Friday, July 11, 2014

Appreciating Corton

Appreciating Corton

Wine aficionados spend an inordinate amount of time waiting for a wine to become fully mature. Perhaps they should also consider whether they are “mature” enough to appreciate a wine.

Consider Corton. Or more properly, Le Corton, a Grand Cru wine from the famous Hill of Corton in Burgundy. It is the wine of legend, highly prized by all, enjoying both stratospheric prices and worldwide encomium from wine critics and consumers. If there are wine superstars, Le Corton is one of them.

And yet… And yet…

With all my experience in and appreciation of wine, and especially my love of great Bourgogne wines, Le Corton somehow never figured all that prominently in either my consumption or my adulation.

There are few Burgundian wines I did not like, and Corton certainly wasn’t in that category; it’s simply that I never seemed to be as inspired by Corton as I was by others.  I could get silly over Savigny-les-Beaunes, which is usually more a cute number than a profound example of Pinot. I could thrill over a Chambertin, or one of the Romanee siblings. I could even appreciate the somewhat stodgy but consistent nature of a decent Pommard. But as much as I could appreciate what Le Corton was supposed to be, I never could truly come to appreciate it as thoroughly (and reverentially) as I thought I should.

And I never really understood why.

That is, until recently.

I was in the home of good friends in Bordeaux and with a simple dish of sous vide salmon and new potatoes, a perfect backdrop for a good Burgundian Pinot, I had my revelation with a 2006 Bouchard Pere et Fils LeCorton.

As revelations go, it was rather quiet, with no spinning wheels within wheels or arcs of lightning. The earth did not shake nor did the silverware clatter. I simply came to understand: it was not the wine that had been underperforming; it was me.

Until that moment, I did not know that the lack of appreciation for what Le Corton is was not implicit in the wine, but in my inability to properly appreciate what was there.  In my (relative) youthful naiveté of sensory understanding, Despite having frequent opportunities to experience and enjoy Le Corton, even some well aged prime vintages, I was not capable of understanding what the wine was supposed to be.

It was a problem of maturity. My maturity.

Suddenly, in this quiet moment with a good but relatively young version of Le Corton, there was gestalt.

With Corton, it’s not essentially the lovely aromatics, though lovely they can be.  And it’s not at all the cherry-berry fruitiness laced with acidity that characterizes most Pinot and is the first thing one notices, although that is there as well.  With Corton, it’s the superb density of the wine, the concentrated, earthy, mushroomy compactness of the sensory experience the wine provides, as if it goes beyond mere fruit and into a primal sort of communion with the soil.

Corton doesn’t charm, in the way a Savigny can. It doesn’t resound with vibrant fruit. It doesn’t even display its lean acidity. It’s a wine of surprising and endless depth and complexity and almost brooding strength.

That Corton was always there. It just took a while for me to mature enough to understand it.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Pepe Le Moko and Morgenthaler Magic

In the latest stop on the continuing bar crawl of Portland’s purveyors of alcohol-laced goodness, we ventured into the subterranean vaults of Pepe Le Moko, at the corner of Washington and 10th Street downtown.

Or in other words, around the corner from the Ace Hotel and Clyde Commons, and down the stairs.  The proximity is important because the talented Jeffrey Morgenthaler, bartender extraordinaire, is the manager and inspirational leader of both joints.

It’s clear that Pepe Le Moko is an act of love. It is imbued with its own character and attitude, an ambiance of the old idea of a speakeasy (although it’s not), and to see Morgenthaler behind the bar there is to see a happy and satisfied man doing what he loves to do.

Pepe Le Moko is small, cozy, convivial---and with its particular style and connection with Morgenthaler, you’ll get excellent service because he has that invaluable knack for hiring good people, and you’re likely to see many of the best bartenders in town showing up here on busman’s holiday.  That’s a great sign; one of the ‘secrets’ of the spirits trade is when you arrive in a new town, ask a bartender where the bartenders go when they’re not working.  In Portland, one of those places would be Pepe Le Moko.

Morgenthaler (l) with Tommy Klus, having
way too much fun making cocktails
But it’s not just Morgenthaler’s charisma that brings them there: it is also the particular, and somewhat peculiar, drink menu he has designed and the immaculate cocktails he and his staff create that brings them there and back again.
Part of Morgenthaler’s genius, and a reflection of his devotion to his craft and art (he wouldn’t call it art, but we can) is an inspired re-creation of some of the legendary drinks of yesteryear, particularly drinks that have become so corporatized and bastardized and poorly made by sloppy hands over the years as to, quite literally, leave a bad taste in people’s mouths.

Let’s take a look at a few of the standout drinks on the Pepe LeMoko list:

When’s the last time you had a Grasshopper, that once hugely popular sticky sweet concoction of crème de menthe and cream that gives you a cheap minty blast and raises your glucose levels drastically?  (I thought so.)  Now, when is the last time you actually had a good Grasshopper.  (Uh huh.)  Go to Pepe Le Moko. Right now, if you can, or as soon as you can. Order the Grasshopper re-imagined by Morgenthaler. Be amazed.

As one who usually hates the mere thought of that overdone, oversweet mess of a drink, most often consumed by barely-legals (and perhaps not even that) until the sweet stickiness makes them ill, I was forcibly convinced by Morgenthaler (he made me try it!).  Quelle surprise: this was a not-too-sweet combination of rich ice cream and good menthe, a touch of crème de cacao for added dimension, and brought into perfect balance with the addition of that bartender’s bitter tipple, Fernet Branca.  And this may be the single best use of Fernet Branca as an ingredient I’ve ever enjoyed.  Most bartenders have a PBR tallboy with a shot of Fernet Branca, but that’s another story.  It’s inclusion here literally makes the drink a home run.  Add a touch of salt for more diversity of flavor and serve it up in an old-style soda glass and you have one of the most surprisingly delicious drinks imaginable.

El Nacional
Another drink you seldom see these days is the once hugely popular Nacional, a rum-based drink.  Operating on his belief that there’s no such thing as a bad cocktail, just badly made cocktails, Morgenthaler re-created his ideal versions.  And it is a reminder that a great cocktail, done with precision and care, remains a great cocktail even if it has faded and been debased over many years of carelessness.

Then there is one of the most maligned, mocked and defamed drinks of all time, the infamous Long Island Ice Tea, usually an excuse to cavalierly throw together some of the cheapest spirit ingredients possible into a Frankenstein’s mishmash of flavors primarily designed to be cheap, highly profitable and to get college kids buzzed as quickly as possible.  The “Lahn Gighland” is one of the all time “throwaway” drinks made to appeal to soda pop-trained drinkers.

But not in Morgenthaler’s house.  The secret, which is no secret, is to use premium ingredients and pay close attention to the balance of aromas, flavors and textures.  If you’re a Long Island Ice Tea fan, have one at Pepe Le Moko: it will remind you of the very first one you had, and why you liked it so much at the time.

The Amaretto Sour
Morgenthaler has bragged, loudly, often, and to anyone who will listen, that he makes the best damned Amaretto Sour in the world (the giveaway might be his article in Playboy humbly entitled “I Make The Best Amaretto Sour In The World”). 

Low bar, some might claim, and the thought of such may not inspire you: but remember, a well made drink is the key here.  First rule: use no mixes.  Thus the ‘sour’ part is fresh lemon juice, not some concocted pre-mix laced with chemicals.  Second, use good ingredients; and for every ingredient, there is a choice among bad, mediocre and good, and it makes a difference.  Finally, pay attention---close attention---to the overall balance of the drink. Create the drink; don’t just slop some ingredients together.  So does he make the best damned Amaretto Sour?  Could be; it is an impressive drink.  Will it convert me to a steady drinker of Amaretto Sours?  No; but as a very occasional drink this is not bad. Not bad at all.  (And oddly delicious with a couple of the bocadillo sandwiches, which you really shouldn't miss on the Bar Foods Menu.)
And the rest of the list

If you’d like to enjoy more of Morgenthaler, that’s entirely possible because not only can you visit his blogsite but you can read his newly released book, The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique, available on Amazon, or at Powell’s Bookstore on May 28th, where you can see the man himself, along with photographer Martha Holmberg, and get an autographed copy to boot. Since Pepe Le Moko is all of a block away from Powell’s, that puts you in close proximity to the book, the author/bartender, and his cocktails all at the same time.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Remembrances of Venice:Street dogs and the Murano hustle

In this second (and thankfully final) amble down the misty nostalgia of memory lane inspired by a friend's recent Venetian visit, I revive from my "In Caso da Nebbia" journal the enchanting stories of the dog that wasn't and the never-ending hustle of the Venetian soul.

After a morning of shopping the next day, we decided we would go to Murano.  More specifically, our wives decided they would go to Murano, and we were to go with them.

Massimo, from our locanda, arranged the visit by water taxi.  As he greeted us at our locanda door I noticed the engaging little dog bustling around his feet, darting through the legs of all the passersby with great aplomb.  Looking like a cross between a Jack Russell Terrier and a midget seal, he was quite the sight.

He is not my dog.
“You have a nice dog, Massimo.”

--Massimo, puzzled, looks down.  “That’s not my dog, Signore.”

“Oh, but he acts as if he were your dog.  Or rather, that you were his person, perhaps.”

--“He acts as he will, Signore.  But he is not my dog,” says Massimo, with a curiously expressive flip of his hand off to one side, and a half-shrug.

“He must like you though, since he follows you around.  And he appears to pay very close attention to you.”

--“Ah, yes.  He came one day, and I happened to be going to a MacDonald’s, so I bought for him a hamburger.  Since then he stays with me and accompanies me when I go to my meals.  Sometimes, when it rains, he asks to come into my apartment.  But he is not my dog, you see.”

“Yes, I see.  He is not your dog.  Quite obvious.”

--“Yes.  Now we must go to the water taxi.”  Massimo made a smirching kissy sound with his lips and waved his hand to the dog that was not his, who immediately trotted over to his side when Massimo strolled away.

When we reached the water taxi, Massimo called us over to the side and huddled with us, speaking privately.  The dog that was not his pattered over to smell what may have been a dead fish or some such.

--“When you reach Murano, Signore, you must understand.  We are Venetians, you see.  We have either been occupied by or have dealt with the Romans, the Goths, the Turks, the Slavs, the Levantines and Arabs, the Austrians, the Germans, everyone.  We have either conquered them, or they us, or both at different times.  So we are traders.  When the man at Murano makes you an offer, he will say ‘One thousand Euros for this.’  So you must say, ‘No, Five Hundred Euros, no more!’  Then you and he can discuss this for a while. But never accept what he first says.  This is not an insult to us, you must know.  This is the way we are.  If you are so foolish as to take the first offer, we will of course accept the money, but you deprive us of the bargaining, which we expect.  This, for us, is our way, and part of what invigorates us. The man at Murano will not feel badly if you bargain.”

Millefiore alla Murano
We bought, of course, for it is almost impossible not to buy at Murano.  Not for the haggling and the pressure to buy, but because the pieces are so beautiful and the artisan’s pride shows through certain pieces so clearly that you feel you are purchasing a small piece of their soul, and therefore acquiring a bargain even if it is not.  And the maneuvering is fun. 

The man at Murano, Ricardo, who was of the fifth generation of one of the four families who had established the Vetrerie, the glass factory, was delighted to be showing his glass to us, and delighted that we treasured it enough to buy it, and delighted to bargain with us, for then he could further respect us for being intelligent as well as appreciative of his art. 

The Arlecchino in question
As we left Ricardo recommended two restaurants, gave us directions, told us the names of the owners, advised us on what to order and instructed us to tell the owner we were friends of his and should get “Ricardo’s price,” not the price for tourists!  And this is the beauty of Venice, when the provider profits, and the buyer profits, and both are happy and content.  Then you go to lunch.

(And now, the rest of the story of Ricardo: after bargaining for quite a while for a particular bowl in the “Arlecchino” style, Ricardo took the bowl to the back room for the artist to sign and to then pack carefully in layers of straw and paper and twine so I could carry it in my backpack. Which I did for the remainder of the long trip, until it was safely home. When I unwrapped it, it was quite a different piece, clearly inferior, sloppily done, shoddy.  Ricardo had substituted, it seemed. The old bait and switch. Ah, Venice. Let the buyer beware.

I formally lodged a protest with Visa; they contacted the Vetreria, and someone immediately agreed, without any demur, to refund the entire amount, and we were told to keep the piece.  So we did, and have it now as a memento of our day in Murano and the mercantile nature of Venice.)

Then  across the lagoon and up the Grand Canal and back to San Marco, and the cathedral, and a walk to l’Accademia and the Peggy Guggenheim.  Along the way we come to understand that Venice is, as much as any city has been, ever, a city of music.  There are street musicians.  There are cafes on the various piazzi who have trios and quartets and quintets and sestets, mostly based on strings, to entertain the languid patrons.  There are various and sundry orchestras throughout the city on a nightly basis in the summer, celebrating music.  The chiesi have their doors open in the evening so the music can spill out into the streets.  When the hour strikes, the various belltowers carol out point and counterpoint, as if each was playing to and with the other in the soft air above the city.

The Guggenheim was overrated, although the walk through the city was not.  Max Ernst may have been avant-garde, but he was also a terribly modest and limited painter, and Peggy liked the dark things for the most part.  Perhaps that is why he was her second husband.  Even the Kandinsky and the Klee were not of the vibrance that typified them.  Only the Calder showed the exuberance and vitality inside the villa. 

Ah, but on the outside, with the Picasso-like sculpture on the canal of the boy on the horse with arms spread and erection in full glory and the horse smirking as only a horse can, or the juxtaposition of the grand pallazzi, the Venetian seahorses and the pyramid of orange metal on the aged and pitted marble terrace with the sunlit water lapping just beneath, all under the celebrated Venetian Light.

A short break in the room, then inexorably out to the streets and alleys and canals and the endlessly milling people, the constant movement and babble, the flowing of colors and sounds and smells, feeling the amazing textures and contrasts of this place.  The gruesome and tragic turn fascinating and romantic when you realize you have just stepped on the Ponti dei Sospiri and can see the smooth depression rubbed in the marble of the first step from the countless millions of feet that have stepped just there at that point.  And how many of those feet were dragging and reluctant, you wonder, as people now take pictures of each other on this bridge of romance, emitting altogether different sighs. The fantastic and the mundane sit in equal glamour when a sleek black lacquered gondola glides by, with a young couple dazzled by the gondolier as his voice rings out like a clear chime while he effortlessly dips the paddle just so to swerve around a putrid garbage boat reeking of the effluvium of the stylish ristorante perched over the canal.

Restless, we move on past the grand palaces with their pitted facades and the mooring posts that seem so solid but oddly show their bottoms hollowed and eaten away to the spindly core when the boats pass and disturb the milky green water.

We stop at a canal-side ristorante to duck away from the pitter of rain and shelter under the canopy, again close to the throbbing Rialto, to sit and dine and watch the boat traffic go by, the clogged vaporetti, the polished and shiny water taxis, gleaming like wood-lacquered echoes of The Great Gatsby, the rusted work barges, the cigarette boats of the nouveaux riche and the stolid and dowdy boats of the old and tattily elegant rich. 

But it is the worst of Venice we have ducked into, this tourist trap without soul or substance, with waiters shilling people off the streets and squabbling amongst each other to provide tasteless food for high prices for heedless people.  We decide to order a glass of wine, as little as we can for the pleasure of watching the flow of spectacle, a pittance of Pinot Grigio, then we are off to a more hospitable place.  We come across, in some conjunction of alleys somewhere, the Aquila Nera, purportedly founded in the 1500s and still possessing charisma in its little hidden corner of streets that don’t quite meet.

They have a good wine list, so we carefully peruse it and make our selection:  A bottle of Refosco.  The waiter returns shortly and tells us, “I am sorry, Sir, but the bottle of Refosco is missing.”  We look at each other, but neither shows a quiver, and neither says a thing.  Let us try this again:  A bottle then of Marzemino, per favore.  Again the waiter returns, this time visibly embarrassed, to tell us, “That bottle is also missing, Sir.  Perhaps something else?”  The next bottle, a Cabernet Franc, for we like the Francs of the Veneto and Friuli, is not missing, and so we have it.  Perhaps for the next person it will join the other missing bottles from the good wine list of the Aquila Nera?

Finally, footsore and tired but not weary, we shuffle through the streets to our locanda and listen to the city quieten itself through the night, and think of all the things we did not see or feel in our time in Venice.

We are off the next day, on the vaporetto past the train station to the Piazzale Roma, with its link to terra firma, to the justly derided Mestre, and on to Padova and the Colli Euganei.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Remembrances of Venice...

I rarely revisit pieces I've written, but I do have favorites, oh yes indeed.  Inspired to revery by the Facebook postings of Pat Dodd as he takes his team through Venice as part of their Italian tour, I exhumed this portion of an old travelogue, In Caso da Nebbia, chronicling a memorable visit to the Veneto and Friuli...and discovered to my joy that it remains every bit as appropriate as when I wrote it.

So here's the first vignette from In Caso da Nebbia, our introduction to Venice:

Venice is a prostitute.  A beautiful courtesan, to be sure, dressed in the finest attire, sophisticated, charming, beautiful and willing and eager to please, but still a prostitute.  La Serenissima is what you wish her to be, but everything is a transaction; she is there, but you are passing through.  She will beguile and amuse you, but when you are gone, she will just as eagerly entertain, and profit from, the next customer.  After all, she has to live, and being La Serenissima she expects to live well, so you must provide for her.

When we arrived at the Ponte Rialto, amidst the crowds and chaos, still jet-lagged and thinking American, we knew a ‘period of adjustment’ was required, so we dumped our luggage in our locanda and launched ourselves into the waves and tides and eddies of people, finding the stream that moved sluggishly to the Piazza San Marco, where we camped on the edge of afternoon sunlight on the piazza at Café Florian.  We idled over cicchetti and cappucini, listened to Florian’s string band, slowed our internal clocks to Venetian time and watched the passeggio as the angular interplay of light and shadow became our timekeeper. 

When the restorative application of music, sun and shadow, espresso, olives and prosciutto had achieved their effect, helped by an additional infusion of Antinori Rosato Toscano, we languidly strolled to our friends’ hotel near the piazza, following the instruction of the carabinieri of “To the corner, and three canals over in that way, Signore.”  Our friends were not there, but we did not care, for we knew eventually they would be, sometime, and it was of no matter when, as we were, after all was said, in Venice.  And so would they be when they arrived.  And eventually they did.

The four of us strolled.  Aimlessly, as is possible in that way only in Venice.  Or if not only, certainly in the best way, from shop to shop, each filled with glittering amusements for the eye and mind and wallet.  Osterias, trattorias, cafes and ristorantes of every sort and description, and some that defy description, each a high water mark of one or more of the waves of cultures which have crested in Venice over the centuries and left their unique residue.  An Austrian osteria mit wurst und schinkel am der pizza.  A place of somewhat dubious Turkish delights.  Here Istrian, there Vicentina, and there Padovana; here bigoli (dicke ‘Spaghetti’), there noodeln mit tomatensaft.  A Greek taverna serving Spaghetti Bolognese alongside the dolmas and spanakopita.  Pizza with octopus and cuttlefish next to the “Hawaiann Special, with Pineapple and Prosciutto.”   And that was merely the first alley we walked down.

Eventually we decided to stop, and stepped into the first interesting place, Osteria Verdi near the Rialto.  Baccala alla Vicentina con Polenta was my dish, with my friends having langostini with shells split grilled heavily over a wood fire, and tagliatelle con funghi, with excellent and fresh green salads and radicchio rosso.  We attempted to order a Friulano Bianco off the list, but the owner, who spoke fluent New Jersey (which is occasionally close to American English, although a fully recognized alternate language in the Proto-Indo-European group), insisted we try instead the vino da calice, or carafe version of Friulano Bianco, his house white.  I pointed out that the bottled version on the list cost significantly more and by steering us to his house carafe he was depriving himself of money.  He looked at me and shrugged, saying “This is better; you’ll see.  If you don’t like it, you get it free from me.”  I shrugged as elegantly as he and said “Perché no, Signore?”  The forever unnamed bianco was, but of course, excellent, and was to remain one of the most pleasant wines we tasted throughout our visit, for wine is not only the wine itself but also the circumstances surrounding it when you drink it.  We finished our meal with some local cheeses and a rustic Raboso from the Veneto.  The wine was nothing to rave about, unless one wanted to rave about a hearty red with the glorious crumbles of Grana Padano, both from the same place. A pleasant end to our first day in Venice.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Triple Take: A Trio of Gins from St. George Spirits

Triple Take: A Trio of Gins from St. George Spirits

Photos courtesy of St. George Spirits
Had the occasion to taste all three of St. George Spirits’ gins this week, and came away impressed.  This Alameda-based distillery has always been an avatar of quality and unique styling, and these gins are very much an extension of that tradition.

If you have to ask, “Why do three different gins?” then you obviously haven’t tasted all three, because when you do, the question becomes moot. These are three entirely different expressions of what gin can be.

Botanivore Gin
While generally not a big fan of the ‘throw everything in the batch and see what comes out’ approach to building a gin, I have to confess this one works.  With 19 different botanicals---St. George claims angelica root, bay laurel, bergamot peel, black peppercorn, caraway, cardamom, cilantro, cinnamon, citra hops, coriander, dill seed, fennel seed, ginger, juniper-berries, lemon and lime peel, orris root, Seville orange peel, and star anise (excuse me, I have to take a breath now)---it would be easy to muddy up the botanicals into a vast stew of indiscriminate, or even combatting, aromas and flavors. Bu the Botanivore pulls it off. 

The profile is crisp and herbaceous, with brisk, sharp definition of some aromas and muted background notes of others, but they do play well together.  Not terribly overt on the juniper element, and with a bright burst of pungent citrus mélange with understated florality, this would be an intriguing gin for bartenders, budding or pro, to tinker with.  A good all-purpose gin leaning forcefully to what they're calling the  “new American style.”

Terroir Gin
If by the evocation of the word “terroir” St. George Spirits means a palpable sense of place, then I’d go beyond their suggested California and take this gin all the way to the Sierra Foothills, because it’s very much like the experience of taking a walk through the Sierra Redwood forests on Christmas day: there’s a blast of Douglas fir in all its evergreen glory that nips at your nose before you even begin to pick up the teasing interplay of the other botanicals: angelica root, bay laurel, cardamom, cinnamon, coastal sage, coriander, fennel seed,  juniper berries, lemon peel, orris root, and Seville orange peel.

Ho Ho Ho!, and put a green-striped candy cane in your martini glass. This is an audacious gin with exuberant focus on the woodsy/earthy/evergreen slice of the aromatic flavor wheel. And Terroir is a great name for it.

Dry Rye Gin
Not for the faint of flavor heart, this bold gin might also be a puzzlement to staunch traditionalists of gin…but then again, maybe not, if you go all the way back to the precursor that got the whole thing started, Dutch genever.  Decidedly based on grain, and specifically rye with its spicy, dry, slightly astringent herbaceous quality, Dry Rye Gin comes across at first as malty, genever-like, white-dog-whiskey-like with woody spice and bright citrus added.  That’s a lot to put in one bottle, folks; this is an altogether impressive and highly individual gin expression. The recipe, beyond 100% rye, is black peppercorns, caraway, coriander, grapefruit peel, juniper berries, and lime peel.

It would be easy to sip this one solo.  It would be just as easy to put it in a classic Negroni. The folks at St. George heartily recommend crafting an Old Fashioned with it---and I can certainly see their point.

So there you are.  As to the question of why three gins, let’s classify them as Balanced and Elegant, Evergreen and Christmas, and Bold and Complex.  Seems reasonable to me.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

That Time of Year: Cassoulet at Kesslers 2014

It has become one of our favorite traditions of the year, a celebration of friendship and feasting built around one of the most sumptuous and satisfying dishes:  Cassoulet at the Kesslers 2014.

For several years now Lou and BettyLu have graciously hosted a cassoulet dinner as winter begins to wane.  BettyLu begins her preparations months ahead, planning and sourcing and preparing all the elements for the cassoulet and composing her much-coveted invite list to orchestrate a traditional evening of fine dining.  Lou also begins mulling over his wine choices from the well-stocked wine cellar, the envy and source of pleasure of many of his friends.

For 2014, we were lucky enough to be invited to the final of three cassoulet dinners. Arriving from Portland we were happy to see the emergence of spring in full blossom and bloom in California Wine Country, with the late-but-appreciated yellow mustard of Napa and the snowy-white and pretty-in-pink trees lining the streets in showy array.

In keeping with the seasonal explosion, Lou had selected a handsome array of aperitif wines to go with the delicious appetizers---duck liver pate on toast, limey scallop ceviche in crispy wonton cups, Dungeness spring rolls in rice paper, stir-fried shrimp on endive leaf, crackly home-made herbed breadsticks---and we sipped our way through them all.

First up was the delicate, almond-nutty Pieropan La Rocca Soave 2010, understated, soft, flexible with the foods; not as taut and structured as I’ve had from La Rocca in the past, but quietly delicious.

As the conversation got livelier, so did the wine as I segued to the Pichler Riesling Loibner Steinertal Smaragd 2007 from the Wachau in Austria.  Silky-smooth, with the fatness of smaragd almost disguising the stony acidity, refreshing, bracing in the mouth, and a perfect companion to the lime and scallop ceviche!

Next was a wine I couldn’t resist, a surprise from Lou’s cellar, and a wine that lit up the eyes of Steve Edmunds: Eric Texier’s Cotes-du-Rhone Brezeme Roussanne 2000.  Would it hold?  Yes, it would.  The high aromatics of youth were toned down a bit, of course, but the trade was a ripe fleshiness, a juicy, peachy-floral character with a bit of melon muskiness.  I love Roussanne, and of the Rhone triumvirate I much prefer it over Marsanne and Viognier,  although the three are usually best when blended.   This one stands just fine on its own and it holds its age quite nicely; it was a lovely surprise having a fully matured and not at all tired Roussanne from Eric.

The Chenin Blanc du jour was Huet Vouvray Le Mont Demi-Sec 2002, wondering if it had avoided the deadly plague of premox.  It was drinkable, but not all that lively and without the electricity that Huet usually brings.  Plenty of acidity, of course, but lacking a succulence of fruit and that pleasing contrast of sweet-sour that the demi-sec does so well.

Finally, one of Lou’s recent discoveries from Southern Oregon.  A biodynamic wine,  no less, complete with arcane symbols on the label (and now with the hubbub of True Detective symbology all the craze one looks closer, more intently, at those symbols. Heh-heh), the 2012 Cow Horn Spiral 36 white blend from the Applegate Valley in Oregon.  Whoo! Lively florality, waxy and reeking of lily of the valley, plush fruit, touch of spice---a really gorgeous blend of Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne, voluptuous, dry but fat,  Lime citrus, peach, but also a distinct honeyed note.  A hit; a palpable hit!

Palate prepared, we went to table.  This year, a slight change: having gone heavy-up on the passed apps, BettyLu opted to go directly into the cassoulet rather than a first course.  No one complained because we got to the cassoulet quicker: and, after all, that was the ostensible reason for the get-together.  It was glorious, and many thought the best we’d had thus far. 

Glistening sausages, tender confit of duck and firm, chewy but not tough beans with perfect texture (BettyLu had elected to use a new bean this year from southern Mexico by way of Rancho Gordo, and they were exceptional!)  The texture was lovely, and the concentrated intensity of the dish was amazing (BL had long-simmered some of the liquid to a dense reduction and added it back to get to that perfect point). 

A simple side dish of julienned carrots---what more do you need with cassoulet?---with three bottles of Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape 1998, and a reverent almost-silence ensued, marred only by the slurp and suck of dish and glass.  The cassoulet was so good and quickly gone I forgot to take a picture of it.  Wouldn't have done it justice anyhow.

The Beaucastel was shy and bashful at first, despite having been opened hours earlier, and hesitant to reveal all its charms of aromatic complexity and black-fruit density, and it kept emerging until it was all gone.  It was simply elegant with the cassoulet, stepping up admirably when called on, handling the richness, the salt, the fat.

With a thirsty crowd, abetted by Steve Edmund’s incessant demands for even more red wine, Lou went back to the cellar and emerged with another Chateauneuf-du-Pape, the estimable 2001 Le Vieux Donjon.  Altogether different; lush, and blowsy and fruit-drenched, with some Rhone funk-spice (technical term) that made it indulgent, although I think the tightwound nerviness of the Beaucastel was better with the cassoulet.

For the final course we had two remarkable cheeses---Txiki, a raw sheep’s milk from Baringer Ranch in Marshall, CA; and Chabrin, a French goat’s milk---and bottles of Rudi Pichler Wösendorfer Hochrain Grüner Veltliner Smaragd 2001, that rare example of a well-aged Grüner at full resolution.  Discussion ensued about the smaragd-ness of the wine, that Austrian combination of fat texture and dryness (Steve declared at least .04 or lower and no one disputed him) that made it tightly structured but soft and pillowy.   It was luxurious and deceptively unctuous…until the fruit, and herbs and minerality registered.  The pairing with the cheeses was perfect, and occasioned great comment; BL had gotten them from the local Oxbow Market cheese shop in consultation with the wine sommelier.  The cheese and wine combination was one of the (many) outstanding moments of the entire meal.

But was that enough?  Certainly not!  BettyLu served up plates of gorgeous chocolate truffles, “American style” (which I was told was encased in dipped chocolate rather than the more French style of cocoa, but what do I know?)  It was so rich, so mouthfilling, that one was a surfeit.

And so we dwindled down to a midnight halt, overfed, over-wined, over-cheesed and over-chocolated, just short of foundering on excess.  In other words, the usual end of Cassoulet at Kesslers.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Foodable TV, Cognac and the Golden State of Cocktails

It's not often---okay, this is the first time---that I get featured in a video on Foodable WebTV Network, so I might as well get the most of fleeting fame by sharing on my blog.

Not long ago I had the great pleasure to participate in some exciting, impressive and downright fun sessions on behalf of Cognac during the Golden State of Cocktails to-do in Los Angeles, a gathering of bartenders, restaurateurs and tradespeople celebrating the cocktail culture and sharing ideas.  It was three days' worth of concentrated and intense learning, combined with great people enjoying themselves.  This was the inaugural edition of the event, the first of what I hope will be a long series to come.

Foodable was there in the person of correspondent Lanee Lee doing some very professional video interviews and capturing the spirit of the event quite nicely.  I managed to get interviewed during some of the Cognac events, and enough of that avoided the cutting room floor to end up as part of a great piece that subsequently aired.  The entire piece is well worth watching, but if you want the key moment (well, for me, anyway) that begins at 5:08.

Here's the link to the video:

Foodable WebTV Network Side Dish