There’s a family tale told about me tasting wine at a young age. It was a Cabernet (I think) and when asked what I tasted I answered, “Plums.” Or some kind of stone fruit. I can’t remember it happening and it’s not a story that’s told often, actually. In any case, I was able to identify that flavor because I had eaten that fruit before. Growing up on a ranch meant experiencing all sorts of scents and flavors: wet leaves, boysenberries, stream water, ripe pears, unripe pears, etc. All of those sense memories are what I draw from when tasting wines. And for years that was just fine. But then I moved to New York and discovered a whole new world from which to draw from. If you look at a tasting wheel (they exist) you’ll find that one of the options is cat piss. Having grown up with cats all my life I certainly know what that’s like. But I can now also identify human piss. There’s also subway vomit, rotting trash (which differs in smell depending on the season), taxi cab interiors, burnt bodega coffee, street vomit, the R train, pigeons, hipsters on a Saturday morning. The list goes on. Which is why when I taste a wine like the Washington State Counnoise (it’s a Rhone varietal) I tried last night, I can identify both overripe blackberries from my life snacking on those that grew by the side of the dirt rode back home layered with touches of burnt rubber and bus interior. Stay tuned for the city-based tasting wheel that I am working on. It will revolutionize the urban wine world as we know it.
What can I say? Things have been busy over here on the icy east coast. It’s hard to keep up with photos, coherent ideas, etc. But it’s 2011. The new year. In fact as I write it is now midnight as we leap into the year of the rabbit. Seems like a good a time as any as to give this blog a fresh start. So let’s start. And…..GO!
The Super Bowl is coming up this weekend. Some teams are playing some game with an oblong ball and there may be some worthwhile commercials. But mostly there is an opportunity to make a meal out of my favorite group of foods: appetizers. Chicken wings, nachos, dips of many flavors and colors, essentially anything fried and bite-sized. Like many of you, I will be primarily drinking beer–but that’s not to say I won’t sneak in a bottle of Classic Vintage Brut for me and a couple other VIPs to partake of. (Apologies for the dangling ‘of.’ Oh shoot, there I go again.) Gasp you may, but for me sparkling goes best with salt and grease. Actually, scratch that. There’s little sparkling doesn’t go with—er, which with sparkling doesn’t go. You don’t even need to really like what you are eating in order to have a good meal when a tasty sparkling is involved. I am reminded of a recent dinner.
Myself and a buddy met to make dinner late one Sunday night. Gnocchi had been in the plans but after we had finished our respective leftover work (ok, he was working, I was rereading American Psycho) we were both too tired and too hungry to wait for potatoes to boil. So we went another way. Jambalaya! Down to the corner store we went (a bodega for those in the know; for you west coasters who haven’t come into contact with one, think of a gas station convenience store and add some produce). Rather than wait for chicken to cook (we were seriously hungry) we decided to go for sausage instead. So we bought sausage, rice, celery, garlic, oil, beer and an onion and shivered back to the apartment kitchen. After a half glass of Joy! Cuvee we were strong enough to start chopping and cooking. I chopped. He cooked up the sausage. Then, tragedy struck.
“Shoot!” I heard behind me. I wiped the onion-induced tears from my eyes and asked, “What?” fearing that I’d see a nasty burn or bloodied cut – but it was far worse than that. “It’s vegan!”
In our rush to eat we had bought vegan “sausage.”
“Try it,” I was urged. I did. If you can imagine what oats and undercooked grits seasoned by instant ramen flavoring would taste like then you would have an idea of what this sad excuse for “meat” was like. So we abandoned the “sausage.” That meant what once was Jambalaya was now essentially a mildly Cajun rice pilaf. We poured a couple more glasses of sparkling and sat down to dinner – on the floor since a kitchen table and chairs is still in the works at said apartment. We ate some rice. We poured more wine. He went for seconds of rice. I drank more wine. And you know what? It was one of the better meals I’d had in a while. Filling, warm and accompanied by a deliciously briochey sparkling wine. The perfect winter meal if you ask me.
And read about Iron Horse Vineyards in the New York Times. The story features gifts that “give back” and spotlights our Ocean Reserve.
(Actual blog entry on other holiday related wine thingies to follow)
People come up to me. In bars, in coffee shops, in the lobby of my apartment building (stop that, by the way, it’s getting creepy). And they ask me to comment about the breaking news in wine that day. Justine, they say, Justine! Comment on this wine news! The world wants – nay – needs to know what you think about this! Well, one of these questions deserves to be addressed digitally and publicly. It is the question of what I think about wine in self-serve tanks coming to supermarkets.
I think I like it. It harkens back to the days when people would get their beer in a bucket. I, of course, am gleaning that knowledge from the song “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It” by Hank Williams:
Well my bucket’s got a hole in it
Well my bucket’s got a hole in it
Well my bucket’s got a hole in it
I can’t buy no beer
God knows I love a good boozy throwback. But on the other hand, it’s incredibly inelegant. Check out this picture:
Tacky. And wine is an elegant thing. Wine producers put a lot of time and effort into their bottle and label designs in order to make the whole experience of buying and consuming a bottle of wine more pleasurable for you, the drinker. This design seems to be saying, Don’t gas pumps make you thirsty? Drink from this nozzle, buddy!
Perhaps if the wine tanks were more pleasingly designed with branding from the wineries whose wine is being pumped through said nozzle it might be a more acceptable aesthetic experience.
Another problem would be the possibility of wine-jackers. That is to say, people (I’m guessing college-aged dudes, probably of the caliber I chose to hang out with in my school days) who would pay for a fill-up and choose to fill up their bodies direct from the tanks, nozzle in mouth.
So, everyone who has been running up to me in the streets and showing up at my office (security has asked me to ask you to please stop), I think it’s an intriguing idea (and green, forgot to add that, definitely eco-friendly) and with some tweaking could be the way of the wine-future.
Not so long back I took a quick vacation home – back to California. While it would have been more convenient for me to go back in October I couldn’t wait. Why? Because it was the Sonoma County Fair!“Duh,” these cow are saying. “Who doesn’t know about the legendary Sonoma County Fair?” Most people, cows. Most people. And they don’t know what they’re missing. They’re missing signs like this:
Sorry to break it to you, but pocket knives are also classified as knives. And you have to leave them in your car. Obviously this was so much of a problem that it needed to be defined on a poster board.
But we weren’t there for cows or to test the definition of the word “knife.” We were there for one of these:
You see, every year Iron Horse Vineyards buys a pig from a child. And not for petting purposes (although I hear they are quite loyal and intelligent). We buy pigs for their delicious, delicious meat.
The auction starts with some good old American spirit.
I do love that the 4h uniform is entirely white and that being in the 4h involves you co-mingling with livestock. I was wearing a tan dress and came out of the bandstand at least three shades darker.
The auctioneer, readying his vocal pipes.
As you may be able to see, we bought the Grand Champion. That’s second, just behind the Supreme Grand Champion. All in all a great pig. And the kid is adorable. That’s how you know the pig is good.
But that’s not all there is to do at the fair:
I am not much of a betting lady (the occasional animated penny slots or lotto scratcher) but man, I love the ponies. But do I ever have crummy luck. I believe I bet on that lovely specimen coming in last place.
And now the long-awaited conclusion to my North Carolina extravaganza. We end in Charlotte. Where I ate here:
Obviously they’re not blowing money on signage. But sometimes simple works. Cooking the whole pig. That’s what a lady like myself likes to read about a restaurant. So I stepped into Mr. Bill Spoon’s for a little lunch. Where I started with an appetizer of hush puppies:
So cute, nestled in their little bed. Tasty and crispy. But they were soon overshadowed by the main course:
Chopped barbeque (PIG) with brunswick stew and slaw. YUM. Eaten like it should be – - in a car.
After lunch I had some time to kill so I watched the local wildlife.
On Segways. Four-wheel-drive segways no less.
Then it was time to return to the city. BUT FIRST! Bonjangles!!!!!
A ham, egg and cheese biscuit. Look at that ham. That’s good ham! Oh, The South….my waistline is so happy I don’t live in you.
But then, trouble hit. There was a delay. Where do we Sterlings go when times get rough?
To the airport bar!
Where I got an obscenely large beer and a shot of Jameson for an obscenely small amount of money. Don’t look at me like that – the bar didn’t have Iron Horse on the menu – what was a girl supposed to do?
And so ends the North Carolina excursion. Thanks to all I met along the way. See you in …oh jeez. September. Are you ready for some more pork, belly?
Next stop after Raleigh was Greensboro. I didn’t have too long there but I did have time enough to snap a picture of the bed of a truck. Why did I take a picture of a truck bed that wasn’t mine? Because this was in it:
A crossbow! I love North Carolina. But after a day of sales calls (a great day of sale calls. The big winner of the day? The still delicious 2002 Russian Cuvee) I couldn’t stick around to see much more of Greensboro. I had to make the drive to Charlotte. Where it looked like this:
I figured if the apocalypse was about to happen then I better get some vittles in me. You know, to have enough energy to fight off all the demons on skeletal horseback that would soon break free from the sky.
So I stopped by Price’s.
Ah, good old Price’s. I decided to forgo the fried livers this time and instead went for a different varietal of chicken offal. Gizzards:
Gizzards are usually not something of which you want a whole dish. They are known to be chewy, sometimes gritty. But these were tender and crisp and had just the slightest tinge of offal.
I also got a side of creamy potato salad:
And, of course, some pig. Chopped BBQ on a sandwich with slaw:
There’s something about this sandwich that always seems wrong. It lacks any sort of contrast in texture. It could easily be eaten without teeth. For the most part this is not traditionally a good thing to be said about food. But in this case it is. Because the flavor is all that matters.
After dinner (during which the heavens did in fact open and let loose a storm of fury, eventually giving way to a pleasant evening) I took a little walk around downtown Charlotte where I saw some of the local wild life.
Mmmmm goose. Where’s that crossbow when you need it?
A couple of weeks ago I went to North Carolina. This is one of those now yearly trips I look forward to because it’s about as close to leaving the country as I can get (same goes for Louisiana). Now, I realize that New York may be a bit more of the black sheep of the country than North Carolina but as far as my existence in the world goes, North Carolina might as well be Scotland. The people are entirely different from those I am used to (they’re nice to the point of rising suspicion within me), the landscape is entirely different (remember those star thingies? I didn’t) and the food….oh yes, the food. Well, actually my first couple of food-related experiences were not so regionally distinct, though they were still good. My first meal was from Trader Joe’s. It consisted of cheese (a manchego-esque cheese), tabbouleh, smoked salmon and bread. Pretty regionally unspecific.
The next day I started my North Carolina work with experience. A “work with,” if the name isn’t clear, is when you (the wine maker/wine ambassador/child who grew up drinking the wine (me) goes around with a representative from the distributor to restaurants, bars and stores in the area attempting to convince them of how gosh darn good your product is.
My first day we stopped in at The Irregardless Cafe where we were able to sample some wines.
Here are the sparklings:
The 05 Classic Vintage Brut, 06 Wedding Cuvee and the 02 (YES 02!) Russian Cuvee (still tasting great). We paired those with the appetizer plate of Middle Eastern spreads.
For my main (which we paired with the 06 Unoaked Chardonnay, 07 Estate Chardonnay and the 07 Estate Pinot Noir) I chose the polenta topped with portabello mushrooms and pesto (amazing with the Pinot Noir, especially).
But I really hadn’t come to North Carolina to eat healthy. I came for pig. And pig I got that night at The Pit, a bit more of a high class BBQ joint, but it turned out to be just as good as any other BBQ I’d had in the past, which admittedly isn’t much, if not better.
Check out the drawing on the mirror:
They’re not burying the lead here. It’s all about the pig.
I chose to get pulled pork with bacony grits and fried okra.
I know. It’s from a fancy place. With a bar. And reservations. And seating. But oh my. It was good. So good. The pork was tender and juicy with a speckling of crispy edges. The grits were amongst the most satisfying dishes I’ve ever ever had. The okra, admittedly, was lacking in crispiness but that also could have been because I insisted on eating in my hotel room (I like to eat BBQ unsupervised and there was already purchased beer there – - yes beer! Sometimes that’s ok!) so it could have suffered on the ride home.
A good start to the trip.
That lovely skyline you see above is that of the majestic Pittsburgh and was my view during the Pittsburgh leg of the Pennsylvania Wine Festival. I like Pittsburgh. It has lovely bridges.
For the entirety of the festival I was pouring the 07 Estate Chardonnay, 07 Unoaked Chardonnay, 05 Classic Vintage Brut and the 06 Wedding Cuvee. That’s right. No red! What a rebel, right?
I drove 7 hours to get to Pittsburgh. Started at 6am. So when this guy appeared, I had to make sure it wasn’t just me seeing him:
He’s spinning a plate. Sometimes he was juggling. There was also a woman on stilts with purple hair. Pittsburgh hands down won for in-tasting entertainment.
I didn’t have time to explore Pittsburgh, unfortunately. I had to hit the road in the morning to head to the next tasting in Hershey, city of chocolate. Now, I have to say, I was a little disappointed. Hershey Park, the tasting’s location, did not smell like chocolate. Nor were the streets paved with chocolate. In fact, there was no chocolate in sight.
There was food though.
When I graduated from college I never thought I’d eat cafeteria food again. I was wrong. The organizers of the Hershey tasting provided us vendors with food. Cafeteria food. My plate looked like this:
There’s something oddly comforting to me about overcooked beans and canned, mildly mushy, beef stew. While it’s not good in the traditional sense of culinary excellence…It was filling, free and cozy.
The tasting itself was slammed. The people of Hershey sure like their wine. Good people, Hershey people.
After the tasting I took a quick field trip to the local Giant supermarket to search for something I’ve been dreaming about for a long time: ring bologna. Ring bologna is a Pennsylvania Dutch treat named for the ring shape it usually takes. It was something my grandmother on my mother’s side used to feed me when we visited her. I think the last time I had it was when I was 7. Needless to say I may have built its greatness up in my head…so much so that I let out a yelp when I found the bologna in the deli aisle. Then I bought three.
Two traditional beef ring bolognas and one turkey bologna. No, it wasn’t the transcendent experience I thought it was going to be it was and is very good.
Back in the Hershey Lodge it was time for dinner. I got the Lodge’s special Caesar salad and paired it with the 07 Estate Chardonnay. It was a weird salad.
Iceberg lettuce – normal. Parmesan – normal. Croutons, dressing, shrimp – normal, normal, normal. Cranberries…well, ok. They appear in salads. Chocolate covered cashews……huh? You are not allowed to have a meal in Hershey unless it includes chocolate. I can’t say it was an ingredient I’ll be requesting in my salads in the future…but after 4 hours of driving and 8 hours of tasting I was happy to sit back and nosh on their odd idea of a salad. Especially with a large glass of Chardonnay.
The next day I headed to Philadelphia for the final tasting but I took a little detour along the way. I stopped off in Lancaster and dropped in on the Central Market.
Look, real Amish!
A whole stall dedicated to celery:
I loved this market. I was ready to move here. They sold things like this:
And look at all the meats!!
I got some Lebanon bologna for breakfast along with a famed pretzel twist:
Unfortunately I could not stay and set up camp in the market. To Philadelphia I had to go. Not a bad drive, either. Look, nature:
Before the tasting started I made sure I had time for my yearly cheese steak. This time I went for a broccoli rabe and provolone steak.
See why I can only have one of those a year?
The Philadelphia tasting was great as always. The Unoaked Chardonnay got some great attention as did the perennially popular Wedding Cuvee.
So thanks, Pennsylvania, for reminding me what trees look like, allowing me to take home some delicious luncheon meats, and drinking Iron Horse.
I know I’ve been a little slow with the posting but don’t worry – I’m off on a whirlwind tour of Pennsylvania next week (including a stop in majestic Hershey) so posts will be a-coming. And if you happen to know of any great little place to stop on the road in between Pittsburgh, Hershey and Philadelphia – let me know!
In the meantime, check out my new, weekly wine column at Eatmedaily.com.
Here are the first two: