Archive for April, 2009


The Christopher Columbus Challenge



 I offer a challenge for wine drinkers. Become a Christopher Columbus ready to explore the vast selection of New and Old World wines, especially if you have a tendency to stick to favorite standbys rather than seeking other options. Choosing the same old, same old isn’t much different than eating the same meal all the time.  Unadventurous people, too tentative and anxious to break out of old habits, haven’t caught on to the idea that fine wines come in different price ranges and increasingly good quality from around the world.

Like Christopher Columbus, who bravely sailed forth in search of adventure, the  challenge requires seeking out new wines. A new wine has potential to become an old friend, and when the new favorite becomes an old standby, it’s time to set sail to a new experience. Think of every new wine as a blind date: Some will work and others will fall by the wayside, but the adventure opens up vast oceans of deliciousness.

Bravely head towards a spectrum of varietals and wine regions at different price levels. From the white arena, instead of Pinot Grigio or Chardonnay, experiment with Sauvignon Blanc, a palate pleasing, sprightly, fruit-driven wine from the Marlborough region of New Zealand, South Africa, or California.  Be undaunted by Rieslings, with their vast array of flavors from dry to very sweet, Consumers often turn their collective noses up at the idea of German wines, but after they’ve run through the spectrum of these Malbec from Argentina or well-crafted Riojas from Spain are new reds on the horizon, partnering beautifully with beef, lamb, and stews. Pinot Noir from Burgundy or the Russian River in California is sure to tickle a wine lover’s tongue as a perfect lighter red. often-splendid white wines, they have moved to the top of their wine-shop lists.

Take brash steps, experimenting with one varietal from different producers and regions, like Chile, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia. Any single wine will gather together a fleet of cousins, some resembling each other closely, while others have less distinct qualities. Save labels or keep a wine diary with notes about color, aroma, taste, finish, and a personal evaluation to remember what you liked or didn’t care for.  After circumnavigating the wine world, it would be a surprise if you returned to the homeport of your old favorite.



Check out half bottles

If half a loaf is better than none, it’s equally true for half bottles of wine. There is suddenly a lot of buzz from consumers and the press about 325ml versions of 750 ml bottles. While it has always been acceptable to purchase splits of Champagne and half bottles of dessert wine, similar packaging for reds and whites has met with more resistance. There is a slow, but growing turn-around from a scoffed-at attitude about the wine world’s welter-weight contenders. Welter-weight only in size, because the little guys pack the same taste tasty punch as heavy-weights. Once rejected by the market as too puny to be taken seriously, these diminutive halves of the standard 750ml bottles solve a common problem for one or two couples with varying wine preferences. They’re also a great choice for an individual at home or out to dinner.
Upscale wineries produce more half bottles to accommodate adventuresome consumers willing to go beyond allegiance to the standard 750ml bottle. Petite versions with familiar, favorite labels have the same genes and personality. Yet they offer an opportunity to explore a range of wines to pair with a first course, entrée, and dessert.
A solo bottle is equal to dancing to one song, or being restricted to a single Ben and Jerry’s flavor. It’s possible to choose three half bottles that cost no more than a single aperitif and a 750ml bottle. When it comes to pre-dinner cocktail, at ten to fifteen dollars for a martini or a cosmopolitan, a half bottle with approximately three to four modest, satisfying pours is easier on the wallet. It also has an additional benefit of less alcohol. Instead wrestling with the idea of one to two full bottles of wine, resist conventional drinking patterns and experiment with four to six halves of different varietals at a sitting. And it won’t be necessary to worry how to preserve the contents of an unfinished bottle.


Chocolate and Wine: a Decadent Experience

Chocoholics, those sweet-toothed confection addicts, are often pressed to find a match for their favorite indulgence, especially since the flavors of chocolate have become increasingly more complex recently. Artisanal chocolates are marked by their freshness, high-quality ingredients and attention to detail so different from ho-hum commercial chocolates. These individually crafted products surprise consumers with their sensual, hand-crafted, preservative-free flavors. Hand-made chocolates cast in imaginative shapes and decorated artistically seduce the eye as well as the tongue. Artisanal chocolatiers choose dark cacao beans from various geographic regions around the world, each with its own special flavor profile. Then luscious fruit and crunchy nut fillings take our taste buds to another level. Fine chocolates have consistent color and a satiny sheen, both of which are destroyed if refrigerated or kept longer than a month. Dark chocolate is nudging milk chocolate out of first place, making it the current flavor choice of consumers who look for a high butterfat content ranging between 61 to 72 percent and, happily, a lower caloric content since it contains less sugar and milk.
Chocolatier Joan Coukos, the innovative creator of Chocolat Moderne in New York City says, “Chocoholics are aware of cocoa’s biochemical reaction that releases endorphins. The sense of bliss it imparts is infinitely easier and more delicious than getting the same result at a gym.” Coukos reinforces the idea that chocolate-making is an art form. “I use hand-painted designs and imagery, like the Ingres nude that tops one chocolate in our luxury box.” That particular piece adds a sexy note to a day of love.
Pastry chef and chocolatier Norman Love was chosen over hundreds of competitors to create a special ultra-luxury line called “G” for the highly acclaimed Godiva company, whose gold boxes have come to represent luxe in the world of chocolates. Love says, “Godiva wanted to raise the bar by presenting visually appealing chocolates with singular, identifiable ingredients made with the finest raw products. Customers say the G line has a wow factor, too beautiful at first glance to eat.” The G line, like those of Chocolat Moderne, is hand-cast, painted and filled.
To double the pleasure, pair  chocolate with a special wine. Some opine a glass of milk is the best complement to chocolate confections, but more adventuresome spirits will spring for a bottle of champagne, sparkling or still wine that satisfies both his and her palates. There are many heaven-sent partners guaranteed to transform an ordinary experience into an indulgent happening.
Explore the adventuresome possibilities of serving chocolate with sparking wine and champagne, still or rare dessert wine, brandy, liqueur, Prosecco, port, sherry, and whisky. Saint-Hilaire’s sparkling wine from France’s Limoux region is a fantastic buy at around $8. Try a Rosé bubbly: Napa Valley’s Domaine Chandon Blanc de Noirs sparkling wine at $13 or Perrier Jouët non-vintage Rosé from France for $38. The Italians enter the picture with full-flavored, intense reds—Banfi Rosa Regale 2002 Brachetto D’Aqui at $19.99, or a Mionetto Prosecco at $9. Try aristocratic $32 Bolla Amarone della Valpolicella for lush, port-like richness. Warre’s Otima, a light tawny Port, for $17.99, served slightly chilled is an excellent companion to chocolate. Graham’s Ports, ranging in price from $16.99 to $150, fit the bill with their excellent finesse and character. Norman Love votes for Sandeman Founder’s Reserve port at $14.99 as a luxurious combination with dark chocolate, but he considers Eiswein’s as its truest mate, especially the superb Iniskillin, a Riesling with great aroma and attractive palate. Mouzouras agrees Iniskillin is the absolute premium in its category at $72 for 375 ml, but he suggests a less expensive alternative—Bonny Doone Vin de Glacier, under $20.


The Chef and the Sommelier

Perhaps the most important relationship in a restaurant is the one between chef and sommelier who each preside over two separate, jealously guarded domains. Today’s increasingly complex menu preparations require an avid partnership between the master of the kitchen and the keeper of the wine cellar. The first order of business for the latter is to develop a sympathetic understanding of the chef’s culinary creations. Unfortunately, it is rare to find professionals in kitchen and dining room who overcome their territorial turfs and often-oversized egos. The sommelier theoretically should play a supporting role to the chef, becoming intimately involved with the philosophy and tastes of what comes through the kitchen’s swinging doors. Yet the best interests of customers are served when the two work in harmony to determine the best match between wine and food.
What assistance should restaurant patrons expect from sommeliers without assuming every customer is a wine neophyte? Suggestions for a satisfactory wine and food pairing. Help deciphering a wine list loaded with unfamiliar labels and varietals from wine regions around the world. (Ah, for the simpler days of red- sauced Italian food and Chianti poured from straw-covered bottles.)
A partnership like this is rare, but when it happens, the dining experience becomes immensely enjoyable. The exemplary partnership between thirty-year old Chef Chris Kostow , a two star Michelin chef, recently and Sommelier Rom Toulon, a young transplanted Frenchman, at the Meadowood Resort in Napa Valley is the best example of this pas de deux. Chef Kostow masterfully blends contemporary French cuisine with Napa Valley’s farm-to-table tradition, constantly evolving seriously elegant culinary creations. Toulon stays in constant touch with Kostow’s inventive dishes, tasting between nine and twelve wines for each dish while asking his knowledgeable and well-trained wait staff for their opinions before he hands down a final verdict on the right pairing for the chef’s four or nine course presentations. Yet Toulon solicitously leaves room for savvy diners to express their personal tastes and choose from an extensive wine list. This remarkable partnership should be emulated in every fine dining establishment across the nation.


Is Excellent Inexpensive Wine an Oxymoron?

In these frantic times of economic downturn, it might seem wise to cut all but necessities from the budget. The question is whether wine is a necessity. Wine, in moderation, especially in tough times, adds a bit of sparkle and relaxation to the everyday bad news that bombards us through the media. And let’s not forget its heart-health benefits. Wine snobs might debate the possibility to unearthing excellent wines at reasonable prices. However, it’s been my contention for years that price isn’t always an indication of excellence. Some wine consumers shell out extraordinary prices for wine thinking if it costs a lot, it must be better. A better rule of thumb is moderation when shelling out bucks.

Which is not to say to buy the very bottom of the barrel, (pardon the pun). The very lowest end of the price scale can’t compare to wines crafted with care by vintners who charge prices based on the realities of cost of production: labor, vineyard management, selection of grapes, price of barrels, and length of time wine is stored before it’s released. But too often it is the ego of the winemaker and expectations of return on the dollar that determines the cost of a bottle. The American public is swayed by hype into accepting price as the final arbiter of quality by focusing on panache.

Bravely try new varietals from regions around the world producing good wine at reasonable prices. Shiraz/Syrah is a rising star of the wine world, and some of the best are coming from Australia, like Rosemount Diamond Label at $12. A host of producers from California and New Zealand produce my favorite white varietal. Sauvignon Blancs from Napa’s St. Supery at $17, Kim Crawford at $15.99, or Brancott at $10.99 are in my estimation, over-the-top excellent choices. A Trinchero Gewurztraminer is delicious and unbelievably priced below $15. Chardonnays like Columbia Crest at $11 or Cousino-Macul at $9 suit the palate of the lovers of that varietal. Pinot Noir fanciers should look for California’s Meridian Vineyards Central Coast at $11. And there are zillion choices for just a few dollars more. Don’t knock wine off the list of necessities. In these times of belt tightening, there are good prices around town for the cost-conscious quaffers, especially if he or she gives up the touted scores posted in wine magazines and on store shelves. Be adventuresome, be frugal, be careful, but for goodness sake, don’t give up wine!