So, I’m embarrassed. I concluded my post Friday about BTYH winning the “Best Wine Reviews” category in the American Wine Blog Awards with the injunction, “So, back to work.” But I didn’t do it!

Well, you have probably inferred, readers, that one of the philosophies of this blog is Never to Go Off-Topic, and while it may occasionally seem as if I skirt perilously close to violating that principle, I try to make certain that every post has something to do with drinking or eating. A five-day hiatus, however, seems to me reason enough to edge down the slippery slope of the personal and mention that I have been, as the phrase goes, “under the weather,” though isn’t that an interesting way of saying that one has been ill, since, we are always, when you think about it logically, under some kind of weather. Stew about that for a while.

Anyway, I apologize, and I’ll get things back in motion in a couple of days. Until then, thanks for all the positive reaction to the award, both here on the blog and in email messages.

You all are just so freakin’ nice!

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.

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!

Pulling the cork on a bottle of Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Riesling 2006 last week, I noticed something written on the label. cork_p1160013.jpg That phenomenon is not unusual; corks often have words and numbers printed on them, from practical matter, such as the name of the producer and year the grapes were harvested (which should match the name and vintage on the label; that’s why the waiter presents you with the cork, to check the wine’s authenticity, not really to smell the cork), to the whimsical, as in the “Ribbit” that Frog’s Leap Winery puts on its corks.

This, however, was different. The words were: “I selected this cork to ensure the highest wine quality.” Under this screed was the tiny printed signature of Jess Jackson, owner of the Kendall-Jackson empire. Well, O.K., Jess, that certainly reassures us that your eye is on the cork, if not the sparrow, though was it actually necessary to inform us of the fact? Why not just say, “We buy a million of these doodads because that’s what we decided to do”? Must we get up-close and personal with synthetic corks?

(BTW, I like the legend printed on the cork in this illustration, which translates as “Bottled in France.” That’s really reassuring.)

The cork in question is quite ordinary and is not, as is the case with so many corks today, made of cork. It is, rather — and as the cork industry likes to point out — a synthetic cork, made of some slightly creepy-feeling plasticky space-age material. Many wineries use such bottle stoppers nowadays, made from a variety of materials and all designed to replace the increasingly marginalized “real” cork, a trend that makes the hitherto mentioned cork industry very anxious. As most wine drinkers have experienced, “bad” corks, like bad apples in their barrels, have a deleterious effect on wine, making it “corked,” that is smelling of damp cardboard.

What really struck me, though, standing in the kitchen rolling this ordinary object in my hand, is that a cork stopper for a bottle is an example of a thing made of a certain material that has taken on the name of the material itself. First came the cork tree (an evergreen oak, Quercus suber), and then the small cylindrical or tapering object that someone discovered was perfect for jamming into the necks of bottles so the contents did not flow out. Eureka! And then, in the mid 16th Century, according to The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (Vol. I. A-M), that object became known as “a cork,” not just “something made of cork.”

The NSOAD mentions that this object, this stopper, may be made “of cork or some other material,” acknowledging the fact that a cork is not required to be made of, you know, cork.

Anyway, I spent almost a week trying to think of another example of this occurrence, an object known by the same name as its glass_empty.jpg material, and then yesterday, I was standing in the kitchen staring at the cabinet that holds the — you know what’s coming, right? — glasses, and I thought, “Oh, yeah, right.” Glasses, vessels made of glass for holding and conveying, generally, liquids, are known by the name of the material from which they are made.

The NSOED offers, as part of a long segment on “glass,” this definition: “A glass vessel or receptacle. Also, the contents of such a vessel or receptacle. A drinking-vessel made of glass; a beverage, (esp. alcoholic) contained in such a vessel,” in the sense that we say, “Have a glass of wine,” when what we mean is “Have a glass filled with wine.” And when the responder replies, “Sure, I’ll have a glass,” they mean, “Sure, I’ll have a glass filled with wine.”

We also say “glasses” for the objects we wear on our noses to enhance vision, a locution that goes back to the mid 17th Century. And from the early 17th Century, magnifying objects like telescopes and microscopes with lenses made of glass were called a “glass,” as when the dreaded pirate says, “Pass me the glass, matey, so I can spy out the cut of yon jib.”

Well, we have wandered far from our original subject here, but if you object to this linguistic digression, all I can say is “Put a cork in it, Jack,” though it’s up to you to decide of what material the cork is made.

Images from wikimedia.

Sorry , readers, BTYH was disabled for about 10 hours today and just got back up at 9:34 p.m. The problem was purely technical, though even after talking to two support people at BlueHost, I don’t really fathom what the Big Deal was. Something about repairing and optimizing tables in the c-panel. So, here we are, thanks to the valiant efforts of my designers at Mouse Foundry. Did I mention that I hate computers?

Now hear this, Readers: Bigger Than Your Head was launched two years ago this week, on December 3, 2006, to be precise. megaphone_yellows_med.jpg

Since that day, I have posted 302 entries.

Since that day, visitors to the blog have numbered 464,882. (Damnit, I was hoping for the half-million mark!)

How has the activity grown? In the first full month that BTYH was running, January 2007, visitors numbered 6,800; last month, there were 26,978. No, it ain’t YouTube — or “The Pour” — but it makes me happy.

Just as it makes me happy to write about the wines I taste or the wines that LL and I have with dinner or with pizza on movie night and to write about issues in the wine and restaurant industries and, whenever possible, bring some humor, if not outright sarcasm or downright annoyance, to the scene.

I’m having fun doing this, and I hope you’re having fun too, and learning a few things about food and wine, eating and drinking.

It’s almost Christmas and New Years, so let’s shove on and keep doing what we’re doing.

And thanks for all the responses and email messages; those are what make this endeavor worthwhile.

Megaphone images from bccforums.org.uk.

Notice that I didn’t say “a great pizza wine.” The concept of a great pizza wine, I think, embodies a tasty and fairly nino_negri_quadrio_04.jpg straightforward quaff, rather rugged and rustic, that goes well with the hearty flavors of a pizza, full-bodied pasta dishes, burgers and so on. Not a damned thing wrong with that. This wine, however, the Nino Negri Quadrio 2004, Valtellina Superiore, was great with our pizza Saturday night but is essentially a versatile red wine that would shine and perhaps even ennoble many dishes, particularly small game, such as rabbit and squab.

Valtellina Superiore is a DOCG region (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) in Lombardia, in northern Italy, lying along the right bank of the Adda (a name beloved by crossword puzzle makers) River within sight of the Alps. DOCG is supposed to indicate the highest level of Italian wine classes and regions, but — surprise! — since the system was first used in 1980, it has become highly politicized. The principal grape in Valtellina Superiore is chiavennasca, the local name for the nebbiolo grape that is put to such felicitous use in Piedmont, to the west. Wines from Valtellina Superiore must contain 90 percent chiavennasca grapes.

The Nino Negri Quadrio 2004 ages 18 months in 80-hectoliter Slavonian oak vats. How big are they? Eighty hectoliters equals about 2,112 U.S. gallons; by comparison, the standard French oak barrel holds about 59 gallons. The point is that such large casks impart very little wood flavor to the wine; instead they lend some spice and gentle shading and shaping to the wine’s structure. Quadrio 2004 contains 10 percent merlot grapes in addition to the nebbiolo.

The wine felt truly classic, like a cadet version of Barolo. The color is moderate ruby-garnet, not too dark or overly extracted. The bouquet offers notes of dried cherries, cloves and sandalwood, mulberry, leather and moss, with hints of fresh and dried flowers. In the mouth, flavors of spiced and slightly macerated black and red currants and raspberries lie over leathery and earthy elements bolstered by gentle tannins and a streak of vibrant acid. Drink now through 2011 or ’12. Very Good+, and at about $21 a Good Value.

I think this wine, which would be so appropriate, as I said, with roasts and game, went well with last Saturday’s pizza because I have been working on getting my pizzas more simple and pure. No caramelized radicchio on this one; just tomato and green pepper and red onion, a bit of guanciale, fresh mozzarella and parmesan. I sliced the tomatoes and bell pepper as thinly as possible, so during the 12 minutes in the oven they would get a little roasted. Perhaps it was the simplicity of the pizza, its spareness, that matched so nicely with the Nino Negri Quadrio 2004.
This was my fault. For a snack on Sunday, I made open-face sandwiches by taking two ciabatta rolls, slicing them in half and spreading Dijon mustard on them. Then I layered a few pieces of baby arugula, sliced tomato and pieces of roasted ham, all this topped with grated Parmesan cheese, a dribble of olive oil, ground salt and pepper. I ran these under the broiler for a few minutes until the cheese and the edges of the bread got nice and toasted, and then I served them to me and LL with a glass of the Simi Roseto 2007, Sonoma County. EEEERRRRNNNNGGGG! Didn’t work. The mustard tromped all over the wine. It would have been better if I just spread olive oil on the bread, or perhaps used some tapenade as the condiment, but the mustard was too powerful, too spicy.

There’s not a damned thing wrong with the wine, though. It’s a winsome rosé, a blend of 97 percent syrah and three percent viognier. It features bright cherry-berry flavors with touches of melon and rhubarb, subtle notes of dried herbs and flowers, hints of Bazooka Bubble Gum, and a mineral element that dominates the finish. Quite tasty and rated Very Good. About $11, more than fair.

This is not a big deal or anything, but we were having Chinese take-out last night, and I reached in the fridge, grabbing a bottle of, um, let’s see, what is this? August Kesseler, well it’s from 2004, an excellent year in Germany that produced nervy and dynamic wines, it’s from the Rheingau and it’s a Qualitätswein Trocken. No mention of a grape; in fact, the back label says, succinctly, “White Grape Wine.” There’s riesling here certainly, but it feels like a blend; perhaps some sylvaner? “Qualitätswein” (“quality wine”) is about as reassuring in a German wine as “premier” is in California, though Qualitätswein is an official government designation. So, I guess my point is that this rather anonymous wine, finished with a screw-cap, is, at four years old, clean and fresh and zesty, possessed of lovely ripe yellow and stone fruit scents and flavors and vivid acidity. No, it doesn’t offer much depth and structure, and, yes, it dries out along the circumference, flattened the spicy and floral qualities, but gosh, it’s really delicious. The problem is that I have no idea how much it costs or even where I got it or who gave it to me. If you have a notion — I mean about the price — or if you have tried this wine, let me know.

David Lett, a pioneer of the Oregon wine industry, died Thursday. He was only 69. He went to Oregon’s Willamette Valley in 1965, convinced — against all the advice he had been given — that this would be fertile ground for pinot noir and pinot gris. The wines he produced at The Eyrie Vineyard proved him right. david_lett.JPG

While a later generation or two of winemakers moved toward ripe, dark, heavily extracted wines, Lett continued to make pinot noir on the Burgundian model of spare elegance and delicacy, with spicy red fruit flavors and whip-lash acid. Delicious in youth, the wines, especially the Reserves, aged beautifully for 10 to 15 years. His chardonnays were wonderful too.

By happenstance, I spent an afternoon with David Lett during the International Pinot Noir Conference in 2003. A friend and I hitched a ride with him in his Jaguar, we visited the winery (in an old turkey warehouse) and drove out to his house. It was a beautiful, still afternoon. We wandered through his old vineyards, not even talking most of the time, not that he didn’t love to talk. That night, at the big banquet and salmon cook-out, Lett brought some old bottles of his pinot noir and chardonnay. They were lovely, the pinots taut and vigorous, yet satiny and flavorful, the chardonnays seamlessly layered with minerality.

The younger winemakers I talked to at the conference were clearly fond of Lett, but he was also clearly regarded as eccentric, old-fashioned and stubborn. Subtlety, he was condescended to. I tried the pinot noir wines concocted by these young winemakers, these pinots that burst with ripe black fruit flavors, that seethed with spice and smoke, that felt plush and velvety, and I made notes on them. The wines I kept going back to, however, were David Lett’s pinot noirs.

His was the vision at the beginning; his will be the vision at the end.

Image of David Lett from Wikipedia.

I came upon a term in a press release: bar chef. WTF, readers, does the world need this?

At first I assumed that the author of the press release made up the term, but no, some Google research revealed it in Moi widespread use.

A bar chef, if I may interpret for the naive, is not a person who cooks for the bar menu, it’s the bartender under a new guise. Even the hideous “mixologist” isn’t enough anymore. I mean a mixologist could be the guy at Sherwin Williams who blends the paint for your living room walls.

Jonathan Miles, author of the “Shaken & Stirred” cocktail column for The New York Times, informed us in his last column that “bar chef” was concocted eight years ago by Albert Trummer, now the, um, barkeep at Apotheke, a recently opened joint in Manhattan. Trummer indeed takes an almost pharmaceutical approach to making a drink, utilizing as well as the typical ingredients like vodka, gin and rum an array of 80 house-made herb and flower infusions and oils; a drink he made for Miles included oils of elderflower, hibiscus and verbena. Permit me to say “Yuck.” Trummer is the sort of fanatic that disdains using the traditional simple syrup; no, he has a sugar cane press in the back room and when a cocktail calls for simple syrup, he cranks out a little pure sugar cane juice.

Bartender, could I just have a martini, please, up with one olive? And hold the hibiscus. Behind your ear.

Nothing is too trivial to carp about, so I’ll mention that I deplore the use of “luxe” instead of “deluxe” to describe objects “of special elegance, sumptuousness, or fineness; high or highest in quality” (as The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, Second Edition, Unabridged defines “deluxe”). Not that “luxe” is not a word; it’s just a pretentious, trendy, hipper-than-thou word, which must be why writers for food and travel magazines use it so often. You know, “luxe ingredients,” “luxe accommodations”, “luxe light fixtures.” In terms of etymological history, “deluxe” follows “luxe” by about 250 years. “Deluxe” was coined or first came into common use around 1810 or 1820; it’s French, of course, and meant simply, “of luxury.”

“Luxe,” on the other hand, goes back to the middle of the 16th Century, and while it conveys much the same meaning as “deluxe,” it has a Latin root, luxus, which means “excess.” So if words remain true to their roots, and in some sense they always do, just as our hearts remain true to our schools, using “luxe” instead of “deluxe” implies a hint of cloying extravagance and annoying over-striving.

So don’t do that again.

The trouble with “fun” wines is that they’re not very much fun. I mean, for me a wine is fun when I pay $10 for a bottle and it’s so good that I wouldn’t have minded paying more, say $15. Now that’s fun. The wine industry and its marketing pink.jpg arms, however, mean by a “fun wine” something you don’t have to worry your pretty little head about; the implication is clear: “Let’s bottle some anonymous wine, pump it up with a cute name, label and back story, charge $10 for it and hope that people who don’t actually care anything about wine with make it popular.” Cue photos of great-looking babes and hunks having a wonderful time in hip surroundings drinking fun wines.

Riesling is regarded as the fun wine of the moment, replacing pinot grigio, which was getting weary of the responsibility. Remember Pink Pinot Grigio, the vinous equivalent of chick lit? That was fun! Now it’s not!

A primary promoter of riesling as a fun wine is Schmitt-Sohne, owner of several fine labels (Schloss Vollrads and Markus Molinar) but a company that doesn’t mind tapping into the nether reaches of the common denominator. One of the firm’s fun wines is funf.jpg Fünf, a non-vintage Tafelwein from the Rhine region. In Germany’s complicated hierarchy of wine classifications, Tafelwein is the bottom rung, though less than 5 percent of the country’s wines are thus categorized. In German, fünf means “five,” the idea of the wine being that fun starts at 5 in the afternoon, and how convenient that “fun” is the first three letters of fünf. What’s the wine like? It’s unobjectionable, it’s palatable, and it would do in a pinch, depending on who’s doing the pinching and where. Fünf sells for $7 and is available only in the United States of America. It gets a Good rating from me.

Schmitt-Sohne also markets the “Relax” label, of which I have tried the Relax Riesling 2006 and the Relax Cool Red 2006, and the reason why the name of the grape does not go on the label of the Relax Cool Red is that the grape is the dornfelder, a cross-breeding of — are you ready? — helfensteiner and haroldrebe. The creators/marketers for this wine wisely understood relax.gifthat nobody is going to say, “Oh, honey, while you’re at our friendly neighborhood wine and liquor store, would you pick up a bottle of Relax Dornfelder.” That would definitely not be fun. The Relax wines are QbAs, which put them a rung below QmPs, which is where the fine German wines actually start, theoretically. Relax Riesling 2006 is identifiably riesling; it’s clean and crisp, just off-dry, with hints of pear, quince and lychee bolstered by vibrant acidity. It’s not all that much fun, but I’ll go up to Good+. The price is about $11. Relax Cool Red ’06 isn’t quite as much fun. Other than a rather startling color of intense ruby-purple and an aroma of crushed wild berries, well, that’s about it. Good enough, I suppose, but good enough for what, I don’t know. I didn’t find the wine very relaxing. About $10.

The New York Times tells us this morning that the very wealthy are economizing by selling their private jets and drinking cheaper wine. Well, drop a tear and all that, I suppose. The best-selling wine at white-glove Sherry-Lehmann, purveyor of wines to Manhattan’s Upper East Side, is a $20 Medoc 2005. What surprised me, though, was Sherry-Lehmann’s price for a bottle of ausone.jpgChateau Ausone 2005 — are you ready? — $4,500. Now Ausone is at the top of the best wines of St.-Emilion and is one of the top wines of a spectacular year for Bordeaux, but $4,500 for a single bottle of this wine? I mean, back in March the Wine Spectator listed the price for Ausone ’05 as about $2,000 a bottle. Has the situation changed so much in six months? The answer is “No shit, Sherlock,” and Sherry-Lehmann’s price turns out to be fairly, um, reasonable. A check on wine-searcher.com produced prices of $4,595 (Manhattan Wine Co.), $4,800 (Morrell & Co., Manhattan), $5,525 (Wine Commune, Berkeley) and an astonishing $6,000 at Zachy’s (Scarsdale). Does anybody have to be told not to make that drive to Scarsdale?

Splendid image of Rodin’s “The Thinker” from yamabushi.com.
The Fünf image, much modified, is from flickr.com and was taken by “onthetower.”

The object pictured here serves as a model of the principle that sometimes the most inspired ideas are the simplest. This is a peppercornwafer250-b.jpg thin disk of dark chocolate, 75 percent cacao, that holds on the center of its slightly convex surface a scattering of crushed pink peppercorns. Take a bite. The chocolate is lush, smooth, powerfully flavorful with a slightly astringent edge. Then the crunch and heat of the pink peppercorns burst on your palate, and the lushness of the intense chocolate and the flagrantly spicy, peppery effect get mixed together in a tremulous yin and yang, ego and id, Cheech and Chong of paradoxical, challenging yet wholly satisfying deliciousness.

This tiny miracle of culinary incisiveness is made by Veré (pronounced very), a chocolate company in New York City founded and directed by Kathy Moskai. Moskai has bachelor of fine arts and master of fine arts degrees in painting and fine art from the Yale School of Art and Architecture, so it’s no fluke that the packaging for Veré chocolates is quite distinctive, spare yet captivating. (Previously she was founder and president of HUE, the fashion legwear company.) All of the Veré chocolates are 75 percent cacao, made from beans sustainably grown and responsibly harvested in Ecuador. The couverture, the chocolate liquor from which candy is manufactured, is produced in Ecuador, so Veré owns the process “from bean to box.” The company uses a low glycemic sugar to keep the sweetening of the chocolate as minimal as possible. And all the ingredients for the flavored bars are organic.

So, all these details can make you feel good about yourself, if not about the world in general, but forgetting that do-gooder agenda, what are the Veré chocolates like?

We spent several weeks trying various products from the company, the truffles (almost more savory than sweet), the brownies, the flavored bars, the clusters, truffleboxes300.jpg the caramels, the pink peppercorn wafers (wafer are also available in cacao nibs, espresso, tamari almond and spicy pepita) and the “Crunchy Stuff.” (All these products were supplied by the company.) With a couple of exceptions, they were flat-out wonderful.

The artistic philosophy of Veré seems to be understatement. Truffles (a box of four for $10; 16 for $35) and caramels (a box of four for $8, 16 for $28) are small, about the size of one die. Truffles come in cream, cognac, coffee and Earl Grey tea; the caramel flavors are lavender (decadent), rose and pistachio (wonderful), walnut and fennel, the Asian-themed ginger and sesame, lemon and poppy seed (like a pound cake), cinnamon and pecan, spicy pumpkin seed and salt and cacao nibs. Brownies (12 for $12) occupy all of one bite. The wafers come five to a box (for $7.50, cheap in my view); so it was two each for LL and me, and then we had to call in a team of surveyors to measure and divide the fifth.

We also doted on the Organic Bars, especially the Espresso + Anise and the Raspberry + Lemon, while the Ultimo Dark was like mainlining chocolate right into the brain. We didn’t care for the Banana + Macadamia Organic Bar; it just wasn’t a winning combination for us.

The clusters, chocolate-almond and so on, seemed pointless, almost primitive. Likewise the “Veré Crunchy Stuff” snack mixes — Pump’dcorn, So Good It’s Nuts and Coco Crisp — though that didn’t prevent us from scarfing the stuff down. Still, Veré is best when its products are the most pure and intense.

Now, as to the wine.

We had some friends over for dinner, and I served Veré chocolates for desserts, four small pieces each on large white plates, chapoutierbanyuls.jpg befitting the elegant and quasi-religious nature of the Veré experience. I opened a bottle of Banyuls 2004 from the great Rhone producer, M. Chapoutier (about $24). Banyuls is a vin doux naturels, that is, a fortified wine to which a spirit is added before fermentation is complete, raising the alcohol level and keeping the wine sweet. The region Banyuls is far from the Rhone, though, being at the far western edge of Roussillon, overlooking the Mediterranean, almost to Spain. The primary grape is grenache noir.

This example was luscious, offering roasted plums, black currants and fruit cake with hints of orange zest, dried spices and even a hint of bittersweet chocolate. It’s similar to port but lighter, more delicate than intense or weighty. It was delightful with the Veré chocolates.

A couple of nights later, I grilled a ribeye steak outside and to drink with it, I opened a bottle of a new wine, the Phifer Pavitt “Date Night” Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Napa Valley (about $75). A few inches of wine remained in the bottle when we finished dinner, and on an impulse, I said, “Let’s try this with a couple of the truffles and caramels.” I’ll be writing about this wine more thoroughly in a week or so, in a post about California cabernets from 2005, but let me say that this sumptuous wine’s combination of black fruit flavors, especially like roasted, meaty plums, and its elements of mocha and dried ancho chilies and its vibrant mineral character with the Veré chocolates made us feel as if our timbers had been shivered, our socks turned inside out and fires lit along the little watchtowers of our taste buds. This was a seriously seriously good match.

Veré products are available pretty extensively in New York and California and in a more limited manner in a dozen other states. Visit the company’s website for more information or to order online.

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