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Tuesday, February 01, 2005  
From the icebox to the outbox

-quick chills and redeeming reds for February

Winter is my time to combine juvenile science and entertaining. When the temperature drops below freezing, I like to by-pass my freezer and put the ice trays outside my Kitchen door to see how fast nature makes my ice. This year I witnessed, to my amazement, little spikes were rising up out of the trays, defying gravity and, in the absence of percolating calcareous water dripping from above, impossibly stalagmitic.

The answer is simple – bubbles. But the colder it gets, the less likely it is they will have time to rise to the top and push up those spikes. (Mensa should be calling me any minute now.)

This is not a sign that I have too much time on my hands. Rather, I entertain with just as much passion in the dark months, especially when I can chill the beer, white wine, and sparkling wine on the balcony table beside the ice trays.

Sometimes guests arrive for winter bonfire parties, a specialty of the Sherry-loving Ranger next door, but they bring their beer in ice-filled coolers. Did they not feel the cold, cold wind between parking the car and buying the beer and bag of ice for the outdoor party?

The cold has me thinking more often about Bourbon this year, but it is a contradiction not only that we order and pour these drinks over ice and then fuss over any premature dilution, but that we then shiver whilst drinking iced drinks in winter. Why do we not refrigerate all the spirits (not just the vodka) we do not want to become watered-down, or, better yet, choose drinks which are not so strong since we cannot seem to stomach them without the ice.

Hence, red wine. I like rustic red wines especially in winter. Reds of Negro Amaro and Monastrel, from Sicily, Salento (the heel of Italy), and of course Spain are all over my dining table for more stuff and less price.

However, against my usual preference, full-bodied chardonnay made it to the table at a recent dinner for a first course of stuffed quail. This was a spontaneous creation, as I had a different food in mind when its unavailability led me to finding quails in the grocery freezer, two to a pack for super-cheap. (I do not know how the quail farmers make any money.) Guests brought Ferrari-Carano ($27) and I had Zaca Mesa 1997 Santa Barbara (n/a) in the cellar – it had aged beautifully.

If you attempt this, you may be surprised at the speed of preparation, if you focus. Quails thaw quickly in water. I had four things on hand: cooked bacon, cooked gourmet brown rice, sprigs of thyme, and string. Tying the legs and wings up required some concentration, but fifteen minutes in the convection roaster made an elegant first course. Until…

“Hey, Riff Raff – wanna eat a cheee-kin?” It was Rick, known in the artsy circles as "the king of class", dangling the one extra stuffed quail over the head of my pit bull terrier.

Ever since reading Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil, I have kept, in the spirit of Jim Williams, an inbox and an outbox for these occasions. Rick is currently in dinner party purgatory with those who light up or go pee just when the soufflés come out of the oven, but you can bet he will gracefully come out of this one, perhaps by bringing some of the following to the next dinner party:

Wrongo Dongo, Jumilla red wine, Spain 2003 ($8) Even Rick could bring this Wrongo to redeem himself. I love the reds of Hoo-mee-ya, which are typically made of Monastrell. It’s a stupid name, but for the money I like the dark berry fruit and spice.

Castillo Perelada, Tinto Crianza, Emporda Costa Brava, Spain 2001 ($10) Half Garnacha, half Tempranillo, this medium red from south of the Pyrenees foothills and the Catalonian coast was wood-aged for a year, resulting in appetizing hints of vanilla.

Coto de Hayas, Campo de Borja, Spain 2001 ($9) I have always had good wine from this label, expensive or not. Grenache/Tempranillo, 60/40%. This has nine months in American Oak resulting in a little vanilla, plus there is nice spice and a more masculine style with the tannins.

Nadaria, Nero d’Avola, Sicily 2002 ($11.50) This is what I mean by rustic and hearty but nice enough for a fine dinner of Kansas City Steaks. Nero d’Avola is also similarly made in the heel of Italy by…

Promessa, Rosso Salento, Italy 2003 ($9)

Kempton Clark, Petite Sirah, Dunnigan Hills, California 2001 ($10) Wow - I may buy six more of these. This Petite Sirah delivers deep, full-bodied, delicious red for the money with a combination of flavors I can’t keep up with.

Recommended fizz for Valentines Day, as always, includes the inexpensive goodness of Spanish Cava plus a couple from elsewhere. I won’t bore you with much the same description for each sparkling wine. Really, are you actually interested in the names of all those little nuances in these under-ten-dollar sparklers? Trust me, and your retailer, they are all bargains:

Castillo Perelada Brut Cava from the same winery of the above recommended red.

Castillo Perelada Rosado Cava – remember – pink sparkling wine can be delicious.

Don Conde Cava – while descriptions remain very similar, Don Conde is my current favorite Cava.

Marques de Gelida Cava

Tura D’Arnau Cava

Veuve du Vernay, from France

Gratien et Meyer, Cardinal, demi-sec – this one is red, hence “Cardinal,” and a little sweet, and would be as much fun for Valentines as it was for Christmas.

5:07 AM

Thursday, September 04, 2003  

by michael parker for the Rapid River Monthly, pick up this month's issue for updates on Savoy and Thibodaux Jones, what's so lovely about Cafe Soleil, and who makes a damn good Mint Julep



GOOD SPILLS AND GOOD TIMES - and a few great pours

“What’s that you’re wearing?”
“Grenache,” she replied, “It’s from France.”

It was the second of three times that day that Laura was struck with spilled wine. We were in Charleston, where every café and bar seemed to have those metal tables with the lattice metal top, meaning there is no sporting chance of dodging the approaching runaway liquid. Thank goodness for dark colors.

It threw me back to when I met her, on a Saturday night during the Bele Chere festival in 1999 at the old New French Bar, which that night was serving in plastic cups for the crowds, and the Laura Blackley Band was performing outside. She spilled three tequilas in a row that night, but it was all on a solid surface.

We were watching the sunset from the roof of the Vendue Inn when glass number two fell her way. It was an old vine Grenache recommended here before, called Old Fart ($9). The flavor is good and the price a bargain.

And on that, there was next to us a man with a curious accent, which he self-described as Charlestonian, with a woman too young for him (or perhaps he was too old for her). She was dressed like a Chinese lantern, drinking the first chardonnay on the list.

She said she was from Baltimore, but it was spoken without that conspicuous D. There is this near-fact that Baltimore locals say Ball-di-more. By now, there have been so many people who aren’t from there I have heard employ the D that I can imagine the locals have gone back to pronouncing the T.

So I didn’t know whether she was really from there or not. That is, until she referred to me as “yous,” at which time glass number three fell and wet poor Laura. But again she was a good sport without a sporting chance.

We realized that missing was Jessica, who doesn’t spill with such frequency, but when she spills, her wine has this tendency to sling great distances. Jessica spills like no other, and had she been there the wine would likely have by-passed Laura and hit the old fart’s girl, whose dress would have been unaffected.

Try not to spill any of this Grenache:

Viña Borgia, Garnacha, Campo de Borja, Spain 2001 ($6/bottle, $11/magnum) this is one of those reds you really want to serve at a party. It is affordable and yummy, and it is a step above the reds that you may be more prone to buy at the grocery store to save time. The 1.5 liter bottle is fun, and the fact that you will find this in the wine shop is an indication that you are getting better quality than whatever at the grocery store.

Borsao, Campo de Borja, Spain 2002 ($7) 14% This is a Grenache blended with 25% Tempranillo, and an annual bargain. The 2001 vintage was very popular, and I have noticed some slight variation vintage to vintage, but why nitpick? The textbook raspberry red is there along with smooth drinking.

Viña Alarba, Calatayud, Spain 2002 ($8) This is good, basic, textbook Grenache that is meant to be finished the night it is opened. The medium body, raspberry flavors, and pepper are all there. Drink it and practice saying Ca-la-ta-yud.

Viña Alarba, Old Vines Grenache, Calatayud, Spain 2002 ($9) This wine is very distinct, and is for enthusiast wine drinkers who are prone to admire the nuances. Odd to drinkers to prefer reds they don’t have to think about, this wine exhibits complex spice that is hard to identify, and has the good stuff you get from vines that exceed fifty years of age. It is a true bargain.

Protocolo, Vino de la Tierra de Castilla, Spain 2001 ($7) An annual bargain, but not Grenache. This is all Tempranillo, and the good price is due in part to the “Vino de la Tierra” on the label, making it like what the French call “Vin de Pays.” Like Peñascal, the label produces a nice, simple white and a good pink, but you almost always find only the red.

Also have these whites on hand:

Santa Julia, Viognier, Mendoza, Argentina 2002 ($9) From the same producers of the highly recommended Torrontes. I knew that while not all producers make this floral white as well as others, Santa Julia is as reliable as a lot of people see the regular Chilean labels. In fact, I see Argentinean labels as generally more reliable.

Hope, Verdelho, Hunter Valley, Australia 2002 ($8) Estate bottled. Verdelho has actually replaced Viognier as my favorite white. A grape native to Portugal but adopted by the Australians, it produces typically lively, lemony wine. People who abandoned chardonnay for Pinot Grigio would be pleased to go this way.

4:57 AM

Tuesday, July 01, 2003  
by michael parker for the Rapid River Monthly
-see this month's issue for dinner party advice plus the article the publisher made me write about Tripp's

- with apologies to Carter

Even if the warm weather was late this spring, the first Downtown After
Five happened on schedule on Friday, May 16. It was earlier that day I was
telling someone how I preferred it to the Bele Chere festival for two reasons:
the crowd is mostly familiar faces, and you don't have to buy one of those
damned wristbands to enjoy a beer.

Well, I spoke too soon. There I was standing in the beer line when I saw
the "w" word on a sign. Fortunately I was there to see it before the crowd came;
many of them did not see the sign until after waiting in a long line.

Since being an adult was not good enough, a wristband had to be purchased
for a dollar to then go back and stand in line to buy a beer. This encourages
the rude stereotype that somehow beer drinkers are a threat that must be
controlled, or that because a few who may fall into temptation under the
influence of beer, all adults should be distrusted to this point. When people
who are closer to hip replacements than adolescence are put to this, is it any
wonder that airport security comes to mind?

If there was an upside to it, it was that the money went to the charity
Meals on Wheels, but forcing adults to donate to a charity in order to be
allowed to purchase a beer is akin to the medieval Church's sale of indulgences.
I wonder if the Beck Decision could get me my dollar back.

In spite of all my fuss, there was one terrific thing going on in those
beer lines. The lines for locally brewed Highland Brewery ales were longer than
the lines for the Andheuser-Busch products. That speaks well not just for the
brewery, but also for the people attending this event. The semi-popular bumper
sticker "Support your local brewery" has evidently had its good influence.

Supporting your local art museum will at the summer's end be a choice
(choice!) for those of you interested in a wine tasting fundraiser. On Friday,
September 12 the Asheville Art Museum and Pack Place will host a large, stand-up social wine tasting. The event will be somewhat like the annual Nouveau Night, but the wines featured will be, if I have any influence, a wide variety of Spanish and Italians that you will actually want to purchase in quantity.

-and wines to improve your own scene

This is written for Olivia, 18 years old, who attended a big party full
of adults who were drinking alcoholic beverages. She was asked to promise
not to ask for or accept any alcoholic beverages, and she kept her promise.
This is what happens when young people are made to understand that adults
can do what younger people cannot. See? All that and it didn't even require
a wristband.

I want to avoid this month ranting again about that, however, it begs
reporting that a great number of adults dislike standing in two lines to
purchase a beer, especially when being forced to make a donation to a
charity in order to buy a beer lends an element of guilt to something we
have not just the right to do, but to something where there is no wrong
being done.

A wristband policy of course does not totally diminish the good times
we have here, and let it be restated that we have great wealth in Asheville
when it comes to our gatherings. I don't know where else in any of our
border states and beyond that one can attend an outdoor event such as
Downtown After Five and literally walk not thirty feet (and frequently not
even ten) before seeing a familiar face.

Compare that to a recent event in Charlotte, which was actually a
promotion for a men's magazine and one of those beers with the "born on"
date. The event was publicized as highly exclusive and required bouncers and
VIP passes. The Charlotte people were dropping names, begging, lying, and
cheating to get in, but once in, they were suddenly too cool to be there.

In spite of the impressive, high-tech setup and great music, even the
go-go dancers didn't seem to be into their roles. The men, half still in
their bank clothes with ties removed, stood around like deer in headlights
while the women looked over their shoulders to see if there was someone else
in a more expensive dress shirt. It was a pleasure to cut the trip short to
return to Asheville in time for Downtown After Five.

Next, what do you get when you combine a dentist in a diva gown
accented with plastic fruit and a flamboyant Mexican hairdresser with a red
carpet? You get what many consider the best party of the recent Big Orange
Ball, which raised more than sixty thousand dollars for the Asheville Area
Arts Council. That fact that they could construct a fashion show runway and
actually get their guests to work it, work it, work it, is testament to the
fact that Ashevillians do have more fun as much as it tells that soliciting
the sponsorship of Skyy Vodka might help the Charlotte parties get a "born
on" date of their own.

This month's list largely made possible by Scott. Thanks for sharing:

Lurton, Pinot Gris, Mendoza, Argentina 2002 ($8) 13% Estate bottled. I
knew on sight this chardonnay alternative would please, and I am going to
drink a lot of this over the summer, because it has a lot of flavor, some
citrus, some almost peachy.

Graham Beck, Sauvignon Blanc, South Africa 2002 ($8) 12.5% This is a
super alternative the New Zealand sauvignons which I have long loved for
their typically grass and citrus flavors. A bargain at eight dollars.

Evolution by Sokol Blosser, American White Wine, 6th Edition ($16)
11.5% This wine is weird, but a good kind of weird. It is for those who
study wine and look for the quirks. If you like Vinho Verde from Portugal,
then this white is for you and your spicy food. It is made from nine white
varietals, including such weird grapes as Muller-Thurgau and Sylvaner from
different regions. (That explains the "American White Wine" statement.)

Chateau Mas Neuf, Costeires de Nimes 2001 ($8) 13% This red is an
exceptional value, ripe, with enough fruit to almost make you think it a
little sweet at the start. Their white and pink are also worth checking at
the same price.

Vallado, Vihno Tinto, Douro, Portugal 2000 ($15) 14.5% For two
vintages, this is one of my favorite all-time reds. Remember that being
Portuguese does not mean it is Port. This is a dry, full, elegant dinner red
that really does not need any ageing. It is already smooth enough in spite
of its concentration.

Bendigo, Shiraz, Water Wheel Vineyards, Victoria, Australia 2001 ($16)
14.5% Wow. Just when I thought I was getting over shiraz and my appetite was
shifting to cab/shiraz blends, this wine is rich, does not overdo the black
pepper, and has a tannin structure that is strong enough for a man, but.

Delectus, Syrah, Terra Alta Vineyard, Lodi, California 1999 ($25) 14.1%
If you are shopping for something to age, here you go. It is certainly not
ready yet. To open it now is to lose your money, but this wine will be
glorious after three or so more years. It reminds me of the 2000 Vacqueras
from Perrin ($18) already twice recommended for ageing.

4:38 AM

Monday, March 31, 2003  
by Michael F. Parker for the Rapid River Monthly - see this month's issue for two new restaurant articles: Doc Chey's Noodle House and The Grape Escape, plus the first in a series of how to host a successful dinner party.


-how to read your customers

Sarasota. I was still dressed for the beach, underdressed for the wine tasting but on time.

To my left was Linda, the stainless steel showing through her no-longer all-gold watchband. I recognized her from the Sarasota Film Festival where she and her husband were trying to sell her script. They bore the strangest resemblance to that Wilmingtonian ruffled curtain couple.

To my right was Mrs. Tipple with her retired neurologist husband. The diamonds she had gotten from him over the years moved around to the palm side of her fingers and they clinked against the glass, on purpose, I think, as she demanded a pricey pour of Chateau Something and splashed her old red on my shirt.

Then there was the wine rep behind the table, he was showing about ten wines, all Bordeaux, and was describing them one by one at length to one taster at a time. People would understandably interrupt - we did pay an admission and the clock was moving. But this rep had a precise tasting order in mind and couldn’t pour you something unless you assured him you had the one you were supposed to taste before it.

“Trust me, I’m a professional. And I have already had those down there.” Doesn’t he know that all wine writers wear Birdwell’s?

Now, there is something to order, but when you hear diamonds hitting a glass that begs the high-end pour, just pour it. Mrs. Tipple doesn’t care about your information or order. She thinks high-priced wine is good because the price says so. Linda, on the other hand, needs to sell that script.

Linda needs to know about:

Cline, Oakley Vin Blanc, California 2001 ($9) Before this I tried the $15 viognier and my bias had me loving it before I started thinking. The $9 Vin Blanc is better.

Jewel, Viognier, California 2002 ($10) 13.5% Remember this label! I was very pleased with the prices from this winery. It is crisp, with the floral tones that I love from viognier.

Concannon, Sauvignon Blanc, California 2001 ($11) This sauvignon struck me as surprisingly creamy, even the rep was surprised at my response. Well, the wine feels good. I think it’s a good buy.

Di Majo Norante, Greco, Italy 2000 ($9) I have watched the price increase a little with this one over a few years, but I still love it. There is nothing mainstream about Greco, it is a quirky, minerally white, Distinct in its style, like…

Marques de Alella, Parxet, Pansa Blanca, Spain 2001 ($13) In the same way that a Spanish Parellada or Palomino wine is distinct, so is Parxet (pronounced par-CHET).

Marques de Murrieta, Neonata, Rioja 2000 ($10) Riojas have been in the Helen Thomas row for a while here, while I have been preferring reds from Toro and Jumilla, but I like this one. You won’t miss this label on the shelf.

Cline, Oakley Vin Rouge, California 2000 ($9) A good price for a good blend. It has a brighter style this year than last. It always makes me think of Mrs. Maddox, my Memphis Mint Julep Mamma.

Xanadu, Shiraz, Frankland River, Western Australia 2001 ($14) 14% The Frankland River is with the Margaret River, which deserves more appreciation for its lovely cabernets. This shiraz has more in common with Olivia Newton John than Kublai Khan.

Mrs. Tipple would like:

Perrin, Vacqueyras, France 2000 ($18) This wine is a fantastic blend of 80% Grenache and 20% Syrah. If you stock up on just a few special occasion bottles, this is a very good candidate.

Starve Dog Lane, Cabernet Sauvignon, Adelaide Hills, Australia 1999 ($25) 12.5% This cabernet is well-balanced and masculine with the kind of tannins I like in a cab.

Bodegas Dios Baco, Amontillado Sherry, Spain ($20) This amontillado is elegant and dry. The flavors are clear and the wine is smooth. It actually has a palate-cleansing quality. I regret not trying the oloroso, and my memory of Lustau is fading.

Bodegas Dios Baco, Cream Sherry, Spain ($20) This one is sweet, of, course, but somehow it still has a palate-cleansing quality, clearly a signature style of Dios Baco. With this label costing only a few dollars more, Mrs. Tipple should never buy Harvey’s again.

7:27 PM

Monday, March 03, 2003  

by Michael F. Parker for the Rapid River Monthly - see this month's issue for three new restaurant articles: Thibodaux Jones' Creole Kitchen, the new Uptown Cafe, and Spirits on the River

Boycotting French Wine? -NONsense!
-------------But I still prefer Iron Horse

A couple of weeks ago the news networks, with ideas borrowed from the New York Post, were taking polls asking, “Should we boycott French wine?”

This threw me back to 1996, when some wine shop customers refused my suggested bargain Bordeaux because France had resumed nuclear testing in the South Pacific. I could only counter, what has the winemaker got to do with all that? He’s a farmer, for Pete’s sake.

Do you really think French wineries, with the restraints that are placed on their vineyard management, have time to pursue war policies when they are worrying about late frost and late rains? (That reasoning can apply elsewhere – why would you punish a brewer in Netanya by refusing to buy Maccabee?)

I buy less French wine, but that is because of the prices and always needing guidance. It would not be because of current foreign policy any more than past nuclear testing, especially since the last war I can remember them winning was, well, against themselves. Further, I am consistently satisfied with the inexpensive quality from Spain and Italy.

As columnist Daniel Henninger pointed out, Polish Americans have finally lived to see the end of their mockery and the laughter turn against France. But they really are asking for it: in advance of a state dinner planned to mark the historic visit by Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, Iran demanded that wine be banned from the table. Rather than force the issue, France forwent tradition and held a “reception” instead. Even the Tehran Times derided France for “lacking honesty and sincerity.”

Well, the new jokes are French, but their wines are no joke.

Nonetheless, an American winery is producing quality sparkling wines and pinot noir with much seriousness. The produce of Iron Horse Vineyards could end up being responsible for your forgetting about Champagne and Burgundy in exchange for more affordable quality from the very distinct growing region in western Sonoma County.

Featured at state dinner tables through four Presidential administrations, their sparkling wines are cause for pride as they represent American wine making talent, while making it clear that if you like Iron Horse, you are already of Presidential temper.

From Iron Horse:

Classic Vintage Brut, Green Valley, Sonoma County 1997 ($30) This, made from 65% pinot noir, almost seemed to evaporate from the tongue – a true sign of finesse to me.

Wedding Cuvee, Green County, Sonoma County 1998 ($30) This is made almost entirely from pinot noir, the grape I always expect to give a sparkling wine a lot of body. In this case, Iron Horse has pulled more of a delicacy from it instead. This also shows a little more of the yeast.

Russian Cuvee, Green Valley, Sonoma County 1997 ($30) This is for the drinker who wishes sparkling wine was not so dry. A richer dosage (part of the sparkling wine-making process) almost gives a sweetness to this one. Made for the Summit meetings of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, it is reasonable to give Iron Horse some credit for ending the Cold War.

Sauvignon Blanc, Cuvee R, Alexander Valley 2001 ($23) I actually tasted the previous vintage, but this winery’s sauvignons are reliable every year. Blended, interestingly, with viognier for perfume and fruit.

Pinot Noir, Green Valley, Sonoma County 2000 ($33) The winery’s owner believes Iron Horse will eventually be known for excellence in Pinot Noir, the level of prestige given to the masters of Burgundy. Ironically, Iron Horse employs non-Burgundian methods. I spend little time with pinot because it is usually too expensive and often a crapshoot. If you are accustomed to buying $30 bottles, this is on target. Buy it.

Blend 1, Alexander Valley, Proprietor Grown 2000 ($33) This is an elegant Bordeaux-style blend, and a good example why you can buy Alexander Valley cabernet-based wines with confidence.

These red wines are from our friends in Spain:

El Chaparrel, Navarra, Spain 2000 ($8) This is a very smooth red from about as far north as wines get grown in Spain, except for the Basque wines. The Grenache is grown on 60 – 100 year-old vines.

Dehesa Gago, Toro, Spain 2001 ($8) This tempranillo wine shows why red wine from Toro is almost always a great buy. There is more oomph in aptly named Toro.

Las Gravas, Jumilla, Spain ($20) This rich red is 70% Mourvedre, 15% Syrah, and 15% Cabernet Sauvignon. It is hard to pick a favorite Spanish region, but Jumilla is mine for now.
michael parker

4:17 AM

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