Budget Wine: Drytown Cellars Red on Red NV Amador County

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drytown cellarsChocoholics will like this. A seam of chocolaty essence wanders through the nose and palate melding nicely with blueberry and spice, though with a whiff of alcohol that is occasionally distracting. Medium body and lively in the mouth with good balance, a burst of mid-palate acidity makes this a versatile food wine. The tannins are dry but soft, yielding a medium length finish with more lingering chocolate notes.

This is what a budget wine should be—pleasant, comforting, nothing too loud or complicated but assertive with plenty of life. Highly recommended as a daily drinker. The winery website says nothing about the varietals that make up the blend. I strongly suspect it is Zinfandel with some Cabernet Sauvignon to add length to the finish.

 

Score: 87

Price: $10

Alc 14.5%

Tremendomeatatarianism and Climate Change

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unicorn meat

Photo by Brad Smith

According to a new report put together by the British think tank Chatham House, our chances of limiting climate change depend on limiting our consumption of meat. But fears of a backlash against trying to change people’s eating habits prevents environmentalists from making the case.

The global livestock industry produces more greenhouse gas emissions than all cars, planes, trains and ships combined, but a worldwide survey by Ipsos MORI in the report finds twice as many people think transport is the bigger contributor to global warming.

“Preventing catastrophic warming is dependent on tackling meat and dairy consumption, but the world is doing very little,” said Rob Bailey, the report’s lead author. “A lot is being done on deforestation and transport, but there is a huge gap on the livestock sector. There is a deep reluctance to engage because of the received wisdom that it is not the place of governments or civil society to intrude into people’s lives and tell them what to eat.”

Indeed it is enormously difficult to get people to radically change their eating habits. The solution is to encourage small changes to our diet, the cumulative effect of which would significantly reduce the carbon footprint of meat production.

My personal approach is to adopt “tremendomeatatarianism”, a term that I believe first appeared in this comic strip. I eat meat only when I think it will be really good—when I want to make a special recipe or I’m eating at a restaurant that I expect will do an excellent job.

When you think about it, much of the meat we eat is just ordinary—a fast food burger, a diner steak, a humdrum cut from the supermarket, indifferently prepared for convenient, quick consumption. There is nothing special about preserving and perpetuating that experience, even if you really like meat. Surely it is not a sacrifice to give up such an undistinguished experience. And it opens up a whole new world of wonderful vegetables to eat.

Turning toward quality and getting rid of the run-of-the-mill in our lives can make a big difference, personally and globally.

And I would really be down with Unicorn Meat. Do you know anyone who sells it? I’m in San Francisco at the moment. I understand you can get anything you want here.

The Cost of Deliciousness

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aged wineIn comparison to wines of the 20th Century, the contemporary style of winemaking, especially for high-end wines, tends toward riper fruit, lower acidity, higher alcohol and riper tannins. Why this change in style? In part, it was forced by the emergence of warm climate, new world wine regions influencing the expectations of wine lovers. But the deeper reason is that these big, bold, fruit forward wines are more accessible, especially to novice wine drinkers. They are flamboyant, more powerful, sweeter, showing their charms without reserve and are ready to drink upon release unlike the older style that required years of cellaring. In short, these wines have what might be called “deliciousness”. It should not go unmentioned that the most influential wine critics, such as Robert Parker, love this style and give these wines high scores thus encouraging the wine drinking public to jump on the bandwagon.

But one central element of a wine score, at least among the major critics who move the market, is the critic’s assessment of how the wines will age. Although this modern style does not require cellaring, connoisseurs adore the characteristics of aged wines and thus fine wine must be capable of improving with age, and for investors who hold wines to be sold when they are at their peak (and the supply has dwindled thus raising their price), the capacity of a wine to age is crucial. “Deliciousness” is all well and good but not at the expense of velvet textures and aromas of old books.So this recent article by Jane Anson in the wine magazine Decanter is causing some heartburn. There is evidence that the premature oxidation that afflicted some white wines from Burgundy in the 1990 vintages will also affect red wines made in this modern style:

‘I believe there is a similar scandal with red wine, and that in 10 years’ time it will be just as explosive as the one affecting white Burgundy has been. And it’s not limited to one region; all red wines that are expected to be aged for long periods of time – so Barolo, Napa, Bordeaux, the Rhône, Burgundy and others – are in danger of ignoring this threat.’

The evidence cited includes recent tastings of the 2003 vintage in Bordeaux which appear to age prematurely:

Even among the biggest names there were bottles that were showing tired fruit, flabby structure and were generally past their prime; all signs of oxidative destruction that is not expected at such an early stage in the life cycle of fine red wine.

The theory explaining why modern wines might oxidize prematurely seems sound. Excessively ripe fruit lowers the acidity of the grapes and may lack some of the compounds that protect the fruit from oxidation. And all those soft tannins that make wines drinkable when young are achieved through infusing the wine with small quantities of oxygen that does in the winery what used to take years in the bottle. It makes intuitive sense that introducing excessive oxygen in the winery will cause wines to prematurely oxidize.

Of course our intuitions about such matters are often wrong, but if the hypothesis is true, the consequences are profound. All those fantastic vintages in Bordeaux and Napa from the past decade may turn out to be worthless plonk in 10 years. Modern winemaking practices will be called into question and some very important critics will have enough egg on their faces to feed omelets to the homeless for decades.

Skeptics point to the fact that 2003 in Bordeaux was an unusual year with excessive heat spikes and thus not a proper test of how the better vintages will age.  And the article quotes many winemakers who argue that the problem of premature oxidation can be handled by careful winemaking. Only time will tell as the best vintages mature and people begin to drink them.

Why should you care about this? Although in our time-compressed world, the beauties of aging are often overlooked, there really is nothing that quite compares to a well-aged wine. Although some foods and beverages improve over the short run, there really is no other substance that develops such nuance and complexity over decades. It would be a shame that we trade this uniquely transcendent experience for more flamboyance and accessibility. Don’t we have enough of that already?

Wine Review: Bryn Mawr Rosé of Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2013

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bryn mawrIt’s December. Half the country is in a deep freeze. Why am I writing about Rosé, a style of wine associated with summer days at the beach? Because we drink white wines throughout the year when we want something light and refreshing—why not a good Rosé? In fact, the essential difference between white wine and Rosé is that the Rosé has some skin contact to provide the pink color while most white wine juice is separated from the skins before extracting color. (Most wine grapes have white flesh; it is maceration on the skins that give red wines their color)

In theory, Rosé can be just as interesting as white wines. The problem is that most Rosés (including so-called pink or blush wines) especially in the U.S. are made as mass-produced, bulk wines with lots of residual sugar. They tend to be boring and innocuous, more like soda than wine. In the not-too- distant past you would have to look to the south of France to find good Rosé. But this is changing as some U.S producers are taking this style more seriously. Bryn Mawr, a producer of excellent Pinot Noir, is one example of a producer who sets aside some of their grapes each year to make a fine Rosé.

I look for Rosé that is crisp and bone dry but with a little weight on the palate and sufficiently intense fruit aromas to give it depth and interest . This one fits that description.

Enticing notes of pear, rose petal and raspberry aromas are joined by hints of orange peel on the flavorful palate all wrapped in vibrant acidity with a lengthy, mineral finish. Aged on the lees for 5 months, this Rosé has surprising flesh and dimension.

Most Rosés, even the serious ones, are made as a by-product of making red wine. In the process of making the a full-bodied red, some juice is bled off the skins after a short maceration to make the remaining wine more concentrated, and that “bled” juice is used to make Rosé. It is a way to use juice that would otherwise be discarded. By contrast, Bryn Mawr makes “intentional” Rosé. The grapes are harvested specifically to make Rosé, meaning they are harvested at a lower brix level to preserve acidity. Using a combination of de-stemmed and whole-cluster berries, the grapes are directly pressed to produce the wine and the juice is then fermented in neutral oak barrels, and as noted rests on the lees (dead yeast cells) for 5 months.

This level of care is apparent. The Bryn Mawr is as good as Rosé gets.

 

Score: 90

Price: $20

Alc: 12.9

Why Cook on Thanksgiving?

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thanksgiving in the kitchen

Photo by Brian Auer

Historian Tom Albala asks a good question: With all the challenges and time compression of modern life, the decline of the home cooked meal and loss of kitchen skills, the diversity of diets and food restrictions, and the fraught relationships around the table, why do we still cook Thanksgiving dinner? Why not allow the corporations to do it for us? (h/t Elatia Harris)

Good questions but his answer is questionable:

We seek social standing or, more bluntly, applause. Cooking, like everything in life, is a form of performance. We all want to be rock stars…

When we succeed as cooks, we reap praise from family and friends. Even Facebook addicts get a rush from “likes” when they post a photogenic pumpkin pie, even though none of their Facebook friends actually tastes the food. Cooking and sharing food are inseparable. Our labor in the kitchen culminates not in profit but in praise. That’s the only reason we do anything, and it makes sweating in the kitchen worth it — the more so when kith and kin have traveled over the meadow and through the woods to gather around a holiday table.

I hear this view expressed all the time by my students —that all human motives are thoroughly selfish. A little thought would show it is obviously false. Human beings do all kinds of things that don’t bring us pleasure, from rescuing people in danger to caring for sick family members to taking on challenging work for little pay. Often these are thankless tasks for which we receive little recognition. The idea that all sacrifice has some hidden pleasurable motive is utterly implausible. Of course,  pleasure and related motives like the need for admiration are powerful as well, but they are not our only motives—we are more complicated beings than that.

What human beings do seek is meaning in their activity whether it produces pleasure or not. We want our actions to matter. And so we cook at Thanksgiving because it matters to others that we do so. Even if the meal is humble and ordinary, unworthy of rock star status, the giving of hospitality is still appreciated. It isn’t admiration that is received but thanks,appreciation, an acknowledgement that the cook or cooks devoted time and attention to sharing the pleasures of eating and celebrating the joys of life.

Of course, it is lovely when we are praised or admired. But the aim of Thanksgiving cooks is to make the celebration happen, to succeed in providing the care that was promised in the offering of the meal. A meal offered only as a means of “showing off” is unlikely to be appreciated as such.

On a side note, Albala attributes his view that pleasure is our only motive to the Ancient philosopher Epicurus. But I doubt that Epicurus would so heartily endorse cooking a Thanksgiving meal as a means to pleasure, regardless of the admiration it may generate. For Epicurus the ultimate aim in life was tranquility. Although we should pursue the satisfaction of our desires, if we have desires that interfere with the pursuit of tranquility they should be discarded. I’ve cooked many a Thanksgiving meal and I would not use the word “tranquil” to describe the experience.

So by all means cook your own meal at Thanksgiving, but do it because it is your care that people want, not bravura.

Thanksgiving Wine Pairing

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multiple bottlesWine pairing  for Thanksgiving can be a nightmare. How do you find a wine that will go with turkey and stuffing, cranberry sauce, candied yams, the 4 vegetarian dishes you had to make for cousin Harry’s family, not to mention the gluten-free options for Aunt Emily. The short answer is you can’t. There is no wine that will work with the diversity of the typical Thanksgiving meal. Your best approximation would be Pinot Noir for the turkey and stuffing and an off-dry Riesling for some of the sweeter dishes. Both are modest in weight with good acidity and the Pinot will match the earthiness of the standard Thanksgiving fare. But that is just an approximation. Furthermore, there is always the “I-hate-white-wine” guest and the “I-only-drink-Merlot” guest who will not be satisfied.

The solution is to open a variety of wines and let people drink what they want. Include both light and heavier wines, whites and reds. And don’t forget the bubbly which goes with most foods. Between the family feuds, personality conflicts and football, no one pays much attention to the wine pairings anyway. (Which is a  good reason not to open your best bottles.)

Thanksgiving is a day when we like to have a variety of dishes on the table. Why not take the same approach with the wine?

As for me, I’m a guest this year so I’m bringing some domestically-produced Italian varietals and of course the Port. No meal is complete that does not end with Port.

Budget Wine: Mad Housewife Cellars Merlot NV California

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mad housewife merlotI like to visit the Mad Housewife on occasion just to see what she’s up to. Mad housewives can be entertaining as long as you don’t live with one.

And I can understand why she’s mad.

Murky aromas of simple black cherry with a soft vanilla background and faint hints of funky earth mark this medium intensity nose. Innocuous but nothing to get riled up about. But take a sip. Despite the light to medium body the palate resembles cough syrup upfront but turns abruptly sour on the midpalate with an acidic finish showing few tannins. Disjoint and distinctly unpleasant. It makes me mad as well. I’m with you mad housewife.

I love it when the marketing reflects what’s in the bottle. Oh. Wait. You mean the wine is supposed to calm the mad housewife, make her feel well disposed toward life, despite a rough day. No way. Not this wine.

You’re paying $8 for a label.

Score: 78

Price: $8

Alc: 13.5

Enjoyment and Contemplation

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table full of foodNow that food has become an object of discourse rather than a taken-for-granted necessity, it has also become the focus of myriad ideological crosscurrants—vegan vs. vegetarian vs. carnivore; paleo vs. rawfoodist vs. low-carb; debates about GMO’s, sustainability, global hunger, etc. But with all this controversy, we risk losing sight of what is important about food—the pleasure of eating. So I very much like this short essay by Miriam Ava:

Here’s the thing, though: If we become too invested in, or even obsessed with, our food choices we lose sight of what’s really important: that we feel good & enjoy life. If one focuses on counting calories; if one takes in the pain of others endlessly; if one constantly evaluates how this or that ingredient impacts the body; if one restricts oneself to the point of Puritan approval; if food has an overwhelming grip on one’s mind no matter one’s desired diet, then its offering of nourishment & enjoyment has been replaced by stagnation & fear.

I doubt that there is any meaning to life beyond the full experience of it. And that requires the maximum enrichment of our everyday activities. All objects we encounter have a kind of eloquence about them that we are obliged to recognize if we seek this enrichment. Our food is no exception; indeed food may be the most readily available source of this eloquence since the enjoyment of food is so accessible to us—all you have to do is eat with full awareness, a capacity we all possess if we can eliminate the distractions.

Of course a life of contemplation and awareness cannot ignore the moral questions that concern us. But when the table is set it is time to focus on what is before us.

Enjoy your day.

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