Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Mixing Up the Virginia Reds

After my small and incomplete survey of red wines from Virginia for #WBC11 I was left with the impression that some the varietal offerings were one dimensional and not significantly interesting or complex on their own. I certainly didn’t taste wines from a huge number of Virginia wineries, but I did have wines from several regions in the state and from different years making my impressions workable, but not comprehensive. Contrasting my conclusions with my impressions of the Bordeaux and Meritage blends I tasted I couldn’t stop thinking that more of the blends would be a better application for these red wines. Supporting this idea beyond the tasting notes previously published is the subject of this post.

Historically the blending of wines has been taken for granted as the path to exceptional wines. The Oxford Companion to Wine states “Almost all of the world’s finest wines are made by blending the contents of different vats and different barrels” in the first paragraph of the entry entitled “blending.” The opening sentence of that same entry infers that the practice is “more distrusted than understood”, which is clear from the share of mystery and myth I’ve experienced surrounding the method. 

I won’t get into how you blend wine, I am assuming folks have blended liquids before and get the mechanical concepts, but rather stick with my experiences with the blends I tasted and what the outcome might be if the varietals I tasted were pressed more into blending. If you are interested there are wine blending classes, some in Virginia, that explain much more about the process and provide hands on experimentation. Having these types of experiences for the sensory feedback is a must do. There is a link at the bottom that contains information on the process and places that offer opportunities for curious wine lovers to try it first-hand.

From Principles and Practices of Winemaking (a text book that has been used in the UC Davis Winemaking Certificate program) we get a simple definition of the objectives for blending. “Of course, the objective of blending is to make the final wine better. This may be to standardize it, balance it, achieve complexity, achieve a certain style, or optimize it under specific economic conditions.” That’s a mouthful! And it is written very optimistically. Here’s why that makes sense. Anybody who makes wine knows (or should) that you can rarely fix a flawed wine and blending to improve flawed wines drags down the other wines in the blend. Bad idea. The textbook excerpt above is written the way it is because first and foremost we are talking about taking unflawed, drinkable wines and blending them to produce a final wine that through the combination of the varietal attributes is more complex and more interesting to drink

In my last #WBC11 post, Life’s Too Short Not To Be Badass, I wrote the following about my overall impression of the Virginia reds I tasted:

“I’ve been pulling together my ideas about the red wines from Virginia. My premise after tasting a bunch of them is that a focus on the blends will be their key to success. Why do I say this? Because most of the Bordeaux varietals on their own were boring and lacking in distinction. I found many of them to be one dimensional and where some of them had good character, I think they should be matched with worthy peers to great more dimension in a blend. There are examples of that, and I think more would be a good thing. The least interesting wines, those with very subtle aromas and flavors, might not good candidates for rescue, what can I say?”

My overarching thought was that some the varietal Cabs, Cab Francs, Petit Verdots and Merlots didn’t have enough character on their own to captivate me. I did a rough blending experiment at Ducard and not having enough wine or time to really conclude anything; but the results were different and more nuanced adding weight to the argument. I did a few minor experiments elsewhere, but again did not have a sufficient quantity to produce several blends to evaluate from the same components.

First I will review the blends I did have so my thoughts on what was at work there can be on display up against my suggestions for blends, process changes, and collaborations.

Barboursville Octagon - I had this at least 3 times and in vintages 2002 and 2006 (that I found from my notes, but thinking one more). The nose on the 2006 was what got me. The richness of the 2002 in comparison was one of my motivations to think blends was a key story. It is Merlot driven but still not fooling around. (my exact notes from my original review) This wine is a blend driven with Merlot and in different years differing amounts of Cab Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot. Clearly the wines made from those grapes at Barboursville bring the right balance of elements together in very good years.

Boxwood  - Boxwood poured two different blends over the weekend, the Topiary and the Boxwood. I had both on two different occasions. Both wines are well made but didn’t distinguish themselves to me. My optimistic opinion is that more aging time of these wines might be a worthwhile change in process. Both were from 2007 and saw 1 year in oak. These wines drive their small (and growing?) portfolio and with continued attention and experimentation could be the key to significant exposure in the coming years.

Tarara CasaNoVA and TerraNoVA – both of these wines come with a list of interesting features right on the outside of the bottle! Not really, but the metaphor of wearing oneself on your sleeve is what I was going for. These wines are accessible AND interesting. The addition of the Tannat to the TerraNoVA gives it a richness that is different but consuming. The CasaNoVA is a Bordeaux-style blend that definitely gets the sum of its parts right. They both saw 18 months in new Virginia Oak which could be an important difference here. I’m not an oak expert but if VA oak is wine-worthy then 18 months of time in new barrels made from it worked phenomenally well!  A good example here of using what you have to make it more than it might otherwise be.

Sweeely 1867 Meritage 2006 – this wine is still developing and will likely be a better drinker in a few years time. The nose was very light when I first tested it. The wine was tight overall and opened up a bit with some time, but I still didn’t get much. It feels like it will have density to the flavors, but with the moderate to high tannins that are still a little chewy those flavors didn’t grab me. A straightforward blend of Merlot and Cab Franc, this wine’s potential is not yet achieved in my opinion.

Ducard Popham Run Red 2009 – The taste I got of this was amazingly acidic and I didn’t finish it. I didn’t get the details on what is in the blend, but nevertheless I’ll be suggesting a blend based on other wines tasted at Ducard.

Barren Ridge Meritage 2008 – This is a well made wine with subtle and elusive complexity. If I had to guess I would say it needs to rest a few more years. This is one of two wines that were not tasted well on the count of heat. A blend of Merlot, Cab Franc and Petit Verdot.

Jefferson Vineyard Meritage 2008 – I picked up spicy red fruits with moderate and softening tannins. It was due the warmth of the outside event that I wasn’t able get as much from this wine as I would have liked. A blend of Cab Franc driven with Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

I had a couple opportunities to try varietal bottlings of some of the same components of the above wines, and others that might make great additions to a blend or expand a line of blends available.

Ducard had both a Petit Verdot and a Cab Franc that were good on their own. A quick swirl together proved promising. The Cab Franc easily stands on its own and warrants a single bottling. That wine brings the greens & mint, a little cherry and fine tannins. The PV added cherries and dark chocolate and a strong nose. The PV at Ducard can see two years in oak before release. The aging duration here again might be significant. I’d drive a blend of these two with Merlot, say 65% (M), 25% (CF) and 10% (PV), go with the extended aging and some of the blended wine in new oak. I could also see doing a Merlot and Cab Franc blend with some healthy aging time. Both of these wines would offer similar complexity in the mouth with distinct noses.

Both the Sweely Merlot and Cab Franc wines are essentially blends with 22% or less of other Bordeaux varietals in the finished wines. The Merlot presented tightness and restraint when I first tasted it, and just like the 1867 Meritage, didn’t open up enough to really get a feel for. The Cab Franc didn’t feel like it was doing much with the additional air and time, and likewise didn’t offer me much. A simple read here is that Sweely is already operating in the blend mindset. Fair enough. For me I might suggest a softening of the initial blend so that they express some youthfulness from both early on until a peak age somewhere in the 5-10 year range. If the resulting wines open up a little better (the need to open less?) and express a functional polish of both the oak treatment and the overall aging more easily they would be more exciting drinkers.

Afton Mountain Cabernet – I found this wine to be singular but solid. It had the cherry & dark fruits I expected with whisps of mint. Afton Mountain does use it in a Super Tuscan blend and after looking at their lineup of wines would suggest a Cabernet blend (CS &CF) with maybe some Merlot or Petit Verdot thrown in. The addition of the herbal and earth components from the Cab Franc could really amp up the breadth of the finished wine. The CF or PV would need to have some additional aromatics for the final wine to present well, but there’s potential there for sure.

As I got to thinking about some of the blending ideas I considered what blends of particularly good varietal wines from different VA producers might result in. One idea stuck with me.

Both the Barboursville and Ducard Cab Francs had different herbal and green components, solid fruit flavors, earthy tendencies and moderate finishes. A blend of each of their wines from a good year with some time in a barrel could produce some killer juice. These types of partnerships are common and without researching it I am going to guess collaborations like this are not unusual in Virginia.

Another area to consider would be cuvee blends, and specifically taking wines needing different aging times and blending them together later in their lives. I didn’t try any that I know so I have no firsthand experience to report.

As I continued to look through the winery directory I found more and more blends that broadly fit into the blend category I am kicking around here. Unfortunately I didn’t try that many of them! Clearly I have many more bottles to try before I can elaborate the argument that more of the red wine grapes grown in Virginia should be destined for outright blends rather than varietal bottling. A worthy counterpoint if I may. If the future growth of the wine industry in Virginia sees an upswing in the quality of some of varietals would that change the thesis here? It certainly could.

There are definitely economic and logistical issues with any of the suggestions above. Recognizing that I am not issuing demands so much as extrapolating different futures under different conditions, my thoughts can nonetheless be used to drive creative consideration or new business opportunities. I enjoyed my time in Virginia and was lucky enough to meet many of the faces behind the wines I tasted and reviewed. These business owners and winemakers are serious folks with lots of passion and energy invested in their products. I hope all the attention and feedback is useful to them as they continue to put their passion in the bottle.



References & Links

The Oxford Companion to Wine Third Edition, Jancis Robinson , 2006
Principles and Practices of Winemaking, Boulton, Singleton, Bisson, Kunkee, 2004

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

One Day in Maine – Back to York Beach

Each of the last two summers we’ve stayed at a house in York with friends for a week. This year none of us could swing the whole trip missing out on the sunny days, insane amount of food and drink, the sound of the ocean and immense laughter from the bunch. It turns out that we all did spend at least a day up there about the same time year. The weekend that followed our trip that finishes with this post saw our friends at the beach and out for seafood. Same mission accomplished by like minded friends!

No whirlwind one day trip to Maine would be complete without a trip to the beach. As our luck often holds thunderstorms were bearing down on the area as we arrived. It didn’t actually rain or storm the whole hour we were on the beach. It was dark and ominous, but the breeze was nice and crowd was long gone!

The tide was heading out so we were able to setup chairs on Long Sands and enjoy the view and the sounds of the ocean.

We reminisced about our ferry trips to Peaks Island, lobster bakes, people watching on the beach and those mornings after that none of knew where we were until after coffee! Summer vacation to the beach really is a singular and unique delight.

We walked the beach a bit and watched the dogs chasing toys and birds in the surf.

We finished the day at Harry’s Seafood & Grill for lobster rolls and fried clam strips. We always eat way too many of them when we are there, but they really taste so much better when you are on vacation!

And with that we headed home having had tremendous fun on our one-day vacation to Maine.

This was part four in the series. Recaps from the first three stops can be found at:

All Day Breakfast Two in Biddeford
Scavenger Hunt in Portland
North Berwick Farmer's Market



Monday, August 29, 2011

One Day in Maine – North Berwick Farmers Market

Another one of the important goals of our “working vacation” was to find 20 pounds of Maine blueberries that we would be used to make a Blueberry Port wine. Doing some research ahead of time I found that the North Berwick Farmers Market is held on Friday’s at the town hall. Heading south from Portland we found the market about 10 minutes off of I-95.  At first I thought we might be dashed in this task as well. The two berry vendors were in the back on both sides of the stalls. We were satisfied in our mission and made two local farmers pretty happy! We ended up with 21 pounds total from the two different vendors, and a mix of at least two different berry varieties.

I don’t have pictures of the berries, they are in the freezer right now, but I’ll be sure to chronicle the process of making the wine in an upcoming post. The berries were plump, ripe (the color was great) and tasted fantastic. Let’s hope our first experience making blueberry wine is a fitting tribute to the source of the fruit.

We also were questing for the ingredients to make fresh salsa to take to a friend’s house the next day. Tomatoes, onion, green pepper and cilantro proved easy to find and we used produce from multiple vendors for a blended result. The result was truly fantastic and the testament to it was how many people commented on the pleasing aroma when we put it out on the snack table the next day!

The last post from our one-day vacation to Maine is our return to York Beach and our final missions of hanging on the beach and getting some taste fried seafood. See ya tomorrow!



Sunday, August 28, 2011

One Day in Maine – Scavenger Hunt in Portland

Our one-day trip to Maine was a summer vacation for the two of us, but as noted in the lead-off post it did have several underlying purposes. We had several missions on the trip, and something specific at each location. We didn’t complete our Portland mission. We were unable to find a Riesling wine made in Maine, but we did accomplish the other items, including having beers at Sebago, getting a birthday present for my Dad, exploring more of the Old Port area and otherwise enjoying our time in the shops and on the streets with all the tourists.

I’ve done a little research on the wine and it turns out that at least two Maine wineries do make a Riesling making my search pretty specific. Cellar Door is one of them and their Viognier was a bottle I brought home to try. It appears I can order their wines online and may just do that to get some of the Riesling in hand to finish my Summer of Riesling party. Bar Harbor Winery is the other Maine producer of Riesling, but as far as I can tell I’d have to go there, or near, to get it.

Portland’s Old Port area spreads out over a tightly packed set of streets adjacent to the ferry terminal and fish docks. We’ve been in the area several times for a ferry trip to Peak’s Island so we had some expectations from poking around on those trips. I made the wine the primary task and we set out to Maine Beer & Beverage to see what we could find. We did find a number of wines made in Maine with a significant number of ciders and meads in the mix. The majority of the wines are fruit based or made from hybrid grapes, which is not surprising at all given the climate. Unfortunately many of the bottles lookws like they might have been there some time and I wasn’t that interested in taking much chance on styles I hadn’t come for. I did pickup a bottle of Kenebec Hard Cider (Winthrop, ME) which I look forward to trying soon.

Maine Beer & Beverage is a store within a store, inside the Public Market House, and to get there you have to pass the cheese cases, including one with just cheese from Maine in it. The Buy Local sticker in the inside of that case pretty much sums up our plan for the day. We didn’t buy any cheese on the count of the huge breakfast and the day still being early.

From there we walked back down to Fore Street and wandered in and out of shops. We checked out Cool As a Moose, Life is Good, City Beverage, Maine’s Pantry and several others. We also walked out towards the docks and checked out the wares at the Harbor Fish Market.

Our last retail stop was at Downeast Beverage where I found the Cellar Door Viognier which is made in Lincolnville, ME. We also picked up a bottle of blueberry soda and some local pickles. The blueberry soda was pretty damned interesting. I’ve had peach, grape and cherry sodas from the South that really make the fruit flavors sing, and I’d say that Bar Harbor Soda got the same punch of out the berries for this soda. It was refreshing on a rapidly warming day, and so Maine!

The fresh fish at the Harbor Fish Market looked like it would be well worth the trip!

Our final stop in Portland was intended to be a relaxing one, and one with a bit of refreshment available. Sebago Brewing just recently moved to the corner of Fore and Franklin with floor to ceiling windows on both sides of the corner, and seasonal outdoor seating. It is a beautiful space with lots of light and will likely quickly become a pretty popular space. We decided on the beer sampler and some pub pretzels for what would be lunch on our already food-filled day.

Our beer sample included the Hefeweizen, Saddleback Golden Ale, Frye’s Leap IPA, Runabout Red, Boathouse Brown, and the Lake Trout Stout.

Our favorites were the Frye’s Leap IPA and the Lake Trout Stout. I’ve enjoyed IPA several times before and really was taken again with the huge and pleasing hop aromas of this beer. Margot gave the stout the once over as is typical these days. Both of us found lots of chocolate and roasted nut aromas and flavors.

I spotted a huge jug on the back bar with what looked like and drink being made. It turned out to be a watermelon sangria, which Margot ordered to give it a refreshment test on a warm summer day. Margot told me that it was sweet, but not sickeningly so, with flavors of clove. She added that the chunks of watermelon were very tasty and overall the drink was very refreshing.

I finished with the Grand Cru, a blend of their Bourbon Barrel Aged Full Throttle Double IPA, Barleywine, and fresh Frye's Leap IPA, which is served in one size and in a tulip type glass. The nose is huge on this beer with fruit, baked goods and spices. In the mouth it is moderately malty, hoppy and just a bit sweet. Some coconut tumbled through in a few of my sips. I almost ordered a growler to go, but remembered I needed to save my $$ for my remaining missions!

In my next post I will share the blueberry search from the North Berwick Farmer’s Market.



Saturday, August 27, 2011

One Day in Maine – All Day Breakfast Two

Summer vacation to Maine was one day for us this year. As I am often accused this ended up being a “working vacation” as Margot calls it. We had four destinations with missions in each location. We would travel to Biddeford, Portland, North Berwick and York Beach before heading back to NH. We were questing for local wine & beer, blueberries and lobster rolls at the beach. A day like that wouldn't start well without of good breakfast though. And here’s where I finally get to experience All Day Breakfast from the legends of nearly 15 years ago.

When I first met Margot her and her sorority sisters would talk about car trips back to Maine to go to their sister Jen’s family’s all day breakfast restaurant. Named in that most straightforward of ways (gotta love New Englanders!) All Day Breakfast did just that, served breakfast from morning into the early afternoon closing time, seven days a week. We had never made a trip despite being close by a few times.

In 2004 Jen’s sister Val opened All Day Breakfast Two taking the model she knew so well to a new location not far away. Margot contacted Val a few weeks ago and arranged for us to stop in for breakfast and to get the backstory about the restaurant.

At 10 AM on a beautiful summer Friday the restaurant was pretty busy. In talking with Val I learned that they have a considerable number of regulars but also see fair number of seasonal tourists being so close to the Maine coast. All Day Breakfast Two is open from 7-2 seven days a week and is only closed on a few major holidays. I have it on good authority that they are busy all day most of their summer days which keeps the pace high and the need to be on top of things paramount.

Margot and I perused the menu and settled on the Irish Benedict, Blueberry Pancakes and the Whole Hog Breakfast, one of the day’s specials. As we waited for our plates we chatted more with Val about what makes All Day Breakfast Two what it is.

Val was 24 when she opened the restaurant and with encouragement from her parents and experience in the business in hand, she has successfully developed a thriving business. When you talk to her she is clearly passionate and spoke often of the people involved in the day to day, whether they be regular customers or the staff. I asked her if she ever imagined doing this. She replied, “no, I never thought I would go into the family business.” She also added “that taking on opening the restaurant at 24 years old was scary.” I was 26 when I started a consulting business so I know exactly what she means!

As I walked around and shot photos the phrase “country kitchen” kept coming to mind. That is how I would describe the décor and atmosphere. They have a counter that clearly is the center of the action during much of the day. I caught some of the staff talking business while we were enjoying breakfast.

Our food arrived and we switched gears from talking to eating. 

The blueberry pancakes are huge! The pancakes were the first thing I wanted to try. Val confirmed that she gets as much Maine produce as she can from her vendors, and the blueberries were from not far away. The cakes are light with tons of berries from edge to edge. The berry flavor was significant and the cake didn’t taste heavy or thick. I used butter and ultimately some maple syrup, but for berry lovers the syrup was unnecessary!

One of the themes we immediately picked up on is how gently prepared everything was. There was no substantial grease or oil on any of the items. The clean tasting flavors of the components of the Benedict and the home fries really came through. The Benedict was that perfect storm of flavors you might think it would be. Eggs Benedict is great with just Canadian bacon, but when you swap out that meat for another form you really can work some magic. The eggs were cooked just to the point of not being too messy to eat, very nice! The hash was flavorful, not salty, and was so savory with the Hollandaise sauce! The potatoes served here could easily go unsung, but when you actually taste red potato that is lightly fried and gently seasoned it is a real pleasure. All of the hog in my Whole Hog breakfast was hot and tasted equally great.

We certainly couldn’t eat all of our breakfast and packed up the rest for home. Sidenote: The leftovers heated up very well and made us happy a second time!

When I was talking with Val I asked about any recent changes to the menu. They in fact did make changes this past May. A revamped the look for the menu, the additions of biscuits and gravy (I hear some people order the gravy as a side for other dishes!) and Panini sandwiches to the lunch section of the menu were the big changes. Another notable point about the food is that they have no fryolaters and no fried items on the menu. Sandwiches are served with hand-prepared cole slaw, pickles and chips. Some folks might miss the fries with a tasty sandwich or burger, but I doubt they can be really missed since they can’t possibly taste as good as everything else you might order.

The menu also includes products of Val’s husband’s labors. Last year he decided on a change of pace and has been experimenting with baking a range of different goodies like muffins, cupcakes, breads and cookies. Taking a look in the case near the entrance and you can find all sorts of things, including several gluten-free products which are quite popular with a number of regulars. We took home double chocolate cookies which sadly never got in front of the camera. But I can tell you they were quite good! The balance between the crunchy and chewy textures was excellent, and the richness of the chocolate didn’t hide. The cookies didn’t last long once we opened them!

All Day Breakfast Two can be found at 420 Alfred Street, Suite 8
Biddeford, ME 04005.

With our to-go bag packed we said our goodbyes and headed for more fun in Maine. Check back for the next post on our scavenger hunt in Portland which includes local beers!



Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Two for Dessert – Summer of Riesling

During my collection phase to celebrate the 2011 Summer of Riesling I found several ice wine style Rieslings that were new to me and thus offered unknown potential enjoyment. I've enjoyed two of them so far, treating them as dessert without any accompaniment.

For me late-harvest, dessert and ice wine style Rieslings are the most vibrant example of what you can do with the grape. Something about the concentration of the aromas and flavors resonates profoundly with me.

Koenig 2009 Riesling Ice Wine

This wine has the color of honey with pungent ripe and ripening fruit aromas. The fruit aromas are intertwined with honey and spices which are joined on the palate by dried fruits and a great balance of acidity and sweetness. It has a smooth, clean finish that lingers but not to extremes.

Riesling Ice Wine from Idaho can hang with dessert wines from many other areas based on my experience. This wine is polished with pronounced aromas, flavors and some wild nuances that make great North American dessert Rieslings shine.

I ordered this wine directly from the winery with a couple of other styles, and it retails for $20 per bottle. That makes it good performer for dessert wines and an average performer overall.

Pacific Rim Vin de Glaciere

Hailing from Washington State this wine is a solid pleaser with a very specific fruit focus. Oranges. This wine is golden/orange in color, has aromas of citrus in the nose and flavors of dried oranges on the palate. It is hyper-orange, but in a balanced way where enjoyment of it isn’t hard. The acidity that rides along the finish does a fine job of leaving a clean exit. I bought this at a state liquor store for $18. Again a good performer in the dessert wine category.

Both of these wines would make fine ends to an evening with cheese, dessert or on their own. You have to like dessert wines to enjoy these, but I am hoping if you’ve read this far that you would be in that group.

And with that my 2011 Summer of Riesling continues. The search for Rieslings from the remaining New England states has seen some setbacks with my recent schedule, but with about a month to go until the technical end of summer, I’ve got time. I am expecting several additional events, including another regional Riesling tasting (New England wines) with my family in a couple of weeks, several more food and wine pairings, two more selections from Europe; capping it all off with another tasting of the exceptional ice wine from Inniskillin, a product of Canada.



Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Local Sips – Milly’s Tavern

One of my action items from #WBC11 was to get more local. As I said in my post where I outlined my action items from the conference, I’m no stranger to what is made in my own backyard, but I realized I could be more familiar with my local beverage producers and products. More of a local focus is also likely to be more rewarding because, at least in my area, the stories are just beginning to be told and the writing and networking space isn’t as crowded.

I know I’ve been to the space that is now Milly’s Tavern since I started going out in Manchester, but only when it was the Stark Mill Brewery which would make that 2001 or before. Margot works right down the street now so meeting up for lunch at Milly’s makes for a convenient and a worthy food and beverage adventure.

Milly’s is located in what used to be a mill building along the Merrimack River in downtown Manchester, NH. It is Manchester’s only micro-brewery (there are many others state-wide) and popular night-time destination in the city. Milly’s has at least twelve beers on tap anytime you stop in. With eight all year round offerings and at least four seasonal beers, there is definitely plenty to try no matter when you go. Milly’s also is a full service restaurant with a diverse roster of pub-style fare and a special Sunday brunch menu.

Margot and I planned our lunch as a fun change of pace for a mid-week workday. We expected to have quick bite and check out a beer sampler, but we got much more than that. And wearing my Beer Advocate t-shirt was the key.

( Steve - Brewer, DJ, handyman, server and a great story teller! )

The restaurant wasn’t busy, not a big surprise for a Wednesday at lunch, so we were seated quickly and began perusing the menu. Before I could ask about the beers Steve Souza, the Assistant Brewer, came over and introduced himself. Jackpot! I love talking to other beer and winemakers about how much they love what they do. Steve walked through the beer menu explaining the styles of each of the selections so I could best decide which 6 I should try. I lined up the Mt. Uncanoonuc Golden Cream Ale, Manch-Vegas I.P.A, Bo’s Scotch Ale, Van Otis Chocolate Porter, Milly’s Oatmeal Stout and the General John Stark Dark Porter for my sampler. Steve headed back to the bar to pour my sample and returned with beers in hand and stories to share. Thanks, Steve!

It turns out that Steve and his current role as the Assistant Brewer are a pairing of luck. Steve had been a prior patron of Milly’s, has been and still does some of the DJ’ing for events, does some handyman & other work for the tavern and has always enjoyed their beers. So when the opening for the job came up Steve was close at hand to express his interest. His mandate, learn to brew Milly’s beer. Some people who want to get into commercial brewing after doing it at home for some time might have trouble with this very specific request. Not so for Steve who likes Milly’s classic beers and thought nothing of learning to brew them to someone else’s recipe and standards. He now brews these beers one to two times per week on their 15 barrel system, and has been pouring over the aging brewing records and recipes looking for the originals that helped the tavern build the base of loyal customers they have today.

Margot and I also ordered lunch, with me opting for the pizza on special that day. The pizza was a simple flatbread pizza with chicken, BBQ sauce, red onions and lots of cheese. It might have been simple, but it came to the table hot, tasted great and was a great match for the beers. I’d have to stop in more often to be more authoritative on the food, but I’d bet you’d get the same treatment I did and even when they were busy.

( A beer sampler is never a bad thing! )

The Mt. U Cream Ale is a light, golden colored beer with hints of malt and hops in the nose and on the palate. It is crisp with subtle hints of butter and lightly creamy texture. I’ve only had a few Cream Ales in my experience and this beer is lighter than the most notable, but had a clean-ness in the flavors that speaks to care in its crafting, so I’d put it up there in quality.

I asked Steve if he has observed any improvements in the beers since his transition into the job (the prior regime had left some problems behind) and his focus on the original recipes and process. He acknowledged there have been some noticeable changes and the most rewarding indication of them has been that several regulars have confirmed that the newer versions of the beers like the IPA and Oatmeal Stout are back in line with what they had grown to love from the early days. Well done indeed!

Up next was the Manch-Vegas I.P.A. I love hoppy beers and this beer offered me lots to consider in the nose. The complexity wasn’t surprising so much as it made me stop and savor it.  The beer has the typical richness in the body, but it isn’t sweet and transitions to a bitter hop finish without effort. I’ll be back for this beer!

I moved on to the Bo’s Scotch Ale from there. Steve explained that some of the beers with large grain bills (lots of grains or non-beer geeks) are used in a second run with the spend grains and additions to produce another beer. In the case of the Scotch Ale its grains were made into a second run that was used to produce the New Hampshire Honey Brown. Milly’s web site describes some of their measures to mitigate their environmental footprint which includes giving the spent grains to a local farmer for feed. If you can make two beers from them AND feed local livestock I’d say you got your money’s worth! This beer has malty & sweet aromas with a bit of wood smoke thrown in. The body and flavors were complex like whiskey with a long flavorful finish.

( My pizza which was a well made match for the maltier, smokier beers in my sampler. )

I asked Steve how hard he would have laughed if someone had told him he would be a brewer at Milly’s a few years back. He chuckled and agreed it would have been a wild joke and not a bet he would have made. Stating that he has always found himself “doing something else” at various points in his life he sees now that this new job makes sense. He also noted that knowing the crew at Milly’s already made taking the job a slam dunk because it really is a family atmosphere at Milly’s.

The Van Otis Chocolate Porter was up next. I asked about brewing with chocolate because we had plans to do this pretty soon ourselves. Steve said it sucks and it makes a mess of everything. I had figured as much and hoped we wouldn’t run into too much trouble! The biggest thing I can say about this beer is that Margot and I picked up a dusty cocoa nib flavor and texture from the first sip on. For full disclosure and so I don’t get crap, Margot attached the description to the flavor that I humbly described and dusty chocolate powder. Steve agreed and was noticeablely happy that we described it that way. The beer is not as bold as I was expecting for a Porter, but it was very pleasant and had a dry finish which was unusual to me.

The Oatmeal Stout came up next. Margot has pretty much determined that the measure of a brewery is what they do with a standard Stout so I let her have first dibs. Her approval gave me something to look forward to. The aroma of oats comes through just a bit with a restrained amount of creaminess typically from that ingredient as well. It is light in body, as a basic Stout should be, with a mild bitter finish and hop notes on the way out. This is a solid performer and a beer that would bring me back for sure.

The last beer in my sample was the John Stark Dark Porter. I found this beer to be spot on for the style. The smokiness I expected was a bit delayed in arriving but stays on through the finish so on balance, it works. It has the boldness in the nose and on the palate that you might expect. The malty richness in the mouth made for a great finish to my sampling of Milly’s beers, but I wasn’t done.

I asked Steve if he sees a lot of craft beer fans and home brewers at the bar. He said he meets a fair bit of both and always loves when he can spend a few minutes with someone who knows beers and wants to get to know the ones he makes better. His quote was that he knows that “many home brewers would kill for the job” when I asked about the feedback he gets from some of the fans. And he’s right.

Steve thought there were two other beers I should try before I took off. See what my pursuits do? First up was the Pumpkin Ale, from an out of season batch if I recall, which I found to have layers of spices and a “meaty” flavor that I was guessing came from the squash. The final beer was the Tasha’s Red Ale. To be fair I will say that for some reason Red Ales don’t excite me much so I don’t order them. This beer was solid with a balanced nose of malt and hops with the hop aromas and flavors coming through nicely along the finish. Because the style doesn’t particularly excite me I might not order this beer, but I wouldn’t discourage anyone from trying it because it tasted like a well made beer and had no detracting attributes.

The standouts for me were the John Stark Porter, Manch-Vegas I.P.A and the Oatmeal Stout. In those three I found rich aromas, well defined flavors and great balance. I am looking forward to visiting Milly’s in the coming months for the seasonal brews. The service at Milly’s was excellent and the food was well prepared making Milly’s a great addition for your next gastro-adventure.

Where do you go to enjoy your local drinks?



Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Authenticity - Examples of Being Yourself

My last post from Montreal featured some new beers we found (our quest when in the city) after a brief explanation of the other elements that frequently draw us there. Unfortunately we’ve been there again since that post, and this time was a final trip of sorts. Margot’s uncle Gerry has passed on and the family spent a weekend in Montreal sharing a rich mix of sadness and joy as we celebrated his life. Gerry’s best friend Eloy and his wife Francoise were there with us, ultimately hosting the last of the family dinners at their house as they now prepare to move to home in France. We laughed, cried and laughed a whole lot more for the days we were together.

Gerry was a teacher and it is in this vocation he continues to teach us useful lessons about life and living it to the fullest. As I interacted with Gerry’s colleagues and friends during the weekend I heard stories over and over that had a common thread. That theme, how real, authentic and comfortable with himself Gerry was wherever he went, struck me in a profound way. How does one develop this comfort, what are the potential considerations and what can I learn from what I heard? It got me thinking about the topic of authenticity for writers, bloggers and everyone in the community I throw my missives out to each week.

( Gerry, in the center in wearing gray, surrounded by family at Christmas. )

You can find some of the hard facts of Gerry’s life in the public obituary, and I do recommend reading it, but it comes down to this. He was a Sulpician priest ordained for over 50 years, travelled the world, had a voracious appetite for knowledge and experience, shared his knowledge far and wide and accepted everyone for who they were wherever he found himself. The examples of his realness are easy to recount.

Example #1

I don’t believe in God. I am not religious in my adult life. I did get a healthy religious immersion (and I enjoyed it) as a child and did some surface studies of several of the major organized religions during my college years. I don’t think there is an almighty being about there that is responsible for all of what we enjoy, who laid down rules for us to follow. I prefer to believe that with an appetite for knowledge and experience I can guide myself through life, making choices that I can both live with and can expect those around me to live with as well. Gerry was a man of faith which is something I highly respected him for. It was his choice to pursue his faith and despite my own personal beliefs, a choice he was free to make and one he made good on many times over. Gerry and I had religious conversations on a number of occasions and when he asked me if I believed in God I was honest and said I did not. I explained my more science based leanings and my own philosophy on getting through life and was pleasantly surprised at the response. Gerry explained that to him we were on the same quest and despite his choice to believe in God he expected that we would both be fruitful in our exploits. He did add that even though I didn’t believe in God that he knew God believed in me. For him this was enough to know that I was a good person and would be rewarded when my life was at end. Gerry was able to be true to himself and accepting of me (in my clear opposition to his own beliefs) in the same place. Over the weekend we came across a photo of Gerry meeting Pope John Paul II to which I made the joke that Gerry had passed the Pope his number in case the Pope found himself in need of counsel. I don’t think that is as much of a joke as it might seem!

Example #2

The value of a good fart. Please don’t think I’ve gone off the rails here, because I haven’t. But I will say that some people like fart jokes, and some people don’t. Gerry had no qualms over letting a good fart go when the need arose. And he didn’t make any special notice of it and always kept moving on with the conversation or meal as if it hadn’t happened. He was confident enough that this bodily function was something we all wrestled with that he wasn’t going to hide it or take any measures for discreteness. That is a bold choice in our current times when I think too many people are fearful of even the possibility. He was being real and didn’t waste any time over it. And idea to live by to be sure.

Example #3

Living in the moment by being in the moment. My sisters-in-law Alice and Celeste recounted a story about Gerry on the streets of Montreal joining in with street musicians. As they walked Gerry heard a song he knew and began to sing (more on this in a bit). As they came across the musicians Gerry stood in with them and did a fitting rendition of the song with the rest of the group. The Sulpicians (I have limited experience with priests) love to sing. This was a high point me for the celebratory mass. They sounded phenomenal and something I hope to experience on different terms another day. There are many stories where Gerry would burst into song with what seemed like little motivation or cue. His passion just flowed I guess.

Example #4

Go out and play. Several of Gerry’s students were also his friend Eloy’s students. The stories of how different the two teachers’ style was were a hoot. Eloy was the stricter one pointing out un-tucked shirts and horseplay. Gerry on the other hand (the one that was a brilliant priest) told the kids to forget tucking in their shirts and get out and play. I am sure there was a dress code and a desire for order, but Gerry was comfortable with the boundaries of that to be able foster a sense of creativity and fun.

So what’s it all supposed to mean? Sure thing is that I don’t know! To me it seems that there is no way to do this without appetite and motivation for knowledge and new experiences. With that maybe you can see a greater denominator for the events around you and act differently because of it. Does that make any sense? We’ll see, because the final lesson is that the joy really is in the journey because there is always another moment to be in and some distance to go to get there.

For me as a blogger the lessons confirm much of what I have heard, experienced and said on my journey. To be real and authentic you have to commit yourself to learning, get out there and connect with others and share. You have to rise to the point of understanding others in a consistent fashion that you can both work and socialize with a diverse group of people without destructive disagreement. You have to both support and be supported by the community you foster and share with. Those aren’t tall orders, per se, but as much as everything is constantly changing maintaining the balance is hard work!

We did find some new beers in Montreal this time as well, something we needed a few of, but I’ll save those for a Montreal beer tasting coming to a (my) house real soon!



Sunday, August 7, 2011

Second Annual Live Free & Wine Festival

It was warm on Saturday and the fairground buildings didn’t ventilate very well. A lot of tickets were sold, twice as many as last year in fact. The configuration of the space didn’t allow the wineries to spread out as much as they ultimately needed to when the festival goers really showed up. OK, the logistics sucked.

Now with 24 licensed wineries in the state, the NH Winery Association again came together to host the Second Annual Live Free & Wine Festival on August 6th at the Rochester Fairgrounds in Rochester, NH. The event was bigger than its first year in both the number of participating wineries & vendors, but also in ticket sales and attendance. Growing out of a location in just one year is a strong sign of interest in the industry. The day wasn’t without some headaches that are inevitably going to get bandied about by anyone who went, but overall there is something so New England about a small and growing collective of craftspeople showing off their style. I had fun, not as much as I had hoped, and came away with an accomplished mission.

Many of the recent Wine Blogger Conference recaps included rants about the excessive heat in Virginia for the event. Yes it was hot yesterday in NH, but it was nothing close to VA; and bearable for someone who survived Monticello with a heat index of 115, tasting lots of wines and catching the last bus out. But not everyone is me, no really, you’re not, so the conditions on Saturday were bad and that is thusly depressing to write about. The rest of the logistics are things that the winery owners and organizers will take away just like they did from last year. They’ll do it again, and they should, and it will be better. Michael Fairbrother of Moonlight Meadery tweeted the following this morning using the new #NHwine Twitter hash tag.  He also retweeted all of my messages during and after the event yesterday. Go Michael with the early morning Tweets!

“#nhwine we could have used way more space, and double the meter staff, sorry for long lines” from @MoonlightMead on August 7th at 6:22 AM.

See, next year will be better still.

On to the fun stuff. Growth was visible at the event with several newly opened AND not yet opened wineries participating.

Sap House Meadery was the first of the newer wineries I visited. They have been successful enough to sell out of other products they previously had available except the Sugar Maple which they were pouring for tasters. I had had the samples of it at several previous tastings and being an enjoyer of mead I went in for another.

The nose contained pungent aromas of honey & maple with a hint of nuttiness. It is off-dry with a rooty palate, a good dose of acidity and a clean finish. This is a very smooth product and would be a great aperitif candidate.

I didn’t have a chance to stop by the Windroc Vineyard table but from what I heard of conversations at it that they are not operating yet, but are expecting that in a short time. Nice to see them attending and marketing themselves ahead of time.

Hermit Woods had a very impressive presence for a new winery and were pouring wines from their sizable collection of fruit wines, meads and traditional dry table wines. I had their Crabapple wine, finding it to have tart apple and cider like aromas, finishing like a bit of apple flavored Jolly Rancher candy. The wine is distinctive and was enjoyable so I’d recommend trying it for something that is just that much different!

Coffin Cellars had the most interesting table setup and thematic tie-ins with their business name. A great play for a new winery. As I understood the story the Coffin name is a family name and of a family of long-time New England residents who came to America as whale hunters and ultimately changed trades into coffin making? I asked if there were any old graveyard sites that are now vineyards. The response was that since the wines are fruit based at this time no. Scary possibilities… I tasted the Elderberry wine made in a dry red wine style. It had a punget nose of red fruits and elderberry. It wasn’t complex or highly concentrated but had a clean finish. Margot had the blueberry and had a lot of good things to say about it.

I think this growth is incredibly positive for the NH wine industry. In the 10 years I have been getting to know the wineries and wines I’ve seen consistent growth, and those businesses that have flourished are doing something recognizable to the wider wine interested world; making for good models. Some amount of growth has to be expected to be lost in the economic shuffle and indeed that has also been seen in NH. It will and should continue for the industry to grow sustainably. Ideally quality would be driver for this, but ultimately it is not when you have players with different backgrounds and differing amounts of money to commit to their businesses.

Issues of consistency and quality are front and center for any product business . Knowing some of the owners of the NH wineries personally I know they consciously deal with these issues season by season. What is the report from the ground? Well, mixed to be clear and blunt. Being a New Englander, and a winemaker, I have a sense of how the wine reflects the people and this place. And so do many of the NH wineries, and they do their best job in expressing the quirkiness we are famous for. Hybrid grapes, sweet white and red blends, honey, maple syrup and local fruits all thrown into a blender is pretty much our thing here in New England.

Wine drinking New Englanders though are likely used to drinking something very different, like domestic wines from the West Coast and imported wines from France, Spain and Italy. How do those wines compare with the local juice? They don’t. To judge the local wines fairly is to take each on its merits and as you get to know a winery being able to compare the consistency of a particular label from one year to the next.

I had two wines from Olde Nutfield this week. The first was a Marechal Foch. A flaw in this wine was the lack of concentration. Even hybrid grapes when vinified in a traditional method to make table wine can be judged on concentration. This wine was very much a watered down image of what would be intended for it. I was disappointed but don’t know the winery and wines at all so can’t say anything else. My second tasting was their Clementine dessert wine. The Clementine aromas and flavors were present but could be amped up. It was not sweet enough to be a dessert wine for me. A touch of sweetness might even give the flavors the bump they need for a 2 for 1.

Farnum Hill is an example of one of the operations that forms the foundation of the NH wine industry for me, and is the most complete reflection of New England style in my opinion. Cider isn’t technically wine to a lot of people, but again in New England we do things our way, so come along and enjoy it!

I enjoyed their Dooryard #1108 sparkling cider. They didn’t have the Kingston Black which I would have burned several tickets on! The cider had a nose full of tart apples. It was dry with a strong tart finish. These batched ciders used to be sold in growlers from the cider house thus the name Dooryard. I’d take one home for sure!

Next up was the Jewel Towne Seyval Blanc. This wine has a complex mouth on it that is introduced with a pleasant hybrid grape nose, just a little perfumed to the right and to the left. This is my best example of a consistent product that I have enjoyed going back 5 years now. I also know from talking to festival goers that the South Hampton red they were also pouring fit the profile I know of that wine as well. Peter and the whole team at Jewel Towne have been working really hard to get where they are and I think it is a good example of responsible growth.

Moonlight Meadery is the current growth example for the NW wine industry. And here we go with “it’s mead, not wine.” Exhibit A, map of New England with a big you are here sticker on it! Michael Fairbrother and his team at Moonlight are dogged in their desired to get the Moonlight name out there. Having a great product with wide appeal to back up your marketing is a recipe for success. We’ve visited the meadery several times and reviewed their products here several times as well. We love the product and with the range of offerings feel many other people will and should too. I didn’t get a picture of them working their booth and I am disappointed at that. Another time!

I sampled Moonlight’s Sumptuous, a mango  flavored mead, and Margot checked out the Kamasumatra, a coffee flavored mead. The Sumptuous is some serious juice. The tartness that backs up the sweet fruit flavors is just right. It tastes like honeyed baked mangoes. Rock on! The Kamasumatra is interesting because it tastes more like a coffee liqueur than a mead. The strong coffee flavor overpowers the fermented honey flavors I am used to picking out, but in a positive way. I’d like to mix some cocktails with it real soon.

We caught Amy Labelle amongst the crowd before we had stopped by the Labelle Winery table. We asked what was new since we saw her last, almost a year sadly, and she mentioned the Three Kings Port. She went on to talk about some plans she has underway. She did admit to getting a ribbing from her husband and business partner, Cesar, about the number of labels she is juggling right now. It is true, the LaBelle web site boasts over 20 different styles that may be available for tasting or purchase.  With plans of getting bigger underway Amy did acknowledge that such growth in distinct labels is not sustainable, and that some styles might not be economically feasible in larger batches. As a consumer it is nice to have businesses share their challenges and ideas with you as their fans, friends and customers. Margot and I did both try the Three Kings Port which is a blend of blueberries, red raspberries and Marechal Foch grapes. LaBelle produces well-made varietal versions of all these wines making for a natural blending opportunity with a slight twist.

Amy & I have a blueberry wine story going back a few years. At a winery association dinner I was drinking a blueberry wine of hers and went on to explain my issues with blueberry wine and why I couldn’t explain why I wasn’t a big fan of them. Whoops! I didn’t lead with my thoughts on her wine which was well made and flavorful, despite my seemingly singular struggle with blueberry wines. I hope my coming back makes up for it!

The LaBelle Three Kings has huge nose on it with dried fruits and some grape-ness rolled in. The berry flavors are really intense and linger through the finish. The wine is in a port style which is to say that it is left somewhat sweet and is fortified with apple brandy. It isn’t as concentrated as port, but that is notable for expectations only. We would have bought one to take home but didn’t feel like fighting the crowds. They aren’t that far from us so we’ll go and pick one up at the winery real soon!

The next wine I tried was the Haunting Whisper Blackberry. Margot made a pretty killer blackberry wine in 2010 so I wanted to contrast this with it. The Haunting Whisper wine had strong dark berry fruits in the nose, was semi-dry and had a richness to the flavor that will have me keeping an eye on this wine in the coming years. Margot's was more of a red wine with the added Cabernet juice so not a fair comparison.

I had the Fortune Cookie from Candia Vineyards next. Bob Dabrowski and I have known each other for a few years now and I have always admired his keep-it-small approach. He does a lot with a small vineyard and simple operation adjacent to his home. With the long lines I was dashed in my hopes to try more than one wine from several wineries that I had planned to. Candia was one of them and I wish I had tried the Diamond or Foch instead. Fortune Cookie is advertised as a Cabernet blend. I didn’t find it had much character though. It was dry and had some stylistically accurate aromas and flavors, but lacked punch. I’ve enjoyed the Classic Cab from Candia before and maybe this wine just isn’t for me. No harm, no foul. I will be making a trip out to pickup some wines from several NH wineries that I want to try again, and Candia is on the list. I’ll be sure to report on my year over year impressions and recommend the solid performers for your local wine exploits.

Our last tastes were at Sweet Baby Vineyards. I’ve met Lewis several times before and while he was on-site during the festival the lines were long and he wasn’t there when I stepped up to taste so I didn’t have a chance to catch-up. His 2009 Blueberry wine was my “Surprise of the Day” at the 2010 Live Free & Wine Festival and I was looking forward to trying a new batch for another year. Unfortunately it didn’t measure up. The prior vintage was highly concentrated, very red wine in nature with profound aromas and flavors. The newest version was lesser in all regards. Wine is an agricultural product and without more information about how it was made I can only say it wasn’t consistent. While not the end of the world, it isn’t a big positive.

So there were some hits and some misses. We tasted new products that aren’t consistent with their predecessors yet others that with no track record seem destined for success. We felt a great sense of excitement at all the interest in the local wines and feel like that alone makes this event worth it. I would follow that with the idea that if you really want to get to know the wineries and their wines plan to visit the tasting room. You can’t get enough of the story in a festival setting.

Three local authors were there representing their New England and New Hampshire winery books. Chris and Nancy Obert are friends of ours and are the authors of “The Next Harvest, Vineyards & Wineries of New England.” Chris and Nancy embarked on quite a few adventures around New England to research and experience the wineries in operation. Clearly they were able capture and present stories of similarities, differences, and passions for making wine from all corners of New England. I have bought and given away many copies of their book as a way to give people a glimpse of what is going on here in New England, where fermentation and alcohol production have such a long and sordid history.

I highly recommend this book as a survey of the New England wine industry (it is slightly dated, but such books always will be)  and as a guidebook for adventures of your own. You can get more information at the Pear Tree Publishing web site.

I met Carla Snow formally for the first time Saturday. I knew of her and know many people who are likewise connected with her and her wine experience. She is the proprietor of A Grape Affair, a Portsmouth-based company that sponsors wine and food events to help increase wine appreciation in New England. She was on site to represent her book, “Wine & Dine with New Hampshire”, focused on the wineries of New Hampshire with winery profiles and then presents recipes cooked and/or paired with each winery’s wines. There is a brief history of the New Hampshire wine industry which backs up my rough recollection of it from my last post on the Live Free & Wine event. I am looking forward to reading this book for sure!

At the end of the day I went on a quest to find some wine I had personally made in 2010 that could cap off a day of such diverse local wines. Sadly I found quite a few things I made last year to be lost causes. I did find Black Currant / Pomegranate and our Chocolate/Raspberry Port that at least gave me a smile…