Wednesday, March 26, 2008

From Fois Gras to Frozen Dinners

I love wine shops. For the most part I love the idea of finding a hidden gem on some high shelf that no one has remembered to sticker with a new "upgraded" price tag. Or I love stumbling upon a bargain wine (aka the "wine of the month") brought in by suppliers, wanting to get rid of their overstock of old vintages, that actually prove to be a decent quaff. But I also love wine shops for their clever, mouthwatering descriptions that entice us into thinking that if we buy that bottle of wine, aromas of braised beef short ribs, standing rib roasts or wild mushroom risottos will soon be wafting through our kitchens. Yes, those lush adjective-laden wine descriptions and deliriously decedent wine pairing have me drooling every time. Could anything be better than a hearty, spicy Cote-du-Rhone and a seared steak? A powerful Argentinian Malbec with grilled lamb chops! Or how about a spritzy Albarino with a saffron seafood risotto... oh wait, I'm allergic to crustaceans and I watched my "madre" make paella when I studied abroad in Spain. Truly authentic paella requires a special large pan and an open flame, neither of which can be arranged in my small kitchenette.
So maybe I spend more time reading about these magnificent pairings than I do actually concocting them. The truth is, my Cote-du-Rhones and Albarino's usually accompany a far more practical menu. Albarino's citrus and green apple acidity and light body go quite well with Trader Joe's chicken gyoza. The Cote-du-Rhone makes a fine match with my anything-from-the-fridge quesadilla. And I've found that most Italian whites pair nicely with my 5 minutes and to the table salads. As for that big powerful Malbec, I save it for my ultimate quick fix meal - a Santa Fe Rice and Beans Lean Cuisine. Yep, I eat frozen dinners (but only when they are on sale and only when I am just too tired to imagine anything other than a quick stop at my microwave before hitting the couch).
So, should wine shops pair down their pairings? Should they formulate descriptions to match what we actually eat 6 out of 7 days a week? Or should they press on with their 24.99/lb suggestions? Well my feeling is that it's kind of like window shopping. If I can't have the caviar and Champagne, the Fois Gras and Y'Quem, then at least I can imagine it!

Tasting Notes:
2006 Castineira , Rias Baixas. This Spanish white wine is becoming increasingly trendy, while still being a good value. It's a great wine to have on hand because it can be sipped on its own or paired with a variety of "regular" food - from salads, fish, chicken, Chinese takeout and maybe even an everything quesadilla. This one was particularly lemony. Albarino in general has good acidity and great floral components. $7.99

Monday, March 3, 2008

Birthday Wine: A preview of the year to come?

Last year, when I turned 25, I celebrated by removing my undergraduate adornment (a shiny blue rhinestone belly-ring) and pledging to take my vitamins every day. Yesterday I turned 26 and I have yet to come up with a fitting birthday-resolution. Finding an inspiring, challenging and of course well paying job would be a good one to have, but it seems a little drastic to go from taking vitamins one year to acquiring the perfect career in the next. I will continue to ponder the new goal for my 26th year, but for now I will simply share the experience of my birthday wine:

Tasting Notes:
2002 E. Giboulot, Le Combe d'Eve, Cote du Beaune, France. What does this wine say about the new 26 year-old me? Well, I can hardly pronounce it, and I certainly can't afford it (especially for the $15 dollars a glass that it was being offered for at the restaurant where I celebrated my birthday. Lucky for me it was a gift from the very generous sommelier). But I definitely enjoyed it. And I do have to say that after just over 6 months of regular wine exposure I was able to have a greater understanding and appreciation of it.

Imagine the smell of honey and apple cider, infused with sweet peas or some other wildflowers. This wine had a rich weight to it in my mouth but not a bit of heaviness or syrupy sweetness that you might a wine smelling of honey would have. It had a fabulous crisp finish from good acidity, yet the flavor of the honeyed wine lasted on my tongue long after it had been swallowed. This Burgundy (Chardonnay) paired perfectly with my scallops.

It is important to note that this wine was made with some serious tender-loving care. Giboulot adheres to biodynamic practices - an organic-plus method of viticulture, which follows the astrological rhythms and tries to keep the life forces of the earth in harmony. Though there is not much on the internet about Giboulot, I did find this great site worth visiting.

Can I live up to this decadent wine in the year to come? We shall see!

Monday, February 18, 2008

Strange Sightings: The Dog at the Movies and the Bubbles in My Red Wine

We (humans) love predictability. Psychologists explain this preference in terms of schemata and stereotypes. We create mental short cuts and categories for ourselves so that we can act and respond quickly and efficiently...for our survival. When I go to the grocery store I expect to see the lettuce and the cucumbers to be in the same area. I expect this aisle to be labeled "produce." When I go out to dinner I expect that a waiter will come and offer water before taking my order. When I go to class I assume that there will be a place for me to sit and I expect that I will take notes.
When something occurs that disrupts our pre-conceived notions, what happens? We try to make sense of what we have encountered. We try to make it fit into our "categories." But if it doesn't, we can either disregard it, or learn to accept it.
Recently I went to the movies. Everything was very familiar. The theater was dim and screen was playing the pre-preview trivia. People were trying to find the best seats that were neither directly next to nor directly behind any of other patrons. Others had blocked off their territory with coats and bags. Yep, everything was very normal... very much in line with my movie theater schema. Then, all of a sudden I noticed the silhouette of a set of pointy ears. There, two rows ahead of me, was a little dog dressed in a fur lined parka, sitting contently on its owners lap. A DOG in the THEATER? I've lived in New York long enough to know that dogs are essentially the most fashionable accessory and have been accepted in more and more locations around the city. But the movie theater? This I had not seen. The dog must have been smuggled under a coat, or carried inside a bag. At first I was appalled, but then after I calmed down, I realized that this could be a preview of what's to come. What's next? Dog treats at the concession stand?
There are very good things about creating categories, making generalizations and using a schema to navigate the world. But when things surprise us, or even shock us, it is our ability to re-frame and be adaptable to change that ultimately helps us succeed and not just survive.
So now that I've told you my opinion on the matter, you should go out and buy yourself a bottle of Lambrusco. What does Lambrusco have to do with dogs in movie theaters? Well, you will most likely have a very disarming experience, like the one I had with the dog. You may have had many glasses of Champagne, Cava or Prosecco over the years, but have you had sparkling red wine?
I recently brought home a bottle of Lambrusco. I had had it a couple of times before, and both times it was so foreign that I didn't know what to make of it. At first I thought it was too much like grape juice - it wasn't as serious as a red wine "should" be. But on my most recent exploration, I decided that Lambrusco can be a great addition to your wine "cellar." It still has crisp refreshing qualities that you find in white sparkling wines, but it has a totally different profile. It's juicy, it has the slightest bit of tannins and great acidity. I tried it with Proscuitto and it was excellent. I tried it with peanuts (alla PB&J) and again it was good. I tried it with a quesadilla and it was still quite satisfying.
The moral of the story: try something new - bring home a bottle of Lambrusco... and if you have a little dog that needs constant love and attention, perhaps you should pick up a DVD while you are out as well.

Tasting Notes:
Medici Ermete
Reggiano Assolo 2006 is from Emilia-Romagna, Italy. Lambrusco is the name of a grape as well as a wine, made primarily from the grape. There are 5 DOC's that produce Lambrusco. It does not have to be sparkling and is also made as a rose or white. But the best rated ones these days are "frizzante." This Lambrusco has a beautiful purple froth, and a deep red-purple color. It is dry, but does impart a slight sweet note. I immediately thought about Welch's grape juice... but it's better, more complex isn't cloying. $11.99

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

How do you know when your wine is corked?

A good question and one that I can't answer. Actually that's not entirely true. I can tell you the symptoms of a corked wine - the "telltale" wet basement, moldy, dirty sock smell that everyone writes about to describe wine gone "bad." I can even tell you that TCA (2,4,6-Trichloroanisole) is the the culprit that is corrupting your bad bottle of wine. TCA, which can be passed to the wine from the cork or the barrel, can also show up in water and tea. There are various estimates about the percentage of wine that is actually corked. Those in the cork producing industry have produced numbers as low as 1.7% of all bottles, while other wine experts say the percentage can range anywhere from 5-10%. There's obviously no clear answer here, but because I'm a "worst case scenario" type of person, let's say that potentially 1 in 10 bottles actually contains the dreaded TCA.
So how many bottles of wine have you consumed in your life? Or in the past year. Can you imagine that potentially 1 in 10 bottles of wine that you have ever consumed have actually been corked? If you are like me, you have probably not sent many (or even any) wines back at a restaurant. And if you are as frugal as I am, you probably haven't dumped much down the kitchen sink either.
There have been many times when I have suspected the presence of the TCA culprit. The wine has had an odd odor. "I smell our redwood deck after the rain." "I smell chlorine and wet concrete." I would qualify both of these odors as falling into the "damp and musty" category. But then I sniff and sniff and convince myself that these slightly off qualities actually add to the complexity of wine. Perhaps my desire for the wine to be good actually changes what I taste in the wine. Perhaps this phenomenon qualifies as a self-fulfilling prophecy - I paid for this wine, it must be good. Or, this wine was given to me as a gift, it MUST be good. And therefore mold becomes "earth," wet basement becomes "slate" and dirty socks become "brett."
I do look forward to the day that I can proudly declare, "this wine is corked!" But until I can, I guess I'll just be thankful for those other 9 bottles.

Tasting Notes:
Unbeknownst to us, Joe Bastianich was seated at the bar in front of our table at Babbo. His wine, Bastianich Vespa Bianco, a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Picolit, was paired with Mario Batali's Lamb's Brain Francobolli (postage stamp shaped ravioli). The wine was rich and creamy. It had a delicious butterscotch finish. It was clearly NOT corked. The wine was complemented by the sage brown butter sauce that flavored the delicate pasta.

Monday, February 4, 2008

How many grapes does it take to make a bottle of your favorite wine?

This weekend Fletcher and I decided to make a meal that would pair well with the wine I had given him for his birthday. This wine happens to be the most expensive wine that I have ever purchased. Can you guess how much I paid? Well regardless of the actual price (you can cheat and scroll to the bottom if you're really dying to know), imagine the most expensive wine you have ever purchased or would purchase. For some of you that price may be a multiple of what I paid, for others, a fraction. What would you want to pair with that wine? We decided on something luxurious. Filet Mignon.

We had debated going to a specialty butcher shop, but we ended up at Citeralla, a gourmet grocery store where you can get a myriad of delicacies, but practically nothing that comes in a can, a box or anything usually found in the "frozen entree" section. Citeralla gave us two choices for our filets. We opted to get one piece of the very expensive grass fed Australian filet and another piece of the exorbitantly priced dry aged domestic filet. We took the little packages of meat home, gave them a good salt and pepper rub and then seared them on our special cast-iron grill pan. The room (otherwise known as our entire apartment) filled with smoke and delicious meat aromas. And we were once again reminded that we don't have a smoke alarm (don't worry Mom and Dad, I'm working on it this week).

The meat was cooked perfectly . The Australian filet was delicious, but the aged filet was the star. As we drank our magnificent wine and ate our tender morsels of meat I couldn't help but think about the fact that not only was I eating delicious filet mignon for dinner, but that I actually had two cows from two different continents on the same plate. This got me to think about how out of touch I am (we are) with where our food comes from and how it gets to us. Did you know that your Avocado could be from California, Mexico, the Dominican Republic or New Zealand?

Then I started to think about the wine in my glass. I knew it was from Italy - Valpolicella in fact. I knew that the grapes that made the wine were Corvina. I knew that the grapes were picked in 2002. I could infer the basic wine making techniques that were used to create this delicious juice, but I didn't really know what it took to make this fine wine.

It turns out that it takes between 600 and 800 grapes to make a bottle of wine. There are about 75 grapes to a cluster and a single grapevine can produce up to 40 clusters. Therefore, a single grape vine can potentially generate the equivalent of 5 bottles of wine.

So back to the very special wine... made from 9 or 10 clusters of very special grapes.
Tasting Notes:

2002 Marion Valpolicella Superiore. There was a clarity and silky lightness to the wine that made the intensity of the flavors quite surprising. At first I got a subtle hint of tar, but it faded away quickly into dark dried fruit. The sweetness of the fruit was not masked by the usual burn of alcohol. 800 grapes and 39.99 worth of deliciousness.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The "No Thank You Portion" - Giving food and wine a second, third and fourth try.

My former co-teacher once told our students about a rule that her family had about food. She said that when she was growing up, her parents made sure that their three daughters never said no to new or disliked food by instigating the "no thank you portion" rule. In her family, if you thought you weren't going to like the food being served you would still get a no thank you portion; just enough on your plate to give that undesirable item a try. This rule helped the girls expand their palates but also didn't let the prepared food go to waste on an abandoned plate.

My family had a similar policy, though it was never stated as an explicit rule. I was expected to give new food a chance, but I was never forced to eat anything I didn't like. In fact, I felt bad for my friends who had the "clean your plate" rule enforced in their families because as my parents explained it to me, food should never used as a punishment and children should be given the opportunity to learn when they are full. Portion control has clearly become an issue for a large percentage of American children.

My co-teacher and I were lucky that we had parents who tried to strike a balance between fostering open-mindedness and gratitude with autonomy and choice. As a result, I have a positive and healthy view of food and I will try anything (that is eaten by other people) at least once. Both my co-teacher and I tried to bring this attitude into the classroom. Over the three years that I was teaching I challenged my students to be adventurous and even daring eaters. I even went as far as scavenging through the Chinatown markets for packaged jellyfish. The kids responded with, "Chewy!" "It tastes like a rubber-band." "Yum, can I have some more?" In my experience, children are often more open minded than we give them credit for; its the adults who are harder to coax into being adventurous.

Adults can be just as picky about their wine as they are about their food. Too often I have hear, "I only drink white." "I only like full bodied red." "I hate buttery Chardonnay!" "I love California wine." "I prefer only old world wine." People get set in their wine drinking ways and go for the tried and true on every visit to the wine store. I do understand why people get in a wine-buying rut. After all, whether its $3 or $300 (gasp!), a bottle of wine is an investment. We want to know that we are going to be satisfied by what we have bought. But the problem with buying the same wine, whether its the same brand, same region or same grape varietal, is that you miss out on the adventure of trying a new wine on many occasions.

Unlike the "no thank you portion" a bottle of wine should be given, at least 4 chances:
1.Your first sips and first impression. Don't like it? Did you just brush your teeth? Just pull the bottle out of the fridge?
2.Give the wine a second chance in an hour. The air has mixed with the wine. The wine has changed temperatures and your tongue has had a chance to acclimate to the wine drinking conditions. Still don't like it?
3. Try it with food. Some wine is just meant to be drunk with food. It won't ever taste great without the fat, acid, flavor and texture that food adds. Still not a fan?
4. Leave the wine (cork in) overnight on your counter. Let it "relax" and give it time to "open up." No, I'm not talking about your recent date, I'm still talking about that questionable wine. Give your wine another chance on the second night. If you still don't like it, give yourself permission to let go of that bottle. But don't give up on the wine completely. You never know... After all you like asparagus and onions now don't you?

Tasting Notes:
Domaine Bernard Moreau
Chassagne Montrachet Vieilles Vignes Rouge 2004
A place known for its incredible whites - how would this red hold up? First sip - not good. Second sip - still not good. Fletcher wouldn't drink it either. The second day - really really bad vinegar finish. I tried another bottle - not quite as bad. This wine is very high in acid, very low in fruit. In other words it was tart and also had a woody component. It was interesting, and did cut through the fat of our steak sandwiches. I think I'll have to give it another try... next year.