Poured with Pleasure

Bill Marsano’s blog on wine and spirits and cocktails: "If it’s good in a glass, I’m pouring it."

Month: June 2010

Glorious 4th, Fabled 14th

A festive month, July. It is the National Month of Baked Beans, Blueberries, Hot Dogs, Ice Cream and Picnics. Moreover, it embraces many an excellent National Day. Cow Appreciation Day, for example (I appreciate cow best when it’s plated), and official Days for Fried Chicken, Lasagna, French (and maybe even Freedom) Fries, Sugar Cookies, Cheesecake, Junk Food and—for take-out—Paper Bags.

Poured on the 4th of July

Still, when it comes to the big blasts, Thirsty Reader wants something special to drink, and the Fourth of July is a poser. I’d recommend some George Washington ‘red whiskey’—rye 

2010WhiskeyBottlemade to George’s own recipe at his own (reconstructed) still–but sad to say barely 500 half-bottles are available and you’d have to go to Mount Vernon to get one. There’s a chance or at least a hope that more will be made in coming years. Shame to leave a still unused, no?

What then, to drink? The cocktail king Dale DeGroff, seconding my notion that rum, an early American favorite, should be involved, sent me to Esquire magazine’s Dave Wondrich. A mixological sage, sachem and sagamore of  wit and style, Dave proposed a Colonial concoction in which French and American ingredients go together like Lafayette and the Continental Army: Fish House Punch.

It originates, Dave explained, in the oddly named Schuylkill Fishing Company of Pennsylvania, a.k.a. the State in Schuylkill. Founded in 1732 by some of Philadelphia’s biggest shots, it was the Colonies’ first angling club and, because it survives even today, is the nation’s oldest. The members built what has been variously called a house, clubhouse, courthouse and castle on the banks of the river Schuylkill, which Dave pronounces ‘Skookul.’ (Here we have disagreement, Dave and I, because I vote for ‘Skookle,’ having lived for my sins several years hard by its boathouse-littered banks.) Next (I may be a little loose with the chronology here), they created Fish House Punch. A cooling antidote to Philly’s brutal summers, it soon became popular and, saith Dave, ‘small wonder: This refresh-ing tipple is so tasty that you’ll want to put away about a quart of it, and so strong that after you do you’ll forget where your pants are–even if you happen to still be wearing them, which is by no means certain.’

Of the numerous recipes around, Dave kindly contributed this, which ‘has the best balance of authority and deliciousness.’

Fish House Punch

1-1/2 cups superfine sugar
2 quarts water
1 quart lemon juice
2 quarts dark rum
1 quart cognac
4 ounces peach brandy

‘In a large bowl,’ he counsels, ‘first dissolve the sugar in enough of the water to do the trick, then incorporate the lemon juice. Next, add the spirits and the rest of the water–or as much of it as you wish to contribute (less in summer, to allow for meltage). Slip in as large a block of ice as you can procure. (Use your imagination — if worse comes to worst, a mixing bowl full of water that’s been frozen overnight will do the trick; run a little hot water on the outside of the bowl to unmold.) Let the iced punch stand in a cool place for an hour or so before serving. Do not garnish the stuff with fruit, herb, vegetable, or paper umbrella.’

Finally, there’s the vexed question of what quality rum and cognac to use. Certainly you’ll do very well for rum with Cruzan Estate, although you might want to try Bacardi 8, Pusser’s Navy Dark (especially you Patrick O’Brian fans), Barbancourt 8 or Gosling’s Black Seal. Nor need anything but the economy stay your hand if Mount Gay Extra Old, Pyrat XO or Pampero Aniversario takes your fancy. In cognacs you can swing from the Big Four (Rémy Martin, Martell, Courvois-ier and Hennessy) to the obscure glories of Delamain, Dor, Kelt, Marcel Ragnaud, and Pierre Ferrand.

Of course, bunging the best into punches and cocktails will cost plenty without really making a big difference to the final pour, but if being free-handed makes you feel liberal and kingly, go right ahead. It’s your money as well as your style. Many top-shelf distillers would go bankrupt if all their customers did was sip like country parsons. Besides, using any five-star stuff in a punch gives the snob crowd apoplexy. Never a bad thing, actually, and sometimes fun.

As for Lafayette, he figured importantly (note the rare correct use of importantly) in 1781 in the Battle of Yorktown, helping to trap and besiege the British army there, which led to the surrender of Lord Cornwallis. In 1824 Lafayette embarked on a triumphant farewell tour of all 24 American states and was elected to membership in the Schuylkill Fishing Company of Pennsylvania in 1825. Thus do we come full circle. And now, mes amis, on to France.

Aux Armes, Citoyens!

Merde! So much cause for complaint in France aujourd’hui. The soccer team (humiliated and in disgrace), retirement age (now raised to 62) and the government’s annual Bastille Day bash (cancelled). Désolée, but a $1 million garden party would be gauche in this economy, which is so grim that a government minister was actually scolded for using $15,000 in public money to buy fancy cigars. Never mind. In the words of Toots Wheat, baguette queen of Paris and party girl of the Boul’Mich, ‘That calls for a drink!’

For Bastille Day, or any other, for that matter, I propose the cocktail of choice be the French 75, a classic that takes it name from a famous World War I artillery piece. That 75 was admired as a battleworthy piece (what civilians would call a cannon) by both French troops and the American doughboys who went ‘Over There.’ (The 75 refers to its bore diameter in millimeters; 75 mm or just under three inches).

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 A French 75 in war paint. Photo courtesy of the First Division (‘The Big Red 1’) Museum at Cantigny, Ill.

The French army of 1914 was both overdressed and undergunned. The poilus made a stirring sight in their blue tunics and red pantalons, but certainement they were also highly visible targets. Worse, they were saddled with the Chauchat, a contraption widely hailed as the worst machine gun ever built: Seemingly always en crise, it was as dangerous to friend as to foe. Not an asset in what turned out to be a machine-gun war. Far better was the French 75 field gun. It was powerful, durable and more or less immovable: an advanced recoil mechanism kept it from bouncing wildly about when fired. Thus it didn’t have to be laboriously re-aimed (‘re-laid’ is the term of art) each time, and so had the (then) amazing ability to fire both rapidly and accurately.

How it gave its name to a cocktail is murky; Speakeasy, a book of ‘classic cocktails re-imagined’ by the diligent folks at a Manhattan bar called Employees Only, says some folks believe the drink was created by Raoul Lufbery, a Franco-American World War I hero. Bit of a stretch, that: Lufbery had no truck with artillery. He was a fighter pilot with the legendary Lafayette Escadrille. He scored 17 kills flying Nieuport biplanes, challenging mounts that combined a fast rate of climb with balletic agility and a ‘disconcerting tendency to disintegrate in flight’. He kept a lion cub named Whiskey and allegedly stiffened his Champagne with gin. So. At the very least it’s a fine story, and cocktail scholars agree that the original drink did contain gin, brandy creeping in only later.

Making a French 75

Harry Craddock’s The Savoy Cocktail Book says to put two measures of gin, one of lemon juice (in 1930, the year of publication, it was unnecessary to specify fresh) and a spoonful of powdered sugar into a tall glass of cracked ice, then fill with champagne. His recipe carries the warning ‘hits with remarkable precision’.

British powdered sugar may be different from the American version, which is also called confectioners sugar and which doesn’t dissolve readily in cold drinks. Use superfine sugar (a.k.a. ultrafine or bar sugar) instead.

If you’re going the modern way, perhaps you’ll substitute the gin (Tanqueray, Citadelle, Bombay, or—to salute Lufbery—Portland’s Aviation) with cognac. Probably not brandy unless it’s something special, like Ukiah’s Germain-Robin.

Craddock’s 75 won’t, I suspect, be so bracingly cold as Americans would like. Brits seem to prefer luke-ish cocktails (maybe because they hate their filthy cold climate), and they apparently teach the shunning of ice as a professional skill and a moral obligation. Last month in Pamplona, at the Locavore Cafe, I sought ice from Garçon McCullers, the literate and literary waitron. Apparently she’d apprenticed in Old Blighty because on bringing forth the ice bucket she excavated with meticulous care one ice cube and tonged it delicately into my drink. (Mission accomplished!) Anyway, your 75 will require more ice—but not too much. Let your shaker be but half full or a little more—crowding a drink slows cooling—and then shake mercilessly. One bartender I know says ‘Stop when your hands hurt from the cold.’

There’s elbow room here for the creative mixer. Some recipes nix the old 2-1 gin-juice ratio in favor of 50-50, others say 4 gins to 1 juice As for the bubbly, the quantity depends on the glass used, the capacious Collins or the skinny flute. It’s up to you. (Colin Field, ruler of the Paris Ritz’s Hemingway Bar, will allow an ice-filled tumbler as an alternative.).

Of garnishes, Saint Harry says naught, so do as you will if you will. Lemon peels, orange wheels and twists, lemon wedges, cherries—all sorts of things turn up in all sorts of recipes. I’d leave well enough alone, frankly. Do you want to drink or do you want to eat?

So there you are. Aux armes, citoyens! Or in this case, aux coudes (elbows).

Wine Is a Woman, They Say

‘Literature,’ Ezra Pound said, “is news that stays news.” It looks as if the Gulf Spill will stay news for quite some time, so here’s a headline that’s good news:

BOTTLED BOMBSHELL RELEASED TO FRANTIC FANS

Which is only to say that on June 1st, her birthday, the 24th vintage of Marilyn Merlot was released ($29, online) to an audience of adoring fans, hopeful speculators (various vintages are offered on eBay at $15 to $482) and possibly even a few people who’ll drink it. (I’m not hinting that there’s anything wrong with it: The wine almost invariably gets enthusiastic reviews, but it is a star on eBay.)

Marilyn Merlot 08 label

The 2008 Marilyn Merlot label. The image is from a shot issued to ballyhoo the 1950 movie The Asphalt Jungle.

The wines (including Marilyn Cab, Savignon Blonde and others) came about in 1983 when longtime Napa Valley residents Bob and Donna Holder were dining with friends and drinking local Merlot. Here’s the place to put in yada-yada-yada, because next thing you know the idea was broached and events put in train, and by 1985 it was on the market. Good for Bob and Donna, who own Marilyn Wines and actually pay royalties to Monroe’s estate, and who were the first or among the first to put a nifty pun on a wine label. Many have tried for label humor since then. Pity.

A pun is supposed to catch you off guard. It should be flying right by before your brain clicks and wakes up just in time to see its tail lights disappear. Look again: Marilyn Merlot. There’s only one change to the original. The intonation is the same, as is the terminal sound. It’s gone before you know it. Now consider Goats Do Roam. Nice wine, failed name, lousy gag. For one thing, too many changes. For another, you might say ‘Goats roam . . . ’ but surely not ‘Goats do roam . . . ,’ and there’s little hope of making wit from fabricated phrases. As for

Cat’s Pee on a Gooseberry Bush, I’ll say only that anyone who says that what Sauvignon smells like should put his face in a litter box to get closer to reality and farther from strained wit.

I admit to being merely a qualified fan of Marilyn Merlot because as it happens I’ve never tasted it. I admire from afar, as it were. Marilyn is an icon from an age when the word was rarely used. Now it’s used all the time for anybody at all, and it is meaningless to most people. To me it means either someone I’ve never heard of (the intent is to make me think I should have) or someone I’ve heard far too much and wish would go away. For support I turned to The New York Times website and asked a list of stories in which icon had appeared. The site came back with more than ten thousand. From the past 30 days.

I looked at a few of them and concluded that most of the people cited as icons don’t have what Broadway people call legs. No, not the rapper Big Daddy Kane. Not Bobby Plump, despite his Frisbee-sized pork-tenderloin sandwiches; nor even failed NFL quarterback Art Schlichter, even though he was the ‘center of a recruiting competition between Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler.’

No, Marilyn Monroe is an icon who’s stayed an icon. Wine or no wine, she still means something to a large audience, some of whom hadn’t been born before her death in 1962. If Chad Ochocinco, the showboat pass-receiver of the Cincinnati Bengals, thinks he can match that, he’s welcome to try.

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Chianti, Ma Non Classico

Also riding the value train these days is Chianti, trailing confusion for more than a few consumers. (It’s Italian, remember?)

With Chianti and Chianti Classico, confusion follows as the night the day. Chianti’s very name seems like shorthand, as Cab and Cabernet are for Cabernet Sauvignon. Moreover, Chianti Classico rules the shelves while the other is seldom seen. Both are DOCG, entitled to wear the distinguishing pink necklace [shown below], which doesn’t help a bit (and some prefer to go naked, adding to the confusion), and some producers make both wines. zzantinoripeppoli
The names of their ruling bodies–Consorzio Vino Chianti and Consorzio del Vino Chianti Classico—are too close for comfort, and while the former has been on the shy and retiring side, not so the latter. Indeed, when people marvel at Tuscany’s genius for self-promotion, it’s often the Consorzio del Vino Chianti Classico that they’re goggling at. And so it is that–what with this and what with that, as Beatrice Lillie used to say–some consumers can’t tell them apart and others may be inclined to doubt or even deny the existence of a Chianti that is other than and separate from the Classico.

Commence we now to sort things out and set things straight, Thirsty Reader, to ‘prune th’encircling vines,’ as it were, because some people are missing a good wet bet.

Chianti Classico is grown and produced within the zone of that name (I hope you weren’t expecting me to say eponymous), which sprawls over 173,000 acres between Florence and Siena. Just over a tenth of this is, as we like to say, ‘under vine.’ The zone has widely varying soils, elevations ranging from 660 to 2600 feet, and a large corps of producers that includes innovators, purists and traditionalists. Their wine can be 100% Sangiovese but must be at least 80%, the remainder to be local grapes (Ciliegiolo, Canaiolo and Colorino) or international varieties (Cabernet & Co.). 

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Chianti Classico lies between Florence and Siena

Trebbiano and Malvasia had been added for centuries because white grapes helped make the wine palatable by spring, which is when the peasants who made it intended to drink it. They did not ‘lay bottles down,’ Thirsty Reader. They emptied them. But gradually over decades the fou-fou types and connoisseurs and intellectualizing types had their say and got their way, declaring that wine had to be ‘great’ and that ‘great’ wine had to be ‘age-worthy’ and ‘capable of marked longevity’ and the like. And so the whites were steadily reduced from their traditional portion (up to 30%) to risible levels, then finally banned. Since the 2006 harvest, all have been declared uva non grata.

Classico producers include some notable names–Castello di Volpaia, Poggerino, Panzanello, Coltibuono, Ruffino, San Fabiano Calcinaia, Isole e Olena, Nittardi, Vignamaggio and Ricasoli among them—and their individual prominence has boosted the general. And the Consorzio has done more than organize promotions. One of its most important efforts was the Chianti 2000 initiative, whose aim was nothing less than identifying the best clones of the Sangiovese grape.

Still, the biggest reason for Classico’s dominance admits of neither argument nor excuse: Classico’s percentage of top-quality wine is higher, year in and year out. It DOCG discipline requires, among other aides to quality, requiring slightly more Sangiovese in the mix, and denser planting and significantly lower yields in the vineyards.

‘But on the other hand, not so fast,’ says my neighbor Bella Lugosi, a toothsome Italo-Romanian vamp and struggling bit-part actress. What she means to say is that Chianti—the plain sister, if you will—has had a bum deal for quite some time and a bum rap for even longer. Result: in the end or, as J.K. Stephen put it, when the Rudyards cease from kipling and the Haggards ride no more, Chianti is unknown to too many American wine-lovers.

Chianti became beloved in the U.S. after World War II. GI’s who’d had the real thing (in Tuscany) brought back fond memories (the unlucky ones felled by Dago Red and Sneaky Pete in Naples and Sicily, did not). In the 1950s the Sunny Italy Era of tourism began (and most Americans went by boat. Imagine that.) College boys discovered it too. Back in the day a quaint and appealing straw-covered fiasco cost about $1.49 a bottle, maybe $3 at a red-sauce restaurant.

Then came imitators and adulterators. The former were anybody and everybody, even Australians; the latter, Italians greedy or desperate or both using any grapes from anywhere, Sicily included. ‘I always though of that stuff as DayGlo Red,’ says my neighborhood pest and freeloader Louie DiNuovo. ‘It would light you up something awful.’

Classico’s consorzio, then known as Gallo Nero, got busy and did an excellent job of spreading the gospel that a Black Rooster on the label meant good wine in the bottle. Chianti’s own association then tried to popularize its wine, branded Putto (a cherubic son of Bacchus), but with less success. Customers heard and heeded only the first shout, and that was Classico’s. Moreover, most accepted that as final and immutable, and never mind that over the decades since Chianti has improved steadily. Any that is exported is almost certain to be very good—and some is excellent, on a par with Classico. To dismiss it wholesale is, literally, a costly mistake. More than that, it’s self-denial without reward, like fasting in honor of Zeus or Apollo.

The Consorzio held a tasting of Chiantis recently in Manhattan’s Michelangelo Hotel. The speaker at or leader of the tasting was Daniele Cernilli of Gambero Rosso, the Italian wine/dine magazine: one of the 50 most-influential men in winedom. He noted that over-priced, over-oaked wines were declining in Italy, with more producers returning to simpler, drinkable wines that reflect terroir and belong on the table. Such words get under my skin a bit, because I’ve heard self-important folks using ‘food wine’ dismissively—meaning palatable but hardly worthy of attention. That’s not Daniele’s attitude: He knows as well as anyone that wine belongs with food. It is the table’s civilizing grace. Yes, there are times that call for curling up alone in the wing chair to think dark and brooding thoughts over a dark and brooding wine—the kind Italians call a vino di meditazione—but I’m pretty sure that they aren’t sufficient to sustain life.

Well, enough of that.

Chianti often costs a lot less than its upscale brother. Some of those tasted were at/below $10 a bottle (one only $7); those that were more were not much more. (Oh, OK, one hit $20.) Perfect for these times. Overall, Chianti represents more than value for money. It very often gives more than you pay for or expect.

Here’s how to identify them, subject, from time to time, to the Italian Exception (i.e., there are rules, and there are rules).

There are seven Chiantis, six geographic and one trans-geographic, all based on the same rule for grape varieties and percentages thereof: a minimum of 70% Sangiovese, up to 10% Canaiolo Nero, up to 20% other authorized red varieties (indigenous or international) and up to 10% white Trebbiano Toscano and/or Malvasia del Chianti.

The wine’s regions or subzones cluster more or less around Florence and its Colli Fiorentini. My favorite, east of Florence, is Rùfina, source of Villa di Vetrice, Selvapiana and Frescobaldi’s Nippozzano. Continuing clockwise: southeast is Colli Aretini; due south is Colli Senesi; Montespertoli is southwest; Colline Pisane, far west; and finally Montalbano (northwest, around Prato and Pistoia). Producers are entitled to name the zones on their labels, but many don’t, just as some ignore the DOCG necklace. Rùfina producers almost always label the zone, as do many in Colli Senesi. Roberto Giulio Droandi of Mannucci Droandi told me that he is particularly proud of his zone’s heritage and terroir, and so his labels were the first to be labeled ‘Chianti Colli Aretini.’ Too few others, there or elsewhere, have followed his lead; thus there are unspecified zone Chiantis mixed in with the transgeographic Chiantis, which are made from grapes grown in any two or more zones.

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Chianti’s many subzones: Colli Aretini: pale green; Colline Pisane: light blue; Colli Fiorentini: orange; Rùfina: blue; Colli Senesi: apricot; Montalbano: gray; Montespertoli: lavender; Classico, like a good steak, is pink in the middle.

The wines tasted were San Fabiano; Melini San Lorenzo; Piccini; Ruffino; Poggio Bonelli Villa Chigi; Guicciardini; and I Veroni (all 2008); Giannozzi; Guerrini 2007 Forteguerra and Frescobaldi Nipozzano Riserva (all 2007); and the 2006 La Cignozza. Any one of them will make you happy. Any two will make you happier. But why settle? For my part, I hold with the Wisdom of Pikachu. A teacher and guide whose spirituality is so refined he makes Yoda seem sleazy as a BP spillmeister, Pikachu always counsels ‘Gotta catch them all!’

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Rioja Right Now

A lot can happen in 20 years. Rip Van Winkle awoke still loyal to King George III because he’d dozed through the American Revolution. Consumers lately have been awaking to Spain’s revolution: 20 years ago a few had heard of the two marqués—old standby Marqués de Riscal and newborn innovator Marqués de Cáceres, and few other names. Even the stalwart Yago Sant’Gria, once the favorite of the college crowd, had been elbowed aside by Riunite Lambrusco. Things are different now. As a late-bloomer in modern wine-making, Spain has benefitted from the (expensive and sometimes harrowing) pioneering of others, and these days she makes a much bigger splash than formerly.POST-12

Laguardia: a well-planted outpost of La Rioja.

Fortuitously, that’s partly because of the current economy. Late-bloomers may benefit from the pioneers’ R&D, but risk losing in the market, where they often find the shelves occupied by smug pioneers preening themselves on their foresight. Not this time. Value sells in the best of times, and in the current economy almost everyone’s looking hard at the price-quality equation. And, says Rioja ambassadress Ana Fabiano, “they’re impressed by Rioja’s value proposition.” Which is considerable. Nearly 300 bottlings were presented at a recent tasting in Manhattan’s Puck Building, and although there was an adequate supply $50, $75 and $100+ bottles for those who have more money than Warren Buffett put together, more than a third of the total will retail at about $12, often less.

My venerable colleague Don Cojones, a latter-day Spanish knight and tilter at wind turbines, says that’s expected with Viña Herminia’s or Valdeguinea’s 2008, or Primicia’s 2009 (all 100% Tempranillo)—they’re in the joven category, made-this-year-sold the next. Still, there were others comfortably in the same price range that had some bottle-age behind them: from Diez-Caballero, Clisos, Banda, Torres, Bordón, Ramón Bilbao, Faustino, Beronia, Solar de Randez, Noemus, Antaño, Solnia, Añares, Navajas, Promesa, Lacuesta, Age Siglo and others. The same obtained for whites, mostly made from the Viura grape (a.k.a. Macabeo), and some rosados, too. In short, we paupers do not suffer.

Not to say they stop there. most of the Rioja producers above go on and up from “value wines” to fancier and pricier stuff, in the same realm as Roda, Eguren, Paganos la Nieta, Vivanco, et al.

Riojas traditionally and tyypically have been about 70% Tempranillo with the remainder Garnacha, Graciano and Mazuelo, but there’s been a move to 100% Tempranillo. At this event 100-percenters outnumbered the blends 137 to 92, and more than a third of the blends were 90% Tempranillo or more. This is reminiscent of Chianti Classico producers who in recent years have steadily reduced the percentage of blending grapes, native or international, in order to concentrate on their native star, Sangiovese. Indeed,one of the blends—a 2004 Castillo de Sajazarra Reserva took its Tempranillo to 98%, with the risible remainder being Graciano.

Jake Zeitlin, a rare-book dealer from the last century, used to advertise “Castles in Spain Free with Every Purchase.” My neighbor Doble de Luce, a failed actor and brother of Traje de Luce, a multiply gored bullfighter, says Spanish wine producers ought beg, borrow or steal that slogan.

In La Rioja as in Napa, Winery Architecture with a Capital A

Ysios winery in Rioja Alavesa 2

Santiago Calatrava for  Bodegas Ysios, in Laguardia

 Vina Tondonia

Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid for López de Heredia

Marques de Riscal

Marqués de Riscal ‘s dramatic new winery in Elciego looks like the wrapping the Bilbao Guggenheim came in. Both were designed by Frank Gehry.