Every bottle has a story

I am not a wine expert, but with each bottle I try and share with friends, I learn more. Wine is an exceptional social drink; it is the marijuana of alcoholic beverages because it must be shared. I seek to share with you my thoughts and experiences as I drink the wine in my closet, as well as my enthusiasm for the finds that come my way and the excellent values that I find. I'd love to hear your thoughts and experiences too, so please share!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

An octameter of delight

I think it was late autumn 2007, just before I moved to Chicago. I was staying at my friend’s home, Curt, while I was visiting Benny – who also lived in Curt’s home – and interviewing for a new job. Curt had been so generous with his hospitality and his tolerance of my regular arrivals to stay with Benny was so gracious that I wanted to show my appreciation. Curt, like me, knows how to enjoy a good wine, although his appreciation and knowledge of fine wine – as well as his wine-centric stories – eclipse mine: If Curt’s knowledge of wine was a degree, his would be a Doctor of Letters from Saint Andrews University, while mine would be an undergraduate degree from Ball State University. Hey I’m not knocking Ball State – it has an outstanding journalism program. My point is while my education would be solid and do me well, it would pale against Curt’s.

But I digress.

A bottle of wine seemed like an appropriate gift to show my appreciation, but what to buy?

I’m not sure of the precise time of year; was it close to Thanksgiving? There was a recent snow on the ground as I recall. Curt I believe was out of town, and Benny I think was visiting his family in Hong Kong during his break from DePaul where he was completing a Masters Degree in statistics. I was on my own and I decided to take a walk through Andersonville, which is not far from Curt’s home. While there, I walked into this corner liquor store where I was surprised to find a rather splendid offering of good wine. There were many fine wines from France and Spain, but this vendor had a very deep selection of Italian wines. There were so many, and I became distracted by the bins filled with Barolos and Brunellos. What to do, what to do? And there it was. Just a few left, a 1998 Brunello that was marked down to $35 from its regular retail price of $70. Even if I know nothing about a wine, a markdown like that gets my attention. I mouthed the words, let them roll off my tongue as they produced a magical cadence: Brunello di Montalcino.

There is only one other wine that I love to say its name, and that is Châteauneuf du Pape. There is something truly mystical about these names, as though the mere uttering of the pentameter of the appellation (octameter in the case of the Brunello) produces an incantation and fills one with the power of Dionysus. It is a spell that I easily fall under.

I bought one bottle (alas, you shall soon read why I should have purchased two), and left it at Curt’s home with a note of thanks. But I needed to know more about what I had just purchased. So when I returned to my home, which was then in Holland, Mich., I searched for this wine on the Web: Castello Banfi, Brunello di Montalcino, 1998.

It appeared that I had made a very lucky purchase. However, the reviews were mixed. The preceding year of 1997 was an outstanding year for the wine’s premium reserve bottling, which was scored with a 96 by Wine Spectator. The 1998 turned a very respectable 93 though. A blind tasting of eight 1998 Brunello di Montalcino by Weimax Wine & Spirits of Burlingame, Calif., conducted February 2004 placed this wine in seventh place.

From the tasting notes: “’This wine is short, nasty and lacks fruit,’ opined one critic. Another felt the fruit was ‘almost unripe.’ Someone else found it, also, to be ‘green and showing green tea notes. Maybe it's 'closed down' and does have decent fruit?’ A third taster felt it was ‘one dimensional and really grippy and tannic, not to mention herbaceous.’”

Clearly, these “tasters” had no idea what they were drinking. They are unfortunate rubes, perhaps. I preferred to side with the Wine Spectator notes: “Loads of mineral and dried flowers behind the ripe fruit and almost raisiny character. Full-bodied, with smooth, silky tannins and a long fruity, berry, almost fresh herb aftertaste. An exceptional wine. “

Recently, I began hinting at Curt that we ought to pull out that wine; “You still have it?” I enquired. He did, and so we began to think about what to serve with it. Curt was gunning for lamb. I’ve never cooked lamb, and I have only eating it twice in my life. The first time was at The Palamino, a fine dining restaurant in Tucson, Ariz. (Not the chain steakhouse of the same name) Not sure if it’s still there; I took my parents there in maybe 1979 or 1980. I remember the place had a rather frilly décor. I had lamb chops, and as I recall, they were OK.

The second time I had lamb was with Curt and Benny when we went out to eat at erwin one time. I had a lamb shank, which tasted good, but gave me the foulest breath afterward for two days. When I burped, it was the stench of death.

Needless to say, I was looking up beef recipes I could find that paired well with Brunello. There were many, but the overwhelming nod went toward a pairing with lamb. I gave in. And this past Saturday I called Curt to suggest he pull that wine out of his cellar and I would prepare a roast leg of lamb (I did make one more appeal to prepare a pot roast provencal, but I gave in – it would be lamb).

I found a very simple recipe in my 1997 edition of Better Homes and Gardens Annual Recipes. Lamb, as many of you may well know, can have a very strong flavor. The simplicity of this recipe attracted me. I made a rub of salt and fresh ground pepper with fresh mint. The recipe called for dried mint, but the Whole Foods I shopped at didn’t have any. Hindsight tells me the dried mint would have been better. I pierced the leg in 16 different spots, then inserted into each piercing a clove of garlic (half a clove for larger ones). Next, I rubbed the herbs into the leg and after that, smeared honey on it. I set the leg in the refrigerator to set for two hours.

Shortly after that, Curt called. “Have you ever carved a leg of lamb before?” His description of the task led me to search the Web for guidance where I found a very helpful video that I watch three times.

The side dishes were going to be quite simple: boiled Yukon gold potatoes, steamed asparagus and baby carrots. The lamb roasted for about two hours. While I let it rest for about 15 minutes, I opened the Brunello and set it out on the table with glasses. When everything else was ready and the table set, Curt asked if I had tasted the wine. I had not. So we didn’t take our first sip until we sat down to eat.

Curt and I both tasted at the same time; neither of us said anything. His expression betrayed nothing, but I sensed a bit of doubt, because that was what I was having – doubt. The wine tasted alright, but not stellar. There was a strong mineral note, but not much character.

I then took a bit of lamb, which was delicious, tender, and juicy and followed this with another taste of wine. It was the most brilliant food and wine match I have ever experienced. What initially struck me as rather dull suddenly came alive, the lamb pulling from this wine its deep flavors and character. It elevated the entire dining experience; and the simplicity of the side vegetables was excellent.

Do I dare do it? Yes! This wine I give a 10 from my scale. Not only was this an exceptional wine matched perfectly with the leg of lamb, but the excellent company that included Curt and our friends Nate and Steve made this a wonderful meal. And that is what wine is all about – living life with good food among excellent friends.

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