Ah Catawba

IMG_0481

 
 
I’m sure someone is going to write and tell me to get serious about wine and stop wasting time talking about extinct species.  However, to know where you are going, you have to understand where you’ve been.  That’s why this week’s Griffy on Wine will be looking at Catawba.
 
I know it’s hard to take Catawba seriously, especially when your bottle is from the world famous “Honeymoon Trail Winery.”   Hey folks, I don’t make up the names I just drink the wine.  For those of you who live outside New York State, the Honeymoon Trail refers to NY  State Route 104, which was once the main road leading to Niagara Falls and Lake Ontario.
 
Catawba is an original American Grape that in its day was a pillar of the American Wine industry.  Its origins and future are both obscure. At this time I think it’s only grown in three states, NY being the bulk of it.  But, in its day, Catawba was world-renowned and as popular as Champagne.  From 1825 to 1850 if you were toasting and putting on at the Ritz, you were doing it with Catawba.  Then, at about the time of the Civil War, America’s taste shifted to Norton, and Concord became the rage.
 
The most popular rendering to Catawba is “PINK” Catawba.  I’ll try and give this wine some class and call it a Rose.  The color, well, it’s PINK!  It’s pretty in pink as a Rose should be.  As for the nose, it is sweet, like driving past the PEZ factory in Orange Connecticut, or cotton candy at a fair.  Perfect for the American Palate, the wine is also quite sweet, but not syrupy.  Think of it more like a kids drink with a kick.  It does have a spicy after taste.  To be honest not a bad drink, but I’m hard pressed to call it a wine.
 
It’s funny but I was thinking no one is going to write about this wine, yet no lesser a Literary Great than Henry Wadsworth Longfellow did write about it in “Ode to Catawba Wine.” So at one time this wine wasn’t a joke, in fact it made the first commercially successful winery in America possible.  It is said if a man knows his history he will know his wines, and I’d like to believe that is true.
 
Taste and attitudes change, this much we know is true.  The Norton Concord and Catawba are all but gone, replaced by Cabernet, Merlot and Chardonnay.  We shouldn’t forget that with modern wine production techniques it is possible for these wines to find their way back to the table.  However doubtful, I’d love to see it.   Do yourself the favor of trying an American Original, you can hate it later, but it deserves a taste.
 
Let’s finish with Longfellow:
 
While pure as a spring
Is the wine I sing,
And to praise it,
one needs but name it;
For Catawba wine
Has need of no sign,
No tavern-bush to proclaim it.
 
And this Song of the Vine,
This greeting of mine,
The winds and the birds shall deliver
To the Queen of the West,
In her garlands dressed,
On the banks of the Beautiful River.
 
 

The American Palate

IMG_0213

 
 
I love reading about wine.  Recently, I have noticed a lot of references to the, “American Palate” in a number of wine reviews, and it doesn’t sound good.  This seems especially prevalent with European reviewers, who seem to hold this expression as a derogatory term, a way of putting a wine down.  “This wine was made for the American Palate, so I spit it into a bucket.”  I call on the Griffy on Wine readership to join me as we go search for the American Palate.
 
First some basics, the human sense of taste can only detect five distinct flavors: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and debatably, umami.  What’s umami you ask?  It’s a Japanese term, and it translates as “pleasant, savory taste.”  People taste umami via receptors for Glutamate, therefore scientists consider umami to be distinct from saltiness.  If you ask these same scientists what Umami taste like, they’ll say “salty,” so what the heck.
 
Given that taste is biological and not cultural, why in wine reviews do Americans get hammered for having an inferior palate?   When you consider that Americans are probably the most diverse set of people on Earth, having immigrated from all over the world from hundreds of cultures–many being European–you would think that maybe the American Palate would be seen as evolved in some way.  But the rest of the world doesn’t agree, and as Americans have yet to agree on a national sport, they haven’t really fought back.
 
Part of the problem is Americans seem to enjoy fruiter wines than people in other countries.  And of course we are primarily talking about the wines in Europe.  American wines by their nature are fruitier than European wines, and for a very good reason.  The climate in most American wine-growing regions is warmer than wine-growing areas in Europe.  That warmer climate yields a fruit that is bigger, sweeter, and more flavorful as a result. 
Now, if it’s true that American wine is fruitier and this has led to a preference for these style wines, then logic would suggest that sales of the less fruity, more tannic, and perhaps bitter wines of Europe would not sell well here in the States.  But that isn’t so.  Wines like Barolo, Bordeaux, Burgundy, and dry German Rieslings all sell extremely well in the U.S.  We are the main export market for all of these regions.  So this begs the question, what’s up with bashing of the American Palate?
 
The answer is Parkerization!  If one person could be blamed for the construct of the American Palate it would be Robert Parker.  Parker is the most influential wine critic in the world, and the Europeans hate him, especially the French.  They would sic dogs on him when he’s gone to tastings.  Some have also offered their wives and daughters to get a good review from him, and I don’t mean just for dinner.  Parker has championed the “fruit bomb” wine for most of his career.   If you want to see a great fight, forget WWE, lock Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson in a cage.
 
Could the American Palate be a result of a drink introduced in March 24, 1888?  Coca-Cola has corrupted the palates of generations of Americans and maybe a few of the rest of the world.  Do you know what the original name of Coca-Cola was?  Pemberton’s French Wine Coca!  It was inspired another French beverage, Vin Mariani, which was Bordeaux wine mixed with coca.  The ethanol in the wine acted as a solvent and extracted the cocaine from the coca leaves.  Both drinks were originally intended to be health tonics.  From this point of view, the whole world is being trained to enjoy only sweet and to avoid bitter.
 
Here’s my “Ah-Ha” moment, and I use this from my own experience.  The American Palate is nothing more than a beginner’s palate.  As I have grown and matured in my wine consumption my palate has learned to enjoy a broader range of flavors, allowing me to appreciate more classes of wines.  I know that my own journey has been hampered by listening to people who I thought knew more than I did about wine, but I learned to trust my own taste.  The truth is there are going to be people who only enjoy slightly sweeter wines, and there really should be no problem with that.  I myself love the big powerful fruit bombs; I like the dry Northern Italian wines, and have a growing appreciation for the softer French whites and roses.  Oh let’s face, it I’m a wino!
 
The American Palate is a broad range of palates of many amateur wine drinkers all striving to enjoy this magical beverage called wine.  We still have a lot to learn, but my American Palate indicates that we are well on our way.
 
By the way, the inspiration for this edition of Griffy on Wine came from a 2010 article in Snooth, a wine social media network, called “The American Palate,” written by Gregory Dal Piaz.  Gregory is the Editor in Chief at Snooth and formally worked at the New York City-based Astor Wines and Spirits.  You can enjoy more if Gregory’s wisdom, insights, and wine knowledge by going to http://www.snooth.com.

Kourtaki

IMG_0478

 
 
Is Greek!
 
At the urging of one of my readers, I have tried a Greek wine for the first time.  Even better, this wine works in conjunction with the Great White Wine Hunt of 2013. 
 
I was trying to find a fitting baseball analogy for the Kourtaki, but because this wine is so unique it doesn’t easily allow for comparison. The closest I can come up with is its like a well-executed triple play: rare, exciting, a complete game changer. Trust me, there are a lot of moving parts to this wine, which might be precisely why I like it so much.
 
Kourtaki is a dry white wine from the Attica area of Greece, near Athens.  Now the bottle says they have been making the wine here for 5,000 years, but a much more accurate date is 2,000 years.  Still, with 2,000 years of practice you should be able to make a  pretty tasty wine.
 
The varietal is Savatiano, which is a white grape widely planted in Central Greece because of its resistance to drought. It is here I hit my first mystery: there is no vintage date on the wine!  I have never seen a wine without a vintage date, so I e-mailed Wine Spectator.  Here is what they said, “nonvintage wine (often seen on a wine list as NV), is usually a blend from the produce of two or more years.  This is a common practice for winemakers seeking a consistent style of wine, year on year.”  The point is that not having a vintage date, albeit unnerving, isn’t a particularly bad thing.  The e-mail stated that many Ports are nonvintage, although the better ones are.
 
The Kourtaki is “retsina” and to understand what that means we have to go back in history; far back to before there were corks and bottles.  One of the truly elusive things for wine has been a container, something that would keep the wine in and the air out.  They tried animal skins, with some obvious draw backs.  Another more promising container was the clay jar; “amphorae.”  Unlike an animal skin, clay jars were bacteria free, could be made in different sizes, and did a pretty good job of keeping the air out.  Now they needed a plug.   Historical plugs included rags, wood, weeds, even clay, but the fit still wasn’t good enough to keep the air out.  The answer was clay seals with pitch–preferably non-toxic,though not always–typically pine pitch from the Aleppo pine tree.
 
Around the 1st Century C.E. it was suggested that pine pitch not be used with better wines, only vino-ordinair.  Later, the pitch would be added to the fermenting wine must, which is exactly how they do it today.
 
Okay, back to the wine.  As always we start with the color, which is yellow with hues of green.  Pop the cork and…the aroma.  Well, frankly, my reaction was Oh My God!!!  I don’t mean that in the positive.  Strong, offensive, put-offish are just some of the terms that come to mind.  But be patient, it gets better I promise.  When it comes to the taste, lets just say it’s acquired with a little time, say half-way through your first glass.  You have to serve this wine chilled; you’ll never be able to drink it warm.  I’m not saying it was bad, just very unique, so unique, you have to unique up to it!  I actually ended up liking it.
 
History records the passage of many Pilgrims and Crusaders traveling through Greece on their way to the holy land, and included are their encounters with resin wines.  They are best summed up by Pietro Casola, an Italian noble on his way to Jerusalem, “Everything I tried was pleasing, except the strong, resinated wine with an unpleasant odor”.
 
I do want you to try this wine.  Taste a little history, even if fabricated a bit you’ll appreciate modern wine-making more than before.  By the way, it was the Romans who are credited with putting wine in wood barrels.  It is also said that the Greeks started resinating their wines at the time of the Roman conquest, it is reported the Romans wouldn’t drink the bitter wine.  A coincidence!  I think not.  Try the wine you’ll understand.
 
OPA!

Let the games begin!

IMG_0213

 
Do any of you out there play drinking games? 
 
I’m of the age where I am now attending many college graduations.  As a result, beer pong has entered my lexicon.  Now if you have never played beer pong let me explain how the game is played: arrange ten 16 to 18 oz. plastic cups on each side of an 8 foot table.  Pour beer into each of the cups.  I am told you can use other liquids instead of beer but, hell, what’s the point in that?  Form teams of two.  Find “clean” ping pong balls!  Now each team takes turns at getting the ping pong ball into the cups of the opponent.  If the ball does land in the cup, the opponent must take the cup, drink the beer, and it is removed from play.  Once all ten cups on one side of the table are removed the game is over.  The cups are refilled and the victorious team remains in play until they are defeated.  Everyone feels like a winner after the game, and everyone feels like Tylenol after waking up.
 
The first drinking game I ever heard of was from a book I was reading in college, there’s a surprise!  I think it was in Voltaire’s Candide, but I really don’t remember.  Anyways, the chapter was about Monks making wine.  Expecting an invasion of Germans, they were discussing what they should do.  Every few sentences in parenthesis were written (drink here) where the reader was to take a sip of wine.  By the end of the chapter both the reader and the monks were feeling no pain, indeed they were very emboldened.  When the invasion came in the morning the monks routed the attacking force and saved the vineyard!  40 years and that is still the best chapter of any book I ever read!
 
So, see all you young whippersnappers who think they invented drinking games, you’re wrong: drinking games go back further then your parents’ generation, centuries even.
 
Ancient Greeks  had a game where the drinker empties his “kylix” saucer, glass or bowl, of all but a few drops–think dregs–then picks a target, usually a brass bowl.  He is to “flick” the glass so that the  remains go in the bowl.  Sometimes they would place a figurine on a piece of wood in front of the bowl with the goal of knocking it down.  Then you would refill, drink, and try again.  The only loser in this game was the guy who had to clean up at the end of the night.  Ah, same as in beer pong!  This game is still played in Sicily, it’s called Kattaobs.
 
Here’s a little tide bit of totally unless wine information.  The Greek word for comedy derives from a word meaning “wine lees,” or literally “wine song,” which is what was being pitched into the bowl the lees.  Also, the first stock comic character was “the drunkard.”
 
The ancient Romans and Chinese had a game like a drinking-man’s version of rock, paper, scissors.  This game was called “micare digitis,” or, “to flash the fingers.”  Two or more players would simultaneously show a certain number of fingers while calling out what they thought the total number would be, “the sum of the digit.”  The guy who called the number closest to the sum was the winner and the loser had to drink.  When you think of darts, do you think of Irish or English pubs?  What about Chinese lawn darts?  The game is called “tou hu.”  It’s basically shooting an arrow in a bucket, while drinking.
 
So the only thing restricting you choice of games is if you are planning a Black Tie or Black Eye affair.  You can take any game you know and make it a drinking game.  Again the Chinese had a drinking game very similar to stop light: participants formed a line and one guy started counting “one, two, three, red  light,” and you had to stop in place.  If you started to laugh, you had to drink.  You can use cards, high card drinks; play Jeopardy, get the question wrong , you drink; even dice, what ever flips your switch.  There’s even good old wine tasting game, War, where you ask each guest to bring a bottle of wine.  The toast master takes the bottles and  covers and labels.  Do a tasting, score each wine, the person who brought the wine with the highest score wins and he’s the toastmaster at the next event!
 
If any of you have suggestions for a wine tasting (drinking) game, send them along.

Planete La Segreta

IMG_0466

 
 
Alright, time to get back on course with the Great White Wine Hunt, and this week’s white is a home-team favorite in my household: Planete La Segreta from Sicily.  A blend of 50% Grecanio, 30% Chardonnay, 10% Viognier, and 10% Fiano, the Planete La Segreta is a very nice summer wine.
 
As you know I love Sicily, so there is bonus point number one for this wine.  Planete is also one of my favorite wine makers, so they’re up 2-0.  Still, while this was a good wine, it was not the hard hitting ball player I had hoped for; more of a speedster who can beat out a slow dribbler down the baseline.  The color was of light straw with green hues, and I must say, though I wasn’t expecting the color, I liked it.  It’s the Chardonnay that gives it the straw color.  There was also more aroma than I expected, it was an enjoyable fragrance of peaches and melon.  When we got to the first taste of the Planete, that was as expected and I wanted more.  It was fresh, not overly sweet, with good balance and fruit flavors.  Delicious!
 
Fiano most likely gave the flavor to this wine.  They have been growing this grape in Sicily for about two-thousand years–they are getting pretty good at it–but it’s not Sicilian, it hails from Campania.  Hey, if the cat has kittens in the oven do you call them briskets?  I think that’s an old Sicilian proverb, because if you weren’t born there,  no matter how long you’ve lived here, you’re not Sicilian!
 
Grecanio is Sicilian and most likely added acidity to the wine.  Viognier is a French-influence and most likely contributed to the wine’s aroma.  I swear I think the Chardonnay is in here just as bulk filler because it has a rather neutral contribution to this wine, which is fine because of the rules prohibiting Chardonnay from the contest.
 
I think I might look for a better interpretation on the Fiano grape to see if I can get more excited about this wine than I experienced with this bottle, but the Planete La Segreta is a worthwhile bottle of white.