Saturday, February 28, 2009

Byron Winery in Grand Central's Oyster Bar

Fancy walking into the swank Grand Central Oyster Bar in New York City, expecting to drop some bills on martinis and oysters but instead finding a sign advertising a free wine tasting. The wines of Byron Winery were splayed across the bar. Winemaker Jonathan Nagy was there in the flesh, pouring a 2007 Pinot Noir and a 2007 Chardonnay. Beside him was a self-described silver-tongued sales serpent, but for all of his pitching, he came off more as a friendly Dr. Gonzo Lawyer than as a scaly salesman.

Once we'd finished off our tastes, Jon and the Gonzo Lawyer said that the tasting was over but that several wine bottles were still not empty. Another round was poured. Gonzo Lawyer said to my friend Lenny, "You're a nice guy," and poured his glass to the brim with Pinot. I stuck to the Chardonnay and discussed grape yields with Jon. He said that he believed that grape yields shouldn't be calculated by acre, but by vine, because growing vines in balance with one another is the more authentic way to ensure balanced wines. Think about it: You have two vines growing next to each other, but one garners the majority of the sunlight and the other is mostly in the shade. This is not good. The characteristics of the fruit will greatly differ and so it will be harder to create balanced wines with them. Jon went on to explain that he's begun planting vines even closer together, 3 to 4 as he said, which means 3 vines in 4 feet. The norm is 3 to 5.

Jon is certainly creating great wines, and the Chardonnay was unique and expressive. It was nicely oaked, cut through with a crisp acidity that made it an instant favorite among my fellow companions.

It seemed that the Winemaker and the Gonzo Lawyer were truly enjoying their time in NYC, even though the weather in Santa Maria, where Byron Winery is located, certainly beat the mind-numbing wind outside of Grand Central Station. They left us with the rest of the opened wines: two half-full bottles of Chardonnay and one mostly full bottle of Pinot Noir. Not a bad way to begin our travels! Who says you can't get things for free in Manhattan?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Today We Leave For Italy!

1 D300 Camera with 18-200mm lens and SB-600 Flash
1 MacBook 10.5.6
1 250 GB Hard drive
1 Bag of Clothes: 3 pairs of pants, eight shirts, 1 jacket, 1 sweater
Books: Faulkner, Kaftka, D.F.W., Dean Young, Steinbeck, Henry Miller, O'Hara, Nieztche, etc.
iPod with speakers
1 Recently Completed Manuscript
1 Cell Phone
1 Passport
Some money

and like they say, We're outta Dodge.

My girlfriend and I head to NYC to visit friends and then catch a flight to London, then Zurich, then Italy. Throughout all of this, I will bring you reports of the best wine along the way. I hope to learn how to make wine the Italian way by meeting a great winemaker and working his or her winery. Meals never taste better than when you make them yourself, so why shouldn't wine?

In so doing, I hope to envelope myself in the philosophy and lifestyle of Italy. As so many travelers know, Italy provides a space to indulge in nothingness. You can watch a sunset and have it be the pinnacle of your day --- others will understand -- and so, the important things in life are put at the forefront of living. Good friends, family, food, wine, and art --- particularly poetry in the land of Dante --- are what else really matters, right?

I hope we can share these things together through this blog. If you made a great meal or drank a great bottle of wine, I want to know about it. Then, it's like we drank them together. So indulge with me, in the finer things in life.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Atlantic Brewing Company Keeps It Real Ale

Sometimes American-style ales abuse our love for full-flavor and that many come out tasting alike. Atlantic Brewing Company, however, reminds drinkers just how varied beer can be in flavor, body, and style. The brewery offered a tasting two days ago at The Maine Grind coffee shop in Ellsworth that showcased eight of their beers. Outside, a gentleman was carving an ice sculpture of a frigate, upstairs a chili contest was taking place, and two bands were playing when I stepped beneath a beach umbrella and asked for my first taste of Island Ginger, a wheat beer spiced with ginger root. While I wouldn't drink it with dinner, it sure contrasted the cold outside.

I have always been a fan of the Bar Harbor Real Ale, the brewery's flagship beer that got them off the ground in 1991, but it was the Scottish Ale and the S.O.B. that really grabbed my attention. The Scottish Ale uses smoked barley from Scotland, which gives the big (7% alcohol) nutty and dark beer an almost Scotch-whiskey character. The low-growing perennial shrub, heather, is also added to the beer right before it's finished. Brewer James stirs in the flower, which is contained in something like an over-sized tea bag, with a giant stick during the last step of production to make sure nothing hinders the flavor of the flower.

Then there's the S.O.B., which stands for Special Old Bitter, and features the picture of a rather bitter gentleman known around The Island on its label. As the story goes, if you're as bitter as that old man, then you'll like this beer. It has such an extensive amount of hops that it has a distinct grapefruit character. You really get it at the end, when a pithy tartness lingers long after the beer is gone. As the man behind the bar said in his best Maine accent, "Guarantee it'll be the last beer you'll drink mum."

I was duly impressed with the breweries less-known beers and if you ever get the chance to pick one up, I highly recommend it.

The Prosecco Wars

I hadn’t been paying very close attention to the country of origin for most of the Prosecco I’ve been drinking. In fact, I usually order it rather carelessly at the beginning of a meal without even looking at the producer because I assume that it is Italian made. I mean, it says Prosecco doesn't it? But it turns out that 60% of Prosecco comes from regions outside of the traditional Conegliano-Valdobbiadene growing region and Italian winemakers are getting ticked. To counteract the bastardization of Prosecco, Italian winemakers are calling for a Prosecco designation similar to Champagne’s.

One of the most vulgar displays of Prosecco by a foreign producer is the Austrian-based Rich Prosecco, which features a naked, gold-painted Paris Hilton on a can (yes, a damn can! how irreverent!) which can be purchased for three bucks. Fortunately, a recent New York Times article helped to expose the plight of Prosecco.

If the designation does go through - and the keyword is “if,” for legislation in the EU goes very slowly - wine will only be able to tout the name Prosecco on its label if it does indeed come from designated regions in northern Italy. Unfortunately, this designation will likely lead to soaring prices for Prosecco. And another a very delicious alternative to Champagne could fly out the window... Oh well, there is always Cava, Cap Classique, Sekt, Asti, Brachetto, sparkling Shiraz, and Pezsgo to hold us over.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Ellsworth Maine's Wine Tasting Extravaganza

John Edwards Market in downtown Ellsworth holds a wine tasting the first Friday of every month during the winter, providing not only a delicious selection of wines to keep us warm but an impressive display of brie, shrimp, chicken satay, fried porcini wantons, and vegetarian sushi (this is only what I remember of the evening of course). The tasting is located beneath the store itself, in an expansive room filled with works by local artists. I arrived at five, making sure to beat the incredibly long lines, which did in fact wrap around the room at one point.

My first pour was a very nice 2007 Domaine St. Peyre Picoul de Pinet, poured by a very nice wine distributor named Jack (unfortunately I lost the last name, which really is a shame because he was really a great guy and when he heard about my Italian plans demanded my name and email so that he could get in touch with a winemaker or two who he knew in the Puglia region so that I might learn a thing or two from them while sweating away as a volunteer) who explained that the tasting was focuses around terroir. Terroir is a French concept without English translation, and it is what Karen MacNeil called connectedness: the ability of a wine to taste like the area in which it was grown. I asked Jack how one tasted terroir without knowing the unique components of the soils from the many winegrowing regions in the world. He gave a fair answer to a question that simply could have been answered: You need experience. He listed the various mineral qualities that wines can have, such as minerality, earthiness, and barnyardiness.

The night involved ten wines - four whites, five reds, and one cava - and I found my favorites were not necessarily the most expensive (always nice). The above mentioned Domaine St. Peyre was $10, a great southern Rhone 2005 Chateau de Calce Cotes du Roussillon was $11, a earthy Silcian 2007 Fondo Antico I Versi Rosso was $11, and an impressively old world 2005 Spann Vineyards Merlot that used grapes from Napa Vally and Sonoma Vally was on the high end side, $22, but had serious aging potential.

Well, thank you Mr. Edwards, you have made another chilly and dull Friday in Maine into anything but ordinary.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Drinking from the Stiletto Heel: Puglia, Italy

In anticipation of my trip to Puglia, Italy, known as Apulia to Italians and the heel of the boot to the rest of us, I've been going through my old photos from my last trip to Lecce (see below) and learning a million exciting things about its wine. For example, Puglia rivals Sicily as Italy's largest producer (Italy, in turn, is the largest wine producer in the world), and Puglia produces almost twice as much wine as all of Australia. Of course, this corresponds with a philosophy that prefers quantity to quality, but some winemakers are rejecting this identity, and creating some incredible wines worthy of attention, particularly Primitivo di Manduria and Salice Salentino.

(Map image is not mine.)

First off, Italian wine is hard to get a grasp on in general because half the time, a wine is named after the grape used to make it, and the other half of the time, it is named after the town it is produced in. Of course, Italian winemakers often go one step further and simply name their wine after whatever they want to, further confusing foreigners. Italy also has a massive number of indigenous and delicious grape varieties, most of which no one has ever heard of yet are sold across the country; their number is estimated at over 2,000.

Take Montepulciano d'Abruzzo and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. Most people would assume these wines were made from montepulciano grapes, but, in typical Italian fashion, the two wines are completely different. Montepulciano d'Abruzzo is made from Montepulciano grapes, but Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is produced from Vino Nobile grapes grown around the town of Montepulciano. To push it one step farther, Vino Nobile is actually a clone of Sangiovese: the grape used to make Chianti and brunello. Some other examples of wines named after there regions and not their grapes are Barolo, Chianti, and Barbaresco.

So, is Salice Salentino a grape or a town? It's the latter, and is located at the southern portion of Puglia, near the town of Lecce, where I will be staying. The wine blew me away the last time I was there, making me fall in love with the dark, fruit-packed grape used to make it: Negroamaro. Negroamaro is the primary grape in a bottle of Salice Salentino, and Malvasia Nera di Brindisi and Malvasia Nera di Lecce are also used to make it. Neroamaro has been the grape chiefly planted throughout southern Apulia since the 6th century BC, and some believe its roots in the region date back to 2000 BC.

I've heard that it often grows untrellised and is allowed to get rather unruly, so I look forward to seeing just what it looks like in real life. The grapes grow in small dark clumps and sometimes look black; correspondingly, the wine is a very rich ruby-red. My favorite part, however, is that it is a consistently good wine, and hardly ever retails for more than fifteen bucks. Trader Joe's has a good one for four dollars that I reviewed a while back. However, I'll compile a more comprehensive list as I seek out the very best Salice Salentino

More about Primitivo di Manduria next time, so keep an eye out and bookmark me.

Celebrate the Holidays With New Washington Grape Varieties

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