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Sunday, October 30, 2011

A Day in Napa, part 2

In my previous post, I discussed in brief detail what we saw when we were walked through the initial stages of vendage and vinification, the stage we saw today were the sorting, pumping into barrels and preparation for the fermentation process as well as some wines that were already in the cold ferment, warm ferment and even in a closed barrel fermentation. All of this is quite fascinating to a person who really wonders about how our food and drink reach us. But, that is not what this is all about for most people. It is about the experience of being in Napa. Here are a few more images from today.

The winery, Alpha Omega, that is performing the process of vendage and vinification. A bit about those terms, we use the terms harvest, crush and winemaking to describe what goes into making of wine, but, the these terms, while quite descriptive, lack a little magic. The French use the term vendage for the harvest and crush, while vinification refers to the act of making the wine. I really like the idea of a little magic in our language.

The view from the winery...

A vignette from inside the wine tasting room...

The middle one is mine, you may all share the others...

And a rarity from what I have seen in many wineries, a generous and beautiful picnic area...

I wonder if they will let me use this one day, I know more about cooking in one of these than of vendage...

Another shot of the waste product of the vinification process, beautiful compost...

There are always flowers and the son of a rose grower will always top to smell the roses...

And finally, what it is all about a little wine tasting, in a beautiful tasting room, there is something about the light through a line of wine glasses that just fascinates me...

And then there were these glasses that suddenly had wine in them...

And there is what it is all about, the wine, in a beautiful glass. Although I love beer and the incredible ability to move something as simple a grain and water into a wonderful beverage, there is nothing that speaks to place and art as wine. The process of vendage and vinification being used by the winemakers at Alpha Omega focuses on using a relatively new technique for Calirfornia, that of fermenting in barrel. This is a technique that is showing great promise in managing and integrating tannins, increasing extaction, setting and holding color in the wine and improving the texture of the wine. Here is my take on the wines we tasted, and what I hope Arleigh and David's wine can achieve in a few years.

All of the Cabernet sauvignon showed incredibly supple tannins, great color and extraction and excellent texture. The flavors were classically Napa Valley, the acidity was bracing, the wines being built for aging and not jammy. The Era Cabernet had a very distinct and curious mid-palate where it became notably subtle and earthy before turning on in the finish. I can't really remember that effect before.

There was a late harvest white, which showed all the hallmarks of a Borytised wine, but, with a lighter sweetness and texture that would make it an excellent dessert option on a warm summer night. It was as good, in a lot of ways as Dolce or a good sauterne, but, ligther and racier.

Finally, we were given a taste of a wine that was a blended Rhone varietal, that showed a funky, earthy nose, reminiscient of a true Chateau neuf de pape, flowing into a taste that was very much what I think of when I think of Rhone-style wines.

In general, today was a great experience and I think portends well for the as yet unnamed wine. In the meanwhile, I think the wine at Alpha Omega and the winery itself will stay on my radar going forward.

A day in Napa

Today, I was fortunate enough to be invited by my friend Arleigh Taylor to visit a winery where he has a little project in the works, Arleigh and another friend, David Friend, have decided to try making a couple of barrels of wine, a lofty project. As many who know me understand, I have been a wine drinker and student of wine for many years now, and this project holds a great deal of interest to me, as it gives me interesting access to the making of a new label. Yes, Arleigh and David are making a wine to be produced and sold. They are nuts.

We started with a look at a truck full of grapes, one ton of which belongs to the guys, and will form the juice that eventually becomes their wine. These are not the bulk grapes you see being piled into 3 ton tugs, these are all hand picked and placed in small plastic trays, the grapes are protected from crushing. They are shipped in an enclosed trailer and do not get baked in the sun. Harvest had started during the night, and the grapes were at the winery early in the morning. We arrived at 10:45am with the line already in full production. We received a very interestingt walk through of the process, a rather unique process where the wine will be fully produced in barrel fermentation, mostly in open fermentation at that.

The truck of grapes:

The Initial sort, done by hand, whole berries (grapes) with the stems and leaves sorted out

The Second Sort, looking for small stem pieces and bad berries

The Final Sort, there is certainly a great deal of care to make sure only good berries make it in.

Here are some grapes, staged for sorting, you can see the tight clusters, bright color and tight skins

This is what doesn't make the cut, I like the colors of fall

The barrels, these happen to actually be Burgundy barrels, but, what's in a name?

Grapes in a barrel, ready to start the journey to wine

Being pumped into the barrel for the first time

Here is what that looks like, just before punch down for the first time, look at all the bubbling

Staged before going into the cold ferment area, as you can see, nothing more than a shower cap like covering, not sealed in the least

Here is the cold ferment room, along with a little dry ice to cool things down and slow the ferment

From here, the barrels then move to a heating tent and ultimately to a warm fermentation room

A few of the barrels we saw had actually been open fermented, then had the barrel head replaced, while the wine was still in the barrel

There was more to the visit, but, that is enough for one post.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Commis and Emotion

I recently had the opportunity to dine at Commis, one of the most lauded restaurants in the East Bay, helmed by a young chef that has been identified as 'one to watch'. I had very interesting dining companions, it was a lovely night and I was certainly looking forward to what I expected to be an interesting fine dining experience. What we experienced was a incredible example of technique and foucs by a chef and kitchen that produced some very good food. The service was also exactly what I would hope for a casual fine dining restaurant. There were a couple of things that did fall short for me. And the meal with pairing was costly enough, that one of the flaws is glaring, the other less so for most people.

The obvious flaw, the pairings were simply uninspired to my palate. An interesting aspect of food and wine pairings is that it is possible to take a great dish, pair it with a excellent wine and end up with a poor pairing. Throughout the dinner, with the exception of the beef dish, I felt the pairings were just not well considered. I found each choice of wine to be interesting, just seemingly not a good complement to the dish it was presented with. I look for several factors in making a pairing, amongst them are acidity, texture, level of sweetness and balance of flavors. The thing I most noticed was a disjointed level of acidity in a couple of pairings, this also affects texture on the palate, as a more acidic wine can effect a lighter mouthfeel. I found this seemed to be the biggest issue for me. There were several instances where the wine just did not counterpoint the food enough.

Obviously, there is a personal preference here, as most Americans do not like acidity and minerality in their wines and perhaps most folks will like the pairings. I was excited that none of the pairings were Cabernet or Pinot.

A bigger issue for me is that I place a lot of importance on the emotional response, the intellect and wit that is a part of fine dining. When a chef really speaks to me, he satisfies more than just my interest in addressing my hunger, or my love of technqiue in the kitchen. The food satisfies a deeper emotional need and engages me at an intellectual level where wit and memory meet. It has a soul. This is where I seemed to not connect at Commis. It was like a beautiful woman (or man if that works) that can't maintain a conversation. It looks great, you admire the beauty, but, there has to be more to make for a truly interesting dialogue. Food should be like that, it should make you want more, to engage the conversation, to understand it more, I just couldn't get there with Commis. It was beautiful, stunning, delicious. But, I doubt there will be a second date.

To be fair, this is about me and my approach to food as much as it is about Commis and what the food or pairings might be for someone else. I suspect that many folks really do want delicious food beautifully presented that speaks to their hunger more than anything else. I can certainly understand that, and as I said, the kitchen and staff were excellent. I heard Ferran Adria once refer to this aspect of food as being like seeing a painting by Picasso, some are brought to tears, others just walk by. I love Picasso's paintings, for they have soul.

I have recently, by this I mean the last 10 years, really become more aware of the emotional aspect of dining and how important that role in food really is. Our food memories are so powerful and last so long, it can make an old man young. I have experienced this so rarely, in perfect realization, that it is almost 'Grail' like in it's presence. I can remember a bottle of wine that elicited in my emotional mind a profound effect, bringing me back to when I was a little boy following my dad at the flower market. It was on my 40th birthday, and it was the most profound, singular, emotional experience I had ever had at a table to that point. I remember crying in the restaurant. I could feel and smell the cold, wet concrete floor of the flower market in the minerality, the crazy mixture of flowers, spicy carnations, floral roses, musky camellias all swirling in the aroma, the old man smell redolent in the undertones of the muskiness that a great aged wine should have, even the hints acridity of smoke and tobacco, all a heady rememberance of a better time.

But, to think that food has to be rare and perfect, expensive and elite, is to mistake desire for emotion, greed for values. I remember the most important food I ever cooked, we made a New Year's feast, it would be the second to last New Year's meal my dad would eat. I remember how my dad ate, how he seemed to tear up and couldn't stop talking about the food between bites. Somehow my sister and I had hit on a few of recipes that perfectly evoked his memory of his mom's cooking. I doubt they were the same, but, they spoke emotionally to him. The food was very simple, rather poorly plated, it contained nothing fancy, but, it spoke to a very core level of emotion, it spoke to an old man of his mother's love and caring. If I never cook another decent meal, I know that we fed my dad's soul that night. This is what a great meal can be.

These experiences really changed how I view food and what a successful cook really is. The idea of creating food that transcends time and place, to evoke both visual and emotional responses, while still nourishing and feeding the body has to be the ultimate goal of any great cook. It would be ridiculous to expect a restaurant to achieve this kind of culinary challenge, but, there are levels, there can be excitement and wonder, humor and grace in how food is cooked and presented. Sadly, I just could not find that in all of the technical perfection I found at Commis.
In some ways, it speaks to a fundamental flaw in the way Foodies have framed the nature of how we eat and partake of food, of our perceptions of dining and eating. They flock to the latest and greatest, not so much out of intellectual or emotional consideration, but, because it seems to be the place to be and the thing to do. Like a birder's list, to be the first, or the last, to just have the longest list of places considered by others to be incredible. A focus on ingredients and technique is great, it certainly is something I appreciate, but it tends to block the other aspects of how we consider food. Indeed, there is an overemphasis on food in general in our modern culture, the excesses that our lifestyle and birthright have granted us, and perhaps most of our life, food should be the fuel that serves us. But, from time to time, when the promise is there, I want a little more.