Friday, December 27, 2013

Haphazard Wine Pairings #2: Champagne Edition

After singing the praises of Champagne as a food wine a few posts back, I figured I should put my money where my mouth is and put it to the test.  And plus, you know, it's the holidays. If ever you're going to have a bottle of Champagne lying around it's this time of year.

For this "haphazard wine pairing" I thought I would tackle ramen.  The obvious pairing choice, and the one that I imagine will be hard to beat, is beer.  There really is nothing better than a piping hot bowl of ramen and with a good pilsener or lager.  Beer does a perfect job of complementing the deeply savory, earthy and complex flavors of ramen without overwhelming the delicate subtle harmony of it.  There's also the salt issue. I generally make the soy sauce based shoyu style broth, and with this salty broth, the thirst quenching quality of beer is hard to beat. But this isn't "a blog about beer and music," after all...

With all this in mind, I decided Champagne might be a good choice.  It has bubbles like beer, it can have yeasty flavors like beer, and it can have savory umami type flavors which might nicely complement the savoriness of the soup.  I'm definitely not the first person to come up with pairing Champagne with Japanese food, but I've never heard of anyone drinking it with Ramen, specifically.

Here's the wine I chose:

Jose Michel et Fils NV Champagne Brut Tradition

I had never had a predominantly Pinot Meunier based champagne, but I had read that Pinot Meunier imparts fruity flavors in a wine as well as some earthy components.  With that in mind, I figured it might be a particularly food-friendly choice.  Meunier based champagnes can also be great values which is important because even the most affordable Champagnes cost more than I can generally spend on a bottle of wine.  At $35 this wine is expensive but a steal for good Champagne.

I've been trying to perfect my ramen for a while now.  I don't stress too much about authenticity, and I've accepted that it will never taste like it does from a good ramen shop. Instead, I just try to make a noodle soup using the basic techniques and ingredients of ramen that is similarly delicious and complex.  It takes a lot of time, but it is not particularly difficult and very rewarding.

I start by making a Dashi:

I soak kombu (a type of seaweed) and katsuobushi (dried and shaved bonito)  in water for a few hours, then simmer the mixture for a few more hours, strain out the resulting broth and put it aside.

Meanwhile, I made the pork stock in a separate pot:

I simmered a piece of slab bacon in a pot of water with some green onions and crushed ginger at a very low temperature for a very long time (I think as a general rule, every element of making ramen making should take an absurd amount of time).  Remove the pork, ginger and onions and put aside.

To make the broth, I mixed these two stocks along with some lamb stock I had made and frozen after another meal a few weeks before, seasoned with soy sauce and a dash of mirin and sesame oil.

For the toppings I used spinach, snow peas, thin slices of the pork from the broth, radish sprouts and a soft boiled egg.  After making the broth the only cooking I did was frying slices of pork in a pan, parboiling the peas and spinach, and soft-boiling the egg.

When you're ready to assemble, get each of the broths piping hot and combine them in the bowl, add the cooked noodles and then arrange the toppings on top.  Here's the result:

The soup turned out well and the wine was great, but sadly the pairing left something to be desired.  There was nothing horrendous about it but the the wine failed to elevate the flavors of the meal and vice-versa. Instead they awkwardly spoke over each other, with the substantial acidity of the wine obliterating the complexity of the broth, and the rich flavors of the soup overshadowing the focused and surprisingly subtle and mineral flavors of the wine. The pairing worked best with the bites of pork, where the obvious, fatty bacon flavors found a counterpoint in the focused lean quality of the wine. But, on the whole, the pairing was nothing more than two delicious things next to each other on a table. And the saddest part of all this is that I'm not totally sure why it didn't work or what would have been a better option.  I suspect that this is why wine generally isn't paired with ramen.  But I'm not giving up quite yet, I think sherry might be the answer...

I finished the wine the next day and I don't think I've ever had an experience where a wine changed so dramatically one day after opening.  On the first day the wine was mineral-y, lean and austere without much in the way of fruit at all, and on the second it was ripe and fruity and full of vibrant strawberry and apricot aromas while retaining a savory mineral core.  I couldn't help but wonder if the ramen pairing would have worked better with the wine open a day beforehand, but, oh well.  Instead I decided to try it with a makeshift carbonara using the leftover pork.

I cooked the bacon slowly at a low temp melting as much of the fat as I could (I know it's heresy to use bacon instead of guanciale in a carbonara but I didn't have any guanciale lying around and, you know, I'm a rebel), added the cooked spaghetti along with some of the cooking water, added a ton of cracked pepper some parmesan cheese, and the egg.  I mixed it all together over extremely low heat, adding more of the pasta water and cheese until it reached the right level of creaminess.

I have to say the Champagne actually paired really well with this dish. Who knew? I think the main merit of this pairing is that the simplicity of flavor in the carbonara allowed the wine to take center stage, which was so open and expressive on day 2.  And the fruitiness and acidity of the wine provided a nice contrast to the fatty richness of the carbonara, all with this umami sort of thing going on with the yeasty elements of the wine and the parmesan and bacon.

To be honest I'm a little perplexed that the carbonara pairing worked so much better than the ramen. The two dishes are both noodle based, and actually have somewhat similar flavor profiles.  I wonder if it has to do with how differently the wine was showing on day 2, or if soups require different considerations, or if it's just that simpler foods make simpler pairings.

Anyway, for something different this holiday season, when the clock strikes midnight, make sure to have a nice plate of carbonara to accompany your champagne toast.

And if you're going to try and tackle some ramen make sure you have some entertainment.  I recommend "7 Days of Funk" the new collaboration between Dam Funk and Snoop Dogg who is now calling himself "Snoopzilla."

Dam Funk's singing is unquestionably mediocre but I've always found its mediocrity kind of charming. Let's just say his singing and songwriting always played second fiddle to his production. But with this effort Dam Funk does what he does so well on the production side, and lets "Snoopzilla" take care of what Dam Funk doesn't do so well. The result is funky. 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Beyonce Rant

On January 12th Beyonce Knowles released an unannounced “visual album” with 17 songs and 17 accompanying videos called “BEYONCE”.  It was released as an iTunes exclusive and was only made available to other retailers on Dec. 18th.  It costs $15.99 and sold over 800,000 copies in its first weekend.  Pretty wild stuff.

Here’s what we already know about Beyonce: her music will have high production value, she’s magnetic, she’s extremely attractive, she’s a great dancer, and she can sing.  In all these respects she’s exceptional, and if this were the debut album of a new artist I would definitely take notice.  But Beyonce is someone I also believe has been behind really great, innovative music, bucking trends and going her own way.  In this respect—musically—I see this album as a step backwards. 

I imagine a meeting in a boardroom at Sony Music Entertainment’s headquarters between a top record executive and a producer coming up with the direction for the album.  Let’s call the exec Fred and the producer Bob.  I imagine the conversation going something like this:

Fred: Gee whiz this video album is going to be expensive!  Not only will we have to pay for musicians, studio time, and songwriting teams, but also for 17 different video shoots with crews, actors, and a ton of different hot shot directors, not to mention the army of lawyers we’ll need to hire to keep the whole thing a secret and make sure the album isn’t pirated once we do release it.  Somehow we need to guarantee that we will sell enough records to recoup all these expenses…

Bob: How are we going to do that??

Fred: We’ll just take every musical and cultural phenomenon of the past 3 years and copy them.  That way the record is sure to be a hit!

Bob: Brilliant!

Fred: Who’s popular these days…?  Lady Gaga’s popular right?  All that macabre, highly sexualized stuff is brilliant!  Wish we’d though of that.  Oh well, we’ll just do it anyway.  We’ll make a video set in a spooky hotel with lots of deformed people, and people wearing crazy clothes licking each other and humping and whatnot. We’ll call it “Haunted!”

Bob: Perfect!  We’ll put it all over a sort of brooding euro-techno thing, I hear the kids these days love EDM…

Fred: “Get Lucky” and “Blurred Lines” were obviously monster hits.  How do we replicate that?

Bob: We’ll write a highly sexualized bubbly retro-electro-disco sorta thing.  Should take about five minutes to write the lyrics and then we’ll get Pharell Williams to help us out with the track.  We’ll call it “Blow.”  But do you know what the biggest trend these days is?  The newest fad all the kids are crazy about?

Fred: What?

Bob: Civil unrest!  It’s happening in the Ukraine.  It’s happening in Syria.  It’s happening all over!  Remember all those kids who put up tents in Zucotti Park a couple years back?  What was that called?  Oh yeah, Occupy Wall Street!  Imagine if all those kids protesting all over the world bought a digital download of Beyonce’s new album, we’d recoup those expenses in no time!

Fred: Perfect!  We’ll make the video for “Superpower” about a futuristic/post-apocalyptic protest!  But, of course Beyonce will still be half-naked and making out with dudes and stuff.  Remember, everything has to be highly sexualized.  Ever since Miley Cyrus’ performance at the VMA’s that’s what everybody’s doing.  Over the top in your face sexuality is really in right now!

I could go on:

The first verse in “Ghost” has the same recitative multi tracked rapping thing that Kendrick Lamar does. 

Beyonce’s sing song rapping on “Drunk in Love” sounds weirdly like Drake.

The pseudo-carribean first verse of “Yonce” sounds a lot like Rihanna, and has the same Elvis lip motif that Rihanna uses in her video for “Rude Boy.” 

“Partition” and “Jealous” have a recent Kanye minimalist industrial kind of texture, and “Jealous” even has a yelping vocal sample that sounds so strikingly similar to the one in Kanye’s “Mercy,” that I suspect it may even be the same sample.

“Rocket” sounds exactly like D’angelo’s “How does it feel.” 

“Flawless” has "trap" style production a-la Three Six Mafia, or 2 Chainz. 

Despite all this, the record seems to be getting a ton of critical acclaim.  Am I crazy?  Is anyone else noticing these similarities?  Does anyone else care?

Let me clarify for a second, I don’t think the record is all bad.  There are a few tracks towards the end I really like.  While I suspect “Blow” will be the first single, I think “XO” is a much better candidate, or if that's too much of a ballad "Drunk in Love" could work too.  All the ballads are pretty good, “Flawless,” and “Superpower,” are both cool and “Grown Woman” is my personal favorite track on the album (although it’s partly because of the awesome bass playing in the end part).  While there are a few gems, I just find it shocking how obviously derivative most of these tracks are.  I used to think of Beyonce as a tastemaker and an innovator, so to see her bow so easily to current and most likely passing trends is disheartening. 

I understand the argument that the work is about the cumulative effect of all the songs and videos together, and that the “video album” concept is ambitious and of our time, but to me neither the videos nor the music have the content to back up the concept.  There isn’t really a narrative thread that goes through the music or the videos that makes it feel like anything more than just 17 songs with 17 ok videos (except maybe you could argue there's a feminist slant to most of the songs, and there's a recurring trophy image in a few of the videos).  And as far as music video multi media innovation goes, I think this project pales in comparison to the incredibly simple, clever and powerful video for Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” that came out a few weeks ago (  It’s pretty amazing that Bob Dylan after a 50+ year career is still one of the most innovative and vital artists out there.  And it’s actually kinda sad that a 72 year old man does zeitgeist better than any member of my generation I can think of. 

We all love Beyonce, and maybe for most people her raw talent and magnetism is worth the price of admission.  I get that.  But I always liked Beyonce because in addition to having raw talent and magnetism she put out fun pop music that was innovative and of high quality.  She always masterfully towed the line between entertainer and artist, and now with “BEYONCE” I see her solidly planted in the entertainment camp. 

Anyway, I guess my final word is that instead of buying “BEYONCE”, you should spend your $15.99 on a bottle of Muscadet or a 375 ml bottle of Valdespino's "Inocente" sherry and drink it while watching “Like a Rolling Stone” 17 times in a row.  Now that’s a high quality way to spend an evening.   

Monday, December 9, 2013


This weekend I went to the first of two “holiday Champagne tastings” at Chambers Street.  This one focused on wines made from white grapes, and next week’s will focus on red grapes.  I don’t keep my cards very close to my chest when talking about Chambers Street Wines.  I love the place, and their tastings are a big part of the reason why. 

Champagne is a region I would like to learn more about.  The wines fascinate me but they are out of my price range for everyday drinking.  As a result I have very limited tasting experience.  So I jumped at the chance to try six back-to-back champagnes which, curated by Chambers Street, were bound to be incredible.  Sure enough, they were, and between tasting the wines and talking to the Champagne buyer Sophie, I came out feeling like I had a much better understanding of what the wines of Champagne are all about. 

Here are the wines from the tasting:

  1. Jacques Lassaigne NV Champagne Blanc de Blancs Vignes de Montgeux, $47.99
  2. Diebolt Vallois NV Brut Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Cramant, $44.99
  3. Agrapart et Fils NV Champagne Blanc de Blancs "7 Crus," $51.99
  4. Laherte 2007 Champagne Extra Brut Les Empreintes $74.99
  5. Piollot NV Extra Brut Polisot Pinot Blanc $61.99
  6. Doquet 2002 Champagne Grand Cru Le Mesnil Blanc de Blancs $82.99

(I’m pretty sure that was the order.  4 and 5 might be switched though)

These tastings move pretty quickly and it can be difficult to get a good impression of any one single wine.  But I find them more valuable for getting a general sense of a region or a style or a vineyard or a vintage or something like that.  This tasting got me thinking a lot about…well, champagne.
The first three wines struck me as being similar.  They all had a purity and focus to them, showing more lean fruit and minerality than any of the secondary, oxidative, nutty type flavors you can find in Champagne (guess that’s probably an age thing).  I appreciate this style of wine for its terroir-expressiveness.  You can really taste that these are wines made from Chardonnay, they all had that great, cutting cool climate acidity, and they all had pronounced mineral components.  A couple of these wines struck me as being Chablis-like, which I guess makes sense given the proximity of the two regions.

The two wines that I found most memorable, however, were the Laherte and the Doquet.  For my palate, these wines were also the two richest and broadest of the six wines.  The Laherte had an incredibly fascinating funky nose and was rich and creamy on the palate but with great lively acidity.  And the Doquet felt grand and decadent with a warm savory, yeasty sort of profile.  This is what I imagine great, classic champagne tasting like when I read about it. 

I only have one gripe about these wines and it’s an obvious one: prices.  By Champagne standards these prices are actually great for such high quality wines, and I’ve read in a few places recently about how Champagne is actually a great value in the high-end wine market.  But this is precisely why the wines of Champagne have been relegated to the role of special occasion wine.  

If it were up to me, champagne would be an every day wine.  Very few wines have the versatility that Champagne does—It’s incredibly delicious on it’s own, great as an aperitif with light fare, and I also think it serves a great place on the table. There are so many times I’ve cooked a meal, struggled to find the right wine and then realized that Champagne would have been the perfect pairing.  But why can’t anyone make a bottle of Champagne for less than $30?

I understand that these wines come from some of the most amazing and also difficult terroir in the world and that some of them are aged upon release and that their prices reflect these factors.  So here’s my question: is the price difference between Champagne and other sparkling wines justified?  I think it is, but more so at the higher end.  From my experience at this tasting, I realized if I had the money I would spend it on the Doquet or the Laherte before I would spend it on the more affordable NV wines.  I found they offered something in terms of complexity and intrigue that I haven’t found in sparkling wines from other parts of the world.  

I really loved the first three younger NV wines, the Lassaigne in particular, and in some contexts, with an oyster for example, I would rather drink the Lassaigne than the Doquet or the Laherte. And as I mentioned before, I really admire their purity and faithful expression of terroir, but I couldn’t help but wonder: is a faithful expression of Champagne terroir that much more valuable than a faithful expression of Jura terroir? Or the Loire? Or Savoie? Or Alsace? Or Burgundy? All of which are places you can find great wine makers making delicious, well made, and pure sparkling wines for around $20.  I suppose it’s a bit of a silly argument when all these wines are unique and beautiful in their own ways, and in a perfect world I would just drink them all but when you’re on a budget you have to make silly arguments with yourself in justifying where to spend your hard-earned dollars…

Anyway, this Champagne stuff is fascinating.  I know that a rapid-fire wine tasting is far from ideal way to evaluate a wine.  I would love to buy each of these bottles, and a number of other Champagnes for that matter, and drink them slowly, each one over an evening, or a meal, or a few days and get to know each wine a little better. But if I did that, I would slowly go broke and end up destitute on the street drinking a bottle of Doquet out of a paper bag. Which is why I’m so thankful for Chambers Street for putting on these great tastings where I can try these wines for free.  Thank you Chambers Street.  

And in case you live a slightly more modest lifestyle than Ricky Rose, I highly recommend this wine:

Domaine de Montbourgeau NV Cremant du Jura Brut

Had this wine at thanksgiving with raw oysters and was blown away.  Very lively on the palate, great champagne-like flavor profile.  Pretty serious wine for $21.99.  

Also, I would love to make posters of rappers holding bottles of geeky grower champagnes.  

Anyone good with Photoshop?


Thursday, November 28, 2013

A Quick Update

I feel bad about how long I've been going between posts lately, so here's a quick update on what I've been drinking and listening to:

What I've been drinking:

2012 Yvon Metras Beaujolais

Just discovered an awesome new wine store, not too far from me in Prospect Heights, called Passage de la Fleur.  Apparently it's owned by the same people who own the lower east side wine geek destination The Ten Bells.  They have a ton of really interesting direct import stuff, and also a really impressive amount of large format bottles.  They only stock natural wines.  I bought both this wine and the following wine there.  

Yvon Metras is a culty producer I've read about a fair amount, but I had never seen any of his wines in any of the stores I usually patronize.  Major props to PdlF for stocking this.  The woman working there, I believe her name was Emily, said she found the wine very "poulsard-like," and I totally agree.  In fact, tested blind, I would probably mistake it for poulsard, with its light color, and rose petal and orange peel aromas.  But it did have that telltale "vin de soif" transparency on the palate that makes good Beaujolais so lovable.  Really awesome wine, improved for days, great value at 20 bucks.  I couldn't keep my nose out of the glass.  

2011 Nicolas Carmarans L'Olto

Very interesting wine, also recommended to me by Emily at PdlF.  This wine is made by a producer I know nothing about, from a region I know very little about, with a grape I've never heard of called Fer Servadou.  The wine was dominated by peppery/vegetal sort of flavors with a parsley/cilantro bitter herb kind of thing going on.  There was a subtle berried fruitiness as well, but this was a far cry from anything I would call "fruity."  Nice and light on the palate with an interesting savory, almost cheesy kind of thing on the finish.  Honestly, the flavor profile was so bizarre I thought the wine could have been flawed, but I still really liked it, and I don't have the tasting experience to definitively say when a wine is flawed. Very interesting wine, if a little scary.  

2010 Domaine Gabriel Billard Cuvee "Milliane"

Definitely an earth driven wine with nice minerality and a leathery licorice sort of component on the nose that made the wine feel almost nebbiolo-esque.  Nice tart sour cherries on the palate.  The grand cru drinkers among you might fine this wine to be a bit "thin" but I found it to be light and bright and unpretentiously drinkable.  $24, for me, is a lot to spend on a bottle of wine, but for great burgundy it's a steal.  

2011 Huet Vouvray "Le Haut-Lieu" Sec

I bought this wine because I wanted to try some good quality Loire chenin blanc, and Huet seems to be a very esteemed domaine, but to be honest I found this wine disappointing.  It was very tight aromatically and just generally austere (even after a decent decant). Definitely had a nice mineral component and good acidity but if I'm going to shell out 30 bucks I want a little more.  I found myself wishing I were drinking a $15 Muscadet.  Maybe 2011 was a weird year in Vouvray, or more likely this wine just needs 10 years in the cellar. In any case, this wine just wasn't singing that night...

2012 Berhard Ott "Am Berg"

The wines of Bernhard Ott have already gotten a lot of hype and seem be to selling like Miley Cyrus albums this holiday season, so I'll just add that I too think this wine rocks.  This is Ott's entry level Gruner Veltliner, which at $15 would be uneconomical NOT to buy.  This wine is delicious, complex, very versatile with food, and working well above its pay-grade. Great stocking stuffer.

What I've been listening to:

Jorge Ben-A Tabua De Esmerelda

I love Brazilian pop music.  I love the grooves, I love the sophistication, I love the singers, I love the songs, and most of all I love the unpretentious joyfulness that is hard to find in our overly angst-driven American cultural landscape.  But, I will admit, I often struggle with the slick, cheesy, elevator style production used on a lot of Brazilian music.  In some cases, I'm able to ignore the copious flutes and dated synthesizers and enjoy the music for what it is, but other times I find it completely unpalatable.  However, with this record I don't need to compromise.  I love the production, the record has a ton of "vibe," and the music is incredible.  This record is a complete powerhouse in terms of vocal performance.  And yes there still are flutes.  

Azealia Banks-"212"

I think I'm a bit late to the party on Azealia Banks, but my god she is amazing.  Just when you were starting to get dark on your city because all these articles by David Byrne and Patti Smith and the like started floating around talking about how New York City is on its way out as a place where the arts can thrive, and you start thinking about moving to Detroit or Poughkeepsie or Estonia, you hear something like this and your faith is completely restored. A friend was explaining to me how Banks writes the rhythms for her verses first and then after the fact plugs in words whose syllables match those rhythms.  I don't know if that's true, but that would make sense to me considering the incredible dizzying musicality of her lyrical phrasing.  Azealia Banks, you make me proud to live in the 212.  WARNING: this track contains some pretty unsavory language.  My 13-and-under readership should seek parental supervision before listening.  


Ismail Jingo came up singing covers of songs by American musicians like Percy Sledge and James Brown in Kenyan night clubs.  Supposedly he even performed for the Godfather of Soul himself at the airport upon his arrival in Nairobi and, as the story goes, was so good that Brown joined him onstage and sang "Talking Loud and Saying Nothing" with him.  "Fever" was by far Jingo's biggest hit during his lifetime, and the track enjoyed a resurgence of crossover success when it was featured in the soundtrack of the 2006 film "The Last King of Scotland."* This is one of those tracks that is like candy for me.  Whenever I don't know what to listen to immediately I put it on, and I've listened to it on repeat.  I have a fever, and the only prescription is more "Fever."

Kanye West-Yeezus

That's right.  I'll admit it.  I love this record.  When I first listened to it I was blown away: the minimalist palate and the dark industrial sort of textures were very striking. But I decided after that that I had no desire to ever listen to it again.  I thought it was another example of high-concept, low-content music.  But sure enough, this record has crept its way back into my consciousness and back into my listening rotation and, I have to say, I think it's really good.  Does it seem a bit half-baked lyrically?  Sure.  Is the overall aesthetic a bit grating at times?  A bit.  Do I find some of the Justin Vernon stuff unnecessary and annoying? Definitely.  But I'll be damned if it isn't one of the most adventurous and fearless hip-hop albums I've heard all year.  And by one of the most commercially successful artists in the world no less.  No one can deny the charisma and passion and intensity West puts into his delivery, even if the words, at moments, miss their mark.  And the record has a fascinating patience to it—it's more about tension than release. It completely upends the dynamic contours (or lack thereof) that have become the status quo in modern hip-hop production.  If nothing else, this record is important because it has set a new standard for how experimental and groundbreaking a commercial hip-hop record can and should be.  

Anyway, I was given the job of curating the wines for Thanksgiving dinner, so expect an update on how that went soon...

Happy Holidays!

*I got all this background info about Jingo from an amazing blog about African music called "Afro7."  Check it out!

Friday, November 15, 2013

Drinking about Music

Truly great wine is indescribable.  It has to be experienced.  This makes someone writing about wine’s job very difficult.  The approach most people take is to rattle off a list of all the flavors and aromas they detect (black currant, river stone, cat-pee, etc.) and describe the structural elements of the wine (body, weight, length, etc.).  It’s a necessary evil in writing—it’s useful in pointing out a wine’s “quirks”—but it can never give the reader a true impression of the wine.

I happen to like a lot of wines that could be described as “quirky.”  I hesitate to use the word “quirky” because it sounds a bit diminutive, but in my mind a wine can be grand and majestic and still be “quirky.”  These are wines that have novel characteristics, and they are easier to describe. Tasting notes are much more impactful when the notes of a wine are unique and exotic.  Poulsard comes to mind: a red wine that can display dried cranberry, blood orange, roses, and brine. Sounds pretty interesting right?

But how do you describe a wine whose characteristics aren’t necessarily that interesting, at least on paper?  A wine that is classic rather than surprising.  I ran into this problem in my attempt to describe this wine:

2010 Gerard Duplessis Chablis Premier Cru, Montee De Tonnerre

This is one of the best wines I’ve ever tasted but if I were to read off my tasting notes—citrus, seashells, minerality, brine, flowers—it would sound like textbook Chablis and tell you nothing about how special it is. Instead, its uniqueness has something to do with the way all these elements come together; the harmony of the wine, the energy and vibrancy of it.  How the wine feels like a living thing, and how it changes over time—how the wine makes you feel.  But that all sounds vague and fluffy and does an equally bad job of describing the wine as the Chablis laundry list I wrote before. 

I have the same issue with music journalism.  Music writers love to list all the different things they hear in cringe-inducingly silly language using phrases like “splashy cymbal work,” or “incendiary overdriven guitar riffage.”  Even if a writer manages to accurately describe the different instruments on a recording and the sounds they make, it still won’t give the reader an idea of how the music will make them feel.  As Elvis Costello famously said, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”

For example, I wonder how a critic would describe the band Big Business.  Big Business was one of my favorite bands in high school.  They regularly toured with the Melvins, another one of my all time favorite bands, as their opening act and eventually became members.  I saw them every time they came to town and was always blown away.  

They started as a two-piece, a bassist/vocalist and a drummer, but they usually toured with a guitarist as well.  I’ve just rediscovered their album “Here Come the Waterworks” which was a real standby for high school me. The nostalgia factor alone makes it fun for me to listen to but I still find the record impressive.  The instrumentation is pretty much exactly like their touring setup—bass, drums vocals and sometimes guitar—and they definitely took a hands-off approach in terms of production.  I could try to describe their style but I would feel a bit hypocritical, and luckily I can just do this…

What blows me away is how the band makes so much music happen with so few resources. If I tried to describe each musician’s individual contribution, the band would sound pretty unremarkable, yet the music is powerful, heavy, catchy, fun and above all unmistakably them.  The bass playing, the singing, and the drumming are all excellent, but it isn’t any one of these elements that makes the band great, it is all of them together.  The bass and drums can play a melodic role, while the vocals can contribute texture, or the rhythm of the lyrical phrasing can work together with the drums to contribute to the groove.  It’s a careful balancing act that the band manages masterfully.  At no point does the music feel incomplete, and in fact they deliver more in terms of power, texture and even pop-sensibility than many bands with much larger or more unique instrumentations. 

Big Business’ music is more than the sum of parts.  I think writers, myself included, overemphasize parts because they are tangible and relatable.  But then again, the day a writer or a critic can articulate everything that’s great about wine, or music, or anything else is the day it’s no longer necessary experience it.  Maybe a writer’s job is just to whet our appetites for the real thing.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Haphazard Wine Pairings #1: Roast Chicken

When I started cooking, I realized early on that if I read a recipe the food would turn out fine but I wouldn’t remember how I made it.  On the other hand, if I attempted to make something without a recipe and something went wrong (which it pretty much always did), I would have a very vivid memory of what not to do in the future, and I would have a better understanding of the importance of each step.  Trial and especially error are necessary steps in developing instincts in the kitchen.

It is with this spirit in mind that I want to start the “Haphazard Wine Pairing” series on this blog.  I don’t know much about pairing food and wine, and I’d love to know more.  I know a handful of classic pairings, but I don’t really know why they work.  And with at least half the meals I cook, I don’t feel confident I could pair the food with the right wine.  I could easily study more of the classic wine pairings, but that seems like a sort of circuitous way of getting around to having good wine pairing instincts.  Instead I’m going to make some haphazard guesses at what I think might work, trying to avoid obvious choices, and take note of what works and what doesn’t.  Hopefully, in doing so, I’ll also come up with some interesting, out-of-the-box pairings.  Anyway, here goes:

For my first truly autumnal dish of the season I wanted to make a roast chicken.  My version was very simple with brussel sprouts, new potatoes, carrots, celery root, cippolini onions, garlic, thyme and a lot of butter.  The only kicker is that I knew I wanted to use lemon to lighten the dish up a bit (It’s an autumnal dish that’s not quite ready to admit summer’s over).  I put a few thin slices of lemon underneath the skin of the chicken, and squeezed the rest of the lemon over everything.  We also had some sautéed shitake mushrooms on the side and an arugula salad with a lemon-based dressing.

Finding a pairing was actually surprisingly difficult.  My first instinct with a roast chicken is red burgundy, or maybe a lighter loire cab franc, but I felt that something about the tannins in a red wine and the lemon would be problematic.  Maybe Beaujolais could work, but I had no reason to think it would do anything more for the dish than just work.  Most delicate white wines, I felt, would get lost in the rich, earthy, savoriness of the dish, and frankly I’m not a fan of most big, rich white wines.

I decided to go with Fino Sherry.  

Gutierrez Colosia El Puerto de Santa Maria Juan Sebastian Elcano Fino

Sounds a bit whacky but hear me out.  I think most people tend to pair sherry with exotic foods because it comes from an exotic place, and there’s definitely something to be said for that approach, but to me, the flavors of Sherry remind me of comfort food.  All the savory, nutty, mushroomy flavors that come from the flor should pair well with the rustic earthiness of the dish.  At the same time, the acidity should cut the richness, and the lemon shouldn’t be an issue.  That was my thinking at least…

The result:

This pairing worked well.  Actually, really well.  To be honest, I was kind of hoping it wouldn’t work so I could say, “now I know to never pair sherry with celery root” or something like that, but the wine elevated the simple flavors of the dish and made it all feel more light, fresh, and, well, exotic.  And when enjoyed with food, the Sherry showed this green apple fruity aspect I didn’t notice before.  It made the wine feel more giving, a little less intimidating with its abundance of nutty, briney, secondary type flavors.  I will admit I kind of cheated because I’ve experimented with Fino Sherry as a table wine before, and it seems to pretty much work with everything.  This just further confirms my theory. 

Lesson learned: Sherry is fuckin awesome.  Drink it when eating roast chicken or basically anything else.

With any luck, maybe my next “haphazard wine pairing” will be a flaming disaster.  We can only hope…

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Nebbiolo Bargain

Antonio Vallana Campi Raudii

The Vallana family name has been associated with wine making in the Alto Piemonte region, an area about 100 miles north of Barolo at the base of the Alps, for centuries and they are still producing very highly-respected Nebbiolo based wines today.  This is their entry level wine and it's good.  It's really good.  According to the fact sheet on the importer's (Michael Skurnik) website this wine goes through the same vinification process of all their other Nebbiolo based wines just without the oak-aging.  Fine by me.  This wine is not only delicious and varietally correct but it also delivers some serious, leathery old-world charm.  Perhaps a bit lighter in style than it's "big B" neighbors, and it's drinking really well young.  

At $15 this is about as good a wine bargain as I've found anywhere.  I can now cancel my appointment to have my spleen removed and sold on the black market to pay for that bottle of Barolo I had my eye on.  Knowing that great nebbiolo is out there at this price-point makes me feel like this drummer:

...or this one:

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Music and Terroir and David Byrne

“Terroir” is a concept that is talked about a lot in the wine world, and means many different things for many different people.  The explanation that makes the most sense to me is that terroir encompasses all the elements that go into winemaking that a winemaker cannot control.  In other words, the soil and the microclimate (weather, drainage, elevation, etc.) in which the grapes grow.  Therefore, wines that are “terroir-driven” are expressive of the place in which they are made, and a wine that has the distinct mark of its winemaker (this might manifest itself in tons of oakiness or over-extraction) is less so. 

I really like this concept, in theory and in practice, and I think the idea of terroir is something that extends beyond wine into other disciplines.  David Byrne makes an amazing case for terroir in music in the opening chapter of his new book, “How Music Works.”  Of course, he doesn’t actually reference “terroir” but that’s immediately what came to my mind.

I’m a huge David Byrne fan and I finally got around to buying his book now that they have released the paperback edition.  So far, the book is incredible—I highly recommend you pick up a copy.  The opening chapter is called “Creation in Reverse,” and he begins by debunking the myth of a musician being spontaneously inspired.  He writes, “The accepted narrative suggests that a classical composer gets a strange look in his or her eye and begins furiously scribbling a fully realized composition that couldn’t exist in any other form.  Or that the rock and roll singer is driven by desire and demons, and out bursts this amazing, perfectly shaped song that had to be three minutes and twelve seconds—nothing more, nothing less.  This is the romantic notion of how creative work comes to be, but I think the path to creation is almost 180 degrees from this model.  I believe that we unconsciously and instinctively make work to fit pre-existing formats.”

As an example he points out that the physical qualities of the club CBGB (the legendary New York venue where the Talking Heads, along with so many other important New York punk bands, got their start) were ideal for performing and listening to the kind of music that was being played there.  He references the lack of reverberation due to the clutter and irregular shape of the room, which was ideal for the Talking Heads’ groove-oriented music.  He also talks about the club’s intimacy: the small size of the club allowed audience members to appreciate physical gestures from the performers. 

He then goes on to discuss the differences between African music and Western music of the middle ages, and their respective venues.  He suggests that the percussive music of Africa is ideally performed outdoors where there is no reverberation and rhythmic complexity won’t be lost.  Conversely, he notes that this music would sound terrible in a Cathedral, and points out that music with shifting keys or dissonance would sound like a “sonic pileup” in a highly reverberant gothic cathedral*.  This, he suggests, is why the music that was performed in those cathedrals was instead modal and “slowly evolving,” creating an “otherworldy ambience,” that played to the strengths of the highly reverberant space.

He provides a number of other examples, including how singing style shifted with the advent of the microphone, how rock bands’ style became simpler and statelier to accommodate arena and stadium performances, and even how bird song changes based on the bird’s environment. 

Another way of describing this would be to say that musicians create music for the context in which their music is performed or heard, not in a vacuum, or not simply from internal inspiration.  They create music that, like wine, is an expression of place.  Their context, whether it is a rock club or a cathedral, informs the work and is accountable for the work’s success.  Similarly, great wine makers create “in reverse,” from the terroir up, simply guiding the grape along in it’s natural process to becoming wine.  When a winemaker interjects their own agenda or personality into the wine making process, like a banjo in a gothic cathedral, it can jeopardize the success of the endeavor. 

As a final thought, Byrne writes, “Genius—the emergence of a truly remarkable and memorable work—seems to appear when a thing is perfectly suited to its context.  When something works, it strikes us as not just being a clever adaptation, but as emotionally resonant as well.  When the right thing is in the right place we are moved.”

While on the subject of terroir I’d like to talk about this wine:

2011 Domaine du Closel Anjou Rouge

This wine is 100% Cabernet Franc from Savennieres in the Loire Valley and was $20 at Astor Wines.  The color is a nice inky dark purple.  Right after opening it was all fruit and one dimensional, and while it was tasty I was a bit disappointed in its lack of complexity.  But after some time in the glass, the wine made a complete 180.  It definitely still had a berried fruity character to it, but it was overshadowed by all these great earthy components that began to show.  There was a forest, pine, mint kind of thing happening, as well as a really interesting herbal vegetal layer, all underlined by this persistent mineral zing (interestingly, not something I’ve found in very many red wines). 

What was really amazing was how well all these elements came together.  I’ve had other Loire cab francs, the Catherine and Pierre Breton “Trinch” comes to mind, that are very funky and bizarre (in a good way) but this wine, while very complex, was harmonious, pure, and elegant: a definite crowd pleaser. 

This wine also gave me one of my first “Aha!” terroir moments.  While drinking it I had a sort of déjà vu to another wine but I couldn’t figure out which one.  I hadn’t been drinking other Cab Franc based wines recently, or anything even remotely similar for that matter.  Finally, I realized it was the 2012 Clos Des Briords I had had a few days earlier.  This wine is a white wine from nearby Muscadet, also in the Loire Valley (for the record it’s a phenomenal wine).  It’s pretty cool that two wines, one red one white, from two different producers, made of two different grapes with two very distinct flavor profiles can still show something very specific and perceptible in common.  I think it had something to do with the mineral component in both wines. It’d be interesting to find out if these two wines are grown in the same type of soils.  I don’t know for sure but I’d be willing to bet that they are…

And what better food to celebrate terroir than mushrooms?! 

Found these dried morels and chanterelles at Choice Greene in Clinton Hill.  They were embarrassingly expensive but having never tried either of these mushrooms I decided to splurge (I own one pair of jeans yet I’ll spend $20 on mushrooms?  I may need to reconsider my priorities a bit…).

Reconstituted the mushrooms and made a mushroom stock…

…which I then used to make a mushroom, red wine, Parmesan and sage risotto.

The risotto turned out pretty nicely, if I do say so myself.  The mushrooms were spectacular, and I think using mushroom stock for the risotto really made the dish.  It was like a savory, meaty, dirt explosion.  The dish worked well with the Closel Anjou Rouge as well, but after the fact I realized this dish was just screaming for red Burgundy. Sadly, good Burgundy is hard to find in the $20 range.  Any recommendations for good affordable Burgundy? 


*I actually saw David Byrne perform at Carnegie Hall (a highly reverberant symphony hall type room) about 5 years ago with his “Here Lies Love” project which was a sort of concept disco opera about the life of Imelda Marcos he wrote in collaboration with Fatboy Slim.  The music was heavily disco influenced and was great but I have to admit the space did not do the music justice.  I found the room was too boomy and the groove was lost.  David Byrne actually writes in the book, “I’ve played at Carnegie Hall a couple of times, and it can work, but it is far from ideal.  I wouldn’t play that music there again.”  The music was great, and the concert was still very enjoyable, but it was definitely a testament to the importance of considering the ideal venue for a performance.  Here’s a song from that project: