Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Real-World Wine Pairing

I’m going to use you all as guinea pigs. I want to start posting more about the connections between food and wine. It occurred to me that I have a perfect bag of material: dinner. I don’t cook every night, but even when we get take-out, we almost always have wine or beer to drink.

And since I invest a tiny amount of effort in thinking about that beverage, I thought I’d post occasional glimpses at my thought process.

First, some caveats. I believe that most wine goes with most food. I’ve had a few stellar matches; I’ve had some clunkers. But for the most part, it’s hard to go too far astray. I steer by a few guidelines, but mostly I follow my mood and work with what I have available at the house. Don’t look at these posts as absolute guides; look at them as a glimpse at my thought process. Also, I probably won’t write up every meal. You may have noticed that I’m not so much with the daily posts. But I’ll try to do these with some regularity.

The Dish: Pasta with Roasted Chestnuts and Bitter Greens
Once a year, some recipe inspires me to peel my own chestnuts. Once a year, the chestnuts reduce me to tears with their clinging flesh. This year, the agent of my despair was the recipe for salt-roasted chestnuts in Paula Wolfert’s Slow Mediterranean Cooking (a book I heartily recommend, by the way, despite some editorial lapses). I decided to put her chestnuts onto pasta and mix in wilted arugula and mache.

The Drink: 1997 Stéphane Tissot Vin Jaune, Arbois
I like oxidized wines when I have a strong nut component in a dish. Actually, as my students could tell you, I like oxidized wines with just about anything, and vin jaune is an unusual member of the species. A winery makes it by filling a barrel partway with wine and letting a native population of yeast form a mat on top of the wine. The Arbois region of France, in the Alpine foothills on the east side of the country, is one of the few places where you’ll find a yeast population that can do this: Jerez is another — fino sherries are made this way — and Tokaji is one more, though I’ve never seen a Tokaji Szamorodni here in the United States. Ed describes the flavor of vin jaune as “rancid walnuts,” which is as good a description as any for this funky wine. They age forever: Jack of Fork & Bottle recently let me taste a 1967 Chateau Chalon vin jaune, and it was still fresh and vibrant.

How’d It Work?
Because I so seldom suffer the agony of chestnuts, I forget that they’re more sweet than nutty. I expected the rich flavor of slow-roasted almonds, but I got a delicately sweet nut. The bitter greens mellowed quite a bit, and so the wine ended up overpowering the dish. A gentle, lightly sweet Riesling or Scheurebe might have been a better choice.


Saturday, November 22, 2008

Go To Jojo

Over the years, I have urged my Bay Area readers to go to Jojo in Oakland. Sometimes I’ve done so overtly, but I have always kept a link to it on the right side of this blog. Melissa and I have many happy memories tied to the restaurant and its owners — among others, it’s where we chose to have our rehearsal dinner — and it is simply some of the best food in the East Bay. Curt’s duck confit trumps all the other versions I’ve tried, and I’ve tried many, many versions. And I have always held up their wine list as a paradigm: Not because it’s big, but in fact because it is small, incredibly focused, and closely tied to the restaurant’s food.

We just got word that they’re closing, and it breaks our hearts. They’ve had a good run for a restaurant — nine years — but we still feel like we’ve lost a family member.

So let me urge you, one last time, to go to Jojo before the end of 2008. Don’t miss the chance to experience this rare gem of a restaurant. Don’t be left out when all your foodie friends reminisce about it in years to come.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Wine Writing Cliches

John McIntyre, whose copyediting blog You Don’t Say is one of the few sites I read every day, has recently been covering cliches. First he discussed crime story cliches, then the seasonal cliches of the winter holidays.

I thought that the wine writing community should join in the fun and point out the clunkers in our field. This isn’t about outright errors, such as using varietal when you mean variety, but phrases we’ve grown tired of reading. Though not ones we’ve grown tired of writing, it would seem. (Just to be clear, I’ve been guilty of these in the past.)

Here are some I thought of. Post your favorites in the comments, and I’ll incorporate some into this post (with attribution, of course).

We believe great wine is made in the vineyard
“At least until we get it to the cellar, where we use a cultivated yeast designed to bring out different flavors; stuff the juice into new, heavily toasted barriques to add a lot of oak; and then use reverse osmosis on it to get the alcohol in balance.” This phrase is practically guaranteed to be on the label of the next midlevel wine you buy. Or on the website. Or in an interview. No one means it: They just want to pander to wine as a lifestyle choice.

pairs perfectly with (or variants)
Really stunning pairings do happen, but far less often than most recipe/wine writers would have you believe. Most wine goes with most food reasonably well. (And as an aside, if you’re going to suggest a wine pairing for a dish, the wine educator in me implores you to explain your choice.)

This Parkerism has spread to much of the wine press, and we have overused it.

rosés aren’t just White Zinfandel
This well-trodden theme about dry rosés crops up every May in what seems like every wine publication. Is there anyone with a passing interest in wine who has not heard this by now? (I assume that those with no interest in wine other than drinking it are not reading the publications that have these articles.)

rascally or rogueish as adjectives for Terry Theise
It’s not that these are incorrect descriptions of Terry, but they seem to always crop up. Reading articles about him begins to feel like reading Homer: “Prudent Penelope” and “clever Odysseus” skitter through The Iliad and The Odyssey. Find new adjectives, or give a richer portrait.

eccentric or maverick as adjectives for Randall Grahm
Ditto for Bonny Doon’s winemaker.

“pop the cork” or “uncork” when referring to anything other than opening a bottle
I often see this as a catchy bon mot — or so the author thinks — in press releases announcing some new product. Too bad that many other PR people used it first.

Katie seconds "we believe great wine is made in the vineyard and adds …

"Fruit bomb" drives me nuts (we can thank the grand poo-bah of wine, Parker, for that one). "Sideways Effect" is another...some of us want to go back to being quiet pinot-obsessed junkies w/o the hoopla!

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Tete de Cuvee Rose Tasting

As a wine writer, I get invited to a lot of tastings. As a person with a full-time job, I don’t go to all of them. I disregard some, hope to make some — and then can’t — and occasionally find myself at one. Then there are the tastings that get me to take time off so I can attend.

When I got a note from Schramsberg, America’s prestigious sparkling wine maker, inviting me to a tasting between Schramsberg’s wines and comparable wines from around the world, I jumped at the chance. And that was when I expected it to be a small but standard press tasting: Too many people in too small a space, industry friends chattering away while blocking the spit bucket, and a line-up of interesting wines.

When I showed up on Monday morning, after an hour and a half of hungover driving, I was one of nine people in the room, most of whom were in the winemaking business. A line of 12 glasses — it was a blind tasting — had been arrayed in front of each seat. We even had individual spit buckets.

As Hugh Davies, the company’s president, explained, we were there to taste wines from a similar class and see how they fared against each other. He and his staff do this periodically. I had signed up for the Tête de Cuvée Rosé tasting, which meant we were tasting some very nice brands indeed: Bollinger, Cristal, Taittinger, Dom Perignon, and of course the J. Schram sparkling rosés. Most were vintage bottles.

Pencils scratched out notes and glasses went up and down — and sometimes up and down again — as we quietly evaluated these prestigious pink wines. Then we gave our rankings and discussed them.

I consider myself knowledgeable about wine. I have that obsessive geek thing, and I put a lot of research into my articles, which I generally consider to be worthwhile contributions to the wine press. (Indeed, one of those pieces, about efforts to combat urban sprawl in wine regions, had made enough of an impression to get me to this tasting.) But seated among winemaking veterans, I felt like a wine novice. Adjectives poured out, fine points of balance and herbaceousness and bitterness were bandied about, and winemaking techniques were guessed at.

It was fantastic. I love this industry because I’m always learning. I jumped in as best as I could (I will say that I introduced some of them to the term petrichor) and listened to Hugh talk about the sparkling wine industry, his winery’s changes over the years, and more.

As an aside, I always urge students in my wine class to be honest about their opinions, because I can’t tell them what to think. People disagree, and it’s okay. Indeed, wines that I loved came in last place for other tasters. Wines with low marks from me came in first for others, and not always the same ones. And all those tasters disagreed with each other as well. Everyone has a unique palate and sensibility.

Except that there was one clear winner, a complex, well-balanced wine with a rich, fragrant nose and a great taste. As I said to the group, I could have waffled on 2 and 3, and 4,5, and 6 overlapped, and so forth, but number 1 was an easy choice. Most of us put it in the first or second spot. When they pulled off its bag, it was the 2000 J. Schram Rosé.