Tuesday, October 28, 2008

My review of What to Drink With What You Eat from the Examiner

This blog post is another of those pieces that originally appeared in the Weekend Edition section of the Washington Examiner print edition back on April 21 & 2, 2007. Like MOST of my fairly regular output for them, this was never posted to their website and so it lost for all time...until now. ;-)

Avid wine drinkers and food lovers the world over all face a fairly regular question: What should we drink with this meal?
While there have been many published guides on this, nearly all are dry and far too involved and reference- like for regular day-to-day use.

Redeeming this genre of book is the recent publication of Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page’s What to Drink With What You Eat: The Definitive Guide to Pairing Food with Wine, Beer, Spirits, Coffee, Tea — Even Water — Based on Expert Advice from America’s Best Sommeliers (Bulfinch September 2006; 368 pages; $35; see their website for their latest work.)

Despite the unwieldy, if straightforward title, What to Drink With What You Eat delivers exactly what it promises — the definitive contemporary guide to food and beverage pairings based on current “expert” opinion and tastes from a wide cross-section of wine and food professionals and sommeliers (a fancy French word for the waiter in charge of the wine service). The book begins with an engaging and instructive introduction to the art of food and beverage pairing, both at home and commercially, then gallops along at a nice, very readable pace.

There are two basic parts to this informative and practical book. The first offers a comprehensive alphabetical listing of foods from Aioli to Zucchini, and each entry is accompanied by a list of suggested beverages that would best accompany it.

The second part of the book offers the same but leading with the beverages instead of the food, offering an equally comprehensive alphabetical listing, from Aglianico (pronounced “ah-LYAH-nee-koe”; a red varietal wine from the Campania and Basilicata regions of Italy) to Zinfandel. Again, the entries here are accompanied by a list of compatible food suggestions.

Peppering the text throughout are quotes, situational advice, and instructive and entertaining anecdotes from their experts.
The back section of the book contains interviews, advice, dream menus, and the like, distilled from the book’s “Who’s Who” list of experts from America’s best restaurants. This is the part of the book you’ll either find absorbing or dreadfully dull, depending partly on how familiar you are with the wines and dishes, but mostly on how much pleasure you take in reading the culinary fantasies of others.

Despite this feature — either a fault or virtue, depending on tastes — What to Drink With What You Eat is a wonderful guide filled with excellent advice.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Meet Johnny Appleseed’s cocktail of choice

This blog post is another of those pieces that originally appeared in the Weekend Edition section of the Washington Examiner print edition back on July 30 & 31, 2005. Like MOST of my fairly regular output for them, this was never posted to their website and so it lost for all time...until now. ;-)

One of the most tortuous aspects of Washington’s summers is the speed with which the baking, blinding sun cedes its jurisdiction to the steamy, stifling rain — and then back again. When Mother Nature plays such tricks, it becomes necessary to find some method of refreshing one’s spirit. Perhaps some magic elixir that delivers the ying of a sweet dose of sugar balanced by the yang of something sour, with the whole brought to life by a zesty, tangy bite. What is needed, clearly, is a Jack Rose cocktail.
Missing ingredients

A simple, fruity potion of Applejack (American apple brandy), grenadine (pomegranate juice with sugar), and citrus (lemon or lime), the Jack Rose is one of those classic, elevating, magical cocktails that, like the well-made martini, becomes something far more than the sum of its parts. Unlike the martini, however, the Jack Rose is fairly hard to come by in your average bar. For not only will 9 out of 10 bartenders display total incomprehension at your request (unless they have been at it a very long time), most bars don’t even stock all the necessary ingredients.

The primary ingredient that is hard to come by in most bars is not the grenadine, which every bar has but most every bartender hates to use (principally because most commercial mixes lack real pomegranate flavor and are too sweet). Nor is it the citrus, which no cocktail bar could really survive without.

No, the hardest Jack Rose ingredient to find in bars today is the Applejack — the original American distilled spirit.

Although it isn’t too difficult to find in a well-stocked liquor store, and it isn’t at all expensive, applejack fell from many a bar roster as national tastes shifted and simplified to clear spirits like vodka. This is tragic not only because it is a fine product and the base spirit of the Jack Rose, but also because Applejack is as American as, well, apple pie.

English apple seeds were first introduced to America around 1630. Fairly early in the American colonial experience, hard apple cider became one of the standard beverages of choice. It was imbibed at every meal and often throughout the day, including mornings — John Adams was said to nock back a tankard every day with breakfast. Wherever apples grew, cider’s popularity spread. Throughout the Colonial experience, hard cider was second only to rum.

The initial evolution from cider to applejack was simple: The cider was kept outdoors and allowed to freeze during winter, and then the ice was scraped off, leaving it far more concentrated and potent. The next step was obvious, and so by the 1670s virtually every farm with an apple orchard began distilling their hard cider into apple brandy, or applejack, for family and friends.

It was around this time, in 1689, that William Laird, a Scotsman from County Fyfe, who had crossed the Atlantic and settled in Monmouth County, N.J., began distilling applejack.

The first existing record of the commercial distillation and sale of applejack in America dates from the 1780 ledger entry of William Laird’s grandson, Robert Laird, at the Colts Neck Inn, which he operated. Thus, Laird & Company dates itself from that ledger entry, 225 years ago. Entirely family owned and operated, Laird & Company is now the only company in the United States that still distills applejack. Their only product until the 1970s, the Laird’s now produce just 50,000 cases of applejack a year, amounting to less than 4 percent of their total profits.

Lightning in a bottle

Applejack, or “Jersey lightning” as it has been affectionately known, is today an apple brandy (about 65 percent) blended with neutral grain spirit (roughly 33 percent) and a little bit of apple wine (just 2 percent). Unlike the French Calvados of Normandy, however, this stuff is more like a young whiskey than a brandy — it is rough, unsubtle and assertive. Add grenadine and citrus in the right proportions, however, and you get something exceptional and delicious. You get a Jack Rose.

There are several competing theories in wide circulation that attempt to explain the naming of this drink. The first is simply that “Jack Rose” is a contraction based on its obvious components: It is made with applejack, hence the “jack,” and the drink has a distinctly pinkish hue, giving us the “rose.” Another theory asserts that “Jack Rose” is merely a corruption of its original name, the “Jacque Rose,” so named because the drink’s color is the exact shade of the thornless, long-stemmed rose known as the “General Jacqueminot Rose.”

Another version of this same theory suggests, even more improbably, that the “Jack Rose” was actually named for the man for whom the flower was named: Jean-Francois Jacqueminot, a French general and Napoleonic war veteran.

Yet another theory credits the Laird family with the drinks invention and propagation. The idea being that a John or a Jack Laird invented this rose-colored drink at the Colts Neck Inn and spread it around from there.

The Lairds actually endorse the most exotic and best-known theory of them all: The drink was named for a gangster named Jack Rose who was the star witness in a notorious 1912 murder trial in New York, in which a policeman was tried and convicted for murdering a gambling house operator named Herman Rosenthal.

Jack Rose, however, was actually the thug who murdered Rosenthal on July 13, 1912 at the Hotel Metropole in Times Square. An influential journalist with the “New York World” named Herbert Bayard Swope conspired with District Attorney Charlie Whitman to pin the murder on Lt. Charles Becker of the NYPD anti-gambling squad. As Cocktail historian David Wondrich summed it up: “Becker went to the chair, Whitman to the Governor’s Office, Swope to the Executive editorship of the 'World,' and Rose — well, he went into the catering business.”

Regardless of which of these theories is nearest the mark, the Jack Rose remains a wonderful and beguiling cocktail hat is silky, sweet and refreshing. The key here, as it is in most worthwhile endeavors in life, is balance — that harmonious interplay of ingredients that ensures that everything is coherently perceived, but nothing overpowers.

Jack Rose

Pour 1 1/5 ounces of applejack, the freshly squeezed juice of half a lime (about 1 ounce), and no more than a 1/2 ounce of grenadine (please only use a grenadine that contains real 100 percent pomegranate juice) into a cocktail shaker with cracked ice. Shake well, then strain into a pre-chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a lime wedge.

Recipes differ on whether to use lemon or lime as the citrus component. Most early recipes call for lime, more contemporary directions call for lemon (including the back of the Laird’s Applejack bottle). Both are excellent in a Jack Rose, but they make for very different drink sensations. Some prefer lime juice, while others decry lime as overpowering, insisting that only lemon will do the trick. Try them both.

An apple a day, the hoary adage has it, keeps the doctor away, but a little Applejack a day mixed with grenadine and lime juice should set you up nicely indeed.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Kiddush cup floweth over - kosher wines for Passover

This blog post is another of those pieces that originally appeared in the pages of the Washington Examiner back on March 21th, 2007. This one actually IS still available online at the Examiner website, so you could either go there directly by clicking here, or simply read below.

WASHINGTON - As Passover begins the evening of April 2, Jews will recount the biblical story of the exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land while enjoying traditional festive food and kosher wine.

Kosher wines in the United States have most often been associated with sweet and heavy Concord grape wines made by companies such as Manischewitz or Mogen David. But there is no reason for kosher wine to be qualitatively any different from non-kosher wine, nor need it be sweet.

Here then are some of the better and more interesting kosher wines to look for this Passover.

Abarbanel, Riesling, Vin d’Alsace, France, 2004 — This delicious, balanced, elegant medium-bodied dry wine begins with a delightful whiff of the florist’s shop, before offering its primary aroma and flavor bounty of citrus and tropical fruits along with sour apples, peaches, flinty minerals and honey, all balanced against the nicely assertive but not overly pronounced acidity. A pleasure to drink, with or without food. Critics’ grade: 4/5 stars

Barkan, Cabernet Sauvignon, Altitude +720, Reserve, Israel, 2003 — Grown in the Har Godrim vineyard near the Lebanese border (720 meters above sea level), this full-bodied, tight, concentrated, intense wine is exhibiting lovely notes of currants, cassis, cherries, herbs, eucalyptus, mint, coffee and even some tobacco, but it is still gripped by firm tannins if slowly integrating tannins — give this one room to breathe, or another year or so in the bottle. Critics’ grade: 4/5 stars

Capcanes, Flor de Primavera/Peraj Ha’Abib, Montsant, Spain, 2003 — A stunning wine. This delicious oak-aged, deep, dark ruby-colored blend (40 percent Grenache, 35 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 30 percent Carignan and 5 percent Tempranillo grapes) is nicely balanced between tannins, acidity, wood and fruit, with aromas and flavors of black currants, plums, sweet blackberries, raspberries, cherries and mocha, with intriguing overlays of coffee, white pepper, licorice and minerals, with something very much like mint emerging on the lengthy finish. Critics’ grade: 5/5 stars

Carmel, Gewürztraminer, Late Harvest, Single Vineyard, Kerem Sha’al, Israel, 2005 — This sweet, elegant dessert wine has some lovely depth to it, with pronounced aromas and flavors of apricots, peaches, nectarines, litchis, cinnamon, honey, pineapple and rose petals all set against nicely balancing acidity, preventing the whole from seeming too sweet or sticky. Critics’ grade: 5/5 stars

Hagafen, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, 2002 — Another stunning wine. This sumptuous yet graceful, harmoniously balanced, complex, slightly spicy wine offers layers of aromas and flavors, including currants, black cherries, cedar wood, licorice, black pepper, chocolate, eucalyptus, cassis, blueberries and mint, with a marvelous earthy finish with spice, berries and something slightly menthol. Critics’ grade: 5/5 stars

Noah, Tevel, Shiraz-Cabernet Sauvignon, Israel, 2005 — A purplish-colored, medium-bodied fairly well-balanced effort with pleasing aromas and flavors of cherries, slightly stewed strawberries, cranberries, cassis, black pepper and other spices, and with an intriguing, slightly burning, slightly astringent finish that is yearning for a bit of flesh (steaks, roasts, etc.). Critics’ grade: 4/5 stars

Recanati, Chardonnay, Israel, 2005 — This wonderfully crisp, controlled, rich yet elegant wine is even better than previous vintages, with more minerality and complexity and less of the pronounced oak and butter notes. Refreshing and food-friendly, the wine offers beautiful aromas and flavors of green apples, vanilla and tropical fruits, with some slightly spicy, racy notes throughout. Critics’ grade: 4/5 stars

Recanati, Sauvignon Blanc, Israel, 2005 — This outstanding crisp, clean, firm, rich, pale straw-colored wine has tasty and zesty aromas and flavors of freshly cut grass, almonds, bell peppers, asparagus, citrus fruits and even some melons, with a very pleasing earthy, slightly smoky background. Critics’ grade: 4/5 stars

Recanati, Special Reserve, Israel, 2001 — Another stunner of a wine. This full-bodied, complex, serious, enticing and elegant wine (96 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 4 percent Merlot) exhibits aromas and flavors of dark berry fruits, plums, vanilla, Mediterranean herbs, black pepper and dark olives, with hints of mocha coffee balanced against soft, seamlessly integrated tannins and a little oak. Critics’ grade: 5/5 stars

Yatir, Sauvignon Blanc, Israel, 2005 — This light-golden colored, food-friendly wine is nicely tart, dry and tight, with slightly intense and defined aromas and flavors of grapefruits, passion fruits, gooseberries, Granny Smith apples, hay, honeysuckle, citrus peel and lemongrass. The finish drops off a bit, feeling flat and stripped. Not altogether balanced, but pleasing and enjoyable. Critics’ grade: 3/5 stars

Rating system
5/5 stars Excellent
4/5 stars Very good indeed
3/5 stars Good
2/5 stars Kind of drinkable
1/5 stars Cough medicine

Monday, October 20, 2008

A port in every storm

This blog post is another of those pieces that originally appeared in the pages of the Washington Examiner back on March 14th, 2007. This one actually IS still available online at the Examiner website, so you could either go there directly by clicking here, or simply read below.

WASHINGTON - There’s nothing more warming, soothing, calming and, well, fortifying than a nice glass of port wine.

Of course, port wine is generally out of fashion. As the British novelist Evelyn Waugh once said, “Port is not for the very young, the vain and the active. It is the comfort of age and the companion of the scholar and the philosopher.” But this is partly why most Americans don’t drink the stuff. And it’s too bad — port is sometimes exactly what the doctor ordered.

Port wine is made from many varieties of very foreign-sounding grapes grown in the Douro Valley region of Portugal. Also known as “Vinho do Porto” or “Porto,” the name comes from Oporto, the city in northwest Portugal from which the wine was originally shipped.

Port is a typically heavy, rich, sweet, high-alcohol wine not only due to the type of grapes used, but also because it is fortified — the winemakers add some measure of distilled grape spirits (brandy or aquardente) to fortify the wine with an unnaturally higher alcohol content which, in turn, immediately kills the yeast cells, halting the fermentation process before the grapes’ remaining sugar is converted into alcohol.

Port comes in an offputtingly confusing variety of styles — vintage, tawney, Colheitas, ruby, white, etc. — and can also be produced as a semi-dry or even an extra-dry wine, but generally, sweet is what the market and tradition calls for.

Whatever the style, port is usually served at the end of a meal, with dessert or as the dessert. But why not go for a port cocktail instead?

The Porto Flip
Fill a cocktail shaker at least half full of hard, cracked ice and throw in 1 egg, 1 tablespoon sugar, 1 1/2 oz. Ruby Port and 1/2 oz. cream (optional). Shake the heck out of it, then strain into a pre-chilled cocktail glass. Garnish, if you wish, with a light sprinkling of nutmeg.

Chivas Ruby Royal Martini
This one was made by the folks at Chivas, but is a killer nonetheless. Pour 1 1/2 oz. Chivas Regal Scotch, 1/2 oz. Ruby Port and 1/2 oz. Blackberry Brandy into a mixing glass with ice and stir until well-chilled, then strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with lemon peel.

Irish Stout Sangria
This one is from Lucy Brennan, the owner of Mint and 820 in Portland, Ore. Into your serving glass pour 12 oz. Murphy’s or Guinness Irish Stout and a 1/2 oz. of simple syrup; allow this to settle, then add 1/2 oz. of Ruby Port. Gently stir this a few times, then top with the remaining 4 oz. of Irish Stout (the cans come in 16-oz. servings). Allow to settle for 30 seconds or so, then serve.

Have a Scotch new year celebration

This blog post is another of those pieces that originally appeared in the pages of the Washington Examiner back on January 3rd, 2007. This one actually IS still available online at the Examiner website, so you could either go there directly by clicking here, or simply read below.

WASHINGTON - So the New Year is upon us, and already I’ve given up on at least one ill-conceived resolution. But why a resolution at all? Well, the New Year celebration is traditionally a time for taking stock of the outgoing year and resolving to improve in the new. Some people use this time to take stock of their lives, others take stock of some more mundane things — like their liquor cabinet.

Indeed, the traditional ushering in of the New Year is, for some of us, the ideal time to plan a big drunken bash to clean out the liquor cabinet in the hopes that the wife will stop badgering us — read “me.” So this year, I found myself planning a big Scottish bash.

Why Scottish? Well, Scotch whisky, which I always seem to have an endless supply of, is a convenient theme around which to formulate your party’s booze and food.

How to plan the festivities

Keep it simple. Solid food, solid booze, good tunes and quality guests mean your actual work can be kept to a minimum — simply make sure nothing runs dry until the crowd begins to thin.

In terms of decorations, a few small items, like tartan napkins or tablecloths, go a long way. If your Christmas tree and red/green colors are still up, just go with it. And consider adding to the kitsch — for example, I hooked up a 17-inch monitor to play a video fireplace/Yule log throughout the evening.

Music? Limit yourself to Scottish bands or artists, blending in the occasional traditional bagpipe and fiddle tune for effect. Bands and artists to consider include Rod Stewart, Franz Ferdinand, The Proclaimers and Garbage to name a few.

On the booze front, obviously you’ll need some quality Scotch. Single malts are what everyone will look for. Here are some choices to consider having on hand (although supplying more is advisable):

» Glenmorangie — There is a whole range of options here from their bog-standard 10-year-old to their “wood finish” 12-year-old lineup; all are worthy and affordable (in the $40 range).

» Jura — Again, there is a whole range here, but the 10-year-old (around $30) is beguiling and easy drinking for the uninitiated, while the “Superstition” (around $45) is deliciously smooth yet tantalizingly smoky.

» Glenfiddich — Again, there is a whole range here of affordable options (ages 12, 15, 18, etc., from $35 to $60), each of which is familiar to veteran Scotch imbibers but remains very drinkable.

» Macallan — There is an increasingly wide range of options here, but either their regular “Sherry” aged malts or their “Fine Oak” line will satisfy the multitudes (starts at around $40 and shoots up fast).

But don’t overlook blended Scotch whisky or whisky cocktails. I heartily recommend having at least one large format bottle of something really dependable, like The Famous Grouse Finest Blended Scotch Whisky (around $30 for a 1.75 liter bottle) — it is balanced, inexpensive, easy to find and utterly delectable on its own.

As for cocktails, you don’t want to spend your entire party mixing drinks for your guests, so opt for something you can pre-mix and have available in an easy-pour bottle. Don’t get too exotic here.

The Rustly Nail, also known as a Knucklebuster, consists of equal measures of whisky and Drambuie served over ice. The effect is to accentuate the light caramel, vanilla and toffee-like flavors, while taming the ginger-spice aspects of the whisky, simultaneously smoothing out and sweetening the mix with Drambuie’s honey, heather and herb flavors.

Better yet, mix up a Highland Lemon (see sidebar for recipe). This will taste somewhere between lemonade and something faintly, yet pleasingly Scotch-like, but packs quite a wallop.

On the cooking front, whisky is much easier to assimilate and work with than one might expect. Our menu had over 10 dishes each having whisky as a central ingredient. This can be as simple as dinner rolls with an orange whisky butter (butter, orange rind, whisky, salt and sugar blended together) to a whisky and honey ice cream (milk, eggs, heavy cream, sugar, heather honey and Macallan 12-year-old single malt whisky).

Whisky Pasta

Water (enough to boil pasta)

Pasta (of your choice)

2 onions, finely chopped

2 tbsp. butter

1 pint heavy cream

Whisky, preferably smoky

Smoked salmon, chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

Boil a large pot of water. Once boiled, add salt and pasta. Meanwhile, finely chop two onions, sauté them with a little butter over a medium flame. Once the onions have sautéed a bit, add one pint of heavy cream and allow it reduce a little. Add 1/4 cup of a smoky whisky, such as Talisker single malt whisky (other smoky whiskies, such as Ardbeg or Caol Ila, may be used to equally good effect, or Johnnie Walker Black Label, if you prefer to cook with a lightly smoky blended whisky). Turn off the heat, then add small strips of smoked salmon to the sauce and stir in well. Strain the pasta and transfer to a serving bowl. Add the sauce and serve, adding salt and pepper to taste. Feel free to add parmesan or some other cheese if desired.

Highland Lemon cocktail

1 oz. Scotch whisky

1/2 oz. Sweet Vermouth

1/2 oz. Limoncello

1/2 oz. lemon juice

Prepare it in a shaker with ice and serve in a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange wheel. For a large gathering, prepare this in batches well in advance of company, but try to wait to squeeze and add the lemon juice until just before guests arrive, as this will maximize the vibrancy of the juice’s citric acid zing. For an interesting variation, you can half the amount of whisky, and add a 1/2 ounce of Drambuie.

Sipping an Earl Grey MarTEAni?

This blog post is another of those pieces that originally appeared in the pages of the Washington Examiner back in 2006. This one actually IS still available online at the Examiner website, so you could either go there directly by clicking here, or simply read below.

WASHINGTON - While on the west coast last week I had occasion to sample an unusual and, frankly, unfortunate tasting spirit, Green Tea Vodka. It was just a small sample and followed some outstanding cocktails and spirits (which I intend to report back on another time), so it is possible that it didn't get a fair hearing (the product shall remain nameless for the time being). I mention it now because it brought to mind a far more interesting tea-infused spirit concoction that is extremely good, perhaps even sublime: the Earl Grey MarTEAni.

As the brief post-Thanksgiving weekend portion of November is always such a slow period in the nation's capital, this little concoction makes for a pleasant diversion. For starters, it takes time and patience to prepare. The drink is the creation of New York mixologist Audrey Saunders, the mad scientist of cocktails behind the Pegu Club in Manhattan's West Village. It is a pretty simple formula: a spirit base, some acidity (fresh lemon juice), some sweetener (simple syrup), and an egg white for texture and added depth. As in all such things, however, the genius is in the details. The spirit that serves as the base here is Tanqueray gin which has been specially infused with Earl Grey tea.

Audrey Saunders created this following a working trip to London. She had been invited to work a Thanksgiving celebration at The Ritz Hotel in London several years back, and thought up this little number while enjoying British tastes and flavors. The cocktail proved a big hit in London and in New York, and led to a spurt of tea-based cocktails on both sides of the Atlantic.

Infusing spirits is a wonderfully easy way to experiment with flavors. Any number of herbs and spices, even vegetables, can be called into service here. When testing these infusion ideas out, stick to high-proof bottlings, the alcohol will work to boost the flavors. Most people prefer to work with vodka, like the unnamed perpetrator of the Green Tea Vodka, because of vodka's high alcohol content, clarity, and nearly zero taste profile. It is virtually like painting on a clean, white surface. Gin is a bit trickier, but only a bit. Tanqueray gin, at 47.3 percent alcohol by volume, is a good and not too expensive bottle to play with, as is Beefeater (47 percent), Bombay Sapphire (47 percent), or even Van Gogh (47 percent). Or you can go wild, spend quite a bit more, and tinker with something already sublime like Old Raj Gin (55 percent). The only limits here are self-imposed.

In the Earl Grey MarTEAni, Ms. Saunders's genius was in recognizing somehow that the distinct Bergamot flavors of Earl Grey would somehow blend well with the botanicals in "London Dry" styled gin. The lemon juice helps to bind and tame the flavors, while adding a supportive zing, the simple syrup helps balance out the acidity while complementing the tea, and the egg white elevates the whole into something rich and silky.

Here then is the Earl Grey MarTEAni (adapted from Audrey Saunders' recipe).

First, you must infuse your gin, this simple, but time-consuming. Add 1/4 cup of loose Earl Grey tea leaves to a 1 liter bottle of Tanqueray gin, screw the cap back in place and shake the hell out of the bottle. Let this steep for 2 hours or so, then gradually strain out the tea leaves, but don't press the tea leaves, otherwise you'll extract bitter tannins as well as excess gin.

Then put 1 and 1/2 ounces of your Earl Grey Gin Infusion, 3/4 of an ounce (about 4 tablespoons) of fresh lemon juice with 1 ounce of simple syrup, and 1 egg white into a cocktail shaker filled at least 2/3 full of hard, cracked ice. Shake the hell out of it for about 15 seconds or so, then strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a twist of lemon. Although I'm less convinced of the worthwhileness of adding this extra step, I should mention that the original recipe calls for the pre-chilled cocktail glass to be rimmed lemon-zest infused sugar (finely grate the zest of 1 whole lemon andmix with 1/2 cup of granulated sugar).

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Uncorking Hugh Johnson, up-close and personal

This blog post originally appeared in the 29th & 30th of April, 2006, Weekend Edition issue (page 24) of The Washington Examiner. It is a very brief (it was the only space my then editor would spare for that issue) review of Hugh Johnson's memoir, A Life Uncorked.

Recently, I had the opportunity to catch up with world-renowned wine writer Hugh Johnson as he breezed through town promoting his new memoir on the inner workings of the wine world, A Life Uncorked (University of California Press; March 2006;384 pages; $34.95). This is a deeply personal book. Yet, as Johnson admits, it is not an autobiography. Rather, this memoir is a personal journey, as much about wine as it is about his life.

For Johnson, wine is essentially "a social game" not merely an interest or a hobby. Wine is "about human relations, hospitality, bonding-all the maneuvers of social life-and all under the influence, however benign, of alcohol." Who can argue with that?

This social experience is richly transformative: "However good a wine may be, sentiment can make it better" and "with the right companion, a single wine can be a continuing conversation." In person, as in his writings, Johnson comes off as witty, personable, and charming, and his approach to wine is wonderfully infectious.

Never one to shy from a fight, Johnson (a Brit) takes issue with Robert Parker, the preeminent American wine critic. Johnson criticizes Parker's wine scoring system, which treats wines "like American high school students"-50 points just for showing up, 60 = dreadful, 70 = pretty poor, 80 = not bad, etc. Johnson decries the effect this approach has had on the wine industry, where wines are Parkerized to get higher scores.

Ultimately, Johnson's unpretentious and highly enjoyable attitude towards wine appreciation is compelling. As he plainly explains, "It depends on whether you see wine primarily as a drink or as a recreational substance. In a drink you look for something refreshing and satisfying without too loud a voice, not too intrusive on your food or your thoughts each time you take a sip." So take a page from Hugh's book, and enjoy a jolly good read with glass in hand.


My formal review ended there -- I told you it was brief! When I posted a link to it (the Examiner no longer has it online) on one of the wine forums I used to frequent, I got a few emails from folks asking for more details on Johnson himself. This is what I posted to the forum:

Hugh Johnson was perfectly charming, very British in a moderately old-school way, relatively self-effacing (all things considered), and a little shorter than I imagined from having seen him on television. He was amiable in a grandfatherly sort of way. Also, his manner of expression was really very similar to his writing, which adds an enjoyable, perhaps infectious, sense of pleasure and calm to the conversation. Although his career establishes his erudition in wine, he does not come off as a bore or a snob or a geek (either in "wine" terms or in general). He seemed, instead, to be very relaxed and in very good form. Speaking with him was like dipping into one of his early volumes on wine, except that I could ask questions.

leaving him to be thronged by the crowd for book signings, I thought of something he wrote in his very first book, Wine, where he says: "Wine is the pleasantest subject in the world to discuss. All its associations are with occasions when people are at their best; with relaxation, contentments, leisurely meals and the free flow of ideas." One gets the impression that Hugh Johnson is often "at his best."