War Time Armagnac

Although the wine cellar is always the first reason to take a trip to Bern’s Steak house, the upstairs dessert room makes a strong argument for the second reason.  In addition to the private dessert cabins and tasty sweets, the cellar features a selection of spirits unlike any others.  When I’m not driving home, I choose to drink dessert because—just like with the wine cellar—there are simply choices here that we can’t find elsewhere.  And while I love Cognac, I love Armagnac even more.  I find it richer and less cloying, deeper and more complex.

Seamus and I decided to try two different vintages just a few years apart (1941 and 1944) from the same producer (La Grindiniere).  We were somewhat surprised with how different they were.

Armagnac War Years

The nose of the 1941 was darker and moodier, almost reminiscent of a kirsch.  The alcohol showed through it a touch more.  The 1944 had more honeyed and herbal notes, with the fruit being rounder in contrast with the sharper notes from the 1941.  We smelled them for about 10 minutes before taking first sips.  While our preference on the nose was the ’44, the ’41 was better on the palate.  In an unusual twist, the taste of the ’41 was what we would have expected from the ’44.  The fruit and alcohol were well-integrated, and the sweet notes shone through.  The ’41 was simply headier and required a bit more thought than the ’44.  Both were delicious and well worth the price.  I would certainly revisit either again, although I suspect my choice next time will involve another one I haven’t tried from Bern’s remarkable list.

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The Bern’s California Walk

Bern’s Steak House is not just a local Tampa institution, but a national one.  Although it’s one of the finest steak houses in the country, the primary reason to go is exploring the world’s largest operating wine cellar.

While there are certainly trophy bottles to be had, the best way to explore Bern’s cellar is to find the kinds of bottles which are simply unavailable elsewhere.  When our friend Seamus, a fellow wine nerd, came to town, we had a mission:  to repeat what we’ve termed the California Walk, in which we find great wines from the 1970s at reasonable prices.

After a brief consultation with one of the somms, Seamus picked and went with a choice from his year wine, the 1978 Chateau Souverain.

1978 Souverain

The bottle held up remarkably.  The cork was relatively clean and expanded a fair bit after it came out.  The nose wasn’t as expressive as we had hoped.  A little dusty dark fruit, leather, and hints of tobacco notes came off, but needed to be pulled out.  The palate, on the other hand, showed extremely well.  The first sip was a bit austere, but the bottle then developed quite nicely.  It showed well more fruit than we expected from a nearly 40 year old wine, and the fruit stayed through the life of the bottle, which took us about an hour to consume from beginning to end.  The mouthfeel continued to get richer as the bottle developed.  Towards the end of the bottle, the fruit and acidity integration was remarkable—Seamus pointed out that it reminded him of the 2000 Lynch-Bages we had the night before.  All in all, it exceeded expectations.  It was certainly a fitting accompaniment to our dry-aged beef and marked another successful California Walk.

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Espresso Martinis and Expiration Dates

A few weeks ago I came across an article somewhere (which actually turned out to be more of an ad for a particular type of vodka than an actual article) talking about making the perfect espresso martini.  Let’s set aside for a second that just because you put something into a martini glass doesn’t make it a martini.  The term has worked itself deeply enough into our cultural lexicon that the argument isn’t really worth having.

The person, who claimed to be an experienced mixologist, said that they had been on a long-term mission to make the perfect espresso martini.  Of course, since we’re dealing with a subject which involves taste, there is no objectively perfect espresso martini.  Still, I was interested in what they had to say. I love good coffee and I’m a fan of booze, so mixing the two together is a natural fit.

The ad/article writer claimed that in all their vast experience, they found simpler to be better.  I figured I’d give it a try:

2oz. vodka

1oz. fresh espresso

¾ oz. simple syrup

Shake over ice and strain.  Garnish with coffee beans

Coffee Martini

Making an espresso taught me how much volume is in my single shot espresso cups.  If you had previously asked me, I would have said “one shot.”  Now I know that it’s two ounces (pretty convenient for making doubles of this particular cocktail).

The upside of the drink is that it’s clean and not too sweet.  Most espresso martinis in my experience have been cloyingly syrupy, so this was an improvement.  All in all, it was good—but it didn’t have a wow factor to it.  I doubt I’d serve it alone as just a cocktail, but there are some chocolate pairings it might go with, especially for folks who want something with a dessert course but aren’t interested in a hot beverage.  Not every work of art has to be a masterpiece, though.  This one was pretty much the picture over the sofa.  So I started to tinker with it.

The one part I felt it missed was cream, even though you can see a nice crema from the espresso.  I cracked open a new bottle of Bailey’s and straight up substituted it for the simple syrup.  I then added just a bit—like maybe ¼ oz. of Kahlua to add a bit more richness.  I shook it, strained it, and tasted it.

This is when I came face to face with the fact that Bailey’s has an expiration date.

I’ll offer you a paraphrased quote from the wonderful British TV show Blackadder.  “It was as if a dung beetle had lost interest in its career and really let itself go.”   I drank some bourbon to get the nasty taste out of my mouth.  Of course, I wondered how a “new” bottle could have been so bad.  Here’s the kicker: the expiration date was 2009.  We don’t use Bailey’s much, but over the years folks have given us enough bottles that we have one when we want some.  The 2009 date tells me that someone brought it as a gift sometime shortly after we moved to Florida in 2006 and since it was unopened, it made the trek to our new house in early 2016.

While the adventure thankfully didn’t put me off the coffee that I drink daily, I haven’t gone back to the espresso martini well yet. It’s still as fresh in my mind as that bad tequila experience.  Yeah, that one.  The one we’ve all had and sworn we’d never repeat.  But that’s a story for another day.

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Habanero-Infused Basil Watermelon Smash

Habanero plant

Habanero plant, probably in need of a trim

The picture above is the second crop from our habanero plant. I’ve done a fair amount of cooking with them, but I needed more to do, so cocktails seemed natural.  There’s probably also some habanero jelly in my future.  When I made the salsa, I roasted a few additional peppers and then infused them into some white rum.  A week later, the stuff was on fire.  I made one drink and realized that I had either let it sit too long with the peppers in the rum or used too many.  I went back to the drawing board, diluted the mixture a little bit, and then made a few more cocktails.  Here was my favorite result:

Ingredients

1 oz. habanero-infused rum

2 oz. white rum

2 fresh basil leaves

1 small wedge watermelon (about 2 oz)

½ teaspoon coarse sugar

Crushed ice

Splash of club soda

 

To make the rocks version, I muddled basil and watermelon piece (rind removed) in a mojito cup with just a few chips of crushed ice and the sugar.  The watermelon will provide a fair amount of juice, reducing the amount of soda water that you’ll need to fill the drink.  I then added more crushed ice, poured in all the rum, topped with a splash of soda water, and gave it a good stir with a cocktail spoon.  I finished it with a garnish of the little flowery top of the basil branch.

For the straight up version, I muddled all the same ingredients in a cocktail shaker, then added cubed ice instead of crushed.  After adding a splash of soda, I gave it a good shake (50 times is my general rule on getting the drink cold enough without watering it down) and strained it into a martini glass.  Although the picture below doesn’t show it, I garnished the rim with a thin wedge of watermelon. A tiny cube of it in the bottom and perhaps the same garnish as the rocks version, floated on the top, would have also been acceptable.

Obviously, a classic smash isn’t an up drink, but up is my preferred way to enjoy cocktails.  Ice simply waters them down, so even something as simple as vodka and cranberry gets the straight up treatment.

The drink is a study in delicious contrasts.  The heat of the habanero set off the sweetness of the watermelon perfectly, while the aromatics of the basil—with a distinct cinnamon note to it—tempered the heat.  All in all, I was extremely happy with it.  You have to have a little heat tolerance, but habanero is really all about flavor, not burn.  The fruitiness of it makes a fine complement to the watermelon.

I tried the same basic cocktail, substituting grilled pineapple and mint.  It didn’t turn out as well as the basil-watermelon version.  It might have simply been a case that the particular watermelon I had was better than the particular pineapple, but even nicely grilled and caramelized, the pineapple lacked the natural sweetness and expression of flavor that the watermelon had.  If I were to “fix” that version, I’d add some simple syrup in order to sweeten it up.

The watermelon version is a drink I’ll continue to make (meaning I’ll need a produce some more infused rum).  Now we’ll just need to figure out a food dish to go with it.

Watermelon Smash.jpg

Up and rocks versions

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Ghost Pepper Salsa 1-2-3

Ghost Pepper

The Ghost Pepper

Ingredients

1 Ghost Pepper

2 Habañero Pepper

3 Jalapeño Pepper

2 cloves garlic

28 oz diced tomatoes

½ cup onion

Salt and pepper to taste

Juice of 1 medium lime

(optional) cilantro

It’s amazing how one little pepper can pack so much punch, but that’s the case with the Ghost Pepper.  We have one Ghost and one Habañero plant out back. The Habañero is on its second crop of the summer, producing so many that I’m not sure what I’ll do with all of them.  Habañero jelly is probably in the future. The Ghost has just offered up its first few beauties, like the one you see above, so it was time to work with it.

Despite being extremely hot, this might be my favorite salsa ever.  The flavor blend of the three peppers gives the salsa a depth I haven’t previously experienced.

Salsa at its core is relatively simple to make.  Get your ingredients, roast the peppers, peel, then pulse everything together in a food processor, and you’re done.  So it is with my Ghost Pepper Salsa 1-2-3, so named for the number of each peppers.

I’ve found that roasting both the Habañero and Jalapeño gives the salsa a great flavor.  I roast them under a broiler (a hot grill also works), turning them until the skins blister.  Habañero skins aren’t as easy to peel off as jalapeño, so I simply leave them on.  I didn’t roast the Ghost this time because I wanted to see what it brought naturally.  When the plant yields another one, I’ll remake the salsa, this time roasting the Ghost as well.

WARNING! Use kitchen gloves to handle the habañero and jalapeño.  Remember to clean off the knife immediately as well to avoid any cross-contamination.

When I first made the salsa, I found the heat too forward. Adding the juice of the whole lime settled that down quite a bit, pushing it toward the back end, allowing you to get the full flavor experience before the heat comes in full force.  In the charts you see sometimes in restaurants, this one is the person with the two little Xs for eyes, so tread carefully.

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2017 Fall Allocations

Honestly, this post is more for my friends who might piggyback on our allocations than anyone else, but feel free to enjoy the write-ups (and if you live nearby and want to hop in, let me know).  It’s also a window into the kinds of decisions we have to make when the fall allocations come out.  We certainly can’t afford to pick up everything we’re allocated, so there are tough choices to be made.  We also have to consider that there are other allocations for the fall yet to arrive, from spectacular wineries like Kosta Browne and Quilceda Creek.

The two which have arrived are Martinelli and Bedrock, two of our absolute favorites.  We have more Martinelli in the cellar than any other winery.  Bedrock is so tasty and so affordable, it’s become our third-most popular in numbers of bottles.

The ratings listed on the Martinelli wines are either from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate or longtime Wine Spectator writer Antonio Galloni’s Vinous.  The Bedrock wines are probably too fresh to have any professional ratings done on them yet–but we don’t need anyone to tell us how amazing they are.

MARTINELLI

2014 Chardonnay Charles Ranch $58 WA 94+

Charles Ranch was only the 2nd vineyard to be planted in the “true“ Sonoma Coast in 1980.  This is a stunning example of Sonoma Coast Chardonnay, with a beautifully soft mouth-feel.  The 2014 vintage was especially small, so we do not have much to offer.

2014 Chardonnay Lolita Ranch $58 WA 94+

Lolita Ranch is a warmer vineyard site on a steep 55 degree steep on Martinelli Road.  Our Lolita Ranch Chardonnay exhibits tropical notes and is weightier on the palate than the other Chardonnays in this release.

2014 Chardonnay Martinelli Road $58 Vinous 96

The Martinelli Road Chardonnay vineyard, planted with dijon clone 95, is located on Lee and Carolyn Martinelli’s property beneath the famous Jackass Hill vineyard.  This is often a favorite Chardonnay, with its concentrated flavors and full mouth-feel.

2014 Syrah Hop Barn Hill $95 Vinous 95

This petite vineyard overlooks our Tasting Room in the Russian River Valley AVA and was our first Syrah vineyard planted, in 1996. Layers of bacon fat and savory flavors are bold and rich now, and will continue to deepen.

2014 Syrah Lolita Ranch $58 Vinous 93

Our Lolita Ranch Syrah from the Russian River AVA shows more fruit characteristics than savory ones; it has a robust structure with flavors of bright cherry and hints of clove spice.

2015 Pinot Noir Blue Slide Ridge $95 WA 95+

Beautiful wine from beautiful vines. The Blue Slide Ridge Pinot Noir shows its coastal influence with delicious blue fruits and a touch of hickory smoke.

2015 Pinot Noir Lolita Ranch $68 Vinous 94

The Lolita Ranch Pinot Noir is a fine example of an approachable, food friendly, classic Russian River Valley Pinot Noir.

2015 Pinot Noir Moonshine Ranch $68 Vinous 96

Our Moonshine Ranch Pinot Noir is rich and deep while still remaining balanced.  A delicious mix of savory notes intermixed with deep, fruit flavors.

2015 Zinfandel Jackass Hill +130 Vinous 97

Our Jackass Hill is a 135 year old vineyard that proudly sits on a 65 degree slope.  This site embodies the perfect balance of sun exposure, soil drainage, vine stress and Russian River Valley morning fog to gift us some of the most spectacular fruit flavors year after year.

2015 Zinfandel Lolita Ranch $58 WA 95

Our Lolita Ranch Zinfandel vineyard is located in the Russian River Valley AVA, on a steep 55 degree slope.  Antonio Galloni calls this wine “a flat out delicious Zinfandel”, and we can’t help but agree with him.

2015 Zinfandel Vellutini Ranch $58 Vinous 92

Our Vellutini Ranch Zinfandel vineyard comes from cuttings of our 135 year old Jackass Vineyards, and is planted nearly between these two vineyards.  This is our spiciest zinfandel of this release with juicy strawberry and apricot flavors.

BEDROCK

2016 Compagni Portis Heritage White, Sonoma Valley, $26

This is always one of my hands-down favorite wines we make each year.  The combination of field-blended Gewurtzraminer, Trousseau Gris, Riesling, and Roter Veltliner always morph slightly according to vintage conditions.  For instance, the 2015 showed off more of the Gewurtzraminer richness that comes in a warmer year.  The wine from the more moderate 2016 displays plenty of Gewurtz perfume but also some of the stoniness and leavening acidity from the other varieties.

2016 Judge Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc, Bennett Valley,  $28

In exceptional years we make a single vineyard Sauvignon Blanc from this vineyard in the cool Bennett Valley Gap. Done exclusively in a blend of older French oak, new cigare barrels and Stockinger barrels this is one of my favorite SB’s we have made.  Judge Vineyard, though not planted to the musque clone, always has head spinning perfume.  Red cassis, pink grapefruit and peppercorn jump out.  In a year like 2016, this is matched by surprising intensity and weight that sits atop all the nerve you would expect from a wine with a finished pH of under 3.3.

2016 Old Vine Zinfandel, California, $19

We take immense pride in the quality of this wine as we want it to reflect how good California’s beloved Zinfandel can be.  A quick glimpse at what goes into it tells most of the story.  In order of percentage, the wine comes from Bedrock Vineyard, Teldeschi Ranch, Sodini Ranch, Nervo Ranch, Katushas, Evangelho, Esola, Casa Santinamaria, and Story Vineyard.  It is about 88% Zinfandel blended with Petite Sirah, Carignan, Alicante Bouschet and many different interplanted varieties that maintain poise and add complexity and structure.  This has plenty of juiciness and should be delightful in the nearer term with a good decant; however, as many have discovered this wine will age gracefully and improve with time in bottle.

2016 Bedrock Vineyard Heritage Wine, Sonoma Valley, $39

This is the wine I started the winery to make.   From vines planted by Senator George Hearst in 1888, this is the geographic and viticultural center of everything else we do.  2016 is one of my favorite Bedrock Heritage wines to date, as I tend to prefer vintages that are less about immediate fruit intensity and ripeness and more in line with the old-school “California Claret” these vines were originally planted to make.  This wine is more in line with the 2013 than the 2008 or 2015.  The wine, a blend of the 27 varieties interplanted at our family’s vineyard is roughly 50% Zinfandel, 20% Carignan, 4% Mataro with the reminder being everything else found in the field.  The rocky site yielded a small amount of dense and balanced fruit and as always this wine features the savory, spice-infused character of Sonoma Valley.  This wine will last a long time and decanting is highly recommended if consuming in the next few years.  I have had a few of the more recent vintage wines that really show nicely after 12-24 hours of double-decanting—there is a lot of goodness coiled in this one.

2016 Monte Rosso Zinfandel, Sonoma Valley, $60

Our last vintage from this storied and beautiful vineyard, a fact that almost brings me to tears as I write this.  As heartbreaking as it is to have this fruit taken away from us, the good news is that the 2016 is a wine for the ages.  This reminds me most of my father’s 1993 version from this site—a wine that is still vibrant and hauntingly perfumed 25 years later.  Tight-knit and structured, this wine has the classic citrus and pit fruit tinctured perfume of the ranch backed by vibrant and dense fruit.  This one will need some time but has great promise.

2016 Evangelho Vineyard Heritage Wine, Contra Costa County, $30

I still cannot believe that we somehow own this unbelievable unicorn of a vineyard.  Perched on banks of deep sand on the windy edge of the Sacramento River Delta this vineyard of own-rooted, 120-year-old vines produces vibrant and personality-filled wines unlike anything else we make.  Though all the blocks are field-blends and co-fermented, I would estimate this wine is about 60% Zinfandel and 35% Mataro, with the remainder being Carignane, Palomino and a few other odds and ends.  This features racy and vibrant fruit that is pleasantly funkified but the presence of the savory Mataro.  Raised predominately in large foudre, this wine probably resembles a wine from the Southern Rhone as much as a “Zinfandel” from California.  As always, the incredibly suave tannins from the sandy soils at the ranch make for a high-tone and elegant red wine.

2016 Esola Vineyard Zinfandel, Amador County, $35

Since starting to work with this vineyard in 2014, the wines have continually redefined what I thought possible from Amador County.  Elegant and poised, the 2016 has the immense perfume this site can be capable of—the fermentations often smell like grapefruit and cherries—with the line and structure common to Amador County.  As in previous years, this is a blend of two different lots from the same block at the vineyard.  The first is pressed off at dryness and typically has fresher perfume but rawer tannic structure.  The second sees extended maceration on the skins for 20-30 days to help reconcile the structure, a process that makes for more refined structure and deeper fruit tone.  As in 2015, this is one of my favorites from the vintage.

2016 Dolinsek Ranch Heritage Wine, Russian River Valley, $39

A poster child of generously endowed, but still vibrant, Russian River Valley old vines.  These stunning little bonsai vines date to 1910 and cling to a steep, north-facing slope of Sandy Goldridge Loam off of Laguna Road.  A field-blend of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Alicante Bouschet, Barbera, Syrah, Black Muscat, Palomino, and even a single vine of Mourastel, this wine, as in most years, is ready to impress in its youth.  This is one to break into while you wait for Bedrock Heritage and Monte Rosso to come around.

2015 Sodini Ranch Zinfandel, Russian River Valley,  $37

Our first wine from this lovely vineyard since 2012—and boy has the vineyard changed.  We were approached by Steve Sodini who was at wit’s end after several difficult and money-losing harvests and was looking to find a solution for his 1905 planted vineyard.  As is the case with too many old vineyards, there were lots of missing vines and soils had been depleted after years of production. In certain blocks almost 55% of the vines were missing, which meant the 16-acre vineyard was putting out less than 1 ton per acre. With Steve’s blessing we took over the farming and started pouring TLC into the vineyard.  Compost was spread, hard-pan was spaded and cover crops were planted to start the process of soil rejuvenation.  Missing vines have been replanted to a massale selection of cleaned up Zinfandel clones from Bedrock Vineyard and are starting to bear fruit.  It has been a bit of a massive undertaking but the quality has steadily increased year after year and the vineyard is living up to the enormous potential of its Limerick Lane address.  Starting in 2015 we were able to select some of the best barrels for a vineyard designate (the remainder is a core of the Old Vine blend).  Sodini is almost a perfect hybrid between the weight and pepper of Dry Creek and the sexy blue fruit of Russian River Valley—indeed, the soil on the flat of the vineyard are classic RRV sandy clay loams, while the hillside is made of the red clay loam so common on the east bench of Dry Creek Valley.  This is satisfying stuff that will age nicely but can also be enjoyed on the sooner side with a generous decant.

2015 Griffin’s Lair Syrah, Sonoma Coast. $45

To say working with Griffin’s Lair since 2009 has been a privilege would be an understatement. Few younger vine vineyards have excited us every year like this wind-swept Petaluma Gap location. Our love and belief in the greatness of California Syrah is heavily owed over the last 8 years of making wine to this vineyard and tasting the great wines from others like Pax and Arnot Roberts. Coming from a co-fermentation of several clones of Syrah and a smidge of Viognier, grown in the ever-windy Petaluma Gap, this is one of the most consistently excellent wines we get to make every year.  To double down on the already explosive aromatics of violets, pepper and bacon, we included 50% whole-cluster at the fermenter.  The wine was then aged in a combination of large and small format barrels.  This is a classic Griffin’s and should age beautifully.  Decanting and hearty fare are always recommended here.

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The Burger

Anyone can take great meat and make a delicious burger (so long as they avoid overcooking it).  It takes a master to make a burger into something special.  Fortunately for me (and a bunch of other restaurant-goers in the Tampa area), I know such a master.  His name is Marty Blitz. Now, it just so happens that Marty is the chef proprietor at our long-time favorite place, Mise en Place, and I’ve written about it before, but this story isn’t about the restaurant, but about this single burger (and apologies right away that I didn’t get a picture).

It was just a simple thing, really. We were in the area in the middle of the week and decided to drop in for lunch. We hadn’t been to the restaurant for a month or so, and it had been more than a year since we had been in during the day.  And has happened every time I get complacent about the food there, something magical occurred.

One of the things which Marty has gotten himself into recently is making a poutine of the day, so that’s what I started with.  I did get a picture of that.

Duck Poutine

Duck Poutine with 2014 Soter Vineyards North Valley Pinot Noir

Pulled duck in a red wine thyme gravy over fingerling potatoes is okay by me any time.  I knew it was a little much to finish since the burger was coming, so I took about half of it home and had it for lunch the next day.  That’s fine living.

Back to the burger.  Here’s how it’s listed on the menu:

Pat Lafrieda Short Rib Burger​ – Pancetta, Basil Aioli, Provolone, Fig Balsamic Red Onion Ketchup, Arugula, Focaccia

There’s obviously quite a bit going on there.  When you think about it, the elements are just upgrades on classic toppings: pancetta for bacon; basil aioli for mayo; provolone, the best of the sandwich cheeses, spicy arugula for lettuce, focaccia for a normal bun, and what I found to be the piece which really set it all off–the fig balsamic red onion ketchup.  I’d actually call it more of a chutney, but now we’re just splitting hairs.

From taste through texture, it was simply transcendent.  Brisket burgers can sometimes be dry, but this one was perfectly juicy.  The pancetta complemented the headiness of the burger itself, the aioli and the provolone added the unctuousness which the leaner meat needed, and the ketchup’s dark sweetness sent the whole thing into overdrive.

I eat and enjoy a fair number of burgers. I expect most of them to fill a kind of comfort food role, but I don’t imagine that too many of them will be memorable.  This one will.  In the future, when someone asks me about the best burgers I’ve ever had, I’ll start into a story about how we just happened to be in South Tampa on a random Tuesday, and go from there.

 

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