Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Report: So you think you have a wine club

 “We’ve been here since records began,” says Brigadier Michael Smythe, formerly of British artillery corps, now chief executive of Vintner’s Hall, at the intersection of Queen and Lower Thames streets, London. A striking figure in a dark, two-vent English suit, the Brigadier adds, “That would be 1362,” when a structure went up on this side of the river to unload wine from sailing ships. “Unfortunately some of the records were lost in the great fire of 1666,” but not the charter from King Charles who forgave the Vintners for siding with Parliament in the 1642 rebellion.
The Vintners - the eleventh of The City of London liveries, others including not just the Butchers but also the Drapers, Fishmongers, Plaisterers, and many more - also own a third of the swans in England, the rest belonging to the crown and to the Skinners. “Every year we go up the Thames, collecting and tagging the new signets. It’s great fun.”
Vintners Hall isn’t accessible to the public except on special tours that can be arranged at the kiosk next to St. Paul’s. But persistence often pays off with the accommodating Brits. Here the Vintners’ descendants have found themselves in possession of heirloom art and furnishings accumulated over six centuries, and some of the most valuable real estate on earth.
Lots of other treasures also survived, including silver and gold that went to building the massive classical fa├žade outside that looks more like a Roman bureaucracy than a temple to the grape. Some 15,000 bottles of mostly vintage Bordeaux and port lie somewhere under our feet, with a fulltime cellar keeper.
“That’s our view mark,” the brigadier says, pointing to a coat of arms: three wine casks arranged on a shield. The Vintners has some 500 members, many of whom are “patrimonies,” meaning their fathers belonged. Others are eminent in the wine trade, and that doesn’t mean bottle drudges in The City’s many wine shops, but importers, merchants, and people prominent in their fields. “So far checkbook membership has been avoided, although we do need a certain number of bankers and brokers to advise us on our holdings.”
My tour includes a statue of St. Martin Le Tours, 14th century patron saint of wine. “We made our first contact with France through Eleanor of Aquitaine. Wine was soon coming into the country, and fabric going out. French was as likely spoken here as English in those days.”
We enter the richly paneled council room where two dozen of the most august members meet once a month. Standing on an Oriental “worth a quarter of a million pounds the last time we had it looked at,” they discuss the charities and other organizations benefiting from the Vintners’ largess, under the eyes of another St. Martin, this one possibly painted by Van Dyke.
A former Swan Warden “kitted out” the adjoining room, says the Brigadier, circa 1710: peer glasses with candle holders, lots of shields of former vintners, two paintings of Charles I, “although one of them could be William – there’s no mustache, you see.”
The magnificent carved staircase leading to the second floor “is an Ancient Monument, the highest classification by the government.” It creaks, “but if you bring out a hammer and saw, people get very up-set.” Five kings having dinner together in the stained glass window watch us pass on our way to the document room. Illuminated parchments adorn these walls, “all saved from the Great Fire. This one’s from 1352, and signed by John Chaucer. His son, Geoffrey, worked in his father’s tavern and picked up all those stories” in The Canterbury Tales.
Here also are the Vintners’ charter from 1363, 15th century pall cloths used to cover vintners’ coffins, and a roll of honorary members including Lord Mountbatten and Margaret Thatcher, and British wine writers Hugh Johnson and Michael Broadbent. Once a year the Vintners, like the Butchers, don traditional raiment to be blessed by their patron church.
The Vinters process en masse across Upper Thames Street to St. James Garlick, known as “Wren’s lantern” because of all the windows, led by the Grand Master and his official Sweeper. “He removes any refuse from his path.” We're talking horseshit here. “Last year we had to cross Southwark Bridge, to a ceremony on the South Bank, and were led by two mounted policemen. One of the horses had to choose that moment to let go. It was a true test of the Sweeper.” The Brigadier pauses. “He failed.”

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Bottle-stock: Concha Y Toro

      Don’t know about you, but I suffer from malbec fatigue. It’s a fine grape, and so are some of the wines made from it, but malbec has to be treated well, and carefully. Remember, the word’s a conjunction of the French for bad, and nose.
      Malbec fatigue’s right up there with dreaded Australian Shiraz syndrome - jammy, boring, same same – so if you detect these things in, say, Argentine malbecs, and if you like American wines, just jump over the Andes. To Chile.
     There the standard’s cabernet, and a fine, affordable one’s still made by Concha y Toro - the 2010 Gran Reserva. Concha y Toro remains one of the best cabernet bargains on earth, a tribute to that winery’s long-standing tradition of excellence and affordability.



Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Eat: Citronelle

To reach the inner sanctum of Franco-California cuisine in Georgetown, Washington DC, I must first leave behind narrow streets dating back three centuries, cross the inner courtyard to the elegant Latham Hotel, navigate the lobby and pass a mural of sunny Mediterranean vineyards before descending, through aromas both enticing and mysterious, into a thoroughly contemporary world of natural wood and abundant light.
This is Citronelle, ultimate creation of Michel Richard, recipient of the James Beard Foundation Outstanding Chef award. He worked with Duncan & Miller Design to make food preparation part of this exceptional dining drama. The large tilted mirror provides diners at even the most discreet tables a view of a kitchen designed by Tim Harrison of San Francisco where, in an arena of stainless steel and bright yellow tile, various ranks of aspiring chefs arrange in little paper cups the airy, razor-thin potato crisps twice-fried in clarified butter or manipulate – with long-handled tweezers, no less - shaved medallions of filet, scallop, ahi with black beans and dabs of micro-greens drizzled with basil oil, all for a visual tour de force called Mosaic.
Supervising, of course, is Richard, who studied in France and whose on-going culinary adventure in America has included his own pastry shop-cum-restaurant in Santa Fe and full-scale restaurants in Los Angeles (Citrus), San Francisco (Bistro M), and Carmel, Calif. (Citronelle at Carmel Valley Ranch). But this, the original Citronelle, is his flagship, and Richard looks downright piratical in his full-bodied black chef’s jacket and white beard. However, he’s smiling. “You’re too thin,” he tells me, with mock Gallic severity, “but don’t worry, we’ll do something about that.”
           He will indeed, with a menu specially prepared for Veranda. It’s launched with a diminutive white plate of four amuse bouches - a tiny, delicate crab cake in remoulade sauce, a “cigar” of sauteed mushrooms in phyllo with an emulsion of ginger, a mini-taco, and a thin, glistening round of salmon sausage garnished with baby watercress.
          Then comes one of Richard’s signature dishes, the Jackson Pollock Soup, an allusion to the abstract painter’s famous paint squiggles made with multicolored noodles of shaved zucchini, beet, and carrot, all these gently subsiding in a concentrated, powerfully-flavorful beef stock.
          Next comes the lobster burger with French fries, deceptively simple-sounding but in fact an ardent reversal of New World inventiveness and Old World tradition. The meat is partially cooked in order to remove it from the shell, then chopped, formed into patties, lightly sauteed and placed on brioche spread with fresh mayonnaise and shaved ginger. This diminutive American variant is then served with those crisps as an accent, a Maine staple that never got better treatment and emerges light, fresh, and imaginative, with the ginger a welcome parting wave.
           Devouring my last crisp, I notice a framed watercolor on the wall of an apple, lovingly painted in its various shades of red and yellow. Two minutes later Richard joins me at the table with a portfolio of his paintings of his culinary creations. He also designs each dish he invents, and the fruits, vegetables, and pastries in these paintings going directly from model to morsel. This is a way of conceptualizing what he later intends to create, a kind of artistic double entendre.
           A lovely half-brick of orange and lemongrass mousse arrives with, as a garnish, a fan of dried pineapple, thin as parchment. I wondered how I could possibly eat all this, but quickly realized that air – and flavor – are the primary constituents of this dessert laved in raspberry sauce and further accented with slices of fresh orange. This is followed by an assortment of farewell sweets that includes another Richard creation – a seedless grape rolled in melted white chocolate and doused with powdered sugar.
           “Delicious,” says the chef, who has been watching. He sounds almost wistful, not bragging, just summing up. And I say to myself, “He’s probably hungry.”

     From Veranda

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Here's an early review from Kirkus:

Author: Conaway, James
Publisher: Dunne/St. Martin's
Pages: 336
Price ( Hardcover ): $24.99
Publication Date: March 12, 2013
Category: Fiction

     Conaway (Vanishing America, 2008, etc.) pens a lighthearted novel centering on oenophiles cavorting in a lush, grape-growing California valley.
     Conaway’s catalyst for his wine-country appreciation is an unlabeled bottle of Cabernet. The bottle ends up on the sampling table of Clyde Craven-Jones, known to wine lovers as CJ, head of the mega-influential Craven-Jones on Wine. CJ is a British expat and something of a corpulent, self-absorbed snob. His wife is the younger, winsome Claire Craven-Jones, who escaped Arkansas trailer-living by marrying the wine expert. It’s Claire to whom Clyde has assigned the task of determining the origin of the unlabeled bottle—“Big nose, briary, just enough forward fruit. Fine tannins”—the first California Cab he believes worthy of 20 points, a rating never before awarded by Craven-Jones on Wine. To trace the bottle's origins, Claire hires Les, farm boy turned reporter, out of work and unable to settle his bar tab, and so he’s pretending to be an investigator, thanks to recommendations from ponytailed Ben, owner of the Glass Act, a decrepit bar stocked with expensive, exotic wines. There’s Sara Hutt Beale, daughter of Jerome, a less-than-scrupulous developer now deep in debt after turning a valley vineyard into Hutt Family Estates, a modern high-end wine factory. Sara’s own land adjoins that of melancholy Cotton Harrell, a river ecologist turned philosopher turned vintner, mourning the death of his lover. Like blending Merlot-Malbec grapes for the perfect Bordeaux, Conaway uses this cast, and an assortment of quirky supporting players, to weave multiple narratives into a cozy, no-murder and not-quite mystery, all set in motion after CJ accidentally dies when he becomes stuck in a giant metal tank of wine. Les helps the conservative Claire reenergize Craven-Jones on Wine—and her love life—while simultaneously using an anonymous blog to decant murky wine-country secrets, the most damaging of which is Jerome’s machinations to turn part of the Hutt Family Estates vineyard into a forest of McMansions.
      The cheerful complexity of Conaway's novel rivals the richest, most nose-worthy, palate-pleasing Cabernet.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Drink: Smokin' peat

It was the only tasting I have ever attended where half the participants carried weapons. They wore dirks - daggers - either on their belts or thrust into the tops of their knee-length stockings. “This is a skean dhu,” said the man next to me, (all spellings approximate) drawing his dagger and placing it on the table. “It means ‘black knife’ in Gaelic. The blade was blackened by the peat smoke, you know.”
He was a ghillie laird. Don’t ask me exactly what a ghillie laird is, but he and others
belonged to a club devoted to tasting single-malt scotches and they had gathered to sample three vintages of Macallan single highland malt scotch. If you think this a casual enterprise then try to pronounce the club’s name, Cuideagh 0 Corn 0 Uisghebeathe (roughly, “tasters of the water of life”). I tried with some success to distinguish among multiple peaty heats while keeping a clear head.
     The ghillie laird had more to tell me, but the bagpipes got in the way. He stood up, smoothed his kilt, and went off for a chunk of smoked salmon. I ate another oatcake to mop off my taste buds, concentrating on the task at hand: evaluating an array of amber liquids, accustomed to tasting wine, not single malt scotch, subjecting them to the regimen of wine tasting, a humbling experience.
     The whiskey industry is no longer in precipitous decline and sales of single-malt scotch have romped for a couple of decades now. Its popularity reflects the heightened awareness of quality among drinkers of everything from tequila to cognac and a willingness to pay for it.
“Single-malt,” as everyone knows these days, simply means the whiskey that comes from a single producer. The process enjoys more latitude than you might think, and the results, though they all taste like scotch, are as various as the components: malted barley, peat smoke, in some cases old sherry or bourbon casks, good water, and something else unquantifiable. According to one Cuideagh O C’orn Uisghebeathe enthusiast the Japanese attempted to assemble their own “scotch” over there, with ingredients – including water - imported from Scotland, and failed.
     There are more than a hundred scotch distilleries in Scotland, most of them tiny. The scotch that Americans are most familiar with is blended, and comes mostly from the Lowlands. It’s generally lighter in appearance than single-malt, sometimes with caramel dumped in to make it look “authentic," and the various blends taste more or less the same. Single-malts come from the Highlands farther north, and from the west coast, and are highly individualistic. Devotees collect vintages of single-malts, and trade them like well-ranked Bordeaux.
     Scotch is made from barley that has been soaked in water so it will germinate, kiln-roasted, and subjected to peat smoke in varying degrees. It’s then “mashed” and soaked again to liquefy the starches and convert them to sugar, and fermented like beer or wine. The resulting brew goes into a pot still that eventually produces a clear spirit of about 140 proof. Later, spring water’s added. The whisky will already bear the taste of the cooking and the peat.
     But another palatable element is yet to come – oak - which adds more taste and color. Traditionally scotch was  aged in casks once used for shipping sherry, a lovely symbiosis. The advent of tankers for bulk shipment made sherry casks rarer, and therefore costly, so most scotch found its way into old bourbon barrels brought over from the states. These became the most common cooperage for scotch, but some of the good single-malt distillers still use sherry casks. Firms like Macallan made arrangements with sherry houses of Spain that supply them with staves imbued with the taste of Amontillado and Oloroso.
     What this does to clear spirits dripping from a pot still in the Scottish Highlands reminds me of those glasses of single-malt lined up on the table. They contained a 10-year-old Glenmorangie, still one of Scotland’s most popular single-malts, and three Macallan vintages, aged 12, 18, and 25 years. I learned that the way to smell any strong spirit was to pass the glass under your nose twice at most. The Macallans were “lightly peated” and lacked the oily quality of heavier single-malts made in the west of Scotland, which I discovered on a trip to the inner Hebrides and will write about another time.
Lagavulin and Laphroaig are neighbors on the isle of Islay (pronounced “Eye-lay”), that smell vaguely of tea and iodine derived from the vast ocean on their doorsteps and the wind that blows off it pretty much all year. The older ones are deeply amber, with a sweetish, complex nose. A more lightly-peated - and less expensive - single-malt from Islay is Bowmore.
     Finally, single-malts taste better with a dollop of (un-chlorinated!) water. And forget about an ice cube if you find yourself in the presence of a single-malt partisan wearing a skean dhu.