Oyster season begins


Every mermaid knows when oyster season begins
Jonathan Swift is quoted as having said, “He was a bold man that first ate an oyster.” But any oyster lover will tell you they are absolutely delicious.

In the early 19th century, oysters were cheap and mainly eaten by the working class. In New York, oystermen were skilled cultivators of their beds, which provided employment for hundreds of workers and nutritious food for thousands. Eventually, rising demand exhausted many of the beds. To increase production, they introduced foreign species, which brought disease, and when combined with erosion and other environmental factors, most of the beds were destroyed by the early 20th century. This scarcity increased prices, converting them from their original role as working class food to their current status as an expensive delicacy.

The old adage says to never eat oysters in months without an “R” in them, primarily, the warmer summer months—May through August. If you are a fresh oyster lover and haven’t had nary a one since last April, you should know the old saying is a myth whose basis in truth is that oysters are much more likely to spoil in May, June, July, and August. Plus, the summer months are the time of year they devote their energy for reproduction and become less meaty and less tasty. During summer or spawning season, the oyster becomes slimy and milky.  They are still edible but the taste and texture are quite unappealing.

Since September is the first month with an “R” and it has been designated National Oyster Month, and, if you’ve been paying attention, oyster season has already begun on the Shore, with both Asbury Park and Red Bank hosting oyster festivals.

So, what is it about these little bivalve critters that people love so much?

Well, oysters are an excellent source of zinc, iron, calcium, selenium as well as Vitamin A and Vitamin B12. Oysters are low in calories; one dozen raw oysters contain approximately 110 calories, and are considered the healthiest when eaten raw on the half shell.

Okay, you’ve probably heard oysters are considered to be an aphrodisiac. That “myth” may not bee too far from the truth, American and Italian researchers found oysters were rich in amino acids that trigger increased levels of sex hormones and the high zinc content aids the production of testosterone.

Contrary to popular opinion, not all oysters are created equal (there are several species of oyster) nor do they all taste the same. Some are brinier, some are creamier, some are leaner, some are fatter, and some even have a “fruity” taste, vaguely suggestive of cucumber and melons. Some of the differences in taste have to do with the species, but it primarily has more to do with the temperature of the waters in which they are harvested; as well as the oyster’s fabled muscle, which constantly opens and closes to allow a flow of water and nutrients.

Perhaps the best known oysters in this area are East Coast Bluepoints (although Bluepoints technically come only from New York’s Long Island). These oysters can be found from Nova Scotia all the way down to the gulfstream waters of Florida and Texas. Northeast coastal oysters tend to have a longer shaped shell and belong to the Crassostrea virginica family. You will find these oysters are leaner in meatiness, with a moderately briny, salty, steely flavor, delicious for eating raw or with no more than a squeeze of lemon or splash of Mignonette sauce (a blend of fresh chopped shallot, mixed peppercorn, dry white wine and lemon juice or sherry vinegar).

In restaurants and markets these oysters are commonly sold by their points of origin—such as Long Islands (the original Bluepoints), Wellfleets (from Cape Cod), Delawares and Bristols (Maine). You might even find oysters that are similar to these from the coast off Eastern Canada sold by place names such as “Novys” (from Nova Scotia), Malpecques (Prince Edward Island) and Caraquets (New Brunswick).

Due to their lean and minerally taste, the easiest wine match for Northeastern oysters is probably any bone dry white with perceptively minerally or flinty qualities: ideally, the pure Sauvignon Blancs from France’s Loire River, most commonly bottled as Sancerre or Pouilly Fumé, and sometimes as Cheverny, Quincy or Menetou-Salon. Two good choices to look for are:

Chateau de Sancerre Sancerre this has the typical Sauvignon Blanc nose with floral accents and smokey, flinty nuances. The flavors are crisp and fresh with distinctive, subtle citrusy fruit.

Pascal Jolivet Chateau du Nozay is one of the most storied properties in Sancerre. This wine combines minerality, softness, roundness, generosity and exotic fruit making it a wonderful accompaniment to fish, seafood, white meat (chicken, veal) and goat cheese.

While they are certainly acidic enough, Sauvignon Blancs of New Zealand and California are not quite as ideal since they tend to be fruitier and not as stony, minerally or flinty in flavor. One of the best and lower-priced alternatives to Loire River Sauvignon Blancs is  from the Western Loire Valley around the city of Nantes: the light and crisply dry Muscadet Sèvre et Maine such as the Chereau-Carre Chateau de Chasseloir Muscadet Sevre-et-Maine Sur Lie. It is a mouthful, but what a delicious one with its lemon peel, honeysuckle and mineral flavors. With its nice tangy finish, this $10 wine a fine companion to shellfish and oysters in particular.  You may have to search a little harder to find it locally, but it is a true delight.

Other great French classic choices include Chablis such as Olivier Leflaive Chablis AC Les Deux Rives. The signature cuvée Chablis is an outstanding value true to the character of Chablis with all of the mineral and flint characteristics of a more expensive Chablis. Or you can try a Joseph Drouhin Vaudon Chablis Premier Cru with mouth-filling white peach, tangerine, lemon, and minerals flavors. This is an affordable 93 point Premier Cru white Burgundy that is just lovely.

If Chablis is a little above the price range, a white Burgundy such as Macon Villages or Pouilly Fuisse could be just right. The Louis Jadot Macon – Villages 2010 is quite lively, dry and easy to drink. It is a charming fruity wine with a floral scent and a hint of lemon. Drink it chilled with a range of foods including hors d’oeuvres, oysters, fried or grilled fish, sea food, goat’s milk cheese or poultry.

Joseph Drouhin Pouilly-Fuisse 2009 has floral and fruity aromas dominated by almond and ripe grapes. This wine is refreshingly pleasant, ethereal in its lightness and marries well with hors d’oeuvres, delicately flavored charcuterie, oysters, mussels and any other shellfish.

If you don’t want a French wine. look for a wine with the word  trocken (“dry”) or halbtrocken (“half dry”) on the label. These white wines are made from Germany’s Riesling grape, which can retain a zesty, slatey-mineral flavor. At only 9% to 11% alcohol, these Rieslings sweep across the palate like a light, lilting, perfumey breeze, sweetening the taste of oysters with their natural lemon-lime acidity. One inexpensive bone-dry Riesling to look for is the Selbach Riesling Dry (Fish Label), from the Mosel region of Germany. The little orange-red fish on the label is there to show it pairs well with seafood. The flavors are classic: bright and fresh green-apple with a long and tart dry finish.

Other good choices for long and lean Northeastern oysters are Spain’s flowery and flinty dry whites made from the Albarino grape like: Paco & Lola Albarino 2010 from Rias Baixas. This wine is clean and textured with an exotic palate of pineapple and mango intermingled with refreshing citrus flavors amplified by minerally accents. This is a silky-smooth, full-bodied wine with a long, lingering finish.

Where Paco & Lola is full-bodied and seductive, Burgans Albarino borders on opulence. It has a lovely bouquet of white flowers, hazelnut, peach pit, and mineral with a surprisingly complex palate for the price.

The lean, briny oysters of the Northeast, however, are not to be confused with those of the decidedly warmer South East and Gulf Coast waters — where that muscle is most put to work. All that exercise makes the American East and Gulf Coast oysters the leanest in meatiness, with less of that creamy, fruity taste savored by true-blue oyster lovers. Florida’s Apalachicolas and Mississippi’s Emerald Points are not only leaner, but also duller, flabbier or “swampy” tasting — better suited for use in cooked oyster dishes like: Oysters Rockefeller; oyster po’ boys or stuffed into “carpetbagger” steaks, than eating raw.

The oysters found off the Western coasts of Canada and the American Northwest, in the coldest waters, live a more contented life, working that muscle much less and thereby developing a plumper, juicier, fruitier taste mingling with more distinctively briny, flinty flavors. These little guys would love to be paired with a Jorge Ordonez Botani. Botani is moscatel from Andalusia, Spain and this delightfully aromatic white displays a nose of mineral, spring flowers, acacia, and a hint of tropical aromas. Although the aromatics suggest sweetness, the wine is very dry, and very fruity. There are citrus and fine herbaceous notes and an unexpected mineral edge that is so refreshing. The finish is exceptionally fine and lingering and fresh.

Remember the bivalves are available all year, but they’re best eaten in the colder months from September to April and, like fine wine, raw oysters have complex flavors that vary greatly among varieties and regions: sweet, salty, earthy, or even melon. The texture is soft and fleshy, but crisp on the palate.

When buying oysters, avoid ones that are open or don’t close right away after you lightly tap them on a surface. That means the oysters are dead. Make sure live oysters smell like the sea and prepare them your favorite way.

So, whether you have them raw, steamed, fried, baked, stuffed or made into a sandwich, or topped with Tobasco sauce, cocktail sauce, butter and lemon, garlic or vinegar, oysters are always satisfying. Most people either love them or hate them, but they’ve definitely got something going for them if they’ve been around for so long.

Gin goes to the dogs—Bulldog Gin, that is.


Once the weather warms up you start seeing white everywhere and as the patios at eating and drinking establishments fill with thirsty customers, the drinks run clear.

Gin tends to be the one spirit that spikes during hot weather. It’s no wonder – the light- bodied spirit flavored with juniper berries and other botanicals pairs amazingly well with citrus and plays the starring role in many a crisp and refreshing cocktail: The Martini, the Tom Collins and the Negroni, plus countless others.

The common ingredient, gin, comes in a variety of styles – from London Dry Gin to Old Tom Gin, which is lightly sweetened and rarely available since its popularity tanked in the 19th century. Gin s a spirit that has been around for a long time, in the 11th century, monks were using juniper berries to flavor distilled spirits. But gin in the recognizable form of today wasn’t produced until the 17th century in England and was named for either the French or Dutch words for juniper (it depends on who you ask).

However, gin didn’t really come into its own until some mad, thirsty British soldier stationed in the tropics paired it with tonic in the 1700s to mask the bitter flavor of the tonic water they drank to ward off malaria. The bitter quinine in tonic water and the herbal, almost green notes of the gin are the perfect blend of flavors.

Brightened by a little lime, gin can be the start of a perfect drink to sip in the sun, waiting for your burger at a barbecue or picnic, sitting on that beach chair or enjoying happy hour. It’s been said that this drink does its part to  ward off scurvy and deadly mosquito-borne illnesses while tasting   like liquid summer in a tall glass.

While the juniper spirit has always been a bestseller—even through prohibition, when it was produced in bathtubs across the country—the rebirth of the cocktail has spawned literally hundreds of different gins on the market, running the gamut fromclaiming deep cultural heritage and tradition to the irreverent. Some gins are distilled in the traditional manner – starting as grain alcohol and going through a second distillation with the juniper berries and botanicals used as flavoring. Cheaper “compound gins” don’t go through this second distillation and are just flavored with botanical essences.

Basically there are three types: Traditional, Old World and Modern—each refers to a different style of Gin.

Traditional Gins include Beefeater, Bombay Sapphire, Tanqueray and Plymouth. These spirits are infused with a range of botanicals, and usually include: orris root, citrus peels, angelica and, of course, juniper berries, which provide the primary flavor.

Old-World Gins are based on the centuries-old malty Dutch genever. Genever on its own is hard to find these days but it is the base of many of the recipes now associated with dry British gin.

Modern Gins must, by law,  incorporate juniper, but many distillers today are using a host of exotic ingredients to accent the juniper berry. The Scottish Hendrick’s is perhaps the most famous, with its blend of cucumber and rose, while the French Citadelle uses 19 different botanicals, including nutmeg, cumin and cardamom. Beefeater 24’s recipe features both Chinese and Japanese green teas. But one of the most intriguing gins on the market today, is Bulldog.

Bulldog Gin
Gin is a perennial summer favorite and Bulldog gin is more exotic and smoother than many currently on the market.

Bulldog Gin is quadruple distilled in London and flavored with the usual juniper berries and traditional botanicals, but the list continues with: Dragon eye, lotus, poppy, coriander, almond, licorice, cassia, lemon, angelica, and a slew of herbs and spices. It is amazingly smooth and balanced, and the assorted flavors work in combination to deliver an herbal tone that shines through tonic and lime for beauteous a drink.

Anshuman Vohra, CEO and founder of Bulldog,  says the attention of mixologists is key to any gin’s success: “The creative cocktail movement allows people to be introduced to gin’s versatility and experience it as an alternative to other spirits. In fact, our suggested spring/summer cocktails feature a bevy of ways to spice up the gin & tonic using ingredients such as lemon curd, licorice or lavender—each represents a different botanical infused in Bulldog Gin—which helps expand the consumer’s palate for drinking gin.”

John Castiglione who represents Bulldog in New Jersey says that “Bulldog is a classier, smoother gin that mixes into more than martinis.”

He recommends a perrennial summer favorite: London Lemonade. An incredibly simple and delicious drink to make for summer lounging. Simply take 2 oz. Bulldog Gin and  4 oz. Fresh Lemonade and combine the two ingredients in a cocktail glass with ice. Garnish with a lemon wedge and sit back to sip and enjoy.

If you are in the mood for something a little more classic, he says you can’t go more classic than a Bulldog Gimlet. For this drink you will need to blend 1-1/2 oz. Bulldog Gin with 1 oz. Lime Juice and a  1/2 oz. Simple Syrup. Shake all ingredients with ice. Strain into a cocktail glass filled with ice and enjoy.

Bulldog gin also knows how to turn a phrase, with delicious drinks sporting names like Plumdog Millionaire, Kir Monarcy or Rhubarb Tuesday, to name a few, you’re certain to enjoy a evening party or picnic with Bulldog and friends.

Summer Chillin’ Cocktails


It’s the season of lemonade stands and porch swings and lounging with friends over frosty glasses of ice-cold refreshment.

Summer is the perfect time for cocktails. Actually we say that about every season. But summer is special, it’s time to find your favorite summer quencher and take a long, cool sip.

It’s no secret that summertime brings out the tippler in many of us. Last year, Americans drank over 420 million gallons of spirits and nearly 140 million of that from May to August, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. December remains the big winner for alcohol consumption, but the longest spike is during the summer months.

That sure is a lot of screwdrivers.

While sweet iced tea and lemonade might seem like all-American refreshers, this year, there are all sorts of new variations in summer drinks—from a recently sampled bacon-infused bourbon to drinks using curried syrup as an ingredient. Mixologists are getting “as far out as possible” without sacrificing a lick of taste or imagination.

Since Americans drink nearly 100 million glasses of iced tea each year, we thought we’d start with an  Arnold Palmer. An Arnold Palmer traditionally is non-alcoholic consisting of half iced tea and half lemonade and is named for the golfer Arnold Palmer. It is often called a half and half. If you want to make your Arnold Palmer more “spirited” you can use one of the new sweet tea vodkas like Jerimiah Weed Sweet Tea vodka instead of regular iced tea. but be forewarned, these ice tea vodkas are strong and do not taste alcoholic at all, you may find they go down waaay too easy.

Another twist on lemonade that is popular is forgoing the iced tea flavor all-together and substituting an ounce or  two of that great all-American whiskey, Bourbon. Lemonade and bourbon over ice is quite refreshing and tastes great!

So are you thirsty? I have a few recently sampled summer cocktails that are fun and easy to make, but if you think this list is going to be made up of gin and tonics, watermelon punch, and seabreezes, think again.

Champagne Punch

This bubbly punch is just right for cocktail hour.
Ingredients:

  • 3 tablespoons Grenadine
  • 3 tablespoons Cointreau
  • 2 tablespoons Brandy
  • 1-3/4 cups Champagne
  • Raspberries, apples, or other seasonal fruit

Directions:
Fill a small ice bucket halfway with ice. Pour Grenadine, Cointreau, Brandy, and Champagne over ice. Stir gently, and ladle punch into 2 wide-mouthed stemmed glasses. Garnish punch with raspberries, apples, or any other fruit in season. Makes 2

Nothing beats a watermelon martini on a summer day! This is a versatile martini, meaning you can use almost any of the white spirits (e.g. gin, vodka, tequila, rum). Bacardi Limon adds just the right amount of lemon and sweetness to complement the watermelon. This drink goes well with sweeter foods. If you prefer a more sour, robust martini, try adding some watermelon schnapps. Personally, I like a more subtle, fresh one.

The Sparkling Watermelon

Ingredients

  • 4 ounces watermelon puree, or juice
  • 1 ½ ounces Bacardi Limon rum
  • ½ ounce watermelon schnapps (optional)
  • Splash of lemon juice
  • Sparkling Wine
  • Basil sprig and watermelon wedge, for garnish

Directions.
Combine watermelon puree, Bacardi Limon and lemon juice in a cocktail shaker filled with ice and shake vigorously. Strain into a chilled martini glass,  top with sparkling wine and garnish a sprig of basil and a watermelon wedge.
If you like a stronger basil flavor, muddle the basil in the shaker before adding the other ingredients.

Note: To make watermelon puree, chop the watermelon into one-inch pieces, de-seed and blend. One medium-sized watermelon makes about four cups of puree.

I can’t think of a summer without having at least one drink made with tequila, but forget about Tequila Sunrises or my old standby the Margarita and try my newest favorite tequila special:

Metropolis Cocktail

Ingredients:

  • 1.5 oz of inocente Tequila
  • 2.5 oz of White Cranberry juice
  • 1/2 oz of Rose’s Lime Syrup
  • Garnish 2 or 3 frozen cranberries
  • Shake well, served up in a cocktail or martini glass

This last drink is perfect when served with spicier foods, it’s a Martini, it’s Sangria, it’s a Sangritini!

Sangritini

Ingredients:

  • 1 Orange slice
  • 1 Lemon slice
  • 1 Lime slice
  • ½ ounce Citrus or Orange vodka
  • ½ ounce Cointreau
  • 2-½ ounces Merlot wine (inexpensive)
  • 1 ounce Pineapple juice
  • Cherry, for garnish
  • Orange wheel, for garnish

Directions
Mash together the fruit slices with the vodka and cointreau in a cocktail shaker. Add the red wine, pineapple juice and ice and shake vigorously. Strain into a chilled martini glass. Garnish with a cherry and an orange wheel.

Enjoy!

Red White and “The Grill”


Conventional wine wisdom often highlights young, fresh white wines with plenty of crisp acidity for summertime, but reds can make their mark for summer. They work best especially around the grill with red meat.

If you are having a backyard barbecue, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to pairing wines with your grilled classics, but there are guidelines to help you get the perfect pairing. Just remember,  pairing wine with grilled foods is a forgiving task.

Generally, red wines go well with grilled red meats – basic burgers, steaks, ribs and more. These meats are often somewhat salty, a bit smokey and, when grilled with marinades, sauces, or added condiments, and tend toward being a touch sweeter or spicier.  Most grilled dishes are relatively simple; there’s a main ingredient (usually a protein of some kind), plus seasonings in the form of marinades, rubs and sauces.

To choose a wine to pair with something off the grill, consider two things: First, how hearty is the food, and second, what’s the dominant flavor?
For lighter foods—white-fleshed fish, vegetables, chicken breasts—pick a lighter wine. For heartier foods—sausages, burgers, steaks—choose a more robust wine. (You can find light-, medium-, and full-bodied wines in both red and white.)

Now we tackle flavors. The dominant flavor is a key thing to consider when selecting a wine.  If your meat dish contains a heavy-duty dose of sauce — barbecue, teriyaki, brown sugar, or your own secret recipe— give it wine pairing priority over your meat.

For steaks and butterflied legs of lamb—even if they’re marinated beforehand—the dominant flavor will almost always be the meat itself. If any of these are the mainstay on the plate,  spicy wine lovers should opt for a solid Zinfandel or Shiraz. For those who prefer their wine more fruit forward, a more mellow Merlot will fill the bill. If  your standard palate preference is a Cabernet Sauvignon with a firm backbone, go for it, will also give the meat a hand-up.

If you find chicken, fish, or pork chops on your plate and you really, really have your heart set on a red wine, then a Pinot Noir with its smoky background or a fruit-forward Merlot would be a safe bet. Don’t forget if the chicken is slathered in barbecue sauce or the shrimp is covered with a fiery garlic-habanero vinaigrette, the sauce or seasoning is by far the main flavor of the dish and the wine should compliment those flavors.

Okay those are the guidelines, but how do you decide which varietal is best for your grilling expertise?

America’s favorite red, Zinfandel, is able to handle a wide variety of red meats. This bold red wine bellies up to meaty, smokey flavors. Zinfandel’s black pepper spice, acidity and ripe tannins can often carry your meat’s fats and texture to a new dimension. A Zin works well with barbeque sauce, steak sauce and mild salsas. One thing to remember if there is too much spice in the sauce the wine and sauce will compete and both will end up as losers.

With the characteristic fruit-forward flavor profile, Merlot will support the spice and not aggravate it. Yes, Merlot is the spicy sauce answer to the above dilemma. Grilled pork chops, chicken and garden-variety salads with lighter dressings also mingle well with Merlot.

Number three on the grill-friendly wine list, Syrah or Shiraz is delicious with just about any red meat. Offering dynamic, somewhat aggressive fruit flavors, balanced with more mellow tannins and a softer-fuller body – this wine’s place to shine is definitely at a barbecue gathering! Consider a bold, Australian Shiraz with a plate full of nachos or buffalo wings. Rhône Valley Syrahs tend to have a smokier flavor characteristic and lend themselves extremely well to smoked meats.

Cabernet lovers, you know Cabernet Sauvignon is made for steaks with a higher fat content and beef or turkey burgers. The tighter tannins of this fourth choice are significantly mellowed by the meat’s fat, producing a palate pleaser to remember! Top your burgers with bold cheeses, such as Humboldt Fog or a sharp Vermont cheddar and this varietal gets even better!

Number five is a flexible varietal that is known for being extremely food-friendly: Pinot Noir. Pinot Noir can go from grilled fish to a juicy burger in a single sip. An ideal candidate for grilled fish – especially salmon, burgers and chicken both show their best   in the presence of a good Pinot Noir. If you aren’t sure what wine will work with your grilled dinner, Pinot Noir will probably be your best choice.

The lighter meats and sauces are more apt to flow better with white wines that share similar flavors as the foods they are meant to accent. Chardonnay or Spanish Albariño will perk up chicken, shellfish, and grilled fish. Chardonnay also works wonderfully with creamy sauces, and grilled corn on the cob with lots of butter!

My favorite Sauvignon Blanc has a herbaceous quality that supports marinades and sauces with similar attributes. For example, grilled chicken that has been doused in Italian dressing or a citrus marinade will be unbeatable with a Sauvignon Blanc. Roasted peppers, veggies in fresh herbs, grilled fish with dill and lemon and an array of appetizers will all be highlighted in tandem with a Sauvignon Blanc.

The perfect varietal for grilled bratwursts, shrimp, barbecue chicken, grilled pineapple and a variety of grilled veggies is none other than Riesling. Bone-dry, Kabinett, Auslese, or Spätlese, all offer the beautiful flavors of ripe fresh fruit,  to balance these dishes. It’s hard to beat an off-dry Riesling (the higher residual sugar does it’s part to tame the heat)

If you’re not sure about Riesling then Gewürtztraminer often offers a balance to spice with its slightly to moderately sweet character. This varietal would is a great choice to go with blackened Mahi Mahi, or grilled Cajun chicken with fresh mango salsa.

Don’t forget your sparklers! Champagne from France, Cava from Spain, Franciacorta from Italy and all manners of sparkling wines from across the globe are great in the summer for their natural acidity and refreshing bubbles. Not just for celebrations, sparkling wines are excellent additions to the dinner table and work well with many types of seafood. Believe it or not, sparkling wine  is amazing with salty, greasy potato chips! Try a sparkling Cava for chips and salsa. A light sparkling wine will also handle cheesy nachos well, especially if there is a bit of spice to them.

Wine may be the most versatile food partner there is, so whatever you decide to pair with your favorite grill, make certain that your wine serving temperatures are on target. Summer heat can turn a good red wine into an overly warm alcohol bomb, and whites stranded on ice until poured and then stuck back in the ice bin, can find their aromatics and fresh flavors muted by the frigid temperature.

Ultimately, it is your palate that your seeking to please by the wine pairing so happy grilling and see you around the barby!

Interested in hosting a wine tasting party?


I personally love doing wine tastings and am often asked do them for my clients. They are fun and after the first or second taste everyone will discover that wine makes friends of us all.
Whether you are merely pairing wines with specific cheeses, or doing a vertical or horizontal tasting, you are sure to notice new nuances in both red wines and white wines as a result of the focused tasting.

The first thing you will need to determine is the the number of guests you will have, many say eight is a good number, others say 12, personally I feel anywhere between 8 and 16 is manageable.
If possible, try to invite one guest who is knowledgeable about wine (or invite me) to help discuss the wines, origins and flavors. Also consider how many wines you will be sampling. Some sommeliers recommend between four and six wines, others say between six and twelve wines.  I like to land somewhere between eight and ten wines and often serve ten wines at a tasting.

To make your wine tasting party a bit more challenging, try offering a “blind tasting” experience. It can be the perfect way to go, because the guests will not know which bottle or wine they are tasting. No don’t blindfold your guests—that could be dicey with red wine and spillage. What we do is bag the wine bottles to conceal their identities. Blind tastings require creative techniques in concealing the wine and the marking/numbering of each bottle.

The simplest method is to “brown bag” the wine and seal the bag with tape and write the number on the bag in magic marker. You can cover the bottle in aluminum foil and again number the bottle with magic marker. Or you can do what  I like to do: I have pretty little wine bags that I tie with ribbon, each ribbon has a number attached to it. These bags effectively hide the wine and disguise the shape of the wine bottles which can sometimes be a clue in determining the type of wine. Of course, to make it even more difficult, you could also serve the wine in a black wine glass to mask the color of the wine.

When sampling, I like to have wine tasters taste each wine on its own, then again paired with food or cheese and identify the changes that occur when paired with food. It can be amazing to find a wine that you thought was only so-so, when sipped with a perfect pairing, will positively sing to you and become  your new best wine friend. You don’t need to offer a wide variety of foods, simple crackers or bread works in a pinch to cleanse the palate.  I often use oyster crackers, they’re small, taste great and cleanse the palate between wines.

Encourage your guests to incorporate all of their senses to identify the respective wines based on their personal likes and dislikes. Allow your guests to consult and compare notes as well. Because blind tastings commonly involve the identification of a favorite wine and flavor profiles, you will find a great deal of “back and forth” tasting and comparison- and some lively conversations will ensue as the tasters try to determine the wines they are sampling.

Why do I like blind tasting?

Blind wine tasting helps to ensure impartial judgment of a wine. A taster’s judgment can be prejudiced by knowing details of a wine, such as geographic origin, price, reputation, color, or other considerations—this way there are no preconceptions. For example, people expect more expensive wine to have more desirable characteristics than less expensive wine. When given wine that they are falsely told is expensive they virtually always report it as tasting better than the very same wine when they are told that it is inexpensive. That’s why, blind tasting can be so much fun, you need to rely on only your taste buds, not some wine writer’s taste buds.

Often you’ll be pleasantly surprised to discover you have preferences for wines that perfectly suit your budget.  Therefore, it’s always a good idea to conceal wine prices until the end of the evening.

That’s all there is to it, so select some wines and call a few friends and get tasting! If you need help with your tasting, I’m available. Cheers!

Offer Some Wine Descriptors
You may want to provide some examples of wine descriptors for the guest to use, such as:
•    Color -clear, cloudy, shny, straw yellow, yellow green, golden yellow, amber, deep ruby, chery red, garnet, brick, brown at rim, and so on.
•    Nose -sweet, fruity, crisp, musty, Fresh cut grass, etc.
•    Flavors -crisp, light, zingy, full, smooth, balanced, oak, tight, alcoholic, etc.
•    Persistence on the palate (finish) – short, medium, long

Tips for Hosting a Blind Wine Tasting:

•    Eight to sixteen people is about right for a blind wine tasting parties.
•    Pour about 2 oz of wine in each glass. Make certain you have enough of each wine. One bottle of wine can easily be poured in 2-ounce amounts for 12 (an average 750ml bottle holds about 24.5 ounces).
•    Set a theme for the wine tasting.
•    Bag your wines.
•    Provide simple hors d’oeuvres for the guests. Mild cheeses and crackers are a good choice. They help neutralize the palate between wines. Pick food that can help rinse the pallet without overshadowing the wines. The simplest – get some bread.
•    Bag the wines and use tape (or rubber bands) to tape the bags to the bottles so that they do not slip during pouring. For more aesthetic effect, you can use aluminum foil. Label them alphabetically (A,B,C…) Using numbers can get quite confusing when you are sharing your tasting notes and scores.
•    Prepare a tasting note guide and answer sheet for your guests. This preparation will make your night so much easier – they save you from explaining yourself hundred times. Also, your guests will learn more about wine.
•    Have a jug of water and a water bucket out so your guests can rinse their glass between each tasting.

Most of all have fun!

Seven is the Magic Number for this Feast


While other Christian families throughout the world celebrate the Christmas Eve meal with various meats, for Italian families, the dinner is all about the fish – seven fishes to be exact. The Feast of the Seven Fishes (festa dei sette pesci) is a celebration and commemoration of the wait for the midnight birth of the baby Jesus, and it is one of Italy’s most famous traditions. In Italian, the meal is known as La Vigilia (the vigil) or Vigilia di Natale.
Apparently, The “Feast of the Seven Fishes” started in  southern Italy and/or the island of Sicily, where the tradition of eating seafood on Christmas Eve dates from the Roman Catholic tradition of abstinence—in this case, refraining from the consumption of meat or milk products—on Fridays and specific holy days like Christmas Eve. As no meat or butter could be used, observant Catholics would eat fish, typically fried in oil.
For many Italians, and those of Italian descent, the delight of gathering around a bountiful, beautifully laid table, the thrill of indulging in unforgettable regional dishes, and the convivial holiday atmosphere are enough to inspire anyone who loves a celebration or a good feast.
Although the dinner is traditionally celebrated with seven types of fish and seafood,  there may be eight, or even thirteen specific fishes that are considered traditional.
No one is certain about the significance for servng seven fishes, and I found several explanations for the significance of 7. In many societies the number 7 is a Magic Number and is considered a number for perfection. The theory being that the traditional Biblical number for divinity is three, and for Earth is four, and the combination of these numbers, seven, represents God on Earth, or Jesus Christ. Another explanation states it took God seven days to create the world, hence seven fishes. Some Romans claim it represented the Seven Hills of Rome. Then there was the theory that the seven fishes symbolize the seven sacraments in the Catholic Church, along with the seven sins.  Whatever the true explanation, the basic number is always seven and that remains the starting point.
For La Vigilia, there are no requirements as to which types of fish are served. In Italy, eel is regarded as a delicacy and is often, along with  capon and turkey, the few non-fishes on the table.
Popular fishes that are eaten on this special holiday are prepared versions of calamari, oysters, scallops, whiting, smelts, squid, conch, mussels, anchovies, sardines, clams, and shrimp. The most famous dish is southern Italy’s Baccalà (salted cod fish). The meal usually begins with antipasto, the Italian equivalent of hors d´oeuvres. This can include a variety of cold foods such as cheeses and raw or marinated vegetables, baked or fried kale patties, baked goods, and homemade wine.
In southern towns  La Vigilia Napoletana celebrations include “drowned broccoli rabe” (also known as Christmas Broccoli), a choice of vermicelli with either garlic and olive oil, anchovies, or clams, roasted or fried eel, followed by other fish dishes of your choosing, and a caponata di pesce (fish salad) to wrap up the dinner portion of the meal. Of course that doesn’t mean lobsters, crawfish, tuna, snapper, sea trout, salmon, aren’t included — it depends on family tradition. Somehow, capon and turkey (my family’s traditional Christmas bird) is included on the menu—chicken of the sea?—probably for the non-fish eating members of the family.
Traditional sweets (i dolci) are also important items for the Menù di Natale (Christmas menu) in Italy. These desserts include: struffoli (Neapolitan honey pastry); cenci (fried pastry ribbons sprinkled with powered sugar); dried figs, candied almonds, chestnuts, and marzipan fruits and vegetables.
Okay enough about the food, what about the wine? With all these dishes what wines do you serve?
Well, everyone knows Italian pinot grigio and Tiefenbrunner Pinot Grigio is a delicious place to start. This light yellow almost sandy-colored wine has the typical intense nose of pear and candied fruit. Extended lees ageing gives softness and roundness to the fresh palate. The noticable acid and phenolic finish provide impeccable balance and plenty of character emphasizing the dry, full-bodied taste and round finish. Tiefenbrunner makes a good companion to appetizers, asparagus, kale, seafood, poultry, pork or veal.
Want something different? Try Terredora Dipaolo Greco Di Tufo. This white from Campania has an interesting nose, offering ripe citrus fruits and hints of apricot, apple, and peach with a light, spicy mineral edge. It is full-bodied, soft,with balanced acidity carrying the fruity flavors through to a long, intense finish.  It is ideal with hors d’oeuvres, shellfish, grilled fish dishes, salmon and tuna, buffalo mozzarella, chicken and cold meat.
For a delightful blend of four Italian varietals: 50% Grechetto, 30% Procanico, 10% Verdello and 10% Canaiolo bianco, try Ruffino Orvieto Classico. This straw-colored white wine is fresh, crisp, and delicately fragrant with flowery notes of meadow and clover accompanied by fruity hints of green apples and a slightly nutty aroma. It is dry, crisp, and fresh, with earthy flavors and a suggestion of pear, fading to a crisp and balanced finish. Orvieto is excellent for antipasti, soups, flounder carpaccio, scallops,  seafood, and white meats. Serve it chilled rather than ice cold, to allow its subtle flavors to blossom.
Another classic is Fazi Battaglia Verdicchio Dei Castelli di Jesi Classico. The funny-shaped bottle was created  in 1953 for Fazi Battaglia by the architect Angonio Maiocchi. This Verdicchio is a bright medium-straw color with brisk scents of Granny Smith apples, nearly ripe pears and hazelnuts with a few petroleum aromas reminiscent of German Riesling. The freshness carries over to the palate–with excellent acidity to match up with a pasta sauce, spinach, lemon and garlic. Perfect for stuffed calamari in tomato sauce, deep fried calamari, linguine with clam or lobster sauce, cod fish balls in tomato sauce or kale patties.
Soave Wine is one of Italy’s old time favorites, and Si Soave Italia 2008 should become a classic tradition. Lively, fresh, and smooth, this is ideal for nearly any occasion. Similar in style to a Pinot Grigio, Soave has less of an acidic kick and comes off smoother with flavors of apple, citrus and tropical fruit.  Made mostly with Garganega and rounded out with some Trebbiano, Si Soave is ideal for Octopus or Scungilli salads, salmon and tuna dishes. Drink liberally with an arrugula salad, Italian salumi or even a thin crust margarita pizza!

For oysters and oyster shooters, I heartily recommend my all-time favorite, Domaine du Baumard Clos du Papillion Savennieres. Yes, it is French from the Loire but—the beautiful minerality and citrusy flavors make it deliciously delectable with shellfish. It is a little pricey, but for shellfish and crustaeceans, it’s well worth the price.

Okay, you’re not a white wine drinker, what sort of reds will work with this feast?

My all-time goes-with-everything Italian red is Cantele Salice Salentino Reserva. This red wine is from Puglia, in Southern Italy, and is a blend of 85% Negroamaro and 15% Malvasia Nera. The color is ruby red with dark glints of garnet. This wine is medium-bodied withbeautiful aromas of dark cherries, black tea and spice. This luscious wine explodes with fresh acidity that is keenly balanced by well-developed tannins and flavors of fresh dark berries and caramelized plums and hints of cedar. This wine pairs well with any aged cheese or any dish with tomato sauce, eggplant, kale, spicy peppers and capers! Perfect for pasta and meat sauce, as well as a goat stew and any red meat dish. This red is ready to drink immediately or will keep for 3-4 years It is an excellent quality “spaghetti wine”!

For something a little more classic, Rocca delle Macie’s Chianti Classico fits the bill.  This bright ruby-red Chianti is a blend of  blend of 90% Sangiovese, 5% Canaiolo and 5% Merlot. There are mature cherry and berry fruit aromas. The flavors are rich and well-balanced with ripe berry fruit. This red is a perfect compliment to a wide range of entrées including beef, chicken, drowned broccoli, kale, eggplant, and pasta in flavorful sauces.

Another Italian favorite is Zenato Valpolicella Classico.  A blend of 80% Corvina, 10% Rondinella and 10% Sangiovese from the Valpolicella Classico area, this ruby-red wine delivers super clean aromas and flavors of blackberry, with a hint of licorice. This red is medium-bodied with a crisp palate and a fresh, fruity finish. It’s dry and robust on the palate with an excellent, velvety texture, offering fleshy aromas of wild berries, currant, black cherry and spice, framed by intriguing hints of chocolate. A perfect wine to pair with stuffed calamari in tomato sauce, stuffed-baked lobsters, deep fried fish/shrimp/scallops, linguine with clam or lobster sauce.

Here’s a hint to try for the salty Baccalà and anchovies that you may not have tried before: Fino sherry. It is a beautiful combination.

The Feast of the Seven Fishes is a tradition that has existed since ancient times, and one which will surely continue. Life changes, but for Italian people throughout the world, this is one tradition whose religious and cultural significance outweighs everything else. Have a merrry!!!

It’s Tailgating Season!


To those not familiar with tailgating, I’d like to explain that it is a pre-game ritual that typically revolves around barbeque, a little loud music, flying frisbees, and some very enthusiastic sports fans. Traditionally this activity also involves the consumption of alcoholic beverages such as beer or mixed drinks and the grilling of various meat products.

These festivities, along with delicious food and a vast sea of friends in beautiful team colors all turn a large otherwise empty parking lot into a big, fun-loving neighborhood. Around here, most tailgating begins at Giants Stadium and continues to other venues. Except for the “The Hunt” that used to be held in Middletown, Monmouth County, where people did consume wine, wine lovers were definitely in the minority at tailgating events. There was always a lot of beer. Non-beer drinkers like me had to “settle for” soda or water or nothing. Those were dark days for wine drinkers. Thankfully, there’s been a big turnaround and we wine drinkers aren’t subjected to going without a beverage of choice for lack of a corkscrew.

Today, more and more tailgating fans are raising a glass, proudly toasting the team with burly Zins and strapping Cabs. I like to think it’s the new perfect pairing: wine and tailgating.
But pairing wine with tailgating means we need to be certain our wine complements the traditional tailgate party staples: hamburgers, hot dogs, baked beans, cole slaw and potato salad, or foie gras, roasted quail, caviar and salad nicoise…or whatever dish you find easy to prepare and eat on site.

Be Guided by the Weather

Choosing wines for tailgating should be guided by the weather. As the weather turns nippier nothing feels better than to sip a big heart-warming red. Besides, the food is more robust and the dark red complexity is perfect for good food and friendly gatherings. I know, most of the foods you might choose to serve at your tailgating party, such a burgers, hot dogs or sausages, might go better with a red wine than a white.
When I provide the wine, I take both red and white. It never hurts to serve crisp, brightly flavored whites for refreshing results (and your favorite white wine drinker). For the red, I look for something easy to drink, affordable, and something that will go with a variety of foods.

Here’s a helpful hint: red wines also benefit from chilling. Softer varieties like Zinfandel, Grenache or Tempranillo taste delicious cooler and even more tannic reds like Cabernet Sauvignons need a light chill to reduce the temperature to a more civilized “room temperature” (56°).  Just don’t over chill, as the tannins will turn the wine bitter.

Make it Flavorful
Whether your wine is full-, light-, or medium-bodied, the wine should be well concentrated. Wimpy wines will disappear when paired with strong-flavored and smoky dishes. Wonderfully tasting grilled foods allow complex wines to shine, but can easily overshadow a less powerful one. Definitely go for the rich and complex, with a long finish, to go with a powerful BBQ ribs dish.

Paringa Sparkling Shiraz isn’t a high-brow wine, but it still tastes very good and more importantly it’s a lot of fun. It is truly a different wine that is a great conversation starter and will be remembered. The wine itself is a bit sweet (20% residual sugar), but it doesn’t seem to be overly sweet. It tickles your palate with bubbles that burst with raspberry and blueberry flavors. The tannins are creamy and smooth, giving this wine a and your toasts bit more sophistication.

Make it Fruity
Fruity and even off-dry wines can taste very dry and succulent when paired with savory smoky dishes like grilled meats and hotdogs. Just be sure that the wine you are serving is sweeter than the entree, condiments, or any added flavoring. Sweet food will make a dry wine taste sour and unappealing.
Try Louis Jadot Beaujolais—a fruity red. This French wine has a musky bouquet of strawberries and salt-water taffy, along with a pleasant weedy scent. Light on the tongue, it has higher acidity than most red wines and for those who like a fruitier wine, this would be a nice choice.
Maybe, you want to impress a few friends with your wine knowledge and try Schlink Haus Red a 100% Dornfelder from Germany. Yes, this semi-sweet red wine is made from the little-known Dornfelder grape. This is a delightfully full-bodied fruity red wine with flavors of blackberries, cherries and chocolate with a hint of citrus. This is a good wine for non-wine drinkers with enough complexity to satisfy the old pro.
This is also where a good fruity white can come into play, like a good riesling. I do like to bring along a riesling or two to any event, basically because they are usually light, fruity, go with anything and are generally lower in alcohol making them, for me at least, the perfect party drink. Hoffman Simon Kabinett Piesporter Goldtropfchen Riesling 2007 (I know, easy for you to say) is a case in point, at 9% alcohol it provides a focused beam of mineral, along with crunchy apple, peach and citrus. It’s a racy white with good length making it an entirely attractive and characteristic Mosel wine.
Another unique wine that’s extraordinarily food-friendly, especially with spicy foods and the hard to match flavors of ginger, cilantro, chile peppers, mint, and wasabi is Sokol Blosser’s Evolution 9 a blend of nine grapes: Müller-Thurgau, White Riesling, Semillon, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, Muscat Canelli, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, and Sylvaner. The nine grapes tie together perfectly, creating a smooth, layered white wine that can hold its own or stand up to just about any food pairing you dare to serve. It pairs well, with anything from light salads to the hottest fusion-style cuisine.

Make it Red
White wines are great with many grilled foods, but when in doubt, always reach for red. A good rule of thumb is the darker the food, then the darker the wine, the richer the food then the richer the wine and when in doubt, drink Beaujolais. Chances are the red or black fruit character of these wines will give some punch to a smoky dish, and even the modest tannins of a red can work wonderfully in counteracting the mild bitterness that comes from charring food on the grill.

If you’re not in the mood for Beaujolais, Snap Dragon Red, 2007 from California is a good choice. The aromas include dark scents of spiced plums, coffee, leather, dark chocolate and sweet tobacco. When I drink this, I taste everything from the aroma, especially sweet cherries and tobacco and it is really easy drinking and a great value. I often recommend this wine for burgers or sausage.

Red Truck, 2007 also from California is another red blend favorite for outdoor drinking. The nose is full of dusty scents of black cherries, saddle leather, baby powder, unsweetened chocolate and a hint of cassis.This red blend is dusty and dry, round and smooth, soft and fruity sweet. perfect for grilling. Other good barbecue choices are Malbec, Tempranillo, Grenache, and Zinfandel.

The key thing to remember is that the requirements for a tailgating wine are simple: inexpensive, easy to drink, no major flaws, and save your best wine for a more elegant occasion.

See you at the stadium!