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Rocky Mountain Wine

The traveler’s—my—final night in Colorado: loving this tiny mountain village, high among the soaring 14-thousand-foot peaks of the Rockies, and sensing that with one more day he could get an enormous amount of writing done, he extends his stay.

Changes the return flight, asks to keep his roadhouse room for another night. Works all morning and through the middle of the day, blessedly free of the chaos back home, the remodel, the noise. Midafternoon, he goes for a hike among the changing aspen trees, their color burning several shades of green-gold. Rain comes down cold and hard; the conversation’s good: The owner of the tavern has come along as a guide, a new acquaintance. Descending the mountain, they stop at the home of the tavern keeper’s friend—step over to the friend’s elegant new tepee and build a fire, drink tea, and warm the feet.

Then, in the cold of the coming dusk, and the still-falling rain, it’s an easy walk into the village again. A hot shower, a little more work, and into the Nordic Lodge for a third dinner there. The first night, when the place was a surprise, local lamb paired well with Woody Creek Sangiovese, from over the mountain. The second night, the elk steak was a good fit for the Woody Creek Cabernet Sauvignon, and so, tonight, it’s the bison steak with the Woody Creek Merlot. A glass of the Verso Cabernet Sauvignon, too—a strikingly unusual Colorado Cabernet, not at all tannic, light and bright in the fruit, with an almost nectarinelike quality. But Woody Creek is a good, clean wine, balanced and honest and with the rain pouring now from the mountains and the night black beyond the tavern windows and a great conversation under way—the tavern owner, his friend from the mountain, a retired Chicago cop we’ve just met—the traveler’s thinking that this is one of the great reasons to nurture a love of wine and food, to remain open to local wine, to give yourself the chance to have a truly local and interesting experience, in the most unlikely of places.

Far from California

Again, the business traveler, alone and on the road, though admittedly the work is not so bad: sleeping in a little roadhouse, beside a quiet Colorado two-laner high in the Rockies. The Twin Lakes Roadhouse, to be precise, in Twin Lakes, Colorado, a little more than 35 miles east of Aspen. Hiking for a few hours with a man I have to write about, and then waving goodbye to him as he continues on his way, and turning around and heading back down that big mountain toward Twin Lakes again. Trying to shortcut across the shores of the large lake there, on a more direct route to town—visible in the distance, picturesque and small, a western village—and ending up in a swampy maze of willows and branch creeks. But that, too, is fine: The unexpected keeps us young, keeps life fresh. And then it’s back to the roadhouse for a shower and a few hours’ work at the computer, alone in the room. Until, finally, a short walk next door for dinner at the Nordic Lodge. It’s one of those places that sneak up on you: looks sort of cute at first, but grows more interesting inside.

Eating there the night before, I’d been half-stunned to find myself dining on local lamb and a wine from Woody Creek Cellars, just across the Rockies. And this with nobody around but a few odd locals. But a little more data has emerged: The owner is a former Texas state assemblyman from Austin. A buddy of his, an Austin city councilman, is up for a couple of weeks. Together they’ve planned a long jam session with a bunch of other old friends, all due over the next several days. Among those friends? A few members of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, I’m told, and because I love the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, I’m now feeling that I’ve stumbled onto something, some little nectar spot in the world. And so tonight, on my second peaceful night as the business traveler, at large in the world, I’m having the local elk steak, medium rare, with the Woody Creek Cabernet Sauvignon, and it’s a bigger and better wine than the Sangiovese—not a monster, like a California Cab, but more interesting for that reason, more local, more meaningful to me. More conducive to the quiet sleep I know I’ll have tonight, in this far-off place, so distant from my own home.

The Flavor of Colorado

A traveling businessman, alone on the road in another state—in this case, flying into the Denver airport, joining the mass shuffle of humanity in the airport’s internal train system.

Crossing four lanes of traffic to squeeze into a rental car shuttle, sitting quietly while it crosses former prairie lands, and then standing in line half an hour to get the keys to a black Mazda. The drive begins—traffic in the Denver metropolitan area, and then the long, steady wind southwest on I-70 into the Rocky Mountains. After two hours of that, the turnoff comes, toward Leadville, and now the scenery’s better, the mountains magnificent, the cars fewer.

Leadville turns out to be as charming a Rocky Mountain mining town as you’d ever hope to find, with a good cup of tea to go and healthy, gleaming people selling the trail map and snacks our traveler will need for the work ahead. The country gets prettier still as Route 24 wends farther south, and then becomes staggering on Route 82 west toward Independence Pass. Twin Lakes, Colorado, isn’t much more than a handful of weather-beaten old houses, a general store, and a couple of inns, but our traveler has a room in one of them, and work to do here in the morning, so he drops his bags at last and feels giddy at the places fate takes him: Huge mountainsides sweep toward a gray, cloudy sky, with the setting sun breaking through below and throwing a gold glow across the turning aspen trees. The air wakes a fellow up, makes the modern travel miles feel worthwhile.

And then it’s dinnertime, not expecting much, walking over to the Nordic Lodge. Not many people around, just a few locals eating in the ancient all-wood dining room, calling to the waiter by first name. The oven’s out, the waiter says, will a steak do? The lamb, he says, comes from just down the mountain—a big nearby sheep ranch. And so, all alone in the Rockies and far from wife and children, the traveling businessman finds himself with a beautiful plate of meat: a rack of lamb, to be precise, crusted with pepper and pan-seared as best the cook could figure out how. And to drink? A glass of Colorado Sangiovese from Woody Creek Cellars, across the mountains. Light and plummy at the same time, it’s an awfully good and awfully distinctive wine, made the old-world way: unfined, unfiltered, unfussed-over. And so, just like the local lamb, it tastes like a place on Earth—a terrifically beautiful place at that, especially seen in the darkness on the walk back to the inn.

Wine Angst

Weighing which bottles to bring, when you’re off to a dinner party, means asking genuinely meaningful questions. Choosing this Pomerol-style blend over that Gewürztraminer expresses not just a sense of the food you’ll be eating but of the kind of night you intend to have—whether you want to dazzle yourself or your hosts with a wine you’ve been dying to try, or just relax, somehow, and not worry about it too much.

I was closer to the latter mood a few nights ago, getting ready for dinner at the home of our five-year-old’s friend, Caden. Caden’s parents are new acquaintances and immensely appealing people; this would be our first dinner together, and I’d offered to bring the food in addition to the wine. So I had baked a cake for the joint birthday of my five-year-old and Caden’s one-year-old little sister, and I’d grabbed a cotechino sausage from my refrigerator, made from a pig I’d bought whole from a local farmer. I’d prepared a pot of farro, too—Caden’s parents were making appetizers and a salad—and when we got to their house I had to cook the sausage and heat the farro. A cotechino is a big sausage, the kind you slice crossways for multiple people, so you boil it a long time to cook it. While it was boiling, I opened a Dr. Loosen Spätlese Riesling and wished I hadn’t. It’s an excellent, affordable wine, but I was in a new home, working in somebody else’s kitchen, and I worried that the wine was too distinctive, calling attention.

The sausage took forever to cook, and this, too, was embarrassing: They’d wanted an early night, and we’d arrived late, and now the food was slow to the table. But they were gracious about it, and when at last the cotechino was done I sliced it and set the slices on a platter with cornichons and radishes and radish greens, and put out a pot of mustard, and opened the best Viognier I’ve had to date: Domaine Georges Vernay 2005 Viognier Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes, “Le Pied de Samson.” So much brighter and crisper than new-world Viogniers, which can be lovely but which also tend toward powerfully floral aromas and a lot of body, this was a cool, clean, soothing wine, a beautiful wine, and I sensed that the others could tell, and also that the night was going to be all right after all.

Investigating Fiorano

After the sad encounter with the 1990 Fiorano Sémillon, at which my friend Mark seemed half distraught and half frustrated with his bad luck—the wine was undrinkable—it was hard to hold out much hope for the 1993 or the 1994. But I’d put them in refrigerator that night, to cool. Two days later, as I was cooking for Mark and Francesca’s last night in town, my curiosity began to get the better of me. I had two chickens roasting in the oven, and I was making a salad from Chez Panisse Vegetables that included fresh shell beans, a mixture of green beans, and chanterelles, and before I knew it I was opening the 1993 while alone in my kitchen at four o’clock in the afternoon. A 14-year-old bottle of white wine: These things just don’t happen to me, and when the 1990 turned out to be hopeless, I’d felt a sense of cosmic justice. As in: That’s right, wine miracles don’t happen in my life. They happen to other people, especially people with oodles of money and no fear of alcoholism. But then I took a sip. My palate often gets a little shocked, at first, by alcohol, but I felt immediately the promise. With a second sip the promise began to seem a reality: The wine was absolutely not spoiled, and although the fruit had quieted considerably it had a beautiful, clear, balanced quality, and indefinable traces of herb and flower. So I drank some more. And then a little more. And then I felt guilty because Mark and Francesca weren’t even there yet.

When at last they arrived, bringing other mutual friends—Nora and Tim—I was tempted to thrust a glass into Mark’s hand, but I was afraid of loading too much expectation. The truth is, I was quietly thrilled by what I had tasted. But I opened a bottle of sparkling wine instead, a Schramsberg blanc de blancs, and only when everyone had toasted and begun drinking and also dipping raw pimentón peppers into a hot anchovy sauce (the bagna cauda recipe from Lulu’s Provençal Table), did I quietly pass Mark a separate piece of stemware. Sipping along with him, and anticipating his giddy discovery that we’d hit upon one of the Ludovisi miracle bottles, I was surprised to see him indifferent. Shaking it off, I went ahead and opened the 1994. Trying it myself, first, I was less impressed by this one; I felt that I could taste the cork, and that something was out of balance, and that the fruit had entirely vanished. But Mark, to my surprise, liked that one more. And so did the others around my kitchen island, still eating that hot anchovy sauce. So I took both bottles to the table, to pass during dinner.

Then a curious thing happened: I noticed that nobody was drinking very much, except me. I was still hypnotized by the ’93, by this light, ethereal song it was singing. After a while, though, in company, that’s not enough. You want to share, and you want people to enjoy themselves. So I pulled out a bottle of Trimbach Alsace Gewürztraminer, passed it around, and saw Mark grow instantly happier. I had cheeses to offer as a next course, and there, too, I left the Fiorano behind, grabbing a Keller Estate Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. And only then—only in savoring the good, relatively young Pinot, and feeling its match to those cheeses, did Mark seem entirely to overcome the Ludovisi frustration. And once I poured a glass of Pinot for myself, and dug into the cheeses, I began to understand. So much more fruit, so much more body and presence in the wine … so much more happiness emerging with each sip. And I began to wonder about the mysterious beauty I’d tasted earlier, as I drank the ’93 alone. Was it real? Imagined? Willed into being by my own desire? I don’t suppose I’ll ever know.

In Grand Anticipation of Fiorano

It was a moment of truth for me—or at least a moment of great anticipation. My entire house still had construction paper covering the floors to protect against ongoing remodeling, I needed a haircut so bad it was getting embarrassing, I’d finally shaved my unintended beard with a pink disposable razor meant for doing touch-up on an oft-shaven leg, and I had a cross rib roast in the oven—which made me nervous. I’m not a master of these roasting joints, especially from the lean, grass-fed steers I’ve been sharing the last two years. And yet, despite all that, how could I not open one of those three bottles, the three Fiorano Sémillons brought by my friend Mark. The story of the Fiorano wine I won’t revisit here, although it’s long and wonderful and worth reading if you missed the press flurry in 2004. (Here’s a great link on the Ludovisi matter, and the eccentric old Italian prince, and the weird mold in his cellar, and the sense that these wines are mysterious miracles, at the first-rate wine blog Vinography.)

Suffice to say that Mark is a fledgling wine-and-food-lover, just finished with law school and awaiting the results of the bar exam and wracking his brain for ways to make a legal career that brings him into the food world. Suffice also to say that he knew, when he was given these bottles of Fiorano from the cellars of the reclusive Prince Ludovisi, that he had something special on his hands. And now he wanted me to open one, but I could see that he was feeling itchy about it, uncomfortable, a little frustrated. He wanted to warn me: The first bottle he tried didn’t even taste like wine. But now I’d popped the cork of a 1990 Fiorano Sémillon, and I was feeling pretty excited to be let in on this great vinous mystery tale. Pouring two glasses, I handed one to Mark, swirled one myself, we both sipped, and … it was awful. Undrinkable, acidic, vinegary … one more sip, to be sure, and I was spitting in the sink and pouring out the rest and recorking the bottle and telling Mark not to worry about it. He was a little distraught, I could tell: It’s frustrating to have your hands on wine so potentially special and to come up short, especially if you’re a person of limited resources, and world-class wines don’t flow through your home like bubbly water.

“But Mark,” I said, “look, I’ll chill the other two bottles, and we’ll try them on Saturday night.” That would be his last night in town. He and Francesca were just here for a visit, catching up with friends, and we had a big dinner already planned.

The Ludovisi Wines

Perhaps you know this story, about the reclusive Italian prince Alberico Boncompagni Ludovisi, who became obsessed with winemaking and developed eccentric theories about particular molds encasing his bottles, made beautiful wines, and then, one day in 1995, ordered nearly all of his vineyards torn up. He gave the last 14,000 bottles in his cellar to an Italian journalist, on the condition that the journalist see to it that they were sold abroad by the right people.

Well, three bottles of that wine found their way to me just a few days ago, after a circuitous—and, for all I know, poorly temperature-controlled—journey through a wealthy doctor, the wealthy doctor’s daughter, the wealthy doctor’s daughter’s friend Francesca, and, finally, Francesca’s husband, Mark. Mark chose to bring those bottles to a dinner at my home, I suspect, because he wanted to make a serious offering, to share something he knew I would find thrilling. He was also honest enough to tell me that the one bottle he’d already opened was awful.

But still, this was as rare a wine as anyone was likely to give me for a long time, and it was a delightful way to say that our dinners together, in times past, had mattered to him. After all, he and Francesca were barely an item when they first moved into the apartment downstairs, several years ago, but they were married—and dear friends of ours—by the time they moved out. Along the way, Mark had become a go-to food-and-wine tasting partner for me, always willing to be pulled away from his legal studies to sample four Zinfandels or eight Chardonnays. We’d jointly developed a passion for humanely and organically raised meats and poultry and dairy products, we’d done a huge amount of eating together, and on his very last night in town, before Mark and Francesca moved off to Chicago, Mark gave me a gallon of McEvoy extra-virgin olive oil, a seriously expensive and fabulous present. So now he and Francesca were back in town for a visit, he knew I was thrilled to be cooking for him again, and he wanted to offer something even more special. So out they came, those bottles wrapped in mystery and a great old story: Sémillon, all three of them, with their vintages written by hand in black marker: 1990, 1993, and 1994. We chilled the oldest first. I’ll describe its taste, and the taste of the other two bottles, in my next posts.

Stonestreet, Rehabilitated

Picking up the thread of a prior post, about Stonestreet Winery, and how I was a given a bottle of Stonestreet Merlot. The way I was given it, by a friend apologizing about buying a bottle at the corner bodega on his way to my house, had led me to believe it wasn’t drinkable; I used it as a marinade for a leg of venison.

I learned soon after that Stonestreet actually makes good wine, and then I even got an impromptu invitation to dinner with the Stonestreet winemaker. And so, with all those clouds of ignominy trailing behind me, I drove down to the Embarcadero waterfront in San Francisco, parked in a huge concrete parking structure, ran among cars and livery cabs, wove past security men at the entrance to a new hotel, and found my way to the restaurant, Americano. It was a gloriously warm evening, and the restaurant’s outdoor seating area teemed with healthy, good-looking young people in expensive and surprisingly formal office attire. These were not graphic designers, and they were certainly not architects or journalists; they were young corporate lawyers or bankers. I always feel a little sloppy in crowds like that: No longer young, I still don’t have a reliable haircutting regime, or a regular shaving schedule. I haven’t worn a pressed shirt in months.

I found my way to the back of the restaurant, and there was Graham Weerts, the Stonestreet winemaker, a sandy-blond South African guy in his early 30s. As soon as I’d taken my seat and decided not to say anything about the Stonestreet Merlot I’d recently uncorked just to pour it into a pot for a marinade, we got to talking about the weather up on Alexander Mountain, site of the Stonestreet estate. They’re on the fifth ridge back from the Pacific Ocean—the first ridge being awfully cool for winemaking, the second being the site of the great Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vineyards at places like Flowers and Fort Ross. Alexander Mountain is high, so it’s still relatively cool, but the area’d also had a snap of hot weather, and Weerts said he’d be out in his vineyards at six the next morning, kicking off the 2007 harvest.

But for now, in the hustle and bustle of that splashy restaurant, among all those good-looking, successful young people, it was time to drink. In this case, three single-vineyard 2005 Chardonnays, all of which had been picked at the same time and vinified in the same way: barrel fermented, fined, and filtered. The Stonestreet Red Point Chardonnay smelled like Meyer lemons and tasted like normal lemons, with a little honeysuckle and vanilla softening the edges, and I couldn’t taste much oak at all. The Upper Barn Chardonnay, which comes from oldish vines at 1,800 feet above sea level, had just a hint more of the oak-and-butter deal you associate with California Chardonnay, but still in a very balanced and smooth way, with an unusually crisp acidity. The Broken Road Chardonnay, from a vineyard across the way from Upper Barn at the same altitude but with different soil, had this curious bacon smell I liked. And they all struck me as surprising and interesting wines, much brighter and flintier than most of the California Chardonnay I’ve tasted.

Weerts’s mobile phone rang as the waiter took our glasses, and he answered it, and he listened and nodded and muttered and then he turned the phone off and said it was his assistant and that the “numbers” in the vineyard looked great for the next morning. I asked if it would be a long day, and he said he’d start early but knock off by 11. Once the grapes heat up it’s better to leave them on the vine and let them cool off overnight before you pick them, Weerts said, as he began pouring his red wines. First up was a Merlot-based blend, the 2004 Fifth Ridge—with a plush, cassislike nose and a great combination of ripe, concentrated fruit and toasted leather, with firm, smooth tannins. There was a hint of herbal bitterness in the finish, but I like that in a red, especially if I’ve got something salty to eat. The 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon had more black pepper and green bell pepper, but there, too, I tasted that herbal quality, and enjoyed the tannins.

The night trailed off after that; our food came, and it was surprisingly good, and as I ate a braised beef short rib and moved back and forth between the wines and watched the drinking and chatting of all those gleaming after-work types, in that well-appointed and expensive new restaurant, I was surprised anew by the ability of a wine to speak a clear message, despite the surroundings. The Stonestreet wines are not generic monsters, and they’re not glamour wines, and they didn’t finally make much sense in the aesthetic setting of that place at that moment. Which is a good thing, because the Stonestreet wines, against the odds offered by that evening, had something that interests me much more: a subdued, earthy sense of place. They tasted almost rustic, which is downright rare in California wine, and worth applauding.

The Trimbach Discovery

I finally had my Gewürztraminer moment—you know, when you finally connect with a particular varietal, making sense of its taste, and finding a slot for it in your general picture of wine. It’s not that I hadn’t consumed plenty of Gewürztraminer in the past, nor that I hadn’t heard descriptions of it: a floral, heady nose, with tropical fruit and especially this distinctive litchi-nut quality, full body, etc. ... but my actual tasting of the wine had come largely from a case of Covey Run I got at a low price. (Though not low enough: After a buddy turned me on to the deal, and I bought three cases of Covey Run’s nice, straightforward whites, I found them all at my neighborhood grocery for the exact same price by the bottle.)

The Covey Run version was a nice enough drink, but I never got the sense I was tasting a representative Gewürztraminer. I still wouldn’t say I have any experience with the world’s definitive versions, but I know I’ve found a go-to Gewürztraminer I’ll be drinking for years to come, and gladly buying in wine shops, whenever I see it on the shelf: the Trimbach Alsace Gewürztraminer. This is by no means a new wine: Trimbach has been around for about 400 years, and it’s one of the mainstays of Alsace winemaking. But if you’re as fuzzy on Gewürz as I am, give this one a try. There’s a pure, balanced, clean quality to the wine, with a soft, floral nose and a light fruitiness and good, silky body, and nothing out of place. On a hot night, I could drink a bottle in a sitting—though I suppose that’s a complicated thing to say, given that it bears also on my ability (and compulsion) to drink entire bottles of wine at a sitting. But perhaps I’ll address that another day.

A Fine Cooking Wine

One reads much these days about the power of preconception to affect our experience of wine: for example, the recent study by Cornell University researchers showing that diners had a dramatically different reaction to a wine when it came with a North Dakota label than they did if it came with a Napa label.

Well, now I have my own variation on the same tale, and it’s a little humbling. It begins on a Wednesday night, when one of my oldest friends is coming to town. Russ and I were college roommates at Cornell, and although he went on to law school and then government work, all in the east while I moved home to California, we kept in touch. He was even the best man at my wedding, in July 2000. But as we’ve both become fathers and ramped up our work lives, we’ve had less and less occasion to visit. He lives in Washington DC, after all, and travels mostly abroad; I live in San Francisco and, well, I too travel mostly abroad. So when Russ does come to town, it’s a big deal.

I knew he’d be arriving at around dinnertime, and although my house was a catastrophic construction zone, I was still living in it, and I was still determined to host him well amidst the two-by-fours and the sheets of plywood. So I defrosted some grass-fed steaks and put out eight or nine open bottles of wine, hoping he’d enjoy a little tasting. But Russ is nothing if not well bred, and when he breezed through the door he carried both a six-pack of beer and a bottle of red wine—a Stonestreet Merlot. Then he proceeded to crack a beer and ignore both the Stonestreet and all the wines I’d put out, because he’s like that: Russ enjoys his evening beer. Only when the steaks emerged, and he let me pour him a terrific Fess Parker Bien Nacido Vineyard Pinot Noir, did Russ wake up to what was happening here. My entire foodie evolution has occurred in recent years, when Russ and I have been in only faint contact, so he hadn’t expected to get hit with superpremium beef in a competent red-wine reduction. Nor had he expected to get hit with such a thrilling mouthful of wine.

That’s when he noticed all the wines I’d offered—and he’d ignored, in pursuit of that beer—and said something like, “Holy smokes, I guess I was an idiot to pick up a random bottle at the corner bodega. You can just throw that bottle away.”

And here’s where I become the turkey: I nearly did. Truth be told, the Stonestreet labels are a little hokey-looking, I’d never heard of the winery, and the fact that it came from a bodega and that Russ was embarrassed about it told me it was a cheap liquor-store remainder not to be savored. A few days later, in fact, when I wanted to marinate a leg of venison in red wine—another recipe from Lulu’s Provençal Table—I figured I had just the bottle. Pouring the entire 750 milliliters of Stonestreet into my pot, I added the bottle to the recycling.

The next day, my father-in-law was over and he picked up the empty and asked how the wine had been. I said I didn’t know, that it was currently soaking a deer joint.

“Wow,” he said, “that’s quite a cooking wine.”

Huh?

And then, to further the coincidence, I got an invitation to dinner with the winemaker at Stonestreet, and a chance to taste their current-release Chardonnays and Cabernets, all of which were terrifically interesting and unusual. But I’ll report on that part next.