Nov 16, 2010

Tasting an 1837 Port

The 1837 Queens Port    (Credit: Suzanne Rodriguez)
About 35 years ago, my longtime friends Don and Ann Jackson—travel writers and, in Don's case, President Emeritus of the International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association—bought an older home in Los Altos Hills, California. After moving in they made the sort of discovery most of us can only dream about: descending into the 1000-bottle wine cellar, they found more than 300 bottles left behind by the former owner.

The Jacksons presumed that the former owner believed the abandoned wines to be undrinkable. And in most cases (including—ouch!—dozens of bottles of 1934 Korbel champagne) that assumption turned out to be correct. Some of the red wines had held up well enough, though, and were enjoyed by the couple and their friends over the years.

 The cellar’s real prize: nine bottles of Port made around the mid-Nineteenth Century. The oldest bottles were dated 1837; the youngest, 1840. When Don and friends pulled the cork from the first bottle and took a tentative taste, the wine was still good. That’s surprising but not shocking because Port, as a fortified wine, can have a very long life.

Good journalist that he is, Don delved into researching the Port. Unfortunately, the difficulty of doing such research in pre-Internet days was compounded by the fact that he possessed almost no information. The labels, printed in black ink,  provided only the date and the words “Queens Port” on the 1837 bottles and “PORT WINE” on the others. The bottles contained no seams and were obviously hand-blown, but had no identifying marks. The corks were sealed with wax, as all wines were long ago.

In high-end wine stores Don was invariably assured that the bottles could be sold for a good bit of money to a collector, but nobody could tell him anything about the Port itself. In later years, with the help of the Internet, he contacted a major Port association in Portugal, providing the little information he possessed. A staff member there could tell him nothing about the bottles, but advised that properly-stored port could remain drinkable for more than 200 years. “By the sound of it,” the man wrote, “you have some really damn good old ports [but] the best place to store your old bottles of port is in your memory. The value could be anywhere from $2,000 up to much more for each bottle. But why sell? Enjoy them!”

In the end Don and Ann decided this was good advice, and they have enjoyed the Port ever since on special occasions or with certain friends who have a keen interest in Port or oenology. They started with the youngest Port (1840) and have slowly worked backward. Given the rarity of this treasure and their desire to share it with as many friends and family members as they could, they have tried to make every drop count.

I knew nothing of this until last weekend, when Don, Ann, and I ended up in the town of Napa at an industry event. We chatted while waiting to board the Napa Valley Wine Train, and suddenly Don asked a question that rendered a schmoozer like me completely speechless: Would I care to return to their hotel room later to sample an 1837 Port?

So later that night (along with our colleague, wine writer Bob Ecker), we stood around the granite kitchen counter in the couple’s room at the Napa Westin Verasa Hotel. Don explained that, when he had first opened the bottle we would sample, the cork had disintegrated. This is common with very old Ports, and meant that the black cork minutia must be filtered out before we could enjoy the wine.

While Don slowly strained the wine through a Melita coffee filter, he told us that he believes it to be Vintage Port. Sometimes referred to as “The King of Ports,” Vintage Port is only made in years when grapes are at their best. It matures in the bottle, improves with long cellaring, and is one of the longest-lived wines in the world.

Filtering the black cork minutia   (Credit: Suzanne Rodriguez)
As I waited, I speculated about who had grown the grapes and made this wine 173 years ago. Very few Europeans lived in California at that time, so I doubted the Port had been made here (and surely a European, almost certainly a Brit, was responsible for labeling the wine “Queens Port”). It might have been produced on the East Coast or perhaps in Portugal, making its way ‘round the Horn at some point. After all, wine and spirits were popular trading items when ships traveled along California’s coast in pursuit of cow hides back in those days. Or maybe it made the journey later, over land, ending up in the wine cellar of a Gold Rush millionaire.

I also wondered what major events had taken place in 1837. I knew that the Industrial Age was just getting started, and the Civil War still lay years ahead, but that was about it. Later, a little research revealed that, in 1837:
  • Charles Darwin made his first speech to the Geological Society of London
  • Charles Dickens published The Adventures of Oliver Twist
  • Abraham Lincoln was admitted to the Bar
  • Andrew Jackson completed his second term as President of the United States; his hand-picked successor, Martin Van Buren, was sworn into office in March
  • Wild Bill Hickok was born
  • Eighteen-year-old Princess Drina of Kent ascended Britain’s throne and took the name of Victoria
But let’s return to the present: the filtration process was finished, having produced enough Port for each of us to have a small glass of perhaps six sips.

I held my glass to the light: the Port was light-colored and slightly cloudy. The herbal aroma was faint, but the fact that it was still intact after 173 years made me smile. Finally I raised the glass to my lips and sipped that long-ago past. The taste was mild and harmonious, with a slight sweetness and a very pleasant mouth feel. The "Port-ness" had faded considerably so that it seemed almost, to my palate, like a light wine. Amazingly, it didn’t seem even remotely old or tired.

Was it remarkable? No. Not in a technical sense.

But to me that Port was glorious, and I’ll remember those few sips for the rest of my life.

Nov 10, 2010

St. Helena Media Wine Tasting 2010

The Rudd Center  (Credit: Suzanne Rodriguez)
Last week I attended an exciting annual event, the media tasting of wines from Appellation St. Helena (ASH), one of fourteen sub-appellations within the Napa Valley Appellation.

This year’s tasting was again held in the Rudd Center for Professional Wine Studies on the California campus of the Culinary Institute of America, just north of St. Helena. On its exterior the Rudd Center is a handsome, ancient stone building; inside, thanks to a multi-million-dollar renovation a few years back, it’s a sleek and modern state-of-the-art destination for wine studies. Our event was held in the Tasting Theatre where, beside each seat, is a light box to examine a wine’s color and a small sink for easy wine disposal.

Inspecting the wine's color  (Credit: Culinary Institute of America)

People often ask how I can drive home after tasting so many wines, and the answer is simple: I taste but rarely swallow. Like most others sitting in that room, I use the provided spit cup. The  idea of spit cups makes some people squeamish, but they're simply a practical tool if you're tasting many wines. Once in a great while I like a wine so much that I throw caution to the wind. I probably did that five times in the St. Helena Tasting. To paraphrase Elaine's pronouncement about sponges in an episode of Seinfeld, I consider such wines to be "swallow-worthy."

The Tasting Theatre, with first flight prepared for takeoff   (Credit: Suzanne Rodriguez)

 We tasted 52 wines in five flights, with a short break in between as glasses were replaced and the next flight poured. Here are my top picks, with the suggested retail price, in no particular order:
  • Jaffe 2007 Metamorphosis ($58): This proprietary blend (85% Cabernet, 15% Merlot) has a beautiful and bright color. It was perfectly balanced, with lots of ripe fruit and just the right amount of acidity. I was also enthused about the Jaffe 2008 Transformation ($58), a 60/40 Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot blend—soft, floral, yummy. Jaffe Estate
  • Eglehoff 2007 Walton Cabernet Sauvignon ($45): Very deep color, flowery aroma. Rich, perfumed flavor. Should develop increasing complexity. Good value. The Eglehoff 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon ($75) was just as good. Egelhoff Wines
  • Calafia Cellars 2006 La Reine ($65): This red meritage blend is composed of 68% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Petite Verdot, and 10% Malbec. One sip of this wine and we were instant friends. In technical terms, it was simply delish! This one navigated past my interior guardian and was declared “swallow-worthy.” Calafia Cellars
A partial lineup of wines tasted    (Credit: Suzanne Rodriguez)
  • Chase Cellars 2007 Hayne Vineyard Zinfandel ($45): A big, smooth Zin with a nice long finish. If, like me, you like big Zins, this is a must-try. I liked the Chase Cellars 2007 Hayne Vineyard Zinfandel ($45) almost, but not quite, as much. Chase Cellars
  • Midsummer Cellars 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon ($40). Lots of berry, fruit-forward, balanced. A lovely wine and, for Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, a good value. Midsummer Cellars
  • Charnu 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon ($75): Deep-garnet color, lots of berry, full-bodied, complex and layered. A  newish addition to Napa, and one to watch. Charnu Winery
  • Spottswoode Estate 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon ($130): Excellent, even exciting wine—everything works harmoniously in this one. Spottswoode Estate
View from my seat     (Credit: Suzanne Rodriguez)
  • Titus Vineyards 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon ($41): A top value pick of the day. A wonderful wine, an enticing aroma, lots of intense berry flavor. It had a nice long finish, too. The 2007 Titus Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($63) was equally excellent. Titus Vineyards
  • Varozza Vineyards 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon ($45): Deep garnet color, balanced, lovely, lots of minerality, rich and earthy. A lovely wine, a good value. I also really liked Varozza’s 2007 Petite Sirah ($35), with notable purple fruits, good balance, approachable tannins. Varozza Vineyards
  • Vineyard 29 2007 29 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($225): The most expensive wine on the tasting menu, so of course I was geared up to be hyper-critical. However, I liked it a lot. This Cab is extremely harmonious—and yet it’s very layered and complex. You take a sip, and the story just keeps unfolding while you sit there. Lots of fruit, very long finish. I also enjoyed the mellower 2007 Vineyard 29 Aida Estate CS ($175).  Vineyard 29
  • Robert Biale 2008 Old Kraft Zinfandel ($44): Yes! Co-fermented with Petite Sirah from the same vineyard—just like farmers did a century ago—this is one amazing Zinfandel with oodles of complexity. If you buy this, lay it down for a few years. I was also a great fan of the Biale 2008 Thomann Station Petite Sirah ($50)—a beautiful wine! Robert Biale Vineyards
  • Salvestrin Estate Winery 2008 Estate Petite Sirah ($48): Dense perfumed aroma, very dark garnet color, huge plum and berry, excellent finish. Salvestrin Winery
Empty your spit cups!   (Credit: Suzanne Rodriguez)
  • Trinchero 2008 Central Park West Petit Verdot ($50): I love Petite Verdot, which is usually found in blends and not by itself. But a few Napa wineries are beginning to highlight this varietal on its own. Trinchero’s Petite Verdot is smooth and lovely, an excellent example of the grape. Trinchero Family Estates
  • Wolf Family Vineyards 2007 Estate Cabernet Franc ($60): Blended with 9% Cabernet Sauvignon, this Cabernet Franc is elegant and supple. Terrific wine. Wolf Family Vineyards
  • Ballentine Vineyards 2008 Petite Sirah ($24): One of my favorite wines all day. Cherry, berry, lots of depth, and a long and happy finish. A big wine. Great value! Ballentine Vineyards
  • Titus Vineyards 2008 Zinfandel ($25): Surely this was one of the day’s best bargains—and that’s after two other bargains from Titus, discussed above. I’m going to keep my eye on this winery, which seems to be turning out excellent wines at value prices. This is a marvelous Zin (10% Petite Sirah), well-structured, good mouth feel, complex. Titus Vineyards
  • Charles Krug 2007 St. Helena Zinfandel ($25): A mellow Zin (76% Zinfandel, 23% Petite Sirah, 1% Carignane) offering up berries, cherries and a  hint of spice. Another of the day's good values. 
    Download Appellation St Helena Overview, a free PDF written by ASH President and Vineyard 29 owner Chuck McMinn.

    Nov 4, 2010

    Cure your own olives, Part 2

    Part 1 of this two-part post covered the initial steps in curing your own green olives: pick ‘em, nick ‘em, and stick ‘em (in water). Now let’s move on to the fun stuff…

    As I mentioned in Part 1, it takes about a month of changing water daily to remove the harsh bitterness from olives. You don’t have to completely remove the bitterness—some of you, like me, might like to retain just a bit of bite. When the olives have reached a state that pleases you, it’s time to add some flavor:
    1. Empty the jar of olives into a strainer. Rinse the olives under cold water and set aside. Wash the jar and lid you’ve been using with hot, soapy water and also set that aside.
    2. Mix 3 cups of water and 1 tablespoon of Kosher salt in a small pan; bring to a boil and let salt dissolve. Let the mixture cool.
    3. Put the olives back in the clean jar. Fill the jar to the top with the salt mixture. Set aside for three or four days in a cool place. 
    4. Taste the olives. Do you like the taste, or do you feel they need a saltier brine? Either way, empty the water. You’ll now create a final brine, adjusting it to suit your taste. So if you want saltier olives, add more salt to the mix given above. Then let the brine cool before filling the jar. Store the olives from now on in the fridge. You'll make them delectable by using one or both of the alternatives below.

    I took this photo last year at Toronto's fabulous St. Lawrence Market  Credit: Suzanne Rodriguez
    • The Simple-but-Luscious Olive Alternative: At this time you can add other things to the jar, such as lemon wedges, oregano, and/or slices of garlic. Some people add vinegar or lemon juice, and even olive oil, but I don’t. In fact, I just keep the olives in a plain brine. I love them that way, but I also jazz them up in small batches (see the next step). 
    • The Creative & Oh-So-Luscious Olive Alternative: Remove olives from the jar—let’s say a cup’s worth. Let your imagination run riot. For instance, you might marinate the olives in a mixture of olive oil, oregano, and garlic. Maybe you’ll throw in a dash of lemon juice or some thinly-sliced lemon rind, or even a dried chili pepper. Let the olives sit at room temperature for a few hours, turning them around with a spoon every once in a while. They’ll be fab—and you get to tell your guests that you made them yourself!
        A caution: I usually make a few jars of these olives, munching them and giving them as gifts in little jars over the space of a month or so--that's how long they stay good in the fridge. After that they get soft and squishy, which I for one find incredibly unappetizing.

        So enjoy! The olives in Sonoma are just beginning to turn black, so in a couple of weeks I’ll create a batch of salt-cured olives. I love these for cooking. They store just great in the freezer, so I use them all year long. I’m  just getting to the very end of last year’s batch and am ready for more.

        And if you love olives, you'll love this cookbook: Olives: More than 70 Delicious & Healthy Recipes.

        Bon app├ętit!

        Nov 2, 2010

        Yountville now has 6 Michelin stars!

        The French Laundry        (CC 2.0: Peter Merholtz)
        Here’s some amazing news: Napa Valley’s Yountville now has the largest concentration of Michelin stars per capita on the planet. That’s thanks to the just-released Michelin Guide 2011, which has awarded stars to four Yountville restaurants:
        And consider the other top—though as yet non-star—eateries in that town: Bistro Jeanty, Bottega, Mustards Grill (one of my all-time faves), Brix, ad hoc, and many more. We’re not talking a major city here. Yountville is tiny; you can walk from one end to another in 15 minutes. Nonetheless, within that small space are 6 Michelin stars, and many other restaurants that rank very high with Zagat, OpenTable, and others. What a feat!

        Here’s what I find so interesting. Over the years I’ve talked to many people who grew up in Yountville back in the 1960s and 1970s, and they all say the same thing: “When I was a kid, Yountville was really just a poor farming community. Really poor.”

        I’m not sure when the phrase “poor farming community” stopped characterizing Yountville. Most people credit Thomas Keller and The French Laundry with a lot of what’s happened—Keller opened his restaurant in 1994 (he also owns one-star Bouchon). But surely Domaine Chandon’s residence beginning in 1973 helped move things along. When Cindy Pawlcyn opened Mustards Grill in 1983, it was a foodie revelation—though no one used the word “foodie” in those days. People from San Francisco descended on Mustards every weekend; the place was always packed (still is).

        There’s definitely a compelling story in Yountville and how it changed from a down-on-its-heels farming town to a very upscale getaway. Maybe it will get written.

        For now, though, let’s just celebrate the stunning news that this little town in Napa Valley has garnered six Michelin stars.

        Buy the 2011 Michelin Red Guide to San Francisco, Bay Area & Wine Country

        Read my post about the 25th anniversary party at Mustards Grill 

        Read a fun historic article about Yountville by Curtis Van Carter