Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Reminder: Wine Blogging Wednesday

Have you unearthed a bottle with a pretty label yet? You know, for Wine Blogging Wednesday 16?

No? Don't worry. You've still got a week. Find a bottle with a pretty label, open it, taste it, write about it on December 7, send me a link to your post (or send me your write-up and photos if you don't have a blog). Tell us what you thought of the wine; tell us what you thought of the label. A few days later, I'll share everyone's finds.

A couple of my readers suggested some enhancements for this round. For those of you who are Flickr users, you can post photos of all those gorgeous labels in the Wine Blogging Wednesday 16 Flickr pool (thanks Joe & Lori).

Flickr users and regular bloggers alike should add a wbw16 tag to your photos and your post, if you can (thanks Sam).

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Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Today, I Speak Mandarin

Photo by Melissa Schneider.
I ate tons of mandarins while I was growing up. My family had an orange farm with a mandarin tree, and I would eat myself sick on the fruits as soon as they appeared. I didn't manage to work that into the first-person plural voice of my SFist post about mandarins, but I did sneak in a few pop culture references.

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Sunday, November 27, 2005

The OWF "Eat 'Til You Drop" Tour: Long Island Part 2

After Melissa and I toured Long Island's North Fork with Lenn, both he and our host Louisa suggested we spend our second day on the South Fork.

Perry Weiss and Ros Baiz,
vineyard managers for Old Field Vineyard
Photo by Melissa Schneider.

Old Field Vineyard
"But first," Louisa told us, "you have to visit Old Field Vineyard. I'll call ahead." She and the Baiz's go way back: The year after she and Alex planted vines, Chris Baiz used clippings from their vineyard to start his own.

Perry Weiss, Chris and Ros's friendly daughter who manages the tasting room and helps manage the waterfront vineyard with her mom, greeted us when we arrived and introduced ourselves. She told us how they fared through the rains: not well. Their normal harvest is around two tons per acre, but she and her mom were anticipating half that yield, though the grapes that survived promise good wine. Ros and a team were harvesting as we visited, salvaging what they could and sending the grapes to Eric Frye at Lenz, who makes the Old Field wines at that facility.

We tasted through their current releases, and I found an enticing earthiness alongside the fruit in the red wines. I appreciated the reined-in tannins, and I imagine the wines would pair with a range of foods. My personal favorite was the 2002 Cabernet Franc, a fountain of mushrooms and earthiness with a dollop of fruit that enlivens the mouth with a robust acidity and low tannins.

We reluctantly said our farewells, bundled into our beacon of a bright yellow rental, and headed east to Greenport, the launch point for the car ferries that take you to Sag Harbor and the Hamptons.

Channing Daughters
The Hamptons have a mythic quality for me, even though I've lived in California for close to thirty years. We envisioned celebrities and mansions scattered throughout the many towns that end in "-hampton," the source of the region's nickname. In reality, the houses we saw looked like normal country houses and the people we saw looked like normal people. But we weren't trying too hard: We had wineries to visit.

Chris Tracy,
wine maker for Channing Daughters
Photo by Melissa Schneider.

The staff at Channing Daughters in Bridgehampton must have been curious about us. Lenn called ahead to tell them we were coming, and so did Louisa. When we introduced ourselves, they treated us like long-lost family. Larry Perrine, the president and CEO, came out to talk to us about the winery, and Chris Tracy, the wine maker, popped in when the rush of incoming grapes stopped for a moment. Chris has lived in Oakland, and we quickly swapped favorite spots. I think we owe him a half-baked Zachary's pizza on our next visit.

It didn't take long to realize why Channing Daughter's wines sell out so quickly. The wines have a vibrant flavor and a casual friendliness. "I concentrate on suppleness and finesse," says Tracy, and it shows in the wine. The tannins are held in check, and the alcohol is low. The wines have a pleasant, but not searing, acidity. When they poured us the "Pinot Envy," which smells of Maraschino cherries, I was shocked: I've seen California rosés that are darker. "You don't keep the juice on the skins very long, do you?" I asked. Perrine just smiled. The more time a wine spends in contact with the color-carrying grape peels, the more color it gets. But the color comes with tannins, which need higher, and less food-friendly, alcohol levels to counterbalance them and give the suppleness Tracy seeks. It's a curious vinification strategy when American critics favor robust and alcohol-heavy wines.

The winery's also chosen an unusual set of grapes to ferment. They pour the Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc you'll find throughout the East End, but we also tasted their Tocai Friuliano and Blaufranckish. These aren't popular varieties in the United States, but the Channing Daughters bottlings make that seem like a shortcoming in American buying habits.

Allison Dubin, the general manager, showed us around the winery, describing the operation in her fast-paced speech. It's astonishingly small, given the volume and variety of wine they produce. She started to lead us to the sculpture garden that owner Walter Channing has filled with his works, but we had to cut our visit short, as the hour was getting late.

Wölffer Estate
We didn't have anyone call ahead for us when we visited Wölffer. We had met Roman Roth, the wine maker, at Shinn the previous day, and we figured we'd just ask for him when we showed up at the Napa-esque winery, an Italian villa grafted onto the South Fork.

But Roman was in New York City for the Wine Spectator Wine Experience. So we decided to be anonymous visitors so that we could get back to the North Fork in time for dinner.

What a difference in treatment! We had to fight to get any attention from the tasting room staff, who barely remembered we were there, rarely poured us new tastes without us prompting them, and seemed more interested in talking about parties and makeup than wine.

But Wölffer has earned its prestige. The wines were crafted well, and I particularly liked the 2001 Estate Selection Merlot, with its aromas of blackberries and nectarines, good mouthfeel, and low tannins.

We sped home to Louisa's house, where she was cooking dinner for us, Lenn and Nena, and her son Zander and his fiancée. We had a great time visiting the area and getting to know the wineries, but we were excited to get to Manhattan. Come back soon to read about The Ultimate Lavish Dinner, a reunion of co-workers three thousand miles from where we met.

Channing Daughter Wines
Photo by Melissa Schneider.

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Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Kibbles and Bits

Something to keep an ear out for: There's a good chance I'll be one of the featured food bloggers on Wednesday's Radio Open Source. We're going to be chatting about Thanksgiving dinner. I'm wary about telling you all. The last time they asked me to be on the show, they put the topic on ice, but a Thanksgiving discussion on Wednesday night seems fairly likely. Here's their description. If you can't listen to it live, they podcast their shows and I'll put a link in "OWF in the News" as soon as one's available. That will probably be long past the point of relevance for this year's festivities.

UPDATE: The show featured Jim Leff of Chowhound, Dr. Biggles of Meathenge, Julie from Finger in Every Pie, me, and—as a caller—Christopher Kimball of Cook's Illustrated and America's Test Kitchen. You can listen to the full broadcast from their website.

Speaking of Thanksgiving, my latest post for SFist covers gravy and stuffing. Check it out, and let me know what you like for these two traditional sides.

Meanwhile, I'm fretting about my second turkey from Heritage Foods USA. I support the company's efforts (this is the fourth year I've ordered Heritage Turkeys), but things often seem to go amiss when my mom and I order from them. Usually, I order one size and get a smaller one. This year, they just forgot to ship the second bird, so it's (hopefully) coming FedEx overnight. You can imagine my nervousness. If I have to buy a bird that's not naturally juicy and flavorful, it will test my resolve to move away from brining.

UPDATE 11-23-05: The second bird arrived. Yay! It's bigger than I expected, but I'll just put it in the stove earlier.

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Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The OWF "Eat 'Til You Drop" Tour: Long Island Part 1

Photo by melissa nicole.

In 1973, Louisa Thomas Hargrave and her then-husband Alex thumbed their noses at naysaying wine experts and planted Vitis vinifera vines on the North Fork of Long Island's East End, a lobster claw of land that juts into the Atlantic. Most scientists thought they would fail: Native American V. labrusca flourishes in the area, but they believed vinifera, the foundation of Europe's wines, was too fragile for the cold environment.

Today, thirty-eight wineries are scattered over the East End, a fertile area with small slopes that seem flat to my Bay Area eyes. The Hargraves had found a microclimate that defied common wisdom. On the thin North Fork, home to most of Long Island's wineries, buckets of sunshine pour onto the fertile soil and the surrounding water moderates the temperature to protect fragile vines. In the Hamptons on the South Fork, the few wineries set among the summer homes of the rich and famous contend with the unmitigated chill of the Atlantic, which shortens the growing season by a few weeks. Zander Hargrave, Louisa's son, feels that Cabernet Franc is Long Island's glistening jewel, and many critics agree. Merlot from the area is also well regarded, but growers experiment with a large variety of grapes, albeit with mixed success.

I already knew something about the area because Lenn Thompson's Lenndevours is one of my daily reads. No one else provides such an in-depth look at these shoreline vineyards. But I had never tasted any of the wines. When Louisa, now the Director of Food, Wine, and Culture at Stony Brook University, invited me out to teach a class with Lenn (it got canceled; c'est la vie), Melissa and I spent a couple days exploring local wineries. Louisa graciously invited us to stay with her (I met her at the Wine Writers Symposium, and we hit it off), and Lenn offered to take a day off work to take us to some of his favorite spots.

It was a treat to meet Lenn after reading his site and corresponding with him for so long. Melissa was disappointed he didn't bring Ben, his new beagle. Nena, Lenn's wife, was disappointed she couldn't join us for the day, though she did join us the next evening for dinner.

Of course, with Lenn and Louisa acting as tour guides, we went to the best Long Island has to offer and got treated very well. It didn't make for a well-rounded perspective, but this was supposed to be a vacation and we didn't feel the need to waste time on lesser lights.

David Page from Shinn Estate
Photo by melissa nicole.

Shinn Estate Vineyards
It was an interesting time to visit. Most producers were in the middle of harvest, and they were trying to recover from a torrential nineteen inches of rain over eight days (Beau and Kori from Basic Juice, who visited the week before, battled blocked roads and unpleasant weather; we drove our glaring yellow rental under sunny skies). Though all the white grapes were in before the rain hit, some producers lost half of their unharvested red crop.

Not at Shinn Estate Vineyard. While we visited grape growers David Page and Barbara Shinn, another grower drove up in his truck. "Everyone's going to be coming by asking how we held onto our crop," said Barbara, a friendly, young-looking woman with deep brown hair and a slight Midwestern accent. She and David, a tall man with a graying ponytail, don't have an easy answer to the puzzle. Probably it was a mix of factors, but when they suggest that the lush ground cover in the vineyard might have absorbed excess water, it makes sense.

The vigorous cover crop is one idea David and Barbara take from the biodynamic movement, which involves a holistic, semi-mystical approach to vineyard management. They pick and choose the philosophies that make sense to them—Barbara has a strong background in ecology—but they're not zealous converts. David ruefully admitted that harvest happened on a full moon. "I swore I'd never do that," he said, referring to a practice many biodynamicists follow.

We wandered through the vines, surveying the grapes with David and Barbara. At one point Roman Roth, who makes the Shinn wines from his facility in the South Fork's Wolffer Estate, came by to look over the vines as well. The six of us talked about wine and food and when Roman left the rest of us retired to the tasting room to nibble on New York cheeses, sample the Shinn wines, and talk about David and Barbara's plans for the the winery.

What did the wines taste like? I can't really say. Melissa and I were recovering from colds, and my nose could barely register anything beyond earthy or fruity. We liked the aromas that fought their way to our beleagured olfactory nerves, and I'll write a better tasting note in the future. The taste components—acidity, tannins, and weight—were well balanced. In a blind taste test of Long Island Merlot described in the current Edible East End, a Shinn wine pushed ahead of its peers. We bought several bottles to try later, which Barbara shipped to us (along with, unexpectedly, our acquisitions from other wineries we visited, but that's a post for a different day).

Eric Frye of Lenz Winery
Photo by melissa nicole.

Lenz Winery
Eric Frye, the wine maker for Lenz Winery along with several others on the East End, reminds me of Bonny Doon's Randall Grahm. There are certain physical similarities—both are tall with barely contained ponytails—but the true kinship is in their attitude. Eric is opinionated and disdainful of many in the wine industry, and he doesn't care if you know it. When he heard about my label-celebrating Wine Blogging Wednesday theme, he practically threw me out on the spot. He's earned his attitude: Probably only Louisa predates him in Long Island's wine industry, and he seems to have made wine for everyone on the North Fork.

We caught him midway between incoming grape shipments; his overalls and rubber boots spoke to his busy workload. He led us through the winery and then through our wine tasting. He makes a number of sparkling wines, but his star seems to be the Gewurztraminer. Even our stuffed-up noses noticed the lush aromas erupting from the glass. When we later told people that we had bought a bottle, they all nodded sagely. "Good choice," or "That's the one to get" were common responses.

We liked the sparklers, though in our congested state I couldn't write much in the way of notes other than "pleasant" or "good acidity." He ended our tasting with a Cabernet Sauvignon, urging us to guess the grape before he told us what it was. He wanted us to compare it to California Cab, an exercise in futility. Here we battle raisined fruit and there it struggles to get ripe. Even Eric acknowledges that the variety has a tough time in the East End: Sometimes it doesn't come in until mid-November.

I wish I had been able to fully appreciate Lenz's wines. When a wine maker has such strong opinions, the wine is almost always interesting. Eric clearly feels a minimal need to cater to the masses. He makes a variety of Chardonnays that he hopes will wean people from the oaky, buttery Chardonnays that most Americans buy.

Bottles at Paumanok Vineyards
Photo by melissa nicole.

Paumanok Vineyards
Our final stop on the first day was Paumanok, around the corner from Louisa's house. We followed Lenn in our luminescent rental before he took off: He made some excuse about needing to sign papers for a house or some such. A likely story.

We didn't meet owners Ursula and Charles Massoud, as they were busy with winery matters. But we chatted up the tasting room manager quite a bit, who graduated us to "real wine glasses" once she found out who our friends were. The winery's whites didn't grab me, but I liked their 2001 Grand Vintage Merlot quite a bit.

The next day, we made our way down to the Hamptons. But you'll have to come back later for that.

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Beaujolais Nouveau

Tomorrow, the third Thursday of November, wine drinkers will celebrate or deride the release of Beaujolais Nouveau, simple wines meant to be drunk young, ideally from a carafe in a Parisian or Lyonnais bistro.

Beaujolais Nouveau has a place in the world, and if it gets people excited about wine, great. But Beaujolais Nouveau is not Beaujolais. They're made from the same grape. The same producers often make both kinds. But they're not the same. A good bottle of Beaujolais is food friendly with an inviting fruitiness and an interesting complexity. It seduces, not accosts.

This year, ask your wine merchant about Beaujolais-Villages. Or Beaujolais Cru. Or even regular Beaujolais. If you go to a good wine shop, the clerk's eyes will light up in glee and you'll get an earful and a good bottle of wine.

Want more? Call The Art of Eating and order a copy of issue 67 (Fall 2004). Ed Behr did a heartbreakingly fantastic, thirty-page article on the region. I'd be surprised if a more thoughtful profile of the region exists in any language. (Um, there's also a small, four-page article about Paso Robles wines in that issue).

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Tuesday, November 15, 2005

SFist: An Ace of Pears

Photo by melissa nicole.
Hey, look at that! This Tuesday thing feels like it happens every week.

Check out my pear post on SFist.

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Friday, November 11, 2005

Ideas in Food

I've been reading Ideas in Food ever since Alexander left a comment on my slow-roasted salmon post. It's written by two professional chefs (Alexander and Aki) in charge of the kitchen at a Colorado resort. The platings are mouth-watering temptations I could never achieve, but their site is more than pretty pictures. The two chefs use the site to share their philosophies and explore new taste combinations. Their posts often give me something to ruminate over (so to speak). Case in point: banana vinaigrette made with bacon grease and paired with scallops . The combination of flavors sounds odd at first, but with some thought it made sense to me. Now if I could just find an excuse to be in rural southern Colorado at some point...

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Thursday, November 10, 2005

Livermore Wine Article Online

I discovered that Edible East Bay has updated its site with content. One of the items on the site is my article about Livermore wine. Take a look. (I added the link to my "Professional Writing" section on the right as well).

But Bay Areans should find a copy of the print magazine for more great articles about the East Bay food community. I've spotted it at Market Hall (the wine shop had a bunch) but supposedly it's at Andronico's, the Kaiser farmer's markets, Whole Foods, the Pasta Shop on Fourth Street, and various other places I mentioned a while back. Let me know if you spot it.

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Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Ruby Tuesday - Pomegranates on SFist

Photo by melissa nicole.
My weekly column at SFist combines mythology and Bay Area food bloggers to (hopefully) inspire would-be pomegranate shoppers.

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Monday, November 07, 2005

Wine Blogging Wednesday 16: Judge a Bottle By Its Cover

We've all done it. We've stood in front of a wall of wine at the store and, unable to utter the incantation of producer and vintage and Parker/Laube pronouncements that will summon a magical bottle, we have chosen one solely for its pretty label.

Wineries know this. They invest money—serious money—in their label designs, both to entice an indecisive, one-time shopper and to establish the all-important Brand. If no one buys your wine, it doesn't matter how good it is. There's a whole book showcasing pretty labels: Icon: Art of the Wine Label.

Fatemeh's written her roundup for Wine Blogging Wednesday 15, the Internet-wide tasting event started by Lenn Thompson. And with that, the host's mantle moves a few blocks up the street to my home. For WBW 16, I've chosen a distinctly anti-Derrick theme: Judge a Bottle By Its Cover.

Go to some store that sells wine, or root around in your cellar. Find a wine—any wine—whose label catches your eye. Ideally, it's one you don't already know, but I'm not going to chastise you on that point. Open it. Taste it. Write about it. On December 7, coincidentally the day when another year slips through your host's fingers, post your thoughts on your blog/website and tell me where to find them. Not just about the wine; we also want to know why you like the label. Maybe you like the elegant lines and minimalist approach. Maybe you like the watercolored fuzziness. Or the cartoon animal. Only you can tell us why a bottle yelled "Take me home!" from its perch on the shelf.Tell us what you ate with the wine. And I hope it's obvious that for this month more than any other, we'd love to see a picture.

Not a food blogger? Who cares? Feel shy about describing wine with the whole world watching? Bah. Have you read a tasting note in a wine magazine recently? Borrrrrring! You can do better, I promise. Don't have a blog? Well, it's easy to start one, but I'll host write-ups from the blogless. Just send them to me in advance, please.

I often suspect that pretty labels enshroud mediocre wines. Prove me wrong. Or right! And if we collectively find a great wine in a pretty bottle, think what a nice host/hostess present it will be as holiday-party season rushes up to us in a glittering wave of enforced socializing.

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Wednesday, November 02, 2005

WTN: 2003 Merkelbach Riesling Spätlese, Kinheimer Rosenberg, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer

The small village of Ürzig sits on one of many bends in the middle portion of Germany's snake-like Mosel river. The few streets in the town stop abruptly when they run into the seventy-degree-or-more slope of the Ürziger Würzgarten, one of the best vineyards in a region abundant with great sites. On Brunnenstraβe, in a pleasant home, the seventy-year-old Merkelbach brothers produce clean, simple Riesling: the most traditional Mosel wines, says everyone who knows of them.

Alfred Merkelbach's name dominates the label but his younger brother Rolf, who seems to have a perpetual giggle, is just as involved. The two brothers do everything themselves, from racking the wines between the neutral-oak barrels to harvesting the precariously perched vines they own in the Ürziger Würzgarten, Erdener Treppchen, and the Kinheimer Rosenberg vineyards. Even much younger producers hire Polish teams to collect the grapes on the steep slopes.

The past is important to the Merkelbachs. A picture of their great-grandparents hangs on the wall of the living room. Their ancestors are looking out the window of the exact same house the brothers still occupy. They make wine the same way their father did fifty years ago. "Why haven't you adopted any of the changes other wine makers have," I asked them (through Bill Mayer, one of the best retail sources for the wine) when Melissa and I visited their home in May. But the wine itself is the answer: Who would have the heart to change such a precious thing? "Of all the estates we visited," says Bill of a tour group he led, "this produced the strongest impression. The bulk of my sales of Merkelbach's '03s came from the group. They were there. And they knew. What they knew is not so easy to describe." Melissa and I understand. When we unexpectedly saw a Merkelbach on the wine list at Artisanal in New York City, we eagerly told the waiter about the brothers. We burbled. We enthused. I imagine he thought we were crazy. He humored us, at any rate.

There is magic in a Merkelbach wine. It is a glimpse into some better world, some happier place. The wine they produce is their blood; it's their passion. Terry Theise, who imports the wine, tells of Alfred's response to a question about vacation. "Where would we go?" says Alfred, "When I'm on the slopes standing among my vines on a sunny day with a view of the Mosel behind me, I have everything I need to be happy." The brothers are still spry, but they have no heirs. If I could grant immortality, I would grant it to Rolf and Alfred, just so their pure and lovely wines would always be there to remind people of the greatness we can achieve.

Are there less than two hundred fifty cases of the 2003 Kinheimer Rosenberg Spätlese, as Fatemeh requested for this round of Wine Blogging Wednesday? Probably. The estate only produces fifteen hundred cases total, and like every German wine maker they produce a slew of labels. The wine is crystal clear, but the subtle pineapple notes and lower acidity tell the tale of 2003's hot vintage. I often find a taste of Honey Nut Cheerios in Mosel wines, and this wine had it subtly on the finish. It went well with a beautiful piece of pan-seared halibut, served atop sautéed spinach and squid ink pasta and doused with a lime-basil beurre blanc.

But this is one of those wines that prove how inadequate modern tasting notes have become. You can't do this wine justice to someone who has never met the brothers. It's like the feeling that causes your friends to say you have a spring in your step. It is a child's happy laugh (perhaps Rolf's giggles have floated into the wine). It is so many things, and yet so few: just Riesling grown on a stellar site, meticulously looked after by two people who care deeply about their product.

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Tuesday, November 01, 2005

The Rebirth of Zocalo

Photo by melissa nicole.

My dear friend Tim Holmes recently reopened Zocalo Coffeehouse in San Leandro after a four-month renovation (see my description of the original here). The results (according to Melissa, who went to the reopening festivities) are spectacular. Zocalo is an integral part of the community. Families and friends come by to hear about neighborhood happenings and talk about every topic, and Tim strives to use local providers when possible. Coincidentally, my editor at Edible East Bay wrote an article about the Zocalo community for the inaugural issue of that magazine.

But according to Melissa, the coffee is also damn good (I don't drink coffee, but Melissa is finicky about it). Tim's wife does the roasting on the premises, and she's extremely detail oriented. If you live in the Bay Area, especially the East Bay, swing by Zocalo and check it out. I'm sure you'll like it. And if you see Tim or Mitch (his wife), tell them Derrick sent you.

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SFist Tuesday

A pop quiz for you, dear reader. This last Sunday saw blue skies and light breezes in the San Francisco Bay Area. So naturally I spent my day:

  1. Picnicking with Melissa and a bottle of rosé
  2. Working on my book proposal
  3. Rendering duck fat and making chicken stock, duck confit, and osso bucco

It's a tough one, I know. But here's a hint (what folks in the National Puzzlers' League call "a sledgie"): my piece on making stock for SFist. If people like it, I'll do an occasional entry on technique for my Tuesday column. Let me know what you think.

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