Saturday, April 30, 2011

Cassoulet at the Kesslers 2011, Part 3

Biscuits and toast!  Sweet lemon curd.  Seville oranges.

Allow me to elaborate:  fresh baked biscuits, hot from the oven, so hot you grab for one quickly and juggle it from hand to hand until it cools enough to handle gingerly, just with your fingertips; delicately crusty on top but when you twist it open and it exhales a little puff of steam, it’s doughy soft inside and smells fresh and clean and still a bit yeasty, just waiting for the slather of pure creamery butter.  

But in the background, clanking and futtering and making the mysterious sounds of hot metal expanding, an old toaster is emitting fumes of toasty bread, with a touch of char and wisp of black smoke where the reliable antique always burns a bit too close to the slab of hand-cut bread so that you always look to see if there is a toasted face of Jesus or beneficent Mary beaming out in singed glory to start your morning.

Allow me to summarize:  Egly-Ouriet Brut Les Vignes de Vrigny Champagne.

When champagne-lovers strive to come up with appropriate descriptors for the elegance and subtle complexities of champagne, it often comes out elaborated, stilted, artificial, too intricate by far; champagne is difficult to describe, in large part because as soon as you try to grasp something in champagne it shifts away, teasing and elusive and coy, and shows you another side, briefly, to lead you on and back for another sip.  What was that?

Best, then, to stick with the basics and leave it at that, hoping some of the message, although inchoate will get through.

So, Egly-Ouriet:  biscuits and toast.  You had to be there.

Then, with the refill of Egly-Ouriet safely in the glass, BettyLu’s exquisite shrimp bisque arrives, a lovely bowl of pearly pink and creamy broth exuding a heavenly rich aroma.  An appreciative gasp from the diners, and murmurs of anticipation, and quiet descends as all apply themselves to the bisque, creamy sweet and delicious and exquisitely cut with the brisk and acidic lemony-toasty bite of crystalline Champagne.

The only problem here is restraint. The bisque and champagne is so beguiling you’re ready to replay Oliver in the poorhouse and supplicate for more of each…but all of us are experienced enough in the plentitude of BL’s cassoulet that we muster up what willpower we have and grudgingly say no to the seconds we really do want.

As the ever reliable Kevin begins to prepare the plates in the kitchen for the main course, Lou brings out the headliner wine.  

There’s always a bit of excitement here---we know it’s going to be good, but we don’t know exactly what it’s going to be.  Usually…but not always…Rhone, yes; but Lou has surprised us in the past, and even in the Rhone there is sufficient variation of style to keep us wandering.

It is to be a classic evening, it appears, for Lou brings out Robert & Patrick Jasmin Cote Rotie 1998.
And then the plates of cassoulet begin to arrive…

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Cassoulet at the Kesslers 2011: Part 2

And the social hour continues, with more food, more wine, and increasingly more voluble conversation as both are consumed.

Just as we knew there would be Austrian there, we also expected a fine Burgundian---and lo and behold, what did our wandering eyes see appear on the bar but...why, yes, it is: 2004 Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru - Les Caillerets, Domaine Fontaine-Gagnard.

And a fine Chassagne-Montrachet it is too.  A bit slow to emerge, even though it is at perfect serving temperature, neither too chilled nor too warm; yet, it is shy.  Thankfully, not too much evidence of oak---which means there is some, but it is in moderation, just as it should be.  Why make wine from chardonnay and then mask it with oak, after all?  Maybe these French guys know what they're doing.

It's right about then I realize---this wine isn't shy at all!  It's elegant.  It has a brightness and liveliness that is charming, with assertive citrus notes backed up by some minerality, and what I thought was a shy nose is simply a delicate, light perfume of white flowers---honestly, like smelling a bouquet of fresh flowers with a squeeze of lemon, bizarre as that description may sound.  This is a subtle, understated wine that requires a little subtle you might easily overlook it if more assertive ones were around making more noise.

And what's that noisy little bottle over there, demanding attention (and getting it)?  Aha, Mount Eden Vineyards Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay 2006.

Nothing shy about this one, and counterpoint to the a pointe of the Chassagne-Montrachet, the MEV is also bright, but California-sunshiny, ripe orange bright, with a little dash of fresh lime juice in there to perk it up.  This is the fruit-drenched, cool place in a warm climate, developed fruit kind of style...and you have to get used to all that fruit before you realize, it too has subtleties (yes, actual subtleties!) underneath that cornucopia.  There's a lovely structure of acidity and minerality holding it together---not as much stone as the Chassagne-Montrachet, but then again, that's a wine of a different place and style, and the MEV has need of more lattice of acidity to support the  zaftig opulence it has to carry.

The Chassagne-Montrachet is a lovely chardonnay from a region where you often have to coax the ripeness and development of fruit, then take care to keep the structure light but firm.  The MEV, on the other hand, is a different sort of challenge, a wine with such a natural abundance of fruit that it requires balance and restraint in its underpinnings.  Both winemakers have done impressive jobs with their respective wines.

But wait....there's another white wine on the counter!!!  Cagy Lou often has a surprise lurking, so what can it be?

Oh.  It's an Angiolino Maule Pico Bianco 2008.  Wait...what?  What the hell is an Angiolino Maule Pico Bianco?

Lou must've come under the influence of the East Coast Wine Set again, and come back with a wine that no one else has ever heard of.  Probably orange.  Probably "natural wine."  Probably Louis/Dressner.  Has that look and feel about it, like something that Louis/Dressner would find back in the mountains or tucked away in a little village somewhere.

Hey, it's good!!!  Tasty stuff.  Fresh, clean, slightly nutty and smooth.  Medium-bodied, slightly chewy and clean---did I say that already?  I think I did.

[Later on I did a little research, and yep, it was Louis/Dressner, and the wine is organic, 'natural', artisanal, small batch, wine-with-a-philosophy (oh, I already said Louis/Dressner, didn't I?) from the Veneto.  It is technically Gambellara, a designation that means more-or-less the extended area of Soave.  Maule makes several wines; the Pico is 100% Garganega (the primary grape of Soave), but here it is open-vat fermented, no sulphur added, and the grapes show off their natural, un-adorned character with startling simplicity and purity of aroma and flavor.  It's a real find, and a delightful discovery.]

We're enjoying ourselves, with all the wines that Lou has laid out, and with the rotating servings of finger food---those mushroom caps, my, my; and I can't say no to the ceviche; and those tiny, handmade cheese crackers!  Face it, I have no willpower where BL's food is concerned---but we all know very well why we're here and what the main show is going to be, so when BL suggests we move toward the table as we hear the delicate pop of a Champagne bottle in the next room, we need no further urging.  Cassoulet, here we come!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Cassoulet at the Kesslers 2011: Part 1

It was a dark and stormy night.

No, really.  It was.  The weather was miserable, with steady rain all day, an occasional grumble of thunder off in the distance, whippy winds coming from nowhere, and occasional hailstorms piling up little glistening projectiles over the streets and lawns.

But the magic hour was approaching.  BettyLu had been working away all day in the kitchen, assisted by a hard working and lusty wench with some surprising talents, and the guests were about to arrive.  Lou had the wines arrayed on the counter of the bar.  Everything, finally, was in readiness.

The legendary JBL (he invented wine retail in California) arrived, looking dapper and Euro-stylish with one arm tucked carefully away inside the folds of his leather jacket.  We all suspected a tale out of James Bond's exploits..but it was only trying to climb the precarious hills of upper Berkeley after a hail storm and losing balance that occasioned the limp wrist.  It's dangerous going out to get the newspaper in Berkeley.  Californians just aren't used to inclement weather of the frozen variety.  Lynn, apparently intelligent enough not too walk down icy clay slopes in the rain, looked fine, and a welcome sight she was for us Oregon travelers.

Then they came in a clutter: Mark Anisman, the stylish doctor and wine aficionado from up-valley; the elusive Pimpernel of wine, Alan Bree, with a Ridge lurking underneath his coat for Lou (although it's not in any way an unusual or remarkable sight to see Bree and Ridge in the same place---it's been said that Bree knows more about Ridge than that guy Draper, and it may be true---closely followed by Nils  Lofgren, rock, I mean Nils Venge, wine star.

The space between wine bar and kitchen immediately became crowded, as it always does on cassoulet night, as everyone maneuvered for position halfway between the wine and the food, and thus halfway between BettyLu and Lou, and stories about the year were babbled betwixt and between, and a year past was caught up on.

The lineup of wines was, as usual, impressive.
Next up was another Austrian...another Wachau...another 2001...another Smaragd...and another winner, but this time a Riesling, the 2001Franz Hirtzberger Singerriedel Riesling.

If anything, more brisk and acid-driven, with a clean, slaty, brisk, lean---well, you get the idea.  Shiver the senses Riesling, this is.  Hair rising on the arms Riesling.  Covet the bottle Riesling.  Why don't I drink more Riesling? Riesling.  (Because I don't have many Rieslings like this on hand usually.)

Strictly in the interests of scientific curiosity, I decided it was necessary to sample ceviche once more, this time with the Hirtzberger.  Wow!  Two things emerge immediately:  BettyLu (and her talented sous-chef) know how to make great ceviche, and Lou knows how to match wines with ceviche.
End of Part I.  Part II to come, with a classic French and a nouvelle Veneto shortly!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Copa di Vino: Could You, Would You, Should You?

Strolling through my local upscale food emporium---you can't really call them grocery stores anymore; it just doesn't seem proper and fitting somehow---I noticed that above the freshly prepared and pre-portioned foods a rack contained two new items, Copa di Vino Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.  (There are apparently other wines called Riesling, Merlot, and Pinot Grigio in the Copa di Vino lineup, but were not present in this establishment.)

An idea made real by a Columbia Valley winery entrepreneur and featured on the TV show "Shark Tank", wherein budding billionaires propose their ideas to potential investors, Copa di Vino is a 'by the glass' serving of wine packaged as...well, a by the glass serving of wine complete with glass, all sealed up and ready for consumption with only a twist of the lid required.

Fully disposable for our disposable culture, or I suppose eminently reusable and recyclable, a la jelly jars, the Copa di Vino may either be a brilliant sales and marketing idea or another item that seemed brilliant at the time.  The jury, as they say, is still out.

Thing is, this is neither brilliant nor particularly new, simply a retread of an idea put into practice many years before with moderate success.  At least thirty years ago Hacienda Wine, from Sonoma Valley, produced many thousands of cases of pre-packaged by the glass containers with plastic glasses inverted on a single-serving wine bottle and shrink wrapped together.  Paul Masson's version of  "container and server combined" leaned toward a more profitable and practical and less costly concept of bottling their wine in decanter-shaped and metal-lidded bottles which could subsequently be used, one assumes, for decanting other wines---if one did not particularly care that all wines thenceforth served would bear the rubric of Paul Masson.

Copa di Vino is merely another version of the concept; with refinement and focus, one might say; or merely a tweaking through advanced technology enabling a slight improvement, another might say.

Trouble is, it comes down to wine as a convenience beverage against wine as more-than-a-beverage:  whether it is more important to have uncompromised quality in the glass, even it it is not particularly convenient and requires the actual (quel horreur) extra step of pouring from one container to another slightly smaller, or whether the quality does not matter so much as the ability to have what one wants when one wants long as one doesn't care whether the satisfaction of the urge is particularly satisfying or not.

So: $2.99 for a few ounces of what is likely to be a mediocre, factory-produced, volume driven glass of indiscriminate plonk (despite the flowing varietal descriptions on the package, does anyone really expect more than that?).  Would you? Could you?  Should you?

I could.  I probably should, so I can opine on the experience.  But I wouldn't, and didn't, so I'll have to rely on more intrepid souls with investigate drive to supply the answer.  If you're that person, by all means, try it and let me know.

Guess serving cost per ounce coupled with convenience isn't what I consider important when it comes to wine.  Silly me.