Friday, November 7, 2014

Apologia certatim iudicandum

Bad Manhattan!
Shaken with foamy skim.
Not clear.
Cheap cherry.
Apologia certatim iudicandum---which is Bad Schoolboy Latin for "an explanation of judging cocktail competitions".

I was asked recently, in a very serious and respectful “I would really like to know and understand” manner, why cocktail competition judges make the decisions they make.

Immediately on the heels of that question another person queried, “Yeah, why did you pick that cocktail as a winner and not the other one, because I think the other one tasted better.

Lots of answers to both those questions...although they are really the same question.

•The competition rules:  every competition has its own set of rules which the judges agree to adhere to.  Occasionally the judges may not like the parameters as stated or the specifications for judgment, but they are duty bound to follow those rules by agreement.  In one competition judges were instructed to give a range of points to the bartender’s “je ne se quois”. How do you assign relative points to 'je ne sais quois"?

•What the judges are looking for---what they are tasked to look for---can be very different from what a consumer is looking for in a cocktail.  It is not enough to say, “Wow, that tastes good so it should win.”
Perfect gin martini with
an exquisite simple garnish.

•Some questions judges may be asking:

--How easy would this drink be to make? 

--How much preparation time would it take? 

--How difficult would it be to source the ingredients?

--How much would the drink cost versus what a bar could charge---because bartenders are there to make a profit for the bar with their skills and their time.

Dale DeGroff Jack Rose.
One perfect rose petal.
Why they call him King Cocktail.
--Would you want to drink more than one of these?

--Would you order this drink if you saw it in front of someone else? 

--Does the garnish fit the cocktail? Is it cumbersome or fussy? Is it appropriate?  At one tiki-style competition a bartender plopped in an entire nosegay of pungent tropical flowers into the glass; the judges had to negotiate the shrubbery just to taste, and the flowers were so pungent they could not identify the base spirit being used.

--Can this cocktail be replicated? Could you make this drink faithfully at your bar, or at home,
Wee bit over the top?
And how would you drink it?
without too much fuss?

--How does the bartender look, and how does he present himself? (Personable, informative, knowledgeable, eye contact? )

--Does the bartender set up his space (mise en place) properly for efficiency? Does he come prepared? Does he react quickly and easily to unexpected problems?  Does he have good technique.  In short, does he appear to be professional, or is he making it up as he goes along?

Too much garnish?
Ah, but what if it is
a Pimm's Cup? (It is.)
•If the competition is brand-sponsored, does he use the brand to good effect? Every judge has experienced a drink where the sponsor brand wasn’t even evident in the finished cocktail. Don’t make a smoky/peaty Islay scotch cocktail in a gin sour competition.  And for heaven’s sake, do not use the brand’s greatest competitor in the same drink: remember, if the cocktail wins it will be used in public relations and brands don’t care to advertise their major compeitors in their cocktails.

•Something often overlooked by competitors, who in their zeal strive to impress the judges by going over the top in their creations, is that a good judge is constantly looking not for extravagance but balance.  A judge values harmony of ingredients over garish display almost every time.

•While most judges are chosen to be as non-partisan and independent as possible, and ideally should be people with great understanding of the industry, many aren’t. Those are chosen for their celebrity status (radio personality, sports star, local writer), and may or may not know anything about the spirits or cocktail business.  But even those folks are given basic ground rules and scoring ranges so there is at least some discipline to the choice of winners. Plus, they’re usually sitting alongside an experienced judge just in case.
A remarkable award winning Cognac cocktail by Adam Robinson.
Clarity, precision, explosions of flavor, perfect balance, and maintaining the
integrity and presence of every ingredient in the drink. Quickly made, perfect procedure,
and simply garnished, served in a specially selected glass.
(And he used Cynar, an artichoke-based bitter liqueur from Italy...and made it work!)

•And if you believe non-trade judges are critical, the professional United States Bartenders Guild member-bartenders that judge, and the USBG rules they are instructed to follow, are precise, highly detailed, and brutal. With USBG rules, even a well-designed cocktail may be deemed a loser because procedure and protocol weren’t followed or the bartender was slack and careless in some regard.  They hold themselves to higher standards than non-bartenders do.

In any competition, it pretty much comes down to an aggregation of things that will eventually determine the winner. One thing for sure: it’s never a casual decision.  The bartenders take it seriously; the judges take it just as seriously.

Three drinks are from a recent tequila exhibition in Portland:

By Cori-Lynn Black. A tequila sour with
floral notes. She used violet flavors, then garnished with
bitters and a single flower petal floating
on top of the egg white foam.

From Sarah Rehman, the Dulce Brujeria.
Sarah made a bright, crystalline yellow drink then enhanced it
by sprinking a small dash of Indian Saffron and letting the
tendrils of the spice add color and flavor and aroma.

A tequila sour from Laura Lindsay, incorporating watermelon juice, pepper spice, salt,
basil and sour.  Each part of the garnish reflected an ingredient of the cocktail.

And that's only three competitors.  Out of 6.
Still think cocktail judging is easy?

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Abacela Vineyards: Umpqua Terroir/Spanish Varieties make oustanding wines

As with many wineries, it started with an idea which turned into a passion, then morphed into a dream which was turned into reality.  Of course, all this took many years of hard work and sacrifice, but that’s what happens when you make your dreams come alive.

Earl Jones got an early…um, jones…for Spanish wines, especially the succulent red wines from Rioja and Ribera. At first he had little idea and even less concern for what the wines were: he simply enjoyed them, whether alone or with food…especially with food.

As his interest in the wines developed, and he learned about Tempranillo, Garnacha, Albariño and other Spanish varieties, he began to wonder why they weren’t represented in the American wine scene---did they not fit the climate or terroir; did they not have the capability to produce outstanding wines in other places; and why wouldn’t they?  These questions led Earl to investigate even further, and eventually he decided to follow the idea/passion/dream of developing these varieties in the Pacific Northwest, finally settling on the beautiful but then far-off-the-beaten-wine-path of the Umpqua Valley in Oregon.

Fast forward twenty years and Earl, his wife Hilda, and their two daughters are celebrating the “overnight success” of an outstanding winery, Abacela Vineyards, and their championship, gold medal, tasty-as-hell wines, which are led by Tempranillo, those Rioja and Ribera reds that Earl enjoyed so much, the brick and mineral-driven Albariño white, and a Garnacha Rosé that are astonishingly good and entirely delectable.  There are other varieties present in the vineyards and in the wines----Syrah, Malbec, Dolcetto, Viognier, even some Petite Verdot---but it is the Spanish varieties that are most compelling here.

There are now two Tempranillo wines, the Estate and the Fiesta offering.  The Estate is the more conservatively robust and stately of the two, more akin to the idee fixé of Rioja and Ribera.  The Fiesta Tempranillo is the more approachable of the two immediately upon release, grapy and gulpable and made so as to soften up the tannins and make the wine smoother and silkier, but more in a Spanish way than a traditional jam-centric California style.  There’s still lively acidity, black fruits and spiciness here, and no hint of overconcentrated  jamminess.  It is compulsively drinkable: one sip and you want the whole glass, and a refill, and then another bottle.  There’s no tannic bite or scratchiness either, due to the choice of the grape lots and the barrel regimen, with 17 months of a combination of old and new barrels, using a combination of French and American oak. (Interestingly enough for wine geek types, the Fiesta actually reminded me of the Mencia/Bierzo reds, even though that’s a different Spanish variety; it made the wine even more drinkable.)

How thoughtful of the folks at Abacela: when you go to the winery (and you should; it’s a great stop off Interstate 5 just southwest of Roseburg in the Umpqua) you can buy the Fiesta for popping and drinking right away while the Estate is sitting quietly for years getting more and more impressive.

Abacela has won a slew of gold and platinum medals and a whole wall of “best” awards. They deserve every one of them.  It’s a lovely story of the idea/passion/dream-come-true saga of a couple of supremely nice and dedicated people making some great wines for us to enjoy.

You should have some Abacela in your wine rack.  If you don’t, go get some.  You can thank me later.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Irish Coffee at the Raven & Rose

I’ve posted something on this elsewhere, but it bears sharing here as well.  When something is done so well that it represents a serious improvement on a classic, attention must be paid.

We stopped by the Raven & Rose restaurant in Portland for lunch not long ago. Neon Dave Shenaut, formerly peripatetic bartender who has settled in perfectly for a long gig at R&R and The Rookery Bar upstairs, was manning the bar for the lunch rush. Lucky us (although it also must be said that the entire crew is as savvy and well-trained as can be; they all unfailingly know their repertoire and execute it flawlessly).

Purely on a whim, and totally out of character for me, I ordered an Irish Coffee.

I rarely---and I mean rarely as in almost never---order Irish Coffee when dining or drinking out. It is such a glorious drink when done well, but so painfully rare is it to see one done well that I gave up hope long ago and just stopped ordering them.  Disappointment can do that to a guy. I make better Irish Coffee at home.

As with any simple drink---a Manhattan, a Martini, a Negroni---success depends on using good ingredients and then combining them in a precise way.

Newsflash: a good Irish Coffee is not made by pouring cheap bottom-shelf Irish Whiskey in a cup of coffee, stirring in some sweetener and glopping up with a spray can of whipped cream. And it is most definitely not enhanced by adding some sort of syrup or caramel drizzle on top.  I even had one served in a tall ice cream goblet, with Bailey’s Irish Cream mixed in and a maraschino cherry on top. That wasn’t an Irish Coffee, that was a tragedy.

The best classic Irish Coffee I ever had---and no, it wasn’t at the Buena Vista in San Francisco---was double-strength hot black coffee, muddled Demerara molasses brown sugar, Jameson 1780 and very lightly aerated heavy cream.  It was the way it was made, though, that made it great: when the whiskey, brown sugar and strong coffee were ready, the bartender eased the heavy cream slowly over an inverted spoon so it rested gently on top of the coffee, not mixing with it.  The entire idea of the Irish Coffee is to sip that pure sweet butterfat cream, then catch the sudden delicious jolt of heat, black coffee, malty-rich sugar and the bite of Irish whiskey all at once.

My gamble at the Raven & Rose wasn’t that much of a gamble. I had seen Shenaut make hot cocktails before and he has a knack for it. The bar also has established a sterling reputation for precisely made and beautifully executed drinks. So it was worth a plunge.

But what I got far exceeded my expectations.  Shenaut uses good ingredients, he mixes them properly---but then goes a magnificent step further. Good Irish whiskey, Demerara sugar, heavy cream, all good. But instead of a regular brew, or even extra strong coffee, he uses a long espresso pull of Spella Italian Roast coffee.

When you take that first cautious sip there is all you expect in the rush of sensation---but more!  The espresso richness comes through forcefully, with that characteristic brown crema curling up around the edges, crema on cream, chocolaty, smoky and slightly bitter and oily-rich, adding an entirely new layer to an already fantastic drink.

As a lovely final touch, Raven & Rose serves it up correctly, in a clear glass stemmed and handled cup…because a good part of the appreciation of an Irish Coffee is the visual, seeing that pure thick layer of cream floating on top of black coffee in a layered yin yang of contrast, with three glistening roasted coffee beans resting gently on the white foam.

It’s the best Irish Coffee I’ve had in the U.S.  Better even than my own, which is pretty damned good.

What’s the best ever?  That was in Ireland and it was the best…well, it was the best because I was in Dublin, just off O’Connell Street, and it was the end of a single glorious month spent wandering around one of the most beautiful and compelling places on the face of the earth, and my head was full of Borstal Boys and revolutions and I was drunk on Yeats and Joyce, O’Connor and O’Brien and O’Flaherty,.  Guess you had to be there to know how good that particular Irish Coffee was.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Radar Redux and the change of seasons

Radar Redux

Our second visit, and long overdue, since we loved it so much the first time.  But life sometimes gets in the way of your life.

Radar is just as lovely the second time around, from our smiling hostess to the busy guys behind the kitchen bar to the mixed crowd that quickly fills up all the seats and tables.  The menu is still a tribute to organization and focus and discipline: a tightly humming resume of carefully selected foods, cocktails, beers, wines, and other bevande of breathtaking simplicity that could work only if the people composing the list were really, really good.

They are.

Anchor Light Cocktail
There is not a single false note on this bill of fare. The food has a modern Euro-bistro character firmly planted in Americana, the wines are limited but impeccably selected, and the cocktails are few, precise, flavorful, and executed perfectly. When you can find any number of harmonious choices of wine from such a tiny list that se

em to fit neatly beside the food dishes without any fuss or circumstance---and they are all at modest prices!---you know you have come upon a winner.

The cocktail of the evening was an Anchor Light. And, no, it had nothing to do with Anchor Steam beer; it was a delicious and irresistible sour with Clear Creek Apple Brandy (yay, Oregon distillers), Kübler Absinthe (my vote for best cocktail absinthe there is, and apparently Radar feels the same way), lemon, and mint in abundance---as in both muddled into the drink and adorned with Bring-Us-A-Shrubbery abandon as a garnish.  The only negative was that, being so tasty, it disappeared rapidly.

After a nibble of the spice-dusted puffed chickpeas and a couple of briny-fresh Washington oysters in an herbal granite, we proceeded to the feature courses, aided and abetted by a St. Innocent Chardonnay (yay, Oregon, again) and a dominatrix of Marghe Langhe Nebbiolo that was lovingly severe and wickedly good food wine.

Sweet Potato Gnocchi
The piping hot battered and tempura-ed cauliflower with Moroccan sauce dip was again excellent and damn near habituation, as was the once again Bluefish Paté with delectable garnishes of pickled rhubarb, beets, and onions on crusty bread.

The Sweet Potato Gnocchi with collard greens, peaches and candied pecans was a clarion call to my culinary heritage of the Deep South (only we called them ‘dumplings’; who knew from ‘gnocchi’, which sounded to our redneck ears like a strain of bacteria). Whatever you call them, delicious little pillow-puffs, and especially so with the tang of sweet potatoes.

A plate of Watermelon and Heirloom Tomatoes with crumbled cotija cheese was that last sweet, warm breath of Summer about to fall into Fall, and utterly appropriate for the skirling windy-warm seasonal transition day we were experiencing.  This is a brilliant dish, in all ways. Flavor contrasts are startling, texture contrasts even more so.  You might be wary of the tiny Fresno Chile slices unless you like the sudden burst of capsaicin heat, but it certainly makes for a piquant accent on the sweet, juicy, savory combination.  (Sorry, no pic, so you'll have to use your vivid imagination; just make sure to salivate copiously.)

The Last Word
Then there was the Panzanella, a special of the evening, and possibly the best panzanella “salad” I’ve ever had. If Panzanella is a salad, Yankee Pot Roast must be an amuse bouche, and this one was abbondanza at its best: perfectly rare grilled beef, meaty, chewy greens, tangy sweet sour saucing, and all of it dripping and trickling down onto thick chewy slabs of crusty bread, making it dense and concentrated like meat candy.

No dessert because we were already overstuffed---well, actually, I had had a dessert of sorts by indulging in a Last Word cocktail (and thank you, Murray Stenson, for your community service) with Plymouth Gin giving it a slightly malty touch, enhanced by the obligatory Chartreuse and again with the Kübler Absinthe (funny, I don’t even drink absinthe, but it makes for an ideal cocktail ingredient).

Radar, on Mississippi. Go.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Duende in Oakland: Pure Spanish Delight

Duende also has a great
cocktail program
Walk into Duende and you can feel the vibe immediately.  It's a big sprawling place with a colorful, vibrant restaurant on one side and a bodega/wine bar/wine cellar on the other.  It is lively, chatty, noisy but not irritatingly so, and the service is prompt, friendly and well-informed.

Duende is in the Uptown District of Oakland and it's helping the resurgence of that part of town by drawing in sophisticated diners who love the spicy flavorful Spanish-Mediterranean inspired cuisine. Not long after it opened, Duende was cited in Travel & Leisure magazine as "The best tapas restaurant in the U.S. (December 2013)."

Paul Canales, the owner and chef, is usually there and he's always bouncing around like a dervish on drugs; he is a dynamic, hard-charging, can't-sit-still Type A, with his mind awhirl and his body moving, trying to keep up.  He loves the restaurant business and adores his customers, and it shows; he works the room all night long, often sitting and chatting at tables, inquiring about the food, sharing recipes, giving shopping tips and cooking tips, and exudes a beaming satisfaction when he looks over the tables and sees so many people so obviously enjoying themselves in his restaurant.

Canales, another graduate from that excellent finishing school of Oliveto Restaurant, has created a bustling place with a dramatic Spanish flair to it. The food is outstanding, a mix of small plates and large---here Castilian, there Catalonian, now Galician Basque, but then Jerezana---all presented with flair, all spiced and sauced to perfection.

The wine list is a Spanish delight as well, with many hard to find classics mixed in with some brash upstarts to keep it edgy. The list of sherries alone puts this list in a special category, and helpful suggestions as carefully selected flights encourages diners to expand their drinking horizons quite nicely.

As a party of four, we ordered for sharing---which is the smart thing to do at Duende, and almost obligatory when you get to paella, a group dish if ever there was---so we could enjoy as much as possible of the menu.  It has always seemed to me that good Spanish food is a study in contrasts, with cured meats at one end and unbelievable fresh seafood at the other, both extremes placed in front of you so that the palate is never dulled by the food but constantly stimulated by it.  And that's one reason that Spanish dining takes so long---you want to extend the enjoyment for as long as possible.
Gazpacho and shrimp crocetas
with lemon mayonesa

Don't go to Duende expecting a quick in-and-out dinner. You'll find yourself slowing down, relaxing, enjoying the array of foods and joining in the conversation. You'll also smile frequently.

The gazpacho was utterly fresh and delicious, the pure essence of summer, and serendipitously arrived at the same time as a plate of shrimp crocetas with a simple but profound lemon mayonesa for a lovely contrast of flavors. Canales has a passion for freshness and his saucing style is akin to an old Italian chef in New York who gave me the best cooking advice I ever had: "It's a sauce, not a gravy. Enhance the food; don't drown it."

Duende Paella
All the delicious plates passing back and forth, as good as they were, seemed merely in preparation for the crowning glory, a copper-pan of paella that was so impressive that conversation stopped for a long appreciative moment before everyone reached for the serving spoon. The combination of appearance, aroma, taste and texture were, each and all, pinpoint perfect.  Add in an accompanying bottle of Marquis de Murrieta Reserva 1994 and it was almost a case of sensory overload. Almost.

With nary a false note, Duende delivers. It's very much a reflection of Chef Canales and his impressive attention to every detail.
Duende is crowded every night---that's the nature of the place---but it's more than worth your while to go there.  The Duende Bodega is open for lunch, so if you're in the Uptown District, stop in.  You'll likely become one of the regulars at Duende and Paul will sit and chat with you about his cooking and yours.  It's just that kind of place.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A Perfect Day Trip through the heart of Armagnac

The Four Musketeers
at Cathedral St. Pierre, Condom
If you’re planning on traveling in France---and if not, why in the world aren’t you?---it is possible you might be overwhelmed by tourists with the same idea. But it’s not necessary if you plan wisely and well. And one of the wisest decisions you’ll make is to go to Armagnac.

Armagnac is a perfect destination for discerning travelers who wish to explore and enjoy the unique charm of rural and agrarian France and discover the hospitality of the people who live with the land…and not at all coincidentally enjoy some astonishing local brandy.

Located in the area called Sud-Ouest, the southwest of France, snugged up in the rolling verdant foothills of the Midi-Pyrénées of Gascony and encompassing the departements of Gers (zyhehrz) and Landes, it is easily accessible from Toulouse or the Languedoc-Roussillon to the east and Bordeaux to the northwest, following the path of express autoroutes or the Garonne River and the famous Midi Canal, once a bustling riverine highway of commerce and now a slow drifting canal for pleasure boats.

From the Garonne you can do a marvelous concentrated day trip on one national highway that seems more like a gently winding country road bisecting the heart of Armagnac, a bucolic land of small farms and few industries, and thus ideal for tourists because they are not yet in overwhelming numbers.

In Gascony you can still find the idea of France you’ve always been searching for and rarely found.

alembic Armagnaçais still
From the A26 at Agen go west on D931, traveling through a string of village pearls and glimpsing brooding medieval towers, until you arrive in the bustling little town of Condom. Visit the cobbled main place in the centre ville, admire the statues of the four mousquetaires in front of the Cathedral St. Pierre (in Dumas’ masterpiece, Condom was the home of the romantic rustic D’Artignan), have a mid-morning espresso, then go across the small river bridge to Chateau de Larressingle to be welcomed into a fascinating tour of the distillery, cellar and tasting room.  Make sure you snag, at the very least, a bottle of Larressingle 21 Year TénarèzeArmagnac, a truly impressive brandy.

Then it’s back to the centre ville and Le Table desCordeliers, a lovely one star Guide Michelin restaurant, for a stunning seasonal lunch at about the same price you’d pay for fast food in America! And having just visited the Chateau de Larressingle, you can enjoy a digestif of café with a glass of Larressingle Armagnac (highly recommended).  If you’d like to stay in the heart of Armagnac overnight, Cordeliers has an attached small logis hotel and spa that is ideally situated.

Gazpacho and Mauzac
at La Table
After your long lunch, continue on the same road until the town of Éauze (ehyoze) in the Bas-Armagnac. Just outside the town is the sprawling estate of the Domaines Grassa, now in full wine boom from the newly trendy wines of the Cotes deGascogne, but also home to traditional Armagnacs. The Cotes de Gascogne wines, unassuming but slightly exotic blends of local and global varieties and reaching the market at irresistibly modest prices, are all the rage now, and Domaine du Tariquet is the prime beneficiary.  You’ll meet a charming young lady who is eager to introduce you to the wines of Tariquet, and you can gaze blissfully over the manicured fields that sweep majestically down the slope and into the forests.
Larressingle Armagnac

Continue on the road, through the town of Nogaro to the almost non-existent village of Sorbets. Turn right at the Chateau de Laubade sign, roll past the wrought iron gates and the ancient brick tower and park beside the Normandy-style mansion built in 1870.  Stroll the garden and greensward, look out over the sweeping vista of the estate vineyards in the valley below, and wander amongst the artworks scattered around the grounds, all gathered by the Lesgourgues family.

Chateau de Laubade
You can view the ancient copper alembic Armagnaçais still and visit the cellars where the Armagnac quietly, slowly ages to perfection. Properly made Armagnac requires traditional practices, and Chateau de Laubade adheres to them to make their estate-grown wines and spirits in the old way; the wines for Armagnac are vinified, distilled and matured separately, then blended by the Master Blender for the “marriage” in the barrel. 

With its terroir, here encapsulated in a single estate vineyard, its unique blending of particular varieties, its use of local black oak, and its preference for long maturation, Armagnac is a rustic, earthy, rich and mellow brandy with deep amber-golden depths that seem to linger for the longest time…just as the region will linger in your memory, for the longest time.

Le Paradis de Laubade Armagnac

If you have more time, there are many, many other distilleries, from the large concern to the individual family operations, as well as foie gras farms you can tour (and sample the finished product!) There are any number of small museums and numerous castles and keeps dotting the countryside, and there’s an easygoing feel about the region that encourages you to simply stop in the villages and stroll around and sit for hours sipping a glass of local wine and watching the daily life go by. Small logis and comfortable inns, choice spas and numbers of fine restaurants featuring the local cuisine abound, usually at prices that are rock-bottom low compared to the touristy hot spots of Provence and Paris.

Beautiful countryside, easy-driving country roads, pleasant people, superb food, good wine and a unique style of brandy:  Armagnac makes for a perfect day trip.  So perfect, you’ll wish you had planned for yet another day, no matter how many days you planned for.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Giacosa and Antinori, Barbaresco and Brunello at Bistro Don Giovanni

Had a brief flirtation with Napa again (slightly pre-earthquake) on a quickie zip from the Bay to see some friends, and went to one of our favorite restaurants, Bistro Don Giovanni, partly because it’s one of our favorite restaurants, partly because we’ve had so many good meals there, and partly to give requisite honors to the passing of Donna Scala who founded and presided over the place.

She was a woman of fierce standards, demanding and uncompromising and damned near a force of nature when she wanted something, but generous in her hospitality. The woman knew how to run a restaurant.

Seated in a corner booth with our good friends, Lou and BettyLu Kessler, being fawned on by owners, managers and waiters, for the Kesslers are something akin to nobility here in the Valley, known to all, we watched the natural hustle and hubbub of this great place swirl around in cool summer tones.

From his magic wine bag, Lou pulled out a bottle, just a little something to go with pizza and bucatini arrabiata. The waiter’s eyes went round when he saw the bottle, and he took it up with stately reverence: a pristine bottle of Barbaresco Riserva Bruno Giacosa 1988 (Red Label).

We waited silently while the waiter maneuvered the cork from the neck; it was firmly placed, long and reluctant to leave, all good signs that it had done its work and protected the wine as it languished in Lou’s cellar.

Lou tasted the proffered sample…and then his lips tightened slightly and a bit of concern showed faintly on his face. Lou is not a demonstrative man and except with friends he keeps his emotions largely to himself, so something was obviously amiss.  He handed the glass to me, suggesting I taste it, but one smell confirmed his fears; the wine was egregiously cooked, spoiled beyond repair in the other worst kind of way (the first worst the detested TCA cork taint), through improper treatment somewhere along the way, quite likely in transit when it was subjected to extended periods of high heat. The French term is maderisé, because it is somewhat similar to the smell of the Madeira must cooked in estufa---ovens---to give the wine a characteristic flavor.

An unfortunately ironic word, maderisé, for while the effect can be delicious with Madeira, it created an ungodly spoiled stew of rank aromas in what should have been a magnificently fruited, tar-and-rose petal scented delight of a Barbaresco from one of the truly legendary producers.

While the rest of us sat stunned and dismayed, Lou stoically reached down into his magic bag again. Lou had a fallback.  Lou always has a fallback.

And out came our “consolation prize” to follow the fiasco of the ruined Giacosa, another pristine bottle, but this time a 1997 Brunello diMontalcino, Pian de la Vigne from the house of Antinori with its dramatic, stark contrast of red on black label.  And this bottle was just fine, thank you very much.

The Brunello was still tight, slow to yield and open up, packed with massive black fruit of maraska cherries and deeply, deeply infused with an intense spicy licorice note that added marvelous complexity to every sip.

I don’t know how well it went with the pizza, although from the responses at the table, I think quite well. I can testify, however, that it was spectacular with the bucatini arrabiata, that meaty, thick, chewy, hard to handle but easy to eat pasta, roiled in a glistening sauté of bacon and thin sliced onions and hot peppers.  The heat? The Brunello shrugged it off as inconsequential, simply a flavor component to add to the mélange.  The simmer of tomato made the wine seem a tad more mellow, almost sweet in its richness, but still stern and dignified and intense.

So, disappointment dealt with it, disaster averted, still grieving over the lost Barbaresco but celebrating with the Brunello, we raised a glass to the lovely Donna, in her splendid la dolce vita youth, sitting on a Vespa scooter lugging a can of Illy Café on the back. A fitting portrait, I think, for she was, for all of us in awe of her as the perfect hostess, La Donna e Mobilé.