Wednesday, September 26, 2007

A Wedding Ethnography - The meaning and use of Champagne

Weddings are perfect venues for both sampling various wines and champagnes and for observing social, cultural and familial practices - two of my favorite hobbies. Fletcher and I split up this weekend and went to two different weddings. He was in Maine while I made the trip to Vermont to attend a wedding as the date of a very good friend. She was kind enough to let me take part in what can often become a very intimate and revealing family event.

Needless to say the time I spent with her family was really enjoyable and the insight into wedding decisions and preparations reminded me of one of the most common themes in life (and wine) - almost everything is subjective. The bride and groom lived out their vision of their perfect wedding - pies instead of a cake, potluck instead of a caterer, books as center pieces instead of flowers. Their wedding decisions were reflections of their personal styles, tastes and values. In short, there is no one right way of doing a wedding; it is all a matter of what suits the bride and groom. Similarly there is no one right way to select, drink and enjoy a wine; it is all a matter of what suits the consumer.

One very prevalent and I suspect enduring element of most weddings, no matter how traditional or unconventional the wedding, is the Champagne toast. When I think about Champagne I think about two occasions: New Years and weddings. Champagne at New Years usually comes in a plastic flute and is often gulped down in between the 10 second count down and the stroke-of-midnight hoopla. Wedding Champagne on the other hand has a more reverent place in the celebration. We clink and sip our way through various toasts in honor of the newlywed couple. We drink to happiness and everlasting love. While the toasts are not nearly as sacred as the ceremony and the exchanging of the vows, they do usually play a significant role in the celebration.

So what about the bubbly itself? What does the kind of Champagne served at the wedding say about the bride and groom and their future marraige? Donald and Melania served Magnums of Cristal to their guests. Dottie and John's Champagne of choice was Tattinger. The bride and groom this weekend decided to serve Banrock Station Sparkling Chardonnay (Australia) for their "Champagne." The bottles were chilled in a large 300 gallon stock tank (translation: the neighbor's steel tub normally used to serve their sheep drinking water).

I hope that you will agree with me in believing that there is not necessarily a positive correlation between the quality of the champagne used and the quality of the marriage.

Cheers-Salud-Skaal (click to learn salutations in other languages)

Tasting Notes:
Light, fresh uncomplicated and unpretentious sparkling wine. Great for a toast or two or three. Not something that distracts from the festivities, but something that would appeal to almost everyone in the crowd. Less yeasty, toasty and bitter than Champagne. A great fit for the non-traditional wedding, the casual dinner party or the after work cocktail. 9.99

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

How to Taste Wine

I recently attended my very first importer tasting event and it prompted me to think about how one goes about tasting wine. Wine tasting has been transformed from a simple action to an elaborate activity and even an art. There is a book entitled How to Taste: A guide to enjoying wine, written by Jancis Robinson. While I am sure that I will at some point read this book and will most likely find it at least somewhat useful, I am also amazed and even a little disturbed by the notion that one needs to read an entire book to learn how to consume a beverage.

I decided that before I read anymore instructions, guides, suggestions and rules about the "art" of tasting wine, I would share my own views on the subject. But as with almost everything that I have thought of or discovered about wine on my own - someone else has thought of or discovered it before me. And moreover, it is already easily google-able.

So when I thought to myself, "I know, I could write about tasting wine in terms of the 3 S's: See, Sniff, Sip," of course I found an abundant number of google hits for that phrase - and there were not only the 3 S's but the 5 S's of tasting wine: See, Swirl, Smell, Sip and Savor. Maybe I could put my own spin on things and bump the number up to the 7 S's of tasting wine with: See, Swirl, Sniff, Sip, Swish, Swallow, Savor. But this gets back to the whole question of whether or not drinking wine should be such an elaborate and/or rigid procedure.

When I began drinking wine, I certainly did not swirl the wine in my glass. I thought that was a rather pretentious display. My sniffing was merely incidental to the fact that my nose was in the glass as I took a sip. After taking a sip I moved on with my conversation or my meal. It was an unceremonious event.

As my interest in wine has grown I have picked up on the following pieces of advice:
  • Hold the glass against a white background in order to see the true color of the wine
  • Open your mouth when you inhale (it helps you detect smells better)
  • Swirl the liquid in the glass (it aerates the wine and releases the aromas)
  • Sip the wine and actually swish it in your mouth - allows it to touch every surface.
  • Sip your wine with a piece of food in your mouth (how else will you know if they go together?)
  • Keep the wine in your mouth for a few or even many seconds longer than you would when you sip of water - keep thinking about what you are tasting
  • After you swallow the wine, note the sensations and residual flavors in your mouth.
  • If you are at at a professional wine tasting you must spit out the wine that you try or risk being "that obnoxious person."
Well, as you can see there are many things that can be considered when tasting wine. But the most important thing to keep in mind is that there are no rules. If you enjoy the wine, then you're tasting "the right way."

Tasting Notes:
"Maximum" Pinot Noir, Labouré-Roi - 2005 (13.99)
First sip - good aroma, fruit, maybe red fruit. Nice smooth texture, easy going down, not very acidic. Back to the kitchen - mussels into the pot, onion chopped, tomatoes diced. Back for second sip - joined living room conversation. Back to the kitchen, spilled jar of capers, took mussels off the flame. Needed another sip. Tried wine with bread and aged goat cheese. Not bad, maybe even good....back to kitchen.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Legend of the Dom Perignon

It all started almost two years ago. Fletcher had been working in the city for less than 6 months, but long enough to receive a very generous Christmas gift from a colleague - a bottle of 1998 Dom Perignon paired with two crystal flutes. The day that he received the gift he decided to come straight to my apartment and had left the gift box on the floor of my bedroom. I of course noticed its presence immediately and with great excitement inquired about it. He explained both how he got it and what his intentions were with it. My response was, "WHAT!!? You brought this extraordinarily expensive and romantic bottle of champagne to my bedroom (with 2 glasses included) and you want to bring it to a large party and just pop it open so that 10 of us can each have a sip!?!?" Clearly I had a very different vision for this special bottle of bubbly. I ended up shedding some tears and Fletcher ended up deciding to let me save it for a "special occasion."

Fast forward to six months later: The gift box had not left my bedroom, but it was time for me to move and more importantly, for Fletcher and I to move in together. I carefully hand carried the precious Dom to the front seat of my Uhaul rental truck and made sure that it found a safe spot in our new place. Shortly after we moved in we decided that the Dom would be more comfortable in the cool confines of the refrigerator instead of our sweltering "living area." With it carefully tucked away in our fridge we were one step closer to actually enjoying the prized bottle.

Then came a flurry of action including the purchase of essential furniture (couch and tv), the upgrading of refrigerators (our original one was definitely past its prime), and my first poker night with friends. Also, our 3 year anniversary was rapidly approaching and we thought it was a fitting time to open THE DOM. Soon after I went to check on it and, and... where was it?! It wasn't in the fridge where I had been assuming it was all along. It wasn't in the living area. It wasn't anywhere in the 370 square feet of our apartment. Where could it be?

We came to three possible conclusions.
  • It was left in the old fridge and put out on the curb for some passer-by to encounter and enjoy.
  • It was thrown away by one of us - full heavy bottle and beautiful label and all.
  • It was stolen by the "friend of the friend" who made an impromptu appearance at the poker party.
Whatever the cause, it was gone. I mourned the loss for weeks... make that months. How could the most luxurious, decadent, expensive and personally relevant bottle of wine just disappear?
No other bottle of wine had caused me to feel such mixed emotions of excitement and disappointment. It was gone and that was that...

Until this summer, now it was year and a half after the original gift had been made and I was visiting my aunt and uncle in Los Angeles. I happened to noticed that they had a bottle of the sacred DOM in their beverage refrigerator and it inspired me to tell them the story of my lost bottle of Dom.

At the end of the visit they handed me a bag and inside was their bottle of Dom. I was overwhelmed - thrilled to once again be in possession of the precious liquid, excited to finally get to share it with Fletcher, and overwhelmed by their generous act.

The story does not end there. I was on the west coast and needed to get the Dom back to NYC. Unfortunately the new air travel rules meant that I could take no more than a 3oz sample in my carry-on. Therefore I would have to let the Dom out my sight. I would have to check it. My parents, eager to see this story have a happy ending, helped me to fashion a special, cushioned box for which to transport the champagne.

It made the trip safely and was immediately put in a safe hiding place in my closet. I made a pact with myself. The Dom would not get comfortable nestled between my winter sweaters. Lessoned Learned: Carpe Diem! Or as Dottie and John would say - let the wine make the occasion. I would not try to find the perfect date and setting to unveil this bottle. It needed to be drunk before anything else bad could happen to it.

The night finally came last Friday. I suggested that we eat in and said I would find an affordable menu on my trip to Trader Joes that day. I found a pre-seasoned pork loin. Fletcher requested a green bean casserole (yes, the Campbell Mushroom Soup variety). The meal was rounded out by a simple couscous with pine nuts and scallions. I brought out the Dom and the
saga came to an end.... a very sweet and bubbly end.

Tasting Notes:
Beautiful light golden color. The bubbles were very fine. There was a sweetness at the beginning and a delicious nuttiness - toasted nuts - at the end.
It was a very good champagne. Would I spend $120 on it? No. But was it delicious? Yes.

Friday, September 14, 2007

"Wineless in New York City"

I completed my task yesterday with considerable ease in large part because I brought along my friend Kellie, who needed to make her own wine purchase, and so I was able to live vicariously through her. We went to Astor Wine and Spirits for their Tasting Event with "Australian Phenom Grant Burge." I described this wine store in an earlier post, but I have had more thoughts on it since that original visit.

Upon my second visit to Astor Wine and Spirits I had a flash from the movie You've Got Mail. In the movie. Meg Ryan plays the owner of a small children's book store while her rival, Tom Hanks, is the owner of the big bad chain store, Fox Books. Suddenly I felt like I was in the Fox Books of New York Wine stores. It's big and bustling, and they even offer those discount cards that you can attach to your key chain like the Duane Reade or CVS cards. I have to wonder how this store has impacted the other smaller shops around the area. I for one appreciate some of the "chain-like" qualities, namely the affordability, selection and free tastings. On the other hand I really appreciate the intimacy of the "Mom and Pop" shop.

Anyway, let's get to the Phenom, Grant Burge and his wines. First of all the tasting was widely attended and the store provided REAL wine glasses. I was thoroughly impressed by this touch (though people like Gary - see yesterday's post, who wash out their glasses between pours with the wine itself (!) may not have been as impressed). Kellie and I got our glasses and approached the bar. We ended up getting to talk to several people including Mr. Phenom himself. He was actually quite approachable and I managed to come up with what I hoped was an appropriate question:
What is the life span of a vine and how does the grape/wine change as the grape ages? (Since his vines are very old)
His response: If the wines are tended to properly they can live for a very long time - over 100 years. The wine changes within the first 50 years of the vine's life, but not much after that. When the vine gets old, just like people, it loses a lot of its foliage and produces fewer grapes. The grapes are therefore exposed to the sun more and become more concentrated which give the wine blackish characteristics and intense flavor.

Old Man _Old Vine _____

Tasting Notes:
2005 Grant Burge "Barossa Vines" Shiraz, $11.99
My notes will be brief since I only had two small sips in a crowded store in which to evaluate the wine. Caramel/toffee nose, with smooth soft tannins. It was rich with a long finish and as Kellie said, good for winter time. It was not as spicy as other Shiraz that I've had. I would have bought it (it was on sale for $10) but then I would have failed my own test.

**Thanks for everyone who participated in my poll - a rather obvious question (4 out of 5 got it right and the 5th, I'm convinced was my mother trying to use reverse psychology). I wanted to get the Poll function up and running. Check out the new question!

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Mission Impossible?

I have decided to give myself an assignment: to go to a wine store an NOT leave with a bottle of wine. Perhaps this seems like an awfully easy task, but for me it's not. When I go to a wine shop it is pretty much guaranteed that I will leave with a bottle. Let me make some analogies:
  • A kid in a candy shop
  • A 20-something female Manhattan resident at a Bloomingdales sale
  • A coupon clipper at a grocery store on a Double-Day
  • A surfer in the water with an oncoming wave
  • A retired person (and half the general population) when the lotto reaches above $100 mil.
Inevitably the allowance will be spent, the new "going out" top will be purchased, the cereal, crackers or odd cleaning supply will be bought for a miraculous 49 cents, the wave will be ridden and the lotto ticket... lots and lots of lotto tickets will be distributed. So will I too follow in the same predictable pattern?

Here are the rules of the game:
  • I must bring my wallet
  • I must take part in the wine tasting promotion
  • I must talk to at least one sales person and get at least one recommendation
  • And most importantly, I must leave without making a purchase.
Will I succeed? Or is it... (dun dun dun) a Mission Impossible? - take my poll (see left side bar).
And in case this has not provided enough (or any) amusement. Check out Gary's video from the Wine Library.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Off the Beaten Path

This week has been all about venturing away from the tried and true and discovering the new: new classes, new people, new subway routes, new investigations into the wine world in cyberspace, new wine shops and most recently a new grape varietal.
Let me back up and explain where some of this newness came from. As a new blogger I decided it would be worth my while to look at other wine blogs. Typing "wine blog" into Google, I came across a website called Dr.Vino. It looked like a reputable site (Winner of the 2007 Wine Blogging Award) and I was particularly attracted to it because it gave maps of NYC wine shops and wine bars.

On the day that I happened upon this site, the blog entry was giving a reminder about "Wine Blogging Wednesday" I read on and discovered that Dr. Vino had given fellow wine bloggers an assignment: "pick a wine made from a grape variety that comes from a place it might call home. Taste it and write up a tasting note." Well, with my student hat securely in place I decided that I was going to do this assignment and it would be my first attempt at putting this blog into the wine blogging community (eek!).

Yesterday, with four hours of time in between classes and no "real" assignments on the horizon I decided to find a new wine shop to buy my indigenous bottle. I went to Dr. Vino's site and looked at his map of NYC Wine Shops. You have to scroll up on the map toward the top to what some Lower-Manhattan dwellers may consider outer-space to find the Columbia Campus area. There, a few blocks away from campus, I discovered Harlem Vintage. A few minutes later, after walking through a park and across several blvds I found myself in a lovely, warm and well organized shop. I was the only customer there and took my time looking through their selection. One unique feature of this shop is that they identified wines made by women and people of color with multi-colored stars.

After several passes through each section (organized by grape varietal) I found a potential candidate. It was an unassuming bottle with a sketch of a mustached, apron wearing man in mid-swing, closing a barrel of wine. The wines name? Craftsman. The grape? Kiralyleanyka (Kee-rye-lay-ohn-kha). The price? 9.99 New wine, new grape, very familiar price - things were looking good. I brought the bottle to the counter and asked the women if they had tried this wine. One told me that she had and thought it was a nice aromatic wine and a good value. I was sold. I bought the bottle and put it in my bag next to my new textbook (which was not nearly as good a value). It came to my evening class with me and then went straight into the fridge when I got home.

Tasting Notes:
2006 Craftsman Kiralyleanyka (Hungary). A very pale yellow color. It had a wonderful perfumed fragrance and gave the slightest prickly sensation on the tip of the tongue (from spice or effervescence, I couldn't tell). It was light and finished quickly, though it started to leave a sour lemon aftertaste a few sips in. I tasted green apples, lemons and another sweeter fruit like peaches. This wine reminded me of the fresh crispness of a Vinho Verde crossed with a dry and aromatic Riesling (others say it is like Viognier and Chenin Blanc - but I wanted to provide a new interpretation).
Fletcher commented that it was a good food wine; strong enough to cut through the garlic vinegarette and boiled (read:stinky) egg that I had put on my salad tonight. He recommends having it with fish (I think it's a bit too sweet for fish) and cheese. I would put it with cheese or spicy Asian noodles.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Meet my (imaginary) friends Dottie and John

One morning, almost a year ago, the Wall Street Journal began appearing at my front door. I hadn't subscribed to the paper and didn't know anyone who would have sent it to me as a gift. Yet, everyday there it was with my name on it. Fletcher began to take the paper on his way to work and I didn't think much more about it until the day I discovered the Friday "Weekend Journal" section. Inside this section I found a column entitled Tastings, written by Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher. I can't remember the theme of that first article, but I do remember that it was accessible, friendly and informational. I was instantly hooked.

The next week I waited eagerly for Friday to roll around; not for the entry way into the weekend but for the paper. I gave Fletcher specific instructions to leave the paper for me on Fridays and he obliged. Week after week I read about wine; Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadets, Italian Whites, Roses, wineries and New York wines. After the first few Fridays I even sent out a test email. The authors had said that readers interested in seeing their article on Viognier should send an email request. I sent out a very tentative, short two line email requesting both the article and any recommendations that they had for affordable viogniers. I got the following email in return:

Dear Lauren,

Thank you for your note. Here is the article about Viognier. Enjoy!


Dottie and John

I was happy to get a response and didn't care that they hadn't mentioned anything specific about affordable viogniers. They also mentioned their book, I decided to go out and find their book. I ended up purchasing their book, The Wall Street Journal Guide to Wine. The chapters are organized by grape variety and are ended with a short wine essay tangent. The book is personal, funny, totally engaging and absolutely nothing like a dry textbook. Again I was hooked. Now not only did I want to read about the wine, I also wanted to read about Dottie and John. I felt as though I could relate to them. They helped me learn about wine through their personal anecdotes.

After finishing a second book, Love by the Glass, I found myself incorporating Dottie and John into my daily conversations. I would say, "Dottie and John think that wine should make the occassion and that we shouldn't just save wine for special occasions." The next time I went out to eat, I leaned over the table and quietly said, "Dottie and John said that often the cheapest wine on the menu is the best deal, while the second cheapest isn't very good at all." Later I commented that, "Dottie and I both like rare meat, organ meat and sushi... I think we have the same adventurous taste in food." Pretty soon I was mentioning Dottie and John so often that my dad said I reminded him of a little kid who referenced his/her imaginary friends. I even found a way to link myself with them in only three degrees of separation - college dorm-mate - her father (quoted in their book) - Dottie and John.

Dottie and John went on vacation this summer, and I went four weeks without their Friday Column. This Friday they came back. They wrote an article on American Pinot Noirs. I was tempted to run out and buy one of their recommendations, but I am trying to be frugal these days and I did already have a Pinot from Chile in the apartment. So these tasting notes are in honor of the return of the Tastings Column and my friends Dottie and John.

Tasting Notes:
2005 Solario Reserve Pinot Noir (Chile). Immediately I noticed an orange tinge to the garnet colored liquid. The smell reminded me of christmas spices - the combination of cloves, ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon that I have used in baking. I also got a hint of christmas tree (or was I just reminiscing about all things christmas?) Then I got a sharp whiff of cat pee. The first sip was dry, alcoholic and spicy. A few sips further in I did start to get the ripe fruits but I couldn't distinguish a particular fruit flavor. I have stuck with this wine for three nights and it hasn't gotten any better. It is drinkable and I will finish it but it hasn't convinced me any further about the merits of Pinot Noir. I have found very few that I have really enjoyed - and only one that was less than $10. If you find one let me know.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Ode to the Apparatus

A few days I caught the tail end of Napa Style on the "Fine Living Channel." Michael Chiarello was interviewing Bob Trinchero, who is credited with developing the original White Zinfandel in the 1970's at Sutter Home Winery. He was originally just trying to make a better version of the Winery's red Zinfandel but ended up with a pink concoction. White Zinfandels, and most other roses, are made from red skinned grapes. The skin is left in the fermentation tanks for only a small amount of time (usually only a few hours) so that only a little bit of the color from the skin seeps into the juice. The original White Zinfandel was actually quite dry, but was made sweeter to please the American palate.
Michael Chiarello and Bob Trinchero talked about how the Sutter Home White Zinfandel made wine accessible to mainstream America. It bridged the gap between soda pop and the bone dry wines of the Old World. Mr. Trinchero commented on the "intimidation factor" of wine. He made the point that wine is one of the only beverages requiring the consumer to actually go out and purchase a tool in order to open. Most beverages can be opened with a simple twist, pop or poke of a straw - not a very complicated or intimidating feat (let's not go into beer bottles or the new screw cap wine top for now).
Yet opening a bottle of wine can be quite a complex task. I've opened many bottles but on occasion I still find myself with the bottle between my knees and a red face from wrestling with the cork. I've also broken the cork in half, chipped the glass lip of the bottle and almost been brought to tears of frustration.
When I moved into my current apartment and realized that I did not have a single drawer for utensils in my "kitchen," I decided to economize and buy the smallest wine opener I could find. I settled on the simple "waiter" wine opener. It served two purposes: space saver and fine dining server practice (an indispensable skill in the city). I have come to appreciate this tool and its simplicity. However, I will admit that I do have a very nice Rabbit Corkscrew waiting for when I upgrade to at least that 1 drawer apartment.

If you would like to read the full article on the creation of White Zinfandel click here.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

My Glass is Half Empty

Today I registered for classes. It was an all together dreadful experience. Openly acknowledged to be a flawed system by the registrar herself, it was far worse than I could have ever have imagined.
This morning 1200 students gathered in a large auditorium to listen to yet another welcome speech. The air in the auditorium was thick with anticipation and nervous sweat. If there was a machine that was able to mute to speaker's voice and tune into everyone's internal monologue it would have picked up the 1200 voices chanting the same message - "Are we EVER going to get to register?"
When the time finally came for the faculty to give out the pin numbers that would enable us to register online, by phone or in person, the entire school erupted into chaos. The scene was a frenzy of laptops, cell phones and hallway runners. This was soon followed with error messages, busy signals and long, long lines. Three hours later I left with only three out of the four of my courses and lots of questions and concerns. I am about to study "Organization and Leadership" and I just experienced one of the most DISorganized experiences of my life! What could I really expect out of this program?

So, I came home and opened a bottle of 2005 Milziade Grechetto Colli Martani (Italy).
As excited as I was to try this new grape varietal, I couldn't shake this feeling of skepticism and doubt. I looked at the printout given to me from the store (Astor Wine and Spirits - they give you a list of the wines you buy upon request). It said, "An Umbrian white wine full of character made from the Grechetto grape. Dry, full of lemon citrus fruit character and white flowers. Beautiful minerals on the finish with firm fresh acidity." It sounded delicious, but would the wine really exhibit such delectable characteristics? I poured a shallow glass and plopped down on the couch.

Tasting Notes:
Before taking a sip I smelled ripe apples and pears. I smelled something sweet, like a sweet liqueur. I took a small taste - it wasn't sweet at all! It didn't taste anything like apples or pears. In fact it was quite dry, citric and had a distinct mineral taste. When I say "mineral taste" I think of two things - a mix of what you smell when you spray hot gravel with a hose and what you taste on a fork that gives off a metallic zing on your tongue. I took several more sips and didn't taste anything different.
Overall, I appreciate that this wine could be a conversation piece. It is an rare grape variety. Its smell fools the senses. It is "complex" and enjoyable. Let's see what others have to say about it...

I turned to the internet and found the following review from the Wine Library website:
"Classic golden yellow color. Nose of white asian spices, fino sherry, herbs, almonds, and cheese. In the mouth the wine shows flavors of kiwi fruit, pear skin, stones, and wild, white mushrooms. Well structured and long. Charmingly rustic and idiosyncratic. 100% Grechetto." 7.99 (reg. 9.99)
And here was my internal monologue:
"Really? Reeeeally? WHITE!?! asian spices? What are white asian spices? I'm afraid to google, it sounds like a search
query that would result in many things not food related. Next.
Okay, sherry - I get that. It's the sweet liqueur I thought I tasted. Herbs? No wait, herbs is not as far out there as cheese. CHEESE? I don't taste anything even close to cheese? What kind of cheese have you been eating? Next!
Well at least Kiwi fruit is harmless - it's not a particularly overpowering flavor. You can get away with adding Kiwi fruit in the description of many wines. Next.
Pear... got that, but pear skins? I am going to go buy a pear and dissect it in my kitchen, because I definitely don't know the difference between pear skin and pear flesh. Next
Finally, wild white mushrooms. Are we trying to make a Haiku here? I applaud the person that can pinpoint the mushroom taste in a wine tha
t is both wild and white.

So there you have it. I do love a good wine description. But sometimes, more often than not, when I read a wine review I get that scrunched up brow look and I just have a hard time believing that anyone's palate can really pick out all those scents and flavors.
I'm reading a book right now called The Accidental Connoisseur, by Lawrence Osborne. I think his words are influencing me because he is also a pessimistic wine taster. But who knows, maybe one day I will reach wine enlightenment and I too will be able to taste the sweet earthiness of white wild mushrooms.