Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Finding the Greatest Pleasure that a Thing has to Offer

While taking a long walk the other day after work, I stopped in at a wine store where I used to shop, but never really go anymore. I very much like the woman who buys the wine there. She has an interesting and slightly frustrating job because the store is a little neighborhood place with no internet sales, they sell bottles to customers who walk in, that's it. Most sales are of the $10 variety, I would guess. And she has to keep the shelves stocked with wines that her customers want. But she is a devout lover of fine wine, has been in the business for 30 plus years, and she simply cannot carry many of the wines she loves the most, never mind hand-sell them to people who come in looking for a cheap bottle of white wine from the fridge.

Anyway, she was telling me about a trip she took this past spring, a junket, if you will. She said that she never goes on these things because she doesn't want to engage in any kind of quid pro quo. But this time the group putting on the trip told her "You've been buying wine from us for years and we want to say thank you, this isn't about getting you to buy anything." And so she went to Spain, to Galicia and to Rioja.

She had a great time, ate and drank well, and loved seeing Spain - she hadn't been in 15 years. She recounted an experience that particularly moved her, and I will try to retell it from her perspective:
We had lunch after tasting in the morning, and the lunch ended at something like 4:30, so I went back to the hotel and rested for a while, and then we met again at 6:00 and spent almost two hours walking through the vineyards. After that we had a long tasting in the winery, and then sat down to dinner in the winery at 10:30! They served us a special kind of Ibérico ham, an aged ham by the producer Joselito, considered to be the very best in Spain for Ibérico. The hams can age for years. We ate a 3 year old ham and it was carefully sliced and served on its own and I loved it, so complex. The next morning on the bus, our guide who was a winemaker and very passionate about Spanish cuisine, was almost tearing his hair out, saying that the ham was served all wrong! He said that it was sliced entirely too thick, first of all, and that the texture was therefore wrong. And secondly he said that the temperature in the room was too cold - it was cellar temperature. This special kind of ham should be served at room temperature so the oils that provide the special aroma and flavor come to the surface of each thin slice, so that the fat literally melts in your mouth. Too cold, and you miss out a big part of what makes the experience so special.

Wow, I thought, this guy is really serious about this ham. I didn't think much more about it until a day or so later in Rioja while having lunch at another winery, when they served another Joselito Ibérico ham, this one a little younger, maybe 2 years aged. And this time, it was perfectly sliced, and served at room temperature. And it was remarkable how much better it was, the aromas and flavors more profound.

Does this story remind you of anything?

I left the store and continued my walk , and I thought about how some of the most special things we can eat and drink require several kinds of knowledge and experience in order to appreciate them at their fullest. Imagine if an average citizen, a person who drinks wine from time to time but isn't in the game were to be served a bottle of La Tâche. They might be told by their host that this is one of the finest examples of Burgundy wine, or of any wine. And imagine if it were served straight out of a refrigerator at 38 degrees. Or if it were served from a cabinet in the kitchen right next to the stove at 88 degrees. Or if it were served in a water glass. The wine is still La Tâche, but served like that it will not demonstrate its full potential as one of the world's greatest wines. Of course this is true not only for La Tâche but for a $16 bottle of Muscadet, too. Served too warm, it's just not as charming.

When I am experiencing a new wine, I love it when the person introducing me to the wine can teach me how to appreciate it at its fullest. For example, I recently learned that brown Sherries, Amontillados and Olorosos, tend to show best when served in a smaller glass, like a copita (assuming it is a quality glass), and Fino and Manzanillas tend to show better in a white wine glass. I would have assumed the other way around, maybe. I want to know these things, or at least hear about them and test them for myself, if I'm going to spend my money on good Sherry. If I were to buy Ibérico ham, I would hope that the purveyor would teach me the best way to enjoy it, especially since it costs about $85 a pound.

It can be tricky when the tables are turned. If I am a guest and some one is serving something to me, and if I happen to know that they are doing so in a way that prevents the wine (or food) from showing at its best, it is tempting to say something, to offer friendly advice. And if it is a close friend, some times I find a way to do that. The occasion rarely presents itself with close friends, however, as my close friends all seem to know so much more about these things than I do. When it's not a close friend, there's nothing to do but to happily enjoy what's being served however it's being served. At a restaurant I don't say anything either, unless I'm served a wine in glasses that are plainly wrong, and even then only if I know that the restaurant has a better glass they could easily grab for me from behind the bar. And still, I feel awkward doing even that.

I wish that I could find a non-awkward way to share whatever it is that I know with people, or to ask for things at restaurants that I know will improve my experience. It's so hard to do so without coming off like a fastidious little jerk, no matter how cool one is when asking. It's worth thinking about these things though. It's not about being a snob, it's about learning to find the greatest pleasure that a thing has to offer, and that's something that I hope I will never stop doing.

A link to a nice article, although outdated, about Ibérico ham.


Anonymous said...

Can't agree more. Shared a bottle of Chablis Les Fourchaume 09 with a friend and he didn't really like it - the serving temperature was a little cold and I didn't have enough time to warm it up (only an hour between lectures). It was a pity really, coz all he saw was the negative side of the wine. I wished he could have experienced what I knew, but maybe another time :) Love your comments on the Iberico!

Eric said...

Check out the jamon Iberico at Pata Negra in the East Village!

Anonymous said...

hmmm i wonder what store this is... brooklyn or manhattan? is it frankly wines in tribeca? hmmm.

Joe Manekin said...


iberico and jerez, how can I not comment?? Kudos to the shopowner; she's been doing this nearly as long as I've been alive and it's not an easy way to make a living. Especially as a neighborhood shop.

A similar iberico anecodte from my trip in March. I was eating dinner in arguably the best restaurant in Haro (for what that's worth), with a very good Rioja winemaker and his wife who used to market iberico ham (now she sells wine). I commented on what I viewed to be one of the finest charcuterie plates I have ever eaten. The winemaker rates it "better than average." To him, the chorizo was particularly good, but the jamon iberico was just ok. He says that even the best iberico is only at its finest in the warmer, more humid climes of Andalucia. Not in Rioja, and certainly not in land locked Madrid.

As for sherry, I enjoy fino/manzanilla and brown sherry in riedel ouvertures (red). Occasionally, even in red burgundy stems. When you come out here next, though, I'll serve 'em how you want 'em.