Saturday, January 31, 2009

When Wine and Running Collide

I haven't mentioned it much here, but my other passion besides wine is running. I don't do as much running as I would like, but I'm hoping that 2009 will bring more running opportunities.

One of those opportunities is tomorrow - running the half marathon called Surf City in Huntington Beach. Every year on Superbowl Sunday, Huntington Beach hosts this half and full marathon right by the ocean.

I didn't know that I would have to fly to Germany also on this day, so when the schedule conflict arose, I just decided to ..... do both things. Quickly.

Only slight thing is this is the night before both of these events, and I'm kind of tired and wish I had a little less to do tomorrow than what I actually have planned.

When worlds collide, this is what happens. Oh well!

See you all in a couple of weeks, when I am sure I'll have many pretty pictures to post from Germany's vineyards in the wintertime.

Friday, January 30, 2009

The Wine That Didn't Make It

It's a funny thing. I read about it in a sales book that I am reading, given to me by a good friend, Amy and her husband, who is a sales manager.... the book is called Advanced Selling Strategies - I haven't finished the book, but I am about a third of the way through, and it is a great book.... what I'm getting at here is there is this weird interaction that happens between a sales person and a buyer - a weird dance, if you will, because here are two individuals interacting with each other and each comes in with his or her own fears.

The sales person comes in with the Fear of Rejection. This is his or her own anxiety about not being accepted by the buyer, not being liked, being regarded as not knowledgeable, not having good products and services to sell, not being trusted.

The buyer comes in with Fear of Failure. What is this? It is the fear of buying the wrong thing, and made to feel like a failure. Fear of buying the wrong product at the wrong price, the whole "buyer's remorse" thing.

I never knew that it was these two fears interacting that happened, these two self-absorbed situations colliding, each individual thinking about their own issue, complicating the process, that happens during the sales/buying process.

Especially the buyer's side.

Now, let's explore my version of the buyer's side.

I was a buyer for over 2 years, in a store I worked for 3 years. I grabbed the job by the horns, and overcame my fears of failure, ordering large quantities of wine, which I later sold, generally very successfully.

But there are always those wines that don't make it. These are the wines that sit on the shelf, and sit a while longer, and still sit a while longer and longer, while their friends around them get bought up. They are like the dogs at the pound that don't get taken home by rescuing families. Maybe they are not cute enough. Maybe their breed is not popular these days. Maybe they don't look like anything anyone has ever seen before. Maybe they are too big and require too much money to upkeep. Maybe they were in fashion last year, but not now.

Sadly, I bought one of these dogs in large quantities last summer, while I was basking in the warmth that was Austria. At first, I didn't want to go to Austria. I didn't want to waste my boss' money sending me to Austria when I knew the payoff wouldn't cover the cost. The Austrian wine section in the store is a small one, not because Austrian wines aren't good, but because the market doesn't support Austrian wines. People don't buy them, so why stock them? Even the boss said that he once invested great sums for Austrian wines in the store, only to have to put them all on sale before he could sell them.

So I protested when offered the trip to Austria.

Eventually, though, my boss talked me into it. It seemed wrong not to go - an opportunity of a lifetime to be sent to Austria and tour the wine country there. It was only a week. And my boss said he wanted to invest in me.

Sigh. It all became moot when a few months later, I took an opportunity to work for the company I work for now. And the wines I fell in love with in Austria, which I ordered in the afterglow of the trip came in and became the dogs that no one would take home.

This is the risk of buying.

The best wine of the trip to Austria is from a famous winery in the Wachau, the famous Austrian wine region that sits right on the Danube river. A famous river, too. The wine is 1993 Nikolaihof "Vinothek" Gruner Veltliner, a $180 wine that didn't sell a bottle. Even when I ordered it, the salesperson tried to convince me to take a 6-pack instead of 4 6-packs, but I wanted to go big. Even the sales person (who used to be a buyer, too, and understood my risk better than I did!) tired to stop me!

But, I wanted to feel the fear and do it anyway. Sadly, I didn't do it on my own dime, but on my boss'. I took the risk and he paid the price. Because he had trust in me.

Perhaps I am being melodramatic, but it is sad that this wine is now marked down to $50. It is The Wine That Didn't Make It of the Year.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Birthday Dinner at Spago - an experience that exceeded expectation

On January 20, the evening while the new president attended 11 inauguration balls, we went out to celebrate my husband's birthday at the Beverly Hills restaurant, Spago.

It was with some hesitation that I chose this restaurant to take Johan and his parents who were visiting from out of town. For years, I had heard of Spago, but thought it only a celebrity-studded chi-chi restaurant where people went to see and be seen. I wasn't sure about the menu, either, as I knew Chef Wolfgang Puck seemed to have a penchant for creating dishes in an Asian style, dishes that I felt an Austrian-born chef was unlikely to excel at. Because, you see, I was brought up on fine Cantonese food prepared by my mother, fine Shanghainese food prepared by my grandmother, and other fine Chinese cuisines prepared by Chinese chefs in Chinese restaurants. So I wasn't really interested in having those kinds of dishes as Spago.

So I was worried about whether I would like the food at Spago. I wondered if it would live up to the hype. I wondered if the wine list would be full of what I call museum pieces - DRC, first growth Bordeaux, cult Cabernets, all those wines that look good but can anyone afford to taste them?

But I still booked a reservation at Spago. One of my reasons was that it was a Michelin 2 Star restaurant and I had never been. I had heard good things about the restaurant, and I almost didn't believe them, and I wanted to experience for myself. But on a more personal note, I was starting to get to know the wine director at Spago, as he has been a customer of mine, and I think he is a cool cat, and the times I have been at the restaurant doing a sales presentation have been pleasant. And the last time I was in, I met Chef Puck himself, and he was not wearing a business suit, but his chef whites, and I felt, here is a real chef actually working in his restaurant. That impressed me.

So there we went, the four of us, not knowing what to expect. We had all checked out a sample menu which I acquired from the restaurant, but we all knew that the menu changes daily, so we didn't have any expectations.

We got to Beverly Hills a bit early, found street parking, walked around a bit and marvelled at all the 90% off! signage in the retail stores (normal January, or a sign of the times?), checked out Cut, Puck's other restaurant in the Beverly Whilshire Hotel, and ended up at Nic's Martini Lounge for some happy hour drinks. While it started off a bit slow in there when we first arrived, the bar quickly filled up with folks getting off work. It was a fun way to spend some time before dinner.

Finally, I was getting hungrier and readier for my gastronomic adventure at Spago. We walked down Canon Blvd from Nic's to Spago and were seated right away in the patio courtyard.

The restaurant was busy, though not quite packed. The patio was pretty, with twinkling lights and tables among bushes and things, a very enjoyable setting. The weather was so nice and mild, the heaters were not on, and never needed to be turned on. The enclosed nature of the courtyard seemed to lend itself to a very comfortable setting, so people could dine under the stars in the middle of January.

One little different noticeable touch regarding the service was this: we had white cloth napkins at our tables. When we sat down, our server took them away, all but my mother-in-law's, and replaced them with black napkins. We surmised that we were wearing dark colors and therefore got black napkins, while she was wearing a light color and had a white napkin. This was noticeable since I had never experienced that before!

I was in charge for ordering the wine, while we munched on our amuse-bouche, which was a sesame cone filled with tuna tartar. It was pleasant, but nothing to write home about for me (again the Asian-touch thing - seriously, if I want to eat raw tuna, it will be at a sushi restaurant!)

I had initially requested the 2004 Meo-Camuzet Marsannay, but Wine Director/Sommelier Chris Miller suggested the 2005 Meo Camuzet Marsannay instead. There was a big and interesting discussion about this. I chose the 2004 initially because I wanted a classic vintage, not a heralded vintage which I knew would be excellent. I guess I wanted a red Burgundy from a so-called "off" vintage, and see what that would be like. Also, I am a huge fan of 2004 German Rieslings, which have great acidity, so I extrapolated and wished to taste a 2004. However, I am not highly knowledgeable about Burgundy, so this was just an exercise in learning.

Finally, after much discussion, during which time Chris still recommended the 2005, even though he was not insistent, but just felt that it would show better than the 2004, we ended up with the 2005.

Here is a picture of it, though it is overexposed:

It turned out to be delicious and excellent. My first sip told me, ah yes, of course, it is lovely. The geek part of the brain wanted to taste the 2004 next to it, but when I heard the others at the table utter mmms and ahs I decided to put the geek away and just enjoy the wine, because it was really lovely.

Back to the food now. We all spent a good deal of time perusing the menu, for making the main dish choice was not easy. What was easy, for some reason, was choosing the appetizer. All 4 of us chose the sweetbreads! Sweetbreads was not a dish I was very familiar with prior to meeting my husband, but since, I have been a huge fan, as he is a huge fan. Almost without fail, if sweetbreads are on a menu at a restaurant, he will get them. After a bit, I became a fan of this tender, mild organ meat that is often prepared in a variety of ways.

The way it was prepared at Spago reminded me of how they were prepared at this one restaurant in the wine country of Austria when I was there in the summer of 2008. Kind of crispy fried as though the sweetbread were a veal schnitzel:

Not only were the sweetbreads themselves very beautifully prepared, the sauce that went along with it was interesting and good. The sauce had mustard, some citrus juice and some five-spice powder, an Asian ingredient - normally such fusion would offend me, but in this case, it was well done and worked well, a true sign of high-end chefdom - the ability to create new things while not grossing the diner out. :)

We all enjoyed our sweetbreads appetizer.

As I mentioned, choosing the main course was more difficult for many of us at the table. Johan chose the carmelized veal chop, a classic on this menu. I wondered whether I was going to choose the roasted chicken, or lamb. There was a duck dish on the menu but it was done Cantonese style, so I wasn't that interested. My father-in-law thought about choosing the Hungarian goulash, but later decided against it as he and the server agreed it would not be wine-friendly, especially since we were choosing a Burgundy. They both though a robust and inexpensive red would be a better pairing with a spicy goulash. He ended up choosing what my mother-in-law chose which was a loup-de-mer (fish). I ended up choosing the calf liver, even though I did briefly wonder whether I would have organ meat overload. My server assured me that it would be okay, as long as I didn't have a cholesterol test tomorrow. He asked me how I wanted my liver done, and I asked for medium. It turned out very nicely:

I didn't eat the fried onion rings on top, but I did enjoy the caramelized onions in the red wine sauce, and the liver was very tender and flavorful and silky in texture, not mealy like I fear liver to be. It was the perfect flavor intensive, and the level of doneness was also perfect, not pink, but not dry either. I was very happy with my choice, and impressed at the skill demonstrated in preparing this dish.

Here is a picture of my husband's veal chop, which I did sample a bite of. It was very good, though perhaps more plain than my dish. He enjoyed it though. I like the long bone that they left on the chop - great presentation:

For our second bottle of wine, I wasn't sure what I would choose. The 2005 Marsannay was a tough act to follow. I briefly considered looking for a domestic Pinot Noir - maybe from Russian River? or maybe Oregon? to follow the Burgundy. I almost did that until I found an older bottle of Burgundy from an appellation I had never heard of - it was premier cru and 1998 so I felt - hey, why not?

1998 Leflaive Blagny 1er Cru was tasting young for its age, not too showy, not too smoky, but still very nice and enjoyable. Though a few at the table said that they preferred the first wine to this one, the wine still disappeared at quite a fast rate, so if actions speak louder than words, I would say this was a hit as well.

Chris the sommelier appeared later also to give us a little bit of a 2005 St. Joseph he had... I didn't notice the producer, as he disappeared shortly after.

Hubby enjoyed every last bit of that very large veal chop. He seemed to be enjoying himself overall. By this time, all of us had formed the opinion that we liked this restaurant, and it exceeded our expectations.
When the dessert menu came, hubby and his parents all ordered the Hungarian Dobos Torte, a cake they knew well from visiting Hungary. They liked that Spago had dishes such as this that had a bit of historical and geographical significance, ie. you don't see Hungarian influenced dishes like goulash and dobos torte at your typical restaurant. That was fun for everyone at the table.

They decorate hubby's plate, which was a nice touch!
I didn't actually order this cake for dessert; I ordered a cheese course. I didn't get a picture of it, but it was three cheeses on a plate, with some warm breads. I was perhaps too full at this point to really enjoy it, but I did find the cheeses somewhat lackluster. Perhaps in my mind I thought Spago would have a cheese cart, which they did not. So in this small way, my expectations were higher than reality. I thought that a restaurant of this caliber would have a cheese cart - but then again, maybe they did have one in the past, and it wasn't popular? Could that have been it?
Small minor detail. We finished with some yummy coffee, and again reiterated that we had a very wonderful experience. And that we would be back!
I'm happy that my Spago experience was a positive one. The food, atmosphere, and service were all great. I can now understand why people still love the place after all these years. Perhaps now I will be more open to trying places that are classics, and be less suspicious that they are all hype!

Friday, January 16, 2009

And now, back to dinners with wine.... 2007 Quails Gate Dry Riesling from the Okanagan

The in-laws flew in today from their snowy home of Winnipeg down to the warm and sunny clime that is Southern California. For dinner we decided to have something light, yet still interesting - moules et frites, or mosselen & friten in Flemish, or mussels and fries in English.

The mussels were cleaned and steamed in a simple combination of sliced red onions and a cup of 2007 Wirsching Estate Silvaner which was the only dry white wine I had left from the week's work. The wine we drank was a Canadian Riesling from the Okanagan region, which we picked up when we were there during Labor Day weekend - 2007 Quails Gate Dry Riesling. This is a winery that came recommended to me, but I don't remember who gave the recommendation. We tasted at this very beautiful winery, and I ended up enjoying their dry Riesling.

Tonight we enjoyed it again - it is a simple, steely, dry Riesling, definitely good enough character; of course it is not as stunning as most German Rieslings I taste and drink, but definitely a sound wine and worth the $15 or so dollars that it costed.

My conclusion about wines from the Okanagan are that I enjoy them, they are not as heavy or oaky or overdone as some Californian wines are, but the bulk of what I have tasted and drank there have been simple, new-worldy, young-vine-like, fun, sometimes tasty, but not awe-inspiring.

I'm still more stunned and awed and thrilled by old world wines.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

A Wonderful Dinner without Wine, Plus a List of Restaurants at which I Wish to Dine (I'm a poet and I don't even know it!)

Tonight, after a day of driving around seeing restaurant customers, I ended up with a nice dinner not in my territory with a good friend who will be leaving for Paris soon. My friend got a job with an organization in Paris which is moving her there, and she is preparing to leave at the end of this month, starting work February 2nd.

Paris! Imagine. The land of cheese and wine and romantic little streets that wind through the city and end up at one of the many foot bridges that cross over the Seine.

Our dinner tonight was in Koreatown, at one of the newer, more modern (read: less smoky) Korean barbecues. Walking in, I was at once skeptical and relieved - skeptical about whether it would have great authentic Korean barbecue; relieved because it was not so authentic that it was all smoky, necessitating me to dry-clean all my clothes the very next day.

As it turned out, the food was excellent. We indulged in a kimchee-tofu-seafood soup, some barbecued chicken (which they cooked for us in the kitchen, so we didn't have to any of the work), and the best part was the numerous small dishes - tiny dishes of various preparations of kimchee and other preserved and pickled vegetables and bites. Absolutely appetizing, and superb. There was also rice to make everything taste that much better.

We didn't have wine with the meal as my good friend doesn't drink. She lamented this fact as she is going to France, the country of wine. I said, "Don't worry, you will." She wasn't really sure about that.

All in all, the meal was fantastic, the conversation enlivening, and the whole experience made me value the restaurant experience all the more.

I know in this wild economic environment, where the Citibanks are crashing, and the Intels are reporting 90% declines in profit, and the Black Anguses are declaring bankrupcy, many are not in the mood to eat out. Eating out seems like such a wasteful activity. Sure, I feel that way sometimes too. But ultimately, I don't think there is a substitute for going out to restaurants. I've been going out to restaurants with my family since I was a small child, and will continue to go out to them when I'm an old lady. There is no substitute for this comfort, this welcome treat, this chance to chat with one's friends, spouse, business partner, whomever. It is just plain pure unadulterated fun, and though in this time we might do it a tad less often, we should continue to do it nonetheless.

It is a chance not only to socialize and explore the thoughts of another person, but to explore a cuisine, an art created by an establishment...... it really is a part of a true cultured life.

So here's to restaurants! And here's my hit list of restaurants I have never been to and want to go to:

Dan Tanas




Sushi Nozawa

Michael's of Naples

Michael's in Santa Monica

Canlis (in Seattle)

Hmmm... I'm sure there are more... I'll have to add more later!

Thursday, January 8, 2009

What I'm Drinking Now & Various Comments

What I am drinking now is 2007 Salwey Henkenberg Pinot Gris Grosses Gewachs and it is the dregs of what I took out to show people over the last couple of days (ie yesterday and today). I showed this wine to a whole bunch of people and almost everyone seemed to love it. Love it! This is a wine that won top white Pinot in the Gault Millau, a guide that few people in the U.S. have heard about, but it is a food and wine guide, and in Germany, it is the top wine guide, kind of like a Decanter or Wine Spectator, but of course, even more in-depth with its reviews of estates.

So back to this wine. It has been blowing away all my customers with its complexity and its depth, its fullness in flavor and overall greatness. Of course it is not cheap! It is $224 a 6-pack and that seems to be over the line for many of the buyers I encounter.

But the wine is so excellent. It is nothing like any Pinot Gris you have tasted - it is like a Pinot Gris that has been treated like a Grand Cru white Burgundy. It is like what an estate is doing with Pinot Gris as what Dagueneau was doing for Sauvignon Blanc - making it noble.

We're talking super duper concentration, oak aging (though not excessively woody), great super long length, fantastic overall. Pears, tropical fruit, plus great laser-beam acidity, all in an elegant package fit for the finest dining rooms in the world.

But alas no takers!

Back when I was a buyer, I would probably be someone who would buy this wine. Sigh. I did buy wines like this, like the 1993 Nikolaihof Vinothek Gruner Veltliner which is now sitting alone, unloved, on the shelves because it is too expensive. Sigh. If only the great and delicious wines were ones that people who would pay Napa Cult Cabernet prices for. Sigh. If only these wines would be loved as much as Silver Oak, Opus, and Caymus Special Select. Sigh. If only great white wines would get the same love (and $$$) as reds did.

If only.

In the meantime, I will appreciate them any way I can.

Does Agrapart know how well its bubbles go with Dim Sum???

So I'm sitting here, great glass of wine in hand (2007 Salwey Henkenberg Pinot Gris Grosses Gewachs, Baden, Germany) and NO CHEESE which is very upsetting because cheese would be so great right now, maybe a bit of Petit Basque (oh who am I kidding, I cannot eat just a BIT of Petit Basque), maybe some cave-aged Gruyere, maybe some other gooey cheese............ but I was trying after the new year to give up something, and I thought, hey I'll not eat cheese for a while! What a silly idea.

Anyway, I digress.

I wanted to report that last weekend I had the most wonderful brunch that I have had in a long time. No, it didn't involve omlettes or crepes or anything like that. Instead, it was Dim Sum at Ocean Star with some of my favorite people: Samantha & Carl & my hubby Johan! We got there early, at 10:30 am or so, and with our bottles to have with our dim sum delicacies.

Sam brought non-vintage Agrapart Rose while I brought non-vintage Agrapart "7 Cru" Blanc de Blancs. Oh they were so lovely, both, with the morsels of steamed dumplings, noodles wrapped around barbecue pork and shrimp, various wraps, even chicken's feet!

We started with the Blanc de Blancs, a favorite of mine because the price is always so right and the wine always delivers. Even so, I hadn't had it in a while so was very excited to drink it this particular Sunday morning. And of course it was great - clean, crisp, refreshing, and complex enough for this fun meal - I kept finishing my glass and had to slow myself down!

Next up was the Rose, which was darking in color than I last remembered it, and according to Sam, it did get reformulated somehow, adding more roundness and richness to the palate. The wine was delicious, slightly fruity and succulently dry, a rose worth drinking any day of the week.

By the middle of this fun meal, I made a conclusion: I might never have dim sum again without Champagne!!!

You know, this is one of those times when I am really happy to know a thing or two about wine. Times like these really enhance those experiences, like dim sum, that one has known since childhood.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Better Blog Posts Coming Next Month

My blog posts have been lacking a certain je-ne-sais-quoi - well, actually, I do know... the issue is that reviewing what wines I drank with what foods only goes so far in fueling my writing passion. For example, last evening, I indulged in a delicious bottle of 2005 Bordeaux called Puy Arnaud which was really enjoyable and I had it with roast chicken, which was quite nice. I could write a tasting note here but really, who cares? It was a good bottle of wine, balanced, and tasty and I would buy it again in a heartbeat (only $17.99 a bottle). Like everyone says, 2005 was great in Bordeaux and all these little chateaux made some great easy-drinking reds for any night.

But exciting literature it does not make.

BUT... I am going to Germany in a month, my first time going there in the cold of winter. I expect I will have some stories and pictures. Pictures of snow-covered bare vines. Hopefully a picture of me at Urziger Wurzgarten in the same pose as you see me on the left here, but without the lush green of the Riesling leaves, but instead the white, grey and brown of dormant vines, frozen earth, all waiting for the sound of Spring.

I hope to bring great stories of these storybook lands. I know that I regretted the last time that I visited that I didn't have a blog yet. In fact, it was reading blogger Lyle Fass' blog about his similar Rudi Wiest Germany trip that inspired me to open a blog. For that I am grateful.

This time, this visit, I'll have a blog! And I'll get to explore and share all bits of minutia about Germany's wine regions in the winter.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

New Years Day thoughts of gratitude (& wine)

Well, its 2009 (finally, or already?) and here we are!

The 2002 Agrapart Mineral Blanc de Blancs performed beautifully, as I knew it would, with the crab legs which we steamed in white wine (Pinot Blanc) and sliced leeks. Fantastic! Those Alaskan King crabs have some meaty legs, definitely. We didn't even need to dip them in melted butter - they were flavorful and firm, with a minerally salinity that was fantastic with the wine.

Yes, the Champagne - fine bubbles, baked apples, some apricot for me, fantastic acidity, hint of savory yeast, all in all balanced and richly concentrated, with a great edge and zip that makes you wish you had a case stashed away somewhere... sigh......

Another great 2008 wine moment!

Oh, I do have one more wine thing to add about yesterday - I worked during the day (like many of you readers might also have) - just a little - I showed some wines to a sushi restaurant (fingers crossed that I make it on the list). I showed a 2007 Hans Wirsching Estate Silvaner, 2007 Gunderloch Dry Gewurztraminer, 2007 Gunderloch Dry Riesling, and 2007 Gunderloch Jean-Baptiste Riesling Kabinett.

Surprisingly, the Gunderloch Gewurztraminer stole the show. Normally, I am not a fan of Gewurztraminer, and I feel that Riesling is heads and shoulders better than Gewurz. However, on this particular day, in this particular situation (sushi restaurant), with this particular buyer (who is partial to dry Gewurz & requested to taste this wine), and maybe in this particular tasting order (as written above), the Gewurz was the star. It made the Rieslings tasted after it flat and boring. So that gave me the indication that perhaps I shouldn't have people taste Riesling after Gewurz. Why I put it before the Riesling was the idea to have the dry Riesling followed by the slightly medium-dry/medium-sweet Kabinett... but in retrospect perhaps the Gewurz at the end, after the Rieslings, would have put the Rieslings in a better light.

The 2007 Gunderloch Gewurztraminer was floral and delicate on the nose, not overly perfumey, but just perfumey enough. On the palate, the wine is crisp, clean, reminiscent of peaches and tropical fruits, but in a restrained, fashion, finishing dry. The buyer guy actually said he felt there was too much acidity and that was unbalanced about it (??? I'm lately getting so many folks telling me my wines have too much acid - huh?), but I thought the wine as a whole was surprisingly enjoyable and not unlike some sakes in its floral but dry nature.

In other words, perfect for a sushi restaurant.

I was happy with the buyer's response, actually, and he asked to take all four bottles to their company New Year's Eve party so the other decision-makers could taste (chef, managers, etc). I have a strong feeling they will choose the Gewurz, but who knows.

All in all, 2008 ended on a high note, and for that, I was greatful.