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Gratuitous Seafood Shots

Date: Tue, Jun 4, 2013 Wine Tasting

The fish people are back at my market after their winter vacation. Actually they've been back Since the beginning of April but I've only recently gotten into the swing of things. And now all of the sudden we are eating a lot of seafood in my house. Here are some recent favorites, and the wine pairings that love them:

I've been making fish soup for years, ever since I learned how easy it is to make fish stock. Type "fish soup" into the 'Search this Blog' box on the left sidebar and you'll see a load of posts that include my attempts at fish soup. Just made my first of the season and wound up going for a saffron, tomato, and chili flake version. Honestly, it was very good.

One night I drank a Provence rose with this soup, always a winning pairing. Another time I opened a bottle of 2010 Domaine de Veilloux Cheveny Blanc. This is an absolutely lovely little Loire Valley wine that Mike Wheeler's MFW company imports, and I bought it for under $15. It's mostly Sauvignon Blanc with a little Menu Pineau in there too. I've liked everything I've had from the Loire Valley in the 2010 vintage, and this is no exception - it's crisp and fresh and quite energetic, with herbal and creamy flavors, and it's well balanced and complex on the finish. The acidity worked well with the rich and slightly spicy soup.

There hasn't been a lot of Mackerel this year, not that I've seen anyway. These pieces were so fresh and pretty that I merely dabbed them with a bit of miso and mirin glaze and put them under the broiler. At home I cannot reproduce the amazing golden char that Japanese restaurants are able to achieve, but mine are delicious nonetheless. Many white wines are delicious with broiled Mackerel but on this night I went with a chilled Poulsard, 2011 Tissot Poulsard Vieille Vignes, and the fish brought out the savory side of the wine, while at the same time the wine brought out the sweetness of the fresh fish.
Oysters are a pleasure that I haven't learned to love with the same gusto as some other folks. But maybe it turns out that it is the large east coast variety that I do not love so much. That said, I was in Martha's Vineyard recently with a good friend and he loves the locally farmed oysters. I must say that with a bracing glass of the beautiful Emilio Hidalgo Fino La Panesa, this was a lovely experience.

And bay scallops? SO delicious, and they require no cooking. If you trust your fish monger, (and why would they be your fish monger if you didn't trust them), just pop them in your mouth. Or, add a little bit of olive oil, sea salt, and lemon zest. We ate these while making dinner, while drinking the lovely NV Agrapart Brut Les 7 Crus Blanc de Blancs. This was such a great pairing! Okay, scallops and Champagne, not so hard. But Agrapart's style, even in this, the house's basic wine, is one of focus and finesse. There is nothing sticking out and the wine is quiet. It would not be understood in a large tasting, I imagine. But with bay scallops, whose delicate flavors I did not want to obscure in any way, this wine was perfect. And sitting there at the kitchen counter enjoying the subtle and chalky citric tones of the wine with a bay scallop or two...pas mal.

That's it, just a little gratuitous seafood. You know, to whet your appetite.

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Carbonara and the Search for the Perfect Wine

Date: Wed, May 29, 2013 Wine Tasting

"I judge a chef based on their roast chicken."

"The best way to judge a sushi chef is to order one piece of tamago, or omelet sushi."

I don't know who said those things, but I understand the idea. Skilled preparation of the seemingly simplest dishes is one of the marks of a great chef. Carbonara might be the roast chicken of Italian cuisine. It is a dish comprised of no more than 5 or 6 ingredients and even the unskilled cook can make a decent version of the dish. But good ingredients and good cooking, as with roast chicken, can elevate carbonara to something spectacular.

Carbonara is simple, on paper, and apparently there is an argument about virtually every aspect of the preparation. Spaghetti? Bucatini? Egg yolks only or whole eggs? Onions or no onions? Guanciale or pancetta? Parmegiano or Pecorino? Good lord...

I've had spaghetti alla carbonara three times in the past week, and that's equal to the number of times I've had it in the past decade. So why now, with the carbonara? A good pal invited me to his out-of-town house for Memorial day weekend and he knows that I have a line on the good meats so he asked me to bring some guanciale, or cured pig's jowl. He had been working on his carbonara and wanted to make it for me during the weekend. Nice. I brought a bunch of wine for the weekend and tried to include things that would pair with carbonara.

In general, my pal makes his carbonara like this:

-Salted water, bring to a boil.
-Slice guanciale, fry in a pan to render the fat.
-Pour off some of the fat, add a good glug of white wine and cook down.
-Crack two very fresh eggs, beat.
-Add a generous amount of grated Parmegiano and chopped fresh parsley, beat some more.
-Take the cooked spaghetti out of the boiling water, allowing some of the pasta water to come along, and add it to the egg mixture, tossing all the while.
-Toss, toss, toss some more so the egg doesn't cook, but instead forms a sort of glaze on the pasta.
-Add the cooked guanciale and some salt and cracked black pepper to taste.

Our eggs were super fresh - local hens popped them out that very morning.

The guanciale was heavily seasoned and had a thick layer of fat. He sliced and chopped it into small thin pieces without removing much of the seasoning.

He beat the eggs and mixed in a handful of parsley from the garden. Some high quality grated Parmegiano too.

We curdled the eggs just a little bit when we mixed the pasta into the bowl. You can see this - the small solids in the picture above. This first version tasted quite good but it was not perfectly balanced. Too much black pepper and salt - we should have rinsed or maybe even soaked the Guanciale first. Still, it was delicious. I imagined a bright and acidic white wine would work well and opened something I'd been greatly looking forward to - 2001 Prager Riesling Smaragd Achleiten. This is a beautiful wine, fresh flowers on the nose and lovely delicate flavors, all carried through the palate on a wave of mineral and acidity. But it was simply no good with this carbonara. The pungency of the dish dominated the wine, there was no fruit at all and this dish needs a little fruit, and the acidity was too strong. We had to kind of set it aside, eat our pasta, and then come back to the wine.

Later in the weekend my friend made another carbonara and this one was perfect, to my taste. He rinsed off some of the curing seasonings before cooking the guanciale and added no black pepper or salt.

He managed to toss the pasta in the egg mixture with no curdling at all this time.
It looked beautiful and smelled great. He poured off most of the rendered fat this time too, freeing the aromatic porky pungency of the cured jowl meat to shine through unobstructed.This time I opened a bottle of 2007 Stony Hill Chardonnay. It was a much better pairing. The wine has good fruit that balances the acidity, and is fuller in texture than the Riesling. It's not a better wine, but it was a way better pairing with the carbonara. And yet, I was not convinced that I had found the best pairing. More research was needed.

So, when Peter and a few others came over for dinner earlier this week I knew that carbonara would be one of the things I would make. And I wanted to try another kind of wine. But what? I decided to ask friends for advice, friends who know something about Italian food and wine. Jeremy Parzen said that a slightly chilled Cesanese del Piglio, a peppery red wine, would be ideal. "It has just enough meatiness to complement the egg and lardons and its natural spice is great with the heat of the dish," he said. Jeremy also said that if I wanted to drink white wine he would recommend a Frascati, a Lazio Bianco, or an Orvieto. "Acidity obviously is a must but the wine needs some spiciness to go with the freshly cracked pepper of the carbonara," he said.

I asked Alfonso Cevola what he thinks is the perfect pairing for carbonara. "Something white and simple," he said. "Maybe a good Frascati or a Verdicchio like Bucci or La Monacesca. Coenobium is a bit out there but I'd try that for an exotic choice. From Abruzzo La Valentina makes a nice Trebbiano (not to be confused with the more expensive Valentini). Something interesting from Apulia is the Masseria Li Veli Askos Verdeca." Some similarities with Jeremy's recommendations, and although most of the wines these guys are recommending are unknown to this Italian wine ignoramus, I began to understand what they were getting at. "Essentially one needs something light with good acidity to cut through the fat of the dish, not too sweet but not lacking in fruit either, and not too dry," Alfonso said. Okay, makes sense.

The problem is, I own literally two bottles of Italian white wine and they are both from Friuli and made mostly of Friulano, and they are richer, more herbal wines. Not what those guys described. So I thought about my cellar. What do I have that is simple, fruity, and with good acidity, but not too much of either? Something dry, but not too dry. Something that would stand up to pungent guanciale and also be easy drinking.

Friends, I'm here to tell you that I served a Provence rosé with my first ever attempt at Carbonara. The incredibly reasonably priced and very delicious 2012 Domaine les Fouques Côtes de Provence Cuvée de l'Aubigue. And it was a very good pairing. WAY better than the Prager Riesling, which is a far better wine, objectively speaking. A better pairing also than the Stony Hill.

My carbonara wasn't bad either, although my friend's was better. I rinsed my guanciale well, removing almost all of the seasoning.

I sliced it too thickly though and it crisped up in the pan before all of the fat could render. Still, it was tasty and I managed not to curdle the eggs when tossing the pasta.

We ate our pasta and my friends were happy. While we ate I asked Peter, who knows a lot about all wine and food, what he thinks is the best wine to pair with carbonara. Now this is a guy who at home drinks almost exclusively white wine - Champagne and Sherry. "Carbonara is a good red wine pasta dish," he said. He has a friend out west who loves carbonara and who loves to open old Nebbiolo to pair with it. "Now that's good," Peter smiled.

Clearly, more research is needed. And by the way, does anyone know a good Brooklyn cardiologist?

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Uncouth Vermouth - Tasting with Bianca Miraglia

Date: Fri, May 10, 2013 Wine Tasting

Not too long ago I had the opportunity to meet and taste with Bianca Miraglia, the woman who founded Uncouth Vermouth. Uncouth Vermouth is made in Brooklyn from fortified wines made from Long Island grapes, using herbs that Bianca forages mostly in Long Island. I knew almost nothing about uncouth Vermouth before meeting Bianca. I read Alice Feiring's piece last year in the Times and I remember being curious about the wines. Turns out that the wines are interesting and delicious and that Bianca is a smart, principled, and fun person too.

Bianca makes about 2,500 cases of vermouth in a year but she plans to double production soon. She makes her wines at the Red Hook Winery, and lost almost all of her stock in the Hurricane Sandy flooding. So although right now her wines are as popular as they've ever been, she cannot supply the demand for her wines. Hopefully this will soon change.

This is terribly short notice, but Bianca is pouring her vermouth later today (May 10th) at Chambers Street Wines, and you should go taste them if you can - they are compelling.

Here are some of the things I learned while talking with Bianca about her and her wines:

-- Bianca's father's name (Miraglia) means "Admiral" in Italian. He grew up in Greenpoint and had a part in starting the local textile workers union. An original Brooklyn hipster!

--She is in her 20's - she is still so young! I envied her for the strength of her conviction, and for the fact that she is doing the thing she cares about and finding success at such a young age.

--She left the NYC area maybe 6 years ago on a whim, went to Oregon and worked at wineries for a while.

--She was searching for a vermouth answer for the dry martini and made the answer herself - apple mint uncouth vermouth.

--Bianca never uses sweeteners of any kind. If her vermouth is sweet it's because the wine it's made from is sweet.

--There are no fewer than 20 different herbs in any vermouth she makes.

--She strains her vermouth but never filters - she wants to leave the compounds that add flavor and aroma in the wine.

Here are some of the things Bianca said while were were talking:

"Mauro Vergano makes the best Vermouth in the world, but his style already exists. I want to do my own thing and make something great."

"The longer my Vermouths are open, the more they smell like wine. These are wines, fortified wines, more so than they are cocktail ingredients. They should be served chilled but not cold."

"Did you see Jiro Dreams of Sushi? Like he said, if you cannot impress yourself you cannot impress others. I want to love my Vermouths, I think of myself as my own best customer."

"You can make great cocktails with my Vermouths, but they're perfect on their own and that's how I love to drink them. Or with a dash of bitters and a splash of soda. They're 18% alcohol and you're still going to catch a buzz, by the way."

"I won't mail samples of my wines, even to Food & Wine, I just don't do it. I'm one person and I do everything with my own money. The finances make it so I cannot mail samples, but I don't want to anyway. Samples are unnecessary. I respect your money and time and I expect the same. If you want to taste the wines, let's meet and do that together and talk about them."

"I love Red Hook Winery. They select so carefully and always try to adhere to their principles of chemical free and healthy farming, but if they have to spray because of weird weather, they're transparent about it."

"I spoke with several distributors a while back and they said that if they were going to sell my wines they had all sorts of demands about how I do what I do. Then after a few articles and the Vermouths started to become well known, they came back to me with a different attitude. This time it was do whatever I want and they'll make my brand huge. But I'm not looking to sell my brand. I'm looking to wake up happy every day and to do what I like to do."

I wish I could be in my 20's again, with the same unadulterated optimism and strength of opinion. It's good for us older folks to be around young whippersnappers so we can be reminded not to compromise our principles, if possible.
We tasted two of Bianca's wines, and here are some notes (they retail for about $40, when they're available):

Uncouth Vermouth Beet Eucalyptus - made of Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, and Viogner. Smells strongly of eucalyptus, fresh and enticing. Tastes like beets and eucalyptus, which sounds trite, but is true. It seemed like an odd combo to me, but it works. The wine is fresh tasting and the finish is mellow and complex. If not drinking it straight, Bianca says this Vermouth makes an amazing Negroni.

Uncouth Vermouth Serrano Chile Lavender - made of Finger Lakes Riesling (which was made by Abe Schoener). Both were excellent but this one really moved me. First of all, it's spicy, and not blunted so that all can enjoy it. It's legitimately spicy. Especially after swallowing. There is subtle lavender on the nose but more prominently, a smell that it took me a while to figure out, but it's the smell that I get from high quality silver tequila. Green, succulent like a cactus, and spicy. Agave? I have no idea. I would drink this chilled straight, but it seems like there are many cocktail possibilities here too.

Go Bianca! I hope that you refresh your stocks and can sell your Vermouth to everyone who wants to buy it. And that in 10 years, you still apply the same principles you do today to whatever it is you may be doing.

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My San Francisco Restaurant Experience

Date: Sun, May 5, 2013 Wine Tasting

Thanks again to you all for your thoughtful recommendations. General impressions? From the very small sample I experienced, SF chefs are clearly concerned with the freshest and most seasonal of produce, and they clearly have access to high quality material. Seafood was uniformly excellent. Service was uniformly friendly and competent. Reservations were uniformly hard to come by. Wine lists were not terribly exciting, but there was almost always something good to drink. Very high quality food is available, and if it were NYC, it would be two-three times more expensive and created in a far more precious atmosphere. Overall, I had a great eating experience and look forward eagerly to the day I can go back.

I ate dinner at Bar Tartine and it was outstanding. It's a comfortable and stylish space without any pretense. We tried 8 dishes and all but one was excellent, a few were superb. The assortment of pickles was skillfully done - the apex of pickling, if you will. Red cabbage, for example, was enlivened with just the right touch of ginger. Mushrooms were toothsome and not oily at all, chioggia beets were draped in buttermilk and the result was thick but lively, and completely delicious. Terrine of beef tendon with horseradish and fresh greens was complex and delicious. Raw halibut with seaweed was excellent, so was fisherman's stew with green chili, so was spätzle - the lightest I've ever had. We drank two excellent wines with this feast. 2004 Karthäuserhof Eitelsbacher Karthäuserhofberg Riesling Spätlese was in a great place for drinking, so balanced and lovely, so good with the food. And 2010 Knoll Riesling Smaragd Ried Schütt, which was young, reduced, and altogether reticent, but still after 45 minutes showed how good it's going to be. We loved our dinner at Tartine and I would recommend it to anyone without hesitation, and I cannot wait to go back myself.

I ate lunch at Hog Island Oyster Company before heading to the airport on a Sunday, and it was outstanding. Now, none of you mentined Hog Island in your recommendations - you said Swan Oyster Depot (which I drove by one evening and looked great). But I met a guy who left NYC in '06, a guy who had been one of my closest friends and who I haven't seen since then. We were near the Ferry building and that's where we went.

We ate oysters - couldn't tell you what kind, other than that some were Kumamoto. They honestly were as fine as any oysters I've had. So fresh and briny sweet. There was nothing terribly compelling to drink. I went with a bottle of Henriot NV Blanc de Blancs, and I must say that it was great. Focused, chalky, classic. Clam chowder was delicious too. This was a lunch I would happily eat once a week for the rest of my life, and my excitement would never ebb.

That same buddy and I ate an impromptu early dinner at Commonwealth one night. We tried to go to State Bird Provisions, but could not get in. We arrived at 5:07, the restaurant opens at 5:30, and there was already a line of about 24 people in front of us, none with reservations. That place must be interesting, and probably quite good, and one day I will try again. Commonwealth was a fantastic replacement. Okay, so I was with a good old pal and we would have had fun wherever we went, but Commonwealth really delivered. So comfortable and airy, everything so beautifully presented, so fresh and balanced in flavor. We had the tasting menu and it was a perfect meal. Yup, I said perfect and I mean it.

Not a whole lot of wine that I wanted to drink, and I was warned that this would be the case. But then I noticed they had Philipponnat Champagne NV Brut Royale Reserve, the entry level wine from this great house. I'm pretty sure this was based on the excellent 2008 vintage, it is predominantly Pinot Noir and like the Henriot, it was a reminder of how great even basic "big house" Champagne can be, when made by the right folks. This wine was excellent, something to seek out and drink for yourself. The commonwealth folks put a bowl of homemade potato chips sprinkled with seaweed in front of us as the wine was opened. Not an entirely bad combination. Then they came with an amuse of raw yellowtail with thinly sliced jalapeno, also pretty good with the Champagne.

And then another amuse of lovage stems with some sort of whey/herb frothy situation, and it was very, very good. And only after these items did our 6-course tasting menu ($70, $10 of which is donated to charity !) begin.

We ate smoked sea trout with trout eggs and horseradish buttermilk powder - chemical cookery there, and quite delicious. These portions, by the way, were generous. This meal would have cost $175 at least, before wine, in NYC. I hate that.

Then we ate what I would say is the single best thing I ate in SF, called eggs and asparagus on the menu, but it was about the sea urchin. Served atop a seaweed brioche with asparagus, egg mousse, pickled horseradish leaves, and whey foam - I think it was whey foam.

The salad of mizuna, black radish, and goat cheese with green strawberries (the new hottest food item?) and fennel pollen was mild, earthy, and delicious. My friend didn't love it, and I can see how that is possible, as it wasn't a viscerally delicious thing. But I thought it made sense in its own composition, and in the place it was served in our meal - after the amuses and the seafood courses, almost to calm us down, to recalibrate us, before the sweetbreads.

Which were excellent, perfectly cooked, served on fava and nettle porridge and topped with pickled mustard seeds. I'm not a huge sweetbread fan, but I was sold on these. And this was followed by the most perfect small glass of celery sorbet. I don't even need to describe it further - perfect. The peanut butter ice cream bar with salt caramel sauce and "frozen popcorn" was seriously excellent too, but the sorbet stole my heart, in the sweet department. Wow - Commonwealth.

I took a long walk from the Embarcadero to the Mission one day and ate lunch at Local's Corner. Everyone I mentioned this to said they like Local's Corner, and I liked it too, but I didn't love it. There was no wine I wanted to drink and the beer taps were down, but my lemonade was very good. People were genuinely friendly, and it felt good to be there.

The pickles I ordered were excellent, but mostly it was the tart, sweet, green strawberries - filled with fresh strawberry taste, but green and pickled. Spring garlic soup was the emperor's new clothes, so mild and milky that there was nothing to latch onto. And trout with spring peas and pea tendrils was admirable in its simplicity and freshness, but was under-seasoned. Salt would have been enough (but there was none on the table, of course). The earnest chefs in the open kitchen looked like they stepped right out of Taconic on Bedford, so that's something. I would go back if some one else suggested it, but I doubt I would return on my own.

Zuni Cafe was a bit disappointing.The food was tired, that's the best way to describe it. Nothing was plated in a terribly attractive way, salads were overdressed, lamb was underwhelming, but none of this mattered one bit because I was with good friends and had a ball. I don't remember what I had for dessert but it was delicious. But I suspect that this place is past its prime. One thing - we drank very well at Zuni - Larmandier-Bernier Blanc de Blancs was delicious, as was 2010 Roulot Meursault (!). We had a weird experience with our red wine, but that's a story for another time.

Oh, and by the way, I stopped by Terroir one late afternoon, not having planned to, but I was 3/4 of the way through a tremendous walk, and it was relaxing and nice. The dudes who worked there were friendly and there was a load of enticing wine on the wall. Not a lot of which was actually for sale at Terroir, but that's fine. After asking for 5 different wines that turned out not to be available, I took the guy's recommendation and drank a glass of 2009 Puffeney Savagnin. It was delicious and I enjoyed taking it upstairs and lounging on a comfy club chair, leafing through Jay McInerney's wine book.

Local's Corner and Zuni aside, it's obvious to me from Tartine, Commonwealth, and Hog Island that there is fantastic eating to be had in SF. Thanks again for your recommendations.

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Stony Hill - A Visit to the Iconic Napa Valley Winery

Date: Wed, May 1, 2013 Wine Tasting

It was a glorious Saturday, sunny and warm but not too hot, clear blue skies, and I was with people I work with, people who have over the years become good friends. I had never before been to the Napa Valley, or to any California wine region. We drove north from San Francisco and at times it was startling in how lovely it was. As we approached Napa we hit traffic, the first sign of the popularity of this place as a tourist destination. I saw a sign for Domaine Carneros and then another for Beaulieu Vineyards. We saw large flat vineyards with rows of skinny vines supported by posts and wires, all draped with thin hoses for irrigation purposes - it gets very hot in the Napa Valley and months can go by in the summer without rain.

We, however, were going to visit Stony Hill, the iconic Chardonnay producer, physically located in the tourist carnival that is the modern Napa Valley, but philosophically located somewhere else entirely. Sarah McCrea, the granddaughter of the founders of Stony Hill Winery, and its current Sales and Marketing Director, told us to drive through St. Helena 3 miles past the Chevron station and onto Bale Grist Mill road to find Stony Hill. We literally inched through traffic, finally reaching the town of St. Helena. It took us almost an hour on a Saturday early afternoon to drive perhaps 10 miles, allowing us plenty of time to look at the various shops of St Helena. I saw that I could buy some very cool and fancy outfits for my dog, if I wanted. I'd have to get a dog first, I suppose. I saw a restaurant that looked like what a Hollywood producer's stylized image of a rural California lunch counter should have looked like circa 1972. It looked good.

And then, finally, Bale Grist Mill Road. We began to climb and immediately we left the tourist world behind for this one lane country road.

Luckily one of us saw the sign for Stony Hill.

We drove by a vineyard whose vines were thick and gnarly, old-looking, without irrigation hoses - just vines.

We arrived and were greeted by the very friendly and genuine Sarah McCrea, and her mother Willinda, who said hello and went back to work in the office.

Stony Hill Winery was created when Fred and Eleanor McCrea bought this land in 1943. They planted Chardonnay grapes in 1947 and offered their first wines to friends in 1952. The vines are a lot older now, younger McCreas run the place, there is some new equipment and the barrels turn over, but not a whole lot else has changed. Obviously this in itself says nothing about the quality of Stony Hill wine, but it happens that Fred and Eleanor got it right in the first place. The vineyard plots are mostly exposed to the east, and are on hills with natural springs running underneath - this is how they avoid having to irrigate in the intense heat and dry Napa summers. They ferment and age their Chardonnay in old neutral wood, preferring to highlight the natural aromas and flavors of their grapes, and they avoid malolactic fermentation, preserving the intensity of the acidity in their grapes. People who know about Stony Hill have for decades prized their Chardonnay for its purity and grace, its unadorned intensity and complexity, and have appreciated its ability to improve with time in the cellar.

Sarah took us to see the vineyards and the barrel room, and Milo the Stony Hill springer spaniel accompanied us on our walk.

As we walked from the offices, it was immediate and apparent how far away I felt from the tourist road, how bucolic the scene was.

We walked past a plot of Chardonnay vines and saw beyond that another plot of old Riesling vines.

I looked back at the offices and tasting room and thought, "I could live here."

The old vines were vaguely anthropomorphic in appearance.

They seemed so sturdy and weathered, such beasts compared to the delicate grapes they would give forth, to my untrained but highly opinionated eye.

I looked closely at a Riesling vine and saw that budding had actually begun - early this year, Sarah said.

We reached the barrel room and press. Stony Hill is famous for Chardonnay and produces about 3,000 cases in a typical vintage. There is also a Riesling, a Gewurztraminer, a Semillon sweet wine, and now a Cabernet Sauvignon - first commercial vintage is 2009. There's not a lot of wine, and unbelievably to me, Sarah says they still sell the majority via their mailing list. I guess that makes sense, actually. Why give money to a middleman if people are willing to buy direct?

Inside the barrel room we sampled the new Chardonnay vintage, the 2012. Sarah said it was a great year for Stony Hill, as opposed to 2011, which was very hard for everyone in the Napa Valley. 2012 produced balanced wines that show the typical Stony Hill intensity and purity, she said. If the barrel sample I tasted is representative, I wholeheartedly agree. The wine was fragrant and intense with fruit and rock and left a lingering spicy and almost grassy taste after swallowing.

I have been drinking Stony Hill wines, when I can find them, for a few years now. I love the Chardonnay because it is delicious and unadorned and it seems to me that it expresses the greatest aspects of Napa Valley terroir. It is rich and intense - this is a hot place. But it is also acidic and finessed - Stony Hill vineyards are 600 feet above the valley floor. I asked Sarah why her family chose to plant Chardonnay instead of Cabernet, the more popular grape.

"At the time we first planted Stony Hill, no one had really given much thought to where certain grapes should be planted," Sarah's father wrote in an email. "My father just planted what he liked, which was Chardonnay, and three other varieties that U.C. Davis suggested - Pinot Blanc, White Riesling (then known as Johannesburg Riesling), and Gewurztraminer. It turned out that because of the eastern exposure the property was ideally suited for growing white grapes. By the time we needed to replant the vineyard, we had already become quite famous for our white wines, so changing to reds didn't make much sense. It is worth noting that our new Cabernet comes from a relatively new vineyard that has a western exposure that is more suitable for growing red grapes."

We walked a different path back to the tasting room and again I marveled at the scenery - we were way up in the hills here. Does wine made here, in this style, resemble the more industrial wines made on the valley floor?

If you visit Stony Hill you will not taste old vintages, it's not that kind of place. You will taste whatever is current, whatever they still have in stock. And as fun as it is to taste the wines, the viscerally moving aspect of the visit is walking the vineyards with Sarah, Milo, and whoever you came with, experiencing this place high in the hills.

But taste you will, and we did this in a lovely outdoor garden in back of the office area. A happy little pig watched over us from the side of the office.

We tasted 2010 Chardonnay (utterly delicious - the best of the recent Stony Hill vintages I've tasted), 2011 White Riesling, 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon (restrained and expressive, very impressive!), and the 2010 Semillon sweet wine.

As we sipped and talked, we looked out onto a plot of Syrah, relatively young, planted in 1998. This is sold only to wine club members, along with another rarity - a rosé of Cabernet Sauvignon. I've often thought that Syrah and other Rhône grapes should do very well in the intense heat of the Napa Valley - I bet that Stony Hill's Syrah is excellent and I hope to taste it one day.

Tasting these wines I could feel how different they are from the typical Napa wine. These are made to showcase the juice from the grapes grown on their hillside vines, and the soils they come from. Nothing more, nothing less. Now that I've seen the gorgeous setting where these wines are grown and made, I feel like I have a richer understanding of why these wines smell and taste the way they do. And the prices are quite reasonable - current release Chardonnay shouldn't cost more than $45. I think of Stony Hill Chardonnay as the best wine, dollar for dollar, that's made in the US, but take that with a grain of salt, as I have less experience with California wine than some who are better qualified to make such a statement.

If you haven't tasted a Stony Hill wine, you should. It may change your mind about what the Napa Valley is capable of.

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Poulsard - A Survey of the Current NYC Market

Date: Sun, Apr 21, 2013 Wine Tasting

There are dark and brooding red wines, light and joyous red wines, and everything in between, and all can be delicious and satisfying - they all have their place. Poulsard, though, exists almost outside of the spectrum of red wine. As far as I know, Poulsard is vinified only in the Jura region of France. The grapes are relatively large and therefore have a low skin to juice ratio - the opposite of what is prized in say, Burgundy Pinot Noir. And the skins are not heavily pigmented. The resulting wine tends to be light in color, almost like a rosé.

But don't be fooled by the light color as these are, when well grown and well made, powerful and structured wines with great depth of aroma and flavor. Unusual aromas and flavors, too. The fruit veers towards pomegranate, red currant, cranberry, and blood orange. That sounds precious because it's so specific - but I promise you that it is true. I often find dried roses on the nose, in addition to those same bright fruits, and sometimes a salty, chalky bass note. Perhaps I haven't had enough experience with the wines, or maybe I'm just missing something, but I find that the wines are more about fruit and particularity of structure than they are about minerals and earth. The structure can be surprising, by the way, because it is firm, while the wine appears to be so light and delicate.

I love drinking Poulsard because it is such an aromatically expressive and spare red wine. It isn't a wilting lily - it's not delicate, exactly. A good Poulsard can stand up to mushrooms, steak, and other earthy hearty fare. But there is no extract, really, nothing other than the essence of the thing. This analogy is overused, but here I think it fits - Poulsard can be Burgundian in its melding of finesse, grace, and power. I misunderstood good Beaujolais for a few years because the wines are so brightly acidic and fresh. I thought of it as a light wine. Beaujolais can be joyous and light in body, but Morgon, Moulin-a-Vent, Fleurie (well, maybe Fleurie), these are not light wines. They are deeply and darkly fruited, and rich next to a Poulsard. I would drink Morgon with blood sausage, but not Poulsard.

The best Poulsards I've had are thrilling, but the problem is, the best Poulsards are quite hard to find and drink. I feel comfortable saying that Pierre Overnoy/Emmanuel Houillon make the finest Poulsard, and although Louis/Dressner imports the wine to the US, we're talking about a handful of cases for the US. I was able as recently as the 2007 vintage to walk into Chambers Street and buy this wine on the shelf for under $30. Those days are gone forever. Now the wine is just not seen on shelves, in NYC anyway. Another favorite for me is the Poulsard made by Domaine Ganevat, whose wines have also become rare and dear here in NYC.

Not long ago I found myself craving Poulsard and I realized that I haven't had a bottle since the end of 2012 at this amazing dinner in Stockholm. I knew that I would buy and drink Poulsard, but which one? What should I be drinking, if I'm not drinking Overnoy or Ganevat? I decided to gather a few friends who also appreciate the glory of this very light and strange grape, to buy every Poulsard we could find, and drink them together over dinner.

Three years ago I did a small Poulsard tasting and there were 5 wines I found to include. Last week I found 11 wines and chose to include 9 of them, and this excludes Overnoy and Ganevat. This probably reflects the rising popularity of Jura wines in general, and also the diligent work of several importers, and people like Sophie Barrett of Chambers Street Wines, who believe in the wines and want to offer them to curious customers. I'm sorry to say that on our recent Poulsard evening all of the tasters were a little bit underwhelmed by the wines as a group, but we agreed that a few of them were quite good.

I've always found that Poulsard is reductive and funky when first opened, and does much better when decanted. And so we decanted our bottles and drank them slowly with a feast of Middle Eastern food. Following are my impressions, but I want to mention that some of the wines that did not impress me on this night were better on other nights, in different vintages. All of the wines cost between $20 and $30, and are currently available on (some) NYC shelves.

My favorite wines:

2011 Tissot Poulsard Vieille Vignes, imported by Camille Rivière. I thought this was the most complete of all the wines. It showed true Poulsard character with expressive and bright red cranberry and blood orange fruit, slightly rose inflected, and it showed the depth, balance, and structure that old vines can bring. It held up beautifully on the second day. I haven't loved Tissot's wines in the past, but this was a really good wine and I would happily buy it again. I was more excited about this wine than some, but everyone liked it.
2006 Domaine de la Tournelle Ploussard de Montellier (Poulsard is sometimes called Ploussard), imported by Jenny & François. This is the current release of this wine in NYC - maybe they are released late everywhere? Overall I think the 2004 was a greater wine, but this is truly lovely, with good balance and resonance, and honest Poulsard character. Others were more excited about this wine than I was, but I also liked it very much and would happily buy it again.

2011 Michel Gahier Ploussard, imported by Neal Rosenthal Wine Merchant. Delicious wine, deeply flavored and balanced, well structured. Again there was no controversy here - everyone liked the wine. No one was super excited about it though, and for me, that is because it didn't show the typical Poulsard flavor package that I crave. But it was very good wine.

Wines that I liked, but might not buy again:

2011 Ratapoil Ploussard Par La, imported by Selection Massale. This wine was fresh and pretty and I enjoyed drinking it, but I found it to be lacking in complexity and it didn't hold my interest in the end, even when we revisited it later in the evening. Certainly a pleasing and lovely wine, but it didn't satisfy my craving. A very good value within the group, and one taster really liked the wine - so probably this is worth trying if you haven't already.

2010 Domaine de la Pinte Poulsard de L'Ami Karl, (bottle gone before I noted the importer - sorry). I've had this wine before and I liked it, but on this night I was the only one sticking up for it, and that's probably because I liked it in the past. The aromas were vastly different from the other wines, showing things like red grapefruit, and one person suggested that it might be yeasted. It did show aromas that are not typical of Poulsard, but it was bright and snappy wine. I'm reaching here - it wasn't so great on this night, and it was worse on the second day.

2011 Domaine de Montbourgeau Côtes du Jura Poulsard, imported by Neal Rosenthal Wine Merchant. I was surprised at how this wine showed because 1) Montbourgeau makes great wine; and 2) the Poulsard, while not the shining star of the Montbourgeau lineup, is still quite good. This wine was so forward and candied in its fruit and it didn't feel balanced, or all that interesting. But it was drinkable and pleasant for whatever that's worth.

Wines that showed poorly:

2010 Puffeney Arbois Poulsard, imported by Neal Rosenthal Wine Merchant. I don't know...Puffeney is "The Pope of the Jura," and I respect him immensely as a producer, and love his Trousseau, but I don't think I'm a fan of his Poulsard. This one was candied fruit and awkward, not rewarding.

2009 Le Chais de Vieux Bourg/Bindernagel Côtes du Jura Poulsard, imported by Langdon Shiverick. This was simple in its candied strawberry fruit, not well balanced, and not typical of the Poulsard flavor profile. It was worse on day two.
2008 Bornard Arbois Poulsard la Chamade, imported by Savio Soares. I was once quite excited about Bornard's wines, but after a series of weird and unhappy bottles, I stopped buying them. This one was undrinkable, I thought. It was vaguely fizzy, candied, without structure, and as one taster succinctly said, dirty.

Sadly, our bottle of 2011 Domaine des Marnes Blanches, imported by Selection Massale, was corked.

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Enderle & Moll - Great German Pinot that Should be Imported to the US, but isn't Anymore.

Date: Mon, Apr 15, 2013 Wine Tasting

This past weekend I held a small tasting for some parents at my younger daughter's school. It was something that I donated (with generous support from Chambers Street Wines and Slope Cellars). The theme was Pinot Noir from various parts of the world. We tasted some very good wines, including Champagne by Brigandat, a Chandon de Briailles wine, a Belle Pente wine, and others. All of the wines cost between $30-40. There were no duds in the tasting - everything was good. One wine, however, was head and shoulders above the rest in terms of quality - the 2009 Enderle & Moll Pinot Noir Buntsandstein.

Binner's 2009 Alsace Pinot Noir was all about fruit and while it was good drinking, it was not complex enough to hold my interest, nor did it distinguish itself in terms of terroir expression. I felt it would have been a better wine had the fruit been harvested earlier. Chandon de Briaille's 2010 Savigny-Les Beaune showed finesse, and a lovely balance of ripe fruit and subtle earth tones. Sandro Mosele's 2010 Pinot Noir Massale the Kooyong in southern Australia had interesting feral animal aromas but also felt a bit roasty to me. Belle Pente's 2010 Yamhill/Carlton Pinot Noir was very tasty and nicely balanced, but did not offer much in the way of complexity, which is understandable in a wine made from very young vines.

Enderle & Moll's wine was world class. It shows that perfect combination of light body, finesse, and pungent aroma and flavor, and a finish that feels tactile on the tongue, and really lingers. The aromas involve red and dark Pinot fruit, but also pine and other foresty smells, and the wine moves across the palate in that light, deft, and powerful way that comes with well tended old vines. The wine is delicious now but seems to me to have the kind balance and acidity that indicate good potential for improvement in the cellar.

Okay, so now you know that I really liked the wine. I wrote about another of Enderle & Moll's wines last year - I loved that one too. Dan Melia (or Dan Amelia, as my daughters call him - you can choose because he's fine with both) and Lars Carlberg, when they ran Mosel Wine Merchant, brought Enderle & Moll to the US. It's not like the wines sold like hotcakes, but red wine wasn't really the point of their portfolio. They sold enough, and there's hardly any wine anyway. When Mosel Wine Merchant was retired, its producers were snapped up lickety-split by some of the juggernauts of the New York wine sales landscape (Louis/Dressner, Grand Cru, vom Boden, and so on). No one is importing Enderle & Moll though, and I'm no wine economist, but I cannot imagine why this is.

The wines are cheaper than most villages level Burgundy and compare quite favorably with even the best villages level Burgundy. These are excellent and distinctive wines, and they happen to be farmed and made in a healthy way. I hope that one of you importers out there, or one of you enterprising wine store owners, sees the light on Enderle and Moll, and takes the wines in before Diageo grabs them.

Here is Lars Carlberg on Enderle & Moll.
Here is the Enderle & Moll website. It's in German, but you'll be able to see immediately that it's about wine.

I promise, I will be your first retail customer.

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New Orleans - Gulf Shrimp and Other Delicious Things I Just Ate

Date: Tue, Apr 9, 2013 Wine Tasting

I've been to New Orleans many times in the past several years, always for work. But even while working, one must eat, no? I love the food in New Orleans, and I really mean that - I love the exuberant commitment to local seafood and to traditional dishes. And if you've not been there, let me tell you this - the cooks in New Orleans have mastered their dishes and it's easy to find fantastic food, from complex things like gumbo or étoufée to the magnificent simplicity of a fried shrimp po'boy. There are so many ways to eat these and other things, at high end restaurants and at more modest but equally charming joints. Here some of the great things I ate on a recent trip:

I went to Domilise's for the first time. It's in the uptown neighborhood but not far from the river.

The man behind the counter said that it opened over 100 years ago as a bar, serving mostly the fellows who worked on the river all day and wanted a drink afterwards. It's been in the family since then, the wife of the man who opened it would cook for the patrons, and it caught on that her cooking was good.
If I were forced to choose only one, I would say that this is the very finest sandwich that I have ever had in New Orleans, and that's saying something. Domilise's fried shrimp po'boy was a thing of beauty. Copious amounts of very fresh sweet shrimp, fried but not too much, not past the point of crisp crust and succulence inside, dressed with lettuce and chopped pickles and a swab of their version of remoulade. I don't really know what else to say here - this sandwich is a masterpiece in Domiliese's hands.

Domilise's roast beef and gravy po'boy is excellent too, and most assuredly in the messy style.

Domilise's is not the only great shrimp sandwich in New Orleans, not by a long shot. This beautiful shrimp and fried green tomato remoulade po'boy comes from Mahoney's, uptown on Magazine Street.

Mahoney's also makes a fine Muffaletta, the New Orleans classic sandwich with Italian roots - salami, mortadella, and other cold cuts on round sesame seed bread with a generous layer of chopped pickled vegetables. Hard to argue with that.

But to return to the beautiful sweet gulf shrimp of New Orleans, I also ate them for breakfast one day at Ruby Slipper in Mid City. Really this dish is about the grits, which were creamy but retained a lovely grainy texture. Topped with fresh gulf shrimp, this is sweet and savory paradise.

And at the delightfully old school Uptown classic The Upperline, I enjoyed fresh gulf shrimp remoulade over fried green tomatoes. This remoulade was made with a lot of whole mustard grains and was very delicious. I love all of the different remoulade interpretations in New Orleans - that could probably be the subject of a book.

Gulf drum fish was also very good at Upperline, although not as wonderful as the shrimp that accompanied it, which were meant to be dipped in a somewhat spicy habenero pepper sauce.

It wasn't all gulf shrimp, although I would sign up for that today. New Orleans boasts one of the better BBQ joints I know of (disclaimer: I have never been to Texas, Kansas City, or St. Louis), called The Joint. They make very compelling ribs, indeed. Great home made baked beans too.

Yes, New Orleans draws tourists for Jazz Fest and plenty of other things, but to me it is a city that is worth visiting even if only to eat and drink.

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Champagne, Revisited.

Date: Wed, Apr 3, 2013 Wine Tasting

Once again, I am reminded that it takes several experiences, at least, in order to understand a wine. Subtlety can get lost even when drinking a wine calmly with friends over a meal, especially if other wines are present. I had dinner with a few friends on a recent night and one of them very generously brought along a bottle of Cedric Bouchard's Blanc de Blancs called La Bolorée. Here is what I wrote about this wine in August of 2011:

La Bolorée is an unusual wine. It is an old vines Pinot Blanc grown on chalky soils in the Aube, there's nothing else like it. It was very smokey and mineral, and quite rich with honeyed flavors on the finish. I appreciated the quality of this wine but it was my first time drinking it and I must say that I didn't really understand the wine, it was simply too far away from what I know of the aromas and flavors of Champagne. I'd love to drink it again, but this is not an easy thing to do as quantities are small and the wine retails for about $175.
I've since had the wine twice, and it is a curiosity, for sure. The only pure Pinot Blanc Champagne that I know of, it is quintessentially Bouchard in its clear expression of terroir and its purity of fruit. That time I drank it in August, 2011 at the Bouchard dinner, for me it got lost among the other wines. It is a wine that I imagine would show terribly at a tasting - people would be left shaking their heads at how a wine like that could cost so much money, at how capricious the Champagne hipsters are.

But the thing is, La Bolorée is a great wine. It's also an unusual wine, a Champagne that shows aromas and flavors that have no bearing on what we think of as "normal." It is herbal and green. Not green as in under ripe, green as in tarragon and chervil, green as in the forest in springtime. The wine thrives on its almost impossible fineness of texture and flavor, not on fruit or anything else that's expected or easy for us to latch onto. Honestly, the wine just doesn't taste like any other Champagne. And so, it is easy to miss why this is a great wine.

Peter Liem, a huge proponent of Bouchard and of this wine before it was introduced to the US, generously opened a bottle this past xmas. Drinking it over a few hours without other wines next to it that would speak louder, I think I understood it. And then on this recent evening even though a few other wines were present, I appreciated it even more, the way its vibrant herbal flavors were layered on a gossamer old vines frame. It seems to me that if one were to draw a large rectangle that contains the world of Champagne, one of the corners of the rectangle would be occupied by this wine - it represents one extreme possibility.

On another recent evening I was in New Orleans at the wonderful Bacchanal, a wine store and bar/restaurant where one can buy a bottle and take it out to the garden in back, order some good food, listen to some shockingly good jazz, and feel happy to be alive. I wandered through the shelves and came upon a bottle of wine I hadn't had in quite some time, René Geoffroy's Champagne Brut Expression. I really like Geoffroy's wines from top to bottom - they are so expressive and joyous and generally offer a great value dollar for dollar. This one was disgorged in 2010, so I figure the base wine is 2008. I was charmed immediately by the harmony of fruit, earth, and vivid chalkiness on the nose and the complexity, particularly on the finish. So much so that I snapped a picture and sent it to Peter, bragging about my outdoor wine affair.

I thought about this wine over the next few days and resolved to buy some. I mean really - a wine with such such a pure chalky expression of such lovely Pinot fruit, for under $50? I asked Peter if the 2010 disgorgement indicates 2008 as the base wine, and he said that it might be but that there is always a lot of reserve wine here too. Wait a minute! Reserve wine? I thought that Expression is made from a single vintage, but not aged long enough to be labeled as a vintage wine. That's when I realized that the wine I thought I was drinking was an entirely different wine! I mixed up Empriente, the almost purely Pinot Noir single vintage wine, with Expression, the wine that is typically comprised of about 50% Meunier, and perhaps 40% Pinot Noir, the rest Chardonnay.

One explanation here is that I have no idea what I'm drinking, and cannot tell Pinot Noir from Meunier, or my a$$ from my elbow. This is entirely possible, perhaps likely. But I prefer to think that the undeniably chalky essence of both wines renders moot the particular cépage. And that the richness and complexity conferred by the high proportion of reserve wines in Expression allows it to feel just as grand of a wine as Empriente. Seriously, this wine is all about chalk, richness of fruit notwithstanding. This is something that I didn't understand about either wine until now.

If there is a lesson here, aside from the fact that I can be an absent minded schmendrik sometimes, it's that no matter who we are, no matter how often or how grand the wines we drink, it's all too easy to miss the point, to be off-base about things sometimes. Best to allow for that possibility and not to shout too loudly about opinions, and to try to find value, even, in being wrong.

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A Tally of Your San Francisco Recommendations

Date: Fri, Mar 29, 2013 Wine Tasting

Thank you all so much for your suggestions on San Francisco eating and drinking!

Here is a list of the places you've recommended so far, in the order of popularity - the number of people recommending them in comments or via email (some of you still like to comment in private):

Slanted Door - 9 (10 positive and 1 negative review)
Bar Tartine - 6
Delfina - 6
Terroir - 6
La Ciccia - 6 (8 positive and 2 negative reviews)
A16 - 5
Aziza - 5
NOPA - 5
Arlequin Wine - 4
Bi-Rite - 4
Swan Oyster Depot - 4
Benu - 3
Commonwealth - 3
La Taqueria - 3
Zuni Cafe - 3
Boulette's Larder - 2
Camino - 2
Foreign Cinema - 2
Ippuku - 2
St. Vincent - 2
State Bird Provisions - 2
Tartine Bakery - 2
Number of people telling me never again to say "San Fran" - 2
There is a whole load of places that one person recommended.

I'm not having an easy time picking here, as some of the places that only one or two people recommend sound quite interesting. As much so as the most popular place on this list, Slanted Door. I will continue to enjoy looking through menus, and thanks again for your advice.

For me, this is SO much better than Yelp...

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The Person who Made the Very First Potato Pancake Probably Drank Gruner Veltliner

Date: Fri, Mar 29, 2013 Wine Tasting

Imagine this: maybe 150-200 years ago, somewhere in eastern Europe, a person of modest means is thinking of what to cook for the family. It's winter and there's not a lot to choose from. In the cellar there are potatoes and onions. There is a sack of flour. There are some eggs, there is a bit of butter. Perhaps it was in a setting like this one when a person had the brilliant idea of making potato pancakes?

I have no idea at all if this is true. Maybe a trained chef at an Austrian cooking school invented the dish. Maybe the potato pancake was invented 75 years ago, or 300 years ago. Isn't it interesting to imagine how a person, someone who must be a creative and brilliant chef, is able to take familiar and humble ingredients and come up with something that is so delicious that it proliferates the way a potato pancake, for example, proliferates?

I like making potato pancakes with the daughters. The other night they were the center of a meal, along with a little split pea soup and a cucumber salad. Couldn't be simpler - peel and grate 2 russet potatoes. Sprinkle with a little salt and let them sit a few minutes so that they begin to release their water. Squeeze out as much water as you can, add two beaten eggs, a tablespoon and a half or so of flour, some salt, and a tablespoon or two of finely grated onion (more or less as you please). Mix well, fry in butter, et voila.

Although it's important to remove the water from the potatoes before making the batter, this is a forgiving dish. On this evening we got distracted from our cooking for maybe 5 minutes, and still the potatoes continued to release water, or maybe the bond between the egg and the potato began to relax. But there was liquid in the bottom of our batter bowl.

No matter - we lifted out large spoonfuls of batter and pressed them into pancake-shaped discs in a hot pan of butter. This is one of those simple dishes whose aroma will bring neighbors to the front door, the perfect time to come and say hello.

Turn the pancakes after a few minutes when they are golden brown on the bottom. Remove after another few minutes and let them rest a moment on a paper towel, getting rid of some excess butter.

Six year-old daughters can peel Persian cucumbers, and can even help chop them into large chunks, if we hold the knife together. They can salt cucumbers and add a little vinegar, and stir.

They can not, however, drink a glass of 2011 Bernard Ott Gruner Veltliner Am Berg. For this, I feel badly for them, although their time will certainly come. Right now they think wine is gross and don't even want to taste it. The wine, be the way, has improved since last year, showing a lovely airy freshness, herbal and creamy notes, and good balance. A great value at about $18 before any sort of case discount.

With a bowl of split pea soup with chunks of carrot and little bits of ham (calm down, also home made), the humble potato pancake and the humbler cucumber salad make a very good dinner.

The person who first thought to create a pancake out of a few potatoes, an onion, a few eggs, some flour and salt - this is a person who must have enjoyed wine with their meal. Perhaps it was home made from a few rows out behind the house? Maybe it was even a Gruner Veltliner.

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San Francisco Restaurant Recommendations

Date: Mon, Mar 25, 2013 Wine Tasting

Hello All -

I have to travel to San Fran for work in April and I haven't been there in 20 years. I know almost nothing about the city. I'm wondering if I can ask you, dear readers, to share your recommendations for good eating in San Fran. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner ideas welcome - anything that's good to eat, from the rickety and run down place with the best tacos to the nicer place with great food and a good wine list.

I really appreciate it!


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The Ability to Withstand Magnification

Date: Mon, Mar 18, 2013 Wine Tasting

The other night a friend came over for dinner and he brought with him a bottle of white Burgundy, a wine that reminded me why it is that I love white Burgundy. Not that I needed a reminder - some of the finest wines I've ever drunk have been white Burgundies. I'm not put off by the bottles that don't live up to expectations, even though these can be costly disappointments. Wine in all categories can be disappointing, and I don't buy the cliché about Burgundy being "hit or miss." All wine is hit or miss when you get right down to it. Storage, bottle variation, and many other factors can reduce the experience of any given wine. And when white Burgundy is on, it is as thrilling as wine can be, to my taste.

The funny thing is, on paper this wine didn't have to be so good. 1994 is not considered to be a good vintage, for one. And this wine comes from Puligny, but the producer is better known for white wines from Meursault. That said, the 1994 Robert Ampeau & Fils Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru Les Combettes was a very good wine. Not the greatest of white Burgundies that I've had, even recently, but very good, particularly considering the difficult vintage. And the wine made me think quite a bit.

We opened it and tasted, maybe a half hour or so before we would begin drinking it. My friend who brought the wine was not terribly impressed, and I understood why - it seemed dilute, without much concentration. But we had graduated college in 1994, and we also were probably not terribly concentrated in 1994, needing time to gain complexity and become more serious. We have since done that, and with a little air, the wine did too. It never fully lost that dilute feeling, but it did blossom aromatically and although not a wine with much sap or richness of body, it absolutely and clearly articulated itself and showed a very lovely delicacy to its aromas and flavors. That's not a cop out way of explaining away a mute wine. It is a truthful description of the wine's character.

Not every wine will be powerful, rich, and with concentrated flavors. You already know that, but I'm just saying. Mature white Burgundy can be great and can do so in the character of something light in body, delicate, almost fragile. I've not had other vintages of this wine so I don't know, maybe this is always the character of Ampeau's Combottes. Somehow, I doubt it. 1994 was not an easy year, with lots of rain and other problems. Many people wrote off the vintage, and today's prices for '94s are lower than any other vintage in the '90s. But I've had several examples of 1994 Burgundy in the past months and have really enjoyed them.

So, what about this particular wine: I loved the clean and pure articulation of aroma, incense and stone and spring water. And I loved the delicate way those aromas tranlslated on the palate, finishing with some pungency, leaving a lingering incense and mineral essence that didn't so much stain the palate, but left an impression nonetheless.

In his classic book Making Sense of Burgundy, Matt Kramer writes about Puligny-Montrachet:
The goût de terroir of Puligny seems somehow more sharply etched than elsewhere. The fruit is defined and powerful yet restrained, like the musculature of a martial artist. Its perfect composition is revealed by its ability to withstand magnification. As you increase resolution, from commune level Puligny to premier cru and then zoom to Batard-, Chevlalier- and Le Montrachet, you find no blemishes, no distortions in taste or balance.
I hadn't read this section of the book in a while and the day after drinking this wine, went back for a look. This paragraph struck me in its description of Puligny's restrained character, something that I am learning to see in the wines, especially in relation to the brawnier wines of Meursault, Puligny's neighbor to the north. Combettes is a vineyard that borders on the Meursault appellation, and probably has more flesh than some Puligny wines (which may have something to do with why Ampeau's Combettes in 1994 is as successful as it is). And still, the character of this Combettes, to me anyway, was unmistakably Puligny.

Kramer also talked about the ability to withstand magnification, and I like thinking about this. Maybe the idea can be extended to vintage. In a riper vintage like 2003 for example, the essential restraint should still be evident. And in 1994, for example, a lesser vintage, there is no distortion in taste or balance.

Maybe this sounds like a simplistic thing to say, but maybe it would be easier for those of us who love Burgundy if we stop hoping that every bottle will be a great thing, if we let go of our ideas of the heights a bottle should ascend to. I'm not saying that we should dumb it down or stop expecting the wines to be great. But that it's also nice to allow a 1994 to be a 1994, and to appreciate it for whatever its charms may be.

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Quick Radish Pickle

Date: Tue, Mar 12, 2013 Wine Tasting

So apparently you can pickle vegetables merely by adding salt and then waiting a little while as the water is drawn from the cells. This quick pickling method can take as little as 5 minutes if you are David Chang, or it can take longer, but my sense is that it's up to the pickler to decide how long the pickling will take.

Not long ago I ate dinner at a friend's house and he served napa cabbage quick pickled in salt, and it was delicious. I resolved to do some quick pickling of my own. And so the other day I found myself with a trio of radishes, and tried my first quick pickle. I used one each of daikon, the large and somewhat mild carrot-shaped radish, watermelon radish, which is a colorful and very mild radish, and the very pungent green meat radish. I harbored the secret hope that the bright colors and taming effect of pickling might induce my children to try the radishes.

I peeled them and sliced them in half and quarter moons, and added maybe a bit more than a tablespoon of coarse kosher salt. Tossed well, and let them sit for a half hour. They were delicious immediately, so this actually was not so easy to do.
A half hour later the radishes had lost some of their luminous color and their firm crunch, but were delicious in a different, mellower way.

I served them as a side dish with a dinner of breaded and fried chicken thighs and soba noodles. Both daughters tried them - they went for the watermelon radish, which shouldn't be a surprise. My younger one may actually have liked it, although she elected to mimic her older sister in expressing her dismay at the radish's flavor. I thought they were delicious. The next day I tossed the leftovers in a few drops of sesame oil, and that was some serious deliciousness. There will be more of this quick pickling happening in my house.

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