Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Blending and wine complexity

Wines have normally been classified as varietal or blends with the best old world representations of the former originating in Burgundy (Pinot Noir and Chardonnay), Rheingau/Mosel (Riesling), Langhe (Nebbiolo), and the Loire Valley (Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc) and the latter from Bordeaux, Rioja, Chianti, and Chateauneuf de Pape. Eben Sadie, a South African wine producer, sees climate as a key differentiator between the mono-varietals and blends (Jancis Robinson, The virtues of blending, jancisrobinson.com). Grapes grown in cool, continental climates hang longer on the vine and "there is time to build up interesting, terroir-derived" characteristics which are on display in the mono-vatrietal wines of the region. Warmer and maritime regions have shorter growing seasons and varietal wines from these regions tend to be "less interesting and nuanced" than wines made from blends. In this post we explore blending and complexity.

There are a number of blending drivers, as indicated below. While varietal blends tend to dominate, blending can occur down to the single-variety, single-plot level where free-run and press juice are kept separate and then blended in a winemaker-determined proportion at a later date.

According to classof1855.com, complexity in wine is demonstrated by "multiple layers and nuances of bouquet and flavors that are formed mostly in mature wines because aging contributes to this attribute." Further, "complexity creates interest and often unfolds layer upon layer on the nose and in the mouth if the wine is at its peak. Compared to complex wines, other wines seem shallow or one-dimensional."

Benjamin Lewin MW illustrates this difference in his discussion of mono-varietal Cabernet Sauvignon versus Cab-dominated Bordeaux blends (Cabernet Sauvignon and its blending partners, Tong #15). According to Lewin, the mono-varietal Cabernet Sauvignon shows greater purity of fruit in its youth but is linear compared to the blend which exhibits a broader flavor spectrum. This is illustrated graphically below where varieties are represented on the x-axis and blending factors (primarily terroir characteristics) are shown on the y-axis. A mono-varietal with two blending characteristics (free-run and pressed juice, let's say) will have less complexity potential than a two-variety blend which will exhibit dual-variety characteristics plus terroir characteristics associated with each. For a Bordeaux blend the potential is magnified.

But, according to Lewin, it is with age that the differences between the wines really appear. The mono-varietal Cabernet Sauvignon matures but the purity of fruit of its youth yields to austerity while the blend produces the "savory notes of tertiary development."

Eben Sadie views the New World's obsession with varietals as detrimental to progress on the complexity front as producers flit from varietal wine to varietal wine based on "fashion." Lewin sees a New World attitude typified by "blending is what you do only when the pure varietal wine wouldn't be good enough." They both view complexity as high on the desirability list and tightly (but not exclusively) linked to variety blends.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Customer-Owned wine in restaurants: Issues and strategies

I have a strongly held belief that a meal is incomplete except paired with a glass/bottle of the appropriate wine. When the meal is eaten at home, the wine consumed is taken from the owner's stash (and, hopefully, is reflective of what that individual likes to drink). If eating out, however, the diner can choose from the wines that the restaurant has on offer or, where allowed, can bring his/her own. I almost exclusively bring my own and will, herein, explore some of the issues associated with the practice.

There are a number of considerations which motivate towards "packing" your own wine. First, the diner is accustomed to drinking what he/she likes when they sit down to a meal at home. My personal preference is for mature French and Italian wines and not every restaurant caters to this need. Second, most restaurant wine offerings are restricted to corporate norms, lists developed by consultants, or what the owner can secure in the dance with the distributor. These wines may not pair optimally with what you are looking to order on that specific night. Third, the diner has already paid at retail for the wine(s) that he/she likes and it is sitting at home in the cellar. Why should that diner now pay between two and four times the price paid at retail in a restaurant environment. Even if a restaurant charges a $50 corkage fee (only the case at high-end restaurants) a diner will still have a lower total cost (retail price + corkage fee) and higher satisfaction than if they bought off the list.

While a corkage fee represents a revenue stream for the restaurant, it is dwarfed by the opportunity cost that comes along with it. The sale of wine and spirits is a key revenue stream for most establishments and the corkage fee from two bottles of customer-owned wines is quickly swamped by the profitability of two facility-owned bottles which have each been marked up between two and four times. In most cases then, allowing customers to bring wine is more of a goodwill gesture and customer-service driven, rather than a hard-nosed business decision.

There is no uniformity in the corkage-fee strategies employed by restaurants. Some restaurants allow no customer-owned wines under any circumstances while others allow it with no corkage fee (Hillstones's in Winter Park, for example). Some apply a flat fee of between $10 and $50 per bottle while others ask that you buy one bottle off their list and all bottles opened subsequent to that are not assessed a fee (Bleu Provence in Naples, FL, for example). In February of this year, Redd (Yountville, CA) charged me $25 each for the first two bottles and then $50 for every bottle thereafter. Some restaurants will vary the corkage fee by bottle size with magnum's being assessed twice the charge of a 750 ml bottle (neddless to say, I am in disagreement with this policy).

I will not take wine to a restaurant that has a great wine list and attractive pricing (Berns, Caps, Colombia, for example) but I will carry wine on a plane or buy at a fine retail store to ensure that I am drinking what I like if I am travelling out of town. Some of my strategies for making it easy for a restaurant to allow me to bring wines are as follows:
  • When I eat out I patronize the restaurants that allow me to bring wine with no corkage fee.
  • I hold wine dinners and tastings at these restaurants and recommend them whenever I am asked.
  • I will buy a bottle of sparkling off the list at the beginning of the meal if the list is accomodative.
  • I will open and pour my own wine thus freeing up the wait staff to take care of other tables.
  • I offer some of my wine to the server, chef, and owner so that they can (i) enjoy along with me and (ii) see why I am bringing my own.
  • If there is no corkage, I will tip the wait staff $15 per bottle over and above the meal tip to ensure that their earnings do not suffer as a result of my being in the restaurant.
  • I strive to bring wines that are not on the restaurnt wine list.
Some people do not want to carry wine to a restaurant because, somehow or the other, they see that as a bad thing. Others may not do so because they "lack the courage" or they are not aware that that possibility exists. Finally, a large percentage of the restaurant population would prefer to get recommendations on what wines to drink with the food from restaurant staff and, as such, will never bring a bottle.

If you are going out with a group that brings wine, bring something along regardless of your qualms as to the comparative quality of your wines. People prefer participants to moochers. If you are not bringing wine to a dinner with this group, you should consider buying that bottle of sparkling off the list, or picking up some portion of the food tab or wine tip.

Happy drinking.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Hamilton's Kitchen at The Alfond Inn (Winter Park, FL)

Hamilton's Kitchen at the Alfond Inn - Rollins is the latest entrant into the richly endowed Winter Park dining scene and its presence cannot help but give diners another reason to travel to the area. I visited the restaurant on Friday night -- two weeks after its opening -- and was extremely pleased with the setting, the cuisine, and the service.

The Alfond Inn is a luxury boutique hotel built by Rollins College with seed money from a $12.5 million grant from the Alfond Foundation. The hotel, located at the corners of East New England and South Interlachen Avenues, features 112 guest rooms, 7800 square feet of meeting space, restaurant, bar, and swimming pool, among other amenities. In excess of $3 million of art from the Alfond Collection and local galleries are on display throughout the hotel's public spaces.

My GPS directed me east on Fairbanks and then suggested a left turn into South Interlachen Avenue. There is no turning lane here and you are separated from oncoming traffic by solid double yellow lines. My suggestion is to make a left turn at Park Avenue instead and then make a right into New England. Valet parking is available at the hotel and is free with a validation sticker from the restaurant.

The hotel is impressive. The foyer is expansive and extends southwards away from the entrance with intersecting corridors providing access to the ground-floor amenities. The first corridor on the right leads to the bar and then debouches into the restaurant.

The western end of the restaurant is dominated by an open-plan kitchen which looks out over a dining room furnished with solid brown wood tables and mismatched chairs (six different chair styles randomly assigned to tables). Seating is booth-style along the walls with four-tops in the core. Four-tops can be strung together to accomodate larger parties.

We were escorted to our seats by one of the fashionably attired hostesses from the reception area and were met with a warm greeting by our assigned waitress shortly after taking our seats. We were each presented with a standard and a Magical Dining (prix fixe menu offered by Orlando-area fine dining restaurants during the month of September) menu and a wine list was provided for the table. At first glance neither of the menus appeared to offer anything out of the ordinary and the wine list seemed rather basic for a restaurant with Hamilton Kitchen's look and feel. Luckily I came equipped with a few bottles from home. The restaurant charges a $30 corkage fee.

I ordered Shrimp and Grits from the standard menu as my appetizer and Pork Belly with Russet Potatoes from the standard menu as my main course (Menu mixing is not normally allowed but the staff was very accommodating.). The Shrimp and Grits was a tasty, generous portion with a slightly tangy note. I paired it with a 2008 Evening Land Chardonnay which was rather Burgundian on the senses. The Pork Belly was less crisp, less salty, and less multi-hued than ones I have encountered previously. Great texture and taste. Accompanied by potato wedges ensconced in clam shells. Paired with a 1987 Chateau Montelena and 2005 Peter Michael Les Pavots. The Montelena was balanced, with soft tannins, freshness and red fruits. Spiciness on the palate with a long finish. The Les Pavots was somewhat leaden; lack of freshness and dominant black fruit. Other members of my group had Cobia and Grouper, meals which were equally impressive.

According to Raoul Matias, Food and Beverage Manager, the food offering will be expanded and the wine list upgraded sometime in the future. Right now they are focused on ensuring that things are working smoothly.

The quality of the food on offer is excellent as it stands today and if, as promised by management, the best is yet to come, Hamilton's Kitchen will become  a fixture on the Winter Park scene.

UPDATE (9/16/2013): I visited Hamilton's Kitchen for lunch on the Wednesday following the publication of this post and my experience was not as encouraging as my initial visit. The environment retains it striking characteristics but the meal and service were somewhat wanting. I had a chicken noodle soup that was salty and the chicken was not very attractive. My hamburger was overdone and not very flavorful. The daytime bartenders were not as attentive to customer needs as I thought they should be, resulting in excessive waits in a non-rush period.

I will revisit the restaurant in the near future to see if this lunch experience was an aberration.

UPDATE (1/6/14): I visited Hamilton again yesterday for lunch and my experience mirrored my 9/16 visit. The service was excellent and management was all ears but the food left a lot to be desired. I started out with a soup that filled me with hope. It was spicy and flavorful. I next tried fish which was done skin-on style but the skin was mushy and the underlying flesh was brown in color and free of flavor. I next tried the Shrimp and Grits. The shrimp was obviously fresh but the entire concotion was unappealing to the eye and the flavor had not workrd its way into the shrimp, giving the impression that it was added to the sauce belatedly. I sent the fish back but did not have the heart to send the Shrimp and Grits back. I closed out with a Burger and Fries without bun. This cooked a little more than I had ordered it but it was edible. The surroundings at this establishment are world class but the food is not. Until the food problem is solved, this restaurant will continue to underperform.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme