February 2009


I love this stuff, this elixir!
… I finished the bottle — and I’m not sorry!

I do love this stuff, this elixir of medieval medicinal indulgence, such as monks would concoct in the moldy cellars beneath their monasteries, employing their arsenal of ancient herbal knowledge; their exploration into the healing powers of hallowed, astringent, Alpine flowers; their initiation into the arcane catalog of knotty, pungent, tea-like roots; their unholy penetration of the primal secrets of the European heritage of folk remedy and the magical conjunction of the sacred and the profane; and you’re thinking, readers, “Damnation, F.K., do you never give up? Go to bed, man!”

And so I will.

So, here it is (was) Thursday night, and I’m thinking, “Hmmm, what’s there to eat,” because throughout LL’s sojourn in Los Angeles, I was determined not to go to the grocery store; the goal: only eat from what’s available here at home.
A thing of beauty is a joy forever
So, I indulged in a childhood favorite — cheese toast! — though not as my mother would have made it.

I sliced a couple of pieces from a loaf of rustic, “country-style” bread and spread some olive tapenade on one side. I chopped some prosciutto and tomatoes and strew them across the bread, scattered some shredded sharp cheddar, Colby and Monterey Jack cheeses on top, sprinkling liberal amounts of salt and cracked pepper on top, and (once again) crowned the effect with a handful of panko bread crumbs and a little thyme. Six or seven minutes under the broiler brought these to nicely browned perfection.

For wine, I thought, “Oh, what the hell,” and opened the Morgan Winery Double L Vineyard Syrah 2006, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. Lord have mercy, what a great wine! Double L is a certified organic vineyard, the only such in the appellation.

The beginning is pure funkiness, though some swirling and sniffing and a few minutes’ indulgence bring out the details: clean morgan-syrah.jpgearth, plums, prunes and wet fur, followed by spiced and macerated black fruit, with back-notes of black olive, crushed black pepper, violets and lavender. This is when I start to get really excited by the wine, because the dimension and detail gradually unfold, unfurl, and this, readers, is why I write about and review wine, for that unfolding and unfurling. And then not so much earthy as damp slate and moss. The wine is mouth-filling but not in the least heavy or obvious; the alcohol is a blessed 13.9 percent, a sort of lonely (but eminently sane) low for syrahs in California. Spicy oak — 14 months Burgundy barrels, 25 percent new — and slightly gritty tannins seep in around the circumference of black current, blackberry and blueberry, permeating and building the wine’s structure in the mouth; I mean, the wine is so dynamic and vital that you feel this happening as you sip and taste. Not surprisingly, the finish tends to some briery, forestry austerity, though the wine remains sleek, elegant and approachable. The bad news: 100 cases. My rating is Exceptional. About $40.

Though platonically intended for such fare as roasted squab, lamb shank or barbecue brisket, this wine did not overwhelm, and even contributed to, my open-face, toasted cheese sandwiches.

My pasta
So, we continue what turns out to be the saga of what I ate and drank this week while LL is in Los Angeles.

Wednesday night, a simple pasta. There were some canned crushed tomatoes left from another dish, so I sauteed half a chopped onion and minced garlic, a few oil-cured black olives (I’ve grown fond of these spunky little things!), some diced saucisson sec and fresh rosemary, added the tomatoes and let the concoction simmer for a couple of minutes. I mean it’s so quick that you can start cooking almost when the pasta is al dente. That was it (with some shaved Parmesan), and it was delicious.

I wished for a Dolcetto or Barbera d’Asti, but I didn’t have any of those. Instead I opened a bottle of the Cycles Gladiator cyclessyrah.jpg Syrah 2007, Central Coast. This is a very reliable line of inexpensive products, part of Hahn Family Wines; you get a lot of personality for about 10 bucks.

The color is deep, dark purple; the nose is filled with rich, ripe and spicy blackberries and black currents with touches of smoke, plum and leather. No blockbuster here — the alcohol is a sensible 13.5 percent — but the wine is very tasty, with pleasing weight and heft, a little brightly zinfandelish for a syrah, perhaps, but with a good, authentic burn of ash, smoke and tar on the finish. The wine contains 13 percent petite sirah; it’s given some French oak, 60 percent new, 40 percent neutral. It went really nicely with the pasta. Very Good and a Bargain at about $10.

O.K., fine, but I thought, How about opening something else?

I reached for a bottle of the Ravenswood Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Sonoma County, part of the winery’s “County Series” collection, though that term is not on the label. I have tried three of these wines in the past two months, the Cabernet Sauvignon ’06, the Chardonnay ’06 and the Syrah ’05, and I’ll go ahead and say that they are really well-made, finely-tuned and detailed products. Winemaker is Joel Peterson, who has spent a career at Ravenswood (he’s the founder) turning out splendid zinfandels (the winery’s specialty) as well as cabernet sauvignon.

I don’t think I agree entirely that these wines “are all about regionality,” as the written material that came with the m asserts, or that “the whole is sometimes greater than the sum of its parts” (that concept depends on the subject, of course, I, myself, hoping fervently that I am greater than the sum of my parts). Can Sonoma County, with its diverse micro-climates, soils and topology be said to embody a regional character that is detectable in a glass of wine? As good as these wines are — particularly the Cabernet Sauvignon ’06 — my impulse was not to say, “Oh, hell, yeah, these certainly manifest the nature of Sonoma County.”
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In any case, the Cabernet ’06 — since that’s the immediate impetus here — offers aromas of cedar and tobacco, walnut shell and lead pencil, with a concentrated core of ripe black cherry and black current. The wine includes 3 percent cabernet franc and 2 percent merlot. (Wow, readers, as I’m writing this, it’s snowing in Memphis, pelting down in big velvety flakes!) This mouth-filling cabernet possesses grip and depth and personality beyond its price; tannins are dusty and chewy, and oak feels polished and honed to essential dark blond spiciness. The regimen is 22 months in French oak, 30 percent new barrels. A strain of earthiness and minerality runs through the wine, bringing the rigor of austerity from the middle back through the finish; the wood is particularly resonant, like the deepest cello tones in a string quartet. Drink now through 2012 or ’14. Excellent, and at about $15, a Freakin’ Bargain.

We drank the Ravenswood Chardonnay 2006, Sonoma County, at the end of December with our standard cod stew with chorizo, potatoes, leeks and tomatoes. Three percent of muscat grapes adds tones of white flowers and a hint of quince to an otherwise classic expression of California chardonnay that opens with scents of green apple and peach layered with the dominating aromas and flavors of pineapple and grapefruit. The wine is round and well-balanced and integrated, with vivid acidity and a tide of limestone minerality to leaven nuances of buttered toast and spicy oak (from 12 months in French barrels, 40 percent new). Very Good+. About $15.

The Ravenswood Syrah 2005, Sonoma County, which we drank one night with pizza, includes five percent each grenache and carignane and three percent white viognier; it’s customary in the Southern Rhone (or used to be) to blend a little white wine into the traditional reds. This opens nicely with bright, smoky, spicy black fruit scents and flavors with a touch of red berry. The spicy element encompasses black pepper as well as a hint of sandalwood and licorice. Tannins are robust and hearty, oak provides density and form, and clean acidity keeps the whole package lively. The finish is laden with earthy notes of briers, brambles and underbrush. Drink now through 2011 or ’12. Very Good+. About $15.

Facing the wine list
Thursday night, I’m sitting down to dinner — which we will get to soon — and my cell phone rings. LL says, “O.K., I’m looking at this wine list, and I need some advice.”

By way of explanation, she is the director of a university art museum, and a couple times a year she travels to conferences in other cities. Some years ago, I think she was in Santa Fe, I got the first of these calls. She tells me what kind of restaurant she’s in, what she and friends and colleagues have ordered, narrows the price range and then reads me the choices she’s considering. And I, as quickly as one can sort out the information in about a minute, lend my opinion.

She was in L.A. this week, and, as it happened, was having dinner with her son, who was also in town on business.

“It’s a French restaurant,” she said. ” — is having cassoulet and I’m having pork shank. I’m thinking Southern Rhone.” And you, readers, are thinking, Gee, doesn’t sound as if she needs any help.

There were, however, the issues of labels and prices, so LL read the names of several Southern Rhone wines, a Gigondas, a Vacqueyras and so on, notable producers, old vines, tempting indeed, but at prices ranging from $55 to $82, more than she wanted to pay.

“There’s a page of ‘House Favorites,’” she said, “let me look at that. The prices are around $35. Here’s a Saumur,” and she read the label and the producer.

“That sounds good,” I said. “A cabernet franc should be a good match with the cassoulet and pork shank.”

“All right,” she said. “Bye.”

She called Friday morning. “The wine was great.”

And all through the wonders of modern technology!

Image from theage.com.au.

Last weekend, LL said, “You know what we haven’t had on a pizza for a long time? Caramelized onions.”

Well, that little situation was easy to take care off. Before I rolled out the dough and started chopping the other ingredients, I sliced a red onion, put the slices in a small pan, drizzled some olive oil over them and slid the pan under the broiler. I had decided to feature onions on the pizza, so in addition to the caramelized red onion, I chopped a yellow onion and some scallions, which I put in a bowl. Then I added some sliced shiitake mushrooms, a few oil-cured black olives, a handful of chopped radicchio, some prosciutto and roasted garlic. In a radical move, I didn’t use any tomatoes.

So, we were eating the pizza, drinking the attractive Hahn Estates Meritage 2006, Central Coast — it’s time for a review will come –and watching Vicky Christina Barcelona, and I noticed that LL seemed rather pensive. She said: “Now I remember why we haven’t had caramelized red onion on a pizza for a long time.”

“Um, why is that?” I replied.

“Because the caramelization makes them too sweet, and the sweetness overwhelms the rest of the flavors. It unbalances the pizza.”

Ah, so, well, not a complete success.

Anyway, I had some of the topping left after making the pizza, and I saved it, knowing that I would be making an omelet later in the week; LL is out of town attending a conference, and I tend to cook pretty simply for myself, not that we ever cook in a very complicated manner.
Herb toast, broiled tomatoes and an omelet with a little salsa verde sprinkled on it.
So the night came — this was Tuesday — and I made the omelet, with the shiitakes, roasted garlic, radicchio, green onions, caramelized red onion, prosciutto and black olives. I sliced a couple of cherry tomatoes in half, scattered some shredded cheddar on them, salt, pepper and panko bread crumbs and broiled those along with slices of sourdough bread doused with olive oil and thyme, my current favorite herb. With a sprinkling of salsa verde, everything worked great together and made an enjoyable supper.

For wine I opened a bottle of the S.A. Prüm Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett 2007, from the German Mosel region. The winery was founded in 1911 and is still owned by the Prüm family. For a bit of explanation, the village associated with the riesling.jpg commune where the winery is located is Wehlen, hence “Wehlener”; the vineyard is Sonnenuhr. Kabinett is the driest level of the higher order of German wine categories. The alcohol is a mild yet still involving 8.5 percent.

The wine is charming and delightful, fresh and clean and crisp. Aromas of peach, pear, lemon tart and jasmine are seductive, drawing one in to flavors of ripe peach and lime, a hint of spice and a wash of limestone. Fleet acidity enlivens the wine with an electric impulse yet does not detract from the richness and lushness of the texture, making for exquisite equilibrium; it’s a sweetheart of a thirst-quencher but with a serious side. After a few minutes, the nose takes on a bit of the characteristic riesling petrol or rubber eraser element, while the wine finishes with a touch of grass and dried herbs. Excellent, for drinking through 2011 or ’12. I paid $29, but prices on the Internet range from about $23 to $30. Closed with a screw-cap for easy opening.

Imported by Palm Bay International, Boca Raton, Fla.

Dear readers, colleagues, friends, neighbors, passing acquaintances: Bigger Than Your Head has been nominated for the 2009awbafinalistbadge.jpg second year for an American Wine Blog Award in the category of “Best Wine Reviews on A Blog.” The competition is fierce; I’m up against three excellent wine blogs that I look at myself frequently — sterling company indeed.

The ranking is based 70 percent on the popular vote — that’s you — and 30 percent on a panel of anonymous judges. That’s why I need your votes. Anyone can vote by going to http://www.fermentation.typepad.com

The American Wine Blog Awards are organized and hosted by Tom Wark at Fermentation: The Daily Wine Blog. Sponsors are Riedel Crystal, OpenWine Consortium and Mutineer Magazine.

Thanks for your readership, your attention — and your vote!

On Oscar Day we cooked a ribollita from the recently released Williams-Sonoma Cookbook: The Essential gratuitous image of Penelope Cruz Recipe Collection for Today’s Home Cook (Free Press, $34.95), a terrific cookbook with lots of pictures. Ribolitta is a purely vegetarian Italian soup whose broth, in this recipe, is made from cannellini beans that are simmered with garlic and sage and then pureed. The vegetables are onions, carrots, celery, potatoes, Savoy cabbage, Swiss chard and lacinato kale and crushed tomatoes. You toast or grill slices of rustic bread, place them in the bottoms of wide bowls and ladle the soup over the bread. Yikes, this is seriously good, a really hearty winter dish, or end of winter.

We ate this marvelous concoction while we watched the Oscar ceremonies, a rather depressing, even degrading display of chutzpah, sentimentality, bad writing and cloying spectacle, but there we were. We had seen few of the contending movies — we wait for DVDs and pizza night — but you read so much about these matters in The New York Times and other newspapers and magazines that you might as well have seen them.
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Anyway, the true point here is the wine we drank with the ribollita, the Nieto Senetiner Reserva Torrontes 2008, from Argentina’s Mendoza region; the winery was founded in 1888. I’ll go out on a limb and assert that this is the best example of torrontes I have tasted, and not because it’s pumped up with oak — the way poor gruner veltliners are now in Austria, so they feel like bad chardonnays and cost $50 — ; no, this all stainless steel torrontes is allowed to express itself eloquently without the bolstering of wood. Aromas of green grapes, orange zest, roasted lemon and jasmine tantalize the nose. In the mouth, the wine offers lovely balance between bright acidity and an almost lush texture; to the citrus element is added a note of peach, a hint of pineapple and a touch, on the finish, of grapefruit and a smidgeon of bracing grapefruit bitterness. The finish also brings in a tide of minerality, a scintillating element that rounds everything off nicely. Very Good+. I paid $14 for the wine, but it can be found around the country as low as $10.

Imported by Winebow, Inc., New York.

Gratuitous images of Penelope Cruz from cinenaisdope.com.

It’s easy to tell that this Spanish wine named The Spanish Quarter is intended for the American market. First: the name. You spanish2.jpg won’t find a “Spanish Quarter” in cities in Spain because, you know, it’s already Spain. It would be like looking for Chinatown in Beijing. Second: There’s a whimsical little back-story, based on the premise that Americans like their wine cute. Third: The company’s website — thespanishquarter.com — is animated and busy, offering games and downloads but little information about the wine or its making. The wine is produced by Coniusa, a division (or alter-ego) of the giant Cordoníu concern.

Having said that, I’ll assert that The Spanish Quarter Chardonnay-Albariño 2007, Costers del Segre, is a terrific quaffer. It’s a charming wine, a blend of 60 percent chardonnay and 40 percent albariño grapes whose first impression is of spring rain on wet rocks, that is, immediate freshness and naturalness to which it adds whiffs of citrus, peach and grapefruit and gentle spice. Vivid acid keeps an even keel in a texture that’s invitingly dense, almost talc-like; a few minutes in the glass pull up notes of roasted lemon and quince, of deeper spice and a touch of jasmine. We drank this quite happily with linguine shrimp puttanesca, a lively dish (it has capers and red pepper flakes) that was well-matched with the wine. Very Good. At about $12 (often discounted to $9 or $10), buy this by the case for drinking through the end of 2009.

Imported by A.V. Brands, Columbia, Maryland.

Last night we cooked for the umpteenth time the pork chops with a cumin-chili powder rub, seared briefly and then baked with garlic, cilantro and lime zest. The pork chops always emerge from the oven surpassingly moist, tender and flavorful. The recipe was originally in Food & Wine magazine in January 2004. Also on the plate, sauteed kale and a mash of sweet potatoes and regular potatoes. A great comfort food dinner!

Obviously these full-flavored and spicy pork chops require a full-flavored wine, so I opened a bottle of the St. Francis Old Vines Zinfandel 2006, Sonoma County. Now the winery isn’t hedging bets with the term “old vines,” which in this case means vines franciszin.jpg that start at 50 years old and go back to 110 years old. In the venerable Sonoma County tradition, these old vineyards are “field blends,” that is, they contain vines of alicante bouschet and petite sirah and perhaps other red grapes among the zinfandel vines, lending wines made from them a certain dark allure and primeval spiciness.

The St. Francis Old Vines Zinfandel ’06 is a strapping, juicy, earthy wine, a bottleful of dust and minerals and finely milled tannins that permeate luscious flavors of macerated and roasted blackberry, black cherry and black currants zapped with the roughened edge of black pepper and a rooty-mossy tea-like quality. While the alcohol content is an awesome 15.5 percent, this wine is surprisingly balanced and harmonious, though there’s no denying its power; what it is blessedly free of is alcohol-influenced hotness and over-ripe sweetness. No, the wine is almost graceful, almost satiny in its impression upon the palate. After half-an-hour in the glass, the spicy elements come into play, adding touches of cloves and allspice to the rich, dark fruit. The wine ages 14 months in American oak, a process that lends stalwart foundation and framing to the construction. This is, altogether, a well-crafted zinfandel that offers good, old-fashioned pleasure in a sleek package. Excellent. About $20.

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In this chronicle of 100 wines, readers, it’s March 1984, yes, a hair less than 25 years ago. We drank a variety of wines that month, of course, including the Callaway Petite Sirah 1975 from Temecula (“the most intense wine I’ve ever tasted” — $9.99) and a thrilling Mayacamas Sauvignon Blanc 1980 (“exceptional balance, suave and smooth” — $10.99). Two of the wines, though, were so memorable that even today I remember how knocked out by them I was. Both were from a producer that doesn’t seem to earn much praise or even thought nowadays, the venerable Simi Winery in Sonoma County.

We drank the Simi Cabernet Sauvignon 1979, Alexander Valley, on March 10, with sauerbraten cooked for a friend’s birthday. Here are my notes: “Can’t say enough about this wine: beautiful deep ruby color; wonderful nose — dry, dusty, tannic, fruity, cedarwood and cigar box undertones; same in the mouth — deep. complex, woody, mouth-filling, long finish.”

Without a doubt, the Simi Cabernet Sauvignon 1979 ($9.49) was the best red wine from California I had tasted up to that point in my life and would remain one of the best wines I tasted in an eventful year, in terms of my wine education. More about that later in this chronicle.
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Then, on March 19-21, we drank what is one of the most memorable wines of my career as a wine drinker and (coming up with startling rapidity) writer. My first note on the Simi Pinot Noir 1974, Alexander Valley, is “Can’t praise this one enough.” Indeed, this nine-year-old pinot noir from a winery not noted for pinot noir wines is still one of the best examples of the grape I have tasted. “Beautiful fading brickish-red-brown color; mature subdued nose; soft & mellow, fruity still, a touch of the ripe earthiness of the pinot noir grape, full in the mouth, long finish — a really wonderful wine — a bargain at the price,” which was $8.49.

By the way, look at the alcohol levels on these wines: 13% for the cabernet, 12.5% for the pinot noir. Why strive for anything higher?

You may attribute my fervor for these wines to (relatively) youthful enthusiasm — I would turn 40 at the end of 1984 — but I promise that I remember them and my response to them clearly, even this morning as I type these words.

Isn’t that function of memory tied to sensual experience the reason why we drink wine, take notes on wine, think about wine, write about wine and savor the complete process?

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