Sunday, August 31, 2008

Fincas Patagónicas Zolo 2007 Sauvignon Blanc

Purchased this Argentinian wine at Nob Hill for about $9. About 13.2% alcohol level. On the nose, I got melon and aged cheese, maybe cheddar or gouda. It smelled very rich and thick, with a bit of an orange zest making an appearance. In the mouth, citrus, orange zest again. Had a syrupy consistency, felt kind of viscous.

Fincas Patagónicas has vineyards in Mendoza, and sourced its Sauvignon Blanc grapes from two different areas - Agrelo and Tupungato. According to the winery's website, Agrelo is at 950 meters altitude, and employs an overheard arbor system to keep the grapes shaded from direct rays. The Tupungato grapes are harvested from vineyards between 1100 and 1350 meters above sea level in the espaliering system.

Pachamama Xelajú, Guatemala

Spent a few minutes at the Jack London Square farmer's market today in Oakland, and came across a Pachamama coffee stand. They were offering pour-overs of their Guatemalan single origin coffee. Pachamama is a co-op owned by more than 150,000 coffee farmers around the world.

In the cup, I got a light, woody flavor, currants, and softer, sweeter fruits. You could taste a touch of the roast, but it was really just a hint, it didn't obscure the complexity of the coffee at all.

Thaleon Tremain, who's the company's general manager, was working the stand. I asked him how they roast their coffees; he called it "medium" and said they stop typically before the second crack. "You won't find oils on our beans," he said. When you roast green coffee beans, the first crack is a loud pop you hear that indicates the beans have opened up down the center, and some of the oils inside the bean start to appear on the surface. You can start to think about ending the roast at this point. Later, a second crack is heard, and again, it means more of the bean's oils are escaping. I prefer coffees roasted beyond the first crack but not to the second crack. Once you get to the second crack, you're at what's referred to as a Vienna roast, which is lighter than a French roast, but still pretty dark, in my mind. When coffee is roasted past the second crack, you really lose a lot of the natural exotic flavors in the bean, i.e., the fruity and floral components, while gaining more of caramel, wood, and char flavor.

If you go to a supermarket, and look in those plastic bins of beans, you'll see a silo of dark, sticky beans coated in oil. Roasting that deep deprives the beans of the more subtle flavors you might find in lighter roasted beans. Anytime you see sticky, black beans, run far, far away and don't stop until you see a honeyed, caramel color pile of beans.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Finca Vista Hermosa

I had a chance to speak with Edwin Martinez, a coffee exporter with Finca Vista Hermosa in Guatemala at the Slow Food tasting pavilion yesterday. He was hanging out at the coffee pavilion at Fort Mason in San Francisco. We had a really nice conversation about growing coffee beans and some of the exciting changes taking place among specialty coffee, and we tasted some amazing coffees as well.

Vista Hermosa, which means "beautiful view," took 8th place in the 2007 Cup of Excellence competition, with a jury score of 87.53, and sold its lot for $8.05 a pound. They didn't participate in the CoE this year, and the coffee station I visited at Slow Food wasn't pouring his coffee when I met him, though they did later on in the weekend.

One of the things I learned from him was that his farm has been sorting coffee by lots for decades now, but they've always combined them for buyers, who weren't interested in microlots of beans. Each microlot can produce coffee beans that reflect their specific and unique terroir, so by combining them into a blend, you loose their individuality. Barefoot Roasters' Andy Newbom, who was on the other side of the coffee tent, said he helped them sort, roast and cup their microlots in order to better separate the groups.

Edwin said in the past, if a coffee had a particularly striking taste (in a good way) buyers considered them defective and wouldn't want them. Starbucks used to buy his coffees, but with the way they roast, you wouldn't really see what they could be like. What a shame, and a waste of good beans. It gives you some idea why farmers had no incentive until recently to make an extra effort to cultivate superior beans.

I also learned that it's illegal(!) in Guatemala for coffee growers to naturally process beans (this is where they let the coffee cherry dry in the sun instead of washing the skin and mucus off the bean). The process can lead to uneven results and funky coffee beans when conditions are not ideal, which is why the country put that law into place. Though, he added, farmers still do process coffees that way, they just don't export them very far.

Despite the growing number of roasters who are seeking out single estate beans, Edwin said there's still a "huge gap" between the growers and consumers when it comes to coffee. He was hoping the Slow Food event would give drinkers a better idea of what coffee can be when carefully grown, roasted, and served fresh. From what I've read on his blog since the event, it seems like he was impressed with the people who organized and ran the coffee pavilion, and how the set up gave drinkers a chance to really experience how his efforts, and those of other farmers, can really make a difference in the cup. We both were blown away by the Ethiopian Beloya, a sun dried natural that was so sweet, with blueberry and cherry flavors. Think Jolly Rancher candy. It's hard to imagine how anyone could walk away from drinking that and not have a perspective-changing experience on coffee.

If you're interested in more info about Edwin's farm, you can take a tour and actually process some of your own coffee beans in March when they harvest. More info here.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Slow Food

It's been a few days since I last posted, but I've been busy at work covering the hurricane and just absorbing all the political news the past week.

Tonight I attended Slow Food's VIP Tasting tonight. WOW. That's all I can say. I spoke to coffee bean farmers and roasters; I spoke so sommeliers and wine grape growers; I had a man-date with a home beer brewer who also happens to work at Gorden Biersch and we tasted several amazing brews together; I had freshly sliced salami; ate freshly caught fish; drank several unique cocktails; savored some amazing cheeses; slowly melted several fine chocolates in my mouth; oh, and did I mention the incredible coffees and wines?!?!?!?!

I took some notes about the coffees and wines I drank, but for the most part, I was just truly enjoying everything the event had to offer. It's times like these that I just love the fact that I live in San Francisco.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Family Winemakers of California Tasting

When you walk into a large wine tasting, as I did yesterday, there is both an air of excitement and trepidation. Before you lay hundreds of wineries, pouring thousands of their best wines. You're handed a glass for tasting and a plastic cup for spitting. Small tables of bread and cheese dot the floor, along with bottles of water. You want to try everything that is there, but you know full well you won't get to half as many as you want.

The Family Winemakers of California held their annual tasting during the past few days at Fort Mason in San Francisco. The venue is a huge airplane-hanger sized hall, formerly used to stage troops heading off for Pacific battles during WWII. Since then, it's become home to many large events, such as Family Winemakers, ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates & Producers) and Golden Glass, to name a few wine tastings I've been to there this year alone.

While I love the opportunity to try thousands of wines, it can be difficult to sort out which ones you really like after a while. I'm no super-taster like Robert Parker, with the ability to distinguish within seconds a cornucopia of fruits, flowers, herbs and chemical scents and flavors bursting out of my glass. I usually drink a bottle of wine over the course of several days, and I like to sit and enjoy each sip, trying to break down what I'm smelling and tasting slowly with each taste. I'll write some notes down each night on a post-it, and then write up my blog post when the bottle's done.

But at these events, you feel rushed, with only a quick sniff, sip and spit per wine. If the event centers on one type of wine, such as ZAP's focus on Zinfandel, you can taste a few wines that really stick out from the bunch. I remember tasting Klinker Brick's Old Ghost Zin that blew me away because of a cool mint flavor the wine had. My mouth had been full of Zinfandel for hours, and while I could tell some differences between them, most just started tasting like, well, Zinfandel. The Old Ghost easily stood out because of that one flavor note, and I'm eager to try it again to see if I even notice it without having my tongue stained from so many other wines.

At Family Winemakers, each winery was offering pours of their entire lineups, from whites, roses and reds, so there's no real base standard to sort from as you go booth to booth. I stuck mostly to the reds, but even then, it's hard to compare one Syrah to the next after also having a tannic-heavy Cab followed by an old-vine Zin in between. Plus there are different vintages for each wine, adding to the complication.

I did come to the event with some plan on what wineries I wanted to target, because if you don't, it's easy to feel overwhelmed. My thought was to check out the wineries with Howell Mountain grapes. I really like the wine I've had from there, especially a Howell Mountain Zin from Outpost Wines. It's difficult to grow grapes there, but if done right, they produce intense wines with beautiful flavors. The SF Chronicle had a good article about the AVA a few years ago, see it here.

I was also excited to see Bryan Kane again, the winemaker behind Sol Rouge, whose Lake County Cab I liked so much. Kane is also involved with Vie Winery, and he was pouring wines from both, so I hung out there for a good portion of my time.

Overall my experience was that the wines were good to great, with only a few misses. I'm not going to detail every wine I tasted in this post, but I do plan on following up with some individual tasting notes in a subsequent post when I have more time to go over my notes from the event.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Chateau Bois de Lamothe, Cotes de Duras 2007

Another great affordable wine. I think I got this for less than $10 at Trader Joe's.

On the nose, lots of green veggies, especially asparagus, as well as some red berries.

In the mouth, the asparagus flavor carries through from the nose, and there are also cranberries and some herbs. This is a very tart wine, good acidity and some tannins on the finish. At 12.5 percent alcohol level, this is a wine you can drink several glasses of during dinner and not stagger away in a daze.

Red wines made from the Cotes de Duras region use Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec grapes, according to The Wine Info Site.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Four Barrel

"I want to be sedated," Joey Ramone sings from a record player as I walked into Four Barrel, a new cafe in the Mission. I was thinking the exact opposite, "I'm here to be caffinated." Still a bit jittery from my morning cup, I had come by to check out the hot new center of coffeegeekdom and risk possible heart explosion by drinking both a double espresso and one of their single-coffee offerings.

Four Barrel, a project of one of the co-founders of Ritual Coffee Roasters, Jeremy Tooker, has received a lot of buzz from blogs such as Eater and Man Seeking Coffee. I arrived slightly before noon, expecting a mob scene similar to what Blue Bottle's Mint Plaza had its first day (think lines out the door, coffee luminaries lingering over the siphon bar) but only about two dozen people were there. Perhaps this is due to the cafe not garnering a section front spread in the New York Times, as Blue Bottle did. Oh well, my gain, I guess.

Four Barrel's space is huge, its a long, open warehouse-looking building that has an industrial sensibility with concrete floors and exposed wooden-beam ceilings. Small tables for two or four line one wall, with additional seating at long tables along the shop's street-facing windows. The front half of the cafe is for customers, the back half is where one roaster currently sits, with another reportedly set to join it. There's some art on the walls, but the real attraction is what's behind the shoehorn-shaped main bar in the center of the space.

Four Barrel has two La Marzocco Mistrals, with three-group heads each. These beasts are sexy. Like, Ferrari sexy. can imagine them purring as you approach the counter. They were also stocked with naked portafiliters, which allow you to witness the beauty that is crema bubbling and streaming out of the machine. You can't just walk into any old restaurant supply store and buy a Mistral, you have to order them individually from Italy. A poster on said this is a mid-life crisis machine. I agree -- forgo the corvette and splurge on one of these babies, and you won't need Viagra.

Moving along swiftly, as my friend Cath would say after an awkward exposition, the coffee is supplied by Stumptown. They're using Stumptown's Hair Bender espresso blend in the Mistals. I was hoping to try some single-origin espresso, but they're not offering that yet.

Hair Bender is a blend of five different coffees from the three major growing regions of the world, according to Stumptown's website. It the small cup it smelled a bit woody, and I was getting some else really funky, like Thai spices. Not sure if my brain was just quitting on me, but it had a very unique aroma that smelled like a Thai dish, like some sort of basil-garlic meal. Maybe I was totally misreading this, and perhaps your giggling and thinking, "this douchebag is just making stuff up" but it's what I wrote down in my notebook at the time, so therefore it must be true. In the mouth, this blend has a chewy sweetness and a chocolate milk consistency. No bitterness at all.

I also ordered a cup of French press coffee. They were only offering the El Salvador Los Planes. This cup had a satisfying fruit finish, maybe melon, or sweet green grapes. A touch of pencil shavings.

After letting these coffees linger on my tongue for a bit, I walked over to the main bar area to drop off my mugs, and spotted Tooker, bouncing an infant on the counter. He said he hopes to do cuppings in a few weeks when he has more employees, and a large stand near the front of the cafe will eventually have a express French press lane, as well as individual presses for different coffee offerings. I almost asked if I could work there. I seriously wanted to hop over the counter and go to town on one of those Mistrals, just try working with a real machine for once, and see how I could do. Instead, after mumbling about the coffee offerings, I asked about the Clover, whether he'd want one here after having it at Ritual.

"I hated the Clover," he said. "Made it taste too much like tea."

After that, with the coffee and espresso starting to kick in, I felt an overwhelming urge to run the 2-miles back to my office, and took my coffee in a cup to go. (This feeling didn't wear off anytime soon, in fact, it's more than 12 hours later as I'm tying this, unable to sleep, at 2a.m.)

This is a nice cafe and if it does develop into a place where coffee aficionados can come by and learn more about the beans they buy, develop their cupping skills, and try some excellent coffees in ways they haven't before, then Four Barrel will certainly stand out among the budding crowd of specialty roasters here in the SF Bay.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Coffee at Slow Food Nation

For those of you, my dear readers, who are blessed to live in the Bay area, take heed and try and venture to Slow Food Nation next weekend - Aug. 29-Sept. 1. A festival dedicated to sustainable food.

Of particular interest will be the coffee pavilion, which will: "showcase a broad variety of coffees that exemplify the preeminent role of the coffee grower in producing outstanding quality and flavor."

Roasters providing the beans will include the big boys in the specialty trade such as Ecco Caffè, Intelligentsia, Ritual, Terroir, Barefoot, Counter Culture, Olympia, Stumptown, Verve and Zoka. Should be a great way to taste some excellent coffees and meet some producers. For more info, click here

Confrerie des Vignerons de Oisly et Thesee, 2007 Les Gourmet Sauvignon

I was hanging out at Whole Food's wine section the other day, trying to find a nice, dry white for around $10 or so. I was crouched down holding two French offerings in my hands, when a clerk recommended the Confrerie des Vignerous Oisly & Thesee Touraine. "Some wines our distributors make us carry, but this isn't one of them," he said. "And for $8.99, it's an amazing deal." Sold!
This was a really nice white wine from France's Touraine region, which is in the center of the Loire valley.

On the nose, pear and tropical fruit. In the mouth, this wine wants to be effervescent, but it's not quite there. Strong fresh green pepper taste. A really nice light, dry white with some interesting flavor components, and I'd agree that at $8.99, it's definitely worth picking up. I had this wine before dinner, with olive oil-drenched bread and cheese.

This was a good sipper and a great value.

Barefoot Roaster's Ethiopian Harrar Illili Darartu

In a French press, there is a chocolaty impression in the mouth, which leads into a grapefruit flavor. A bit of nuttiness then comes through -- perhaps hazelnut? Finishes with a coconut component.

In a pour over, there is a syrupy sweetness on the nose, very strong and almost cherry-like, with milk chocolate hidden underneath. Nuttiness in the mouth, almost buttery in consistency. Fruit shines through, citrus flavors again, less grapfruit than in the French press, but these don't overwhelming the other components in your mouth. Light finish.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Latte Art

There was an article in the Wall Street Journal last week about the growing interest in making latte art at home. Basically latte art is making designs in your cappuccino by pouring the foam/milk in a particular way. You'll find a little leaf-pattern or heart shape in your cup at most good cafes. Latte art doesn't indicate anything about the quality of coffee beans used to make the drink, but it's a little flourish baristas use to show off their talent with the milk. I've been working on my latte art skills for at least a year now, even going so far as to replace the stock steam wand on my espresso machine from a bulky plastic extension piece to an all-metal, smaller nozzle wand that comes on the more expensive Rancilio Silvia espresso machine. (The wand from Ms. Silvia, as the coffee geek community calls her, is better at producing micro-foam, or foam with tiny air bubbles, versus a messy froth, that's required to pour good latte art).

As the WSJ article indicates, it's a frustrating process, with results maddeningly inconsistent, despite what seems to be the exact same process time and time again. The picture above is my latte art creation from the weekend. It's not pretty, but it's better than most of the amoeba-like blobs I get on a regular basis. My best results come when I use whole milk (Clover brand has worked the best for me lately) and get the tip of the wand just under the surface at an angle, so the steam forces the milk to swirl around the pitcher. As the foam starts to build, I slowly tilt the pitcher at a greater angle to keep the steam blowing right below the surface of the milk.

After attempting to get micofoam, you should bang the pitcher on the table a few times to burst any large air bubbles. Swirl the pitcher as well, since this will integrate the microfoam and milk and make it easier to pour a steady stream into the espresso.

Pouring the actual art is a whole separate act that's as difficult as getting microfoam. From my intense study of baristas in area cafes and checking out demonstrations on youtube, I've learned it helps to have the cup's edge closest to your body tilted down slightly, and pour the milk/foam at that bottom side. After pouring the milk in, you'll notice a little plume created. This indicates it's time to start rocking your hand back and forth to make the pattern. As you do this, the pattern you create moves across the cup away from you, so keep this in mind when you pour. It's why I start at the edge closer to me, instead of the middle of the cup, because it gives me more room to mess around.

I'm still working on getting the pour right, and since I only make one cappuccino a day in the morning (when I'm tired and my hands are as steady as they would be after drinking the cappuccino) my results have been less than stellar.

Anyway, if you have any tips you've learned in your pursuit of latte art, or would like to share something you've made, feel free to post a picture in the comments.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Sol Rouge 2006 Lake County Cabernet Sauvignon

This is one big wine. I was hesitant to purchase it at first because I fished around online and all the reviews I found mentioned how powerful the tannins were. I don't have a wine cellar, so at the most, I'd probably save it for a year or two, waiting for some special night to open it. But I didn't want a wine that would take decades before I could drink it and potentially spoil because of unideal storing conditions. I e-mailed the winery about it, and Bryan Kane, one of the owners, responded:

"It's a bigger, more structured wine than my Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon or Beckstoffer To Kalon Cabernet Sauvignon and will most likely out live both (according to the Sommeliers who tasted it blind side-by-side this last weekend). It will last a good 10-15 years."

However, he also said its drinkable now, as long as you let it decant for a few hours (he lets it decant overnight before serving it to the trade). So I purchased two bottles from The Wine Spies for $27 each.

I actually met Bryan earlier this year at the ZAP festival in San Francisco -- an annual event that specializes in zinfandels. At that event I liked their 2006 Barbieri Vineyard Russian River Valley Zin. It really stood out among the hundreds of wines there as something special. After the harvest, the owner of the land decided to rip the vines up, so this was the last time anyone could get this particular bottle of wine. It retails for about $39.

When I saw a Sol Rouge offering on The Wine Spies, I figured it's time I jump in and try some of their non-Zin offerings.

Last night my friends Rob & Liz invited us over for dinner, so I brought one bottle, eager to see how it would turn out.

I popped the cork when I got there, and asked Rob for a carafe or some container to put the wine in to air out for a bit before we ate. All he had was a large French press, which I said would work fine (Rob pointed out how perfect that image is for my blog - I'll need to start putting more wine in coffee apparatuses and start snapping away!)

I put the French press outside to cool, since all the cooking was making their apartment warm. We were in the Berkeley Hills, and the fog was rolling up over the front of the yard and onto the porch where the wine-filled glass container sat on a stool.

About an hour later dinner was served, and a first bottle of wine was finished. I wanted to give the Cab some more time outside, but we decided to dive in.

Initially, I didn't get much on the nose. Whether it was because was too chilled, lacked enough decanting, or muted because of the strong Indian spices in the plate in front of me, I just couldn't pick out any noticeable scents. It was dark purple in color, very dense in appearance.

Despite not smelling much in the glass, in the mouth the wine easily makes itself known. Loads of blackberries, some red fruits as well. Mouth-staining tannins. Rob, who hadn't tried the wine yet, looked at Liz and I and said ``Cabernet Sauvignon turns people into vampires, and you guys are definitely there.''

I was very impressed with this wine. Yes, it has strong tannins, but they're not harsh and overpowering. The wine is nicely balanced, with several layers of complexity and a long, long finish accentuated again by blackberries and the tannins. As the night wore on, and the wine had more time to breath, I started getting a woody-cedar scent on the nose.

This thing could definitely age for years, and at the price, is certainly a blockbuster deal. It tastes like a wine at least twice its price, and you can really tell the quality and care that went into making it on the first sip. I was sad that this bottle went so fast, because it's one of those wines you just want to swirl, sniff and sip for a while to really appreciate it. Luckily, I have that second bottle stashed away for some later date.

According to a blurb on Sol Rouge's site, the wine comes from grapes grown at high elevations ranging from 1800 feet to 2600 feet.

Sol Rouge, which means red soil in French, gets its name from the red volcanic soil where the family-owned vineyard is located, north of Napa Valley in the foothills of the volcano which forms the North Coast wine country. The 70 acre estate, between Mt. Konocti and Benson Ridge in the Red Hills Appellation, is planted with Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah, Counoise, Petite Syrah, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc, with plans to add Cinsault.

Definitely try this wine, or any other of their offerings, if you get a chance.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Tasting at Farmstead

Farmstead Cheeses & Wines is a nice little shop in Alameda that specializes in artisan cheeses and boutique wines. They have a wine tasting every Saturday that's $3 for a flight of some interesting and different wines, with the fee waved if you buy a bottle.

Here are my notes from the tasting yesterday:

Lazy Creek 2007 Anderson Valley Rose of Pinot Noir

sweet nose, honeysuckle (I also smelled petuli, but it could have just been someone's perfume next to me). Tasted like strawberries, nice light fruit.

Talley Vineyards Arroyo Grande Valley Chardonnay

A little oak on the nose, not heavy though. nice sweet and tart fruits in the mouth. The guy pouring the wines said it had minerality, so of course after hearing that, I tasted it.

Lang & Reed 2006 Cabernet Franc

Strong black peppercorns and fresh green peppers on the nose. Great fruit in the mouth, black cherries, lingering tannins.

Moliss Barbera D'Asti 2004
This wine had a certain funk on the nose. Sort of like blue cheese mold. Not a bad thing, I like blue cheese a lot, so this was attractive. The server though didn't seem to like this description. He poured some, sniffed, and called it ``sweaty.'' Maybe it was more earthy than funk, I said. He seemed satisfied with that. In the mouth this wine tasted a bit like cranberries, with other dark red fruits. Long lasting tannins.

He also poured the 2005 version of this wine, and it tasted completely different. If I had tasted it blind, I would have thought it was a Syrah. Much fruiter in the nose and in the mouth. No funk at all.

Red & Green 2003 Tip Top Vineyard Syrah, Napa Valley

Strong burnt rubber on the nose. Overrides the fruit. In the mouth, loads of cherries.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Barefoot's Guatemala Nahuala 2008

Am drinking this coffee right now, about two days after it was roasted. You can tell the beans still need to settle a bit. Most coffee beans need to settle for several days after being roasted before becoming ideal for grinding and brewing, but I didn't want to wait to try this coffee again after being treated yesterday by Barefoot's owner, Andy Newbom.

Still, this is a pretty cup. Grounds right out of the grinder have intensely sweet smell, almost like a candied-apple. That flavor carries over into the aroma and cup. Its a very sweet drink, almost like a syrupy sweet fruit taste. Imagine you make a fruit salad with apples, berries and peaches, and let it sit in a bowl in your fridge for a few days. The juice at the bottom of that bowl is sort of the kind of sweetness in this cup of coffee. After the the initial, and long-lingering sweetness subsides, there's a bit of apple juice component, and then it finishes with a dark-chocolately bitterness. Maybe bitterness isn't the right word, because this coffee is anything but. There's just a flavor left in your mouth that's sort of like what you would taste after eating high quality dark chocolate - like 75% cacao or more dark, with a fruity tinge. It's a very satisfying cup. I'm looking forward to seeing how it changes over the next week.

Barefoot's Website has a lot of info on the Nahuala co-op where the coffee comes from. Centered in Pasac, Guatemala, the co-op has at least 127 member families ( puts the number at 135) that grow their coffees under the cover of dense forest, which the co-op has worked to restore to the area.

The farms are around 4,500 feet above sea level, with an average temperature of 72 degrees. The soil is loamy-sanded, according to Barefoot. The variety of beans grown on the 65 hectare area are Caturra, Cattui, Bourbon. Annual production is close to 70 kilos.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Yalumba 2006 Barossa Shiraz & Viognier

This is a 95% Shiraz/5% Viognier mix. Went to's shop in Berkeley (yes, they have actual shops you can visit) and told them I was looking for something not new world. Something perhaps more restrained, something that doesn't scream BIG FRUIT and high alcohol. For some reason she suggested this wine. I asked, really, a shiraz from Australia? She backtracked a bit, but said it is something different. Cost, $11.99.

So how did it turn out? The wine has a nice, dark, crimson color. Whiffs of a cedar box (almost a little minty), with plums and cherries. There was some sort of earthy scent, maybe like moss? I couldn't really pin it down, but it was part of the woody-cedar smell. In the mouth I got nice red berries, ripe raspberries, and plums initially. However, alcohol (cool, not hot) really rears up halfway through a sip and destroys the finish. It's like you're drinking this wonderful berry drink, and all of a sudden your mouth is filled with a too-strong mixed drink. Tannins linger after the alochol wears off.

This was really disappointing because the wine most of the way through is very lovely. Really nice red fruits throughout the palate, but that alcohol on the finish really abruptly takes control. I wanted the fruit to linger a bit longer. Oh well.

I might buy this wine again because it is so nice until that point, and, given the price, it's hard to find many other wines with such complexity on the nose and initial mouthfeel, but if I do have it again, I'll probably pair it with a juicy, peppery steak, or something the alcohol could cut through.

Barefoot Coffee Roasters

Two guys from San Jose-based Barefoot Coffee Roasters came to our company office today to explain a bit about what they do and to show off some of their offerings, in hopes that we will switch our current beans to theirs.

If want to have a better understanding of the difference between regular coffee and specialty coffee, and get a sense of the real-world effect of creating a market for carefully grown beans, talk to either Andy Newbom, Barefoot's founder and owner, or Tony Serrano, a "Coffee Wrangler" according to his business card. Their passion for coffee and the farmers they buy beans from is highly infectious.

Andy talked about his travels through South America visiting farmers and forging relationships to buy beans directly. Tony talked about how coffee plants grown hundreds of yards apart could taste very different when picked, roasted and brewed just based on terroir. And it was noticeable to everyone who tried the coffees.

They made four different coffees for us, and the reaction from co-workers was great. "Wow, it's so sweet you don't even need to add milk or sugar!" said one. Tony said that's one of the things he likes to hear best from people. That sentiment is a realization that coffee doesn't have to be cheap, over-roasted swill that need to be polluted with milk and sugar to make it palpable.

The two coffees that made the biggest impression were a Guatemalan Nahuala and an Ethiopian Harrar Illili Darartu. Both were sweet, perfumed cups, with the Nahuala bringing more of a citrus, fruity nose and taste on the tongue, and the Harrar, a natural, or dry processed coffee, having a rich berry scent and strong mid-palate punch of red berries.

I love natural, or dry-processed coffees. Coffee beans grow on trees, in fruits called cherries. Most coffee that you'll have comes from a washed process, where the cherries are picked, and then removed to reveal the coffee bean inside. This process will give the coffee a "brighter" flavor, meaning that it has a little more acidity and hit you with a tang on the front of your tongue. Dry processed coffees are from cherries that are picked then allowed to dry out for a few weeks with the coffee bean inside. This gives the beans a unique taste and flavor profile not found in washed coffees as it absorbs more of the flavor from the fruit itself. These coffees have a deeper flavor, they seem to hit more notes on the back of your tongue than washed coffees. For a lot more info on the different ways of processing coffee cherries, check out this page.

Dry processed coffees can easily turn out bad beans if the drying conditions aren't ideal. Typically they are left to dry in the sun, outside. If there is too much moisture in the air or on the ground, the beans will become mildewy, thus giving the beans a funky, unpleasant flavor. So roasters have a hard time sourcing dry processed beans that are consistently good. These beans, however, didn't suffer from this problem.

It was great to be able to hang out with these guys and just talk coffee for an hour, but what was even better was being able to get other people excited about coffee as well. Someone walks by, and you ask them to try some coffee, they look skeptical and uninterested, but they do anyway, and 20 minutes later, they've learned a little bit about where the coffee came from, why it tastes so radically different from every other coffee they've ever had, and they leave with a new sense of interest in single-estate coffee. What a fun way to spend an afternoon.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Trader Joe's 2006 Petite Verdot Reserve, Passo Robles

Purchased at Trader Joe's for $9.99. This clocks in at 13.9% alcohol. I really was looking forward to trying this wine, because Petite Verdot is a unique grape to find bottled on its own, and it's one of my favorites. Plus the price was great. However, I didn't really like this particular bottle, as it had some funky things going on and seemed out of balance.

In the glass, the wine was a dark cranberry in color. Vanilla dominates the nose, it was so strong in fact that it overshadowed some of the berry notes hiding underneath. Tasting it really threw me. The first thing I got was heavy heavy soap! I traveling for a story I was covering, and thought at first my glass just had some soap residue, so I dumped my glass, washed it, and poured some more. Nope, still there. I figured I just didn't wash it well enough, and went to bed. The next few days I had the wine again, this time at home, but that dish soap taste was still in the wine. After that taste subsides, the raspberries come out, and there are slight tannins on the back end, but overall, I couldn't get past that initial flavor.

I'm not sure if it was just my bottle, or the vintage as a whole, so I e-mailed the winery that grew the grapes and bottled the wine, Ancient Peaks Winery.

I asked about how the wine was made, because Petite Verdot is known for its dark color and strong tannins. In fact the varietal is one of France's five "noble grapes," or the grapes approved to be used to make Bordeaux wine. It is typically used in small amounts to give wines a deeper, darker color, and a stronger tannic structure.

Karl F. Wittstrom, the winery's co-owner, responded within a few days with a lengthy e-mail, which was really nice, and informative. Here's what he said:

"There are three major components that affect wine making; soil, climate, and people (i.e. the winemaker and his staff). In the case of the Trader Joes Reserve Petite Verdot, it was grown on a south easterly facing slope in highly calcareous soil on the Santa Margarita Ranch. The Margarita Vineyards are the southernmost Vineyard in the Paso Robles American Viticulture Area (AVA). The soil is littered with giant petrified oysters shells this soil has a very significant effect on the flavor profile and the ultimate quality of the wine.

"Climate is also very important; the weather at the Margarita Vineyards is also somewhat unique the vineyard is nestled against at the base of the Santa Lucia mountain Range near the Cuesta Grade, just 14 miles from the Pacific Ocean. The vineyards proximity to the ocean causes it to be the coolest vineyards in the AVA in terms of degree days. This factor makes for a longer growing season and extended hang time. The extended hang time allows the grapes to reach phenolic maturity without the usual associated higher alcohols. Lastly comes the winemaker and his staff, in this case our winemaker is Mike Sinor he is one of the Central Coast most Highly rated winemakers he and his diligent staff have very exact standards and processes. But even he will tell you most of the flavors and complexities that make a wine unique come from the Vineyard."

Petite Verdot isn't a common grape in California, though you can find it from small producers. According to the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, less than 1.2 percent of the more than 19,000 acres by alliance members in the Paso Robles AVA were planted with Petite Verdot grapes last year. In California as a whole, Petite Verdot ranked 13th among types of red wine grapes that were crushed in 2007, with 9,313 tons crushed (compared with Cabernet Sauvignon's 422,545 tons), according to The Wine Institute.

It's always interesting to try new kinds of wine, and if you happen to come across a Petite Verdot in the store or winery, it's definitely worth giving a shot. I've had some really nice ones in the past few years, and will continue to buy it despite my experience with this one. In fact I might even buy another bottle of TJ's Petite Verdot Reserve to make sure I just didn't get a bad bottle the first time.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Last Days of Esmeralda

I'm finishing up my bag of Esmeralda from Price Peterson's farm in Panama, roasted by George Howell of Terroir Coffee, and it is certainly sad. I love this coffee. Every sip just makes me happy. I have been grinding my beans at home, then brewing them in a pour-over at the office about 30-minutes later.

Berries, berries, berries. That's the first thing you taste on the tip of your tongue. In the middle of your palate, as the liquid rolls around your mouth, there's a buttery softness to it. On the back end of your mouth, toward the finish, there's that slight dark chocolate bitterness. Nothing like "normal" coffee, more just a hint of it.

I'm sure people at work think I'm a freak for sniffing my coffee mug repeatedly, then sipping it slowly with my eyes closed. But it's so damn good, it's worth it.

Up next, an Ethiopian Sidamo from Ritual Roasters, which promises "unreal sweetness" on its label. I'll get into it the next couple of days as I pull shots with it, try it in a French press, and use it in my pour-over.

Monday, August 11, 2008

2005 Edition Maximilian Pinot Noir, Rheingau

Bought this German Pinot Noir at Trader Joe's for a few bucks. I've shied away from American Pinots because it seems like only bottles costing more than $40 are any good (thanks, Sideways!) and I'm always up for trying something new, especially if it's cheap, so a Pinot Noir from Germany sounded about right. Plus I've had some amazing finds at Trader Joe's in the under $10/import aisle, including some mind-blowing Italian wines for about $5, which I'll detail in later posts.

This wine, however, was not one of those finds. It's god awful stuff, actually. The nose is a super-sweet red grape scent. If you've ever been to a vineyard, and walked near the grapes, you know this smell. In the mouth, it tastes like some sort of diet-grape juice. Again, super-sweet, almost like sweetener, and a light version of grape juice, without the heft of real sugar, or added sugar, that you taste when you taste grape juice. Alcohol is low, less than 12%, if I recall, and it's just lacking completely from the glass. Normally, a low alcohol level is a plus in a world of super high alcohol content wines, but this one is too deflated.

After that bad experience, I put the bottle back on my wine rack and decided to try it again the next day. Still not any better. The profound sweetness was a tad turned down, but overall, the wine sucked. I drank another glass trying to convince myself that maybe there's more there than my initial impression, but I just couldn't find anything redeeming about it. Used it to make a wine sauce for chicken the third night, and that was ok.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Les Caves Joseph 2006 Bordeaux Blanc

50% Sauvignon Blanc, 50% Sémillon. Picked it up at Trader Joe's for about $7. I'm not a white wine drinker, but it's been so hot in Oakland this summer, I've been dipping my toe in the white wine water, so to speak. I've read on and on and on about how white Bordeaux is so amazing, so I started cheap.

This wine is really nice - on the nose, coconut, citrus, and Caribbean fruits. In the mouth, soft lime flavors, a little bit of spice in the middle, and a smooth finish. Had it with cheese and fruits today, and before dinner. Was really nice, I'd definitely buy another bottle, for the price.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Some Italian Wines...

Had dinner at Perbacco in San Francisco tonight.... really great menu, amazing wine list. We first had the 2006 Lacrima di Morro d’Alba, Gavigliano, Luciano Landi. The nose had a distinct scent of orange-tangerine and honey-suckle. Also a bit floral. In the mouth, dark fruits, with tannins kicking in toward the middle. A really pretty wine, and at $36 at the restaurant, it's probably available a lot cheaper in stores. Definitely a value buy.

The second wine we had was a Barolo, the 2003 Vietti Barolo Castiglione. Another winner. Paid $76 at the restaurant. First impression was how light in color the wine was - almost like a pinot noir. Was wondering if it could really have the body and floral accents that Barolos are known for. It definitely did - again, beautiful nose, very floral. In the mouth there was lots of fruit, and then powerful lingering tannins that puckers the mouth.

Nossa Senhora de Fatima

Brazilian coffee roasted by Blue Bottle in San Francisco. I must say, I'm continually dissapointed with the beans I get from Blue Bottle. The small company draws huge crowds to its tiny stand in Hayes Valley all week long, and I love getting espressos and cappuccinos there myself. The company's Mint Plaza cafe is also a monster draw, especially after the NYT profiled it for a $20,000 siphon machine it imported from Japan to make coffee. The place has become a mecca for foodies, as well as coffee geeks, for the machinery, expertise and offerings. One of the best shots of espresso I've ever had came from Blue Bottle - during the Golden Glass wine & food event in San Francisco a few months ago, Blue Bottle brought two machines - a La Marzocco GS/3, the holy grail of home-use espresso machines, and a manual machine, who's manufacturer is slipping my mind. Manual means the barista pulls a lever that dictates how much water goes through the grounds. It takes considerable skill to be able to make a good shot with a lever machine, and this one certainly showcased both the barista's skill and the quality of the beans. It was an Ethiopian coffee from Misty Valley (what an evocative name) and it was so sweet, perfumed and delicious, that I made my non-coffee drinking friend try it, and even he was surprised at how exotic good single-origin espresso could taste.

So, that being said...This coffee, the Nossa Senhora de Fatima....just isn't up to par. The beans look like they've been roasted very dark, and as a result, most of the flavor profile is something other than what you might expect from a quality single-origin coffee. It should taste smoother, have some fruit flavors. Instead, it tastes like a cross between rubber and pencil led. Yuk. The best thing I can say about this coffee is that it takes milk well, and in a cappuccino, you don't notice the bad flavors as much. It tastes more like dark chocolate. Well, maybe baking chocolate, the really bitter stuff. But diluted with milk.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

A Bit About My Set Up

When I first started obsessing over espresso and coffee, about two years ago, I wanted to buy some machines that would allow me to make exceptional stuff but not drain my wallet at the same time.

After researching and investigating numerous machines, I settled on a Gaggia Carezza, a machine praised for its high quality innards and cheap price (I think I paid around $150 for it, a lot cheaper than the recommended "first" machine most people say to get, the Rancilio Silvia, which I now see is selling for close to $700). When I say innards, I mean the Gaggia has the same internal pipping, wires and other goodies that much more expensive machines have. The reason it's so cheap is its plastic body; pricier machines have heavy steel bodies, and some extra doodads that might matter if you were going to make a lot of espresso drinks in a row, but not so important for someone at home making a shot or two for himself.

Choosing a grinder is also important, in fact, many people say the key to making good espresso is having a good grinder. A whirly blade machine won't get the grounds fine enough. You want a machine with burrs, to grind the beans, not chop them, and a large motor, which allows the burrs to spin slower, and thus prevent the grinds from heating up too much during the process.

I went with the controversial KitchenAid Pro Line Burr Coffee Mill because an initial review on gave it a good rating, it looks great, and supposedly did a good job at grinding beans for numerous uses, from turkish (finer than espresso) to French press.

Both have worked well for me for two years. If I had the money, I'd splurge on this beauty, the Gaggia Achille, a manual machine that requires you to pump the water through the grounds. Now that's hardcore.


Opened up a new bottle of wine last night, and it just sucked. This morning, pulled a shot of some new coffee beans, and it tasted awful. Not a good way to start a day. I'll go into more details on each in later posts, when I've recovered somewhat. I hate throwing away food and wine, and I'll give each another chance, but my week of coffee and wine drinking don't look promising.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Wine and Food

My friend Liz suggested yesterday that I add more details on this blog about what foods might go well with the wines I review. This is kinda hard for me because I don't really match food with wines at home. I drink mostly reds (probably about 90%, though as we have had several heat waves in the Bay area so far this summer, the number of roses and whites has increased), and I have a glass or two almost every night. Since I'm the only one in my house who drinks wine, this means I'll open a bottle and enjoy it over the next few days. Meanwhile, we'll have a variety of meals in that time that don't necessarily match what I'm drinking.

Even at restaurants, I'll usually start with the wine list, seeing if there's anything I haven't had or something random that sounds interesting, and then I'll look at main menu and choose something independent of what I'm drinking.

In general, I know that some wines go better with some foods -- full-bodied cab or syrah with steak, lighter wines such as a pinot noir with chicken -- that doesn't mean you can't mix it up. Plus, just because some people say there's a right wine for a particular food doesn't mean it's necessarily true. I have red wine with fish all the time, there's no reason why that is wrong because I enjoy it. And that's the real key.

One of the best wine blogs out there, Vinography, had a post calling food and wine pairings "a big scam."

Sometimes I'll order the wine pairings at restaurants, because I really am curious about the pairings, or see it as a way to try a bunch of different wines during the course of the meal instead of committing to one glass (or one bottle). Yeah, I'm fickle like that.

But that can backfire. During a dinner at the highly praised restaurant 1300 at Fillmore in February, I went with the chef's tasting menu and the wine pairings. The wines all looked great on paper, they were a diverse group, all small production wines that I haven't seen in stores. But each one was never brought out with its intended meal, leaving me sitting staring at some yummy dishes for 10s of minutes until one of the waiters remembered that I had a wine coming. I could chalk this up to a busy night if this happened once, maybe twice, but if I recall, it happened with almost every course.

My second issue was that all the red wines were extremely warm. Like too warm to drink. When wine gets too hot, you tend to lose a lot of the flavors. You taste alcohol as it evaporates, and not the layers of flavors the wine might have. It was so bad I was actually putting chunks of ice cubes in some of the glasses.

Since I was ordering single glasses that were poured from the bar, instead of a bottle stored in their wine fridge, there was no recourse that I could see.

Finally, I've never had a eureka moment when I was like "Wow, this food is sooo much better with this wine." Sure, they might go well together, but nothing I've experienced has ever convinced me that particular wines highlight/enlighten/embolden/compliment a meal so much so that I've remembered the match and wanted to have it again.

I'm not the only one that's had a bad experience with wine pairing dinners. The Wall Street Journal wine reviewers wrote a whole column about their awful experience in NYC doing this. Basically, they were ignored by the staff, and treated like boobs who didn't know that the "T" in merlot is silent.

I don't avoid wine pairings altogether, but after my experience, and the one I read about in the WSJ, I'm much more wary about ordering it when I see it on the menu. What's more fun is trying tastes of different wines on the menu to determine which one you want with your meal.

At Five Fifty-Five in Portland, Maine, I had a wonderful experience tasting several offerings on the wine list when each of the chef's tasting menu was served. The waitress was extremely knowledgeable and friendly, and we traded ideas and tasting notes about each bottle before settling on a different glass for each plate.

Being able to sample several wines next to each course allowed me to pick one that felt right with the food, or more accurately, one that I felt like having at that exact moment.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Spellbound 2004 Petite Sirah, Lodi

I had this wine New Year's eve this past winter at a hotel restaurant in Pittsburgh, a night before a cross-country flight. It was delicious and was probably the most enjoyable part of the evening (think infant grabbing at sharp knives, th table cloth, everything within reach and complaining loudly when she couldn't have them. Rhonda and I had to eat one at a time, turned away from Teagan so she couldn't see what was in our hands and mouths, otherwise she'd reach for it and scream when she didn't get it).

Anyway, back in California, I haven't seen it anywhere, which is weird since it's a California producer. Then this summer on a trip to the east coast to visit family, we stopped at the Big Red Liqour barn on the New Hampshire state line, and lo and behold, there's the Spellbound. Bought it for around $13, I think.

Just opened it up this week, and after decanting a bit, I got a lot of vanilla, or vanilla bean, on the nose. Really strong scent. There was also some hints of tobacco and oak. In the mouth, an immediate explosion of blackberries, followed by spice, and a finish of strawberries. The tannins are nice, they coat your mouth completely but don't overwhelm.

I wanted to find out more about the wine and winery, but the website doesn't have much info.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

La Esperanza

Went to Ritual Roasters today in San Francisco. One of the city's best cafes, with an extensive list of single-estate grown coffees from around the world. This is the place that popped my coffee cherry, so to speak. I went there a couple of years ago because I heard the coffee was good. It was there that I had my first real espresso, saw what latte art was all about, and discovered hipster-central. (I had been drinking "espresso" for years, but nothing as good as what Ritual serves.)

So this morning I had a cup of La Esperanza from Colombia, made in their clover machine, a $15,000 contraption that was hailed as a wonderful machine by all the indie cafes for inventing a new way to make coffee, until Starbucks bought the company, and opinion has since turned.

The coffee had a weird flavor I couldn't place. Not exactly pleasant, but not that burnt-rubber flavor from over roasting. It was more....pencil led. Yes, pencil led, and shavings - sort of a woody flavor. That taste eventually mellowed as the cup cooled, and then it was more lime-citrus, followed by a buttery taste.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Finding Good Cafes

Defining what a good cafe is can be a little tricky. If you just want a nice spot to relax, people watch and drink something warm, than a nice location, big windows and comfy chairs are all you need. But if you want to really enjoy your coffee, it takes a little more looking.

For espresso, you want to find a place that's really loud from constant grinding. If the baristas aren't grinding the beans for each shot, then they've probably grinded them all ahead of time and let them sit there, loosing all their freshness and flavor. (I know, because I used to do this a long time ago, in my pre-coffee geek days, when I worked for a Seattle's Best stand on my college campus). Also, if the espresso machine has lots of buttons and doesn't require the barista to do some work to actually make the espresso and froth the milk, then you might want to steer clear.

Whenever I get espresso from these super-automatic machines, it tastes watered down, as if it's programmed to pressure more water through the grinds than necessary to fill a desired amount (instead of eyeballing the shot as it's made with a semi-automatic machine, which allows the barista to stop the flow at the right time).

Whenever I see a La Marzocco, the Ferarri of the espresso world, I get tingles. These beautiful metal machines are expensive and usually indicate some sort of consciousness on the part of the owner of what good espresso should be (of course, buying cheap beans or having unskilled workers can ruin it).

But don't be fooled by the machine itself. On a trip to Santa Clara for a tech conference I was sent to cover, I needed some espresso to wake me up. I walked into the posh hotel cafe and saw a brass Victoria Arduino Venus. Tears of joy filled my cheeks. This massive beast is just a gorgeous machine, shiny and huge, topped with an eagle with her wings spread out on top. They cost thousands of dollars, aren't easily found (in cafes) and are a symbol of craftsmanship and good espresso.

Unfortunately, the "barista" didn't grind the beans fresh, didn't look like she knew how to tamp it correctly before putting the portafilter in the device, and the beans themselves were really dark. As a result, it tasted like burnt rubber. Yum! such a disappointment.

A nice touch by baristas to show off their skills is latte art, or etching patterns on the foam with milk. Latte art doesn't add anything to the taste of the espresso drink, it's just a little reminder that this cup is something special, that a little extra effort went into making it.

As for the coffee end of things, don't drink coffee from those glass carafe makers. The coffee's been sitting in that thing for god knows how long, and the burner underneath it actually scorches the coffee. It's bad, people, don't do it.

Better - metal thermoses filled with coffee that are changed regularly (some places claim to change it every 20min, every hour, etc).

Best - each cup made fresh to order, either in a french press, or in a pour over - a simple, cheap way of getting the right temperature water (around 200 degrees) on the grinds.

It also helps when the cafe has some sort of info about the coffee itself - like where it came from, how it was produced, etc. Some places will list coffees by the estates where they were produced. This is probably your best bet of getting good coffee.

Whenever I travel, I try ahead of time to figure out where the good cafes are. I'll check CoffeeGeek's forum on cafe reviews and search it for whatever town or city I'm visiting. Googling can also work.