Mise en placeFrequent wine tastings are vital to the role of wine buyer, important to stay fully immersed, committing flavors, vintage variation, producers and regions to memory in hopes of better serving customers. Valuable though my time spent tasting is, it frequently lacks enough of one crucial part, and that is food pairings. To even things out a bit more, I happily accepted an invitation to pair food and wine for a Food-Writers’ dinner last month.

Soup StTo be five courses deep, I selected three wines for the dinner that I felt would best complement the diversity of the menu—keeping in mind the season and the broad strokes of the meal—while trying hard not to over-think it.  Lemons were overly abundant, making starring appearances in nearly every course—save for the cheese plate—and I leaned heavily on white wines, until the main course (a salmon over bed of sorrel in cream), where I would transition to a light-bodied red as a break from the unwritten script (fish and white wine).

We opened with a refreshingly cool avocado soup, with hints of green pepper, chive and a touch of cream. Not only was the presentation stunning but also the soup was quite substantial. The 2011 Pieropan Soave Classico was called upon to assist with its citrus accent and crisp acidity to reset our taste buds after each palate-coating spoonful.

Salmon StkWe moved into a salad with lemon vinaigrette, croutons and light dusting of Parmesan. Partially motivated by the bitter greens, I decided that a 2009 Williams Selyem Unoaked Chardonnay would be a good way to go, propelling the fruit core of the Russian River Valley wine while harmonizing with the bready croutons and subtle cheesy flavors. They meshed perfectly.

Becker B SpatReserving a glass of Chardonnay each, for comparison purposes, we segued into the salmon and opened a seven-fifty of 2008 Friedrich Becker “B” Pinot Noir. The main course and wine collided with colossal force—complexity from both quarters was brought to an apex with noticeable tension. The developing scents on the Pinot Noir suggestive of red cherry, cardamom, pepper, mushroom and cedar chimed nicely with the savory character of the salmon. The chardonnay, though friendly to the creamier elements of the plate was no match for the Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir), but the latter ably supported the course without taking the glory even while displacing the Chardonnay.

We savored the last drops of the Pinot Noir while the cheese plate rolled out. Demanding and intricate, I opted for an Austrian sparkler—leftovers from the host—to help us navigate the range of flavors, especially that nettle cheese! It got along famously and by the time Sharon’s perfect lemon tart had been plated we were all ready for cups of coffee.

Thankful for the opportunity to contribute in the smallest degree, I was really happy to be part of the dinner. Every plate was carefully put together and delicious; insight behind the courses and the people who made them were wonderful bonuses. One of the best qualities of wine is its ability to bind; in this case not only were the food and drink components tied together but the people sharing the dinner were also united. That’s something I don’t get often from just tasting.

Rose AbstractSipping wine under a backyard umbrella, we embraced the warm hug of summer at a safe distance, cooling down with an array of chilled brown-bagged-disguised rosés and a charcuterie spread accompaniment—our bare arms virtually as open and exposed as were our palates.

As rosés become more popular, consumers will be increasingly accepting of darker variations—ripostes to the wan glow of Provençal rosé—and origins from more exotic locales, but until then, we are happy to do the work for you! Our tasting group never shies away from these less desired places (that’s what happens when a bunch of wine nerds get together) and our tasting reinforced our risk-taking with a few new magnificent highlights.

ConfidenteThe most titillating example came courtesy of Spain, specifically a bottle of 2012 Ameztoi Rubentis from Basque country. An Ojo de Gallo (a rosado from Txakolí) captivated all in attendance… saline and spritely, the ruby-tinted Txakolina rosado was racy, light-bodied, with vibrant acidity (medium-plus to high), signature effervescence (minor but notable) and pitched a long finish of cranberry and red currants that had been sifted through the riverbed. Sexy, sharp and unlike anything else we tasted that night—fair to say it was unique.

Though there was no shortage of notable rosés, we had one bottle from Provence that showed beautifully. Saint André de Figuière La Confidentielle rosé wore a medium-bright salmon jacket, emitting an intense summer perfume of strawberries, fresh-cut flowers and apricots. In the palate, the dry, medium-bodied rosé brought with it tremendous structure (medium-plus acidity) and a lip-smacking finish of raspberries, red cherries and flowers under a light misting of white pepper. Classic and poised to catch the waning bits of sun.

This tasting embodied summer, and we stayed patio-side for hours after we had finished our assessment of the rosés, all identities revealed. The entire lot of wines offered immense pleasure and though we only paired them with a charcuterie board’s zakuskis, a few of these wines harnessed the potential to pair with main courses. If you were on the fence about pink/blush wines, you should reevaluate your position, even in the noonday sun.

Tyler Chardonnay With an intensely busy schedule, featuring lots of driving, Santa Barbara surfaced as the perfect escape from LA. On a rare Sunday off, I headed to Lompoc, forty minutes north of SB, cramming as much wine tasting into an afternoon as possible, and where I happened upon my wine of the month.

Tyler was an afterthought that took root shortly after my brief visit to the cellar doors of Zotovich, and for that, I was thankful. It was at Tyler that I was walked through an entire flight of the difficult 2010 vintage (the difficulty being a limited vintage because of heat spikes at harvest, generally in Santa Barbara) and where my pick—2010 Clos Pepe Vineyard Chardonnay—made an indelible mark.

Best in class, the Chardonnay distanced itself from its two siblings, not just in fruit source—hailing from a prestigious estate in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA rather than Sta. Maria Valley AVA—accounting for the brawn… it was the finesse that helped it distinguish itself. Humming with apple, lemon peel, warming spices and kissed with sea salt, the Chardonnay was quite attractive, marrying the youthful core of fruit with a puissant medium-full body, taut acidity and an exponential and direct finish.

A serendipitous encounter, I enjoyed every wine in the lineup from the robust Pinot Noirs to the marvelously dense Chardonnays. Tyler’s wines are balanced, forward and worth seeking out—especially the Clos Pepe Chardonnay!

GDShortly after seeing “Man of Steel” my own “super power” emerged. To define it as super may not be entirely accurate—not extraordinary or clearly defined—I hardly knew what it was or why it worked, until there was a moment to document it.

I had pulled off OC’s 55 Freeway at Chapman Avenue and headed east. Diverted from a meeting I was en route to, and unsure of my destination, the immediacy of the hunger pang and sureness of purpose accelerated me swiftly to the red mason adobe ahead.

I’d arrived at Game Day Burgers and Sausages—the place looked of a classic burger joint—resting center on the busy avenue, certain that I was in the right place for lunch.

GD BurgTo my surprise, the quaint establishment had been retrofitted, encompassing an ambitious offering of sandwiches, dogs, burgers and beverages that took original comfort settings to greater heights.

For a reasonable sum (seven dollars) and a short wait, I had a Poblano cheeseburger, with its brioche ajar, where I spied a patty engulfed in chipotle aioli, chopped poblano chili peppers, smoked bacon and spicy jack cheese nestled abed the garden-variety vegetables.

Preoccupied, at first, with a seeming lack of balance, fearful that the peppers would sinisterly tilt the sandwich into an extreme, I had little time to worry about the brioche. The first bite washed out any doubts. Like a finely tuned instrument the cheeseburger struck a balance between the spicy notes on the higher register while supporting them with smoky bites of bacon and a well-seasoned patty holding steady in the bass.  Texture wasn’t underplayed either; the fresh veggies lent crispness to each bite, countering the soft, mop-up effect of the brioche that came together like a Quincy Jones orchestration.

The trip hadn’t been pre-meditated and I had never heard of Game Day before landing there, finding myself drawn to it by a strong and unexplainable force. I was thankful how my sudden pit stop unfolded, even if it’s a far cry from stopping bad guys hell-bent on Earth’s destruction or flying through space to rescue Lois. Maybe super power is pushing it, but I would gladly harness my new skill set to find other killer spots like Game Day Burgers and Sausages on my next outing, for this kind of validation.

Loire Grolle When I am in study mode I’ll scrupulously break down wine regions into manageable subsections, uncovering esoteric tidbits while committing requisite information like prominent varietals, climate/ microclimates and soil types to memory.  Often I am more democratic about where my information comes from, proffering an area or style to my tasting group to study, like I did a couple weeks ago for the red wines of Loire.

It wasn’t new to me that Cabernet Franc reigns supreme in the Loire Valley, or that even Cot (Malbec) makes an appearance as a blending varietal in Saumur. However, just reading about the expansive Loire Valley, or any appellation by study alone is only a part of it. Tasting wine is essential and is the most important clue in pegging down a region or varietal.

We tried seven red wines from Loire cloaked in brown-bags; we found afterwards that Cabernet Franc dominated the showing, which wasn’t surprising—lip-smacking tannins and herbaceous overtones, the trademarks of the varietal, confirmed our suspicions during the tasting.

The most intriguing wine of the night appeared early on and just funked up my taste buds. I was off-kilter, trying to determine what wine could possibly pitch such a wild aroma of earthen red fruits, fallen white flowers and a Compari note (strong herbal flavors). The dry red was light in body with medium but finely grained tannins and finished as it had started—complexly. It turned out to be a biodynamic Le Cousin Rouge, consisting entirely of Grolleau—an indigenous grape to the Loire, that was completely new to me.

One of the better examples of Cabernet Franc came from Charles Jouget—an established and well-known producer from Chinon, in central Loire Valley. The 2003 Clos de Chêne Vert, despite being harvested in a terribly hot vintage hadn’t lost its step, showing deftness (balance) and youthful vigor with its spectacular display of confected red berries, violets, black pepper and tomato stems. The old vines and a prime vineyard site within the town of Chinon itself produced a structured dry red wine with ripe tannins and finished long with plenty of red fruit and savory herbs.

Even if I study thoroughly there is a good chance I will miss things. My tasting group is not only a wonderful collection of friends and professionals with similar interests but they are a catchall, keeping me honest in my assessments and introducing me to nearly extinct grapes and better examples of wines I thought I knew well. Now it’s time to get back to the books.

SugFish

We arrived, a band of bleary-eyed and palate-fatigued wine buyers, at SugarFish in Brentwood.

A strange and distant (diegetic) music began to play. 

Salmon

Three “Trust Me’s” were ordered in little time.

Fish

Fatty and rich fish were coupled with gluey and subtly sweet rice.

Hand Roll

After the final hand roll, our ailing tongues had been restored—a trick I will remember for future tastings.

Leroy BI was fourteen when the transformer blew out. On the eve of the millennium, in my brother’s home, someone on the block had the bright idea to ring in 2000 by candlelight, blowing out the neighborhood’s power during the Time Square countdown. Meanwhile, in France a bottle of unassuming Burgundy had just been bottled ready to forge an equally exciting memory in the future.

Thirteen years later I opened a seven-fifty of 2000 Maison Leroy Bourgogne Rouge while hanging out with friends; the culmination of love for Burgundy and reverence for a unique producer, this bottle was ready to be cherished by the august body of wine geeks with whom I shared it.

Lalou Bizet-Leroy, alchemist and owner, strongly believes in the tenets of biodynamic viticulture, converting all her family’s vineyard holdings over to the all-encompassing system by 1988. Her dedication to natural, low-yield wines that see no filtration or fining are considered some of the greatest examples of Burgundy.

I had opened this bottle of 2000 Maison Leory—a negociant bottling, unlike Domaine Leroy, which are purely estate grapes—that would test the limits on aging appellation wine.

I poured the contents carefully, mindful of sediment, between the three over-sized Burgundy stems. Wearing a medium ruby with tawny accents feathering clearly on the rim, laced with a bright aroma of maraschino cherry, black tea, clove, cinnamon and toasted fennel seeds. The scent continued to develop as the wine opened—emitting deeper flavors that made the wine quite compelling on the tongue. On the palate the Pinot Noir still showed fine and elegant tannins, with a medium, contoured body, low alcohol and taut acidity (medium) that helped deliver the developed flavors of cherry, mushroom, herbs and spices that echoed faintly after the final sips.

The Maison Leroy set an unattainable benchmark for the other wines we uncorked afterwards, exceeding expectations I’d put on Leroy, and forging an indelible memory that will rival some of my favorite wine tasting moments. With new friends and old wines it put the year 2000 in perfect perspective even if it didn’t blow the lights out.

Salt's CureAfter my last burger outing I was seeking redemption; a swing from distrustful of brioche, to hoping for any other form of wheat-based carbohydrates, perhaps even seriously considering a protein-style burger (lettuce-wrapped) for a reprieve. At Salt’s Cure, my brioche-induced fears might be abated, but now I just needed to see if their gourmet offering would warrant the price.

D&G FiveAcross from Astro Burger and Fat Burger (on the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Vista Street), sits Salt’s Cure, perched coyly behind a saltshaker. The American eatery scrawls Calfornia-centric fare on the chalkboard daily, with a few staples that survive the eraser. Their wine list lives by the same idea, supporting the chalkboard rotation with a stellar Californian lineup.

In for dinner with a friend, punctuating the Memorial Day weekend with a pair of burgers and bottle of Donkey & Goat Five Thirteen—the red wine, born in El Dorado (Amador County), showed youthful notes of red plums, dark berries, and violets all misted under a faint crack of the pepper mill. We ordered in support of the burgers.

S C BOpeners a King Salmon atop a sweet onion puree, a simple presentation and clean flavor spectrum showing off the fish, it wasn’t until the entrees arrived that our eyes perked wide with excitement.

Two identical open-faced burgers, with one showing a strip of house-made bacon over a translucent layer of cheddar that coated the patty while the other side balanced a few fine rings of red onion and red leaf lettuce, all atop a toasted in-house Ciabatta! The bun alone was relief.

After assemblage the first bite showed off the superb texture of the sandwich. Crisp veggies, a melt-in-your-mouth patty and chewy bun came together well. The patty was comprised of a 70-30 grind (meat-to-fat), which explained the juiciness, and why I was thankful for the slipper bread bun—it held the burger’s integrity. The bacon, generally an overpowering addition, was content being rank-and-file with the rest of the burger’s components, adding a sweet-smoke finish. And finally salt, that basic ingredient, didn’t just figure into the name of the restaurant, its liberal dashes brought out a precise depth in the flavor department. A finely tuned burger that paired nicely with Southern Rhone inspired red.

Salt’s Cure had recaptured my gourmet burger spirit. Even the little things were taken to the next level—the accompanying fries that packed rosemary-freshness were excellent vehicles for one of the better house made ketchups I’ve encountered recently. My buddy and I were both blown away by the quality at almost every level from the attention to detail to the wine list. Seventeen dollars is a fair price to price to pay for excellence—if only that were the price for the entire dinner.

RoseeAn illustrious tropical bloomer, Hibiscus flowers can be showstoppers. Their gorgeous colored petals however are for more than marveling over; used for paper, teas, medicine and, as I learned last week, to lend amazing flavor to beer.

I uncrowned a bottle of Rosée d’Hibiscus from Brasserie Dieu du Ciel, pouring out a beautiful glass of fluorescent amber ale. Its floral upbringing was evident immediately on the perfume, with soft aromas of fresh picked flower petals in a game of She loves me… she loves me not, fruit and minerals wrapping up the bouquet. It was dry on the palate and homed in with wine-like intensity when it came to the round mouth-feel and persistent flavor profile dripping of red berries, spice, flowers and fresh bread—bringing me back to Beerlandia.

This beer walked a fine line, appealing to all my wine-liking sensibilities but subtly reminding me that I was enjoying ale. The Rosée d’Hibiscus was unlike any beer that I’ve ever tasted, with its fruit-and-flower-forward nature and dry, long finish that should seduce most wine drinkers. A strongly recommended buy for the summertime!

Juliette MThe competition in Los Angeles is fierce for the gourmet; streets, strip malls and hotels overrun with deep menu choices for the discerning. Unfortunately, the healthy competition doesn’t drive prices down. I went south, to Orange County, snooping for value.

I found myself in Newport, exiting the 73 Freeway at Birch and looping around until I had arrived at Juliette Kitchen + Bar for a late lunch (3:00 PM!!!). I was starved and when I saw they offered a burger there was only one thing left to decide… which side?

For fear of being weighted down on my long trek back to Los Angeles, I opted for a green salad (bigger and better than bargained for) to accompany the Juliette burger. Attention was paid to the au courant burger, plated on charcuterie board with a dill pickle spear accent.

Leafy greens and a robust tomato were first to meet the eye. The airy brioche dominated the rest of my landscape view, framing a decent patty that was coated in a fine layer of aged cheddar. After a few snaps of the iPhone I took my first bite, finding a perfect medium-rare on a well-seasoned and crusted patty. Beyond the foundation though, I quibbled with the choice of bun. I’ve eaten a few superb burgers, including Little Bear that successfully played up the strengths of the French pastry roll—using it as a toasted sponge to absorb the combination of jus and kriek spread that spilled freely from their signature sandwich.

At Juliette however, the puffy brioche was painted as an outsized bandit, robbing an otherwise quality sandwich of its balance and left me with many-a-bite that were all bread and veggies.

From a great beginning, a surprising starter to the attractive presentation of the Juliette Burger my late lunch wrapped up with a what-might-have-been-finish. A better distribution of ingredients and perhaps, a compact Kaiser Roll or potato bun, in lieu of the ubiquitous brioche, and I am positive it would’ve been a fairytale ending.

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