Saturday, July 30, 2011

Not Just Virginia Wines at the WBC

Though the Wine Blogger's Conference was held in Virginia, you could also find wines there from all over the world. From International Wine Tasting Night to The Other 46 (a showcase of wines from U.S. states like Indiana, Missouri and Ohio), there were numerous samples to taste, and as expected, the wines were a mixed bag. Some were the usual suspects, those mass produced, commercial wines that fail to excite. But I found some gems within the mix as well, especially a number of Spanish wines, which is not a big surprise to me knowing my preferences.

Some of the most intriguing wines though were poured privately, by other bloggers and attendees, at small gatherings and afterhours parties. People were very generous with their wines, offering tastes to basically anyone who happened to be around. Some of those wines were homemade, some were from the attendee's state or country, others were made from unusual grapes, and still others were rare or older vintages. At these conferences, the interactions with the other attendees is often one of the best aspects of the event. As I have said before, the best part of wine is sharing it with others, with friends both old and new. And plenty of sharing occurred!

At the Meet the Sponsors event, the first table I stopped at represented the Wines of Navarra and I was very glad that I checked out their wines. I was initially impressed with the 2010 Señorío de Sarría Viñedo No 5 Rosado ($16), made from 100% Garnacha, from 50 year old vines. It was a dry and more restrained rosado, with delicious flavors of strawberry and watermelon, and hints of herbality, especially on the finish. A perfect summer wine, and an excellent accompaniement with many different types of foods. 

The 2004 Laderas de Inurrieta ($35), made from 100% Graciano, was interesting, with flavors of leather, black cherry, and plum with some violets on the finish. Moderately tannic, it had a fairly lengthy finish that ended on an exotic note. You don't see much 100% Graciano and I recommend that you check this one out. The 2004 Palacio de Otazu Altar ($50), a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Tempranillo was impressive, a muscular and complex wine that tantalized and seduced my palate. A melange of black fruit, ripe plum, spice, vanilla, mocha, and more. A "wow" wine which is well worth a splurge.

Rebecca and Marilyn, the lovely ladies of Winebow, were pouring wines from Spain, Italy and Chile. I had tasted the Chilean wines before, and enjoyed them, so was most interested in sampling the other wines. The 2007 Juve y Camps Brut Cava Nature Gran Reserva (about $15) is not your typical, inexpensive Cava. Instead, it reminded me far more of a Champagne, likely due to its dominant notes of toast and yeast. The fruit flavors, mostly citrus, were very subdued, and if you tasted this blind, I doubt you would think it was a Cava. The 2010 Tasca d'Almerita Regaleali Le Rose Sicilia ($12), made from 100% Nerello Mascalese, had luscious bright fruit, especially strawberry and cherry, with an underlying minerality. It reminds me more of California than France, and should appeal to many wine lovers seeking a more fruit-driven rose. Plus, you won't find many roses made from this grape.

One of the interesting impromptu events that I attended was a taste-off between two Blaufränkisch (the “blue grape from France") wines, one from Austria and one from Virginia.  Constance (whose birthday is tomorrow!) of Austrian Wines and the people of Wine Compass agreed to place their wines against each other, in a head-to-head battle to see which Bläufrankisch reigned supreme. The Austrian contender was the 2008 Feiler-Artinger Umiss Blaufränkisch ($22), produced from 100% Blaufränkisch and which spent 9-12 months in oak barrels and 20% in barriques.  The Virginian contender was the 2009 Otium Blaufränkisch ($20), also produced from 100% Blaufränkisch, and it is unclear whether any oak was used or not. This is the only winery growing Blaufränkisch in Virginia, and this was their first bottling.

I have previously tasted Blaufränkisch from Hungary, the Finger Lakes, Austria and Washington, and it is a varietal that I have enjoyed. So how did these two wines fare against each other? The Feiler-Artinger was delicious, with an earthy taste along side flavors of black cherry, raspberry and plum. It had some complexity, a lengthy finish, and a sense of character. The Otium presented more juicy fruit, including some blueberry and strawberry flavors, and had less complexity and character than the Austrian one. The Otium was a simple, pleasant wine and it can easily be enjoyed on its own. As a first attempt, I liked the Otium and hope the winery will continue making this wine, improving it every year.  My personal preference was for the Austrian wine but kudos to the Otium too.

On Saturday night, Vibrant Rioja held a Rioja Crawl, where participants could stop at five different local restaurants and shops, drinking some Rioja wine and nibbling on snacks. As an incentive, if you completed all five stops of the Crawl, you could enter to win a free trip to Rioja. The stops included Orzo Kitchen & Wine Bar, Feast, Zinc Restaurant & Bar, Maya Restaurant & Bar, and Brookville Restaurant. My fine Crawl group, including Adam, AndrewJason, Marie and Nannette, were the first ones to complete the crawl (though I technically was the first person to finish). Unfortunately, the winners of the Crawl were announced yesterday and none of my group were chosen.

The special treat of the Crawl was presented by Feast, a gourmet food shop (which I highly recommend). They offered two wines, the 2010 Muga Rosado and the stunning 2000 R. Lopez de Heredia Vina Tondonia Rosado Gran Reserva, one of my favorite wines. An 11 year old rose? Yes, this is an unusual but fascinating and delicious wine, a true gem. Along with this killer wine, Feast offered three Spanish cheeses (Mahon, Malvarosa & Valdeon), Membrillo, Marcona Almonds, and two Spanish meats (Lomito Iberico & Chorizo). With such tasty snacks, it was tempting to end the Crawl there and just enjoy their food and wine all night. Kudos to Feast for such an excellent experience.

At other informal gatherings and parties, a few other wines stood out and deserve mention. The Aborious, a California wine made from the rare Aboriou grape was quite intriguing. It was a full bodied red, with black fruit flavors but the finish presented a melange of exotic spices that really were different. It reminded me of the spices in Asian cuisine and was certainly a unique offering. The Wines of Croatia held a great party, pouring a number of Croatian wines. I tasted a few of their whites, but sadly did not take any notes. But, I enjoyed them and most of them presented their own unique character.  I'll have to seek out more Croatian wines to expand my knowledge of that region.

Another surprise was the 2008 A Tribute To Grace ($49), an elegant and mesmerizing California Grenache, so very different from any other California Grenache I have ever tasted. Adam of Wine Zag has a more extensive review you should check out. My friend Jason, of Ancient Fire Wines (who should win a "Most Enthusiastic" WBC award), brought three of his homemade wines, including a Strawberry wine, Dandelion wine, and a Hard Cider. My favorite of the three was the Cider, which was a sweet, house blend from Lull Farm in Hollis. It had a strong apple flavor, with both sweet and tart components, and should appeal to many people. I think it would also be an excellent cooking ingredient, such as in a BBQ sauce. I wasn't a fan of the Dandelion wine, but it was very cool to get the chance to taste it. If you get a chance to taste something different, grab it!

I brought two items to the conference, a sherry and sake: the 1964 Gonzalez Byass Vintage Oloroso Sherry and the Hojo Biden “Rich Brew” Yamahai Junmai. My objective was to hopefully convince more people to explore these underappreciated drinks, and I think I was successful based on the feedback I have received. The Sherry, as expected, was a huge hit, and now I just need to find more somewhere.

The conference was not the only place where I enjoyed some fine wine and sake. During two of my outside dinners in Charlottesville, I found some treasures. At Orzo Kitchen, they had an interesting wine list, including maybe ten or so Greek wines. So I decided to try one, the 2008 Alexandra's Nostos (about $20 retail) from the Manousakis Winery.  This was an organic blend of 40% Syrah, 40% Mourvedre & 20% Grenache, a Rhone-style wine from Greece. It was delicious, with plenty of spice, plum and black raspberry flavors, and well integrated tannins. It certainly reminded me of a French Rhone wine, and was a nice pairing for both hangar steak and spaghetti Bolognese. I often prefer Greek wines that use indigenous grapes but this is an exception, and would recommend it to all who enjoy Rhone-style wines.

During a lengthy Japanese meal at Ten, we shared two bottles of sake, including the Nanbu Bijin "Southern Beauty" Tokubetsu Junmai and the Kikusui "Chrysanthemum Mist" Junmai Ginjo. The Nanbu is a superb, smooth sake, full-bodied with lush flavors of melon and peach. It is the type of sake that I could savor and drink all night long, relishing each tasty sip. The Kikisui is also very good, but it is a leaner style, less fruit driven, and with some herbal and steamed rice notes.

Expand your palate, where ever you go.

Friday, July 29, 2011

A Glimpse Into Virginia Wines: Viognier to Cabernet Franc

"Good wine is a necessity of life for me."
--Thomas Jefferson

One of the reasons I attended the Wine Blogger's Conference this year was to get the opportunity to taste the wines of Virginia, which is the 5th largest wine producing state. Who would have thought they produced so much wine? I previously tasted a couple of Virginia wines so I desired a chance to delve much deeper, to sample a broader spectrum of what they produce.  With approximately 190 wineries, spread out over 6 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), the Virginia wine industry is a serious business. 

Attempts at growing vines in Virginia began about 400 years ago with the settlers of Jamestown, though their modern wine industry started more during the 1970s. The history of Virginia wine is fascinating, and Thomas Jefferson is a significant figure in that history. Though Jefferson's efforts at growing vinifera yielded few positive results, he would be immensely proud of the current situation of the Virginia wine industry.  Based on my experiences at the conference, how do I feel the wines of Virginia measure up?  

Unfortunately, I was only able to catch a glimpse of the nature of Virginia wines, sufficient for a basic impression but insufficient for a more substantial and accurate assessment.  I ended up tasting only about 30 Virginia wines, though there were roughly 100+ wines available. A significant reason for this discrepancy was the sweltering heat at the Monticello tasting, which I spoke about this past Monday. There were about 64 wines at the Monticello event and I tasted only two whites. I really wish I had a better opportunity to taste all of those Virginia wines, as I know I missed out on some potential winners.  I am sure most of the bloggers had similar problems, being unable to taste a significant portion of Virginia wines, under proper tasting conditions.

"Wine from long habit has become an indispensable for my health."
--Thomas Jefferson

The three main grapes of Virginia appear to be Viognier, Cabernet Franc and Petite Verdot, though plenty of other grapes are cultivated as well, including Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Vermentino, Muscat, Vidal Blanc, Petit Manseng, Pinot Grigio, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Nebbiolo, Tannat, Syrah, Pinot Noir, and more.  Many of the red blends seem to be Cabernet Franc based, and I was very pleased that none of the Cabernet Francs I tasted possessed those green/vegetal flavors that I dislike. I was told that such wines do exist, yet I did not ecnounter any. Alcohol levels generally ranged from 12%-14%, which I like. Stylistically, the wines were closer to Old World than New, though I believe they may possess their own identity. 

Quality wise, I found a number of good and very good wines, though none which stood out as exceptional. There were wines I disliked, as I would expect to find in any wine region. But I found enough good wines that it provided motivation for me to desire to explore the region in more depth, to better understand their wine industry. As one example, as I am a big fan of South African Pinotage, I really want to try Virginia Pinotage, but did not get to try any at the conference.  Maybe a future Taste Camp will be held in Virginia, and I'll get a chance to try 200+ Virginia wines.

Let me highlight some of the Virginia wines I tasted and enjoyed.

"I have lived temperately....I double the doctor's recommendation of a glass and a half of wine each day and even treble it with a friend."
--Thomas Jefferson

At the initial Meet the Sponsors event, two Virginia wineries poured some of their wines and I partook of what was offered.

The Boxwood Winery is one of the newer Virginia wineries, operating a seventeen-acre sustainable dry farm and producing three Bordeaux style wines, 2 reds and 1 rosé.  Unfortunately they were not pouring the rosé at this event.  At full operation, they do not plan to produce more than 5000 cases, so will remain a small, boutique winery. The 2009 Topiary ($25) was created to reflect a Saint Emilion style and is a blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Malbec. A dark red color, nose of black fruit and a bold, tannic taste. It was a balanced wine, with delicious tastes of black raspberry, plum and black cherry. The 2009 Boxwood ($25) is more reflective of a Medoc style with a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petite Verdot. It seemed a bit more tannic that the Topiary, with a similar flavor profile except for more prominent plum and the addition of some blueberry flavors.  For the price, both wines would be good choices for a Bordeaux style wine.

From new to old, the Barboursville Vineyards were founded in 1976, making it one of the first wineries in the modern resurgence of the Virginia wine industry.  It was a very risky endeavor at that time, yet they took a chance and succeeded at growing vinifera grapes. Their current winemaker is Luca Paschina from Piemonte, Italy. Their 2009 Viognier Reserve ($22), which sees no oak, was pleasant, a crisp wine with bright fruit and floral notes. The 2008 Cabernet Franc Reserve ($23) also appealed to me, a more elegant wine with prominent red fruit flavors and mild spice notes.  The 2006 Octagon ($40) is a Bordeaux style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petite Verdot.  It is a bold wine, with strong black fruit flavors, underlying vanilla and spice, and hints of licorice. It had nice complexity, a good balance, and a lengthy, satisfying finish. The 2007 Nebbiolo Reserve ($32) was an interesting wine, made in a Barbaresco tradition. Though very light red in color, it was a big, tannic wine with tastes of black cherry and black raspberry, as well as some herbal notes. Though I enjoyed it, I probably would not buy it at this price.

Wine … the true old man’s milk and restorative cordial.”
--Thomas Jefferson

On Saturday, we got to visit two local vineyards and as part of Bus 1A, our first stop was at Ducard Vineyards, located at the eastern edge of the Shenadoah National Park. They have been growing grapes for a decade, first selling them off and eventually they decided to produce their own wine. They have seven acres of vineyards and try to be as green as possible. Owner Scott Elliff took us out into the vineyards, and explained about their viticultural philosophy and techniques. It is a very labor intensive process, and his passion was evident. 

Back at their tasting room, we went through six of their wines. Their 2010 Signature Viognier ($22) was nice, with tastes of peaches and citrus, accompanied by light floral notes and a nice acidity. The 2009 Vintner's Reserve Cabernet Franc ($24) was a light red color with bright red fruit tastes supported by a backbone of spice. An elegant wine, it also had some complexity and subtlety. The 2009 Petit Verdot ($30) is a big, lush wine but the tannins were well integrated. I also tasted much more red and black fruit, than the usual blueberry, with mild touch of spice. A lengthy, pleasing finish made me crave a big piece of beef with this wine.

"I think it is a great error to consider a heavy tax on wines as a tax on luxury. On the contrary, it is a tax on the health of our citizens."
--Thomas Jefferson

Our second stop was the Sweely Estate Winery, a newer winery which was established in 2004 and started planting vines in 2005.  They currently grow about 80% red grapes, all French varietals, and their winemaker, Frantz Ventre, is from Bordeaux.  They have a state of the art winery, which cost $6 million for the building alone. The winery equipment, which they purchased from France, had to have added at least a couple million on top of that. Their production costs are high and an average bottle of wine costs them $8-$10 to produce. They are not working to capacity yet, and really need to do so to make the winery profitable.

With a tasty buffet lunch, we tasted four of their wines, and my favorite was the 2007 Cabernet Franc ($21.95), a blend of 78% Cabernet Franc, 14% Malbec, 5% Petite Verdot & 3% Merlot. About 35% of the wine was aged in French oak. Like most of their wines, it initially had a restrained aroma that opened up over time.  It was a hearty, bold wine with strong black fruit and lots of spice, the type of wine screaming for a steak or a Pasta Bolognese.

"By making this wine vine known to the public, I have rendered my country as great a service as if I had enabled it to pay back the national debt."
--Thomas Jefferson

At our Saturday night, five-course dinner, we were served 12 wines from Virginia, three of the courses accompanied by three wines. I loved the first wine of the dinner, the NV Horton Vineyards Sparkling Viognier ($25), which was crisp, clean and dry with flavors of peach, citrus and white flowers. A very appealing sparkling wine which should please many people. There was then a flight of three Viogniers, and I preferred the 2010 Veritas Vineyards Viognier, which was well balanced, a medium-bodied wine with bright peach and orange flavors, as well as pleasant floral notes. The next flight of wines included two Rieslings but I best liked the 2010 Lovingston Vineyards Petit Manseng ($16.95), made from a very uncommon grape. With a touch of sweetness, balanced by a nice acidity, the wine evidenced tropical fruit flavors, including some pineapple. I can easily see how this wine would pair well with spicy dishes.  

We could in the United States make as great a variety of wines as are made in Europe, not exactly of the same kinds, but doubtless as good.”
--Thomas Jefferson

If I had to choose my favorite Virginia wine of the weekend, I would select the NV Horton Vineyards Sparkling Viognier.  It was delicious, had character, and was a bit unusual. The runner-up wine would be the Barboursville Vineyards 2008 Cabernet Franc Reserve.

If you get the opportunity, then I recommend you try some Virginia wines.  I will continue to seek our more of their wines to taste, and hopefully in the future can give a better assessment of the status of their wine industry. But for now, I see promise in their vines.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Thursday Sips & Nibbles

I am back again with a new edition of Thursday Sips & Nibbles, my regular column where I briefly highlight some interesting wine and food items that I have encountered recently.
1) Chef-Owner Jeff Fournier’s of 51 Lincoln has several offerings for the summer.

His tribute to regional American BBQ winds down with Kansas City style this week and Georgia next week. $35 prix fixe menus feature:
* Smoked Trout Fritters
* KC Wet Ribs with Cornbread & Slaw
* Hoppin’ John Salad
* Georgia Peach Cobbler
* Fried Green Tomato with housemade pickle remoulade
* Sweet Potato Pie

For Raw August, Fournier turns off the stove and turns his attention to using great local ingredients, uncooked. Look for these dishes, based on the victory garden blooming up on the restaurant’s roof:
* Local Striper Ceviche with Verjus and rooftop cilantro
* Wolf Neck Farm Beef Tataki with black rice vinegar
* Local Bluefin Tuna Tartare with potato gaufrettes
* Lemon-Verbena Cured Atlantic Salmon with rooftop basil, pink grapefruit

Details of Corn & Tomato September will be coming soon.

All summer long, you will find the Rosé of the Week, most priced around $30.
* July 25 Gaga (a Pinot/Malbec blend from CA)
* August 1 Domaine St. Eugenie
* August 8 Ehlers Estate Cabernet Franc Rose'
* August 15 E. Guigal Cote du Rhone Rose'
* August 22 Cote du Ancenis Gamay Rose'

2) Saus, which serves Belgian frites and waffles, is expanding their menu to include another Belgian classic: frikandel, which is a hamburger meets sausage sandwich. Ground beef and pork are seasoned, shaped into a sausage and then usually deep-fried. Saus is serving up the frikandel in a toasted
bun and topping it with condiments and various accoutrements.

You'll find the Speciaal, topped with chopped onions, curry ketchup, and mayo; the Burger-Style, topped with Andalouse (read: burger sauce), chopped onions, and chopped pickles; the Spicy, topped with Ole Chipotle, and house-pickled jalapenos; and Double Cheddar, topped with Cheddar Duvel Ale sauce and shredded sharp cheddar.

3) Ashmont Grill celebrates the last of its special summer events with an old fashioned, all-you-can-eat lobster bake, complete with all the trimmings: clams, potatoes, corn salad and blueberry crisp on Sunday, August 14 at 6pm.  The cost is $40 per person. Samples of Long Trail Brewing Company summer beers and ales will be offered a special prices. The party takes place on the backyard patio; opposite the MBTA Ashmont Station.

Their new menu also debuts, including:
Corn Chowder with spicy homemade sausage and chili oil $9
Sashimi Tuna Tartine: traditional ingredients plus soft-boiled egg on puff pastry with local tomatoes and garlic-anchovy vinaigrette $12
Summer Vegetables Tempura $8
Maine Crab Salad with cashew butter & avocado, mango-red pepper slaw $14
Deconstructed Crispy Eggplant Parm with Local Burrata $19
American Pad Thai: handmade fettucine, baby shrimp, Manila clams, lime butter, thai basil, local corn & tomatoes and toasted peanuts $19
Wood-Grilled Pork Tenderloin with roasted summer veggie succotash, potato-scallion latke, red onion compote $22
Pan-Seared Norwegian Salmon with baby bok choy, hon shimejo mushrooms, ginger-miso broth $24

And, from the pastry kitchen:
Frozen Key Lime Pie with gingersnap crust and sugared blackberries
Bellini Sorbet
Milk Chocolate Flan with cocoa nib-pecan praline
Peach-Blueberry Buckle

4) Four Seasons Hotel Boston & Bristol Lounge Executive Chef Brooke Vosika is celebrating August with foodie fanfare.

First, there is Farmer's Market Week, "Where in Boston is Brooke Vosika," from August 7-13. This event will follow Chef Vosika as he travels around Boston to unearth the best local produce and "hidden gem" locations, all broadcast via video stream on their Facebook page each morning. Every evening from August 6–12, Vosika will reveal a clue about where he’ll “broadcast from” the following day, encouraging fans to voice their guesses. The next morning, his video will air and fans can see if they had guessed correctly. As the week progresses, Vosika will also discuss his experiences along the way – providing tips, photos, recipes and more.

Where in Boston is Brooke Vosika is inspired by Vosika’s commitment to farm to table dining, both personally as he makes and bottles his own wines, hot sauce, cider and maple syrup – and also in the buzzing Bristol Lounge restaurant, where each dish incorporates the very best local, seasonal ingredients.

Second, The Bristol Lounge will celebrate National Waffle Week all week long from August 21-27. In addition to the classic Belgian, the Breakfast menu will also spotlight three unique waffle types, each inspired by Executive Chef Brooke Vosika’s favorite flavors: Peanut Butter Banana & Jelly, Red Velvet with Cream Cheese Butter, and a Fan’s Choice Waffle.

The Fan's Choice Waffle will be chosen by popular vote on Facebook.  Voting starts on August 1st and there are three possible choices. Pecan Pie, Strawberry Shortcake and Lemon Poppy Seed.

To book a Waffle Week breakfast reservation in The Bristol Lounge, call (617) 351-2037.

5)  Come celebrate the 4th anniversary of Chef Barbara Lynch's Stir, a demonstration kitchen & cookbook store at  102 Waltham Street. On Sunday, August 4, from 12pm-4pm, come to Stir for a Book & Bake Sale.  All books will be 20 % off and there will be even deeper discounts on special bundle packages. Sweet treats & savory snacks will also be available for purchase to take home.  No need to R.S.V.P. - just stop in at any time during the sale.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Decanter vs Wine Spectator

Which magazine is more important, Decanter or Wine Spectator?

Let us start with a basic fact, that Decanter is based in Great Britain while the Wine Specator is based in the U.S. Yes, both magazines can be found outside their respective countries but it is probably a safe assumption that their greatest impact is in their own countries.

Now, the U.S. has a thriving wine industry, and consumes far more of its own wines than it imports. Britain on the other hand imports nearly all of its wines, consuming about 17% of all worldwide imports which places them above all other countries.  The U.S. consumes only about 10% of worldwide imports. Monetarily, British wine expenditures equate to almost 20% of the total spent on international wine exchanges.  In addition, Britian is the center of the international wine auction market.

Now, both Decanter and Spectator primarily concentrate on wines available in their respective countries.  But, there is one significant difference, the types of wine markets in those countries. In the U.S., there is a three-tier system for wine distribution, as well as a multitude of different state laws which make it far more difficult for many people to acquire the wines they desire. For example, wines available in Massachusetts may not be available in Georgia or Texas. If a Masschusetts resident wants to get wines shipped from California, it is extremely difficult. So, readers of the Spectator may have problems trying to acquire the wines that are reviewed there. That lessens the importance and influence of Spectator.

Britain on the other hand has a unified market, so that the same wines are available all across the country. Thus, British readers of Decanter will almost always be able to locate the wines that they see reviewed within those pages. That certainly makes Decanter far more valuable to its British readers than Wine Spectator is to its U.S. readers. Wine Spectator may have greater circulation numbers than Decanter, but it is far more useful to its British readers who know they can acquire the wines they read about. That would seem to be a very important element to me.

This post was inspired by information from Wine Wars: The Curse of the Blue Nun, The Miracle of Two Buck Chuck, and the Revenge of the Terroirists by Mike Veseth, a new and fascinating wine book. Check it out for more details on the comparison of Decanter and Spectator, as well as plenty of other wine issues.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Rant: Inferno At Monticello

I saw a wine blogger spontaneously combust at Monticello.

On the surface, it sounded like a phenomenal event, a tasting of Virginia wines, accompanied by a lovely buffet dinner, upon the beautiful grounds of Monticello, the former estate of Thomas Jefferson. Such historical significance, a sense of kinship to one of this country's most famous wine lovers. The event was part of the Wine Blogger's Conference, a gathering of over 300 wine bloggers and wine industry personnel, being held this year in Charlottesville, Virginia. Each of the participating wineries was permitted to present one white and one red wine so there was plenty of wine to taste, an excellent opportunity to get some sense of the Virginia winemaking industry.

But, for me and others, this fantastic opportunity was ruined by intense temperatures.  Outside, it was at least 100 degrees Fahrenheit, an oppressive humid heat which sucked the life out of you, even with a short exposure. Drenched in sweat, it was impossible to conduct a fair tasting of the wines that were being offered. I had little interest in tasting the red wines, and even the white wines did not entice. There were dozens of wines that I failed to taste.  Neither the tent rooftops or the scattered fans were sufficient to ease the sweltering temperature. I had to leave the event early, unable to endure the weather.

For at least a week before the Wine Blogger's Conference, we all were aware that the temperatures over the weekend could easily reach 100. So why hold such a large tasting event outside in such heat? It was not fair to the wineries as their wines obviously could not show as well as they should. From what I heard, and I don't have confirmation of such, there was a backup plan in case of inclement weather, which I assume might mean something like terrible thunderstorms. In that event, would it have been held inside somewhere? That would have made sense. So why wasn't the intense heat considered "inclement" weather, worthy of opting for a backup plan?

I believe the organizers of the conference dropped the ball in this matter. The extreme temperatures were not safe for the attendees, and had the potential to cause harm. Plus, these Virginia wines were ignored by a fair number of attendees who would have loved to taste them, but did not due to the brutal humidity. An alternative venue should have been chosen, and I think the organizers had sufficient notice to have done so.

Yes, it is difficult to begin my coverage of the Wine Bloggers Conference with something negative, yet it was something that struck me very hard. What Virginia wines I had already tasted at the conference had been encouraging, making me intent with anticipation for a much broader overview of their wines. Being unable to do so was extremely disappointing and frustrating. And I know I was far from alone. Even some people who stated they enjoyed the event, did confess they failed to try most of the red wines.

I hope this is a lesson for the conference organizers for future events.

Friday, July 22, 2011

All About Argentina

After my recent journey to Argentina, I have written several posts about my experiences and will be writing more as well.  I found much of interest there and recommend that you visit this wine region and taste their wines. Though their modern wine industry is still relatively young, they have accomplished much in a short time and will only improve with time.

My journey was part of a journalist trip, sponsored by Winebow, a wine importer and distributor who represents several producers in Argentina, though about half the wineries we visited were not Winebow clients.  We stayed in the city of Mendoza and our intinerary included winery visits to Zuccardi, Vistalba, Renacer, Catena, Nieto, Alma Negra, and Alta Vista. We met winemakers, toured vineyards, tasted wines from the barrel, did comparative tastings, drank wines with delicious food, and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

I felt it would be very helpful to my readers to compile the links to these posts in a single place. This post will be that repository, and as such will be constantly updated when I write another article about Argentina. Some of these articles were written before my trip, and others afterwards. The posts will be listed in chronological order, from oldest to newest.

Bound for South America: Argentina & Chile
Mendoza: A Positive Initial Impression
Rant: Traveling to Wine Country
The Wines of Argentina: Twelve Things You Should Know
Bodega Renacer: Enamored with Enamore
Alma Negra: A Japanese Aesthetic in Argentina
The Llamas of Alma Negra
Alta Vista Winery: A French Flair With Guinea Pigs

And though the following post is not connected to my trip to Argentina, it is still very relevant concerning the wines of that region and should be of interest.
Altos Las Hormigas: Malbec Is Unimportant?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Thursday Sips & Nibbles

I am back again with a new edition of Thursday Sips & Nibbles, my regular column where I briefly highlight some interesting wine and food items that I have encountered recently.
1) On Sunday, August 21st, through Saturday, August 27th,  over 50 North Shore restaurants and wine stores will join together to hold the first annual North Shore Wine Week. Sponsored by Northshore magazine, in conjunction with NECN’s “TV Diner,” Red White Boston, Quarterly Review of Wines, the North Shore Dish and the Merrimack Valley Chamber of Commerce, North Shore Wine Week will celebrate the North Shore as a premier destination for fine wine and food.

Throughout the week the area’s wine stores and restaurants will highlight their wine selections with various complimentary events and great deals including everything from specially crafted wine tastings, wine dinners, wine flights, pairings, special events, and more.

North Shore Wine Week will kick-off with a VIP inaugural event at the Wine ConneXtion, located in North Andover, on Saturday, August 20th, from 12pm-5pm, during an exclusive, free wine tasting event featuring cuisine from several participating North Shore Wine Week chefs.

Buy local, drink global and join the North Shore as a vibrant food and wine community and support local businesses including: 15 Walnut, 62 Restaurant & Wine Bar, 9 Elm, Alchemy Café and Bistro, Alfalfa Farm Winery, Beacon Hill Wine Shop, Black Cow Tap and Grill, Bonta Restaurant & Grill, Brasserie 28, Burtons Grill, Busa Wine & Spirits, Café Escadrille, Ceia Restaurant, China Blossom, Evenfall Restaurant, Finz Seafood & Grill, Grand Trunk Old World Market, Grapevine Restaurant, Joe Fish Seafood Restaurant & Bar, Joseph's Trattoria, Keon's, L&D Liquors, Latitude 43, Loretta Restaurant, Masa Restaurant, Nathaniel's at Hawthorne Hotel, Oregano's Pizza, Orzo Restaurant, Pamplemousse, Pellana Steakhouse, Salem Waterfront Hotel, Samuel's at The Andover Inn, Savour Wine and Cheese, The Landing at 7 Central, The Loft, The Peddlers Daughter Irish Restaurant & Pub, Tuscan Kitchen, Wild Bites, Wine ConneXtion, and Yella Grille.

2) Last weekend, I celebrated my birthday dinner at AKA Bistro in Lincoln, which was my Favorite New Suburban Restaurant of 2010.  What an amazing meal! I did not take any photos, as I was there simply to savor the food and enjoy my birthday. My good friends Adam and his wife were there too, and the four of us shared a diverse assortment of creative dishes, all of which pleased.

Some of the dishes we enjoyed included Bronzini with hot sesame oil, pickled burdock root, Jalapeno & Cilantro; Scallop ceviche with Banuyls vinaigrette and fresh winter black truffle; Seared Tuna and sweet potato tempura with ginger vinaigrette; Homemade Kobe Dumpling with Sukiyaki consommé and mushrooms; Brandade of salted cod with baby arugula and toast; Bone Marrow, aromatic sea salt and toasted country bread and more. To drink, we shared the 2009 Kuentz-Bas, an Alsatian assemblage of Silvaner, Muscat, Auxerrois and Chasselas, and a sake, the Wataribune Junmai Ginjo 55. Both were excellent, and paired well with our dinner. 

Service was top notch and I am extremely happy that I chose AKA Bistro for my celebration. It continues to garner my highest recommendation, and is as good as any Boston restaurant. If you have not dined there yet, then make plans to do so.

3) This summer, NECN’s “TV Diner,” New England's food and dining program, is bringing together some of Greater Boston’s best chefs and restaurants to the beautiful rolling hills and orchards of Smolak Farms in North Andover, for the first annual TV Diner Summer Farm Food Fest. The festival will feature cooking demos, tastings and activities including live music, children’s games, hayrides, contests and more.

On Sunday, August 28, from 11:30am-5pm, spend the day at Smolak Farms with “TV Diner.” With over 1,000 attendees slated to appear, guests can look forward to everything from tasting stations, chef demos, live music, PYO seasonal fruit, hayrides, line dancing lessons, as well as classes and workshops offered onsite all afternoon. There is also free parking.

An all access pass to the event is $35 online for adults, $40 purchased at the door, and children under 10 are free. For more information or to purchase tickets please visit:

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

2009 Stadlmann Zierfandler Anninger Classic

What is Zierfandler?  No, it is not a comedy about male models starring Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson (that was Zoolander). Instead, like Rotgipfler, it is a rare Austrian wine grape, and I was excited to taste the sample that I received. How often do you get the chance to try Zierflander? After enjoying this delicious wine, my answer is "not enough." 

The 2009 Stadlmann Zierfandler Anninger Classic is produced by Weingut Stadlmann and you can read my prior review of their 2009 Stadlmann Rotgipfler Anninger Classic for information about the winery.  Zierfandler is considered to be the Stadlmann’s hallmark wine, and some of their vines are over 40 years old.  

Zierfandler is a white grape, likely a cross between Roter Veltliner and possibly Traminer.  In Austria, it is primarily grown in the Thermenregion, though you can also find plantings in Hungary (where is known as Cirfandel or Cirfandli) and in Slovenia (where it is known as Zerjavina). In Austria, it is also known as Spätrot ("late red") because the late-ripening grapes can sometimes acquire a red tinge. Historically, it was often blended with Rotgipfler, but nowadays you can find it more and more as a single varietal wine. Zierfandler wines typically evidence tastes of fruit and nuts, with plenty of acidity, and some sweetness. They also can age well, easily for ten years or so.

The 2009 Stadlmann Zierfandler Anninger Classic (about $15) is made of 100% Zierfandler, from 20 year old vines, and was aged in large old wooden barrels and on the lees for approximately four months. It only has an alcohol content of 12.5%, and has a bright golden color. On the nose, the fruit aromas dominated, citrus and ripe peach, with a mild undertone of some floral notes. On the palate, the fruit continued to dominate, adding some tropical fruit flavors and hints of slightly salty almonds. Very noticeable acidity partnered with some honey notes, which provided a mild sweetness to the wine, and the finish was fairly long and very pleasing.

In some respects, this wine reminded me of a cross between a Gruner Veltliner and a Riesling. The label suggested to pair the wine with spicy food, so I opened the bottle with my dinner of spicy ground beef tacos. It worked very well, the slight sweetness of the wine helping to cut the spicy heat of the tacos. The wine would definitely be an excellent accompaniement with spicy Asian food too. Two of us finished off the entire bottle with dinner, both very much enjoying it.

If you get the chance to try some Zierfandler, just say Yes!     

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Food Sake Tokyo: A Fascinating Resource

With the growing interest in all matters food, numerous culinary tours and vacations have sprouted up all over the world. The publishing world has been a bit slower to catch up, and good culinary travel guides are not as common as they could be. Some food travel guides are merely a list of restaurants, but they lack explanatory information on cuisine, and also fail to provide the vocabulary that might be useful for a foreign traveler.  If the Tokyo edition is indicative of the quality of the rest of their books, then The Terroir Guides might be a model for other culinary travel guides.

While at the Kunikuniya book store in New York City, I purchased a copy of Food Sake Tokyo ($29.95) by Yukari Sakamoto (Little Bookroom, May 2010), a trade paperback of 304 pages. The book is divided into five chapters: Eating Out, Food, Beverages, Places to Eat and Shop, and Culinary Itineraries.  Yukari is a chef, sommelier, journalist, and restaurant consultant. She once worked in the depachika (epicurean food hall) at the Takashimaya department store in Tokyo. Yukari has produced a comprehensive and fascinating insider's guide to the food and drink of Japan, and specifically Tokyo. If you are traveling to Tokyo, I strongly recommend that you buy this guide. Your stomach will thank you.

Chapter 1, Eating Out, provides some basic information on Japanese dining etiquette as well as a list of common Japanese words you would use in a restaurant.  You will learn how to say things like "I have allergies" and "Is this raw?"  The chapter then describes kaiseki, casual dining, hot pot restaurants, and department store food halls, providing some specific recommendations as well. Within those descriptions, there is additional Japanese terminology. This chapter is a good basic introduction to dining in Japan, and would be useful to you even if you are not travelling to Japan. for example, it will help you better navigate a menu at a Japanese restaurant.

Chapter 2, Food, is a description of Japanese foods and ingredients, with additional Japanese terminology, and some restaurant and shop suggestions.  There are also some brief essays on related topics such as umami and sushi etiquette. This is also an excellent reference section for anyone who wants to learn more about Japanese cuisine, and once again useful for deciphering a menu at any Japanese restaurant. In this chapter, you will learn about the heirloom vegetables of Kyoto, a famous restaurant which serves horse meat, a seasonal list of seafood, the poisonous fugu, and much more. Just note that the individual sections are brief, and are more a basic introduction than an indepth study of each topic.

Chapter 3, Beverages, includes basic information on tea, sake, shochu, umeshu and Japanese wine, with additional Japanese terminology. Did you know Japan's first commercial winery dates back to 1875?  The sake information is brief and simple, with a few recommendations for where you can purchase sake. The chapter also has a list of Casual Places to Drink in Tokyo, including some izakaya and beer gardens. 

Chapter 4, Places to Eat and Shop, is the heart of the travel guide, breaking down Tokyo into neighborhoods and providing numerous recommendation of restaurants and culinary-related shops. Each recommendation provides all of the necessary information for the place, from its address and phone number to its website, as well as a description of the best items to order or purchase.  The neighborhood maps are very easy to read, and show the location of everywhere that is recommended. You can easily use those maps to plot out your own culinary itinerary. Though it is said to be difficult to find specific addresses in Tokyo, I think these menus make it much easier to find their recommended destinations. 

Learn how to navigate the Tsukiji Market, find out where to buy Japanese knives, discover the Antenna shops (where you can regional goods from all over Japan), where to find plastic food samples, uncover a restaurant where you can make your own pancakes, and much much more. There must be hundreds of interesting recommendations within this chapter. This chapter would be extremely useful when I eventually travel to Tokyo.

Chapter 5, Culinary Itineraries, is a short section, beginning with some suggested one and two day culinary itineraries for Tokyo. There is then a list of some unique Japanese ingredients and tools that you might want to purchase so that you can prepare Japanese cuisine at home. In addition, there is some information on the Kyoto's Nishiki Market. This is the weakest of the five chapters, due to its lack of depth, and would have been better with additional information and suggestions.

Overall, I think this is a well written and informative culinary travel guide, as well as a good introductory reference work on Japanese cuisine. Even if you are not traveling to Japan, you will find this book fascinating and useful.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Rant: Umi-No-Hi Omedetō or Happy Marine Day!

Today, people in Japan are celebrating Umi-No-Hi, that translates as Marine Day or Ocean Day, a holiday which expresses thanks for the blessings of the sea, as well as hopes for Japan's economic prosperity.  The holiday is celebrated every year on the third Monday in July, and many celebrate by taking a day trip to the beach. 

The origins of this holiday extend back to the the late 19th century, though it was not made a holiday until 1942.  In 1874, the Japanese Meiji government commissioned the construction of the Meiji-Maru, a lighthouse service steamship. When it was completed in 1876, the Emperor used it to take an inspection tour of northeastern Japan, starting in Aomori and ending in Yokohama on July 20.

It would not be until 1942 that Marine Memorial Day was established to commemorate the Emperor's voyage on the Meiji-Maru. But, it still would not become a national holiday until 1995, taking on a greater meaning of thanks for the blessings of the ocean.  Though it was originally observed on July 20, that changed in 2003 when it was moved to the third Monday in July. This was due to the Happy Monday System, which tried to move some holidays to make more three day weekends.

Today would be the perfect holiday for the Japanese to make a united effort to better protect the bounty of the sea, to agree to protect the endangered fish that they seem to eat far too much.  For example, most agree that bluefin tuna is seriously endangered yet the Japanese consume approximately 80% of all bluefin tuna. There is even evidence that when the U.S. consumption of blue fin decreased, Japanese consumption increased.

If we are to save the bluefin, major change has to come from Japan, or all our efforts will fail. Even if the entire U.S. stopping eating blue fin, that would be insufficient to protect these noble fish because of the massive Japanese consumption.  Eating a fish into extinction is not a true appreciation of the blessings of the sea. Rather, the Japanese need to become shepherds of the sea, protecting the "flocks" of fish rather than devouring them into oblivion.  This protection should extend to more than just bluefin, and include all endangered species.  

Japan, please take the opportunity of this holiday to step forward and support seafood sustainability, starting with bluefin tuna.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Sake News

1) Akane Niikura, a 10-year old-girl, is Japan's youngest sake expert, having passed a test held by the Sake Service Institute. Even though she is too young to drink sake, she was able to pass the test solely through her sense of smell. It probably helps that her mother is also a sake expert, running a sake bar.    Akane specializes in recommending sake for food pairings.   Check out the news video about her.

2) Pizza and sake?  It might sound strange to you but the two can pair very well together, and I can show you the possibilities. Join me at my upcoming "Sake 101: Pizza & Sake" class at the Boston Wine School on Wednesday, July 27, at 6:30pm. This will be a fun introduction to the realm of sake, covering diverse topics such as sake history, the brewing process, sake types, rituals & customs, terminology and much more. No prior knowledge of sake is required to take this class. We will taste through a number of sakes, as well as see how it pairs with a variety of different pizzas. Open up your mind and arm yourself with the knowledge you need to safely navigate a restaurant's sake menu or a wine store's sake selection. There is limited seating available so please sign up soon so you don't miss out.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Rant: Money Buys Influence & Access, Duh!

Unless you live in an isolated cave, you realize that political contributions can purchase influence and access. Just pick up any newspaper and you will be almost sure to see a story about such contributions. It is a fact of our political system and it probably isn't ever going to change. So pointing out that some group has donated a lot of money to political campaigns, hoping to protect their business, is not significantly newsworthy. So why all the attention lately to the amount of money spent by alcohol wholesalers?

What spurred on this latest attention was a study released by the Specialty Wine Retailers Association (SWRA) entitled "Toward Liquor Domination," and subtitled "How Alcohol Wholesalers, Time and Money Have Corrupted the American Alcohol Industry." The study indicates that alcohol wholesalers have contributed over $82 million to political campaigns and federal lobbying during the past three election cycles. The report states: "The $82 million wholesalers donated over the course of five years dwarfs that spent by retailers and producers on influencing lawmakers across the country." Unfortunately, the report fails to provide sufficient data to fully support that allegation.

I should initially note that I am not a supporter of the current three-tier system and I also do not support HR1161. But, if those matters are to be fought, then accurate information should be disseminated, rather than allowing hyberole and misinformation to divert attention from what is most important. Such matters give opponents fodder to attack, allowing them to avoid the important issues. Don't belabor the obvious and provide something new and substantial.

It is a simple fact that alcohol wholesalers contribute millions of dollars to political campaigns and lobbying in efforts to seek influence and access.  It is also a fact that alcohol producers and retailers contribute millions of dollars to political campaigns and lobbying in efforts to seek influence and access. The only difference between the two is the amount of money spent. So it cannot be corrupt for wholesalers to make such contributions, or producers and retailers would also be guilty of such corruption. 

The wholesalers appear to be more successful because they spend more money. Rather obvious isn't it? So why don't producers and retailers just spend more money, to be more competitive?  Producers are generating billions in revenue so it can't be a lack of money issue. Do they care enough to want to effectuate change in the three-tier system?

Let us look more closely at the figures presented in the Study, and I will also point out the missing data.

In the Federal Influence chart, during the past three election cycles (2005/6, 2007/8, 2009/10), it is noted that alcohol wholesalers contributed about $15.5 million to "federal election campaigns and Political Action Committees."  The producers of wine, beer & spirits contributed a total of about $9.5 million, with beer producers contributing the most, $5.5 million, and wine producers only contributing about $2.3 million. So, wholesalers spent about $6 million more than producers. But this chart omits the contribution of retailers, so the gap is actually lower. Why was information on retailers not provided?

In the State Influence chart, during the past three election cycles, it is noted that alcohol wholesalers contributed about $58 million to state political campaigns. Brewers, wineries, distilleries and retailers contributed a total of about $29.8 million, about half the amount of wholesalers.  This is the only chart with complete information.

In the Federal Lobbying Expenses chart, during the past three election cycles, it is noted that alcohol wholesalers spent about $8.8 million on lobbying efforts. But the chart fails to provide any information on lobbying expenses for producers or retailers.  Why was this information not provided? 

So, by totaling all of the figures for these three charts, alcohol wholesalers have spent about $82 million. The total for producers and retailers is about $39 million, but that number is actually higher as there is data missing on some of their contributions and expenses. That means the Study's conclusion is based on incomplete data and thus not properly supported.  Roughly, based on the figures we do possess, it appears wholesalers spend about twice as much as producers/retailers, which I do not think constitutes a total that "dwarfs" the other. That is just a bit of hyberbole. $40 million is a significant amount of money in its own right.    

I am also curious as to how much the Specialty Wine Retailers Association contributes to political campaigns and lobbying expenses.

A good portion of the Study rehashes the familiar problems with the three-tier system, which is not really necessary as that has been discussed many times before. And it is not earth-shattering news that alcohol wholesalers spend a lot of money on political contributions and lobbying.  I would rather know why producers and retailers are not contributing more to defeat the efforts of wholesalers. That is something people don't discuss, and has direct relevance to the overall issues.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Thursday Sips & Nibbles

I am back again with a new edition of Thursday Sips & Nibbles, my regular column where I briefly highlight some interesting wine and food items that I have encountered recently.
1)I’m just one guy, with a boat, a truck and a dog, but since last year, I’ve been selling my haul of 60-80 lobsters a week to 50 Local,” says Chip Zeiner of Cape Porpoise, whose crustaceans become restaurant creations like Lobster Carbonara, Lobster BLT’s and Lobster Spring Rolls.

Chips’ sales guarantee from having a one-on-one relationship with a chef is echoed by each of the farmers and fisherman, dairy and cattlemen, cheese-makers, foragers and gardeners who’ve formed a beneficial alliance with 50 Local, a chic yet casual bistro in the center of this historic Maine town.

With culinary chops honed in Boston kitchens, husband and wife co-owners David Ross (chef) and Merrilee Paul (GM) opened 50 Local to raves last year. 50 LOCAL’s ultra-locavore concept is a polyglot menu finely tuned so that almost every ingredient used in the kitchen is sourced from a local purveyor located within a few miles of the restaurant’s door. Just inside that door is a tall blackboard announcing which farms contributed to that day’s offerings.

July fare changes daily, but might include:
Margaritas with cukes and blueberries from Merrilee’s grandmother’s farm ($9)
South Berwick’s Breezy Hill Farm Pork Chop with sage brown butter – a special when they get a pig every six weeks
Veal chop from Harris Farm with Swiss chard, and foraged mushrooms by sous chef Jared St. Onge of Moonswell Farm ($36)
Browne Trading Co. Atlantic Halibut from with lemony risotto ($34)
Blue Velvet, a semi-soft raw cow’s milk cheese made in Phippsburg, Maine ($6)
Caesar Salad with a poached egg from Ewe & I Farm ($11)
Pemaquid, ME Oysters ($16/dozen)
Groundwork Farm Greens with sherry vinaigrette ($9)

2) The Claddagh Fund and Dropkick Murphys are gearing up to host the first annual Rotten Tomato Karaoke Party in a tent that will be set up right next to The Barking Crab restaurant on Thursday, July 21, from 6pm-10pm. Some of Boston’s best-know athletes, media personalities, politicians and chefs will give their best karaoke rendition in front of a sea of rotten tomato-packing audience members! All attendees will have the chance to purchase tomatoes (all proceeds will benefit Claddagh Fund) to throw at the singing notables should they not hit that high or low note on key.

Some of the celebrities will include: Stanley Cup Winner/Bruins Champion, Shawn Thornton; NESN’s Heidi Watney; Actor, Lenny Clark; Celebrity Chef, Jamie Bissonnette; Boxer, Micky Ward; Miss Massachusetts, Alida D’Angona; WFNX’s Adam 12; State Senator Jack Hart; City Councilor Bill Linehan with more to be announced.

Tickets are available for $25 at with a limited amount of $30 tickets available at the door. Patrons are encouraged to guarantee entrance with an online ticket purchase before the event. Ticket purchase includes complimentary appetizers courtesy of The Barking Crab, beer courtesy of Budweiser and Narragansett and cocktails courtesy of Sailor Jerry Rum, Skyy Vodka and Pepsi.

Karaoke is open to all patrons on a first come, first serve basis although spaces in the line-up have been saved for celebrity guests. Tomatoes will be sold on-site for $30 per tomato or 4 tomatoes for $100. Discounted tomato packages will be on sale prior to the event on the Claddagh Fund website,

The Claddagh Fund is the charitable foundation of the Dropkick Murphys, founded by Ken Casey in 2009. Honoring the three attributes of the Claddagh Ring, Friendship, Love and Loyalty, the mission of the Claddagh Fund is to raise money for the most underfunded non-profit organizations that support vulnerable populations in our communities.

3) As the Chinese proverb says “deep doubts, deep wisdom….” It’s time to doubt the stereotypical beer and sake pairings that generally accompany the intrinsic flavors of Asian cuisine and grab a glass of wine! On Saturday, July 23, from 12pm-5pm, join the Wine ConneXtion for “Wok n’ Wine,” a complimentary in-store wine tasting featuring a special wok tasting from China Blossom and a live Kung Fu demonstration from Yang’s Martial Arts.

Guests will have the opportunity to sample authentic Chinese dishes and watch live wok demonstrations as the experts at the Wine ConneXtion help pair wine to complement the flavor of traditional Sichuan and Cantonese wok-style cooking. Get inspired with live Kung Fu demonstrations from students from Yang’s Martial Arts, streaming Kung Fu movies and wok races. Special prizes will be raffled off to guests from both China Blossom and Yang’s Martial Arts.

Walk ins welcome all day, Kung Fu demonstration starts at 2:45PM. Kan Pei! (Bottom’s up.)

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Newport Food & Wine Treasures on Bellevue

If you are a food and wine lover visting Newport, Rhode Island, then you need to make a stop on Bellevue Avenue, just across the street from the Hotel Viking.  You'll find three places of interest here, including a wine store, gourmet food shop and chocolate shop. And they are all located right next to each other.

Maria and David Glade own both the Newport Wine Cellar, established in November 2008, and Le Petit Gourmet, opened in November 2009. The wine store generally stocks more artisan, boutique wines as well as some craft beers and spirits. They hold complimentary wine tastings on Fridays and Saturdays, from 4-7pm.  In addition, they often hold wine classes on Wednesday nights, which cost $40 per person.

The store has two rooms, the front being devoted to Old World wines and the back room more for New World wines, beers, and liquors. The shelves make it easy to look at the wine labels and I was impressed with the diverse selection I found. These are not your usual suspects, but much more interesting wines, and they even have a decent selection of half-bottles.  Prices are average and there is a 10% discount on a mixed case. You will find wines at a wide range of price points, including some under $10.

With summer here, they are stocking over a dozen different rosés, and I had the opportunity to taste a complex and intriguing 2010 Lucien Crochet Sancerre Pinot Rose ($34.95). I also ended up purchasing a couple of Portuguese rosés. This is a very worthy destination for wine lovers. And it certainly was better than the other wine store I visited in Newport that was plagued with a significant dust problem.

Le Petit Gourmet is a gourmet food and cheese shop, with a diverse selection of fresh and packaged items. Though small, they have packed lots of food items into this space. They have a refrigerated case with some specialty meats, such as sausages and pates, including from D'Artagnan.

The cheese case looks very compelling, with an interesting variety of cheese from all over the world.

You'll find fresh bread from a bakery in Hyannis, homeade croissants, quiche, salads, soups and sandwiches. With your wine from next door, you can come here and buy enough food to take home for dinner, or for a picnic. Wine & food go well together. 

With your food and wine, you only need something for dessert so you then stop at Le Maison de Coco, new shop for truffles, tarts and other confections. You can stop here for takeout, or get something to eat at their outside tables.  The colors of the interior of the shop are supposed to reflect the colors of ripe cacao.

Owner Michele De Luca-Verley primarily uses chocolate from Madagascar cacao beans which were processed in France.  Michele is very personable, and obviously passionate about chocolate.
Michele enjoys making tea and fruit infused chocolate truffles, and I tried the Bergamot, Jasmine Peach, and Orange Blossom. The truffles had a rich chocolate flavor and the fruit/tea flavors were distinctive but not overwhelming. They complemented the chocolate and did not possess that artificial flavor that sometimes you find in other truffles.

So, if you travel to Newport, make sure to stop by Bellevue Avenue and check out all three of these cool food and wine shops.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Perro Salado: Creative Mexican in Newport

When you think of restaurants in Newport, Rhode Island, seafood probably first comes to mind but do you even give any thought to Mexican cuisine? Probably not, but if you dine at Perro Salado then it is very likely that your mindset will change.

Perro Salado is Spanish for "salty dog," an apt phrase to pay homage to this famous fishing and sailing port. The restaurant is about four years old, a joint venture between three people: Dan Hall, Andi Johnson, and Russ Hall. Russ, Dan’s brother, always had a dream of owning a restaurant. He fell in love with Mexican cuisine and saw an opportunity in Newport, which was largely bereft of such cuisine. Dan was a chef, who had worked in Miami and New York, and was up for the challenge of opening a restaurant. Andi Johnson, the general manager, has an artistic eye and helped develop the look and decor of the restaurant.  Andi also works as a bartender, helping to create the innovative cocktails on their drink list.  

I was invited to dine at Perro Salado, and was intrigued enough by their menu and philosophy to accept the invitation.  The restaurant is located inside the 300-year-old colonial Decatur House, where naval captain Stephen Decatur was raised prior to the Revolutionary War. As it is a house, the dining areas are spread out through a seeming maze of different rooms, with a bar set in the entry room. Thus, each room is also relatively small, with maybe a half dozen tables or so in each. This provides a homey ambiance, and the decor contributes to this pleasant atmosphere. The Mexican flair is restrained and more subtle, not like other Mexican places which overwhelm with kitsch. Perro Salado is a casual place, appropriate for an intimate date, a group of friends after work or a family.   

There is also a moderate-sized outside patio where you can dine and relax on a warm summer night.  When I arrived, it was a beautiful Saturday evening and there was a short line of people waiting for the restaurant to open at 5pm. By 6pm, the restaurant was nearly full, so it is obvious this this is a very popular dining destination. After my own experience, I can readily understand why it is so popular, and I would return there when I go back to Newport.   

Before ordering your meal, you might want to start off with an alcoholic drink, and tequila reigns supreme here, from margaritas to tasting flights. There are five different types of margaritas, from the House Margarita to the Cilantro-Jalapeno, priced from $6.50-$8 per glass, or a pitcher from $30-$35. Prices are higher if you want a more expensive tequila.  I very much enjoyed the taste of the Blood Orange Margarita, and they did not skimp on the tequila. For flights, you can get a Vertical (consisting of a silver, reposado and anejo from the same producer) or a Horizontal (consisting of the same grade from three different producers).  You'll also find some other Mexican inspired cocktails, $6-$10, from Oaxacan Lemonade to the Pepino Fresco. I tried the Mezcal Mule, with Scorpion Silver Mezcal, ginger beer, and lime juice, though it did not impress me, needing more ginger flavor.  

They offer Red and White Sangria ($11/glass, $22/pitcher) and tried a glass of their Red. I have high standards for sangria, having been spoiled by the excellent sangria at Dali. To my surprise, Perro's sangria reminded me exactly of that from Dali, and I was extremely pleased with its taste. This is sangria I could drink all night long. On the drink menu, you will also find beers, draft and in the bottle, and a small wine list, which has some interesting choices.  I should also note that upon arrival, your server places a chilled bottle of water on your table, a nice touch.  

The food menu is relatively small but with sufficient diverse and interesting choices, including 5 Entradas (appetizers), 2 Ensaladas (salads), 5 Platos Principales (entrees), Taqueria (tacos to quesadillas), and 10 Sides. There were several off-menu specials as well. This is a restaurant that is not trying to overwhelm you with choices, and I like that idea. If you want seafood, beef, poultry, or even vegetarian, you will be able to find something to choose. Based on the dishes I had, I think you could even make a great meal, sharing just Entradas, Ensaladas and Sides. 

Most of the cuisine is not traditional Mexican cuisine, but rather inspired by the flavors and ingredients of Mexico. The chef uses fresh ingredients, often local and/or organic, and most of the specials included local ingredients.  This is another compelling reason to patronize Perro Salado, though the true test is still the taste of the food.  And in that regard, Perro passes with flying colors.

My dinner began with a couple Entradas, the first being the Seafood Chowder ($10), which includes shrimp, mussels & scallops in coconut milk & lime broth. The broth was thinner than some other chowders, had a strong seafood taste, lots of buttery notes, and some tropical flavors. There was plenty of seafood in the chowder, and it all seemed fresh and tender.  I enjoyed the taste, especially the unique addition of the coconut and lime.

The Sticky Pork Ribs ($11) were a knockout! The ribs are supposed to be glazed in Coke, brown sugar and Mexican spices, and you receive two good-sized racks. The ribs had a delicious charred and crispy exterior that easily peeled away from the rest of the ribs. I would have been satisfied with just a plate of that tasty crispness. The rest of the ribs were very tender and meaty, falling off the bone. They had a strong sweetness to them, with underlying hints of spice, and were plainly addictive. If you visit Perro, you must order these ribs.

An intriguing Mexican variant on a famous classic is the Grilled Romaine Caesar Salad ($9) which has jalapeño, bacon, cotija cheese, and a house dressing.  The jalapeno added some appealing heat to the dish, and the cotija presented a creamy texture to the the dish. The produce seemed very fresh and I think I like this variant better than a conventional Caesar. 

For an entree, I decided to combine an Entrada with a choice from the Tacqueria.  From the Entrada, I went with the Empanada del Dia ($9), which was beef. The flaky pastry was filled with plenty of well-spiced meat, and sure seemed as if it were homemade.

From the Tacqueria, I chose a Quesadilla ($8), filled with Chicken Tinga. The grilled tortilla was filled with plenty of moist, shredded chicken and melted cheese, and the sauce added a spicy edge to the dish. For the price, it was a good-sized dish and shows the kitchen can produce more traditional Mexican dishes as well as their innovative ones.

One of the special entress of the night was a Lobster dish, special, atop rice and accompanied by corn, garlic scapes and other veggies.  There was lots of sweet lobster meat and the rice was also quite tasty too. Everything seemed fresh, as had all of the other dishes, and once again is was an intriguing variation on something more traditional.

I saved a little room for dessert and chose the Sopapillas, which are drizzled with Mexican chocolate and accompanied with whipped cream. Light and flaky, the warm sopapillos made for an excellent platform for the rich chocolate and whipped cream. And they were light enough that almost everyone should have enough room after dinner to have a couple sopapillos. You won't be disappointed.

Service was very good, attentive without being overbearing. Overall, I was impressed with the cuisine, especially the sticky ribs and caesar salad, plus their philosophy of using many local and organic ingredients is a worthy one. I enjoyed its casual and homey ambiance, and their red sangria gets my hearty approval. It is clear why the restaurant attracts the crowds that it does and I would definitely return here on my next visit to Newport. I strongly recommend that my readers make a visit there too, and have some sangria and ribs.

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