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Can You Say Gewürztraminer?

I don’t know why Gewürztraminer is not more popular as a grape variety around the world. It is such a beautiful, perfumey wine. Most commentators cite the name [pronounced gay VERTS traw meen her]; claiming it’s long and intimidating to say, especially by beginners in public settings. Perhaps. I’m guessing tequila isn’t any picnic for first time pronouncers either. But the Mexican firewater still gets plenty of action. And people say they’re going to serve hors d’oeuvres (sic) all the time. I’ll bet there aren’t five wine writers in America who can employ the phrase hors d’oeuvre in a column without first looking up the spelling ~ he said, gently replacing his dictionary on the shelf.

Gewürztraminer on the Vine

No, I suspect Gewürztraminer suffers from the same image problem in America that Riesling does: insufficient machismo. People think of it as girly wine. I probably didn’t help much calling it perfumed. How unfortunate. Gewürztraminer really is the ideal wine for so many dining circumstances. If you’re confident enough in your own sexuality to wear pastel colored shirts, you ought to consider adding Gewürz to your repertoire.

‘Traminer’ implies the grape comes from the German town of Tramin. ‘Gewürz’ is usually translated as spicy, although that phrase can use some elaboration. It refers more to the aromatic (perfumed) character than it does to any ginger/nutmeg smell or to any capsaicin pepper-like nuances. The aroma of Gewürztraminer is similar to rose petals, or to several types of melon. Experts call it floral as opposed to fruity in an attempt to differentiate it from the aroma of Riesling. The nose is due in no small part to a terpene called linalool, a compound Gewürz shares with Muscat and with Riesling. In fact difference in varietal aroma between those grapes is largely due to variations in the concentration of linalool. The fragrance of Gewürztraminer comes with a phenolic, slightly oily mouth-feel, which to me elicits the phrase plasticizer. Imagine sucking on a Barbie doll’s toes. Or think of the new car smell.

This plasticizer quality is not one of my personal favorites, but it does deserve deeper examination. Aficionados often conflate that character with minerality. Alsace is considered to be the region most frequently associated with Gewürztraminer, and Alsace is also famous for its mineral gout de terroir (taste of the earth or place). The most prestigious vineyards in Alsace, source of their most expensive wines, seem to produce the most pronounced, most obvious mineral character in those wines. I don’t think minerality and phenolic mouth-feel are the same thing, but I do think many people confuse the two.

Moreover, there are clear, historical culinary precedents in Alsace which would logically lead to a preference for wines with strong mineral flavors.Alsace(i.e. the French – German border) is a cold, northern European climate. Prior to the late 1800’s food stuffs would need to be preserved from their short Summers for consumption throughout their long Winters. That means charcuterie: salted and smoked meats, vegetables in brine or vinegar. If you were going to design a wine to drink for eight months each year with pickles, patés, sausages and sauerkraut, what would it be? Alsace has a lot of experience, and a worldwide reputation, in precisely this matter.

The Great German Shepherd

The phrase ‘Alsatian-style’ does not mean the way large canines like to make love. It implies Rieslings, Muscats, and/or Gewürztraminers made bone dry ~ all the better to match with food. Most people assume a Gewürztraminer from California will have several percentage points of residual sugar. That doesn’t have to be the case, although it is more likely to be true at giant-sized wineries, like Fetzer. It all has to do with capturing the distinctly Gewürz nose in each bottle. Alsace has a cool climate, especially in the Fall as Winter approaches. Cool weather means the harvest window, during which the distinctive smell is most obvious in the grapes, will be 10-12 days long in Alsace. Hotter weather in California makes the window much narrower, maybe only two to three days. The owners of small CA wineries can walk in their vineyard each morning, and (when the smell is at a peak) call their friends to come pick the next day. Big vineyards can’t do that ~ you don’t find Mexican harvest crews in the Yellow Pages.

So big California wineries often perform some skin-soak, prior to pressing and fermentation, in order to help extract linalool from the mucilaginous layer between the pulp and the skin. Skin-soak can make wine slightly bitter. Leaving a little residual sugar helps hide bitterness. Unbeknownst to most people, Gewürz grapes are not white; they’re slightly red colored. A little bit of ‘pinking’ can be observed in these wines if they are examined closely under good light (not dissimilar to Pinot Gris).

The reason I feel Gewürztraminer is so amazingly useful at the Left Coast dinner table is because it has such an affinity for the spices used extensively in south Asian cooking. It is absolutely essential for the myriad cuisines of India, where serious practitioners will heat their spices before grinding them fresh into each dish. The lifted, flowery aspects of Gewürz are ideal with fragrances such as cloves, cinnamon, mint, or citrus rind. The minerality of dry Gewürz meshes neatly with the earthiness of tumeric, coriander, or galangal. Curry and garam masala are such robust flavors, pungently scented, everyone assumes they need red wines with considerable oomph. A reasonable assumption. Hence a surprise that Gewürztraminer is, many times, the better answer.


Here are some fine examples of wines with which to launch your own investigations


CA Central Coast ~ The cool, maritime climate of California’s coastal valleys from Monterey through Santa Barbara offer excellent opportunities to produce top quality Gewürz. Claiborne & Churchill is a small winery in San Luis Obispo’s Edna Valley run by German professors at Cal Poly (Clay Thompson and Frederika Churchill). They have two decades of strong track record making wonderful Alsatian-style Gewürztraminers and Rieslings. Fogarty is a winery on Skyline Blvd high on the ridge west of Stanford University to which pioneering heart surgeon Thomas Fogarty brings Gewürz grapes from the Ventana Vyd in Monterey County’s Salinas Valley. The wine is technically dry, very impressive, and remarkably consistent from vintage to vintage.

CA Anderson Valley ~ On the ocean side of the coastal ridge in Mendocino County, Anderson Valley has long been known as a centerpiece for CA Gewürz. Navarro Vyd is my nominee for best direct-to-consumer mail marketing program in the American wine industry. They are masters of this varietal. A number of other wineries in Anderson Valley also do well with it ~ Lazy Creek is a particularly reliable example.

British Columbia~ The Okanagan Valley of British Columbia includes some of the northernmost fine wine producing vineyards on the planet. Despite the promises of NAFTA, few of these wines find their way into the USA. A visit to either Okanagan Valley or to Vancouver, however, is well worth anyone’s effort. Look for Quails Gate, Grey Monk, or Kalala Gewürz. A respectable, consistent example made by a large company, thus more likely to be available in the US, is Sumac Ridge.

Finger Lakes New York ~ One of several very colorful personalities in the American wine industry in upstate New York was a Russian plant geneticist named Konstantin Frank. He almost single-handedly shoe-horned vinifera (read European) grapes into a region dominated by Labrusca (read Concord) and French-American hybrids. Of course he was a little nutso. Aren’t all the colorful personalities? He used to tell people hybrids were poison. Dr. Frank has been gone many years now, but his heirs make a very nice Gewürz at the family estate. And the Finger Lakes are no backwater. The viticultural research station at Geneva is justifiably world-famous. As is Cornell’s Hotel School at Ithaca.

Oregon~ Pinot Gris gets much more attention from Oregon wineries than Gewürztraminer does: nearly 3,000 acres vs. 200. But occasionally an Oregon winery will distinguish itself from their competitors with a well-made Gewürz. Such is the case with Brandborg from Umpqua Valley in the southern half of the state.

Alsace~ Alsatian Gewürztraminer is the classic, which is not necessarily the same as being the most pleasant. Certainly Alsatian examples demonstrate the minerality concept better than any other region, and that feature alone can have a certain functional utility. Trimbach is a widely distributed, and very reliable, brand that’s not exorbitantly expensive. More money will get you greater concentration of flavor, more intense aroma, and often a little bit of residual sugar. Those features can be very impressive when matched to a particularly robust curry. Try Zind-Humbrecht from their Wintzenheim Vyd.

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Great Wines for Wild Mushrooms

‘Tis the season to forage mushrooms.

Whether you find them in the gourmet grocery or walking in a drizzly wood with your shirt on backwards, they cook up the same: wonderful, exotic, slightly naughty, very savory dishes that extend the range of paired wines in the most compelling ways.

Certainly it’s true that a five-hour hike works like magic to stimulate the appetite. That and the price are the major advantages of foraging mushrooms for oneself. What most of us call ‘the mushroom’ is actually the fruiting body of the fungus. The rest stays in the ground, or in the log, after you remove the fruiting body. So mushrooms continue to re-appear in the same place you originally found them for years in the future whenever conditions are right. It’s not a sure thing; the required conditions are very precise. That’s why these things are not raised commercially by growers. Nevertheless, experienced mushroom foragers (mycophagists) never tell anybody where their secret troves are located. Share mushrooms? Of course. Share mushroom locations? Never!

There are two solid strategies for foraging mushrooms. One is to go out about ten days after the first rains in the Fall, pick all the mushrooms you find, bring them home, and identify them using a reference book, or ‘key.’ That technique is great if you own a microscope and have ready access to an academic with mycological expertise. Failing either of those assets, I strongly recommend Strategy #2: only gather those mushrooms with which you are acquainted and confident you can correctly recognize.

Thumbing through a good mushroom guide will reveal hundreds of mushrooms are listed as “edible,” which means they are safe to eat, but likely to taste much as you might imagine Styrofoam would. Only a handful of mushrooms will be listed as “choice,” which means they taste great. Learn to recognize those. There is no compelling reason to be a voracious guinea pig in some grand mushroom foraging experiment. Never eat more than a small slice of something you’re not sure you’ve had before. Two rules of thumb will help you avoid almost all really dangerous mushrooms: (1) Ignore the vast category which might be termed “little brown mushrooms.” They are hard to tell apart, and they are too small to make a worthwhile meal anyway. (2) Learn to recognize the genus Amanita. Might as well avoid all of those. Every year a handful of people die from eating a big pot of Amanita phalloides, otherwise known as the Death Cap. They’re big, and they’re pretty. Artists depict them all the time when illustrating fairy tales. All Amanitas have a small sock, like the bottom half of an egg shell, around the base of their stem. So don’t break the stem off when harvesting a mushroom; dig down in the leaf litter with a knife blade or a spoon so you can see what the base of the stem looks like.


One highly desirable mushroom which is widely found in northern California is the Golden Chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius). It usually pops up in the Fall, especially if there has been September rain. The most likely habitat is under oak trees. On the plus side, if you find one, there is probably thirty pounds in the same location. On the negative side, there may also be a ton of poison oak intertwined with the Chanterelles. Wear gloves; pick carefully. Or look for Chanterelles in your gourmet grocery. They’re often good size, bright orange, and trumpet shaped. Slice into bite-sized pieces, then sauté them in butter, with a little olive oil to keep the butter from burning. Then serve a large portion with a little parsley and a little Gruyere cheese inside an omelet. Chardonnay is your wine choice, and not just for alliterative reasons. Choose a malo-lactic driven, lees-aged Chardonnay with lots of new French oak. Rombauer comes to mind as a mid-price-range brand which is almost a cliché for this style of wine. Alternatively, an eight-year-old, premier cru Meursault should be wonderful as well, if you just happen to have one lying around. The Meursault will be more in line with the cost of the mushrooms (which are likely to set you back $25/lb in a store). So this event can be either a rustic evening supper after a vigorous day in the woods (wearing flannel shirts and suspenders), or it can be a very special brunch (sharing a pair of silk pajamas) with no particular plans for the rest of the day.


Another delicious fungi found commonly in the wild is the Oyster mushroom. Unlike my other mushroom suggestions, Oyster mushrooms have proven reasonably easy to cultivate. So, if you develop a strong craving, you might want to look into a kit which will allow you to inoculate logs in your own backyard. Two species in the genus Pleurota are most widely recognized among culinary fans of the Oyster mushroom: P. ostreatus in North America; and P. eryngii in Europe. Both grow on hardwood logs. P. eryngii, which is called King Oyster in Spain, has an obvious stem with a smallish cap. P. ostreatus looks more like a cluster of white, overlapping shelves, i.e. all cap and virtually no stem. They both have an earthy, steak Tartar kind of flavor. They work well sliced into strips, then fried with onions, sweet peppers, and strips of beef skirt steak to serve in soft tacos as fajitas. I’d serve those with a fairly robust Syrah, although in that technique the mushrooms tend to take on whatever flavor may have been added as a sauce. More unusual is to slice the Oyster mushrooms into fairly large, long pieces; dredge the pieces in flour; submerge them in an egg beaten with a tablespoon of cream; then dredge them in bread crumbs (with a little salt added). Fry the breaded mushroom slices in a skillet with a half-inch of hot oil. Use Thousand Island salad dressing as one dipping sauce. For a second dipping sauce thin some marmalade with a little rice vinegar. Don’t dip too vigorously. Serve these fried mushrooms as an appetizer paired with an old-vine Spanish Garnacha. Borsao is a reliable brand, widely available, and they almost give it away ($6 to $8 retail).


In the opinion of many connoisseurs, the greatest Fall mushroom is the legendary Boletus edulis, known as porcini in Italy and as cepes in Eastern Europe. These aren’t common in California, but they can be found. Oregon, Washington, and Idaho are better prospects. Boletes look somewhat different than (say) a Portobello. Instead of having gills on the underside of their cap, they appear to be a form of pin-cushion. As the name implies, the Edulis species is particularly fine. The smell alone is how most Eastern Europeans recognize it. And the smell is abundantly retained even when the mushrooms are sliced and dehydrated. So buying dried porcini to reconstitute in red wine and to use throughout the year makes very good sense. They are wonderful added to stews or anything done in a crock pot. I believe B. edulis also makes the very best mushroom soup. It has a hearty, rich flavor, and a smell which is just intimately human enough to be at once exciting and mildly discomfiting. You know you want to do it again, but it’s not the sort of sensation about which you would tell your mother. The wine of choice is, of course, Pinot Noir. And not one of those clean, fruity California examples either. You want a wine with a past. Red Burgundy. Something from the commune of Vosne. Something with enough pedigree that people care whether or not it’s been foolin’ around.

Truffles may not qualify for this post, in the sense you’re not going to find one while strolling through your local park. Professional truffle hunters in Piemonte use trained dogs and/or pigs to locate the fungus underneath the ground. Dogs won’t eat the truffles, but pigs certainly will. And I’m guessing it’s no walk in the park to move a 250 lb. pig off a 3 oz. truffle once she’s uncovered it. Truffles are all about smell. A small bit goes a long way. So find a 250 ml bottle of truffled oil to use on pasta. Just the plain pasta. I’d say freshly made fettuccine, with a little butter, no more than half a teaspoon of truffle oil, and some good Parmesan or aged Asiago cheese. Italians would go with a Barbera for the wine (Barbera d’Alba or d’Asti), but my personal choice would be Tempranillo from Rioja in Spain with a little age on it. Something like the Marquis de Riscal Riserva from about 2005.


You may have noticed we have yet to stray very far into that bastion of American mushroom usage ~ the grilled, steakhouse, New York strip or filet mignon (a Porterhouse if served together still on the bone for you big eaters). That’s because steakhouses routinely employ the tasteless, easy to cultivate, meadow mushroom commonly found in Safeway or on your front lawn (technically Agaricus compestris). Browned in a skillet, along with soy sauce and garlic, those can be fairly tasty on top of a grilled piece of quality beef loin. So would a piece of Wonderbread. What you really want with a great steak is the magnificent, priapic, Spring mushroom, the Morel. All the species in the genus Morchella are delicious and are safe to eat. They tend to be found in cold climates as the snow melts. Michigan and Minnesota are prime areas. Instead of an umbrella shape, Morels have more of a Xmas tree shaped cap, with convoluted ridges. The stem is hollow, and the bottom edge of the cap attaches to the stem. This is important. The cap of False Morels doesn’t attach to the stem, and several False Morels can make you sick. You also want to slice Morels in half to make sure there are no bugs taking refuge in the hollow stem. Brown your Morels in a sauté pan, then put them on your steak. Cabernet if you must, cowboy, but the best wine choice will be a Meritage blend heavy on Merlot. Morels have a deep, singed flesh, slightly gamey flavor. The smell is not as obvious as that from truffles or from cepes. Six or seven years of age on the Meritage blend will be valuable because you want to emphasize bottle bouquet, not fruity aroma.

Wild mushrooms are a quintessential ‘savory’ experience. As such they are naturals with fermented foods like cheese, soy sauce, and wine. Take your umami tastebuds for a walk on the wild side this holiday season.

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Unquenchable by Natalie MacLean

Natalie MacLean is a wine writer living in Ottawa, the political capital of Canada. MacLean is her maiden name. Her mother’s maiden surname was MacDonald. Natalie grew up in Nova Scotia, and participated very successfully in Scottish Dance competitions internationally. Having had a grandmother myself who actually immigrated from Scotland, I find the notion of reconciling a Scots heritage with the sybaritic aspects of wine writing rather a fascination.

Broadly understood is the Calvinist image of an industrious, penurious Scot. And it is certainly true that if I had ever taken pleasure in something expensive as a child, my grandmother would have whipped it out of me. Those Calvinists were Presbyterians who supported the Hanoverian (Protestant, William of Orange) succession to the British throne which was codified by the Act of Settlement in 1701. Less understood is these Protestant alliances between Scots and the British were not the only game in town. Not in Scotland; nor in Canada. In the middle of the 1500’s Mary, Queen of Scots, had been married to Francois, Dauphin of France, and a Catholic. French sensibilities, including culinary traditions from the era of Louis XIV in the 1600’s, were well appreciated by certain segments of the population in Scotland. During the crucial 1700’s Scotland’s Bonnie Prince Charlie (Charles Edward Stuart) was both a Catholic and an active campaigner for the British throne. He inspired the Jacobite Movement in Scotland (eventually crushed by the British at the Battle of Cullodon, 1745). Today the wildlife, and extensive shoreline, of Scotland combine with long-practiced French cooking skills to create an extraordinary (if not widely recognized) cuisine.

Jump now to Acadia, the Maritime Provinces of Canada at the beginning of the 1700’s. Originally settled by French Catholics, Acadia was occupied by British troops in 1710, and Nova Scotia was established in 1713. Subsequently 12,000 French settlers were expelled (between 1755 and 1763). Many of them became the ancestors of today’s Cajuns in Louisiana. No one ever accused New Orleans Cajuns of lacking for culinary tradition. Nova Scotia isn’t exactly world-renown for fine wines today, but they do have a grape growers’ association and 13 wineries; up from 4 wineries in 2000.

Which brings us full-circle to a highland dancer from Nova Scotia who was named Drinks Writer of the Year in 2003 at the World Food Media Awards. It is my speculation that ascetic Scottish followers of John Calvin, rubbing shoulders over 400 years with neighbors who embraced a much more sensuous French culture (cf: the Quebecois), developed a rather intense love/hate relationship with luxuries such as wines. We like them a lot; we just like somebody else to pay for them. It may be akin to Catholics finding sex so much more exciting because of guilt imposed by the church.

Natalie MacLean has parlayed this little Scottish personality ambiguity into a rapidly ascendant career. I’m a fan. I first noticed a piece she’d written several years ago on rosé wines. Her theme was how studly those wines could be. If I hadn’t seen her name on the masthead, I would have assumed it was written by a longshoreman philosopher (think Erik Hoffer or Charles Bukowski). I believe I may have I sent her a mash note. She writes prolifically about wines from all over the world, yet always pulls back to recommend modestly priced examples which she pointedly claims to be drinking, and enjoying, herself at home with her husband. She never portrays getting a little buzz on as anything other than a really good thing. She is famous in Canada for her decidedly unpretentious style, which is not the same as using simple, lazy prose (in the manner of John Madden’s commentary on football). The woman studied Nineteenth Century English Literature at Oxford. She was a Finalist for a Rhodes scholarship. She’s plenty bright. She just doesn’t feel the need to strike authoritative poses. At the end of the day, her talent is to be a storyteller, a woman of the people. There are many wooden apparatchiks blogging today who think writing about wine will somehow add texture and color to their personalities. They tend to produce databases in narrative form. By contrast Natalie MacLean has an ear for interesting elements in a story, and she’s smart enough to present them in clear declarative sentences. It’s the way she arranges them that’s unusual and noteworthy.


XMAS GIFT RECOMMENDATION ~ Natalie’s latest book came out this Fall: Unquenchable. Find it on Amazon. Hardcover $16.00.

Unquenchable is a concept book; at once very efficient for the writer and for the reader. It covers a lot of ground (eight disparate wine producing regions around the world), but does so by telling stories about highlights ~ much as one might do at dinner with friends after returning from a trip abroad. Natalie says technical detail about wine production bores her. She only provides enough to act as background on why certain wines are special. Instead she concentrates on people. She picks a handful of well-known, respected wineries, then sets out to provide a window on the subject region by describing the people she meets while visiting. In an era when consumers are submerged in irrelevant wine data assembled by amateurs, it’s quite enjoyable to read wine stories where a professional author has chosen to throw out mountains of chaff in order to reveal the most entertaining grains of wheat.

This is a book for the mass-market. You don’t need an advanced wine credential, nor a lot of tasting experience, in order to enjoy it. There are chapters on major players: Australia, Germany, France’s Provence, and Portugal’s Duoro Port region. But there are also evocative chapters on less well-recognized producing regions: Sicily, Argentina’s Mendoza destrict, South Africa’s Western Cape, and Natalie’s local Niagara Peninsula. It’s a cornucopia of styles and stories, sculpted by a large number of adroit editorial choices.

You’ll like it. I did. Your boss and your uncle will too.

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New Approaches to an American Classic: Thanksgiving and Wine

Every newspaper in America runs a column on Thanksgiving wine. Understandable. It’s generally a meal with six to ten guests for which people plan at least a week in advance. Moreover it’s largely the same meal in 50 million American homes and restaurants. Pinot Noir, Gewürztraminer, Beaujolais Nouveau, White Zinfandel ~ all the usual suspects get trotted out for one more turn in the spotlight. I mean really… How hard can it be? We are talking about turkey. Not the most challenging match on the planet.


I’ve probably written 30 of those columns. So you’ll forgive me if I choose here to go in a somewhat different direction.


1.    Serve a seasonal crab hors d’oeurve. One of the unique highlights of any culinary year in San Francisco is opening of local Dungeness crab season. It occurs in mid-November, usually after some period of financial wrangling between the fishermen and the distributors; thus very close to Thanksgiving. There is no local season during the summer, although frozen crabs still arrive at high prices from Alaska. So Thanksgiving is the first chance in six months to get live crab for about one-third the summer price. Live crab, incidentally, makes a huge difference. Frozen crab meat is mushy. If strands of Dungeness crab muscle get caught in your teeth, such that you need a toothpick after the meal, you know the crab was fresh. Nothing could be more logical in Northern California than to make fresh, live crab part of your family’s traditional Thanksgiving appetizer.

Explore supermarkets in the Asian district of large towns. They will have live Dungeness crabs in aquaria. You can steam the crabs, just as you might a lobster. Then you clean them, and serve chilled at your convenience. I find it easiest for guests to eat if I cut a zipper up each leg with poultry shears. The legs can then be set out by themselves (or with a little melted butter) for guests to sample as they arrive. I take the meat out of the bodies myself. I stir that meat with a small amount of mayonnaise and lemon juice. I spread that mixture on finger-food-sized wedges of sourdough, and heat them under the broiler in the oven.

The perfect wine match with these Thanksgiving crab appetizers is an aged, cold-climate Riesling. An eight- to fifteen-year-old Kabinett or Spätlese from the Mosel Valley in Germany would be my first choice. That might take a little shopping. Query Corti Bros in Sacramento or K&L in San Francisco if you get hung up. Certain California producers have good candidate Rieslings, but you’ll probably have to lay a few bottles away yourself to end up with the aged examples I recommend. Try Madroña in El Dorado County or Greenwood Ridge in Mendocino’s Anderson Valley. What we’re looking for is taut acid balancing a couple percent residual sugar. The acid is refreshing, and the sugar reaches out to the perceived sweetness of the crab. The age factor confers a slight dried fruit character to the aroma of the Riesling. It’s somewhere between apricot and nectarine, but faintly nutty; a good match with the melted butter or the heated bread.


2.     Small adjustment to make a luscious Chardonnay work well. If you do jewel yams (the dark orange ones) with your turkey meal, I suggest serving them on a grilled slice of pineapple. That single maneuver will make them sing with a modestly priced Chardonnay from California’s Central Coast. This is such a good combination that even canned pineapple works, but fresh is better. If grilling on a BBQ seems a bother, just sauté the pineapple with a little butter in a skillet. When you plate the dish, put a generous serving-spoon-load of yams on top of each pineapple slice. Find a Chardonnay from Monterey or from Santa Barbara in the $20 to $25 range. Don’t serve it too cold. What you’re looking for is that rich regional fruitiness. Twenty minutes in the door of the refrigerator will be more than enough chill.


3.   Dessert can be very special. Pecan pie with an Australian Liqueur Muscat is a match made in heaven. That doesn’t mean pumpkin pie is disqualified. People will still eat a big piece of pumpkin pie. But 2 oz. of Liqueur Muscat with a square inch or two of pecan pie will be the jewel in your dessert crown. A single half-bottle of Liqueur Muscat is all you will need. Look for brands like Bullers, Chambers, Campbell’s, or even Yalumba. Half-bottle should cost around $15 to $18.

The wine is made in the hot Rutherglen region of northern Victoria, along the Murray River. Muscat de Frontignan grapes get fully ripe, then are slightly fortified in the manner of Port. The wine is aged for many years in wood casks kept in hot warehouses. Water evaporates, concentrating the wine to a caramel or toffee flavor with just a hint of Muscat’s floral fragrance. A tiny amount of treacle-like old wine will have a distinct effect on the nose even when blended with a large quantity of young wine. The result is sweet, but with complexity so intense that residual sugar shrinks into the background. A small serving lasts a long time in one’s glass. And pour it into big glasses, or even into snifters. It really is all about the smell.


4.   What are you serving for the rest of the Weekend? Turkey sandwiches can be dramatically invigorated with a little Hoisin sauce. This dark brown paste (Asian food section of any chain supermarket) is made from fermented beans. It has a very high umami taste component, which is a glutamate reaction. That makes your sandwich much more flavorful and savory ~ perfect to match up with a hearty, although not overly alcoholic, red wine. I’m going to suggest a moderately aged Barbaresco. Melt a couple pieces of Gruyere cheese on a slice of light rye bread. Put a little mayo and Hoisin on another slice of light rye. Maybe a little sweet onion, like Walla Walla or Vidalia. Turkey between the two dressed pieces of bread, lettuce as desired, and away you go.


It’s not that you sneer at tradition. You are merely open-minded.

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Bottle Shock: The Movie

I’ve had several people ask me at parties recently what I think of the movie Bottle Shock, which came out in 2008. It didn’t play widely in theaters. Only did $4.5 million in gross receipts, which is about 4% of what Sideways did (and only about a quarter of what it even cost to make Sideways). Most of these party questioners are just making small talk once they learn I have a connection to the wine industry. In all likelihood they brought Bottle Shock home on DVD, just as I did.

It’s an interesting comparison though. Sideways was not about the wine industry; it merely used a consumer’s interest in California wine as a setting to tell an interpersonal story. A rather depressing story, if you ask me. The color and attractiveness of the Paul Giamatti character in Sideways was his passion for quality Pinot Noir. But that feature was not central to the story. He could have as easily been addicted to gambling, or sailboat racing, or motorcycles and socialist politics for that matter.

Bottle Shock is a completely different animal. It’s the Rocky cliché (underdog fights hard against adversity; triumphs in the end) applied, quite broadly and inaccurately, to the California wine industry of the 1970’s. As a piece of writing it’s all schmaltz, albeit here hiding behind an excruciatingly thin veneer of historic truth. I liked it. Let’s set aside, for the moment, the ocean of scientific and factual material which has been thoroughly fictionalized by Bottle Shock. I may take some personal satisfaction in pointing out these discrepancies, but so what? Truth is messy. It slows down and dilutes the story line. Other than the claim by Bottle Shock to be “based” on the 1976 Spurrier Tasting in Paris, why do we need that connection? As a documentary, Bottle Shock is ludicrous. Why they even try to make the claim is clearly the ignorant delusion of some marketing wonk amongst the investor corps.

The thing that makes Bottle Shock worthwhile is the scenery, the musical score, the lush cinematography, the outfits on the foxy babes appended to the script with only the slightest pretense of justification. It’s Hollywood baby! It’s the same genius that made melodramas set in late 1800’s western cowboy towns a stable of American entertainment for generations. I know. I grew up on that stuff. And here is the same formula applied to a largely imaginary, but very romantic, view of the wine industry. It’s even replete with sentimental passages about the land infusing the blood of the vintners and living on in each bottle of wine. Hokum? Sure, but so are most notions of American Exceptionalism, religious salvation, and military honor. I’m not inclined to tilt at any of these windmills! They’re all so deeply ingrained in me that good stories on those subjects frequently elicit a teary-eyed emotional response. That’s art, almost by definition.

Sideways had a major impact on the wine industry, especially for Pinot Noir. Decanter magazine reports Pinot Noir sales rose 16% in the first three months after Sideways came out in 2004. The magazine went on to say the sale of Riedel’s expensive Burgundy stemware rose 46% in the year after Sideways was released. But Sideways did $110 million box office gross. Sideways got a 97% favorable rating from 218 commentators on the website Rotten Tomatoes. Bottle Shock was originally released at the Sundance Film Festival, but never got much traction in the marketplace. It got a 48% favorable rating from 210 commentators on Rotten Tomatoes. I’m guessing it didn’t help when Steven Spurrier, perhaps the primary player in the actual events depicted by Bottle Shock, said of the movie, “There’s not a word of truth in the script, in my opinion.” Of course, at the time, he was involved in a competitive movie project.

With that note, shall we try just a few selected, catty remarks on factual distortions to be found in Bottle Shock?

  1. Most easily excused, of course, were short-shorts versions of overalls worn by Rachael Taylor’s character to perform vineyard and winery work, especially hosing down anything. Rachael is a healthy, lithe, young woman. That the costume department had clearly spent more time observing runway models in Milan than vineyard workers in Tuscany is of no consequence.
  2. Confusing the Barrett Family’s vehicles in Calistoga for Steinbeck’s Joad Family vehicles during the Great Depression… ? Well, it is a story about overcoming obstacles.
  3. Filming in September, when all the vines are fully leafed out and have ripe fruit on them, even though the Spurrier Tasting in Paris, which is the time period of the story, occurred in May (it was done in preparation for the U.S. Bi-centennial, which would have been 4 July 1976)… ? Completely understandable.
  4. Maybe a little more controversial would be filming so many of the landscape shots in Sonoma County, while giving all the credit for wine quality to Napa Valley. As my friends in Sonoma never let me forget, “Sonoma makes wine. Napa makes auto parts.”
  5. ‘Temporary’ brown color for a young Chardonnay in the bottle… ?  I’m sorry, that’s just lack of imagination on the part of writer / director Randall Miller. Spend a couple hundred dollars on a wine consultant for Christ sake! Chardonnay subjected to skin soak, without the benefit of SO2, will turn brownish (pulp particles oxidizing, just as a cut apple does) for a week or two after fermentation. But those brown particles drop out. Chardonnay is not going to brown in the bottle while remaining tastey, then magically correct itself a few days later. I’m surprised UC Davis didn’t sue them for that little bobble.
  6. The biggest injustice was, however, not creating a character to play the part of Mike Grgich, Chateau Montelena’s actual winemaker during the period portrayed. Credit aside, Grgich is and was a magnificently complex individual. Croatian by birth, he eschewed many scientific instruments to make the wine (’73 Chardonnay) which is the centerpiece of the film. Instead of a pH meter, he relied on his own finely tuned palate. And he had a roguish personality: I’ve never heard so many sexual double-entendres strung together than when Mike Grgich described one of his own wines.

But why quibble? It’s said enjoying fiction requires the “willing ability to suspend disbelief” (Samuel Taylor Coleridge). As a reader, I’m usually not very good at that. In the case of Bottle Shock, for a little less than two hours, it was no problem for me at all.

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