Monday, January 25, 2010

Celebrate Australia Day

Tomorrow, January 26, is Australia Day, the most popular holiday in Australia. I visited Australia in 2008, specifically the wine-producing Barossa and Hunter Valleys, and found it to be a wonderful, wide-open country with amazingly friendly people and wonderful wines. While much of the Shiraz can be a bit too intense for me, I have friends who exist on it alone (that is, as far as their wine diet is concerned)!

Many people place a lot of value on the wine critic’s numerical score, but there’s so much more to enjoying a wine than simply what’s in the glass. The setting, the occasion, the company, the weather, the food, one’s mood -- all these contribute, or don’t, to the wine’s potential. Yet all these factors are shunted aside when a wine critic evaluates a wine in a technical setting divorced from real life and then assigns a number to it. And it’s his or her palate’s number, not yours.

An experience I had in Australia will make me remember Jacob's Creek Steingarten Riesling forever, and to seek it out when I'm looking for a Riesling. It was a beach picnic at Emu Bay on Kangaroo Island. After motoring out in a speedboat to a spot where we swam with a school of dolphins, we returned to a tented, open-air dining room in the sand and ate a delicate local white fish with an array of different vintages of Jacob’s Creek Steingarten Riesling. At least one was a decade old and still tasted fresh and lively.

So raise a glass of Jacob’s Creek Steingarten Riesling tomorrow -- or whatever your favorite Aussie wine is -- to celebrate Australia Day. The holiday is technically in memory of the First Fleet of Convicts to land in Botany Bay in 1978, but was not nationally celebrated until 1944.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

A Cognac Cocktail Comeback?

Cognac producers in France are working hard to battle declining sales around the world -- in Japan, the United States and other countries, sales of Cognac are flat or falling. The main bright spot is in China where sales are climbing and, according to a Hennessey executive I spoke with at the 3rd annual Cognac Summit earlier this week, people are drinking Cognac with their meals -- neat, over ice, or with water.

Cognac, a spirit with a 40% alcohol content, takes its name from the southwestern region of France where Cognac producers are located. The firewater is distilled twice before aging for from two years to as long as many decades, but only after producers grow Ugni Blanc wine grapes and make a white wine, which would be too high in acid and too low in alcohol to serve as a still wine. That’s why I tend to think of it as another form of wine rather than a spirit.

At the meeting, I found that part of the Cognac strategy is to re-vitalize classic Cognac cocktails from a bygone era. I was surprised to learn that the original Mint Julep and Alexander, among others, were made with Cognac. Producers such as Hennessey, Courvoisier and Remy Martin invited creative “mixologists” (aka bartenders) from throughout Europe and the United States so they could educate them about Cognac and explore new ways of making it more relevant to today’s bar and restaurant scene.

Cognac is not an inexpensive spirit and can drive the price of cocktails up to unpalatable levels so that‘s a problem for bars and restaurants. “Cognac is not the most cost-effective mixer but you have to have it because people expect it,” says Julie Reiner, of the Flatiron Lounge in Manhattan and Clover Club in Brooklyn, New York. It’s easy to see why Cognac is costly -- it’s most often a blend of many different years of Cognac‘s elixir, some aged in the finest French oak barrels for many years.

The photos that accompany this post are from the Musée des arts du Cognac, a beautiful tribute to the lifeblood of the Cognac community, and the meeting, where 60 or so participants slaved for three days to put their marks on Cognac cocktails. In the process we consumed a fair amount of it and visited several Cognac houses including Hine and Chateau Ferrande. A highlight was a tasting at the museum of 16 smaller Cognac producers, such as Delamain, Frapin and Chateau de Montifaud, which many of the mixologists, who purchase for their bars, were impressed with. One, Leopold Gourmel, even offered a biodynamic Cognac.

One of the bartenders, Todd Appel, from the Crimson Lounge in Chicago's Hotel Sax, suggested to me that I make a Manhattan, one of my favorite cocktails, with Cognac instead of the usual rye whiskey. I tried it the night I returned home from France and loved it.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


Yesterday in San Francisco, leading members of the California wine industry announced a major step forward in improving the "sustainability" of vineyards and winery facilities. As I wrote in a story for, the state industry has deveoped a new program for independent sustainable certification of wineries and vineyards.

Vintners and grape growers have been educating themselves and taking action in their businesses for years -- in fact the wine industry is seen as progressive and pioneering in this among agricultural sectors -- to improve the viticultural, environmental and social aspects of their businesses while remaining economically viable.

But since “sustainable” has been the buzzword of the decade -- meaning everything from eliminating herbicides and pesticides in the vineyards to slapping a single solar panel on a winery building -- it was important for the industry to provide concrete standards and ratings.

So now, under the Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing program, wineries have steps to folow and a way to prove to consumers, retailers and each other that they are taking those steps to farm, produce, package and transport wine sustainably.

The program is voluntary, but the majority of wineries and growers in the state have particpated in educational workshops and pilot programs since their inception in 2002.

The program does not concern itself with informing consumers about the sustainability of a certain product; no information will appear on wine bottles. The people leading this charge say only that it's not a "consumer-facing issue," but why not? It is consumers who are clamoring for eco and green products and growing more concerned with what they're putting in their bodies. So let's hope that informing consumers becomes a priority soon.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

19th Annual ZAP Fest

One of the biggest, juiciest wine fests of the year is happening later this month in San Francisco: the 19th Annual Zinfandel Advocates & Producers Festival.  ZAP's annual party consists of four events held January 28-30 at which over 200 Zinfandel specialists will pour barrel samples and new releases, pair Zin with food and generally make merry. There is a Grand Zinfandel Tasting Jan. 30; Good Eats & Zinfandel Pairing Jan. 28; Flights: A Showcase of Zinfandels Jan. 29; and an Evening with the Winemakers, also Jan. 29.

Win a pair of tickets to the Grand Zinfandel Tasting from 2 to 5 p.m. at the Festival and Herbst Pavilions at Fort Mason (Marina Blvd. at Buchanan, San Francisco) by commenting at the end of this post about why you love Zinfandel, that quintessential California grape (it actually traces back to Croatia, but that's another story).

A couple of years ago, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill that named Zinfandel the state’s “historic wine.” As such, it would have shared official state symbol status with the California Redwood, the Golden Trout, the Grizzly Bear and the Dogface Butterfly. At that time, renowned producer Kent Rosenblum called Zinfandel the " heart and soul of California wine for over 150 years.”