Wednesday, April 29, 2009

First Taste: Rittenhouse Rye 23 Year Old Single Barrel Whiskey

Rye is the latest bartender's delight, but the very small category also commands attention from old and new whiskey sippers with a taste for more tang than they usually find in their corn likker. But this one...well, I've seen it listed as a cocktail ingredient, to me just an appeal to the conspicuous consumers whose habits are now passé. No, Rittenhouse Rye 23 Year Old Single Barrel Straight Whiskey is, at 50% alcohol by volume, for thoughtful lapping with a splash of water or a small cube, as you like. The label calls rye “the most flavorful of American whiskey styles,” and if this old Rittenhouse is the new measuring stick, then the rest of the American whiskey business has a strong act to follow. Bold and spicy, with notes of lanolin, neatsfoot oil, dulce de leche, cloves and cinnamon on the nose, it tastes surprisingly youthful at first – I’d never say 23 if asked to guess its age, an achievement to say the least. The whiskey blossoms on the tongue with flavors of cinnamon, caramelized sugar, fresh cut grass and vanilla. The finish is penetrating and lean, but doesn’t show its potency at all, moving silky smooth all the way across the palate. This one’s all leather and lace, country elegant and dressed up for the dance. They've got no more stored away down in Kentucky, so if you find it, buy it. (Distributed by Heaven Hill.)
My score: 10

The Rules

There's a great brouhaha going on over at Dr. Vino's blog, encompassing Robert Parker and his minions, web board etiquette, hypocrisy, wine review policies, drinks journalism standards, freebies, press trips and a whole slew of stuff not found anywhere but the web. Take a look - I'll wait.........................................................................Good stuff, no? Of all the myriad topics, it's an off-shoot about samples, freebies, meals and press trips (especially from wine importer Joe Dressner) that causes me to write, just for clarity's sake, in blogging emulation of Dr. Vino, the esteemed Tyler Colman.

Here are my standards:

I write what I think. I recommend spirits, cocktails, bartenders, restaurants, shops, dishes, wines, chefs, regions, beers - anything, really - that I like. My opinion isn't based on a thing's cost, whether I pay for it or not, or any relationship I may have with people involved. Of course, saying that is like asserting that I'm unaffected by advertising and marketing; as much as I believe it, I know that no one resists being influenced by the surrounding world, except, of course, the sociopaths among us, and while I do have my moments, those moments usually don't occur when I'm writing. As much as I am able, I share my opinion as I find it, and pour down the drain or hand over to friends and strangers that which I don't like, don't consume, or don't want. I am paid by some publications for those opinions, and now publish many here.

So far, I'm looking for the good, rather than the bad. I can't taste everything, but do try to taste as much as I can, either at blind tastings, competitions, at events or at home, and with so much worth mentioning, that's what I'll focus on. To steal from Tyler, "Why? Because I’m a spineless writer piling on the praise bandwagon? No, instead I figure it would be a waste of my time writing it up and I would hate for you to remember that..." Ditto.

I have and probably will continue to travel on other peoples' dimes when invited and interested. "But surely that means you and your opinion is for sale, doesn't it?" It's not for me to explain or defend the system that sets barriers for those who can't, don't or won't work for a publication willing to underwrite their work or coverage. But it's naive to think that the ABSENCE of visible financial suasion from a chef, a vintner, a distiller, a company or any other source equates lack of bias or self-interest in coverage, or prevents against dishonest shilling by compromised hacks. Caveat emptor, folks, especially when it comes to the written word, on paper or screen. If the way I work means you don't trust what I say or write, you are fully entitled to think so. I even understand why you might. But I know it takes more than seven days on the wine road to get me to say something nice about things I don't like, and if you doubt it, perhaps there's a publicist who never saw that glowing article their client anticipated who would like to step forward and trash me. You know, just for the sake of my cred...


Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Bar Stars

Once upon a time, few bartenders were known outside the places where they labored. The job had its perks, of course, especially if you had the better shifts, and good bartenders were often hired for their “following,” the customers who’d move with them from bar to bar.

But in many cases the job consisted mostly of grunt work - stocking beer, cutting fruit, counting bottles, gunning sodas, pouring carafes of wine - and mixing very few cocktails. In the dark days until the mid-1990s, Martinis, Manhattans and Old-Fashioneds were the few classics that a potential hire was required to know how to make. Depending on the decade, American drinkers mostly ordered Scotch and sodas, Screwdrivers, Sea Breezes, Wine Coolers and Frozen Margaritas. Not exactly challenging and certainly not very creative mixology....

(Read the entire story, below, first published in Cheers.)

Bar stars

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Score

People love systems, especially when it comes to ratings. They want what you know to be reduced to a tasty morsel, a bite-sized analysis, and who am I to say they're wrong? I'd like to disagree, but I get the instant shorthand meaning when someone rates a film or restaurant using stars. So why not spirits and wines?

I'll be adapting a version of the Wired product review system I find very useful - products will be scored 1 to 10, with one denoting pure awfulness and 10 absolute sublimity. Or:
1. Ow! That hurts! Take it away.
2. Feet.
3. Won't kill ya, but won't cure ya, either.
4. "Dear, I have something your brother will like."
5. I've had worse.
6. Fine example.
7. Mmm, mmm, good.
8. Now you're talking!
9. O.M.G.
10. None for you. I'm serious - get away from that bottle. Now.

Comments, as always, welcomed.


Drinking with Style

My friend Janet Torelli has been making gorgeous sterling silver bar accessories for a while now, and she's recently introduced some impressive absinthe spoons to join her variety of martini pics and serving accessories. With most caterers and hotels offering customized cocktails as part of the wedding package today, you might find these welcome gifts as wedding season approaches, not to mention graduates in need of a drink as they look for work, or for a Mother's Day Manhattan or Father's Day Sidecar.

Thursday, April 23, 2009


I have come to hate the term “food-friendly wine.” For a while, it seemed to convey useful shorthand advice to the wary, promising high acidity, mild tannins, bright fruit, low alcohol and quaffability, all qualities in demand especially from casual consumers.

But the overused term has lost its credibility as exuberant marketers and others have turned it into a backhanded compliment for wines that are mainly tart and one-dimensional. While crisp acids and low tannins go great with a frisée salad, such a wine could taste like lemon-spritzed tap water when paired with, say, the caramelized edges and melted fat of a hanger steak. How food-friendly is that?

Tim Hanni, MW, has long been intrigued about how the brain processes and interprets sensory information, and not just tastes (Check this fascinating spinning lady example.) Hanni's advised restaurants on their wine lists and recently has been working with chefs at China Grill Management on his flavor balancing concept, which he describes as “the art of getting the key taste components in a balance.” When that’s accomplished, he says, the dish and the wine both taste better.

Quite a claim. Hanni says that while sweetness and umami flavors give deliciousness to food, those characteristics also make most wines seem thinner, less fruity and more bitter. Increasing the salt and acidity in the dishes will make them automatically more wine friendly.

“Look at Alsace, Tuscany, Burgundy and Bordeaux and you will see that this is what they intuitively do in all these classic cuisines.”

To that end, he's developed Vignon, a mix of savory and umami ingredients - yeast, soy, cheese, mushrooms - that Hanni claims on the seasoning's website "makes food taste rich and delicious while ensuring that your favorite wine tastes the way it was intended to taste."

Does it? Undeniably. To test, I sauteed some thin slices of otherwise unseasoned chicken breast, being sure not to caramelize them, as that's a key component of everyday deliciousness to me. I took a bite and my mouth watered in a way chicken breast has never been able to manage, and instinctively started grabbing around, even though it was early in the work day, for my wine glass. Surely, my instinctive mind reacted, this flavor goes with some chilled albariño or a light grenache. It was almost completely unwilled, a tapping into the wine-food connections I've built into my sense memory throughout my life. I wasn't exactly skeptical at first, knowing how smart Tim is about these sensory connections, but the full effect on chicken and later on a snapper filet was remarkable. And, by the way, just plain tasty.

In one stroke, Hanni's made at least bland food more wine-friendly. Next, I'll try it with some notoriously difficult dishes, and maybe give some of those oaky Cal chards lying around in the sample pile a chance to benefit from flavor balancing deliciousness.


Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Why the tequila business depends on bars and restaurants.

Is there any spirit whose fortune is as closely tied to the restaurant and bar business as tequila?

Take the flight phenomenon. While a handful of malt-focused bars offer customers the chance to order a trio of various whiskies at one time, it’s not a common occurrence. There are plenty of operators who gather large selections of brandies and rums, but the flight concept has never really caught on with them, either.

(Read the rest of the story, below, originally published in the April, 2009 Cheers magazine.)
Tequila Cheers 0409

Friday, April 17, 2009

First Taste: Gran Centenario Rosangel Tequila

Where are the great flavored tequilas? Ever since I first tried a few infused tequila recipes from Lucinda Hutson's great tequila cookbook, "¡Tequila!" (now out of print) in the mid-1990s and realized how well quality tequila took on fruit aromas and flavors, I've been waiting for producers to do something really interesting. But this surpasses all my expectations. Gran Centenario Rosangel is a fascinating reposado that spends an additional two months in Port pipes and then is infused with hibiscus flowers. The result is a rosé-hued tequila with a nose of rich porty-sweetness, white flowers, agave and vanilla. At first on the palate it’s crisp and citrusy and then there's a brisk return of port notes, followed by bright floral qualities that zip across the palate. Rosangel finishes clean and crisp, a lip-smacker by any definition; it's an all-around lovely spirit that benefits from its completely unexpected direction, and opens the tequila cocktail spectrum considerably. There's considerable prejudice among spirit know-it-alls against flavored booze, but Rosangel may change your mind - Bravo for a great idea that works better than anyone could have imagined. (Imported by Proximo Spirits.)
My score: 7

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Good cheap wine #1

"What's a good wine for under $10?"

Whether it's the neighborhood fishmonger, the UPS guy who lugs boxes up my walk or people I meet for the first time, I'm asked that question more than any other when people learn what I do. Can't blame them; Big Wine fails consistently to provide solid, drinkable value at the low-end and retailers can't seem to resist the deals they provide, making the search for every day wine something most consumers dread.

So as often as I find them, I'll post reviews of wines I know of or discover that exceed expectations and deliver pleasure at a bargain price.

First up: Fortant Chardonnay 2006, made with grapes sourced from southern France, mainly around Carcassonne and Montpellier in Languedoc-Roussillon, and crafted with a New World focus on fruit but without the usually brutal oak manipulation; in fact, no oak whatsoever in fermentation or aging. That means, in this case, a crisp and minerally chard, with a varietally sound array of fruits - mainly pineapple and pear - with some honeyed qualities. It tastes fresh, lightly balsamy (not to be confused with balsamic), has solid, lemony acids, moderate body and length, and a refreshing finish. Quite good for what it is, which is a wine with a suggested retail price of $6.99. You could spend a lot more to get a chardonnay that tastes like plywood has been soaked in it, and you probably have. Look also for Fortant's Malbec, quite a different animal than the rustic South American low-priced versions. (Imported by Skalli Family Wine Americas.)


Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Tequila Terroir

Can you tell a tequila by its region? As Americans continue to get smart about tequila – what it is, where it comes from, how it’s supposed to taste and how to drink it – more and more brands are being made and marketed with U.S. consumers in mind.
Tequila Terroir

Ever since Patron, now the second best selling tequila in the country, blazed a path of success by focusing on high-end imagery, many other tequilas have been developed with high hopes for similar results. And some have succeeded.

According to the most recent statistics released by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (Discus), tequila boomed last year at the very highest end, with volume up among super premiums by 10.6%, the fastest growing part of the business. And while tequila is only the seventh leading spirits category in volume, with 10.6 million 9-liter cases sold here last year, it accounted for nearly $1.6 billion in gross revenues in 2008, making it the fifth largest revenue producing category.

(According to Discus, value priced tequilas last year were up 6.4% in volume; premium, the largest category by far, was down 1.3%, while high-end premium was down 9.2%. For comparison purposes, Juarez is a typical value brand, while Cuervo Especial is a premium, Sauza Hornitos a high end premium and Don Julio Anejo a super premium.)

Super premium tequilas were one of the high points for the entire spirit business in 2008, according to Discus. Those brands (mostly extra anejos aged a minimum of three years, but also aging and finishing experiments) including Cuervo Reserva de la Familia, Gran Centenario Leyenda, Partida Elegante, Bordeaux-barrel finished Gran Patron Burdeos and others, have impressed journalists and consumers alike.

Additionally, the quality halo emanating from these brands is just another way that tequila is seen to be improving. Not bad for a spirit that even a few years ago many consumers still though of in terms of salt and limes, worms and frat parties.

Things have gotten so hot that more and more retailers, especially those doing business in California and the southwestern states, are having a hard time keeping those super premiums on the shelf.

Says Zack Romaya, owner of two San Diego area wine and spirits shops, the expensive tequilas he stocks in his Old Town Wine and Spirits shop fly out the door.

“It used to be that single malts were the big high end spirits, but for me now, unusual and very expensive items like the $2500 Dos Lunas, or the $1300 Asom Broso 11 year old are attracting the collectors.”

Romaya stocks around 500 tequilas in his store, many of them in the $40-$70 range, but except for old favorites like Cuervo Gold and Sauza, few of his customers seem to be looking for mixto tequilas. His tequila customers are divided fairly equally into two areas of growth: women looking to explore the smoother side of the spirit through reposado, and men who are favoring both silver and anejo.

Meanwhile, new brands, like Lunazul (which took a silver and a gold medal at last year’s San Francisco World Spirits Competition) and El Diamonte del Cielo (praised by both Paul Pacult’s Spirit Journal and by the Beverage Testing Institute) continue to arrive, looking for an edge. The crowded marketplace is spurring brand owners and importers to refine their marketing pitches.

One point of difference beyond the inherent qualities of unaged silver, lightly aged reposado, aged anejo and longer aged extra anejo, has often been argued among tequila connoisseurs: whether tequilas made in the Los Altos highlands (Arandas, Jesus Maria, Atotonilco el Alto) differ significantly from those from the Jalisco valley (Tequila, Amatitan, El Arenal).

Highland tequilas are said to be more fruity and sweet, while lowland brands are said to be more spicy, herbal and earthier. These qualities are mostly evident in silver and sometimes reposado tequilas, which offer more natural agave flavors and aromas before the impact of new or used barrels takes hold.

“Some of my customers know about the areas around Jalisco and the towns and highlands,” says Mario Alejandro Marquez, Tequila ambassador at San Diego’s Café Coyote. “And I do see more of an interest in those differences. I always say that if they want a tequila with more sweetness, they may want to try one from the highlands, because the agaves there seem to get riper quicker. When I’m there and compare the piñas of the highlands, they are huge while those in Jalisco might be smaller.”

The highlands are somewhat cooler, which may affect the growth of the agave, as may the higher iron content visible in the rich red soil there. The result, Marquez says, can mean that lowland tequilas are dryer and more peppery while the highlands more sweet and crisp.

“Some people from Los Altos like to advertise that there’s a huge difference between the agave from the highlands and those from the valley,” says Ruben Aceves, international brand development director for Casa Herradura, producer of Herradura, El Jimador and Don Eduardo. “We have proved that if you produced tequila 100% from Los Altos, they will tend to be sweeter, fruitier with more floral flavor profile. If you produce from 100% from the valley, the tequilas will be more spicy, with pepper, mint and a little bit of cinnamon and citrus.”

But the company’s research indicate that sugar content rarely differs between comparable agaves from the two areas, though the sensory notes that come from compounds called terpenes are somewhat different.

More importantly, many lowland producers, including Herradura, use pinas from both regions. Aceves also points out that tequila is about more than agave location. Are the agaves fully mature? Are they cooked whole or shredded? Are they baked in clay ovens or steamed in auto-claves? Is the cooking slow or fast? Is fermentation natural or does yeast come from a lab? Does distillation occur at low or high proof? Distilled twice or three times? In a column still or pot still or a combination?

Some producers continue to fiddle with their processes. For instance, Tequila Leyenda del Milagro offers a second line called Barrel Select made from older agaves and longer aging times. El Jimador, one of the leading brands in Mexico, has returned to a 100% agave formula after a few years as a mixto. Corzo, a super premium from Bacardi’s House of Cazadores, is made through a process that ages a double distilled spirit for two months before distilling a third time. Corzo is also aggressive in the way they distill, using 24 pounds of agave for each liter of finished tequila; the industry average is more like 10 or 12, says Takashi Nakamura, global r&d director, Bacardi Martini.

Other brands have been expanding their offerings; 1800 last year introduced 1800 Silver Select, which they claim is the only 100 proof silver tequila in the market. Sauza relaunched its Tres Generaciones family of tequilas with new packaging starting in January 2009.

One company, though, is making the argument that where agaves originate matters dramatically. Ocho is offering limited vintage release, estate grown agave tequilas, all produced in the highlands, according to Samira Seiller director of communications for Ocho. Last year the company introduced a silver and a reposado coming from one estate (El Carrizal) and an anejo from another (El Vergel). With 10 or so estates available right now, it will take about 12 years for each of these tequilas to return to market and so comparing them will be a lifetime experience. It may take longer than that to settle the tequila terroir question.

Friday, April 10, 2009

First Taste: Glenmorangie Signet

The upgrading of Glenmorangie continues with the magnificent Signet, a blend of the house's oldest and rarest malt whisky. It's the latest genius move from Dr. Bill Lumsden and Rachel Barrie, the distilling/blending team that has long overseen the development of the fascinating wood experiments and iterations the brand is known for. Non-chill filtered, Signet carries the classic house-style oak and fruit nose, opening with mashed peaches and butter-sautéed pears, roasted pineapple and a touch of passion fruit sprinkled with cinnamon, clove and coffee. On the palate, tropical fruit dominates, along with mocha and coffee and once again, that notable aged malt passion fruit. This dazzler finishes dry and very spicy with a touch of wintergreen, a surprisingly brisk quality here. Made with highly roasted chocolate malt, Signet is a deep, intense and sophisticated single malt Scotch expression, and a sterling success. (Moet Hennessy USA)
My score: 9

Thursday, April 9, 2009

"They're very rigorous, the judging exams."

"Yes, I could have been a judge but I never had the Latin. I never had the Latin for the judging. I didn't have sufficient to get through the rigorous judging exam. They're very rigorous, the judging exams. They're noted for their rigor. People come staggering out saying, 'My God, what a rigorous exam!' So I managed to become a miner - a coal miner." Peter Cook, "Beyond the Fringe."

Spirit companies rightfully like to brag when their brands win awards, especially major assessments like the San Francisco World Spirit Competition and the Polished Palate International Rum Festival, both held in late March. But as a judge at both I received a few perplexed emails after the competitions from interested parties when brands they represent did less well than the reps thought they ought, or less well than obscure or lower-end brands did.

Take the vodka category at the S.F. comp, for instance. Double gold winners included a $9 vodka (Ruskova Select) and two $13 brands (Smirnoff 21 and UV). Clearly, these are brands even judges might not order if they had a taste for vodka, given how much imagery sells vodkas.

Which is why the judging is such an instructive process, and why, for me, the most exciting part of the process is finding out, after all the scores have been toted up and awards dispersed, what I liked and what I didn't. There are always brands that I think I fancy that I am embarrassed to learn I actually scorned in a tasting, just as I am surprised and intrigued when something I may have once ignored scores high on my sheet.

Vodka may be the easiest spirit to drink, but it's the toughest to judge; say for argument's sake that the whiskey and Cognac flavor and aroma spectrum includes one hundred distinct components, the rum spectrum 75, tequila 50, and gin 20 (these are completely arbitrary numbers, but you get the point). How many would that leave vodka - 5? 10? Texture, of course, matters, but with so much flavor stripped out of most vodkas by the multiple distillations, a taster is left looking for flaws, rather than any outstanding quality that is universally acknowledged.

For me, rye vodkas stand out, though I like some potato varieties as well. Neutral spirits that offer mostly cleanliness and little character would rarely get a gold from me; in fact, my group in S.F. gave only one vodka a gold medal.

And what makes me a judge? Well, I do have the Latin (and the liver) for the judging, but it's mostly because, in this business, you are what - and how much - you taste, and I try to taste it all.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

What's next?

It’s impossible to overstate the popularity of the cocktail today. Every magazine and newspaper, it seems, features regular coverage of beverage trends and local mixological stars. Drink websites blossom and flourish, cocktail-making classes sell out and, with feverish enthusiasm, mixologists continue to mine the old, explore the new, and invent anything they can’t find to make amazing drinks.
Cocktail Trends

Monday, April 6, 2009

Gin around the corner

Gin’s lingering association with tonic and lime, sultry weather, and perspiring glasses is getting a shake up lately, as more and more bartenders rock their drinks with the original flavored spirit. It’s about time. Gin drinkers hate when you point out that their favorite spirit could be considered the first flavored vodka, but really, how else do you account for gin’s easy mixability? Today, as most gin drinkers totter off to the “…and over” age demographic, marketers are struggling with making the juniper-spiked spirit relevant again.

Plymouth Gin was a typical victim of the Dark Ages of cocktails, when Harvey Wallbangers and wine coolers strode the earth. Bounced around from one bumbling English booze company to another, in the U.K., it manages to remain the number one premium gin. In the U.S., however, it’s been rescued and relaunched a couple of times and the quantity sold is very small indeed.

Sean Harrison, Plymouth’s matter-of-fact master distiller, will quite gallantly aver during tastings that there’s a gin for everyone and that what you like is really just a matter of taste. De gustibus and all that. It’s inarguable, but meaningless, especially in the face of some of the unbalanced modern gins being offered today.

What Plymouth offers in the middle of the gin flavor spectrum isn’t moderation; it’s a supremely well-knit gin, balancing sharp citrus peel and tangy juniper with the earthiness of orris and angelica, not to mention the pop of cardamom and coriander. It’s clear why bartenders like it for experimenting with new cocktails; bracingly junipery gins like Beefeater can dominate a drink (though it remains my favorite in a Negroni), while the more ephemeral gins, like Bombay Sapphire, can fade when matched against more assertive flavors. These and other gins have many acolytes among Martini lovers and gin and tonic fans — in fact, I count myself among those frequently charged with gin polyamory.

Older brands typically incorporated fewer botanicals — those flavor agents that give gin its bite and tang. But as trade expanded with the spice islands of the Far East, recipes became more exotic. Modern gins like Bombay Sapphire, for example, will use a dozen or more botanicals, such as cassia bark, cubeb berries, liquorice, bitter almond and grains of paradise.

In gin’s heyday, those brands made outside London were known for being less junipery, and Plymouth also gained a characteristic softness from the water that flows through the nearby moors of Dartmoor. Each gin is made with its own specific recipe and house style — Plymouth’s 200-year-old version calls for steeping the seven botanicals in alcohol. The result is heated until a pungent blend of alcohol and botanical oils percolates up the elegant swan’s neck of the Plymouth still at the ancient Blackfriars distillery, in which some form of alcohol was first made in 1650s or thereabouts. It’s then cooled, condensed and corrected to around half its original alcoholic strength with Dartmoor water.

An odd fact about English gin: English law forbids the gin maker from actually distilling his or her own original product, so all gin companies start with someone else’s distilled spirit before adding flavor through infusion or maceration. It might be why one of the best-known and most successful brands, Bombay, doesn’t have its own distillery — G&J Greenall, maker of a well-known brand in the U.K., crafts the product for them in Cheshire (No wonder that cat was smiling).

Nothing wrong with someone else making your product to order — just ask Sam Adams beer lovers. But it does cut down on the breadth of story-telling marketers can spin to journalists; maybe it’s another reason gin has been so neglected in the cocktail-crazed 21st Century — all it’s got is taste.

(Originally published at Find Your Craving.)


Friday, April 3, 2009

Dueling Sommeliers

The old caricature of the sommelier as Basil Fawlty with a tastevin may have faded, but restaurant wine pros still suffer from an image problem. Reports in consumer and wine press that customers are fed up with the quality of service indicate a certain disconnect between them and guests.

Maybe “Dueling Sommeliers” can help.

Created by Jeff Groh of the Heathman Restaurant and Bar in Portland, Ore., the Dueling Sommeliers program has for the past few years challenged wine pros to compete for customer approval at a series of dinners designed to highlight wine and food pairing skills.

Looking for a more creative promotion than the winemaker dinner, Groh came up with the duels as a way to get customers excited about the new wines.

“This gives us the opportunity to present a wide array of wines that people have never tried and may never have wanted to try,” he says.

Since the wines are served “blind,” or concealed, customers pass judgment strictly on how well they go with each course without falling back on label or varietal preferences.

Broadening their wine horizon serves a selfish purpose, Groh says.

“The last thing a sommelier wants to do is sell the same wine over and over again,” he says. “That will just make us obsolete.”

There were five duel dinners in 2008, and competitors included Groh and Portland sommeliers Erica Landon of Ten 01, Andrew Fortgang of Le Pigeon and Scott Calvert of the now-closed Lucier. Heathman chef Philippe Boulot prepared four-course dinner menus. Each sommelier got a budget between $80 and $150 to pair one wine with each course, but they didn’t taste the wine and food together until the event. At dinner, customers sampled four wines with each course and voted for their favorite pairing. Scores were collected throughout the series and the top two sommeliers—in 2008 they were Groh and Landon—met in a finale dinner.

The net result, Groh says, is that customers develop a better appreciation for the sommelier’s craft and discover wines worth ordering again. Since the sommeliers discuss their choices at each meal, conversations with customers about food and wine are more wide-ranging than is possible during regular service.

“We were able to hear what they thought about wine pairings, and I learned I didn’t really understand how subjective it was,” says Landon, the winner in the 2008 duel.

Consumers may like a particular wine for reasons discounted by sommeliers, she says. For instance, customers tended to prefer those with slightly more residual sugar than the sommeliers.

Landon says she believes some of the strong reactions were to the wines themselves, not necessarily the pairings.

“We’d repeatedly see that the wines the sommeliers liked scored horribly with the crowd,” she says.

That changed the way she approaches customers at her restaurant.

“Instead of trying to make the perfect match, I try to find out what they like more in wine,” she says. “While a sommelier may see their job as making the perfect pairing, it’s important to think more about the customer’s palate rather than mine.”

Groh says the duel is an idea that can travel. In fact, early in 2008, he hosted a Seattle versus Portland version. The duels routinely sell out, with between 30 and 50 guests for each series. The main operational issue is glassware; each guest ends up with 16 glasses, with 1.5-ounce pours, before the event is over. With 50 guests, that’s 800 glasses.

Glassware issues resolved, the duels clearly offer an interesting way for sommeliers to make new friends, bond with regular customers and host a fun promotion. Also, as Landon points out, sommeliers may learn that their wine education and experience may have distanced them somewhat from the palates and preferences of their guests.

Closing that gap could go a long way toward shining up the modern sommelier’s image.

(Originally published in Nation's Restaurant News.)


Wednesday, April 1, 2009

First taste: Ron Millonario

Peru is hardly known as a hotbed of rum-making, but if word about Ron Millonario ever gets out, the stellar lush and candied rums like Zacapa and Diplomatico will have some serious competition.

Millonario Solera 15 Reserva Especial is dark walnut, almost furniture polish brown in hue, rich and lush on the nose, giving off aromas of reduced caramel sauce and freshly baked hot cross buns with its combination of cloves, cinnamon, raisins, currants and yeastiness. It's not as thick as its aromas suggest, but on the palate, there's an explosion of cooked tropical and dried fruits - sherry-stewed raisins, butter sizzled brown bananas, black figs in custard. This is not your Caribbean aged rum, all sinew, leather and tobacco, and no one would ever use it to suggest that aged rums are like Cognac. It finishes rich, with great acid but mostly mouth-watering richness and sublime balance. My notes from last week at the Polished Palate competition - "Is this the perfect rum?"

I am a bit confused, though, by the co-existence of an age statement and the producer's stated use of a solera system - soleras, a creation of the Sherry world, is a complicated system that essentially means that there's something from the oldest and youngest component in each bottle. Whatever. Millonario is definitely one worth seeking out if you like your rums rich, lush and bodacious.

My score: 8