Archive | November, 2011

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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