Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Thank You Bill Maxwell

Bill Maxwell, the New Jersey farmer is retiring at the conclusion of his market season this year. I've been buying his vegetables and fruit for about 10 years now and in that time I've come to see his as the finest and most consistent produce that I can buy. And it's not just me - in the peak spring and summer months it's necessary to get to Maxwell's stand before 8:00 AM if you want baby artichokes, asparagus, okra, and other wonderful things that he has in short supply. And let me tell you that at 7:30 AM on a summer Saturday you are jostling over a small bin of fava beans with the owner of Franny's and several other Brooklyn restaurants.

Over the years I've developed a little bit of a friendship with Bill. We don't go out for beers or anything. It's the kind of friendship you develop with someone when you do personal business with them for a long time. I look forward to Saturday mornings. We always chat a bit - baseball, the weather at his farm, the state of our lives post-divorce, whatever. His hands are rough like a coral bed and his weathered face is beautiful. His smile is warm and he's nice to children. He's a genuinely good man.

A few summers ago I took my young daughters to visit him at his farm in new Jersey. He helped them pick ears of sweet corn in the field, and we shucked and ate them right there. Every time I post photos of vegetables on this blog, from baby artichokes to shell beans to tomatoes, they are things that Bill grew. I can't begrudge him for retiring, but I do wonder how I will replace his food in my family's life.

Happy retirement Bill Maxwell! I will miss your wonderful food, and I will miss you!

I will miss your carrots.

I will miss your pole beans.

I will miss your cauliflower.

I will miss your limas.

I will miss your garlic - I got 20 stalks last week and will figure out how to preserve them.

I will miss your bell peppers.

I will miss your cucumbers.

And lord above, will I miss your tomatoes. I cannot tell you how much.

May your new post-retirement life bring you the same contentment that you brought to all of us through your work as a farmer.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Thanksgiving Wines, yet again.

This time of year I always feel like staying out of the internet chatter on what wine to drink with the Thanksgiving meal. But I just looked back and in almost every year that I've written this blog, I do in fact make some Thanksgiving recommendations. I first did this in 2006 and nothing about the way I approach this has changed. Although I got funnier in 2010, I would say.

Wines for Thanksgiving? In sum, keep it refreshing and lively, try to keep the alcohol to a minimum, and as a good friend of mine says, "You don't want your clients to remember you because of your fancy suit." Point being, it's not about flash. Quality speaks for itself and the wine isn't the point of your family meal anyway. But you do want to drink good wine, right?

Here's what I'm bringing this year, because I know that you cannot enjoy your Thanksgiving holiday without this vital information:

Cyril Zangs Sparkling Cider - 6% alcohol, dry, refreshing, made from apples. About $15. Delicious.

2010 Günther Steinmetz Wintricher Geierslay Riesling Sur Lie - 10% alcohol, almost dry, creamy and refreshing, made from grapes, about $23.

Emilio Hidalgo Fino Sherry - 15% alcohol, bone dry, refreshing, about $12 for a 750ml bottle. Okay, this one is not guaranteed to go over with the family, but wow it seems like it would make everything on the table taste better.

2010 Clos Siguier Cahors - 12.5% alcohol, fresh and fruity old vines Malbec that's easy to drink and of high quality. About $13.

2012 Domaine de Sablonnettes Le Bon P'tit Diable - 12.5% alcohol, fresh and fruity Cabernet Franc that's easy to drink and of high quality. About $15.

2011 Château La Grolet Cotes de Bourg - a soil expressive blend of mostly Merlot, a delicious and traditionally-styled Bordeaux wine that will give lots of pleasure at the table. About $14. If the first two red wines are "easier" to drink, this one offers greater soil expression and complexity. Consider decanting, unless it makes your family feel as though you are putting on airs.

There, now you can enjoy your holiday.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Drinking a Few Things from the Cellar

In 2005 I got into wine again, after a long time away. I bought some bottles and drank all of them. In 2006 I continued to buy wine to drink but I also bought some wines with the intention of cellaring them. According to my records I still have 18 of those bottles. I still have over 50 bottles of wine that I purchased in 2007.

There are bottles in that group that I hope to hold onto for a good while longer, and there are others that seem like great candidates for drinking over the next year or two. I think it was the VLM who once wrote that the beautiful thing about collecting wine is not necessarily the trophies you can open on a grand night with fellow wine lovers. It's that you get to a point when you can go into your own cellar and open a mature bottle, and you can do so on a Monday night, just because you feel like it.

For this to really work, though, I have to still like, or at least be interested in the wines I bought 6, 7, and 8 years ago. Have your tastes changed in the past 7 years? Mine have. But as I look through my cellar I see that there really aren't too many things that I am no longer interested in. That would be a great theme actually - a "bring-a-bottle-you-purchased-years-ago-but-no-longer-care-about" wine dinner.

As I look through my remaining purchases from 2006 and 2007, I see that the wines are mostly Loire Valley and Burgundy wines, and that I did better with the Loire selections. Huet, Chidaine, Clos Rougeard, Baudry, Foreau...hard to argue with that. The Burgundy wines are mostly villages and "lesser" 1er cru wines, and I bet they will be delicious. But they are not things I would buy today, for the most part. It's just a matter of price - there are many wines today I would prefer to buy with my  $45 than Voillot villages Volnay or Pommard, for example. That said, I am the proud owner of both wines and look forward to trying them.

So, I've started to dig in lately. In each of the past two weeks I've opened a bottle that I purchased a few years ago. Last Monday I made a simple dinner of skirt steak and vegetables and opened the 2005 Terrebrune Bandol. Yes, yes, I know, this sort of Bandol wine can take 20 years before it hits a true window of maturity. Here was my thinking - 2005 was a ripe year and the wine might be more generous than is typical. And before investing another 10 years in this wine (I have more than 1 bottle), why not check in to see how it's progressing?

I am a fan of Terrebrune - the wines can be great. I've had excellent examples from the '80s and early '90s. I love the rosé too. When they're good they are intensely powerful and sturdy wines but they're also graceful wines, not heavy. And they faithfully express the animale wildness of Mourvedre grown in this hot southern clime. This bottle was not so great, though. On the first night it was exuberant and pleasing in its ripe, deep, dark, and spicy fruit. But there was not a great deal of complexity and the finish tailed off in a rather drastic way, leaving not much more than an impression of tannins. On the second night the wine is more harmonious, the fruit and the tannins better integrated. But still, the wine did not speak so clearly of Bandol to me. Where is the musk, the leather, the soil? Maybe the wine is closed down, or maybe I'm just not going to be a fan of this sort of wine in the warm vintages.

I had much better luck this week. On Monday night the daughters helped me make a bunch of gray sole fillets for dinner. They seasoned some flour, dredged the fillets, kind of wiped their hands before touching everything else on the counter top, and we sauteed the fillets in butter. Ate them with a heap of rice and vegetables.

I opened a bottle of Muscadet, one of the great wines from that place - the 2004 Domaine de la Louvetrie Muscadet le Fief du Breil. I loved this particular wine when it was young and saved a bottle to see what would happen when it turned 10 years old. I made it past 9 years old, so that's close. The aromas were pure and clean, and pungent in that way that happens as wine ages. It smelled of preserved lemons and saltwater, and tasted predominantly of rocks, finished briny and long. If it sounds a bit austere, it was, but that can be a good thing, and this wine was compelling and delicious. And it seems as though it will continue to develop, and perhaps improve, for another decade. This is solid stuff. I spent $13.50 on it 6 years ago.

This is going to be fun, digging into some of the things I bought.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Sausages and Beaujolais Will Make You Feel Better

You know how when you go to your parent's place out of town because your dad is getting older and doesn't feel so well these days, and you want to help out and so you offer to seal the wood on the deck before the winter sets in? And you get up there where it's a solid 10 degrees colder than it is the city, and it's very quiet? And you walk by the lake and see the gorgeous fall colors? And you light a fire in the fireplace in the evening? And you feel generally happy and at peace?

But you're a city kid so you're not an expert on applying stain or sealant to wood on decks. And so you leave a little extra time and resolve to do it right. But you know how in the country it seems to get darker a little earlier? And so all of the sudden there's not a lot of daylight left and you're rushing? And you pack up, lock the house, and throw everything back in the car before doing the sealing so that when you're done you can just get in the car and drive home?

Well, my advice to you next time you do those things is to make sure that you take your keys with you before you seal the deck, so that you don't have to walk back onto the wood to get back into the house to retrieve your keys. Because then you have to re-seal the deck and that takes a little while, in only the light of dusk, and you feel like a real idiot.

But if you happen to forget your keys then here is one thing you can do:

Make yourself a hearty plate of lentils, real sauerkraut, and a fresh Kielbasa from Jubilat Provisions. You should probably throw a few chunks of smoked pork belly in with the lentils, too. Never mind that it was a long and cold drive home, and your hands still smell like sealant. Lentils, sauerkraut, and really good Kielbasa will make you forget how dopey you were with the deck. You are allowed to feel good again.

And use good mustard. This one is so good, I recently ate a spoonful, just right out of the jar. 

Oh - and drink Beaujolais too. Preferably from a ripe year, hopefully with a few years of bottle age. See? That's not so bad. Maybe next weekend there will be leaves that need raking, or wood to chop, or something.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Burgundy Price Sadness, Champagne as Consolation

I love Burgundy wine and would happily drink both the reds and the whites several times a week for the rest of my days. I do not like, however, paying for Burgundy wine. It's not that I refuse to spend money on wine - I splash out a bit here and there. Over the years, though, I like to think I've become smarter about how I spend my wine dollars. Now, when I spend $25 on a bottle of wine I want to buy something that represents the best wine I can get for that $25. When I spend $50, I want the best wine possible for $50. And it makes me sad to admit to myself that in the price range where I spend most of my time, I no longer think Burgundy represents the best I can get for my money.

Wine old timers will talk about the days when you could buy Roumier Bonnes Mares on the shelf for $100, and other sordid tales. I was not buying wine in those days. But even 5 or 6 years ago it was possible in NYC to buy truly top quality Burgundy wine for $75 - wines from great terroir that would improve over time and reveal great detail and nuance, and would be utterly delicious. The top Chevillon Nuits St. Georges 1er Cru wines were approximately that price. Fourrier 1er Crus from Gevrey, D'Angerville 1er Crus, and plenty of other wines that are truly exceptional. Those wines cost way, way more now. Today my favorite wine store in the world sent out an email advertising 2011 Burgundies and Chevillon 1er Cru Les Cailles costs $145. Les Cailles is a great vineyard and Chevillon is a wonderful producer - there is no question in my mind that this will be excellent wine. If money were no object, I would buy some.

For most of us, money is a limiting factor. There is no conceivable situation in which I could imagine buying 2011 Chevillon Les Cailles for $145, and this has nothing to do with the quality of that wine. It has everything to do with the other wines I could buy for that same money, if I were to spend that money on a bottle of wine. Some of you will now say "But if you want Chevillon you can still buy 2011 Chevillon 1er Cru Bousselots or Pruliers for $115." Same problem - there are other things I would buy for that same money, were I to spend that money on a bottle of wine. The villages wine, the 2011 Chevillon Nuits St. Georges Vieilles Vignes costs $75. $75!

All European wine has gone up in price in the past 5 or 6 years. The rate of increase in Burgundy seems to be more accelerated than most, however, and it means that I drink way less Burgundy wine, which makes me feel sad. That said, there are still places to spend that $75, should you spend that kind of money on a bottle of wine (and the holidays are coming up people), and to feel confident that you are getting the best wine for your money. For me, one of the very best places to spend up to $75 on a bottle of wine right now (NYC market prices) is Champagne. I know, that sounds weird - Champagne as a value. I don't mean it that way, exactly. I mean to say that I think that if you are spending $75 in a NYC wine store right now, Champagne in general is the place where you can get the finest wine, objectively speaking.

Here are a few of the producers whose wines can be purchased at or below that price point, and that I believe represent truly exceptional quality:

Roederer - yup, I'm leading with a big house. The vintage Blanc de Blancs is for me one of the reference standards for Chardonnay in the Côte des Blancs. The wine is delicious young but has the acidity and structure to age well. And this is why I'd rather spend my $75 here than on Chevillon VV - Roederer's vintage Blanc de Blancs is in the upper echelon of wines made of Chardonnay from that place. Chevillon VV is not. 

Bereche - The whole lineup is of very high quality, and vintage wines made entirely of Meunier or from Chardonnay that are entirely expressive of place can be had for under $75. The rose in the photo above costs a bit more, maybe $90. But that's less than 2011 Chevillon 1er Cru Bousselots. I'm not picking on Chevillon - I am in love with those wines. I resent the new pricing though.
Savart - Harder to find (check Chambers Street) but the wines are fantastic. The one in the photo is exceptional, and can be had for about $55. If this were Burgundy of similar quality it would cost $125.

Larmandier-Bernier - specifically the Terre de Vertus (in my book). One of the grand wines of Champagne, according to none other than Peter Liem, and the 2008 (but this is never a vintage wine) release is on the shelf now, for under $75.

Rene Geoffroy - I like the whole lineup and think it is vastly undervalued, even among Champagne lovers. Empriente, for example, the vintage (but not vintage dated) wine made mostly of Pinot Noir is exceptional and one of the finest of its type and can be had for under $70.

Diebolt-Vallois - the Prestige Brut Blanc de Blancs is always great - big and lusty, and entirey focused at the same time. This is tremendous wine for about $60.

There are many others - I just included the ones that I drank recently enough to still have photos (and aso Geoffroy and Roederer because I love them). Now, what can we do collectively to bring Burgundy prices back to a reasonable level? Or must we accept this, the indignity of no longer buying the wines?