Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Champagne Taste-Off

There's quite a lot to that saying about appreciating what you have.

Just as the ground beneath New York City's collective feet finally rumbled back into action and it was time to get out there and support beloved downtown businesses who had been shuttered due to Sandy, I got good and sick. For me, this is thankfully a rare occurrence. But when it happens, it happens real good. In the beginning, they called Hurricane Sandy the Frankenstorm. Well, this was the Frankenplague - sore throat turned to sinusitis turned to bronchitis. By Election Day, lying down felt like drowning. We take the ease of breathing in and out far too much for granted. The raspy cough that felt like my chest was awash in Pop Rocks lasted nearly two weeks.

I think my senses are still trying to regenerate. Most troubling for me is that my taste buds are not nearly as sharp as they were before I got sick. Flavors feel pixillated. I ate ramen with so much chili oil, it burned my lips as I slurped and left a pink ring around them for the day, but I barely tasted the heat on my tongue. I felt the need to add so much salt to my bowl of chickpea and spinach stew that I could be sold with a PRE-BRINED label. Last Saturday night, I  couldn't taste the acid in the tomato sauce on my pizza, which made me want to cry. Then there was the Champagne.

Last Monday, Executive Wine Seminars, or EWS, put together a blind tasting of 13 non-vintage releases. I was excited by the prospect, not only to taste that many bubblys side by side, but to have the opportunity once and for all settle the score between what are known as Grower Producers (think of them as the indie rockers of the big bad Champagne world, they do everything themselves) vs. the Big Guys (meaning, the big name, iconic, corporate Champagne houses who outsource most of their grapes and mass produce their wine.) Those of us in the know have championed the grower producers for their finesse, flavor structure, individual style and for the most part, approachable price range. Corporate Champagne has the stigma of appeasing the masses, often sacrificing structure for bold, standout flavors at a huge markup. Many wine snobs say they detect in them a syrupy finish due to what are probably high amounts of dosage (sugar mixed with wine that according to law is allowed to be added to Champagnes after secondary fermentation to bring up sweetness levels) and really frothy bubbles. I'm sorry, "mousse."

We knew which wines we were drinking, but not the order in which they were being poured. Each one was covered in a brown paper bag with a number written on it. Years ago, this worked beautifully for the 2005 vintage of Chateauneuf du Pape. In a blind tasting, we all favored the smaller producers. The wines who had received high scores from all the famous reviewers, like Robert Parker, and drove herds of people to snatch them up for triple their worth without even tasting them for themselves, left everyone at our tasting cold, without knowing which ones they were till the end. It made me happy. Score for the underdogs which were being sold at a more appropriate price point.

Robert Millman (a former colleague at Morrell) and Howard Kaplan, who run the tastings for EWS, have a motto: "We take wine seriously, but not too seriously." This isn't necessarily true of the people who take part in the tastings, but like the choices in their lineups, it's a fun mixed bag. Old, young, male, female and in the words of Rudy Ray Moore as Dolomite - "...uptown, downtown, crowned and renowned." (The part where we relay, delay, mislay and parlay comes later.) We taste the wines in small groups, write notes, then discuss.

What was really interesting about this Champagne tasting, apart from the selection, was the huge difference in opinion between the tasters, divided among gender and generation, possibly where we lived too. It was immediately decided that the drier bubblys had to be the growers. Any detection of fruit or sweetness in the finish meant dosage, surely only the big guys do that. But can't that also be attributed to which grapes are used? More Pinot Meunier/Pinot Noir often makes a drier, toastier product. Chardonnay can have inherent caramel apple flavors, nothing wrong with that. Just depends on what's done with them.

The men were definitely going for the drier wines, which to me (and my Mom, who happened to be seated next to me) didn't taste like much. The same wine that an older gentleman in the group said had flavors of "ginger beer and rice pudding" to me tasted super acidic and gassy. Mom said it was even "crying out for Zantac." The women were responding more to the wines that had stronger backbone- fruit, toast, nuts, spice and citrus zing, hitting all parts of the tongue. The men seemed happier when it was more about just the toastiness and yeast. The younger people in the group liked the wines that seemed more edgy and spicy. One of the women brought her poodle to the tasting. By the way, he yapped when that guy said that thing about the rice pudding.

I love Champagne, but so many of these fell flat for me. It could have been palate fatigue, and we were eating very strong cheese on the side, which didn't match with any of them too well. Maybe it had been so long since I had to evaluate wine this way that I was a little rusty. But something seemed off. Many of these were wines I'd tasted before, but they weren't making me happy anymore. Champagne is about celebration and living the good life. But I noticed a lot of subjective opinions were being dismissed as amateur. We were forming ourselves into tribes, and any second there would be war. It felt like all the Champagne fun was deflating as carbonation died in our warming glasses.

Reveal the wines already.

Here was the lineup:
1. Pierre Peters Blanc de Blancs Brute Cuvée Reserve
2. Veuve Cliquot Brut Yellow Label
3. Gaston Chiquet Brut Tradition
4. Louis Roederer Brut Premier
5. Ployez-Jacquemart Extra Quality Brut
6. Jean Lallement Brut
7. Boillinger Brut Special Cuvée
8. Marc Hébrart brut Cuvée de Réserve
9. G.H. Mumm Brut Cordon Rouge
10. A. Margaine Le Brut
11. Egly-Ouriet Brut Tradition
12. Pol Roger Brute Reserve
13. Laurent-Perrier Brut

The big winners? #3: Mumm #2: Roger #1: Laurent-Perrier

WTF? None of the growers in the crowd favorites?

Something is definitely wrong here.

Here's my theory, and yes, I am admitting my tasting capabilities are not up to their usual snuff: First of all, one of the things we say we love about grower Champagnes is subtlety and structure. So when going up against a père gros of a bubbly, they could easily have gotten lost. The other is, well, gasp!, maybe some of those famous labels are popular for a reason? When I was coming up in the retail wine world, I was very pleased to have the folks at L-P take us out for the holidays where they showcased the major players of their portfolio with really excellent Italian food. Hey, no one was complaining!

Still, on the rare occasions I buy Champagne, I almost always go for one of the lesser known labels and probably still will.

I don't know, maybe we need a rematch?

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. Hope it tastes amazing.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Oh, Sandy.

At first, the notion of the Halloween "Frankenstorm," a hybrid of tropical storm, hurricane and Nor'easter, with wind, rain and even a freak snow storm, was somewhat of a joke. But not funny as in ha ha. As it pushed ever closer to the Tri-State Area by the weekend, the news agencies quit their Frankenstorm coverage, and focused on Sandy - a colossal, slow-moving hurricane that had the potential to be one of the most powerful to hit the East Coast since... well, since the last time the news agencies hyped a major storm a year ago with Irene. Except this one was different. Sandy was badass. Hitting at the full moon and highest tides, lusty and gusty, she wasn't taking any prisoners. Sure, people still made the jokes. But we got it. Take precautions. This one is for real.

You could physically see it coming.

SUNDAY October 28th: My dear friend Stephanie, who is moving back to Texas in a matter of days, came to stay with me once the precautionary MTA shutdown was announced. We were supposed to have a farewell wine dinner with my parents and friends that night. Instead I went into Manhattan earlier to see them, and they generously sent me home with a ration of short ribs and some excellent vino. While the ribs slowly baked to deliciousness, we had time to visit Tim at Jakewalk, who introduced me to my first Palo Cortado sherry. 

They were open for drinks, but no food. Like the MTA, many restaurants and bars were starting their own shutdowns, with only a handful of brave businesses, like our friends at Ward III in Tribeca, willing to ride it out for the duration using whatever supplies and resources would be available. 

The ribs came out perfectly. The wine was delicious. The Riders of the Storm would begin this ordeal all classy like and civilized, and rather cozy. By bedtime, the wind had picked up, but still no rain. 

MONDAY October 29th: Awoke to a spritzy rain and stronger wind, but nothing too dramatic. Last-minute rations could still be obtained by businesses that were still open (most with dedicated staff who were driven in by managers.) We watched Steve McQueen in his seductive prime in the Cincinatti Kid and made fresh popcorn made with the popper I still had dating back to freshman year at NYU. 

We would take storm update breaks during movie-watching. The wind was picking up. Reports of a flooded Battery Park and rising waters in Alphabet City. Texts and Facebook/Twitter posts from friends who were warned Con Ed might be shutting off their power downtown. An evacuated Red Hook was also reportedly flooding badly, as was the Gowanus. In Cobble Hill, the lights barely flickered. As the chili simmered, we watched Beautiful Girls to satisfy our rom com cravings.

A last call to my parents, who still hadn't quite taken the threat of an outage too seriously. I got them to fill the bathtub, gather the flashlights and few candles they had. I guess if things got dire, they would finally consume the bouillon cubes they'd kept since the Nixon administration and moved with at least three times. I scolded them for not preparing better. 

The wind would lash, the lights would flicker more often, the cable and wi-fi went out but we still had power. We listened to music. Busted out the Kosherland (land me on the Milk/Meat pass, bitch!). Got bored of that and learned Gin Rummy all over again, killing two of my Scotches that were down to a few fingers each - the Cadenhead's Pittyvaich-Glenlivet 23 year and Longmorn 12 Year. The lights stayed on as Neko Case's angel-throated voice played in the background. We were up drinking Scotch and playing cards till 3:30 like a couple of biddies. 

TUESDAY October 30th: Spritzy out, but the worst of it is over. Subways are flooded and won't be back up for days, schools are closed till further notice. Downtown south of 34th St. is in total darkness. A few blocks north, lights are on, businesses are regrouping. South of that it's like the stark aftermath of a modern visigoth invasion, people desperate for more supplies and device-charging stations. Widespread damage in CT and NJ. Governor Christie concerned, authoritative and brilliant in his press conference. Mayor Bloomberg and his hardworking sign translator up next (as was the obligatory statement in what passed for Spanish.) The striking images  and blackout theories were hitting the interwebs. The news agencies shifted from "weather experts" out in the elements to aftermath, cleanup and "devastation." (You could play a drinking game based on that word in the media this week.) The horrendous true stories of freak storm-related accidents were streaming in. Sandy was a mean one. 

In Cobble Hill, Tuesday is the new Saturday, and cabin fever has set in. Everyone is out for a stroll looking for food, drink and community. We meet up with Emily at the Waterfront Ale house on Atlantic. The wonderful Mary holding down the fort behind the bar till their chef Ralph arrives to fire up the kitchen. Neighborhood families and friends were filling up the place. Hours later, food is finally served. Best pulled pork sandwich ever. 

We go home to nap and recharge, then set out again. Jeff's at Char No. 4, and Julia joins our little group. We sit at the window watching Smith Street de-Sandyfy. Texts from Jason, who is in the blackout zone, and wants to join the fun, not to mention camp out with power and hot water. We head down the street to Clover Club, where proprietor Julie Reiner herself is bussing tables and pitching in. A quick hello to Caitlin of Becoming Brooklyn at the bar. Jason and Julia's husband, Nick, join us at our table up front. Time for some Harvest Punch. 

We go back to my place and play more Kosherland, ushering in Halloween with Jason's playlist, bust out the cards for Feudal Wars. More fun and late night storm-induced silliness.

No word from my parents all day, which is odd. These are people who would borrow a cell phone on a normal day to tell me about a play they'd just seen or a good piece of steak. I begin to worry a little and regret scolding them so harshly. 

A little after 2 am, I receive a text from a man I'd been seeing for a while who has become a good friend. We had heard the terrible story of a young woman and her boyfriend who were killed by a fallen tree in Ditmas Park while walking their dog in the storm. It turns out my friend had gotten to know Jessie Streich-Kest over the past few months, and just learned she had been the one in the accident. My friend had likely been the last one to text her,  even warning her to be careful of the trees. 

The world can be a cruel place elsewhere when you're having fun. 

WEDNESDAY, October 31st: With Flatbush Avenue and all routes into Manhattan at a standstill, looks like my storm refugees are around another day. We go down to Lobo to see Janell and get some breakfast. It's busy and chaotic. None of the staff has had a chance to eat or get coffee since they can't tie up the kitchen who need to churn out grub for customers. I ran out to get Janell a bacon, egg and cheese and coffee for anyone who wanted it. Rude, impatient customers are giving people a hard time. Come on. Really? Everyone needs to work at least one day in a service industry and understand what it's like. Especially in the event of natural distasters and holidays.

I finally hear from my dad in the afternoon, after he purchased a new cell phone that worked. Hard to stay in touch since service is spotty and he doesn't yet have the hang of it, but we can communicate eventually. At this point, I had terrible images of them cramped on the floor with food poisoning, so happy to hear they are alive and well and made dinner reservations for days to come.

It's not exactly a zombie apocalypse outside, but the streets are teaming with slow-moving walkers. Because Halloween wasn't canceled in Cobble Hill after all. Trick or treat!

THURSDAY, November 1st: Subway service is running at a limited capacity for free. No trains into Manhattan, but within Brooklyn and shuttle buses doing the rest. Finally have some time to myself to work out, eat healthier food, do some writing.

I keep thinking about my friend who lost someone in the storm. Everyone who has been bucking up under the circumstances. People rushing to help others, donate, volunteer, clean up. While some things don't make sense (they couldn't postpone the NY Marathon and leave streets open to the buses, cars and pedestrians that are already backed up as it is???), it's been heartening to see this city come together so beautifully and so quickly.

I consider myself extremely fortunate to live where I do, in a zone that was hardly affected and rife with community spirit and hardworking local staffers everywhere. I was so happy to have a comfortable home where friends could stay, and plenty of supplies for eating, drinking and entertainment. Life is good, y'all. Things have been a whole lot worse.


Please consider donating to the Jessie Streich-Kest Fund in her memory by following this link