Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Book Review: The Judgment of Paris

"This seems more like an article than a book." It's the classic rejection notice sent to nonfiction book writers. The phrase must have sat in the back of George Taber's mind as he wrote The Judgment of Paris, a book about the defining moment of the modern wine industry: In a 1976 blind tasting, French critics gave first place to upstart California wineries over some of the best Bordeaux and White Burgundies. The tasting paved the way for California's presence in the global wine market and inspired other regions to make wines as good as France's.

Not only would this story be a good article, but that article already exists and a young George Taber wrote it. The results spread quickly when he—the only journalist present at what was supposed to be a casual exploration of California wines—wrote about the event for Time magazine. Any wine enthusiast coming into this book knows the climax and has read the oh-so-quotable excerpts. "That is definitely California. It has no nose," says Claude Dubois-Millot as he sips the 1973 Bâtard-Montrachet Ramonet-Prudhon. "Ah, back to France," says Raymond Oliver as he tastes the 1972 Freemark Abbey Charddonay. Reading the book reminds one of going to see Titanic: "Did you hear?" ran a joke at the time, "The ship sinks!"

Taber stretches his article into a book largely by going back in time. The reader gets a detailed look at the Napa wine industry as it approached the crucial event. There's some interesting information here, but the view of Napa life 35 years ago is too drawn out. It feels like the text was padded to fill a contractual obligation. The level of detail and the wooden dialog bog down the story and ring false; does everyone in Napa have a photographic memory, even 35 years later? Taber tries to build drama, but it comes across as desperate filler. I don't know that any book has so closely followed the production of a single wine, as Taber does with a chapter each for the winning Chateau Montelena and Stag's Leap Wine Cellars wines. But the article he wrote 30 years ago deflates the tension—you know they win—as does the simple reality that wine making isn't that dramatic after harvest.

Taber is on surer footing as he describes the aftermath, when he has his own notes to follow. He must have read secondhand and thirdhand accounts with amusement as they embellished the story, adding French and American flags, portraits of Thomas Jefferson, and other trappings of a vinous OK Corral. He says he wrote the book to set the record straight among writers who cribbed his text and judges who felt they had been conned or that Steve Spurrier had rigged the results. He concludes the book with a tour of interesting wine makers around the world. This last part is so loosely coupled with the famous tasting that it just seems like an excuse to travel the world for research.

At times, obvious errors stick out. While it's true that European vines succumbed to American fog, mildew, and disease, they thrived in California not because of our temperate climate but because the phylloxera louse that destroyed European rootstock never made it over the Rockies on its own. Jancis Robinson is assigned the wrong gender at one point. These are small, but they always make one wonder what other errors you simply haven't noticed.

It's not clear how much this book adds to the original article. Much of Napa's history has been told elsewhere. It's a useful read for wine geeks, but you might find yourself skimming over the first chapters.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

WTN: La Tordera "Alné" Prosecco, Italy

The La Tordera "Alné" Prosecco
Photo by Melissa Schneider.

About the Bottle
When I fell in love with wine, a little less than four years ago, Prosecco was barely a blip on the American gastronomic radar. Melissa and I could still gain wine snob cred by introducing our friends to this sparkling wine from Italy's Veneto region.

Clearly our efforts worked; now you find the wine everywhere. Restaurants like Chez Panisse and Acme Chophouse routinely serve it as an aperitif, and it's a favorite at local parties.

I was still happy to find a bottle in our December wine club shipment. It's always a good idea to have sparkling wine in the wine rack. But don't confuse Prosecco and Champagne. Prosecco producers get their bubbles from the Charmat method, a second fermentation in a pressurized steel tank, while France's sparklers are made with the laborious méthode traditionelle. The Charmat technique, as a rule, produces a clean, crisp wine that usually makes up in affordability what it lacks in complexity.

About the Wine
The "Alné" from La Tordera is typical of the wine's style. The fountain of small bubbles brings intense green apple Jolly Rancher aromas, along with an undercurrent of cassia cinnamon and subtle floral notes. It's a lip-smacking, thirst-quenching wine with a delicate acidity and vibrant green apple flavors tinged with wintergreen. It's not complex, but it's enjoyable, and it urges you to take another sip. And another.

Fatted Calf Guinea Hen Terrine, French Comté, and Acme Bread
Photo by Melissa Schneider.

About the Food
Sparkling wine adapts to a wide range of foods, but I tend to pour a light, simple Prosecco near the beginning of a meal when the food is also lighter. Melissa and I drank this bottle with a pleasant Saturday lunch of Fatted Calf guinea hen terrine, Comté cheese, and bread.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Orange You Glad...

Photo by Melissa Schneider.
...I wrote about citrus techniques for SFist? Okay, it's a bad pun; I'm not sure Melissa's "Oranges Reign Supreme" is better, despite the fact that I do teach you how to supreme an orange and candy the peel.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

The Ultimate Dinner Party

We're well-known for our dinner parties around here. Justly so, I'd say.

But the ultimate dinner party, one that inspires me, happens once a year about forty-five minutes to the south of us. I'm pitching it around as a story idea because it's so amazing.

For his birthday, our friend Tom prepares and hosts an elaborate dinner party for forty or fifty of his closest friends. He plans dishes up to a year in advance, everything—really, everything—is made from scratch, and he recruits about four or five of his cooking-obsessed friends to work in the kitchen. I've written about being a staff member before (the only drawback is that you don't get to eat as much), so this year I'll point you to Tom's posts about the party. This year was a blow-out; it was the tenth anniversary of the Poubelle Winter Feed, and it was, uh, a significant birthday for Tom. He was also celebrating the arrival of his conversation-starting (but not necessarily safe for work) new painting.

To get a glimpse of the menu, and the planning, start with this post about Gougeres, and use the links at the top to click forward to the other dishes. Want to see more pictures? Use Tom's guide to party pics.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

WTN: 2003 Villa Carafa Greco di Tufo

Photo by Melissa Schneider.

One thing I like about wine clubs run by good merchants, versus those run by wineries, is that I often get to try wine I've never had before. Usually, prior exposure to similar wines gives me the ability to predict something about the wine before I've tasted it, but every now and then I get something that has little to no context for me, and I get to spend some time rummaging through wine books for information about a previously unknown area.

Like, say, Greco di Tufo, an appellation in Italy's Campania region, not too far from Naples. It's a DOCG, Italy's highest type of appellation, but that's a recent promotion: It was a normal DOC until February 2003. The appellation takes its name from the Greco di Tufo grape, which is just the Greco Bianco grape grown around the town of Tufo. It's an important distinction because Tufo gets its name from the tufa soil underneath it, which also runs through the Touraine region of France's Loire Valley. You probably won't be surprised to learn that the Greeks brought this grape to Italy long ago—there's a reference to it on a fresco in Pompeii—and The Oxford Companion to Wine asserts that it's the progenitor for numerous other white grapes.

But what does it taste like? The wines often have a grapey character, but the 2003 Villa Carafa was like a cold mountain spring: crisp, minerally, and refreshing. You could almost smell the searing acidity, even beyond the citrus aromas. And the minerals! Granite, soapstone, and an almost metallic element. The finish, which leaves a taste of apple must, is on the short side of medium. It's not a wine to cellar but if you like this style it's worth grabbing. (I don't have the price handy, but a quick search puts it around $15 or so)

Like most Italian wines, it shows better with food than on its own. It screams for shellfish, but it went well with chicken legs braised in vermouth.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

A-braisin' in the Sun

Photo by Melissa Schneider.
I gave up waiting for rainy weather to do my braising post for SFist. I'm hoping to do more technique posts for my column, though there will still be plenty of ingredient-focused posts as well.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

WTN: 2003 Unti Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley

Photo by Melissa Schneider.

Critics, for the most part, bemoan the steady increase in alcohol levels in wine. As the alcohol goes up, the drink's ability to pair with food goes down.

Zinfandel is the worst offender. Three years ago, getting close to 15% alcohol was considered unusual. Today, 16 is the new 15. Producers get higher sugar concentrations by letting the grapes hang. Consumers get a wine that lumbers over the palate. To offer some perspective, port, which you make by adding brandy to wine, usually hovers in the 18-20% range. A fine German Riesling, even a dry one, rarely goes over 12.5%.

So the 2003 Unti Dry Creek Zinfandel seemed relatively ethereal with its 14.5% alcohol. It had weight, of course, but you didn't feel like you were swishing syrup in your mouth. And the medium long finish only became hot at the very end. The "low" alcohol was only one food-friendly variable: High acidity and modest tannins refreshed the palate, getting it ready for the next bite of, in our case, duck legs braised in red wine. The wine was well balanced, but not very complex—a pleasantly drinkable wine that should pair well with heavier meats. The dominant aroma was blackberry jam, and there was something else, something musky, that I couldn't quite pin down, along with a hint of bramble.

Unti is a small family-owned winery in the Dry Creek Valley, an appellation known for its Zinfandel. This particular bottle is a blend of Zinfandel, Petit Sirah, and Barbera, from three different vineyards. It retails for about $22, which is a bit too high to make it our new house red, but isn't too unreasonable. I'd buy it just to support producers who keep the alcohol on the low end of the spectrum.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Rendering Lard 2.0

All photos by Melissa Schneider.

Since the first time I rendered my own lard, I've also rendered various other kinds of animal fat. I've become comfortable with the process, if not adept.

But I always make small quantities, because I just use the small bits of fatty tissue I store in the freezer. When I wanted some lard a while back, I was annoyed to discover that I had exhausted my supply. I decided to make a boatload so I have more on hand—buying lard is not an option, since the store-bought version is stabilized with partially hydrogenated oils. I've given instructions on this before, but Melissa documented this round thoroughly, and so I'm offering my newly illustrated, step-by-step guide to rendering lard, a technique that works equally well for other kinds of animal fat. It is very easy, though somewhat time-consuming.

1. Start with 5 pounds of back fat. This is, not surprisingly, fat from the back of a pig. It has little meat and lots of fat bound up in the cells and tissues. At one local butcher, it cost me $1/pound. I bought 5.5 pounds for the lard, and reserved a pound in the freezer for lining terrine molds, grinding into sausages, or making lardo, salt-cured back fat.

2. Chop the fat into small squares. The higher your surface-area-to-volume ratio, the quicker the rendering and the higher the yield. But there's no need to go crazy either. I cut the fat into roughly 1"x1" chunks.

3. Add to a pot with a little water—about half the volume of the fat—and bring to an uncovered slow boil over low heat, stirring frequently. The water moderates the temperature so the fat doesn't burn or stick to the pot. Eventually, the water will all evaporate; the golden liquid left behind is melted fat. You'll know when this has happened because the bubbles will look different. Keep cooking until the solid fat has melted. Your kitchen (and perhaps much of your house) will have a wonderfully warm meaty smell. Stir occasionally to mash up the fat bits, and skim often as foamy scum collects on the surface. I added more water than I should have: I cooked it for a few hours on the stove top, then overnight in a 225° oven, and even then I had to cook it more the next day. Eventually, you'll be in diminishing returns mode. There will still be some solid fat left, but you won't feel like it's worth rendering. Turn off the heat, and pour the liquid fat through a cheesecloth-lined strainer into a large container. If you did have some meat on the fat, don't toss it out. It's been slow-cooked in one of the world's best fats for hours. Eat it. Use it in a salad. Put it on toast points.

4. Let the fat cool until it's just warm and still liquid, and add a lot of water. This clarifies out some of the little protein bits in the fat. Store in the refrigerator overnight. The next morning, you'll have a thick slab of lard sitting atop a tub of water. Remove the lard slab and dry it thoroughly.

5. Chop the lard into pieces, and melt over low heat. Ladle the liquid fat into jars, let cool to room temperature, and then refrigerate. Here's a tip; make sure you've got plenty of jars on hand before you start. I found myself rummaging around for extras to hold the 9 cups I made. The jars will keep for a long time in the refrigerator, even longer in the freezer.

6. Use with reckless abandon. Lard makes an unbelievably flaky pie crust; I use about 50% butter and 50% lard. Melissa eyed the jars and suggested french fries, since lard is much better for frying than vegetable oil. But I have my eyes on a pork belly confit: pork belly slow-cooked for a long time in lard, and then preserved in the fat for two weeks or more. And what's the best way to reheat pork belly confit? Deep-frying, of course. At this rate, I'll be rendering more lard before you know it.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

It's the Cabbage Patch, Kids

Photo by Melissa Schneider.
For my weekly "In the Kitchen" column at SFist, I graduated from Brussels sprouts to cabbage. I wanted to do a post on braising, but it's too warm here in the Bay Area. Maybe I'll wait until the summer when it's cold again.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Wines of Germany and Eastern Europe

Long-time readers know how much I love German and Austrian wines. Even relatively recent readers have probably figured it out. For three and a half years, I've used my little corner of the web to brainwash you into trying them as well. You probably haven't even noticed the subliminal signals.

This summer, forgo the subtle cues and get brainwashed in person. Pending final approval (which everyone expects), I'll be teaching Wines of Germany and Eastern Europe during UC Berkeley Extension's summer session. You can't sign up yet, but don't worry, I'll let you know when you can. I have no shame about padding the class with supportive students. There's a plan for a different class in the works for the fall session, but I'll share more information when that's further along. I'll be covering Germany, Austria, Hungary, Croatia, and Slovenia, probably with seven or eight different wines a night.

I'm thrilled about this opportunity. No, scratch that; I'm over the moon. I've often recommended the Extension's Wine Studies program: I became passionate about wine because of one of their classes, and I've taken many since. I hope I'll be as good a teacher as those who have inspired me. Though I've taught private wine classes for the last year or so (want to organize a private wine tasting party? write me), this will be my first long-term class. I proposed a six-week course, but the official schedule hasn't been decided. I should know the final details by March.

The opportunity came about because of my role on the steering committee. And I'm on the committee not because of this blog or even my professional wine writing, but because of my foie gras piece for The Art of Eating. Some higher-up in the program is a serious foodie and so naturally takes AoE. He saw my foie gras piece, and suggested to the dean that she should contact me. I don't know how "writes about foie gras" translates to "should be on the steering committee for the Wine Studies program," but I'm not complaining. Not surprisingly, I've had a lot to say at the meetings.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Growers and Grocers

You may have seen the new food blog network that Kate and others have founded. It's called Well Fed, and it's set up much like Weblogs, Inc. in that it encompasses several topic-specific blogs. You may have also noticed that I'm the editor of the Growers and Grocers portion, which covers everything from soil to shelf.

I became interested in the craft of editing when I started writing for The Art of Eating. I am not even a Padawan next to Ed Behr's Jedi Master editing, but I've come to enjoy the fiddly work of restructuring text (my writers may not be so keen on this tendency, however). I try to learn from all my editors, and I hope I can do justice to their teaching in my tenure at Growers and Grocers. This gives me a chance to see if I really enjoy this work or if I just think I do.

Of course, editing is more than just moving words around. I'll also be setting the site's philosophy, which is that consumers should understand their food and where it comes from. I'm also hoping to give "new voices" a wider audience as well as some clips they can use if they want to pitch magazines and newspapers. I think most publications do a poor job of enabling promising writers.

Stop by Growers and Grocers and let me know what you think. What would you like to see?

Friday, January 06, 2006

Award Season

I'm one of the last to mention this (ironically, since I was one of the judges), but Kate has posted the nominees for the 2005 food blog awards. It was extremely difficult to whittle the many nominees down to a mere five in each category. Sometimes it was difficult to pick a top 10! Food blogs have taken off, and there are many talented writers and photographers hanging out their shingles. We read through zillions of posts and looked at gajillions of photos. I for one added several new blogs to my RSS Reader. Look through all the nominees, and you will too. Go. Read. Vote. Support the food blogging community that brings you so much pleasure.

And if you're caught up in the blog award frenzy, go nominate your favorites for the Bloggies, the ultimate award for our chunk of the internets. They even have a food blog category, which they introduced last year. The more nominations a blog gets, the more likely it is to show up in the final round.

Fed up with awards season? Check out Anil Dash's insightful and somewhat cynical take on all the self-congratulation.

Food Blogs in USA Weekend

USA Weekend will run a story about food blogs this weekend. They list their favorites, which includes the usual suspects, plus me, but I'm delighted to see Molly and the Too Many Chefs gang in the list. Welcome to readers from USA Weekend; thanks for stopping by.

It's been a little while since we've had one of our famous dinner parties. If you listen hard, you can hear my heavy sigh. Plus, we owe a few people. For the curious, here are some links to past favorites: my description of prepping for a dinner party, the 10-course meal we did in 2003, and Parts one, two,and three of our cat-sitter dinner. I guess I never wrote up parts four and five.

And here's a sneak peek at one course I want to serve at a dinner in the near future: Pork Fat Three Ways.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

WTN: 2003 Spy Valley Pinot Noir, Marlborough, New Zealand (WBW17)

Photo by Melissa Schneider.

Over the last few weeks, President Bush smugly admitted that he had repeatedly committed felonies. And, he says with triumph, he'll do it again. And again. Whenever he feels like it.

As most people now know, BushCo has repeatedly urged the National Security Agency to illegally spy on American citizens. Though the administration could have done this legally by getting a rubber-stamp approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, he and his cronies have decided that the law does not apply to them as long as we are fighting their conveniently endless war. The American public, dulled by now to the offenses of our would-be despot, have barely looked up from the gossip column in response.

What, you might ask, does this have to do with food and wine? Politics at the dinner table is never a good idea. But as I shopped for a red wine from New Zealand in accordance with The Cork Dork's theme for this round of Wine Blogging Wednesday, the Spy Valley Pinot Noir seemed a particularly apt choice. The winery takes its name from the massive satellite spy station nearby, one node in the Echelon network that BushCo has been using in violation of a federal law that was set up to protect U.S. citizens.

Who knows what secrets these grapes could tell?

The liquid is not very forthcoming. Perhaps secrecy is part of this wine's terroir? The vines influenced not by the soil but by the always watchful satellite dishes nearby? Even the cork offers relatively tight security in a country where most wines are sealed with easy-to-remove screw caps.

I enjoyed the Spy Valley Riesling I drank for Wine Blogging Wednesday Four, but the Pinot Noir failed to impress me, especially given the $40 price tag. Cherry aromas, I wrote listlessly, with some green notes. It's not very complex. Cherry on the palate, cherry on the medium finish. Cherry everywhere, but nothing else, I don't care what they say. A good acidity and a light body. It's an adequate wine, but not one I'd hunt out, even clandestinely. Perhaps I merely had a dull bottle. The wine went reasonably well with the roast chicken and Brussels sprouts we ate (see previous post), but then few wines clash with roast chicken.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Little Tiny Cabbages

Photo by Melissa Schneider.
I used to not like Brussels sprouts. This might have been because my dad once fed me one that was covered in chocolate. That kind of thing tends to scar one.

Long-time readers may remember how Brussels sprouts won me over. The conversion seems to be complete, since I sought them out to write my weekly SFist post.

Monday, January 02, 2006

WTN: 2002 Seghesio "Old Vines Zinfandel", Sonoma County

There's no official definition for the term "old vines" or its many variants. This often surprises beginning wine enthusiasts, who see the term frequently in their local wine stores. It could mean that the vines are 100 years old, it could mean they're the oldest in the vineyard, it could mean that the blend has some old vine fruit, or it could mean that the producer wants to snag the wine buyer's eye as s/he shops.

Even scrupulous producers argue about when the vines are old enough to warrant the term. Should it be 50 years, the old de facto standard? Or 30, when many vines mature? Or should it be 75? Doesn't it vary based on grape variety?

It's a hot-button topic, because consumers think "old vines" always means "better," and they're willing to pay more for the perceived benefits. No wonder producers abuse the system.

The reality, as always, is more complex. You can't declare all old vine wines better than all "young vine" wines. At a blind tasting held by the San Francisco Vintners Club in 2001, young vine Zinfandels beat out their old vine siblings. Careful viticulture and thoughtful cellar manipulations can yield old vine characteristics in more youthful plants. Overzealous cellar antics can blot out the nuances of old vine wines.

But old vines wines still carry a higher price tag overall, and some producers would like the term to be regulated, despite the lack of agreement about "old enough" and the difficulty inherent in enforcing the rules. Any discussion about this debate inevitably introduces Pete Seghesio, who continues to argue for an official definition. His family's winery has a lot to gain: The Seghesios, who switched from bulk wine to quality wine after a tense family struggle in the 90's, have documents stretching back long enough to defend the age of their vines, and a legal definition would push any number of "old vines" competitors into a less noteworthy bottle, including those who have old vines but can't document them.

So when he and his family put out their Old Vines Zinfandel, the bottle is a tool in the battle. "By our standards," says the label, "a vine must be a minimum of 50 years in age to be called 'old vine.'" Few other producers will give you such a straightforward definition.

It's always interesting to compare one's own tasting notes on the same wine at different points in time. In May of 2004, when I wrote a tasting note for my old vine article for The Wine News, I wrote "Aromas of cherry with subtle floral, pepper, and vanilla notes. Mouth-watering acidity balances berry flavors and vanilla on a long finish. Fine-grained tannins could use some time to settle."

When I tasted it again the other night, alongside goose confit and Brussels sprouts in a mustard sauce, the spice overwhelmed the fruit. Black pepper and nutmeg hit me first (along with the alcohol fumes), followed shortly by black cherries and blackberries. The acidity had mellowed to modest levels, though the tannins were still strong, and I classified the finish as "medium-long." It tastes of wild cherry cough syrup, probably in part because of the only-in-California 15.6% alcohol, with a finish of raisins and some flavors that evoke Cabernet Sauvignon: mint, bramble, and cedar. It went well enough with the food, and you could probably find it for $30-$35 or so. The mellow acidity doesn't bode well for its longevity, though the fruit is still vibrant enough.

Paging Karen Paik

Pim has announced the winners of the Menu for Hope II raffle, which raised just over $17,000 for victims of the recent Kashmir earthquake. Thank you to everyone who contributed to this amazing drive, and thanks to Pim and her elves who sorted through the raffle entries. I've heard some firsthand accounts from her helpers, and I'll tell you they worked hard.

You can see the whole list of winners at Pim's site, but this post is for Karen Paik, who won my prize: a year's subscription to top-notch food and wine quarterly The Art of Eating. Karen, I look forward to setting up your subscription. Please send me an email (you'll find my address just under my picture) with your mailing address, and I'll get right on it.