On his death bed, Humphrey Bogart reportedly exclaimed “I wish I’d never switched from Scotch to Martinis.” As anyone who knows me will tell you, I’m certainly not in danger of abandoning whiskey anytime soon, but I like to dabble in Martinis every now and again.
Remember James Bond…. “Shaken, not stirred”? I had a bartender tell me awhile back that shaken martinis are “cheeky.” He was British. Not to mention that James Bond drinks vodka martinis… two strikes. And if you think about it, they are suboptimal. Shaking bruises the gin and you’re left with little bits of ice in your drink that dilute your martini as they melt. So here is how I like to make a martini…
First things first – fill your martini glass with ice and top off with water so it will chill while you make your drink. Then prepare your ingredients:
1. Start with your choice of gin. My preferred gin is Hendrick’s but my Dad prefers no. 209 (made just down the road in San Francisco). It’s important to remember that this is like 95% or more of your drink, so make sure you use good gin, whatever you choose. Not Gilbey’s.
2. Use a good, dry vermouth. I use Martini and Rossi Extra Dry – the green bottle. There are certainly much better vermouth choices out there but I only use it to rinse out the glass, as you will see below.
3. Choose your olives. I like blue cheese or feta stuffed olives or even garlic stuffed olives or some combination thereof.
Now let’s start mixing. Pour the gin over ice in your shaker (I know, we aren’t shaking, but the name remains….) and stir for 30 seconds or so, until the metal is ice-cold to the touch. Once the gin is chilled to my satisfaction, I dump out the water from my glass and add a touch of vermouth directly to the empty glass. Turn the glass so the stem is almost parallel to the floor and spin it making sure the vermouth touches every spot on the inside of the glass and then dump it out in the sink. Spear 2-3 olives with a toothpick and place in your glass. Pour your gin over the olives and you’re good to go. Then you can say, “Here is your martini, Mr. Bond. Stirred, not shaken.”
It should come as no surprise that we’re mostly known for Cabernet Sauvignon. That’s probably what brought you to us in the first place. We’re uniquely suited to growing Cab here in Alexander Valley, where it’s a little warmer than our neighbors toward the coast, but where the Russian River still provides us with cool, foggy nights on our hillside vineyards. But while Stephen and Jake Hawkes love Cab—prefer Cab; live, breathe, and bleed Cab—there’s another friend of ours from Bordeaux who flourishes down the hill from our favorite varietal.
It is largely accepted that Merlot’s first appearance center-stage in the California wine industry was due mainly to Louis Martini, which produced the first of the “modern” Merlots in 1968. Merlot was planted initially in Napa (and later in the rest of the state) in a time when interest in Bordeaux-style blends was developing. Despite a century of success with Cabernet Sauvignon, folks back then pretty unanimously decided that California’s wines were not of the same quality as those from France, partly because, more and more, people were noticing a rough side to Cabernet Sauvignon. A rough side that could be tamed with Merlot. And slowly, they noticed that this grape—the most widely-cultivated in Bordeaux and the prominent feature in Right Bank districts like Pomerol and Saint-Émilion—not only rounded out and gave complexity to Cabernet Sauvignon, they thought it made a pretty tasty wine all on its own, one that was supple and matured earlier than Cab.
As of 2010 in California, Merlot is second only to Cabernet Sauvignon in the red grape category; it comprises 46,200 acres planted, with 6,300 here in Sonoma County. Around the country, the only grape consumed more is Chardonnay. And that big demand for Merlot may have led to its perceived downfall. Gundlach Bundschu made a brilliant short film that sums it up pretty nicely: Merlot, one of the five Bordeaux varietals, became soft and flabby over time. It was an easy-drinking wine without much to it, garnering a reputation as a “beginner’s” wine.
Then came Sideways. Now, the rumors that this film was the nail in the coffin on the Merlot industry are greatly exaggerated. It was not the apocalyptic scenario people seem to think it was, but it wasn’t insignificant. Sales of Merlot at the major retailers did fall nationwide, while sales—and prices—of Pinot Noir jumped something like 16% in the year following the film’s release. Smaller producers—ourselves included—struggled to sell their fruit as the larger producers made less Merlot.
But since then, Merlot sales have recovered. More than that. They’re growing, as they have been doing since Sideways was released. Merlot remains the third most popular wine in the country. And while the grape may have earned the reputation it had at the beginning of the last decade, more and more people are realizing that Merlot isn’t any different from other wines: there’s a lot of it, and some is good, and some is bad.
That’s what makes it particularly fun to share our Merlot with the folks who come by the tasting room every day. It’s a wine that everyone seems to have an opinion about, and that opinion is nearly always dismantled by our Merlot. We’ve got the 2008 Alexander Valley Merlot open daily at both tasting rooms, and we’d love to share it with you.
Every year during the Two Barrel Weekends, we throw a party exclusively for our Wine Club members. We shuck oysters, drink bubbles and pair food with each of our young Single-Vineyard Cabernets. It is one of the most exhausting and fun weekends of the year. Too much fun! Thank you all for coming out and supporting our little business!
Chardonnay is the most popular grape in the United States. (A bold statement, I know, but the numbers don’t lie.) Part of the reason for that popularity is the grape’s versatility; it adapts readily to its surroundings and conditions, reflecting the terroir of wherever it grows. Globally it’s planted in more regions than any other grape — yes, even more than our own beloved Cabernet Sauvignon.
A quick google search about Chardonnay from the Alexander Valley will tell you that it tends to be more Burgundian in style — meaning that, in general, they tend to be richer, rounder, fuller-bodied white wines that spend a part of their lives in new oak barrels. And a big part of that Burgundian (and now, more commonly, Californian) style is something I’m asked about on a daily basis: malolactic fermentation.
Malolactic fermentation (ML) is actually a bit of a misnomer. Really, it’s a conversion process that takes place after primary fermentation is complete. I won’t pretend to be more of a scientist than my English degree will allow, but the gist of it is this: the conversion is started by a group of bacteria which convert malic acid (think Granny Smith apples and Bartlett pears) into lactic acid. This process happens for several reasons: it serves to stabilize wines (and for this reason, all red wines go through ML) because all wines will go through the process in the bottle, of their own accord, if the lactic acid bacteria are present. This is, to say the least, not a desirable situation, as it tends to render the wine sour and undrinkable.
The other reason wines go through ML is to reduce unpleasantly high acidity, in both reds and whites. This is especially true of many Chardonnays, where the neutral composition of the grape may be overwhelmed by harsh malic acid.The malolactic process is what is responsible for the buttery aspect that is now traditionally associated with Chardonnay, especially those from California.
And for that reason, our Home Chardonnay never goes through ML. We don’t have anything against ML Chards; we just don’t think ours needs it. We’re proud of our fruit, and we think our wines should be the truest expression of this region and of the varietals we grow. The 2012 Home Chardonnay is a great example of that philosphy. Released from the barrel six months earlier than previous vintages, the wine has more freshness and bright fruit, but it still has all the flinty, mineral traits that we associate with the Home Ranch.
On the other hand, our 2010 Gravel Bar Chardonnay had such concentrated fruit and intense acidity when it was picked, we knew it could hold its own against ML. It’s a great Chardonnay with “exuberant fruit,” a great candidate to lay down for a few years, or to drink now, while its citrus and mineral characteristics are at their brightest. And that’s the beauty of Chardonnay. Its versatility promises that there’s something for everyone.
I love whiskey. I mean LOVE it. Scotch in particular. Some spirits are best suited to pre-meal cocktails, some as a digestif, others do well in mixed drinks. Whiskey is good all the time and by itself. Ok, maybe with a little ice. Of course, being of Scottish descent, I suffer from a genetic predisposition which makes it taste like the best thing in the world to me. In fact the word whiskey comes from the two Gaelic words “usige beatha”- water of life. My grandfather is fond of saying “Scotch is like sex, the worst I ever had was delightful.”
Whiskey is one of those things that gets better with age. Not in the bottle, but in the barrel. Good whiskey is aged ten years, really good whiskey for 15 years, and great whiskey is aged for at least 18 years. Once you get into the 25+ range, that would have to be labeled “superb”. So when my roommate brought up a jar of moonshine from our friends at HelloCello Sonoma, I was, needless to say, a bit skeptical.
We all know moonshine to be a distilled corn liquor made in the backwoods and consumed upon completion. By forgoing the aging process, moonshiners during Prohibition were able to make cheap whiskey relatively quickly in small, homemade stills out in the forests where they could avoid detection. Which is to say it was more about the buzz than the flavor.
So I overcame my fear of being potentially blinded by this rocket fuel of a beverage and gave it a sip… and WOW! Incredibly smooth for no barrel aging and crystal clear. It’s like that experience when you taste a really great grappa and then wonder how all other grappa is so harsh and rough. It didn’t have the caramelization of an aged whiskey so it was a bit lighter…. somewhere between whiskey and premium vodka and dangerously delicious.
So next time you see some alcohol that you are sure you know what it will taste like, go ahead and give it a try anyway. It just might surprise you.