Pacific Ocean.

Not sure what it is; perhaps the fact that the western coast of the States is so very different from that of the Gulf, or the low country of South Carolina and Georgia (of which I am very familiar).  The Pacific is... mesmerizing to me.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Local Junk

I just got a taste of "toasted ravioli" tonight. Sure, I've had a deep-fried ravioli (I'm from the South, where we deep-fry anything deemed as "food"), but I had no idea that this culinary coup is actually a signature regional delight of St. Louis, Missouri.

 I happen to be here working (happy coincidence is that there's a World Series going on right down the street). When I am in an American city with some measure of culture, there's an innate yearning in my belly to seek out indigenous (or notorious) local grub.

 Got me thinking: how many major cities in the States have some sort of iconic junk food? Or, at least something that could be eaten with the hands, at a tailgate, or served by hippies in the parking lot after a Widespread Panic concert...

Miami has the cubano.

Philadelphia, the cheesesteak.

New York City can claim the dirty-water hot dog and the foldable slice.

Boston has lobster rolls.

Buffalo wings, Pittsburgh-style sandwiches (with fries on top), the Louisville "hot brown", muffalettas in New Orleans and po boys along the Gulf coast.

Chicago has the Maxwell St. polish and Italian beef sandwiches.  There are Sheboygan bratwursts in Milwaukee (or, at least in Sheboygan.  Very big in Sheboygan).  Fry bread in Arizona and New Mexico.  Crab rolls in San Francisco and burritos in Los Angeles.

And, of course, Nashville hot chicken.  I could tell a few tales about that murderous shrew of a dish.

And I have to think, there are so many more.  Funny thing, growing up in Atlanta.  It's a transplant city, so many residents are from somewhere else.  They bring their cuisine (and street foods) with them, but there's always griping that none of it is "quite like home".  And everywhere's got something.

So, I'm reaching out to readers near and far to answer the question:  what is your city's iconic hand-held dish?  I've left so many cities out.  And I've probably made a mistake on at least one of the cities listed.

Good People

If all "wine folks" were like these, we'd all drink wine.

Fair to say, a good portion of the non-teetotaler crowd avoids wine altogether.  Why?  It's confusing, expensive, and often intimidating.  A botched purchase could prove displeasing to the palates of the buyers, or- even worse- cause embarrassment and shame.  Embarrassment and shame, over just trying to entertain, be generous, or get a little weird.

The blame can be pointed squarely at "wine people".  The one's who constantly come to the table with, "it's sparkling wine, NOT Champagne", or "you don't smell the redolence of Bartlett pear??!" or "I'm relaxing in my villa in Tuscany".  And, yeah, I'm probably guilty of all of them.  Except replace 'Tuscany' with 'the sticks outside Atlanta' and 'villa' with 'upside-down starter home'.  Oh, and I'd spend the rest of the evening trying to kick my own ass if the word 'redolence' ever crossed my lips.

Point being, it's all too easy to make wine inaccessible to others.  Even the people out there trying to "demystify and take the snobbery out of wine" are slinging bullshit like "petrol on the nose".  In America, Riesling smells like gasoline, okay?  Often, we (yes, we, myself included) don't even realize the damage being done.  We've been taught by other "wine people", thus adopting- then passing on- bad habits that keep many at a  precautionary keg's length away from our wonderful beverage.

But, once in a while, I run across folks who I believe could get anyone to enjoy wine.  

After spending seemingly a few fleeting moments with Ben "Benito" Carter and Samantha Dugan in Memphis over the weekend, I knew there was hope for my surly disposition.  These two extraordinarily beautiful people-

Benito, the epitome of gracious and accomodating host, renaissance man extraordinaire, gastronome, elder statesman of wine blogging, and...

Samantha, a lovely, delightfully snarky, soulful as hell, heart-on-the-sleeve wine slinger, Champagne/Loire zealot, and damn fine writer-

well, they've done about the best job advancing wine that I've seen in a while.  There were no attempts to show off how much they knew about the subject matter.  No wacky descriptors.  Absolutely zero "snobbery", if I may overuse an overused word in this context.  

Standing in for the unpleasantries were:  storytelling, jokes, endless conversation (lacking any sort of pretense, or filters for that matter)... there was downright conviviality.  And food and wine on the table. Bringing people together.  It's a hackneyed theme around these parts, but one so important to the advancement of the beverage I love, nay, to the advancement of humankind in general...

Maybe that's a simple prescription to the woes of the world, but I've never seen a bottle of wine and some good food not bring folks together.  And, once we start talking to each other again, we get back to true 2-way communication.  Whether that be in-person, or via the virtual villages of Facebook, Google+, blogging circles, etc., our genuine conversing with one another harkens back to a time of community.  People would gather to tell stories, share ideas, collaborate, and enjoy the comfort of the herd.  Community satisfies basic human needs, and too often we shun these needs in the name of convenience and efficiency.

A bottle of wine, a bowl of bread, and wonderful people are the telltale signs of communion.  And I'm damn honored to have these two as a part of it, as our conversation will no-doubt continue and grow through the amazing technology we have at our fingertips...

...provided those fingertips are clasped around a glass of fermented grape juice.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

How to Open a Wine Bottle

I don't think I can explain it any better than this video.  Kudos to neighbor Van Burin for sourcing this one.

Personally, if I had that sweet pony tail and smoldering intensity, I would have karate-chopped the top of the bottle right off.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

This Used to be Easy

Used to sit down at this now-overburdened laptop and bang out some drivel about how the A-Team is a perfect metaphor for the four most noble grape varieties of Alsace.  

Riesling, the ring-leader and mastermind of Alsace's vinous fame.  Some might say the ranking officer.  Assertive but balanced, smart and thought-provoking, and prone to aging well.  A regular Col. John Hannibal.  That handsome devil.

Pinot Gris, the full-bodied muscle of Alsace.  B.A. Baracus, perhaps?  Don't know if it hates flying, though.  But I'll have to admit that Pinot Gris has knocked me on my ass before.

Muscat, a smooth and aromatic experience.  Suave.  Just like Templeton Peck, aka, "Face"

And, of course, there's bat shit-crazy Gewurztraminer.  Smells sweet, often tastes dry.  A brilliant and polarizing mind-bender of a wine.  Call it "Howling Mad" Murdock in my book.


Piece of cake.  "Tell me about Alsace," folks might've said.  People on the streets.  Everyone wants to know Alsace.

"No sweat.  You like the A-Team?  No?  Okay, let's work with the fact that you're wearing that Oingo Boingo t-shirt.  See, Danny Elfman is a lot like Riesling..."

Lately, though, it seems every post has been a struggle.  I feel like a thousand monkeys at a thousand typewriters... but the typewriters are out of ink, and the monkeys; well, the monkeys are just too busy flinging poo to do my bidding at the keys.

Wondering if it's writers' block.  Possibly.  Not much time to write.  Or even think about writing.  Such can be life for the swinging international playboy that is a marketing goon for a wholesale distributor of air conditioning products.

But I think "writers' block" is a lazy and convenient excuse.  Rather, I'm starting to think that when dealing with a subject so vast, generalization gets tough.

Wine is a rabbit-hole.  It keeps going.  One's pursuits- real obsessive pursuits- of wine appreciation must be similar to what Lewis & Clark felt when they crested the highest point of the Rockies... only to see more, endless land.  "Where's the damn ocean, already?"  Of course, when dealing with wine, rather than getting dysentery from a pre-pasteurization expedition, you get a tasty beverage and perhaps a little buzz.  

Okay, sometimes you get dysentery too.  Stay away from wines sold at gas stations or on the Denny's wine list.  Everyone knows a "Grand Slam" breakfast goes better with beer anyway.  'Cause we all know you're hungover.

Here's the point, I think:  I don't want to scare anyone away from wine, because it really is wonderful.  Oversimplification might do the subject matter a disservice, and complicating what is- essentially- a food product with tons of geeky facts and oh-so-awful descriptions of aromas and flavors can do even more damage.  As soon as people are stressed out by the beverage that is meant to relieve stress, I believe they're going to stick with what's comfortable- be that the same wine over and over again, or the reliable 12-pack of domestic brew.

So, to those still reading:  thanks.  I'm working on it.

And yes, Alsace wine is much more than a cast of characters from a particularly awesome 80's action drama.  But it ain't friggin' nuclear physics either.  And I think- now- you know that...

I love it when a plan comes together.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Rainy California

Waking up to the sound of raindrops pattering on the roof is not something unusual... in the Southeast.

Napa Valley in early October?  Nothing I've ever seen before.  So much for "sunny California".  The rains came in last Monday, and save a couple breaks in the grey, held strong until Wednesday afternoon.  Being a jet-setter on holiday with expectations of warmth and solar rays, I was disappointed that an ample wardrobe of gaudy Tommy Bahama shirts and Magnum P.I.-style short-shorts stayed in the suitcase.

Despite my inability to showcase the gams, the opportunity to watch the wine industry react to a rainy harvest was fascinating.  As the veiled sun set over the Mayacamas ridge to the West and darkness fell over the valley, vineyards lit up with industrial-strength flood lights.  These were night picks, intended to collect the ripe grape clusters ahead of the rain (no matter what time in the evening or morning).

The conversation among the insiders was obsessively focused on brix- the sugar levels of the ripening grapes.  Was the brix high enough?  Are the acid and sugar levels in balance?  Have the seeds lignified (turned to brown, indicating phenolic maturity)?  Basically speaking, will the winemakers be working with ripe grapes?  Acid and sugar are in balance in a grape.  As acids fall, sugars rise.  At a certain point, enough sugar exists in each berry to provide enough food for yeasts to metabolize into alcohol during fermentation.  Furthermore, if skins, seeds, and stems are not yet at their peak, wines can end up tasting "green" and lacking fruit character.

So why not just let that fruit hang on the vine?  While it's possible that the grapes will swell with the additional water, resulting in diluted flavors in the grapes (I've heard this point contested by a respected grower), the bigger concern is rot.  With moisture (after a dry growing season) comes that very real potential.  Wine, especially that which relies upon the fruit of a single-vineyard, has no "do overs".  Losing a vintage and potentially millions of dollars of revenue, all on a gamble for riper grapes?  I think you'd rather see me in those short-shorts.  Barely.

Keep an eye out for the 2011 vintage from Northern California.  Sure, you won't see many of the wines for a couple years, but from knowing the raw materials, could we be tasting wines that are leaner, more acidic, and lower in alcohol?  Or will instincts, gutsy decisions, and winemaking magic protect the powerful wines that have put places like the Napa Valley on the map?

More importantly, as the consumer, which would you prefer?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Happy September! It's Oktoberfest (or, "Märzen to the beat of a different drum")

So, who speaks German here?  I was stuck looking at the moving map of mein flug, but didn't know where I had to go zurück to change the language back to English.

Basically, my finger slipped and defaulted the language on my Delta trivia screen to German.  Usually, 20 rounds of flight trivia would sooth the monotony of a 5-hour flight, but it appeared my efforts were kaput.  Especially since all I know how to say in German is "ist das eine schneeballkampf?"

"Is this a snowball fight?" usually doesn't accomplish much...

No matter.  Thanks to the magical fairies that had bestowed the wonder of web connection on flights, I had something to do.  Granted, while this was a perfect opportunity to disconnect from the world for a few hours, I was shoveling shekels over to the "GoGo In-Flight Internet" tycoons like a crackhead.  Said tycoons, of course, being metaphorical dealers of irresistible, delicious, and wholesome New York crack.

Furthermore, my schnitzer with the Delta screen reminded me to write about German stuff.  Or at least German-American stuff.

Oktoberfest is a lie!  Well, sort of.  Technically, in Munich (where the original festival is held), this brouhaha starts in late September, and runs through the first weekend of October (or through October 3- German Unity Day- if the weekend falls on the first two days of October).  So, the 16-18 days of revelry fall mostly in September.  Itching to get cocked on strong, Oktoberfest-style beer?  Tuck in two weeks earlier than you thought!  A bierleichen in hand is worth two passed out in the bushes, I always say.

["Bierleichen", for the record, literally translates to "beer corpses".  It's a term used to describe the many people who pass out from the relatively strong style of beer served during Oktoberfest]

Fortunately/unfortunately, these beers are particularly delicious.  Though generally referred to as "Oktoberfest" beer, a more appropriate name is Märzen (pronounced "Maer-tsen") or Märzenbier.  These brews were named as such as I read it because- back in the good ol' days of brewing in Bavaria- there was no brewing allowed during the summer months, for threat of fire (in a process that involves a lot of that).  Beers were stored in caves and cellars with ice cut from local frozen ponds to keep them cool.  Since the ice was usually available until March, this beer was brewed then, and put down until fall, around the time September/Oktoberfest was cranking.

Interestingly enough, "storage" in German is translated "lager", and the process by which theses beers are made- slower fermentation at cooler temperatures- has earned the namesake of one of the 2 most popular general designations of beer (the other, of course, being ales).  The great difference in fermentation time and temp has mostly to do with the yeasts used.  Lager yeasts actively metabolize fermentable sugar at lower temps, and over a longer period of time.  Ale yeast tend to be quicker and more haphazard.

Lagers are generally noted for their crisp, clean nature, and their maltiness over hoppiness (again, generally speaking).  Märzen-style tend to bring a little more heft than a Pilsener-style lager (think most big-box American beers).  The alcohol hovers around 6%, they are darker (though, can be made in a light-colored style), and have a really rich, caramel maltiness to them.  The bitterness and acidity of hops tends to be dialed down.  Think "Brown Ale" with more "brown" and less "ale".

Contrary to popular belief, the German beers (like the Paulaner and Spaten shown above) are no longer required to be brewed in observance of the Reinheitsgebot, or the German beer purity law of 1516.  However, many still do, if only for marketing purposes.  Or, so they can say a bad-ass word like "Reinheitsgebot".

But, even if you don't want to risk getting tongue-tied with the extraordinarily unsexy German language, you can still drink the beer.  Lots of American brewers make pretty swell versions of a Märzen-style Oktoberfest brew.  I'm particularly fond of Brooklyn Brewing's effort.  As I am of all their beers.  Which is funny, because out of all the types of delicious New York crack, Brooklyn is my least favorite.

In any case, if you want to get your bierleichen on as the weather cools, the rich, fortifying taste of these beers will not disappoint.  Unless "rich and fortifying" is not your thing...

Which makes you weird.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Manife(a)st Destiny

Heading out west for a few days (on the plane now). Could be trying to clear my head. Maybe I'm seeking inspiration (evidenced by sporadic posting lately). Perhaps I want to completely immerse myself in the wine of Northern California...

...or, an In-N-Out Burger hankering festered to such strength that I hopped on a plane in the name of "Animal Style".

It'd be pretty embarrassing to admit that...



...crap, did I just hit 'publish'??! Dammit. Anyway, hope to keep everyone updated on some cool stuff on the FB page. Food porn and whatnot.