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Monday, December 5, 2016

Port in the Holiday Storm

In the weeks before Christmas as time was growing short
I searched high and low for a great holiday Port.
One that would be true, as clear as a bell
From Paso Robles comes this holiday Noel.

I could go on, but let’s not belabor the poetry. Each holiday season winemaker Steve Glossner of PASOPORT WINE COMPANY creates Noel, typically a blend of young and mature barrel aged ports consisting of Touriga Nacional, Tinto Cao and a touch of Chenin Blanc, though there are variations to this. There is a freshness about this port; it offers sweet rhubarb, red raspberry, crisp baked apple, candied blackberry, caramelized cedar, sugared plum, and the kind of easy drinkability that you want in a holiday port. There is no overt sweetness and it doesn’t linger like a sticky wicket on your tongue. That doesn’t mean it’s lacking, in fact there is a complexity and richness to it making it a very enjoyable wine to sip. Available at the winery in Paso Robles, or, yes, at my wine department in MONTECITO, it always sells out so you’ve been put on notice! So get a fire going, grab your sweetheart, put on a classic Christmas film and soak in the goodness of this terrific little number.
ORIGIN: Paso Robles, California
PRICE: $45, 500/ML
ALCOHOL: 14.1%

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Ginned Up – How Tom Collins Brought Gin to La Canada

The gin-based cocktail, Tom Collins, got its name from “the great Tom Collins hoax of 1874,” an immature prank whereby a person went to a bar and told a patron that someone named Tom Collins was talking trash about him. The patron, incensed by the idea that Tom Collins would talk smack about him, would then go looking for Tom in as many bars as it took to find him…and hilarity ensued. It didn’t take long for an enterprising bartender to name a drink after the non-existent Mr. Collins. And gin finally got some respect. Sort of.

Gin is having a resurgence in popularity due to trendy craft cocktails and the TV show Mad Men, which robustly praised a drinking culture and resurrected classic cocktails (see my article on 10 classic cocktails HERE). Gin is also perennially known as the preferred base for the martinis of James Bond. So why is gin relevant and frankly how is it that the largest gin list for any bar in North America is not in Los Angeles, Manhattan nor Chicago, but my tiny hometown of La Canada Flintridge at The Flintridge Proper?

Brady and his 200+ gins
I sat down with The Flintridge Proper owner Brady Caverly recently when I revisited my familial digs. “Due to the fact that aged spirits were largely unavailable during prohibition, many of the best golden age cocktails are gin-based like the Tom Collins, Bees Knees, French 75, Negroni, the Martini,” says Caverly, who offers over 200 gins from across the globe including vintage gins from the 1980s, 70s and as far back as 1964. “Gin is appropriately enjoying a renaissance in the mixology movement because of its prominent role in the classics but also because no other spirit offers the diversity of flavor profiles,” Caverly suggests. Sure, gin has a historic context, first distilled by the Dutch in the 1600s and more recently as the signature cocktail at the Coconut Grove in Hollywood in the 1930s, and the still popular dirty martini at Musso & Frank Grill, Hollywood’s oldest restaurant. But that is exactly the point – gin seems stuck in a bygone era, namely your grandfather’s.

Gin is like the middle child of a complex and boisterous family. Whiskey and bourbon are the first-born kids, dominating, aggressive, popular; tequila and vodka are the youngest, goofy kids, the irresponsible ones, the partiers. And there gin sits, the quiet middle spirit who always seems to be “resurging” but never quite breaks out of its shell. “When most people think of gin they think of London Dry, this is the gin our fathers drank with very strong juniper and citrus notes,” says Caverly. “But the majority of the small batch and artisanal gins that makeup our nation's largest collection are in the New World-style, where the juniper is dialed back to be replaced by a dizzying array of botanicals, citrus, spices and other natural ingredients - from the rose notes of Nolets, to the cucumber notes of Hendricks, there is literally a gin for every flavor.”

Arne of Distillery 209
Arne Hillesland, master distiller and “ginerator” for Distillery No. 209 based in San Francisco agrees. “The only gins available for generations were heavy juniper bombs that took some getting used to, or created abject hatred among those who overindulged,” he told me. With the emphasis of distillers like Hillesland, gin is reinventing itself. “Gin, since it is flavored with botanicals and other natural ingredients, can have an almost infinite variety of flavors for all different uses in cocktails as well as neat in a glass,” Caverly says. “By law in the U.S. and many other countries, gin must be a spirit predominately flavored with juniper,” Hillesland says, and asserts that for at least four centuries gin has been much more than just juniper. “Other botanicals have played major parts giving gin depth of flavor and mixability. This increases the approachability for the consumer ready to move on from vodka or other spirits with low flavor content. But if a distiller backs away too much from Juniper they end up with just another flavored vodka.” And the average consumer may not really understand clear spirits enough to know the difference. “It’s all about education,” says Hillesland. “The Screwdriver, the Gimlet, the Greyhound, the Bloody Mary and others are such great cocktails when made in their original gin format instead of vodka.”

And Hillesland notes the making of gin allows for more diverse expression of the final spirit. “All the other major spirits stop the distillation process when gin is just getting fun. Rum, whisky, tequila, brandy, vodka make (typically) one to four passes through the still and then it’s onto bottling or aging. Making gin requires starting with a pure spirit, then follows a process of defining all the botanicals and their amounts, how they are processed to determine the unique flavor profile created in your final distillation with the botanicals added to the pure spirit base,” Hillesland says. Therefore The Flintridge Proper is the de facto stop for a gin lover, or a newbie. “We offer flights of gin where guests enjoy the spirit neat as you would a fine scotch, and I expect to see more folks drinking gin straight in the future,” says Caverly. And with the enthusiasm of people like Caverly and Hillesland, the gin movement has its boosters. “Just as America’s tastes in food are maturing towards the more genuine, flavorful, handcrafted products, I believe that when consumers are educated more about gin they will realize it’s a fantastic and versatile spirit,” Hillesland told me.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Summer in Winter – Imagining Sauvignon Blanc

It’s nearing Thanksgiving here in Santa Barbara where I live. And no, it’s not really winter here, nor even cold. In Santa Barbara winter is merely like a cool summer, but regardless in the cooler months people inexplicably drink more red wine. But hold on…white wine is still ideal for winter, too. To prove my point the 2015 Wow Oui (wow-wee) from Imagery Estate Winery in Glen Ellen is, literally, like summer in your glass. The bright, vivacious, crisp and fresh Sauvignon Blanc with a touch of Muscat (18%) and a wee bit of Viognier (3%) makes this not only a surprise, but also a pretty damn good wine made by Joe Benziger. Lemon-lime, tangerine, hibiscus, watermelon, floral notes of rose and lavender all represent. This is a very balanced wine with food friendly acidity - ideal with a chili-lime seasoning on chicken, fish or tofu. Plus, the label art was done by Penelope Gottlieb of…Santa Barbara! Just over 1,000 cases were made so there’s a good chance you can still find some on their site as they are not available nationally (bummer). So, perk up and pucker up ‘cause this wow is yes.

ORIGIN: Pine Mountain/Cloverdale Peak, California
PRICE: $27/ 750ML
ALCOHOL: 14.1%

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

My Pet Piva - Drinking Beer in Prague

Prague is an exceptionally cool city, almost overwhelming with stunning architecture. But it is also a city of beer, known in the Czech language as piva. This region has a history of brewing dating back to the middle 900s, so yeah, a long and established beer culture. During a recent visit I wanted to see what their beer culture was like. Yes it's similar to America in that there are many craft beers coming on the market, but I was also curious about what are the standard beers, beers you can find everywhere that are ubiquitous. How do they stack up? So rather than search out oddball beers that are hard to find, cost an arm and a leg, I decided to focus on the beers that were widely available, reasonably priced and provided a nice diversity of beer drinking experience.

The Breznak Svetle is a pilsner style that is light and bright, presenting a little bitterness and slight hoppiness. This is not a complex beer but pleasant and even-keeled for new beer folks. The Krusovice Cerne offers up mild cocoa and malt notes, soft, silky and creamy with a slight hoppiness on the back and very drinkable. The Bernard Cerny is a non-filtered lager which is not heavy handed, but with noticeable malt and hops and a mild mocha, and while refreshing, it is not a big beer that overwhelms your palette. Even the ubiquitous Pilsner Urquell (billed as the world’s first pilsner) that you’ll see everywhere, is nonetheless a mass produced beer that is crisp and clean and shows that the mass produced beers in the Czech Republic have more flavor than their American mass produced counterparts. These are very pleasant beers and you’ll find them everywhere in Prague, so when you visit, be sure to seek out some craft beers, but even if you don’t, you’ll be rewarded with these piva.


Thursday, October 27, 2016

Conspiracy Theories – Unmasking Malbec

The beauty (and sadness) of the wine world is that are far too many wines you will never try, which means there is so much to discover, you could literally have a new wine every night of your life and never repeat yourself. Sure, it’s safe to stay with Cabernet or Chardonnay from wineries you know…but why? The 2013 Cloak & Dagger Espionage Single Vineyard Malbec, 100% Malbec by the way, is made in Paso Robles and they made a measly 75 cases, but they should have made much more. If you think you know Malbec, you’d better think again. A seamless combination of boysenberry, black berry, pomegranate, black cherry, cedar and a back note of eucalyptus, sweet coffee and a mild acidity complements this rich, deep and wonderfully sumptuous red. Even two days after opening it still retains its structure, though admittedly with a more noticeable pomegranate and tart cherry notes. For wine geeks this translates to a 2 hour cold soak, 18 days on the skins, 20 months in barrel (1/3 new French oak, 2/3 neutral American oak). The wine was awarded a Gold Medal at the 2016 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition – and that’s well deserved! For anyone who loves wine (and I sincerely love this wine), this is one to try. Hard to find? Yep, and that’s not a conspiracy. Happily, and unashamedly I carry it at my wine department in the Upper Village at Montecito Village Grocery in Montecito, so while not easy to get a hold of (the winery or me unless I’m mistaken), it’s around, but like so many conspiracy theories it may vanish as fast as it came. CLOAK AND DAGGER

ORIGIN: Paso Robles, California
PRICE: $32/ 750ML

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Merlot Me, Maybe

“Hey, I just met you, and this is crazy,
so here’s my number, Merlot me maybe.”

Okay, so you might be now singing that pop song in your head. Sorry about that. Anyway…October is the self proclaimed Merlot Month. Really? Does a wine need 30 days in which to prove itself? Ah…with Merlot, yes it does. Merlot has been maligned ever since the film Sideways unapologetically voiced the main character’s opinion, “I’m not drinking any fucking Merlot!” Ouch. It’s not that Merlot was a crappy grape, but that in California, back then in the early 2000s, it was overplanted creating not only glut, but lousy grapes. I love Merlot. Truly, there are some terrific examples, including Lava Cap (Sierra Foothills), and Robert Hall (Paso Robles) and a host of others. So, may I present a Merlot sampler - a range of wines worth considering this month of October that might reinvigorate your red wine consumption. At the very least, try a new Merlot, even one not on this list.
From Sonoma is the inexpensive 2014 Cannonball SonomaCounty Merlot ($14.99), a nifty little number that is a great entry Merlot for those who like more ripe frit and fewer tannins and change in your pocket. It offers rich jammy boysenberry, black berry, a little black cherry and huckleberry, a sweet oak and a pleasant personality - easy to drink, easy to love, easy on the 401k.
Moving up the scale is Peju’s 2013 Napa Valley Merlot ($38), from a certified organic vineyard in the Rutherford area of Napa, which offers more acidity, tighter tannins and more subtle fruit with notes of blackberry, boysenberry, dark plumb and raspberry, hints of sweet cedar and black cherry.
Then we come to the Duckhorn 2013 Napa Valley Merlot ($54) is the gold standard of Merlot in California. Routinely Duckhorn Merlots provide a tactile, sensory experience with dark fruits if blackberry, boysenberry, huckleberry, pomegranate, charred resin, seamless oak integration and a constant stream of acidity working through the wine make this idea with food.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Blind Man’s Bluff – The Consistency of Wine Writers

In blind tasting through a new vintage of Patz & Hall wines I came back to a specific Pinot Noir in their portfolio; one that seemed familiar and trustworthy. It was a Pinot Noir, but P&H make 8 different Pinot Noirs so how do I know this one was so recognizable? The Pinot Noir was made from Hyde Vineyard, located in Carneros. Patz & Hall makes single vineyard Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Hyde and has been doing to since 1996. I’ve had many of their wines, but I knew this wine. I’ve tasted it many times before and it was stored in my memory bank. Now, I taste thousands of wines each year, as a professional wine judge, wine writer and wine buyer (Montecito Village Grocery), so why did this stick out? Well, this is what a wine writer actually does – gets to know wines across vintages, soil types and the influence of weather changes. Though I hadn’t seen the label, I was familiar with this wine – it was identifiable, it was from Hyde. “When the grapes come into our winery from Hyde,” says winemaker and co-founder James Hall, “It’s almost like we hear trumpets blare.” And co-founder Donald Patz added, “We just did a tasting of 12 vintages of our Hyde Vineyard Pinot dating back to 1996 and it’s amazing how poised and hauntingly delicate that debut vintage still is.” Of course, you might expect him to say something like that; after all it is his wine. But I have no vested interest in Patz & Hall wines. I’m just scouring the globe for great wines. And the 2014 Hyde Pinot from Patz & Hall is all blueberry, raspberry, strawberry, rich pomegranate, black cherry, cedar and a great acidity. As I have gone through notes that I have written about past vintages and compared those with current lines from the same producer I routinely see, as is true of many of my wine colleagues, is that our pallets are consistent. What's cool about the Patz & Hall Hyde Vineyard Pinot Noir is that too is consistent – it is one of those wines that’s a slam-dunk and you won’t go wrong. 1,050 cases were made, my friends. Yes, it’s about $75, and yes, I think it’s worth it. PATZ & HALL

ORIGIN: Carneros, California
PRICE: $75/ 750ML