The ‘I’ Generation: Everybody’s Favorite Letter

This is a rather odd piece, granted.  It involves an attempt by Siberian winemakers to produce Super Tuscans in a climate where it snows in July and the average temperature is minus forty.

Not really.  It’s really about Moscow’s recent announcement that they have begun construction of a full-scale, stone by stone model of the Roman Coliseum in Red Square.

Just kidding, it’s really about Russia having redesigned their hammer ‘n’ sickle flag to include the Mario Brothers.

Not.  It’s about Italian vodka.

Lapo

When you put a bunch of rich, famous people together in a room—people like Arrigo Cipriani (owner of Harry’s Bar of Venice), Lapo Elkann of FIAT family fame, Friulian distiller Marco Fantinel and Venetian entrepreneur Francesco Cosulich—and ask them to make some vodka, you can expect the results to be compelling.

I want to take a second to talk about these guys.  Well, not Lapo Elkann—I don’t have much to say about him, other than the absurdity of being named ‘Lapo’.  Or Cosulich, either.  These two are the money mokes, which makes them about as interesting as Newt Gingrich’s navel.  And yes, ‘Newt’ is even weirder than ‘Lapo’.

The Importance of Drinking Like Ernest

But Arrigo Cipriani is worth considering.  If you have never been to Harry’s in Venice, your life contains a hollow space, a bottomless sort of dysphoria of which you’re probably not even aware.  Let me, therefore, offer you a comprehensive literary portraiture of this landmark bar, an authentic visionary walk-through which will place you, in your mind’s eye, within the confines of this casual, but spiritually focused establishment.

Ready?  Set?  Well, screw it.  Like your mother used to say, “Go read a book.”  Ernest Hemingway’s In Harry’s Bar says it far better than I intended to.

'I'm just wild about Harry's'

What I will say is that Harry’s was a favorite not only of Hemingway, but also of Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Truman Capote, Orson Welles, Baron Philippe de Rothschild, Princess Aspasia of Greece, Aristotle Onassis, Barbara Hutton, Peggy Guggenheim, and Woody Allen.  And when I say ‘favorite’, I don’t mean, like your favorite flavor at Ben and Jerry’s—for this crew, it was a sort of lump in the throat, sniffly, Lassie coming home in that childhood tearjerker movie kind of favorite.  Harry’s is the birthplace of the bellini (a blend of  Prosecco and peach purée, which is not only a sensationally refreshing drink but excellent alliteration), and, oddly enough, carpaccio.  It is, nonetheless the 10:1 martini, served in stemless stemware, about which people rave.

Another thing I will say is that when Harry’s is busy—and it is always busy—the itsy-bitsy dining room is ear-poppingly loud, but the one time they tried to move the kitchen upstairs to reduce that end of the noise, everybody complained so much that they ultimately moved it back to where it was.  Noise is as much a part of Harry’s ambience as the butterscotch wood trim and the horrific tariff—$20 for a bowl of minestrone, for instance.

“There’s just something very striking and pungent about Harry’s,” writes author Jan Morris.

Arrigo

Since 1931, there has always been a Cipriani at Harry’s helm.  Arrigo’s father, Giuseppe, a bartender at Venice’s Hotel Europa, was able to open it after a wealthy patron (named Harry) paid back a small loan Giuseppe once made him, many, many times over.

These days, Arrigo holds court within the cramped landmark, but does not lord over it.  His presence is perpetual, but quiet and dignified; he keeps an unobtrusive but watchful eye over everything.  Now in his seventies, he pays due homage to Giuseppe, saying: “My father taught me everything because he invented everything.  Truly, I think I am one of his inventions.  When I was born, just one year after Harry’s Bar opened, my life’s work was already cut out for me.”

In Distill of the Night

For Marco Fantinel, his life was also decided early, and it didn’t involve vodka.

In 1969, Marco’s old man Mario Fantinel, a hotelier and restaurateur in Ravascletto, Carnia, bought vineyards in the Dolegna Collio commune of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia near the Slovenian border.  His intention was to produce top drawer wines for his rapaciously upscale hotel clientele.

Mario’s sons took an even more fervid tact, buying up tract after tract of primo Collio vineyard.  Then they began to open wine bars; first one, in San Daniele del Friuli, and later, bars in Udine, Rome, Cortina d’Ampezzo, etc.—there’s something like twenty-six now, but more open all the time.  In part, these wine bars are a conduit for the two million bottles of wine the family produces per year.

Marco

For a lot of waste-not-want-not Italian vintners, a production sideline is grappa, and that’s where distiller Marco—a third generation Fantinel—enters the immagine. In 2006, the ludicrously ambitious Fantinels launched the Suprema Grappa line, offering premium estate picolit, ramandolo, tocai and refosco grappas, said to embody ‘the pinnacle of Friulian grappa style’.  What that means is sort of ambiguous, but the golds and double golds these grappas took at the 2009 San Francisco World Spirits Competition are not.

“It is nice to be rewarded for our hard work in the vineyards and now in the distillery,” says Marco in classic understatement.

Papa

So, on to the vodka.

That conte brings us back to Harry’s Bar.  And Papa Hemingway.  And Giuseppe Cipriani.  Together, these two rogues would spend hours sipping a local, farm-distilled vodka while exchanging tall tales and short spiels, and one of the stories that Giuseppe came up with involved a twelfth century Venetian alchemist called il Bianco (the White One) who one day announced at the village tavern that he had discovered ‘the elixir of long life’. Soon enough, lords, rulers, artists and churchmen began to come from all over Italy to give the elixir a shot.  The fact that none of them are still around is probably enough evidence to conclude that the alchemist was actually selling snake oil.

Now, this is not a story on the quality level of, say, Old Man And The Sea, but for some reason, it grabbed Hemingway by the infarcted heart, and he is said to have leapt to his feet and cried out, “An absurd vision, as absurd as the idea of Italian vodka!”

So, the lampadina switched on in Giuseppe’s skull, and in 1934, with Hemingway as an advisor, a batch of I Spirit Vodka was distilled.

Ratchet forward seventy-seven years.  The original I Spirit has long since ceased production, but in Harry’s Bar—possibly over something farm distilled—Arrigo Cipriani and Lapo Elkann brainstormed the idea of reviving the singular beast known as Italian vodka, and, enlisting the talents of Marco Fantinel and possibly, a few euros from Francesco Cosulich, I Spirit was reborn.

And a singular beast it is: It’s actually more of a fusion of vodka and grappa, made by five-times distilling both grains and Friulian grapes.  As spirit specialists will tell you, the more times you distill a liquor, the more pure it becomes, and I Spirit is as a clear as any non-polluted Venetian stream.  A certain floral nuance arises, no doubt from the grapes, that make I Spirit unlike anything you’ve ever tried before in the vodka category.  It’s benign but not bland, mellow but not meek and shows elegant notes of lemon, lime and almonds.

Of course, like anything with origins in Harry’s Bar, it isn’t cheap: $35 for a 750 ml., and I’ve found it online for as much as forty.

Of course, I Spirit is in a whole different league than say, Grey Goose or Stoli.  It’s not a mixing vodka, not a martini base, not even something you want to pour over ice—better to keep a bottle in your freezer.

My suggestion?  Grab a copy of The Moveable Feast and read it with a snifter of the singular beast.

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Leading Women of Italian Wine Unite for a Worthy Cause

Don’t you love it when wine people do things other than promote themselves?  And when they do good other things, it’s for some reason other than to garner publicity to promote themselves?

An example? 

On Wednesday evening, October 19, 2011 at New York City’s Metropolitan Pavilion, Vinitaly, the Ambassador of Italian wines, will hold a  fundraiser to benefit the American Cancer Society.  This happens via a consumer wine tasting honoring Italian women wine producers.

Stevie Kim

Okay, so that’s a little self-promo, but Italian women wine producers are a pretty cool bunch, and in general, better looking than their American counterparts, so they get a pass. Anyway, last year’s event raised $40,000 for the American Cancer Society.

According to Stevie Kim, General Coordinator of Vinitaly International and Senior Advisor to Giovanni Mantovani, CEO of Veronafiere, gathering this elite group of women was easy:

“This commitment is based on friendship and a network of mutual support.”

Some other random quotes:

Marlilisa Allegrini

Marilisa Allegrini of Allegrini in the Veneto: “The American Cancer Society constitutes a perfect example of how, by working together in a well-organized team effort, the very best results can be achieved to make the lives of thousands of cancer sufferers and their helpers better via practical and moral support, as well as underpinning on-going research. Allegrini has its largest customer base in the USA and sees its support of the American Cancer Society as a way of giving back to a much-loved people in the name of an extremely well-deserving cause.”

Cristina Mariani-May

Cristina Mariani-May, family proprietor and co-CEO of Banfi Vintners, America’s leading wine importer, and the award-winning Castello Banfi vineyard estate in Montalcino, Tuscany:

“Having lost far too many colleagues and family members to cancer, we feel a deeply personal motivation to support the American Cancer Society in meaningful ways. Vinitaly In The World’s tribute to Italian Women in Wine provides an ideal forum for that.”

Because they’re such a righteous lot, let me do a bit of promotion on their behalf:

Vinitaly is the largest wine fair in the world with over 4,000 participating producers. Vinitaly also includes education in its mission. A component of the Vinitaly World Tour is to help Italian wine producers learn about the markets they visit. During the 2011 tour, Vinitaly will educate producers about the US market while sharing the latest developments in the world of Italian wine with press, importers, distributors, retailers, restaurateurs and sommeliers in the United States.

And further, about the American Cancer Society:

The American Cancer Society combines an unyielding passion with nearly a century of experience to save lives and end suffering from cancer. As a global grassroots force of more than three million volunteers, the society fights for every birthday threatened by every cancer in every community. They save lives by helping people stay well by preventing cancer or detecting it early; helping people get well by being there for them during and after a cancer diagnosis; by finding cures through investment in groundbreaking discovery; and by fighting back by rallying lawmakers to pass laws to defeat cancer and by rallying communities worldwide to join the fight. As the nation’s largest non-governmental investor in cancer research, contributing more than $3.4 billion, the society turns what they know about cancer into what they do. As a result, more than 11 million people in America who have had cancer and countless more who have avoided it will be celebrating birthdays this year.

To learn more or to get help: 1-800-227-2345 or visit cancer.org.

Okay, so I am promotioned out.  If you are in New York on October 19, show up at the tasting, please, and if not, throw a couple bucks at the Cancer Society.

For Christ’s sake, the life you save may be mine.

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Hallowine and Spirits: What To Serve the Sots on Spook Night

Trick or trink, smell my dink, give me something good to drink…

When  it comes to suggesting Halloween hooch, wine writers can take one of two paths:

One is to recommend all the customary cornballs classics like PoiZin (by Armida Winery), Trueblood (Napa Valley), Ghost Block (Yountville), Vampire wines (Paso Robles), and of course, anything from that spooky Left Bank appellation, Graves.

The other path is to get it right—the real monster deal.  If I was writing this article, it might go something like this:

Though Drac himself vould likely stick to sangria, Jonathan Harker, having just arrived from vine-free England, might be more inclined to experiment with the local wines—especially if he’d known that one day, renowned wine author Tom Stevenson would say, “Of all the wine growing regions of Romania, Transylvania is perhaps the most exciting.”  They’re primarily whites: Târnave, Alba, Sebeş-Apold, Aiud and Lechinţa. Though many of the tiny Transylvanian vineyards disappeared in the wake of post World War II Communist collectivization, it appears that in the modern era, such garden-vines are reanimating themselves.

For Van Helsing, we will reserve a bottle of that odd Dutch liqueur Parfait d’Amour, a purple concoction with a curaçao base and flavored with rose petals, vanilla and almonds.

Igor, of course, gets fermented fly juice.

*

Just back from Tibet, acclaimed and wealthy British botanist Wilfred Glendon would probably tuck into a snifter of London No. 1, among only a clawful of gins actually brewed in London.  In line with the classic gins of yesteryear, featured in the recipe are juniper, coriander and angelica, but unmentioned on the label is the secret ingredient: mariphasa.  Va-va voom.  Once Glendon’s shaggy makeover is complete, the only direction for him is toward Sangre de Toro, Miguel Torres’ blood-red flagship.  Made from Garnacha and Cariñena, its bold temperament but soft mouthfeel make it an ideal compliment to any meal—even the girl next door.

*

For The Mummy, choices are somewhat limited—too bad, since after four thousand years in a sarcophagus, one builds up a pretty mean thirst.  Prior to his death (the first one), Imhotep no doubt drank beer—it was the ancient Egyptian’s most important beverage, and in this case, it put the ‘high’ in priest.  According to hieroglyphs it was called hqt  and probably came in at around four percent alcohol—it would have been thick, sweet and without carbonation.  The Egyptians had wine as well, known as yrp, but it was expensive and consumed only by the rich—in fact, in 2006, traces of it were found in King Tutankhamen’s tomb.  Anyway, the yrp is gone and it ain’t coming back.  For our thoroughly modern mummified Millie, however, all is not quite lost.  These days, Egyptians make a limited amount of wine near Alexandria—per year, about half a million gallons of Omar Khayyam (a very dry red), Cru des Ptolémées (a dry white) and Rubis d’Egypt (rosé).  A few rehydrating swigs of any of the above and Imhotep’s wrinkles should vanish quicker than if he’d used Porcelana.

*

Far more fortunate is Victor Frankenstein.  His castle nestles in the cliffs of Darmstadt, Hesse—a 2-wood’s drive from the Rhein River. Rheinhessen is the largest of 13 German high-quality Prädikatswein wine regions, and so, Dr. Vic would have access to a wide variety of styles, from the simplistic Liebfraumilch to the beautiful, sweet, botrytised wines of Gunderloch.

Captain Walton would have had to limit himself to whatever he kept in his cabin cupboard, probably brandy, madeira or rum.

For now, we’ll keep the monster dry, since anything we give him simply pours out of the holes in his neck, but he says it’s cool—he doesn’t drink anyway.

So, that’s path two, kids; the genuine ghastly gig—though if you didn’t get anything useful out of it, feel free to go back to path one.

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The Importance of the GI

I received a press release yesterday containing what’s probably the single most irrelevant piece of news I will encounter all year:

‘India and Malaysia Recognize Cognac as a Protected Geographical Indication’

The release goes on to point out, almost orgasmically, that the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC) has finally achieved recognition by both countries as a GI.

Is this not the poster child for ‘meh’?

Maybe, maybe not.  In any event, it winds up being an interesting segue into the overall significance of legally protected Geographical Indications—essentially, certifications of origin for an item contained simply within its name.  GIs are similar to trademarks and apply to food as well as wine and spirits.

The most familiar example of this is ‘Champagne’. Sparkling wine from the small province of Champagne, a hundred miles east of Paris, has strikingly different characteristics than those from Guerneville, California.  But whereas most sparkling wine producers have dropped the word ‘champagne’ from their labels, Korbel has opted to leave it on, citing a ‘semi-generic’ provision under U.S. law.

Other semi-generic memory tweakers are Gallo’s Hearty Burgundy, which, in 1972, Los Angeles wine critic Robert Balzer called “the best wine value in the country today.” (As it happens, Hearty Burgundy is still around.)

So is Carlo Rossi Chablis, which most people will never confuse with real stuff if only because it’s eight bucks for a 1.5 liter jug.

At least sauterne had the decency to drop the original’s final ‘s’. Like, what’s wrong with Carlo Rossi Chabli, anyway?

Apparently Cognac has a similar problem, which I did not know.  What the India/Malaysia agreement amounts to is that the registrations confirm a legal foundation upon which the BNIC can contest misuse of the term Cognac in these countries.

Another reason why the agreement was so vital to the BNIC is that, surprisingly enough, Malaysia is the third largest Cognac consumer in the world.  France itself comes in at number five.

Who knew?  And more importantly, who would want those mad Malays drinking Korbel brandy and thinking it’s Cognac?

Total output of 2010 Uganda banana wine

Okay, so the next time I’m snickering at a press release, like the one I just received headlined ‘Uganda Produces Less Banana Wine Than Usual’, I’ll remind myself of this inexcusable boner and kick myself in the faux pas.

For further information, please contact:

Jean-Louis Carbonnier, Cognac USA / c/o Carbonnier Communications

Tel : 212-216-9671 / Email : cognac@carbonniercommunications.com

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Who Chooses The Wines For Official White House State Dinners?

State Dinners are affairs of such overwhelming pageantry that I, for one, can easily overlook the fact that although you and I pay for them, you and I are never invited to them.

This latter truism is borne out by the fact that one of us would surely make some monumental political gaffe, not really understanding the official protocol of smooching the butts of visiting dignitaries in order to insure that they do not drop nuclear bombs on us.

State Dinner for Fidel Castro

State Dinners have been aristocratic levees since the early nineteenth century.  Once white-tie, they’re now black-tie affairs hosted by the President of the United States in the State Dining Room.  They follow a day of pomp and fanfare, much of it overseen by honor guards and color guards in full dress uniform, proving to guest officials that our army is as tough as theirs, if a bit gayer looking.

The dinner itself is the climax of the day’s ceremonies—generally a four or five course culinary extravaganza.

Chief of Protocol Capricia Penavic Marshall looks like a wax alien

Planning and Execution

Nicolas Sarkozy looks like a werewolf

Planning these menus, including appropriate wine pairings, is a task of such proportions that three White House staffers are required to carry it off.  First, Chief of Protocol Capricia Penavic Marshall makes certain that no blatant blunders occur, such as serving frog legs to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, bacon-wrapped pork noisettes made from pigs slaughtered by neo-Nazis to Israeli President Shimon Peres or human flesh to Ugandan Head of State Yoweri Kaguta Museveni.

Next, White House Chief Usher coordinates each menu item with White House Executive Chef.  The current Chief Usher is an Jamaican-born woman named Angella Reid—Ms. Penavic Marshall and she thus makes certain that all dishes contain marijuana.

How the Wines Are Chosen

The wines that this trio pick to pair with each course are not selected strictly for food compatibility.  Certain international courtesy codes are followed, taking into consideration the guest of honor’s religious affiliation, cultural traditions and dietary habits.  And since only American wines are served, this can sometimes be a tough call. One classic faux pas occurred when a California sparkling wine was served to a French diplomat—a wine labeled ‘Champagne’.

Occasionally, the President himself will make suggestions for wine.  Gerald Ford, for example, had a bias for Michigan wines and would request that they accompany at least one course.

Hu Jintao doesn't look particularly human either

Typical State Dinner Menu

A representative example of a State Dinner menu is that of President Obama’s recent honor of Hu Jintao, President of the People’s Republic of China:

D’Anjou Pear Salad with Farmstead Goat Cheese
Fennel, black walnuts and white balsamic

Poached Maine Lobster, Orange Glazed Carrots and Black Trumpet Mushrooms with Dumul Chardonnay, ‘Russian River’, 2008.

Dry aged Rib Eye with Buttermilk Crisp Onions
Double Stuffed Potatoes and Creamed Spinach with Quilceda Creek Cabernet Sauvignon, 2005.

Old Fashioned Apple Pie with Vanilla Ice Cream with Poet’s Leap Riesling ‘Botrytis’, 2008.

 

Prime Minister Alhaji Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa enjoying her silly hat, for which she tipped over 1000 Nigerian kobos

An Odd But Beloved Tradition

Although State Dinners are extremely formal functions, and include decorous receiving lines and ceremonious lectern speeches during which United States Marine Band violinists disperse throughout the room, there is one odd, traditional ritual little known outside of White House staffers—one which visiting heads of state often find puzzling:

During meal service, a mentally-challenged midget known as the ‘Silly Hat Kid’ goes from table to table and cuts out silly hats from construction paper.  Each guest is then required to wear his or her silly hat for the remainder of the meal.  If they take it off, they’re shot by the color guard. Everyone is expected to tip handsomely for the hats, and if they cannot or refuse to do so, the ‘Silly Hat Kid’ exposes his genitals to the table until the offending guest returns to his hotel room to fetch some cash.

Jeffersonian Gorging

Likely  the most aggressively generous State Dinner President was Thomas Jefferson, although ironically, they were not held for foreign diplomats, but rather used as a power technique among Congressmen for political ends.

The closest thing to a wino President we have ever had, Jefferson had vaults constructed below the east colonnade to hold his sizable wine collection. He is said to have spent more than $11,000 on wine during his two terms as President; a sum that in today’s economy would equal $175,000.

The importance of wine to State Dinners cannot be underestimated—yet another reason not to elect that teetotalin’ Mormon weenie Mitt Romney.

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Larry Mawby’s Sparkling ‘Detroit’: Feel Our Pagne

If you were born south of Eight Mile or spent your formative years in Motown, you’re pretty versed in Detroit history—and, with a high school drop-out rate cresting 70%, it’s probably not something you  learned during  Fourth Hour.

You know it instinctively.

For Those That Don’t: Here’s How Detroit Was Invented…

One day, a bunch of space cadets from Juarez, Caracas, New Orleans and Kinshasa got together and said, ‘We have nothing against crime or corruption, desolation or poverty, but couldn’t we relocate to somewhere a whole lot colder??’

Siberia without turf wars

The Rest, As They Say, Is…

Sorry, Detroit civic boosters:  We denizens of this frostbitten heartache—Siberia with turf wars—don’t celebrate our hometown, we tolerate it.  Love it?  Maybe like you’d love a dysfunctional, violent, self-destructive child.   I get that; blood is blood after all…  I just don’t want to see mine running down my Made In Detroit t-shirt when I go downtown to watch fireworks.

So, maybe you should approach Larry Mawby’s latest release, a sparkling wine dubbed Detroit, with a textbook case of mixed emotions.  First, Larry Mawby crafts the best sparkling wine that’s ever come out of Michigan.  Second, Larry Mawby is a funny, engaging, whipsaw-sharp and horrendously talented winemaker.  He’s among a handful of culinary characters in the state with celebrity status—someone who actually gets recognized and pestered by fans at restaurants .

(Thinking out loud, though, I wonder how many of them have confused the grizzly, bearded, cap-wearing star with his doppelganger Michael Moore?)

Third, Larry Mawby lives so far from Detroit that if he was going to live any farther away and remain in Michigan, he’d have to rent scuba gear.

Three Decades of Dosage…

Mawby is from Grand Rapids; at least, he’s from a family of apple farmers with orchards near that flat, god-fearing community, and he was raised with the pastoral passions of a agriculturalist.  He knew from the outset that his destiny was not in Honeycrisps and Jonagolds, but in chardonnay and pinot noir.  He’s also got a congenital head for numbers and was able to recognize that one of the most popular wine styles on the planet—sparkling—had not yet found its niche in the nascent north.  This was back in ’73, before the current wine renaissance had begun.

“Nobody up here was really sure what the market would allow,” he says, perched in his cluttered, cozy office in Sutton’s Bay.  “Nobody quite knew what our limitations were, if any.  I focused on sparkling wine because I love it, not because I thought it was the smartest marketing decision.  That said, the climate is perfect for Champagne wine grapes, but above all, I wanted to make the kind of wine that I like to drink.”

Typical wine award

Apparently, other folks like to drink it, too—Mawby took top sparkling wine honors in the prestigious 2008 Jefferson Cup Invitational for his vintage ‘Mille’, and in 1998, Wine Enthusiast magazine ranked him on the short list of great American winemakers .

In fact, Mawby has found such success with his eponymous bubblies that’s it’s been eleven years since he made anything else.  So specialized has be become that he contracts out his talent and equipment, bringing in wine from other vintners and giving it the ol’ Mawby sparkle before they slap their own label on it.

Who?  Because most of it receives the ‘bulk method’ process, which is less expensive, less time-consuming and results in an arguably less refined product than the bottle-fermented méthode champenoise  that he reserves for the L. Mawby brand, he declines to name names.

“Once I realized where my direction was leading, I invested in a lot of pretty specialized equipment,” he says, “more than would make sense for other wineries where the focus was on still wine.  When I use the traditional Champagne method for my L. Mawby wines, I am looking for a certain varietal character and yeasty overtone; with the M. Mawby line, I’m dealing with a different game plan where tank fermentation is ideal.”

Back to Tank-Fermented Detroit…

Flavor profiles are key to every wine that Mawby bottles, and ‘Detroit’ came about in part as a experiment.  He had long wanted to try this ‘kind’ of bubbly—aromatic and juicy with forward fruit, a bit of residual sugar in it and enough acidity to balance it and offer a clean finish.

Typical 'cloying' Detroit-style wines

“I hate cloying wines,” Larry says with a face scrunch as excruciatingly real as any thirteen-year-old’s.

A blend of riesling, traminette (a hybrid of a hybrid) and cayuga (a laboratory varietal which excels in cold climates) provided him with the taste target he was aiming for.

That was the goal; not a specific name.  But along the way, someone suggested that this was precisely the sort of product that would go over well in Detroit, where Champagne may be a component of some weird gangsta mystique or a high life reminder of our 1920′s heyday as the Paris of the Midwest, but where today, in any case, bone-dry doesn’t sell.

Now, Here’s The Irony:

On one hand, as a wine, Detroit is the antithesis of its namesake—it’s everything that a major metropolis should be, but Detroit is not: Sweet, classy, fun and energetic.  On the other hand, Detroit the city has a certain undeniable emotional resonance, a sort of intrinsic grandeur evident in the Gilded Age architecture as well as the core of quality, if siege-weary individuals trying to put the broken clockwork right.  Detroit the wine is vinified to sugar levels that the French call demi-sec,  which in literal translation is exactly how we Detroiters view our legacy:

Bittersweet.

Dom

Seen in a non-facetious light, Detroit’s history bears at least one striking similarity to that of sparkling wine.  As Dom Perignon noted, Champagne’s northerly climate prevents the complete fermentation of wine in the autumn, so in the spring, the yeasts wake up and go back to work.

This re-invigorated spunk, the heart and soul of Champagne, was referred to by Dom Perignon as ‘new life.’

For Detroit, such a metaphor is better than the cornball image of a phoenix rising from ashes—with its inescapable connotation of Devil’s Night vandalism, blocks of burned-out buildings and the charcoal shells littering neighborhoods that must produce the next generation of  leaders.

Not Dom

‘New life’ is precisely what the doctor—even our most infamous one, Jack ‘Dr. Death’ Kevorkian—ordered.

If such a rebirth worked for the great cellarmaster of Hautvillers Abbey, maybe it can work for us.

Tasting Notes:

M. Mawby ‘Detroit’, NV, about $15:  An open-knit palate pleaser, no questions asked.  Marked by ripe peach and orange blossom aromas, the fine bubbles—not champenoise  fine—tingle up an almost unctuously textured mouthfeel; spiced apricot (nutmeg especially), baked apple and honey flavors extend cleanly into a layered finish.  Lovely  wine to light up any Detroit summer.  Except 1967, of course.  Or 1943.  Or 1863, come to that.  Never mind.  Anyway, if Wally Maurer of Domaine Berrien gets to be a Rhone Ranger,  Larry Mawby gets to be Michigan’s preeminent Mousseketeer.

Writing Notes: 

Larry Mawby is also among the most literary of Michigan’s winemakers, with poetry on his labels (some grapey groaners, granted;  like ‘freeing time’s bouquet’ and ‘our tongue lies wrapped in mystery’)  but his regular contributions to Michigan Wine Country are gems.  Start with ‘Why Grapes Grow Here’ and work through the lot:

http://www.lmawby.com/index.php?route=/enjoy/writings/why-grapes-grow-here

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Dry Creek Zinfandel: Make a Dashe for the valley

Dashe Cellars says that they knew in advance that their stellar, 2007 vintage, Dry Creek zinfandels would ‘make themselves’.  Good news for Dashe;  not so much for the migrants who will now have to be trucked into Oregon to find a job.

Kidding, kidding.  Zinfandel is that kind of wine—you can make with the jokes and nobody thinks it’s a mortal zin. Zin is fun, whether it’s wearing a dark and dry business suit, a casual, pink and off-dry costume or a multi-hued, molar-crumbling, sugarific Mardi Gras get-up.

The inky-purple, pretty in pink or shades-of-both giggle juice is responsible for ten percent of all wine grapes grown in California, and was the most widely planted wine varietal until 1998.  But nowhere in the state has zinfandel found a home-base better than Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley.

That’s because Dry Creek Valley zins ripen with the same aggression as those grown in nearby Paso Robles and Lodi, but being in a river valley near the coast, Dry Creek’s warm days are tempered by cool evenings—imperitive for maintaining grape acidity.  The need for an acidic balance to palate-friendly sweetness cannot be understated—liken it to the refreshment difference between sugar water and lemonade—all you are really doing is adjusting the pH.

Speaking of science, DNA profilers have said that zinfandel is genetically identical to Croatia’s crljenak kaštelanski grape—that or they mixed it up with samples from Slobodan Milošević’s mother, who had the same name.

Again With The Jokes? 

The Italian boot-heel grape primitivo is also listed as having zinfandel’s genetic footprint, but new studies suggest that primitivo may have migrated to Italy via Croatia—and both may have been born in prehistoric Greece.

Whatever the genealogy, zinfandel is unquestionably America’s wine—and you won’t find the name on any off-shore label that I’m aware of, though there are plantings in South Africa and Australia.  It’s Gold Rush wine, the favorite of the real Forty-niners, the stuff that made Clementine fall into foaming brine and not come up.  In those days it was high-octane, unsophisticated grog—as befit the folks who swilled it.

Anne and Mike Dashe

Not so the wines of Dashe Cellars, who have been turning out sleek, elegant, award-winning zinfandels since 1996.  The Dashe endeavor was the brainchild of enologists Michael and Anne Dashe, who were married the same year as they founded the Cellars.  Wineries begun by hardscrabble winemakers have a charm that somehow outstrips those started by thirsty, ego-driven San Francisco businessmen, don’t you agree?

The Dashes’ approach to zinfandel has remained uniquely plot-focused; they have partnered with some top Dry Creek zinfandel vineyards like Louvau, Bella and the Shaddick where the vines are old and the yields are low.  This results in concentrated wines of complexity and subtlety.  The Dashes’ artisan-obsession extends to barrel-making (they use only nearby family coopers) and technique (small-lot fermentation and indigenous years).  More than most other grapes, zinfandel requires clever management, especially at harvest time, because it tends to ripen unevenly; often it’s a hands-on style like Anne and Michael’s that’s the difference between boom or bust.

Everything, in fact, about Dashe Cellars makes sense except the label, which depicts a monkey riding on a fish.  Okay, so married couples must be permitted their inside jokes.

One thing that’s not a joke is the consistent quality of Dashe zins; the late harvest bottlings, which requires an additional month of ‘hang time’ on the vine to concentrate sugars, is reminiscent of a jammy, miles-deep vintage Port.  The experimental L’Enfant Terrible is a bantam-weight, all-organic zinfandel that relies less on sulfites and more on natural acidity to preserve quality.  L’Enfant Terrible is Beaujolais-esque; the style may not be to every zin lovers tastes—better pop a cork and find out.

The 2007 vintage may have made itself, but I’ll be damned if I going to let it drink itself.

Tasting Notes:

Dashe Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley, 2007, about $25:  Intense in Dry Creek’s inimical, India ink sort of way.  Fully concentrated with blackberry and black cherry notes, clove on the nose and chocolate on the finish.

Dashe Late Harvest Zinfandel, Lily Hill Vineyard, 2007, about $28:  Sweet but balanced with acidity; blackberry and cassis-centered, luscious and spicy, a great foil for black fruit desserts.

Dashe L’Enfant Terrible, McFadden Farms, Potter Valley, 2007, about $26:  Unfined, unfiltered, mostly un-oaked and totally un-adorned with the monkey-fish trademark, the Dashe’s rebel child is more Cru Beaujolais than sledgehammer zin.  Spicy black cherry notes and a low alcohol lightness.

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