When Good Winemakers Go Bad

August 24, 2010

Cleaver Bill carefully lifted the plastic sack from behind the toilet. Removing the towel the bag was wrapped in, he wondered if the butterflies he felt were a result of his excitement or the fact that he caught the faintest whiff of the sludge inside. It didn’t matter. Now he had to concentrate. Using his prison issue boxers as a facemask, Bill removed the twisty from the top of the sack and peered inside. A cloud of warm gas flowed from the bag and over his shaved, tattooed head. Even through the shorts, his eyes burned and he knew better than to breathe.

 The mix looked different today. Gone was the color of crushed cafeteria oranges, replaced by a tepid gray. Gone too, were the chunks of bread crust he added for yeast, dissolved into the fermenting liquid. One by one, Bill lifted the thirty ketchup packets, the last additions to the concoction, and squeezed their contents into the bag. He had already ripped open each packet corner (he liked that part) so he could hold the bag with one hand and squeeze ketchup with the other. Omitting this step caused him to spill the sauce, making embarrassing stains on his orange jump suit. This was the good stuff–Heinz. He didn’t use the lesser generic brands which make the recipe taste kind of cheap. Those were the shortcuts the hacks down in cell B used.

 With unmistakable pride, Cleaver Bill resealed the bag and warmed it under the sink. He rewrapped the bag with the dirty towel, knelt by the toilet, and with reverence, placed it once again in its hiding spot. Bill didn’t care about the respect he would earn in the courtyard, he was just happy to be making the best hooch this block ever tasted.

 So why the ballad of Cleaver Bill? Because believe it or not, Bill is a good winemaker. He only considers using the best ingredients available and he strives to make the best product possible. Winemaker Gregory Graziano is a little like Bill except he has some of the best grapes from Mendocino County available for his wine. With this week’s recommendation, he skillfully integrates four Italian varietals and gets them to work together seamlessly like he was the Big House kingpin.

 Monte Volpe 2007, Prima Rosa ($11.99): Delicious and complex. Ripe blackberries and plums pop in and out doing short time while soft tannins lazily hang out on the palate like lifers.

Debunking the Rose Conspiracy Theory

August 10, 2010

My wife prefers to drink whites during the summer months. I’m always a bigger fan of the reds. Finding something that we can both agree on has sometimes been a quest as difficult as locating Big Foot. We find ourselves searching for that rare and elusive compromise–something that has the best characteristics of each. But is there really such a thing? Really? I asked the local liquor store clerk, and he pulled out some old blurry photos of a bottle he saw somewhere near the rear of his store back in ‘87. Through a toothless grin he told me he believes more bottles are probably still back there if I just hiked back far enough.

            “Those photos are fake!” blurted one of the customers listening in.

            “They are not,” chirped another. “I heard a critic from Napa review that wine just last week.”

            “That critic was born in Kenya!” shouted the first.

            “I heard there was a second critic on the grassy knoll.” chimed in a third.

             I left them there arguing and continued my search. I wandered the store, hearing rumors of sightings. One guy with a southern accent and a badly stained flannel shirt said he was abducted and forced to take a ride in a delivery truck that carried this mysterious wine and that all remaining bottles had been tucked away in a top secret, military facility somewhere in the desert. Another guy said he saw Elvis buy the last bottle just a few days before. I didn’t know what to believe.  

 Turns out, there is such a beast and it’s not all that rare. Rose has gained enormous popularity lately partly because it shares the best qualities of both red and white wines. When you taste this week’s recommendation, the fruity crispness of a white wine is front and center, but at the same time rare peeks of complexity and bolder red-like flavors rise to the surface like a camera shy dinosaur that’s hiding in a Scottish loch.

 Crios de Susana Balbo, Rose’ of Malbec ($11.99): With Crios, you get the best of both worlds–Sort of like a cat that can also flush birds or a dog that can use the litter box. Rose is meant to be drunk young and is at its best slightly chilled. Twenty minutes in the fridge should do it.

Petite Sirah. What’s in a Name?

August 2, 2010

When I was in junior high I joined the gymnastics team. To this day I don’t know what the appeal was. I don’t follow the sport, I wasn’t raised by former gymnasts, and I don’t particularly like wearing tights in front of people. Perhaps even at that age I had an appreciation for the art of such controlled strength (although at 5’9” and 115 lbs. my build was a rather imperfect medium to display that art). The rings, in particular, held my interest. In fact I worked so hard on them that the team dubbed me “Ring Man.” Soon the time came for our first meet where all the parents were invited to watch, and when my turn came to do my routine, the entire team hoped “Ring Man” would score well and put us ahead.

 I was lifted to the rings by the coach and all eyes in the gym were glued on me. The problem became apparent immediately. Rather than concentrating on the routine, Ring Man let himself become distracted by his buddy off to the side who was trying to make him laugh. Using all my efforts to hold it together, I had nothing left for anything more than just hanging on to those rings and the seconds awkwardly passed. Eventually an ugly, silence filled the gym. Everyone waited. There was no routine, no maneuvers, no movement at all; just a skinny kid hanging from the rings shaking with laughter. After an eternity, I let go, dropped to the mat, and with a red face saluted the judges. To my surprise a loud, robust applause erupted as the team and the parents showed their appreciation for the effort. They all saw what was happening off to the side, and while it wasn’t a good gymnastics routine, it was a memorable performance.

 So what’s the parallel between that story and Petite Sirah? Here it is, and it’s a weak one: Petite Sirah has no more to do with being petite or Sirah than Ring Man had to do with being an ace on the rings. Both were misnamed. Rather than showing petite, light, delicate flavors, Petite Sirah displays bigger, bolder, darker characteristics. Unlike Syrah, Petite Sirah displays a fuller body, heavier structure, and is often more tannic. While the two are often blended together, they are distinctly different grapes.

 Although different than Syrah, this week’s recommendation still gives a memorable performance. For the price, it’s a gold medal contender.

 Concannon 2007, Petite Sirah ($14.99):  Dark chocolate and pepper hang suspended on the finish like a laughing gymnast.      

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