October 2009

We got two great meals from one hefty Berkshire pork shoulder, with plenty of leftovers.

Pictured here is a Guajillo-Spiked Pork and Potato Taco, concocted from a recipe in Mexico One Plate at a Time, by Rick Bayless (Scribner, 2000), creator and chef of Frontera Grill and Topolobampo in Chicago.

This dish requires that you toast the dried guajillo chilies, which we had on hand — yes, we are the kind of household that just happens to have dried guajillo chilies on hand, as well as cheesecloth and parchment paper and a Chinese hat, what am I supposed to do, apologize? — rehydrate them and them puree with garlic and chopped tomatoes. Brown the cubed pork in oil or lard (well, what are you going to do when you have this lovely, white pork fat, huh?), and then you simmer the meat in the tomato-chili puree until there’s almost nothing left of the sauce, and then you add water and cook it down again, this time with the potatoes. That’s about it. What remains is exceedingly tender and flavorful and intense. LL went to a local taqueria and bought fresh tortillas, which were still warm when she got home. These are not tacos loaded down with extraneous ingredients; cilantro is all that’s called for, though I made a simple salad — chopped romaine, tomatoes and red onion — to go on the side. We didn’t even use any salsa; the slow-cooked meat and potatoes in the rich sauce needed no embellishment.

The first night we had the tacos, I opened a bottle of the Mettler Family Vineyards “Epicenter” Old Vine Zinfandel 2007, from Lodi County, which I thought was more balanced than the version from 2006 that I reviewed on September 20. With 8 percent petite sirah grapes in the blend and seeing 19 months aging in oak (85 percent French, 15 percent American), the wine is undeniably large-framed, dense and muscular. Aromas of ripe, fleshy, dusty blackberries and black currants are highlighted by whiffs of black pepper and packed with lavender and violets that smell as if they had been crushed in a mortar with bitter chocolate, potpourri and pulverized gravel. Yikes, as if that weren’t enough, in the mouth, the wine is rich and succulent, but it doesn’t flaunt that over-ripe boysenberry jamminess that makes many “old vine” zinfandels cloying, nor does its alcohol level — 15.6 percent — come off as hot and sweet. Instead, this wine maintained poise dictated by vibrant acidity and buttressed by a rather stark edge of foresty briers and brambles. Drink through 2011 or ’12. Excellent. About $25.

The Mettler Epicenter 2007 was a terrific match with the intensity and banked spicy heat of the tacos. It was as if a glass of this wine and one of the tacos went out into the alley behind the cantina for a wrestling match and each round was fought to a draw, until they just said, “Aw, fuck it, amigo, let’s go back inside and eat and drink together.” Ole!

A few nights later, we ate the rest of the tacos, and this time I ventured the Clayhouse Adode Red 2007, Central Coast. This is an interesting sort of New World/Old World blend of 44 percent zinfandel, 32 percent petite sirah, 16 percent syrah, 5 percent malbec, 4 percent grenache and 2 percent mourvedre. It’s tasty and moderately complex, but it’s not the same kind of wine as the Mettler Epicenter ’07, so while we enjoyed the Clayhouse Adobe ’07, it didn’t make the same kind of impression paired with the tacos. It offers scents and flavors of ripe red and black currants and plums, an array of dried spices, an intriguing earthy hint of leather and loam and fairly supple, chewy tannins. Try it with burgers, meatloaf and pork chops. Very Good. About $15, Good Value.

With the rest of the pork shoulder, we made the Sun-Dried Tomato and Fennel Sausage Patties with Creamy Polenta from the May 2009 issue of Bon Appetit. My, oh my, what a spectacular dish this was! The sausage contains the chopped pork shoulder, pork fat, sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, basil, fennel seeds and so on, The Italinate sauce that accompanies the sausage patties consists of canned tomatoes, onions, garlic, carrots and more basil. Serve this with polenta topped with chopped basil and grated Parmesan cheese, with a salad on the side, and it all makes for fine, hearty, flavorful eating. (My pictures of this dish didn’t work out, sorry.)

Here was a chance to open a bottle of the charming Gilli Vigna del Forno Freisa d’Asti 2006, from Piedmont. Charming, yes, but with plenty of stuffing. (The grape is the freisa.) Black raspberry and black cherry scents and flavors are permeated by baking spice, bitter orange and a hint of tar. The grape’s typical acidity makes the wine unabashedly lively and appealing, while a texture that’s slightly taut and sinewy reminds us that charm can have a serious side. Hints of wild berry and a seductive floral element emerge after a few minutes in the glass. Loads of personality and terrific with the dish. Very Good+. About $20.
Imported by Domenico Selections, New York.

Run, don’t walk, to your nearest retail wine shop and stock up on the Excelsior Chardonnay 2008, from the Robertson region of South Africa. A lovely, fresh clean chardonnay that sees only 20 percent oak — that is to say, only 20 percent of the wine receives any time in oak barrels — this medium straw/gold-colored wine offers bright pineapple/grapefruit scents and flavors heightened by cloves and hints of mango, jasmine and honeysuckle. It’s subtle and supple in the mouth, almost luminous with vivid acidity, and the whole enterprise slides easily on a foundation of damp shale and limestone. Very Good+ and a Great Bargain at about $12, but often discounted to $9 or $10.
Cape Classics Imports, New York.

The Memphis Farmers Market closes at the end of October. It’s fascinating to observe, over six months, how the produce changes as Spring turns into Summer and Summer into Fall. Yesterday, one of the biggest purveyors of tomatoes had none, and peas and beans are almost gone, but all of a sudden turnips and kale and bushels of colorful peppers, hot or sweet, are all over the place.

The very cute apple is one of a wide bowlful of apples and pears we bought yesterday. I’ll probably make a clafouti with the pears, and depending on how tart the apples are, well, I don’t know, maybe just eat them. One of the gratifying points about buying fruit at the MFM is that it isn’t all perfect, gussied-up and polished the way fruit is at the supermarket, as if apples and pears and peaches had gone through some mutating perfection process, so they gleam under the lights as if they were starlets on the red carpet. No, these apples and pears bear the marks of variation and individuality; no Stepford Fruit here.

We couldn’t resist buying bags of peppers. At one stand, they were two for a dollar, at another stand, three for a dollar, so we loaded up. Some of the smaller peppers and those baby eggplant (trimmed and broiled with olive oil, salt and pepper) you see in the image went on the pizza I made last night, along with an onion, and tomatoes and a passel of basil and some feta cheese, all from the MFM. The peppers also look really pretty in this bowl, sitting on the counter. I’ll use more in salads this week, and surely some will find their way into a pasta dish of LL’s invention.

I’ll admit that some Saturday mornings, I think, “Oh rats, do we have to drive downtown again this week?” Once we get there, however, it’s always fun browsing the stands, seeing friends, as we inevitably do, and buying produce, meat and seafood — driven up from the Gulf of Mexico the previous night — with the prospect of great meals to come. The fact that at the end of this month the MFM will close until next April is a sign that the growing season, with its waves of successive fruit and vegetables, is also at a close, and that the bounty of the last harvests will be followed by Winter’s dearth.

It’s neither Summer nor Autumn, but some messy, unbalancing, in-between seasonless season of abrupt temperature changes, occasional awe-inspiring blue skies, tentatively falling leaves and lots of rain. At this moment, rain is thundering down, and our poor lone remaining sycamore, a tall, slim beacon of silvery bark among the dun-clad oaks, looks a tad queasy in the gusting wind. At such a vacuous climatic juncture, one feels practically inert with quandrariness. And wine? Lord have mercy, what to choose? We don’t want the delicate, delectable wines of June, gossamer as some early aircraft fashioned from string and paper, blown by a breath and a breeze, nor do we yet require the full-blooded, two-fisted drayhorse-drawn wines of November.

My purpose, of course, is to lift you out of your stupor (or lift me out of mine) by offering six transitional wines that will ease you — or us — through this time of unease into the full panoply of Fall. The roster of brilliantly eclectic wines — Bordeaux, Washington, Oregon, Napa Valley, Tuscany, South Africa — includes three whites and three reds. None will furrow the brow of your credit card.
The Chateau Haut-Rian 2008, Bordeaux Sec, a blend of 65 percent semillon and 35 percent sauvignon blanc from 50-year-old vines, offers terrific character for the price. It opens with whiffs of pear and roasted lemon with undertones of wet gravel. It’s very spicy in the mouth, and its slightly leafy citrus-grapefruit-ginger flavors are laced with vibrant acidity and vivid minerality, in the limestone-oyster shell range. The wine is quite dry, a little austere on the finish, and it possesses the supple heft and touch of earthiness required by such dishes as seafood risotto or seared halibut with lentils. Very Good+. About $12, often discounted to $9 or $10.
Imported by Worldwide Cellars, Minneapolis.

The Sokol Blosser Pinot Gris 2008, Dundee Hills, Oregon, starts out spicy and keeps getting spicier. It’s as crisp as an apple right off the tree on a chilly day and even offers a touch of apple with its roasted pear and apricot scents and flavors infused with quince and yellow plum and a hint of fig. Made all in stainless steel, the wine is notably clean and fresh, and it deftly balances snappy acidity with a texture that’s close to lush. A few minutes in the glass bring up floral aspects, a white blossomy thing. (Notice how close “blossomy” is to “bosomy.” Karma or coincidence? You tell me.) The finish is long for a New World pinot gris, packed with spice and limestone. Delightful now, but the wine should develop depth and resonance through 2011 or ’12. Excellent. About $20.

Speaking of apples, the Chateau Ste. Michelle Riesling 2008, Columbia Valley, Washington, teems with pert apple-like scents, combined with peach and pear, a note of lychee and a backnote of the authentic petrol or rubber eraser element. Zinging acidity keeps the peach and pear flavors lively and balances a hint of sweetness on the entry, though from mid-palate back, the wine is all ringing steel and damp shale. I haven’t had this dish in years, really decades, but tasting this wine recently put me in mind of acorn squash roasted with honey and cloves. Drink through Spring 2010. Very Good+. About $12.

Bring on the pizza and pop the cork on a bottle of Frescobaldi’s Rèmole 2007, Toscana. This blend of 85 percent sangiovese and 15 percent cabernet sauvignon, made all in stainless steel, sports a medium ruby color with a slightly lighter rim. You get a blast of sangiovese in the smoky plum-black tea bouquet that unfolds hints of cedar and black olive and cabernet’s black cherry and currant. The wine is dry, spicy and lively, loaded with dusty tannins and black fruit flavors of moderate intensity in a slightly chewy texture. You’ll scarcely notice that it falls a little short in the finish. Drink through Summer 2010. Very Good. About $12 and often discounted to $10 or less.
Imported by Folio Wine Co., Napa, Cal.

Here’s a merlot that actually tastes like merlot, not like faux cabernet or generic “red wine.” The Folie à Deux Merlot 2007, Napa Valley, delivers not only black currant, cedar and black olive, but red currant, tobacco and a trace of bell pepper. This range of elements is perfectly melded in a luscious package that allows for an expression of sinewy acidity and slightly muscular tannins borne by the presence of burnished oak from 10 months aging in American (49%), French (46%) and Hungarian (5%) barrels. There’s 11 percent cabernet sauvignon in the blend. The complete effect feels effortless, almost balletic, though grounded in granite-like minerality. I’m thinking roasted chicken with shallots and lemon, pork tenderloin, lamb chops grilled with rosemary. Excellent. The 2008 version of the Folie à Deux Merlot will be released soon, so many retailers are offering this wine at great prices. Look for $14 to $16.

Excelsior Estate, in South Africa, has been owned by the de Wet family since 1870. While the property produces a wide range of wines, those most familiar in the United States are the inexpensive examples from the Robertson region. The Excelsior Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Robertson, South Africa, is made 60 percent in stainless steel and 40 percent in oak, aging for 10 months. The wine is strikingly clean and fresh, a pure and intense expression of bright smelling and tasting black currants, black cherries and blueberries; the technical term, I believe, is “freakin’ delicious.” Given a few moments, the wine comes up with spice, a touch of plum pudding, a hint of cedar, an intimation of briery tannins, all wrapped up in a sleek package. Now through 2010. Very Good+. About $12, often discounted to $10.
Cape Classics Imports, New York.

There are two problems with the new guidelines issued this week by the Federal Trade Commission that stipulate that bloggers and other new media writers disclose the sources of the products they review, i.e. if they were free samples. And no, that particular rule isn’t one of the problems. Many wine bloggers already post disclaimers so that readers know that wines being reviewed were sent from wineries or importers or their representatives in hopes of a mention of some kind, preferably positive. And many wine bloggers make it clear that wineries from which they receive samples should have no expectation as to whether a review will be positive or negative or even if the wine will be reviewed at all; that’s exactly as it should be.

No, the first problem, as Tom Wark pointed out eloquently on his blog Fermentation yesterday, is that the FTC’s new disclosure rules do not apply to “traditional” print media because they, presumably, exercise more editorial control over their material and coverage than the rank amateurs of the blogosphere. So publications like Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast and Wine & Spirits, which receive untold thousands of bottles of wine free every year, do not need to disclose that fact to their readers, while a first-time wine blogger, who might feel grateful for a few review samples, must do so. This is a situation for which the phrase “The Double Standard Stinks” was invented.

The second problem is that the drafters of the new FTC guidelines don’t seem to know a hawk from a handsaw when it comes to the difference between a review and an endorsement. The report expresses the principle this way:

“For example, a blogger could receive merchandise from a marketer with a request to review it, but with no compensation paid other than the value of the product itself. In this situation, whether or not any positive statement the blogger posts would be deemed an ‘endorsement’ within the meaning of the Guides would depend on, among other things, the value of that product, and on whether the blogger routinely receives such requests. If that blogger frequently receives products from manufacturers because he or she is known to have wide readership within a particular demographic group that is the manufacturers’ target market, the blogger’s statements are likely to be deemed to be ‘endorsements,’ as are postings by participants in network marketing programs.”

Obviously the FTC equates positive reviews with “endorsements,” as if bloggers were celebrity basketball players on billboards being paid hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars to put the force of their internationally known, outsize personalities at the service of athletic shoes and energy drinks. (If only, right?)

A review or critique of anything — book, musical recording, an art exhibition or theatrical performance, a product such as an automobile or a dishwasher, or a bottle of wine — is (or should be) an assessment and evaluation based on knowledge, experience and judgment. For the reader, the benefit lies in the information and analysis upon which to base a decision, to go see that play, to read that book, to purchase that bottle of wine. This result is not the same as an endorsement, in which a celebrity is paid to mouth words conceived by a copy-writer from a marketing or public relations firm. A review is not an advertisement or press release for the object or performance or entity in question.

Yet, annoyingly, the new FTC guidelines refer, again and again, to reviews on blogs as endorsements and to companies that supply products to bloggers for review as advertisers. The case seems devastatingly clear: If I were sent a review copy of a book by a publisher and wrote a review that was published in a print journal or newspaper, the FTC would regard it as a review; if I wrote that review, however, and placed it on my blog, it would be regarded by the FTC as an endorsement for the book, going on the supposition that my blog lacks traditional “editorial responsibility.” And notice, in the quotation from the guidelines above, that the bigger the audience for the blog, the more likely that a review will be considered an endorsement. This is the sort of obtuse reasoning from which Circles of Hell are fashioned.

It’s possible that these guidelines — only a small portion of the 81-page document that focuses primarily on television and magazine advertising — were deemed necessary by the FTC because of the bloggers who review a variety of mainly household products only in a positive manner. Well-known examples of these are the “mommy bloggers” Katja Presnal at skimbacolifestyle.com and Christine Young of FromDatestoDiapers.com. As Tim Arango wrote yesterday in The New York Times about Christine Young, “If she doesn’t like a product, she simply won’t write about it.”

Now I’m not telling my Fellow Wine-Bloggers to pick out a bottle of wine and kick it in the teeth just for fun, but I will say that giving only positive reviews does not build credibility or a reputation for objectivity. In fact, writing only positive reviews creates the impression that all you’re doing is, yes, endorsing products without engaging a balancing critical sensibility. And providing negative or even not wholly positive reviews is a boon for your readers; doesn’t it make as much sense to warn them away from mediocrity as to extol what is superior?

The FTC guidelines for bloggers take effect on Dec. 1, though the enterprise is fraught with ambiguity. If I write a post in which I review 12 wines, must I include a disclaimer for each wine or a blanket disclaimer for the post? Or is it all right to include a permanent disclaimer for the blog that covers all posts and all wines? The FTC hasn’t made that clear. What is clear is that in the next few months the sort of confusion and consternation that leads to lawsuits will reign.

Here’s a port that will warm the cockles of your heart — whatever the hell those are — in these coming Autumn evenings, though I, true to form, am sipping it at 9 a.m. This is the Dow’s Late Bottled Vintage Porto 2004. Dow’s was established in 1798 but has been owned by the Symington family since 1961; beginning in 1912, the Symingtons had a 30 percent share in Dow’s and managed the vineyards.

LBV was devised to provide accessible port for consumers when a year was not “declared” for Vintage Porto and to have port on hand while the vintage port was aging in their cellars. Vintage port is aged two years in oak barrels and then released to mature in the bottle; typically the fierce tannins of vintage port require 15 or 20 years to soften. LBV is aged in barrel four to six years before release, allowing the tannins to mellow and smooth out and making a port that is immediately drinkable without having to be decanted. While LBV is a port of a single vintage, it is typically made in non-declared years. These are fortified wines, so the alcohol level is usually 19 to 20 percent.

Dow’s LBV 2004 presents an opaque ruby/purple color. The bouquet is pure pleasure. Blackberries and black currants are woven with blueberries and black raspberries dipped in bittersweet chocolate and accented with the sharp earthiness of freshly ground black pepper, this paean to ripe berryishness permeated by hints of dried orange rind and a dusty, leathery, mossy element. The wine is dense and almost viscous in the mouth, bursting with ripe black fruit flavors, savory fruit cake and layers of exotic spice. It’s sweet and jammy on the entry, but the finish is dry, minerally and a bit austere. This would be fabulous with chocolate desserts or, in contrast, with an aged Cheddar cheese. Excellent. About $21.

Imported by Premium Port Wines, San Francisco.

A perfect dish for seasonal transition, that is from Summer into Fall, is this recipe from the September Gourmet magazine. It touches five essential food groups — chicken, figs, garlic, bacon and thyme — for a combination that’s savory, hearty and flavorful, with a touch of woodsy sweetness. The recipe calls for Cornish game hens, but the examples we see in stores here look like small mutant chickens, not the petite birds of yore, so we used chicken thighs, which we had on hand. The dish did not suffer in the slightest. In keeping with our new philosophy — two small meals a day –LL and I each ate one thigh (and one piece of bacon), along with mashed potatoes and green beans, leaving some for lunch this weekend.

For wine, I opened the Campo Santa Lena Valpolicella Classico 2007, from Villa Monteleone, located in the town of Gargagnago, in the central-western reaches of the Valpolicella Classico region. Valpolicella Classico, in the Veneto, like Chianti Classico in Tuscany, is a delimited vineyard zone, not a style of wine. Theoretically, wines from Valpolicella Classico, closer to Lake Garda and at a higher elevation, will be better than “regular” Valpolicella because of the more salubrious geography and micro-climate. Indeed, as the vineyards of Valpolicella spread easterly toward the city of Verona and flatter land, the more lackluster or at least merely drinkable the wines tend to be.

Campo Santa Lena Valpolicella Classico 2007 is a blend of the typical grapes of the region: Corvina and rondinella with some croatina and molinara. Made all in stainless steel, the wine is a medium ruby color with inviolable violet at the center. The bouquet offers black currants, dusty plums, a whiff of black pepper and dried herbs. In the mouth, Campo Santa Lena ’07 is robust and earthy, but not heavy; in fact, it carries itself with point and polish, invigorated by lithe acidity. Flavors of black cherries and plums are permeated by chewy, slightly brushy tannins and back-notes of tar and bitter chocolate. A rewarding drink with our roasted chicken, figs and thyme with bacon and garlic chips, it would be equally suitable with a variety of hearty autumnal fare, especially game-birds. Very Good+. About $20.

Imported by Domenico Selections, New York, whose wines are now available not only in the Northeast but in North Carolina and Texas.

LL came home for lunch yesterday — remember, our new regime is two moderate meals a day — and fried one small soft-shell crab. Now the curious point is that neither LL nor I are particularly fond of soft-shell crab, but Saturday morning we were at the Memphis Farmers Market standing at the table of a guy who drives down to New Orleans to pick up fish and seafood from his family’s boats and LL said, “Well, let’s try a soft-shell crab.” I was making objecting hums and haws in the background, but she went ahead; we also bought a pound of shrimp and two beautiful fillets of tuna. (The tuna became the ceviche for the tacos we ate Monday.)

Anyway, LL came home for lunch, cleaned the crab, breaded it with flour and panko crumbs and fried it in a skillet. She also sliced some green tomatoes, coated them and fried them. I sliced one ciabatta roll and spread remoulade sauce on the interior. LL slid two slices of fried green tomato onto the bottom half of the roll, set the fried crab on top of the tomatoes, and I sprinkled some shredded romaine lettuce on top of the crabs, then capped it with the other half of the roll. Voila! A fried green tomato and soft-shell crab sandwich, which I cut in half, so we each had a little sandwich, about six bites each. We served these with a salad of baby arugula, chopped romaine, tomatoes and sliced red and yellow peppers. A great lunch!

We were eating on the screened porch in back — the rain stopped after two weeks, and we’re having gorgeous mild weather — and LL said, “We need about this much wine,” holding thumb and forefinger about two inches apart. So I looked in the wine fridge and thought, “Oh, what the hell!” and plucked forth a bottle of the Rossi-Wallace Chardonnay 2007, Napa Valley. The wine is made by husband-and-wife team Ric Forman and Cheryl Emmolo, each of whom has a long history with wine and vineyards in the Napa Valley. Rossi-Wallace, named for their mothers, is a new project; this chardonnay and a Pinot Noir 2007 are the initial releases.

The Rossi-Wallace Chardonnay 2007 sees no oak and no malolactic “fermentation.” Made all in stainless steel, the wine rests seven months on the lees of spent yeast cells. The grapes derive from the same vineyard that supplies Forman’s chardonnay under his eponymous label but for this wine the grapes are harvested a bit earlier. The result of this fairly hands-off approach is a beautiful chardonnay of shimmering purity and intensity. Classic pineapple and grapefruit scents are permeated by quince and ginger and hints of limestone and wet gravel. After a few moments, a wafting of jasmine lifts from the glass. In the mouth, the wine is lithe and supple, almost crystalline in its vibrant acidity; the pineapple-grapefruit flavors take on a touch of roasted lemon and pear, with hints of smoke and mushroom-like earthiness. Such emphasis on the lively and delicious character of the grape is rare in California. If I were managing a restaurant wine list, I would want a couple of cases of this chardonnay in the cellar. Unfortunately — there’s always a rub! — only 150 cases were produced, so mark this one Worth a Search. About $25.

LL and I drank about one-third of this bottle at lunch — it managed the spiciness and assertiveness of the soft-shell crab quite handily — and finished it last night with shrimp risotto.

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