Admiral Ackbar's Guide to Holiday Wine+Food

When I'm not leading the Rebellion you can find me at home making bite sized Admiral Ackbar's snack bars. They make a great finger food to serve as guests are coming out of hyperdrive and docking at your ship. I like to serve them with Rylothian Yurp so you won't get too filled up but will enjoy spice on spice action.

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HOW TO Taste Wine Like a Sommelier

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Here's your chance to step with pep into any social setting and drop some wine knowledge like an old school beat.  No one likes the snooty know-it-all wine snob in the room, but you can still impress the pants of people by knowing how to taste wine like a sommelier.  As a side note, the real wine experts like Master Sommeliers are usually not the snooty know-it-all types in the room.  Actual wine experts know wine is about people—people who make the wine, and people who drink the wine.

The goal is to enhance your enjoyment of wine for the rest of your life and be able to know if a wine is good or not.  How do you know that?  One way is to know how accurately the wine shows typicity.  In other words, does it taste like the grape should and does it taste like it should considering where it was grown.  You might know that as terroir.

An accurate representation of the grape variety from the place its grown is a good wine.  A shitty wine is one that sort of resembles the grape, but the winemaker had to do so much stuff to it that it has no sense of place, or that it taste like a generic grape that could've been grown anywhere.  A Chardonnay from Burgundy, France comes across differently than a Chardonnay from Sheboygan, Wisconsin.

The real pimp way to earn respect is to know it, but don't show it.  Here's some some ideas on how to go through a wine and identify important "markers":

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Roll the wine in the glass

Don't swirl the shit out of it.  Gently roll it in the glass.  You want to release the aromas in the wine, not break the sound barrier with how fast the wine is being swirled.  You can accomplish the same thing by rolling it and not pulling 3 G's like you're in a blender.  Look at how the wine drips down the side of the glass.  That gives you an idea of how high in alcohol the wine might be.

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Look at the color

Color tells you some key things about the wine.  Color tips you off to the age of the wine, which is handy to know.  Young white wines have a slight greenish tint to them.  Older white wines start to get a brownish tint to them.  Red wines, as they age will fade in color around the rim of the glass.  You can tell an older wine because the rim is sort of orange colored.  Younger wines will have more opaque pink eraser color closer to the edge.  Try to narrow down to a window of 1-3 years old, 4-7 years old or older.

If you're not sure where to start, just stare at the wine and wonder if there's going to be an NFL season or not then move onto the next step.

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Smell the wine

Here's where you start to piece things together.  A sommelier, and cool people who read this blog post start to paint a picture that help to identify the wine.  First, are there any faults in the wine like being corked (smells like Grandpa's basement), Brett or volatile acidity for example.  Is the wine "clean"?

Next, roll it in the glass then shove your nose in there.  First impression time—do you smell red fruits or black fruits in red wine?  For white wine, do you smell tree fruit or stone fruit?   This is what separates real wine experts from everyone.  Sommeliers can name specific fruit in the wine.  It's not just green apple, it's granny smith green apple.  It's not just cherry, it's dried bing cherry.

You want to look for 3 things: fruits, earthiness and wood.  Try to name the fruits you smell and be specific.  For earthiness, do you smell moss?  wet soil?  manure?  Even chalkiness can be a smell that is "earthy".  And for wood, do you smell vanilla?  How about baking spices?  If not, maybe it's an unoaked wine.

Being able to identify the fruit is one of the most important steps to blindly identifying the wine.  Most wines have distinct fruit associated with the grape.  For example, Grüner Veltliner has distinct notes of white pepper.  Sauvignon Blanc has telltale grapefruit on the nose.  Chalkiness is an important one that we'll get to next.

Here's a handy chart that shows what aromas go with with which wine grape.

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Taste the Wine

Don't do what what you did in college and shotgun the wine.  I mean, you can and I won't judge you but you'll miss out on the beautiful expression of the grape.  If you're drinking a wine cooler, stop reading this blog and go to funnyordie.com.  Your bong is calling your name.

When you taste the wine, go through the same thing as smelling.  Identify fruit, earth and wood.  Try to name specific fruits you taste.  For red wines really hone in on whether it's red fruit or black fruit.  For earthiness, there's something cool known as chalkiness.  It literally is like a chalk texture.  That's important, because it helps you know the wine grapes were grown in chalky soils like limestone.  Limestone is only in certain places in the world.  Your brain can narrow down the wine to one of those areas such as France's Loire valley.

The real big thing to look for when tasting is whether the wine is fruit driven or acid driven.  Generally speaking, fruit forward wines are "new world" and acid driven wines come from the "old world".  Fruit driven wines are just that, wine driven by sweet fruit.  Acidity is something you hear about, but what is it?  Your palate detects acidity on the roof of your mouth in the back.  If that part of your mouth is all tingly, the wine has high acidity.  During blind tastings, wine tasters want to know if the wine is old world or new world so they can narrow down on where it comes from.  Old world wines come from France, Germany, Italy and other places in Europe.  New world wines come from Australia, USA, Chile, Argentina, New Zealand, etc..

Neither is better, just different strokes for different folks.  It also helps when trying to decide if the wine has typicity and tastes like where it came from.

Last thing on taste is the tannins and finish.  Tannins dry your mouth out like when you drink tea or eat paint chips, which is what I did as a kid.  Finish is that lingering taste in your mouth after you've swallowed the wine or spit it out.  Can you still taste it 30 seconds after it's gone?  That's the finish.  How are the tannins, complexity and finish of the wine?

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Conclusion

If you were being tested, you would be asked to combine all that stuff (color, age, nose, fruit, earth, wood, finish, etc..) and name the grape varietal and where it came from.  All the data would help narrow down what it is.  But for you, you can just have a look at the wine and appreciate all that went into making it.  Over time you might come to appreciate new things in wine like chalky textures in Sancerre Sauvignon Blancs or make more educated buying decisions.  Or if you go to someone's house and they open some sick bottle from their cellar you'll appreciate the gesture.

Who knows, if you're like me knowing stuff about wine might inspire you to be a better cook and understand how to pair flavors together.

There's no wrong way to enjoy wine.  Ultimately, it's about enjoying it with or without other people.  What you like is all that really matters.  There's close to 12,000 wineries in the world and many are making decent juice.  Lately, I'm all about finding the best bottle under $15.  Hope this helps.  Please let me know about your wine discoveries on the path of life.

Cheers!

Fruit Stuffed Pork Loin Roast w/ Bergstrom Pinot Noir

. . Here's a wine+food pairing from Bergstrom's wine club.  In my recent shipment they included this recipe, and being the pork lover that I am, I thought it would be good to share with all my readers.

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Fruit Stuffed Pork Loin Roast

INGREDIENTS 4 lbs boneless pork loin roast prepared for stuffing 1 cup pitted, chopped prunes 1 cup dried, chopped apricots 1 clove garlic 8 TBSP butter 1 TBSP dried thyme 1 cup Madeira 1 TBSP molasses Salt and Pepper to taste . 1. Preheat oven to 350° degrees 2. Mix prunes and apricots, roll up in cavity of pork loin and secure with twine 3. Cut garlic clove into thin sliver, make slits in roast with tip of knife and push garlic into slits 4. Rub the roast with the softened butter then sprinkle with salt & pepper and thyme 5. Set the roast in a shallow pan, mix the Madeira and molasses, then pour over roast 6. Set the roast on the middle rack of the oven and bake 1-1/2 hours or approximately 20 min per pound. Baste frequently. Roast will be medium when the temperature is 160° degrees 7. When roast is done, remove from oven and cover with an aluminum foil tent for 15 min 8. Slice thin and spoon pan juices over slices. Garnish with watercress if desired.

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GARLIC SCALLOPED POTATOES

INGREDIENTS

3 lbs yellow potatoes peeled and sliced thin 2 cloves of garlic 6 TBSP butter 3 cups heavy cream Salt and Pepper to taste . 1. Cut garlic and rub over the survace of a shallow casserole dish 2. Layer potatoes with dots of butter & cream. You can also add caramelized sweet onions to layering if desired 3. Bake slowly at 325° degrees for approximately 1-1/2 hours. It's important to cook slowly so the cream doesn't curdle but gets absorbed by potatoes 4. When done, increase heat to 400° degrees for last 10 minutes to brown tops 5. Let potatoes set for about 10 minutes before serving

Rick's Pick: 2007 Domaine Carneros Avant Garde Pinot Noir

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Finding a good QPR (quality price ratio) Pinot Noir can be a bit tricky.  Pinot is such a temperamental grape—when it's off, it's not very good but when it's good it's magic in a bottle.  Perhaps more than any grape, Pinot Noir expresses it's place or terroir more than just about any grape.  And it does so pretty dramatically.

Because of how temperamental it is, Pinot Noir is all over the place in terms of quality (read: how much you like drinking it).  The grape requires more work in the vineyard and in the winery, which ultimately affects price.  You don't see many $10 Pinots for a reason.  It's not like Chardonnay, Cabernet or Merlot where you can produce the wine more cheaply.  With that said, when you find a Pinot Noir for about twenty bucks that blows your socks off, it's something special.

When I tried the 2007 Domaine Carneros Avant-Garde Pinot for the first time at the winery I said, "@#%! how much is this????"  I had to do a double take to look at the price tag.  This wine is a Rick's Pick for a few reasons:

1. 2007 is a stellar vintage in California, especially in the Napa area.  Most wineries has great fruit to work with, which is 75% of what determines quality.

2. Domaine Carneros produces exceptional sparkling wines made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.  They don't work with many grapes, but luckily Pinot Noir is one of them.

3. Carneros is known for having a great climate for growing grapes like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.  Carneros is located at the south end of Napa Valley.  Most wine drinkers may not realize how close Carneros is to the bay.  It butts up against the San Pablo bay, which in turn brings cold air off the water over the grapes.  Pinot Noir loves cold air.

4. Domaine Carneros is a fabulous winery, and one of the few wine clubs we belong to.  They are owned by the Tattinger Champagne house in France, so their approach to wine making is exceptional.  I've yet to find a wine of their that wasn't made with precision and quality.

5. The X-Factor I talked about in my 7 Things About Wine post mentions an element you can't quite describe.  A Pinot Noir of this caliber normally goes for $50 easy.  Considering the fact the Avant Garde goes for less than $25 we buy it in bunches.

Get your hands on a bottle and get some in your glass.  Swirl it around and let the fresh aromatics of strawberry, dark raspberries and black cherries take over your senses.  There's a delicate choreography of spicy vibrancy that unfolds across your palate like two dancers on Dancing with the Stars.  It's surprisingly complex and well balanced with just the right amount of funky earthiness and a kiss of oak, letting the fruit show through.  Well done!

Getting the most out of virtual wine tastings

There are 3 virtual Australian wine tastings coming up at the end of March and early April are a golden opportunity for anyone who's in the wine business.  Wineries, sommeliers, retailers, importers and restaurants can realize ROA (return on attention) by following a few steps.

If you've never participated in a virtual wine tasting, the idea is simple—get a bottle (or bottles) of wine, taste and tweet along with other people at the same time on Twitter.  The reason why you'd want to participate is to capture the attention of participants while it's happening.  If the virtual tasting is planned properly, it's possible to have significant reach.

With traditional media, ad dollars are spent on reach.  If we run an ad in a magazine, we're paying for the reach of that magazine.  If we run an ad on television, we're paying for the reach of that station.

With new media, we can create our own reach through our fans and followers.  When virtual tastings are orchestrated correctly, we can create a wide reach by bringing together an audience for a defined period of time.  For #Cabernet day we had 3,000-5,000 participants who all had their own followings.  If we average each person with a following of 300 friends/followers a conservative estimate for reach was 900,000 people (3,000 x 300).  The upside is the community can scale up to an unlimited numbers.  The downside is once the tasting is over, the community disbands.  So we have to be ready to seize the opportunity.  Here's some tips for maximizing the reach before, during and after:

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1. Search the hash tag (listen)-

Search for each hash tag while the virtual tasting is going on to "hear" what others are saying.  Use Twitter Search, TweetDeck or kurrently to track the tag.  Personally, I like Twitterfall.com to put up on a monitor for others to see or TweetDeck on my laptop.  I watch to see what others' experiences are.

2. Prepare content ahead of time (share)-

Videos, blog posts, recipes or any other educational content can be created ahead of time, then posted during the virtual tasting.  For example, during the #YarraWine virtual tasting wineries can do videos about their vineyards, soil or climate then post them during the virtual tasting.  Because people are searching the hash tag, the content is likely to be seen by someone.  You may even end up chatting with them real time during the virtual tasting to continue the conversation.

3. Share real time experiences -

What wine or wines are you drinking?  Share photos of the label, including the hash tag.  Share your impressions of the wine, including the hash tag.  For example, during the #HunterWine virtual tasting I'll be interviewing winemakers in the Hunter Valley and posting the short vids online during the tasting.

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For wineries or wine shops wanting to sell wine there are different strategies on how to make it happen before, during and after.  Before any sales, coupons or offers can be made, there must be a level of trust with the online community.  The worst thing anyone can do is start blasting out offers.  If, and only IF the winery or wine shop is engaged with their community through lots of @ replies and one-to-one communications can they even think about selling anything.

If there's a healthy level of connection, then taste packs can be sold ahead of time.  If a winery is hosting a virtual tasting, they can offer wines on-site at a promotional price.  The most powerful use of new media is what happens after the virtual tasting.  A savvy winery or wine shop will make the most of the opportunity and engage as many participants as they can.  This is a targeted community of people who are participating—the community has already told us they like wine because they opted in to the tasting.  Create Twitter lists or maintain communication with participants to grow the brand's own following.

HOW the Wine Industry can Recover in 2011: Use Less Oak

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Oak wine barrels at the Robert Mondavi vineyar...
Image via Wikipedia

Positive signs of recovery for the wine industry in 2010.  We can all breathe a sigh of relief that consumers are drinking again.  Well, they never stopped drinking, just now they're drinking the good stuff.  Consumers are now buying $25-$50 bottles of wine whereas last year and the year before they were buying bottles under $15.

I got to thinking about what it costs to produce a bottle of wine.  Things that factor into the price have a lot to do with the work done in the vineyard.  Each time vineyard workers go through the rows and touch the vines, it costs money.  In good vintages, a winery will get good fruit with less touching of vines, hence, less cost basis.  In a bad year, a winery might have to do a significant amount more work just to get fruit to a good place by harvest.  From vintage to vintage, these are unfixed costs that can't be controlled.  If a winery is buying fruit from another vineyards, there might also be a fluctuation of what the fruit costs per ton.  In 2010, many vineyard in Northern California lost 20-30% of their crops because it was a cool summer.  Grapes weren't getting ripe, so vineyard managers cut leaves off the vines that normally act as shade from the sun.  Mother nature, it seems, has a sick sense of humor.  Shortly after leaves were cut off, there was a heat spike over 100 degrees for a few days.  That turned 20-20% of grapes into raisins.  Without the normal leaf shade, the grapes didn't stand a chance.

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One (somewhat) fixed cost in wine is the cost of oak barrels.  A brand-spanking new French oak barrel costs somewhere around $800-1200.  A barrel can be used a few times before it becomes "neutral," or doesn't impart oaky flavor.  American oak is an option, but French oak is the preferred choice.  Wineries order pallets of oak barrels each year.  Do the math with me.  If a winery buys 500 new oak barrels at an average of $1000 per, that's $500,000 in barrels.

Here's where my brilliant idea for financial recovery comes into play:  Use less oak.  Simple, huh?  In 2010 I tasted more overly oaked wines than I cared to.  Why on God's green earth are winemakers oaking the shit out of their wines?  This is a debate that's been around for years, but I'm really baffled.  Cut the amount of oak down 25% on your next barrel order.  Actually make wine that expresses the vineyard and don't cover up flaws with an orgy of French oak.  Not only could wineries save a few hundred grand, but they might actually make a better wine.  Why has nobody done this?

Take for example the 2007 Quilceda Creek Red wine from Washington state.  For years I've been a lover of QC wines, and have ordered from their mailing list.  After drinking (or trying to drink) this wine, I decided to drop off the list.  At 15.2% alcohol, the lower tier QC resembled Vodka and Robitussin rather than a world class wine.  There was so much oak on this wine, my wife and I literally could not finish it.  We ended up making a sauce instead.

In Napa and Sonoma I've experienced something similar.  Dozens of overly oaked wines that really have no reason to be so oaky.  Robert Parker isn't helping any by giving these behemoth's inflated scores, and essentially rewarding them for oak.

So there it is, use less oak.  That reduces the carbon footprint for shipping.  It saves more trees.  Wineries save on costs and wine drinkers get a better wine.  What do you think?

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Pinot Noir from Marin County

The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco as see...
Image via Wikipedia

When you drive over the Golden Gate bridge leaving San Francisco, you immediately go from city scape to Marin county.  Marin was home to Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead as well as some of the bay area's wealthy residents.  Marin is the great outdoors with mansions and high end car dealerships.

Right off highway 101, rolling hillsides meander towards the Pacific Ocean covered in lush green vegetation.  The coastal area is largely undeveloped.  Marin's wine growing region is just south of the Sonoma border, and of all grapes that should do well there, Pinot Noir is it.  The cooler temperatures in Marin county keep the Pinot grapes from getting too much sugar during the growing season.  Some of the vineyards sit on hillsides protected from west winds above the fog level.  This ensures the Pinot grapes get enough early morning sun to help the grape ripen and keep up with the acidity from the cool temps at night.

Soils can be erratic with a mix of clay and high magnesium from serpentine soil.  It's not uncommon to see rock outcroppings that were volcanic tubes filled with magma 150 million years ago.  Over time, the magma cooled leaving rock formations all over the coastal area.

Kendric Vineyards is operated by Stewart Johnson, who is responsible for all aspects of the winery.  He farms the land, he manages the vineyard and he makes the wine.  I met Stewart last month right before the Pinot Summit in Marin.  We had a good laugh that the summit was held in Marin, but his was the only local wine at the event.  The rest of the pinots came from all over the globe.  Stewart and I tasted the 2006 and 2007 side by side.  Case production is close to 375 cases.  I liked the lighter, more refined balanced style of the 2006 over the bigger 2007.  Both offerings were good representations of Marin.

I came away intrigued by this region for growing Pinot Noir.  Keep an eye out for other offerings or grapes that make good use of the cooler weather.  Next up? Chardonnay.

Some possible food pairings to play with for this recipe:

Maple Soy Salmon

Baked Chicken with Rosemary, Bacon and Balsamic

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