Saturday, January 31, 2009

A Vodka Worth A Martini

Two days ago, I decided to look into Cold River Vodka, located in Freeport, Maine, to learn just how they create such a unique vodka. As vodka lovers may know, Wine Enthusiast Magazine named Cold River their Highest Recommendation for vodka in 2008. This fact was so hard to find from the source that I decided to include it word for word:

CLASSIC (96–100)/ HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION Cold River Vodka (USA; Maine Distilleries, Freeport, ME); 40% abv, $35. The lovely, austere and enticing bouquet offers scents of black pepper, charcoal and limestone. Entry is sweet and lightly spiced; at midpalate luscious tastes of caramel corn, charcoal, quartz and cocoa bean make for wonderful North American unflavored vodka drinking. Concludes smooth, complex and layered. A coming superstar.

Not to get awards confused, but Cold River was also awarded the double Gold Medal at the 2008 San Franisco World Spirits Competition and was chosen “Best American Vodka of 2008” by Winewriter F. Paul Pacult.

Anyway, I started the afternoon off right, stopping by Sebago Brewing Company, one of my favorite Portland breweries. I tried their sampler of seven beers currently on tap, which, at $1 per 7 oz pour, it a very real and delicious steal (the Red, India Pale, and Winter Ales were all stunning). The sampler is not on the menu - but is always available. Then I headed north to Cold River. It’s been cold up here in Maine, as you may have heard me say in recent posts. I tried to imagine myself in Russia during the drive. What would a Russian vodka maker think of this concoction?

I think they’d probably say, знатных фамилий участвовали в маскарадных шествиях .

Master Distiller Chris Dowe works out of a gambrel-style building with a retail shop up top and the production facility downstairs in four rooms. It smelled of blueberries because they’d finished a batch of their blueberry vodka that morning.

Chris Dowe, Joe Swanson, Chris Mills, and Ben Francis are the sole distillers. It was a quiet day and Ben took me on a short, but educational tour. The numbers he threw my way made my head spin, but I did learn that it takes fifteen pounds of potatoes to make one bottle of vodka. They get their potatoes from Green Thumb Farms in Fryeburg, which is a fourth generation farm. The potatoes are the same high quality potatoes that Mainers put on their dinner plates, but they’re either too large or too small for practical use. Usually too large, says Ben. The farm is also where the water used during dilution is sourced: It is drawn from the aquifer that the Cold River feeds.

It takes ten days to make a batch of vodka, which is either 1500 or 2400 bottles (I can’t remember). Cold River is unique in that they are the only vodka producers who use whole potatoes and a copper pot still to produce their vodka. You mean, like you’re the only distillery to do that in Maine, I asked? No, Ben confirmed, the only distillery. Period.

The copper is the key ingredient. When the vodka is being distilled, the impurities in the vodka naturally attach themselves to the copper, thereby removing themselves from the vodka. Most vodka producers use steel stills, which do not attract and remove such impurities. These producers are then forced to repeatedly filter their vodka. This final process, while removing impurities, also strips to vodka of some its natural flavors. It is similar to filtered vs. unfiltered wines. Using copper does have its down sides: copper needs to be cleaned more regularly than steel, and the still will need to be replaced, as Ben predicted, in like 150 years. But Cold River Vodka retains many of its natural flavors because it is not filtered as much as say, Smirnoff, every drop of which is proudly - for some reason - claimed to passed through seven tons of charcoal.

I could certainly taste the difference of Cold River Vodka. It is one of the most flavorful I’ve had. It begins with a potato sweetness before the warm alcohol finish. To make their blueberry vodka, they use Wyman’s Blueberries. Maine is the largest producer of blueberries in the world. I should know, I raked blueberries for Wyman’s growing up.

If you want to take your own virtual tour of Cold River, click here.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Complexity: A Ten Year Old Bordeaux... Did I Stutter?

Thanks to the holiday season, I was able to try a ten year old Bordeaux. What had only seemed like a joke a few days prior - I'm serious, my girlfriend and I laughed out loud when reading Karen MacNeil's suggestion to drink such a Bordeaux to experience complexity - became a reality: I tried the 1998 Chateau Simard Saint Emilion, created by Monsieur Claude Maziere, the current owner of the Chateau Simard property, who prefers to age all of his wines at least ten years before releasing them. The wine taught me that the inability to fully grasp all of the qualities of great wine is itself a quality. Don't worry, I'm not getting existential, I'm just saying that not every experience can be put into words.

As a writer, this is of course alarming, but it serves to better clarify the concept of 'complexity' when talking about wine, and this nurtures my poetic sympathies. I wasn't born with a cellar full of aging Bordeaux, and I will accept that to some the 1998 Chateau Simard Saint Emilion is not top of the line. But for me, it was divine.

My girlfriend and I decanted the wine and let it sit for over forty-five minutes, and while this was sufficient, it continued to open as we drank it; allowing it an hour and a half or more is not a bad idea. With the Coq au vin simmering on the stove - we had actually butchered and skinned the chicken ourselves to get to know it better - we took our first sips.

Having an extremely loooooong finish, the wine's dryness actually made my tongue feel as though someone had gotten inside with a roll of paper towels and dabbed it clean; similar to water being dissolved from a just-washed cast iron pan over a burner. As I continued to drink, an unusual and unexpected thing happened: My notepad, which often fills up quickly, was left almost blank. The one thing I did write down, was How many drinks can evoke a place you've never been to? Yes, I was praising the wine gods.

But more importantly, I was enjoying myself. I was soaring over the hills of France, reminiscing with my girlfriend about her father's trip there when he was studying to be a mime, and thinking about our own travels there, and our hopes to work on a French winery.

Having said nothing about the wine really, at that point in the night, I decided that I had stumbled upon the term complexity. "Complexity is not a thing but a phenomenon," writes MacNeil in her book The Wine Bible. "Unlike, say, jamminess or acidity, you cannot go looking for the thing called complexity." Up until this point, I had thought that a complex wine simply has a lot of things going on. It might be full bodied, with a long finish, and have a number of distinct flavors of fruit, herb, or earth. But now, I'm beginning to realize that complexity has nothing to do with distinguishing a wide variety of characteristics in a wine. Complexity is wine's encroachment on the ethereal.

A complex wine reveals wine's nearness to the fine arts. Like wood working, tattooing, and clothing design, wine making can result in something that takes us outside of ourselves and into a great space without having left our seats. The Chateau Simard just made me happy. And that, my friends, is what it's all about. Making me happy. Don't let anyone tell you differently.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Wine In Extreme Northern Climates

So what's new on the wine trail? Maine. My girlfriend and I are taking a month in Maine to prepare for our upcoming journey through Italy, and I am surprised by the number of wine-related activities going on in the dead of winter. You'd think that a place that just got eighteen inches of snow wouldn't be the best for growing grapes - and while this is certainly up for debate - there are some Mainers who try. There are eight wineries that I know about, and some have experienced some success, particularly Bartlett Winery in Gouldsborough, ME. I am scheduling a tour at Bartlett's, and will hopefully give you an inside peak in a week.

But let's talk about wine shops. Maine has some great wine shops that truly come alive in the winter. Why? Because what else is there to do. Without the throngs of summer tourists, the wine-tastings and hors d'oeuvres become more prevalent in the Ellsworth, Bar Harbor, and Blue Hill area that I grew up. The shops, which include John Edwards Market, The Blue Hill Wine Shop, and the newest wine store in Ellsworth, Global Beverage Warehouse, are inviting and each have their own unique personality. The Blue Hill Wine Shop, which is located inside of a renovated barn, with cracked old wood and wine piled, stacked, and stood everywhere, like an arctic wine cellar, reminds me of a cross between a fisherman's shanty and an Italian vineria with odds and ends of wine everywhere.

Global Beverage Warehouse is one of the only stores north of Portland, ME, that features a wide selection of microbrews (and just so you know, ninety-nine percent of Maine is north of Portland) and I attended their wine tasting on the third Friday of the month. They noticed that few people wanted to purchase the more expensive wines that they offered during tastings, so they catered their selection by price: nothing cost over fifteen bucks. It was nice to see a few wineries represented that I'd tasted at, including Chateau St. Jean, Cline Winery, and Chateau St. Michelle, and this consideration toward price seemed a success: many people had a bottle or two under their arm. One thing that I must point out about Global Beverage Warehouse, even though they sound like a chain-store, they are not, and the service there is great.

So what does my month look like? Well, during the wine-tasting on the last Saturday of the month at The Blue Hill Wine Store, I'll talk more with Max about the Vinicola Savese winery, which is only a few miles from where we'll be living in Italy. They still use clay vessels to store and age their wines. Then, on the first Friday of the month, I'll enjoy the always impressive hors d'oeuvres, wine, and art offered at the John Edward's tasting. Then on the fourteenth, Atlantic Brewery, maker of the highly celebrated Bar Harbor Real Ale (a hoppy, full bodied beer), will be offering a tasting at the local coffee shop, The Maine Grind. Not a bad schedule for the dead of winter.

Friday, January 16, 2009

My New Favorite Grape: Petite Verdot

When I first tried Petite Sirah, I thought: This is it, a grape with an intriguing texture and succulent fruit that's great with food. My zeal for Petite Sirah was already shared by many members of the wine community, though its popularity reached its peak in the 1970's. Few people knew where the grape variety came from until, in 2003, when research led by Dr. Carole Meredith at the University of California at Davis confirmed that the grape was the same as Durif: A variety created by crossing Syrah and Peloursin grapevines.

If you really want to split vines, The Wine Lover's Companion reports that bottles of Petite Sirah can also be viewed as blends rather than varietals because Petite Sirah grapes are rarely planted alone within a vineyard, but are planted alongside true Syrah, Carignane, Mourvèdre and Grenache. Because of this, many bottles of Petite Sirah are actually accidental blends. Anyway, Petite Sirah was brought back to life thanks to California winemakers, and it's likely to become of the grapes varieties, like Zinfandel, that will be known as a truly Californian variety.

But hold on, I predict, with infinite wisdom, that Petite Verdot will soon surpass Petite Sirah in popularity. Like Petite Sirah, Petite Verdot is a big, silky wine, but its fruit is quite a bit brighter. I'm pretty sure this will make it more accessible to the wine community. Stryker Winery in Alexander Valley, Sonoma County, has produced one of my favorite Petite Verdot varietals. The long growing season of 2006 allowed Petite Verdot grapes to fully ripen, which is the trickiest part of their character, and you can taste it in the glass.

I know, you're probably thinking, How can this varietal, which is practically impossible to find in a normal wine store, become one of the leading wines in America? Just remember I said so. And go get a bottle.

Friday, January 9, 2009

More Than A Mouthful - Breasts and Champagne

I do not like things that are pretentious. And I do not like lame art. But something made boobs and champagne go together, and if it takes the clout of Dom Pérignon to bring it to the people, then so be it.

It comes in the form of a so-called artwork by Karl Lagerfeld, the world famous fashion designer. Lagerfeld was called upon to complete an advertising parade for Dom Pérignon that took the world by storm in 2008. Unless you don't read magazines, you've likely seen images like the one above during the last year. The woman is Claudia Schiffer, and her breast can now be used to drink from.

Lagerfeld molded a porcelain drinking glass using the outline of one of Schiffer's breasts. The drinking glass is supported by three, miniature porcelain replicas of Dom Pérignon. The idea of using the shape of a boob to create a bowl for drinking champagne came to Lagerfeld because Queen Marie Antoinette supposedly had a bowl designed after her own, in 1787.

The drinking glass comes when you buy a bottle of 1995 Dom Pérignon Oenothèque, which runs a cool $3,150. While the champagne might be worth it, the artwork is decidedly not.

(the photographs in this post are not my own, viz. not my property)

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

A Systematic Approach to Great Wine - Panther Creek Pinot Noir - Shea Vineyards, 2006

Panther Creek Cellars has been making great Pinot Noir since 1986, and even with a total production of 50,000 cases a year, it maintains an ultra-premium quality level. I first experienced Panther Creek's Shea Vineyard Pinot Noir in 2006, while working at Eos Wine Bar in San Francisco's Cole Valley, and I remember being taken aback by its truly silky texture. It taught me that you can actually chew some wines.

Continuing with Karen MacNeil's systematic approach to wine tasting that I outlined in my last post, the 2006 Shea Vineyard Pinot Noir was a wine with enough character to take the starring roll in the next James Bond. Seriously, if this wine walked into a bar, you'd want to hang out with it. It was so beefy that it seemed a bit larger than medium bodied, but a lot of that had to do with how many components there were in each sip. I have never tasted a wine that so perfectly captures the taste of young plums.

Let's begin with the first element of MacNeil's approach: A wine should taste like the grape used to make it. It is a common misconception that Pinot Noir wines are all light bodied, and this wine certainly was not. I cannot say that it tasted like a traditional Pinot Noir, though. I think Oregon in general likes to make their wines loud, and while this wine fit my personal preference, its loudness did not accentuate the characteristics of the Pinot Noir grape. Yes, that means Varietal Fail.

As for integration, I think the components of this wine were well balanced, and the silky mouthfeel contributed to this.

The expressiveness of this wine was clear: Oregon doesn't care about your grandfather's grandfather's way of making Pinot Noir. Oregon has its own style, and this wine perfectly captures that image in focus.

And that brings us to connectedness, or the wine's ability to taste like the area it grew in. Oregon Pinot Noirs certainly have their own characters; the Willamette Valley in particular is known for erratic yet disciplined weather, viz. very cold nights followed by very warm days, and this puts a good amount of stress on the fruit, forcing it to fully mature while maintaining high levels of acidity. Did the Shea Vineyard represent this? You bet. The fruit was mature, the wine was medium bodied, as are many Oregon Pinots, and the cold night acidity made for great tannins on the finish.

The final element of MacNeil's approach, complexity, was hard to judge. Did it have a bit of the je ne sais quoi? An interesting and enticing unknowable quality that repeatedly had me going back for another sip? I'm gonna have to say, I don't think so. While this wine had a lot going on, I think I could pinpoint most of its qualities. MacNeil's definition for complexity is very unique, and I can elaborate on it if anyone wants to know about it. Just comment or send me an email. So again, Complexity Fail.

Some facts: The Shea Vineyard Pinot Noir is the most popular wine at Panther Creek, and this year, 2,176 cases were produced. When tasting at the winery a few weeks ago, I thought that the 2006 Freedom Hill was a similarly fine wine taken in another direction, and that the 2006 20th Anniversary Pinot Noir, which is composed of around 50% Shea Vineyard grapes, was the best Pinot Noir I tasted that day.

Tasting at the winery is a unique experience because the winery is located inside the old power plant of McMinnville, Oregon. Instead of windows looking out on rows of vines, our view included exposed heating ducts and brick walls.

A bottle of 2006 Shea Vineyard Pinot Noir is $43, and a half bottle costs $20 (you do the math). Tastings at Panther Creek cost $5 each, and this fee is put toward purchases.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Oh the Glory of Great Petite Sirah - David Bruce, 2005

Getting to know great wine involves two things: 1) a systematic approach, and 2) a great wine. Many wine connoisseurs offer tips for systematically approaching wine, but none have made so much sense to me as Karen MacNeil, in The Wine Bible. MacNeil outlines five categories by which every wine should be assessed, in hopes that they will get you thinking differently.

Explaining each approach here, however, would be tedious. Let it suffice that they include varietal, integration, expressiveness, complexity, and connectedness. In short:

1)varietal means that a wine should exhibit the qualities of the grape used to make it (a Merlot should not taste good to a person who hates Merlot because it tastes like Cab Franc)

2)integration means that the winemaker balanced all of the wine's characteristics

3) expressiveness, which is the most elusive of the terms in my opinion, means that the wine is in focus, or has a personality

4)complexity can be defined by a ten-year-old Bordeaux

5)connectedness means that the wine tastes authentic to its region and growing year, viz. an Alsatian Riesling can and should taste like no other Riesling from any other location; it should taste like Alsace, France.

Over the next few weeks I'm going to put these ideas to task, beginning with David Bruce's 2005 Petite Sirah. This wine is glorious. After decanting it and allowing it to breathe for half an hour, the wine hits the palate in at least four different stages, the first being a light sweetness of blueberry or prune. An immolation of raspberry then hits upon swallowing the wine, which is then quickly followed by a widening out of spice, and a settling in of soft ink. I'm serious, this wine settles in like a 40-year-old moving in with his mother.

David Bruce's winery is located in the Santa Cruz Mountains in the Central Coast AVA of California. Petite Sirah is difficult to grow because it requires a lot of sunlight over a long time to fully ripen, but winemaker Mitri Faravashi uses the regular sunlight found in the Paso Robles region and southern Monterey coast to make his Petite Sirah. I imagine the fog makes the grape struggle at times, and helps to create the complexity mentioned above.

As for tasting like the varietal, viz. Petite Sirah, I must say that this Petite Sirah tasted unlike any Petite Sirah I've had, but the main characteristics, a rich inkiness and a soft mouthfeel, were there. It was more silky than velvety, but it had the nice flavors of what my girlfriend calls "a big fat-tipped marker": the velvet of the tip, with a whole lotta ink.

I think that I could taste the connectedness, in that it tasted like a Californian Petite Sirah because the grapes had come to full maturation, producing a lot of fruit.

The wine was definitely integrated: each of the four stages I mentioned above glided into one another. MacNeil might say that the very recognition of separate stages argues against my point, but there were no rough edges.

The hardest of the five elements, expressiveness, was really the easiest to taste with this wine. The wine was full of character - it wasn't going to leave you alone. Each sip from beginning to end had clear flavors that never grew muddled, never dulled out.

To accompany the wine, we cooked a dish using squid-ink pasta. We made a sauce similar to an alfredo sauce, only with the addition of wine, sage, and bacon. The sauce made some interesting patterns while cooking, so I've included some pictures from the meal. If you're interested in learning the recipe or other ideas for cooking with squid-ink pasta, knowing more about David Bruce's Petite Sirah, or the approach outlined above, please comment or send an email. And don't forget to bookmark By The Tun, cause I'm about to bust out some serious wine!

Friday, January 2, 2009

Getting To Know Brachetto d'Acqui - Sparkling Dessert Wine From Italy - And The Answer To The Question: Who Invented Champagne?

If you aren't already partied out, Brachetto d'Aqui is an awesome sparkling dessert wine that's great for celebrations. I tried the Italian dessert wine for the first time a few weeks ago, while dining at Town Hall in San Francisco. A deliciously sweet wine, it is similar in taste to a Moscato, only throws the unique element of carbonation into the mix. I'd never had a sparkling dessert wine before and it really is something to admire; the wonderful notes of honeysuckle exploding with each bubble.

The wine is made from Brachetto grapes, which are primarily grown in the Piedmont region, and is light red in color. The wine is often low in alcohol content, around 5.5%. Unfortunately I cannot remember the exact producer of Brachetto d'Aqui that I sampled, though I remember it had nice bright fruit, such as raspberries and strawberries, which vanished quickly, revealing a long sweet finish. I guess the tremendously delicious meal at Town Hall had already saturated my mind. Click here to read my review of Town Hall on

All this carbon dioxide had me wondering: Who invented Champagne? To my surprise, not only was there clear documentation as to who invented the bubbly, but it turns out that it was not in fact a French winemaker, viz. Dom Perignon. If you use the criterion of "invented" to mean a reproducible method - not a one time shot in the dark - then sparkling wine originated in 1676, on the English estate of winemaker Sir George Etheredge.

Sir George Etheredge was the first person to figure out that adding sugar produces a build up of carbon dioxide. It is believed that many Englishmen purchased wines from Champagne when they were yet still and crisp, and turned them into sparkling Champagne (or real Champagne, duh) by popping the corks, adding sugar, and waiting a while.

Well, I'm sure glad someone figured it out. New Year's just wouldn't be the same. Or, come to think of it, dessert! If you try some Brachetto d'Aqui for yourself, please tell me what think of it. I wish you all the best in the new year!

Celebrate the Holidays With New Washington Grape Varieties

Looking for a rare and unusual wine to sip with Christmas dinner or on New Year's Eve? It's easy to throw cash at a well-known bottl...