Good Libations is moving!

bucketI’ve finally been assigned my own regular bucket on the Orange County Register’s website. (“Bucket” is Register talk for a piece of online real estate devoted just to my columns.) That’s right, friends: I’ve been given a seat at the adults’ table. Yippee!!  (Clearly they have no idea about my manners.)

That means you can go here from now on to read all my writing on wine, beer, spirits, cocktails and local bars. It’s also on the Food homepage at the bottom, labelled Good Libations. I am retiring this blog as there is now no longer a need for it. Keep reading!

It’s small and cold, but Anderson Valley makes great wine

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Anderson valley from Lazy Creek Vineyards.jpg

California is a big state, which means that even when you spend a lot of your time covering it, there are places you’re going to miss.

That’s true of me and the Anderson Valley. I’d long appreciated the quality of its cool-climate wines, particularly the Alsatian whites, and I’ve enjoyed its silky pinot noirs and fine sparkling wine, but I’d never visited the place, even though it’s a scant 100 miles north of San Francisco and small enough to easily explore in a day or two.

A recent tasting brought me up to speed without having to leave O.C. I shared a meal and some very impressive wine at Antonello Ristorante near South Coast Plaza with Joe Webb, a winemaker who also serves as president of the Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association.

Joe was born in Fresno and grew up in the mountains nearby. He didn’t discover the Anderson Valley until his love of wine led him to Sonoma State University and he started exploring the area. During college he worked at Sebastiani and Landmark Vineyards. After graduating he was hired at Joseph Swan vineyards near Forestville before moving to the Anderson Valley in 2007. He makes wine at Foursight Winery, which he founded and owns with his wife Kristy and her parents. Their tasting room is just south of Boonville on the main road, Highway 128.

Joe filled me in on the essential facts about his tiny but fascinating region during our tasting.

Orange County Register: How many wineries are there in your AVA?

Joe Webb: It’s hard to put a precise figure on it. We have 26 tasting rooms. This year’s Pinot Festival has 53 or 54 wineries. Roughly half of them are in the valley.

Register: What are the climate and the geography like up there?

Webb: We’re the coldest grape growing place in California. It’s a valley near the coast that’s 15 miles long and one mile wide. The valley floor is colder than the hillsides. As you go up the ridge it gets quite a bit warmer; the cold air settles to the valley floor. We get snow on the rooftops a bit. I see snowflakes in Boonville every year. The temperature of Boonville and Navarro (the valley’s two main towns) are similar. The main difference is that Boonville sees a 50-55 degree diurnal swing and Navarro about 25 degrees. Our cool air comes down from the coast through the Navarro River.

Register: How cold does it get?

Webb: We get, on average, eight frosts a year in Boonville. We’re the only region in California that isn’t classified as subtropical. Anderson Valley is classified as a Region 1 growing area, meaning it’s the coolest climate in which grapes may be grown commercially. We’re colder than everywhere else. But that diurnal swing is wide. I like the grapes going through this wide a range of temperature. It develops the fruit; you get more flavor and structure.

Register: The Anderson Valley has traditionally been known as a good place for German varietals, but recently your pinot noirs have been getting attention. How did that come about?

Webb: Quality pinot is a relatively recent phenomenon there. Originally people didn’t think it was warm enough to grow Pinot Even our neighbors, V. Sattui, thought my father was crazy to plant pinot. But it does quite well here if you know how to grow it.

Register: What are your biggest challenges?

Webb: There is so much frost in Boonville. The whites are tough to harvest economically because of the (limited) quantity. I make great wines for those who are passionate about it, but it’s tough because we are not able to get the tons per acre. The season isn’t warm enough or long enough to ripen everything.

Register: It’s a small AVA, but does it have sub-regions?

Webb: “The deep end” is the loose definition of the area that’s closer to the ocean, but it’s tough to get a consensus on where that starts. Every (grape grower) says, “Oh, it starts right at my fence line.” The temperature generally drops one degree per mile as you drive through the valley.

Register: What is rainfall like in the valley?

Webb: Boonville gets 39 inches a year. Navarro is 44. The whole valley averages about 40 inches. Even during this drought we are getting half our average. That’s still 20 inches, enough to fill the ponds.

Register: How many acres are in vine?

Webb: About 2,250. We’ve seen a 10 percent increase in the last five years. But there’s still room for a lot of growth. And as these cool-climate varietals become more popular, I think the growth will only increase.

 Here are some of Anderson Valley’s best wineries:

Jim Ball Vineyards, Breggo Cellars, Cakebread Cellars, Castello di Amorosa Winery, Goldeneye, Graziano, Handley Cellars, Harmonique, Husch Vineyards, Lazy Creek Vineyards, Londer Vineyards, Navarro Vineyards, Parducci Wine Cellars, Philo Ridge Vineyards, Roederer Estate, Scharffenberger Cellars, Toulouse Vineyards and Winery.

 

Most popular Anderson Valley varietals: chardonnay, gewurztraminer, merlot, muscat canelli, petite sirah, pinot blanc, pinot gris, pinot noir, riesling, sauvignon blanc, semillon, syrah, zinfandel.

Last-minute suggestions for NYE bubbly

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prosecco

You know the situation: You run into the wine store at the very last minute, desperate to score a bottle of bubbly for your New Year’s Eve party. There’s an ocean of the stuff to choose from. How do you end up with a bottle that doesn’t break the bank or give you a roaring headache?

We recommend steering away from the Champagne aisle and trying these sparklers instead. All except the first are made in California. Cheers!

1. Maison Bertrand Ambroise Cremant de Bourgogne ($20): This Champagne-style sparkler from Burgundy mixes chardonnay and Pinot noir. Its floral and citrus nose introduces a rounded and supple taste with a long, fresh finish. Works well as an aperitif.

2. Domaine Carneros Estate Brut Cuvee ($33): Taittinger, the refined French label, owns this California winery, and it brings an Old World quality to an enjoyable sparkler from Napa’s Carneros region.

3. Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Noirs ($19): Strawberry, cherry and subtle highlights of vanilla distinguish this popular sparkler, which can be found at restaurants throughout the western U.S.

4. J Brut Rose ($38): On the nose, fresh strawberries, raspberries, Fuji apple, rose and the bite of roasted hazelnuts. Its full, luxurious mouth feel is full of raspberry, blood orange and almonds. Strong backbone with steely mineral overtones.

5. Roederer Estate Brut ($24): This flagship from Roederer’s Anderson Valley operation is crisp and elegant, showing pear, spice and hazelnut flavors. Sprightly and fresh, with a long finish.

6. Schramsberg Mirabelle Brut ($24): From California’s north coast. Crisp acidity and vibrant green apple, citrus fruit and mid-body depth that only good Pinot can bring.

If it has to be Champagne, you can’t go wrong with this standby from the largest Champagne house in France, though it won’t get you any points for originality.

7. Moet & Chandon Imperial Brut ($45): Scents of apple, pear, yellow peach, honey and citrus flowers. The palate is full and complex, but it fades into a surprisingly delicate finish that’s crisp and clean.

Champagne lets its hair down

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champagnechickenChampagne and caviar. Champagne and oysters. Champagne and whatever’s on that little silver tray they’re passing around. Dude, that’s SO Downton Abbey! How about taking off the tux and pairing your bubbly with a bucket of popcorn instead, or maybe some deep-fried morsel of heaven or a big, steaming slab of meat?

We did some investigating about unusual yet rewarding ways to match up your uncorked New Year’s Eve libation with food. Turns out the monocled world of Champagne is crawling with cheeky iconoclasts who are pairing it with everything except road kill. Who knew?

Wine Folly suggests that a nice Blanc de Noir would go with deep-fried mushrooms: “The earthiness in the mushrooms is complemented by the more rich fruity/earthy notes that you’ll find common in a Blanc de Noir.” Some good bang-for-the-buck American examples are easy to find: Chandon, J and Gloria Ferrer, for example.

Another curveball pairing recommended by Wine Folly is Champagne with mac and cheese, which is catching on at gastropubs in O.C.. “But consider a softer creamery cheese with flavor such as smoked gouda,” Wine Folly advises. “The Champagne needs to be acidic enough to cut through the cheese without being so strong as to ‘turn’ the cheese.”

The great thing about Champagne from a foodie’s perspective is that it contains high levels of acid and very little sugar. Those qualities help bring out a wealth of flavors so they can match up with a huge variety of foods, from mild meats such as poached sole and baked chicken to highly spiced Indian and Thai cuisine. (That’s where the bubbles help – they bring down the heat.)

Elise Losfelt, a young winemaker with Moët & Chandon, toured America last summer promoting her classier-than-thou product. Usually the august French house presents its bubbly like it’s the latest Louboutin, but this year the message was more proletarian: Champagne, the people’s drink!

One of the themes Losfelt hammered on was pairing bubbly with heavier meats.

“(Our champagne) has the presence and maturity that goes with meat or fish – veal, for example; or lamb could be nice.”

Losfelt thinks her label’s assertive and well-respected 2006 vintage can stand up to hefty sauces, too. “You don’t want just a light seasoning with this Champagne, but rather something creamy to counterbalance the acidity. I think I would love to have a risotto, maybe with a hint of lemon or some mushrooms. You could also go with roasted root vegetables.” You’re a wild woman, Elise!

Trend-savvy California mixologist Jenny Buchhagen senses a sea change in the way people are pairing Champagne: “I’ve noticed that younger people are drinking Champagne at the beginning of their meal and to start the night off.”

There’s been a down-home twist to the trend, too, Buchhagen says. “Our sommelier thinks that the best pairing with Champagne is potato chips. People are trying that quite a bit.”

Speaking of somms, a good one should be able to artfully match up bubbly with food throughout a meal.

Why not start with a prosecco to go with your light appetizer, then opt for something heavy for the entrée – some Australian sparkling Shiraz such as Mollydooker’s Goosebumps to go with that pork belly – and a Ruinart Brut Rosé to wash down your strawberries and ice cream? I can’t think of a better way to mark the calendar’s passing than ending your New Year’s Eve meal with this stunner from France’s oldest Champagne house.

Oh yeah, about that popcorn you’re thinking of having with your bubbly – slather it with truffle butter. It’s the perfect blend of crass and class.

Top 20 Calfornia wines for 2015

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red wine grapesIt’s been an arduous year of tasting, tasting and more tasting here at the Good Libations sampling office. All for you, dear readers; and, of course, for my year-end roundup of the top 20 Californian wines of 2015.

I didn’t just sit back and let those beauties come to me, no sir. I hit the road, travelling to almost every wine-growing region between here and Lodi (including Lodi – much less wild and woolly than I’d anticipated). I swirled, sniffed, slurped and spit out God knows how many Cabs and Chardonnays at the International Wine Writers Symposium, an event held in Napa each February that practically guarantees more wine than even the most devoted oenophile could stand.

So I’ve tasted and traveled enough to give a reasonable assessment, at least when it comes to wines from our fair state. I’m happy to report that this was a very good release year for most of California’s wine-producing regions. Many 2013 reds hit the market over the last few months, and it’s proving to be the phenomenal vintage many suspected it would be – especially the wines of the Central Coast, but those of Napa and Sonoma as well.

I’ve broken my choices into four categories to spread the love around. I don’t play favorites – I love all my grapes equally. And it’s too hard to rank them; I’ve listed each category alphabetically.

Some of these wines are inexpensive and/or widely available. Others couldn’t be procured even if you had a genie and three wishes.

Here’s the list:

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Meet the “father of modern absinthe”

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Ted Breaux High Res

Absinthe. That’s the stuff that makes people crazy, right? Didn’t the French Impressionist painters guzzle it by the gallon and have wild visions?

These are the kinds of questions that challenge anybody who wants to market Europe’s most misunderstood alcoholic creation.

Absinthe is a green liqueur, about 70 percent alcohol, made from fennel, anise and the bitter leaves of Artemisia absinthium, also known as wormwood.

After it quickly rose to popularity in mid-19th-century Paris, absinthe became demonized and finally outlawed based on the theory that it caused “absinthism.” Drinking it to excess led not only to alcoholism, but epilepsy, dementia and rapid death, the critics of absinthe warned.

But that heavy legacy hasn’t stopped Ted Breaux. Sometimes called “the father of modern absinthe,” Breaux broke the ban to make the category legal in the U.S. after 95 years.

I had a chance to talk to Breaux and sample his pricey product recently. I was prepared to be underwhelmed. Instead, I got hooked. (No, I didn’t start hallucinating.)

Raised in New Orleans, Breaux remembers absinthe as a lurking ghost throughout his youth. “I’d seen the famous Old Absinthe House down on Bourbon Street, which closed long ago. But other than that I never thought much about it.”

Ted started out as an environmental chemist. A gift of rare old absinthe piqued his interest in the legend that it makes those who drink it insane.

“In 1996 I came across not one but two bottles of vintage absinthe, and I drew samples from those and analyzed them. They were pre-ban. I was one of the few people alive that knew what real absinthe used to taste like.”

His tests were a revelation. “I was looking for something harmful, something that would explain the rumors about its bad effects. There was nothing wrong with it. You could put them on the shelf today and sell them. So that was the beginning of a whole paradigm shift in the understanding of absinthe. It had no narcotic quality.”

Thus Breaux began his absinthe-making odyssey. He determined to recreate the spirit, and he successfully took on the U.S. government to overturn our country’s ban on absinthe.

Under the label Jade Liqueurs, Breaux makes five distinctly flavored absinthes in a French distillery that was built by Gustave Eiffel; in the U.S. they range from $60-100 for a 750-ml bottle. No Corpse Reviver is complete without a touch of the stuff. It’s available at bestabsinthe.com. It’s also stocked at several O.C. bars, including La Cave, 25 Degrees, Marine Room Tavern, Tommy Bahama’s, The Cannery, Chapter One, the Ranch and Bayside Restaurant.

Breaux jokes that his absinthe should come with an owner’s manual. “There was a whole rush of people that came out and bought it when it first appeared in 2007. We expected that. We knew that following that, our plan was consumer education. We’ve been doing that for eight years. And it’s helped.”

Breaux stumbled onto a lucky circumstance early in his research.

“The original absinthe plant was never mothballed. They still produced chartreuse and things like that in it. It was relatively unchanged; it still had all the same equipment that made absinthe back in the 1880s.” Breaux was able to set up operations in the plant, located in the town of Saumur in the Loire Valley.

The first year, Breaux anticipated a rush of orders, so he produced 50,000 cases. “We worked all day, six days a week,” he said. The absinthe craze, though blunted a bit by the recession, has come roaring back. Breaux is the first to admit his timing was very lucky.

“We’re in the middle of a huge cocktail renaissance right now. It’s a global phenomenon.”

Strong, spicy and anise-flavored, absinthe has to be respected. Even its licorice-filled nose is enough to bowl over the faint of heart. Many bartenders use it as a wash only; that’s enough to impart its powerful flavor to a cocktail.

“Once you know the taste, you’re hooked,” Breaux said, and laughed. “That’s what happened to me anyway.”

A lunchtime chat with Jerry Lohr

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j. lohr

Jerry Lohr is a farmer, descended from a family of farmers. That’s one of the first things the burly, affable man will tell you, and throughout a long dinner table conversation about his life, his career and his winery, J. Lohr – which has grown rapidly in 30 years to become one of the largest in California – Lohr returns to that theme again and again. “I’m a farmer, not a winemaker. This man is one of my winemakers, and a very, very good one,” he said, pointing to Steve Peck, who had joined me and Lohr for lunch at his tasting room east of Paso Robles; Peck has overseen red wine production at J. Lohr since 2007.

Lohr’s skills, as well as his modesty, can perhaps be explained by his rural Midwestern roots. His South Dakota clan has farmed the prairie for generations. His Irish ancestors arrived in the 1880s; the Swedish side came a little later. “I learned that farming is hard. There are no shortcuts,” Lohr said of his days helping work the fields as a kid.

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Stocking stuffers

wine xmasJeez, it’s almost mid-December — time to thinking about doing some Christmas shopping. Here are a few gift suggestions for the wine, beer or spirits lover in your family. I tried to include every price range and find something for everyone, from the casual fan to the dedicated geek.

Babcock Pinot Noir

Walt Babcock started growing grapes in the Santa Rita hills back in the 1970s, when it was a lonely place for winemakers. Now the place is a respected pinot producer, and the Seal Beach restaurateur and his son Bryan are producing world-class pinot noirs and other decent wine for reasonable prices. “Pinot grapes from this area, especially the western side (of the valley), produce wine that’s very dark, very extracted; the yields are small,” Bryan Babcock says. “You get dark, boysenberry, underbrush-y qualities, with notes of juniper, thyme, rosemary and lavender.”

Cost: Babcock’s pinot noirs start at $25 per bottle

Web: babcockwinery.com

 The Bruery Preservation Society Membership

The Bruery’s Preservation Society is a club for fans of the nationally known Placentia craft brewer. Every three months, members receive a package of three different limited-release beers: a strong barrel-aged brew aged in bourbon or other spirit barrels, a sour ale aged in wine barrels, and a limited-release beer, likely from The Bruery’s Preservation Series of experimental beers.

Cost: $58.50 for three months

Web: thebruery.com

EdgeStar 34-Bottle Dual Zone Wine Cooler

Tired of watching your loved one opening the closet door and catching the wine bottles as they fall? Why not get them a state-of-the-art wine cooler? At a shade under $400, the EdgeStar 34-Bottle Dual Zone Wine Cooler gets the Wine Cooler Review’s top honors. Its compressor-based cooling unit will do the job even in regions with a higher ambient temperature, cooling your wines to as low as 41 degrees Fahrenheit – better than many more expensive models.

Cost: $399.99

Web: winecoolerdirect.com

Tru Vodkas

Here’s an inexpensive way to taste the potential of the craft-spirits trend. L.A.’s small Greenbar Craft Distillery makes a line of vodkas called Tru, and it comes in four flavors – plain, lemon, organic garden and vanilla – that exemplify the craft movement’s embrace of natural ingredients. One batch of Greenbar’s lemon-flavored vodka uses the zest of 2,000 lemons. Its vanilla vodka soaks up flavor from 5,000 vanilla bean pods. The distillery’s Tru Organic Garden vodka is infused with a savory combination of celery, dill, fennel, coriander, mint, pink peppercorn and other aromatic herbs and spices, then rounded out with vanilla.

Cost: $23.99

Find it: BevMo stores

Web: greenbar.biz

 Vinturi spirit aerator

From the folks who brought you the Vinturi wine aerator, here’s a similar gizmo that’s made for spirits. You doubt that spirits need aerating the way some wines do? In several blind tests it definitely improved the complexity and depth of expensive small-batch bourbons, peated and unpeated whiskey and some high-end single malt Scotches. It’s marked for accurate bartender’s pours and comes with a pour switch so you can measure, then aerate.

Cost: $40

Web: vinturi.com

 Whiskey stones beverage cubes

Don’t you hate it when the ice in your spirits melts to the point where it dilutes the taste? Whiskey rocks solve the problem ingeniously. Made of soapstone, they’re square, a bit beveled at the edges, and about the size of a small ice cube. Keep them in your freezer and plunk them into your favorite whiskey glass when ready. A little swish, a two- or three-minute wait, and voila! Your drink is slightly chilled – just enough to take the edge off, but not enough to make the flavors disappear, the way too much ice can do. And the temperature stays fairly constant for 15 minutes or more.

Cost: $20 for a set of nine

Web: teroforma.com

Dirty Sue cleans up with bartenders, martini lovers

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Eric Tecosky remembers what it was like in the Dark Ages of bartending. The improvising. The frustration. The questionable hygienic practices.

It all came to a head whenever he was called upon to make a dirty martini – a martini that was turned salty and a bit murky with the addition of some brine from olive jars.

“Dirty martinis were never my favorite drink to make,” Tecosky said. “We’d take the olives out of the jar, put them in a tray and dump some brine on them. When someone ordered a dirty martini we’d put our hands over the tray to act as a strainer and pour a little bit into the martini glass.” Yuck!

Things improved a bit when Tecosky got into the habit of putting the brine into a squeeze bottle instead.

But one night in the middle of a busy shift at his bar, Tecosky got into a real pickle.

“The squeeze bottle was empty. The olive tray was empty. There was a jar full of olives and no brine. I had to get another jar. It’s hard to open jars when your hands are all wet and you’re multitasking. It took me 10 or 12 minutes to make a drink that should have taken 45 seconds.”

Afterwards, the proverbial light bulb flashed above Tecosky’s head.

“I thought, ‘Why has nobody bottled olive juice?’ That started it all.”

A short period of research led Tecosky to the conclusion that the product didn’t exist. He set out to be the first.

But getting a bunch of olive brine isn’t as easy as you might think.

“Every time I called an olive farm, they said no. Turns out nobody grew enough olives to supply me with the juice. I also found out that there really aren’t that many giant olive farms in the U.S.”

Tecosky came close to giving up. “I didn’t want to import any olive brine from Spain,” he recalled.

Finally, he struck gold. Well, brine. “Literally the very last call I made was to a farm in California. It turns out they were also the largest olive importer on the West Coast.” They had brine to spare.

Tecosky spent several months at the facility (he won’t divulge its name or location, fearing imitators). Finally, after playing with endless variations, he got a mixture he liked.

“I didn’t want to change the basic formula too much; I just wanted to maximize that salty olive goodness,” he said.

By using high-quality olives and drawing the brine directly from the large barrels where they’re placed before being jarred, Tecosky got the taste he wanted. “You get more of an olive front and a salty finish, rather than really salty with a bit of olive at the end.”

The product took off like wildfire when it was introduced in 2005. “Literally the first piece of press that I got, within days I started getting e-mails,” Tecosky recalled. “People would say, ‘I have five jars of olives in my fridge with no brine in them. Do you sell this stuff retail? I’m desperate!’”

Dirty Sue Premium Olive Juice costs $5.99 at Total Wine & More for a 375 ml. jar. Tecosky recommends using at least half an ounce of it in a martini. “That’s the least amount you can use to give it the right flavor.”

Tecosky is branching out into other garnishes. “I’ve just launched a line of hand-stuffed olives and jalapeno-stuffed onions.” But his next big project is another maligned cocktail, the Bloody Mary.

“Finding the right formula for that will be a real challenge. It’s a saturated market already. There are a lot of decent Bloody Mary mixes out there. But, in my opinion, there isn’t a great one yet.” He laughed. “That’s where I come in.”