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Waiting for Godello: The New Wines of Spain

16 Mar

Photo Credit: Harold Heckle

There’s a “new kid” on the wine trail. After hawking other importers’ wines for 30 years, Gerry Dawes is now selling his own discoveries. And discoveries they are!

Gerry Dawes, a wine expert’s expert, is particularly smart about Spain’s food and wine scene, and takes America’s top chefs to Spain for their own edification. He’s been prowling Iberia for ages, discovering gems of restaurants and small wine makers who have utterly no interest in selling to you, me — or even to Gerry at first, until he proves himself professionally savvy enough to merit at least a conversation. A conversation with Gerry usually is a conversion.

This week I attended a tasting of 20 wines he’s just brought in from Spain. They’re being touted by chef gurus like Jeremiah Tower and Dan Barber, and gobbled up so quickly by restaurants such as Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Picholine, Petrossian, Paul Grieco’s Terroir Tribeca and by topflight wine shops, such as NYC’s Chambers Street Wines and Nancy’s, that about half are already sold out.

The tasting was held at Despaña Soho, a Spanish café, gourmet shop and wine store (Despaña Vinos y Mas) in New York’s Soho district, along with a parade of splendid tapas from Despaña’s kitchen. The tasting of wines began, unexpectedly, with the reds, followed by a few rosados, a half-dozen whites, and a last sip of a late harvest moscatel (Aliaga Moscatel Vendimia Tardia 2010).

Gerry is garrulous and endlessly funny, but when it comes to wine he’s a fanatical traditionalist: wine should taste like where it came from, and wines shouldn’t be manipulated into big alcoholic bruisers crammed with “jammy” fruit. He’s not a fan of what has been called the world-wide “Parkerization” method of vinification. Put differently, he’s a fan of old-fashioned wines made the old-fashioned way. “Great wine is made in the vineyard,” he says, “not in the winery.”

For proof, we tasted five different reds from the Ribeira Sacra region of Galicia, each in its own way a star, but each notably different from the other. A tasting companion seated next to me was so stunned by a Toalde Tinto (“tinto” means red) with a big barnyard nose and well-tamed fruit, that he fumbled two idioms in this malapropism: “It knocked me onto my socks.” Well, I suppose for twenty-five bucks, a wine probably should do just that — except these days you’d have to shell out twice that amount for something French or Italian that approached this gem.

To prove this was no fluke, we then tried four different Albariños made by four growers who are part of a small group making singular artisan wines. They were so radically different from each other — each displaying its own form of greatness — that you’d never guess they came from the same small patch of geography. “These people aren’t making wine to fit a pre-conceived mold,” Gerry says; “they’re letting their own localized wild yeasts work their individual alchemy.”

What “The Spanish Artisan Wine Group — Gerry Dawes Selections” stands for is rather simple: Relatively low alcohol, little or no oak, generally hand-harvested grapes, real corks, avoidance of over-ripe grapes and over-extraction in the winery. If you’ve grown up drinking California “fruit bombs,” these Spanish artisan wines may be a revelation. The truth is that many California growers today also are working to crank back the excess fruit and alcohol that many gastronomes complain are antagonistic to food and sobriety.

Speaking of sobriety, we were kept sitting upright by stunningly great platters of jamón Ibérico, crunchy salt cod croquettes, Spanish tortillas filled with sweet peppers and garlic and dabbed with smoked paprika aioli, and a cheese that was new to almost all of us: Torta de Queso Canarejal, a soft unpasteurized, ewe’s milk cheese, produced by the Santos family in the province of Castilla-Leon. Made with milk thistle rennet, the cheese which comes in a four-inch round, about two inches thick with an edible rind; it resembles an extremely zaftig camembert. You slice off the top and inside there’s a creamy, spoon-able voluptuous cheese that you scoop up with breadsticks. All these, and vastly more, are specialty products sold by Despaña and also served in its friendly café with communal tables.

Senor Dawes also has a passion for rosado (rosé to us) — not the “blush” wines and white zinfandels that give rosés their bad name, but light, elegant Spanish versions that you just keep on drinking. As he says, “No one’s ever seen a group of people drinking roses where everyone wasn’t smiling.” We had two, both retailing at $13.99: Aliaga Lagrima de Garnacha from Navarra, made only from unpressed grapes, and Hermanos Merino Catajarros Cigales Rosado, a mix of two red grapes (tempranillo and garnacha) and two white grapes (verdejo and alvillo). The latter had a slight spritz, and lots of body without being weighty; it is an unmitigated bargain and will become our house pour for the summer. If I can lay my hands on some.

For me, the most exciting flavors came from the Adegas D. Berna Godello 2012 Valdeorras with 13% alcohol, retailing at $24.99. Despite a stuffy nose, I was able to detect notes of white peach, dry lychees, sake, guanabana, and unripe pear! Gerry was delighted. Godello is a white variety of wine grape grown in Galicia, a region of northwest Spain. It’s the wine world’s new vacation spot.

You won’t find these small-batch wines at your local Costco, but the good news is that in addition to New York, Dawes is working on distribution in New Orleans, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and both Northern and Southern California. In the not too distant future then, my prediction is that grape varieties with names like mencía, garnacha, and godello, will join the more familiar tempranillo and albariño on restaurants lists and in our wine glasses at home. After all, this is what we what to drink alongside our favorite tapas.

I should note that between wine shipments, Gerry Dawes runs amazing gastro-tours to Spain, sometimes with great chefs, and often with just-plain-folk who want to really dig into the food, wine and culture of the country. These tours are as unique as his wines; to learn more, you might click here.

Food Lover’s Guide to Wine

30 Nov

According to USA Today last week, the purchase of wine has gone up 14% this year and, for the first time, people are buying more wine than wine glasses! Good news: Smart public and better wine glasses. Another sociological shift is that people are buying more “experiences” (self-care, self-improvement) and products with more “prestige.” That’s a perfect fit for wine, and good news for Carol Berman, who runs Class in a Glass wine-tasting programs all over the country. It’s also good news for the authors of the Food Lover’s Guide to Wine (Little, Brown and Company), written by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg. Just named one of the five best wine books of the year by the Wall Street Journal, the book addresses a curious public’s need-to-know as they experience and buy more prestige wines.

Their mission? To encourage more Americans to switch from their typical beverage of choice (i.e. a soft drink, like Coke or Pepsi, which is what a majority of Americans enjoy with their evening meal) to a glass of wine with dinner — so one of the most important features of the book is a list of 150+ wines under $15. For just a dollar or two more per serving, everyone can enjoy something healthful and delicious that will make their dinner taste much better.

One of the book’s special features is an A-to-Z reference of more than 250 different wines and their flavor profiles. You can see, at a glance, how to pronounce the name of a wine (a stumbling block for many novices), can anticipate what the wine is likely to taste like (who knew that an Austrian riesling might have a hint of kaffir lime), learn how to serve it, discover the wine’s most notable producers, and, most importantly, learn what foods to enjoy with it. Perhaps this is the team’s greatest wish for you in, what may be, their best book yet.

The book begins with a brief history of wine in America, which parallels the history of the United States itself. Few know that the settlers at Jamestown in the early 1600’s were commanded by the King to grow grapevines, in the hope of developing a wine industry that would give England a cheaper source of wine than France or Spain. And few know that we are drinking the passion of our forefathers — from George Washington to Thomas Jefferson — in a shared love of wine and wine-making.

In a frenzied and scholarly approach to this vast subject, the four-legged team scoured the country for the best sommeliers from coast to coast — representing restaurants such as Blue Hill, CityZen, Daniel, The French Laundry, The Inn at Little Washington, Manresa, No.9 Park and Spago — where they gleaned insights and secrets from dozens of cellar zealots who cumulatively represent decades of training and on-the-job experience. Like scientists in a sexy lab, they distilled all the knowledge into a chart of essential knowledge — that would generally take a lifetime to learn. I loved the “insider info” and relished some unexpected food and wine-pairing notions: Cashew chicken with Chinon (an idea from Virginia Philip at The Breakers), or an almond-thickened tomato gazpacho with a sparkly Cremant d’Alsace from Agape (a match made by Belinda Change at The Modern).

Their top ten secrets about how to get more pleasure from wine include attributes that sound like “mindfulness” to me, including perceiving a wine’s character, using your judgment, and sharing the experience. And as someone who has composed menus, instead of music, during my 35-year career for legendary restaurants such as the Rainbow Room, Windows on the World, and the Hudson River Club, I particularly loved the kindred sentiment from Richard Olney in The French Menu Cookbook (1970). “Wine’s principal role is to give pleasure, and that role is best played at the table in the context of a menu; when the two are carefully chosen, the wine and the food enhance each other, each subtly altering the other.”

Page and Dornenburg, who have also written The Flavor Bible and What to Drink with What You Eat, humbly admit, however, that you can never know it all and feel excited to learn something new about wine every day. Why not crack open a bottle and take a peek into their book on YouTube? Imagine what George Washington would have to say about that.

A Wild & Wonderful Israeli Dinner

6 Jun

Erez Komarovsky at his Galilee Cooking School with fresh tomatoes from the garden.

Erez Komarovksy has it all: He revolutionized the food of Israel with his catering company “The Futurist Kitchen” (based on the avant-garde cookbook of the Italian writer F. T. Marinetti) and emboldened Israel’s “bread culture” with the country’s first sour dough bakery.  He studied at the Cordon Bleu in Paris, learned at the knee of a Kaiseki master in Japan, and lived in San Francisco for five years during the heyday of the California cuisine “movement.”  Although influenced by the world’s tapestry of cooking, including that of his Polish mother (whose chicken soup was the basis of an extraordinary potage he served at the Beard House — more about that later), Erez redefined the meaning of Israeli food at the restaurant he opened adjacent to his first bread shop “Lehem Erez.”  It was at about this time that I wrote an article for the New York Times about the beginning of this “new cuisine” or Israel’s own burgeoning culinary movement.  I affectionately called it Med-Rim cooking and later wrote about Cuisine Baladi — the cooking of the land (the culinary equivalent, as I see it, of “terroir.”  A word the wine industry uses to describe the air, soil, typography and micro-environment which influences the qualities of a wine.)

Today, Erez lives and breathes this notion.  After 10 years at his bakery, he moved to the upper Galilee, to a village overlooking olive groves near the Lebanese border.  There he established the Galilee Cooking School where his improvisational classes are based on foraging in the hills, plucking vegetables from his organic garden, using olive oil from the surrounding villages and cooking in the personal, intimate setting of his home.  (As I’m writing this I am already dreaming of going!)  His food is inspired by indigenous ingredients and local traditions — Muslim, Druze and Christian, as well as the Jewish traditions that inform Israel’s melting pot.  Erez’s pot is filled with the wild and wonderful — wild asparagus, wild mushrooms, and Biblical hyssop which also grows in the wild.

At his sold-out dinner at the James Beard House last Saturday, guests were able to experience Erez’s personal cuisine and taste the deeply satisfying flavors of Israel — both ancient and modern.  “A Very Israeli Soup” as the menu stated was filled with artichokes, lima beans, and Jerusalem artichokes floating in a pool of rich chicken broth (yes, that of his Polish mother — “you take a chicken,” Erez said, “take five carrots, onions….) was simply divine.  As was the stuffed spelt challah that was eaten within moments, an exuberant local lamb dish, charred to perfection, and served with Biblical wheat (freekeh).  A lovely Iraqi onion with lamb and tamarind stuffing, baby peppers brought from Israel, a wonderful garnet fish tartare inked by beet juice, fresh goat ricotta served with apricots and air-dried-then-marinated olives.

Dessert shone with radical simplicity– with “Red Fruits &  Almond Milk”  and a horn of plenty — his “Grandmother’s Yeast Cake.”  All of this washed down with intelligently-paired wines from the award-winning Yarden vineyards of Israel — from an off-dry Gewruztraminer to a sweet Gerwurz to accompany the cake — in between? Sauvignon blanc, merlot, and syrah.

It’s not easy to orchestrate such a meal in the small kitchen at the Beard House.  I know.  I have cooked three dinners there in my day.  So Erez and his staff did their prep at the wonderful Israeli-inspired restaurant, Taboon, located on 10th avenue and 51st Street.  At Taboon one can also sample the depth’s of Israel’s culinary awakening.

I will see you there.  At Matat, Chef Erez’s cooking school in the Galilee, or one Monday night at Taboon, for food, music and a taste of Israel.

Long Island Merlot (and Wine-Dark Short Ribs!)

2 May

Wine room at City Winery on Varick Street.

Last week I was asked to be a judge at a merlot wine tasting and dinner sponsored by the Long Island Merlot Alliance. As a fan of the efforts of Long Island winemakers and their wines since the late 1970’s, I served them when I was the chef at Gracie Mansion in 1979 (specifically those from Hargrave Vineyards and Lenz Winery).  Now, at City Winery on Varick Street, I was in the company of a cadre of esteemed wine writers, including Howard Goldberg from the New York Times, Joshua Greene, publisher of Wine & Spirits, Robin Kelley O’Connor from Christie’s, and Patricia Savoie from the Wine Media Guild.

While we thought the task at hand was to rate 14 merlots from Long Island, there were seven “decoys” from France and California in the mix. The results showed that few could identify the French and California wines. This amused a handful of us and it showed the promise of Long Island’s viticulture, making those seven merlots (and several of the winemakers present) very proud.  I particularly enjoyed a merlot from McCall Vineyard from the North Fork known as Ben’s Blend ($45) and also a Merlot Reserve from Castello di Borghese, also from the North Fork ($29).  The wine that took first place (from both the afternoon and evening tastings) was the Wölffer Estate Vineyard Christian’s Cuvee Merlot (The Hamptons) at $100 a bottle.  (Who knew?)   All the wines were from the 2007 vintage. The spread between the top wine (Wölffer) was 86.86 and the last (Chateau La Croix Saint-Georges from St. Emilion) was 82.96; narrow indeed.

Dinner was lovely, especially the company.  I was seated next to the beautiful Ann-Marie Borghese (from Castello di Borghese) who is the last person you’d ever expect to see at New York’s farmer’s markets four days a week pouring her wines.  I can’t wait until she comes to the Park Slope market up the street from our house in Grand Army Plaza at the end of May.  All in all, it was a great evening for Long Island, for merlot (which I tend not to cozy up to), and for the wonderful tradition of blind tastings, good food and conversation.

Great partners?  Merlot and wine-dark short ribs.  Here’s the recipe from my Recipes 1-2-3 Menu Cookbook.  It has a secret ingredient (hoisin!) which makes it really delicious and radically simple to prepare.  A votre sante.

Wine-Dark Short Ribs

Serve with your favorite mashed potatoes or with brown rice studded with sun-dried cherries.

4 pounds short ribs, cut between the bones (cut in half across the bone, if desired)
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
2 cups merlot

Place the ribs, 1/2 cup hoisin, and 1 cup merlot in a large, nonreactive bowl.  Cover and marinate overnight in the refrigerator.  Remove ribs from marinade.  Transfer the marinade to a heavy pot large enough to hold the ribs in one layer.  Add 3 cups water, the ribs, and lots of freshly ground black pepper.  Cover and cook slowly over low heat for 2-1/2 hours, turning several times during cooking.  Meanwhile, place remaining cup of merlot and 2 tablespoons hoisin in a small saucepan.  Bring to a boil, lower heat and reduce until 1/2 cup. Set aside.  When tender, remove short ribs with a slotted spoon.  Bring liquid to a boil and cook until thick and syrupy.  Whisk in enough of the reserved wine reduction until you have a well-balanced sauce.  Add salt to taste.  Pour sauce over ribs and serve immediately.  Serves 4

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