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A Perfect Spring Lunch

Date: Sat, Apr 28, 2012 Wine Tasting

It's finally spring in New York. That two weeks in early April when all of the sudden it was 75 degrees and the cherry trees blossomed early and everyone wore shorts, no, that wasn't spring. That was more about the great floods that will surely come my friends, as the weather all over the world gets weirder and weirder. Anyway, now, it's spring. Temperatures are in the high 50's to early 60's and it always feels like it's about to rain, which hopefully it will. It's supposed to rain in April, for goodness sake.

My favorite farmer Bill Maxwell is back from hibernation and once again selling his beautiful and delicious produce at the market. He said that he's had almost no rain and that his yields aren't what they usually are, so far. This morning I got there early enough to grab a nice handful of asparagus, my first of the season. And a box of Tello's Farms eggs. And then at Almondine Bakery I grabbed what I think is the best baguette in NYC. I sense a really good lunch coming...

Nothing innovative here, this is classic spring pleasure. Broke the stems off a handful of asparagus, and peeled the bottoms a little because I was feeling fancy. Dropped them in boiling water for about 2 minutes, maybe less. Meanwhile, water simmered in a pot to poach the egg. Whisked a little good olive oil into some Fernando de Castilla Sherry vinegar, you know, to drizzle over the top of the egg after placing atop a mound of blanched asparagus. Good butter warming on the counter since the morning, so it's nice and soft when spreading time comes.

A touch of vinegar in the simmering water right before dropping in the egg, swirl the water a bit to create a vortex in an attempt to keep the poaching egg whites in a manageable oval shape, as opposed to spreading out uncontrollably in the pot. Poach for maybe 2 minutes, just long enough for the whites to set. Salt, pepper, drizzle on a spoonful of Sherry vinaigrette.

So delicious, it's a little ridiculous. I like to poke the yolk and let it run out, to try to get a little bit with each asparagus bite. But don't worry - a baguette is the perfect tool for swabbing any Sherry vinaigrette-infused egg yolk that you might miss.

What to drink with this spring feast? Popular wisdom is to complain about how hard it is to pair wine with asparagus. I think that's malarkey. I can think of several wines right this second that I would have enjoyed very much with this dish - Fino Sherry, any sort of sparkling wine, Chablis, any Jura wine, white or red, and so on.

Today, with my first real spring lunch, I drank a rosé from Provence, the 2011 Domaine Les Fouques Côtes de Provence Rosé Cuvée de L'Aubigue, $14, Imported by Fruit of the Vines. I bought this wine while speaking on the phone with David Lillie, one of the owners of Chambers Street Wines. I called about an order I placed, including a few bottles of a popular Provence rosé that I buy every year. David said "You know, that wine is yeasted, it smells and tastes like what they want you to think rosé smells and tastes like. If you like the pale rosés you might enjoy this other wine by Les Fouques. It's quite good."

For David, "quite good" is astoundingly high praise.

"Okay, I'll try it. How much is it?" I asked.

"Fourteen dollars," David said. The wine I was going to buy costs over 20% more than that. Just another thing to love about Chambers Street Wines - they'll steer you to the wine they think you should try, even if it's less expensive.

Can I tell you, the wine is great. It's mostly Cinsault and Grenache, with little bits of things like Syrah and Rolle (aka Vermentino). It has very pretty berry aromas, a metallic kind of mineral tone, and with some time open it has a very lovely earthy smell too - something that I think is part of what is wiped out of too many inexpensive rosés in an attempt to enhance their fruity character. The wine tastes great, it's balanced and pretty and very refreshing. It's got a lot of structure too, for an inexpensive little Provence rosé. David Lillie (who I think direct imports this wine) - you rock.

If you can think of a better early spring lunch, I'm listening.

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Sherry Dinner at Fu Leen with The Palmas of González Byass

Date: Mon, Apr 23, 2012 Wine Tasting

Not too long ago I had the pleasure of eating dinner at Fu Leen, the seafood restaurant in Manhattan's Chinatown. Peter Liem organized a group of people to drink several special Sherries and to eat things like lightly steamed fresh shrimp, fried dungeness crab, steamed whole fish, and fried rice with salted fish.

The wine main course, if you will, was the Palmas of González Byass - all four of them. Peter graced this blog with a guest post discussing these wines a few months back - a beautiful piece of wine writing and you should take a look if you haven't already. The Palmas represent an exploration of Fino Sherry as it ages. They are selected by Antonio Flores, the González Byass cellar master, as barrels of special quality and bottled at different points in their evolution toward Amontillado. Una Palma is an average of 6 years old, Dos Palmas 8 years old, Tres Palmas 10 years old when the flor is patchy and the wine begins to have some contact with oxygen. Cuatro Palmas is much older - an average of 45 years I believe. Honestly - read Peter's post on these wines, as he explains exactly what it is they are about in crystal clear terms.

The idea behind wines like the Palmas is not new. It is common for the cellar master to select what he (and it is almost always a he) feels are his finest barrels, and to allow them live outside of their commercial bottlings. It is a newer thing for these special wines to be bottled and sold. That wines like this are now available, even if they are rare, is part of what makes this such an exciting time to be a Sherry lover.

We drank several appetizers before our Palmas main course, and each of the wines related in some way to this theme of special wines, things that are new and interesting in the world of Sherry. The first was a sparkling wine, a collaboration between Sergi Colet in Penedés and the Equipo Navazos team. The 2006 Colet-Navazos Reserva Extra Brut is a sparkling Chardonnay and at disgorgement the wine is topped up with Manzanilla - specifically La Bota Nº 22, if I am not mistaken. This wine is mellow with a few years in bottle, bone dry and very mineral, and the Manzanilla is an unmistakable presence. You can sense it the way Vader sensed Obi Wan was sneaking around somewhere on the Death Star.

Most of the Sherry that we can buy here in the States has been heavily filtered, and although some of these wines are delicious, they are very different from what they were before the filtration, stripped of important aroma and flavor components. As more and more wine lovers become interested in Sherry, some Bodegas are offering unfiltered versions of their wines. Bodegas Hidalgo recently bottled an unfiltered version of La Gitana, called La Gitana en Rama, or from the barrel.

We drank both versions of La Gitana and there is no mistaking the difference in quality. The en Rama wine showed a deeper and more complex set of aromas and flavors, and also much more finesse. You can see the difference in the photo above, the wine on the left is La Gitana en Rama. Honestly, I found it harder to enjoy La Gitana after drinking the unfiltered version. Maybe on a hot day at the beach with a plate of fish...

We drank La Bota de Manzanilla Nº 32, a continuation of the Nº 4, 8, 16, and 22 bottlings from the Sánchez Ayala solera. I love all of these wines (never had Nº 4), but Nº 32 seems very special to me, a particularly great selection from this solera. I loved it from the moment it was opened and it got better and better in the glass. And with fried dungeness crab in this dried shrimpy, scalliony paste...oh my stars.

Then came the Palmas. This is an experience that will be essentially impossible to replicate, as these wines were bottled in small quantities - only 150 bottles of the Cuatro Palmas for example. They were sold only in Spain and in the UK, and Peter had to agree to tattoo onto his back the name of the merchant who held the bottles for him.

Drinking them one after the other was, as advertised, a great lesson in the progression of biologically aged Fino Sherry. Una Palma was bold and powerful (and we were struck by this demonstration of the vast gulf in character between delicate Manzanilla and bold Fino). Drinking this wine and then also drinking Dos and Tres Palmas, I felt the flor tones change from fresh and buttery to dark and savory, the aromas take on a nuttier note. These wines emphasize for me that the movement of Fino (and Manzanilla) toward Amontillado is not marked with a particular boundary, that there is no clear moment at which Fino becomes Amontillado. Peter has described it as a continuum, and drinking these four Palmas together underlines this notion. These three are essentially the same wine, but at different points along the continuum, captured as the layer of flor becomes thinner and then patchy. Each of the three is compelling and delicious, but if I had to take one and only one with me while waiting on line for 6 hours at the DMV, it would be Tres Palmas.

Cuatro Palmas is an Amontillado that comes from one barrel selected from the tiny 6-barrel Solera called Museo. The idea was to show a point much further along the continuum, and this particular barrel was selected for its great finesse. The wine is glorious - deeply complex, with an incredible fineness of texture, and with a never-ending finish whose echo includes trace reminders of the fresh buttery flor character of 40 years ago.

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Yet Further Adventures in Blind Tasting

Date: Mon, Apr 16, 2012 Wine Tasting

I love blind tasting. It's fun to drink wine without having any idea what it is, whether or not it's expensive, cult-ish and rare, common, glorified, or unknown. Without knowing whether or not I am intrigued by the producer, whether or not I've had it before, or any of the many other things that influence my expectations about a wine before I actually smell and taste it. I particularly love doing this over a meal with a relaxed group of people who will participate in the conversation and laugh with one another as we swing from kind-of-accurate to wildly wrong in our attempts to identify wine.

I did this last year at about this time, and now again. Eight of us at dinner, everyone brings one wine. I told everyone beforehand what we'd be eating, and randomly assigned two people to each of the courses. It would be fascinating also to see what sort of pairings these wine people would come up with.

We drank some truly interesting things - Zind Humbrecht Pinot Noir with roast chicken, 150 year old vines Hatzidakis Santorini Assyrtiko and 1988 Brundlmayer Gruner Veltliner Langenloiser Berg-Vogelsang (!) with carrot soup (and in the night's only tragic wine event, the Vatan Sancerre meant for that soup was corked), a seriously disappointing bottle of 1987 Joly Coulée de Serrant and a Japanese Madeira-style wine by Chuo Budo-shu (or the Grace Winery) made of Koshu and Muscat Bailey-A, both grapes indigenous to Japan. I learned something with every wine and very thoroughly enjoyed myself.

The first course was a Japanese-style savory egg custard with shrimp, shitake mushrooms, and scallions. We drank two fantastic wines with this course and I thought that both paired beautifully with the custard. The discussion around these wines was illuminating and funny, and I will share as best I can remember.

I sett two glasses in front of everyone, a Zalto Universal glass and a Schott Zwiesel Burgundy bowl. The first wine we drank granted me the opportunity to show just how good of a blind taster I am. My friend elected to pour it in the Burgundy bowls, as the other wine for this course was a sparkling wine, and he thought that the sparkling wine should be served in the Zaltos. We spent some quiet time with the wine, swirling, sniffing. It felt in the mouth like Chardonnay to me, and I got something like iodine on the nose. I began to think Chablis. And then I began to notice oyster shell and other marine scents. "I think this is Chablis," I announced. The fact that all 7 of the other tasters agreed that it was an Austrian wine made me feel just slightly less confident.

I keep hearing about how there are so many people in the wine world who cannot relax in this sort of situation, who are too competitive or aggressive with their opinions, people who will make you feel small for not knowing things, or for being wrong. I am so happy that I don't know or hang out with these people. Folks - I cannot recommend strongly enough that you spend your thoughtful wine drinking time with nice people, people who want to enjoy with you and learn together, not to compete and act like jerks. Sorry if this sounds obvious, but I don't think it's obvious. I know people who will go where there are good bottles, even if their owners are brutish wine-thugs who are not very pleasant to learn with.

Anyway...everyone else thought it was Austrian, and the questions were about Gruner versus Riesling (consensus was Riesling), region (no clear consensus, but leaning towards the Wachau), and the age of the wine (consensus was mid-2000's). And as I continued to smell and taste the wine, I knew it was true - it was an Austrian wine, not Chablis. Would I have come to that conclusion on my own, had others not been suggesting this? I really cannot say. But it was crystal clear to me, once the others said so.

Everyone agreed that it was lovely wine, the 2001 Prager Riesling Achleiten. This is a wine that I would love to drink again, and Prager is a producer who I haven't spent enough time with - the few wines I've had have all been excellent. My friend who brought the wine said that he finds that Austrian Riesling can show like Chardonnay when served in big bowl glasses. Maybe this is true, but I think he was trying to make me not feel like such a dope. But I really didn't feel like a dope. In blind dinners like this, I will get it wrong 8 or 9 times out of 10, and I'm fine with that. It was funny in the end, and the collective appreciation of my mistake reminded me of exactly how it is that I want to drink great wine - with good people.

The Champagne was fascinating too. I felt at first that it might not be Champagne, it had an herbal scent and I just didn't recognize the profile. It was heavily reduced upon opening, though, and it took a while to compose itself and be presentable. Even when it did, I wasn't sure. It felt like white grapes to me. If it were Champagne, then maybe something with the oddball grapes like Arbanne or Petit Meslier? But the wine had this mineral tang on the finish that reminded me of Huet, and I thought it was bottled at low pressure (I was wrong). Could we be drinking Huet Pétillant here? Other tasters thought there might be red grapes, some thought it was Champagne, others weren't sure.

First, we tried to resolve the main question - was it Champagne? Peter Liem thought it was and said something like "If this isn't Champagne, then it's really, really good." The texture was getting silkier by the minute, and the finish more and more saline. When the wine was revealed as the 2004 Agrapart L'Avizoise Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs, most of us were still a bit mystified. Peter cleared this up (he did not bring this wine), explaining that the wine is a Blanc de Blancs that is meant to showcase the clay soils of Avize (a village famous for Chardonnay grown on chalky soils), and this is what gives the wine its unusual character. By the way, the wine was compelling and delicious.

Listening to these experienced wine people, all of them professionals, some of whom I've seen perform amazing feats of blind tasting, hearing them discuss this wine...realizing that Peter Liem, one of the world's leading and most important Champagne experts, was not certain about this wine...It reminded me that if we are open minded and humble, we will never stop learning. I hope I will be so lucky.

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More Good Things to Eat While Traveling

Date: Thu, Apr 12, 2012 Wine Tasting

BBQ at The Joint, in the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans.

Whoa! That's some BBQ. The meat is unadorned - no rub, no sauce - you have to put that stuff on yourself, if you feel like you want it. The ribs are truly ridiculous, so is the pulled pork. Brisket is excellent too. Sides taste fresh and delicious - those beans are home-made. And there is Abita Amber on draft and great music on the radio. Hard to argue with that, my friends.

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Inocente...with Bottle Age

Date: Tue, Apr 10, 2012 Wine Tasting

The other night, at the end of a lovely blind wine dinner (more on that another time) I decided to open one last bottle for my guests, a bottle of Valdespino Inocente. I grabbed a bottle from my wine fridge, and as soon as I began pouring the wine I noticed that it was unusual for Inocente. A little cloudy, almost. Well not exactly cloudy, but different in appearance from all of the other Inocente that I've had.

Inocente is a wonderful wine, one of my absolute favorite Fino Sherries. But this was a particularly wonderful bottle, showing such finesse, such a mellow harmony, such lovely articulation. Was something special about this bottle?

Yes, as it turns out. My friend Peter stores a few bottles of wine in my fridge, and this was his bottle of Inocente - I grabbed the wrong bottle. And Peter's wine was special in that it was bottled in December of 2008 - it has aged for over three years in bottle.

The back of a bottle of Inocente has a code that reveals the bottling date. "L083532" means that the wine was bottled in 2008 on the 353rd day of that year - December 18th (it was a leap year), from bottling line number 2. Had I known how to read this code, I might not have opened my friend's carefully aged bottle of Inocente. This is, after all, something that I would guess almost no one else has - aged Inocente is a rare thing.

Many people think that biologically aged Sherries, Finos and Manzanillas, for example, should not be aged in bottle. This idea probably arose because in this country the Fino style wines that have been most readily available in fact do not stay fresh for very long. But there is a renewed interest in Sherry, and there are more wines available now. Some of them are wines that improve with bottle age, and Valdespino Inocente is one such wine.

It's funny to think of a Sherry like Inocente as a candidate for the cellar. Unlike most white wines that are bottled within a year or two of vinification, Inocente is already aged when we buy it - it's a wine that ages for 8 or so years in the solera before bottling. But like many fine wines, Inocente mellows with bottle age, achieves a greater harmony and depth of aroma and flavor, expresses itself in a more profound way.

I knew about this idea, and I know also that Jesus Barquin and Eduardo Ojeda of Equipo Navazos say that their biologically aged Sherries should be cellared for at least a year or two before drinking. I've tried this with some La Bota bottles, with good results. But until this night when I opened the wrong bottle of Inocente, Peter's aged bottle, I had never had Inocente with any bottle age. It turns out that with good storage, the results are well worth the effort and I will definitely try to recreate this experience by socking away a few bottles of my own.

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Restaurant Review - Taconic on Bedford

Date: Sat, Mar 31, 2012 Wine Tasting

I admit it, I was not looking forward to Taconic on Bedford. I mean really, in our precious world of hipster Brooklyn dining, this place is the very hippest, the most precious of all. But you know what - Taconic on Bedford pulls it off, and I highly recommend that you try it.

Taconic, as the locals call it, is named after New York State Route 987G, the Taconic State Parkway. Owners Abraham and Fenton Percival moved from 1870's Wyoming to Williamsburg in early 2010. Fenton worked for a while as Bee-Keeper at Egg Restaurant, and Abraham was Director of Body Art at Cafe Grumpy. One spring weekend in 2011, the brothers attended the chemical-free soap and candle making conference and expo in the town of Ghent, NY. They fell in love with the Hudson Valley and decided to bring the rustic vibe and food back to Williamsburg. And so, we have Taconic on Bedford.

The Percivals found a wonderful spot for their restaurant. Set just off the street on a lovely corner of Bedford Avenue, the place feels like it is of the woods.

And the view from the main dining room is utterly gorgeous, emphasizing the bucolic beauty that can still be found in the part of Williamsburg near Newtown Creek.

There are a few problems with Taconic on Bedford, and I'm going to get those out of the way first. Taconic does not take reservations. If you or someone in your party can present a valid hunting or fishing license you will get priority for a table. Otherwise, go for a stroll in Williamsburg and Fenton will send a telegram when your table is ready. Secondly, it can take a long time to be noticed by the staff at Taconic, even after being seated. I felt so grateful to be there, though, that I didn't mind the fact that 45 minutes went by before someone came to take a drink order. That said, the servers, most of whom are former rodeo clowns, are not entirely adverse to being interrupted as they socialize, and will take your order if you are a little pushy about it.

These are minor problems, though, and there is a lot to love at Taconic on Bedford. All of the wood that went into building Taconic was reclaimed from Home Depot, and the place looks great.

Taconic offers a convenient and enviro-friendly valet service, and your car will be parked in a bed of local dried leaves while you dine.

And the wait for food is made more palatable as you sip mixologist Lleyton Pembrickson III 's signature hand-made cocktails. Lleyton came to Taconic from Dow Chemicals and she has since created many delicious libations for the Taconic crowd. My current favorite is the Irish Spring, a captivating blend of Tullamore Dew, rendered duck fat, house-made quinoa syrup, and hand-shaved green soap.

Wine is served in deerskin pouches, and there is an innovative hydration program, offering diners a variety of hand-poured waters. I usually go with the over-sized watering can, and the water is fresh and cold, very impressive indeed. You can enjoy it plain or with house-pickled ice cubes - I find both to be very satisfying.

And how about the food at Taconic? I cannot profess to have tried everything, but what I've had is excellent. Most of the vegetables and grains served at Taconic are locally foraged, and in a truly innovative touch, foraging is outsourced to a small team of Siberian Husky pups. The above photo shows Amaranth, the current leader of the pack.

Taconic adheres to strict nose-to-tail vegetable practices, and every part of the plant is used. Pictured above is the Cabbage, Celery, and Carrot ($17), a delicious melange of the whole vegetables, sliced and served with a light and tangy "mayo-vinegar jus."

Moss salad ($23) is served on the rock it grew on, and is woodsy and redolent of chlorophyll. It is pleasantly textured, but I felt that a dressing of some sort might have improved the dish.

There are a variety of meat dishes made from locally sourced animals, but if you order these dishes you must be willing to actually butcher the meat before the kitchen staff will prepare it. I was initially put off by this, as I don't know how to butcher, but in the end its a nice opportunity to learn. The butchering station is next to the bar and the first-aid area so diners can watch and learn from each others' mistakes.

After one lunchtime visit Abraham Percival took me into his office so we could chat. He is a lovely guy, his brother too. I asked about future plans and he said that the Percivals just opened a general store next to Taconic.

He gave me a quick tour and so far it seems to hold a wide array of soda. Abraham said that there will soon be a variety of very expensive pickles and candles, and also Hellman's mayonnaise.

Taconic on Bedford
5 and 1/2 Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn

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Forcing Myself to Drink New Wines

Date: Fri, Mar 23, 2012 Wine Tasting

I could probably grow old drinking exactly what's in my cellar now and be perfectly happy. I mean really - Burgundy, the Loire, Sherry, Champagne...what's not to love? It's important also to drink things from time to time that are outside of the comfort zone. I do not do this very often, and I need to do it more. There is no deep thinking behind this - it's just good to experience new things, to explore a bit, to practice being open-minded.

So, I am making a conscious effort to drink wines I don't know. Nothing major, just making an educated guess on wines here and there, nothing expensive. It's funny - I used to do this all the time maybe 5 years ago. Now I've gotten to a point where I feel like I understand what, for me, is the optimal way to spend every wine dollar, and maybe too much so. I never find myself saying anymore "Hmmm, that looks interesting, I'm going to give that a shot." So I'm trying to do this again.

This past month I bought two wines that are new to me and both, I must say, were excellent wines, things I would definitely buy again. I drank an Oregon Pinot Gris and I really liked it. Now, if you've been following this blog for a while, you know that I used to drink a lot of Oregon Pinot. My tastes changed, I stopped buying and drinking the wines. But one day in February I was browsing in a large Manhattan store in which I don't normally shop, and I saw bottles of 2010 Montinore Pinot Gris on sale for just under $11.

I haven't liked a lot of Oregon Pinot Gris, but I remember hearing that Montinore is a good producer, and the back label says the wine is 12.6% alcohol and the wine is made using Demeter certified biodynamic farming methods. I bought one bottle. Honestly, the wine was really good. It was clean and bright tasting, relying on a lean intensity. There is ripe fruit - spiced pear and apple, there is a definite mineral sensation, and the finish is long and pleasingly bitter. This is delicious wine, and not because it resembles an Alsace Pinot Gris - it doesn't. It's an Oregon wine, no mistaking that. And it's a really good one. It didn't hold up well overnight - probably not meant for the cellar, but it is a quality wine, and it would be nice if there were more Oregon wines like this, where the producer doesn't try to do too much in the vineyard or the cellar.

Another new one for me, this time a red wine. It was during the Super Bowl, I think, when my pal poured me a glass of something that looked like rosé. It wasn't rosé though, it was Grignolino d'Asti. Wow, so good - fresh and vibrant and eminently drinkable, red fruit and flowers, and complex too. I'm talking about the 2010 Montalbera Grignolino d'Asti Grignè. When I looked for it at the store I saw that Charlie Woods of Bonhomie Imports brings in this wine, and I wasn't surprised at all. In keeping with his other wines that I know, this is very reasonably priced ($15-18), and it feels old school, and very pure.

I've had a few bottles now and I really like the wine. I like to drink it cool - cellar temperature, as you would a Beaujolais. The floral and spicy characteristics come out best that way. It's great with charcuterie or lentil soup, or most anything really, and it does drink well on its own. I had a bottle with a spread of Middle Eastern food and it was an excellent partner for the chickpeas and spinach, and also the Merguez sausage. This is a very light colored wine, like a Poulsard, and as with good Poulsard, the wine has great structure and sneaky intensity. Supposedly this is what you drink while you wait for your Barolo and Barbaresco to mature. I can see that when I drink this wine, and although I've not had even one other example of Grignolino, I'm not sure that I need to because this one is so very good.

Forcing myself out of the comfort zone...so far so good.

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Orchids and Red Sauce in The Bronx (Warning - Photos Rated 'R')

Date: Sun, Mar 18, 2012 Wine Tasting

The New York Botanical Garden in The Bronx is a real gem, as honestly are each of NYC's botanical gardens. I'm obviously partial to the Brooklyn garden, but Staten Island's is not to be missed, with its one-of-a-kind-on-the-east-coast Chinese Scholar's Garden. The garden in The Bronx also has its charms. It has what I understand to be the very last bit of old growth forest in New York City, for example.

Spring is a great reason to visit any of these gardens, but on top of that there is an absurd orchid show at the garden in The Bronx, through April 22.

I'm telling you, this is worth the trip.

Really? Seriously?

Some of the orchids will make you blush.

These cannot be possible. But they are.

And it's not all orchids. There are orange-haired flowers.

I'm not fully convinced that these are real flowers.

There are space alien flowers, too.

And because we are people whose real reason for doing anything is actually the eating and drinking part, after the garden you can walk (maybe 20 minutes) to Arthur Avenue, the main drag in Belmont, the Little Italy of The Bronx. This place blows away the Little Italy in Manhattan, which at this point is not much more than a tourist trap. The bakeries, the delis, the cheese and antipasti shops, the restaurants...oiy vey!

A buddy and I took our daughters on a recent Saturday to see the orchids and then to Arthur Avenue. We ate lunch at Dominick's.

Calamari were among the very best I've had. Fried perfectly, so tender, served with the best "red sauce" I've encountered. The calamari were seasoned beautifully, just the right amount of salt - they didn't need the tomato sauce. But the tomato sauce was so very very good, it was hard to know what to do.

Linguine with shrimp and marinara sauce was also excellent.

Two of the three meatballs vanished in the 4 seconds that it required to take this photo.

If you go, make sure to visit Mount Carmel Wine & Spirits on 187th Street. Chambers Street Wines, this isn't. All I'm saying is that you'll be surprised and excited by what you find in the Piedmont section.

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Sandro Piliego Slices Jamon Iberico

Date: Thu, Mar 15, 2012 Wine Tasting

This video, about 3 and a half minutes long, shows Sandro Piliego of Palo Cortado slicing Jamon Iberico, and discussing Jamon and Sherry. I shot the video on my phone and of course forgot to turn it sideways, so sorry about the rather narrow picture.

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My Favorite Sherry Bar in NYC - Palo Cortado

Date: Tue, Mar 13, 2012 Wine Tasting

I want to tell you about my favorite place to drink Sherry in NYC, a tapas bar called Palo Cortado. Palo Cortado is actually a restaurant with a full menu, and it serves a wide and interesting selection of wine and beer. You can go there and have a "normal" restaurant experience, with an appetizer, an entree, and dessert. But I'm going to talk about Palo Cortado in the way that I experience it, as a tapas bar.

Let me start by saying this: Palo Cortado has as good of a by-the-glass Sherry list as anyplace I've seen. There are about 20 Sherries on the list at any time, and wines rotate in and out.

This is a place where you can drink interesting wines in each category of Sherry, wines that can be quite difficult (in some cases, impossible) to find on retail shelves. There are lovely Finos and Manzanillas, interesting Amontillados and Palo Cortados, and several examples of Moscatel and Sweet Pedro Ximenez wines too. The most expensive wine I've seen, I believe, is the Bodegas Tradición Amontillado at perhaps $20 a glass. That's right - you can drink things like Bodegas Tradición Amontillado, by the glass, at Palo Cortado. The least expensive is the extremely delicious Emilio Hidalgo Fino at $6. Think about it - you can sample Sherries of all types for very reasonable prices, play around, try new things, expand your understanding of this forgotten (but perhaps now re-discovered) great wine of the world.

The wines are served in Sherry glasses and this is a great decision, particularly with the brown Sherries. I think Amontillado and Palo Cortado wines show best in these copitas, benefiting from the focus the glass confers. I prefer the way Fino style wines smell and taste out of white wine glasses, but copitas are fine too, and it certainly feels more like a tapas bar that way. Alessandro Piliego (pouring, above), who goes by Sandro and is one of the owners of Palo Cortado, is a true believer, and will be happy and excited to pour various wines for you, to talk about them with you, to support you in exploring the bottles he offers. If you go, you should talk with him - you will feel as though you have been well taken care of.

Palo Cortado is a destination place, it's worth traveling to because of the great Sherry selection and the great service. The food can be good too - there are dishes that I love to eat at Palo Cortado and I always enjoy my meals there. But the reason to travel to Palo Cortado is the great Sherry and the great service, and there are also some good things to eat. And I should say that I've never tasted even one of the main dishes. I order tapas, that's it.

To me, the most delicious and very best thing to eat at Palo Cortado is Jamon Iberico. Sandro simply does this right, no question about it. High quality jamon, aged two years, cut by hand into thin (but not too thin) toothsome and highly perfumed slices. A plate of jamon is served with large caper berries, Marcona almonds, fig bread, and pickled Basque peppers. A little bread on the side, a nice glass of Sherry...what could be better? I usually drink Palo Cortado with the jamon, like the wonderful Emilio Hidalgo Marqués de Rodil, but Sandro recommends Fino, and I tried this last time and it was great.

The other tapas that I always enjoy at Palo Cortado include Pulpo a la Gallega (tender octopus and potatoes with vinegar and lots of pimenton), Empanadas, which are completely home made and stuffed with delicious flank steak and melted Tetilla cheese, Patatas Bravas (fried potato chunks in pimenton and aioli, the Tortilla a la Cazadora (mushoom and potato omelet), the Albondigas de Cordero (lamb meatballs) and a frequent special of fluke crudo with grapefruit. And if you think about it, along with the spectacular (I would say, best in NYC) Jamon Iberico, that's plenty of tapas. Order a plate or two with a copita, and when you and your friend finish, order another plate or two and another copita, and continue until exhausted or the bar closes.

Another thing I appreciate about Palo Cortado is that it actually reminds me of being in Jerez. Okay, every tapas bar I can think of in Jerez and surrounding environs shows you many of the tapas you can order - they sit under glass and are served from troughs as you order them. That's not going to happen here, and that's fine. But the decor is right at Palo Cortado. Not too dark, not bright at all, some interesting paintings around, and they perfectly hit that critical mix of giving you enough space and somehow maximizing the hum of conversation from other tables.

And there is tile. Tile at the bar.

Tile on the tables.

You can always walk around and look at the paintings if you like.

Or sit at a table near the sultry painting in the back.

If you are interested in Sherry, and want to go beyond La Bota, go check out Palo Cortado. It might be a bit of a trip for you, yes. But you like Sherry, you're interested and curious. It's more than worth the trip.

You will have a great time here, trust me. And you will eat a glorious plate of Jamon Iberico that really tastes nutty like acorns and has a truly inviting and complex aroma. Careful, you might order a second plate. Or perhaps just return on another night and do it all over again. That's what I do.

Palo Cortado
520 Court Street, Brooklyn, between Huntington and Nelson.
Cash and Amex only.

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The Worst Wine and Food Pairing in History?

Date: Wed, Mar 7, 2012 Wine Tasting

Got home late at night from a business trip. Tired, malnourished, mal-slept, dirty from airplanes. Hungry, very hungry, and thirsty too.

In the fridge - leftover spaghetti and meatballs. I made this, but it was four days earlier. Still pretty good. Served with the final third of a 375 ml bottle of 2003 Chateau Rieussec. This was opened three days earlier when a friend brought it over for dinner, and since then it sat in the door of the fridge, uncorked.

That's right...spaghetti with meatballs and Sauternes. Perhaps the worst wine and food pairing in history. If you think you can do better, let's hear it.

Probably the spaghetti would have benefited from being warmed up.

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Good Things to Eat While Traveling

Date: Wed, Feb 29, 2012 Wine Tasting

I like to travel within New York City, to explore the far away neighborhoods, and the not so faraway. There are so many ridiculously good things to eat here, we really are very lucky.

Just look at this bowl of Bun Rieu, the Vietnamese crab paste soup with vermicelli noodles that I recently ate in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. At Thanh Da, this soup is served with fried tofu, chunks of pork rib, tomatoes, and lots of mint. Pure savory satisfaction.

Not too long ago a good friend and I went on walkabout to explore the Forest Hills Gardens section of Queens. This is a neighborhood designed by Frederick Law Olmstead's son, and its streets are privately owned. They have their own garbage collection and security services, if I'm not mistaken. Anyway, I couldn't help but point out to my pal that Rego Park was within walking distance, and its incredible Bukharian restaurants.

We ate a memorable and very large meal at Restaurant Salute (108th street and 63rd Road). This is a kosher restaurant owned by Uzbek Jews. We began with a gorgeous plate of expertly made pickles, and two kinds of dumplings.

These are Uzbek dumplings called manti, filled with ground meat (lamb?) and spices. I love them at Salute. If they remind you of certain Chinese dumplings, that's because there was a lot of mixing of food and technique as people traveled along the silk road a long time ago.

On the Salute menu these are called "Juicy Crimean Dumplings," and I think the real name for them is Cheburek. They were delicately spiced with cumin, and were indeed very juicy and delicious.

We ate pilaf, rich with chunks of lamb, carrots, and cooked onions. Not a powerfully flavored dish, but savory and very comforting.

And we ate kabobs, of course, a skewer of lamb ribs and another of ground lamb and beef spiced with cumin. Both were expertly grilled and a with a little bit of the "sauce for meat," made of plums, dill, onions, chilis...wow, that's just good stuff.

I love to have a pot of green tea at Salute. Beautiful colors, delicious tea, and another reminder of how complicated the mingling of food and culture is all over the world.

Get ready for this last bit because if you live in New York, you're going to freak out a little. I was in Chicago recently and a colleague who lives there took me to a place for dinner in his neighborhood, called Humboldt Park. He had no idea that I'm into wine, he just likes this place called Rootstock. Whoa - what a find! This place simply couldn't exist in New York. There would be twice as many tables squeezed into the same space, and everything would need to be at least twice as expensive.

The food was delicious. A salad topped with pickled squash and sunflower seeds ($8) was refreshing and bright. I guess Portland and NYC are not the only places where anything can be pickled.

Chicken liver mousse with pickled cranberries and pink peppercorns ($6.50 !) was truly excellent, although served with rather uninspiring bread. But the mousse was so good that it almost doesn't matter. And that bottle you see there...it is the 2009 Alzinger Riesling Steinertal, and it cost all of $60 on the wine list!! This is a wine that typically costs more than that at a retail shoppe in NYC, if you can find it. The wine list was excellent, really really great. There were so many things that I wanted to drink, and the prices were great, from my NYC viewpoint. This is a place that serves Bernard Baudry Chinon Blanc by the glass. There are loads of interesting beers to try, the shelves were stocked with great spirits, and to top it off this place serves Sherry by the glass too - Gutierrez Colosía's lovely Oloroso called Sangre y Trabajadero, and El Maestro Sierra's Amontillado. I mean really, folks, this place is a gem and I would go back 10 times.

And by the way, the Steelhead Trout with lentils and grilled scallions ($13 !!)...not bad with Steinertal, not bad at all. Yes, it's probably 15 years too soon to get the most out of this wine, but a good decant and two hours in, this was singing a lovely tune.

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Old or Young Wines First?

Date: Thu, Feb 23, 2012 Wine Tasting

The other night I had dinner with 7 other people in Manhattan, a dinner featuring 12 vintages of Marcarini Barolo Brunate. Three wines each from the 60's, 70's, 80's, two wines from the 90's, and the 2007. I had never before had such a broad array of Barolo vintages in one night. It was amazing to experience the evolution of such finely pedigreed Nebbiolo, to feel the changes as it gets older.

We drank the oldest wines first, and ended with the 1990, the 1996, and the 2007. We began with the flight from the 60's - the 1964, 1967, and 1969. There was some discussion at the table - is this the right way to do it? Some felt that we should have started with the young wines.

I appreciated drinking the oldest wines first, in that I was as sharp as a taster as I would be that evening, and perhaps best able to appreciate the fine subtlety of the grand old wines. Or maybe I should say, the young wine tannins hadn't yet affected my mouth. That said, when we got to the 80's flight (1982, 1985, and 1989), the wines seemed very young, nowhere near as thrilling as their older cousins. Perhaps a great 1982 served after a great 1964 just cannot shine as brightly as it would on its own.

This is not the first time I've gone oldest to youngest in the past few months. Not long ago at a Noel Verset dinner, we began with the older wines. I'm not sure how I feel about this yet (although clearly I would drink these wines in any order and enjoy them).

And at my Burgundy Wine Club dinner, I decided to put the flight of Comte Armand Clos des Epeneaux (1989, 1991, and 1993) before the de Montille Pommard Rugiens flight (1998, 1999). My thinking was that the younger brawnier more tannic de Montille wines, if served first, would obliterate the Comte Armand wines.

Curious to see if anyone has an opinion they'd be willing to share on this.

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Things Don't Always Work Out in the Kitchen

Date: Sun, Feb 19, 2012 Wine Tasting

You know this to be true. You can get the best ingredients, prepare ahead of time, have great music on and be in the right mood and still, things don't always work out in the kitchen.

Last week I saw Tipo 00 flour sitting on the "fancy food" shelf in the food coop. I had only recently learned of Tipo 00 - a very finely ground flour that apparently makes the best pizza dough and pasta. I don;t bake much (read: never), but it seemed like something worth trying. Why not make pizza dough and have fun with the daughters? We could each make our own pizza. How hard could it really be?

I emailed an Italian friend who is a good cook and has made pizza dough on many occasions. She said to use good yeast, not the kind that comes dry in the packets. She said that in Italy pizza sauce is not cooked, it is simply pureed uncooked tomatoes. She also said that the oven must be as hot as possible so that the dough cooks quickly, and the mozzarella should be warmed and melted, but not browned. She described the process of making dough as a craft, not a science. "Use 300-500 grams of flour and about half that weight in water, mix in the yeast, some salt, a tablespoon and no less of good olive oil, kneed it and add more flour or water as needed." Loose directions, but I like that - get the feel for it by doing.

So I bought fresh yeast. and I dissolved half of it in a bowl of warm water. I added about a half teaspoon of sugar to the bowl.

Bought a box of tomatoes, planning to puree them, but they came out of the box basically pureed already. That was it for the sauce.

I mixed about a cup and a half of flour and the salt, added the yeasty water (after giving it a few minutes to activate), added the olive oil and about 3/4 cup of water, and was thrilled to feel the mixture get doughy in my hands. But it was too sticky, so I added some more flour - maybe another 1/3 cup, and it integrated easily and was no longer very sticky.

Covered the bowl with a wet towel and left in on the counter near the stove. Two hours later it had doubled in size. It worked - yeast works!

The girls came home, we washed hands and got ready to stretch out some pizza dough. We could have used a rolling pin but I like the idea of working with our hands here. I took the dough out of the bowl and learned lesson number 1: dust the bowl with flour before leaving it to rise. Very sticky. And it was immediately clear that I had not used enough flour. The dough was elastic, but entirely too sticky, too moist, and just not of the right consistency. I was tempted to ditch the plan and make something else quickly, but there were two daughters standing on footstools at the counter who were quite intent on working with this dough and putting sauce and cheese on top.

So we worked the dough and lost at least 20% of it because it stuck to our hands. But we shaped those pizzas. I decided to cook the dough for a minute or two in the 550 degree oven, just to firm it a bit before adding sauce. It was too moist otherwise. This helped, and they spooned some sauce on their pizzas, and then added cubes of cheese. Slices of cheese would melt quickly and then burn quickly in a 550 degree oven.

Their pizzas came out okay and they ate them, but the dough was just wrong. It smelled good but it didn't really crisp up, even though I cooked them long enough for the smoke alarm to blare. And the taste was more like a bread roll than pizza dough.

It says a lot that the daughters were more excited about the broccoli and peas with sliced radishes and garlic than they were about the pizza. Pizza is one of those very simple foods in which the quality of each element must be right - there is little room for error. The dough just wasn't right, and even a three year old could tell.

I decided to make a sliced fennel and dry sausage pizza. I rubbed my pre-baked dough with olive oil and a sprinkle of salt, and topped with slices of fennel and dry fennel sausage. This actually tasted very good, although again, it was like eating a fennel and sausage bread roll.

I feel good about this, in spite of the bad dough. Next time I will use more flour and I think I have a better idea of what the dough should feel like before leaving it to rise. And if not, if I mess it up again, I'm sure the daughters will be cheerful either way.

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