February 2007

Bad news, booze hounds, but it’s official — The New York Times said so — the capital of Cocktail Nation has migrated cocktail7.jpg from New York, specifically Manhattan, to London, where the swinging set indulges in swank Mayfair bars presided over by mixologists — and notice that we use the word nowadays without the irony of an arched eyebrow or raised fingers making invisible “quotation marks” — I say, where the mixologists tender their art in a style combining the best of British tradition with the most avant-garde of world beat concepts and ingredients.

No fair!

The cocktail revival started in Manhattan, was nurtured and practiced fervently, obsessively on that heady island of hopes and delusions and head-bumping realities, of glitter and glamor and gore, and now to come to this state of decadence and decline? My god, it sounds like a night of watery $25 drinks and stale Goldfish crackers, doesn’t it? Like a long taxi ride with a non-English-speaking driver that starts at 4 a.m. and ends where the Boulevard of Broken Dreams empties into Britney Spears’ underwear drawer.

But don’t despair, former Celebrity Mixologists of Manhattan — and there has to be a guild, right? A club? At least a debating society or choral group? — I have an idea.

Here I propose the names of drinks with which you may conjure the cocktails of the future. I don’t create the recipes; I merely give you the titles of the artful blends that will bring fame back to its rightful place in bars and watering holes of Manhattan, if you are clever — and visionary — enough to handle them. Here are the concepts; now you must let your imaginations run riot and create the cocktails that will send those Brits running for their muddling spoons and lemon zesters.

1. Sit, Boy

2. Mere Immortals

3. Absolutely, Positively One Night

4. Anger of the Modernists

5. The Dangers of Tyranny Lurk in Utopian Dreams, Yet Idealism and Decency May Survive in a Police State

6. Jane Eyre

7. The Rage of Abandonment

8. Happy Birthday, Sheryl Suzanne Crowe!

9. Self-Immolation of Developing Economies

10. Sexy Mousy

One stipulation. Please, don’t use squid ink or pickled okra, especially in the same drink.

For No. 5, apologies to separate stories in The New York Times.

There it was, emblazoned on the cover of the Food & Wine magazine for March: “Perfecting Homemade Pizza.”

Well, that’s something I’m interested in. As readers of http://www.koeppelonwine.com know, I make pizza regularly, as many as, oh, 35 to 40 a year, because our ritual is two movies and a pizza on Saturday night or, if duty calls us pizza_01.jpg elsewhere that night — “What, the president wants to see us again?” — on Sunday. We’ve been engaging in this ritual for 12 years or more, so, Buddy, that’s a lot of pizza, and I have worked incessantly to perfect the method myself.
The one-page article by Grace Parisi includes a box of specific products that the magazine recommends for making pizza: The wooden peel from Williams-Sonoma ($27); Bufalus Buffalo Mozzarella from Whole Foods ($NA); a Fibrament cement baking stone ($53); La Valle San Marzano canned tomatoes ($NA); Tutto Calabria oregano on a branch ($4); and a Typhoon “mezzaluna-style” pizza cutter ($18). None of which has anything to do with perfecting your pizza, but Food & Wine always wants to appear to be on top of things when it comes to food prep. I’m still using my ceramic stone and rotary wheel-type pizza cutter from years ago, and you know what? They work just fine. And I always use fresh tomatoes.
Anyway, the secret to great pizza, as anyone knows who wasn’t raised on a diet of Pizza Hut or Domino’s, is a slightly chewy, crisp but not cracker-like crust, and the real secret of the crust is water. Now Parisi, whose grandfather had a pizzeria in Brooklyn, achieves the crust she wants — “a chewy crust with a slight tang” — by leaving the pizza dough in the refrigerator overnight or for up to three days. That’s a pretty radical step, but I’ll try it sometime (maybe not this weekend).

The trick for me is not using a standard amount of water to make the dough, as in “pour four cups of water in the bowl,” but adjusting the amount carefully so that the dough remains moist, even a bit sticky. It can’t be too sticky; that makes kneading impossible and messy to boot, but if the dough is too dry the pizza crust will end up stiff and chewy at the expense of crispness. Keep the dough as moist as you can, flour the board and the dough sparingly and knead it until you have a ball of dough that’s smooth and silky.

While we’re on the subject of pizza, my new favorite meat to us as a topping is guanciale (“gwant-chi-AH-lay”), a dry cured pork jowl that’s a specialty of Latium, the province around Rome, and an essential ingredient in the pasta sauce called amatriciana. Now we know something about pork jowl in the South, a region in which all parts of the pig are consumed. Smoked hog jowl is an essential ingredient in the New Year’s Day blackeyed pea-hog jowl-turnip green soup; simmer a pot of that stuff on the stove for three or four hours and the jowl turns to luscious velvet.

As you can see from the photograph of guanciale here, the jowl is mainly fat, so basically, after frying it at low heat for 10 minutes or so, you have a plateful of pork cracklings. Yeah, they’re not “good” for you, but you can’t always be “good,” guanciale_01.jpg can you? I mean, lordy, what fat this is! Anyway, we use pizza night to make up for all the fish we eat.

We ordered this guanciale from Niman Ranch online. The jowl is cured in salt, maple syrup, pepper, rosemary, coriander and bay. Niman Ranch, located in Marin County, California, employs humane and sustainable practices. The pigs run free, eat natural feed and are given no antibiotics. That certainly makes me feel better about eating pure fat.
Now we couldn’t eat pizza without wine to go with it, preferably a bold, flavorful but not too complicated red wine. Here are two we’ve had with pizza recently:

*Vertex Just Red Blend No. 609, California. This nonvintage blend of cabernet sauvignon from Lake County, syrah and vertex2_01.jpg petite sirah from Lodi, cabernet franc from Napa Valley and merlot and malbec from Sonoma County is a product of The Gabrielle Collection of Wines. Robert Pepi and Jeff Booth are the winemakers for Vertex, a robust and full-bodied red wine bursting with hearty, spicy black currant, blackberry and black cherry flavors nestled in a cushion of dusty, chewy tannins. Great with pizza, red meat pastas and burgers. Very good. About $11.

*Artezin Zinfandel 2005, Mendocino County 39%, Amador County 36%, Sonoma County 25%. Artezin is a label of The Hess Collection. This is a super-attractive, almost sophisticated zinfandel, solid and firm, very spicy and flavorful, with no ashy edges or over-ripe exaggerations. Notes of clean earth and leather bolster currant, cherry and plum fruit permeated by licorice and lavender, grainy tannins and polished oak; the finish is a bit austere and could use a year or two to flesh out, but this is primarily a terrific zinfandel that went perfectly with pizza. Excellent. About $18.

I had lunch this week — o.k., 25 other people were there — with Daniel Schuster, an owner and winemaker of the winery in New Zealand that bears his name, and he had so much to say about wine and winemaking that made so much sense that I could hardly keep up with jotting down his words of wisdom. Let me lay out three sentences, however, that seem to me to be essential and timeless in their relationship to this beverage that we love.

1. “Wine is always part of something bigger than yourself.”
2. “Wine should be shaped by the environment where it grows.” danny_01.jpg
3. “Great wine has structure, a beginning, a middle and an end.”

Founded in 1986, in the Waipara district of North Canterbury, Daniel Schuster Wines is owned by the Schuster and Hull families. The vineyards are farmed organically, and all processes in the winery are kept as simple as possible. Moving and racking of wines is by gravity; as Daniel Schuster said, “Gravity has been here for a long time, and it’s free.” The down-to-earth nature of that statement, with its hints of practicality and wit, summarizes Schuster’s character. With his bristling mustache and casual clothes, his gruff, hearty and friendly manner, he looks and acts like a farmer, not like one of the world’s great winemakers and consultants.

How is wine a part of something bigger than ourselves? A glass of great wine exists at the apex of a pyramid of historical, geographical, culinary and psychological factors. It encompasses the history of the people who made it and the land they inhabit and where the vineyards exist; it involves the food with which it is consumed, whether a grand four-course meal or a heel of bread, a hunk of cheese and a handful of olives, and the myriad sensual and emotional aspects which it appeals to and appeases.

Those factors have something to do with Schuster’s second aphorism, that wine should be shaped by its environment. This statement is a simple way of expressing the notion of what the French call terroir — the congeries of specific geographical and climatic influences that affect a particular vineyard — but the word “shaped” possesses a lovely implication of gentle malleability. Being shaped by the environment also implies that the winemaking process should be as gentle and non-manipulative as possible, more nurturing than demanding. To that end, Schuster eschews the use of small oak barrels and instead employs large casks, hence avoiding the undue influence of wood.

It would seem logical that great wines possess structure — beginning, middle and end — yet too many wines, especially made in California, feel the same in the mouth from start to finish, bursting forth and then collapsing wearily in a welter of toasty new oak and super-ripe fruit. Winemakers seem to have forgotten the importance of precisely balanced acid, the constitutional element that lends wine life and backbone; too much acid and the wine is thin and nervous, too little and it turns soft and flabby.

Here are my notes on the Daniel Schuster wines we tried with lunch at Erling Jensen: The Restaurant in Memphis. Executive chef is the Danish Erling Jensen; his chef de cuisine is Justin Young.

*Daniel Schuster Sauvignon Blanc 2006, Marlborough. This scintillating wine was served as aperitif. It’s terrifically bright, clean and vivid, bursting with lime, grapefruit and limestone jazzed by electrifying acidity that touches to life hints of tarragon and dried thyme, fig and sunny currant. The limestone element expands in the glass, turning the whole package almost crystalline with purity and intensity. Excellent. About $20.
*Daniel Schuster Petrie Vineyard Chardonnay 2002, Waipara. “Huge, oily, buttery chardonnays are barbaric,” said Schuster, and by contrast offered this amazingly clean, vibrant and buoyant rendition of the often-abused grape. This version seethes with classic chardonnay intensity and flavor yet it’s individual too, its grapefruit-pineapple flavors given a sheen of peach and mango, though there’s nothing cloying or overwhelming here. The acid cuts a swath on the palate, lending the wine refreshing liveliness through a lovely, silken texture. The finish is lovely, pure limestone. Excellent. About $28. The dish: House-smoked salmon belly salad with Bibb greens.

*Daniel Schuster Riesling 2006, Waipara. Very clean, pure and intense, with incisive acidity arrowing through beguiling flavors of peach, pear and white pepper permeated by dried spices and limestone. The texture is seductive, crisp, yes, but almost talc-like in softness, and overall, the balance is exquisite. Excellent. About $18, Good Value. The dish: Roasted monkfish on curried parsnip puree.

*Daniel Schuster Pinot Noir 2005, Waipara. As much as I liked all of these wines and the food they accompanied, this pinot and this course were the highlights of the event; the wine points the way to the future of pinot noir in New Zealand, where much has been proclaimed about the grape without the performances yet to back up those assertions. This, however, is superb, an entrancing satiny, smoky and vibrant amalgam of clean earth and minerals, moss and new leather, black cherry, currant and plum flavors, roses and violets, all shaped by subtle and supple wood notes and a bright line of acidity that would make a Burgundian proud. Exceptional. About $28 and Cheap at the Price. The dish, which sticks in my memory: the succulent and deeply flavorful roasted pheasant breast with truffle-risotto croquettes.

*Daniel Schuster Hull Family Vineyard Late Harvest Riesling 2006, Waipara. This is a romantic version of most late-harvest dessert wines, lovely and delicate but with plenty of acid structure, tender pear, peach and apricot flavors — spiced and macerated — and a super-clean, dry finish to round off the hint of sweetness on the entry. Excellent and Very Charming. About $34 for a half-bottle. Dessert was an individual apple-rosemary Charlotte with caramel sauce.

Visit http://www.danielschusterwines.com

For information about Erling Jensen: The Restaurant, visit http://www.ejensen.com

Imagine that you are a bottle of Chianti, created from grapes won by soil and climate and human sweat from a mori-chianti03.jpg well-tended vineyard on a picturesque Tuscan hillside, nurtured in a winery with educated craft and hard-earned knowledge, bottled and corked and sent out into the world with hopeful expectation.

How do you — the bottle of Chianti — get from that sun-burnished hillside, that ancient stone winery, to a table in a city in the United States of America? mori-chianticastelrotto01.jpg
You take a circuitous path. There’s the broker in Florence who makes the deal with the importer in New York that brings the wine on a boat and, if you’re lucky, in a refrigerated container, called a “reefer,” to these shores. The importer has contracts with wholesale distributors in many states, though perhaps not all over the country if it’s a small importer, and ships the wine by truck — and if you’re lucky it’s a refrigerated truck — to various cities within its territory. The wholesale distributors in those cities, in turn, sell the wine — you, the bottle of Chianti — to retail stores, restaurants and bars with whom it has dealings. And in one of those stores, somebody buys you and takes you home.

Think of the costs involved: The cost of farming the grapes and making and aging and bottling the wine; the cost of trucking it to a seaport where it’s loading onto a ship; the cost of unloading the wine and taking it to the importer’s warehouse; the cost of promoting the wine, paying the marketing firm for advertising or at least for setting up a few lunches for journalists and retailers and restaurant people; the cost of shipping the wine inland, to Albany and Baltimore, to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Louisville and Atlanta. The cost to the wholesaler of storing the wine — and too many wholesalers, by the way, do not have chill-rooms for wine — and paying their employees who are out hitting the stores and restaurants to sell the wine, and finally the retailer, who has rent and insurance and overtime and so on.

It seems like a miracle that we can still buy nifty little Spanish and Italian wines for $8 and $10. It also seems as if the guy getting the short end of the stick is the farmer working in the vineyard.

Anyway, I bring up these matters, and specifically the bottle of Chianti, because I recently bought at a retail store in Memphis, a bottle of Chianti 2003 produced by the firm of Giacomo Mori. Let me say this right now: In almost 23 years of writing about wine, this is the best “basic” Chianti level wine I have encountered; it’s a model, an exemplar, of what Chianti ought to be.

Let me remind readers, briefly, that three levels of Chianti exist: First (and so familiarly) is Chianti, produced in a large area of that name between Florence and Siena, large enough that quality varies widely. The image of Chianti as a light, cheap acidic wine consumed in inexpensive Italian restaurants, dripping candles stuck into the empty bottles, persisted for generations and perhaps has finally faded, because quality is improving. Next is Chianti Classico, a smaller region (though perhaps too large for consistent quality) in which the blend of grapes and barrel aging are subject to regulation, as is the case with the smaller and theoretically more prestigious category, Chianti Classico Riserva.

So, the point is that I bought this Giacomo Mori Chianti 2003, and it turned out to be terrific. It’s packed with spice, black fruit flavor and floral elements, all of these of the fresh and dried nature, as well as black tea, orange rind and soft, chewy well-integrated tannins. Unlike so many red wines in Tuscany today, this one is aged in large casks, not small oak barrels, so there’s little oak influence. The chief character here: Lovely purity and intensity, balance and integration.

The average retail price for this wine is $19 or $20, though an Internet search revealed princes ranging from $15 to $23. Whoa, FK, you’re saying, I like my Chianti to run about $12 or $14. I mean, we’re talking about a simple, basic wine here.

I understand that, but there’s nothing simple about the quality, the authenticity or the integrity of this wine. I think it’s definitely worth $20.

On the other hand, I paid $34, and I’m pretty steamed about that.

As I have pointed out in this post, myriad factors contribute to the cost of a bottle of wine in its progress from birth to the customer’s wine-glass, and I don’t expect a wine made in California or shipped in to New York to cost the same in Memphis as in those places. But a little better ratio would be nice. I recently wrote with high praise, for example, on this blog and on my website about the Logan Sleepy Hollow Vineyard Chardonnay 2005, from Monterey County. The suggested retail price is $18; I paid $20. OK, two bucks more. I can live with that.

However, charging $14 more for a bottle of wine than the average national price seems not just, well, downright mean but counter-productive. The retailer may be justified in passing on his expenses and the cost from the wholesaler to the customer, but how many consumers, realizing that they have paid 70 percent more for a wine than the average price, will decide not to shop at that store?

The Giacomo Mori Chiantis — there’s also an excellent single-vineyard “Castelrotto” — are Marc de Grazia Selections imported by Vin DeVino in Chicago.

My newspaper colleague Michael Donahue, who is well-versed in country things, years ago used to make corn wine. He learned the recipe from an elderly woman who lived down the road from him out in the country in north Mississippi. I corn4_01.jpg don’t mean corn whiskey, but real corn wine. We have had a jar of Michael’s corn wine from 1993 sitting in the refrigerator for a little more than 13 years; actually several refrigerators, because the little Mason jar moves with us from house to house. We used another jar, again years ago and I think this was the 1992 vintage, for a deglaze with fried pork chops; it was wonderful.

Anyway, every once in a while, I say or LL says, “We ought to open that jar of Michael’s corn wine,” and then one or the other of us says, “Oh, let’s let it age some more.”

Last night, we opened it.

We were eating dinner, trying three wines with one of our favorite dishes, the cod, potato, leek and chorizo stew. Except that the fish was orange roughy, which worked fine. We were tasting the Domaine Bruno Clavelier Bourgogne Aligote 2004, the Domaine Barmes Buecher Rosenberg de Wettolsheim Pinot Blanc 2000, from Alsace, and Nicolas Joly’s Clos de la Coulee de Serrant Savennieres 2000. Yep, just another night at the ol’ trough. All three wines were excellent, and I’ll be writing about them soon, either on my website or on this blog.

In any case, we tend to sit at dinner like this for an hour and a half or so, eating and trying the wines, going back to the wines, filling out the details and dimensions. Eventually, LL said, “You know, there’s some kind of really interesting spice going on with the aligote. Something almost primitive.” She thought for a moment and said, fatefully, “Go get Michael’s corn wine.”

Off to the fridge, pluck the little jar from the shelf. Had to knock at the lid a few times with a spoon to get it to turn.

The color, of course, is extraordinary, a brilliant brassy gold. The bouquet is “foxy” and earthy in the way that scuppernog or muscadine wine is, potent and alcoholic like moonshine or grappa, and then it takes on a scent of citrus-drenched fruitcake. LL and I look at each other, eyebrows raised. I believe I say something like, “Lord have mercy.”

In the mouth Michael Donahue’s Corn Wine 1993 is absolutely smooth and mellow, a segue of orange rind into apricot into spiced and brandied peaches. And completely dry; there’s nothing sweet about this wine, in fact the finish is dauntingly austere. And under the fruit, there remains something earthy, primitive, an elusive, handmade aspect I can only describe as “country.”

What would it have been like at age 15? Age 20? We’ll never know.

Oh, the pressure!

The special present. The special flowers. The special dinner. bonnydoon_hearthasitsriesling.jpg
Special, special, special. Get it right, Bub. Or Bubbette.

Perhaps I might ease a bit of the pressure by recommending some wines to accompany that special, intense, romantic candle-lit dinner, wines that have, as it were, Valentine’s written all over them.

First, Bonny Doon’s The Heart Has Its Rieslings 2005, designated an “American Riesling” whose grapes hail from Eastern Washington, though the winery is in Santa Cruz, California. This offers a beguiling bouquet of rubber eraser and bubble gum — classic characteristics of the grape, I promise — lychee, peach and pear; it displays gratifying balance between sweetness of slightly over-ripe and spicy stone fruits with the bracing nature of lime and grapefruit and a stong limestone element. Charming and rated Very Good. Suitable as an aperitif or with spicy (but not fiery) Southeast Asian cuisine. About $14-$18.

Then, from Alsace, there’s Hugel’s Cuvee Les Amours Pinot Blanc 2004, a lovely wine, soft yet crisp, delivering tasty pear and melon scents and flavors touched with almond and almond blossom, and permeated by heaps of limestone and chalk for a dry and slightly austere finish. Try with fresh oysters or mussels or grilled trout. Very Good+. About $15.

We don’t see many rose wines from Bordeaux, but the style is allowed in the general Bordeaux appellation. The Oriel rose_01.jpg “Femme Fatale” 2004, made from 100 percent merlot grapes, is a dark melon-cherry color. It bursts with scents of fresh and macerated strawberries, raspberries and currants, to which, in the mouth, are added touches of spiced tea and orange rind. The wine sports a seductive satiny texture and a surprisingly substantial structure; it’s thoroughly dry and reveals on the finish touches of dried herbs and stones. I wouldn’t typically recommend a rose wine that’s more than two years old, but this will bring a great deal of pleasure through the end of summer 2007. Quite attractive and rated Very Good+. Try with roasted chicken, pate with crusty bread, an omelet whipped up at the last minute. About $20.

Of course we could not omit a wine with such an obviously Valentine-themed name as Saint-Amour. The area is the northernmost of the Cru Beaujolais wines, of which there are ten allowed to put the name of the village or commune on the label. The Saint-Amour 2005, from the ubiquitous Georges Duboeuf, is a striking deep ruby-purple color; it offers lovely scents and flavors of strawberries and blackberries with undertones of spiced stone fruits. It’s quite dry and brut98.jpg minerally and is packed with a surprising amount of chewy tannins. Try with roasted chicken or veal. Very Good+. About $10-$14.

I could recommend dozens of champagnes with which to woo and wow, but I think what’s called for on this romantic occasion is something not obvious or heavy, something that doesn’t shout “Blockbuster!” but plies its winsome way more subtly. This would be Pol Roger’s Brut Vintage 1998, made from 60 percent pinot noir grapes and 40 percent chardonnay and a marvel of delectable elegance and balletic fervor. The color is an entrancing mild gold with silver overtones; the bubbles surge upward in the glass in a constant fountain. This champagne offers seamless integration of citrus and limestone, toasted hazelnuts and baking spice, a crisp, lively nature with a texture that approaches lushness, all this devolving to a finish of notable austerity. Excellent. About $83. Surely he or she is worth it.

Well, o.k., that’s pretty steep. Here’s a less expensive alternative, the Schramsberg Blanc de Noir 2003, a pinot noir (85 percent) and chardonnay (15 percent) blend and a glamorous California blond of a sparkling wine, elegant and spare, crisp and satiny, generously spicy and citrusy but with a formidable strain of limestone on the finish. Excellent and about $35.

First, readers, I can’t help noticing that about 25 percent of you that travel to my website http://www.koeppelonwine.com from the links provided on this blog stop at the index and go no further. Perhaps you are put off by the word “member” that occurs several times on the home-page. It’s true that KoeppelonWine has a membership component; it’s right there in the “Members’ Wine of the Week,” which is available only to subscribers. Other advantages of membership — $48 a year, a mere 95 cents a week — are the ability to search the archives for past reviews and stories and automatic email notification every time I post a page. But all the other pages, The Featured Article, the Case of New Releases, Refrigerator Door Wines and Eating & Drinking, are there for anyone to look at absolutely free. So, next time you follow a link to KoeppelonWine, don’t glance and run; take your time and read. Better yet, subscribe.
Second, to entice you that way, yesterday I posted “California Cabernets from 2002, Part Two,” reviews of 18 cabernet-based wines from the excellent vintage, including the superb Joseph Phelps Insignia ’02 and the Ladera ’02. Here’s the link: http://www.koeppelonwine.com/Featured_Article.asp

Third — I know, we’re beyond “a couple of things” — just so this post doesn’t seem all about me, Terry Hughes at Mondosapore is celebrating a new design for his blog that debuted this weekend. Executed by Mouse Foundry Media, which made the design for BiggerThanYourHead, the design for http://www.mondosapore.com is clean, easier to read and very attractive.

And fourth, the finalists for the American Wine Blog of the Year awards are posted at Tom Wark’s Fermentation: The Daily Wine Blog. Go there, take a look at the nominees, and vote. http://www.fermentation.typepad.com

A restaurant much like the ones you patronize.

The waiter comes to the table, hands out menus, takes drink orders and so on, and then announces that he will recite the roster of specials, the dishes that the chef — or as the chef is known in the restaurant, “Chef” — has created especially for your enjoyment this evening.

A bit of throat-clearing, and he begins: waiter1.jpg
“First Chef has prepared an appetizer of pan-roasted day-boat scallops on a bed of fresh micro-greens and cucumber coulis with a, um, a, uh, black cherry-wasabi vinaigrette. Another special appetizer features seared organic foie gras with, with, um, a Granny Smith apple-port wine reduction and, uh, gosh, what was, oh, right, caramelized Szechuan pepper-corns. The entree special is, uh, let’s see, um, o.k., got it, whew, ha, the entree special is a fennel-and-violet-encrusted Chilean sea bass with, um, yes, basil-buttermilk smashed Yukon Gold potatoes and, well, damnit! I mean I thought I had this down pat, I mean, I swear, an hour ago I was rattling this shit off like one-two-three, it’s with, wait, wait, ah, baby asparagus and a Meyer lemon-Savennieres demi-glace! Yes, I did it! Yes, I said, Yes, I will, Yes!”

Let’s call a moratorium on this sort of command performance, which demands that waiters memorize long lists of special items, requires diners to sit patiently as the recitation winds on, and then we still have to ask what the details are since we can’t remember them: “What was the sauce with that elk again?”

Chefs cannot, I suppose, help wanting to break out of the strictures of the menu and show off their talents for inspiration and spontaneity, but the burden on the waiters who have to recite the specials for diners sometimes seems unbearable. I have often seen waiters tuck crib-sheets inside their order books and glance surreptitiously at the list, but they always seem embarrassed if we catch them peeking, as if they have failed in some way.

I say, go ahead, print the specials on a card and let waiters read them, especially at restaurants where the specials seem to go on and on and we gradually dissolve in a haze of boredom and forgetfulness.

Better yet, print specials on cards and insert them in menus or have waiters pass them out so we can read them for ourselves.

That’s why computers and printers were invented.

Guess where San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom is after admitting to and apologizing for having an affair with his re-election campaign manager’s wife, Ruby Rippey-Tourk? demonrum.jpg
In alcoholic rehab, of course!

“Demon Rum Made Me Do It” has become the “Twinkie Defense” of the 21st Century.

What about former U.S. Representative Mark Foley (R., Fla.), who resigned at the end of September after admitting to exchanging sexually explicit email messages with former Congressional pages?

You guessed it: straight to rehab, and not just any rehab but Sierra Tucson, which costs more than $40,000 a month. A week after he signed up for the clinic, where horseback-riding and mountain hiking are agenda items, Foley’s family told the Palm Beach Post that “he appears to be recovering.”

Actor and film director Mel Gibson, who spewed anti-Semitic comments to a police office who pulled him over for driving erratically last July? Right again, rehab for that potty-mouth. Gibson promised that he wasn’t an anti-Semite, that “I’m not that person.” Who, then, was that Mr. Hyde? Why of course, an alter-ego created by alcohol.
At least Joe Biden didn’t step up to the mike and say, “I was drunk when I called Barack Obama articulate.”

Now it’s true that Newsom, well-known as the founder of Plumpjack winery in Napa Valley and a stable of successful restaurants, said that “my problems with alcohol are not an excuse for my personal lapses in judgment,” which comes about as close to owning up to responsibility as any errant politicians and celebrities do these days. Usually they admit to no more than making a mistake, the definition of “mistake” being “something I did wrong and got caught at.”

Let’s admit that one of the points of alcoholic beverages is that they are intoxicating; being a little high, getting a little buzz can be pleasant. Getting knee-walking drunk and plunging your car through the window of a convenience store and taking out all the snack shelves is not pleasant. Nor is getting drunk and beating up your spouse or cheating on your spouse. Alcohol abuse, as we all should know, can exact a terrible price on individuals, families and communities. But the number of people (outside of the Super Bowl) who, it seems to me, consume wine, beer and spirits moderately — and this conclusion is based only on my own decades of experience, observation and reading — far outnumber those who abuse alcoholic beverages.

Alcohol is such an easy target. Even after the heady freedoms of the 1960s and the prosperity of the ’80s and the indulgences of the ’90s, we still teeter (and perhaps titter) at the squalid boundaries of puritan guilt. The forces that brought the notorious decade and more of Prohibition, that disaster, to America still hover in the background. We are still not a nation of naturally accepting wine-drinkers and perhaps never will be. Alcohol may be (mainly) legal, but it carries woeful baggage, and The Culture of Blame and Apology recognizes how convenient a punching-bag alcohol is.

Wouldn’t it be refreshing if some sinning politician or celebrity stood before us and instead of saying, to the phalanx of light and cameras, “I’m sorry if I brought disgrace to my family, my friends and many fans, and I’m checking into an alcohol rehab center to evaluate my life and learn to be more positive about myself and my future,” said, “Look, she was a babe, I was hotter’n a pepper sprout and when I did what I did I was stone-cold sober.”

Image credit: geocities.com

Readers familiar with BiggerThanYourHead know that I am — damn my eyes! — a purist through and through, a position that isn’t always fun because it lets one in for a great deal of disappointment. martinix_01.jpg
But in reading the new “Platinum Edition” of Mr. Boston (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., $19.95), the bartender’s guide that’s been around in many editions since 1935, I was struck by this assertion by Anthony Giglio, who revised the book for this recent printing. He is recounting recipes for martinis as they existed a century ago and includes a recipe for what he indicates is a more authentic version of the martini than we consume so avidly today, that is too say, the dry martini, for among all other matters to which the 20th Century can lay claim, one, of certainty, is that the martini became progressively drier.

Giglio’s recipe is this: 1 oz. gin. 1 oz. dry vermouth. 1 dash orange bitters. Stir with ice, strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.

Giglio says: “Another difference you’ll see is what appears to be a massive amount of vermouth being used. The result is a drink that bears little resemblance to today’s Martini. Push your prejudices aside and instead focus simply on the overall taste of the drink itself, and you’ll find the vermouth is not only enjoyable but in perfect balance with the gin.”

Wow, I thought, this guy is as much a purist as I am!

So I did that. A couple of days ago I made LL and me each a martini following Giglio’s recipe. The result: Gack!

Sorry, I’m just a four (or 3.5) parts gin to one part vermouth person and there’s no getting over it. Is anything else in the world as clean as this nun of a cocktail, as pure, as chastening? We do use the lemon twist. I agree with Giglio, that “the olive brine affects the delicate balance of the drink.” Longtime devotees of Tanqueray, we also like the Scottish gin Hendricks, though some criticize it as too floral, and Junipero, from Anchor Distillery in San Francisco.

And it’s strange that Giglio, along with every other writer on cocktails and their history and preparing, insists that a martini be stirred, not shaken. Shaking is for fruity cocktails, all the experts agree; stirring is for cocktails that combine spirits. Yet go into any bar between the shining seas and order a martini and the bartender will put the gin and vermouth in a shaker with ice and shake the holy crap out of it, breaking up the ice, so that the moment the martini is poured into your glass it’s already diluted. You don’t have to be Werner von Braun to understand that this procedure is counter-productive.
When you ask bartenders why they do this, they inevitably reply, “So the martini will be cold.” No, the way for the martini to be cold is to do what I do at home: keep the gin in the freezer and the vermouth in the refrigerator. And it is, of course, of utmost importance that the martini be achingly, bone-chilling cold, because if it isn’t, in five minutes you just have a cute little glass filled with warm alcohol. Yum.

As to all the seemingly hundreds of variations on the “martini” that adorn “martini lists” through out the land, the less said of them the better. Vermouth exists for a higher purpose in life than to give an echo of character to vodka.
By the way, my favorite recent cocktail books are Cocktail: The Drinks Bible for the 21st Century by Paul Harrington and Laura Moorhead (Viking, 1998) and New Classic Cocktails by Gary Regan and Mardee Haiden Regan (Macmillan, 1997), each in its way a model of history, lore, wisdom and imagination.

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