Sunday, October 18, 2020

Margerum's Dawn of a Mute-Age

Sure, ÜBER-talented (get it?) winemaker Doug Margerum can get away with pointing without being rude. I mean, here's a man who can bake wine and not just get away with it, but sell it to you and make you like it. A few weeks ago Doug presented his latest vinous creation, Mute-Age, at a special series of rolling press tastings (to keep us all safe from COVID-cooties) on the veranda of the super swank Alcazar Suite at Hotel Californian, high above his usual Funk Zone Margerum Wine Company tasting room. He even made sure there were bites to be had, the luxurious chocolate creations of Mike Orlando's Twenty-four Blackbirds Chocolates. It's moments like that afternoon that Santa Barbara is built for--all that's delicious to eat and drink and then you get so much to drink in with your eyes, too. (Just look at the photo again, which doesn't do the glorious afternoon justice. And god, do I miss getting to go out.)

So, what the heck is Mute-Age, you may ask? If it sounds all French to you you're right; it's a play on mutage, which is a way of making sweet wine by, yep, baking it. Doug put some of his Grenache (which is delicious on its own, of course, so that certainly helps as a place to start) in 34 liter demi-johns--think very large tear-drop shaped bottles--and left it on the roof of his winery in Buellton. What he was doing is what the French do (minus the Buellton part, of course) to make Banyuls, their well-regarded dessert wine that comes from near the Spanish border. You see, baking the wine makes it inhospitable to its yeast, which then quit turning sugars into alcohol. More sugar = desserty goodness. In particular, it makes a great match for chocolate, which is actually a tough thing to do with most red wines, despite what years of crappy Valentine's Day pairing might have pretended. Tannins on tannins just means your tongue gets mugged.

But sweet wine, that's a different, happy story. Doug, who does quite a few wine dinners every year (in a normal year, of course), wanted to have something he could pair with a restaurant's chocolate creations, and since he loves tinkering with classic styles (see his Marc or his Amaro that we'll get to it a minute), creating a VDN or Vin Doux Natural was, uh, natural to him. (VDN just means the mutage happens after maceration of the grapes.) The good news is you don't need to know any of the process, which seems partially magically anyway--Doug admitted when they tried the juice a year into its aging on the roof it wasn't showing any Banyul characteristics--but at two years, voila! What you do need to know is it's delicious, rich and unctuous, still holding its now even deeper plum and pomegranate fruit, and a perfect match with Twenty-Four Blackbirds 75% Kokoa Kamili from Tanzania.

Knowing he had to give us more than one taste of something, and having not merely a chocolatier but a chocolate maker at his side, Doug also provided tastes of some of his Amaro. Based on this year's Tales of the Cocktail, amaro might finally have crossed the tipping point from a bartenders' favorite plaything to something more casual cocktail imbibers ask for. Of course, Doug's been making his for seven years based on when I first wrote about it, a delightful if indeed bitter (that's what amaro means after all) mix of fortified wine, aging, and more botanicals, barks, and roots than in a witch's treasured recipe. 

In the multi-varied world of amari (that is the plural), Margerum's sits pretty dead center; it matches well with a Lucano or Ramazzotti, say, if you know some of the more available Italian ones. For those not big bitter fans, it might curl the hairs of your tongue a tad (oh, you know what I mean), but it's nothing like some of the more astringent amari, and far from the medicinal getting-used-to that's Fernet-Branca. Turns out Margerum Amaro also has a great Twenty-Four Blackbirds pair: a 75% Palos Blancos from Bolivia. Wet your whistle with some Amaro, then slowly let a bite of Palos Blancos melt in your mouth and you suddenly are tasting the most delicious Raisinette ever, or so it will seem. I can only imagine the movie you should watch while having this culinary one-two punch (maybe something gorgeous and wistful like Wenders' Wings of Desire?).

And to pile on, Orlando is making an Amaro truffle you can buy at the Maregrum tasting room. You want those, too, the most adult of decadent delights.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Why Can't I Drink It? (TOTC 2020 Home Edition--Day 1)


Any long time readers of this blog know I'm a huge fan of Tales of the Cocktail, the annual celebration-cum-conference of all things drink that usually happens late July in New Orleans. (Go search all the posts from our past visits in 2016 and 2012--which means, damn, we were due to go this year too.) Of course nothing is usual this year, but TOTC refuses to give in, even if people can't travel, or sit in rooms together for seminars, or crowd into bars. So it's happening now, online, and it's free for all! You still have time to "attend" the last three days if you want.

So, today I "participated" (this is going to be the land of air quotes, zipping about like the hummingbirds fighting above our nectar feeder) in five events and it's not even 5 pm yet my time and I'm writing this drinking one of those two Vespers you see at the top of the entry in honor of the last event I watched, "The Man Behind James Bond: Ian Fleming presented by Ford's Gin."

In a usual TOTC write up, I'd go on and on about New Orleans, which, to be honest, is a daily tales of the cocktail all by itself, of course, and talk a lot about great meals, large and small, and much sipping of many things. When I've told people I'm going to a cocktail conference, they always assume I spend my days one o-sized mouth shy of being blott-o, but it's rarely that, as there's just so much you sip and taste and dump and skip. And eat. And in New Orleans in July, walk and sweat. 

But to do five TOTC events and have no liquor.... Well, that was weird. But as I watched a very informative Amaro session this morning, I didn't go to my liquor cabinet and pour a shot. I mean, who drinks Amaro pre-noon? If your lunch needs a digestif, you're going to end up like Mr. Creosote. So while this Tales is plenty informative, it seems like a sensory cheat, especially since you don't get to hit brands doing their thing in the lobby of the Monteleone for quick tastes of things between sessions.

Many of the sessions are also pre-Zoom-recorded, too, so there's no chance for interaction, questions, etc. I only did one live session today, "Marie Brizard Low ABV Cocktails," and it was good to have Jonathan Pogash (aka The Cocktail Guru), the session host, reading our comments and responding in real time. But this session also made clear one of the usual red flags for TOTC--on some level it exists for sponsors to flog product. Of course, that means when you're there they buy you things--from drinks to Day of the Dead face paintings to lavish parties the like you only thought you'd read about in Vanity Fair. But when you're just watching someone on your computer, it's not quite the same.

All that said, I got to watch presenters like Chris Blackwell (yep, the founder of Island Records, who currently owns Ian Flemings' Jamaica estate, Golden Eye, and has turned it into a resort) and a host of brilliant writers on liquor, to learn how to make low ABV cocktails, to relish in a fantastic overview of Amari, to have TOTC Foundation President Caroline Rosen say "y'all" and sprinkle me in the linguistic equivalent of powdered sugar from Cafe du Monde's beignets. 

I've got six pages of notes. I left out pretty much any content in this already too long write-up. The folks who took part in the "Storytelling Behind The Bar presented by William Grant & Sons" session I watched would beat me up for not having enough of a through-line here, no doubt, and one of the presenters even teaches at my alma mater Johns Hopkins. So yeah, I'm having a good time (btw, I did take the week off from my day job, like I'm really "vacationing"). But how do I taste more? I'm going to have to figure this out and not pass out.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Chilling with Franc, Cab Franc

It's tricky to parse the wine-making business from the wine-selling business--because, you know, there's that business part. Given many smaller producers sell much of their wine through on-site wine tasting--as opposed to hawking boxes out of box malls, say--life in the age of COVID has made that business part hard. Luckily, when the going gets hard, the hard-up come up with a clever gimmick like Francs n' Franks.

A couple of weeks ago Buttonwood Farms & Winery hosted a webinar that you got to eat and drink along with, sort of a dream Zoom (it was on FB and Yahoo live, actually). Some folks were even on site for the event, where they got treated to a BBQ of franks (sounded mostly like sausages, actually, but that ruins that fun nomenclature), a fuller tasting (four wines compared to the home two-pack), and the ability to hear the panel of winemaker Karen Steinwachs, assistant winemaker Brett Reeves, and Matt Kettmann from Wine Enthusiast and Indy fame (he's busy getting ready to publish the book about SB wines, even) live. For some reason, our connection worked best through one of our iPhones, and not through our laptop. 

You see, the generally high acid Cabernet Franc tends to work well with smoky flavors, hence the idea grilling would be good. At that point, you sort of have to make the name joke, don't you? (As if I could ever give someone the slightest bit of a hard time for pushing a bit of wordplay, c'mon.) The "home kit" featured a bottle of Buttonwood's 2017 barrel-fermented/aged Cab Franc and their more experimental 2019 Carbonique--Cab Franc that goes through carbonic maceration. The simplest way to think of this is the "regular" CF ferments in open vessels, while the carbonic CF ferments in a closed vessel. That means the grapes ferment from the inside out. And, if you're Steniwachs, whose desk at the winery is near the closed fermenter, you hope nothing explodes (at least that's what she joked).

The difference is a "lighter" wine, more fruit-forward--which is important for Buttonwood's Cab Franc as it tends to grow smaller berries. Note that vintage difference, too--you also drink it sooner. It's meant to be a "fresh" wine. Thanks to those profiles, they suggest you give it a bit of a chill, too. Yes, a red! It's ok. It certainly works with the hotdogs, even our rather soulless vegan ones (think of them as carrying devices for sweet relish and miso mayo).

Nothing was soulless about the event, though. Karen is always good for a sly aside or two, and the wine knowledge of all the participants was of course top-notch without being any kind of pedantic. So a good time was had by us, and it seemed, everyone. Even if those of us not tasting safely socially distanced on site didn't get to try the Carbonique both chilled and room temp, or try the 2007 Cab Franc. And we didn't get to celebrate Kettmann's birthday with cake, either. He owes us one.

By the way, we didn't finish the 2017 CF that afternoon, and since it was a mighty hot weekend, we kept it in the fridge until the next day. Turns out it's quite good with a bit of a chill too, if heartier and deeper than it's carbonic cousin.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Having a Home Beer Fest

True confession--it's not that uncommon for a bunch of beers to arrive in a box at this house. But that box above was something special, a celebratory statewide smorgasbord, as it were. For you're looking at the 2020 California Craft Beer Summit Experience. There was supposed to be an in-person big deal event in Long Beach in September, but COVID said no to that. Instead, we got to delight--and learn--at home, at our leisure. And a fun time was had by two (I can't vouch for anyone else but us, of course).

But first a word from our sponsor. The California Craft Brewers Association is the oldest state trade association representing craft breweries--go CA! Turns out, according to the brewers who posted interviews as part of the Summit Experience, the CCBA has become even more important during coronavirus shutdowns, which have often changed rules of brewpub engagement almost hourly, it seems. Having a group who could get the legal word and get it straight was crucial for many small (and not so small) breweries. These places had to pivot, and fast; take Sacramento's Urban Roots, who supposedly went from making 400-500 cans a month to that many per week, as everyone wanted beer to go when the pubs shut down. 

The beer that went down our gullet here in Santa Barbara was as follows: 

Russian River Brewing Co. | Pliny For President (Double Dry-Hopped Double IPA) 
Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. | Wild Little Thing (Fruited Gose-style) 
Fieldwork Brewing Co. | Canopy (Westcoast Pale Ale) 
Urban Roots Brewing | Floofster (German-Style Hefeweizen)
Modern Times Beer | Ice (Pilsner) 
Societe Brewing | The Harlot (Belgian Blonde) 
Kern River Brewing | California Lounge Chair (IPA) 
Topa Topa Brewing | Dos Topas (Mexican Style Lager)

That's a pleasing range, geographically and stylistically, featuring old-timers and up-and-comers, small producers and those who can only claim they are "craft" in mentality and approach thanks to their production numbers. (Digression: did you know Sierra Nevada makes 1,250,000 US beer barrels annually? So if you built a swimming pool to swim in one year of their beer, it would have to be over 10,000 feet long, over 1,900 feet wide, and 380 feet deep!) The beer wasn't all you got for your $60 per participant. Some cool, branded glasses arrived with a handy cheat sheet for the four pairs of beers they set up as courses (that also suggested food pairings that ranged from mightily specific--watermelon and feta salad--to more abstract--beach days and sandy feet), and you also got a handy beer tasting notes journal, so you could record your impressions of the beers and even get some practice in using the flavor wheel that breaks beer down into its components. (Here's my thumb and my slightly out-of-focus thoughts of Sierra Nevada's Wild Little Thing.)

The most informative part were Zoom-held conversations between beer-makers that you got to watch as you sipped along. Having the videos of the conversations on YouTube meant you didn't have to make it to a specific, scheduled time, and we took ours to go through the full set (each chat was about 45 minutes long). It certainly provided a great peek into the world of beer-making and the world of beer-selling right now, when everything seems so tenuous. There was much talk of COVID, and luckily everyone seemed to be managing, and even planning blasts for the day drinking within touching distance of others can happen again. Perhaps we need to get ready for something to rival the original Repeal Day. After all, Natalie Cilurzo from Russian River put it this way when describing what makes a beer memorable, "It's not just the beer, it's the time, it's the place, it's the company." Sometimes it's the fish tacos, though....


Our homemade ones (thanks Kevin, for the fresh fish!), with homemade tortillas and beans, as well--the pandemic has us at the top of our cooking game, don't know about you. So getting to enjoy all that with a Societe beer is truly wonderful, and very San Diego without leaving home. Or this pairing, a saag with feta cheese, rice, and fresh-from-the-garden-tomatoes....

I'm going to pass on reviewing the beers as they all were delicious in their different ways, aimed for different tasting experiences, outdoor temp, times of day, and that's the exciting thing about craft beer right now. Sure, hop bombs might lead sales, but everyone's having fun experimenting, too, even if that means nailing classic styles. As Jack Dyer, co-founder of Topa Topa put it, describing why he's so proud of his brewery's Dos Topas Mexican style lager, "It's easy to cover up challenges with heavily-hopped beer, but with this beer, if the process is off at all, you're going to taste it."

Pretty much the one area of agreement, though was--wtf, hard seltzer? One speaker admitted, "If that existed when I was in my early twenties, I would have died an alcoholic." While Dr. Eric Giddens, founder of Kern River Brewing, put it this way, "I'm a beer-flavored beer guy." And these eight breweries delivered--to your door--the beer-flavored beer goodness.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Holding Tight with Tape

Borges’ Pierre Menard wanted to write—not re-write—Don Quixote. I’m just hoping to digitize a host of my garage’s box of mixtapes. But it feels like a similar project, bringing back to life a person who once was, even if that person was me.

That’s how I’m getting though this time of pandemic. Overthinking it. Wanting to write and instead just reading more, and in this case going back to Borges, who I hadn’t thought of in years. Freaking out that one sentence above should end “even if that person was I” but refusing to write that as it sounds so geekily insistent on good grammar over bad sound.

For mixtapes are all about good sound, at least to start. And that’s what my pandemic obsession was first about. From 1989-2008 I made mixtapes, years between my gigs as a disc jockey (what a quaint term, no?) in community/college radio. Many were for my birthday, but some were just keyed by a gorgeous backup of tunes I couldn’t stop listening to and needed to memorialize. They’re sort of the audio diary to my life, and returning to them brings me back to me. That’s very comforting when what any me can be can disappear with one quick brush of COVID-19.

It’s as easy as this. Grab a bunch of most resonant cassettes; see if you have those tunes as mp3s; hunt for the ones you don’t; build each tape digitally, side A, side B. One of the huge advantages now is the availability of Audacity as a free software to do such a project. After all, when I started doing this in the early ’80s, if I wanted to mix songs I did it on reel-to-reel with a razor blade. (My life has been a technological marvel.)

And so my life—in this world so out of control, from the virus itself to our country, where people protest for the right to ignore science—has this extreme focus in these digital tape re-creation moments. As there’s nothing more comforting than finding the perfect segue. How can you bring two different things together in a way that makes a spectacular same? Somehow I have an ear for this, I think, finding the pairs, or the perfect dissonances, and the original tapes set me up for this project like a grandparent leaving a grandchild a project they might never expect.

But then it means the tiniest of slides on Audacity, slices of seconds, or playing with the fade envelope to bring the tones up or down at the moment I think they should. I get so lost in this focus, the scary outside world fades—I can’t even feel my often over-beating heart. I’m just doing. The most infinitesimal amount of time can matter, and I can make it matter.

Plus the process means all these songs, some I haven’t thought of in decades, come back to me. My early ’90s passion for a band like The Connells. That Pere Ubu show in Chicago when David Thomas broke out the accordion. Weston, a Lehigh Valley, PA band that a former student of mine turned me onto. What else is music but memories, much more memorable Facebook posts in your life before social media existed?

So, while I hunt for each song in my iTunes (which is already a dead technology, I think) of over 40,000 files (which is a sad sad term for music), it’s like one of those movie montages of calendar pages flying off, except aurally.

So that’s my passion to survive a pandemic. My life in a song, and another song, and another. Laid down to make something new, so much so I’m often primed to expect one of these songs following another still, just because of where they lived on a tape of mine. So here’s to “Lies Before Their Time,” “Shoulda Woulda Coulda, “What Next, Big Sky?” I’m going to rebuild my musical past and hope it gives me a place on which to stand to see a future.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Quokka Kitchen Delivers Delicious and Nutritious to Your Door

“Quokka” sounds like a word to be challenged while playing Scrabble — it’s worth 69 points, triple score! — but it just may be the cutest creature in the world: a cat-sized Australian marsupial that seems to smile.

That’s what Kevin Lunn learned when googling in search of a catchy name for the nutrition-planning and meal-delivery business he was cofounding. His business partner Hunter Rusack warmed to the name upon learning that quokkas eat a special diet that adjusts to seasons. “It serves as a good mascot and representation of diet, in its own way,” said Rusack.

Care to read the rest then do so at the Indy's site.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Hunkering Down at Home with Bettina Pizza

I can't help but think of Bettina pizza as a sort of brilliant physics experiment--how thin can a crust get and still pack flavor? Brendan Smith and Rachel Greenspan have that magic down--as thin as thin can be and still hold pizza tensile strength, and as for flavor, just that sourdough....I mean, how many pizzas have legs like wine? Bettina's do. And that's before we even get to the quality of their toppings.

So, yes, if we're going to do some Coronavirus take-out, some of it had to be Bettina. We got around to it last week, finally, and it was very easy to do. They've got their to-go menu all set online, but I called anyway as I wanted to get an order in midday for a specific time pickup in the evening. Plus we hoped to score a loaf of bread, and there are only so many of those to go around each day. As you can see from the photo above--more doughy delight!

Since humans do not live by pizza alone, and we we're at the dark end of the two weeks for our Givens Farm CSA box, we had to order some green stuff, too. Luckily the usual Bettina salads are available to go, so there's the baby gems with ranch, pickled onion, and goat cheddar that we would order if we were dining at Montecito Country Mart. With the dressing on the side, it packs very well. So crisp and so cool. And thanks for being one more place that decided to rescue Ranch (since it's a Central Coast invention, after all). There's also some broccolini with capers, ricotta salata, and pine nuts, as at home we don't have a wood-fired stove that cranks over 800°, so we can't get that insta-char that makes the cruciferous veggie so extravagant.

And those pizzas also get char to the point where it's almost too much, but it also teaches you how far too much is (way further than you imagined). And somehow all that char kind of gives you the taste and time of cooking. You take the more blistered slices, pretending you're sacrificing, hoping your dinner mate doesn't know your sneaky secret.

The left pie is the heart of spring, English pea with mozzarella, ricotta cheese, sugar snaps, torpedo onion, garlic confit, lemon (and a slice of lemon for you to give another zip at home--nice touch). Oh, and actually the one on the left is the heart of spring if you had a wet winter and a mushroom forager: chanterelle, Sottocenere truffle cheese, fontina, dandelion, parsley gremolata. Just enough of each bit so you keep getting flavor bursts, but you have to be there for the crust.

Better yet, this was many meals for the two of us.