What I’m drinking … a little bit of history

Every now and then in this wine life someone has an old bottle and they’ve decided it’s time to open it.

A good friend of mine moved about two years ago and his family’s wine cellar was uprooted and has been in a state of flux since. He’s been concerned about the condition in which some of the older bottles were being kept. The ideal conditions for wine is a dark place with a temperature at a constant level of 55 to 65 degrees. If you’re worried about storing wine, the best solution is to just drink it.

So before he came over to the cottage one night, he called me and said, “I don’t have any beer but I’m bringing a ’69 Robert Mondavi cab and a ’65 Louis Martini.”

“Well,” I replied, “I guess that will be OK.”

I had been hoping for a 18 pack of Bud Lite, but two bottles of premium Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon from decades ago would have to suffice.

Opening older bottles is always exciting, but comes with a some risk, especially when the cellar conditions have been less than ideal. The cork on the Martini looked as if it had risen out of the bottle a little and that is always a bad sign. The Mondavi, however, looked like it was still in pretty good shape.

Just opening these old bottles requires a steady hand and some skill. Christine, always able handed with a corkscrew, carefully teased the crumbling and decayed corks out of the bottle. This takes time and patience. If you let one of these old nasty corks fall apart in to the wine it can mar some of the delicate aromas and flavors of the wine.

Easy does it. Pulling old corks takes a skilled and steady hand.

We started with the 1969 Robert Mondavi and just based on appearance and smell the wine seemed to have held it’s own. The tasters, there were six of us, all then brought our glasses up and tried our first taste of a wine that was bottled before any of us were born. At first, no one said anything. We all just stood there swirling the wine in our mouths taking discrete glances at each other, as if waiting for someone to actually say what we were all thinking.

“My God,” Christine finally said. “This is just amazing.”

And then the flood gates just opened. I couldn’t stop saying how the wine was nothing like I had ever tasted, but yet better than some of the best wines I have ever tasted. My friend Andrew raved about how the taste just lingered on the palate and coated the mouth in a rich layers of flavor that seemed to offer something new with each sip.

For someone like myself  on the lower rungs of the wine world, without the means to procure and maintain a cellar stocked with library vintages, I don’t have the tasting experience to regularly enjoy wines that have been allowed time to grow and develop. But everyone I know in the wine industry has moments of inspiration when they taste something that makes them remember why they love the simple beverage. To taste a 1969 Robert Mondavi wine in perfect shape was to taste a moment in time when Napa was emerging on the wine world. It was inspiring, it was tasting history. It was a reminder that through time wine can transcend from being just a beverage to a lasting piece of art.

Well wine can be like that.

As good as the Mondavi was, the Martini was terrible. Bitter, astringent, it had become vinegar.

Hoping for something else amazing, I ran out to barn and dug out a ’80s Bordeaux that still had a 35 Franc price sticker on it.

That was disgusting as well.

The two disappointments made us all relish the Mondavi that much more and made us appreciate drinking something that had been preserved from more than 40 years ago that had not only retained its original quality but had developed into something far more wonderful.

Homebrew update

Just bottled the latest batch of homebrew. In a nod to one of my favorite warm weather beers, Hoegaarden, I brewed up a Belgian Wit Beer, or white.

Now I was just shooting from the hip with my recipe and my improvised batch likely will not in any way turn out like my favorite spring and summer tipple or even like the mass-marketed, bland brew known as Blue Moon.

Early samples of my beer, however, do have some of those herby and funky notes with traces of citrus in the finish that are the hallmarks of the lighter Belgian beers but the color is a little dark. In terms of overall body and taste, this will actually be the lightest beer I’ve ever made. The alcohol will probably finish in the 4 or even 3.5 percent range. I only used two ounces of hops and that is a quarter of what I usually drop in a batch. Like a lot of homebrewers, when I started this hobby all the brews I wanted to make were super hoppy IPAs that blasted the senses with hops and high alcohols. This current batch represents a departure from that style and I’m eager to see how it finishes.

Another experiment with this batch is I’m using carbonation tabs instead of mixing in liquid priming sugar. Carbonation tabs are little pieces of sugar that look like Altoids. You drop a few in each bottle and supposedly can have more uniform and lively carbonation. Bubbles are a crucial part of the beer experience and especially for Belgian ales that need a lively splurge of bubbles in the pour to bring out all those wonderful flavors. In all my other batches, I’ve dissolved varying amounts of priming sugar and just mixed it into my bottling tank.

This beer, which I’ve dubbed my Funky Barnhouse Belgian, could be pretty damn good or rather weird and flat.

Kinda like those European exchange kids we all remember from our high school days. Some were the coolest cats you ever met, others were just flat out weird.

Mini kegs

While getting ready for a party recently, I dropped a case of Coors in the shopping cart and was headed for the aisle when I paused in front of a Heineken mini keg.

These have been in stores for a while, but you don’t seem them at parties much. They hold five liters of beer, which is equivalent to about a 12 pack, but I’ve never seen them in frequent use.

I wanted to bring something different to this party so I put the case of Coors back on the shelf and picked up the keg. I have to say that after enjoying the keg, I may be buying more of them.

The kegs have an improved tap that is inserted into the top of the keg. The tap has a small needle that pops a tiny seal at the top of the keg. The pressurized beer pours out smooth and foamy. These new taps are a huge improvement over the crappy, red pull-out tabs that used to be at the bottom of these small kegs. Those tabs leaked beer and pressure so after about two beers you had a wet counter and flat beer. I think those weak taps is what kept these kegs out of the mainstream. You may have purchased one for the novelty, but were soon disappointed by the lame reality of the product.

The improved tap actually delivers a real “mini keg” experience. I had prepared to be let down by the keg and it’s $20 price tag, but all the beer that the keg dispensed was fresh, lively and better than a beer from a bottle.The last few pints from the keg came out slowly, but still had plenty of carbonation. If I recall correctly, the keg’s packaging claims you can keep it up to 10 days in the fridge, and based on my experience I think that could be possible.

A lack of variety is a problem. So far, I’ve only seen Heineken or Becks in the mini keg. It would be great if I could pick up a stellar micro brew like a North Coast Great White, but I just don’t think that is going to happen any time soon. Cans and bottles are the industry norm, and you can still find more beer for less money on the shelves. For example, I was in Rite Aid yesterday and saw they had 12 packs of Heineken for less than one of the kegs.If there was more variety, it might actually be worth it to drop a couple hundred bucks for one of those countertop kegerators that keep mini kegs carbonated for a while.

The countertop kegerator or BeerTender may be billed as the "ultimate at home draught beer experience" but it really isn't worth the money.

The mini keg seems to be a great option for a small tailgate party, picnic or softball game. It provides a sense of the keg experience, without the cost, hassle or risk of wasted beer that a traditional keg brings. You can have that fresh beer taste out of plastic cups that make a keg so much fun, but you and your buddies don’t have to drink 18 beers each not to waste money. (Now of course this can be fun in of itself … I remember a lost weekend in Eugene, Ore. when myself and my roommates decided we could and needed to drink a full quarter barrel and failed in heroic fashion.)

Napa Valley Tip: My favorite brewery in Napa Valley, Silverado Brewing Company, sells 5 gallon kegs for the insanely cheap price of $55 bucks with no deposit. You just need to put in your order 48 hours in advance.

Stirred, not shaken

Sitting at the bar in the new Westin in Napa, considered to be the top, new hotel in Downtown Napa, I figured their bartender would know how to fix a martini.

But no, I was wrong. When my Tanqueray 10 martini with a twist was delivered in front of me, I was disappointed — yet not surprised — to see the little transparent flakes of ice floating on the surface of the drink. These small shards indicated that the martini had been beaten and bruised as the bartender shook it with violence in a cocktail shaker.

The classic martini should be stirred, not shaken. As a rule, all clear cocktails should not be shaken. I have found that I have to specify that I want my martini stirred and not shaken. Even this step, however, can sometimes not overcome the idea that has been burned into bartenders’ heads that martini means that lovely shaking sound and motion of moving a shaker up and down. At the bar at the Carneros Inn, another swanky bar in Napa, I ordered a martini, stirred with a twist, and sat there dumbfounded as the bartender proceeded to shake the the hell out of the drink in front of me mere minutes after taking my order.

What’s the big difference you may ask? It’s because shaking a martini leaves those shards of ice that disrupt the cold smoothness of the drink and the violence of the shaking dissipates the subtle and wonderful aromatics that float off a fine gin such as Tanqueray. Now, if you’re drinking a vodka martini, I guess shake until your wrists burn, because vodka is boring and the recipe for the classic martini doesn’t call for vodka anyway. Perhaps Mr. Bond can be forgiven by misleading Americans into thinking a martini must be shaken, because he in fact wasn’t ordering a classic martini anyway.

Back in blog

The Uncorked Life has been down for about a month. My father has been struggling with significant health issues and for some time it has been hard to focus on the lighter side of life when the simple act of living has become difficult for a loved one.

But about two weeks ago, I was having a conversation about the Uncorked hiatus with a good friend. He reminded me that during times of strees, when life may be at it’s hardest, it often is the most irreverant and silly things in life that make the difficult times a little easier.