Wine column no. 33: Bringing people together in good times and bad

It's strange to think of all that's true -- and that part of what makes it true -- is because of wine.
Like when Alfred Zepeda and Albert Elias laughingly confessed that being an alter boy in Los Angeles "was the only way you could get wine without having to pay for it."
Or when Harold Slappy, a buoyant "91 years of age," said he mixed wine with gin during the Prohibition, before he saw Ella Fitzgerald perform at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem.
And then there's Manny Diaz. He turned grapes thrown onto the sidewalk into wine his family traded for a whole pig that fed 10 families in his New York tenament house -- during the Depression.
"There was no surplus food program in those days," he told StoryCorps, an independent non-profit organization that records interviews with ordinary people like you, me and Greg, so that people like us can honor those who came before us.
Yet somehow, Manny said, the U.S. Army used to send in trucks occasionally to dump fruits and vegetables onto the streets or sidewalks. And the day Manny and his neighbors all looked forward to
was the day the trucks came in and dumped grapes.
"Oh yeah! Oh yeah!" Manny recalled to his friend, Blanca Vazquez, at http://storycorps.org. "The grapes are here! The grapes are here! Everybody used to run, with the baby carriage, with push carts, with pillow cases, to pick up the grapes that were dumped by the U.S. Army trucks. And then we would bring those grapes home, and this was during Prohibition, mind you. And we would put the grapes in the bathtub, crush them, and then go to Woolworths on 116th Street, where you could pick up the burlap bag to cover the grapes, the yeast, the sugar ... so we would cover this bathtub, and let it sit for about a month, which is what it takes to ferment."
What happened if they needed to take a bath? Well, Manny and his family would just use someone else's bathtub in the tenament, since this was a neighborhood that was used to sharing -- and to trading, to be more exact.
"We produced wine in the middle of the Depression, and we would sell a quart of wine for 25 cents, and we would give wines to our neighbors," Manny told Blanca. "In exchange, we would get other things from them. For instance, there was an Italian seaman ... He would buy a whole pig. Then we would go up to the rooftop and roast that pig. And everybody ate from that building with that pig. So everybody ate the pig from the Italian guy, and everybody drank the wine from the Diaz family. In a sense, that's how you survived through a Depression -- you know, when everybody's poor and nobody feels poor."
That's when everyone feels connected, too. It struck us, when our friend Jennifer Farless told us about StoryCorps, just how much even a simple bottle of wine can be a common thread, whether it's to celebrate, to trade, or to just try something you've never had before.
There's a winery out in Oregon that seems to believe in that connection, too. It's called Brooks Wine, and it's very small. It was founded in 1998 by Jimi Brooks, a Portland native who was trained in
the Beaujolais region of France, before he died suddenly, leaving his family to take up the mantle. Now, his son, Pascal, who looks to be about 13, has his own "corner" on the www.brookswine.com website, and the strength of that connection, in the form of an essay about his
summer, is that it's personal.
You're not looking at a conglomeration of wine brands when you read Pascal's words; you're not thinking of net profts. Instead, you learn how he spent about a third of his summer money on a U.S. Open hat, only to regretfully lose it later on to some strong Hawaiian winds. That one of his summer jobs was to light fireworks within view of Mt. Hood, there in Oregon, on the property used to make his family's wine. And that he values -- really values -- his family: His uncle, his aunt, his 93-year-old great-grandmother.
So think of all of this when you open a bottle of the 2009 Brooks Janus Pinot Noir, which we found wasn't necessarily fruity. This Willamette Valley creation with 13.8 percent alcohol had body and silky substance, earth, and was slightly tart. It also took a while to open up in our glasses. It was something that took a bit of time to appreciate, but that when we did, we had a better sense of what Pinot Noir could be. And we also thought about how lucky we are that we get to have it at all, for $27 from Binny's in Chicago, without having to trade part of it for a whole pig.
Jimi believed that, in order to make a good wine, you had to take good care of the vineyard. And that "what does not kill you makes you stronger and sometimes ... meaner ... but most of the time a better
human being."
What would Manny think? We're not sure. But making wine part of the story would probably be a good idea.


2010 Bogle Vineyards Chardonnay: Pineapple and some butter, round, well-balanced

may 20, 2012: greg convinced me to get frozen whole mackerel at aihua, the international market on north morgan avenue. i'd grown up eating fresh, pan-fried mackerel in st. malo, so i was game (even though this mackerel was frozen). so we got home and looked up a video on how to filet mackerel, to be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=diyVY1WTnls then greg and i filleted it, and i used this recipe: http://www.rivercottage.net/recipes/quick-fried-mackerel-fillets-with-garlic-and-bay/ to make it. it was delicious! the bay leaves and the garlic added the perfect amount of subtle flavor. this reminded me of when i was little, eating mackerel in our kitchen in st. malo, with the sea gulls squawking outside the window. the only difference between frozen mackerel and fresh mackerel, that i could find, was that the meat was a bit tougher, a bit more dense, than it is when it's fresh from the sea. so no regrets. this is a meal we'll gladly make again.

oh, and i almost forgot about the wine. greg picked up this 2010 bogle vineyards chardonnay at the north green river schnucks last night. i had chilled it, and immediately it gave off a pineapple flavor and was clean and crisp. but as it warmed up, it was slightly buttery, with a good, hefty body. we'd definitely get this again. we're partial to bogle anyway, having had several of that vineyard's wines before, but this is a good value wine. i think we bought it for under $16. 13.5 percent alcohol.


Wine column no. 32: Can't find that exact wine? No worries

Say you're reading a wine review in the Wall Street Journal, for instance. It goes on and on about a certain Montepulciano, an Italian red, that it turns out you can't get here in Evansville.
Then a few weeks later, you read another wine review -- this time online. This particular recommended wine is from a producer in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, and it's a Pinot Noir. But every time you've gone shopping for wine in the Tri-state area, you've never seen it on the shelves.
If you've had this problem, you're not alone. We won't go into the specifics of what can and cannot be sold in Indiana. But we can talk about the frustration of wanting to try a new, well-reviewed bottle of wine, only to find that there's no chance it'll ever be sold in this market.
And for those interested in pairing wine and food, these types of problems can seem like major ones. Except, they're not -- at least according to Jill Silverman Hough, a food writer and recipe developer
who wrote the book "100 Perfect Pairings: Small Plates to Enjoy With Wines You Love," which Hough says may be the first-ever food and wine pairing book that's not written for food and wine geeks. Hough's written for "Bon Appetit" and regularly teaches at a culinary school in California, and her book is aimed at pairing recipes with general varietals. That's because she, like many of us, has looked in vain for certain wines recommended by others -- only to find they are unavailable to her, too. The sentiments expressed in her comment below may sound familiar:
"Another thing that drives me crazy about most food and wine pairing books -- they recommend wines that most everyday wine drinkers have never heard of or can't afford," Hough wrote. "Or they'll mention a familiar wine, but recommend a specific producer or year. What if you can't find Robert Mondavi Winery's 2005 Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon? Guess you can't make that recipe."
Well, we're here to say kudos to Hough, because she's provided recipes for a total of 12 varietals of wine -- red, white and rose -- without having us search all over for specific producers and years.
"And every recipe in each chapter will go with every bottle of that varietal," she wrote. "Some recipes might work better with certain styles of, for example, Chardonnay, but they'll all work with
Chardonnay. If you know that your particular bottle of Chardonnay is buttery or that it's crisp, great. If not, don't worry about it. At all."
We like this philosophy. But I had to put her book to the test. So I prepared her butternut squash and pancetta soup recipe, which was absolutely delicious. And with it we paired a 2009 Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc and Viognier blend that we had purchased at Winetree for about $14. Except, I admit, I made a mistake: I didn't look closely enough at the blend percentage, and this Pine Ridge was actually more Chenin Blanc (80 percent) than Viognier (20 percent). This mattered, Hough explained, because Viognier should have been the main varietal. This white wine is generally dry (not sweet); it has medium-low to medium acidity, crispness or brightness; it has little or no tannins; it has medium to heavy weight; and it has medium to strong intensity. Hough said Viognier pairs well with dishes that have the same characteristics, and the butternut squash and pancetta soup met those requirements. Chenin Blanc, on the other hand, is a wine that is generally somewhat sweet and creamy, and since it was the majority percentage in the bottle, it was going to cast the longest shadow.
Thankfully, we had prepared some juicy chicken breasts, too, to go along with the meal, and with that food pairing, this Chenin Blanc-Viognier blend that was crisp, clean and tasted of honey and
pears was perfect, since the salt in the chicken seasoning really brought out the sweetness in the wine. 11 percent alcohol.
After learning a little about Viognier, we tried the 2009 Cline Viognier with homemade spicy General Tso's chicken, since Viognier can be a good pairing with spicy dishes. This Americanized Chinese dish isn't one of Hough's recipes, but we had a craving for something we don't usually prepare. Greg is a spicy heat addict, so I added a good amount of dried red pepper flakes to this dish, and we both liked this Viognier's reaction. This Californian from the Sonoma Coast had pineapple and peach notes, and it was smooth, overcoming the spice of the dish to provide a cool, soothing foil. The more red pepper flakes we piled on, the better this Viognier became. Plus, this bottle was
inexpensive, coming in at less than $15 at Schnucks. 13.5 percent alcohol.
Meanwhile, if you're making these meals and yet can't find these specific wine recommendations, we, like Hough, advise you not to worry.
While you may enjoy wine and food together, "perfect pairings shouldn't be some ideal that you have to strive for or that, one day, you might finally achieve," Hough wrote. "Rather, think of perfect
pairings as an arena to play in. Don't have them be a burden. Have them be something to explore and enjoy."