Dandelion Wine Daughters Forever

Dandelion_wineWhen I was eleven, my father handed me a book by Ray Bradbury called Dandelion Wine and asked me to read it.  These were the days when kids read books and didn’t consider it an affront on their texting time; these were days when if your folks asked you to do something, you did it.  Not only was the book about a boy my age, so astonished was I by the prose—the lyrical constructions, the singularity of the imaginings, the sheer magic percolating between the covers—that I determined I would find a way to write like that once I’d banked enough life experience to actually have something to say.

That same summer, I sent Ray Bradbury a childish but heartfelt fan letter, and my sincerity must have been clear because he took the time to write me back, and with such interest and encouragement that it was obvious that he not only read my note, but thought about it before responding.

gun gambleTwice a lifetime later, when I was 22, I published a silly novel.  In the intervening years I’d read the masters and studied the legends, Thackeray to Tolstoy, and had concluded that to write like that, you needed to be born with as much intellect as heart. Which, evidently, I wasn’t: I’ve read what Charles Dickens wrote when he was twenty-two.

07bradbury2-span-articleLargeIn any case, my book may have been silly, but it was driven by instinct and mood and seasonal sensuality and I knew which author I’d learned that from—and it wasn’t Ayn Rand.  So I sent Bradbury a copy of the book, thanking him for stylistic direction and the security that writers can be nostalgic and  visionary without paradox, and again, I received a long, handwritten letter promising me that my ridiculous cowboy paperback would occupy a permanent spot on his bookshelf with my note tucked between the pages.

In 2012, Bradbury’s star finally spent its energy, but like the ones that died in the distance before any of us were born, his light will be visible to me for the rest of my life.  Thanks, Mr. Bradbury.  To me, your death was more than sad—it was monumental.

 

fieldDandelionsA year or so after reading Dandelion Wine—and everything else  Bradbury that I could get my hands on in the meantime—I set out to… wait for it… make wine from dandelions.  I was too young to drink it, of course, but the project seemed wholesome nonetheless.  I was fortunate to have parents who understood that the value in creating is not necessarily in the final product, but in the learning trek required to get there, and this wisdom held doubly true considering the first batch was undrinkable even to them, despite the fact—or maybe because of it—that they were wine lovers.  So I tried again the next year, and the year after that, and gradually figured out how to make a potable plonk, but one that was extremely prone to oxidization.

I was still making it when I started having kids; the last time, I enlisted my oldest daughter Erica—then four or five years old—to help with the unfathomable drudgery of picking hundreds and hundreds of dandelion flowers.  Those were the days that you could force slave labor onto your kids and not worry about the neighbors called Protective Services.  As soon as she turned eleven, I turned her on to a copy of Dandelion Wine, which I hope meant as much to her as it did to me.

Anyway, Erica is now thirty-one, the delight of my life, the jewel in my crown, the apple of my pie-eye, and this year (without mentioning it) she made wine from dandelions picked from one of the endless open lots in downtown Detroit.  And allowed me to sample it with some trepidation, because I (moi??) tend to be somewhat anal about wine quality.

glassI am overjoyed to pronounce her first batch the best dandelion wine I have ever tasted, far better than anything I ever cribbed together.  Balanced, filled with beautiful citrus notes, but many subtle floral notes like jasmine and apple blossom and a light, but distinct dandelion bite.  Somehow, through some strange osmosis, she learned from mistakes made before she was an eye glint; I like to live in the fantasy that this is a way that Ray Bradbury can speak to us softly but distinctly through generations.

A bunch of Haight-Ashbury hippies usurped the catchphrase ‘Summer of Love’ a whole lot of years ago and it’s time to take it back.  Because, under the spell of quiet times, simple thoughts, measured wants and the gentle potency of touchable, tasteable, useable literature, they all sort of end up that way.

Don’t they?

And of all the life experience I’ve banked since age eleven, that still seems to be the only one worth writing about.

 

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The Wine Goddess: Seventh Heaven Or 7-11?

The other day, one of my West Coast wine buddies brought up The Wine Goddess; not in terms of her skill as a wine writer nor her eno-acumen, but regarding the size of her jahoobies—her neener nay-nays, her wopbopaloobops, or, for those of you with a more technical vocabulary, her mammatocumuluses.

They are, apparently, quite transcendently magnificent.

snakeoilAlthough I have no objection to tit-for-tat tata-talkage among healthy, horny manchilds, in this case I had no particular reference point for said brace of bristols, and thus, was unable to weigh in my studied assessment (pun noted).  So I went to The Wine Goddess web site and was somewhat nonplussed to find no simulacrum of splazoingas, no photos of flapdoodles, no pictures of pushmatahas, but instead, a veritable convenience store of Wine Goddess knick-knackery, tchotchkes, baubles—or for those of you with a more cynical vocabulary, snake oil.

imagesAnd in that hallowed moment I did have an epiphany, brethren and sistren, and one that did not involve the pre-incarnate Christ, the shekinah glory, Gabriel with his flaming sword or those naked selfies of Scarlett Johansson that were immediately removed from the web but not before I could download them, praise be to my personal savior, Jesus.

No, this was instead, an apocryphal revelation as to what I have been doing wrong in my wine blog  for all these years:

I Haven’t Been Maximizing My Maximus.

tajCase in point:  Go to my website with your pockets overflowing with discretionary spending cash and what can you buy?  Some old book on Paso Robles I wrote while in the throes of alcohol withdrawal.  That’s it.  No bracelet charms in the shape of Bacchus, no plush lush toys to dangle from your key chain, no Cracker Jack miniature of the Château at Haut Brion, no Disney yarmulkes with mouse ears and your name sewn on back.

In short, no souvenirs.

Yarmulke, rear and front view.

Yarmulke, rear and front view.

On the other hand, go to the Wine Goddess’s site, et voilà: A giant flea market where you can impulse buy all sorts of fancy-schmancy geegaws.  You can order small lot wines (so-called ‘hand-tilled gems’), or you can sign up for pricey (if ‘celebrated’) seminars, buy greeting cards by the carton, gift boxes of Scharfenburger chocolate goodies and yarmulkes that not only have mouse ears, but also thick Hassidic glasses and those giant Groucho Marx noses blacklisted by the Jewish Anti-Defamation League.

wg_logoBetter yet, everything  is emblazoned with the Wine Goddess logo, which (by the way) is Venus from the Botticelli painting and displays but a single, unmagnificent, areola-free dinglebobber which isn’t even in the right place, anatomy-wise.

But that’s marketing, baby.  What I am doing on my wine blog—and let’s be honest, for the most part what I’m doing isn’t even writing about wine—is stagnating and missing opportunities.

All That Changes Now, Loyal, Long-Suffering Sycophants…

My logo.

My anatomically correct logo.

So, in the spirit of Wine Goddessery and Eno-Immortality and Supreme Beingosity, I am hereby offering the following mementos of my passage through this blogosphere, the Mecca-like pilgrimage that I shall (gratefully) make but once.

Everything, of course, is heavily stamped with my trademarked logotype, which (by the way) is proportionately correct, anatomy-wise.

 

unique-homeless-signIntoxicology Report Homeless Person Sign, $12.95 or two for $30:  Hand-printed by yours truly to reflect your particular set (or a made-up set, which I offer at no additional charge) of unfortunate, life-altering mishaps you may (or may not) have suffered. Words are strategically misspelled to indicate that although you are trying your best in this vale of tears and sin, you’re just not bright enough to make it work. Guaranteed to elicit sympathy, pity, guffaws and generous handouts from suckers.

chinIntoxicology Report Prosthetic Tongue, $18,000:  What do you give to the wine lover who has everything—except a tongue long enough to lap up Screaming Eagle from the glass of the poindexter standing behind you at a fancy dinner party?  This.

 

beekeepingIntoxicology Report Beekeeper’s Shower Cap, $35:  Who am I?  I’m the guy who finds a niche and fills it, that’s who.  In this case, my target demographic are those avid hipster honey addicts involved in the growing ‘fad’ of keeping hives in the shower stall.  Now you can practice the gentle art of apiculture while simultaneously maintaining proper hygiene and not worry that you will get stung anywhere other than the 90% of your body that is still exposed.

Choice is obvious.

Choice is obvious.

Intoxicology Report Coffin, $75,000:  Move it on over, Gene Simmons—your fifteen decades of fame is up.  If Kiss can offer a custom casket to the die-hard fan, why not moi?  And what makes my coffin worth ‘just a few pennies more’? Simple: It’s fitted with a mechanism to prevent premature burial or allow the occupant to signal that they have been buried alive.  I may not have as many fans as the Kiss Army, but at these prices, I only need one.  Besides, believe you me, if you are accidentally pronounced dead when you are not quite there yet, you’ll be glad you shelled out the extra fortune.

 

That’s  just a sample, readers.  I will gladly sell you the right to comment below at a mere $1.00 per word.  If you like what you see; if you ‘like where I’m going with this’, my entire line of Kustom Kassel accessories and designer useless souvenirs is available in the Intoxicology Report Fall Catalog 2014.

Best of all (valid until Labor Day), I am offering a 15% discount to any reader who sends me a picture of The Wine Goddess’s squatchie tishomingos—preferably without the Johansson censor star.

* Thanks to Steve McConnell.  It’s easier than thinking…

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Elie Speaketh Truth

Call me a good-ol’-boy, a peckerwood throwback, a retro-Aryan Nation dingaling—but in Detroit, my favorite African American wine pro in is a white dude.

Born into to a family of North African spice merchants, Elie Boudt cut his vending teeth early: By thirteen, his father had established him in a remote Libyan outpost without electricity or running water where he  waited for the weekly Friday market, sought out the best harrarat, bzaar, cayenne pepper or whatever the nomadic spice sellers had on hand, then sent them back to the family store in Morocco.  When college-time came, his folks wanted him to study in America, and they agreed that Kalamazoo College not only offered a marvelous program for exchange students, but espoused the sort of Midwestern hard-work ethics that the Boudt family stood by.  Elie came to America to study medicine but stayed—via as series of fortuitous encounters with Michigan retailers, including the legendary Brothers Jonna—to study wine.

Elie keeps all Champagne a minimum of one year prior to sale.   And yeah, he asks for disgorgement dates.

Elie keeps all Champagne a minimum of one year prior to sale. And yeah, he asks for disgorgement dates

Ask No Questions, Hear No Elies

I’ve known Elie for twenty years, and his relationship with wine is unique—a different sort of devotion than nestles inside any of the other wine people I’ve known for twenty years.  It’s more than love, deeper than intellect, stronger than passion, although all of these hyperbolic emotions play their role.  Elie approaches wine like a Science Fair poindexter might a cool bug inside a jar—with none of the cruelty, of course, but with all of the unbridled, child-like, gut-level awe.

B'ham Parking:  Sure sign that you've arrived.

B’ham Parking and dual entrances: A sure sign that you’ve arrived.

 

In June, he opened Elie Wine Co. on 14 Mile in Birmingham, an expanded version of Elie Wine Co. in Royal Oak, which has closed.  Closed because there couldn’t be two Elies, and hence, there couldn’t be two wine stores.  Elie is not merely the pilot of his establishment; he’s the diva (he won’t admit it), and if he’s not center stage, walking you through obscure, tiny Denominación de Origen gems with case production in the hundreds, or explaining to you why 1982 Petrus is worth six grand (whether you intend to brown bag today or not)—the shop is La Travieta without the brindisi.

The Towne Club case is worth more than the Haut Brion case

The Towne Club case is worth more than the Haut Brion case.

Elie specializes in wines from Burgundy, Bordeaux and Spain, and he buys stock almost exclusively from vintages that reflect the best that a given appellation can offer. Wander the aisles and you’ll see a boatload of 2005 Côte de Nuits and 2000 Médocs; 2007s, not so much.  As a result, although Elie carries a few wine with price tags sub-$20, three digits are far more common.

“I bring in what needs to be brought in,” Elie states emphatically. “These wines are an editorial statement as much as an aesthetic statement.  They represent what a given producer is capable of when all stars align.”

When asked if his customers are necessarily looking for two hundred dollar wines when they step across his threshold, he responds with a grin—sly homage to his salesmanship—“Not always, but that’s what they buy.”

Elie Through His Teeth

Elie moves about his two-thousand-square-foot store with pride and animation, somewhat hunched over, clapping his hands enthusiastically as we pass a particularly selection that he wants me to note—or better yet, to try.  He reminds me of a Dickensian bookseller in Piccadilly, gently presenting rare, antique, first-edition masterpieces.  In that regard, he comes across as much a museum curator as a wine seller.

But that’s not to say that his wines are mummies—far from it.  “The ideal wine cellar,” he says, “whether in a retail outlet or in your basement, is alive.  I don’t want any bones in my collection.  Vintages change, wines should move, and if I have more Burgundies this year, I might have more Bordeaux next.  Or maybe Italian—I don’t currently stock Italian wines, but I’m not suicidal.  If there’s a demand for it, I will carry it, but with the same search for harmony and balance in choosing the right wines for the store. The wines I sell have to reflect the essence of their place—they are a passport, if you will.  Some are pricey, I know.  But if you want to really learn what Pauillac can offer, the commune’s narrative, you’ll probably wind up spending a minimum of $60 for a bottle.”

(On the other hand, that’s Bordeaux, not Lodi. If your bucket list includes seeing Tibet, the plane ticket will cost more than a ticket to Chicago.   But I digress).

Window dressers aside, whenever I get a chance to tap into Elie’s expertise, I like to taste wines that rep a specific interest of mine—and his—indigenous varieties, the older and more esoteric the better.  And best of all, unusual grapes produced by tiny producers.

As such, Elie laid out an impressive array, which I will cover in brief:

Alemany i Corrio, Principia Mathematica, 2012, around $35, from Penedès, is produced by hubbie and wife enologists Irene Alemany and Laurent Corrió in a winery no bigger in size—literally—than Elie Wine Co.’s floorspace.  They specialize in merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cariñera, but this one is made with 100% xarel-lo, a variety traditionally used in cava.  Here vinified still and dry, the grape produces an intensely aromatic, mouth-coating wine filled with tropical fruit notes, especially pineapple and lychee.  A delighful, summer-sapid wine.

Pirita Blanco, Arribes, 2012, about $25, from a new D.O. (2007), Arribes, on the Spanish border with Portugal.  Unusual not only for the varietals, the appellation and the fact that the vineyard literally shimmers with pyrite—fool’s gold—the wine is made by an Englishwoman called Charlotte Allen.  A blend of three local grapes, puesta en cruz, malvasia and godello, the wine is lyrically light, peach-flavored, firmly acidic and very slightly oxidized—not a flaw when offered in judicious doses as it is here.

Pésico, Nicolas Marcos, 2011, about $39:   Carrasquín, mencía, verdejo tinto and albarín tinto make a crisp, ink-black blend from Asturia; a wild wine filled with rugged woodsy flavors of blackberry and currant, countrified, indeed, but the opulence that crowns it transforms it into the Oberon of coastal Spanish wines.

ELIE ONAOna,  Priorat, 2011, around $20: Elie has a perfectly delightful and beautiful wife called Núria Garrote i Esteve and a five-year-old daughter Ona—who’d tasted better wine by the time she was twenty-one minutes old than most people do in their entire, miserable, wine-challenged lives.  That’s because (with baby doc’s blessing), Elie touched her lips with gauze dipped in ’98 Haut Brion as soon as she left the birthing-room table, thus making her the first baby in history to get an Apgar score of 300.

And now she has a wine named after her and you don’t.  Ona, from Cellar Cecilio’s winemaker Blai Ferré Just, is a warm-bath blend of typical Spanish grapes with atypical Catalonian spellings; garnatxa and carinyena.  I doubt there’s any Haut Brion leftovers from her twenty-one-minute-old splurge, but—although only 180 cases of Ona were made—I have high hopes that a bottle will remain to touch Ona’s lips when hits her twenty-first birthday.

Elie’s Head Doth Wears the Crown

Bertrand Devillard

Bertrand Devillard

Meanwhile, scarcely twenty-one minutes into his new digs, Elie is reeling in global praise. Bertrand Devillard, proprietor of Château de Chamirey in Mercurey and Domaine des Perdrix in Nuits-Saint-Georges, refers to it as, “The most innovative wine store I’ve ever seen and the best Burgundy collection in the United States.”

One of the issues facing Elie is that these kudos came from a European, not a Detroitopean.  I would assume that such estate wines and specifically prized vintages could be found fairly easily in San Francisco or Manhattan, and certainly in Paris, but here in the Paris of the Midwest—along with the wellspring of scholarship that is Elie Boudt—such outlets are scarce as chin hair on a choir boy.  As a result, Elie expresses a bit of frustration that so many of his customers are out-of-staters.  To illustrate the point, in the hour I spent perusing and palaverating and partaking, a NFL scout from an East Coast team (whose name I promised I wouldn’t give) dropped in, dropped over and dropped a couple grand on a cellar cache.

thinkerBeing my usual puerile cheap-laugh self, I opened with a little white Elie—there are plenty of African American wine pros in Detroit that I admire, including Chuck Jackson Jr. and Dichondra Johnson and the whole Mahogany Tasters gang (who I probably owe another column to and you need to check out)—but in the meantime, within the treasure trove of local wine lore, institutions like Elie Wine Co. must be put on a pedestal, flooded with custom and protected like that naked dude in front of the DIA.

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So You Wanna Be A Wine Hack…?

Us

Us

I’m worried about you, gentle reader.  Yes, you; the happy-go-lucky, earnest, lapdog-like wine aficionado who stumbled across this web site looking for practical advice on ‘Top Syrahs Under $20’.  Joke’s on you, by the way:  I learned very early in my pretend-career as a wine expert to always put ‘Top Syrahs Under $20’ in my internet search engine tags no matter what topic I am writing about.

In any case, I know exactly what you are up to.  I know this because on the same page as I enter ‘search engine tags’ (‘Pretty Little Liars uncensored sex tape’ is pretty effective, too) I can also track the number of hits that an individual column receives, and I actually read your hate mail, and every time I get all catty and rude and trash other wine writers or silly wine ideas, I suddenly get a million shares and ‘likes’ and comments.

Clipboard helenAnd every time I actually write about top syrahs under twenty dollars?  Zero, zip, śūnya, nulla.  It’s like the Helen Keller cut of Silence Of The Lambs.

And when I really go out on an intellectual limb and write something like ‘You’re A Good Manic, Stillman Brown’—which, let’s face it, modesty aside, is pretty much the Toccata and Fugue in D minor of wine writing—I’m lucky if I can get Stillman Brown to read it.

That’s the bad news.  The good news is that I’d rather have readers than friends, and life is too short for empathy, discretion or tact, so here you go, on an expensive sterling platter with gadrooned borders:  Complete mockery of a ludicrous article I just read on Buzzfeed called…

‘11 Wine Hacks Every Twentysomething Should Know’

Feel free to read it first to see if I’m going off-base here.

http://www.buzzfeed.com/h2/fbca/bordeauxwines/wine-hacks-every-twentysomething-should-know

 

Gentle Critique, Starting With The Title…

Clipboard plinyI have no intention of looking up the word ‘wine hack’ to see if it has a meaning other than the one I am familiar with:  Which is, wine bloggers struggling for column inches, word counts and unique perspective about a subject that Pliny the Elder pretty much exhausted in 70 AD.  Why?  Because I am assuming that, based on some of the ‘hacks’ the article mentions, the piece was written by a European, and for all I know, you honkey-crackers across the pond have your own version of Urban Dictionary.  So be it—but in that case, why use the all-American run-on buzzword ‘twentysomething’, which we invented to tag team that perfectly awful sitcom ‘Thirtysomething’? 

Say, Europe:  Don’t use our airspace, our territorial waters or our catchphrases, okay?  If you need a word to describe your mewling, simpering youth, ‘Eurodouchenozzles’ is quite adequate, thank you.

Anyway, if you wasted the time actually reading the article, you will see that it is a list of eleven wine ‘tips’ that should (apparently) be in the mental bag-o-tricks of this particular generation.

I’ll lay them out in order and add commentary only where I feel it is absolutely required:

 

1. Filter cork pieces out of wine by pouring it through a coffee filter first.

Dear twentysomethings: Other than violating the inviolable maxim that you never, ever use coffee paraphernalia with wine, a larger truth looms: If you are so inept with a wine key that you are pulverizing corks, you probably want to consider switching to screw caps, bag-in-the-boxes or beer.

original-kraft-macaroni-and-cheese2. A lot of cheeses are better paired with white wines, not reds.

This is the first indication that this piece was written by a European.  A few snooty San Franciscans and Manhattanites aside, cheese is an American afterthought—something you put on a burger, on a Ritz cracker, in a obligatory bring-to-family-pot-lucks casserole or over a pot of desperation macaroni in college.  The color of the wine you serve with it, which you can’t afford anyway, is irrelevant.

3. Don’t have a corkscrew? A hammer and nail — or a screw, screwdriver, and a pair of pliers — could help you out.

Good one, twentysomethings.  You have already demonstrated your childlike inability to handle a corkscrew, so might as well use some dangerous alternative tool to force your way inside an adult beverage, huh?  Although, I’d like a demonstration of the hammer-and-nail technique, which, unless you are threatening to nail your sommelier’s tongue to the table unless he opens your wine, seems unlikely to do more than make a huge mess.

Room for one more?

Room for one more?

4. Keep your white wine cool without diluting it by throwing in a few frozen grapes.

Seriously?  Need I?  Okay, then, twentysomethings:  If you have an apparatus to freeze grapes, you already have a way to keep your white wine cool.

5. When hosting a party, put out rubber bracelets for people to put around their glasses to prevent confusion.

rubber roomIf you are throwing parties with guests who are so confused that they can’t keep track of their wine glasses, chances are they won’t be able to read the bracelets, and, in any case, don’t really care whose glasses they end up with.  Next stop for you: The rubber room, and whatever bracelet you receive upon admittance.

HEY KOOLAID AND I LOVE JIM JONES6. Neutralize red wine stains with table salt and white wine.

I see a level of insanity in pouring out white wine after you’ve Exxon Valdez’d the red wine, but I’d be curious if anybody could explain the scientific principal—other than placebo psychosomatics—behind this, because it makes no sense.  An interwebs search indicates that salt is ‘also good for Kool-aid stains’, but since you’d have to drink the Koolaid before you’d believe it could work, the technique fails on impact.

7. Need to chill your wine in a hurry? Wrap a linen towel around it and place it in the freezer for 15 minutes.

I’ll sign off on this one, twentysomethings.  And add to it:  If you need to roast your wine in a hurry, put it under the broiler for 15 minutes.

boone8. If you (somehow) have leftover white wine, add a splash to a simple pasta dish to add some depth to the flavor.

There’s a unique concept, huh?  Adding wine to a sauce to improve the flavor.  Must say, Buzzfeed, you are a trailblazer on a par with Dan’l Boone.  Can’t wait for your piece on what to do with the leftover salt after you sop up the red wine.

9. If you have leftover red, save it to make amazing desserts like a blueberry red wine sorbet.

Of course, once you’ve bought the blueberries and the sorbet maker, you’re probably ready for more wine.  That said, the blueberries will make a delightful sorbet even without the wine you just drank.

brian3310. If you’re packing a bottle of wine for a trip, insert it into a pool floatie to protect it.

A pool floatie?  You mean, like Brian Jones?

11. Or get a special wine carrier for your bicycle so you can travel in style with your favorite bottle.

Hey, windmill-wankers; how about a sippy-cup filled with Château Branaire-Ducru for the rear deck?

Hey, windmill-wankers; how about a sippy-cup filled with Château Branaire-Ducru for the rear deck?

Final nod to the strange lifestyle in Europe, where twentysomethings apparently ride bicycles that are not carbon-fiber-framed off-road monsters that do not accommodate ‘wine carriers’.

Here in the land of the brave and home of the free, or however that song goes, we require four-stroke, many-cylindered engines to travel in anything that could vaguely be defined as ‘style’.

However, I will happily look into marketing a chic wine-glass holder for your training wheels if you like, twentysomethings.

*

That’s it, kind and patient readers.  Let the nastygrams fly; I could use the hit-count.  A free cheap syrah to whoever eviscerates me first.

 

 

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Strong Words

Rodney-Strong-SignRodney Strong keeps sending me wine and I keep drinking it and enjoying it.  But I don’t keep writing about it, because in my inimitable sense of self-importance, I figure that there are only so many times a year that I can write about a given winery without sounding like they are sending me free wine to write about.  Not only that, but my nasty little secret is that I don’t write a wine column because I want to spread the Grape Gospel to all creation, but because I have this Freudian fixation on really bad puns and word alliteration OCD and this sort of hobby is therapeutic.   Oh, and I’m an alcoholic who prefers not to pay for product if it is creatively avoidable.

On the other hand, I can only come up with some many idiomatic twists on the word ‘strong’ and none on ‘Rodney’, so I have to limit my output accordingly.

Two things occur to me:  First, as an honorable man, I should repay the kindness of these strangers—at least periodically—with a thumbs-up pat-on-the-back shot-in-the-arm, even if it means going out on a limb.  Second, without the occasional positive feedback, this sauce sluice might close down down permanently, and we can’t have that.

You see, at nearly a million cases per year, I need Rodney more than Rodney needs me.

Ergo, a revisit to a lifeblood donator who is, despite my ignoring them eleven months out of the year, still going strong.

Strong, No Bull

popupWith apologies to Erich Segal, what can you say about a winery that was founded by a ballet dancer who died?  And then was purchased by Guinness, who as winemakers make a killer stout, then re-purchased by a Stanford MBA, who as a businessman makes a killer bottle of wine?

You can say Wine Enthusiast’s 2013 American Winery Of The Year and everything else sort of falls into place.

For years, the Rodney Strong I knew occupied a place as drinkable corporate wine, good for a house pour in the sort of restaurant where people order by varietal and price rather than winery and vintage.  They were, for the most part, true to purpose—the merlot was plummy, the chardonnay buttery, the cab blackberry-y—and they were produced with an obvious eye toward flaw-avoidance rather than character development.

Tom Klein looks more like a winemaker than an MBA anyway.

Tom Klein looks more like a winemaker than an MBA anyway.

Then, in 1989, along came Tom Klein and his resume, which included a lot of business management but very little enology.  Proof positive that passion may trump experience.  Not always, of course, but in this case, Tom knew what he was after:  Sonoma varietals that expressed the nuances of individual vineyards and could be specifically identified as such.  And if restaurants wanted to buy into the new philosophy, more power to them: The financial commitment that Tom made was in the millions, and Rick Sayre, the  winemaker, was convinced to stay aboard.  Not that he would have jumped ship in any case: He recognized that the winemaking winds had shifted in his favor and that, with Klein at the helm, all the art he’d learned under the direction of Andre Tchelistcheff in the ‘70s would finally pay off.

And has.  Of special renown are his handcrafted Alexander’s Crown Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon and Chalk Hill Vineyard Chardonnay, which have pulled down awards across the globe.

Despite a powerhouse output of over 800,000 cases annually (some of which has ended up on my doorstep via UPS), the upper-end selections remains individualistic and delicious, while the brand name remains one of the strongest in the business.

Tasting Notes:

(The R.S. portfolio includes so many wines in various price strata that I am restricting myself to a handful from the Estate selections: Wines from Strong vineyards in Alexander Valley, Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast and Chalk Hill AVAs and retailing for between $25 and $30.)

syrahRodney Strong Vineyards, Estate Syrah, Dry Creek Valley, 2010, around $30:  Dry Creek Valley and the Northern Rhône share a similar climate, allowing this Hermitage superstar to shine in Sonoma; the wine is powerful and concentrated, showing rich chocolate notes, coffee and blackberry with a solid backbone of tannin.  Tertiary notes are licorice, black pepper and a snuffle of truffle.

Rodney Strong Vineyards, Estate Malbec, Dry Creek Valley, 2010, around $30:  A game-changer for California malbec, especially considering the season in Dry Creek was challenged throughout. Fleshy, redolent, robust and ripe, this wine shows saturated notes of plum jam, sweet cedar, spice with deep, developed layers of juicy berry.  Long on the palate, finishing with vanilla and light tobacco.

rieslingRodney Strong Vineyards, Estate Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast,  2012, around $25:  First aromatics are ripe pear, guava and pineapple, but as the wine opens up it shows rich cantaloupe and honeysuckle.  Creamy fruit is balanced by bright acidity and judicious, not overwhelming, oak notes.

Rodney Strong Vineyards, Estate Riesling, Russian River Valley, 2013, around $25:  Not my favorite of the bunch, but a respectable entry into the field.  Some classic notes including green apple, lemon-lime, honey and a hint of clove, but overall a fairly simple wine.  At the price point, better rieslings available.

pinotRodney Strong Vineyards, Estate Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, 2012, about $25:   Best of the bunch IMHO; beautifully defined wine with a lusciousness that is pure pinot hedonism.  Lovely rose-petal and candied cherry aromas meld into a firmly-structured mouthfeel, elegant, but retaining enough rusticity to remind you that you are drinking real pinot noir—one cultivated with a love of varietal integrity.

Rodney Strong Vineyards, Estate Zinfandel, Knotty Vines,  2010, about $25:  A nearly ideal growing season for Sonoma zinfandel—long, hot and dry.  The grapes clearly developed full phenolic ripeness, and the wine is an impressively extracted blockbuster, filled with smoky blackberry and raspberry flavors and buoyed by acidity.  An almost savagely delicious zin that is both bold and balanced and shows its heritage without excuses.

 

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Cider: Easy To Be Hard

"Time for a cider break, massa."

“Time for a cider break, massa.”

Some of the ideals upon which this country was founded—around the time we stole it from the Indians—are worth leaving on history’s toxic waste dump.  Slavery, the inequality of women, child labor, taxation (even with representation) were bad career moves, all.  But fermented apple juice, the bevvie which poured more sparks down Ben Franklin’s keyhole than all storms combined and which John Adams consumed a tankard of before he dotted his first ‘i’—is the all-but-forgotten founding fodder of this nation’s drink history.  In Colonial days, that’s pretty much all we drank, with the average Jane and Jehoshaphat consuming 35 gallons of cider annually and New England producing more than a quarter million gallons a year.

John Barleycorn

John Barleycorn

For this, we can thank the Brits.  In 20/20 hindsight, tacking a tariff on tea was a dud, but they clearly knew that as far as climate goes, the Original Thirteen was no barley basket.  In England, then as now, barley—with its short growing season and adaptability to poor soils—was the dominant arable crop.  Here, soils near the ocean were infertile, while those inland were phenominally fertile—far more than barley requires—and wheat, which has a hard time maturing in Britain, grew well.  Further south, of course, tobacco was the crop of choice.  So, very little beer stuff was grown, but wild apple trees were everywhere, and Puritan pilgrims found it much easier to simply produce and drink the old country standby.

Cider apples

Cider apples

Something about the geometrical layout of an apple orchard struck these church-going folks as world order in metaphor, and so they soon began to reproduce the layout of orchards in Devon and Somerset, using seeds and cuttings they brought from home.  In the new country, traditional cider varieties like Dabinett and Yarlington Mill soon mutated; apples are funny that way—they require pollination from other trees, and for a better fruit set, from a different variety.   (As a personal side note, I have a few apple trees and find oddball apples every year; some are pollinated with crabapples).  As such, the apples grown in New England today are unrecognizable when placed among their Old England peers.

old-cider-millAnyway, the apples may have changed, but the cider making process stayed the same and is, among artisan producers—the only ones worth drinking—unchanged today.  Apples are crushed, the pulp placed in burlap sacks and squeezed dry with a screw press; the juice is filtered, then fermented.  Apples are far less sweet than grapes, and without added sugar, apple juice ferments to around 6% alcohol, making it a nice thirst-quencher without too much wallop.

So, why did this delicate drink fall, like Newton’s apple, from grace?  Two words:

The Germans

The real God: Angry, judgemental and not nude.

The real God: Angry, judgemental and not nude.

You know, it sort of has to be said:  Germans, for all their precision, record-keeping, early rising and Scrabble-tournament word structures, are not Godly people—at least not in the sense of the real God; the old man on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.   I mean, we’ll set aside any mention of two attempts at world domination as being too politically incorrect, but come on…  Really, Martin Luther?  No Pope, God’s right hand man?  No celibate priests, except with altar boys? No indulgences?  Dude, if you think I am spending an extra trillion years in Purgatory just because some heretical, worm-eating Hun has a stick up his Heinie, you better think again.

Clipboard odinWe all know that all Germans are secretly pagans in any case and actually worship Norse gods like Odin and Wodan and that flying salamander Rodan.  So it is no wonder that they would bring to this country a chaotic upheaval of the cider industry in favor of beer.

The first brewery in the United States.  Thank you, German people.

The first brewery in the United States. Thank you, German people.

And not just a keg or two; Germans, as a rule, have no sense of proportion—consider Welthauptstadt Germania.  They moved west, where they could grow as much barley as they wanted, and began to mass produce beer on a scale that is unimaginable to those us from a race that does not look at Russia and say, “Yeah, I could have that; easy peasy.”

Beer took over; it was cheaper and had a longer shelf life.  Cider’s final death knell was Prohibition, and cider apple orchards were hacked down by the feds and replanted with things that were non-ciderable.  Whereas the drink is still big in Europe, especially in the world’s largest cider producers Normandy and Brittany, the industry here never recovered and until recently, ‘cider’ was the mill where you took the kids in October everything you bought was rated ‘G’.

atomicbombStill, irony reigns.  Just as we won the-war-I’m-not-supposed-to-mention using a bomb built primarily by expat German-Jewish scientists, so did the beer industry itself revive interest in farmhouse cider.  As microbreweries took center stage in the imagination of craft beer lovers, many of them ‘re-discovered’ the glory of cider.  According to the Beer Institute, the last five years has seen explosive growth, with cider sales increasing 68% in 2012-2013 alone.

That, however, is but a drop in the figurative brew bucket, partly because the upfront costs of growing the sort of bittersharp, high-tannin apples that make the best cider (called ‘spitters’ because they are too tart to eat) are prohibitive.  An apple tree requires three to five years before it becomes productive, and per acre profits are less for spitters than a farmer could earn if he grew ‘dessert’ apples like McIntosh or Delicious.  You really have to love what you are doing, and have a lot of time to spend loving doing it.

And yet, loving it and doing it they are ; cider in the United States has grown so exponentially that there aren’t enough bittersharps to go around.  According to Sherrye Wyatt, executive director of the Washington–based Northwest Cider Association, “It’s incredible how fast the growth has been. Cider makers are not doubling or tripling sales—it’s thousands-of-percent increases.”

The Swiss Don’t Miss

cider millAs a Michigan kid, I refuse to concede the superiority of Pacific Northwest apples, but I must say that the brace of beauties I tried from Cider Brothers recently gave Michigan ciders a run for their money.  Apparently, this Lodi-based operation shrugs off the bittersharp shortage and goes with the pie-packers and lunchbox-loaders Golden Russet, Gala, Fuji, Red Delicious and Granny Smith, begging the question:  If these guys can make such a delightful drink out of such high-volume apples, at which point are those cideristas seeking high and low for another bin of Yarlington Mill going to realize that Trader Joe’s stocks all the raw material they need to make a batch decent enough for general consumption?

bottleIn any event, the first of the two 22 oz. bottles is called William Tell—named for the legendary Swiss marksman who shot an apple off his kid’s head.  Like its namesake, the cider hits the bull’s-eye.  An intense, candy-apple nose filled with many layers of rich fruit; sweet red apples, pears and spicy pie just like Mom would have made if she’d actually known how to cook.  There’s perhaps a whiff of chemical, but nothing off-putting.  The mouth is full and crisp; the apple notes carry through beautifully and the cider finishes dry and long on the palate with a fairly intense apple-peel lusciousness.  Great food cider, with pig being the obvious, if unimaginative flesh-of-choice.  That said, I marinated a couple of chops in the leftover cider for a couple hours and grilled them: Superb.

The second cider is a rather odd concoction which blends the five-apple cider with 15% pinot grigio.  Whereas I may question the ultimate synergy here—as I do with that equally random British lemonade/beer mix known as ‘shandy’—this is fresh enough tasting and handcrafted with sufficient care to make it noteworthy.  Most of the Jolly Rancher hard candy highlights remain, but the pinot grigio adds some stone fruit notes, especially peach cobbler, due—I suspect—to the yeast that gives the cider its sparkle.

Both bottles sell for around $9.

 

 

 

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Grin And Beerenauslese: Father Knows Best

"Come on, Margaret.  What could one teeny-weeny little drink hurt?"

“Come on, Margaret. What could one teeny-weeny little drink hurt?”

I’m no Robert Young, but when my children come over on Fathers Day, we tend to drink like him.  Yes, that irrepressible insurance monger Jim Anderson—who Young sought to portray as the sort of non-boob, non-dimwitted patriarch he thought would be ‘representative of a middle-class American dad’—was indeed dipping into a hip-flask during those family meetings.  Later in his career, Young admitted that he’d been a hardcore juicer, even attending AA meetings during the series at the behest of his producer.

Which brings us to one of those perplexing ego dichotomies that happens every time a hallowed Hollywood hootch-hound goes all public record as being an AA member:

What part of ‘anonymous’ is unclear?

If it wasn't for the tattoos, she'd be ugly.

If it wasn’t for the tattoos, she’d be ugly.

Which is why I have recently started a Tinsel Town chapter of Alcoholics Aggrandizonomous which encourages drunks to brag about their demon-battling; we distribute pins that celebrate not ‘days sober’ but ‘days until relapse’ featuring an image of Amy Winehouse, who nobody imagined would be killed by withdrawal symptoms, thus giving the whole rehab industry a well-earned black eye.

Chips off the ol’ Blechhh

Anyway, once my initial crop of first-marriage kids reached the age of majority and I realized that they could, for the most part, drink me under the table. My mission in life became to educate them in the art of drinking responsibly.  And by drinking responsibly, of course I mean learning to ante up the pelf required to drink for quality.

At these prices, quantity pretty much takes care of itself.

For most people with discerning adult palates (as much a mental journey as a carnal one), the trajectory from cheap to uncheap is a logical and requisite progression.  This is not meant to disparage the backwash that formed the ethanoholic foundation of my youth; rather, like all things fun and philosophical, like writing stories and making love, after a while, it isn’t enough to simply do it—you want to learn to do it right.

Dookie diorama

Dookie diorama

Unfortunately, one of the primary weapons waged in the war to attract discount shoppers to the wine aisle is gobs of added sugar, a synthetic rainbow of color and volatile taste chemicals, often keeping prices down by eliminating anything in wine that the manufacturer finds superfluous—primarily, grapes, vineyards and winemakers.  Boone’s Farm, for example, is malt liquor, made with fermented grain and processed to the point where it closer to Velveeta than vino.

Is it any good?  That’s the domain of ethicists, not curmudgeons. To an universalist hedonist, who believes in the criterion of the greatest good for the greatest number, Boone’s Farm’s omnipresence in every cold box area of every convenience store in every city everywhere suggests ‘good’.  Thinkers like Immanuel Kant, trusting in an absolute good as opposed to a relative good, would disagree, and would have no doubt stated as much over a nice Schott Zwiesel tumbler filled with beerenauslese.

But more on that in a minute…

La Dolce Vita

Richard, Deen, Anderson

Richard, Deen, Anderson

Since most of you out there in Reader-Land are human beings, chances are you evolved a sweet tooth somewhere along the Darwinian daisy chain.  Sugar equals calories, which—despite Richard Simmons’ yabbering and Paula Deen’s flabbering—are actually good things to ingest.  Plus, in nature, sweet things are rarely poisonous, but bitter things often are, so you can assume that your would-be ancestors who chose the castor beans over the yams didn’t make it to the dessert buffet.   As a result, most of us gravitate toward Cap’n Crunch early in life and learn to appreciate bitter stuff—beer, arugula, kale and coffee—as adults.

Still, as slaves to genetics, sugar satisfies some inner, inalienable imperative, and it is postulated that as a species we might have co-evolved a booze-tooth along with a sweet-tooth since fermented fruit contains both.

In any case, the simple truth is that a lot of self-styled wine people, especially those who have begun to discover the subtle, grown-up glory in dry wine, wherein the quiet esters, unmasked by sugar, are allowed shine forth, begin to claim a righteous disdain for sweet wine of any sort.

L. Cheap wine R.: Cheap wine being made.

L. Cheap wine
R.: Cheap wine being made.

And what a sea of glee they are missing.  Because, of course, not all molars crumble equally, and the sweet stuff sold next to Monster Energy Drink—essentially fermented aquarium water with potassium sorbate added to kill the algae—is about as far removed from Weinlaubenhof Alois Kracher Cuvee Beerenauslese as karaoke night at Gusoline Alley is to Tristan und Isolde at The Met.

Eiswein it isn't.

Eiswein it isn’t.

This rare little Austrian wine from the iconic house of Kracher—which has been producing such gems for three generations—is sweet revenge for all the bin plonk in every bin joint in all the towns in all the world.  Writers love irony, so Kracher is a good wrench in our toolbox:  When I said earlier that sweet things are not poisonous, I intentionally left out diethylene glycol, that scrumptious, sugary toxicant which is responsible for nearly all the dog poisoning in the world and also was at the heart of the Austrian wine scandal of 1985, when a number of wineries tried to artificially boost the sweetness of their late-harvest wines by adding antifreeze and led to a near collapse of the Austrian wine industry.  Now, to make this doubly ironic, Austrians are normally very clever people: I mean, who else could turn Hitler into a German and Beethoven into an Austrian?  So, the idea that they thought it was a good marketing hook to poison their customers sort of hangs in history as a blunder on the scale of Pickett’s Charge.

Alois Kracher, Sr. and Jr.

Alois Kracher, Sr. and Jr.

But it is triply ironic because many people consider the savior of Austria’s wine industry to be Alois Kracher Jr., the visionary winemaker whose technical mastery (he was a chemist before a vintner) brought a precision to the palate of Burgenland like no one had before him—not even his father, Alois Kracher Sr., who died in 2010 (sadly, after outliving Junior by three years).   Kracher wines, produced from Weinlaubenhof vineyard on the Austrian–Hungarian border, enjoy climatic conditions that favor the development of Botrytis cinerea.  That, of course, is the fungus that produces the luscious, honeyed white wines of Sauternes, Tokaj, Monbazillac and the all-but-forgotten masterpiece Grasă de Cotnari-based wines from the Cotnari vineyard in Moldavia.  In Germany and Austria, these wines may be classified under the Prädikatswein  term ‘Auslese’, or ‘late harvest’ and specifies bunches that are hand-picked in exceptional harvests.  Tack on a ‘beeren’ prefix, and you have further refined auslese wines to those where individual grapes are isolated and crushed, resulting into a concentrated, syrupy nectar that, when it is produced correctly, is a nearly transcendental wine experience.

Polly Want a Kracher?

Polly do and me do, too.  Thus, I wanted to transcend my brood right out of sweet wine apartheid, bringing them into the rarified microcosm of half-bottles and Teutonic tongue-twisters where rot is noble and the antifreeze in the glass is nothing more that ethanol.

Welschriesling

Welschriesling

Most of Kracher’s selections offer just that; this one, vintage 2010 (a low-yielding harvest which followed a wet summer) was exceptionally well balanced and, as befitting a mouthful like ‘Weinlaubenhof beerenauslese’ displayed a remarkable length on the palate.  I suspect that most fans of German beerenauslese would approve, even though the wine contains no riesling.  Rather, it is a blend of chardonnay and an unusual (for Americans) variety called welschriesling, which despite its name, is not related to the reining Rhinish regent.

Welschriesling is of uncertain parentage, but is cultivated primarily in Eastern Europe as a high-acid, pleasant (if somewhat neutral-tasting) grape which is susceptible to Botrytis infection—far more than chardonnay—and it in this style that the grape truly comes into its private majesty, finding itself on the same exotic and exalted throne as semillon.

bottleThe blend is precisely what one expects in a late-harvest wine; brilliant concentration, refreshing acidity and a startling depth of flavor.   A fierce, almost savage nose of preserved apricot and candied pear becomes an unctuous balm of gold that coats the mouth and is filled with creamy citrus, toasted walnut and so many layers of ripe and dried stone fruits that the wine immediately becomes the focus of attention.  For greenhorns, this class of wine is a revelation; for those who are in on the secret, Kracher’s entire portfolio of ‘dessert’ wines is worth the deep dive—including an ice wine from grüner veltliner, a late-harvest traminer and a beerenauslese from scheurebe.  They ain’t 7-11 wines, fo’ shizzle, with half-bottles ranging from $20 to nearly a hundred (the beerenauslese is $37), but they effectively end any naysaying among the neophytes that sweet means ick.

summertime-bluesAs a side note, whereas many wines categorized as ‘dessert’ are higher in alcohol than their main-course counterparts, this one comes in at 12% abv; a perfectly acceptable punch, especially considering the smaller portions you’d be serving.   At this point in a meal, I might otherwise be bringing out the Calvados or Cognac; but, though legal adults, these are my daughters, my babes-in-arms, and nobody wants anyone to go into eno overload.  Hence, something with sugar and spice and everything nice is just what the nursery rhyme ordered:  And anyway, remind me again who said that there ain’t no cure for the summertime booze?

 

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