If you cook repeatedly from the same cookbooks, the way I do, checking off recipes as you work your way through, you gradually come to feel the chef’s personality in his or her recipes. Paul Bertolli’s Chez Panisse Cooking, for example, expresses a kind of musky, earthy, poetic sensuality, rooted in the soil; Thomas Keller’s Bouchon, by contrast, carries the man’s fiercely perfectionist classicism, his reverence for high culture, and his commitment to excellence. And then there’s the late, great Richard Olney, and his Simple French Food. It’s not an easy book to engage with: There are no pictures, and recipes like larded pork liver in aspic don’t really entice the contemporary palate. But I’m finally far enough inside that I’m acquiring a feel for a culture, and for Olney’s very personal relationship to that culture. The mood is quietly delicious, never ostentatious: family meals in a French-comfort-food style, and yet devastatingly tasty. Many of them carry lessons about spontaneity and thrift, too—like Olney’s “bread omelet.” It’s hard to imagine anything sounding more humble, working less hard to sell itself. But once you’ve made it, you realize that it’s a demonstration of how two eggs, a big chunk of dried-out old bread, and a little cheese, cream, and butter can be transformed into a divine light meal for two.
Wines, by necessity, have to carry the same mood in order to pair, so last night I tried an experiment, opening three very different ones to go with a family meal of rolled chicken breasts, turnip gratin, and garlicky salad. The breasts, incidentally, were another Olney miracle: so not fancy, so not dazzling on the face of it. Just a couple of flattened breasts marinated for an hour in herbs and oil and lemon juice, and then rolled up, pinned closed, and grilled. And the turnip gratin: What’s more homely than that? And yet it was so divine that even my little girls ate their fill.
Anyway, pour yourself three small glasses, rather than one, and taste around between bites, and you learn something. Here’s what:
2007 Hess Allomi Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc
Grapes: 100 percent Sauvignon Blanc
Wood: 10 percent new French oak (which isn’t much, right? Just a touch of oak flavor?)
Alcohol: 14.5 percent (whoa!)
Other Info I Like Knowing: These grapes were harvested from a relatively high-altitude Napa vineyard, at 770 to 950 feet, and were raised according to the Wine Institute’s Code of Sustainable Winegrowing Practices. The former leads me to wonder if the cooler air at higher altitudes might have something to do with the wine’s nice acidity, and with a bright, crisp quality I don’t personally associate with Napa Sauvignon Blanc. The latter just makes me feel good.
My Tasting Notes: This was my wife’s preferred wine with the chicken mentioned above; it’s a very, very good Sauvignon Blanc, with quite a combination of interesting fruit and firm acid.
Grapes: 100 percent Zinfandel
Wood: “That’s not something we talk about in the tasting notes,” I was told
Alcohol: 13.9 percent (downright restrained by the standards of hot-weather California Zin)
Other Things I Like Knowing: The chief winemaker on this bottling was Joel Gott, of Joel Gott Wines. He’s a partner in Three Thieves, and he’s got a gift for sourcing good grapes and making quality wines at a good price. This wine reflects that. Also, this wine is essentially a branding experiment: The Wingnut label was the winning entry in a label contest run by the winery, and was created by a 23-year-old design student. It’s a pretty clever one, I think.
My Tasting Notes: A great wine at the price, with nice, soft fruit, mellow tannins, a plummy richness, and plenty of acid. It would go great with the usual Zinfandel foods, like barbecue, but it’s not a hot, monster red like some, and would therefore be more versatile and less likely to overpower food.
2006 Robert Skalli South of France Pinot Noir
Grapes: 100 percent Pinot Noir
Suggested Retail Price: $19.99
Other Things I Like Knowing: The grapes for this wine were grown on Corsica, as part of Skalli’s project of making new-world wines on old-world land (I wrote about the Skallis earlier this week). So instead of growing the old Corsican varietals—which he does also, through his Clos Poggiale AOC Corse line—he replants old Corsican vineyards with grapes he can sell in the Californian and Australian way, labeled according to one of the major international varietals.
My Tasting Notes: This was my favorite pairing with the chicken; it’s not a wildly complex wine, but it is restrained and balanced, verging on peaceful.