Tofu dogs with Chardonnay and other 2011 delights

It was a crazy finish to the year. The day job, my son’s nearly-two enfant terrible temperament, Christmas season stress – the works. I certainly felt the letdown of falling off pace with my blog production over the past weeks; but now, cuddled by the holiday lull, I’ve put fingertips to keys to churn out the compulsory year-end, “best of” list.

Let me tell you, this annual be-all business is a challenge. Superlatives and insistent recommendations are burdensome to administer and…hello? How unoriginal.

I thought I would start with a remembrance of a late December meal. It followed a long workday, and I limped into our kitchen to power up the microwave. Settling only for the best, I prepared a hearty repast of tofu dogs and ketchup. With Chardonnay.

Honestly, it sucked. What a terrible pairing. The blandly spiced mushiness of the tubular tofu and tang of the ketchup neutralized the wine. Despite my total miss, I was heartened by the spirit of fearless pairing, testing the limits of creativity as it were. Back to the fridge, I pulled out a creamy chicken, spinach and rice dish my wife served the previous night. It partied with the Chard. If, at first you don’t succeed, change partners. It was a prosaic moment that reinforced a sentiment I’ll look to repeat in the future tense: Righteous pairings come to the open-minded. Wisdom for the New Year.

With that flimsy introduction, I present some of my wine highlights of 2011. In no special order, these are random notes from the year that was. Take ’em or leave ’em, share a few of your own.

  • My first Girl – My lust for Kung Fu Girl, an inexpensive honey of a Riesling from Charles Smith, started in St. Petersburg in February. Clean, crisp, with subtle green fruit flavors and light sweetness, it acts the part of an expensive Mosel-Saar-Ruwer gem. Considering its light tariff and skillful delivery, KFG was the hands-down wine discovery of the year.

    This man wants to sell you a Girl


  • Drinking with mountain men – Our October family trip to Napa was fraught with gray weather and high fever, but I was able to steal away for a handful of memorable parleys with some of the Valley’s leading wine minds and characters. The more poignant moments were spent at altitude. On Spring Mountain, there was a hectic encounter with the Smith brothers, Charles and Stu, of Smith-Madrone. We drank crystalline Riesling straight from the bottling line, as Stu’s forklift whirred around us and the clouds dispersed in glorious salute. Across the way, at the base of Howell Mountain, the wryly funny John Buehler drove me through his vineyards and delivered his take on the history of Napa vintners. Hours flowed, yours truly nodding like a schoolboy. An honest winemaker who never cashed in on the Valley’s dot-com gold rush, Buehler is quick to point out, “It’s only flippin’ wine.”
  • The other white wine – My first experience with white Port unfolded within the dark and sexy surroundings of XIX Restaurant in Philly, at a wine association event. The chocolate tasting and delicious multi-course meal aside, the grape skin-flecked, salmon-colored liquid was viscous, mysterious and cool going down. Just like the evening.
  • Pennsylvania pride – The homegrown pleasures of vineyards Va La and Crossing reminded me that good wine is available for less than an eighth of a tank of gas. Va La’s Anthony Vietri mines the rocky limits of his compact suburban plot to yield obscure varietals like the fussy Nebiolo grape. His small set of bottlings, and the pizza pie prepared onsite, keep regulars coming back. Tom Carroll’s Crossing Winery is a larger operation but his son’s focus on structured, ripe wine – with mineral subtleties – is realized in nearly every bottle. Crossing’s Pinot Noir was a standout of any I sampled in 2011. PA wine, you ask? To which Carroll replies: “You can get great wine, good wine, OK wine and crappy wine in any region.”
  • These go to ’11 – Here are a few bottles that revved me, moved me, shook and stirred me. Whatever – these were simply great wines from the past year. 2007 and 2008 Kanzler Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast: Steve Kanzler is a grower supreme. His fine fruit pretties up the production for top rank wineries like Kosta Browne. Kanzler’s own label is a stunner, Exhibit A in validating the recent falderal surrounding Santa Barbara County Pinot Noirs. These vintages are concentrated, balanced and rich, rendering a range of flavors from mulling spice and coffee to strawberry and sweet cherry. It’s dynamic wine, the stuff of memories. And I froze it. 2001 Bodegas y Viñedos Heras Cordon Rioja Reserva: Bloody gorgeous wine I bought a few years back in Madrid. Fragrant and slightly floral, there are miles of cherries on the finish. Also, menthol, some meat and metallic tones. The tannins are fine and settled down, framing balance and elegance. Refined and emphatically delicate, this Rioja is just damned smooth – and drinking well after 10 years in bottle. 2005 Achával-Ferrer Quimera: If you invite a break from big fruit like I do, this Argentine brings a beautiful vegetal quality and perfectly tuned tannins. And I mean perfect. Balance to the hilt, gorgeous (understated) fruit, earth and – hallelujah – acidity. A helluva wine that required decanting and food to coax full bloom.
  • I didn’t visit the Finger Lakes – But friends did, and did me the solid favor of bringing me bottles of Riesling from Lamoreaux Landing!
  • Frenchie future – With the dawn of a new Bordeaux vintage – my little boy’s birthdate of 2010 – I assembled a modest collection with formidable aging potential. The bottles haven’t even reached our shores but the thought of dusting off a Pomerol at my son’s, ahem, Stanford graduation celebration makes me downright joyeux. If he doesn’t take to wine? Well, someone will enjoy this trove in a couple decades’ time.
  • Poetically bankrupt – 2011 was also about returning to an old friend. Cosentino is on my all-time Alpha Wine list, an under-promoted producer that consistently kills it. The bad news came last year: Ownership hit bottom and the winery was sold into uncertainty. But the Cosentino library is filled with treasure reds, and their signature Poet bottling brought much joy in recent months. To boot, I ordered their Cab at a December business dinner and it promptly established itself as the wine of the night. Hedging against a probable loss of its magical form, I’ll stockpile any vintage stock I can locate.
  • Thanksgiving surprise – the Burgundy and Rieslings I’d painstakingly researched and handpicked for our turkey feast were perfectly respectable but, in the end, didn’t stack up to a pink Cava I added at the last moment. It was a non-vintage J. Esteve Nadal Penedès Caves Avinyó Rosado Reserva, purchased for about $25, boasting a dry and toasty entrée and a strawberry finale. Another reminder that a great wine experience often can’t be planned, it just is.

Wisdom for the New Year. And with that, I wish you great memories and even greater wine in 2012.

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