Monday, February 28, 2011

Italian Wine and Italian Cigar Pairing

Italian cigar brands are rare in the United States and even though most regions of Italy produce tobacco, Italian-made cigars are hard to find there too. I like to pair a cigar with a good glass of Italian red from time to time, and when I was living in Italy I stumbled upon one cigar brand that produces excellent Italian cigars: Toscano cigars. You can find these in the U.S., but the real pleasure comes when visiting Italy.


I like to pair big red wines with cigars, and my favorite value reds come from southern Italy. For me, the best Italian wine and cigar pairing is a Toscano Originale with a glass (or bottle) of primitivo (the same grape as Zinfandel). The Originale style of Toscano brand cigar is by far the smoothest, richest, and most flavorful version of Toscano's cigars. Don't waste your time with Classico or any of the others, just stick to Originale (a pack of 2 costs 5 euro). Italy's primitivo wines come from Puglia and they are truly sun-soaked wines, giving them a silky mouthfeel and rich flavors of leather, dark fruit, and smoke. They are perfect for cigar pairing.


If you're in Italy, grab a bottle of Attanasio Winery's primitivo or, if you can find it, Consorzio Produttori Vini's primitivo. If you're in the U.S., try out one of the cheap primitivos from Trader Joe's or else A-Mano Winery's primitivo or Matane primitivo (which goes for around $11 and got 90 points from Wine Spectator). For a list of top 10 primitivo wines, click here.



The style of cigar found in Tuscany is the same as cheroot, which is what Mark Twain smoked, and called Sigaro toscano in Italian. It is thick in the middle and tapered at both ends. In Italy, it's customary to cut the cigar in the middle, thereby creating two shorter cigars. Other good Italian wines for pairing with cigars include Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino, Nero D'Avola, and Taurasi DOCG.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Anatomy of A Winery

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Yesterday I bottled wine at Brooks Winery, whose Ara Riesling was served at President Obama's first state dinner in the White House. I got to experience another part of the wine-making process, and it made me want to break down the anatomy of a winery (how a winery works). I want to talk about the different parts of a winery to show you all the people who work together to make wine. The different components of a winery are numerous, but it's pretty easy to understand how wine is made. I'm not going to go into much detail, I'm just gonna give it to you straight (Click the image below to enlarge).



Vineyard Management

A winery might not own the vineyards where its grapes grow, but it definitely does its best to manage their development. A winemaker and the winery laboratory work closely with a vineyard manager to grow the best grapes.

Winery Laboratory Pre-Harvest

To decided when to harvest grapes, the winery lab measures the Brix, or sugar levels, to determine ripeness and potential alcohol (alcohol is made when yeast turns sugar into alcohol). The winemaker has the ultimate call here. A good Brix reading is between 22-26. If the grapes have a 22 Brix reading, the resulting wine will have an alcohol content of around 13%, Brooks winemaker Chris Williams told me yesterday.

Winery - Processing

This is what I did during the 2010 Harvest. To see photos of the winery and the work, click here. The winery workers process the fruit and put it into tanks. This is when red wines develop their colors, scents, and flavors, when the red grape juice is in contact with the skins: a process called maceration. This is also when the juice naturally ferments, turning sugar to alcohol. In the case of Pinot Noir, the laboratory waits until the Brix levels are negative 4 or so, then alerts the winemaker.

Pressing

The winemaker chooses when to separate the juice from the skins; afterward, the skins are pressed to extract tannins.

Wine Making

This is the artistic part. So far, all of the different fruit from the different vineyards have been kept isolated. One tank of wine is 100% one region's fruit, one hill even. The winemaker tastes the different results then blends them until he or she creates the perfect wine... hopefully. I say hopefully, because the wine will change over the next year or so of cellaring, and how it changes cannot be 100% controlled.

Winery - Cellar

Now the wine relaxes. It has gone through a lot. The winemaker stores it in stainless steel tanks or in oak barrels. White wines are usually left in stainless steel tanks, and because you want to keep them cool at all times (otherwise you lose they loose their fruitiness and aromas) they undergo a prolonged fermentation. Red wine, which can get warm and retain flavors, sometimes ferments as fast as 10 days. As a result, red wines can be put in barrels sooner if the winemaker so chooses.

Bottling

This is what I did in the rain, hail, sunshine, and wind yesterday (Oregon weather is schizophrenic). Bottling takes a lot of technology, and most wineries cannot afford to buy their own bottling equipment. So, a bottling company comes to the winery. The bottling facility is contained inside of a Mack truck. Bottling isn't interesting, you just put wine into bottles. Again, the wine goes through a lot and it experiences bottle shock. I'm not sure what the negative effects of bottle shock are, but you should let the wine sit, undisturbed for three months to let it recover.

Drinking

The most important part of the wine-making process: Inspiration!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Movie Eat, Pray, Love: Not a Life-Alterning Experience

I was in Naples the day that Da Michele Pizzeria shut down to film Julia Roberts eating its famous pizza. I wrote about it here. My family was in Naples for the first time, but I couldn't show them the best pizza in the world. In the movie, Julia Roberts eats the famous Neapolitan pizza in slices. This is something the pizzaioli (pizza makers) only do for tourists. Only American-pizza comes in triangular slices. That's when I shut off the movie Eat, Pray, Love.


As a book, I respect Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love. I couldn't read past the first forty pages, but I understood why people like it. My own life somewhat mirrors that of Elizabeth Gilbert's. I left everything to go abroad. I quit my job, put my stuff in storage, got rid of my apartment, and moved to Italy. This is a awesome image of course. It is freedom. It is gazing at the Pantheon drunk on Fernet Branca at midnight. It is hiking the Amalfi Coast. It's drinking local wines and eating fresh seafood with new Italian friends. And it is this image that Gilbert's book captures, but that the movie-version of Eat, Pray, Love ruins.

Here's my point. The movie-version of Eat, Pray, Love leaves out the most important part of a romantic journey abroad: discovery. For most people, a journey to Italy is a once in a lifetime luxury. If you want to make it more than just a vacation - if you want to make it an exploration - you have to stay for a longer period of time; you have to save money, work hard, and spend days and nights planning. This is totally do-able (where there's a will there's a way) but I'm afraid that the movie Eat, Pray, Love will leave most people with an empty feeling. This hollowness comes from the fact that Julia Roberts's character doesn't have to risk failure, while you and I do. Her character is merely a wealthy woman who feels like traveling because she got divorced. Her publisher loads her with dough and away she goes. She represents an luxurious life, not a reality. This won't happen to you. It won't happen to me. It takes hard work and passion, two things that the movie Eat, Pray, Love leaves out. Roberts is a tourist, and the movie represents Italy as a tourist sees it, not as a life altering experience.


They do drink a lot of wine though. That was cool. But I'm still calling Phony.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Review of Two Inexpensive Wine Clubs with Killer Promotions


I've been a part of wine clubs since I first got into wine. First, I was part of Stryker Winery's great wine club. I went to killer parties in Sonoma Valley and got awesome Alexander Valley Zinfandel every few months. The great deals offered by more corporate wine clubs, such as Touring & Tasting Magazine's wine club and Zagat's wine club, seem too good to be true, but I decided to try them out. These corporate wine clubs do not give you an excuse to drive into wine country. They do not invite you to members-only parties, where you can indulge in the Bacchic rites with a bunch of like-minded spiritualists (if you get my meaning). But the promotions make them very inexpensive.

Touring & Tasting's wine club offers you six bottles of wine, shipping included, for $49.99. I received $152-worth of wine for fifty bucks, and so far all of the wines taste good. Zagat's wine club offers a similarly mind-blowing promotion: 12 bottles of wine plus 4 professional tasting glasses for $69.99; shipping costs an addition $19.99. Both of these promotions are only for the first month. The price of Touring & Tasting's wine club goes up to $99.99 per shipment (shipping included) and Zagat's goes up to $139.99 plus $19.99 shipping per shipment.


I can't review Zagat's wine club, but I can offer the Touring & Tasting wine club review. First, it's fun. You get three white wines and three red wines. The wines are from all over the world, and, like I mentioned, their combined price was $152. They are a mixture of old world and new world, but I think it's safe to say the club has California-styled palates in mind. The benefits of joining a corporate wine club instead of a wine club offered by a specific winery are that you get to sample wines from multiple wineries and the discounts are greater. It's a great way to discover new wines. It's not as much of a lottery as it is standing before a wall of wine in a wine store: these wines are hand-picked by multiple specialists.

However, as with all things corporate, these wine clubs do not have the personal touch that the individual wineries offer with their wine clubs. When you find an awesome winery and join their club, you become a part of something bigger than yourself. The Zagat wine club and the Touring & Tasting wine club deliver the good wine to you, but it's up to you to organize the party.