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Every year as the holidays start to roll in, it seems that every wine and/or food related outlet is ready to let you know which wines you should buy in order to have the perfect experience.  I always am particularly amused by the interviews with wine “experts” bemoaning how difficult it is to pair wines with a traditional Thanksgiving meal (Revelation: It’s not).  It is also interesting to note how the “perfect” wine pairings for various holiday meals changes from year to year.  Apparently perfection is now something that can be outdone, which makes me want to start a hyperbolic series listing the More-Perfect wine and food pairings so I won’t be outdone by the likes of everyone else!  However, the idea of the perfect wine pairing extends beyond the holidays and into general food and wine snob culture.  The question I have for these people purporting perfect pairings is this: Can you define what a perfect pairing is?

Take this infographic for instance by someone at Vinepair.com.  I won’t show the image here, because it’s ridiculous, but I could probably switch every single wine/beer/liquor pairing around on their chart and no one would complain.  It’s clearly not based on anything except someone’s [unique] preferences.  Fortunately, they posted another article shortly thereafter, giving some good advice even though it was supposedly only for “Geeks”.  So, sorry casual wine drinkers, you’re going to have to stick to imperfection again this year.  (However, here’s another good article that doesn’t appear to be for geeks that may help.)

Whenever someone (expert status or not) claims a match is a perfect pairing and you really press them on why they think it’s perfect, the answer always boils down to: “Well, I liked it.”  There isn’t a metric being used that will be universally true for everyone and that’s really the crux of the issue here.  Not only do people have their own individual preferences, but the variety of what is being served at various holiday meals should negate the relevenace of any broad holiday wine and food pairing advice.  Yes, even Thanksgiving.  But I do understand the point of giving this advice; it’s to make it easier for the casual drinker to pick out some wines at the store that they can bring to dinner.  However, this is why I find it puzzling that many of these articles list specific wines down to the producer and vintage.

There are a stunning amount of wine producers in the world; so stunning that there is not a single person in the world who has tasted the offerings from them all.  If you were to pop in to a different wine store in each state and make a Venn Diagram listing all of the wines each store had, the amount of overlap would actually be quite small.  On the severely cheap end is where you find the most commonalities, because the business model of producers like Yellow Tail, Franzia, and Charles Shaw is to mass produce their product.  Region-specific wine producers though, by their very nature, can’t produce enough wine to make it available in the majority of wine shops across America (let alone the rest of the world).  So while it is great advertising for a wine producer when a wine writer from Napa or New York City annoints them as a perfect pairing for whatever holiday meal, it actually provides little to no value to a reader in Fly-Over Country (Where, surprisingly, most Americans still live) that won’t be able to pick up a bottle of that wine because their wine shop doesn’t carry it.

Therefore, if you’re a wine writer, let’s go ahead and stop the “Perfect Pairing” nonsense.  I bet I could find at least 50 other wines that would be just as good to various people.  If you’re the wine drinker though and you’re wondering what to bring to dinner this Thursday though, I will offer this:

Buy some wines you like of varying colors, bubbles, and sweetness.  The more specific they are on the label about where it comes from, generally the safer the bet.  As long as no one shows up halfway through the meal with a selection of wines that everyone unanimously prefers over the ones you brought, yours really will be perfect pairings.

Cheers.  And for those still looking for meal ideas, you can just have what I had last year.

 

 

 

This afternoon I was sifting through one of my favorite blogs: ilovecharts (because I really do) and came upon this crafty radar plot for a beer review:

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Now, the use of a radar plot isn’t exactly new in wine or beer evaluation.  It was originally used for alcohol reviews in scientific research and plenty of examples can be found in the Wine Science text book that sits on my bookshelf in my dining room (because I need easy access when I’m drinking).  This one though was created by the guy at beeritual.com and you should certainly head over there if you’re into craft beer reviews or at least for the fact that he does a great job with his photography (much prettier and a whole lot more consistent than mine) and he created his own rating system, which you see an example of above.  However, for those of you that followed my sensory series on how we experience wine (start here), you may also have questions like I did.  And so, I’ve put them together below:

QuestionsFromAWineGuyDespite these questions, I think the approach is a good one, meaning it is helpful/entertaining for craft beer consumers.  The thing about radar plots is that they look kinda cool regardless of what data points are on them or if those data points actually go together.  They are very good for comparing the plot points of one sample to another though which is kind of the whole point.  It’d be nice if some wine reviewers got a little more visual with their reviews.  As much as I enjoy prose, hyperbolic poetry does get a little old, which is probably why I write things like this.  Cheers!  Here’s to drinking nerdy.

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The start of fall marks a very important moment in the year where the leaves begin turning, the nights and mornings are crisp and cool, and the sweaters come out of storage.  Most importantly though, this is the last chance you have to make some tasty beverages that you can enjoy during the winter holiday season.  This year, I’m prepping some Aronia Berry and Blackberry Schnapps as well as some Red Plum Liqueur.  Making treats like this require 3 months at minimum to sit so you should probably drop whatever you’re doing and get started.  You’re probably wondering why I didn’t alert you to this sooner if 3 months is the minimum, but I’m a realist.  You, as well as I most likely don’t have the patience or willpower to resist cracking one of these open if it was going to sit beyond 3 months, so really I’m doing you a favor.

Fortunately prep is minimal and there is quite a bit of margin for error so you can even embark upon this project after a hard day of apple picking and tipping back the hard cider.  Before the instructions though, let’s go over a little bit of terminology.  For our purposes, let’s assume you reside in the US for this terminology lesson.

What does it all mean, Aaron???

Liqueur or Cordial: Distilled spirit infused with fruit, cream, herbs, spices, flowers, or nuts and a sweetener.

Schnapps:  Derived from the German word Schnaps, or “Swallow” in English.  Any kind of alcoholic drink with distilled spirit in it. Most bottled schnapps will usually be infused with some natural flavoring.  Does not necessarily need to be sweetened.

Therefore, liqueur or cordials are kinds of schnapps, but schnapps is not a kind of liqueur or cordial.  Now, if you are traveling to parts of northern Europe, Schnapps will likely be some infused brandy or aquavit.  Traveling to the UK and that cordial is most likely going to be some non-carbonated soda pop (Sound tasty?).

 

Recipes For Tasty Goodness

A note on which distilled spirit to use:  If you’ve ever seen a recipe that calls for neutral grain spirit, they are talking about vodka.  Before you get your flavored end-product, it all starts with a pure distillate that is about as close to being only ethanol and water that the producer could get it to (or cared to).  After that you add your flavorings to produce that whole array of colorful beverages in the liquor store.  Gin, although classified into its own category starts as vodka as well.  The difference between schnapps and all of those flavored vodkas? Not much.

Aronia Berry and Blackberry Schnapps

  • 16 oz of Aronia Berries (They’re super trendy right now so you can find them frozen or fresh in any upscale grocery store).
  • 10 oz of Blackberries
  • 750 ml of distilled spirit
  • 1 2000 ml mason jar or sealable glass container

Intense instructions: Put all of the ingredients into your glass container.  Seal. Put into a cool and dark place like your basement and do not touch it for at least 3 months.

Red Plum Liqueur

  • 6 Red Plums
  • 1/2 cup raw sugar or rock sugar
  • 750 ml of distilled spirit
  • 1 2000 ml mas jar or sealable glass container

Intense instructions: Put the plums into the jar. Put the vodka into the jar.  Pour the sugar over the top. Resist the temptation to shake or stir it. Put into a cool and dark place like your basement and do not touch it for at least 3 months.

Is Templeton Rye, really a lie?

Is Templeton Rye, really a lie?

Do you read the whiskey news? Of course you do, you whiskey slugger, you.  Given that, you’ve probably heard recently of the troubles some “Small batch” whiskey producers are going through due to some…let’s call them inaccuracies of their marketing efforts.  Your know the story: “We’re making the same whiskey that pappy used to make during the Prohibition Era.” And people have apparently enjoyed the story, because they are buying lots of these products.  Are consumers victims if they buy a product based on the marketing and not because of the product itself?  I will leave that up for debate amongst you all, but let me dive into some of the more technical aspects of these conversations that bother me a bit.

A quick summary of the situation:  Numerous distilleries of whiskey (Interestingly enough, primarily rye whiskies) have previously marketed their products as “Small batch” and are being sold with the suggestion that they are local products coming out of places such as Iowa, Utah, and Vermont.  Through some surprisingly dedicated journalism, a good handful of stories are coming out about how most of these whiskies are actually produced out of huge distilleries like MGP-I in Indiana. Amongst the general outrage, a law firm is gearing up to attack the companies that buy what we term as “bulk” whiskey from a mega-distillery, perhaps do some blending of their own and then bottle it up and sell it as their own product.  This is a practice called Private Labeling and is used in just about every product category you can imagine from food to clothing.  And I can bet at some point you’ve probably stood in a store debating between two products that were created by the same company and now have two different labels on them.  The solution being proposed is to force these private labelers to disclose on their labels where there product was distilled.

Now let’s get into some of the details.  First up, what exactly is considered to be “Small batch” anyway.  In America, we have no legal definition so someone making 254 bottles (About 1 barrel’s worth) and someone making a million bottle’s worth of whiskey could both put “Small batch” on their labels if they wanted to.  For reference, here are what some well-known producers consider to be small batch courtesy of the compiled numbers at Wikipedia:

Batch sizes

  • The company that produces Maker’s Mark says that the traditional definition is a whiskey produced using “approximately 1,000 gallons or less (20 barrels) from a mash bill of around 200 bushels of grain“.
  • Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, a producer of bourbon and rye whiskey, uses at most 12 barrels per batch for its small batch brands.
  • George Dickel uses “approximately 10 barrels” of whiskey to make each batch of its Barrel Select Tennessee Whiskey brand.
  • Jefferson’s Bourbon – Jefferson’s Reserve (“Very Small Batch”) gives the bottle number as being “x” of 2400 x 750ml bottles in the batch. This would equate to about 9 standard bourbon barrels (200.6L per barrel)

Second, let’s address the whole “local” issue.  Because we live in America, and our alcohol laws are more concerned about controlling who drinks it rather than the quality of it, if you’re drinking American whiskey (or beer for that matter), it is most likely not made from local ingredients regardless of where it is actually distilled.  Malt, that pivotal ingredient utilized for its sugars to feed to the yeast that turns it into alcohol will most likely come from the Upper Midwest.  The barley that companies like Rahr Malting and Cargill utilize can come from all over North America.  Therefore, part of the American beer or whiskey you a drinking could have actually come from Canada.

Third, as a subpoint to the above, where the whiskey is distilled (most likely utilizing its non-local ingredients) will have no bearing on the quality, flavor, or uniqueness of the end product.  Locality in American whiskey (or beer) doesn’t matter since we do not have unique regional styles (Reminder: Bourbon can be made anywhere in the U.S. as long as it’s primarily from corn).  Compare this to Scotland, whose whiskies have distinct regional styles and you can easily distinguish between a whisky (spelling due to Scottish prefernces) made in the Islays compared to one made in the Highlands.  If you truly want a local whiskey made from local ingredients, using old traditions and that maintains a distinct regional style, try Springbank.  It’s one of the few distilleries that malts its own barley.  Of course, a bottle of their 25-year old may set you back $600+.

Additionally, the act of distilling (separating the alcohol from the other content of the mash to some degree) can be done in any environmental conditions with the same result because the things that truly affect the product like the type of still you use, the materials that still is made of, the temperature control of the still, and how you blend the cuts, are not constrained by the geographic location.  The quality of the end product is a result of the quality of the ingredients and the skill that went into distilling it.  This is theoretically easier to accomplish in smaller batches, but there are some large producers (MGP-I) that do a fantastic job in large batches.

To summarize then, in America we don’t have any legal definitions as to what the term “Small batch” means, nor do we have anyway to verify how local a whiskey product is (not that it would necessarily give us an indication as to how it would taste).  Oh, I almost forgot, we don’t have any definition as to what the words “Artisinal”, “Craft”, “Handmade”, or “Traditional”.  Hopefully though, you as a consumer have seen these words on bags of potato chips and wised up that they usually mean absolutely nothing.  Ironically, in the past marketers would shy away from these terms because they usually meant the product was inferior.  Legally, we do have a definition for the phrase “Distilled by” however, which has actually never been used by any of the cited whiskey producers in the lawsuit who have instead used “Bottled by” or “Produced by” instead.

Personally, I’m all for transparent labeling of any product and forcing whiskey producers to admit that they are really just private labelers is a good step.  My own ventures recently into the Private Labeling world have given me a new perspective, but a lot of the craft distillers have pushed the envelope of having a good backstory a bit too far.  However, we should also probably create a legal phrase that a producer can use to denote that they sourced their ingredients from local or regional growers.  Until then, the true story behind a whiskey (or beer for that matter) will look more like a supply chain readout of your car manufacturer.  Of course, the wine world already has this figured out this whole labeling thing so maybe we could just look over there instead?  Or just drink more wine…but I may be biased in that.

 

 

 

Le Pot Lyonnais

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Call me strange, but I’m not one of those people who seeks out history lessons when I travel to interesting places.  I don’t mean to admonish those who do; in fact I enjoy a good literary romp through history in book form or lecture, but I try to keep those sorts of things before or after a visit because I’m much too busy trying to not look too much like a tourist*.  Perhaps the notion of not sticking out is somewhat vain, but I do prefer to linger in a spot, watch people, and perhaps find a good story.  One particular story, which I picked up in Lyon, France just recently I will share with you as it is rather short.  If it helps your imagination, you can picture a grizzled old Frenchman orating over a bottle of wine as he tells you the story of the Pot Lyonnais.

For reference, it will help to know that a standard wine bottle is 750ml or 75cl.

As we all know, wine has been part of French culture for some time.  France has also historically declared that the other two pillars of civilization in conjunction with wine are silk and olives (mostly for oil).  So while many Americans think France just wasn’t up to snuff to being the kings of the new world, the French might contend that since America failed to reliably produce any of these three items in the century following initial European settlement, they really didn’t want it anyway.  The Pot Lyonnais came about because of two of these luxury goods: wine and silk.

The Pot Lyonnais

The Pot Lyonnais

Much before the 19th century, Lyon had established itself as the dominant silk producer of the world, but our story is more concerned with the 19th century.  While the French would later cede production of silk cocoon harvesting to China and Inda, they were and perhaps still are the undisputed masters of making fine silk fabrics.  As with every prosperous industry there was a need for a lot of skilled labor to create these fabrics since robots had not yet been invented.  In a fashion that can perhaps only be described as French, the “Canuts” or weavers as the workers were called were entitled to receive 50cl of wine every week paid for by their employer.  The workers received their 50cl of wine in a glass bottle which was poured from a 1 liter bulk container and became known as the Pot Lyonnais.  However, as we have all experienced with airlines, all “free” things must slowly be taken away from you.

Heavily bottomed to prevent drunk people from knocking them over.

Heavily bottomed to prevent drunk people from knocking them over.

The employers, perhaps a bit miffed at not being able to write off their own personal wine comsumption as a business expense, decided to trim that 50cl of wine down to 46cl.  [Looking at the pot, you’ll see the thick glass at the bottom taking up 4cl of volume.]  Therefore, they’d be able to keep 16cl or just over 5oz (which is what we consider a normal glass of wine today) for every 4 Pots they poured out.  Of course, their glasses were about half the size of ours today so really a glass for the boss came every 2 pots.

And that is why you will find your wine being served in the Pot Lyonnais at most of the Bouchons (cafe/restaurants) in Lyon.

 

*There are exceptions as always.  The silk museum/tour in Lyon was especially fascinating.

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My ears perked up as two middle-aged traveling businessmen started up a conversation with an attractive young woman sitting next to me.  I was in a wine-themed restaurant in the Denver International Airport on layover and passing the time by having a glass with some food.

“The only thing I’m hoping to get out of the wine is a little buzz!” the heavier set of the two who turned out to be from Seattle jovially announced after they were quizzing their new temporary friend about the wine flight she had ordered.  They then proceeded to embark upon an honest conversation about the “proper” ways they have heard of to hold a glass of wine.  At this point I almost interjected with an “Actually….” and then followed by something that I’m sure would have sounded pedantic, but I held my tongue.  Everything in their conversation about wine had a revelatory tone about it as if they were trying to figure out a way to pass themselves off as part of a storybook bourgeois class. To them, drinking wine took a certain degree of etiquette that they weren’t quite confident they could achieve.

To me, as someone who has spent the past 5+ years traveling around the country to both infinitesimally small and large towns alike, the overheard conversation exemplifies the current state of American wine culture.  We’re aware of wine, it is certainly in option in our beverage repertoire, but its primary role is either that of an intoxicating beverage or a declarative part as to some status of class (Mostly temporary as in during a fancy meal) in our minds.  We’re also pretty confident that there are a number of people who know how to drink wine in a more sophisticated way and are judging us when we don’t.  Yes, there are those on either side of the spectrum: Those who use wine in moderation to enhance the meals they eat on one end, and then those who don’t drink wine at all on the other.  However, most middle and upper class Americans have a relationship with wine that is very similar to the caricature of a pubescent teenage male: awkward yet really, really wanting to impress someone.

Recently, I have been finishing up Thomas Pinney’s The History of Wine in America volumes which passionately, if not exhaustively details wine’s place in this country from colonization to the past decade.  In terms of wine culture, the takeaway lesson from history is that the founders of this country and its early denizens had every intention of making wine an integral part of society because that was the type of culture they had come from.  However, due to both a lack of knowledge of how to grow grapes of European origin in America and a lack of native grapes suitable to making the quality of wine people were accustomed to, wine was never there from the start to be a consistent feature in everyday lives.  Once we figured out how to grow grapes of European origin on the west coast we had to wait until Prohibition passed and then some until we finally had a stable and widely available source of wine produced in this country.   Even more recently, we are finally figuring out how to coax some of the native grapes into producing material of high enough quality to make wine that we are accustomed to with the European ones.

Yet, some context is needed before we get too humble about our country’s wine endeavors.  Let’s keep in mind that thousands of years have passed from the time a human happened upon some fermenting grapes (Intoxicating, but I’m sure of dubious quality) to the regular production of wines of a standard that was originally set in Europe (Yes, primarily by the French).  During that between-time was a lot of selecting of the best vines in every generation, cross-breeding intentionally or not, and trying vines out in different locations to get what we considered to be the perfect balance of acid, sugar, and the mix of flavor-related molecules known as phenolics.  In America, we have only have around 300 years of history with wine.  In that time we have figured out where to plant European varieties to produce wines that not only compete with, but can best wines made anywhere else in the world in international competitions.  Also, our hybridization programs of our native grapes has gotten to the point where the wines produced from some of them are not only merely drinkable, but can even be confused for European varietals.  Learning from the timeless and tireless work of others and innovating upon it is the American way [Chest Thump].

Yet, despite the fact that we can produce world-class wines, wine is still not an integral part of our culture.  Why? It isn’t, as some snobbishly think, a difference between the culturally affluent city life and country bumpkins.  We don’t vacation in wine city, do we (Although it sounds like a place where I want to be)? Historically speaking, I would say it mostly has to do with proximity.  How many of us can say that they live in an area where or near where wine has been produced for the past 50 years or so; let alone 100 or 500 years?  Again, you have to go visit wine country and it’s usually a hefty drive or flight away.  Wine history buffs will know that wine has been produced in some form or fashion nearly everywhere in the country since its inception, but it has only been in places like California and more recently, Washington and Oregon that it could be considered a viable industry.  These places were able to do something no one else in the country could: produce cheap wine in decent quantity and quality and get local people to drink it.  Until most of the country can achieve this goal, wine will not become an integral part of the American culture.

Much could be said about the Temperance Movement in the late 1800s and early 1900s and the ensuing Prohibition that followed, but I think that grip is starting to fade.  The Temperance Movement in its original state was not about banning alcohol; it was about getting people (mostly men) to not drink liquor excessively and go home and beat their wives.  The founders and initial proponents of the movement had no concern over moderate consumption of wine and beer. The radicals that took over the movement are a different story though and the fractured alcohol laws that can be seen across the nation are certainly a hurdle to America’s future healthy relationship with alcohol.  Despite what some say, it’s not that you don’t drink or you do (Which would mean: excessively).  Moderate consumption of wine; the generally proven to be part of a health culture kind, is still an option.

…and then most Americans simply say, “So what?”  Why do American wine lovers always seem so evangelical about getting other Americans to drink wine?  While I’m sure I cannot speak for everybody, for me it is simply the desire to have a wonderful and shared experience with the people around me.  I can and do enjoy a good glass of wine with a meal and find enjoyment in it, but that pales in comparison to the times where I can say, “Hey guys! Come look at this thing! Don’t you think it’s great?!?!” And someone simply says, “Yes”.  I’m tired of wine being the domain of those who choose to adopt it as something that makes them supposedly more elite than everyone else.  Wine, while being infinitely complex in the experience it can create, is at its heart a very simple thing: Tasty fermented grape juice.

I could certainly attempt to argue on economical grounds in terms of the wine industry’s addition to the local economy or the greenness of not having to ship as much wine to places that already produce their own.  These in themselves are logical arguments that support the investment of making wine just about everywhere in the United States (Excepting Alaska’s milk wine.  They may try and export it because no one wants it there.).  I could also argue on health grounds, since wine drinking cultures rank highest in longevity and enjoyment of life, but let’s be honest: I just want to share the experience I have with wine with other people.

It is also about world-view though:  The culture of having wine with a meal encourages moderation and relaxed sociability.  Both of those items Americans could probably use a little more of.  Forgive me then if I want those around me to take a step back, have a sip of wine, and enjoy the moment they are in with the people they are with.  When it comes down to it though, no one, and I really do mean no one, thinks that’s a bad thing.

Your dreams of procuring me AND helping out a great charity are finally coming true!  On Saturday, March 29 at 5pm Emerging Opportunities for Sustainability (EOS) International is hosting their Cheers for a better future event at the 508 Bar in downtown Minneapolis.  This is your opportunity to support EOS International’s mission of providing low-cost technologies to rural families in the developing world.  There’s also a lot of really cool stuff to bid on during the silent auction, including an intro wine lesson for up to 10 people by yours truly (with wine).Check out the list below and I hope to see you there!

EOS Internationl Mission:

To provide underserved communities with access to low-cost appropriate technologies that generate income and improve health. EOS International will accomplish this by implementing our core technologies, promoting and teaching these technologies to both development organizations and rural villages how to implement them, and developing technology kits to distribute as a way to extend our impact to other areas where we are not currently working.

 

Donors providing items up for bid:

Aaron Berdofe (That’s me!)
Blue Door Pub
Bryant Lake Bowl
Christmas Point
Cowles Performing Arts Center
Digi International
Erte Dining
George and the Dragon
Greg McGrath
Jessup Cellars
Joe Dunlay
Linda and Jarrod Peterson/ Yellow Tree Theater
Minnesota Twins
Marlen Kemmet
Sabai Body Temple
Slade Kemmet
Summit Brewing Company
Three Rivers Park Driving Range
Two Sisters Bakery
Wes Meier

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