Friday, July 31, 2009

25 Years of Double Nickels on the Dime

I originally considered running this opposite my interview with California Zinfandel producer Michael Dashe that first appeared as a guest post at Saignée, but I half talked myself out of it and half ran short on time. Before doing the piece on Dashe, I hadn’t published a “formal” interview since my days of writing for DC music scene fanzines back in the 80s. When a friend reminded/clued me in that this month marks the 25th anniversary of the original release of Double Nickels on the Dime in July 1984, though, I just had to do it – no matter how self-indulgent.

Minutemen (there’s no “the” there) were one of my favorite bands of the early to mid 80s and Double Nickels was their benchmark release, an album that still passes the test of time with flying colors.

What you’ll find below is an interview that I conducted with D. Boon (guitar and vocals) and Mike Watt (bass and vocals) on January 3, 1985, in the basement dressing room of the old 9:30 Club in Washington, DC, prior to their gig in support of the release of Double Nickels. The transcript of the interview was originally published in WDC Period #8. I’ve transcribed it here verbatim, with minimal editing only for spelling, punctuation, and necessary info. (Any photo/scan captions are new additions.) It’s a moment in time, so please consider it that way. And consider yourself warned: it’s long. Enjoy the trip into the archives.

* * *

DMcD: How long have you been out on tour?

Watt: Oh, this is just a little blast. This is the first night and we’re playing tomorrow in Trenton, Saturday in New York, and Sunday in Boston and then back home. We’ll be out here April 11 – May 4 for a driver.

DMcD: Up and down the east coast?

Watt: Mainly east coast and the Great Lakes, that’s all, nowhere else. From now on we’re gonna do regional things.

DBoon: Makes sense, you don’t saturate….

Watt: Yeah, it affects your real life, two months on the road. But another thing is you saturate towns, especially if you don’t play areas and then rotate the areas. Black Flag’s having this trouble you know.

DMcD: Yeah, last time they were here only about 150 people showed up.

Watt: It’s the fourth time they’ve been to a town in three months. We want to stay away from that and do it by region so in April we’re gonna do this area, north to New England and the Great Lakes, and that’s all. Last time we did the whole fucking country and Canada – about 57 gigs.

DMcD: Didn’t that get a little expensive?

DBoon: Nah, we all made money. We were very lucky.

DMcD: You guys get a little more per show than most?

Watt: Oh, we average about 400 bucks per show… average… some shows more, some only 80. We made money on the tour though.

DBoon: We’re just thrifty. Ten bucks a day….

Watt: Ten bucks a day… some dude’s moochin’ (laughs).

The band toured every few months....

DMcD: A seasonal question: Did you guys make any new year’s resolutions?

DBoon: I did – to lose weight.

DMcD: D. stands for Dennis, right?

DBoon: With an e [Dennes], yes.

DMcD: Should that be off the record?

DBoon: No, that’s the name I was given. I’m a painter too, and I just sign my paintings D. Boon. You know when you have a two syllable name people kind of shorten it out – like your name’s David but we’re calling you Dave.

Watt: And D. was good too, ‘cause hardly anyone’s named that. There’s a lot of Dennises, but not the way he spells it. His ma spelled it wrong, with an e at the end.

DBoon: Actually, when it really got funny was when we were the Reactionaries. He was Mike Watt, George was G-man, and Marty was Mar-T. One syllable all the way.

Watt: This was our first punk rock band then.

DBoon: Marty [Tamburovich] was our old singer.

Watt: It was us three guys with a singer, the first time we ever wrote songs and all that.

DMcD: You played out in a shack?

Watt: We still play in a shed.

DMcD: Where’d the idea for the new album come from? You know, the cars on the cover and the engines revving on each side.

Watt: Well, we needed a concept to wrap it around ‘cause the Hüskers had this concept….

DMcD: You had to match the Hüskers, huh?

DBoon: Hell, a double album? We might as well.

Watt: But our tunes weren’t written all together as a concept, so we made one up.

DBoon: It’s Los Angeles, plus the title’s “Trucker Town.”

Watt: We drove 55 miles per hour…. It was the whole sprawl, you know, we thought it was really gonna be too sprawled for people, too spread out. We didn’t really think people would think it was so together as it turned out that people thought. So we tried all these interesting songs, other people’s lyrics, tried to keep people interested. We thought they’d get bored and think it was self-indulgent.

DBoon: We really did. We really thought it would be badly received.

DMcD: Whose car is on side 4?

Watt: Side Chaff. That’s all three of us revving up.

DBoon: On my side, my car’s a ’69 Chevy and two of the lifters aren’t paired right. It sounds like shit.

Watt: Almost as bad as my Volkswagen.

DMcD: Why’d you do “Little Man with a Gun in His Hand” again?

Watt: Originally, we had a really good two guitar part.

DBoon: I wrote the song and I wanted to do all these different things with it, you know. On Buzz or Howl [Under the Influence of Heat] it was like an experiment. We had just rehearsed it that day.

Watt: It was recorded live.

DBoon: And we went in the studio that night, so we did it.

Watt: And it’s recorded live to two-track, singin’ and playin’ at the same time. Buzz or Howl was done for $50, man. We jammed.

DBoon: And it was all done without any rehearsal…. I wanted to go back in and put overdubs and redo it the way it should have been.

Watt: That’s why we did it.

DBoon: We put an ending on it and stuff.

Watt: Oh yeah! The Buzz or Howl version doesn’t even have a real ending. We just faded it out.

DBoon: It fucked up in the bass and we just turned it down.

Watt: And then Spot added all that stuff like, “No one knows, no one knows….” That’s me yelling ‘cause those guys thought it fucked up the song and I said “No one knows.” Spot added that on without us knowing. He did the same thing on What Makes a Man Start Fires – “Where’s the blowtorch?” or something like that, and then all the little messages written in.

DMcD: The blank groove at the end of the record?

Watt: Yeah, that’s Spot and Joe Carducci. We have nothing to do with that. We’ve only scratched ‘em on one of our records. Most of them are Spot and Carducci. Carducci runs SST [Records].

DBoon: It’s kind of like their fun thing to do. I mean, they put out the records and all and they never really have a chance to help. I mean, they participate in their way but they just want something that they can have fun at. We’re not, like, upset about whatever they do.

Watt: No, no. We don’t take these things so seriously. We’re gonna start on our tenth record soon, you know. It’s just like a gig – we’re gonna have another record. It’s kind of neat. It’s called Tour Spiel and it’s got four tunes done live.

DMcD: A 7” on SST?

Watt: No, it’s on the Husker’s label and it’s got “Ain’t Talkin’ About Love,” “The Red and the Black,” “Green River,” and “Lost.” All four of those live from the Campaign Trail. Okay, that’s already done. At the end of this month we start the Mersh Project [Project: Mersh], which is gonna be a five song record which will be out April first.

DMcD: April fools day?

Watt: April Fools. And then ten days later we go on our tour, our Mersh tour. Mersh alive in ’85. It’s this joke we have. We’re gonna have songs that kind of fade out… no, I shouldn’t tell you what it is, it’ll ruin the surprise. You’ll see when it’s out. And then this summer another album, a real album. Minutemen albums are just like a gig in the studio. We really don’t put a lot into the production.

DMcD: Not a whole lot of overdubs or mixes?

Watt: Well, we’ll add another guitar… that’s it.

DBoon: You know, we do overdub but not extensively.

Watt: We don’t sing at the same time, but that’s it.

DBoon: On the whole double album, with all the songs in their entirety, we only spent $1200.

DMcD: How much studio time?

Watt: I’d say about six days. About 36-40 hours on the playing and maybe 20 hours on the mix. Ethan James mixed it. He used to be in Blue Cheer; now he works with the Minutemen. He had a different name in those days. He’s really nice. We worked in an 8-track studio; it’s very small and very real. You don’t have to do a second take, he’s got it. And that’s the way we like it. Just like gigs.

A classic Minutemen setlist... not sure whether this is from the show where I did the interview, the one before or the one after, but the time period's right.

DMcD: What’s your song writing process, if you have one?

Watt: There’s D. Boon songs, my songs and George songs, and there we go.

DBoon: A lot of them are jams; a lot of them are contrived.

Watt: Come to practice with a riff and here’s my words to it.

DMcD: Do you practice on your own a lot and think things up?

Watt: Sure, and then bring ‘em to the band. We hardly ever just start jamming’ out and then get a song out of it. We hardly ever do that. We’ve done it, but most of them – D. Boon brings in a riff, I’ll play to it, it’s his song. We’ve written over 200 songs and I think that way’s a little easier. You compromise. You give in on his song, he gives in on your song – you get a process down. George writes words; he’s really not into writing the music.

DBoon: There’s no absolute leader or direction point. We all take part.

Watt: Me and Dennes have been playin’ together since we were 13, so that’s 14 years.

DMcD: Did you have a cover tune band or something?

Watt: Not even that, just in the bedroom. Blue Oyster Cult, T. Rex, Creedence Clearwater Revival….

DBoon: And my parents would come up and tell us to “turn that shit down.”

Watt: Yeah right, and then in high school we really only made a couple of gigs. Mostly just jammin’ in the bedroom. We come from the middle 70s, you know.

DBoon: Boredom!

Watt: I wasn’t into a club until I was 19. I saw the Talking Heads at the Whiskey in ’77, when you could actually see the dudes play. And then the local bands like the Germs. I said, “We can do this,” and it was hard to get D. Boon to do it but then we went for it after about half a year. Pedro was really backwards. Couldn’t get nobody to really do it.

DBoon: The first punk show I went to I was going, “Man, those people are crazy.” At my first show I was just checkin’ it out and like a week later we went again and then I went down and pogo-ed.

Watt: Yeah, you did say, “Hey, these guys are lame,” because you’re so used to the stadium thing that you forget that these guys are tryin’ something on their own. But you don’t know that. You’re brought up on that whole ‘70s aesthetic of “the show goes on.”

DBoon: I mean, nobody can be ELP, so you might as well forget it. I mean, that’s the way it was.

Watt: Just hope to copy the record. You never even thought of writing tunes.

DBoon: Like the best guitar player in school was the guy who could play like Jimmy Page, and it was hands down, no contest. No one else could come close.

Watt: No one would write their own tunes.

DBoon: Well, they would, but they’d be like two chords or somethin’ and a big lead jam.

Watt: Well everyone had their, you know… you did “Burn” (laughs). Those were different days and we’re glad they’re gone…. So that’s what we come from. We don’t really come from jazz backgrounds; that’s what we developed in our twenties.

DBoon: Tell him that catch about….

Watt: Oh yeah, we do have a jazz influence: Buck Dharma. His dad was a top saxophonist, and there’s our jazz connection.

DMcD: Through Blue Oyster Cult?

Watt: Oh yeah, we were heavily into Buck but we thought BOC was the most progresso rock, you know. Tyranny and Mutation – this is the hardest rock. We really looked up to them, you know. Creedence was real easy; that’s how we learned. So that’s what we come out of, that’s our history – comin’ up from Pedro to check out the Hollywood punk rock and finally getting’ balls to try it on our own. And then finally, hardcore happens. Hardcore happened two years after punk rock. I hope people realize that. Anyways… and then Black Flag got all kinds of gigs and we got to open for them. Hundreds of gigs getting spit on… (laughs). But they were gigs!

DBoon: Before the days of Black Flag there was this big upper thing, though. Like if you weren’t from Hollywood then you could never play a Hollywood gig.

Watt: That’s how punk rock was in L.A. – ya’ couldn’t have a tan! If you had a tan like you had been in the sun, they knew you were from Orange County.

DBoon: And if you wore a t-shirt or, like, Levis….

Watt: Yeah, you had to wear black.

DMcD: You had to look anemic and wear black clothes…?

Watt: Right (laughs).

DBoon: It wasn’t like if your hair was long or anything, cause Hollywood guys had real long hair and they just tied it up.

Watt: Sure, most of ‘em were burned out critters.

DBoon: If you didn’t have a hair style… yeah, we didn’t have hair style or anything. I mean, we kinda’ got into it….

Watt: We painted Clash thing on our shirts. We saw the Clash when they first came and we painted things on our shirts.

DBoon: But, you know, Hollywood people were just really bent on appearance. But we would go up there with our six packs and stuff and just watch bands. We always tried to get gigs but we were from the suburbs. Finally, Black Flag started getting really gig gigs where 500 people would come.

Watt: Their second gig was our first gig. They really just happened into that. It was weird how that hardcore thing happened, but what it did was it moved from Hollywood to the suburbs. There were no bands….

DMcD: But now there’s a band for every block in Orange County.

Watt: We’ve noticed, which was kind of neat about the Hollywood bands. It was fucked that they were elitists, but a lot of the bands were different. You could tell them apart. That Decline [of Western Civilization] movie, I think, really made things almost all the same. You go into these little towns and they all have their Decline band, and that’s the only band there, and they’re real radical. But I try to tell ‘em, “Hey, it really ain’t that way. It’s been happening for eight years. It’s an institution. Take the ball and run with it, you’re free enough. You’re lucky you ain’t like us, growin’ up and havin’ to play somebody else’s shit. You don’t have to do that now.” I think it’ll close up again.

DMcD: You really think so?

Watt: Oh sure, things are circles. We have guitar solos. When we started the Minutemen, we killed all the guitar solos. We didn’t want any of that. Now we have guitar solos.

DMcD: Still no choruses, though.

Watt: Not yet. We just try whatever we try, you know, but things do revolve in circles I think. Try for a direction.

The cover photos from "Double Nickels" were a geeked-out way to wrap up the concept album. The concept turned out to have a tragically ironic twist, though, when D. Boon died in a car accident just before Xmas 1985, less than two years after the album's release. There was no Internet those days and long distance calls were expensive; I found out about D.'s passing via a press release from SST. Listening to Double Nickels has been poignant ever since....

DMcD: I hear you guys have been doing acoustic gigs lately.

Watt: Sure, we’ve done about twelve of them. They’re just like electric gigs except we’ve got acoustic guitars. We don’t change the songs, except for some parts.

DBoon: George plays bongos. It’s pretty beatnik.

Watt: We just do it to fill a different demand. We don’t really play folksy songs, we just play the same old songs exactly that way.

DMcD: Any chance of one of those happening here in DC?

Watt: Sure, why not?

DBoon: Maybe we should try to set up something where we play earlier and play at different places.

Watt: We’re still jumpin’ around and stuff but it’s just all little. It’s kind of fun. We don’t really sit there and wail out Woody Guthrie. A lot of bands do, like the Knitters. They’re some people from X but they play all this different stuff. They don’t play X songs on acoustic guitar.

DMcD: So… there’s a promo 12” for Double Nickels that has etching on a blank side.

Watt: Right, that’s the radio promo, “The Wheel of Fortune.”

DMcD: There’s a dollar sign…

DBoon: A swastika, a hammer and sickle…

Watt: And a joint. All inside a wheel.

DMcD: Why?

DBoon: That’s Carducci.

DMcD: Somebody told me it was because one of you was a die-hard republican, one of you was a communist, one of you gets high and you all drive cars. (Meanwhile, D. Boon cracks up in the background.)

Watt: Nah, you know, it’s like, “Where’s the wheel land this time?” That’s what it meant; that’s what Carducci…

DBoon: Well, you see, back home we have this reputation of being, like, a political band, politically conscious, right, and those guys make fun of us like it’s a waste of time. You know… you should just worry about this and worry about that. It was just kinda’ like a joke. It’s like we all smoke pot and we all drive cars and we talk about money and communism and fascism, but not in any direct point of view like we’re behind this or that. It’s more him just making fun of us. And I kinda liked it; I thought it was funny, especially the joint. It was just a joke, you know. It was a Carducci joke.

Watt: I know what it was. He told me when he did it. We only had one record for the radio promo ‘cause it was too expensive to give out the double album. We had one side – 9 songs. He picked them. We called it the “Wheel of Fortune” ‘cause this was the first time we ever culled songs, so it was like “spin the wheel and where does it land.”

DMcD: For the nine songs?

Watt: No, for the whole idea, and Joe’s idea at the time was like us, our personalities, like when you talk to him the guy’s got a joint in his mouth or he’s rappin’ on commies, and he’s like, “Where’s the wheel spin this time?” We all smoke pot but we’re not into Nazism, but a lot of radio stations we wrote to were angry over that. They thought we were pro-Nazi. No way! It was just like the messages added onto the end of all the other records, this objective SST viewpoint.

DBoon: And the English release...

Watt: The England SST doesn’t feel real confident about us ‘cause we’ve sold hardly any records in Europe. Hüsker does great, Meat Puppets does great but we do really bad. The cover’s gonna be like the US Double Nickels but it does not open and it’s black and white. I don’t know why they don’t like us over there that much. Maybe it’s the name….

DMcD: I never thought about that. Maybe you’re just not “hard” enough… then again the Meat Puppets are not too hard, either.

Watt: They’re gonna make a third record on SST soon. Live, they’re not like their records at all. Their gigs are on or off, they get too buzzed when they’re playing. They get all bummed out and turn into themselves. Sometimes they play real good…. They know how to play good, though; you can tell on the records.

DMcD: So, going back to what we were talking about earlier, do you consider yourselves a political band?

DBoon: We are aware of people.

DMcD: Like on the first seven inch, Paranoid Time, all the songs have political lyrics.

Watt: Yeah, it was a paranoid time. We were writin’ about what was on our minds at that time. It was the first time we wrote songs in our fuckin’ life. It wasn’t like the Reactionaries, ‘cause those songs were real boring. That’s what we were like then, and that’s the first time we ever wrote tunes. As a band, sure, some of our songs are political. It’s mostly commentary.


* * *

And out... with a classic video, one of the two released in support of Double Nickels on the Dime.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Domaine Guion Bourgueil

Though I didn’t take notes when drinking the 2007 Bourgueil “Cuvée Domaine” from Domaine Guion a month or two back, I remember it leaving me somewhat nonplussed. Good wine, certainly. Drinkable, an easy bistro wine, but not much more. A little lean and monochromatic. I’ve heard positive things about Guion’s wines though, from people whose opinions I trust, so when it came time to select something to pair with a simple market dinner – grilled pork chops, seasoned with nothing more than salt and pepper, and a mixed green salad – out came the slightly more “serious” wine from Domaine Guion.

Bourgueil “Cuvée Prestige,” Domaine Guion (Stéphane Guion) 2005
$14. 12.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Fruits of the Vines, New York, NY.

First off, fourteen bucks? This is a seriously good value, especially given that, as mentioned above, it is the estate’s more elaborate wine (the “Domaine” bottling goes for $11). A bright, translucent red with violet highlights, it shines that slightly surreal color of raspberry sorbet – the natural stuff, not the dyed blue variety. Brett is the first thing that greets the nose, savory more than off-putting, attractive in its fresh-stomped aromas of the barnyard. The wine’s not flawless but it’s all the more interesting for its crooks and freckles.

Blackberries, slightly under ripe black cherries and a muddle of green and black peppercorns first strike the palate and are echoed on the nose once past the wine’s Brett-driven pungency. Slightly sour acidity and a taut, narrow tannic profile make this a wine for the table, for sure; delicious with my pork chop but more than a little challenging as an easy sipping wine. Again, that complicated essence is one of the qualities that most endears me to good Loire Cabernet Franc.

As things open up and settle in, the wine’s blue- and red-fruited nature comes to the fore – plums, blueberries, boysenberries…. And yes, it’s also very floral, with a nose not unlike the slightly rustic side of cool vintage Northern Rhône Syrah – hothouse flowers, baking spices, berry fruit and animal aromatics. Fourteen bucks? Yep, I could happily drink this on a regular basis.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Interview with Michael Dashe

The following interview originally appeared at Saignée as my contribution to Cory Cartwright's 31 Days of Natural Wine. For any who may have missed the interview there, here it is in its entirety.

While answering Cory’s call for contributions to 31 Days of Natural Wine was easy, coming up with what to write about took a little more work. Rather than dipping into the archives or revisiting a long familiar producer, I decided to push my own envelope a bit, to write about something at least a little outside of my Eurocentric norm, something where I could learn a little too. And then it came to me. I’d had a nice chat with Michael Dashe of Dashe Cellars at a Michael Skurnik portfolio tasting earlier this year. Mike’s wines had left me with a very favorable impression, an impression that’s been supported by subsequent experiences with several of his wines at the dinner table. So a few emails and phone calls later, the following interview was born.

DMcD: To get us started, would you tell us a little about yourself and about Dashe Cellars?

MDashe: Dashe Cellars is a husband and wife (and a French-American) winemaking team—we were married and started the winery in the same year, 1996. Our idea was to make balanced, complex wines from distinctive vineyards, using as natural as possible winemaking techniques. We’ve grown into a 9000 case winery located in an urban setting, in Oakland.

Together, Anne and I have quite a bit of winemaking experience. I worked for over eight years as assistant winemaker at Ridge Vineyards, and worked short stints at Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, Cloudy Bay, Far Niente, Schramsberg, and Roudin-Smith wineries. Anne is a University of Bordeaux-trained winemaker who worked at Château La Dominique, Chappellet Winery, and Remy-Martin in Napa (Carneros Alambic).

DMcD: Given the scope of Cory’s “31 Days” project, what’s your take on “naturalness” in the context of wine?

MDashe: We’ve always been believers in non-intrusive winemaking—we make wine without getting in the way of the purity of the flavors, and we have since we started the winery 13 years ago. I use native yeasts to conduct fermentations, use low levels of SO2, don’t mask flavors with new oak, and don’t manipulate wine unduly. I’m against “industrial” winemaking techniques with which the goal is to make consistent wines at the cost of individuality and complexity.

That said, we’re not dogmatic about natural winemaking. I’ve tasted many, many wonderful natural wines, but I’ve also tasted natural wines that taste like a poorly run experiment. We feel the goal should be to make the most authentic wine possible by selecting great vineyard sites and not getting in the way of the flavors, but also to make well-made wines.

DMcD: Though I know you produce Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Riesling, etc… I tend to think of Dashe Cellars as specializing in Zinfandel. Why Zin? Or am I wrong to think that?

MDashe: We do specialize in Zinfandel. When I was working at Ridge Vineyards I met some great growers of Zinfandel, most of who were working with old-vine fruit. Some of our vineyards are 80+ years old—it’s really a privilege to work with fruit like that. I’ve always felt that Zinfandel can make incredible wines when grown correctly and not harvested too ripe. I’m on a personal quest to make Zinfandel-based wines that can stand on the world stage as great wines that have wonderful personality and can age well. Call me crazy, but it can be done.

DMcD: How did the time you spent at Ridge influence your decision to go it on your own, and how, if at all, does it continue to guide your winemaking decisions?

MDashe: I owe a tremendous debt to Ridge Vineyards and Paul Draper for exposing me to a wide variety of fruit sources and to traditions of natural winemaking. I think Paul is an innately soulful winemaker, who completely respects his vineyards and is one of the great proponents of natural winemaking in the US. After 8 ½ years working at Ridge, I wanted to go out on my own – mostly because I didn’t want to be the oldest assistant winemaker in California. Paul Draper was extremely supportive of my creating my own winery. And yes, I use many techniques I used at Ridge for my own winemaking style—things like using native yeast, submerged-cap fermentations, techniques to limit tannin extraction from seeds, etc.

DMcD: You’re in the distinct minority in California in choosing to ferment all of your wines (if I’m not mistaken) on their native/ambient yeasts. What inspired that decision? Do you ever use cultured yeasts? If so, why?

MDashe: I do use native yeast fermentations, almost exclusively. At Ridge Vineyards almost everything is fermented on native yeast, and I felt the results were dramatically positive. I started Dashe Cellars using native yeast fermentations. There have been times in the past when all the grapes were coming into the winery at once, due to vintage conditions, and if I absolutely had to have tanks available I would inoculate with yeast so that fermentation would finish and I’d have a tank available. That never happens now, because we have more fermentation space. We’ve purchased enough tanks (and I’m using these wonderful 900-gallon foudres made from French oak) so that I no longer need to force tank space. So now we’re a 100% native yeast winery.

DMcD: It may be fair to say that you’ve received more attention from natural wine aficionados for “L’Enfant Terrible” than for the rest of your wines combined. First of all, tell us about “L’Enfant.” What first inspired you to produce it? Does the attention it gets frustrate you at all?

MDashe: One of the nice things about being around for a while is that you can make a wine for yourself—to make a wine that you think would be a great wine to drink—and not worry that it will drag down the winery because it might not sell. We know that people out there trust us to make wines that are interesting, and our customers are willing to try new things from us because they have faith in our winemaking abilities.

L’Enfant Terrible came out of our desire to make a wine that was like the wines we love from Europe, that are complex, soft, balanced, lovely, wonderful wines to go with food. Anne and I love higher acid, lower alcohol wines from Europe and wanted to see if we could make something that was more like a wine from Morgon or Fleurie. We were encouraged by friends like Mark Ellenbogen, the wine director of The Slanted Door (in San Francisco). Mark had mostly European wines on his list, because he felt that the cuisine didn’t go well with a lot of Californian wines. He called me out of the blue and asked if I thought I could find an organic Zinfandel vineyard that could make (for lack of a better term) a “more European-style” wine like those I knew he liked. I had just the previous day been visiting high up in the hills of Mendocino County, where I get my organic Riesling, and had seen a very unusual Zin vineyard. I tasted the grapes and they had great flavor (and very little color!) and had thought it would make an unusual wine. After getting the call from Mark, it seemed to all come together. I called the grower on the spot and told him I’d buy the entire lot of Zinfandel. After making it, I thought, “Oh God, what have I done?” It was so opposite of a typical Californian wine that I thought it would be a very difficult wine to understand for most people. To be fair, Anne from the start thought that L’Enfant Terrible was a great wine, and would get a following.

We were shocked at how quickly people seemed to find out about the wine on the Internet. There was a serious amount of interest in the wine, before I had even released it, simply by my showing it to a few journalists and wine lovers in New York and California. A few select people who had a lot of credibility in the wine blogging universe wrote about it—and the wine just took off. We aren’t frustrated at all about the attention given to the wine—it highlights how we make all of our wines.

DMcD: You’re currently purchasing most if not all of your fruit, correct? Do you have plans or ambitions to get into the farming end of the winegrowing cycle at any point in the future?

MDashe: We purchase all of our fruit, and have great relationships with our growers. We work with them in their growing practices. I don’t have any plans to get into the grape growing business unless we purchase, one day, a Loire vineyard. That would interest us—but it’s a bit of a pipedream. Otherwise, it’s just too expensive to consider a vineyard in the US.

DMcD: Where do farming practices fit into the decision making process when you’re considering a relationship with a grower? Do you specifically seek out organic or biodynamic growers?

MDashe: All of our growers are small, family growers. We actively look for certified organic and biodynamic farms—that’s how we found the vineyards for L’Enfant Terrible and the Riesling. We’ve recently located a few biodynamic vineyards and are making wine from them. Most of our other vineyards are sustainably farmed and we are encouraging our growers to seek organic certification if they’re using organic practices. We’ve found that some of our growers who are essentially farming organically do not want to go through the process to get certified, either because they don’t want to go through a long process, or because they feel it ties their hands too much.

DMcD: There’s only one white wine in your current production portfolio. Why Riesling? (Not that I’m complaining.)

MDashe: We looked for years for white varietals that have enough acidity to satisfy us and finally after quite a while we found this Riesling vineyard in the mountains of Mendocino. California has so many hot regions—we hadn’t found many white vineyards that were cool enough for us. We like to have a good acid balance to make white wine. We’re trying to find some colder region grapes, but we may have to go out of state to get them.

DMcD: We’ve talked about yeast, so I’m sure you’ve already anticipated a question about the other big bugaboo – sulfur. What are your thoughts about sulfur (in its various forms) and what approach do you take with it at Dashe?

MDashe: We have quite low sulfur levels in all of our wines—in the bottle we often have almost no detectable sulfur. We add some sulfur at the crusher, so that non-Saccharomyces yeasts and bacteria can’t start fermenting strongly before the correct yeasts take hold. During fermentation, virtually all of the sulfur is used up. We then add either none or extremely low levels during aging. We certainly use less SO2 than the vast majority of winemakers, in the US or anywhere else, for that matter.

DMcD: As long as we’re there…. What about acid adjustment, dealcoholization, enzymes and all the other various and sundry adjuncts and engineering techniques commonplace in contemporary winemaking? Are they all crutches? Or do you find any of them useful or necessary to your winemaking regime?

MDashe: Again, we don’t use most techniques to change or modify wines—we don’t use enzymes or other chemical agents, and we virtually never have added acid. I can taste added acid in wines, and I dislike the flavor intensely. We stick to our natural winemaking techniques, but it’s silly to allow a wine to go bad in the name of natural winemaking. Taking a vow to never use technology is like taking a vow to never use medicine. I take Advil when I have a headache, and I take the steps I need to in the few times that I have a problematic wine. But we never use technology to enhance a wine, or to make a wine taste identical to a previous vintage, or to concentrate a wine to make it more likely to get a high score. That’s just not our style.

DMcD: If there’s a victim that’s taken more than its share of abuse in the current backlash regarding overblown wines, it would seem to be oak – particularly small and/or new barrels. Your thoughts? What guides your decisions in choosing appropriate vessels for fermentation and aging?

MDashe: As I’ve gotten older and become a more experienced winemaker, I’ve found myself using less and less oak, and getting almost completely away from new oak. It doesn’t go with our style of winemaking.

I’m very sensitive to oak. For the past two years I haven’t bought any new oak at all, because I just don’t like the flavor of new oak in our wines. I buy one- or two-year old oak barrels from good white wine producers, so that I can have oak aging, without the overwhelming flavors of new oak. Also, I’m a huge proponent now of larger oak cooperage, so that I can age wine and get complex flavors without any overt oak flavors. I now have three 900 gallon foudres and am planning on buying at least one every year for the next few years, so that I can greatly increase the effect of these large oak barrels on the wines. Not only does it decrease the oak flavors, but it also seems to increase the exposure of the wine to yeast (almost like lees stirring) so that we get more complex flavors and softer wines. The L’Enfant Terrible and most of my wines now never see new oak.

DMcD: Do you feel that your wines tend to be overlooked by the mainstream wine press? If so, why?

MDashe: Yep. I think that it’s natural for wine judges—including journalists—to become attracted to big, ripe wines when tasting many wines in a row. More subtle, balanced wines—which include Dashe Cellars wines—can get overwhelmed by big wines in large judgings. That being said, we still have gotten many, many positive reviews. In fact, most reviews have been positive. We are very pleased that some of the journalists that we respect the most—Eric Asimov of the New York Times is one that comes to mind—have been very complimentary about the wines. We decided a long time ago that we wouldn’t chase scores—it wasn’t our style of wine that would garner 98 point scores from mainstream wine magazines. It’s not a condemnation; it’s just a fact. So we just concentrated on our style, which we felt was creating complex, balanced, interesting wines. And we feel that our customer base has quietly grown.

DMcD: What lies ahead for Dashe Cellars? Any plans to expand or venture into new territories?

MDashe: We’re comfortable with our size. In the biggest years, we’re about 10,000 cases, which is more than large enough for us. If we were to grow bigger, we’d have to hire more people and spend our time managing instead of winemaking. Our size is perfect to be able to taste and blend all of the wines and make a living at winemaking.

We are expanding our lineup slightly to include some new varietals such as Grenache, Petite Sirah, and Mourvedre. We want to do more wines in the same vein as L’Enfant Terrible, since we feel we really struck a nerve with people who are willing to drink wines that are out of the mainstream. Journalists have asked me if I think that it’s an extremely small group of people who are willing to consider a wine like L’Enfant Terrible. I think it’s really a movement of people away from the huge, black, inky wines that have made the big scores in the mainstream press. As American tastes become more sophisticated, and they taste more and more wine with food, we feel they’ll want more balanced wines and will be able to differentiate complexity from intensity.

DMcD: I understand you’re in France at the moment. Pure pleasure, or will you be doing wine research while you’re there? Any regions or producers you’re particularly interested in visiting?

MDashe: We love being in France—Anne’s family lives in Brittany on the south coast, and we visit here every year. My kids (we have 9- and 10-year old girls) speak French and we want them to experience some country life in France during the summers.

We try to visit at least one wine region every year, although we end up in the Loire Valley (because we love it) and in Bordeaux (because we have friends that live there) more often than not. We’ve become friends with some great winemakers by meeting them through Joe and Denise Dressner (importers whose portfolio of wines we really respect), and try to visit the wineries, taste wines, and talk about winemaking.

DMcD: More importantly (grin), will you get to see any of the Tour de France while you’re there?

MDashe: Been watching it as much as possible. A number of years ago, it came through Anne’s town, and we waited hours to watch the few seconds of the racers zipping by. Very exciting.

* * *

Michael and I had both hoped to do a little follow-up after this first round of questions but he was in France after all, and vacation was calling. He and Anne were headed off to the Loire, where they planned to visit François Pinon and Huet in Vouvray; François Chidaine in Montlouis; Catherine and Pierre Breton in Chinon and Bourgueil; Nicolas Joly and Domaine du Closel in Savennières; and Marc Olivier in the Pays Nantais. Now that’s my kind of trip.

I look forward to talking more with Michael in the near future. Until then, feel free to hit the comments with any follow-up or new questions you may have for Michael (and/or Anne) and I’ll do my best to have them answered here… or perhaps included in a second interview installment.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Le Tour Est Fin: The Vaucluse, Ventoux and the TGV to Paris

Three weeks. As quickly as it came, it’s gone. Another year of what must be considered one the world’s greatest sporting spectacles: the Tour de France. The final week of this year’s Tour proved to be less decisive than some had postulated it would be, as the final positions on the podium had already pretty well shaped up after the first day or two in the Alps. Yet the final week was still as exciting as always, perhaps even more so than usual given the penultimate stage’s finish atop the giant of Provence, Mont Ventoux. The end results may have been predictable but the fireworks were no less thrilling to watch.

In all the times I’ve traveled to France, never once have I put rubber to road on a bicycle. Friends who know how much I like to ride find it hard to believe, but it’s true. Wine, food, culture and good old general tourism have always taken precedence. One of these years, though, I’ll eventually make it over for a cyclo-centric trip. When I do, I have to say that L’Alpe d’Huez will be the mecca atop my list of mountains to be climbed. But the Ventoux won’t be far behind.

I’ve spent enough time in its tremendous shadow to have a clear mental image of what to expect, for the Ventoux dominates the vista in much of the Vaucluse and can be seen from most parts of Provence and the Southern Rhône, its bald, lunar pinnacle looming in startling contrast to the rolling green countryside that surrounds it. When last I visited the Vaucluse – the French department in which Mont Ventoux is situated – we spent several days hiking, driving, eating and exploring throughout the villages and countryside in the mountain’s environs. Our home for the duration of our stay was a lovely little B&B on the outskirts of Menerbes, just down the street from the winery that produced the wine I sipped with dinner while watching the riders claw their way up Ventoux’s slopes.

Côtes du Luberon “Les Artèmes” Rouge, Domaine de la Citadelle (Yves Rousset-Rouard) 2001
$18 on release. 14.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.

Much as the Luberon hills lie in the shadow of Mont Ventoux, Domaine de la Citadelle sits directly beneath the fortressed, hilltop town of Menerbes. The Domaine’s wines are soundly among the best in the Luberon, while their winery itself makes for an easy, even quirky afternoon tasting destination. Outside there is a “demonstration” vineyard, with specimens planted of just about every vine known to the area and then some, while inside is the Musée du Tire-Bouchon, which features a highly entertaining array of corkscrews in various shapes, forms and designs from throughout the ages.

Though the blend in “Les Artèmes” rouge shifts slightly according to the conditions of each vintage, it is generally a roughly equal part blend of Grenache and Syrah, aged in a mixture of tank and older barrels. At eight years of age, the 2001 Artèmes has shed much of its youthful brightness and taken on a richer, mellowed feel, with slightly Port-like aromas, a hint of browning in the glass and loads of fine sediment in the bottle. There’s still plenty of generous fruit and enticingly spicy scents, but I think I preferred it in its youth, when it displayed a snappier acid balance and slightly crunchier, less overripe flavor and textural profile. A bit overmatched with my staple chicken pot pie (I still haven’t found a better pairing than Puffeney’s Poulsard) but I think this would be right on with braised lamb shanks… about four months and forty degrees from now.

* * *

That’s my final report on Les Vins du Tour de France…. There was no Sunday morning Champagne (as I’d suggested as a possibility in the opening stage of my race coverage) while watching the coverage of the final day’s TGV ride from Avignon to the Parisian suburbs and the ensuing race into Paris – at least not for me – so I leave you with a few simple thoughts on the 2009 Tour.

Contador conquered, as expected. Lance rode amazingly well and, in spite of all the drama generated in the press, he did it in a truly supportive manner – didn’t think he had it in him. The brothers Schleck both impressed; watch out for Andy next year if he can get his time trialing skills dialed up a notch or two. Mark Cavendish is a freak of nature. His performance in taking six stage wins this year was leaps above his level in last year’s race, and he won four stages then. My man of the Tour, though, was Cav’s teammate, George Hincapie. Riding in his fourteenth consecutive Tour, and perhaps his last, he came within reach of the yellow jersey only to be struck with the disappointment of missing it by five seconds. A few days later, he crashed hard, bruising or maybe even breaking his collarbone – I still don’t know which – but refused to be x-rayed for fear that he’d be told to retire from the race. Nope, he forged on, rode through the pain. And consummate team rider that he is, he finished with a flourish in setting up the perfect lead out for Cavendish’s final stage victory on the Champs d’Elysées. Cav, of course, deserves all the credit for the win. And Mark Renshaw is unquestionably one of the best lead-out men in the cycling biz today. But just watch George’s jump from under the flame rouge (the 1K to go flag). It’s a thing of beauty.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Out of the Alps, Contre le Montre

It’s been an exciting trip through the Alps. The first half of the final week of the 2009 Tour de France has seen the riders cross borders, scale peaks and stake their claims. It’s seen them suffer. It’s seen many riders implode, with pre-race contenders such as Carlos Sastre (last year’s champ) and Cadel Evans dropping by the wayside, perhaps weighed down both mentally and physically by the huge time deficits they incurred way back in the Stage 4 team time trial. It’s seen others live up to or far exceed expectations. If anyone had told me before the Tour started that Bradley Wiggins would still be in the top six after the Alps, I’d have called them crazy. The Schleck brothers have ridden stupendously, too, especially Frank. The image of them crossing the line in yesterday’s stage, finishing first and third, both with arms raised high, will be one of the classic memories from this year’s Tour, no matter where they figure in the final outcome.

Image courtesy of Roberto Bettini.

Of course, the biggest drama of the week was the ongoing question as to who would finally prove themselves strongest, the team leader of Astana: Armstrong or Contador. It’s played out just as I’d expected, and the team has played up the drama with serious panache and fine tactical sense. There’s little doubt now, barring misfortune, that Alberto Contador will finish the Tour on the top step of the podium. Even with today’s time trial and Saturday’s finish atop Mont Ventoux on the horizon, I think he’s got it locked.

Armstrong himself has been incredibly impressive, coming right back to the top of the sport after three years of retirement. I wasn’t sure he had it in him – not the performance but rather the teamsmanship. He may be struggling a tad more in the high mountains than he did in years past but only a tad. What he’s really been doing is riding in strong support of Contador’s position, watching Alberto go up the road, discouraging other riders from chasing him down by setting a tough tempo, and then managing to drop them to defend his own position in the general classification. The Schlecks may have bumped him down to 4th place after yesterday’s stage. But with today’s time trial and Saturday’s finish atop Mont Ventoux (sound familiar?), don’t count him out of the top three come Sunday’s ride into Paris. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him scratch his way back past one if not both of the Luxembourgian brothers.

Today’s post, though, is dedicated to Jens Voigt. The video above may focus upon Armstrong’s Stage 16 exploits but I like it most because it shows Jens, always the immaculate professional, riding way above his comfort zone in support of his teammates. That’s him about half way through the video, the big guy in the white and black kit of Team Saxobank, leading the group from which Armstrong had been dropped. These are the high Alps, mind you, not the rolling hills where Voigt usually launches his breakaway escapades. Regrettably, Jens crashed out of the Tour later in the same stage, wiping out horrifically during a high speed descent. Luckily, he came through it okay. His crash has been the scariest of the Tour thus far – let’s hope it stays that way. And while his crash is likely to be the image that will be remembered, I prefer to think of him leading the charge up the hill, sacrificing himself for the good of his team.

* * *

It may seem anti-climactic to bring wine into the picture at this point. But I did half-promise, half-threaten to follow the wine trail along the route of this year’s Tour, so here goes. The last few days, as I mentioned above, have seen the riders crossing not just the Alps but also borders, from France into Switzerland into Italy and back again to France. I had no wine in my cellar from the Swiss Valais or from France’s Haute-Savoie, and I didn’t manage to open anything from Italy’s Valle d’Aosta. So I opted for something from right in the midst of it all – the Jura.

Arbois Pupillin Chardonnay, Emmanuel Houillon 2006
$25. 12.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Louis/Dressner, New York, NY.

When last I drank Houillon’s 2006 Chardonnay, my notes brought its importer Joe Dressner out of the wings. The wine was extremely reductive; not so, this time.

This was definitely a great bottle – subtly funky on the nose and electrically alive in the mouth, with no signs of reduction. What is it about the aromas of so many Jura wines that makes me think of the beach? These are mountain wines after all, not coastal produce. But Houillon’s Chardonnay showed a pungent nose of sandy minerality tied to scents of lemon meringue pie crust that, yep, brought to mind the seashore. It’s full of lees-y high notes in the mouth, in that respect consistent with the last bottle, which made me think of sake. This time around, it was the respective citric and wild yeastiness of witbier and geuze that came to mind. A joy to drink and a great food wine, too. Its combo of mouthwatering acidity, minerality and lemony fruit paired amazingly well with a simple summer dinner of grilled chicken and feta sausages, arugula dressed with good olive oil, and my wife’s latest rendition of potato salad, made with green olives and preserved lemons. I’m quite sure this was the wine Joe D. had in mind.

The "Contre le Montre" part of today's posting title? That's the rather more poetic French for time trial. And a reference to my goal to actually write this and get it posted before today's Stage 18 race against the clock comes to an end. Mission accomplished, I think.

Monday, July 20, 2009


Philadelphia is by no means a small town, but exploring its constantly changing dining scene can sometimes make it feel like one. It’s not at all uncommon to go to check out a new spot – or to revisit an old standby – only to find that you know seemingly half the other people in the place. I like to think it’s less a sign of provincialism, more an indication that Philly is evolving into a great restaurant town and, as a direct result, is developing a hardcore set of food explorers, always on the lookout for the newest flavor in town. The phenomenon seems particularly tied to the BYOB scene – something for which Philly is justly renowned. People, it seems, aren’t just in search of the newest, freshest flavor but also for great value and the freedom to create their own wine list.

If there’s a downside to this whole scenario, it’s that some places open to such positive acclaim that the demand for reservations can quickly surpass availability. Witness Bibou. Such was the buzz on the street prior to Bibou’s start just two months ago that the house was full, I’m told, on opening night. While securing a reservation for one of the restaurant’s 36 or so seats hasn’t yet become a near impossibility, something tells me that day’s not far off.

The bar at Bibou serves both as seating for tasting menu customers and as a resting place for co-owner Charlotte Calmels and the wine(s) customers often send her way. During our visit it seemed like someone at every table knew someone at at least one other table, if not more. Charlotte graciously shuttled glasses of wine from one table to the next, including the very fine taste of 1983 Château Pichon Longueville that one group of fellow diners sent our way.

Bibou is also the newest in Philadelphia’s cadre of husband/wife restaurant ventures. Le Bec Fin and Daniel alum Pierre Calmels leads in the kitchen while his wife Charlotte, formerly of Patrice Rames’ Patou and Bistro St. Tropez, oversees the front of the house. Their menu of classic French bistro dishes is scaled to the size of their space – manageable and focused – with just five entrées (in the French sense of the term), five main plates and a handful of desserts on offer Wednesday through Saturday nights. Like at an increasing number of Philadelphia BYOBs, Sunday is prix fixe night, with three courses plus amuse bouche priced at $45 per person, sans tax and tip. Not the cheapest deal in town but a solid value given the quality of what my friends and I encountered on a recent Sunday evening.

Pictured at top, every basket of house baked bread (which is very good, by the way) comes with its own parcel of French butter from the cooperative dairy, Échiré. Cantaloupe soup and escargots, below.

An early season amuse of chilled cantaloupe soup made for a great taste bud teaser, sparked with strips of savory duck prosciutto and a generous twist of black pepper. As at Pif, the former denizen of Bibou’s space in the Italian Market area of Bella Vista, escargots seems poised to be the signature appetizer. On our visit, though, it was the only somewhat disappointing dish of the evening, the richness of a mushroom demi-glace and slightly heavy-handed seasoning obscuring the flavor of the snails themselves. I found no such issues with our other starters. The decadence of seared foie gras was balanced by the sweet and sour tang of plum chutney and the tannic earthiness of toasted walnuts, while a terrine of quail mousse set aside a simply dressed salad and pickled red cabbage provided rustic satisfaction.

Our waiter, who it turns out is from Stuttgart, was first startled and then happily surprised to see a Franken bocksbeutel emerge from my wine caddy. Rufolf Fürst's 2006 Riesling trocken "pur mineral" was rustic, energetic, full-flavored and right on with our first courses. The food at Bibou is very well suited to "classic" wines. Henri Germain's 2005 Bourgogne Rouge was sweet-fruited and delicate enough to work with the fish yet had the depth to match with duck confit. The 1999 Margaux from cru artisan estate Château les Barraillots was still young but showing very well; a solid match with the beef of the day.

The manageable scope of the menu helps Bibou escape the pitfall of far too many restaurants, where small plates all too often outshine the main courses. Here, the plats principaux are the stars, with Chef Calmels displaying a deft hand with proteins and bringing out the best in the innate flavors of market fresh vegetables. Hanger steak, the boeuf course on our visit, was spot-on medium rare, spiked by an assertive yet delicious green peppercorn sauce. Meltingly tender duck confit sat atop a warming, soulful tousle of linguine – slightly overcooked in the French fashion – sauced with duck jus and a fricassee of artichokes and sweet cherry tomatoes. As good as were the meat dishes, the flétan may just have been the star of the night, a perfectly seared medallion of halibut set atop a bed of lemon-poached cauliflower couscous played very well with the pungent sweetness of curried butternut squash and raisins.

Aside from the sorbet and ice creams, which are sourced from nearby Anthony’s in the 9th Street Market, desserts are made in-house. Both chocolate cake, based on a recipe from Charlotte’s grandmother, and peach pie were well executed and made for a comforting, unostentatious finale to our meal.

1009 South 8th Street
(between Carpenter and Washington)
Philadelphia, PA 19147
Bibou on Urbanspoon

Saturday, July 18, 2009

31 Days with Michael Dashe

My contribution to 31 Days of Natural Wine is up -- an old fashioned Q&A style interview with California Zinfandel specialist and wild child, Michael Dashe. Check it out!

Mike Dashe, sorting Zin at Dashe Cellars.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Stage 13 to Colmar and Some Unresolved Questions About Alsace

[Editor’s note: I’d hoped to finish and post this piece this morning but speed blogging, it seems, is simply not my forte. I can’t bring myself to adjust the verb tense below so, as I’ve yet to watch today’s stage or check out the results, I’m just going to pretend that the race into Colmar didn’t actually finish several hours ago….]

The thirteenth stage of this year's Tour de France finishes today in Colmar, where the natural barrier of hills that is likely to make it a tough day in the saddle for most of the peloton is the same barrier that greatly influences the terroir of Alsace. The Vosges.

The mountains here are not as high and mighty as the Alps or Pyrenees but they're more than steep enough to put a hurting on the legs of the climbers and a serious crimp in the style of the flatlanders. From a terroirist perspective, the north-south running ridgeline of the Vosges serves as a natural storm break, stopping much of the rain that comes across France from the west. The mountains also act as reflectors, radiating sunlight and heat onto the vineyards immediately to their east. These factors combine to make Alsace a surprisingly warm, dry region, a somewhat counterintuitive condition given the region’s position near the northern periphery of wine growing possibility.

Today’s post, though, is not so much about the intricacies of Alsace terroir as it is about addressing a couple of questions I (and others, I’m guessing) have about the region and its wines. Today’s wine – the 2002 Alsace Rosenberg de Wettolsheim Pinot Blanc from Domaine Barmès-Buecher ($16/20, 13.5% alcohol, cork, Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ) – seems as good a vehicle as any for addressing those questions.

First, can Pinot Blanc-based wines be age worthy?

I frankly don’t have a shoe box kind of answer for this one. I think that common wisdom dictates no. But like any rule, if indeed that is one, there are always exceptions. At about 6 ½ years of age, Barmès’ Pinot Blanc is hardly old by wine world standards; I think it’s fair to say it is old, though, by Pinot Blanc standards.

When first opened, I wondered whether it had weathered its slumber in my Vinotheque. The color was fine – medium-golden and bright – but the aromas were suggestive of decay and the beginning, at least, of decline. Its flavors weren’t entirely off-putting – corn, wet hay, dried honey and composting leaves came to mind – but weren’t exactly enthralling, either. Air came to the rescue though, and the wine actually picked up freshness and complexity with some time in the glass. Less decay, more dried honeycomb and minerals. My “delayed” posting schedule has allowed me to revisit the wine on its second day (I’m sipping it as I write), and I must say it’s more than held its own, maybe even improved. That minerality is still there, along with an aroma that I can only describe as corn meal pound cake, slathered with butter and maple syrup. So yes, I guess, Pinot Blanc can age relatively well, at least when grown and produced by François Barmès in a good year. In spite of all the sweet descriptors above, what really strikes me is that this seems much drier than I remember it feeling in its youth. And that brings things around to…

The second question: Is Alsace’s naturally warm, dry climate combining with global warming to push many Alsace wines over the top in terms of balance and concentration?

When asking this question a while back, I fear it may seem as if I too easily jumped on the bandwagon of answering “yes.” The real question I was asking in that posting, about a Riesling from biodynamic producer Marc Tempé, was about the role of biodynamics as a potentially contributing factor in delivering a more and more common over-the-top style in Alsace. Allow me to quote myself….
“The nurturing of the soil and harnessing of energy achieved through biodynamie can actually accelerate vines' growth and production cycles and result, especially in already warm climates like Alsace, in ultra-ripe, concentrated grapes.”

Thor Iverson called me out on that assertion, leaving a comment to which, I’m embarrassed to say, I never managed to respond or rebut. I still don’t have an answer for you, Thor. But I can say that I meant my original thought to be as much a question as an assertion. I agree that the evidence doesn’t prove that biodynamic farming contributes to the fattening of Alsace wines. But there’s no real evidence to disprove the possibility either. Oddly enough, I’ve increasingly found the wines of Barmès-Buecher, a biodynamic producer that Thor cited among the non-obese camp (and who I’ve visited), to display just such tendencies toward richer texture and more honeyed fruit. Today’s wine started there six years ago but has since morphed into something more graceful.

I guess what I’m really trying to say, in my typically long winded way, is that all of these questions remain, as far as I’m concerned, unanswered. But I’d sure love to hear your thoughts, honorable readers, if you’d care to share.

Now to go answer the real first question: who won today’s stage of the Tour? Just don’t tell me, at least not until tomorrow. I want it to be a surprise.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

More on the Road of Le Tour

As predicted, I’ve not managed to drink along with the route of this year’s Tour de France. Nope, I’ve not managed to post daily notes or wine-related stories that relate to the locale of each stage. Fact is I’ve had a hard time keeping up with the race itself. I managed to completely miss what’s arguably been the most exciting stage of the race thus far – the finish atop Arcalis in Andorra. Somehow, so did my DVR; so I’ve seen only the brief highlight reels of Alberto Contador dropping the other overall contenders during Stage Seven’s mountaintop finale. I haven’t even watched yesterday’s stage yet, much less today’s (which should still be in progress as I write). So don’t spoil it for me by spouting out the results. I’ve got some catching up to do.

In that spirit, here are a few highlights and observations from week one of Le Tour. I’d hoped to share them earlier but hey, what can I say?

En route from Marseille to La Grande-Motte, Stage 3 took the peloton straight through the heart of the Camargue and the network of lakes of the Bouches du Rhône, south of Arles and Aix-en-Provence. I recognized the countryside right away but was pleasantly surprised when I recognized some of the actual roads the race was traversing, as the pack climbed the Category 4 Côte de Calissanne. It’s a pretty little bluff in the immediate environs of Château Calissanne, an estate in the sprawling Coteaux d’Aix en Provence AOC that my wife and I visited on our honeymoon back in 2000. I profiled Château Calissanne last year, after a visit from their then commercial director allowed me to taste through their more current range of wines and reflect on our trip.

While the Stage 7 finish atop Arcalis may have given us the most exciting finish of the Tour thus far, it was the Stage 4 team time trial (TTT) that’s proven to be the most decisive stage of the race up to this point. It was one of the craziest, most dangerous TTT courses I’ve ever seen, twisting and turning, climbing and dropping through the narrow roads around Montpellier, the capitol of the Hérault and of the Languedoc-Roussillon. TTTs are more typically held on wide open roads as a sheer test of speed, precision and teamwork. While crashes in a TTT aren’t entirely uncommon, there were just a ridiculous number of spills in this year’s stage, the most dramatic of which has to have been the off-road wipeout of half the Boygues Telecom/Bbox Team.

After Stage 5 took the race through the heart of Corbières on its way from Le Cap d’Agde to Perpignan, Stage 6 saw the entire race transfer into Spain for a stage from Girona to Barcelona, finishing atop the Montjuich hill. When I think of Barcelona, I tend to think more of Antoni Gaudi and the beaches of the Costa Brava than of wine. If you were listening closely enough during the evening coverage of Stage 6, though, you may have caught commentator and ex-racer Bob Roll’s typically anti-Gallic comment that he “had to go Spain to find some good wine – an '04 Priorat….” As absurdly misguided as are Roll’s opinions on wine, he was right about one thing: Priorat is indeed just down the coast, to the south and west of Barcelona. Here’s another hit from the archives, my notes on the Priorats of Trio Infernal – Spanish wines made by a bunch of Frenchmen. Take that, Bob Roll!

To round things up….

Author Robert Camuto, who was kind enough to guest post here with the story of his day at Stage 2 of Le Tour, also chimed in with a response to my assertion that there is no wine grown in the tiny principality of Monaco, where the Tour started this year. Confirming my suspicion, he dropped this little tidbit my way:
“Bellet (Nice) would be the closest appellation to Monaco. Bellet has about 12 producers and is the only in-town appellation in France. Reds are made from the Folle Noire (lit. "Crazy Black") grape, which sort of unbelievably can have some fantastic pinot qualities after a few years in bottle. Best producer = Clos St. Vincent. (biodynamic etc.).”

As Le Tour reaches its midpoint, 31 Days of Natural Wine is heading towards its final stages at Cory Cartwright’s blog, Saignée. If you haven’t been following along, put down your work, sit down for a spell and catch up; you’ll find it worth your while. And stay tuned in the closing days for my contribution, an interview with Mr. L’Enfant Terrible himself, Michael Dashe of Dashe Cellars.

Finally, in the wake of all this action, I managed to miss a minor benchmark. My recent piece on the Chablis of Laurent Tribut marked my 500th posting here at MFWT. How’s that for a little pat on the back? Maybe I should open something decent tonight to celebrate.

First though, it’s time to grab some lunch and catch up on the Tour….

Monday, July 13, 2009

StudioKitchen meets Ideas in Food

Shola Olunloyo and Alex Talbot are two of the most creatively driven chefs I know. You can see it for yourself – on a nearly daily basis if you like – on their respective blogs, StudioKitchen and Ideas in Food. Both are chefs who seem to strive not for perfection so much as for the best possible expression of the next step in their constantly evolving field of art; Shola calls it “the search for deliciousness.” Both are highly driven by technique, process and exploration of ingredients. Like Wylie Dufresne, who I think makes for an apt comparison, their approach can be scientific and highly manipulative, yet their end results almost always manage to be delicious and organically satisfying at heart, not just precious and cerebral.

Both men have been sharing ideas and, occasion permitting, trading chops for several years now. They share other things in common as well. Both seem to enjoy photography almost as much as cooking. The photos you’ll see below were all taken by Mr. Olunloyo and you’ll find equally stunning shots at Ideas in Food as well as at the StudioKitchen blog. Both have also chosen the private stage over the restaurant world, cooking for small groups or working as private chefs for hire, more often than not entirely on their own (or alongside a life partner in Alex’s case).

Talbot’s recent move, along with his wife Aki Kamozawa, from New York to the outer Philadelphia countryside in Bucks County, PA, has allowed for an easier exchange of ideas between Shola and Alex, an exchange that’s recently culminated in a series of private dinners held at Shola’s actual StudioKitchen. Attending night one of a two-night collaboration held this weekend, I half expected a meeting of such talents to result in a clash of egos or a struggle for expression in the kitchen. What I happily found instead was a seemingly harmonious melding. Alex’s introverted style and precise work ethic in the kitchen matched comfortably with Shola’s extroversion in presenting the dishes and working all aspects of the room. I called their match-up SKIF a few days back; they call it IDSK. Let’s call it Studio Kitchen meets Ideas in Food. The meal they built together was often surprising – and always delectable.

Again, the photos below were taken by Shola; he and Alex banned photography at the table for the evening to help keep everyone's focus on the food (and eating it while it’s hot) and the company.

Mango-Yogurt Sorbet
wild char roe, arugula

If the idea of fish eggs paired with ice cream seems strange, just pare it down to its base elements: salty and sweet. And really tasty. A real jump-start for the palate. The cured wild char roe is produced by BLiS, the same company that makes some of the most hedonistically delicious maple syrup on the market.

Corn Pudding
smoked sea urchin

Santa Barbara uni, gently smoked over cherry wood. Corn shoot garnish. The corn “pudding” was seasoned with ginger, celery, onion and lemongrass, and thickened with carrageenan. Shola made corn soup at the first StudioKitchen dinner I attended, many moons ago; it’s been a constantly evolving staple in his arsenal ever since.

Goose Egg Yolk
chorizo-chanterelle hash, garden herbs

The goose egg was slow-cooked in its shell for two hours at 65 degrees F. Served with chorizo from Despaña and topped with a nasturtium. Like I said, beautiful and delicious. And a fantastic pairing with Huet’s 2002 Vouvray Brut Pétillant.

Foie Gras Marble
blueberry, pistachio, cantaloupe

PB&J for grownups.

Softshell Crab Tempura
old bay, honeydew raita

A tiny crab so late in the season for softshells… a testament to working with a good fish monger. Delicate and perfectly cooked, accents courtesy of garlic scapes and borage flower.

Ramp Top Cavatelli
geoduck clam sauce

Ramp season may be gone but blanched ramp greens apparently freeze very well…. I’m in complete agreement with Shola, who likes to eat this by the bowlful; unquestionably the comfort food dish of the evening.

lemon verbena, pickled watermelon rind

The sweetbreads were brined overnight in a bath of buttermilk, salt, sugar and verbena. No crusty distraction here, all organ-y goodness, with balancing brightness and snap provided by the bed of pickled watermelon.

Pig Cheek
cornbread, collard greens, red cola sauce

The only dish of the night that didn’t entirely excite me, perhaps better scaled toward a stand-alone main course than as a small plate. The collard greens in particular didn’t seem to sync with the rhythm and vibe of the rest of the meal.

Sangria Squab
berbere potsticker, kohlrabi

Startlingly gamy at first bite but deeply satisfying at the last. Squab from Central New Jersey’s Griggstown Farm.

Delice de Bourgogne Burrata
fennel, green olive oil

The decadent richness and creaminess of Delice de Bourgogne, adjusted to show the fresh, slippery, bubble tea-like texture of burrata. Dressed with the delicious Olio Verde of Gianfranco Becchina, produced at Antica Tenuta Principi Pignatelli in Castelvetrano, Sicily.

Carrot-Bacon Cake
blood orange marmalade ice cream, maple vinegar

Just as savory – if not more so – as sweet. Many at the table agreed that this could work just as easily as a stuffing for game birds as it could dessert. Lovely with a little taste of PX – and a fine way to savor the end of the evening's adventures.
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