Monday, April 30, 2007

Is Winespeak Bunk?

Winespeak--the lingo used by wine critics and connoisseurs--is often dismissed by the average wine drinker as worthless pretension. However, paying attention to the descriptions on the back of wine bottles can help train your nose and palate to discriminate subtle differences of aroma and flavor.

According to Bryan Miller, in recent years "winespeak has reached a dazzling state of hyper-fermentation, releasing a gaseous haze of verbiage that can be seen from Sonoma to Saint-Julien." Miller heaps scorn upon the attempt by certain wine writers to describe wines using terms like 'crème brûlée,' 'dew,' 'egg custard,' 'almond cheese pastry,' and 'flan.' Jon Cohen raises doubts about the value of terms like 'elegant,' 'generous,' 'graceful,' 'lush and creamy,' 'rubenesque,' and 'harmonious' for facilitating useful communication about wine.

Although some winespeak certainly is certainly over the top, too many people automatically assume they won't be able to detect the flavors that are mentioned in such descriptions and so never even try to detect them. However, if you want to take your appreciation of wine to the next level, I recommend that you try to detect the aromas and flavors mentioned on the back of a bottle or on the winemaker's website.

Here's an example of what you can do. Last week my wife and I opened a Syrah from McManis Family Vineyards in the Northern San Joaquin Valley. The wine was surprisingly good, given its $10 price tag. Because the back of the bottle did not contain a description of the wine, I went to the winery's website and found the following:
"The succulent fruit flavors lead to a toasted oak mid palate and then on to a finish of cocoa and spicy oak. The aromas are of dense, big jammy fruit; raspberries and plums. The bouquet delivers a nice complexity of sweet vanilla."
My wife and I were able to clearly discern aromas of dense, big jammy fruit, raspberries and vanilla, though we weren't so sure about the plums. That's three out of four. You'd be surprised what you can detect when you put your mind (and your nose) to it.

Wine descriptions on bottles and websites can direct your nose to aromas that you might not be able to distinguish if you weren't consciously looking for them. Here's an analogy: Have you ever noticed that the head and hands of Michelangelo's David are out of proportion with the rest of his body? Even though you've seen pictures of this statue before, you may not have noticed the size of his head and hands, but (and here's the key) as soon as I tell you where to direct your attention, you can immediately recognize this feature. Wine descriptions can do that for your nose and palate. Try taking them seriously and see how many of the described components you can detect.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Dry Jack

Monterey Jack does not have to be the boring, nearly tasteless cheese most of us encounter only in Tex-Mex dishes. Dry Jack can be wonderful and indeed is considered by many to be one of America's greatest cheeses.

The best known maker of Dry Jack is Vella Cheese Company in Sonoma, CA. I had the pleasure of stopping by there a few weeks ago during my stay in Napa Valley.

Dry Jack is made from the pasteurized milk of grass-fed cows. Unlike regular Monterey Jack, Dry Jack undergoes an extensive aging process, during which time its moisture content is greatly reduced. The resulting cheese is hard, pale yellow in color, intensely flavored and similar in texture to Parmesan.

The Vellas coat the rind of their Dry Jack with a mixture of cocoa, pepper and soybean oil. The coating serves two purposes: (i) it keeps the cheese from cracking as it loses moisture and shrinks in size during the aging process and (ii) it imparts a unique spiciness to the cheese.

Mr. Vella told me the Dry Jack that I bought at his creamery was almost four years old. It boggles my mind to think I am eating a cheese that has been around longer than my daughter.

Vella Dry Jack is not currently available in Buffalo, but I have just requested that Premier Gourmet order some. They are good about honoring customer requests. So, I'll let you know when it comes in.

The one thing I can't figure out about Monterey Jack cheese is what conditions must be satisfied for a cheese to count as Monterey Jack. When I asked Mr. Vella about this, he simply told the common story of how a man named David Jacks allegedly invented the cheese in Monterey County during the California Gold Rush of the 1800s. However, in order for Mr. Jacks to be credited with "inventing" a new cheese, there must be something novel about his product. The mere fact that he made cheese from cow's milk in Monterey County hardly counts as a new invention. I have consulted reference books on American cheese and have scoured the internet but cannot find anything that distinguishes Monterey Jack as a distinct type of cheese from any other.

Here are some things that might distinguish a cheese as unique: (i) the type of starter culture (i.e., bacteria) added to milk to break down the lactose, (ii) the type of rennet (a coagulating enzyme) used to separate liquids (whey) from solids (curds), (iii) the process of cutting and pressing the curds, (iv) the method of treating the rind, and (v) the aging process. However, as best I can tell, Monterey Jack is not significantly different from cheddar in any of these categories, and Mr. Jacks certainly did not invent cheddar. The fact that he made some cheddar in California hardly seems to qualify his product as a new invention.

The mixture of cocoa, pepper and oil the Vellas use to coat their rinds seems to be a feature of their unique version of Monterey Jack rather than something that is common to all Jacks. So, if anyone knows what makes Monterey Jack Monterey Jack, please let me know.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Learning More About Wine

According to Eric Asimov, wine writer for the New York Times, the best place to learn about wine may be your own home. Eric suggests that the best way to learn about wine is to do some "systematic wine drinking" at home.

Eric's advice is to tell your local wine retailer that you are interested in learning about wine and ask them to recommend twelve different wines that are worth getting to know. Preferably, the recommendations will include different styles and grapes from around the world. Be sure to set a price limit you are comfortable with. Eric used a $250 budget. Since a case is 12 bottles, that's about $20 or so per bottle. You may prefer to spend $15 a bottle.

Eric's advice is that you open a bottle every other night or so and take notes on what you like about the wine, what you don't, what you ate with it. Then, when you have finished your case, take your notes back to your wine retailer and ask them to recommend a second case based upon what you liked in the first one.

You can read more of Eric's thoughts about systematic wine drinking at home here and here.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Purple Haze

Purple Haze is a goat's milk cheese from Cypress Grove Chèvre that is simply fabulous. It is a fresh (i.e., non-ripened) cheese flavored with lavender buds and wild harvested fennel pollen. It is like nothing I have ever tasted.

This cheese has a light, lemony, refreshing floral flavor. It is quite soft and can be spread on just about anything. I have never enjoyed a goat cheese as much as I enjoyed this one, nor have I eaten 5 oz. of chèvre as quickly. Try it and you will see why.

Purple Haze comes in a 5 oz. three-inch round that is available in cheese shops all around the country. In western NY, it can be found at Premier Gourmet, the Lexington Co-Op, and Wegman's.

Fresh goat cheese should be kept as cold as possible without freezing (33°–35°F). But be sure to warm it up to room temperature before serving. Scuze me while I enjoy more of this chèvre.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Wine Quotations

Here are some interesting quotations about wine from some famous historical personages:

"My only regret in life is that I did not drink more Champagne." --John Maynard Keynes

"Behold the rain, which descends from the Heavens upon our vineyards, and which enters into the vine-roots to be changed into wine; a constant proof that God loves us and wants to see us happy." --Benjamin Franklin

"A meal without wine is like a day without sunshine." --Galileo Galilei

"Too much and too little wine. Give him none, he cannot find truth; give him too much, the same." --Blaise Pascal (Pensées)

"Wine is only sweet to happy men." --John Keats

"Wine nourishes, refreshes and cheers. Wine is the foremost of all medicines... Wherever wine is lacking, medicines become necessary." --The Talmud

"The weary find new strength in generous wine." --Homer

"In vino veritas" (In wine there is truth) --Plato

"Wine is light, held together by water." --Galileo Galilei

"The wine cup is the little silver well where truth, if truth there be, doth dwell." --William Shakespeare

"Bronze is the mirror of the form; wine, of the heart." --Aeschylus

"You Americans have the loveliest wines in the world, you know, but you don't realize it. You call them DOMESTIC and that's enough to start trouble anywhere." --H. G. Wells

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Port: The Latest Napa Valley Trend?

Several wineries in Napa Valley have begun offering port wines at their tasting bars for the first time this year. This is sometimes (but not always) the first stage on the road to larger-scale productions of these wines.

The newly released port at Franciscan Oakville Estate (bottled in 2002) is made from a blend of grapes popular in California and traditional Portugese grapes: 30% Zinfandel, 30% Napa Gamay, 20% Tinto Cao, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 10% Touriga Nacional. It had a caramel nose and flavors of anise and dark plum. It was smooth and enjoyable.

The new port at Beaulieu Vineyards is made from Charbono, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Sirah and Touriga Nacional grapes. I did not enjoy this port at all. Beaulieu should reconsider its attempt to jump on the port bandwagon.

Although Peter Prager, winemaker at Prager Winery & Port Works in Napa, told me he was skeptical about port being the "new Merlot" in terms of trendiness in Napa Valley, the Pragers have definitely seen new interest and exposure for their favorite variety of fortified wine. There is also some objective data to support the emergence of a trend--imports from Portugal to the U.S. (primarily in the form of port) have tripled in the last decade.

I hope interest in port increases because I enjoy offering it as an after-dinner drink. Very few of my dinner guests, however, ever agree to sample a glass. It seems to strike most people as too strong, too sweet and just plain weird. I would like to see that change.

Back from Napa--Blogging Hiatus Over

I spent two wonderful wine- and cheese-filled days in Napa Valley last week before heading over to the Pacific Division Meeting of the APA. I have now returned to Western New York and will begin posting to Corks and Curds on a regular basis again. I will try to avoid having such a long blogging hiatus in the future.