Wine and Drinks rss

Our favorite products, gadgets, restaurants, bars, wine, beer, and food websites and blogs.

The Best Spirit in the World?

The front of the Highland Park box bears a straightforward quote from Spirit Journal: “The Best Spirit in the World.” Pretty cheeky stuff, but there’s no getting around the fact that this Orkney tipple aged in Spanish sherry oak casks is a wondrously subtle and enjoyable Scotch. The toffee sweetness is undeniable, as is the long, rolling, smoky finish that can be extended with just a touch of water. A nutty odor, and disarmingly smooth and balanced overall flavor make this a uniquely enjoyable Island/Highland style Scotch—the experience is tamed and balanced, but not neutered or watered down. A beverage this good doesn’t come cheaply, but that’s just another reason to savor the stuff.

Highland Park 18-Year-Old Single Malt Scotch
, $99.99 for a 750 mL bottle.

Free Booze Now!

Today is the 75th anniversary of Prohibition getting the axe. To celebrate, here are some resources for locating happy hours and free drinks near you. There are probably some special Prohibition-themed events going on in your city too, but these sites can lead you to cheap drinks any time.

A guide to who’s serving free drinks in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Miami, Chicago, and Honolulu. You’ll find legitimate listings like art shows that happen to give away booze, to shadier ideas like crashing company parties: “And the Adobe Creative Suite 4 Party sounds like an uber awesome gathering of tech nerds …” Use at your own discretion and don’t blame us if you get picked up by security.

This site maps happy hours in Washington DC, Baltimore, Annapolis, and San Francisco. It lists what the specials are, times, and locations. Because of it, I now know about $2 Guinness pints at a pub near my house, a $9.50 Polynesian buffet and cheap tropical drinks at the infamous Tonga Room, and $2 bar bites and cheap drinks around the corner from CHOW HQ. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

The Unthirsty folks have a pretty fancy site that allows people to leave comments and rate happy hours, as well as maps them out on via Google. It covers a lot of metros too, including Portland OR, New York, Seattle, San Francisco, Washington DC, Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, Tacoma, Brooklyn, Austin, Philadelphia, Vancouver WA, Las Vegas, San Diego, Minneapolis, Spokane, Pasadena, Atlanta, and Miami. It also has a filter called “I’m Picky” that lets you refine your city’s results by categories like wi-fi, food specials, and if there is a patio. Bonus points for the extremely cute cartoon-character pint glasses and martini olives.

The Dissident, a Flanders-Style Brown Ale

I picked this beer up impulsively while doing some investigating for CHOW’s recent Belgian beer primer. Through my research, I learned that I really enjoy the sour beers coming out of Belgium, and now, luckily, from the U.S.

This beer is made by Deschutes Brewery in Bend, Oregon in the style of an Oud Bruin. It’s sour, but it has a nice balance with a slight bitter flavor, and some fruitiness. We drank it with some homemade pizza and the acidity cut through the cheese well. The beer is part of the brewery’s reserve series, so get it while it lasts.

Deschutes’ The Dissident, $9.99.

Put a Bow on These Bottles

If you’re looking for a chic, unusual wedding or Christmas gift for wine lovers in your life, check out Anuva Vinos, a great little wine club based in Buenos Aires. It offers limited-production wines from small producers, many of which are exclusive to Anuva. The pricing is reasonable: $195 for a shipment of six bottles (you have the option to renew every 90 days) and that includes shipping. Wines are chosen by a panel of local experts through blind tastings, and you can reorder anything that you like. It’s a great opportunity to learn about fun regional Argentine varietals other than Malbec, such as the rich, red Bonarda and aromatic white, Torrontés.

Satisfy Sweet Cravings with Booze

Although I am a huge fan of desserts, I often find myself too full after eating a meal at a restaurant to indulge in any. So recently, I’ve started getting into dessert wines, which satisfy my cravings for sweets without making me feel overly stuffed.

On my last trip to LA I had a glass of a wine called Dolce after dinner, and have been yearning for it ever since. Dolce, also known as Liquid Gold, is made in the Napa Valley from late-harvest Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes. It’s rich and luxurious and has aromas of peach, ripe pear, and orange zest. I recommend sharing it among friends on a special occasion; it would also make a nice holiday gift.

Dolce Dessert Wine, $59.95 for a 375-milliliter bottle

A Chef by Any Other Name Would Smell as Sweet

Last week I met Dale DeGroff who was in town promoting his new book, The Essential Cocktail. While Dale spoke to me about creating his cocktails I thought of how similar it is when I create recipes for food. A well-crafted libation is like a great dish: Start with quality ingredients, use a little imagination, and don’t mess with it too much.

As I watched him breeze around the kitchen snatching lemons, pepper jelly, sugar, and other ingredients, all the while relating cocktail facts and stories, it reminded me of something: One sign of a good chef is to be able to chat while effortlessly concocting, and a good bartender is no different. And though I’m no expert when it comes to cocktails, Dale and I share a basic philosophy: The best results seem to come from doing something you love.

Pick Your Favorite Behind the Bar

Roxanne and I recently met with Yuri Kato, publisher of Cocktail Times, who was in town promoting the 2008 Marie Brizard Cocktail Challenge. The idea of the competition is pretty simple: The 20 best bartenders (as defined by Marie Brizard, who hand-selected the competitors) from the East and West coasts were tasked with creating two cocktails relying on the line of Marie Brizard liqueurs as the main ingredients. The winners from each coast will later fly out to France to compete internationally.

There is a twist in this year’s competition though—for the first time ever, Marie Brizard is opening up voting to the public, so anyone with access to the Interwebs can vote for his or her favorite bartender online. Though the crowd’s favorite is not guaranteed a spot in France (that’s decided at a face-off judged by some industry experts), that person does get the Hospitality Award and a fancy home bartending kit. Voting is going on now and should last a few more weeks.

Since we met up with Yuri at Elixir, we were able to try the cocktails being entered by San Francisco bartenders Jackie Patterson, formerly of Orson, and H. Joseph Ehrmann of Elixir. One of our favorites that night was from Ehrmann, who put together a spicy and smoky drink that would work well at a fall or winter get-together:

Smoked Anise

1/2 ounce Marie Brizard Anisette
2 ounces Sobieski vodka
1/8 ounce Laphroaig 10 Year Old Single Malt Whisky

In a mixing glass, combine all ingredients and fill with ice. Stir well for 15 seconds and strain into a chilled martini glass. Garnish with a floating star anise.

Surf, Wine, and Money

Restaurant menus, we’ve all learned, are more than lists of dishes. They are also texts, full of clues. For example: Are they playing the name-every-farmer game? Are they serving tomatoes way out of season? These details tell us more than simply what we might order. They tell us what the chef is up to. Wine lists, of course, behave the same way. I can’t claim to have a mastery of the language, but this past week, while on vacation in Hawaii, a wine list caught my eye like very few ever have. I was staying in West Maui, and my family and I were treated by a friend to a meal at the venerable old Lahaina Grill. I’d heard of the place, but never eaten there, and my friend handed me the wine list and muttered something like, “Just for kicks, have a look at this.”

Page one was all about a “featured winery,” in this case, Grgich Hills. A thoughtful write-up included two Grgich wines by the glass and the bottle, which is a terrific way to add a little learning experience to your meal. Then came the truly interesting part. First, picture the room in which I’m reading this: casual and bustling, old Victorian building and décor, people in shorts and Hawaiian shirts, everybody inside apparently old friends, waiters and managers chatting warmly to everyone, kids walking by with surfboards outside the windows. Got the vibe? OK, now check out the beginning of the wine list proper:

Magnum Selections

California Red

Duckhorn, Napa Valley 2005…255

Proprietary Blends
Gemstone, Napa Valley 2003…540
Opus One, Napa Valley 1981…930
Opus One, Napa Valley 1985…1,200
Ridge, “Monte Bello,” Santa Cruz Mountains 1992…800

Cabernet Sauvignon
Anomaly, Napa Valley 2003…375
Anomaly, Napa Valley 2004…378
Blankiet Estate, “Paradise Hills Vineyard,” Napa Valley 2003…885
David Arthur, “Elevation 1147,” Napa Valley 2003…642
Silver Oak, Alexander Valley, Sonoma 2003…265

Champagne & Sparkling Wines

Krug, Reims 1995…600
Louis Roederer, “Cristal” 1999…560
Moet Chandon, “White Star,” Epernet, NV…97
Perrier-Jouet, Grand Brut, Epernet, NV…108
Pierre Gimonet & Fils, Millesime De Collection, NV(1.5L)...450
Salon, Blanc De Blancs, Le-Mensil 1998…498
Veuve Cliqout-Ponsardin, “Grande Dame,” Reims 1996…369
Veuve Cliqout-Ponsardin, “Rosé Reserve,” Reims 1999…187
Veuve Cliqout-Ponsardin, Yellow Label, Reims, NV…105

In certain restaurants, I would have found this offensive: Who do they think we are!? What are they trying to say?! But the Lahaina Grill has such a dreamy, casual quality that it seemed to mean something very different. It seemed to mean that Maui is simply the playground of the superrich, and that many of those superrich love the Lahaina Grill for the same reasons everybody else does (immaculate service with a good-humored friendliness about it, sensational food, menu prices no higher than any other fine-dining place in town), and that customers like this simply enjoy seeing, up front, the bottles they’re most likely to order. Scanning the rest of the list deepened this impression: I found one interesting wine after another, all of them reflecting a serious commitment to shaping the restaurant’s own list, and wherever I actually knew the retail price, the markup seemed perfectly fair. Not low, but fair.

I asked the sommelier—who happened to be our waiter—about putting the big bottles up front, and he confirmed my intuition: They just get a lot of requests for that stuff, so they want to be sure people don’t have to go hunting for it. His name was Richard Olson III, and he perfectly embodied a kind of West-Coast-and-Hawaii relationship to fine wine: handsome, well tanned, with a gleaming smile. He lives in Maui for the water, spending off-hours (when not researching wine) surfing and working out hard on his outrigger canoe.

It was like a vision of the afterlife—my own personal version of wine-lover heaven—where Richard Olson III is always my waiter, and the surf is always good, human history has always been benign and tragedy has been banished and we’ll all live and surf and drink forever and I’m always hungry from a long day at the beach, and a well-culled list of glorious wines always awaits, with money no object. But of course it does exist in this life, with the exception of the history/tragedy/immortality bit, and the money-no-object bit. So if you ever find yourself on Maui, don’t even think of missing this place. And even if you’re in the mood for a margarita that night, open the wine list and sink into signifiers from life-as-it-ought-to-be.

A Wine I’ll Probably Never Drink Again

Once in a while, I get a wine sample in the mail that knocks my teeth out—in a good way, I mean, figuratively speaking—and it’s a huge problem, because then I end up drinking it. All of it. It’s an occupational hazard, really; my consumption follows a constant sine curve from too much to too little and back again, and it’s always the great bottle that pushes me back toward too much. Because what else do you do with a truly transporting wine? Make vinegar? No! Certain wines are so yummy they simply must be drunk, lest the gods frown down upon us.

My most recent experience in this vein was a new bottling from Pine Ridge called Fortis. Not a cheap wine, mind you: This baby retails at $135 a bottle, which gave me a kind of sticker shock on sight. But holy smokes is Fortis delicious, starting out in this kind of expanding blossom of balanced flavor and then suddenly catching your midpalate and bursting into a mouth-filling complexity that hangs on and on and on. It hangs on so long, in fact, that well after you’ve finished that steak, and even finished the last of a stinky cheese, and even adjourned with a friend to the deepest couch in sight, you find yourself still drinking it.

I’ll probably never get to drink this wine again, but that’s all right; the memory will stay with me. So will a surprisingly lighthearted conversation I had with the winemaker, Stacy Clark. When I asked about the Fortis project, she was refreshingly unpretentious: She just said a consultant looked at their lineup and said, in essence, Hey, you guys need a reserve wine.

So Clark was tasked with creating one, which is where the fun part started: She had 225 acres of vines to draw from, scattered across five appellations, and all of it very well known to her. She had enormous diversity, in other words, but also land with which she was intimately familiar. So she got to pick and choose, and do things right, and have some fun. They agreed in advance that the wine didn’t have to have a dominant varietal to put on the label, didn’t have to use all the standard Cab/Bordeaux blending varietals, and didn’t have to be able to claim any AVA broader than “Napa.” It just had to be the best wine Clark could make. She told me all about the vinification, and you can read about it online if you like, but one remark stayed with me. She was talking about how you keep tinkering with your blends right up until the moment a wine goes into the bottle.

“Thank God you do bottle, so you have to stop!” she said.

Like so many other pursuits in life, writing included.

2004 Pine Ridge Fortis

Grapes: 74 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 10 percent Merlot, 9 percent Malbec, 7 percent Petit Verdot
Appellations the Grapes Are From: 79 percent Rutherford, 9 percent Carneros, 9 percent Oakville, 3 percent Stags Leap
Aging: 14 months in 75 percent new French oak barrels
Alcohol: N/A, but I’m sure it’s substantial
Price: $135 from the winery (the only place you can get it)
My Tasting Notes: See above.

Wine Tasting at Breakfast

What a chameleon Chardonnay is—so easily influenced! I mean, jeez, winemakers, climate … does this grape have core values? A central identity? Well, of course it does, but I tasted 13 midpriced Monterey County Chardonnays at once the other day: lined ’em all up in my kitchen, popped all the corks, set a glass in front of each bottle, and got to work—at 10 a.m. no less!

Tom Rinaldi, winemaker at Provenance in Napa, once told me he does all his tasting before lunch, when his palate is fresh and his mind is clear. If you’re tasting after lunch, he told me, and especially if you’re tasting around dinnertime with some food, you’re not tasting. “You’re just partying,” is the way Rinaldi put it.

The remark stuck with me, so whenever I want to get serious, I eat a simple breakfast and get right to the drinking. And the spitting.

I offer up my tasting notes below. If I had to give a global view it would go like this: Yes, cool climate does make a difference, because every one of these 100 percent Chardonnays had much brighter acidity and a notably different flavor palate than Napa Chardonnay. Lemon zest was probably the single most common flavor I noted. Beyond that? The wines were as different as they were alike, suggesting a whole lot of winemakers trying a whole lot of different things, and getting some very interesting results.

2006 Scheid Vineyards Estate Grown Monterey Chardonnay
Smelled of bright lemon, a hint of grass, and maybe some tropical fruits; tasted lean and racy, celery and mineral. Not what you’d call a “plush” Chardonnay at all. Probably just right with seafood.

2006 Carmel Road Monterey Chardonnay
Completely different aromatics than the one above: Imagine the smell of nutmeg, white pepper, vanilla, and cardamom. In the mouth, it was less exotic: citrus, and a hint of butter and oak.

2006 Pessagno Chardonnay Sleepy Hollow Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands
The lemon scent in this wine leaned toward lemon curd–buttery, and the flavors were very focused and well integrated. I liked this wine for sure.

2005 Pessagno Intrinity Chardonnay, Santa Lucia Highlands
More restrained than the others, with notable oak and pear flavors, and less acidity. But lovely.

2006 Pessagno Chardonnay Lucia Highland Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands
Very honeyed nose, almost caramel; lower in acid than the others, mellower, more integrated, more oaky-vanilla, though in a subdued, good way.

2006 McIntyre Estate Chardonnay, Santa Lucia Highlands

This one smelled like a hot toddy to me, lemon and honey, with butterscotch flavor, balanced by more lemon acidity.

2006 Jekel Vineyards Monterey County Chardonnay, Gravelstone Vineyard
The name is no mistake: clear smells of rocks, minerals, celery, nectarine. I thought this one was a solid A-minus, a terrific choice for an inexpensive, simple, cool-climate chardonnay.

2006 Lockwood Vineyard Chardonnay
Very clear vanilla and oak notes in the nose; not wildly complex in the mouth: vanilla bean, subtle oak, good acid. Bam. A fine wine.

2005 Ventana Vineyards Monterey Arroyo Seco Chardonnay “Gold Stripe”
Very warm, vanilla-honey aromatics; similar in the mouth, warm and integrated, though still not a huge wine, à la Napa style.

2006 J. Lohr Arroyo Vista Vineyard Chardonnay
Mineral and a hint of honeysuckle in the nose, a pretty aroma; stone fruit, apricot. Very nice wine!

2006 Bocage Unoaked Chardonnay
Very distinctive nose of pear syrup, or poached pears, or that Kern’s Pear Nectar on a hot summer day, sucked from a frozen can by a swimming hole. Mouth: pear and lemon.

2006 Estancia Chardonnay Monterey County Pinnacles Ranches
Paler than most, backed off toward cool lemon; in the mouth, not complex but not bad, a fine little wine for a fine little time.

2006 Hahn Estates Monterey Chardonnay
A little darker than the others, and a more apricotlike program in the nose, with lemon and peaches. Nice wine, mellow.