Monday, August 29, 2005

Ridge Zinfandel Paso Robles 2003

While I was in New York, Stephanie drank our bottle of Ridge Geyserville, arguably California's best zinfandel (technically zin blend). She felt guilty and replaced it with Paul Draper's Paso Robles offering. She had to work late tonight, so I mourned her absence by cooking duck breast in a cranberry and woodear mushroom sauce with chive polenta and sauteed zucchini. This was an enormous magret duck breast I purchased from Whole Foods at $17 per pound, and like a previous sample it proved to be rather tough despite impeccable preparation. It will most likely be my last duck purchase from Whole Foods.

The zin was a fine pairing despite showing less character than its cousin from Geyserville. At a mere 14.8% alcohol, it was much more drinkable and food-friendly than other Cali zins (see my previous posting on Turley Old Vines 03). The wine's back label notes that in the warm Central Coast region, the grapes reached optimal ripeness before the tannins and acidity had sufficiently developed. Despite a variety of viticultural techniques designed to increase tannin and acidity, it seemed a tad short on the finish. Duck was perhaps the best choice for this wine, but it could also work with grilled ribeye or a heavily spiced quail.

Frecciarossa Sillery Oltrepo Pavese 2004: a white Pinot Noir from Italy

During my absence, Stephanie procured a number of interesting wines for up to taste this week (although she did dispatch a much anticipated Ridge Geyserville), including this white Pinot Nero (Noir) from Italy. As many readers may know, pinot noir is a major component of french Champangne, where the skins are removed after harvesting to produce a white wine. In fact, the French even make white Champagne entirely of Pinot Noir grapes, which they call Blanc de Noir (i.e., white from red). Stephanie was intrigued by this Italian wine, as I certainly would have been, and brought home a bottle.

To accompany the wine (many people have wine to accompany their meals, whereas here at Chez Harris-Buccafusco we have meals to accompany our wine) we sauteed red snapper fillets and served them with a basil, caper, tomato sauce and mashed potatos and green salad with heirloom tomatos on the side. The fish and wine were a lovely match. As Stephanie predicted, the wine tasted a bit like flat Champagne, but this did not detract from the experience. It had a nose reminiscent of the heftier bubblies, with hints of dough and yeast, and a crisp, slightly acidic finish. Although perhaps not as long and complex as a Champange might be, this was an excellent dry white wine suitable for any pairing where Champagne would be expected. It could also serve as a substitute for those who claim that the fizz in champagne gives them a headache, although this should not be understood to legitimate such sentiments. Who cares if it gives you a headache, it's Champagne!

My Big Apple Adventure

I apologize for lack of recent blogging, but I have just returned from a wonderful trip to Manhattan. On Thursday, I met up with my brother Marty, a producer/editor (a.k.a. "prediter") at MTV, and we enjoyed an enormous lunch of cheeseburgers at McHale's. I left him to return to work, and I strolled around midtown for the afternoon, stopping briefly for some snails and a glass of provencal rose at Brasserie Marseilles. That evening we went out for ribs at Bluesmoke with his girlfriend Lindsay and roommate James.

Marty left early Friday morning to shoot the Video Music Awards in hurricane-threatened Miami, and I began the morning with a trip to Davidoff to meet up with my great friend Kellette. He is responsible for having introduced me to wine after my brewery in Atlanta closed in 2000. We had a nice diner breakfast before I set out for the International Center for Photography to see the daguerreotypes of Southworth and Hawes (this was the nominal purpose of my visit). Afterwards, I again joined Kellette, this time with his lovely wife Islandria, for a tour around the warehouse district and a stop at his local wine shop. We then headed downtown to a Spanish joint named Bar Jamon, which perfectly lived up to its name. We enjoyed marinated sardines and squid, a tasting of three ages of manchego, olives, and serrano ham with glasses of wine (I had sherry). By way of digestion, we took a stroll through the neighborhood and smoked cigars, along the way bumping into Tony Bourdain, who carried a dog in a purse and who proved to be much nicer than his gruff TV image would suggest.

Kellette, Islandria, and I eventually made it back to their place after a brief stop to pick up some cold cuts and cheese for dinner (it was now close to 10pm). They produced a wonderful spread of traditional and spicy salami, aged provolone, proscuitto, basil, and tomatoes and we did a small tasting of three lesser known french red wines, a Saumur, a Corbieres, and a Cahors, the former winning top honors for its delicate texture but complex midpalate. The night ended around 2am with Ashton Super Selections, Kellete having been awake for 27 straight hours by this point.

I awoke in the late morning on Saturday and headed south from Marty's apartment on 50th Street down to the aforementioned Mr. Bourdain's Brasserie Les Halles for what I imagined would be brunch. Upon seeing the menu, however, I was unable to pass up the more savory dishes and choose some very tender pork rillettes, delicious pigs' feet, and a sorbet trio. I skipped wine in favor of the lovely french pressed coffee.

After lunch I wandered down to the market in Union Sqare and tasted some artisanal cheeses from New York and some splendid apple cider. Continuing south, I stopped in Washington Sqare Park to do some reading and watch some incredible bocce. Later that afternoon I met up with Lindsay, who was gracious enough to entertain me in my brother's absence. We had a brief tour through the east village (where I shopped in vain for the perfect gift for Stephanie) and then took a cab to her fabulous apartment on 1st Avenue at 62nd Street. Lindsay recommended a thai restaurant in the area, where we had panang chicken and I introduced her to the pleasures of Gewurtztraminer.

Lindsay left to hang out with some friends, but Kellette, phenomenal friend that he is, managed to get off work just as I was wrapping up with Lindsay. He met me at Merchant's, one of the few remaining New York bars where smoking is still permitted. He is well-loved by the staff there, and we were treated wonderfully. I smoked a limited edition Fonseca with some uncharacteristically uninspiring Lagavulin 16, and Kellette smoked La Flor Dominicana with equally disappointing Macallan 12. After our usual long and meaningful conversation we said goodbye some time after 2.

I enjoyed my trip immensely and am very grateful for the wonderful friendship and entertainment provided by all of my New York friends. It was a superb wine, ham, and cigar filled weekend that I will not soon forget.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Qupe Syrah Central Coast 2003

Preparation for tonight's dinner began rather early, as I began to smoke a pork loin around 4 o'clock. While waiting for it to finish, we had an appetizer of truffle pate and olives. I also prepared green lentils with roast corn and red onion.

We chose the Qupe syrah to match the smokiness of the pork and were well pleased. Although the airing of Blossom: E! True Hollywood Story added little to the event, dinner turned out quite well. The Qupe was medium-full bodied, with considerable smoke and oak on the bouquet. I detected hints of chocolate, coffee, and berries, but Stephanie refused to discuss the wine because I made obnoxious comments about Blossom. I think she liked it, though. Try it with grilled quail or pasta with duck.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Chappellet Chenin Blanc Napa Valley 2003

With the help of Stephanie's new birthday present, the Amuse Bouche cookbook by Rick Tramonto, we prepared a dinner exclusively composed of small appetizers. In no particular order, we had 1) "linguini and clams" (sauteed littleneck clams with long julienne strips of blanched cucumber); 2) carmelized onion tartlettes; 3) crab quenelles with three sauces - roasted red pepper, roasted yellow pepper, and picoline olive; 4) beef carpaccio with cumin-espresso crust and champagne grapes; and finally 5) "cucumber salads", invented by Stephanie. The last of these consisted of hollowed out heirloom grape tomatoes filled with minced onion, celery, and cucumbers, drizzled with olive oil. Truly a spark of inspired genius. Feel free to check out our photo album of the dinner.

We began the meal with a delightful Picpoul de Pinet from the Languedoc region that we had used to steam the clams. For $7, it's hard to beat this wine for pure fruit and crisp acidity (although this one seemed rounder than previous vintages).

We chose the Chenin as the best accompaniment for a variety of courses, and we were quite pleased. Chenin is an unfortunately under-appreciated and under-produced varietal that can often provide far more class and substance that sauvi blanc. We have lately had the pleasure of drinking some fine Savennieres and a delicious off-dry Chenin from Ken Forrester in South Africa. Chappellet produces a decidedly dry version, with a racy acidic finish. Nonetheless, the wine opens with so much ripeness that you'd think it was a sweet wine. This wine sees some oak and accordingly had a rounder, fuller body than most sauvis. Stephanie notes sweet dough aromas, followed by a dry, minerally finish. It could pair with a great variety of foods, particularly spicy asian dishes and seafood pastas.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Turley Zinfandel Old Vines California 2003

Today is Stephanie's birthday, so I prepared a mildly special dinner - grilled doublecut pork chops with a roasted red pepper sauce and orzo with grilled zucchini, onions, eggplant, and bell pepper. These were specially raised pork chops, with considerably more fat than the grocery store brand. They were succulent. I also purchased a special wine - the normally exorbitantly priced Turley Zin, which I found for a relative bargain.

I wanted a reasonably well-extracted wine to balance the heat and sweetness in the sauce, and I got at least that from the Turley. This is, of course, the California zinfandel, and it showed its roots. At 16.4% alcohol, we could barely hold on the for the ride. The wine was intensely ripe and had almost no tannin or acidity, but it did have some interesting complexity. A wine this big is hard to describe - suffice it to say that there were characteristic zinfandel notes of blueberry and spice. Frankly, it drank like dry port - which is not entirely a bad thing, if that's what you're after. While it shows none of the potential for aging that fine port does, it would certainly be a fine match for a cigar.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Keller's Service Charge

The New York Times reports that Thomas Keller, arguably the world's greatest chef, will be instituting a mandatory 20% service charge for all guests at his Manhattan restaurant, Per Se. Keller has been charging 17% for service at his Napa Valley restaurant, the French Laundry, for years, but it didn't become newsworthy until it happened to New Yorkers. Almost everyone seems to be upset by this development, especially diners who cherish the ability to decide the value of the service they receive and waiters who, although they don't want to admit it publicly, are reluctant to pay taxes on all of their tips.

One issue seems to have been ignored in the many discussions of Keller's move, i.e., the propriety of charging a fixed rate for wine service. At Keller's restaurants, all diners choose from one of two menus and receive basically the same amount of service - the larger and more expensive menu requires the waiters to serve and clear more dishes than the smaller, cheaper menu, so it is reasonable for the waiters to receive more net tip. (For example, the waiter serving the cheaper $100 menu would receive $20, and the waiter serving the $200 menu would receive $40, but the latter would do twice as much work.) It doesn't work this way with wine. At Keller's restaurants, the same care and attention are paid to bottles of wine costing $50 (there are a few half bottles for that price) as for those that cost $500 (thus, it is not a case of receiving better service, such as recommendations, decanting, better stemware, &c.). Under Keller's new service scheme, waiters and sommeliers pouring from expensive bottles of wine will be making much more money than those pouring cheaper bottles of wine, although both will be doing the same amount of work. Under this scheme, if Diner A orders a $100 bottle of wine, Server A will make $20; but when Diner B orders a $500 bottle of wine, Server B receives $100 - for the same effort.

Stephanie pointed out a situation in which the discrepancy is perhaps more absurd. If Diner A orders five bottles of $100 wine, Server A will make the same $100 that Server B received for pouring just one $500 bottle. This situation is unfair to both servers and diners.

As a practical matter, diners generally tip the same amount regardless of what they spend on wine - always 20%, for example - so Keller's scheme may not make much difference. Nonetheless, it's an unfair and irrational system that penalizes servers and diners. So what's the answer?

Easy. Institute an across the board "corkage fee" for opening and serving all bottles of wine whether $50 or $500, purchased at the restaurant or brought from the diner's cellar. Under such a system, diners would get what they paid for and waiters would be appropriately compensated for their efforts. The tools are there, just use them.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Mocavero Puteus Salice Salentino Riserva 2000

Taking a cue from my mother (who adopted many classics of Italian-American cuisine when she married my father), I decided to make spaghetti and meatballs. Needing to expand a little beyond Mama's kitchen, I chose to make the meatballs with ground lamb. Stephanie continues to impress with her salad-making capacity, this time producing a basil champagne vinaigrette with lettuces and shaved cucumbers.

Having decided to make the spaghetti, I put Stephanie in charge of selecting a suitable Italain wine to accompany the meal, and she performed admirably. I often shy away from Salice Salentino, fearing the overripe fruit-bombs that often come from this region in the heal of Italy's boot. The Mocavero, however, was a welcome surprise.

Although the nose burst with ripe fruit, pushing towards port or even balsamic, it drank beautifully with the meal. The wine passed through a variety of stages, at some points seeming cab-like, and at others as soft as pinot, but always decidedly Italian. Stephanie detected cranberries and remarked that "this is the kind of wine that feels good in your mouth." I couldn't agree more. And at about $15 a bottle, it'll feel a lot better than most of the increasingly expensive barberas and chiantis coming out of Italy.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Domaine De La Tour Boisee Minervois 2003 & Chateau Mas Neuf Costieres de Nimes 2003

Tonight we had a blind tasting of these wines from Southern France. Chris poured the wines and left the room, remembering which wine was where; I labeled the wines with a star and triangle, and mixed them up, noting where each "shape" had begun. During dinner and our first glass of each wine, we both took blind notes on each "shape," without discussing our impressions. You'll find our comments below.

For dinner, we served a salad of "nested" Boston lettuce with lemon dijon vinaigrette and fried string potatoes, followed by grilled veal rib chops with a pearl onion sauce. On the side, we had white asparagus wrapped in Black Forest proscuitto.

Domaine De La Tour Boisee Minervois 2003
Stephanie: I think I prefered this wine, which is unusual, as it was slightly sweeter and less meaty. The accompanying food was surprisingly delicate, and went well with a lighter, sweeter wine. Both wines seemed appropriate for Southern France; neither was terribly surprising, which is probably a good thing.
Neither wine was very tannic.
Color: bright purple/ruby
Aroma/Flavor: brown sugar and yams; slightly floral; peaches; white chocolate; sweeter than the Chateau Mas Neuf.

Chris: This was a rather ripe offering from the Minervois (certainly more so than the Coupe des Roses tasted earlier this week). I noted ripe berries, oak, and cola on the aroma which carried through to the flavor. This was definitely the riper wine, made in a more "international" style. It was well made, but it was perhaps less characteristic of southern France than the Mas Neuf. I would recommend beef or duck with this one.

Chateau Mas Neuf Costieres de Nimes 2003
Aroma/Flavor: slight meaty/bacon flavor and aroma; rocky/steely; cooked raisins.

Chris: I preferred this wine, both in the abstract and with the veal (not to mention that it was cheaper). The aroma reminded me distinctly of the southern Rhone, with smoke, cherry, and that indescribable citrus aroma that one often finds in Chateauneuf du Pape. As Stephanie notes, the color was more garnet than violet, and the body was lighter. It was a pleasant match with the veal, finishing surprisingly long with notes of earth and licorice. Although perhaps too dry for a sipping wine, this is one to buy by the case.

Stephanie's Six Course Dinner

It's been a week since Stephanie decided to prepare a six-course feast for us. I'm still not sure what inspired it, but I hope the inspiration strikes more often. I was forbidden from entering the kitchen after 2 o'clock until the end of dinner at 9:00 (at which time I was allowed to enter and do the dishes).

We began with oysters fried in two fashions, in flour and in cornmeal, with a red pepper remoulade. This is the second time that Stephanie has fried oysters, and they were wonderful once again. I was less pleased with the Il Prosecco NV we had with it. I remember it being brighter and more flavorful. This bottle was not as interestingas I recall.

Next we had ceasar salad in crouton collars. This was a gorgeous presentation, with the large romaine leaves standing straight up from a hollowed out slice of toasted baguette. Stephanie made this one especially for me, knowing how much I enjoy real ceasar salads with plenty of good anchovie flavor.

Stephanie then prepared a corn soup with lime, cilantro, and avocado. I'm still not sure how she did it, but this turned out to be one of the best soups I've ever had - worthy of Thomas Keller. The flavor was so rich without any cream. The bottle of Henry Pelle Pouilly-Fume 2003 that we chose to accompany it failed to live up to the soup, however. In the hot 2003 vintage, Pelle did not tame the heat - the wine was flabby, even sweet, with not mid-palate or finish.

Our entree was a phenomenal halibut fillet baked in parchment. The fish was perfectly cooked, and its sweetness was accentuated by a bottle of Cakebread Chardonnay Napa Valley 2003. A classic Napa chard, but in this case, that wasn't a bad thing. The oak was modest, nicely playing with the ripe fruit and mild acidity. The Cakebread was also a great wine with the corn soup.

Unfortunately, we didn't have any wine left for the final two courses - basil vanilla ice cream and goat cheese with truffle honey. The latter would have been expecially nice was a Quartes de Charmes. I hope Stephanie decides to do this again soon.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Chateau Coupe Roses Minervois la bastide 2003

Since Chris is getting slack (and watching the Dolphin's pre-season game) I thought I'd do a little posting of my own. I'm still learning (as I imagine I will always be) so bear with me. This will be brief.

Last night Chris cooked Thomas Keller's simply roasted chicken, which has become quite a staple in our house. Lightly crisped on the skin, pure juice inside. Side dishes were glazed parsnips and a salad of baby spring lettuces dressed with good balsamic vinegar and olive oil, salt and pepper. It really pays to buy good balsamic, even if its a little pricier than your garden variety vinegar. Trust me on this one. You can probably find something decent in most national grocery stores, although we buy ours at Whole Foods or order it on line. Earthy Delights has a good selection on line for this and other gourmet items. I recommend you check out their website.

The wine was Minervois 2003 la bastide, which Chris tells me is a region in Southern France near Roussillon (sp?). The producers or winemakers are Franciose Frissant Le Calvez & Pascal Frissant. That may have more meaning for you than it does for me.

I understand this wine is likely composed of Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvedre, and perhaps some of the other less widely known varieties from the region, as well. We didn't choose the wine specifically for the dish; it was just something we picked up on a whim and had in the "drink-now cellar." For fifteen dollars, it's not a bad buy. It wasn't as noticeably fruity as many of the wines we've had from the Rhone. The dominant notes on both the aroma and palate were olives (Chris) and black pepper (me). There was a woodiness to the wine, but without oak, and some subtle, dark fruitiness that could be described as not-terribly-ripe black cherry, maybe even a little prune. I wouldn't recommend this wine with anything terribly flashy, as it would overwhelm the wine's subtlety. Not my favorite wine, but we'd buy it again.


Thursday, August 04, 2005

Domaine des Baumard Savennieres 2000

We have been eating out the past few days, and there has been no interesting wine to speak of. Tonight, however, I ignored my research in favor of a delicious dinner. We began with a chilled watercress soup, which had a creamy body but an immaculately delicate savor. It would have served better between rich courses than as an opening course. Our main course was olive oil poached sea bass with poached scallions and roasted asparagus. With the additional meat on the bones, I prepared a fried bass cake. We were rather pleased with the results of these new techniques.

Although Charlie had suggested a number of potential matches (including gruner veltliner and sauternes), I chose a lovely chenin blanc from the Loire valley. Baumard is one of the best Loire producers, and most of his wines are quite reasonably priced (this one retailed for $20). Stephanie and I enjoyed a bottle of their Clos du Papillon recently, and I had a glass of the magnificent Quartes de Charmes at Michael Mina in San Fransisco.

The entry level Savennieres was delightful, opening with a rich thrust of oak and musk melon. At five years old, the wine was beginning to show some age - it was a lovely gold color, and its characteristicly bracing acidity had mellowed in favor of mature earthly notes. Although unusual for this bottling, I detected a hint of botrytis.

When cold, this wine matched the sea bass rather well, but as it warmed, the rather dense body and hints of botrytis called out for richer cuisine. At a younger age, it would have been excellent, but if you find one from this vintage, live a litte, and try it with pork.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Backsberg Chardonnay South Africa 2002

Stephanie and I spent an enjoyable weekend entertaining her brother and sister-in-law. After a truly phenomenal lunch at Hot Doug's on Saturday, we came home for a dinner of grilled squid and grilled pork loin roast. On Sunday, we held a party in honor of the departure of my friend Kevin for D.C., and I prepared grilled chicken a la Mina - jerked, barbecued, and Italian herb - with Stephanie's homemade guac and an orzo pasta salad.

After this weekend of fine eating, Stephanie requested that we keep tonight's dinner on the lighter side. Accordingly, we began the meal on our patio, shuckers in hand, staring at half a dozen kumamoto oysters each. Although they weren't impeccably fresh, the kumis (as Stephanie calls them) would beat most other varieties straight from the sea. For a main course, I served wild sockeye salmon, grilled only on the skin side, leaving the top incredibly succulent and moist, with asparagus and rice. We chose the Backsberg chard to accompany it.

Stephanie and I have been fans of Backsberg's wines for a while now. The "Pumphouse" Shiraz and the inexpensive Sauvi Blanc are very nice wines. The chardonnay, however, was much less enjoyable. Its aroma opened with rich oak and vanilla, but these couldn't mask a distinct note that reminded me of taleggio cheese. Like the aroma, the body was rich, but the wine's body showed no sophistication or structure.

Throughout the nineties, wineries looking to make quality wines for budget-conscious consumers went to incredible feats to make their inexpensive wines taste like Mersault and Montrachet. Often this included the addition of inappropriate amounts of oak or oak chips. More recently, a number of wineries have realized that consumers are well pleased by inexpensive wines that allow the fruit flavors to show through without overwhelming oak and vanilla. The Aussies, and even some South African wineries have excelled at this. Backsberg, unfortunately, seems to have missed the boat. There's fine fruit in this wine, but it doesn't come through sufficiently to make it food-friendly. Oh well.