Friday, September 15, 2006

Finding my Religion – 'Foods to Die For' Meme Item #2

This is my continuation of a Meme called: ‘5 things you've eaten and think that everyone should eat at least once before they die’, started by Melissa, of The Traveler's Lunchbox. I was selected by Haalo, of ‘Cook (almost) Anything at least once’, to offer my thoughts on the subject. Where upon I promply broke the rules and called mine 'Foods to Die For'. This #2 in my ascending list of 'Foods to Die For'. With only #1 still to come.

I thought about it for a while, I admit. Maybe it’s not a good idea. Too highly charged. Will alienate people. Cause unnecessary friction.

Then I figured, why change now?

More touchy than politics or religion to some. Very much like a belief or a religion to many.

Wine, of course. Maybe not always directly thought of (in the US, at least) as a food per se, but ever so closely associated with food, and still possibly something to die for.

I was not a wine drinker from birth. There are regions of the world where children are brought up with a proper education in all things wine. Not I.

If wine ever was served at my home when I was young, it was from a cardboard box. I mentioned recently in a Blog how I learned the ‘pleasures’ of Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill wines on the way to school in the bus.

Cheap American beer was more the beverage of preference with parents and peers.

But, I eventually grew a few taste buds. And my baby palette fell out and was replaced by a somewhat more refined adult one. Plus, I moved to the Bay Area, near San Francisco. Where everyone was gaga over Anchor Steam Beer, and Napa Valley wines.

Both were a leap for me. Anchor Steam beer is fairly dark and heavy compared to Bud. And the whole wine thing took a while.

But eventually I made the leap. And eventually ‘found my religion’.

With the all our friends constantly talking about and drinking wines, I started trying different wines myself. And quickly became an insufferable, uneducated, inexperienced wine snob.

Too funny for words.

Wineries in Napa, then Sonoma, then other nearby valleys, popped up like dandelions in summer. We tried them all. Expensive, cheap, whatever. Fueled by our first really good paying jobs.

The opportunity to live in Europe for a few years gave me a chance to expand on that base. I spent the first while blathering about California wines to people who could care less.

One of the many fascinating aspects of Europe is that they are not quite as driven to discard everything every month or two for the next new thing as we are here, especially in California.

I would regale people with stories of the latest American beers – red beer, dry beer (no taste! What a plus for beer drinkers!), lite beer. On and on it went. All the while sipping on beer that was brewed under the German Reinheitsgebot (purity laws), stemming from 1516, that dictated how beer was to be produced. They found it all hilarious.

The same held true for bread, coffee, sausages, and of course, wine.

Naturally, we tried lots of European wines. From many regions in France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Hungary, even England grows a few grapes. I can look back and identify different phases. Big reds from Italy. Whites from Loire. Peppy wines from Spain. A champagne phase.

But that all came and went. Really without a conscience decision on my part. I wandered through the wine world, as always looking for new things, but also inclined to repeat purchases of wines I had enjoyed. So I wandered, not aimlessly, but in no hurry to get anywhere in particular.

But get somewhere I did. Eventially.

Naturally, as I write this, I am sipping on some wine. Wine that I realized some years ago that I prefer more and more. Wine from a particular region that, when I noticed it in stores or restaurants, was more and more often my choice. To the point now where it is my exclusive choice, to the extent that I can find it.

Here’s where we get religious, so no offense intended!

I began enjoying wine from this particular region with cheeses. Maybe a nice hunk of Compté, or a slice of Époisses de Bourgogne, or some Ossau-Iraty. Because I’m a big cheese lover. I would generally forgo dessert for a cheese platter and a glass of wine.

And, of course, I enjoyed these wines with almost any main dish. Because I don’t usually give a hoot about reds and whites and meat and fish and all those rules. Though I’m not a complete barbarian and generally go with the wine used in the cooking, and also defer in the case of fresh oysters, if they’re good.

I enjoyed these wines with tapas, and snacks, and hors d’oeuvres. And for general late night sipping while contemplating arcane and useless things.

In fact, I can hardly think of any food that does not go better with a bottle of nicely aged wine from this region. As long as you don’t get hung up on the rules!

A few years ago, I was secretly glowing inside when, upon selecting a wine of this region in a small but super hip bistro in Paris, the waiter indicated he was impressed and called this the world’s best wine region. Of course, he could have just been hustling for that big tip, but I chose to interpret it as a nod to my unbearably well developed wine abilities.

At that point, I figured I should take a look and see what the hell it was that I was drinking so often. Do some nominal research. As you can tell, this is just not my way. I go with what I like, my own instincts, and don’t care much about anything else. But the time had come to find out.

Think Pauillac, Margaux, Saint Julien, Saint Estèphe. Not just Bordeaux. Not just Médoc. But specifically Haut-Médoc. (OK – go ahead – boo, hiss, rant about over rated Bordeaux’s and how good California / Italian / Spanish / Australina / Chilian / etc. wines are. I’ll take a few more sips till you’re done!).

Haut-Médoc is a tiny thumbnail of hilly, gravely land with a lot of grapes. On the south-west shore of the Gironde river. Just north of the city Bordeaux. France.

Of course, I don’t actually drink the haughty elixirs named above, as I am loath to spend the $1000 per bottle, good as they may be.

I buy things like Chateau Caronne Ste. Gemme. Or Chateau Cambon La Pelsouse. Or Chateau Beaumont. Or Chateaux Cantemerle. There are many, many Chateaus in Haut-Médoc that are readily affordable to mere mortals. And they all must be tried, one after the other!

These wines go for $10 to $30 or so in wine wholesale stores, depending on how many points Peter Parker has agreed to award the given wine (this is a scam if ever I saw one). Sometimes, our local un-market Trader Joe’s has a Haut-Médoc wine for under $10.

Clearly, with wines like these, as with many things in life, the higher you can afford to go in price, the more perfect the product will be, for the most part.

But, that adage aside, I’ve found more satisfaction with these wines than any other I’ve tried. And I have had the occasional pleasure of stumbling across a bottle that is truly to die for.

A perfect blend of rich, deep blackberry and cassis flavors, that slight vanilla nuance, and, if aged well, those wonderfully satisfying silky tannins.

Rather than waxing loquaciously about a particular Chateau or vintage (go for the 2000s!), as I have not tried them all (yet!), and everyone has their own limits as to what they are willing to put out for a bottle of wine in a store or restaurant, I merely suggest giving a good bottle of wine from the Haut-Médoc region, from a good year, a try before you die.

I really think that, single malt scotch not withstanding (Lagavulin 16 year old, for example), I could die pretty happy while enjoying a good bottle of vintage 2000 Haut-Médoc, a broad selection of fine cheeses, and some very ripe figs.

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