July 2010


The venerable and extensive Badia a Coltibuono estate in Tuscany goes back a thousand years, to the time of patient, tireless monks toiling in the hillside vineyards. The property, now almost 2,300 acres, is owned by the Stucchi Prinetti family, descendants of Florentine banker Guido Giuntini who acquired the estate in 1846. In addition to wines from its own vineyards, Badia a Coltibuono produces a line under the “Coltibuono” brand made from purchased grapes from selected Tuscan vineyards. To that roster belongs the Chianti Classico “Roberto Stucchi” (or “R.S.”) 2008, made from 100 percent sangiovese grapes and aged six months in two- and three-year-old French oak casks and barriques. The Consorzio that regulates these matters allowed Chianti Classico to be made completely from sangiovese grapes, rather than the traditional blend with caniaolo, in 1996.

The Coltibuono Chianti Classico “Roberto Stucchi” 2008, a model of clean, fresh purity and intensity, offers an enticing, even an intoxicating bouquet of red and black currants, orange zest, potpourri, black pekoe tea and cloves. Things are a bit more subdued in the mouth, where the wine delivers a classic package of bristling acidity, moderately dense and dusty tannins and a touch of shale to bolster flavors of dried currants and plums with a hint of spiced and macerated black cherries, mossy tea and leather. Drink now through 2012 or ’13, to accompany grilled leg of lamb studded with garlic and rosemary; pasta Bolognese; sausage pizza; or a medium-rare rib-eye steak, sliced and sprinkled with sea-salt. 13 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $15 to $18.

Imported by Dalla Terra Winery Direct, Napa, Cal. Tasted at a trade event.

LL seared a fillet of salmon, just with salt, pepper and lemon juice, and braised baby bok choy with garlic and, um, other stuff, while I made sweet potato oven-fries dusted with cumin and chili powder. A simple and delicious dinner.

I opened a truly lovely German wine from the Nahe region, the Kruger-Rumpf Münsterer Rheinberg Riesling Kabinett 2008.

Nahe borders the western reach of upper Rheingau; to the northwest, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer extends down along the Mosel river. The wines of Nahe are often described as being amalgams of Mosel and Rheingau, and perhaps the geography of Germany’s wine country, with Nahe between Mosel and Rheingau, explains that notion. The best vineyards of Nahe cluster along the banks of the Nahe river, in the region’s central eastern side; the principal towns are Bad Kreuznach and Bad Münster, the prefix “Bad” indicating the presence of health-giving spas and resorts. (A münster is a monastary.)

The estate of Kruger-Rumpf, regarded as an up-and-coming producer, is farther downstream (north), at Münster Sarmsheim, not far from where the Nahe runs into the Rhine at the town of Bingen. Münsterer Rheinberg Kabinett is the estate’s basic wine, but that status does not imply inferiority. Kruger-Rumpf Münsterer Rheinberg Riesling Kabinett 2008 is ethereal and exquisitely expressive of the riesling grape; a touch of spritz makes the wine light and balletic. Delicate aromas of pear and peach with hints of yellow plum and honeysuckle are borne on an evanescent tide of slightly earthy limestone. Citrus flavors unfold to reveal a suggestion of creamy Lady apples, briefly baked. The wine flirts with sweetness on the entry, but from mid-palate back, it’s bone-crisp, bone-chalky, bone-dry, yet ripely, gracefully succulent. What a sweetheart! Alcohol is 8.5 percent. Drink now through 2012 (well-stored). Excellent. About $22 to $25.

Imported by Michael Skurnik Wines, Syosset, N.Y. A sample for review, from a trade group.

Natural Brew Draft Root Beer is made by Smucker Natural Foods, Inc., of Chico, Ca., a division of The J.M. Smucker Co. The well-known parent company, a producer of jams and jellies, peanut butter and other products, was founded in 1897 by Jerome Monroe Smucker; it is operated by the family’s fourth generation and headquartered in Orrville, Ohio. Until May, 2009, Smucker Natural Foods was known as Smucker Quality Beverages, but the word “natural” conveys the firm’s intent to capitalize on the national trend toward “natural,” “organic” and “healthy” ingredients. According to foodprocessing.com, the Smucker Natural Foods plant was the first LEED-certified building in Butte County, Ca., and is “94% off the grid.”

The Natural Brew segment also makes Outrageous Ginger Ale, Vanilla Creme Soda and Chai Cola. The website touts a commitment, without going into much detail, to traditional methods, small-batch brewing, hand-crafted techniques and such.

The ingredients in Natural Draft Root Beer are listed thus:

“SPARKLING FILTERED WATER, EVAPORATED CANE JUICE, NATURAL FLAVORS, BOURBON VANILLA EXTRACT, ANISE, SARSAPARILLA, LICORICE ROOT, BIRCH OIL, WINTERGREEN OIL, CARAMEL COLOR, PHOSPHORIC ACID*”

I really liked this root beer. One smells and tastes a complex layering of spicy, herbal and rooty elements for the savory medicinal quality that’s a prerequisite in well-made root beers. It’s creamy on the palate yet sprightly, with a nicely developed presence. The vanilla and anise high notes dominate a bit more than I would like them to, and I don’t know if this is a result of “evaporated cane juice,” but this is a very sweet root beer, yet altogether it’s a tasty and authentic brew. Very Good+. I paid $4.99 for a four-pack at Whole Foods.

*Phosphoric acid (H3PO4) is an inorganic mineral acid that lends liveliness and tang to cola-style soft drinks. It’s cheaper and more widely available than citric acid. Phosphoric acid is also used as a rust remover — “naval jelly” — and has been linked to lower bone density in habitual cola drinkers. Just so you know.

Image from natural-brew.com.

You may have to do a little ferreting around to find this wine, but it will be worth the effort, I promise.

It’s the Dominique Cornin Mâcon-Chaintré 2007, a 100 percent chardonnay wine made in the Mâcon-Villages appellation in the southern part of Burgundy. The domaine is run by brothers Dominique and Romain Cornin and their horse Coccinelle. They — the brothers — are the third generation of the family to work the domaine and make wine from its cluster of vineyards that range from 15 to 40 years old. Since 2003, the domaine has been operated on biodynamic principles.

Dominique Cornin Mâcon-Chaintré 2007 is made completely in stainless steel, so it sees no oak. The wine is an expressive example of the intensity and purity that the chardonnay grape is capable of achieving without interference. The bouquet is penetrating and rich, almost peaty, yet vibrantly fresh and clean and packed with spiced pear and roasted lemon with a hint of pineapple. In the mouth, seamless layers of flint, limestone and oyster shell dig deep and bolster lemon and grapefruit flavors permeated by cloves, quince and ginger. The texture and structure handily balance lithe, crisp, vivid acidity with talc-like lushness, elements that lead to an increasingly dry finish of stony austerity. At a bit less than three years old, this is a fully mature Mâcon-Villages for drinking through 2011 or ’12, well-stored. A lovely wine with tons of personality. About 1,320 cases produced. Excellent. Prices around the country range from about $17 to $24(!), so look for $21 and under for Good Value.

We drank the Dominique Cornin Mâcon-Chaintré 2007 last night with grilled tuna, doused with a lime-chili vinaigrette, and grilled vegetables, i.e. eggplant, zucchini. yellow squash and tomatoes, marinated for an hour in olive oil, salt and pepper, oregano and marjoram. It all made a great match.

Imported by Martine’s Wines, Novato, Cal. A sample from the local wholesaler.

July 4 is our country’s Independence Day. How about on July 5, we declare independence from oak.

Yesterday, as befits a patriotic mood, I made a tomato salsa and then fired up the old Weber and grilled some split-open bratwurst and wedges of baguette; LL made potato salad. Voila! A very nice Fourth of July supper, which we ate on the back porch with the increasing sounds of firecrackers and the distant dull boom of pyrotechnics burgeoning round about; and the dogs exhibiting nervous jitters by twitching ears and soulful restlessness.

In sly-boots mode, I opened a bottle of The Federalist Zinfandel 2007, Dry Creek Valley, which bears, as you can see, the familiar visage of Alexander Hamilton from the U.S. $10-bill, based on the portrait executed by John Trumbull in 1805, except that on this label the figure faces to the right instead of to the left, as it does on the good old sawbuck.

Someone writes on the back label: “As leader of he Federalist party in the late 1700s, Alexander Hamilton was also a founding father and ally of the Declaration of Independence,” which is rather like saying that Benjamin Franklin was an ally of electricity, but what one must vehemently take issue with is this statement: “Around the same time, the roots of Zinfandel were beginning to grow and expand out of Europe and into the U.S.” Similarly, the wine’s website says: “The History of Zinfandel dates back to the 1700s, when farmers in the northeastern United States attempted to cultivate this as yet unknown varietal.”

Bad history, class, produces bad karma, just as lazy logic proceeds to ignorance.

In the excellent and highly readable Zinfandel: A History of a Grape and Its Wine (University of California Press, 2003), Charles L. Sullivan documented with meticulous research the zinfandel grape’s entrance into the New World in a batch of cuttings sent in the late 1820s or early 1830s from Vienna to George Gibbs of Long island, an amateur and fairly obsessive horticulturist, and from his care to Boston. These grapes, under the name “zinfindal,” became popular in Boston in the 1830s and ’40s for hot-house growing as table grapes. They were not intended as wine grapes because two centuries of experience had taught the colonists and recent Americans that the climate of New England was not amenable for European (vinifera) grapes in a vineyard setting. All of this took place some 20 or 30 years after Hamilton died on July 12, 1804, from wounds inflicted by Aaron Burr in their famous duel, not in “the 1700s.”

Another misleading statement on the back label is this: “Our Dry Creek estate-grown Federalist Zinfandel is hand crafted to bring out the true individuality of the Zinfandel grape.” If only that were true, or, at least, if only it had worked out that way, because in fashioning this wine, its makers succeeded primarily in bringing out the toasty, spicy, deeply vanilla-tinged aspects of oak barrels. I kept looking for, hoping for, some element, some feature that would relate the Federalist Zinfandel 2007 to the character of its grape, to zinfandel’s innate briery currant and brambly plum scents and flavors, to its peppery flair, but no, the wine continued to express its oak-infused personality, making it just like scores, if not hundreds, of other indistinguishable red wines from California, enjoyable perhaps, if you don’t mind that spicy vanilla, but inauthentic. 14.2 percent alcohol. 2,570 cases. Very Good. About $25.

A sample for review.

Rodney Strong planted vines in Sonoma in 1959, when the county could claim only a dozen wineries and the primary crop was prunes. Originally from rural Washington state, Strong improbably became a dancer and choreographer, performing on Broadway and in many theaters around the world. He discovered fine wine in Paris, and when he decided in retire from the stage in 1959 (the same year he married), he headed to California. In The Connoisseurs’ Handbook of the Wines of California and the Pacific Northwest (Alfred A. Knopf, fourth edition, 1998), Norman Roby and Charles Olken write, with understatement, that Rodney Strong Vineyards “has gone through more changes than most.” Strong was a pioneer in Sonoma County, a pretty good winemaker and a powerful advocate of the county’s wine industry, but a businessman he was not.

In 1961, Strong opened a tasting room across the Bay from San Francisco called Tiburon Vintners, soon moving it to Sonoma County where the enterprise became Windsor Vineyards, a wine mail-order business. The success of Windsor allowed Strong to purchase vineyards throughout the county, and by 1970, he owned about 5,000 acres; that year, he renamed the winery Sonoma Vineyards. However, as Anthony Dias Blue says succinctly in American Wine: A Comprehensive Guide (Doubleday, 1985) — how many of you still have this valuable book on your shelves? –”he expanded too fast and much too expensively.” During the decade of the 1970s, the winery reached production of 500,000 cases annually and “always seemed to be struggling,” say Roby and Olken.

There followed a rapid series of ownership changes. Control of Sonoma Vineyards went to New York-based Renfield Imports in 1984, a move accompanied by the visibility-improving name change to Rodney Strong Vineyards, selling property and consolidating the line-up. Then Renfield was acquired by Schenley, which was subsequently absorbed by Guinness. Finally, the Klein family, owner of California-based Klein Foods, bought the winery in 1989; Tom Klein remains the owner today. Rodney Strong stayed on for many years as winery figurehead and representative, and I will testify to the silver-haired and silver-tongued former dancer’s charm and charisma. Strong died in March 2006 at the age of 78.

Rodney Strong’s best wine was the Alexander’s Crown cabernet sauvignon made from a single vineyard in the Alexander Valley. Sometime in the early Summer of 1985, my friend and mentor John Grisanti went through the warehouse next to his eponymous restaurant in Memphis and picked out 12 bottles of California wine that he sent home with me. Among them were Sonoma Vineyards Alexander’s Crown Cabernet Sauvignon from 1976 and 1977. What I remember chiefly about these wines were their fine balance, harmony and integration, their sense of confidence and authority expressed with elegance and restraint.

We drank the Alexander’s Crown 1976 on July 27 and 28. Here are my notes: “medium ruby to mahogany; ripe cab. nose, dusty, dry, mint and spice; full body, fruit predominant, but still some tannin, very complex with layers of fruit and spice (but not quite up to the ’74) long finish, Excellent wine.” Unfortunately, I cannot find notes of where and when I tasted the Alexander’s Crown 1974, but that was the legendary breakout year for cabernet sauvignon in California.

We didn’t delay in consuming the Alexander’s Crown 1977; it’s turn came on July 28 and 29, first opened with dinner on the 28th. Here are my notes: “Med. ruby, just barely fading; deep nose, dusty, fruity; less tannin than the ’76, but still some ‘iron fist in velvet glove’ — smooth and full in the mouth, but tannic backbone — excellent finish — elegant wine.” Dinner that night, prepared by my former wife, Mary-Catherine, was escargot in tarragon butter, gazpacho, steak with two sauces and peach crepes. (This is the woman who, when she cooked dinner for me for the first time — we were 19-year-old college students — scared me witless by putting a whole artichoke on a plate in front of my callow self. I was used to canned peas.)

Vintages 1976 and ’77 were not great. They were drought years that demanded a great deal of skill from farmers and winemakers, and not a lot of wines were successful, particularly compared to ’74 and the next year, ’78. Still, the Alexander’s Crown Cabernets made by Rodney Strong managed to be not just delicious but compelling.

Here’s a roster of some of the other wines we drank (or tasted) in July 1985:
<>Mayacamas Pinot Noir 1980. Sadly, a bad bottle.
<>DRC Romanee-Conti 1973. A dud.
<>Petri American Burgundy. “Actually a little better than I expected.”
<>Storybook Mountain Zinfandel 1982, Sonoma County. “Just what zinfandel should be.”
<>Sea Ridge Chardonnay 1982, Sonoma County. “Unfocused and undefined.”
<>Mastantuono Templeton Zinfandel 1981, Dante Dusi Vineyards, San Luis Obispo. “Heavy, harsh.”
<>Storybook Mountain Estate Reserve Zinfandel 1981, Napa Valley. “Needs time.”
<>Tudal Chardonnay 1982, Edna Valley. “Excellent chardonnay — lush, creamy, green apple-citrus nose (medium gold color) — perfect balance between fruit & acid, medium body, citrus pineapple, buttery, smoky. Drank this with a meal of curry lemon soup, chicken with ginger & honey, fried bananas, sauteed green onions. Wonderful meal & wine.” The family-owned Tudal Winery was — actually still is — in Napa Valley, north of St. Helena, so this wine was likely made from purchased grapes. Nowadays, I would not be so inclined to consider “wonderful” a chardonnay that was smoky and buttery.

Image of Rodney Strong from sfgate.com.

So I open this nifty bottle of $20 cabernet from, say, Napa Valley and, let’s see, the alcohol is 14.5 to 15 percent, it has dollops of merlot and cabernet franc and a touch of syrah — people are so clever nowadays! — it smells like vanilla-laced, toasty oak and cassis and, you know, it’s fine, just fine, but nothing very special or exciting. But, hey, we’re just talking about 20 bucks, so do we care?

Then I open this bottle of cabernet that costs $45 or $60 or $75 from, oh, just about anywhere but let’s say Tuscany, and the alcohol is 14.5 to 15 percent, it has dollops of merlot and cabernet franc and a touch of syrah — people are so clever nowadays! — it smells like vanilla-laced, toasty oak and cassis and, you know, it’s fine, just fine, but nothing very special or exciting. And, come on, we’re talking real money here, wine-wise.

I’m so tired of this crapola. I just want to pour out these damned wines. I’m tired of interchangeable cabernet-based wines that could have been made in Napa or Sonoma, Tuscany or Piedmont, Barossa or Coonawarra, Rapel or Mendoza or Walla Walla because they all look and smell and taste and feel the same. Lord, I’m so weary of carefully-calibrated, committee-made cabernets that toe the line of all the popular, 95-point conventions and cliches. Have mercy, I’m exhausted by the sleek, slick debut cabernets that cost $75 or $100 a bottle right out of the starting gate, with no track record except the promise of a winemaker’s name. Criminy, I’m sick unto death of the press releases that inform me in exalted, ecstatic tones of the owner’s vision and the winemaker’s passion and the integrity of the land and the absolute sustainable architectural treasureness of the winery.

And speaking of the integrity of the land, the notion of terroir and single-vineyard wines don’t matter a rat’s ass when the finished wine is sodden with oak and hot with alcohol. Don’t spin me the hype of how important yer little microclimate and soil and organic philosophy and vineyard practices are (not to mention all that vision and passion) when you clobber the wine with wood and eradicate any terroir-like character it might have had. What a waste!

So stop it. Right now.

Broken wine glass image from apartmenttherapy.com.

I have loved root beer since childhood.

Though the national and indeed international realms of soft drinks are dominated by the cola-type sodas manufactured by the conglomerates, root beer holds a place in the hearts of many Americans, not only because of the beverage’s individuality (and its appeal to fans of handcrafted techniques) but because its roots, so to speak, extend centuries into the past. In the early 16th Century, Spanish colonists in Florida discovered that the native inhabitants chewed the roots of the sassafras tree (Sassafras albidum) both for its intriguing flavor and its restorative and digestive powers. Europeans made tea with sassafras root, a bracing, soothing drink that was long popular in the Southern United States. Many cultures have ancient traditions of processing various pungent and flavorful roots and herbs into teas, “small beers” and liqueurs renowned for their supposed healing properties, but sassafras and the Central American plant sarsaparilla were uniquely American contributions to the heritage. The other claim to fame of sassafras is the Creole and Cajun ingredient filé, made from the dried and powdered leaves of the tree. (We have a sassafras tree in our front yard; perhaps I should look into its fiduciary possibilities.)

While 19th Century devotees of root beer in America either brewed their own batches at home or relied on the products of local breweries — many manufacturers of beer also made root beer — it was Charles Hires who established a recipe and began producing root beer in commercial quantities, introducing his product at the Philadelphia Centennial in 1876. And of course it wasn’t only sassafras that gave root beer its distinctive bouquet and taste; a long list of herbs and spices have been involved in root beer making, chief among them wintergreen, licorice and vanilla. In fact, in 1960, the USDA banned sassafras because the oil extracted from the root and bark, safrole, is a potential carcinogen.

The primary controversy in the present day manufacture of root beer and other soft drinks, as in many processed foods and beverages, is the almost ubiquitous use of high fructose corn syrup. HFCS extends the shelf life of processed foods and is cheaper than sugar (thanks to subsidies for agribusiness and tariffs on foreign sugar). While studies have shown (according to mayoclinic.com) that HFCS is not essentially less healthy than other sugars, many processed food products that contains HFCS are high in calories and low in nutritional value. On the other hand, a study published by Princeton in March 2010 indicated that laboratory rats fed HFCS “gained significantly more weight than those with access to table sugar, even when their overall caloric intake was the same.”

Soft drink fanatics insist that HFCS tastes manufactured, hence the search for Coca-Cola from Mexico, which is still made with sugar. Hence, also, the insistence of artisan root beer makers that their products that contain sugar are purer than root beers made with HFCS. Interestingly, in a post dated June 25, 2008 about root beer on “The Pour,” Eric Asimov’s wine and spirits blog for The New York Times, he and his panel found that there was little difference in taste between roots beers produced with sugar or those made with HFCS.

But enough of this arcana. Let’s get to the heart of today’s post, which is a review of Dad’s Old Fashioned® Root Beer.

Dad’s was founded in 1937 by Ely Klapman and Barney Berns, who concocted the recipe for their root beer in Klapman’s basement in Chicago. They marketed wisely and heavily, for example, becoming the first root beer to be sold in six-pack cartons. In the 1970s, Dad’s was sold to I.C. Industries, which sold the brand to Monarch Beverage Co. in 1986. Since 2007, Dad’s has been owned by Hedinger Brands LLC and headquartered in Jaspar, Indiana.

Ingredients: “Water, high fructose corn syrup, caramel color, natural and artificial flavor, sodium benzoate* (as a preservative)”

I was disappointed with this venerable brand.

The primary flavoring ingredient in Dad’s, according to the maker’s website, is wintergreen, and you certainly smell and taste the mintiness, along with some cloves and ginger, but this feels like an intrinsically simple, manufactured product, bland and lifeless. Where’s the verve and energy, the complexity of spicy and herbal elements that make great root beers so compelling? Dad’s is very sweet, almost cloying, but other than that basic factor, it falls flat in the mouth. I’ll rate this Good- and happily move on to another root beer. A single 12-ounce bottle was $1.29 at Fresh Market.

*Sodium benzoate (NaC6H5CO2) is the sodium salt of benzoic acid. It is used as a preservative against bacteria and fungus in such acidic foods as salad dressings, carbonated beverages, jams and fruit juices, pickles and other condiments. Oddly enough, sodium benzoate is also used in pyrotechnics as a (highly explosive) fuel in something called “whistle mix,” a powder that emits an eerie whistling sound when compressed into a tube and ignited. I thought you would want to know.

Postcard image from zazzle.co.nz. Hires tray from daymix.com.

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