Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Black Grouse: A "rare breed" swoops in

The Black Grouse: A “rare breed” ushers in winter drinking pleasure

Dwight The Wine Doctor

By Dwight Casimere

Bartender Photos: Peter Wagner

Drink Photos: Jamie Falkowski


-Bartender Mike Ryan of Sable

-All Mimsy were the Borogroaves

-A Quiet Smoke in the Woods

The Black Grouse: a “famous” way to usher in winter drinking pleasure

Winter is hard upon us. What better time to cozy up to a great glass of Scotch in the form of a new blended Scotch whisky that has just flown into the premium drinks nest in Chicago. The Black Grouse ($26) is the ‘kissin cousin’ of The Famous Grouse. The latter already lives up to its name with its famous pedigree. Blended primarily from Highland Park and Macallan whiskeys, it’s the liquid equivalent of a child sired by two Oscar-winning actors. The Black Grouse takes it a step further, setting it a breed apart. The Black Grouse is a marriage of the Famous Grouse and Islay malt whiskies. Known for their peatiness, the Islay adds a deepening layer of smoothness and smokiness. With its long aromatic finish and hints of cocoa and spice, it deserves the accolades it has been getting. It’s a yin and yang experience, with its mix of sweetness and smokiness.

The Black Grouse is named after the endangered species that is distinguished by its deep color, blazing white feathers on its wingtips and tail and a shock of red plumage on its crown. This is a rare bird that likes to strut its stuff with a characteristic gleam in its eye, not unlike its beverage namesake!

Whisky makers seem to be following the same mantra as winemakers, particularly in California; that good wood makes for good drinking. Experimenting with unique woods or aging techniques is the name of the game. That’s where the makers of The Black Grouse come in. They’ve applied wood aging to create a new spin on The Famous Grouse, which is already the best-selling blended Scotch on its home turf. As a result, The Black Grouse has a terrific wood backbone and a long, smoky finish. Add that to the dominant flavors of molasses, vanilla and dried apricots and you have a seductive blend that is as smooth as silk on the palate. Various reviewers have called The Black Grouse “poetry in the bottle” and a quick tasting confirmed that accolade.

The Black Grouse made its Chicago debut at The Drawing Room in the Gold Coast. Mixologists Charles Joly of The Drawing Room, Lynn House of Blackbird and Mike Ryan of Sable showcased their original creations for this rare breed of blended Scotch. Here are the recipes for their cocktails:

The Fair Maiden (created by Charles Joly)

1.5 oz The Famous Grouse

.5 oz Eldergin Liqueur

.5 oz Honey Syrup

.75 oz Grapefruit

.25 oz Lemon Juice

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass. Add ice, shake and strain into a coupe. Use a channel knife to mist top of the cocktail with citrus oil. Garnish with twist.

St. Andrew's Nightcap (created by Charles Joly)

2 oz The Black Grouse

.75 oz Vermouth

.25 oz Coffee Liqueur

2 dashes Chocolate Bitters

Combine The Black Grouse, vermouth and coffee liqueur in a mixing glass over ice. Stir to chill and dilute. Strain into a chilled coupe and dash with bitters.

The Royal Mile (created by Charles Joly)

1.5 oz The Black Grouse

.5 oz Benedictine Liqueur

.5 oz Earl Grey Syrup

.75 oz Lemon Juice

Egg White

Rare Tea Cellars Bitters

Combine all ingredients aside from bitters in a mixing glass and dry shake to combine ingredients. Add ice, shake and strain into an old fashioned glass with ice. Decoratively add bitters to top of cocktail.

Highland Breeze (created by Lynn House)

2 oz. The Black Grouse

.5 oz. Fresh Lime Juice

1 tsp. Fresh Grated Ginger

2 tsp. Orange Marmalade

1.5 oz. Tonic

Combine lime, ginger and marmalade in a mixing glass and stir until marmalade dissolves. Add The Black Grouse and ice, shake until well chilled. Double strain over fresh ice into a double old- fashioned glass, top with tonic. Gently stir and garnish with a blood orange twist.

Celtic Flip (created by Lynn House)

2 oz. The Black Grouse

1 Egg

.5 oz. Cream

.75 oz. Spiced Syrup*

3 tsp. Whipped Cream

Fresh Grated Nutmeg

.25 oz. The Black Grouse Spiced Syrup**

Combine The Black Grouse, egg, cream and spiced syrup in a mixing glass and dry shake. Add ice and shake until well chilled and strain into a coupe glass. Top with whipped cream, sprinkle fresh grated nutmeg on top and drizzle The Black Grouse spiced syrup on top.

*Spiced Syrup

2 c. Sugar

1 c. Water

1 tsp Ground Allspice

1 tsp Dried Orange Peel

Combine all ingredients in a saucepan, simmer until sugar is dissolved.

**The Black Grouse Spiced Syrup

3 parts Spiced Syrup

1 part The Black Grouse

Simmer at a low boil until reduced by half.

All Mimsy Were the Borogroves (created by Mike Ryan)

2 oz. The Black Grouse

.75 oz. Fresh Pressed Ruby Red Grapefruit Juice

.75 oz. Cinnamon Syrup*

1 dash Housemade Chocolate Bitters

Shake and strain, serve up in a coupe glass. Garnish with shaved dark chocolate, 90%+ cacao.

*Cinnamon Syrup

1.5 c. Brown Sugar (loosely packed)

1 c. Water

2 Cinnamon Sticks (cracked)

Pinch salt

Combine all ingredients in a pan and bring to a simmer, then remove from heat. Let sit one hour, then strain, bottle and chill.

A Quiet Smoke in the Woods (created by Mike Ryan)

2 oz The Black Grouse

.75 oz. Madeira

.25 oz Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur

Two hard dashes Angostura bitters

Stir and strain, serve up in a coupe glass. Garnish with a Luxardo cherry.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Brugal 1888 perfect for ringing in the New Year

Ring in the New Year with premium spirits

By Dwight Casimere

It’s no secret that wine lovers also enjoy premium spirits. After a Christmas Holiday filled with endless Champagne toasts and dinners with a dizzying myriad of wines, indulging in premium spirits such as a single malt scotch or a fine rum or tequila is a nice change of pace. In addition to the sheer joy of appreciating the fine craftsmanship that goes into making a premium spirit, there’s also the sense of adventure that can be created by a skilled mixologist. With a little practice and the right bottle of libation, even an amateur can make any number of flavorful and imaginative drinks that can make toasting the New Year a night to remember.

One of the newest imports in the premium rum category is Brugal 1888 Grand Reserva Rum ($49) from the Dominican Republic. A true expression of great Caribbean rum, Brugal 1888 is double distilled and double aged, giving it a unique, upscale flavor comparable to drinking a fine cognac. Selected from the finest rums, it is skillfully aged first in American white oak for up to eight years, and then matured in European oak casks previously used for aging Sherry for another six to eight years. Master Distiller Don Gustavo Ortega Zeller Brugal is a 5th generation family member, delivering a true expression of the Brugal legacy.

Overall, Brugal is the top-selling rum in the Dominican Republic. Spain has traditionally been its largest foreign market, but as of this fall Brugal has hit American shores with a tsunami of acceptance, particularly in the New York market. Over the past few months, it has been expanding its reach nationwide with a series of promotional events. Brugal 1888 is a new, limited-edition premium beverage that references the year of origin of the family’s rum-making tradition.

Casks used in Brugal 1888 aging aren’t any run-of-the-mill affair. Handpicked or handcrafted under the guidance of George Espe, The Macallan Master of Wood, these special Brugal 1888 casks are arranged horizontally during the aging process in a specially designed cellar. They are grouped together in batches of 68 units, to a maximum of 14,000 bottles. The final blend contains rums that have been aged anywhere from 5 to 14 years. The result is stunning luxury rum that reflects 120 years of blending experience.

With its deep amber color and complex nose of scented bouquets and hints of spice, cinnamon and dried fruit and back notes of chocolate, licorice and roasted coffee, it’s a terrific flavor adventure on its own. Brugal 1888 invites long evenings of sipping by the fire. It’s also great as either an aperitif or after-dinner drink.

Increasingly, premium spirits are finding their way into the mixologist’s lexicon. On the club scene, it’s almost de rigueur as a go-to ingredient for great cocktails. The Old Fashioned is a popular wintertime drink that is a classic. It’s been updated with the introduction of the Rum Old Fashioned. Although usually made with Bourbon or Rye whisky, made with Brugal 1888, it’s sure to become a wintertime favorite and a great way to toast the New Year in style! Here’s the recipe:

Fancy Brugal 1888 Old Fashioned cocktail

In a large cocktail blender pour over ice and combine:

2 oz Brugal 1888 Rum

1 oz simple syrup

1 dash Angostura bitters

Stir, then strain and pour into a wide-mouthed cocktail or champagne glass

Rub a cut lemon or orange around the rim

Cut a thin slice of lemon or orange rind and curl it around the cocktail stirrer and add to the finished cocktail. Garnish with a maraschino cherry and enjoy!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Moet & Chandon toasts Golden Globes, New Year with special vintages

Story by Dwight Casimere

Photos by Michael Kovac

-Golden Globe Nomination Presenters Sofia Vergara and Gerard Butler toast with Moet & Chandon Grand Vintage 2002 Champagne

-Golden Globe Nomination presenters Sofia Vergara (far left-nominated, Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in Mini-Series or Motion Picture for the TV series “Modern Family) and actor Gerard Butler (2nd left-The Bounty Hunter, How to Train Your Dragon, both 2010) toast the 69th Golden Globe Award nominees with Moet & Chandon Grand Vintage Champagne 2002 with fellow presenter, actress Rashida Jones (center)and Moet & Chandon USA vp Ludovic du Plessis(r).

Moet & Chandon Grand Vintage 1911 Collector’s Case for auction

Moet & Chandon Grand Vintage 2002

Moet & Chandon Imperial

Moet & Chandon USA vp Ludovic du Plessis

Story by Dwight Casimere

Beverly Hills-When this year’s Golden Globe nominations were telecast on live global television, Hollywood Foreign Press Association president, Dr. Aida Takla-O’Reilly and Ludovic du Plessis, vice president of Moet & Chandon USA led the toast with Moet & Chandon 2002 Grand Vintage Champagne ($84.95) at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. This year, the Champagne house celebrates 21 years as the Official Champagne of the Golden Globes.

For the first time, Moet & Chandon will serve its Grand Vintage Champagne from customized magnums created especially for the 69th Annual Golden Globe Awards. “Grand Vintage 2002 is a remarkable Champagne,” said vice president Ludovic du Plessis. “It honors the past, yet looks forward to the future. Characterized by its aromas of white peach and nectarine and a velvety texture and precise finish, this is an exceptional champagne that mirrors the excellence in execution that the Golden Globes honor in its special awards night.”

Over 1,000 Moët & Chandon Imperial minis and 500 Grand Vintage 2002 magnums will be served on both the red carpet and inside the ballroom totaling over 9,000 glasses of Moët & Chandon enjoyed during one of Hollywood’s biggest nights.

As Christmas and New Year’s Eve approach, Moet & Chandon’s flagship Champagne, Imperial ($27), is expected to be the largest selling Champagne in the world. Imperial, familiar to Champagne lovers around the world, has only recently been introduced to this country, replacing the wildly popular White Star label. Non Vintage Imperial’s reception by both the wine press and the public has been enthusiastic. Venerable wine critic Robert Parker called it “a straightforward, tasty Champagne made in an easygoing style.”

Dwight The Wine Doctor sampled it with a lunch composed of New England Lobster in Tarragon and Truffle Butter and a side of Homemade Linguini with Arugula and Portabello Mushrooms. The results were astounding. Imperial’s innate apple and citrus flavors, combined with its notes of honey on the tongue and crisp ginger aftertaste were the perfect foil to the briny, yet creamy ummami (mouth feel) of the lobster (enhanced with the sauce made with Kerry Gold unsalted Irish butter, a must for cooking!) and the earthy minerality and slight peppery edge of the pasta dish. A Yin/Yang of flavors is created in the mouth. You should really try this dish as a starter for the Holiday meal, especially for ringing in the New Year.

Imperial’s complexity and flavor are unparalleled. It’s value and price to quality ratio is among the highest in the industry. No dosage listing is given. None is needed. Suffice to say that it simply tastes GOOD.

With its rich, soft mouth-filling feel and its clean, sophisticated aftertaste, you cannot find better Champagne for the price!

2011 also marks a Special Event for Moet & Chandon and a milestone in the Champagne house’s history. Celebrating 100 years of its Grand Vintage 1911, Moet & Chandon is using its landmark Champagne in a special way. “We are auctioning off exclusive collector’s cases of Moet & Chandon Grand Vintage 1911 in discrete local auctions all over the world with the hopes that each auction would build excitement and bigger donations for the designated charities,” du Plessis said. New York’s auction at Christie’s benefitted The Lunchbox Fund, a not-for-profit organization that is dedicated to improving the lives of students in South African township high schools. “The $66 thousand sale will help them immeasurably,” du Plessis noted.

Moet, according to du Plessis, has the largest Grand Vintage cellar in the world. “We had a limited, yet impressive reserve of 1911, 100 year old Champagne,” du Plessis explained. “The Chef de Cave knew that the 1911 vintage would be superior. In fact, he noted in his book that this was an “Annee Memorable,” a year to remember. With these centenary releases at auction, we not only seek to help those in need, but to also honor the living legacy of almost 270 years of winemaking excellence.”

Friday, December 2, 2011

Art Basel Miami Beach 2011:A magnet for luxury, celebrities

Art Basel Miami Beach: 10th year is the charm

1. Dwight Casimere with Art Basel Miami Beach Host Committee Chairman Norman Braman and Miami Beach Mayor Matti Herrera Bower

2. New World Symphony's Michael Tilson Thomas and Audi's Car of the Future

3. Visual Artist Ivan Toth Depena and his Reflect at Miami's Stephen P. Clark Government Center

4. Collector George Kravis of Tulsa, Oklahoma with Miami publicist Susan Grant Lewin and artist, architect and composer Christopher Janney at Vernissage

5. Daniel Libeskind with his new masterpiece eL

6. Sean Combs at the Art Collector's Lounge

7. Michael Douglas escapes the maddening crowd at Vernissage

8. Art at Art Basel Miami Beach 2011

Miami Beach---“There are more private aircraft that fly into Art Basel Miami than there are to the Super Bowl.” That was the proud assertion of Norman Braman, Chairman, Art Basel Miami Beach Host Committee at the Media Reception for the opening of the 10th edition of Art Basel Miami Beach.

If we are in the midst of a global recession, there’s no sign of it in this sun-drenched paradise of a city that has become one big art gallery for the week. At the Vernissage opening night parties in the Miami Beach Convention Center and the temporary exhibition hall space of the Design Center across the street, artists, well-heeled collectors and art lovers mingled with celebrities and heads of companies pitching luxury cars, jewelry champagne and corporate jets.

Outside the Vernissage party, there was Michael Douglas and wife, Catherine Zeta Jones being muscled by security guards past a phalanx of paparazzi and adoring fans into a waiting Escalade. Over in the Design Center, Maestro Michael Tilson Thomas, head of Miami Beach’s New World Symphony, was drooling over Audi’s Car of the Future at a Veuve Clicquot Champagne reception. At the Fendi lounge, world-renowned artist Christopher Janney was touting his new Interactive Art Installation, Harmonic Convergence that had just been dedicated at Miami International Airport to billionaire collector George Kravis whose Design Collection just got its own pavilion at the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Sean “Puffy” Combs was getting the VIP treatment at the Art Collector Lounge as the Ruinart Champagne flowed to the tune of $100 a bottle and over at the Culture Club, a “pop-up” gallery hosted by Picnic Magazine and the Mayor of Tel Aviv, Architect Michael Arad, designer of the 9/11 Memorial at the site of the World Trade Center terrorist attack in New York, held forth with a probing discussion of the creative process behind his design.

And, Oh Yes, there’s art! By the container ship load. Huge art pieces have been erected in public spaces, such as parks and vacant lots throughout Miami. Hotel lobbies, poolside cabanas and even entire floors of rooms and suites have been converted into instant art galleries. Even intermodal steel containers, like the very ones used to ship many of the art pieces from overseas by air, ocean and highway, have been similarly turned into “pop-up” galleries. In the chic Design District, once a crumbling aggregate of run down warehouses, a caravan of tricked out Mini Coopers have been turned into moving canvases by local artists and a convoy of mobile homes, cum art galleries, have become the home-away-from-home for a contingent of nomadic outside artists. Miami Beach’s Collins Park has been transformed with a record number of 24 public art works.

No space is left untouched by art. The bland Stephen P. Clark Government Center is now awash with dazzling color thanks to a new installation by visual artist Ivan Toth Depena. The installation, Reflect, was commissioned by the Miami-Dade County’s Art In Public Places. It uses infrared cameras to respond to a visitor’s movements and then creates light-based abstractions from those images in real time. Depena created specially designed software to retain a “memory” of previous user activity to create a constantly evolving artwork that elaborates the ideas of time and memory in space.

Interactive is the operative word at Christopher Janney’s other big project in the Design District, where his gallery has become a showcase of light and sound with the installations “Architecture of the Air” and “Touch My Building.”

Back at the Art Collector Lounge, internationally celebrated design architect Daniel Libeskind of Studio Daniel Libeskind, was holding a news conference with a collection of international art publication journalists on his new masterpiece eL, developed in collaboration with Zumtobel. Libeskind is best known for his dramatic addition to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and the lavish sets he designs for opera, most recently for Deutsche Oper Berlin’s production of Messiaen’s Saint Francis of Assisi.

“eL is new because it affirms the idea that light is not just for ornamentation or effect. It ‘is’ the structure. It becomes an essential design element and redefines its relation to art as a means of conveying emotion,” Libeskind elaborated.

Besides setting records for the value of art sold, this year’s number of both exhibitors and attendees has made the 10th Art Basel Miami Beach the largest ever.

Monday, November 21, 2011

"Nouveau Expression" sweeps the nation with 100 Beaujolais Nouveau 2011 release parties


Story and Photos by Dwight Casimere

-Dwight The Wine Doctor with Georges Duboeuf co-owner Franck Duboeuf

-A toast to Beaujolais Nouveau

-Award-winning food writer and Contributing New York Times columnist Florence Fabricant with Franck Duboeuf

-Franck Duboeuf and the pimped out vintage Cadillac

-The Beaujolais Nouveau "ride"

-Artists Wayne Ensrud and Lisa Mee with the Georges Dubeouf labe he designed

-Knights of the Vine

-Backjump Burgers with Fried Quail Egg on top

-William J. Deutsch, Chairman, W.J. Deutsch & Sons

-Server with those famous Backjump Burgers

-Graffiti Artist Kaves with Franck Duboeuf and the label representations the artist designed for Beaujolais Nouveau

-Hip Hop artist Pop Master Fabel busts a move

-Harlem Travel Guide co-author Valerie Jo Bradley with famed author and former New York Magazine food critic Gael Greene

-The Star of the Show, Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau 2011

NEW YORK—With Hip-Hop music blaring from the DJ, Frank Duboeuf, co-proprietor of Les Vins Georges Duboeuf came roaring through the garage door of Manhattan’s SIR Stage 37 night club in a vintage Cadillac chauffeured by Brooklyn graffiti artist Kaves. Duboeuf was bearing precious cargo, the first case of 2011 Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau wine to arrive in the United States. Kaves designed the one-of-a-kind image that graces the label of each bottle.

Escorted by Hip Hop artist Pop Master Fabel and his Cru doing their signature moves, Duboeuf proceeded to uncork the first bottles of the fresh, young Gamay red wine to mark the beginning of “Nouveau Day” across America. On November 17, 100 Nouveau Expression parties were held across the country to celebrate the official arrival of Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau 2011, marking the 60th anniversary of the first Nouveau vintage in 1951. The biggest party, marking the official arrival, was held at SIR Stage 37 in New York.

“This year marks a milestone for Beaujolais,” Franck Duboeuf gushed proudly to Dwight The Wine Doctor. “This is the first time in many years that we have harvested twice within one year. The wine is “Magnifique!”

In France, the end of the harvest is celebrated much like Mardi Gras, only instead of throwing beads and eating King Cake, the French celebrate by drinking their new wine.

“This year’s Gamay Beaujolais is a bouquet of fruity aromas, very round, very soft with a very great aftertaste, like fresh grapes,” he further described.

“This is not just a “celebration” wine, but a real food companion that goes great with Holiday ham or sausages. It’s great with roasted meats like beef or turkey, that are so common on the table this time of year.”

Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau 2011 sells for around $10 at most retailers, making it a terrific Holiday bargain.

The catering staff at Stage 37 passed around a series of mouth-watering hors d’oeuvres Inspire by NYC's Food Truck Scene, including All-City Braised Pulled Pork with Carrot and Cucumber Slaw and Sriracha Mayo on a Porcelain Spoon, spectacular Gallery Grilled Aged Wisconsin Gruyere Cheese Sandwiches and the real stand-out of the event, mini Backjump Burgers with Oven Roasted Tomato and Roasted Tomato Sauce topped with a Fresh Fried Quail Egg. MMMMmmmmm!!!

The Arrival Celebration continued with a three-course meal that showcased Georges Duboeuf’s new releases for the year, including Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais-Villages Nouveau 2011 ($11) with Painter’s Touch Chicken “Porchetta” which was a chicken breast stuffed with Pork Belly, Fennel, Rosemary and Red Sage. This is a dish that is easy to duplicate at home and, by its description, I’ve just given you the recipe. The bright fruit flavors of the wine and the touch of spice on the tongue married well with the fennel and sage infusion in the stuffing. The pork belly gave the dish a creamy, Umami (comfort food) mouth feel that is so desirable in Holiday and end-of-harvest meals, that mirrors the round, soft flavor palette of the wine.

Georges Duboeuf Julienas Chateau des Capitans 2010 ($18.99) was the lush flavorful wine served with the 3D Salmon with Celeriac Mashed Potatoes and Fresh Green Beans. The fish was served with the crispy “skin on” which gave the wine an oily, slightly charred foil to play against with its rich taste of brambleberries, typical of old vines fruit. Blackberries and spice and a hint of black peppercorns are the back notes that make this a great wine with fleshy fish or a rare aged steak or charred Churrasco (Brazilian grilled) skirt steak.

Artistic Expression Desserts of Cereal Milk Ice Cream Milk Shake, Salted Caramel Truffle and a Chocolate Compost Cookie provided an opportunity to play around with some of the other great new releases that were offered. Georges Duboeuf Morgon 2010 ($15.99) was my personal favorite with its complex flavors and aromas of dark berries and back notes of allspice and a hint of smoke, as was the Morgon 2010 ($13.99), a straightforward fruity expression of the Gamay grape.

The pre-celebration tasting featured George Duboeuf Macon-Villages 2010, 100% Chardonnay ($12.99) and an outstanding “Frasier-worthy” Puilly-Fuisse 2010, also 100% Chardonnay ($19.99).

William J. Deutsch, Chairman of the Board, W.J. Deutsch & Sons, exclusive importers of Georges Duboeuf wines, summed it up best: “This is truly a landmark day! I’ve been partnering with Georges Duboeuf, his family and his wines for the past 28 years and this is my 28th Beaujolais Nouveau celebration. We make the world happy!”

Deutsch said his association with the Duboeuf family reflects the philosophy behind his business model. “When I started this business 30 years ago, the idea was to work exclusively with family owned wine companies that we would become very close to, and here we are 30 years later, with generations coming to the front-Georges’ son Franck and my son Peter, they’re picking up where Georges and I built a foundation.”

He further said that the timing of the Beaujolais Nouveau celebrations could not have been better. “Just by coincidence, the wine goes very well with Holiday Turkey. Mother Nature was good to us, She brought us both Beaujolais Nouveau and Turkey, all at the same time.”

Well said. Vive William Deutsch and Vive le Beaujolais Nouveau!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Pinot Days Navy Pier Chicago turns 'Sideways' on its ear

Dwight The Wine Doctor-Pinot Days Navy Pier Chicago

Story and photos by Dwight Casimere

1. Dwight The Wine Doctor with Alexandre Leclercq of Albert Bichot Wines of France

2. Erin Craig-Wine Consultant Louis Glunz Wines (r) and friend

3. Paul Sloan of Small Vines Wines-Sebastopol, California

4. Cory Davis-Stoller Vineyard

5. Jim Ball and his wife with Dwight The Wine Doctor

6. Stoller Wines

7. Lee Medina-Sokol Blosser Wines

8. Aldo Zaninotto of ROAR Wines

9-11. Some of the "Beautiful People" at Pinot Days

12. Jim Ball Winemaker

13. Alexandre Leclercq of Albert Bichot Wines

14. Maggie Hall-Gypsy Canyon Wine

15. Gray Hartley-Hitching Post Wines

16. Kate MacMurray, Wine Ambassador, MacMurray Ranch Wine

“It’s a good thing you’re here early,” said winemaker/owner Gray Hartley of Hitching Post winery in Nipomo, California. “You weren’t here last year, but within minutes of opening, there was a thundering hoard of thirsty wine lovers at my table!” Hartley’s prediction bore fruit within seconds. The vast expanse of Festival Hall B at Navy Pier became crowded with lovers of wine made from the complex, finicky grape called Pinot Noir.

The grape, and its antecedents, goes back to antiquity. It’s been the subject of a cult-followed Alexander Payne-directed Hollywood film, Sideways (2004), starring Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh. It’s also a wine that has raised as much controversy and sparked passionate arguments, equal to its popularity. The crowd was as diverse as the style and characteristics of the wine. From wine as light and sweet as a summer’s breeze, to dark, almost mahogany or India-ink colored dense wines that smelled of the forest floor and dark, bramble fruit, the 5th annual Pinot Days Chicago Grand Festival Tasting showcased 70 phenomenal producers of Pinot Noir from every important domestic region and a handful from Germany and France. From Sonoma’s Russian River Valley to Oregon, Carneros near Napa Valley, the Santa Lucia Highlands, Pasa Robles, Anderson Valley and the Sonoma Coast, there were up to 300 pinots to sip, swap stories about and savor with a selection of specialty foods from local purveyors. The terrific thing about Pinot Days is that the winemakers and winery owners are on hand to personally pour the wines for you and to talk about how they were made and their unique properties. Here’s a taster’s choice sampling of comments about their wines:

Greg Stach winemaker Landmark Vineyard Kenwood, California- “We focus on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and I’m pouring our Damaris Reserve ($40) which is our best chardonnay that we have and our pinot noirs (2009 Kanzier-$65, 2009 Sonoma Mountain Grand Detour-$40) which have both been rated 90 points or better. I think what’s special about the wines is that we are really trying to express the vineyards thru the wines. There’s very little handling involved. The pinot grapes are very gently handled acre by acre. It’s a very meticulous winemaking process. Flavor-wise, there’s a lot of fruit and a lot of mushroom in the bottle. Our wine goes well with mushroom- based foods it’s got I get a lot of raspberry and milk chocolate on the nose and on the palette. I would describe it as a classic style of pinot noir. Kanzier is sourced from grapes in the Sebastopol hills. It’s a bigger wine with lots of earthy, forest floor notes. It’s got big blackberry flavors too, with lots of tannins and toasty oak that gives it good structure and balance. It’s still a young wine. I get effusive blackberry fruit when I first taste it. It’s sort of unusual for a California Pinot Noir. I think that’s why the critics rated it so highly (95 points).

Jim Ball-winemaker/owner Jim Ball Vineyards-I’m pouring out 2009 Signature Pinot Noir, which is from Anderson Valley and our Boonville Pinot Noir. Both are made from all Estate Grown fruit and sell for around $45 a bottle. “These are aged in 25 and 50% new French oak, respectively. I think they’d go best with a spiced, wood-smoked Salmon. These are medium bodied wines with a lot of complexity. The Signature, for example, has a lot of sassafras on the nose. (Sound like it’ll go great with Cajun/Creole food) and lots of rich black cherry, plum and dark chocolate. The Boonville has more of a floral characteristic with lots of fruit, like raspberries and blackberries and the smell of violets and rose petals. There’s a little bit of sandalwood in the mix too. That’s why I suggested the smoked salmon.”

The Hitching Post Restaurant in Buellton, California, in Santa Barbara County, is practically a starring character in the popular Alexander Payne film Sideways. One of the characters, Maya (Virginia Madsen) is a waitress there. Restaurant owner/chef Frank Ostini and his good friend, former fisherman Gray Hartley, started making their first Pinot Noir in Frank’s garage in 1979. They moved to a winery in 1984, a quickly drew a cult following to their restaurant and wine bar where the wine was exclusively poured. From making just a few cases of homegrown wine, they’ve increased to over 20,000 cases in their new ultra premium facility at Terravant Winery in Buellton. The wine, as described by Gray Hartley, reflects their shared passion.

“We produce a wine intended to go with food,” Hartley explained in his rather theatrical way of speaking. When he’s not making wine or hanging out at the restaurant, he lends his voice to commercials and does various clothing ad shoots and commercials.

“We started out just making wine for our friends and giving it away, but within a short time, we were making so much, we just couldn’t find enough people to give it to. That’s when we decided to get ourselves a bonded license, and took our winemaking operation to a legitimate facility. So, here we are, thirty years later, and we’re still having fun making wine.”

What’s special about the wines is that we’ve been focusing on wines that are food friendly. As you know, Frank is a chef, and the wine we make is crafted with that idea in mind. If wines are made to complement food, they can accelerate and elevate the dining experience.”

Pinot Noir is most closely associated with the Burgundy region of France, where it gets its name. Pinot noir literally means “black pine” for the dark color and pinecone shaped clusters of grapes on the vine. It is widely considered the finest wine in the world, however, it has a reputation as a difficult variety to both grow and to transform and tame into wine.

Alexandre Leclercq of Albert Bichot wines, a negotiant from France with officers at McClurg Court, Chicago, not far from Navy Pier where the tasting was held, was the sole French proprietor on hand. He presented a handful of wines from his native Beaune, France.

“We have been producing wine since 1831. We are one of the biggest wine producers and negotiants in France. We are part of the history of Burgundy. We produce Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, primarily. We are also one of the biggest producers in Chablis. Now, we have been in the United States for 7 years and are starting to expand our operations. Most of our wines are in the $15 to $35 range. Our Old Vines Pinot Noir is aged 50% in new oak barrels to give it a little bit of structure while maintaining the freshness of the Pinot noir grape. Our next tier of wines sell for $22 a bottle and $35 respectively. They’re aged 50% in new oak for a year to give them more pronounced flavor and complexity. The real difference with our wines is that we provide the same complex, structured wines that you’ll find elsewhere for twice the price or more!”

There were just as many people ordering cases of wine to be shipped later as there were those who simply came to imbibe and enjoy the party. With the Holidays right around the corner, you can bet there will be plenty of food-friendly Pinot Noir on tables throughout the Chicagoland area. Pinot Days heads to Southern California January 28, 2012, Dallas, April 21, 2012 and San Francisco (at Fort Mason, between Fisherman’s Wharf and the Golden Gate Bridge), June 16, 2012. Mark your calendar; I just might see you at one of them.