Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Masters of Wine Champagne Tasting 2010-New York

Story and photos by Dwight Casimer

New York-Winston Churchill once said of Champagne, “In victory, we deserve it. In defeat, we need it. “ Those words echo through history and came to mind as I entered the hallowed halls of Christie’s, 20 Rockefeller Center for the 2010 Annual Champagne Tasting of the Institute of Masters of Wine, North America on a spectacularly brilliant end-of-summer afternoon.

Eighty of world’s greatest Champagnes were poured on a spectacular afternoon. While the surrounding streets were amassed with tourists in town for the final ‘kick’ of the summer holiday season and the U.S. Open tennis tournament underway in nearby Flushing Meadows, the sun-drenched second floor conference rooms were enveloped in the hush of connoisseurs tasting, sniffing and taking notes of their impressions of what has come to be known as ‘the nectar of the Gods.’

“I conceived the idea after attending the Masters of Wine Claret tasting in London which is organized along similar lines, where we tasted Bordeaux’s from the vintages four years prior,” said Charles Curtis, Master of Wine and head of North American wine sales for Christies. I thought it would be interesting to have a Champagne tasting that was more or less a survey of everything that is going on in the world of Champagne. I invited all importers regardless of size and production levels. We organized them according to type: Vintage, Non-Vintage, Blanc de Blanc, Rose and sweeter styles, (Dose). We line them up alphabetically and let the public have at them. We’re letting them have a completely unbiased, non-commercial for tasting all of the Champagne that are available.”

This most certainly was not the “vin ordinaire” of tastings. The first table was crammed with ice-cold bottles of the most coveted bottles of Blanc de Blanc to be found in one place. It also attracted the greatest number of tasters who lingered long and took copious notes.

I began with Champagne Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millenaires, 1995, Brut Blanc de Blancs (99.99). This is truly a ‘special occasion’ wine and well worth the price. It has an elegant beauty and complexity that reveals flavors of honey and hot French bread. Lingering in the back of the mouth, there are hints of coffee and smoke. For a hundred bucks, this an incredible deal!

My next tasting was of an old friend, Champagne Henriot NV Blanc Souvrain, Brut Blanc de Blancs ($57.99). I last had this stellar offering at a celebrity birthday celebration at a beautifully restored 130-year old brownstone in Harlem. Although listed as non-vintage, it is clearly made from reserve wines. It has a fine aged character that is rich and vibrant with fruit and flavors of baked apple pie. The light gold color intensifies its desirability. Add to that a smoky essence of baked pear on the nose with subtle hints of anise and you have an offering of exceptional depth. This wine is consistently rated 90 points and above, but you don’t need a rating system to know that this is one of the better values out there and an excellent companion to a special meal of lobster, rack of lamb or a silky veal dish. At the Harlem celebration, I tasted it alongside a leg of lamb grilled on the open fire with African and Caribbean spices. It was a marvel in the mouth. The complex flavors of the Champagne seemed to unfold and reveal themselves with each bite.

A comparative tasting of Vintage Henriots, Cuvee des Enchanteleurs 1995 ($144) and 1996 ($130) and Brut Millesime, 1998 ($72). At a blind tasting in Paris upon its release, it was rated the most outstanding among more than a hundred vintage Champagnes by a panel of experts. Further, it was unanimously rated the best wine in a line-up of 38 prestige and luxury cuvee, including the iconic Dom Perignon. Ironically, the wine had mistakenly been included in the tasting, but clearly, it belonged there!

I was running out of time because I had to catch a plane for Sonoma, California and the upcoming Sonoma Wine Country Weekend, so I raced to the final table and sampled another old friend, Nicolas Feuillatte Brut NV ($30). This was always my ‘go to’ Champagne when I dined in Paris and was confused by the myriad names on the wine list. It always delivered and the price was right. It’s an exceptional value. Even after tasting all of the ‘Grand Dames’ of the region, it still held its own.

One final sip of Moet et Chandon Nectar Imperial,NV (($38.99)from the sweeter, Dose, collection and it was off to the sunny slopes of Sonoma.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

'21' Club, New York rekindles image as a wine and food Mecca

Story and photos #3-5 by Dwight Casimere

1-the main Bar and Dining Salon with legendary ceiling 'decor'

2-Actors George Clooney and Patricia Clarkson head to their favorite table

3-5-the famed 'jockeys' greet diners outside the restaurant

New York City-The last time I had lunch at ‘21’ was in 1981. I was in the company of the esteemed CBS correspondent Ed Bradley, who had just been named part of the 60 Minutes team. The luncheon meeting had been arranged months earlier through a mutual friend in Chicago, only now, it turned out to be a celebratory occasion. How fitting that we were lunching at ‘21’’.

Since that time, the restaurant has gone through several facelifts and a host of restaurant changes. Some things remain the same. It is still ‘the’ place to have a special lunch or dinner. The signature décor; from the multi-colored jockeys that line the staircase and wrought iron balcony and the bric-a-brac that hangs from the ceiling in the main dining salon, all remain the same. Its still a favored spot for celebrity watching, especially during lunch, and the ‘21’ Burger served on that scrumptious Parker House bun, is still one of the best to be had anywhere. What has stepped up has been the level of cuisine, which diners visiting New York can experience at extremely affordable prices as ‘21’ continues New York’s famed Summer Restaurant Week values through October 31st. It’s an opportunity to sample a rotating selection of specials from the restaurants menu at near-bargain prices. Luncheon is $24.07 and Dinner $35.00 pre fixe for a three-course meal, beverage, tax and tip not included. The restaurants encyclopedic Grand Award winning wine list features over 125 selections under $60.

My recent visit saw the menu featuring an Appetizer selection, including a choice of ‘21’ Seasonal Soup, Romaine and Radicchio Salad, Cured Mahi Mahi, and Grilled Calamari with olive puree, pickled cucumber salad and black garlic. Main courses included a choice of Horseradish-Crusted Salmon, Smoked Pork Belly, Spring Vegetable Risotto and Grilled Organic Chicken Breast with hominy and sautéed spinach.

‘21’ signature desserts, all prepared in-house, include a choice of Vanilla Bean Crème Brulee, my personal favorite, with a chewy chocolate cookie, Blueberry Upside-down Cake with lemon sauce and Milk Chocolate Tart with toasted raspberry meringue.

The affable wine steward, dressed regally in formal morning coat and white tie, presented the leather-bound wine list with a flourish. Wine Spectator Magazine recently honored ‘21’ with its highest award, the Grand Award in 2010, making the restaurant one of a handful in New York and indeed the nation, to receive the award on multiple occasions, in the case of ‘21’, consecutively from 2003-2010. The award is given to those restaurants that show “an uncompromising passionate devotion to quality….exceptional harmony with the menu, superior organization and presentation and 1,250 or more selections. The ‘21’ wine list has just been updated July 19, 2010.

’21’ dazzles on all counts. I was impressed by the wine list and the quality of the food. The atmosphere was convivial and didn’t at all feel contrived. In fact, the place was packed, going through two complete seatings while I was there. There was a good mix of locals and out of towners and a number of parties celebrating birthdays and business ventures. One man, an obvious local known to all of the seasoned waiters, sat oblivious to it all, reading his paper and sucking silently on his martini, as he awaited his steak dinner.

The service was seamless and unobtrusive. Not once did I feel rushed. Bread and water were replenished without asking and the dishes arrived swiftly. Fresh Malpeque oysters arrived in all their pristine glory. Malpeque’s are hard to find and a connoisseur’s delight because they have a sweet-sour characteristic that makes them irresistible. I eschewed the accompanying horseradish, lemon and cocktail sauce and chose to slather them down with only their sweet/briny natural juice. A glass of non-vintage Laurent-Perrier Brut got things rolling in dandy fashion. The slight mineral and toast aftertaste of the champagne melded perfectly with the sea-salt and foam flavor of the succulent pillows of oyster flesh.

One cannot visit ‘21’ and not have the signature “Speakeasy” Steak Tartare. Executive Chef John Greeley has been careful to update the menu while still preserving well-loved ‘21’ Classics. I’m so happy he decided to keep this one. It was exquisite.

A second course of perfectly cooked sautéed Dover Sole with a simple lemon –brown butter sauce was served tableside, the delicate flesh expertly extracted from the spiny skeleton by the waiter, using only a spook and fork. It was a masterful performance to behold! The wine steward suggested a crisp French Pouilly-Fuisse “Gilles Morat” from Domaine Chataignerale-Laborier, which, the steward explained, had recently undergone a change in name and label. He assured me that the quality of the wine was the same as ever. True to his word, it was superb, especially accompanied by the tender, perfectly cooked sole.

Although I was thoroughly satiated by the Dover Sole, I forged ahead with a main course of 21 Day Dry Aged Sirloin served with morel mushrooms (my passionate favorite), asparagus and grilled sweet onions all in a bordelaise reduction. The waiter suggested a side order of another ‘21’ signature Classic, the French Fries, which arrive here like crispy, air-puffed pillows devoid of any sign of cooking oil and light as a feather. They made for a delightful flavor and texture experience and prompted a cry for seconds. A half bottle of an old stand-by, Stags Leap Wine Cellars “Fay” Vineyard Cabernet 2006, sounded the correct grace note to a symphony of flavors.

The waiter sent word that Chef Greeley would be sending a surprise for dessert, which turned out to be a sampling of all of the night’s featured offerings. I can’t decide which I liked better. It was a toss-up between the Vanilla Crème Brulee and Milk Chocolate Tart. Had I room, I would have asked for another round so I could make a definitive decision!

My ‘21’ experience didn’t end with the meal. As I freshened up in the men’s room before heading home, the friendly restroom steward handed me a fresh towel and offered a splash of cologne, a mint and a warm smile. I walked into the summer night with the feeling that I had dined in the shadow of legends and had been treated as one of their equals.

Hubbard Street Twilight on the Rooftop a gateway to Sonoma & Napa's best

-Story and photos by Dwight Casimere

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s 3rd annual Twilight on the Rooftop fundraising event turned out to be one of the best wine tasting events of the year in the Windy City.

Though not actually on a rooftop, as in years past, the grand salon of The James hotel on North Dearborn in the Gold Coast offered a contemporary and elegant vibe to this exclusive event. It was made even more so by the fact that, in addition to offering tastings of limited production wines from 13 of Napa & Sonoma’s “star” wineries, the actual winemakers or winery owners were flown out to the event from California, to pour their wines in person for the VIP crowd.

I have been to the Napa Valley often and was most recently there for the Napa Passport weekend last spring. I was pleasantly surprised to see many familiar faces that I had encountered at the barrel tasting and auction during that event.

Participating wineries included Blackbird, Chateau Montelena, Corison, Crocker & Star, Donelan Family Wines, Risher Vineyards, Miner Family Winery, Modus Operandi Cellars, Patz & Hall, Pride Mountain, Spring Mountain and Vineyard 29. If you’re a wine aficionado, you will recognize these names as among the highest rated wines by any recognized rating body. They are prized by collectors and appear often on the lists of the finest restaurants. VIP ticket holders to the Twilight event were treated to a private tasting of the vintners reserve and limited production wines. In many cases I was told, “drink all you can now, because this is all that’s available of this particular wine.” That made the evening special, indeed!

In addition to raising money for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, the event also raised awareness of the vital cultural force that the company represents. Under the director of artistic director Glenn Edgerton, who is celebrating 33 years as one of the most original forces in contemporary dance, the company is acclaimed for its innovative repertoire and commitment to cultivating young professional dancers and choreographers. The company is also recognized both nationally and internationally for its cultural diversity and extensive Education & Community Programs that not only offer city and state professional development programs for teachers, but also provide opportunities for young people to experience dance and incorporate movement into their daily lives and academic curricula.

The culinary staff at The James offered a sideboard of substantial gourmet treats, including a selection of gourmet cheeses and cured meats and salumi, including an exquisite prosciutto, a dry-cured ham from Parma in Tuscany. I was so engrossed in the exquisite selection of wines and in talking with the winemakers about their highly specialized vintages, that I, unfortunately, did not have an opportunity to sample any of the other goodies. To this connoisseur, wine IS food!

The Event Chair for Twilight on the Rooftop was Alyssa Rapp, Found & CEO of Bottlenotes.com, and the Official Wine Sponsor for Hubbard Street’s 2009-10 Season. The James Chicago is Event Partner. Ms. Rapp introduced the evening’s highlight, a solo performance by one of Hubbard Street’s premier soloists.

About the wines. From beginning to end, it was a tour de force of flavor experiences. Blackbird Vineyards offered their 2006 Blackbird Vineyard Illustration Proprietary Red Wine ($90). This was not any meritage blend, but a distinctive collection of grapes from the wineries 10-acre estate in the fertile Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley. The winery, under the director of winemaker Sarah Gott (yes, That Sarah Gott of Joel Gott and Joseph Phelps Insignia fame) and winegrower Aaron Pott have made a specialty of creating intriguing predominantly Merlot blends that are extremely food friendly and have a juicy acidity that prevents them from being snobby. The wine is luscious, with a deep ruby color in the glass and hints of chocolate and cherries on the nose. Its really smooth going down with a pronounced taste of bing cherries with just a hint of sweetness that plays a kind of salivary trick in the back of the throat. For just a moment, I thought I had actually eaten something, such as the savory ham, just before drinking the wine. I then quickly realized that what I was experiencing was the full flavor of the wine, with its hints of black currant, a touch of sweet fruit and a light, salty sensation on the tongue. Excellent! As Mr. Burns would have said. I was doubly blessed because proprietor Michael Polenske was on hand to personally pour the wine into my glass. I had met him at the Passport Weekend. “I was the top investment banker at JP Morgan in San Francisco when I started toying the idea of buying a vineyard,” he told me while savoring a glass himself. “I had almost given up on the idea when I found out I was growing premiere Merlot grapes right under my nose. I came up with the name because Merlot means “little blackbird” in French Patois. The rest is history.”

Chateau Montelena was my next stop. I also had the privilege of visiting the reconstituted nearly hundred and thirty year old French Chateau, which comprises the main house of the property on a secluded hillside above a lake with Asian footbridges and swans. The 2006 Estate Cabernet ($135) was the offering at the Twilight party. I had tasted this one from the barrel with the aid of a ‘wine thief’ during my visit on Passport Weekend. You might remember the name. This was the winery with the acclaimed Chardonnay that won the Paris tasting at the Inter-Continental Hotel in 1976 and put Napa Valley wines on the map. George Blankensee, Hospitality and Retail Manager for Chateau Montelena was there in the flesh to pour. He was a welcome sight as he led me on an exclusive tasting tour of the wineries historic cellars.

My next stop was Spring Mountain Vineyard for a taste of its 2005 Estate Bottled Elivette-Red Bordeaux Blend ($100) from its picturesque hilltop vineyard in Napa Valley. Exterior shots of the main house of Spring Mountain were used to portray the façade of the mythical Falcon Crest winery in the 1981 CBS-TV show of the same name.

Elivette is rich with a depth of color, flavor and aroma. Its concentrated candied fruit flavors of raspberry and cassis blend with the oak aromas to create a fully integrated wine tasting experience. This is a great wine to have with prime steak. If you’re fortunate enough to own a bottle, this is the perfect ‘special wine’ to save for a special dinner occasion. In fact, a trip to David Burke’s Prime House on The James lobby level would be the perfect place to open a bottle.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Macy Gray rocks the "House" at Macy's Passport Glamorama 2010 Chicago

story and photos by Dwight Casimere

Wente wines, Patron Tequila and Fiji Water flowed at the year's hottest fashion extravaganza in Chicago. Macy’s Chicago enlisted the superstar performance status of its near-namesake, Grammy Award-winning R&B and soul singer-songwriter Macy Gray to headline Macy’s Passport Presents Glamorama 2010. The extraordinary multi-media event, held at the Chicago Theatre, incorporated a dazzling multi-media mix of fashion, fantasy, music and magic to benefit Ronald McDonald House Charities of Chicagoland and Northwest Indiana.

“We plan to use the proceeds from this event to help build the largest Ronald McDonald House in the nation, right here in the Chicago area,” Macy’s Inc. Chairman, President and CEO Terry Lundgren declared in opening remarks to the show before a sell-out crowd.

Ronald McDonald House program provides a “home away from home” for families of children facing a serious medical crisis. It allows them to stay close by their hospitalized child at little or no cost. The Houses allow families to focus on the healing of their child without having to worry about where they can afford to stay or where their next meal will come from or where they will lay their head at night to rest.

Earlier in the evening, CEO Lundgren had an opportunity to meet the Herrick Family, one of the beneficiaries of the Ronald McDonald House program. “Without Ronald McDonald House, we would not have been able to function as a family during our child’s treatment,” a family spokesman declared.

“This show was designed to blow people’s minds,” said opening segment designer Chris March, Bravo’s “Project Runway” Season 4 finalist, who designed this year’s opening segment and who previously worked on Glamorama 2005.

The show accomplished exactly that with a cadre of top-flight runway models, dancers and aerial acrobatic artists against the backdrop of a 4D multi-media show that took audiences on a magic carpet ride around the globe and through the dimensions of time and space. Through the imaginative use of holograms and sensory surround experience, the audience was even exposed to a “real feel” snow and ice storm.

As with every Glamorama, this year’s extravaganza was all about the latest fashion. A dizzying array of haute couture along with some ‘not couture’ were paraded by a cadre of Supermodels against the backdrop of a 4 Dimensional show that literally enveloped the audience in sheets of sound and light, even a mock snow and rain storm.

Beginning with the prepped-out styles of Tommy Hilfiger and moving through the ‘flash and trash’ of Jean Paul Gaultier and the hip looks for Sportmax, and the smooth sophistication of Sonia Rykiel, Marc Jacobs and Issey Miyake, the fashion show moved seamlessly through genres and across vast swatches of time, space and locale, from the Seven Wonders of the World to the Gates of Heaven and the spiritual world beyond in a spectacular series of holograms.

Madonna and 13-year-old daughter Lourdes’ Material Girl collection drew the strongest audience response. The segment featured the multi-layered fashions on a pair of captivating pre-teen dancers gyrating before the larger than life image of The Material Girl herself, singing, what else, “Material”! Girl

Fashion Choreographer Myron Johnson, Dance Choreographer Brian Friedman and Lighting Director Michael Murnane of Foot Candles Lighting and Audio Director Pete Tidemann of Linear Velocity are to be commended for their outstanding work.

Young hit maker Eric Hutchinson opened the musical portion of the show with his hits “OK. It’s Alright With Me” with self-accompaniment on the electronic keyboard and “Rock&Roll” on the amplified acoustic guitar from his debut album “Sounds Like This.”

Macy Gray provided the thunderous finale with “Beauty In The World” from her Grammy-nominated new album, entitled “The Sellout”. Which dropped June 22.

The fantasy continued at the After Party on the 7th floor of Macy’s on State Street for a celebration that included dancers twirling glow-in-the-dark hula-hoops around their bodies while DJ Rex spun the hottest tracks. Guests were treated to a wonderland of gourmet treats and fantasy cocktail, including a candy garden filled with planted edibles.