June 2009

Last night was one of those times when we’re saying that there’s nothing to eat in the house but we don’t really want to go out to eat and we’re tired and all that, and finally LL brought some sense to the situation and said, “Wait a minutes, let’s see what we actually have in the fridge.” And so — ta-dah! — here’s the frittata we made last night with diced potatoes, onions, mushrooms, bacon and basil, right out of the oven. Boy it was good, and it made a great simple dinner with a green salad.

For wine, I twisted the screw-cap off a bottle of the Shoo Fly Buzz Cut 2008, from Australia’s cool Adelaide region. This is an unusual and enticing blend of 37 percent riesling, 32 percent viognier, 21 percent verdelho and five percent each chardonnay and sauvignon blanc. Made completely in stainless steel, Buzz Cut 2008 is as crisp and snappy as a brand-new dollar bill and as clean and refreshing as a gulp of a cool forest stream. Aromas of lemon and lemon drop are woven with hints of dried herbs, a touch of grass and something in a strain of mountain-flower sweetness and astringency. The texture balances moderate lushness with lively acidity; flavors range over lemon and roasted lemon with elements of melon and lime, with a sort of Mediterranean cast of dried flowers and meadows, all of this culminating in a persistent quality of chalky limestone. Yum is the word, and another is delightful. Very Good+ and a Bargain at about $14.

Imported by Old Bridge Cellars, Napa Cal.

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Yes, friends, it’s official. Yesterday, the morons, I mean the eminent statesmen, of the Tennessee Senate overrode the veto of Gov. Phil Bredesen and passed a bill that allows permit-holders to carry their concealed handguns into restaurants and bars where alcohol is served — if they don’t drink. Since the nature of a concealed weapon is that it’s, you know, concealed, a heavy burden is placed on waiters and bartenders.

Mild-mannered gentleman sidles up to the bar: “Hendricks martini, my good fellow, up with a twist.”

Bartender: “Yes sir, comin’ right up, but are you packing heat?”

MMG: “Excuse me?”

Bartender: “Are you carrying, sir, you know, a gat, a heater, a rod, are you hiding the ol’ Smith & Wesson under your arm?”

MMG: “Look, I just stopped in for a martini on the way home.”

Bartender: “I understand, sir, but now that it’s legal in Tennessee for permit-holders to carry concealed weapons into bars and restaurants that serve alcohol, as long as they don’t drink, it’s my obligation to ascertain your ballistic preparedness before I serve you. Oh, and can I see some I.D.?”

MMG, drawing a .45 from the holster under his jacket: “You can see this, motherfucker, and you can make me a Shirley Temple, pronto!”

Bartender: “As you wish, sir. And don’t worry about the I.D.”

Actually, the bill, which was opposed by the state’s law enforcement agencies and restaurant associations — which apparently have no power against gun-owners and the NRA — does not become operative until July 14 (here’s a new way to celebrate Bastille Day!), so if you’re planning a trip to Tennessee, the state where Davy Crockett “killed himself a bar when he was only three” — “bar” being local dialect for “bear” — I would do it within the next few weeks.

The law does provide an out for restaurant and bar owners, in that they may post signs prohibiting guns in their establishments. Imagine this: You open the menu and at the bottom are the words “No smoking. No substitutions. No guns.”

In a move that didn’t receive as much publicity as the “Guns Mean Fun in Bars Bill,” the Tennessee legislature recently voted to ban a requirement that restaurants post nutritional information about the food they serve. So take your choice: Eat yourself to death on McFatso Burgers in blissful ignorance or be gunned down in a restaurant because you forgot to turn off your cell phone.

I promised to keep this Chronicle of the 100 most significant (not necessarily the best) wines that I encountered during my education about wine more current, but things have a habit of getting away from me, there are many wines and many meals and dishes to write about and, well, here it is, more than two months since I last entered a post on this subject. Before I get to the wines in question for this post, I want to pause to make note of two men who had a profound influence on my education about wine, Shields Hood and John “Big John” Grisanti, both of whom I met during the late Spring or early Summer of 1984.

Late in 1983 and early in 1984, I wrote a couple of articles about wine for a local magazine, not thinking that they would necessarily lead to anything. Then, in May 1984, my former father-in-law, Ed Harrison, took me to a wine tasting at his church, saying that he had met someone at a previous event whom he thought I should know. As we stood in front of one table, sampling a few wines, Shields Hood stuck out his hand and said, “Hey, I’ve been looking for you!” Shields, who is from Leland, a small town deep in the Mississippi Delta (and he had the accent to match), was wine manager for a large distributor in Memphis. We struck a relationship and then a friendship that lasted about 18 years, until I lost touch with him. He was extremely generous, setting up tastings and appointments for me, opening untold amounts of wines to try, helping me with wines that I presented to different groups around town. Shields was (and still is) heavily involved with the Society of Wine Educators, serving as the organization’s president for several terms, and he was an influential, popular and funny wine teacher in Memphis. He was the first person I ever heard say, in public, “Hey, I could date a wine like this!”

Shields now lives in New Market, Va., and works as senior adviser to the Society of Wine Educators in Washington as well as in sales and marketing for several wine and liquor companies.

Not long after my first regular newspaper wine column was published, I received a telephone call at home; this was when we lived in Senatobia, Miss., about 40 miles south of Memphis.

A deep, gruff voice barked, “Koeppel?”

“Um, yes, that’s me.”

“This is Big John Grisanti. Get up here to my restaurant tonight. I got some wines for you to taste.”

“Uh … ”

“Make it seven o’clock.”

“Uh … ”

Thus my introduction to a man who was larger than life in every way.

Big John was a second-generation restaurateur, a raconteur, a connoisseur, a major donor to charitable causes. Always a master of the flamboyant gesture, he held two world records (in the late 1970s and early ’80s) for the most expensive single bottles of wine bought at auction, $18,000 for a jeraboam of Chateau Lafite Rothschild 1864 and $31,000 for a standard bottle of Lafite 1822. He turned around and auctioned each bottle by the sip, raising over $100,000 for St. Jude Children’s research Hospital.

Big John — who could, as I learned, be irascible and quick-tempered as well as kind — took me in hand and set about making my knowledge of wine deeper and wider. (I eventually learned that he had vetted the columns I submitted to an editor at the newspaper and was instrumental in my getting that job.) We would walk through the warehouse next to his well-known Italian restaurant — now the site of a Walgreens — and he would fill a carton with bottles for me to take home. “Here, Koeppel, you need to try this and this and, let’s see, this.” Or we would sit in a back booth in the restaurant, tasting glass after glass of wine, with a platter of ravioli in front of us. Or — the thrill of thrills — he would call me on a Sunday morning and say, “Koeppel, I need you to come over to the house this afternoon and pick out some wines for some people I’m gonna have over for a tasting in the cellar.” That cellar is where I had my first taste of Mouton-Rothschild, my first great Burgundy, my first aged French Champagne. You’ll be reading about a few of those wines in the coming months.

Generosity, unfortunately, does not guarantee longevity. Big John Grisanti died of cancer in March 1995. He was 66.

What was remarkable, in those months in 1984 after my first newspaper wine columns were published, is how quickly my experience of tasting wine increased. Suddenly I went from being a guy who bought two wines a week to a guy who was invited to wine events, to lunches with winemakers, to private tastings of old Bordeaux. My notebooks soon became inadequate, and it wasn’t long before I abandoned saving labels because I was tasting too many wines to keep up; it was a tedious chore anyway.

In looking through those almost ancient records now, I see that I will have to be selective in choosing the wines for this Chronicle, because I was tasting so many important or significant or educational wines. For example, in turning the pages of this second notebook, a three-ring, loose-leaf folder, I’m struck by the excitement of that time in 1984. For example, in June, Shields Hood asked me to attend a tasting of Bordeaux from 1981, now one of those “forgotten vintages” because it preceded the fabulous 1982, at his warehouse, among which we tried Chateaux Lynch-Moussas, Chasse-Spleen and Les Ormes de Pez. In September, I gave the first of what would be several tastings for the local woman’s wine group, Les Femmes du Vin — those were some events; among the wines were the Louis Latour Pernand-Vergelesses 1979; the Beaulieu Vineyard Pinot Noir 1979, Los Carneros; Chateau Gloria 1981, St-Julien; and Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon 1981, Mendocino, all excellent wines in their ways, but especially the B.V. Pinot and the Ridge Cabernet.

But I’m no fool, at least not too much of one. On September 11, 1984, Les Amis du Vin held a tasting of Lafite-Rothschild 1978, ’77, ’76, ’75, ’74 and ’70, all drawn from Big John Grisanti’s cellar. If Lafite 1970 and ’75 weren’t the best wines I encountered in 1984, a great year of revelation and experience, I’ll be a monkey’s Egri Bikavér.

Image of Shields Hood from dnronline.com.
Image of John Grisanti from commercialappeal.com.

I mean Frank Stitt, the James Beard Award-winning chef and owner of Highlands Bar & Grill, Bottega Restaurant and Café and Chez Fonfon in Birmingham. The past two nights, we cooked from Stitt’s new book, Bottega Favorita: A Southern Chef’s Love Affair with Italian Food (Artisan, $40) and had terrific meals.

Monday night, I cooked the Penne with Spicy Tomato-Fennel Sauce, a dish that Stitt says he and his wife, Pardis, prepare at 11:30 after getting home from the restaurants. By 11:30, I’m usually wrapped in the arms of Morpheus, so LL and I ate the pasta several hours earlier than Stitt and his wife do. This is just a wolloping great dish. First come half a sweet onion, half a sliced fennel bulb and half a sliced leek, softened in olive oil; then garlic, fennel and cumin seeds and half of a jalapena pepper, sliced thin, all of this cooked a few more minutes. Then a can of whole tomatoes, which you crush with your hands or a wooden spoon, and the grated zest of half an orange. This all simmers and blends and melds while the pasta cooks. At the end, you toss the penne with the sauce, freshly grated Parmesan and leaves of fresh herbs like basil, marjoram and oregano. As LL and I ate dinner, we kept saying, “Man, this is wonderful” and other praiseful phrases of such import. Truly, you could taste the effect of the different elements separately yet working together too; the touch of orange zest is brilliant.

Stitt recommends a Dolcetto or Barbera from Bruno Giacoso or Aldo Conterno with the dish, but since I sadly didn’t happen to have a bottle of one of those generally excellent wines nestled in the ol’ wine rack (and wouldn’t mind if I had a few resting there), I chose the Vale do Bomfim 2008, from Portugal’s Douro Valley. A blend of the traditional Port grapes (from Port producer Dow’s) but made as a dry table wine — 40 percent touriga franca, 25 percent tinta roriz, 20 percent tinta barroca, 15 percent touriga nacional — this is a deeply flavored, richly spiced and boldly structured wine, almost inky black in color, bursting with fruit cake-infused black currants, black cherries and plums permeated by smoke, tobacco and lavender. It’s a robust wine, dense and chewy, intense and concentrated, the ripe black fruit flavors packed with potpourri and bitter chocolate and the essential elements of vibrant acidity and polished tannins. The wine, while delicious, was a bit too robust for the dish, but it certainly rates Very Good+. The alcohol level is a modest 13 percent, but even more modest is the price, about $12, making this a Freakin’ Great Bargain. Imported by Premium Port Wines Inc., San Francisco.

Last night, from the same book, LL prepared the Tuna with Ligurian Walnut Sauce. I had gotten some fresh ahi tuna from Costco, and she seared that briefly on each side in a hot, cast-iron skillet. The sauce consists of thinly sliced shallot that macerated in red wine vinegar, salt and pepper, into which you whisk a little olive oil and walnut oil, followed by chopped walnuts, pine nuts, capers, parsley and Niçoise olives. You heap a nice spoonful of that on the fish and top with chopped egg yolk. Another great dish! LL also cooked some broccoli rabe with gigante beans, and I made roasted fingerling potatoes. Many yums later, we were full and contented.

The recommendation is for a “simple, light, young white wine,” though I went for light and young but not too simple. This was the Mahoney “Las Brisas Vineyard” Vermentino 2008, from the Sonoma Carneros. Made completely in stainless steel, this charmer is delicate and winsome, offering notes of lemon and quince seasoned with jasmine, almond and almond blossom. It gains spice and a hint of dried herbs in the mouth, with generous dollops of roasted lemon and lime enlivened by brisk acidity and a dry, almost chalky limestone finish. A crisp and refreshing summertime sipper, as aperitif or with seafood. 850 cases. Very Good+ and another Great Bargain at about $13.

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