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TBIFOM #02: The M Word

(The Bottle In Front Of Me is a series of regular, brief tasting notes from the Rogue Estate’s resident wine guy, Ian.) The M word. Seven years after it's release, the most notorious quote from "Sideways" still rings in most Americans' ears: (Miles Raymond) "If anyone orders Merlot, I'm leaving. I am NOT drinking any fucking Merlot!" The bottle in front of me is not Miles' Merlot. It's Massive. Macho. Murderous. Aside from the few decent Bordeaux's I've splurged on, my Merlot experience is limited mostly to high volume, low-flavor Californian juice of little note. I typically associate strawberry aromas and flavors with these young bottles, rushed to market. At $10-15 a pop, there has been little encouragement to search deeper. M. Cosentino has given me that encouragement. I found their 2005 Napa County Merlot lurking behind the more current 2006 at a local shop. I got wine-jacked. 2005 M. Cosentino Napa County Merlot (About $16) Learn more about the winery: Learn more about the bottle in front of me: SEE: A very deep, rich ruby color, with nice clarity. Consistent color through to the rim, showing little signs of age. SWIRL: The wine clings stubbornly to the sides of the glass, resulting in extremely slow legs. SMELL: Very ripe (almost overripe) aromas of black stone fruits, cherry and plum. Some deep floral and herb scents - mild lilies and sweet annie. Wood shows through with faint tar, cedar, and vanilla. SIP: Powerful, dense, chewy fruit on the tongue, with cassis, black plum, and black cherry upfront. An initial sweet attack is followed with a wash of tartness. The concentration and plum flavors combine to give an impression of prunes (in a good way). SAVOR: The fruit resolves to a mildly sweet tobacco finish, which stretches into a lingering smoky espresso flavor. Final impression: This is defiantly Californian, new world, and BIG. A great value for the price, and a wine to be be savored over a few hours. Pair with: Man food. Grilled hanger steak, lamb burgers, and strong, funky, salty cheeses. P.S. Mafioso Maduros for the bonus.

TBIFOM #01: Drink Your Backyard

(The Bottle In Front Of Me is a series of regular, brief tasting notes from the Rogue Estate's resident wine guy, Ian.) Drink your backyard. The most important mantra any food obsessive has heard repeatedly over the last decade or so is to eat local, and drink local. In the world of wine, this mantra is largely laughable for 99% of the world's population. I count myself in the 99%, along with large swaths of Asia, Africa, anybody in inland South America, most of Eastern Europe, and all but about six U.S. states. But I'm really close to being able to drink local, and it's getting better all the time. For this, my first regular posting of tasting notes, I chose the most local wine I could find, from my neighborhood store, in its current release (2010) which was a better year than most in recent memory. 2010 Pelee Island Pinot Noir (About $13) Learn more about the winery: Learn more about the bottle in front of me: SEE: Clear medium red, with a light pinkish rim, indicative of youth. SWIRL: Bright color, with weak legs on the glass. SMELL: Very bright lively aromas of cherries, with a slight fragrance of strawberry and cedar. Clearly Pinot Noir, but reserved. SIP: Very dry, tart cranberry that washes thinly over the tongue, nice acidity with a bit of initial bitterness that softens over time. Tannic, old world style, honest, and designed for food. SAVOR: Tannins last throughout the finish, with hints of graphite and leaves. Final impression: Would buy again, but there may be a few more satisfying Pinot's in this price range, mostly from larger producers in California. Pair with: fresh air, light cheeses, vegetable dishes, and mildly flavored game such as rabbit or quail. P.S. If you live anywhere near southeastern Michigan, you owe it to yourself to spend a day visiting Pelee Island. Drive to Leamington (Canada's tomato country) in the late Summer or early Fall, take the ferry, and spend a day biking and picnicking on a very relaxed, beautiful island.

Squash for Adults

When I was a child, any kind of winter squash was my enemy. My mother was fond of acorn squash, roasted in the oven until soft, and pureed with brown sugar and margarine (ugh). To me the uniform texture, midway between watery and gummy, held no appeal. And I associated the sweetness of squash with the gagging texture, which may be partly why I've always been a fan of savory foods over sweet ones. My mind was set until a Thanksgiving at my grandmother's house, where she served a squash dish that included onions and a breadcrumb topping. It made a difference - both the savoriness and the sweetness from only the natural sugars in the fruit. Moreover, there was a textural contrast that I loved. Now, I like almost all winter squash. But when I prepare it, I like to marry differences in texture, PLUS invite the right balance between sweet and savory. Today I dreamed up a dish I call "Squash Three-way", a naughty name you would never find on an insipid jar of over-processed baby food. Essentially it's a two layer dish with a favorite simple topping - roasted pepitas, which are the hulled seeds of certain varieties of pumpkins or squash. The first layer is a basic savory latke, replacing the potato with shredded winter squash. The second is a sweetened mash of winter squash, upon which rests the slightly crunchy pepitas. Squash Three-way Recipe for 3 servings (scale up as necessary, swingers!) For the mash: 1 small to medium French variety winter squash (Sucrine Du Berry, Rouge D'Etampes, or Baby Golden Hubbard) 1/2 cup chicken stock (optional) 4-5 Tbsp butter Pumpkin pie spice (nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, allspice blend) 2-3 Tbsp brown sugar For the latkes: 1 medium (7-inch) Delicata squash 1 large shallot 1 extra large chicken egg, beaten 1 tsp baking powder 3-4 Tbsp All Purpose flour Salt & Pepper to taste Ground dried sage to taste Ground dried oregano to taste 2 Tbsp corn or canola oil for frying For the topping: Handfuls of roasted, salted pepitas (available in Mexican or health food stores, and many Trader Joe's) Prepare mash: Preheat oven to 350°. Halve French squash lengthwise and scoop out seeds. Roast cut side down in a pan with 1/2 cup stock or water for an hour or until soft (while roasting, prepare latkes as below). Let cool. Scoop pulp into bowl, discard skins. Add butter and spice. Mash with a fork to a smooth consistency. Keep warm. Prepare latkes: Halve Delicata squash lengthwise and scoop out seeds. Peel skin from flesh. Grate raw flesh with a box grater (better yet, one of these: Thinly slice shallot and mix with grated squash. Add baking powder, flour, salt, pepper, herbs, and mix well. Add beaten egg and stir thoroughly. Heat oil over medium heat until hot. Drop mixture in 1/3-1/2 cupfuls into hot oil, pressing down slightly. Fry 2-3 minutes on each side until golden brown. Drain and blot, keep warm. Assemble by topping latke with mash, and sprinkle pepitas on top. Enjoy, but be careful any photos don't find their way onto the Internet!

Hope mom doesn't see this!

The Vertical Workout – French Rosé

TASTE.  Tasting wine is truly an exercise.  You can gulp, or sip, or quaff without paying close attention--enjoy your meal perfectly, and maybe even get a good buzz. For most people, that's enough.

Those people are missing out.

I'm hoping you've tried at least once to focus and TASTE.  See, swirl, smell (twice), sip, swish, spit and savor.  That's one classic technique for wine tasting, and if you take notes in-between those steps, you'll learn.  A lot.

It may feel pretentious and all-too elevated at first, but that's just our common prejudice about wine. You'll get over it.  When we TASTE we're exercising our tongue and the connection it has to the space in our brains that's all about wine, flavor, and memory.

One really cool exercise that most of us don't get to do is a vertical tasting.  A vertical tasting is simply tasting the same wine from the same wine-maker over multiple years.  For the rich (or connected) this can mean tasting wines over many years, decades, or even a century.  But you and I may not be so rich or connected.

You don't actually stack the glasses for a vertical tasting.

The point of this workout is to show you that even the same wine, from the same grapes, from the same vineyards, can vary perceptibly from one year to the next.

The key variable is the weather, which is no small variable.  Rainfall, temperature, and sunlight affect grape sugar levels and yield massively.  Wine-makers adjust with the time and the way they pick fruit, how they press, and how they use their craft to optimize what nature gives them.  It's all about adaptation and improvisation. And THAT is a real workout.  Ask any winemaker. Good wine takes sweat.  Drinking it should involve at least a respectful amount of effort and focus.

The payoff is that you learn a lot more about the wine, the region, the weather, and your own personal preferences.

I recently managed to find a French Rosé at a shop with two consecutive years in stock.  Rosé is an interesting subject for a vertical tasting because Rosés are not made for consistency and age.  They are made for Summer refreshment and immediate enjoyment.  Nevertheless, I expected subtle differences anyway, and I took notes:

Domaine Faverot 2009 and 2010 Rosé (AOC Luberon)

Domaine Faverot Rosé

"Mom always said you were her Faverot!"

The color: Both a beautiful bright light pink, but the 2009 showed a slight tinge of amber at the rim, typical of age.

The aroma: Floral, sweet strawberry aromas dominate. The 2009 exhibits a more sugary/bubble gum scent, while the 2010 smells tighter with a light anise note.

The taste: Both wines had the characteristic bright tart acidity that makes Rosé so refreshing, and great with food. Citrus, melon and berry flavors were up-front in both. I found the 2009 to have a medium body but a fuller, longer finish. The 2010 seemed to have a fuller body, but was slightly more tannic, almost "puckery". My fellow taster found the tannins and acid to be off-putting, but I found the balance of the 2010 to be more satisfying than the 2009 which seemed to have one-note throughout.

Take some time to work your own palate, focus and take notes. If you find the chance to try a vertical tasting, grab it. You'll have a healthier appreciation in no time.

Wine Rules.

It's been exactly one year since my first post and joining the culinary firehose that is the Rogue Estate. Seems like it's an appropriate time to reflect, and share a few things that I've learned in the last year.  I was ostensibly invited to join in for my wine pairing talents.  So let's talk pairing.

Not really a wine-guy.

Wine RULES, like San Dimas High School Football RULES. That Google-able movie reference out of the way, part of the problem with wine pairing is that "rules" can be intimidating.  In America "rules" are meant to be broken.  And stomped on.  And given poorly-considered tattoos at 3am. We don't DO rules. Calling them "traditions" doesn't help, either. We need a new word for guidelines on picking wines to go with food.  So I'm going to go with "wins", as in FTW (it means "For The Win", Nana). What follows are a few widely held views on what makes for a good wine pairing, translated into my own corse language.  Presumably, volumes have been written on each of these concepts, but I'm hoping this serves as wine pairing crib notes for you.

Decisions, decisions.

Wine Win #1: Drink what you like. Ah, the mantra of the un-experienced wine drinker, and the ultra-experienced wine drinker alike.  The un-experienced wine drinker has never had that AHA! FTW! moment that a great Alsatian white paired with a raw-milk Swiss mountain cheese provides.  They've never paid enough for a Bordeaux to see what it does to a simple beef stew.  Fizzy wine is for New Years' Eve, not oysters (who would eat a raw oyster anyway?) The ultra-experienced wine drinker is the opposite.  She's drunk her way through the Rhine, the Rhone, Piedmont, South Africa, and knows that her favorite boutique Sonoma Chard goes with almost any meal that she really likes.  Good for her. Drink what you like is a win for the experienced, but shuts off a world of discoveries for the newly curious. That's a wine fail.  One of the better wine bars in my area has two pairing recommendations listed on their menu with every dish.  The first is "classic", and the second is "experimental".  I adore this approach because it caters to the novice and the adventurer alike.  If we get the expert Chard lover out of her rut, that's a WIN. Wine Win #2: White with Fish and Red with Meat This old chestnut is under attack from almost all sides lately, but for the novice it is generally a safe place to start.  I can't think of any whites that would hold up to a good burger or steak.  Similarly, there aren't any reds that come to mind that could avoid obliterating a pan-seared trout or battered cod.  However, as the cuisine becomes more complicated, nagging little exceptions arise.  Curry-rubbed pork loin?  Viognier.   Salmon or air-cured charcuterie?  Dry Rosé.  What about duck or goose?  Well, it's fatty, so go with acidic, then pair the color of the wine based on how it's prepared or seasoned, and which part of the animal is on the plate.  Confit and dark meat go perfectly with Chinon Cabernet Franc, but roasted pheasant breast pairs nicely with a Pinot Gris.  Actually damn near everything pairs nicely with Pinot Gris.  WIN! Wine Win #3: Opposites Attract Simple, but effective.  One of the great qualities of a wine (or indeed beer) is to refresh, or clear the palate between tastes of food.  Acidic wines work wonderfully with fatty foods.  Sweeter, low-alcohol wines can help tame spicy meals, and tannic, dry wines can help when a dish has a lot of caramelized sugars.  There are a lot of pitfalls and land-mines here, so experiment, take notes, and learn from them.  One of my favorite winning contrasts is a crisp cool Alsatian white with molten Swiss cheese fondue, or Raclette. Wine Win #4: Location, Location, Location This is the crowd-sourced rule that relies on generations of foodies and wine geeks. Before blogging, before Parker, before printing presses could distribute tasting notes, people who ate and drank local (because there were no other options) learned how to tweak the grapes they grew, the animals they raised, and the recipes they designed to work in great harmony.  You can't comfortably dismiss centuries of human culinary experience passed down to us.  So if the dish is typically Tuscan, drink Tuscan.  Argentinian? Go Argentinian.  This works for anywhere, even areas where wines are not made.  Hunan dish?  As much as the industry will push a Dry Riesling or Gewurztraminer, you may win harder with a local black tea. Wine Win #5: The Art and the Frame I recently saw an old acquaintance that I hadn't seen in fifteen years, and learned that he had spent all that time in wine distribution.  Over the course of an all too brief conversation he asked me about my interests and preferences, gave me a couple great tips on wines to explore, and also offered another great wine rule.  This rule may be original, or an ancient selling tool, but I loved the poetry of it, and its relevance to pairing.  Here's a misquote, but it captures the idea. "A dish and a wine is like a painting and a frame.  If the painting is rich and complex, you'll want a simple clean frame that does not pull your attention away from it. And vice-versa. If the dish is the complex painting, choose a simple wine to frame it.  If the wine is extraordinary, make sure the dish is a simple frame that does not distract from it."

Where's your focus?

It's a great rule to win by, but it requires a more sophisticated understanding of food and wine flavors to be able to put it into practice.  Don't match a particularly complex Italian wine with an intricate and bold puttanesca sauce.  Don't be afraid to season your cutlet with only salt and pepper, if you've got a dynamite Burgundy that you opened an hour ago.  Art and frame FTW! So that's a little about what I know. What are your recent food and wine pairing wins?