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Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Locavore and the Vintner - Wine, Food, and Ideology

    Should locavore restaurants by definition run locally focused wine lists? It makes sense, but the question has not been easily answered. It seems a contradiction to promote local products while the wine list is packed with foreign bottles, but this is exactly what serious restaurants like Chez Panisse, Camino, and the Slanted Door in the Bay Area are doing.

Locavorism usually sets a 100-mile radius as the acceptable boundary. In San Francisco this would include several hundred wineries. Obviously this radius in Bismark, North Dakota may not be as forgiving, but one would think that West Coast wine buyers would be able fill their lists with local bottles easily enough, but that is not always the case. The old criticism that California wines are too expensive and generally not food friendly is still very much alive and relevant to the restaurant industry today. It is unpleasant to hear this, especially when it feels like consumers still want fruit and oak (wine competitions certainly do). But, the locavore movement is full of promise in the long run for wineries. Food will undoubtedly be better for it in general, and the wine industry needs to take note of what consumers, restaurants, and palates in general are moving toward.

The simplest (though not always easiest) rule to follow for a restaurant is that if it grows together, it goes together. Hazelnut-crusted line caught salmon with a Ken Wright Pinot? Sure. But what if the St. Amour works better for a particular palate, and at a much friendlier price? What if the carbon footprint is of consideration to that particular establishment? France is far away, but Ken is not a low-input kind of guy. Sustainability clearly is a consideration for locavore restaurants. On the other hand, in a place like Sonoma County where everything grows, prickly pears to goat cheese to beets, Pinot Blanc to Mourvèdre, local is almost a banality and is just a quality/cost and ethical consideration.

The wine list, like a restaurant’s menu, is an incredibly important document. It is a solemn contract with the customer ­– a statement of intent and historical as well as ethical beliefs. It defines the space, the culinary tradition and the nature of the relationship to the customer. It also reflects generational trends, which is to say age plays a role on both sides. As the older generation recedes so has much of the dogmatic cabernet/chardonnay crowd, and with it service standards and expectations. Younger wine drinkers tend to like new things and have a more hands-on approach to wine pairing. Restaurants tune into this, as do the wine buyers who are by and large younger as well. Stodgy service is out and global sampling is in with clear varietal typicity as a reference point.

Some products are so culturally ingrained that availability sometimes trumps local. Few of us are willing to give up coffee, chocolate or tea simply because they are not locally produced. Public squabbles have taken place over winter tomatoes being removed from locavore burgers. Local is great, but do we really want to forgo classic pairings or paradigm regional wines? Are there maybe some things outside of the local-only scope, like canned and preserved foods or cheese? Maybe wine does not fit neatly into the movement at all.

On premise sales are more challenging then ever for wineries to establish and hold onto, and the eat-local movement has been quite fickle. The old criticism of overblown California wines being food-unfriendly has been heard and the pendulum is swinging back. Serious lists often want low alcohol and less fruit/oak density – check. The tighter buying dollar makes this easier to work toward as less new oak and hang time equals lower cost to the winery. But, though unique varietals are being explored avidly (showcased by T.A.P.A.S. and recently by the Wine Institute among others) the restaurant market still feels resistant, sometimes hypocritically bemoaning lack of customer familiarity or relying on the inherent caché (or sometimes confusion) of European wine, particularly in the value-driven price range.

Several wholesale barriers exist alongside the locavore’s wine dilemma for wineries. One glaring example is the Italian restaurant that loudly proclaims local product but runs only Italian imports, sometimes of questionable quality. In this case wine is used to validate the authenticity of the restaurant, often covering dubious culinary practices. This is less of a locavore dilemma than a branding issue. Imports are still doing very well, in particular the high quality and price point of Portuguese and Spanish wines, and simple economics are hard to fight. We should also remember that most restaurants in the mid-price range do not have a dedicated wine employee at all: usually just an overworked General Manager or aspiring bartender who does the purchasing. Convenience is paramount for them, like ordering everything from one book and spending less time hand selling your local wine. For the wine producer, price speaks loudly here, as do frequent checkbacks and sample bottles.

Wine is very much a central part of the locavore movement and food culture in general, and needs to be treated carefully. However it should probably not be treated as a fresh food product at all, and need not be held blindly to the same standards. It should be treated like regional cheese. Here is why:

Wine, for such a delicate and demanding product, can have surprising stability. In the simplest overview wine history is the history of its shipping movements. Bordeaux was built by the English, Champagne by the Czars, Marsala, Port and Sherry by being sent abroad. Syrah went from the North Rhone to bulk up thin and weedy Bordeaux wines. Primitivo from Puglia went north too. Caesar could always get his. Like canned tomatoes or Spam, packaging evolved and wine could go nearly wherever it was needed. Occasionally, it was even better for the transportation time. Wine is somewhat shelf stable with its acid, tannin, and bit of sulfur, while also incredibly sensitive and delicate. It has always traveled.

Wine is a fermented product. Like chocolate, cheese, yogurt, beer and some charcuterie, fermentation is a flavor enhancing preservation technique that increases longevity. It allows regional specialties, localized products with a history and context, to be marketed abroad. There are benchmark regional products that can be emulated but not equaled, like jamón ibérico de bellota or a Priorat bottle. Local can be better, sometimes not, price is often a deciding factor, and occasionally you just want the best. Sometimes the terroir of a place simply cannot be beat when quality is the ultimate consideration. One of the joys available through wine is the sense of somewhere else in a bottle, often in a way that complements the cultural context of the food being eaten. 

The dedicated locavore restaurant must ask themselves if it is reasonable within their paradigm to serve something like fresh local pasta with Alba truffles in San Francisco. And, is it then expected to pair to their patrons’ standards with local wine. What about cassoulet or bouillabaisse made with local products? Which tradition should be honored when you have an historical pairing precedent and local ethos? What about serving wine with an ethnic preparation that does not have a wine culture historically? Should the preparation method dictate the wine more than the products used? Absolutely in some cases. Many of the dishes prepared in locavore restaurants are based on regional dishes from half the globe away. Certainly there is a strong case for non-locavore wine pairings even when the product is local. Sonoma duck legs may be at their best with Cahors by everyone’s standards, and no local Malbec will be close. To simply say that local goes with local, or local goes with French is shallow and disingenuous. The small winery’s task is to show the quality, value and clarity of their product as part of the food dance. 

Some wine directors can also be surprisingly oblivious to what a well-trained kitchen can do to aid and tweak wine pairing. A quality kitchen can quickly adjust food to suit a particular vintage or style of wine, adding or subtracting acid, sweetness, salt or fat as needed to work a particular bottle, but this is rarely exploited in all but the finest restaurants, but it is not hard to do. A simple word from a server is all it takes. Warm-weather zin = less acid, not too much salt. Tannic petite sirah = high salt, relatively alkaline accompaniments with a touch of sweetness and good amount of body. Food need not be a lifeless item or the grand dictator, it is a part of the whole and somehow many locavore chefs have gotten away with lazy food preparations that are not taking part in the dance. Responsibility exists in every part of the restaurant.

For the small winery pursuing locavore accounts it is important to make the account personal; relying on your distributors’ reps will not suffice. The local restaurant probably wants local contact. The winery may not make that easy as we small operations have to do it all ourselves. The process may seem a little laborious compared to the convenience of large distributors with a delivery van in your neighborhood at all hours, but a face to face to explaining viticultural practices can be very important. Be ready to pop corks and explain why the bottles work with their program, which is completely different than reading technical sheets or mumbling about raspberry and spice. If possible, pour product side by side with a current glass pour that is comparable. The wine speaks for itself, but the producer shoehorns it into a program. Know their menu, know their chef, and if they have one, their sommelier or wine buyer, period. Offer to personally brief the staff and always leave a staff tasting bottle once a purchase comes through. The staff is the key to selling product effectively , so do everything possible to get past the gatekeeper and to them personally. 

Ultimately locavore restaurants will define their own unique boundaries, and the vintner should not give up hope if it is not necessarily a perfect fit. These restaurants attempt to make food more personal and transparent, and the wine producer should take the same approach in working sales as well - we are probably working toward the same consumer after all. Few restaurants have their wine buying set in stone, and a little extra effort and a personal touch can make all the difference.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Quacquarini Vernaccia di Serrapetrona = tasty red sparkler

     Well that was interesting. What we have here is a serious, unique sparkling red from central Italy that is a bit of a rarity and definitely worth a try with a few friends.

     Vernaccia is mostly associated with the famed Tuscan white grape that makes the (sometimes overpriced) whites of San Gimignano. However, this is the maybe/maybe not related red Vernaccia Nera grape that is not grown in Tuscany at all, but rather in the foothills of the Marche region. It is grown exclusively in the province of Macerata, and the DOCG is specifically for dry or sweet sparkling with a minimum of 85% Vernaccia Nera with various "local" varietals (Sangiovese, Montepulciano and Ciliegiolo) possibly constituting up to 15% of the blend. Vernaccia Nera is said to be spicy and a little wild at relatively low alcohol levels. It is a late ripener at the end of October. Not sure if this particular wine is blended or not, and it is also non vintage. It is "spumante" which indicates that it is a full sparkling wine, but many Italian sparklers run at a pressure a little below the standard 6 atmospheres, which seems to be the case here (Franciacorta blanc de blanc can be 4.5 - whoa, geek moment, sorry, but you should know that "frizzante" on a label means much lower pressure/fewer bubbles than spumante). And, the bunch pictured below, if it is accurate, indicates a pretty hefty weight and possibly high productivity, which might explain historically the need to dry some of it and still have it clock in at a modest 13% alcohol.

     The really neat thing about the Serrapetrona tradition is that the grapes are harvested traditionally, but only half are vinified at harvest. The other half are dried as in the Amarone or more correctly  "appassimento" or "passito" style for a couple of months. But, unlike Amarone, the wine from the dried grapes is combined with the wine from the undried grapes, and then this combination undergoes tank or Charmat fermentation to create the bubbles and is bottled under pressure to maintain them, unlike the Champagne method. So two different styles of wine made from (primarily or totally) the same grape are recombined and carbonated. Pretty cool...

     The label states "secco" which means dry, but the one possible complaint is that it is not completely bone dry. One of the practical difficulties of Amarone and other styles of wine production made from dried grapes is that they are incredibly hard to ferment to complete dryness. The process of drying changes the gravity of the must, bacteria increase, and yeast struggle much more. They are also fermented in the dead of winter, adding other environmental problems to the mix. Most Amarone have a bit of residual sugar, and though many wines are called dry at five grams of sugar per liter (most wine folk can sense sugar down to about three grams), in fact Amarone is allowed the exceptionally high level of 8 grams and can still be called dry, well above sensory threshold. This is the equivalent to about two good sized teaspoons of residual sugar per liter. It can be a little jarring at first if you are expecting a bone-dry wine, but persevere you should. The Italian tradition is quite flexible with stickies and sparklers often made from grapes used for still wines, we just don't see many of them imported as they are usually consumed locally and dry wines are considered more "serious".

     So, what does it taste like? First thing we thought was cool-climate Syrah. Looking past the bit of sugar that is present (and it is appropriate for this style) the wine is pleasingly round, rich and balanced. The fruit is full and plumy in the darker plum and berry spectrum. The acid is balanced and totally unobtrusive. Alcohol is unnoticed yet is part of the rich backbone. The wine most likely did not see any barrel time, or if it did it was in the large neutral botti, keeping the wine clear and focused. The partial drying of the grapes rounds and concentrates the tannins, producing a rich and velvety grip on the palate, just firm enough to be serious but refined and well polymerized like Amarone or an aged Bordeaux. And like an Amarone, the drying intensifies the natural spice components, adding more black pepper and savory spices to the mix, almost sort of a cumin quality comes through with a bit of that sweet cardamom spice finish seen in the North.

    For food pairing entree-wise, the bit of residual sugar is the rub. Just use it for a charcuterie and cheese plate. But, if you must match it to a dish, the trick would be to balance the sweetness of the wine with a sauce that had some sweetness. For example plain steak would be a problem, but steak with a slightly sweetened berry-licious sauce that just matched the wine would be ticket. Duck with berry or fruit infused sauce would be an obvious go to - cherry or Kirsch sauce for example. Pork and prunes? Venison is often prepared with a bit of sweetness in the sauce that might work well. One place I worked at served slightly sweet foie gras sauce with the grilled hangar steak. The wine can take beef (or roasted eggplant and peppers for the vegetarians) no problem.

     The other alternative is simply to call this a charcuterie and/or cheese plate red, where the sugar can balance the salt and the bubbles provide lift and freshness. This would be my first application choice and probably the most enjoyable as a proverbial meditiation wine. The verdict: definitely worth trying, and at approximately $20ish a bottle it is worth the unique experience. A quick internet search should yield a few outlets. This bottle was kindly provided by Anna Maria Knapp of Celebrations Wine Club who sources these sorts of unique wines regularly for her customers. It will be featured this month in her wine club program, which is also highly recommended.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Totally unprofessional olive mill repost

It is shameful to do this, but time is short. So, this is a repost. It is my repost but a repost all the same. We harvested a little over a ton of Tuscan blend olives today. The Arbequinas are about 2 weeks out. Did not get any cool pictures or glam shots. So, in the interest of olive season, we present "A trip to the olive mill, 2008":

The story of the olive goes back a few years, about 6,000. From Phoenicians to Athena to your favorite earth-toned Tuscan Villa (that actually bought theirs from Spain), the olive is a classic, kind of like Bottle Caps. Fast forward to the golden age of Kelseyville, Ca., and take a (very) brief trip through the processing of our 885 pounds of olives by Father Emilio Rafael.

Step 1. Dump picked olives into hopper, where a conveyor takes them through a brief fan-driven leaf remover and a very quick rinsing cycle. The water will centrifuge off, so that is not a problem. Then they enter:

The hammer mill that grinds them up, seeds and all, into an emulsified paste that will be worked for about 45 minutes, until the emulsion starts to break down and the water and oil start to separate, sort of like when your Bearnaise dehydrates or gets too cool or hot. This allows full oil release from the solids. It then will be pumped to the:

Horizontal centrifuge (notice the 2" hose full of olive paste coming in on the lower left of the picture). Spinning at 45,000 rpm this gives a rough separation of the solid matter, the oil, and the watery components that are pumped out through the screen in the middle of the picture. The partially processed oil is then moved to a final centrifuge

moving at 55,000 rpm that gives a final separation of oil from water and a final particulate removal down one micron! Here the beautifully green stuff trickles clean as a whistle into a receptacle that is far too large for the tiny crop. Actually, the oil still needs to settle for a couple of months. Like wine organic solids and components have just been altered, beaten, and traumatized. They they need to do their chemical dance of oxidation, precipitation, and general new life cycle type stuff. Out of the horizontal centrifuge burps the watery paste that remains after extraction, kind of an almondy smelling gross but kind of appealing gray sludge without a trace of olive oil essence.

Olives are slow work. In four days of picking we managed a lowly 885 pounds, yielding a grand 13.2 gallons of oil. Like Nick says, you can imagine in the old days that parents were always yelling at their children to turn off the damn oil lamps whenever they left the room. And a final picture of all three machines together, processing left to right.

Well, there youy have it. Of course yield should be three tons this year (we hope) which is hopefully in the 90-100 gallon range. The oil can actually vary quite a it depending on the growing conditions of the year, harvest time, potential insect damage (olive fly is always a concern) and other agricultural vagaries.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Sagrantino, Montefalco, to Tracy Hills

     Sagrantino is one of the new "in" grapes like Vermentino and Gruner Veltliner. There is a lot of hubbub over this grape and only about twelve acres are planted in the California. Ridgely Evers has a little a bit planted in Dry Creek Valley that famed nut ball Alice Feiring made lots of videos of herself slipping and sliding around a bin filled with a couple of hundred pounds of fruit in an attempt to stomp out a "natural wine" masterpiece. The other bit we know of (where Jacuzzi gets theirs) is from Tracy Hills AVA.

     Sagrantino is native to Umbria and twenty years ago it had dwindled to a paltry 250 acres. It was used in either Montefalco Rosso which is mostly Sangiovese and up to 15% Sagrantino blended in (which has a remarkable structuring effect) or it was made into a very wonderful but very limited sweet passito wine. Sagrantino is very tannic (at least in Italy - it is the inverse of our Aglianico problem in which all California Aglianicos tend to be even more tannic than the Italian ones) and is famed as having the highest phenolic content of any grape - which may or may not translate directly into tannin. It likes clay soils, handles heat well, and is a lighter cropper unlike neighboring Sangiovese's excessiveness.

     Stylistically it is quite interesting and clearly belonging to the "noble" class. Despite its stature it, like Nebbiolo, generally does not make a really dark wine (though Colpetrone's is pretty roasty). It has an almost ruby Bordeauxish color but with great clarity. The stunning thing is that like the other noble Italian reds it is FLORAL at the same moment it is dense, earthy and jammy. Know how Nebbiolo is split into high tone floral beauty and dark tarry reductive stank? Sagrantino does that same schtick but on a warmer climate blackberry fruit core. The wines tend to ripen in the 13.5 - 14.5% range and there is a bit of sun-ripened jamminess. Acidity is moderate. Though big and burly it is also elegant and light toned like Nebbiolo over all that rich earth and mineral. It does not have the reductive character but it is capable of great mineral length and a similar clarity and concission of flavor and top to bottom depth.

    The leading producers are Caprai and Paolo Bea and these two are the benchmarks and pricey. Bea pulls out ridiculous 50-day macerations while Caprai is a little cleaner and more updated without being "New World." Antonelli is an effective bargain at around $35 (it is a good clean option with no new oak) and is available. If you pick up a bottle, go for age and decant. Our four barrels finished up fermentation a week ago and are now doing extended maceration in the traditional mold. It keeps changing a little bit the same way that Nebbiolo tastes different from day to day and hour to hour. In Umbria it can not be released for 30 months after harvest, and that amount of time is probably just about right, unfortunately.

     If Sagrantino sounds interesting to you Gary Vaynerchuk devoted a Wine Library TV episode to it HERE - the ending when he tastes the Paolo Bea is one of the funnier things I have seen...