The New Sammy’s Cowboy Bistro: Mom and Pop Excellence

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new sammysWe’re camped in Southern Oregon tasting wine but today the story is about food.

A few minutes north of Ashland on a quiet, semi-rural highway sparsely populated with lower middle class homes stands one of the most acclaimed restaurants you probably have never heard of—New Sammy’s Cowboy Bistro. The building looks like it could be a restaurant although the vegetable gardens surrounding the property suggest a cook on the premises.

At any rate, this small, low-key restaurant has been featured in many magazine lists of worthy foodie destinations and has been lauded by critics all over the country. It’s been operated by Vernon and Charlene Rollins since 1989.

Long story short, Vernon and Charlene met at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse in 1978. Charlene was a cook and Vernon imported French wine. Shortly after marrying, they opened a restaurant in the boonies in a place called Booneville, two hours north of San Francisco, with the help of lots of high powered investors. For awhile due to their exquisite attention to detail and love of home-grown fresh ingredients, it was one of the hottest restaurants in the country, but they proceeded to run it into the ground due to bad management. It’s rumored that they hi-tailed it out of town in a borrowed car leaving investors and employees holding the bag. At any rate, after a year in France, they resurfaced in Talent, Oregon opening New Sammy’s Cowboy Bistro, named after their son Sammy and their desire to feed the cowboys living in the neighborhood.

They use the best organic, local ingredients, much of it grown on premises and the wine list was reported to be one of the best in the country a few years ago before they started selling it off. Even today the list is full of impressive wines from France, Italy and Spain at bargain prices. Premier Crus Burgundy for under $70 in a restaurant is unheard of these days but there were several on the menu.  The dining room is spacious but has only about 10 tables.new-sammys-inside The price of lunch is only $15 dollars. The menu included only 4 items one of which was unavailable. But the cooking is exquisite. Perfect ingredients prepared with the utmost attention to detail.

new-sammys-vegetable-stewA stew of various vegetables, black beans and polenta was so well balanced it felt weightless in the mouth. Despite the sheer number of ingredients each component was distinct and perfectly cooked. The burger made from grass fed beef topped with bacon, goat cheese, spinach and alioli was bursting with flavor.

This is the quintessential mom and pop business, purely dedicated to quality.

Alas the Rollin’s are well into their 70’s and announced their intention to sell the business late last year. So if you’re in this part of the country, check out this icon before it’s too late.

The Controversy Over Cultural Appropriation

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culural appropriationKenneth Malik’s NY Times article “In Defense of Cultural Appropriation” is important generally, but specifically, it is important to the food world. As Malik reports:

In Canada last month, three editors lost their jobs after making such a defense.

The controversy began when Hal Niedzviecki, editor of Write, the magazine of the Canadian Writers’ Union, penned an editorial defending the right of white authors to create characters from minority or indigenous backgrounds. Within days, a social media backlash forced him to resign. The Writers’ Union issued an apology for an article that its Equity Task Force claimed “re-entrenches the deeply racist assumptions” held about art.

Another editor, Jonathan Kay, of The Walrus magazine, was also compelled to step down after tweeting his support for Mr. Niedzviecki. Meanwhile, the broadcaster CBC moved Steve Ladurantaye, managing editor of its flagship news program The National, to a different post, similarly for an “unacceptable tweet” about the controversy.

And, as Malik further explains, countless artists have had their work condemned as cultural appropriation because they depicted historical events or artifacts from cultures that were not their own. Essentially, cultural appropriation involves making use of someone’s else’s culture without their permission, and it’s often treated as a form of theft if not outright racism. Critics of the practice are motivated by a desire to prevent exploitation and allowing cultures to speak for themselves.  No doubt some forms of cultural appropriation are racist if the use is not respectful or traffics in negative stereotypes. But as Malik argues:

In the case of culture, however, what is called appropriation is not theft but messy interaction. Writers and artists necessarily engage with the experiences of others. Nobody owns a culture, but everyone inhabits one, and in inhabiting a culture, one finds the tools for reaching out to other cultures.

In fact, it’s hard to imagine what culture would be like without appropriation. Christianity flourished by incorporating the ideas of Greek philosophy. Islamic culture had a profound influence on medieval Europe.  Was the Beatles use of the Sitar cultural appropriation? The British got their enjoyment of tea from the machinations of the East India Company. Are Chinese people who make ramen appropriating Japanese culture, even though ramen is a descendant of Chinese noodle soups? Is an American chef who owns a Tapas restaurant guilty of cultural appropriation?

As I discussed extensively in American Foodie, white musicians were surely appropriating the music of African Americans in the 1960’s when the blues was resurgent.  But if it was done respectfully with a full understanding of the idioms and nuances it becomes a form of appreciation. And the history of food is a history of rampant cultural appropriation. After all, tomatoes were not indigenous to Italy; potatoes and eggplant did not originate in India. Yet today they are prominent in those cuisines.

Moreover, preventing cultural appropriation is unlikely to have much effect on racism. As Malik notes:

But imagine that Elvis had been prevented from appropriating so-called black music. Would that have challenged racism, or eradicated Jim Crow laws? Clearly not. It took a social struggle — the civil rights movement — to bring about change. That struggle was built not on cultural separation, but on the demand for equal rights and universal values.

To condemn all forms of cultural appropriation would entail that forms of cultural identification across ethnic or racial lines are impossible. Surely that is not likely to advance the cause of social justice. There is unlikely to be a hard and fast line to be drawn between cultural theft and legitimate use. We will have to learn to live with that ambiguity.

Wine Review: Donkey and Goat Stone Crusher Skin Ferment Roussanne El Dorado 2015

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donkey and goatDonkey and Goat is a small urban winery in downtown Berkeley sourcing grapes from the Sierra Foothills. They make so called “natural wine”—wine with no additives, native yeasts, little intervention from winemaking tricks of the trade, and as little sulfur as possible. But most importantly their wines are both good and unusual. I enjoyed their soft, spare Mourvedre,  called Twinkle, which drank like a rose but with more flavor and grip. Their Perli Vineyard Chardonnay was so rich and flavorful I just might start drinking Chardonnay again. Eliza was a scrumptious blend of white Rhone varietals. With layer upon layer of texture, it was like drinking a symphony. Their Syrahs were big and muscular.

But the most intriguing wine was the Stone Crusher Roussanne, a white wine allowed to rest on the skins for 12 days during fermentation so it develops tannins and skin-derived flavors. This style is called “orange wine” because the skin contact produces an orange tint.

Ginger-spiced pear and baked apple aromas mingle with pretty, floral top notes. Though the aromas are abundant but a bit shy, the palate is in your face. The skin contact produces an etched mouthfeel of phases. The tantalizing fruit  hints at a lovely weightless quality before the hefty, chewy tannins ravage the mouth ushering in a dry finish with a long slow fade showing tart apricot on the coda.

10 months in neutral French oak.

I’ve never tasted a wine quite like this. Unfortunately, I don’t have a steak in the fridge because I think the pairing would be extraordinary.

Like some wronged and restless spirit this wine is nervy, on the edge, but self controlled.

Like the taut, rumbling undercurrent, and shattered prettiness of Costello’s Dust 2

Score: 90

Price: $32

Alc: 12.4%

Budget Wine Review: Leone De Castris, “Maiana” Salice Salentino 2013

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maianaFrom Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot, this wine is made from 90% Negroamaro grapes, a robust, tannic varietal supplemented by 10% of the floral, aromatic Malvasia Nera. Leone De Castris is one of the largest and oldest wineries in Puglia, with about 1000 acres under vine.

This wine shows red plum, vanilla, and modest spice and smoky notes, marred by a slight raw wood background. Medium plus weight, the palate is juicy up front, although not especially concentrated. It turns rugged on the finish with drying tannins and some high toned acidity that gives the wine lift, as hints of cocoa and bitter herbs emerge.

Aged for 6 months in neutral French oak.

Certainly a hearty wine, the tannins, slight bitterness, and acidity combine to give it a rustic feel typical of wines from this region. It cries out for sausage and Stevie Ray Vaughn’s version of Voodoo Child.

Score: 87

Price: $12

Alc: 13.5%

A Neuroscientist on Wine

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neuroenologyNeuroscientist Gordon Shepherd, author of Neurogastronomy, has a new book out entitled Neuroenology: How the Brain Creates the Taste of Wine (Columbia University Press, $25). Neurogastronomy was fascinating. I haven’t gotten to the new book yet but Harvey Steiman has a brief interview in which Shepherd makes several interesting points.

Shepherd thinks you have to swallow wine to get a full picture of its flavor and has charts on fluid dynamics in the mouth to back up his contention. Steiman disagrees arguing that

“…my experience as a taster tells me otherwise. I get no difference between how a wine tastes to me from actually swallowing it vs. slurping and bubbling it in my mouth, then spitting it out, so that I can stay (relatively) sober.”

I agree with Steiman here. I haven’t noticed that spitting lessens my perception of aromas.

Shepherd thought for a moment. “As you breathe out, those volatiles can carry from the mouth to the back of the nose. With practice maybe you can train your uvula to be open when tasting, and others can’t.”

Perhaps, but I have no such training and Steiman doesn’t mention any either. I think you have to trust the phenomenology here. If we’re not perceiving differences then there are no perceptible differences. Perhaps  this varies from person to person but the scientific hypothesis  needs to be supplemented with subjective reports.

Secondly, Shepherd argues that human beings are not particularly inept when describing aromas and flavors.

His peers get it wrong, he says, when they claim a poor connection between language and what we smell and taste. Our ability to describe what we taste is no different than describing a painting. “We can describe Van Gogh’s paintings of sunflowers. They look like sunflowers,” he says. “But it’s almost impossible to describe anything nonrepresentational in words to someone who hasn’t seen it. The same applies to music.

I wholeheartedly agree with this. In reviews of pop and rock albums the bulk of the commentary is about lyrics. Descriptions of the music when they exist are vague and general. The same with paintings. Discussions focus on what the painting is about. Descriptions of formal elements are either general descriptions of patterns of colors and lines or quickly become metaphorical and allusive.

Describing aesthetic experiences is inherently difficult and wine writers are no worse off than anyone else in that regard.

A Remarkable Wine Story

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dal forno2I would be hard pressed to identify the “best wine I’ve ever had”. But one of the candidates would be the Romano Dal Forno Amarone 2008 which I had the opportunity to taste a few years ago. A consummate marriage of power and finesse, it was simultaneously dark, fierce, grandiose and gentle, and sells for $300 per bottle.

When I tasted it, I new nothing about the backstory but that proves to be as compelling as the wine, as Andrew Jefford’s article in Decanter makes clear.

In 1983 Romano Dal Forno, who was growing grapes in one of the least prestigious regions of Valpolicella, Italy, decided to to make wine rather than sell his grapes. Almost everyone told him he was nuts, but with no background in winemaking, no degree in oenology, and using grapes from a region acknowledged to be inferior, he’s managed to make one of the world’s finest wines.

Obsessed with avoiding oxidation Dal Forno has invented all sorts of tricks and devices to keep oxygen away from the wine.

There is no use of vacuum, of course, during fermentation (though there is plenty of innovation, as I describe below).  Once fermentation is over, though, the finished wines are racked into nitrogen-flushed tanks and are put under vacuum prior to barrel ageing, and after barrel-ageing for the blending process prior to bottling.  Bottling itself is done by putting the empty bottle under vacuum, then flushing it with nitrogen, then putting it under vacuum once again before filling; while a nitrogen flush followed by vacuum and another nitrogen flush precede corking.

Dal Forno also invented a system of four independently operating pistons in each tank to perfect the extraction process.  These are even capable of turning the entire cap upside down, the aim being “maximum extraction with maximum softness,” according to Michele.  He also went on to design a moveable automated washing system for each tank which works at high temperatures and high pressure – and therefore dispenses with any chemical adjuncts, using water and steam alone.

The grapes for Amarone must be dried and raisined before fermentation, so Dal Forno designed computer-controlled drying chambers that regulate airflow with a degree of randomness programmed in to mimic nature. And all the work of the winery, with the exception of harvest, is done by his extended family.

This is a story of fearlessness, determination, intelligence, and creativity. But it also illustrates a fact that is becoming increasingly clear—wine regions with lesser reputations have hidden potential that can be unlocked by the right person with the right skills. There is no reason to think we’ve discovered all the best places to grow wine grapes.

Wine Review: Alma Rosa Pinot Noir Clone 115 Sta. Rita Hills, 2014

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alma rosaDuring a recent stopover in the Santa Barbara area, I had a chance to visit one of my favorite Pinot producers, Alma Rosa Winery. Richard Sanford, the iconic Santa Barbara winemaker responsible for introducing Pinot Noir to the region in the 1970’s, sold his stake in Sanford Winery to Terlato in 2005. He then opened Alma Rosa to be the home of these gorgeous vineyard and clonal-designated wines.

The La Encantada Vineyard bottling is consistently my favorite. It is as pretty as a wine can be, graceful and charming, but with soul-stirring hidden depths. Since I reviewed the 2010 La Encantada a few years ago, on this occasion I’ll focus on a bottling featuring the 116 clone from that same vineyard. The 116 clone is probably the most widely planted of the Pinot clones because of its consistent yields and rich structure.

Robust red cherry on the nose is delicately threaded with a thrilling mushroom note. Dried herbs and traces of cinnamon make this more spicy than floral.

On the palate it’s rich and round but still supple and full of finesse, with seamless transitions and a broad, satin-like midpalate that builds in intensity forging into a finish showing beautiful pure fruit that persists even as it performs its slow fade. Just on the heavier side of medium body, the tannins are very refined and the acidity not especially prominent.

The earthiness and feminine quality give the wine an old world demeanor although it lacks the acidity of a Burgundian style and the rich, pure fruit is pure California.

These wines from La Encantada are more feminine than is typical of California Pinot Noir. Wines sourced from their estate vineyard El Jabali tend to be bigger with more vigorous tannins. Their new tasting room in Buellton now features a tasting menu that includes fine Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, and Chardonnay as well as small batches of sparkling wine.

Score: 92

Price: $55

Alc: 14.1%

No one captures earthy, resolute femininity better than Joan Armatrading. I saw her perform Love and Affection in 1980; like wine she gets better with age. The way the bass leads and anchors the musical phrases seems to focus attention of the purity of the fruit.

Of Mice and Taste

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miceTwo stories caught my attention recently because they involve taste and mice, subject matters not often found together.

The first is a study that suggests that in addition to salt, sweet, sour, bitter and umami we may have a sixth taste—a taste for water. A team of scientists from the California Institute of Technology led by Yuki Oka were able to isolate taste receptor cells in mice that respond to water.

The most surprising part of the project” was that the well-known, acid-sensing, sour TRCs fired vigorously when exposed to water, Oka says…More research is needed to precisely determine how the acid-sensing taste buds respond to water, and what the mice experience when they do, Oka says. But he suspects that when water washes out saliva—a salty, acidic mucus—it changes the pH within the cells, making them more likely to fire.

The long-held assumption that we have only 5 basic tastes is increasingly on shaky ground.

The second story is entitled “Why Do Some Wines Taste of Mouse Cage?”

Yuk. Mouse cage? Who wants that in their wine? The story turns out to be a diatribe against the natural wine movement—winemakers who refuse to use sulfur dioxide in order to protect their wine from yeasts and bacteria that cause off flavors. The article by Simon Wolff claims:

The resulting wines span the entire gamut from sensational and pure to dirty and borderline undrinkable.

Well all wines span that gamut, natural or not. But the refusal to use sulfur has become a symbolic gesture signaling the belief that all hi-tech additives and processes are an affront to the purity of wine made to express the nature of grapes rather than the hand of the winemaker. The usual off flavors are the product of volatile acidity, Brettanomyces, or excessive oxidation, factors that when present in small amounts can actually increase the complexity and interest of a wine. But “mouse cage” is something else:

The mucky aftertaste generally known as ‘mousiness’ is a much more slippery pest. Poorly understood in the industry, virtually opaque to consumers, it has neither been conclusively researched nor openly acknowledged by some producers. Yet this unmistakeable taint – once recognised, never forgotten – seems to be on the increase, scurrying ever more rampantly around the cellars of a thousand radical vignerons….The taint manifests itself in a unique and troublesome fashion – the compounds are not volatile at the normal pH level of wines, and thus are virtually undetectable by smell. When infected wine mixes with the taster’s saliva, the pH is raised to a level where the 2-acetylpyridine is perceived retronasally – an aftertaste which is technically an aroma. This nasty surprise can sometimes take as long as 30 seconds to develop in the mouth, giving an entirely new meaning to wines with a ‘long finish’.

That all sounds unpleasant. But I taste a lot of wines every year, sometimes as many as 100 in a week, and I don’t recall any that reminded me of mouse cage. But maybe that’s just me.

Anecdotal evidence suggests there’s a very wide range of tolerance amongst wine professionals and consumers, from blissful ignorance to super sensitivity. An individual’s ability to detect mousy taint may well hinge on the pH level of their saliva – ergo possibly a genetic condition.

Most but not all of the wines I taste have been vinified using some SO2 so maybe I’m not sufficiently exposed to “mousy” wines. At any rate, we have a new wine flaw to be concerned with and I’ll be scrutinizing tasting menus for any hint of “mouse cage”.

Budget Wine Review: Tormaresca Neprica Puglia IGT 2014

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tormarescaA project of the renowned Antinori family, this wine hails from Puglia in Southern Italy and so features the Negroamaro and Primitivo grapes with Cabernet Sauvignon added to provide structure. (Hence the acronym Neprica)

The nose of red and black fruit, coffee and dusty earth is simple and restrained but inviting. On the palate it’s juicy up front but finishes dry and structured with chewy tannins, energetic acidity, and good length on the medium frame. Aged for 8 months in stainless steel with a small percentage in neutral oak. Good for the price.

Bold, sinewy, and rustic you’ll want to pair with sausage, peppers, and onions and some blues full of sass and scars like Janiva Magness’ Bad Blood.

Score: 86

Price: $9

Alc: 13.5%