Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas 2010

  So it's been a while since I updated this blog. As I said in the beginning, sometimes the muse leaves me. Poof, she goes elsewhere. Winks out like a cheesy little bulb on a 2 dollar string of WalMart  Christmas tree lights.  I know she'll be back but don't know when. As the harvest season wound down and all the festivals came to an end, there wasn't a whole lot in the way of wine to scribble about; so I didn't.
  For the time being, I'm going to expand the subjects of this site a bit. I'm going to be talking about more than wine, namely beer and other grown-up beverages. More about that later. This is gonna be a long post, so quit reading now if Twitter length novels are to your taste.

  It's been cloudy and raining for what seems like forever. My pasture is a smelly bog. Your boots sink several inches into this viscous, anerobically foul mix of dirt, manure, pee and wasted hay and every step makes a vaguely biological and disturbing sucking sound. The goats are unhappy with the mud, and when the goats are displeased, I am too. They are apparently genetically convinced that stepping into mud or heaven forbid a puddle will cause their limbs to dissolve, starting from their hooves and gradually working it's way up their legs, leaving them hobbling about comically on stumps. They're smart. Being wet and cold is no fun. God would not have given us garden hoses and drip lines if we really needed days and days of dark, drizzling rain.

   I was starting to be reminded of a misplaced quarter of a year I spent in the Pacific northwest, where EVERY morning brings the drumming of rain on the roof. The denizens of that dark and gloomy land are uniformly about the same color as the 3 inch layer of moss that grows on their roofs. No wonder every town of any size has a bar or saloon on every block. By the time you stop at one and drink your misery and head down the street, the b-b gun sting of ceaseless rain is so overpoweringly depressing that you need to stop on the next block to bolster your courage.

  My pal Johnny finds endless days of pleasant weather uninteresting. He and I are opposites. He's always looking forward to the next meteorological cataclysm. He can't wait for them to arrive and revels in their grandeur. Not me. I told him not long ago I was thinking of looking into real estate in the Atacama Desert, where it hasn't rained for centuries. They have goats there. And I bet those goats are happy, too.

  But I digress. The sun came out for Christmas. A cloudless sky and shining sun announced the lengthening of days. We had a lovely day, as near as I can remember. When I'm seriously cooking I get into this weird kind of zone. It's a matter of an aging brain trying to keep track of a menu that a dozen people are going to sit down to, hopefully all at once. What time did the roast go in? If I want a 135 degree pullout and it was at 125 10 minutes ago, how long before checking it again? How hot is the mind-of-it's-own oven now? The roasted vegetables were par-blanched, but the Brussels Sprouts blanched a bit too much and the carrots are a bit crunchier than the baby Yukon Gold potatoes, so what is the optimum roasting time? Is the rosemary and thyme chopped and is there enough?  Did the bitter salad greens get washed and are they dry? Strain and boil down the pan drippings for the au jus and add the herbs but don't forget to skim the fat off first, and if the fat isn't skimmed well enough (it wasn't) should I add butter or forget it? How long has the roast been resting? During this time, especially the end game where everybody has arrived is the most critical and it's also the time when the socializing starts. Wine and beer is poured and conversations ebb and flow and it's a struggle to remember all that has to be remembered while trying to be at least remotely sociable at the same time. Josh Wheeler has a natural ability in this regard and knows how to stay out of my way, take on tasks and foresee outcomes. He's got the natural feel for a kitchen and can intuitively find his place in the "brigade de cuisine". If he wants to pursue a career in the kitchen, I'll support him in that endeavor in a heartbeat.

  Somehow it all came together  at some level, thanks in large measure to liberal applications of Grand Teton Brewing's Bitch Creek ESB. Bitch Creek is an awesome brew. My go-to beer store, Suzy-Q market in Cottonwood has a current sale on it and given some extra cash, I'd go buy all they have left.

  Bitch Creek is unusual in the universe of American Micro-brews. There's a current paradigm among the thousands of U.S. micro-breweries that has decided that beer should be heavily hopped. The more hops the better. This is apparently what the snob-beer newbies have decided they want. Go into any good beer store and you'll find dozens of examples of beers with names like Hoptober Fest and Caribou Spit Hopalicious and god knows what else. IPA's (India Pale Ales) are all the rage, and the more hops they've been hit with the better, apparently.

  It should be noted here that hops are a chemical anachronism. Hops was originally added to beer not so much as a flavoring agent as a preservative. British persons, who presumably couldn't figure out how to brew their own local beer during the Raj period of Indian history, insisted on beer from their homeland (another dreary, gloomy place). Sadly, beer that was shipped on sailing ships to India from England had the tendency to turn into undrinkable slop, spoiling on the long and bouncy sea voyages. So they added tons and tons of hops to the mix to preserve it. Somewhere along the line they decided they actually LIKED the taste of this puckery stuff, and IPA as a beer type was born. American brewers, in typical yankee fashion, have taken this to it's logically absurd extreme. Given all the thousands of American micro brews on the market, the number of balanced, malty brews with a hint of hops flavors are scarce as hen's teeth. Bitch Creek is one of these brews. It's head is brown and long lasting, the balance of hops and malts is perfect, and enjoying it from a big deep wine glass gives off it's lovely aroma, reminiscent of a bakery. It goes down real easy. Thank god it's not available all the time. You could get in trouble.

  Our dinner was pretty simple. A prime rib. Brussels Sprouts, roasted in olive oil, salt and pepper. Baby Yukon Gold potatoes, carrots and sweet onions roasted in olive oil, salt, pepper, thyme and rosemary. Bitter greens salad and Olive oil and rosemary sourdough bread from Orion Bakery in Cottonwood. Pumpkin Creme Brulee for dessert was an experiment met with mixed results.

  Each year I experiment with dry aging my prime rib. Plastic wrap is the worst thing that ever happened to meat. Wrap a piece of meat in airtight plastic and it immediately begins rotting. Rot is caused by anerobic bacteria, the only bugs that can survive in the airless environment of plastic wrap. These buggers will spoil meat in a matter of days. They are the same kind of nasty critters that are currently making my pasture stink. Dry aging involves unwrapping the meat, washing and drying it off and putting it on a rack, loosely wrapped in a tea towel and letting air circulate around it for a time. The nasty anerobic bacteria will be beaten back by the oxygen and the natural enzymes and aerobic bacteria contained in the meat will cause it to intensify in flavor and age gently and begin to taste like actual beef again. I have aged roasts as long as three weeks, and as little as 6 days. A week seems to be optimum. Three weeks causes too much crust to form on the roast and given the price of prime rib, too much has to be trimmed off before roasting. This year's roast was aged a week, as was the roast from year before last, and based on comments received I think a week is optimum for home aging.

  We were joined by our soul mates John and Susun, dear friends Bob Dog Brubaker, his wife Bonny and their son and daughter Arthur and Annie, and Kate's dad Bob Lomadafkie and his son Michael. This is our normal Christmas mix and it's about the only time everybody gets to see each other. Johnny got lucky and ended up with the trick folding chair at the dinner table. It gave way on cue and he did an admirable recovery from the floor after it collapsed, receiving an 8.5 from the judges. He got the medal by default as nobody else's chair fell apart. Next year we've gotta add in another trick chair to give him some competition. Just kidding of course, the offending furniture has been added to the burn pile out in the pasture.
  Our wines were varied and all agreeable. Suspecting that others would show up with bottles and trusting their tastes, I bought only one bottle of Merkin's Chupacabra. It was the 2006, and although made here at Page Springs Cellars, it's California grapes. Tasty none the less. You won't find any complaints here about California grapes. There are so many thousands of acres of grapes growing in California that there is truly an entire universe of good wines available made from them. There is so much good California bulk wine available that even the Demon Spawn WalMart has gotten into the act with their own label of dirt cheap, very drinkable wines. The genius in Chupacabra is the local vinting expertise of Eric Glomski and the out-there, edgy blending of M. J. K. I like Chupacabra, CA grapes or not.
  Johnny and Susun brought an unfiltered Merlot called Renaissance, from North Yoruba, also in California. John and Susan had been hipped to this wine by a friend, and I must say it impressed. As an unfiltered wine, it really needed to be decanted. I need to get a carafe for such occasions.  I've never seen so much sludge in the bottom of a bottle. I looked at an empty this morning and wondered if maybe somewhere along the line I'd used it as a spittoon. Is that fruit and yeast residue down there or Copenhagen? A very tasty Merlot, and I like Merlot.
  Bob Dog et al brought an Argentinian Malbec. Bob and family have an understandable affinity for Argentine wines, their son Arthur having spent a year there recently. The Mendoza region of Argentina is the home of the Malbec grape, and I expect to be seeing it appear more and more in U.S. wines. Argentinian Malbecs are a great value right now. Very drinkable young and with the chops to stand a few years layaway to deepen and open them up. I've noticed Malbecs do well with being opened and allowed to breathe for up to a day before serving. Their flavors really deepen and expand.

  Kate's dad brought a wine with...I am not making this up....a SMILEY  FACE on the label. It didn't get opened at dinner sadly, as I think it would have been real nice with the roast. Tonight we had the ribs off the roast reheated with a salad and that wine served very well. It's made or at least bottled by Oreana Winery in California and is called Project Happiness Syrah. In spite of the goofy label, I like it. An "Oreana" by the way, is an old California Mission Spanish term for a feral, unbranded calf. I don't know what significance this has one way or another, but they didn't see fit to put a cow on their label, so it's an interesting piece of trivia. You can't beat a decent varietal Syrah. I also had a bottle of Chateau St. Michelle Syrah out on the counter and it's nowhere to be found so I guess it got drunk too. My pal John Hull brought it by the other day on his way to Phoenix. Tasty. I like Washington wines in general.

  All in all it was a perfect day. I want to thank everybody who came and hope all had a good time and at the same time let me apologize to anybody I may have offended. God knows what I may have said to anyone who got in my way in the kitchen. When I win the lottery, we're going to have Christmas dinner catered and I'm going to stand in the kitchen and kibbitz and criticize and have someone else to blame for the screwups. Meantime, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and please know that we cherish all of you!
  Johnny, who I think I've mentioned had surgery some years ago to have a Canon point and shoot digital camera permanently attached to his right hand, has done a magnificent job chronicling this year's debacle. I've taken the liberty of linking to it here. Lots of fun pictures, don't miss them!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Leftover Omelets

  Thanksgiving went well. We were joined by Kate's dad Bob and her brother Michael. It was the first time we'd seem Michael out and about in a long time and it was great to have him over.
  A simple dinner of Turkey and all the go-withs followed by good pie and Rye Whisky laced whipped cream and cups of Bob's latest find, Mayan Winds "Native Sun", a single farm, organic fair trade coffee from Mexico. Great, guilt free coffee that's not blown all out of proportion in price. It looks to be a great company doing good works.
  Our wines ended up being the aforementioned Pillsbury Wildchild White and a little Nachise when the white ran out. They both went very well with the multi-layered flavors of Thanksgiving. Nachise will probably end up back on the table with the Christmas roast. Wish I'd had a little bottle of Keeling-Schaefer's dessert Zin, but sadly it's all gone.
  Now we're getting rid of leftovers. This morning's stab at emptying out the fridge was to take the remaining green beans, tiny roasted baby Yukon Gold potatoes and a dab of gravy and heat it all up together to be used as an omelet filling....perfect, and I managed to clear out 3 bowls from the ice box, making more room for beer.
  Johnny called my attention to the Giganticus Headicus (no relation to Biggus Dickus) this morning. How I, a native of this fair state, could have spent some better than a half century here and not know about this popular destination is pretty disturbing. Heck, even Zippy The Pinhead knows about Giganticus Headicus. Salud!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Wines for Thanksgiving

  Many years ago, I rented a house in the barrio of East Flagstaff on 3rd Street. Having a spare bedroom, I decided to rent it out. My takers were a Romanian couple who had recently moved to the U.S. Vlad was an electrical engineer who'd been hired by some firm or other, and Corina, his wife, stayed home to do whatever she did all day.

  Vlad and his bride were eager to become acculturated into mainstream American society. Old habits die hard though, and the quaint Romanian custom of standing in line for a week to get a loaf of bread was so ingrained in them that every time they went to the nearby Safeway and found something that caught their eye, they bought ALL of it. As a result, they had an entire 3 door overhead cabinet in the kitchen stuffed full of Hostess cupcakes, Twinkies, Ho-Ho's, Hoo-Hoo's, Ring-a-Dings and Ding-Dongs. I tried to impress upon them the fact that it wasn't necessary to hoard Hostess pastries. "There'll be more tomorrow, I PROMISE." Vlad and Corina were unconvinced, and continued to buy out the Spoil-Proof Forever-Pastry rack every time they visited the store. If you've ever wondered how many Ding-Dongs will fit in a 5 x 3 x 2 foot cabinet, I can tell you: A LOT, that's how many.

  Apparently, the only reliable, consistently available foodstuff available in Romania was cabbage. Did you know that cabbage turns a lovely mahogany brown color when it's boiled vigorously for HOURS? Corina was a master at bringing home enormous hunks of pork, which she would cut into rough chunks and place into a large enameled tamale style pot. The kind that holds like 10 gallons of water. To this pork soup she would add several quartered cabbages, put the lid on, light the fire, and proceed to boil the be-jeezus out of it, all day long. Hours upon hours would pass. It's  amazing how synthetic furniture upholstery, draperies and carpeting ; impervious to the effects of such serious pollutants as cat urine, dog upchuck, human sweat and other nasty fragrances fairly SUCKS up, apparently forever, the delicate aroma of overcooked cabbage. My plastic shower curtain stank of cabbage. The clothes in my closet would have gone unnoticed in a wardrobe in Bucarest. Nobody would have said "hey, whose clothes are dese? Dey are not stinking!!"

  Don't get me wrong. Vlad and Corina were genuinely nice people, in spite of their constantly aromatic condition.

  In those days, I always headed to Phoenix for Thanksgiving at my mother's house. My mother, like yours, was the world's greatest cook. Vlad and Corina decided that they wanted to invite me to eat Thanksgiving dinner with them, as they had no one else with whom to share in this new American holiday they couldn't wait to adopt.
  Corina, apparently taking advice from her Romanian Bride Magazine's "How to Cook Everything" cookbook, went to Safeway and bought the biggest turkey she could find that would fit in her giant pot and still leave room for the required cabbages. Into this pot she placed her intact turkey, the cabbages, and topped the whole thing up with water and boiled it for several days. It was frozen, after all. I'll leave the results of this culinary summit to your imagination.We feasted the day before Thanksgiving, so I could still make it to Phoenix to be with my mom and family.

  Served with the turkey was a traditional Balkan liquor called Slivovitz . Slivovitz, it turns out, is Plum Brandy. Plums, yummy. Brandy, what's not to like about brandy? Sounded good to me. Unfortunately, this stuff doesn't taste anything like plums, and even LESS like brandy. Since taste is actually at least 60% olfactory, Slivovitz tastes just about like what you smell on the runway of a busy airport when you get off a plane. Jet fuel. Brake fluid. Mechanical parts cleaner. The only thing that eclipses it's deadly aftertaste is the incomparable headache it leaves behind. It took ALL of one of my mom's pumpkin-praline pies the next day to bring me back to some level of physical normalcy.

  In honor of Vlad and Corina, it's time to talk about what to drink with Thanksgiving dinner. This is problematic. Lots of folks will decide "turkey is white, so we'll have white wine." Not so fast. The mish mash of savory, salty and cloyingly sweet tastes that come with this meal demand a bit more thought.
  Some ideas: First, forget about only white wine with white meat. What's needed here is lightness, acidity, and fruit. The tastes of Thanksgiving won't go with great big reds like Cabernet and Merlot. Lots of oak and tannin are not your friends today, save them for the Christmas prime rib. Consider serving reds as well as whites.

  I was gabbing about the Thanksgiving wine conundrum recently with a young lady who's with Pillsbury. Wise beyond her years, she said "the best way to pick Thanksgiving wine is to imagine what a smoothie made out of turkey, gravy, sweet potatoes, green beans and cranberries would taste like. Pick your wine for the combination of tastes, trying to match a wine to a particular item on the menu will make you crazy." She's right if you think about it. It's not about the turkey by itself, or the sweet potatoes, it's about the combination of flavors on your groaningly full plate as all the component parts get blended together. So here are some suggestions. I intentionally left out the pricier stuff, because I can't afford it and don't know it well. Most of these wines are in the 15-30 dollar range.

Whites: Skip the heavily oaked California Chardonnays. These wines are best skipped anyway. The wood notes in them chops off the top notes off grass, hay and herbs that Chardonnay naturally has. It's always been a wonderment to me why someone in California somewhere along the line decided that Chardonnay would be a good wine to put into heavy oak casks. Most european Chardonnays never see any wood; finishing their finishing in stainless steel. If Chardonnay is to your taste, consider Arizona Stronghold's Site Archive Chardonnay, if you can find any. There were only 80 some cases produced, but it isn't sold out as of this writing. It's seen oak, but the barrels were neutral oak, and it isn't noticeable. I don't like Chardonnay as a rule, but this one shines. Grassy and herbal, bright and slightly acidic. Good luck finding it. I don't even have a link.

  Another white to consider is Arizona Stronghold 's Tazi. A blend of Sauvignon blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling and Malvasia Bianca, this wine is reasonably priced and has the unique combination of acidity, roundness and floral bouquet necessary for such disparate tastes as those that come from turkey, gravy, cranberries and sweet potatoes.

  Page Springs Cellars has their unfortunately named but tasty Vino del Barrio Blanca . A nice fruity white blend. A bargain at 15 dollars retail. Go a notch up on the price list and their Vino de la Familia Blanca ("Wine of the white family"?) is a good buy at 18 bucks. It's 100% Malvasia Bianca and while it might not be the first choice for know-it-alls at Thanksgiving, I think it'd be an interesting choice.

  Pillsbury's Wildchild White , aka "Crop Circles" will fill the bill nicely. It's a field blend of Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Malvasia and Roussanne grapes. Fragrant on the nose and finishes crisp and clean. It's 18 dollars. The crop circles nickname is a funny story. A guy down in Wilcox, where Pillsbury grows their grapes, got the brilliant idea of planting his vines in circles rather than rows. He eventually got bored or ran out of money or something and abandoned his vineyard. His vines survivied however and the Pillsbury crew decided to hop the fence and harvest the weed infested field. The Wildchild wines were the result.

  Merkin Vineyards, owned by He Who Must Not Be Named, has Lei Li Rose', a pink blend of Cab Sauvignon, Sangiovese and Grenache. It's 23 dollars. Described as a light summertime wine, I think it'd be interesting with Thanksgiving dinner.

  A really interesting rose, which might fit the bill if only one wine is to be served, is the Stronghold's Dayden . Dayden is Apache for "little girl". This isn't your usual sweet, slightly fizzy rose. It's a blend of Zin, Grenache, San Giovese, Malbec and Sauvignon Blanc. Crisply acidic and floral, it will back up your feast quite well.

  Pillsbury's Rose, nicknamed "One Night Stand", comes from another neglected field of unknown grapes that were harvested and then pulled up, hence the name. It's a one time vintage. At 20 dollars, pretty interesting but maybe not for a one wine dinner.

Reds: Like I said, you want lightness, acidity and fruit here, not oak and tannins.

  On that note, I'll recommend first Pillsbury's Wildchild Red. I'm pretty sure it's going to be on the table here.

  Arizona Stronghold's Mangus, named after another Apache person, is a Tuscan style blend of Sangiovese, Cab and Merlot. Eric Glomski describes it as "food friendly" and I agree. It's 20 dollars. At the same price is their Nachise, one I've had several glasses of and is still on the shopping list this weekend. I'll let Glomski's words from their website describe it:

 "This wine has beautiful aromas of concentrated dark fruits, mocha, tar, sweet cigar smoke, hints of black tea, star anise and pumpkin spice. The palate is immediately full and textured, with alluring crushed blackberry, plumb, raspberry jam and hints of stone fruits, transitioning to plenty of mid palate grip and underlying nuances of dried rosemary and bittersweet cocoa; leading to a very balanced and multi-layered finish."

  Merkin's Chupacabra, which I've mentioned before, is currently on sale for 20 dollars, and a great buy at that price. You'd have a hard time going wrong with this one. Besides, it's called Chupacabra. Leave it to M.J.K. to come up with a name like "goat sucker".

  There are many more local wines to choose for this holiday and Christmas as well. Page Springs has a bunch of Rhone style reds and blushes in this price range, and I haven't even touched on Freitas, Keeling-Schaefer, Alcantara, and others.

 I sure hope Vlad and Corina are by this time well acculturated and have learned the skill of roasting their turkey, and wish everybody a happy and peaceful Thanksgiving!

 
 
 

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Crop Circles on Main Street

  I worked the Walkin on Main celebration in Old Town Cottonwood yesterday. It was a special celebration to mark the 50th anniversary of the town's incorporation. What a pleasant day. Temperatures in the high 60's, no wind and plenty of sun.

  Old Town has really come to life and is the happenin' place to be for the hip, artsy folks. Great music all day, quite a bit of art which I didn't have time to look at, and lots of enthusiastic wine tasters and buyers. They had blocked Main Street off through the Old Town section and it really turned into an old fashioned kind of street fair. All the shops and restaurants were crowded and doing land office business from the looks of things. With the very successful anchor businesses of Orion Bakery, Nick's, The Tavern and our two destination tasting rooms, Old Town is no longer a bunch of starving hippies trying to make weed money selling macrame plant hangers to each other.

  We had it real easy this time. We had our booth set up just a stone's throw from the Pillsbury tasting room, and so anyone who wanted to buy a bottle was directed there. Without having to mess with running credit card transactions or making change and writing receipts, there was more time to chat with the samplers. I met at least a half dozen folks who had driven up from Phoenix specifically for the wine who I remembered from the Festival at The Farm. In addition, there were quite a few initially smug Californicators who'd driven over to satisfy themselves that their wine is still the best and had their hats handed to them after tasting Verde Valley's offerings. Wine prejudice is a real issue, but is perhaps the easiest to dispel.

  One couple from Seattle opined that they couldn't understand how the desert could grow good reds, being that it's soil is so different from the rich, acidic soils of the Northwest. I reminded them, with a smile of course, that the bulk of their grapes are grown in eastern Washington, which is in fact pretty much a desert, with similar soil profiles. "Don't be hoping to taste Washington" I told them as I handed them their samples, "Get ready to taste Arizona". They were suitably impressed.

  During a sit down break, I made friends with Pillsbury's new Wild Child Red, which may end up on the table at Thanksgiving. It seems some genius down in Wilcox decided to plant his vines IN CIRCLES rather than rows, got bored or ran out of money or something and anyway abandoned his vineyard. The Pillsbury crew basically jumped the fence and harvested the weedy, overgrown vines that were still bearing heavy fruit. It's a blend of (I'm not making this up) Syrah, Petite Syrah, Sangiovese, Cabernet and Zinfandel. It has been given the nickname "Crop Circles". A steal at 18 bucks.

  Unfortunately, I got bogged down with the goats by myself before leaving for Cottonwood and blasted out of the house without taking my camera. I'm sure the Verde Independent will have a good slide show up on their page this coming week and I'll post a link to it as soon as it's up. All things considered, it was a very nice day.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Let's Get It Out Of The Way, The Thanksgiving Rant

  I'm going to write about Thanksgiving and wine, but that's a tricky subject, and I'll actually have to put some thought into it, which requires some working up to. Thinking isn't easy you know. Ask anybody who thinks about stuff and they'll tell you it's hard. Food is easier to write about.

  Ignoring the absurd, absolutely wrong pilgrim-indian nicey nice story we seem to STILL teach our children, Thanksgiving is still a valid holiday. It's all about being thankful and counting our blessings and spending the day with loved ones. What better reason for a holiday? Well, there IS the food. It's a memory kind of holiday, mostly about remembered tastes and smells of special foods from our childhood.

 Curiously, instead of honoring these foods by carefully and lovingly preparing them in a way that preserves the essence of each of the key dishes in a Thanksgiving feast, today they're mostly done like an elaborate fast food buffet, with lots of short cuts and ready made ingredients. Here are my rules for Thanksgiving dinner. There aren't many, but they are inviolable.
Non-food Rules:
1. There is only one non-food rule. The television should be off. All day, until everybody goes home. Tivo is your friend.

Food Rules:
1. Regarding sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes or yams, take your pick, are tasty and healthful and need minimal preparation. What's done to them on Thanksgiving should be at least a misdemeanor offense. Marshmallows do not belong on real food. The best thing to do with a marshmallow is throw it INTO the campfire. The little ones make amusing cat toys. Canned pineapple rings are useful for making upside down cake and NOTHING else. Sweet taters should be fresh, not canned, and steamed and skinned, then mashed or sliced and dressed minimally with a bit of brown sugar, salt and pepper, butter and a splash of orange juice and baked. Toasted pecans or a few ounces of bourbon can dress them up a bit but are not required.

2. Regarding green beans. "Green bean casserole" reminds me of tuna surprise. You're surprised you're actually eating it. It's like people want to fix green beans so they don't actually taste like green beans. Canned mushroom soup tastes like school glue, don't ask me how I know. Open a can of those nasty fried onions people put on top of their casseroles and taste one by itself, essence of stale, salty grease vaguely onion flavored. Buy real green beans, string them. Fry good cut up bacon and diced onion in the bottom of the pan. Add the beans, cook until done. Add fresh ground pepper during cooking. Tiny redskin potatoes can be added but are not necessary.

3. Regarding cranberries. Use real cranberries, please. It's not hard. Ever go to somebody's house for Thanksgiving and have a CAN SHAPED lump of "cranberries" passed to you? mmmmmm!

4. On bread. Real bread should be served at Thanksgiving. The best thing to do with Parker House Rolls is save them for the post-prandial food fight if your family still practices that ancient custom. Hoarding them in your lap is allowed.

5. On gravy. Making gravy is not rocket science and I'm not going to give lessons here. Ersatz gravy mixes and jarred gravy concentrates might save 10 minutes on the day's food prep, but they are nasty tasting, expensive and contain unpronounceable ingredients. No thanks.

6. On dessert. Real pie is made by real people, not machines. Real pie does not come from a box. Pumpkin pie made from real pumpkins is best, but is not for the faint of heart and leaves much room for failure. Canned pumpkin, believe it or not, is consistently good and simple to use. Buy the unseasoned kind and be creative. It's pure pumpkin, nothing else added. Most pre-made crusts come out of the oven like cardboard. Marie Callender's is one possible exception if you don't overcook it, but even those crusts don't hold up to the long baking time required for pumpkin pie. Make your own crust. Use lard. If you hadn't noticed, lard is now officially good for you, or at least it's not officially bad for you. The noble pig is redeemed. And there was much rejoicing....
Sub Rule 6a: On whipped cream. Whipped cream is made by putting very cold cream, sugar, vanilla and a slop of bourbon or brandy into a bowl that's been in the freezer and whipping it with a hand mixer to a desired firmness. It does NOT come from cans, or worse: axle grease tubs of "non dairy whipped topping". The inventor of Cool Whip should be tied to a chair and force-fed his nasty grease like a goose is force-fed corn to make it's liver nice and fat. After that, we'll go get the guys who invented spray can "cheese" and Miracle Whip.....

7. Regarding turkey. There are two reasons why turkey is hard to cook without drying out. First, modern turkeys have been bred to have enormous breasts. It was discovered that we couldn't legally do that for our women folks, and so we decided to do it to our turkeys instead. If you think for one second that I used the phrase "enormous breasts" hoping to attract web searchers to this blog you're absolutely right, er, wrong.

 Somewhere along the line the factory meat producers got the notion that Americans wanted mostly white meat, and so they started developing mutant birds that have now become what most people picture when they think of turkeys. White meat is naturally lower in fat than the dark portions, so it dries out quicker.

  This changes the cooking paradigm. There are many ways to correctly cook a turkey. Dunking it in boiling oil "cajun" style is not one of those. It comes out tasting like gigantic fried chicken. Why not just fry chicken and reduce the risk of setting your garage or children on fire when the grease boils over or explodes?
  The best way to keep modern poultry moist is to avoid overcooking it, use a good digital thermometer with a temperature alarm on it, and brine it overnight first. Brining a big turkey requires a giant pot, lots of ice or a spare refrigerator and 12-18 hours. No big deal. There are lots of instructions out there. Google is your friend. It's worth the trouble.

  The second reason it's hard to end up with moist turkey is for some unfathomable reason, Americans don't mind spending hundreds of dollars on Thanksgiving side dishes, but want to get their main course FREE. We've all fallen for the grocery store ads; "Spend a hundred bucks and get your turkey for 49 cents a pound! Spend TWO hundred and get one FREE!!" Don't people realize that all the sides they're buying are overpriced, and ultimately they're paying for a "free" turkey that was slaughtered over a year ago?

  "They want almost three dollars a pound for fresh turkeys, IMAGINE!!" You've heard this, you may have even said it yourself. Admit it. Every day of the year, people pay 2 bucks a pound for ground "beef" that comes in 10 pound sausage shaped chubbies that you can't see through. They happily feed this fetid slurry to their kids, patting themselves on the back for the bargain they got. Meat made from worn out dairy cows who can't stand up anymore. Meat that has from time to time poisoned hundreds. Come on, it's Thanksgiving, get a good, fresh turkey that hasn't been frozen since last year. Look for a local producer, maybe someone who raises heirloom breeds. You'll still spend enough and get the free one, which you can use for interesting science experiments at home.

8. Regarding vegans, dieters, the "lactose intolerant" and those with "food allergies". These people are often petulant and self-absorbed. Unless they are beloved friends and relatives whose absence will seriously detract from your day, they should eat someplace else. Happy Thanksgiving!!

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Festival at The Farm

I've been curious about The Farm At South Mountain for a long time. Back in the 1920's Dwight B. Heard, most well known as the benefactor of the Heard Museum , bought and then split up a large tract of land between Southern Avenue and Baseline Road in south central Phoenix. Heard was more than just a rich land baron. He had the crazy notion that people could live self-sufficiently on a couple of acres of desert. Projects to bring cheap water to the valley were going gangbusters in those days, the nearby Salt River was still an actual river with real water in it, and with your purchase of 2 acres for about 1100 bucks, old Dwight threw in a cow and fifty chickens to sweeten the deal.

Many of these properties still exist in the area. It's pretty neat to be a few minutes from downtown Phoenix and be able to drive down shady streets and see well tended pastures with big gardens and livestock. Kinda makes you feel like all's not lost after all.

  A retired cow puncher named Skeeter Coverdale got hold of 10 of these acres somewhere along the line and planted them in Pecan trees. He took care of that grove for 40 years or so and then decided watching trees grow and picking pee-cons once a year was just too much work and what he really wanted to do was re-retire to Punkin Center where he could "swat flies and drink beer". I think I woulda liked old Skeeter. Anyhow, he sold the place to a guy named A. Wayne Smith.

  I don't generally trust people whose first name is an initial, but Mr. Smith has really got a good thing going with The Farm. He's preserved the grove, Skeeter's cabin, the original buildings, and added several businesses that are under separate proprietorships. There are several restaurants, including Quiessence , where you'll pay a minimum of 75 bucks a head before drinks, dessert and gratuity for the privilege of having an entirely local, seasonal, organic feast prepared by chef Greg La Prad. This place has won numerous awards, including a very prestigious Zagat top 5 restaurants in Arizona.

  The Farm also has a breakfast place, a place to grab a sandwich, an onsite artisan bakery as well as the required "therapy" place where you can get accupunctured, inhale flower essences and presumably get your palm read and your chakras aligned, or tuned up, or irrigated or whatever it is they do to chakras.

  The Arizona Wine Grower's Association has held their annual fete at The Farm At South Mountain for a couple of years, and I can't think of a better place to do it. Spread out with lots of room among the ancient Pecan trees, everything was absolutely first cabin. Even the Port-O-Sans were plush. Not the plastic kind of outdoor johns that you normally get, the kind where you feel like you're inside a garbage bin, no sir. These had running water, AC, flushable toilets, mirrors and even little vases of flowers.

  Of course, it should have been nice. These folks, and there were LOTS of them, paid 65 bucks a pop for unlimited tastings, wine seminars and lunch. I kept thinking "WHAT RECESSION??"
  The day began at noon, with an hour devoted to trade only samplers. Wine retailers, chefs, restaurant buyers and sommeliers came thru to sample and place orders. Business was brisk and these folks are dying to get Arizona wines into their dining rooms and onto their shelves.

  Thinking ahead, we decided to use our lunch vouchers and eat before the public was admitted. My sack lunch consisted of an amazing sandwich of grilled portobello mushrooms and peppers and gorgonzola on the best slices of Pane Toscano bread I've ever tasted. All grown and baked on the premises. The toasted pecan balsamic dressed pasta salad side would have been great all by itself. The Sedona Wine festival could learn a thing or two rom these folks about the food they provide next year. I can still taste the dirty socks flavor of the cold, greasy flatbreads I paid 7 bucks for from the Hilton's booth there. But I digress....

  The rabble was allowed in at 1, and that's when it got REALLY busy. We had people 4 to 6 deep all day. I had the pleasure of working with Amy, who is a chemist-biologist person in the Page Springs Cellars actual cellar, Justin, who handles outside events for the winery, and Eric Glomski, owner/winemaker. It was the first time I'd met Eric and I have to say, he's just a regular, scruffy kind of guy who I think is probably a lot older than he looks. I think some people (who hadn't seen "Blood Into Wine" anyway) assumed I was some kind of boss as I was clearly the oldest one at the table. To their great surprise I kept having to ask Eric and Justin the answers to their questions. "How many cases of El Serrano were produced?" "How much Syrah is in the MSGp?" One lady asked "So Eric works for you as your winemaker?" Uh, no, I answered. WE all work for Eric. He's the boss. He makes the wine and owns the place. Eric is THE MAN. That's the kind of guy he is. Self effacing, a bit reticent and ever complimentary about everyone.

  Friday night there had been a judging of all the wines by some poo-bahs of the wine world. Arizona Stronghold, Eric's partnership with He Who Must Not Be Named (M.J.K.) did well, but Caduceus really hauled away the trophies. If and when I can get a link to the results I'll post them later. Page Springs Cellars didn't win any awards this year, and Justin was somewhat non-plussed about that. I used a goat show analogy to make him feel better. I said, "look, I can take my best doe in milk into a three ring show and she'll place in three different positions before three different judges. One judge might be a Nubian breeder and have a prejudice against Swiss breeds, whether he's aware of it or not. Another judge might like my goat over another for some hard to define reason. It's all personal taste, one individual show doesn't mean squat, it's got to be the same whether you're judging wine, livestock or flower arrangements." I think he liked that.

  In the final analysis, Eric did well no matter how you slice it. Consider: Arizona Stronghold is now arguably the 800 lb. gorilla of Arizona Wines. They have more acreage than anyone else. Their wines are now for sale in 32 states and two Canadian provinces. They sell excess grapes and bulk wine to lots of the smaller wineries who are still waiting for their plantings to mature. M.J.K. may have had the money, time, drive and creative energy necessary to start Merkin and Caduceus, but ERIC taught him how to grow grapes and make wine. Eric works as a consultant winemaker for quite a few of the smaller wineries. I'll bet, conservatively, two thirds of the wineries represented at this show had been in some way affected by Eric Glomski's expertise. I couldn't help but marvel at his cool after about the 20th time somebody asked him "so what's it like working with Maynard?" I wonder if anyone's ever asked Maynard "what would you have done without Eric?"

  I promised myself I wasn't going to comment on the preponderance of tatoos, piercings and dark clothing on the tasters standing 6 deep all day at the Caduceus table, so I won't. There. I didn't. M. J. K. was not in attendance, you'd think these people would figure that out. He never shows. Puscifer was playing a sold out show that night in Phoenix though, so maybe he was lurking around disguised as somebody else. I do kinda like their version of Rocket Man, click the link to listen to it and see all the weird stuff on their website.

  I don't know why Ray Freitas didn't attend. I'd love to have seen how her wines did in the judging. Pillsbury, who markets for her, had a table but I didn't have even a minute to check out the other tables.
I need to talk to them today to get some Ray's Red for Romano Scaturro at Vince's Little Star restaurant in Cornville, so maybe I'll get some information then.

  I really enjoyed this festival. The drive is a piece of cake. Stay on I 17 till it turns into 10, get off on 32nd street, drop down past Broadway, Roeser and Southern and The Farm is on the right just about a block past Southern. It's possible to wander the grove, look at Maya's 2 acre garden and farm and have a pleasant time without spending a dime. Affordable lunches and breakfasts are to be had at the other eateries on the premises too. You don't have to spend a fortune. I'll bet breakfast there this time of year would be pretty special. I'll have to take somebody else's word for that though. Here are a very few shots I had time to take. Salud!



Monday, November 1, 2010

Arizona Wine Week

It's official. Today Governor Brewer will declare November 1-7 "Arizona Wine Week". It's hoped that the Gov will keep her driver working overtime this week.  There are two festivals going on next weekend in the valley. There's the Thunderbird Artists' Carefree Art and Wine Fest Thing, and there's the Arizona Wine Grower's Association Festival at The Farm at South Mountain.

As I said in the previous post, Page Springs Cellars had called me to confirm working for them at Carefree. I've long been curious about the Farm at South Mountain. I've pretty much always had the idea that it's the kind of upscale green business that only Lexus Hybrid drivers could afford, taking smug comfort in the knowledge that their Arugula Salad is grown right on the premises where they're paying 25 bucks to eat it. This event costs 65 bucks a pop to get in and includes lunch at their big deal restaurant and full tastings, plus the presence of virtually every winery in the state and all the actual winemakers, too.
Out of the blue yesterday, the event coordinator from Page Springs Cellars called me and said "you know, instead of Carefree, we'd really like you to be with us out at the Festival at The Farm."
After demurring a bit, making clucking sounds about the extra driving distance, hemming and hawing just the right amount, I jumped on it before he could change his mind.
Johnny M. and I were gabbing the other day and he said "if there's a way you could weasel your way into that Farm Festival, you really ought to try." Well, I didn't have to.
I just hope I don't have to pour the Gov's wine.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Quick Update

I'm still using other than ideal computers these days and so this post will be brief. I've confirmed the next two Saturdays pouring wine. November 6th I'll be in the valley at the Carefree Art and Wine Shindig, and the 13th I'll be pouring apparently for Pillsbury AND Javelina Leap at the Cottonwood Walk on Main Street. As the old Firesign Theatre line goes, "how can you be in two places at once when you're really nowhere at all?" Beats me, but I'm sure it'll all work out.
Today The Kid and I are spiffing up the place in advance of the return home of She Who Must Be Obeyed, who yesterday, against the advice of EVERYONE who cares about her, hiked 25 miles and over 10,000 feet in elevation change from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon to the South Rim. IN ONE DAY. She and a couple of friends started out from the North Rim at 5 a.m. in the dark and completed the rim to rim, topping out at the Bright Angel trailhead at half past midnight. She's going to be pretty hammered so we're thinking up a good dinner and of course celebratory adult beverages to help soften the aches she'll no doubt have.
I'll be posting more when the laptop gets fixed and the next two festivals get closer. I suppose I should mention Halloween, 3rd place in my list of the top 3 unnecessary and annoying holidays, right after Easter and Valentine's Day. Anyone over the age of 10 who still enjoys these holidays should do some serious soul-searching. There. I mentioned it.

Friday, October 22, 2010

What wine goes with fried hard drives?

I'd say a nice heavily oaked Chardonnay, to match the puckered up face you're already making when your computer takes a serious dump. I bought my laptop from a neighbor friend who had babied it since it's birth in 2003. Pristine in all respects. A 17 inch aluminum Powerbook for next to nothing was too good to pass up. It does everything I need it to do, runs Photoshop, iDVD, iMovie, and burns (cough) "archival" copies of movies that I of COURSE own. The downside risk of course was the fact that Apple had some hard drive issues with these machines when they first came out and ended up replacing so many failed drives that they changed suppliers. This one had it's original drive and I figured that the only reason it'd never failed is because it'd been babied it's entire life and never put under stress. So I bought it knowing there was a possibilty it would soon fail, as I had some serious stressing planned for it. It did. So now, while waiting for a new drive to arrive after I ordered the wrong one this week, I'm forced to use my old frustratingly slow desktop or my wife's Win-Doze netbook with it's teeny tiny itty bitty very small microscopic screen and 3 year old child sized keyboard. Computer use is no longer fun and won't be until I get my new drive and get it into the Powerbook. It'll be next week before I post again I'll bet.
Anyhow, I went to Javelina Leap yesterday and met with owner/winemaker Rod Snapp, who was outside staring at the cloudy skies and fretting about his newest crush, which he had just put to fermentation. Except the yeast wasn't cooperating. It was too cool. Rod does some of his fermentation outside, his production having outgrown his indoor space for vats. He was contemplating a trip to town for heaters and tarps to up the temp on his vats a few degrees. This morning it's even cooler and still cloudy, so I'll be that yeast in those vats is still sleeping soundly, unless it's had a little fire lit under it's butt.
Rod and I had a great chat, it turns out we've some things in common. He's an ex cook too. He worked at the Oak Creek Owl a few years after I worked at Rene at Tlaquepaque. He knows the San Juan River country well, having done several trips on the lower end years ago. He spent several years cooking at the Grand Canyon too.
He's having a staff meeting this weekend and after that he'll have an idea what kind of help he's going to need, so we'll be chatting again in a week or so. He was real pleased to hear that I'd like to work two to four days a week. Apparently he's got several employees who only put in one day a week and he's not happy with that situation. Personally, seems to me like working one day a week you'd almost have to relearn how to do the job every time you came to work. Anyhow, he needs help at The Walk on Main, so I'll need to decide where I'm working that day. Choices choices....

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Cottonwood Airport Thing

As I mentioned previously, I worked this past weekend for Arizona Stronghold and Page Springs Cellars at the wine tent at the Cottonwood AirFest or whatever it was called. I didn't have a great feeling about this one before hand. I'd tried my hardest to find any online advertising for it, and only managed to come up with one little blurb in the Verde Independent. There was a poster down at Cottonwood City Hall, so at least the three ladies who work there knew about it, but they apparently hadn't taken advantage of viral marketing through social network websites and spread the word.

It was an old car old airplane oh yeah and there's a wine tent too kind of affair. Some nice old cars and planes, but the crowd that did show up had clearly come for the motorized portion of the event and walked right past the wine tent. The biggest news of the day was the mid air collision of an ultralight aircraft and a hot air balloon. It's still front page news on the Independent's webpage linked above.

By 2 p.m., the old geezers with the old cars had all gone home for their naps, the planes had stopped buzzing around and H and H barbecue had cleaned out their greasetraps and packed it in. I didn't even get a plate of their tasty burnt ends. We called it quits by 2:30. The wine tent was a new addition and whoever had put on the show hadn't charged the wineries for table space this year, so nobody was really put out for much.

It did give me a lot of schmooze time. One thing that's great about these shows is during down time, the people running the various tables have a chance to visit with others and everyone is happy to pour samples of their best offerings. A very nice perk, you ask me. I had the opportunity to meet with Rod Snapp and his wife Cynthia. Rod needs some help at Javelina Leap and when he found out I could tell excrement from Shinola and had the time and interest, he invited me to come and talk with him this week about possibly working for him. I'll get over there tomorrow or Thursday.
I put a few slides up, they're mostly of cars and planes and a few are of winesellers with few or no customers. I'm looking forward to the Walk on Main, November 8th. I think I'll be working the street booth with Pillsbury, unless Javelina Leap has stolen me away.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Branching Out

The wine community here is a pretty small and pretty clannish bunch it seems. Who's involved with what winery seems to be in a state of constant change. Page Springs Cellars and Arizona Stronghold it turns out contacted Pillsbury looking for staff to work their tables at this Saturday's Cottonwood Airport Airplane-Old Car-Wine event. So, I get to go to Page Springs tomorrow morning and to the Arizona Stronghold tasting room in the afternoon to do homework for their wines. I've been hoping for a way to spread myself around a bit and learn some more wines, so this is a little stroke of good luck. Page Springs is Eric Glomski's enterprise and the Stronghold is a collaboration between Glomski and Keenan, or something like that. Their tables will be together. I don't know if Caduceus is also involved or will be separate. I'll be writing up tomorrow's tastings and the event itself in the coming days. Stay thirsty.

Monday, October 11, 2010

24th Anniversary, Dinner at Home

  After discussing going out to celebrate our anniversary, SWMBO and I decided to stay home. Figuring the places where we'd have liked to eat are closed on Monday, and even if we found one open it'd be too late after I got done with chores and came in to clean the delicate aroma of Toggenburg Buck in full rut off every square inch of my body. 
  So dinner tonight wasn't rib steaks, it wasn't king crab, or lobster or anything remotely fancy or foo foo. It was a cut up 4 pound fryer, marinated all day in buttermilk and spices, rolled in seasoned flour and panko bread crumbs and fried, mom style until it was golden brown and crunchy as all get out. Garlic mashed potatoes with sweet butter and pecorino romano, forget the gravy, and homemade cole slaw. 
  The wines? Page Springs Cellars Vino del Barrio Blanca. A white table wine listed as containing Muscat, Chardonnay, Malvasia Bianca, Viognier and Roussanne grapes. It's a pretty nice wine in the 17 dollar neighborhood, but there's a bit of unfulfilled promise. The fruit and flowers of the Malvasia Bianca comes right up in front on the nose but is nowhere to be found on the palate. The Chardonnay is the most apparent. I'm not a huge Chardonnay fan, especially the California types that have been oak aged. This one isn't oaked though, and the grassiness of the grape isn't obscured by wood. A nice drink with the chicken.


  For dessert we opened the bottle of Keeling-Schaefer's Turkey Creek Caldera. It's pure Sirah and checks in at 18.5% alcohol. Chocolate, dark fruit, raisins, perfect sweetness, just shoot me. A tiny glass is all you need. 


  Once in a great while the weather will conspire to cause an excess formation of raisins on the vine before the harvest. Too many raisins means less juice and higher sugar content. Higher sugar means higher alcohol and sweeter wine. Winemakers will sometimes try to salvage their harvest by making a dessert wine from this kind of crop. They may get lucky and end up with a port-like hit, or flop with an MD 20-20 style bomb. This one's a hit. We realized how good a little piece of good dark chocolate would go with this, and so put it away till we're better prepared. So many of these wines are in short supply, I'm going to start keeping an eye out for a special red, white and dessert to put away for next year's quarter century anniversary. Shoot, maybe I'll go all out and make gravy. 


Just a short rant about the Page Springs Vino's name. What is it about these people who want to affect Spanish names for their wines (not to mention their housing subdivisions, shopping centers and whatever else) but can't be bothered to GET THE SPANISH RIGHT??
The best translation of "Vino del Barrio Blanca" is "Wine of the white neighborhood". Is that really what they wanted to say?? My guess is they actually wanted to say something like "Neighborhood white wine". A much better name would be "Vino Blanco del Barrio". Wherever they decide to put the adjective "white", it needs to agree with the noun "Vino" and end with an O. Given the number of easily available native Spanish speakers around here, this mangling of the language is really unacceptable. There. I'm all done now.

Hopi Mystery Grape Update

  This is exciting, in a nerdy sort of way. I emailed UC Davis dept. of AG viticulture department today. I didn't know who exactly to email, so I just sort of pulled an email address out of the list on their incredibly informative website. I didn't get the right person right off the bat, but got a nearly instant reply from the person I'd mailed, saying he would copy the mail to Dr. Andy Walker, their grape geneticist. The person I mailed said "If there is anyone in the country who can identify your grapes, Andy can, usually on sight." In about 10 minutes, here comes a mail from Dr. Walker him/herself, excited to help me out. Instructions on what to photograph, where to cut samples and how to ship them to UCD. Tomorrow's task is to get in touch with my brother in law Steve and get him going on photos and samples. Dr. Walker is particularly excited about the possibility that these may be Mennonite grapes, as there is little documentation of eastern native grape varieties this far west until well after the turn of the century.
  Funny footnote, I got another mail from someone at UCD in the same department. She wished me well on my quest and finished up by saying "Isn't there a winery in Cornville? I remember hearing about a couple of guys there trying to grow grapes and make wine, or something."
Stay tuned.....

Sunday, October 10, 2010

A Recipe to go with Caduceus Chupacabra

While I'm waiting to get a chance to check out Harry's Hideaway and get ready for this weekend's winefest at the Cottonwood Airport, I thought I'd share tonight's dinner. Chupacabra wants big, rich, greasy heavily spiced flavors. Tonight we had a braised breast of lamb with a bottle of Chupacabra. Breast of lamb, if you can find it, is silly cheap. Less than two bucks a pound. I actually found mine at WalMart. Safeway, Fry's, Basha's all sell New Zealand or Australian lamb and only normally partially boned leg roasts. Maybe an occasional shank, but never breasts. WalMartWorld actually sells real American Lamb, and they have interesting cuts. I despise their beef, but hey, U.S. Lamb? My new favorite meat market. A whole two piece braised breast will feed 4. Be advised that you'd better like lamb fat; the breast is easily 50/50 fat to meat. The meat is tough as all get-out, until you braise it. After you braise it with vegetables for several hours, it falls off the bone and the vegetables turn into sort of a confit underneath it. A few slices of real tomatoes, or some melon, something acidic on the side in other words is all you need.
So take a breast, which will usually come in two pieces. Cut each piece in half making four pieces. In a big, heavy skillet that has an ovenproof lid, heat up a tiny bit of olive oil till it's almost smoking. Salt and pepper the meat and add it fat side down to the pan. Brown it until it's almost burnt or the smoke alarm goes off, whichever comes first. While it's browning, chop up a couple of carrots, at least a half head of celery, a big sweet onion and peel but do not chop 6-8 garlic cloves.  Also mince about 2 tablespoons each of fresh oregano, rosemary and sage. Preheat the oven to about 325.
When the lamb is brown on the fat side, flip it and brown that side. When it's brown, pour off some or all of the fat. Don't worry, there'll be plenty more. Sprinkle the minced spices evenly over the meat and add the chopped up vegetables, pushing them into the pan and around the meat pieces. Fill the skillet up to almost the top of the meat with red wine or stock but don't cover the meat. I use a half and half mixture of wine and chicken stock.
Turn the fire up to high and bring the pan to a full boil, then cover it and put it in the oven. Let it braise for about 2 and a half hours, checking it a couple of times to add more stock or wine as necessary to keep it moist. Serve a portion of the cooked down vegetables topped with one of the lamb pieces and whatever acidic side you've decided on. A simple salad would work well. Some chunks of ciabatta bread to mop up the glorious goop and you're all set. Chupacabra, Ray's Red, Javelina Leap's peppery Zinfandel; any of them will stand up well to this rich supper.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Drink Pink?

  I don't know what to think of this, other than maybe it's a good way to sell a bit more wine. It seems Arizona Stronghold has jumped on the Drink Pink campaign. If you're unaware of this campaign, here's how it works. You buy a participating company's product during the month of October and they donate a usually unspecified "portion of the proceeds" to the Susan G. Komen research outfit.
  Isn't alcohol a risk factor in the development of breast cancer? What am I missing here? How 'bout this, I'm going to start the Goatherder Campaign to End Lung Cancer. My symbol will be a brown ribbon. Can't use pink, that color's taken. A nice mahogany brown, the color of a heavy smoker's lungs. Then I'll get the tobacco companies to jump on board and donate a portion of the sale of their cigs as part of a Smoke Brown campaign. Drink to end breast cancer, smoke to end lung cancer. Seems reasonable to me!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Stay With Me!

Sidetracked by the weather yesterday and sidetracked by a sick doe today. Once I get her sorted out I'm planning a trip to Javelina Leap for a tasting. My dear spouse, She Who Must Be Obeyed, is finally home for a weekend and I'm gonna take her with. Hopefully tomorrow, but realistically more like Saturday. We're also going to have a chance to try out Harry's as there'll be somebody home to go get the grub before they close. It's going to have to be takeout I'm afraid, unless we can swing a lunch date. Yeah, a lunch date. We'll do that. Takeout's not a good way to get a first impression of a new place.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Sidetracked by The Weather

I don't know that in my nearly 6 decades I've EVER been under a tornado WARNING before, but i am now and have been since 4:30 or so. My pal Johnny Montezuma calls me at 4:45 this morning from his summer camp in Idaho Falls (aka Mayberry West) as I'm groggily listening to hail beat against the bedroom window. "Did you know you're under a tornado warning? Not a watch, a WARNING?" Holy crap. Thunder, lightning close, wind is whipping hail against the windows. Little hail thank god, not like the ice-cube sized stuff they got in Phoenix yesterday.

I put on the slicker and muck boots and head outside with the flashlight to check on the goats and sheep. Everybody is under cover and dry, but clearly not happy about this turn of events. It's close to breakfast time and they already know they're gonna have to wait. Bawling their general dissatisfaction with every aspect of their miserable existence at me. Taking their frustrations out on each other; there are already some bloody heads I'll have to spray with BlueKote later. Back inside to check the NOAA radar page for Cornville. Guess I'm not going to Javelina Leap today. The grape harvest is in for the most part in our neck of the woods, but there are still a few vineyards that have late maturing varieties yet on the vine. Here's hoping they've not suffered any damage.

It's 10 after 9 now and new warnings are popping up on the radar. At this moment we are just east of one and it's trending our way. It's guaranteed that somewhere in this valley, some fool is at this very moment saying "but we NEED the rain". Of course we need the rain. It's a desert for pete's sake. We always need the rain. Nothing like overstating the obvious.  I'm sure the trees are real happy, at least the ones that don't get torn from their comfy spot in the earth and sent flying onto some unsuspecting person's roof. This isn't Kansas, we don' need no steenkeeng tornadoes!
The black dot just west of the center of the image is about where we are.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

A Hopi Grape Mystery

My brother-in-law is a traditional Hopi farmer in the village of Moencopi on the Hopi Reservation. He's also a conservationist interested in traditional crops and heritage plants of all kinds. There have always been old grape vines growing on the periphery of the terraced fields at Moencopi. In recent memory, nobody paid them much attention and they languished, but given the tenacity of grapes, especially old vines, they've stayed alive. My brother-in-law, curious about them, began to prune his and feed them a bit and they are responding to the attention by making fruit. He describes them as pretty thick skinned, not particularly sweet. Hmmm...sounds to me like they might be wine grapes. The skin to pulp ratio is much greater on wine grapes, table grapes having thinner skins, and more juicy pulp. I know, it's counterintuitive, but that's how it is. Wine is much more dependent upon a grape's skin that it's pulp.
I've found references to Hopis having grown grapes for generations. It's generally believed that the little stunted peach and apricot trees found all over Hopi are descended from cuttings brought by the Spanish and cultivated there ever since. The Spanish were expelled during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, but their crop introductions had been found useful by the Hopi and remained. Anyone with even a whiff of Southwestern historical knowledge also knows that the Spanish carried grape cuttings with them pretty much wherever they went. There's no substitute for communion wine, and if you're going to establish a community and show the heathen savage the error of their spiritual ways and bring them into the Body of Christ, you gotta have vino.
There is every indication that these MAY be the descendants of Spanish grapes. If that's the case, they're no doubt related to the Mission Grapes of California, which are disappearing. The Mission Grapes made pretty low quality wines and today's modern wine industry in California isn't based on them. These grapes would be an historical footnote and a curiosity, not much more. There's also the possibility that they could be Mennonite grapes. Mennonite missionaries came to the Hopi villages in 1892 and there was a Mennonite mission in Moencopi until the mid 1980's. I'm thinking though, that it's unlikely that Mennonites would have planted wine grapes.
So in short, I'm going to endeavor to get these grapes identified. The first step will be to get some proper cuttings this winter when they're dormant. I've also been advised to get in touch with UC Davis' AG department, where they've done lots of grape research. I need to find out what kind of tissue samples they need and who to send them to. Details, details. It should be an interesting project. Stay tuned!

Monday, October 4, 2010

A Visit To Freitas Vineyard and Winery

The view from Ray Freitas' patio, across some of her vines to the winery below

  The harvest is finished, the grapes are in the vats and Ray Freitas is on her way to completing another batch of her award winning estate wines. Ray invited my son and me to visit the winery and vineyard yesterday. We spent about two fascinating hours and could have spent many more as Ray and her son walked us through the entire process of making wine, from harvest, thru crush, vinting, pressing, barrel aging, bottling and storage.
  Walking into the winery the first thing that hit me was the incredible yeasty smell. I've been to breweries many times. When you enter a brewery, the smell is very much like walking into a bakery. Immediately comforting, warm. A winery is different. First off, it's cold in there, or at least cool. Secondly, the yeast is much more intense and fermenting fruit smells decidedly more intense, sharper in the nose, than fermenting grain.
  We spent quite a long time watching Ray and her son test the brix level and Ph of her two vats of fermenting Cab. It's almost ready for pressing and barrel storage. We got to help with the "punch down". The CO2 produced by the fermentation process causes the berries to rise to the surface of the juice and form a cap, which if not broken up and punched down every 4 hours will effectively seal the top of the must and slow down the fermentation process. I got to sample the raw must, swish and spit only of course. A taste of wine in the making. Definitely wine, but not quite. Like looking at an ultrasound of a child in the womb. My son remarked "this vat is like an ecosystem, a living thing". Very true. I was able to taste her Malvasia Bianca, which is still in stainless steel and not ready yet. Her last Malvasia Bianca was voted Best AZ White at a prestigious judging in Phoenix in 2009, and if my scortched palate is any guide, this one's going to be a winner too. The essence of tropical flowers hits your nose right up front. Watch for this wine. I actually got to DRINK a whole glass of the new Ray's Red, and it's going to be better than the current one I think. It's still in the steel, but is ready to be bottled.
  My son, ever the chemist and artist, asked Ray "how can a person learn about this? How could someone apprentice at this?" Uh-oh, I knew he'd find it fascinating. A budding winemaker? Who knows?
  We're hoping to go back after frost and the vines go to sleep and learn something about the viticultural end of things. Pruning and caring for the vines themselves in anticipation of bud-break in the spring. I'm thinking a viticulturist looks forward to bud-break in much the same way we look forward to kidding season, filled with hope, anxiety and anticipation.
  All in all it was a great afternoon and Ray and her son couldn't have been more gracious to a couple of rubes like us. We're looking forward to lots more visits. Here's a quick slideshow of a few pics we took.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Blood Into Wine

  Maynard Maynard Maynard all you hear around here when it comes to wine is Maynard Maynard Maynard. I guess I'm guilty of it too. I watched Blood Into Wine last night. It's an edgy, hip documentary of sorts that chronicles Maynard James Keenan's entry into winemaking in the Verde Valley. It's available on Netflix. I enjoyed it and found it in some ways enlightening. I didn't know, for example, that Merkin actually has a vineyard up on the steep slopes near Jerome. It's fairly informative regarding the partnership between Keenan and Eric Glomski, from whom Keenan has learned to grow grapes and make wine. But it's really all about Maynard and that's where it runs into problems. While Glomski's in the film almost as much as Keenan and he does have a chance to talk about himself and his history in the wine world, he comes off most of the time as a sort of weasely sidekick to Keenan. The film doesn't go out of it's way to explain that Glomski is THE creative force behind Keenan's wines. In the beginning, Glomski MADE Keenan's wines. Keenan is far from the only person who's been helped by Glomski. There are a number of other winemakers for whom Glomski has in some way been partner, mentor or inspirational guide.
  Without actually coming out and saying so, the film leaves you with the definite impression that M. J. Keenan discovered the Verde Valley and decided it would be a good place to grow grapes and make wine and then went out and found Eric Glomski and learned how to grow wine, thereby starting the wine boom here. The truth is a bit different. There were several others successfully growing grapes here and producing wine before Keenan came on the scene, but none of them are as "interesting" as Keenan. None of them are dark, troubled rock stars. None of them that I've met so far wear their passion like a wiccan  tattoo across their forehead like Keenan does, at least in the film. No, they're happily and busily pursuing their art and craft without the recognition of a hip documentary film. Somebody should make one about THEM, but there's the rub; who'd watch it? I would. I sure would.
  Blood into wine is film worth watching. I watched it with glass of Paisano. It seemed to me that watching it with a glass of Chupacabra would have been too much like drinking the Kool-Aid. It helped me stay grounded, skeptical.
  This guy makes some good wines, and the film is worth checking out for anyone with an interest in wine from this region. Just be careful you don't find yourself getting another tattoo and chanting Maynard Maynard Maynard.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Mystery Bottle


  So in the rush to unpack bottles from their boxes and arrange them on the back table at the WineFest, an accidentally unlabeled bottle got removed from it's box and added to the back stock without notice. While packing up to leave on Sunday, I found it. It was for sure either a bottle of Ray's Red or Freitas 08 Merlot, but nobody could figure out which. Lisa Pender, the Pillsbury Room's manager said "guess you better take it home and find out what it is".

So how to do that?  I have a labeled bottle of Ray's Red, but not a bottle of Merlot. If I had a bottle of Merlot, I could shine a bright light thru both bottles and note the difference in color, compare them each to the "shiner" and decide what it is that way. I don't want to open both bottles for obvious reasons. I try to stay on the no more than two drinks a day plan and the wines would go off before they'd get finished. Using the flashlight technique I shined light thru both bottles:
  Both bottles appear to have the same color. There's a considerable difference between the Red and the Merlot. The Merlot is more opaque and a deeper Burgundy color. The Red, probably due to it's San Giovese grapes, has a lighter and somewhat browner, more leathery color. I'm thinking this is a bottle of Ray's Red.






  So I open the shiner. Sure enough, the wine presents as very clear, with a leathery color as opposed to the grapey burgundy color of the Merlot, and as soon as the cork comes out I can smell the Ray's Red. It went real nice with some Dreamfield's Pasta topped with oil and a little Pecorino Romano and a sprinkle of Salish smoked sea salt. Thoughtful readers are thinking "this dipstick spent an entire weekend selling Ray's Red and Freitas Merlot, why didn't he just open the freaking bottle, pour himself a glass and he'd have known in a heartbeat what it was." Yeah, I coulda done that, but what fun would THAT have been?

Suzy Q Market and Local Wines

  Just a quick note to let everyone know that Suzy Q Market in Cottonwood has a pretty spiffy selection of Arizona Wines. They've recently added a shelf of Verde Valley and other AZ. wines as an experiment. SQ has been my go-to place for it's great beer selection for a long time. I noted Freitas, Javelina Leap, Oak Creek Vineyards, Caduceus, Arizona Stronghold, Kokopelli and maybe one or two others. Great prices too. Suzy-Q's price on Ray's Red, for example, is 4 bucks cheaper than you'll pay at the Pillsbury Tasting Room. Granted, you can't taste it first at Suzy-Q but since I've told you over and over how good Ray's Red is, you don't need to sample it anyhow.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

No news is good news

  Nothing to report today. I got sidetracked by one of my pals out in the pasture and have to do some repairs and get a load of hay. Stay tuned, coming is a report on Harry's Hideaway and my research into a mystery "shiner" bottle of wine I brought home from the WineFest. It's either Freitas Merlot or Ray's Red, but with no label, how to tell? I have a labeled bottle of Ray's Red, I'd hate to have to open them both and compare to solve the mystery. Stay tuned...

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Wine Fest Photo Finish

  Ok, so I got spanked for downplaying the quality of my pics. I really do wish they were better and more varied, but at least I got a few.  My pal Johnny told me how to put up a slide show the other day and of course I promptly forgot and so am having to figure it out my ownself. There wasn't a whole lot of time away from our booth all weekend so most of the shots are taken from there when I had a spare minute to pick up the camera and take a quick snap. It'll give you some sense of the place and the crowd.


  I learned more than I expected this past weekend. The Verde Valley wine industry is the real deal. What most impressed me is the way all these winemakers appear to be helping each other out and encouraging each others' successes and commiserating on each others' flops. A rising tide floats all boats I guess, at least for the present. I saw lots of personal trades going on among the various owners. "I love your XXXX, I'll give you a case of my YYYY for one of yours". Deals like that all the time. I wish I'd been able to taste more wine, but we were under essentially bartender's rules as servers. I did get to sample some Caduceus selections, which I found uniformly good. Often in-your-face, ballsy wines that were begging for a salty rare steak, a smoky pork roast or rack of lamb. Wines for carnivores I'd call them. Not for the faint of heart, plenty big enough to wash down tasty hunks of flesh, but with true depth and interest for anyone wanting to drink slowly and explore the levels of flavor and nuance too. Mr. Keenan isn't just copying what he learned at Page Springs, he's really coming into his own and knows what he's after.
  As for the show itself, the organizers, at least from my sort of peripheral perspective did a great job and made sure the vendors had what they needed. At the end of the show they settled up with everyone quickly. The show ended Sunday at 5 and we were packed and out of there by 5:15.
  As for the food.....I'll admit to somewhat of a prejudice against Dahl and Deluca, one of the show sponsors and one of two food providers. I didn't try their food. I've been to their restaurant, fancy and pretentious Italian fare. I once had the worst plate of linguine and clams anyone has ever eaten there and swore off their food forever. I've had dirty socks that tasted better than the eight clams that came on top of that plate of soggy pasta and insipid, bland cheese. I've mopped my kitchen floor with less ammonia than those nasty bivalves contained. Thank goodness my wife had a gift certificate the last time. So I didn't try her offerings. The Grill At Shadow Rock, where I HAVE had a couple of good meals had the other food booth. Too bad their chef and sous chef spent most of their time, along with a lot of other Hilton Sedona employees all wearing name tags identifying them as Hilton employees, wandering around the wine tables trying to schmooze free wine samples instead of looking after their tired looking and refrigerator flavored offerings. Considering all the outstanding wine at this show, it's too bad the food wasn't a better match. I hope they'll do better next year. Let's cut out the foo-foo and get some good substantial food in there.
  The next show I'm going to get to work will be October 16th in Cottonwood. Forgive me if I mentioned that already. What I'm most excited about now is coming up this weekend, a visit to Freitas Vineyard to get a personal glimpse of the place where Ray works her magic.
  That's all for now....GH

Monday, September 27, 2010

Just a vignette from the WineFest...

  So there comes to our tasting table this very handsome pair of ladies. Clearly a mother-daughter duo. Dressed to the nines in "Santa Fe" style. Long flowy dresses, big custom 30's style cowboy hats, seriously valuable concho belts and POUNDS of antique indian jewelry. Shod in custom made multi-colored cowboy boots worth more than any vehicle I own. Mama is shy, I'd guess about 75, long black locks going to grey. Daughter does all the talking. Pays her ticket and discribes Mama's tastes in wine. I suggest Ray's Red. I always suggest Ray's Red, everybody likes it. Hija samples it, pays another ticket and samples in again. Mama does not indulge. Consultations in Spanish ensue and a bottle is to be purchased. I pack the bottle. Thirty dollars and 90 cents I say. Daughter opens her Louis Vuitton wallet and pulls a hundred off a stack of the same that was AT LEAST 2 inches thick and hands it to me. I make her change and we exchange pleasantries and they're off. Two incredibly gracious and friendly women.
  Bet you thought I was gonna say they told me to keep the change. Nope, this is better. About an hour later, I took a break and went to use the Port-O-San out in the parking lot. As I was walking back the two ladies came out of the tent heading to their car, which, as I couldn't resist sneaking a peak after them, turned out to be one of these, sure enough with NM plates. They both got in the car and started it, but didn't leave. I got tired of pretending to look for something under my driver's seat and went back inside. About a half hour later, daughter comes back in without Mama. She wants to buy another bottle of Ray's Red. "My Mom LOVES it!!" She says.
  The image of a septagenarian doyen of Old Santa Fe swilling Ray's Red in the parking lot in her new Mercedes kept me smiling all afternoon.

What exactly IS a "winery" anyhow?

  I guess for most of us, myself formerly included, "winery" means a place where wine is made. Only...ummm...maybe, maybe not. At the Sedona Winefest this past weekend, I learned that "winery" can mean many things. I'm not going to mention any labels here in the interest of remaining as neutral as possible.  Verde Valley wines, it turns out, run the gamut from estate bottled wines that are grown and produced completely locally all the way down to at least one so-called winery which is buying what are termed "shiners". Shiners are pre-bottled wines. You want a nice Cabernet? How 'bout a Shiraz? Merlot? Gotcha covered. Wholesale prices by the case, slap your own label on and you're set to go. How does a "winery" go from scratch to over 30 bottled wines in just a few years? Easy. Buy your wine from somebody else who sells in bulk, label it and call it your own. You can tell people anything you want about your grapes and where they come from. Who's gonna go to Wilcox, Elgin, Sonoita or anyplace else and check out your story? Certainly not the casual tourist or even the average serious wine buyer as long as the wine is passably good and comes with a good story. I think if somebody is truly interested in Verde Valley wines, they'd do well to check things out pretty well.
  The big hurdle in truly local wines here seems to be the price of land. We've got perfect soil and perfect weather here, but even with the downturn land is still prohibitively expensive for winemakers without extremely deep pockets to go out and buy and put vines on. A vineyard planted today won't make any significant amount of wine for three to five years, meantime, you've got to pay to water, weed, feed, prune, protect and nurture that young stock. There are lots of new grapes in our area, and some winemakers are making a sincere effort to eventually produce all their wines from grapes grown right here. Meantime, like any business, they've gotta have cash flow. So they source their grapes from California, or hopefully, and more often than not, from the Wilcox area of the state. They make their wines here for the most part. This is perfectly understandable in an industry as young as this one. The phonies, on the other hand, can only hope to scam the tourists so long. Eventually, this valley will grow AND produce enough quality wine to make their "shiners" glow-in-the-dark-obvious.

Sedona WineFest Day 2 bits and pieces

   I'm going to break this up into shorter posts over the next few days as there's so much to talk about that it's kind of a categorical nightmare. How to organize it all so it doesn't take pages and pages to tell? Sunday was a much more relaxed day all in all. Fewer people than Saturday and a lot more locals, which necessarily meant slower bottle sales. I had the extreme pleasure of spending the day with Ray Freitas, the owner of Freitas Vineyards, whose wine I was selling. I got to be her bottle monkey most of the day, pouring samples while she did the talking.

  Most of us have known a person or two in our lives who is a true master at something. These folks, no matter what it is they do, share some characteristics:
  Their craft, whatever it is, often borders on obsession.
  Their path in pursuing this obsession has often been fraught with serious obstacles.
  They're not "dabblers", but are usually single-minded perfectionists
  Their path is not monetarily driven, in fact it's often costly; a labor of love.

  Ray Freitas is now on my very short list of those people. She and her husband started their vineyard on 5 acres in Cottonwood 12 years ago. This makes her vines the oldest in the valley. She's now a widow, works a full time job in health care in order to continue her real passion, which is making wine. Her wines were arguably the ONLY truly estate wines at this show. Virtually every other winery present was using at least some grapes sourced from someplace else. Not Ray. A question that often came from the samplers who came by the table "where do you source your grapes?" was easily answered by her, "My back yard".
Here's a picture of Ray and two tasters from yesterday. Ray's on the left.