Thursday, June 30, 2011

Tracking lusty, luscious Lodi wines from Naperville to New Orleans

1. Michael David Winery Midwest Regional Manager Tom Schmitz with Dwight The Wine Doctor

2. The Royal Street Stroll through New Orleans’ famed French Quarter during the 2011 New Orleans Wine and Food Experience

3. Legendary New Orleans Chef Paul Prudhomme with Dwight The Wine Doctor at the Ella Brennan Lifetime Achievement in Hospitality Award Dinner at the 2011 New Orleans Wine and Food Experience

4. Hall of Fame Chef Jimmy Bannos of Heaven on Seven, Chicago and Naperville, Illinois

5. Michael David General Manager/Winemaker Adam Mettler (r) with La Cote Brasserie Executive Chef Chuck Subra in New Orleans

NAPERVILLE (By way of New Orleans)—Lodi wines are finally coming into their own. For decades, the wines of the region, located just east of San Francisco, California in the fertile Mediterranean climate at the edge of the Sacramento River Delta, has been associated with inexpensive jug wines of little consequence. Brothers Michael and David Phillips set out to change that perception, producing outstanding varietal wines from Lodi and from grapes sourced throughout California’s winegrowing regions. The brothers have ample pedigree to back up the numerous Gold Medals and 90 plus Wine Spectator ratings they’ve garnered over the years with such well-known wines as their wildly popular 7 Deadly Zins ($13.99), 6th Sense Syrah ($12.99), Incognito White ($18.98) and Earthquake Wines ($22-$25). The brother-owners are the 5th generation grape-growers in the Phillips family, with the 6th generation now joining the family business. Dwight The Wine Doctor got a 360-degree view of the outstanding “stable” of wines at a pair of comprehensive winemaker dinners, based around the palate-tingling cuisine of New Orleans. The first was during the 2011 New Orleans Wine Experience at a May 25th Vintner Dinner at Executive Chef Chuck Subra’s La Cote Brasserie in New Orleans up and coming Warehouse District, just a fifteen minute or so walk from the Crescent City’s famed French Quarter. General Manager/Winemaker Adam Mettler appeared in person to present a stunning array of high-quality Lodi wines.

What a surprise when Dwight The Wine Doctor learned that a representative of the winery, Midwest Regional Manager Tom Schmitz, would be doing a Winemaker Dinner at Naperville’s Heaven on Seven featuring the limited allocation Symphony white blend ($12) with Chef/Owner Jimmy Bannos’s critically acclaimed authentic Cajun cuisine that has earned him such accolades as 2007 Inductee to the Chicago Chef’s Hall of Fame.

Seven Deadly Zins lived up- to its advance publicity with a unique vegetarian gumbo, Gumbo Z’Herbes, featuring a spicy Cajun broth with braised Mustard and Collard greens, a real twist on two down-home favorites. Seductive Sixth Sense Syrah showed off plenty of blackberry fruit character with Chef Bannos’s Creole Mustard Braised Chicken over Rice. The real star of the evening’s culinary show was the limited production Rapture Cabernet Sauvignon with Southern Comfort Short Rib over Roasted Garlic Mashed Potatoes. It would be torture to rhapsodize on this outstanding Cabernet, one of the best I’ve had in my global travels this year. Its in limited supplies and costs upwards of $200 a bottle.

Pin Tower Zinfandel Dessert Wine ($20) with Lemon Chess Pie injected a little humor into the festive evening. “The name is an amalgam for Port Wine, which, of course comes from Portugal. You can’t legally use the name otherwise, but the owners figured out a way to get around it. “ The chocolaty rich flavor results, combined with the lemony fruit tart gave just the right ‘pucker’ in the mouth that helped you to ‘get’ the tongue-in-cheek joke.

Chef Jimmy Bannos is a true anomaly. Thirty years ago, the third generation Chicago restaurateur was cooking up classic Jewish deli food in a dingy, seventh floor Loop diner called Heaven on Seven. As a frequent habituĂ© of that inelegant locale when I was a young radio announcer at nearby WGCI news radio, I can personally attest to the fact that the name was somewhat of a situational pun. The building in which it was located (the historic Garland Building, since restored to its original grandeur) was one of the original “skyscrapers,” complete with old-fashioned bird cage elevators, the kind which were once operated by white-gloved attendants. Hunkered over the creaking Chicago Loop “L” train line, Heaven on Seven became an oasis of really great tasting food that, in its time, was unique to the polish sausage and pierogi food culture of the time. Bannos first caught “Cajun fever” when he encountered a cookbook by the legendary New Orleans Chef Paul Prudhomme. When Bannos called him to chat about recipe ideas, Prudhomme invited him down to intern in K-Paul’s famed kitchen. The rest, as they say, is culinary history. Bannos has since published cookbooks on his own and is the acknowledged authority on all things Creole and Cajun in the Chicago area. His humble Wabash Avenue diner has since blossomed into a three-restaurant empire, anchored by Heaven on Seven in the Garland, a gleaming, festive dining emporium on Rush Street, nestled in the same complex as a multiplex movie theatre near the Magnificent Mile, Heaven on Seven in Naperville and his latest incarnation, Juicy-O, creator of the perfect cake donut in Downers Grove, Willowbrook and Naperville.

In New Orleans, Chef Chuck Subra put his best culinary foot forward at La Cote Brasserie that truly showcased winemaker Adam Mettler’s fabulous wines from Lodi, California. Starting with his signature Satsuma Jam Red Fish Ceviche, a Nuevo Latino twist on a local seafood favorite, paired with 2009 Seven Heavenly Chardonnay ($17). Provencal Braised Beef Cheeks with Papa Tom’s Stone Ground Grits, brought out the hearty best of this formerly humble cut of meat that has been elevated to Top Chef status, paired with 2008 6th Sense Syrah ($12.99), a favored varietal of the Phillips brothers, which was among their first plantings in 1982. The wine is homage to those produced in southern France and delivers its characteristic fragrance with hints of peppermint, black cherry and red currant. Its mouthwatering, juicy flavor was the perfect accompaniment to the fleshy, herb scented meat and the umami sensation created in the mouth by the creamy grits.

Steen’s Cane Syrup Marinated Duck Breast with Duck Fat Braised Arugula and Ponchatoula Strawberry Jam was Chef Subra’s masterpiece, paired with 2008 Earthquake Cabernet Sauvignon, Lodi Appellation ($21.99). This wine truly lives up to its name. It possesses corpulent fruit flavors with overtones of chocolate, tobacco and sweet oak. The tannins literally make your mouth pucker while, at the same time, the ripe, juicy fruit literally explodes in your mouth. It’s at least a 5.0 on the Richter scale!

The Grand Finale, Chocolate Pound Cake with Praline cherries, Creole Cream Cheese Ice Cream and Granny’s Milk Chocolate Sauce with 2008 Lust Zinfandel ($49.99) was something Blanche Dubois must have ordered at one time or another. It’s a dessert that says everything there is to say about the decadence and tradition of excess in Louisiana culinary culture. Paired with Lust Zinfandel…. well, I can only leave the aphrodisiac overload to the imagination.

Michael David Wines are a great discovery that really puts Lodi on the wine-drinking map. Paired with Cajun cooking, it’s a match made in “Heaven” whether it be in New Orleans or Naperville!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Summertime is the perfect time for German wines

Dwight The Wine Doctor-Summertime the perfect time to think of German wines

Story and photos by Dwight Casimere

1. Dwight The Wine Doctor with Eberhard von Kunow of Weingut-von Hovel estate

2. Doris Eymael of Monchhof Estate Wines

3. German Wine With Soul

4. Bert Selbach of Dr. F. Weins-Prum estate of Wehlen/Mosel

5. A French television news crew does a live shot outside the Tribeca townhouse where disgraced former IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn resides in house arrest during his trial for attacking a hotel maid in New York

New York--Summertime is here and this is the perfect time to think of the light, fruity and flavorful wines of Germany. It’s been some time since I’ve savored the delights of the bone dry (trocken) Pinot Gris Kabinetts of the Kaiserstuhl, or the mouth-wringing “pur mineral” Dry Rieslings of the Rheingau or the dance-in-your-mouth fruity wines of the Mosel. Served well chilled, these are the perfect wines for summer and great with bar-b-ques, salads, seafood and fruit and sorbet desserts, or just drinking by themselves. Besides being terrific on the palate, the wines are also great on the pocketbook!

A recent visit to the famed Robert DeNiro/Drew Nieporent-owned Tribeca Grill in the ultra-hip New York neighborhood of the same name saw the unveiling of the 2011 “German Wine With Soul” U.S. Tour. Entitled “Rudipalooza!” after sponsors, the U.S. distributors Rudi Wiest Selections and Maximum Wine Co., the tasting presented Germany’s top winemakers who are touring the U.S. to introduce the 2010 Vintage of German Wines. Some of the houses the represent are among the oldest names in winemaking, some of them dating back to the time of Napoleon. The wines are readily available at your local wine shop or supermarket.

(Juicy sidebar: On the way to the tasting, I encountered a live TV news crew in front of the $50,000 a month townhouse where disgraced IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn is holed up on house arrest during his trial for allegedly groping a hotel maid. The townhouse is directly across the street from Tribeca Grill.)

One of the first wines I ever had when I was a cub reporter working at a major metropolitan news station in the Merchandise Mart, Chicago, was a Silvaner Kabinett Dry Riesling. I bought at the behest of the kindly wine shop steward, who just happened to be German, at the old Stop ‘N Shop (I’m telling my age!) supermarket across from Sandburg Village, which in those days was one of the trendiest addresses in town. I can’t describe to you the awakening that happened in my taste buds when I first savored the delightful ripe fruit and subtle, underlying sweetness of this wine. It was a real treat to walk into the Tribeca Grill and meeting winery owner Marcel von den Benken and encountering a taste of his 2010 Silvaner Dry, Estate Riesling ($18) and his superlative 2009 Silvaner Kabinett Dry, “Old Vines” Riesling ($24).

Just a note about some of the words used to describe German wines; the words “kabinett,” “spaetlese” and “auslese” are used to describe the sugar level at the time of harvest for each wine. A spaetlese wine has more sugar at harvest as a kabinett, and an auslese has more sugar than a spaetlese. The word spaetlese in German also refers to late harvest wine, in which the grapes are left on the vine after they are ripe in order to increase their sugar content. Although high in sugar levels, these wines also have high acidity, which cuts through the sweetness, thus creating a flavor balance that is thrilling and unique to German wines. Schloss Hallburg wines are one of the best examples of wines that balance the stony and chalky characteristics of the soil with the flavor of ripe fruit.

Next on my tasting excursion were the wines of the Urzig/Mosel regions from Monchhof estates. Their 2010 Riesling Spatlese, “Mosel Slate” ($19.99) absolutely knocked my socks off! It was crystalline, with a brilliant straw hue and a fantastic perfume of jasmine flowers on the nose. This was as easy drinking a wine as ever you could imagine, with peaches and crisp green apples literally dripping from the corners of your mouth. I had one word to describe it, “Sexy!” The 2010 Monchhof Riesling ($13.99) has a similarly smooth, silky taste and texture and delivers a mouthful of pleasure at an extraordinary price. You can’t go wrong with these wines. The Eymael family, which owns and produces Monchhof wines, has a rich history which dates back to the early 1800s. “This is the wine that Napoleon drank,” I was told by my server, who is a direct descendent of the original owners. One sip and I was sure that she was telling the truth.

Friday, June 10, 2011

South African Wines Debuts U.S. Tour at James Beard Foundation

South African wines make 2011 U.S. Debut

Wines reviewed Tuesday, June 7, 2011

  1. Dwight The Wine Doctor with Vernon Henn-Thandi Wines-Western Cape, South Africa
  2. Aja’ Robinson-Fever Clothing
  3. Emil den Dulk-De Toren Private Cellar, Stellenbosch, South Africa
  4. Ken Kotze- Cellar Master, Morgenster Wines
  5. The fauna among the floral wines at the James Beard Foundation Greens Wines of South Africa tour event

New York-Wines of South Africa Winemaker Tour 2011 kicked off in New York’s famed Village neighborhood near Washington Square with a tasting of 50 of their outstanding new wines in an event at the historic Astor Center hosted by James Beard Foundation Greens. In addition to sampling the best wines from South Africa, participants had an opportunity to nosh on South African inspired hors d’oeuveres created by South African native, Chef Hugo Uys of Paris Commune. The event was a foodie’s delight!

Some of the wines were familiar to American wine lovers, such as Henry Kotze’s Morgenster and Richard Kershaw’s Mulderbosch Estate. Others, such as Black African winemaker Vernon Henn’s Thandi wines, were new to the U.S. market. The event provided a cornucopia of tastes and textures unique to South Africa.

Nearly a dozen South African winemakers were present to pour their wines and describe, first-hand, and the verdant growing regions that are unique to their country. Stellenbosch, South Africa’s most famous winegrowing area, was well represented by such stellar labels as Raats Family Wines,De Toren, DeMorgenzon, Morgenster, Waterford Estate and Warwick Estate and Vilfonte, among others. Distributors were also on hand to let everyone in the toney crowd know where they could find the wines at their local wine shops.

Surprisingly, most of the wines I tasted and enjoyed the most were in the very comfortable $10-$24 dollar range. I was amazed at the quality of wine that was available, in abundance, under $30. The price and the wine's outstanding flavors and accessibility, makes for an ideal summertime value, especially for those interested in pairing wine with food. With summertime here, South African wines, with their bright, sunny flavors and easy drinkability are the perfect match for a picnic, a sailboat ride or an afternoon on the lawn, taking in a summer festival concert. Ravinia and Millennium Park, here I come, bottle of Mulderbosch in hand!

Some of my personal picks and favorite among the throng are:

Mulderbosch Chenin Blanc 2009 (Western Cape) -$13.99. This is what Chenin Blanc is all about and no one does it better than this venerable winemaking estate. The flavors are redolent with lush, vivacious tropical fruit. The aroma of perfumed flowers hits you before you even get the glass to your mouth. This wine is sex in a bottle!

Thandi Shiraz/Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 W.O. Western Cape-$13

Winemaker Patrick Kraukamp really nailed it with this youthful, fruit-forward beauty. The word Thandi meanings nurturing, loving care and that’s exactly the principal that guides both the winemaking a business models of this progressive winery. The Thandi project was one of the first Black Economic Empowerment projects set up by the post-Apartheid government. As a result, the workers now own 2/3rds of the shares of the winery. In 2004, Thandi met strict government standards to become the first Fairtrade certified winery and has become the model for subsequent awardees. The Fairtrade Premium provides money for education for the families that live in the community. This is a classic red blend that combines a rich, ruby-red color with semi-sweet fruit concentration, a bit of pepper plant spice and hints of roasted coffee on the nose. Its available at most local wine shops and, from the comments garnered at this tasting, it will be moving off the shelves fast!

Reyneke Reserve White 2009-Stellenbosch from Indigo Wine Group.-$15

Winemaker Norman Goodfellows knocked it out of the park with this one. It’s become my summertime white “go-to” wine. This Organic wine made from100% Sauvignon Blanc has intense notes of grapefruit and melon and a honeysuckle perfume on the nose. It is crisp and flavorful with an underlying note of the slate soil

that informs its rich character. This is a great wine with summer salads, seafood or just drinking alone on the patio.

As they say in South Africa, “Bakgat!” (Well Done!)

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Vintage ports celebrate historic decade on U.S. tour

Vintage ports celebrate historic decade on U.S. tour

Story and photos by Dwight Casimere

  1. Dwight The Wine Doctor flanked by David Bruce Fonseca Guimaraens (l) Christie’s Head of wine, Americas, Robin Kelley, O’Connor and Fladgate Partnership’s Robert Bower, Sales and Export Manager

2 & 3 Ports on Parade

4. The Wine Hub/Bayou Buzz’s Philip S. Kampe samples a Croft vintage port

5. Howard Goldberg, a wine writer for the New York Times, savors the 2000 Taylor Fladgate in Ai Fiori’s wine library

“It will be interesting to see how this tasting experience plays out in the media. There’s so much competition for a new audience for all types of fine wines and spirits. Somehow, port has been left out of the conversation. We’re hoping to change that with this new exposure.” Those were the words of Kobrand Spirits Brand Manager Charles R. Viagas as he observed the crowd of wine journalists and prominent members of the wine trade at an Preview Tasting of 2009 Vintage Port hosted by The Fladgate Partnership at New York’s Ai Fiori restaurant high above Fifth Avenue in the ultra chic Setai Hotel.

Port wine is fortified wine produced exclusively in the Douro Valley in the northern provinces of Portugal. Typically regarded as a dessert wine, winemakers have diversified the flavor profile to produce dry, semi-dry and even white varieties that are growing in popularity in Europe, Canada, Australia, South Africa, Australia, Argentina and India. Curiously, the U.S. has been slow to the party and Port remains, at least perceptually, within the domain of armchair intellectuals at stuffy men’s clubs and a few die-hard aficionados.

As a cadre of port winemakers make their way around the country this week in a whirlwind tour of key U.S. cities- New York, Washington, D.C. and San Francisco. Chicago’s Preview 2009 Declaration Tasting was held June 8 at Mastro’s Restaurant, 520 N. Dearborn near the Magnificent Mile. Fladgate Partnership Winemaker David Bruce Fonseca Guimaraens presented a “Decade of Declared Vintages” from the acclaimed port houses Taylor Fladgate, Fonseca and Croft to celebrate an historic first in the wind world; four declared port vintages in a decade. Participants were privileged to taste the 2000, 2003, 2007 and the recently declared 2009 port wines from all three houses as well as a special treat, the Taylor Fladgate Quinta de Vargellas Vinha Velha 2009. The New York City tasting featured remarks by Robin Kelly O’Connor, Christie’s Head of Wine, Americas.

“These port wines are showing great promise going forward over the next five to ten years,” Kelly O’Connor said after tasting a glass of the 2009 Fladgate. “When you’re tasting ports, your palate meets a wall of resistance, which makes it unlike the tasting experience for still wines. Your palate actually adapts and you begin to experience things you would normally not associate with wine, but that are unique to port. These wines are a special treat because they represent some of the finest in the history of port wine. Its quite an exhilarating experience!”

By tradition, April 23rd, St. George’s Day, is the date upon which the historic Port houses of Taylor, Fonseca and Croft traditionally announce whether they will release a new classic vintage port. In other words, whether they have decided to ‘declare.’ The exciting news is that all three houses have declared 2009. The wines have just been bottled and are being paraded around the U.S. for the pleasure of collectors, journalists and wine enthusiasts. They’ll be available to consumers in retail stores this summer. The big news is Taylor’s release of a small quantity of Vargellas Vinha Velha 2009, the very rare of ‘old vines’ vintage ports from Quinta de Vargellas.

A winemaker has the option of ‘declaring’ a vintage or not. Historically, vintage declarations have only occurred about three times a decade. However, nature has been kind, and four outstanding vintages, 2000, 2003, 2007 and 2009, have all been ‘declared.’ Seldom in the history of over three centuries of port making has the wine world experienced such a sequence of outstanding vintages.

Here are some of the highlights from my tasting notes:

Taylor Fladgate Vintage 2000-$89. This is Taylor’s finest and rarest of wines. It is the very pinnacle of port. Dense and almost black-purple in color, it is rich with a full fruit nose and aromas of dark berry and cedar. This is the classic port in every way, one that invites a long draw on, what else, a Fonseca cigar!

Croft Vintage 2003 Port-$85. This is a huge, mouth-filling port crammed with rich, thick flavors of luscious dark fruit that literally burst open on the palate. There’s an almost overpowering abundance of rich, jammy fruit; currants, blackberries and cherries all against an opulent backdrop of thick tannins. A creamy, blue-veined Stilton would be the obvious choice, but I would also venture to have it alongside a loin of marinated venison or a thick Cowboy steak roasted over a hardwood grill with Portabella mushrooms drenched in the rich port wine and dark olive oil before grilling. Vargellas Vinha Velha Vintage 2009-$249.99. With only a couple of thousand cases shipped to the U.S. and only three bottles to the case, this is going to be a tough one to find. The collectors and exclusive restaurant and hotel sommeliers have already put in first dibs! If you do run across a bottle, break open the piggy bank. This is an outstanding wine from an outstanding estate. Recognized as one of the world’s finest vineyards, the Quinta de Vargellas is traditionally the source of some of Taylor’s finest vintages dating back to the 1890’s. This takes the notion of port to the sublime with deep purple color and a rich flavor and heady aroma that will send your palate into the flavor stratosphere. It’s a mind-bending experience best savored in a darkened room in your favorite chair with only the glow of a roaring fire or your favorite music as an accompaniment. This is what port drinking is all about.

With the rise of specialty spirit such as premium vodka and high-end tequilas capturing the fancy of trendy, young drinkers, this unique collection of fine ports is sure to find a new and enthusiastic audience. You may quote me!