Tag Archives: wine & spirits

Dairy of the Gods

Staying on the topic of dairy (from my last post), this is the September 26 entry in my forthcoming book, Swallowing Time, Drinking History. An Almanac of the World’s Most Important Beverage.

“I’d rather see you drink a glass of wine than a glass of milk. So many people drink Coca-Cola and all these soft drinks with sugar. Some of these drinks have 8 or 9 teaspoons of sugar in them What’s the good of living if you can’t have the things that give a little enjoyment?”

– Jack LaLanne (26 September 1914 – 23 January 2011). The first American fitness and exercise expert

India is not known for its vineyards, although there is a primary grape-growing region, Nashik, a couple hundred kilometers northeast of Mumbai (Bombay). While there are about 50,586 hectares (125,000 acres) under cultivation, only one percent produce wine. There are references in the Vedic Scriptures that indicate wine-making in India is at least 5000 yeas old. I must confess, I have not tried any of the wines as Indian cuisine, in my mind and palate, does not seem to lend itself to a pairing.

What I do love after, or before, a meal – or, to be honest, anytime of the day or night, is lassi.

Lassi is a traditional Indian ‘drink’ that comes in two varieties, salted lassi and sweet lassi. Both are made of some, or all, of these ingredients: yoghurt, milk, water, and spices for the salted, or sugar for the sweet. Additionally, there may be rose water, cumin, a sprinkle of ground almonds or pistachios and mango or other fruit flavorings depending on the sort ordered. As it is served cold it is a splendid treat on a hot day. In some places it is served thick enough to eat with a spoon, in others it is more liquid and simply drunk as a beverage. I think the best is mango lassi, using fresh mangoes. I will go out on a limb and make a declarative sentence, challenging any and all comers, that the best place to get lassi is at the original Lassiwala’s (Since 1944) near the Panch Batti Mod on MI Road in India’s ‘Pink City,’ Jaipur. They filter their water so there is no danger of getting a traveller’s day of familiarity with the hotel toilet after sipping, or gulping, their specialty. In fact, it is the only thing they sell.

The Original Lassiwala
The Original Lassiwala, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India

As one might expect, imitators have sprung up to try and sift off Lassiwala’s customers. Many of these are on the same street just a few doors away but none favorably compare. Accept no imitations! Look for the best and when you see their number, Shop 312, next to the alley and across from Niros Restaurant, duck in. (In fact, resident Indians must feel the same way; there will be lines of people awaiting their serving at Lassiwala and not a single customer at the other establishments. I haven’t had the stomach to try any of them.)

Lassiwala opens at 7:30 a.m. and serves until they run out – which can be as early as 1:00 p.m. so get there early. The shop is small, just a hole-in-the-wall, so you stand and eat on the sidewalk, fending off the occasional forlorn woman begging for a coin. The lassi is served in two sizes, small , 40 rupees and large, 60 rupees, in porous clay ‘glasses’ that you discard in the trash bin in the alley. (60 rupees is about 95 US cents at the current exchange.)

Oh… when you visit, trust me, get a large.

Lassiwala Token
Token used at Lassiwala. When you order and pay the cashier places one, corresponding to your order, on a metal tray in front of him. This signifies that you have paid. The token pictured is for a Small – one that has never been used for my purchases!

To Re-cork or Not To Re-cork

We were the pioneers in recorking wine about 20 years ago,” said Eric de Rothschild, owner of Château Lafite Rothschild. “We sent our cellarmaster around the world to recork because I was getting very aggravated at our wines not being recorked at the right time…” No longer. Lafite Rothschild and most other Bordeaux first-growths, as well as Burgundy’s Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, now routinely refuse requests to recondition old bottles, which can include replacing the label, foil capsule and cork. It was often a thorny process.

– Wine Spectator, “The Perils of Recorking.” Posted July 25, 2005. http://www.winespectator.com/webfeature/show/id/The-Perils-of-Recorking_2639

 

Only one bottle in my cellar was ever re-corked, a 1927 Cockburn Vintage Port. The job was done by Whitwhams, a London merchant no longer in business. I recommend an expert for re-corking if the wine is old, delicious, fragile and/or valuable – and why would you do it if the wine did not meet at least three of the these criteria? It was Whitwhams’ policy to include the original cork (and capsule, if one existed) in a little plastic bag tied to the neck of the bottle. The original cork was pretty dessicated and fragile but, of course, I only saw it in its post-operative state. I am pleased to report the patient, after many drinker’s accolades beginning in the 1930s and the granting of legendary status by the world’s wine press, proved to be truly splendid and, dare I say, extremely unctious, when it received last rites from me in 1997.

I once thought about having my ‘82 Ch. Lafite Rothschild ‘reconditioned.’ The 1982 Bordeaux are often described as the first ‘modern’ vintage and I worry about this as changes in practice or design often include mistakes and problems. How many of us buy an automobile in the first year of dramatic model modification only to experience unforseen issues? Lafite’s cellarmaster formerly put in appearances every few years in the U.S. to re-cork and top-up bottles originating from his cellar. I decided against the job after trying one of my bottles and finding it, and its cork, sound. As in health care, why risk an operation unless it is really necessary?

Now I wonder if I shouldn’t have had those bottles re-corked when I had the chance.  Most wineries in France now refuse to perform this service after a series of bad experiences. It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that some enterprising swindler will try to ‘enhance’ a counterfeit wine by getting it reconditioned by the winery itself in order to pass off a fake. What better cachet than the stamp of approval by the real deal? Even if the cellarmaster tastes the wine he is re-corking issues are bound to arise. Who wants to tell the owner of expensive wine that his wine is not what he thought he bought?

If you decide to perform this delicate operation yourself read up on the procedure and have everything at hand when you do it. I would only consider home re-corking if I had half a case or more of the wine and the corks were obviously going. If the ullage, that is, the fill of the bottle, is significantly lower than when shipped I would sacrifice one bottle to ‘top off’ the others. (Sacrifice is hardly the correct word as I would drink the balance of the bottle!)

I have read of people putting glass pellets in the ullaged bottle to bring the fill up to a proper level – or even using a younger wine from the same producer, but this will certainly decrease the monetary value of the wine, if that matters to you. The primary thing to maintain, when re-corking, is wholly antiseptic conditions. When it comes to reconditioning bottles of wine, cleanliness is next to godliness!

 

For Him The Bell Tolls

Wine is one of the most civilized things in the world and one of the most natural things of the world that has been brought to the greatest perfection, and it offers a greater range for enjoyment and appreciation than, possibly, any other purely sensory thing which may be purchased.
– Ernest Miller Hemingway (21 July 1899 – 2 July 1961), Death In The Afternoon, 1932.

Ernest Hemingway is one of those writers we associate with machismo, cocktails and rum. But he liked a good bottle of wine as well as any wine fan and wrote of it eloquently.

“In Europe we thought of wine as something as healthy and normal as food and also a great giver of happiness and well being and delight. Drinking wine was not a snobbism nor a sign of sophistication nor a cult; it was as natural as eating and to me as necessary.” – A Moveable Feast, 1964

I like that. It speaks to the fundamental nature of wine and its place alongside any, or every, meal. It is not for nothing that those who consume a glass or two each day live longer than the non-drinker. Of course, quality of life is also important, for living long is no boon if one is not healthy enough to enjoy a life extended. In The Sun Also Rises, published during U.S. Prohibition, Hemingway included wine (along with a variety of other alcohols) almost as if it were a character:

“I drank a bottle of wine for company. It was Chateau Margaux. It was pleasant to be drinking slowly and to be tasting the wine and to be drinking alone. A bottle of wine was good company.”
The Sun Also Rises, 1926.

“This wine is too good for toast-drinking, my dear. You don’t want to mix emotions up with a wine like that. You lose the taste.” – Count Mippipopolous in The Sun Also Rises.

In a scene where the protagonist, Jake Barnes, and his buddy, Bill Gorton, are fishing the Irati River in the Pyrenees (an area locals call Auniak which, I believe, means ‘barrier’) they cool their wine by putting it in the water. I tried this once by jamming my bottle amid ‘stable’ flotsam by the bank and falling asleep for an hour at my campsite. In my homage I lost a 1978 Bordeaux for not tethering the bottle at the neck with a knot.

The conventional wisdom surrounding Hemingway’s self-inflicted death is that it sprang from a major crisis, an inability to write a tribute to President Kennedy just after the 1961 inauguration. He had returned to Idaho from electroconvulsive therapy at the Mayo Clinic and found that the treatment pretty much wiped his memory. Now, medicine has found and implicated a new culprit, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), such as we are seeing in retired pro-footballers where an accumulation of tau protein associated with dementia and degeneration of brain tissue has led, it is alleged, to numerous self-inflicted deaths.

It appears that Hemingway’s self-inflicted death may have been assisted, or even put in motion, by the many concussions he sustained over the years: mortar fire (Italy, 1918); skylight accident (Paris, 1928); auto accident with John Dos Passos (Billings, Montana, 1930); auto accident (London, 1944); thrown from motorcycle while evading Nazis (Normandy, 1944); auto crash (Cuba, 1945); slipping on the deck of his boat, Pilar, (Cuba, 1950); Cessna plane crash (Uganda, 1954, minimal injuries); head-butt to break escape window in the crash of a de Haviland Rapide – the rescue plane sent for him after the Cessna crash! (Uganda, 1954); auto crash (1958) and assorted other physical knocks. Then there was, of course, the major league drinking he courted much of his life.

As if the above litany were not enough we now know he also had, as probably did his father, the blood disorder hemochromatosis, an inability to metabolize iron leading to physical and mental deterioration. This genetic fact might account for three (perhaps four) of his five siblings committing suicide as well as the self-inflicted death of his grandaughter Margaux. He once told Ava Gardner that he spent “a hell of a lot of time killing animals and fish so I won’t kill myself” (Hotchner, 1966.)

Wine was a part of Hemingway’s life to the very end: the day before he shot himself he went on a picnic lunch where he enjoyed wine and, in the evening, even went out to dinner with his wife Mary.

I, like most I believe, prefer to remember him in the early dawn, sitting down to write, freshly sharpened pencils lined up, changing the face of American literature.

“In wine most people at the start prefer sweet vintages, Sauternes, Graves, Barsac, and sparkling wines, such as not too dry champagne and sparkling Burgundy because of their picturesque quality while later they would trade all these for a light but full and fine example of the Grand crus of Medoc though it may be in a plain bottle without label, dust, or cobwebs, with nothing picturesque, but only its honesty and delicacy and the light body of it on your tongue, cool in your mouth and warm when you have drunk it.” – Death In The Afternoon, 1932.

Goethe: It Depends On the Vintage

Wine rejoices the heart of man and joy is the mother of all virtues.

— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
(28 August 1749 – 22 March 1832)

 

On a clear and beautiful day in late December 1999, wandering around the town of Malcésine on the north-east shore of Lago di Garda (Lake Garda, Italy) we happened to see a bronze plaque on a building and, as I always do, walked closer to investigate. It was one of those “a famous person slept here” signs. In this case it was for Goethe and I was delighted because the stop became a featured episode in his escape-from-official duties-journey that had been spawned by a period of mental turmoil.

Here J.W.Goethe made a drawing of the castle in Sept. 1786

Here J.W.Goethe made a drawing of the castle in Sept. 1786

Goethe’s visit to the city on September 13, 1786 was unplanned. Intending to travel by oared boat from the north end of the lake, at Torbole, to the south near Sirmione and thence to Italy’s archaeological wonders, he encountered a storm with contrary winds. Lacking sufficient manpower, the boat pulled into port at the city of Malcésine to wait it out. Always a man of industry, Goethe assembled his drawing instruments at a quiet spot on Via Castello to sketch Scaliger Castle. The plaque above commemorates the location.

Finding a man with a German accent engaged in detailed drawing of the fortress, local citizens thought he might be an Austrian spy and reported his sketching activity to authorities. Goethe recounts the story in Italian Journey, his book published many years (1816-1817) after the incident:

This evening I could have already been in Verona, but here nearby there was this majestic wonder of nature, this delightful picture called Lake of Garda, and I did not want to miss it. I was profusely rewarded for having taken the longer way.

Rowing was impossible against the strong wind, so we were forced to land at Malcesine. This is the first Venetian village on the eastern shore of the lake Garda… I want to take full advantage of this stop, especially to draw the castle beside the lake, which is a good subject…I made a sketch today when I passed in front of it.— September 12th, 1786, Malcesine, Italy.

Next day: As usual, I spent some time at the old castle which is open to all because it lacks windows and doors and has no custodian or guards. In the castle courtyard I sat in front of the tower built upon a rock. I found a cozy place to draw, sitting near a closed door three or four steps above the ground…

Goethe was brought before the local magistrate based on the suspicion he was an Austrian spy. He was saved from imprisonment, or worse, by a man familiar with Frankfurt, Goethe’s hometown. The man testified that Goethe was, indeed, German and and not Austrian. (The Habsburgs ruled much of northern Italy and there were always tensions with the independent bordering states such as Venice that controlled eastern shore areas of the lake.)

Scaliger Castle has a small museum about Lago di Garda, Goethe and Monte Baldo, the peak that towers over the town. The museum has a room dedicated to Goethe and his visit with copies of the sketches that caused all the trouble. Goethe said that it was in Malcésine that he began to write Iphigenia.

The internet has many instances of a story about Goethe that I have been unable to ferret out in an original source. All the instances of the story must have been originally copied from one source as they all read alike, word for word:

Goethe, a famous German poet, once was asked, which three things he would take to an island. He stated: Poetry, a beautiful woman and enough bottles of the world’s finest wines to survive this dry period! Then he was asked what he would leave back first, if it was allowed to take only two things to the island. And he briefly replied: The poetry! Slightly surprised, the man asked the next question: And Sir, what would you leave back if only one was allowed? And Goethe thought for a couple of minutes and answered: It depends on the vintage!

As a side note about the area, three kilometers south of the town is the village of Cassone, home to the Aril River, the world’s shortest at 175 meters long!

Ein echter deutscher Mann mag keinen Franzen leiden,
Doch ihre Weine trinkt er gern.

A true German can’t stand the French,
Yet gladly he drinks their wines.

— Goethe, “Auerbach’s Cellar”, Faust, Part 1 (1808)

Ray Bradbury

Dandelion wine. The words were summer on the tongue. The wine was summer caught and stoppered.

— Ray Bradbury (22 August 1920 – 5 June 2012). Dandelion Wine, Chapter 3, published 1 January 1957, developed from the short story “Dandelion Wine” in Gourmet Magazine, June 1953.

In this semi-autobiographical book of small-town, midwestern boyhood in the summer of 1928, Bradbury uses dandelions as symbols of a special seasonal rhythm, metaphorically contained in the 31 bottles of wine his grandfather makes from a plant commonly described as a weed. The wine is for drinking but is also stored as medicine against the infirmities of winter.

Dandelion petals, lemon juice and sugar were the favored ingredients in the making of this wine during my midwestern childhood. Fruit wines of every possible kind were much preferred to those made from our native vitis labrusca grapes. They lacked the undesirable foxy, musky qualities of the ubiquitous labrusca grape variety. And ubiquitous they were as we might recall from the fact that Norse explorer Leif Ericsson (ca. 970 – ca. 1020) named the newly discovered coast of North America ‘Vinland.’ (Leif descended from a family of travelers, although they were not wanders-by-choice: his grandfather was banished from Norway for murder and moved to Iceland and his father was banished from Iceland, moving to Greenland…. Westward Ho!)

I have always thought of dandelion wine, and the fruit wines in general, as proof that people will improvise with whatever comes to hand to get a buzz — not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with dandelion wine. I’ve tasted it. I simply find the distilled essences of the fruit wines to be better drinks than the wines themselves.

East Indies Golden

Tiring of my normal drink for a hot afternoon (pastis), I thought, today, of having something else. A gin and tonic perhaps? No, too predictable, but maybe something akin. I went to the liquor cabinet to see what I had to add to this standard combo and saw an unopened bottle of Rose’s Sweetened Lime Juice.

So, I tipped a generous pour of Bombay gin over ice, added an equal amount of Rose’s Lime and topped off with tonic water. The drink was a golden amber color and was delicious, if a tad on the sweet side. Looking up this recipe to see if someone had already named it I saw that it was a gimlet (gin, Rose’s) plus tonic.

So… I am calling it an East Indies Golden in honor of the South Asian subcontinent’s history with all these ingredients!

I am making tonic water ice cubes for tomorrow’s drink and will vary the amount of lime juice to find the perfect balance. Stay tuned.

New Mexico Wines

Part 1: The First Vines

Grapes were first grown in the New World near the middle Rio Grande River of New Mexico. Initially, Franciscan monks’ only access to sacramental and drinking wine was from casks shipped from their home country, Spain. And, it had to enter through the ports in Mexico and thenceforth northward to Nuevo Mexico – a journey of several months. As wine exports provided one fourth of Spain’s foreign revenue, a 1595 law forbade export of vines to the New World. Around 1629, the Franciscan padres, tired of the logistics and expense, smuggled vines from Spain to New Mexico, a classic example of our New Mexican do-for-self ingenuity. A Franciscan and a Capuchin planted those first vines near what is now the city of Socorro. Appropriately, the variety was the Mission grape, a vitas vinifera and it is still going strong in the state.

There are now twenty plus wineries in New Mexico producing about 350,000 gallons of quality wine on 1200 acres (circa 5 square kilometers.) While substantial, this is still less than was produced during the heyday of New Mexican wine making. Production rose from 16,000 gallons in 1870 to 908,000 gallons in 1880 with twice the acreage of the vineyards in present-day New York state. Alas, floods, then Prohibition, then more floods put paid to the industry. The historic 1943 flood kicked the final leg from under the state’s wine makers. It is only in the last score of years that wine-making has enjoyed a renaissance, especially with cold-hardy French-Hybrid varieties pushed by European investors.

We frequently have out-of-state visitors, as does almost everyone who is fortunate enough to live near Santa Fe, and one of the things we always try to do is visit the vineyard nearest us: Estrella del Norte Vineyard owned and worked by Richard and Eileen Reinders. They have a beautiful tasting room and host parties and neighborhood pot-lucks where their wines are available. Richard’s wines, along with many other New Mexican wines, have won numerous awards. Here in the Land of Enchantment wineries feel free to break the bounds of tradition and experiment. Probably the best-selling wine in our northern part of the state is a merlot laced with chocolate. Although I am more of a traditionalist in my wine enthusiasms, it’s not bad and I suspect will introduce many non-drinkers to the gift of the grape.
Article © 2013 Wilbur Norman

 

Photograph © Estrella Del Norte Vineyard
Photograph © Estrella Del Norte Vineyard