Articles in Tradition
Nobody understood the melancholy-tinged beauty of those transitional months between summer and winter quite like the great Romantic poet John Keats, whose “Ode to Autumn” famously celebrates that “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.” Keats also enjoyed a good drink. So it seems fitting that “the last oozings” of the cider press make an appearance in his love song to the fall.
On a recent evening, I found his lines running through my mind while I tasted a range of utterly distinct apple ciders from Asturias – a remote rural region on Spain’s North Atlantic coast where one can still observe, as in Keats’ more pastoral time, how the season conspires to “bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees/ And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core.” For in Asturias, the apple is not just an article of produce; it’s a way of life.
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There’s something about the traditional style of Asturian cider — or sidra natural, as locals call it — that would have appealed to someone like Keats. Fermented with indigenous yeasts and bottled without any filtration, it’s the sort of frothy, pungent and unapologetically rustic concoction that has remained unchanged for centuries. Sidra natural represents the art of fermentation at its most elemental: The effect is not sparkling so much as gently effervescent, with low alcohol and a slight prick of fizz. Dry and earthy, with a pleasantly tart tang, this stuff is delicious. It also happens to be remarkably versatile at the table: think sheep or goat’s milk cheeses, shellfish or, at this time of year, even the traditional Thanksgiving dinner.
Asturias is home to more than 200 types of apples, which (because of the high moisture in this maritime region) tend to be less tannic than those grown in other cider-producing parts of the world. But in order to bear the proud label of Sidra de Asturias – the area’s officially protected Denomination of Origin (DOP) — the final blend must consist of a combination of as many as 22 preapproved varietals, of which the Regona and Raxao apples are the most common.
Almost as fun as drinking sidra natural is watching it be poured — in Asturias, this is a crucial part of the experience. The customary method, known as escanciar, involves pouring the cider from high above one’s head and allowing the free-flowing stream to plunge into the glass. According to John Belliveau-Flores, who imports a wide variety of Asturian cider through his company, Rowan Imports, this age-old technique accounts for more than just flashy showmanship.
“Pouring this way physically changes the character of the cider,” he says. “It breaks up the bonds which release the naturally occurring esters and unleash the aromas. Also, when you try to pour the cider normally, it ends up flat, but it effervesces when you pour from a height.” During my own attempt at mastering the art of escanciar, more cider wound up on my shoes than in my glass, but to watch an experienced professional undertake the act is mesmerizing.
‘New Expression’ Asturian cider cuts the funk
Despite the fact that sidra natural has remained a touchstone of Asturian culture over generations, in recent years producers have experimented with a more modern approach. Designed as a cleaner, more commercially viable interpretation for the export market, cider in this “New Expression” category undergoes filtration and stabilization to remove the sediment. Clear, crisp and lemony in both flavor and appearance, it shares more traits with white wine than beer. To be honest, the results often strike me as a bit too sanitized or refined, stripped of Asturias’ signature funky essence. But Belliveau-Flores is quick to point out the virtues of this style.
“In some cases, the New Expression ciders gain something,” he explains. “Although you’re taking away that funk, which removes a powerful layer, you can end up revealing more of the fruit expression, which would otherwise be covered up.”
I suppose it’s a matter of personal taste, but I’d still start by introducing yourself to the classic sidra natural first. One lovely rendition is the Val d’Ornon bottling from the family-run house of Sidra Menéndez. A refreshingly tart and milky blend of apples including Raxao, Regona, Perico and Carrio, it’s the perfect accompaniment to those bittersweet, “soft-dying” autumn evenings that Keats knew all too well. You might even be inspired to write an ode of your own.
Top photo: Escanciar, the art of pouring cider into a glass from above one’s head, releases the aromas. Credit: Greg Nesbit / Asturias Cider Commission
Who speaks for the trees? Craft cider producers.
The third annual Cider Week, a beverage-promotional initiative to encourage restaurateurs, shop owners and consumers to try cider, came to New York last month, and it is being celebrated in Virginia this week. I mean hard cider, the fermented juice of apples, which is an alcoholic beverage that has a long history in the United States. I am not referring to sweet cider, the non-alcoholic, cinnamon-laced apple juice often found with a doughnut for a sidekick. Cider Week is about hard cider. For apple growers across the country, that distinction makes all of the difference.
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Over the last century, this beverage has so thoroughly lost its place at the American table that it’s impossible to write about it without a short history lesson. Before Prohibition, cider was as familiar a beverage as water. Often it was the more palatable and sanitary choice of the two. Thousands of apple varieties thrived across the U.S., and those most highly prized were the kinds that you would not necessarily pick up and eat raw. Bitter and astringent varieties were cherished for the complexity they could add to hard cider, the final destination for most apples grown at the time.
After a near century-long, Prohibition-induced dormancy, the hard cider industry is back with a bullet. Craft producers and sommeliers across the country are rediscovering that cider fermented from heirloom varieties of apple can express complexity and terroir, much as a fine wine. And just as wine presents vintners a more profitable product than selling fresh grapes, cider offers apple growers a much higher price than the highly seasonal sale of fresh apples.
According to Dan Wilson of Slyboro Cider House in Granville, N.Y., his farm’s you-pick operation accounts for about 80% of its yearly income. This business model is risky because his season for you-pick is only six weeks long, meaning a few rainy weekends could seriously damage earnings. For his operation and many like it, the benefits of cider production are manifold. Cider is a shelf-stable product, meaning it can provide income year round. It is an added-value product, selling at a higher price than the fresh ingredients used to create it.
Because apples pressed into cider do not need to be flawless, cider production allows farmers greater flexibility to spray fewer chemicals and to make use of imperfect apples.
Cider Week spotlights craft cider makers
Glynwood, the agricultural nonprofit in the Hudson Valley where I work, started Cider Week three years ago to aid New York craft cider producers in this resurgence. This year’s 10-day celebration of regional, craft cider included more than 200 locations in New York City and Hudson Valley that featured cider on their menus.
While that commitment meant a fun week of great events for consumers, it also meant exposure and new accounts for craft producers. By focusing on artisanal producers, Cider Week is meant to carve out a niche for small growers, help them expand their businesses, and increase viability for Northeast orchards.
The rapid resurgence of this beverage means that the big players — read multinational beer corporations — in the beverage world are out in force. These companies have a part to play by moving cider from niche to mainstream. With a massive clientele and considerable marketing power, they are poised to shake up the traditional beer/wine dichotomy and introduce cider to a huge subset of the American drinking population.
Look for small, local providers
However, for American orchards, for farm viability and rural development, and for increased biodiversity, the resurgence of craft cider is where the true opportunity lies. Small companies pressing whole, regional apples (as opposed to imported apple concentrate) are stewards to the land and keepers of the craft in a way the big boys categorically cannot be.
Craft cider makers are the guides on America’s journey back to a sophisticated, complex beverage, pulled directly from the annals of our own history. As the American palate co-evolves with this new wave of enterprising craftsmen and women, we also hone our tastes for a future that celebrates food and drinks as a passionate expression of place. It is a future that moves me.
And the best way to get there is to find craft cider producers near you. Ask about craft cider on beverage menus and in wine stores. Look at the directories of the many Cider Week events held around the country to discover regional producers (and if you don’t have local cider, many producers can ship). Feature cider at your Thanksgiving dinner this year. In doing so, you will be supporting a beverage, an industry and a tradition as deeply American as the holiday itself.
Top photo: Valerie Burchby. Credit: Caroline Kaye
When my husband was invited to practice his art of painting in rural — the word was emphasized many times in the acceptance letter — Ireland, we jumped on it and decided to go right away rather than wait until summer. Our stay was from Halloween to Christmas, covering the major holidays, which were pretty much nonexistent for us that year.
Winter is perhaps not the most perfect time to be on the rough and wild Atlantic coast of the Emerald Island — which, as you quickly come to understand, has to do with the copious amount of rain that falls. It was cold. And damp. Our cottage was stone, and there were gaps in the ceiling that allowed a view of the sky. My husband’s studio was heated, but for me, getting warm and staying that way was the challenge of each day. The recipe called for lots of hot water and alcohol.
Finding warmth in Ireland
Here’s how it worked. First, we were told not to use hot water unless it came from the night storage, a concept we found hard to follow but eventually understood: Electricity is cheaper at night than during the day, so water heated at night is more economical than water heated during the day. So I started the day by submerging myself in water that was as hot as I could stand and staying there until I really couldn’t stand it anymore. Then I dressed in an infinite number of layers that padded me like the Michelin Man, but they kept me warm until noon, when I repeated the process.
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About 3 p.m., when the light caved, I joined Patrick, my husband, in the pub across the street from his studio, where I had a hot whiskey with lemon and clove — divine because it warmed my hands as well as my insides. Then maybe I had a second one just to seal in the hint of warmth that I was sure was coming on. These drinks were pretty mild as alcohol goes. Even two weren’t nearly as strong as the real Irish coffee I had in a pub in a nearby town, where the combination of caffeine, sugar, booze and cream was simultaneously such an upper and downer that your day was done by the last sip. By comparison, the hot whiskey was like tea.
When we returned to our cottage, it was dark outside and cold inside. The first task was to light a peat fire in a fireplace that would never become hot it so dwarfed our expensive bundles of peat logs. There was a heater on one wall, which, if you leaned against it, could make a small portion of your bottom warm, but that was the sum total of its effectiveness.
Because cooking dinner helped produce some warmth, we headed to the kitchen. When Patrick would get a bottle out, it wasn’t that nicely chilled red wine temperature we’ve come to appreciate, nor was it frozen. But it was so frigid you might want to wear mittens to handle it. The wine glasses, too, were like bowls of ice. So we lit the burners on the stove, placed the bottle and glasses among them, and waited until the bottle felt right. By then the glasses would be, too, and dinner would be nearly prepared. We ate it huddled against the big metal fireplace that at least suggested coziness.
Finally, I’m ashamed to say, the best part of each day came, and that was getting into bed and lying on the enormous heating pad that worked like a reverse electric blanket: warming the bed rather than lying on top of you. Finally, here was warmth, and it stayed — regardless of the wind and the rain, which sounded like it was shot from nail guns. While in bed I read a lot about the famine years and tried to comprehend how people could be this cold and starving and yet continue on, while I was being such a wimp about it all.
Christmas in Dublin
By Christmas we were in Dublin, which felt very far from County Mayo in every way. The hotel room was warm; people were festive and jolly; the food was varied and good; there were amazing cheeses to be found; and a farmers market was filled with treats. The pubs were bustling, and there were warm cobblers with cream or mushrooms on toast for breakfast. I’ve never loved Christmas that much, but in Dublin it felt like a real celebration, with music on the streets and a big feeling of happiness in those around us. Of course, that’s when the Celtic Tiger was a big glossy cat, but it was last year, too, when we were there and the economics were quite reversed.
By far, the best holiday scene was one I had the good fortune to happen upon, and it had nothing to do with food. I was walking down a street when I noticed at least a 100 Santas standing together in front of a rather grand building. They were talking and smoking in their Santa outfits. That alone was quite something to see, and I would have been utterly content if it went no further. But then all at once the door of the building opened, and the president of Ireland, Mary McAleese, stepped out, and all the Santas burst into boisterous song: “We wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry Christmas and a happy new year!” And they cheered the president in her red dress, and I think they might have tossed hats into the air.
Top photo: County Mayo, Ireland. Credit: Deborah Madison
Several years ago, while visiting my family in Michigan for the Christmas holiday, my dad told me about a mysterious collection of wines stashed in his basement. The wines had been passed down to him by an old Italian judge, who had died before he had a chance to drink them.
Naturally, I was curious about what sort of wines they were. My dad hadn’t bothered to go through the couple of cases he was given, instead leaving them for me to pick through when I arrived. I was practically rubbing my hands together in anticipation of the treasures I might find in Dad’s basement.
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When I went downstairs on Christmas morning, what I found was mostly disappointing — white wines from the ’70s that had turned brown, unremarkable reds never meant to be aged, cork-tainted wines that had to be poured down the sink. But there was one bottle that made my heart palpitate: a 1967 Antinori Chianti Classico Riserva from Tuscany.
I brought it upstairs and popped the cork, and found that the wine had held up beautifully over the years. It had lovely mature character, and managed to retain much of its fruitiness. I poured glasses for our little gathering — my dad, stepmom, husband, sister and brother-in-law — and we all agreed that the wine was something special. Truth be told, it was a little past its prime, but that didn’t stop us from finishing the bottle.
While we waited for the rest of the family to arrive for dinner, my husband searched the Internet to find out more about the wine we’d just polished off. “Wow, that wine is selling at auction for $200!” he announced. My frugal father, a man who drinks wine daily but rarely spends more than $10 on a bottle, was thunderstuck. “If I’d known that,” he said, “I would never have opened it.”
He was only half joking. But what better time could there be to open a special bottle of wine than the holidays, when you’re surrounded by family and friends — the people you love most?
Even if you don’t have a 1967 Chianti hiding in your cellar, chances are you have a bottle or two stashed away from a winery visit or vacation. What are you waiting for? My dad’s Italian judge was waiting for the right occasion to open his wines, too. If you don’t already have a special bottle set aside, why not make this the year to splurge on a memorable wine to share with your favorite people?
Here are five wines that fit that description nicely. These Napa Valley and Sonoma stunners taste great now and will improve with age, so you’ll be able to enjoy them at future holiday celebrations too. The wines are balanced and food friendly — none containing more than 14.1% alcohol — so they’ll pair wonderfully with your holiday brisket or standing rib roast.
Pine Ridge Vineyards Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 ($85): This gorgeous wine has an enticing aroma of red fruit, along with cherry and berry flavors accented with baking spices. It’s elegant and balanced, with soft tannins.
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Napa Valley Fay Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 ($95): With aromas of raspberries and cedar, this is a beautifully balanced wine with bright red cherry flavor, silky texture and well-integrated tannins.
Clos Du Val Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 ($80): Here’s a classic, age-worthy Napa Valley Cabernet with rich aromas of leather and black fruit. It has black cherry and chocolate flavors, along with good structure and moderate tannins.
Cobb Wines Sonoma Coast Jack Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009 ($70): This lovely cool-climate Pinot smells of ripe raspberries and cherries, and has delicious red fruit flavors to match. The wine’s fruit-forwardness is balanced by a good bit of acidity.
Inman Family Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2009 ($35): With its aromas of red fruit and cinnamon spice, this wine was made for Thanksgiving dinner. It’s medium bodied and elegant, with soft tannins and flavors of red fruit and cola.
Top photo: A selection of holiday wine. Credit: Tina Caputo
The recent downpours in Mumbai invoked the college memories of chai, that impeccable cup of milky brown brew, black tea steeped with ginger, cardamom and comfort. One typical gray June morning, a double-decker bus waded through the murky waters — ah, monsoons in Mumbai, you’ve got to love them! Pervasive dampness clinging to moist skin and polyester clothing, climbing petticoats under 6-yard saris, seeping through leather clogs.
Raincoats, umbrellas and gumboots are ineffectual in their battle with the pregnant clouds, unable to keep the virulent waters from invading the core of your being. I gingerly stepped from the bus into knee-deep water and waded to the entrance of the college canteen, joining my friends there, huddled together, deep in discussion on the upcoming practical (exam) on frog, earthworm and cockroach dissection. The gory details never bothered even the daintiest stomach as gulps of steaming hot chai provided tranquility against the angry downpour.
Chai is the lifeblood of India’s social, political and business gatherings. In a store selling silk saris, as you debate the choice of the flame red silk laced with gold or the midnight purple with a sea green border and green leaves, the owner will offer you a cup of hot chai in a stainless steel tumbler to enlighten your decision. Visit your best friend or close a hostile business deal, but first sip chai. Stroll down the dry streets of summer Mumbai or wade through a foot of standing water in the harsh monsoons, but always take a moment to sip chai, available on every street corner, hawked by vendors everywhere.
There are different variations on chai, but chai always means tea, so, if you will permit me two seconds on my soapbox, it would be redundant to say “chai tea.” It is chai, pure and simple.
Makes 4 cups
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh ginger
10 to 12 green or white cardamom pods
2 cups water
2 cups whole milk
¼ cup Darjeeling or Assam loose black tea leaves (or 8 tea bags)
¼ cup sweetened condensed milk or 4 teaspoons white granulated sugar
If you have a mortar, dump the ginger and cardamom into it and with the pestle, pound it a few times to release some of the juices and oils. Alternately, put the two ingredients into a mini chopper or food processor’s bowl and pulse a few times to break the spices down a bit and release those incredible aromas.
Bring the 2 cups water and the milk to a rapid boil, in a small saucepan over medium-high heat, uncovered, stirring regularly to prevent scorching. As soon as it comes to a boil, stir in the tea leaves and the pounded ginger-cardamom blend. Bring it to a boil again, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the milk’s color changes into a light brown tint and is scented with the strong, heady aromas of ginger and cardamom, 1 to 2 minutes.
Stir in the sweetened condensed milk or sugar and turn off the heat. Strain the chai into serving cups and serve piping hot.
Tip: Even though I have recommended ginger and cardamom, spices like ground cloves, cinnamon, and even black pepper are great sprinkled in chai. Add it at the same juncture you would the ginger and cardamom.
Top photo: The essential chai. Credit: Raghavan Iyer
One late spring morning, I stopped into the midtown Manhattan Sur la Table for an intimate food and wine pairing that uncorked the story of the Spanish wine dynasty Ferrer and its contributions to American winemaking with its California property, Gloria Ferrer Winery.
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Great wines and great food gave me a lot to write about. But what I didn’t expect that late morning in New York City was a history lesson and insight into what differentiates Gloria Ferrer from the thousands of wineries in California, not to mention the world.
I learned that Gloria Ferrer is the crown jewel of the Ferrer family of Spain, and this family owns 18 wineries in eight countries on four continents. In a world where consolidation is taking over business, and, sadly, even the rich agricultural world of wine, the Ferrer family honors a commitment to winegrowing that dates to 16th-century Spain. I began to taste their history in the superb quality of the four wines I sampled that morning.
Chef Katie Rosenhouse paired an array of appetizers with four Sonoma Carneros sparkling wines from Gloria Ferrer with dishes:
- Blanc de Noirs paired with Gruyère with warm bacon mornay sauce.
- Sonoma Brut paired with pork and shrimp rolls.
- 2001 Carneros Cuvée paired with crab cakes with black truffle aioli.
- VA de VI paired with Alsatian apple tart with whipped crème fraiche.
My favorite of the four was the crab cakes with the 2001 Carneros Cuvée. This was pure elegance in a bottle that cut through the rich, complex flavors of the fried buttery crab and decadent black truffle aioli.
All of the wines were divine, although I was reluctant to try their newest, the VA de VI, because I normally don’t like wines with any sweetness. Yet the 3% Muscat offered just the right touch to pair perfectly with the Alsatian apple tart.
Truth be told, Gloria Ferrer Pinot Noirs, including Rust Rock Terrace, Gravel Knob and José S. Ferrer, have always been among my favorite California Pinots. My favorite is Carneros Pinot Noir, which surprisingly is priced at under $30.
The Californian outpost for Ferrer Spanish wine
Years ago, traveling through California wine country I discovered Gloria Ferrer. I sat on the winery’s Vista Terrace overlooking 335 acres of estate vineyards. It was a wine country experience with a touch of old world tradition.
Eva Bertran, the company’s longtime marketing executive, told me the commitment to sustainability is first defined by its staff, many of whom have been in place for more than the winery’s quarter-century history in California.
The vineyard manager and winemaker share 25 years of vintage memories, which means that from year to year when notes are compared they can elevate the quality of the wines from vintage to vintage. Consequently, decades of pride and hard work translate into the thumbprint of the brand and ensure a mindful stewardship of the land.
Generations of winemaking in Spain
For the Ferrers, whose sparkling winegrowing experience is generations deep in Spain, the potential of Los Carneros in Sonoma was apparent when they discovered it a generation ago. In 1982 the Ferrer Spanish wine family visited the western hills of Carneros and they recognized the ideal climate for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and thus the perfect terroir for brilliant sparkling wines. Warm days, cool nights, predictable winds, summer fog and a long growing season “coax grapes to maturity slowly and consistently with a desirable balance of sugar and acidity,” Eva said.
Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards is named after Jose’s wife, Gloria, as a tribute to the importance of the Ferrer women throughout their history. In 1915, Pere and Dolores Sala, both of whom came from Spanish wine families, married and decided to produce cavas exclusively. They named that new adventure Freixenet (Casa Sala). Many years later in the 1930s, Pere Ferrer traveled to America to fulfill a longtime dream of building the family’s first American winery. They were looking in the New Jersey area when the Spanish Civil War interrupted the search and they returned to Spain. Sadly, Pere Ferrer and his 18-year-old son were killed in the war and this ended the American dream for many decades.
After the war, Dolores, with the help of her three daughters, the oldest being 15, reopened Casa Sala in Spain. The youngest son, José, was the man of the house. Flash forward to 1957 when young José was grown and began to expand the winery’s export business. While José was buying existing wineries and properties in Spain and throughout the world, he was shipping wines to America. Within 10 years, the export brand grew in the U.S. to 1 million cases.
It’s clear the Ferrers are risk takers who have a gift for taking opportune risks. So in 1982, when José bought the land in Sonoma and began the next chapter in the Ferrer family history he not only took another risk, he also fulfilled his father’s dream of owning a winery in America.
One thing about wine that has always impressed me is its importance at the table since biblical times. Talking to Eva Bertran that Tuesday morning at Sur la Table in New York helped me better understand the rich history of wine. I had no idea that one family could have such a global impact and that the fruits of their labor could be so utterly delicious.
Top photo: Sur La Table’s Chef Katie Rosenhouse prepares appetizers to pair with Gloria Ferrer Winery wines. Credit: Marie Gewirtz
When you think of California Chardonnay, what sort of wine comes to mind? Oaky? Buttery? Those descriptors certainly apply to many of the state’s Chardonnay offerings, and for thousands of American wine drinkers, that rich vanilla-laden style has magnetic appeal.
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But not for this wine drinker. When it comes to whites, I’d rather taste fruit than barrels.
Luckily, it’s much easier to find subtly oaked California Chardonnays today than it was in the barrel-obsessed 1990s and early 2000s. In those days, California wineries bragged about using 100% new oak barrels for their Chardonnay. (The newer the barrel, the more oak character it gives the wine.) This practice was not only extravagant — a new French oak barrel can cost close to $1,000 — it produced wines so oaky they practically left splinters in your throat.
Wine drinkers eventually grew tired of those heavy Chards, and California winemakers responded by scaling back on the oak, or even abandoning it altogether to create unoaked versions. The unoaked Chardonnay trend seems to have tapered off in the last few years — some people found the wines to be too simple and austere — but interest in more restrained styles of California Chardonnay continues.
Making an elegant Chardonnay isn’t simply a matter of going easy on the new oak. Picking the grapes earlier in the season so they retain their acidity can add brightness to the wine, as can skipping or reducing malolactic fermentation, a process that softens wine and gives it a creamy or buttery character. If a winemaker is concerned that a lightly oaked wine will lack complexity and texture, stirring the lees — dead yeast cells that collect at the bottom of the barrel — can add depth.
This more restrained style of California Chardonnay is still more the exception than the rule, but the wineries that have embraced it are well worth seeking out. Here are six complex, fruit-driven examples of just how beautiful California Chardonnay can be.
Hanzell Vineyards Sonoma Valley Chardonnay 2010 ($75): Hanzell is known for its elegant, minerally Chardonnays, and this wine is the perfect example. It has aromas of lemons, green apples and pears, along with apple and citrus flavors. The wine is concentrated, with a rich texture and vibrant acidity.
Hanzell Vineyards Sonoma Valley “Sebella” Chardonnay 2011 ($36): This is a wonderful contrast to Hanzell’s richer flagship wine. It’s made with fruit from younger vineyards, fermented in stainless steel and aged in barrels that are one to three years old. The result is a bright, crisp wine with notes of green apples and nectarines, and a long lemony finish.
HdV Napa Valley Carneros Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay 2010 ($60): To fully appreciate this wine, it helps to know something about its pedigree. HdV (Hyde de Villaine) is a partnership between Larry Hyde and the De Villaine family, co-owners of Burgundy’s Domaine de la Romanee-Conti. Along with pear and nectarine aromas and flavors, the wine has racy acidity, minerality and beautiful purity of fruit.
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Napa Valley “Karia” Chardonnay 2010 ($22): A terrific value for a California Chardonnay of this quality, the Karia starts out with aromas of soft vanilla and citrus. It’s bright and fresh on the palate, with spiced apple, stone fruit and citrus flavors, and nicely integrated oak. The wine is medium bodied, with excellent balance.
Marimar Estate Russian River Valley “Acero” Don Miguel Vineyard Chardonnay 2011 ($29): With a name that means “steel” in Spanish, this wine is made without oak. It’s certainly “steely” in character, but it also has a bit of creaminess, thanks to full malolactic fermentation. The wine is fresh and food-friendly, with aromas and flavors of citrus and nectarines.
Patz & Hall Sonoma Coast Chardonnay 2011 ($38): With lemon and mineral aromas, this pretty Chard has flavors of pineapple, citrus and spice. It’s crisp and tangy, with a nice bit of roundness on the palate and a touch of vanilla at the finish. A lovely, well-made wine.
Top photo: California Chardonnays. Credit: Tina Caputo
I went to college in Boston, where I now live and work. I mention this because it was in Boston that I happened to pick up a pretty good J. Crew habit. Mind you, the J. Crew I love now has a bit more conviction and is much more dynamic — thanks in large part to Jenna Lyons, its creative director and president. She’s credited with all the cool innovation going on around there. Hello! Michelle Obama is lovin’ up the J. Crew.
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To me, Michelle Obama equals strength, progress, tradition and some serious smarts. Somehow her choice to endorse J. Crew says those same things about the brand, and J. Crew somehow says those things about our first lady. My point is that it’s a mutually respectful relationship because J. Crew and Michelle — and probably Jenna, too, share the same values.
Why do I bring this up? I’ve been thinking how to tell you all to trust wine importers and their, well, brands. I tend to go back to my tried-and-true, especially when it comes to food and wine. “I don’t like food, I love it,” says Anton Ego, the food critic in Pixar’s “Ratatouille.” “If I don’t love it, I don’t swallow.” This speaks to me on a strangely deep level. I’ve paid, but I’ve walked out on many a mediocre experience.
As a consumer, the places where I find what I’m looking for time and again are the places I go back to, whether it’s clothing, grocery or furniture stores; farmers market stands, coffee shops or restaurants. I choose each for different reasons, but all in all it comes down to me liking, often loving, what they make, curate, inspire and support.
But here’s the question (pretend I’m Carrie from “Sex And the City”): Why is it we don’t shop for wine this way?
Wine intimidates us into thinking this approach won’t work — it couldn’t possibly be that easy. But it can. We can rely on the importer, the person or group that researched, tasted, chose and organized a specific selection of wines on our behalf, the same way Jenna Lyons makes choices on fabric, jewelry and shapes.
Read the label
In short, you can go shopping for wine the same way you’d shop for anything else — by the label. Turn the bottle over. What does it say? Hooseewhatsit Wine, John David Blah Blah. Ask your retailer about the importer and the wine, and if you like the answer, buy the wine, go home, Google it, drink it and make some critiques. Do it again and again, and in time you’ll find the importers you can rely on. This is how their wines can become the awesome pencil skirt, the local strawberries, the pork buns you love so much.
If we enjoy what they’ve whittled down, we can follow these importers to the ends of wine terroir. If we find an importer we jibe with, it can be like a well-paid-attention-to Pandora radio station. We can go back repeatedly to an endless well of tasty drinks. Thumbs up.
I’ve got several tried-and-true importers who choose quality wines that suit my taste and ideals. These guys avoid the bad things (wood chips, sugar, acidification, de-acidification and stabilizers) and promote the good (hand-harvesting, wild yeasts, low yield, natural viticulture and unique wines). Here they are:
De Maison Selections focuses mostly on Spanish and some French producers. They are easy to recognize not only by their name but their logo of a porron — which is a vessel from the Basque region for drinking a delicious wine called Txakoli. Da Maison’s mission is to find unique, high quality wines made with integrity.
Dalla Terra Winery Direct deals in Italian wine. Slightly different from a traditional importer, they’re brokers — they cut out the middle man and save us all money, and by us I mean the producer, you and me. Dalla Terra and one of their producers — Alois Lageder — are the reason I love wines from the Alto Adige. Dalla Terra represents other reputable, small and delicious wines such as Adami, Selvapiana, Vietti and Inama. They deliver conscientious wines.
At Louis/Dressner the mission is to bring small producers with some crazy ideas to America. Started by the late Joe Dressner, to me, the first hippie of wine, it is now run by his wife Denyse and their protégé, Kevin McKenna, Almost all their wines are natural. I like a lot of Louis/Dressner French bottles and their funky Friulian stuff.
Circo Vino is my Austrian importer of choice. Their producers are top-notch and include winemakers who care about the land and the environment and grow/make wine that fits that list of “good” criteria. Circo Vino is relatively new, but man they’ve got me hooked on Rotgipfler.
SelectioNaturel + Zev Rovine: These two, just in San Fran, New York and Massachusetts right now, work together importing fine wines by really small producers, with some very stringent requirements on the natural process. The wines are unique. I like their French and Italian bottles.
Now, remember, there are small local importers, too, that you shouldn’t overlook. So keep turning your bottles around, investigate the back labels on the ones you enjoy and ask your retailer to tell you more about them and their importers.
Top photo: Liz Vilardi. Credit: Michael Piazza