Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Earth Bread + Brewery: Session Beer and Daily Bread

After a Sunday matinee at the Keswick Theatre, my wife and I decided to forego the post-concert crowds at the couple of watering holes in Glenside, PA, and instead head a few clicks down the road. Earth Bread + Brewery has been on my radar ever since first-time restaurant owners Tom Baker and Peggy Zwerver opened their new digs in Mount Airy last year. An unseasonably hot April evening seemed like as good a time as any to stop in for an early dinner.

While I’d already heard encouraging words about the pizzas at Earth Bread + Brewery, it was the buzz on the beer program that had really caught my attention. Just about every brewer I met over the course of Philly Beer Week back in March seemed to be talking about this guy who’s been brewing low-alcohol session beers somewhere in the Philly area. That guy would be Tom Baker, former brewer of big, burly beers at Heavyweight in New Jersey. And as much as I like the occasional Imperial IPA or Belgian Triple, I prefer – much as with wine – a lower alcohol brew when it comes to sitting down at the table and pairing with food, so I was keen to check out Baker’s work.

It turns out that Tom had only one such beer on tap during our visit, a 2.8% Belgian-style ale called Monkey Brain Tonic. Dark copper colored, softly textured and just barely effervescent, it delivered just what I expect it was intended to – easy drinkability. I might have hoped for a little more aromatic complexity or a little funk to brighten things up, but those are small quibbles. I could easily see drinking it all afternoon.

Baker and Zwerver have made a pointed effort to build a low-impact, green business. Their website includes a list of some of the recycled and environmentally friendly materials used throughout the restaurant but doesn’t make mention of the wooden wine crates repurposed into the global mosaic that hangs above EB+B’s in-house brewing space.

As it turns out, the pizzas – actually, EB+B makes a point of using the word “flatbread” instead of “pizza” – were pretty solid too. The dough could benefit from a pinch more salt but was texturally right on, crispy and bubbly from a quick turn in the wood-fired hearth. Even though I’m still waiting for an explanation for the distinction between “flatbread” and “pizza” – our waitress wasn’t able to provide one – I can kind of understand the choice of nomenclature. The crust had a chew and ground wheat nuttiness that did indeed remind me more of Middle Eastern bread than of standard pizza dough.

The wood-fired pizza oven dominates the lower level of the first floor dining room. Baker's easy drinking Monkey Brain Tonic matched quite nicely with EB+B’s Traditional flatbread (pictured at left), while the richer malt character and front-palate sweetness of his Stickie Alt (not quite session-strength but still reasonable at 6%) helped to temper the spice and zest of the sausage and pepper pesto pie.

There’s nothing at Earth Bread + Brewery that screams out for notice, nothing that stakes a claim as a destination restaurant. The menu is tiny, not offering much beyond flatbreads and a couple of salads. The flatbreads aren’t likely to appear on any pizza aficionados’ best-in-town lists. But the prices are fair, the atmosphere comfortable if a tad sterile and the brew and breads good enough that, if EB+B were in my own neighborhood, I’d be inclined to make it a regular session on my schedule.

Earth Bread + Brewery
7136 Germantown Avenue
Philadelphia, PA
Earth Bread + Brewery on Urbanspoon

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“What about that concert,” you ask? It was John McLaughlin and Chick Corea’s Five Peace Band.

I’ve long ago sworn off the punk rock old-timer or all-star reunion tours. The jazz equivalent, however, still occasionally manages to catch me in its clutches. Sometimes it pays off, as I’ve seen stellar performances from the likes of Herbie Hancock and Ornette Coleman (independently) over the last couple of years. Too many others, though, have just been guys going through the paces, relying on their name and fame to draw the crowds. This was one of those, I’m afraid. I’ll give Corea the benefit of charity as he played casually but well, with creative restraint. McLaughlin, on the other hand, was a real disappointment. To paraphrase my wife, if this is his standard gig perhaps it’s time for him to retire. Their support was certainly talented enough – Philly's own Christian McBride displayed pyrotechnic proficiency on the electric bass and Kenny Garrett was cool if a little too collected on alto sax – but drummer Brian Blade was the only one of the Five to display anything along the lines of real soul and energy. Most of all, the band just wasn't together. Not a total loss... but I was hoping for something more along the lines of this:

Monday, April 27, 2009

On Selosse, Substance and Sensuality

Mr. Asimov has written eloquently on several occasions, both in The Times and at his blog The Pour, about the rarefied pleasure of experiencing the Champagnes of Anselme Selosse. Foolishly having passed on an opportunity to drink Selosse last year, I finally rectified the situation just a few nights ago. It was the kindness of strangers that made it possible. My clients, for whom Selosse’s “Substance” served as an aperitif, were generous enough to send me home with the remaining half-bottle or so at the end of a long night spent serving many big name wines. For that I am indebted to them, as I cannot and therefore do not buy $200+ bottles of wine. Were I to, though, this might be the one.

Champagne Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Brut “Substance,” Jacques Selosse (Anselme Selosse) NV
$225-250. 12.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Rare Wine Company, Sonoma, CA.

If I’d had my druthers, I would have decanted “Substance” at that dinner party. Pouring it straight into flutes didn’t give the wine enough chance to come out from under its bottle aromas or to show its full breadth. That is not to say it wasn’t immediately enticing – it was – but rather that it immediately hinted at greater stuff to come. First impressions were of richness and maturity, a partly oxidative nose backed up by scents and flavors of deeply yeasty bread and ripe orchard fruits. Between my work and the wines to come, it passed by far too quickly.

It was on the second day that I really got the chance to experience more of the wine’s full spectrum. Poured in a white wine glass, it appeared well on its way to tranquility, though appearances deceived as its fine mousse never dissipated over the course of the next three hours. The larger glass made it much easier to appreciate the wine’s color as well, not so much the burnished golden tone of mature Champagne as it was the radiant hue of light peach or apricot flesh. There was still an oxidative aromatic note, one that bolstered rather than diminished the wine’s complexity. Brioche, mocha, lightly roasted coffee and hazelnut scents wafted from the glass. Incredibly youthful and fresh on the palate, the wine’s finish lasted for minutes, starting at the tip of the tongue and leaving a lasting impression all the way down the gullet.

Given my mentions of maturity above, it’s important to note that this was actually a recently disgorged bottle. “Substance” takes on its mature notes not so much via bottle aging (at least not in this case) as via its production methods. It is a solera method Champagne, made up of a constantly evolving and growing blend of wines from every vintage since 1986, when Anselme Selosse first started his solera system. The picture above (borrowed from The Rare Wine Company’s website) is Selosse’s own 2004 schematic of the Substance solera system. In Anselme’s view, this method of blending wines from multiple years, the good with the theoretically not so good, wipes away the vagaries of vintage and instead focuses entirely on the terroir of his Chardonnay vineyards in Avize.

With time in the glass and the approach of cellar temperature, the wine just got prettier and prettier, more and more detailed, calling into focus the fact that Selosse works first and foremost with great fruit. The wine’s minerality and vinosity, too, became more apparent. Chamomile, orange zest, toasted almonds, peach butter and spicy minerality – it was all there. Just smelling the empty glass between pours there was a lingering aroma of white sands, gentle surf and seashells. Pour a touch more and there was tarte tatin, nutmeg and yet more profound minerality.

What I liked most about the wine, as if all the above weren’t enough, was its texture. Simultaneously delicate, powerful and amazingly deft, it was voluptuous and creamy at first feel, chewy and edgy at the next, yet all along I could sense every nuance. Nothing was glossed over or wiped away by undue opulence. Even the wine’s wood influence was subtle and elegant, lending an undercurrent of buttered toast to the whole experience.

This was as profound a tasting experience as I’ve had in a long time. The wine just kept improving over the course of three+ hours. The always-curious, pseudo-scientific side of me wishes I’d saved a glass for day three. The hedonist in me, though, was having none of that.

I’m guessing that this bottle, disgorged on March 3, 2008, contained base wines from no more recently than 2004. As the label notes indicate, the wine’s structure suggests a long life ahead for those willing to wait.

Update: With a little research, along with some thoughtful help from Peter and Sharon, it turns out that Selosse usually ages "Substance" for four-to-five years in bottle prior to disgorgement (I'd taken an educated guess at a three-to-four year regime). So, it's likely that the most recent wine included in this bottle was from 2003, maybe even 2002. It turns out that Anselme also includes a significant amount of solids each time he replenishes the solera, making for an extended lees aging regime even before the wine is bottled.

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In addition to the pieces from Eric Asimov mentioned above, there’s other good information about Selosse at Rare Wine Company’s website and at Château Loisel. Not surpsingly, Peter Liem also has a thing or three to say about Selosse’s terroir as well as, in more general terms, the use of soleras in Champagne.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Boccella’s 2006 Campi Taurasini “Rasott”

After the veritable flood of provocatvive remarks (more like a drizzle really…) that came crashing through the gates in response to Thursday’s post on the ethics of accepting wine samples for review, today I’ll get right down to business.

After digging around for historical information about the relatively new Italian wine designation of Irpinia Campi Taurasini, I can more than sympathize with Il Signor Cevola’s frustration over the lack of a central repository of information on Italy’s DOCG system. If you think it’s tough digging up info on the 40+ Italian DOCGs, just try doing the same for any of the hundreds of Italian DOCs. If there’s an authoritative, up-to-date source on the web, I couldn’t find it. Let me know if you can.

At any rate, here’s what I was able to cobble together, using my far less than utilitarian grasp of the Italian language and stopping a step or two short of the outer limits of my patience.

Irpinia was first proposed as a DOC zone in 2003 and ratified as such in September 2005. The designation "Campi Taurasini," one of several subsets of the broader Irpinia DOC, is specific to Aglianico based reds from the “Taurasian Fields” – my translation, feel free to improve upon it – in the hills east of Avellino. The delimited area is inclusive of the entire Taurasi DOCG zone plus seven additional communes. Wines from Campi Taurasini, as with Taurasi, must include a minimum of 85% Aglianico, with allowance for blending other “non-aromatic” local red varieties. The nine-month aging requirement for Campi Taurasini, however, is considerably shorter than the obligatory three years for Taurasi. Wines can be released to the market as early as September 1 in the year following the harvest.

Campi Taurasini “Rasott,” Azienda Agricola Boccella 2006
About $22. 14.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Domenico Selections, New York, NY.
Per the Domenico Selections website (importer Terence Hughes sent me two sample bottles for review consideration), Boccella’s Campi Taurasini is varietal Aglianico from young vines planted in limestone and clay dominated soil at 800 meters altitude. The Boccella family farms organically and bottles their reds without fining or filtration.

That latter factoid presents itself quite clearly (unclearly, actually) in the glass, as a fine cloud of particulate matter hangs in liquid suspension, giving a slightly murky appearance to the wine’s otherwise deep blackish-red hue. Initial aromas of cherry fruit, tobacco and cedar unfurl to scents of blackberries, grapiness and, with more time in the glass, a touch of pruniness. In the mouth, sweet red fruit hits first – dried Montmorency cherries in particular – laced with herbal flavors of rosemary and bay leaf. There’s an edge of grape and wood derived tannins that call out, along with that cedary oak influence, for pairing this wine with grilled red meats. The wine handles its relatively high alcohol (14.5%) well; you’ll know it’s there via body and texture but there’s no hint of heat on the finish. Surprisingly fresh, medium acidity helps the whole package along and actually helps make it more food-friendly. In spite of the meat pairing suggestion above, I found it perfectly viable alongside pasta with a sauce of tomatoes, onions, ceci, olive oil and rosemary – a touch big-boned perhaps, but it still worked.

Will I be running out to buy a truckload? Probably not. But I’d happily order a bottle were I dining in a Southern Italian restaurant savvy enough to give it a place on its wine list. It’s a solid wine that gets extra marks from me for its freshness and persistence.

Faults? It’s facile enough to demonize filtration for potentially robbing wines of some of their natural character but here’s a case where I think a light filtration might have been to the wine’s benefit. Aside from that, I really have to stretch to find anything at issue.

Why am I going looking for faults rather than simply being open to noticing them? The quandary I mentioned in my procedural post of Thursday turns out to have what may be an unexpected twist. Rather than being kinder or gentler to a wine because it was received as a sample from a friend, I found myself being even more intensely critical than usual. In that context, I’m glad Terry sent two bottles – I told you he’s a smart guy – as the second bottle didn’t just show better than the first, it also gave me the opportunity to relax into the tasting experience, to get to know the wine better, to accept its bumps and wrinkles as a natural and complementary part of the whole.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Ethics of Sampling

One evening earlier this week, I Twittered about as much as I ever have in a single session: three or four times in fairly rapid succession, my regular pattern being more along the lines of three messages per week. What drew me into such garrulousness was an ongoing discussion of blogging ethics. The finer point in question was whether or not a wine blogger (or any person in the wine writing trade, I suppose) who accepts press samples is obliged to publish a review of every wine received. At least one person thought yes, others thought no, and I found myself siding with the latter camp.

I’ve never gotten around to publishing a “policies” page here at MFWT, so let me clear up any questions you may have. I do accept samples for review. I also promise to taste everything sent my way with as open and critical a mind as possible. And I’m happy to provide feedback, as Lenn suggested, in the form of a raw tasting note to anyone who sends me a sample. I can’t promise I’ll get to every bottle immediately, so if you’re looking for instant review gratification, I may not be your man. But again, I do promise to get to each and every bottle in due course. When I do blog about a wine I’ve received as a sample, I’ll always state that it was a sample and let you know who sent it my way.

In any case, and more importantly, I’ll blog about the wine only if I find something compelling to say about it, only if its context and quality – good or bad – move me enough to make me want to write about and share my experience. It’s as simple as that.

Or is it?

What happens when a sample comes from someone you know, even from someone you consider a friend? In such cases, I think there’s a natural human reflex to soften one’s step, to be kinder, gentler or – in a negative scenario – silent.

I also think it’s important, no matter how difficult, not to let those reflexes sway you.

I found myself in just such a situation recently when Terence Hughes, the man behind Mondosapore and co-proprietor of Domenico Selections, sent me a box full of wines for review. It’s not as if Terry and I are best buddies or lifelong chums. I’ve only actually met the guy once…. But between that, the occasional email correspondence and following each others blogs for the last couple of years, I have come to count him as a friend.

As I’ve already written up one of the wines he sent me, it should be obvious that I've already worked my way through this ethical pickle. And I’d like to think I reviewed the wine just as honestly and bluntly as I would one I’d purchased or one I’d received from a more anonymous sample sender. I don’t think Mr. Hughes would have wanted it any other way.

With one of the other wines he sent, though, I found myself holding back, writing less quickly than I might have otherwise. That may have been influenced by the fact that Terry smartly sent two bottles of each wine. I knew I’d be able to give the wine another look, get to know it better before putting pen to paper, fingers to keys and posting to the blogosphere.

Does that make me hypocritical or unethical? That’s for you to decide, I suppose, though I’d like to think it just means I’m careful and considered in my work here at MFWT.

Or do you think this is all just a long winded prelude to and softener of a harsh review? For answer to that question you’ll have to wait until tomorrow, as I do think it would be unfair to bury a review – good or bad – at the end of this pseudo-dialectic discourse.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Two from Tissot

Ever find yourself thinking eerily alike another? I stopped by a friend’s house not long ago to do a little tasting and cooking. For good measure I’d carried along a bottle of Domaine Tissot’s Arbois “Sélection,” one of a handful of interesting wines I’d picked up a few days earlier. As it turned out, he’d already lined up a bottle of Tissot’s Arbois Chardonnay. No advance discussion or planning, just a freak coincidence – a welcome one.

At work in the vineyards at Domaine André et Mireille Tissot
(photo courtesy of

When Stéphane Tissot began taking on more and more responsibility for the farming and winemaking at his parents André and Mireille Tissot’s estate in the mid-1990s, he immediately began a slow but sure conversion of the property to organic farming methods. That cycle moved to the next logical step with the first application of biodynamic principles in 2004, becoming “official” via full biodynamic certification by Demeter in 2005. Farming at the 32-hectare estate is natural and so too is the winemaking. All of the Tissots’ wines – as many as 28 different cuvées in any given vintage – are fermented spontaneously on their native yeasts, with sulfur used minimally if at all.

Arbois “Sélection,” Domaine André et Mireille Tissot (Stéphane et Bénédicte Tissot) 2004
$23. 13% alcohol. Cork. Importer: A Thomas Calder Selection, Potomac Selections, Landover, MD.
Tissot’s Arbois “Sélection” Blanc is a blend of 70% Chardonnay and 30% Savagnin made in an intentionally oxidative style. The two varieties are barrel fermented and aged separately for nine months, with occasional topping up of the barrels. After blending, the wine undergoes a further fifteen months of aging in barrel, this time sans ouillage (without topping up). In this environment, a partial veil of flor forms, much as with Vin Jaune though to a lesser extent, and the wine is eventually finished with a very light filtration prior to bottling, with no further sulfur treatment.

The end result is delicious. The first pour opened with a typically apple-y, oxidative nose and Sherry-like brininess and savor on the palate. As it unfolded in the glass, its flavors developed greater complexity and depth. Persimmon and kumquats, dried apricots minus their sweet-fruited aspect, sour limestone and marshmallows (yes, marshmallows). The whole package is carried along on a razor’s edge of acidity. It was mouth coating in its intensity yet not at all heavy, the flavors and texture clinging to my teeth like a free-climber might cling to a sheer rock face, with sinew, grip and desperate balance. This is certainly not for everyone but it’s one of the most exciting wines I’ve had this year. And at $23, it’s a tremendous value.

Arbois Chardonnay, Domaine André et Mireille Tissot (Stéphane et Bénédicte Tissot) 2007
$24. 13% alcohol. Cork. Importer: A Thomas Calder Selection, Potomac Selections, Landover, MD.
Quite backward – our order, that is, not the wine. In our enthusiasm to taste the “Sélection” we didn’t bother thinking about which wine to open first. It would certainly have made sense to start here but, hey, sometimes it’s more fun just to forge ahead.

This is made in a far less oxidative fashion, with spontaneous fermentation in barriques (10% new) followed by twelve months of barrel aging. Lighter and more youthful in color, as expected, it was loaded with flavors of d’Anjou pear and aromas of fresh honey and Braeburn apples, all on a taut, medium-bodied frame. Like “Sélection,” it displayed tremendous grip and energizing acidity, calling to mind Burgundian cousins such as commune level or premier cru Chablis (but with more flesh) and Viré-Clessé (but with a more intense acid and mineral profile). This could do interesting things in the cellar but it’s already drinking great. I’d love to try it with a plate of grilled scallops, completely unadorned. Definitely.

Domaine Tissot’s website, by the way, is very much worth exploring. Lots of good information about the estate as well as biodynamic farming principles, all set to a soundtrack of fermenting Savagnin.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Easteria III: The Return to Osteria

It’s become a tradition, accidental in origin but now quite intentional. For the third year running, my wife and I have dined at Osteria on Easter Sunday. (A good friend has dubbed it “Easteria.”) Neither of us celebrates the holiday but the large percentage of the population that does – and does so at home – makes it an easy day on which to nab a table at a spot that’s usually one of the tougher reservations in town. The last couple of years we’ve even taken friends along. Who knows, maybe the tradition will be catching.

Quite a while back now, I named Osteria as my pick for top new Philly restaurant of 2007. Two years on, they’re doing an admirable job of maintaining their early high standards. This Easter’s meal may not have been the best I’ve had there – the pizza lombarda wasn’t quite up to its usual snuff and Lady Mac wasn’t 100% enthused about her yellowtail crudo – but things still hit a very high overall level.

The marinated vegetable antipasti platter (photo at upper left), built for sharing, was one of the highlights of our meal. Beyond that, I was the only one to jump whole hog into the antipasto, primo, secondo pathway. Pictured clockwise from upper right: manila clams with san marzano tomatoes, green garlic and ciabatta; gemelli with sweetbreads, asparagus and parmiggiano; and veal breast “al latte” with carnaroli rice crema, roasted cipolline and sage.

All three of my course selections were on point. The clams tender and zesty, the breast of veal rich and rib sticking though still finessed, just as expected. The dish I really loved, though, was the gemelli with sweetbreads. I dug the way it took Osteria’s usual approach – elevate the everyday through top quality ingredients and thoughtful, creative preparation – and turned it on its head. Sweetbreads, which I expect most people think of as an ingredient usually reserved for haute cuisine, were brought down to earth via placement in a rustic, peasant style pasta dish, where tripe might have been a more traditional (if unexpected here in the US) condiment.

What to drink with all of that? I started with a glass of Verdicchio. As for something for everyone to share, most of the bottles on the relatively modest list that I’d really like to drink – like Movia’s Veliko Bianco or Paitin Barbaresco – are priced out of my reach, especially in these economically trying times. While I agree with the oft voiced criticism that wine pricing is on the high side at Osteria, I don’t believe their average markup is unfair (not that I wouldn’t like it to be lower). The level of service is high. The table is set with good quality stemware. Wine glasses are seasoned prior to first pour. But with the markup multiplier in PA starting from a full retail base rather than from wholesale as in free market states, the budget-conscious diner starts out at a disadvantage.

In that context, this wasn’t the first occasion on which I’ve appreciated the work that sommelier Bill McKinley does on the floor at Osteria. Though he’s not working with the deepest or most diverse list, he does a more than admirable job of understanding customers’ wishes and of recommending solid, good value bottles. The 2005 Sicilia IGT Nero d’Avola “Lamùri” from Tasca d’Almerita (Tenuta Regaliali) surpassed my expectations for a relatively large production Southern Italian wine – well balanced, surprisingly lively and more than companionable at the table.

We first met our dining companions, Mandy and Liz, at the beach last autumn. One of those weird coincidences where, 100 or more miles from home, you end up running into people who live in your own neighborhood. In this case, they also happen to share our passion for good food and wine.

Will we make it Easteria IV next year? I’m not generally one for planning that far in advance but, three years in a row having all been charms, I’d certainly say there’s a damn good chance.

610 North Broad Street (at Wallace)
Philadelphia, PA 19130
Osteria on Urbanspoon

A little more reading material from the MFWT archives:

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Another of my favorite Easter-time traditions? Paris-Roubaix. Live airing of this year’s edition overlapped with our dinner reservations. It took the better part of a week before I could finally catch up with the coverage (almost as long as it took me to write-up dinner…). Here’s footage of the deciding moments of the race. As so often in The Hell of the North, the winner was determined as much by the luck of the cobbles as by the strength of his legs. The video quality isn’t the greatest and the commentary isn’t in English but I think you’ll get the idea.

Mad Skills

MFWT should return to regular programming later today. Until then, here's something to keep you happy. I generally consider myself a decent bike handler (on the road, at least) but this is just sick.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Black Uhuru -- Youth of Eglington

I'm inclined to agree, wholeheartedly at that, with Joe's review of Black Uhuru's 1981 LP, "Red." It's a benchmark album for the band and one that still sounds as fresh today as it did back in the early 80s. I'm finally feeling like spring's actually arrived here in the Philly area, and "Youth of Eglington" is keeping the feeling going.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Kosher or Not, Israeli Wines at Zahav

Since day one, the mission in the kitchen at Zahav has been clear – serve modern Israeli cuisine and do it with as much care, soul and deliciousness as possible. Owners Steven Cook and Chef Michael Solomonov have done just that, garnering accolades along the way from both local and national press and putting together what I feel is the most exciting restaurant to have opened in Philadelphia in the last year (its first birthday is coming up in May). While Cook and Solomonov hit the ground running with their mezze and shipudim (kebab) dominated menu, it’s taken the wine program at Zahav a bit longer to approach maturity.

Steven Cook, co-owner and wine program director at Philadelphia restaurant Zahav.

The compact, international wine list at Zahav has always included at least a couple of Israeli wines. Given the constraints of Pennsylvania’s state controlled wine distribution system, through which few Israeli wines are available, Mr. Cook’s initial options were minimal at best. Steven has been working to change that. Over the course of the last year, he has forged relationships with importers such as Israeli Wine Direct and Sol Stars, as well as with a local distributor, allowing Steven to bring many wines from Israel into Pennsylvania for the first time ever. He’s taken some risks in doing it, too. Given that these wines are coming into PA by special order from importers in Chicago and New York, he’s had to buy many selections sight unseen – without tasting and in full case lots. Luck has been on his side for the most part, with only a couple of chances not passing muster.

From its rudimentary beginnings – few if any of the initially offered Israeli wines are still included – Zahav’s list has now expanded to include twenty-two selections from Israel, as well as eight from Lebanon and two from Morocco.

Here are some of my general impressions based on tasting through a selection of the restaurant’s current offerings at a press tasting held earlier this week in “The Quarter” at Zahav:

Some of what we tasted, in no particular order.

  • From my perspective, most if not all of the wines showed promise, offering direct fruit and adequate acid balance. The only wine with which I struggled to find any redeeming traits was the 2007 Sauvignon Blanc/Chardonnay blend from Flam, a winery located outside of Jerusalem in the Judean Hills. There wasn’t enough charm in its neutral nose or simple fruit approach to make up for its disjointed alcohol, aggressive texture and unresolved residual sugar.

  • Speaking of alcohol, I found the level of heat problematic in most of the wines save the white and red from Clos de Gat, another Judean Hills based producer, and the Late Harvest Gewurztraminer from Carmel, Israel’s largest and oldest producer. Whether on the nose, on the mid-palate or on the finish, high alcohol levels – a tough byproduct to overcome, at least naturally, in a hot, arid climate – marred some otherwise quite palatable wines.

  • I’m no expert on Israeli wines (far from it in fact), and I don’t have a finely honed sense of Israel’s terroir, much less of the differences in terroir from region to region within the country. That said, I am confident in saying that the wines we tasted lacked any clear expression or sense of place. Instead, winemaking tendencies appear to lean heavily toward the international.

    On the obvious end of this spectrum was “Mes’ha,” a 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot/Shiraz blend from Galilee-based producer Tabor, a large winery owned by the local Coca-Cola bottling company. Hot and jammy with a punchy cherry/berry fruit attack, this could have come from Puglia or the Barossa Valley just as easily as from Galilee. Even the wines from Clos de Gat – I say “even” because I found them to be the most complete wines at the tasting – could easily have passed as hailing from California. Their 2005 Judean Hills Chardonnay was very Central Coast in style, full of tropical fruit and sweet vanilla, while their ’04 Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot blend from the Ayalon Valley reminded me very much of early 1990s Alexander Valley reds from producers such as Clos du Bois and V. Sattui.

  • A growing number of wineries are foregoing Kosher certification, both in reaction to the market stigma often associated with Kosher wines – quick, what’s the first thing you think of when you hear “Kosher wine”? – and to avoid the costly, time consuming bureaucratic requirements of certification. Of the six wines from Israel we tasted, only two were Kosher, those from Tabor and Carmel.

Most of the other attendees were young journalists from "Philadelphia Weekly" and "Philadelphia City Paper."

In spite of the growth and success of the Israeli wine program at Zahav, Steven still voiced some reservations about the current state of winemaking in Israel and what it means for the restaurant’s overall wine program. Aware that many of the Israeli wines that we tasted – most ranged from US$70-100 on Zahav’s list – do not offer good quality-to-price ratio, Steven takes a lower margin on them to encourage sales and to help fit them into the price spread of the overall list. Also acknowledging that the wines are not always food friendly, he has every intention of keeping wines from Europe and other parts of the globe on the list to ensure versatility.

Based on the range in this tasting, I share many of Mr. Cook’s reservations. I also respect what he’s doing and applaud his efforts in seeking out the best work of the fledgling Israeli wine industry and taking a huge chance by building the core of his wine program around it. Thus far his work has bore fruit, as Israeli and Lebanese wines represent nearly 70% of bottle sales at Zahav. His program also shows a commitment to and understanding of the place-based relationship between wine and food that I only wish more restaurateurs shared. I look forward to watching – and exploring – the growth and evolution of both Zahav’s list and the Israeli wine industry in the months and years to come.

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If you’re interested in doing a little exploration of your own, Zahav will be launching its new monthly dinner series on Thursday, May 14, 2009, with a five-course meal prepared by Chef Solomonov and paired with Israeli boutique wines. Cost for the event is $85, plus tax and gratuity. Contact the restaurant for reservations or more information.

237 Saint James Place
Philadelphia, PA 19106
Zahav on Urbanspoon

And for even more in-depth exploration, Daniel Rogov writes an annually updated guide that's generally considered the authoritative text on the wines of Israel.

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Postscript: I just realized this might be considered a marginally eligible entry for Wine Blogging Wednesday, even if it is a day late. (But who's counting...? It's WBW 56 for those that are.) Hats off to The Corkdork for hosting this month's edition, which focused on fine Kosher wines.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Woodberry Kitchen

Breaking from my usual Baltimore quick trip tradition of crabs and beer on Butcher’s Hill or a night out at Peter’s Inn, this time around I planned ahead for dinner at Woodberry Kitchen. It was my little sister’s birthday after all, and I also remembered old tales from her husband about how much he liked Spike & Charlie’s, Woodberry co-owner Spike Gjerde’s long gone spot near Baltimore’s Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. Besides, I’d been hankering for a visit ever since reading about Woodberry Kitchen at both Old World Old School and The VLMTR.

Open for about a year and a half now, Spike and his wife Amy Gjerde’s newest spot serves contemporary American cuisine with a strong locavore focus. The sprawling space, which includes seating on two-levels, an inviting bar and a fully open kitchen, combines country rusticity with an air of urban chic. It’s a feel very much in keeping with the restaurant’s location on an old mill site that’s now been converted into an upscale condo development. A similar feel carries over to the equally sprawling menu, where popcorn, poutine and pierogies intermingle with Chesapeake classics and dressed up bistro-oriented “supper” plates. Though the menu lacks focus, its wide range offers something for just about any taste.

Oyster Stew – Choptank oysters, cream, leeks, pretzel bowl

Along with the brilliantly flavorful Roseda Farm tavern steak ordered by Sister R, Woodberry’s oyster stew was a highlight of our meal. The pretzel bowl presentation eliminated any need for a side of bread for sopping up the remains of the dish while also putting a fun twist (pun half-intended) on a Maryland standard. Of course, it would have been nothing more than cute if not for the richly creamed soup and generous fistful of plump, juicy Choptanks.

Woolsey Farms Leg of Lamb – purple cabbage, mixed roots, warm pea shoot salad, fresh mint

This was a seasonal special, right down to the creamed purple cabbage that made for a seriously startling, Easter egg-hued plate presentation. Once past the color shock, though, it was plenty tasty, the lamb beautifully bronzed and fork tender, the fresh snap of pea shoots and mint providing brightness and balance to what otherwise would have been a bit too bass heavy.

I neglected to note the official menu description for my dessert. The scrumptious apple-caramel bundt cake was true to Woodberry’s overall feel in its comforting core dressed up with a touch of pastry artistry.

The wine list, split simply into sections for sparkling, white and red, then arranged by price, is also right in step with the menu and mission at Woodberry. Offerings are focused in Europe with just enough globalization to provide appeal to a broad range of diners. A serious nod is given to local wines from both Maryland and Virginia, while the list also includes a featured organic producer – Nuits-Saint-Georges’ Domaine Thibault Liger-Belair at the time of our visit. Good values include the Beaujolais “Cuvée Traditionnelle” from Pierre-Marie Chermette, Charles Joguet’s Chinon “Cuvée Terroir,” and Jo Landron’s 2007 Muscadet from Domaine de la Louvetrie. I had set my sights on Provençal producer Henri Milan’s “Le Grand Blanc,” which I’d scouted out on WK’s website, only to find it no longer available. A bummer… but given our carnivorous choices, we made do with a bottle of red, Montirius’ Vacqueyras “Garrigues.”

Everything we tried was well executed, showing more than enough promise that – as a destination diner in this case – I’d like to see what Chef Spike and his kitchen crew could achieve by cutting back on the number of menu offerings, perhaps allowing things to be taken to a higher level. On the flip side, if I lived close enough to make Woodberry Kitchen a regular stop I might just be happy to have pierogies and poutine for the occasional mix-up, or to splurge on a bottle of Larmandier-Bernier Blanc de Blancs to pair with the housemade potato chips while hanging out at the bar.

Woodberry Kitchen
2010 Clipper Park Road, No. 126
Baltimore, MD 21211
Woodberry Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Monday, April 13, 2009

Midweek in Mobtown

Does the lack of response to yesterday's pop quiz means that identifying the photo turned out to be harder than I expected or is it just a reflection of the fact that traffic here at MFWT tends to plummet like a rock on holidays? The above question is more or less a moot point, as I'm about to reveal the answer to yesterday's puzzle; stop reading (at least for now) if you'd still like to go back and take a stab at it.

Yesterday's mystery photo is of the police station located on Thames Street in Baltimore's Fells Point neighborhood. The station acted as the central setting for my favorite cop drama series of all time, Homicide: Life on the Street, which originally aired on NBC from 1993-1999.

Just across the street from the station, The Daily Grind was once among the progenitors of coffee/cafe culture in Baltimore and was also a regular stop for the cast of HLOTS. It's far less crunchy, far more corporate today than in its early days. But at least it's still not Starbucks.

In spite of all the development that's gone into the Inner Harbor commercial district and Camden Yards over the last couple of decades, the view from most points across Baltimore's harbor still reveals the city's industrial heartbeat.

Though I'd planned my midweek trip to Mobtown just to spend a little time with family, my timing turned out to coincide with my brother-in-law Mark's group art opening at Roman's Place, a tiny little locals' bar at the intersection of the Patterson Park, Canton and Highlandtown neighborhoods in East Baltimore.

That's Mark's entry, "Fool in the Mirror," in the foreground above.

Some of the other entries in the group show, including a typically freaky photo from Sam Holden (who's been mentioned here before).

My nephew Axel, grooving on the artful energy at Roman's.

It may have been a cold and blustery day but Spring was still clearly in force around the pagoda in Patterson Park.

Yep, there was even a little wine junket built into the trip. I hit Chesapeake Wine Company on the way out of town. The shop, which also includes a wine and snack bar, is located on the site of the old American Can Company facility on Boston Street in Canton. They carry a fairly diverse selection with a solid percentage of interesting stuff from good importers such as Rosenthal, Potomac Selections and Domaine Select. They also passed at least one customer service test with flying colors, not even batting an eye when I returned the corked bottle of R. Lopez de Heredia's 2002 Rioja "Viña Cubillo" I'd picked up on my last visit.

There was food too, but for that we'll have to wait....

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Where Was I Last Week?

This shouldn't be too tough.... Bonus points for nailing the 'hood and/or pop culture reference.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Bernard Baudry's 2007 Chinon "Les Granges"

If yesterday was tomorrow, it’s now clearly today…. With that, as promised on Wednesday, today’s post takes us about a half-hour’s drive to the west along the greater Loire Valley to the commune of Chinon and, specifically, to the Domaine of Bernard and Matthieu Baudry in Cravant les Coteaux. Baudry’s wines have been promoted gregariously by Brooklynguy of late, an endorsement that always raises my expectations. This represents my first chance to check in with any of the estate’s wines from the 2007 vintage.

Chinon "Les Granges," Domaine Bernard Baudry 2007
$18. 12.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Louis/Dressner, New York, NY.
In direct opposition to Wednesday’s Cheverny, Baudry’s “Les Granges” was at its most seductive immediately after pouring. Right off the bat, it delivered aromatic waves of hothouse flowers and macerated blue fruit, interspersed with a natural, attractive equine scent. Like many of the other 2007s I’ve tasted from Chinon, Bourgueil and St. Nicolas de Bourgueil, it’s extremely fruit-forward and supple. One could chalk that up partly to the young-vine nature of “Les Granges” but it also seems to be a signature of the vintage – less structured and easier drinking than 2006.

After about 20 minutes, the wine settled into a more red-fruited and slightly leaner stance, with red cassis, pencil shavings and mineral character coming through on the nose and palate. Though its tannins remained quite gentle, the raspy, invigorating texture and bright acidity – both aspects that help wines from this region work so beautifully on the table – became clearer than when first poured. Day two brought much of the same. Not profound but highly pleasurable, this will make a great choice for regular drinking over the next year or two and is more than enough to make me look forward to spending some time with Baudry’s other cuvées from 2007.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Philippe Tessier's 2007 Cheverny Rouge

For today, we have a note on the first of a couple of quite enjoyable and relatively good-value – one perhaps a bit more so than the other in both instances – Loire reds I’ve tried in the last week. The first comes from Philippe Tessier, a producer whose wines I hadn’t come across, until recently, since my last visit to François and Manuela Chidaine’s wine shop, La Cave Insolite, in Montlouis-sur-Loire.

Cheverny Rouge, Domaine Philippe Tessier 2007
$18. 12% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Potomac Selections, Landover, MD.
Is it just me or are Gamay/Pinot Noir blends nearly always stinky? In the case of Philippe Tessier’s Cheverny Rouge, I’m thinking brush fire and a dash of barnyard, backed up by a distinct impression of stemminess. There’s a smidgen of Côt (about 10%) in the blend as well, so perhaps Malbec's typical black earth aromas are also a contributing factor. In any event, the wine’s not altogether charming at first. But on the palate, it’s immediately more pleasing, delivering a subtler version of the “earthy” aspects found on the nose along with bright if somewhat simple red fruits, mostly in the cherry/raspberry end of the spectrum. On day two, it actually blossomed into something much more attractive, with delicacy and fine texture coming to the fore, along with a greater purity and clearer expression of medium cherry fruit and spry acidity. Not a bad choice for simple poultry, and I expect a quite good one for baked salmon.

Tesssier is apparently a somewhat common surname in Cheverny. (I wrote up a Cour Cheverny from another Tessier, Christian, a while back.) Philippe Tessier’s estate comprises 20 hectares of vineyards on an ancient maritime influenced silico-argilo-calcaire soil base in the heart of Cheverny. Philippe farms organically, ferments his wines on their native yeasts and uses only a small dash of sulfur on the bottling line.

Tomorrow, we’ll check in with another ‘07 Loire red, from one of the top producers in Chinon.
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