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Keeping a cellar, and keeping track of it February 2, 2009

Posted by Peter Hornby in food&wine.

Suppose your wine habit has progressed to the point that you”re buying bottles with a drinking horizon somewhat beyond tonight’s dinner.  Once you start buying wine with the expectation that it might be a while before you drink it, you’re a collector, and you’re faced with two problems – how to keep the wine in good condition, and how to keep track of it.

Depending on how long a drinking horizon you’re talking about, the first of these might not be a problem at all.  If you can find a cool location with no major temperature extremes, preferably fairly moist, you’ll be OK for wines which you expect to drink inside a year or so.  If your cellaring is longer term than that, you do have some work to do, but it’s a problem which can be readily solved by the application of money, like we did last year.  You decide on how much “archival” wine you think you’ll need to store, and for how long, and you buy a wine cabinet with, preferably, lots of capacity to spare.  Like everything else, there are options – large or small, under-the-kitchen-counter or in-the-garage, expensive and last-for-ever or less expensive (there’s very little “cheap” here) and replace-the-compressor-in-five-years.  But, in reality, it’s a problem with a solution.  And, if you’re interested, our solution came from Vintage Cellars in San Marcos, CA, whom we recommend unreservedly.

The problem of keeping track of the wine you buy is less easy to solve.  Depending on your level of geekiness, your solution might be a database, a spreadsheet or, heaven forbid, pen and paper.  Whatever approach you take, the rewards of doing it are mostly outweighed by the pain factor and the human capacity for indolence.  I know that my “Fine Wine” spreadsheet bears only a marginal resemblance to what I actually own.

However, I believe that there’s a solution which finally makes it worthwhile to invest some time in keeping a current wine inventory.  The solution is a website called CellarTracker.  CellarTracker takes a rather different approach to wine inventory than other solutions I’ve seen.  The key point is that, rather than maintaining your inventory in isolation,  the site is driven off a single huge wine database (nearly 12,000,000 bottles stored by over 70,000 users), and your stock list simply refers to that – you tell it that you have six bottles of Charles Shaw Vintners Reserve, and you immediately get to share the information maintained by the site on that wine, including drinking windows, tasting notes (the site has almost 800,000 tasting notes online), links to sites with pricing information – a whole slew of fascinating stuff.

Entering data is easy, because you don’t have to describe your own wine.  Nearly every wine you can buy is represented in their database. You just need to make the link between what you own and what CellarTracker knows about, and the interface you use to do that is just beautifully intuitive.  A few weeks ago, I took the plunge and entered my hundred or so bottles.  The whole process took less than an hour. There were only two bottles which CellarTracker didn’t know about already, and that was only because I had vintages which no-one had referred to previously. CellarTracker does offer bulk import capabilities, but unless you’re sitting on a huge collection – many hundreds of bottles – I really don’t think it’s worth it.

Once your import is done, CellarTracker’s huge – and growing – feature list becomes available to you.

  • You can see tasting notes created by other users for the wines you own.  This can even be turned into a custom RSS feed so you can see updates in your newsreader.  It is really interesting (and useful!) to see tasting notes written in the last week for the wine you’re thinking you might drink with dinner on Saturday.
  • You can sort your wines by drinking window (what should I be drinking now, what should I leave for another five years, what should I have drunk sometime last century)
  • You can track the value of your collection
  • You can print custom cellar labels on Avery 5160 stock
  • and much more…

There’s even an iPhone/iPod Touch application (cor.kz) which allows you to keep track of it all while you’re in the middle of the desert with only your cellphone!

CellarTracker is a “shareware” site.  You can sign up for free, load your wine and start browsing.  However, the site’s presiding genius, Eric LeVine (and I’m not sure what to make of that name!) suggests that small donations would help, and there are ways you can do that too.

Highly recommended.  Now for that 1990 Caymus which CellarTracker tells me I should have drunk last year!  It’s a tough life.


A private lesson with Pascal January 27, 2009

Posted by Peter Hornby in food&wine, local.
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Pascal Olhats has been one of Orange County’s top chefs and restaurateurs for decades.  He’s originally from Normandy, trained in France and Belgium and worked under the legendary Paul Bocuse in Lyon.  His flagship restaurant, originally called simply Pascal, and relaunched three years ago as Tradition by Pascal, is always right at the top of the list when the region’s best classic French restaurants are talked of, despite its unlikely location in a strip mall near John Wayne airport. 

So, it was birthday week.  Mine was last Monday and our friend Stuart celebrated his on Tuesday.  We’ve often enjoyed combined birthday dinners, but this was something different.  Stuart had won a 6-seat private cooking class with Pascal in a silent auction at a fundraising event, and he’d been kind enough to extend an invitation to Lorraine and me to be part of the evening. 

So, six of us, Lorraine and I, Stuart, his husband Jeff, and two mutual friends, John and Chris, met up at around six in Pascal’s lovely little gourmet deli, a little nervous about the extent to which our cooking chops would be put to the test.  We needn’t have worried.  Pascal arrived, introduced himself and immediately put us at our ease.  We dressed in kitchen aprons and were led through into the kitchen we were going to use.  Pascal popped a bottle of white Bordeaux, pointed us at a tray of nibbles, and distributed the evening’s menu.

As it turned out, the cooking lesson mainly involved the six of us watching closely, glass in hand, as Pascal prepared the food.  Lorraine stripped some thyme stalks, and I peeled some tomatoes, but that was pretty much the extent of our hands-on involvement.

Pascal started off with a pasta dish – egg fettucine with Rocquefort sauce.  It seemed pretty simple, and ended up unbelievably rich and tasty.  A couple of mouthfuls was all we had, and all we needed.

Next up was Pascal’s signature dish – sea bass in a thyme crust with a fruits de mer sauce.  The sauce was magnificent, mussels, scallops and shrimp shells cooked in white wine, the liquid reduced, cream added, more reduction and concentration and butter stirred in at the end.  The shellfish were just there for flavouring, but they were so good that we ate them all anyway.  The seabass was layered with a thyme-breadcrumb coating, poached in white wine and then finished off in the oven.  The dish came together remarkably quickly, and was delicious.  Lorraine was shaking her head as this delicate fish simmered in white wine and then sat in a 425 oven for what seemed like ages.  I suppose that’s why Pascal is paid the big bucks – the fish came out of the oven perfectly cooked.

The final dish was a rack of lamb with a Dijon mustard and breadcrumb crust.  This recipe turned out to be very similar to the rack of lamb that Lorraine and I do, but Pascal’s lamb was a class above ours.  I suppose home cooks can get hold of meat of this quality, but I’m not sure how you’d go about finding it and how much it would cost.

Pascal was a lovely host. There was no sign of celebrity attitude, even though he’s been a nationally and internationally known chef for over twenty years.  The conversation, and the wine, flowed freely, and Pascal was happy to answer questions about his ingredients and techniques, and talk candidly about sharing in the downturn which has affected everyone in the last few months. 

I did some research when I got home, and found that Pascal offers a Sunday evening three course prix fixe dinner for $40, which includes one waived corkage fee per couple.  That’s a seriously good deal, and we’ll be back there soon.

 And, of course, we thank Stuart for his generosity in inviting us along to an evening we won’t quickly forget.

California Trip report – I February 15, 2008

Posted by Peter Hornby in food&wine, Uncategorized.
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We spent just over a week travelling in California.  After a brief stopover with Lorraine’s high-school friend Monika in San Francisco, we headed up to Sonoma to vist Bill and Sandi, the first of our two sets of ex-Laguna Beach, ex-Len’s Wine Cite, friends.

We arrived in time for a late lunch, and were immediately introduced to the wines of one of Sonoma’s newer wineries, Roessler Cellars.  Roessler’s 2005 Alder Springs Pinot Noir is just glorious, with sweet, ripe fruit, classic Pinot character, and great intensity.  Afterwards, we wandered around downtown Sonoma for a while, looking in jewelry stores, before deciding to stop in to Sebastiani‘s tasting room.  There wasn’t a whole lot of time before closing, but we tasted through what they had.  We ended up buying a couple of bottles of their 2006 “Casa De Sonoma” unoaked Chardonnay.  We’re not great fans of Chardonnay, on the whole, unless it comes from Burgundy, but these wines were delicious, somewhat reminiscent of Chablis, with lovely crisp fruit and some minerally notes.

After dinner, Bill wondered idly whether we were interested in brandy, and if so, did we know about California brandy?  We were, and, oddly enough, we did, although we weren’t aware of all the aspects of the remarkable story of Germain-Robin.  Hubert Germain-Robin is a member of a French family which had been making fine cognac since the late eighteenth century.  In 1981, Hubert was hitch-hiking in northern California, somewhat despondent about the fate of the family firm, which had just been taken over by the brandy colossus Martell.  One day, he was picked up on the road by a guy called Ansley Coale.   The two struck up a friendship, and by the next summer, Hubert had shipped a traditional still to Ansley’s ranch in Mendocino County and the two had started experimenting with distillation.  Their first decision, which turns out to have been an inspiration, was to use premium California wine as the raw material, rather than the thin, insipid wines – normally made from Ugni Blanc – which form the foundation for most cognac.  The results are dramatic.  Germain-Robin brandies are just spectacular – gorgeous, smooth, complex nectars.  People who might be expected to know are classing them among the world’s best distilled spirits.

But I digress, somewhat.  It turns out that Bill is rather a fan of Germain-Robin brandies, and was surprised and delighted to discover fellow enthusiasts.  So we spent a good deal of the evening performing critical comparisons of the examples he had, and went to bed feeling no pain.  

It’s probably fair to say that we wouldn’t have timed the private tasting at Roessler any earlier than 10:00am the following day.  But, like true professionals, we were there on time, ready for action.  We tasted through about half a dozen Pinot Noirs, some from single vineyards, like the Alder Springs we’d had the previous day, some what they called appellation wines, where the wines are made from grapes from several vineyards. All of the wines were really lovely expressions of Pinot Noir, made in tiny quantities (only 137 cases of the 2005 Alder Springs were made).  We left with some of the Alder Springs and some of Roessler’s 2005 Hein Family Vineyard.

From there, Sandi took us up the road to Arrowood, where we tasted some of Dick Arrowood’s beautiful Cabernets, including the 2003 Monte Rosso and the 2002 Reserve, and some Syrahs  They’re certainly excellent wines, but it was difficult to taste Cabernets with the memory of the fragrant Roessler Pinot Noirs still on our palates and in our minds.  I should probably also add that our tasting experience was not improved by the arrival of a party of visitors who seemed to have bathed in perfume, and who, we discovered as we left, had pitched up in a Hummer with Idaho plates and had parked in the handicapped spot (with no sign of a permit).  Lots of hot buttons there – although I hasten to add that the great State of Idaho is not one of them.

The next stop was Healdsburg, about thirty miles north of Sonoma, where we paused briefly for lunch,  after which it was time to check out a couple more tasting rooms.  The first was Williamson Wines, where we were graciously hosted by the co-owner, Dawn Williamson.  Dawn had an interesting approach to tasting wine, which we liked a lot.  She was arguing strongly for the symbiotic relationship between wine and food, presenting each wine with a morsel of appropriate food – a little sliver of Stilton, or a tiny piece of lamb.  We thought this really worked well.  Finally, we stopped in at La Crema, where I was a little surprised.  I’d always thought of La Crema as a winemaker at the less expensive end of the scale,  with good quality wines in the $15-$20 region.  Turns out that they also make a series of super Pinots and Syrahs at premium prices, and also some exquisite wines, the Nine Barrel Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines, which run close to $100 a bottle.  We came away with a bottle each of the the 2005 Sonoma County Syrah and the 2005 Russian River Pinot Noir.

And then it was time to return to Sonoma, for an early dinner and an early night, with a busy day in prospect, about which I’ll write later.

Friends in wine February 15, 2008

Posted by Peter Hornby in food&wine.
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When we moved to Laguna Beach in 1992, Lorraine and I immediately realised that there was something missing in this otherwise perfect community – a place to taste and buy wine.  We spent a good deal of time scouring Orange County for places which fitted our taste and budget, but we found ourselves longing for something local.  All this changed in 1997 when Steve and Carmen Ricker opened Len’s Wine Cite in downtown Laguna Beach.  I was at their very first tasting, even before they’d secured a licence to hold tastings on their own premises, and I didn’t miss many thereafter.  The store immediately felt like home.  Steve is a major wine zealot with a fine nose, both for wine and for bullshit, and he’s also possessed of a disarmingly charming personality and an infallible memory for what his customers like and don’t like.  There were many occasions where dinner guests arrived at our home with bottles of wine purchased from Len’s, having introduced themselves to Steve with “we’re going to Pete and Lorraine’s for dinner – what should we take?”

I became the informal “Bordeaux bigot”, always to be called on when the merits of Old World and New World were to be compared, and Steve would describe me as “the man whose goal is to find a dessert wine he doesn’t like”.  That particular quest continues, and I have no particular expectation that it will ever succeed.  I hope it doesn’t. Eventually, Steve felt able to call on me to help in the tastings, pouring for customers and sharing with them the dubious benefits of my knowledge.  They liked the English accent too.  And I got to taste some pretty spectacular wines, and even to take some home with me.

We made friends there –  it seems to be especially easy to like people who are passionate about food and wine – and we still see many of them, even though Len’s Wine Cite itself closed a while ago, much to the anguish of the regulars.

Over time, friends moved away, but we kept in touch with two couples, one now in Sonoma and the other growing grapes in Paso Robles (can you see the connection here?).  We were able to visit both sets of friends on our recent trip up the coast.  It was a really wonderful trip, and I’ll talk more about it in the next post.