Monthly Archives: July 2010

Hombrew disappointment — It’s all flat!

Two weeks of waiting, followed by a day of chilling in the fridge and then the moment of truth.

Opening the first bottle of homebrew.

I’ll admit, this shouldn’t be such a moment fraught with anxiety. If you’re a competent homebrewer you should have consistent success, you methods should be tested and true. Brewing should be a road to success, not a trip marked by pitfalls and wishful thinking.

But alas, for the humber amateur like myself I can never say I don’t have some trepidation as I put the bottle opener to that first 22 ounce bottle. Will it be skunky? Will it have a weird aroma? Will it be — gasp — flat?

Turns out my last batch was the perhaps the worst, flat as can be. It tastes good, it’s a little darker than I hoped but still doesn’t look bad, it has a nice finish but no bubbles. I’ll blame it on two things, waiting to long to bottle condition, not monitoring my fermentation well enough and also using the tabs of sugar rather than dosing out priming sugar.

I now have two cases of flat beer. Like I said, it tastes OK, but it’s flat. I resolve my next batch will receive my utmost attention and care. It shall receive a correct amount of carbonation sugar and I will ensure I still have healthy yeast to make it to the carbonation finish line.

As with all hobbys, one must not be daunted by failures but rather learn from them to achieve future success.

Enjoying a concert at Mondavi

Prior to the concert, the grass area fills up with people with picnics and wine. You can't bring in your own adult beverages but there is a bountiful supply of Mondavi wines for sale.

Last weekend, Christine and I lucked out when some friends said they had extra tickets for a concert at Robert Mondavi winery.

The Mondavi concert series is a long-standing Napa tradition and the concerts are always a sought after ticket to spend a pleasurable summer evening.

Our friends, Ben and Tracy, work at the local Napa radio station that is one of the sponsors of the concert series. So not only did Christine and I have the privilege of free tickets to a show but we also snagged seats at one of the premium tables where the wine flows free and plate after plate of gourmet food is brought to you. Back when Christine was in her early 20s she used to make extra cash by working as a server for the VIP section. She was thrilled by the chance to enjoy a concert from the other side of the table.

Because of all the free wine (which pours freely, did I mention that?) the crew decided to cab it up valley and back. Without anyone having to worry about driving we were all able to sit back and enjoy the show.

We came early to also enjoy free wine and appetizers for VIP guests before the concert. While we sipped chilled Chardonnay and nibbled on snacks we were also able to wander around large oak fermentation tanks and the winery’s modern and impressive barrel room. As a cellar rat, I love to visit other winery’s cellars to look at what type of equipment and layout they have.

I would love, love, to work with barrels that are always laid down one high. At Starmont I often have to scramble up barrels stacked five or six high.

I think because of Mondavi’s long history in the valley and its acquisition by wine behemoth Constellation, people just don’t seem to give the Napa winery the respect it deserves. The wines may not have the hipness or cult following of other Napa wineries but they are all well made and taste great, if not amazing. Although at dinner, we did enjoy a library Cabernet that was very good.

Following the pre-concert reception, we made our way out to banquet style tables adorned with lovely table settings and situated beneath vine covered trellises. Performing that night was Juan De Marco and the Afro-Cuban All Stars. Apparently the lead was a member of the Buena Vista Social Club and the band had the same fast-tempo style jazz. In keeping with the Cuban theme, the night’s menu included several Latin dishes as well as delicious braised Cuban pork. For wines we enjoyed the famous Mondavi Fume Blanc as well as a solid Carneros Pinot Noir and an especially tasty 1999 Reserve Cab.

I’m not going to pretend I’m a huge Jazz fan so I can’t say the music was wonderful or bad, I did enjoy it though. The snazzy beats had most of the folks in the grass area up and dancing and even had Christine dragging me around the table area in an attempt to get me to dance. An attempt though, I’m a terrible dancer.

What I really enjoyed was just lounging in the VIP table area taking in our great view of the stage and performers. It seemed about every 10 minutes a prompt and courteous server was at our elbows asking if we needed more wine or food. And, I’ll be honest, we were grateful and accepting of the generosity.

The concerts at Mondavi have been going on for more than 40 years now, and I can see why. The food is great and there are few better ways to enjoy a spectacular sunset over the vines of Napa Valley than with the accompaniment of skilled musicians. Tickets are pricey (table seats average $200) but the lawn tickets are a bit more reasonable.

More cab Bennie?

A rear view of the performance. I know it's not a great concert shot, but it would have been an impossible to have made my way through the jammed lawn area to reach the front of the stage.

Taking a day at the lake

CoCo on the shore of Lake Berryessa.

One of the best parts of my job at the winery is that when it’s not harvest we work a “four-ten” shift or 10 hours a day, four days a week.

This means I get every Friday off, well at least until harvest. It’s pretty nice having a three day weekend every week. You get a whole extra day to take of all of life’s fun little errands like getting a haircut, going to the bank, the drug store etc. Last Friday, I was getting ready at the house with a long list of stuff to take care of, when I just stopped, looked over at my lab CoCo lounging on his bed and thought maybe I’d just hang out with the dog.

It had been a long time since I’d gone somewhere with CoCo and an even longer time since I’d been up to Lake Berryessa in northern Napa County so I grabbed a cooler, put CoCo in the truck and we were off to the lake.

In the truck and ready to roll.

With the windows down and blaring some country music, CoCo and I made our way up to the lake on the windy back roads. The day was pretty hot, so about 20 minutes before we got to the lake, I decided I better stop and pull over and see if I could get CoCo to drink some water. This resulted in a little bit of a panicked moment when the dog was able to slip off his leash and run out onto the highway but after a little scampering on my part I was able to catch him.

The water at the lake was just perfect. Near the shore, the water had a slight greenish tint, but further off the bank it turned a deep turquoise blue. As it was a Friday afternoon, the lake wasn’t that crowded and CoCo and I were able to find a stretch of beach all to ourselves. Many lakes can still be pretty cold this time of year, but Berryessa was in perfect swimming condition. You could just walk right in to the water that was still refreshing but not icy.

Chugging away, while doing the appropriate style paddle.

CoCo loves to swim and play fetch in the water but he’s still freaked out when I’m swimming with him. Whenever I was hanging out in the lake, he started making a high-pitched, whiny yelping that made him sound like he was being abused. (In fact a boat cruised by us relatively close to shore and I think the people were actually checking to make sure there was no canine abuse going on.)

I’ve come to the conclusion that CoCo just needs to spend a week, or long weekend, at the water to really become familiar with it and with people swimming in it.

But despite CoCo’s little behavioral quirks in the water, it still was a wonderful way to enjoy a Friday.

Cold-brewed coffee?

Judging from a package in the latest issue of Food & Wine magazine and an article in a recent edition of the SF Chronicle on cold-brewed coffee, it seems that this trend has picked up some attention.

Proponents of this style of brewing claim it yields a coffee without much acidity and roasted or burnt notes in the aroma that they claim is ideal for a cool, refreshing cup of iced coffee. The method calls for steeping grounds in cold water overnight and then filtering out the liquid to create a mild coffee concentrate. The resulting concentrate can be mixed with water, either cold or hot, or milk.

I just don’t know why you would want to drink something that is made in a way that undermines the key steps of brewing coffee. Removing the acidity and aromas from coffee seems to me like diluting a fine bottle of Cabernet with water. In researching home coffee roasting, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Corby Kummer’s primer “The Joy of Coffee.” Kummer sums up cold brewing as a fad not worth the attention of the serious coffee drinker.

“This method becomes fashionable every few years and then retreats into deserved obscurity,” he writes. “The resulting extract, which is stirred into hot water, is mild and characterless because cold water does not extract the lighter aromatics or acids in coffee – or the oils, or much of anything.”

I’d much rather just brew some good coffee and splash it over ice — even if doing so isn’t trendy.

Fishing on the Napa River

My friend John standing on our improvised fishing platform on the bank of the Napa River

This past weekend I had big plans for heading up to the Plumas National Forest to hang out at a buddy’s cabin.

I was getting all set to go, I had taken two days off at the winery, I had my shopping list all set for food (lots of meat and cheese) as well as booze (I had been planning to make Mountain Margaritas. What makes them mountainous you ask? The fact you made them at a mountain cabin) and was going to invest in half a box of cigars.

A few hours before I left to start shopping, I get a call from my friend.

“I got bad news,” he says, “I got the flu.”

Well, I didn’t really want to take any chances with the flu, especially after taking a few days off of work so the cabin trip was going to have to wait. Thinking of another option, I realized I could go see my friend in Reno. It would still be a mountain trip but subtract the forests, pristine lake and clean air for high-rise hotels, a bumping pool scene and smoke filled sports book lounges. (I would have bet large on Spain to win the World Cup, and would have won.) But it was a no go as well. That friend was going to be in Arizona for a wedding.

It looked like I was homebound. And it actually turned out to be a relaxing time. I played a great round of golf with my friend Bennie up in Yountville on Friday and decided to go fishing out on the Napa River on Saturday. I had purchased a fishing license for the cabin trip and still wanted to be able to use it.

Where I live in Carneros you can make it out to the river after a short hike through the vineyards. John and I enjoyed the stroll out to the water and after building a small platform on the riverbank soon had our bait in the water and cold cans of Budweiser in our hands. The tide was up, and pretty soon we were both getting strikes on our lines so my confidence was gaining we’d have some luck. I had not landed a fish in about two years and John hadn’t even gone fishing since 2003. On the Napa River your best bet is Striped Bass, a predatory fish that can reach upwards of 50 pounds. I’ve never landed anything that big, but I have seen some photos of monsters caught in the river.

After about two hours of just lounging with our lines in the water, I got a strong strike and was able to set the hook. As I reeled in the line we could see the fish was a good size, about 16 inches, but as I prepared to land the fish John and I forgot a rule of fishing: Land the fish first, then get the camera.

As John was fumbling with my digital camera, the fish slipped off the hook and swam away. A common fishing story, I know, but as we made our way back we both ended up catching something neither of us had expected.

Walking through the vineyards to get back home, I heard a rustling sound and paused to investigate. There between two vineyard rows we discovered a long, green snake. While we were looking at the snake, it slipped away into another vineyard row and John was quick to scamper after it. The snake then moved out of the vineyards and to my surprise John reached down and adroitly plucked up the snake by its tail.

“Oh my God,” John yelled. “I caught a fucking snake!”

I got out the camera for that, took a photo and John gently placed the snake back on the ground. It slithered toward me and I had to give snake wrangling a try so I too grabbed the snake and held it for about half a minute. I have to admit it was pretty cool feeling the strength of the snake’s tail moving in my hand, and cool to watch it coil back it’s head and stick its tounge in the air. We think it was either a rat snake or gopher snake, definitely not a rattler, but we still had to take care.

I never would have thought a fishing trip would end up involving snake catching.

After making it back to the house, I took a quick shower and Christine and I left for a pool side barbecue with some of her friends and coworkers.

It was an Uncorked Life weekend when in the course of one afternoon I went from snake wrangling to sipping chilled Pinot Gris poolside while snacking on bruschetta with panceta and fresh asparagus.

Turned out to be a nice vacation after all.

A stiff upper lip and a Pimm’s Cup

I say Bertie, another Pimm's?

Lounging in the plush couches on the veranda, we sipped cocktails and chatted but for the most part just luxuriated.

The clank of Bocce balls resounded every now and then as well as an outburst of laughter from some of the other guests. Waiters and waitresses moved between the tables, to ensure every class was filled.

Another cocktail?

Sure, the day is pleasant and the summer evening is long. One more. Make it a Pimm’s cup. Pimm’s No. 1 is a gin infused with various flavors that are said to be almost a state secret in England. The brown colored liquor is poured over ice and mixed with a variety of fruit and sometimes even cucumber slices.

Oh, this Pimm’s just doesn’t have enough fruit. Excuse me, could we have a few more orange and lime slices?

The Pimm’s is the favored summer beverage of the British and as we enjoyed our early evening drinks on the patio it’s easy to see its summer appeal.

But the name, “Pimm’s,” which you can’t even say without sounding like a Brit and the gingery taste, are just a little too British for this American and especially on the recent Fourth of July weekend.

“Just a shame about that oil in the gulf, I say.”

“Yes, quite distasteful, but leave it to those Americans to try and make a dollar out of it with all those claims on BP, you wouldn’t see that behavior if a North Sea derrick leaked a little oil. Hmmm,  I say more Pimm’s?”

A dandy summer shandy

All the makings for a summer shandy, seen here on my countertop.

During the hot days of summer, mixing in a little juice or lemonade to your lager can be quite tasty.

The English name for such a drink is a shandy. This calls for a light ale mixed with ginger, ginger soda or lemonade. During the Fourth of July weekend I took a Samuel Adams Summer Ale, poured it into a frosty mug and topped it with some Newman’s Own lemonade. The resulting beverage was light, full of lemon zest and delicious. Using the right kind of beer is crucial. As you can imagine, mixing a dark Guinness with lemonade would taste terrible.

In Germany the shandy is known as the radler, or cyclist, because the drink was first popularized by thirsty cyclers. In France, a mix of beer and juice is called a panaché. And in parts of Eastern Europe, drinkers will mix beer with Coke to make what’s known as a diesel.

The last mix doesn’t sound good to me, but I can attest to mixing red wine with Coke. It’s not a fabulous drink in my opinion but I can understand that mix better than beer and coke. Maybe a darker beer would blend better with a Coke?

I would recommend mixing with lemonade beers such as summer lagers, white ales or hefeweizens. Beers that you would normally drink with a slice of lemon. Such a mix is a great option for those who have to drive home from the weekend pool party because you can do a half-and-half mixture to reduce the overall alcohol.

And try other juices and mixes like using cranberry juice or perhaps instead of an orange slice in your Blue Moon splash in a generous portion of fresh orange juice. Mixing up beer like a cocktail may seem strange, but this time of year it can be very refreshing.

Roasted, nicely roasted

I’ve jumped into a new hobby, home coffee roasting. In the past year, I’ve come to accept the fact that I’m a coffee snob. Christine and I pretty much only buy Ritual coffee because it seems to be the freshest and most flavorful in the area. That led me to start reading more about coffee, and learning more about how crucial freshness is to experiencing the full flavor of coffee. To get the freshest roast, you have to roast at home. Some of my coworkers also roast their own and when they told me how easy and fun it is I decided I had to try it.

Home roasting can get pretty technical and expensive. A top-of-the-line home roaster can set you back as much as $300. I chose instead to go with the cheapest method. I snagged an old popcorn popper at a thrift store for $5. The hot air that circulates in the chamber of the popper can supposedly do a fairly decent job of roasting a small batches of green beans. There are lots of resources on the Web for finding green beans, but I think Sweet Maria’s is the best and with a warehouse in Oakland the beans came to the house via mail pretty quick.

My first batch of green beans. These particular beans came from Sumatra.

To make my corn popper a roaster, I added a thermometer to the top. To achieve a good roast you need to be able to gauge the temperature of the beans as well as watch and hear them. As the beans roast they turn from green to brown and black depending on the roast and will “crack” as they reach certain temperature points. The cracking sound is pretty cool as well as the smell of the beans as they roast and the voluminous smoke.

My cheap and improvised "popper" roaster. The bowl is there to collect chaff, a wispy, papery substance that floats off the beans as they roast.

To start my roasting adventure, I weighed out about 4 ounces of green beans, dropped them in the popper and flipped the switch. I soon began to think that I had overloaded my roasting chamber. When roasting with hot air, or using a convection method, the beans need to move about the chamber to ensure a proper roast. With too many beans in the chamber, the bottom lawyers were getting scorched but other beans were only receiving a slight dose of heat. The end result of my first experiment proved my assumption correct. Instead of an even roasting and coloring, my beans turned out to be a mix of shades from light milk chocolate to charcoal.

My first batch. Although some beans reached the optimal roast, others were just burnt black.

The cool thing about roasting such small batches, and about roasting in general, is that it’s a quick process. My first batch only took about 10 minutes and when I determined it was a failure, I just weighed out about half the original amount and switched the roaster back on. The second time, I saw the beans were swirling and dancing around in the chamber and starting to form an even roast. The recommendation from Sweet Maria’s for this particular batch of green, Sumatran beans was a medium to slightly darker roast.

My second attempt at roasting yielded a much more uniform and attractive result that gave off pleasant and fresh aromas.

After roasting, beans need to rest for at least four hours or a night. The next day, I rushed to grind up some of the beans, load up the coffee machine and settled in for something I hoped would be amazing. Many of the books I read described home roasting as a transformative experience in which you taste truly fresh coffee for the first time and realize you haven’t really been drinking coffee at all.

My first home roasted coffee, tasted, well like a cup of coffee.

To be honest it also tasted a little “green.” It was not bad, but it was not the transcendent coffee experience I had expected. I have about 2 1/2 pounds of green coffee, including two other types of beans, to tinker with and I hope I can dial in the roast a little better. For example, I think I could have roasted the beans for a little longer to bring out more flavors and reduce that green taste. Home roasting, may not yet be as satisfying for me as homebrewing, but it’s always fun to try something new.

Beverages for El Quatro de Julio

What happened to June? Anyway, the Fourth of July is around the corner and I decided to post a few recommendations for libations this holiday.

Not much can beat cold beer, barbecue and blowing shit up on the day we solemnly remember the founding fathers and their bravery, but everyone can use a little dose of variety in life.

Sparkling Dutch Red Sangria

For something a little sophisticated, try this Sangria mix. Sangria, a heady punch mixture of fruit and wine is great for parties, but it can sneak up on you. Be sure to use a premium Champagne for this recipe.

1 bottle Dry red wine

3 oz Orange Liqueur

3 oz Van Gogh Pomegranate Vodka

6 oz Grenadine

½ bottle Pomegranate juice

½ bottle Pommery Brut Royal Champagne

1 sliced Orange

Cinnamon sticks

Combine the first five ingredients. Add Champagne and give a quick stir.  Pour mixture over ice and add slices of orange. Garnish each glass with a cinnamon stick.

The Grateful Dead

My friend John was recently regaling me with tales of The Grateful Dead variation of the Long Island Ice Tea. (Trouble … only trouble.) Not a big fan of the band, but I got to say I think this cocktail could really liven any party up.

1 dash Chambord

2 oz sweet and sour mix

1/2 oz triple sec

1/2 oz tequila

1/2 oz rum

1/2 oz gin

1/2 oz vodka

Pour the ingredients into a Collins glass as listed.

A red, white and blue shot

You’re not going to wow everyone with the taste of this cocktail, but the presentation of a shot in good old red, white and blue will make everyone holler and forget about the fact that we lost to Ghana in the World Cup.

1/3 oz blue curacao
1/3 oz grenadine
1/3 oz peach schnapps
Pour each ingredient on top of each other using the back side of spoon to layer the liqueurs. Start with the grenadine and then the schnapps followed by the blue curacao.
Beer recommendation:
Laqunitas Dogtown Pale Ale. This brew has a light body to placate the lite beer drinkers at your party but with an excellent balance and pleasantly powerful hop presence to impress your beer snob buddies. Take a virtual tasting here.
Wine recommendation:
Indulge a little boasting here, but I’ve got to pick the 2009 Starmont Sauvignon Blanc, a wine that I helped make during last harvest. It’s not just my opinion this wine is good, read the recommendation by the esteemed wine writers of the SF Chronicle. “Full, powerful flavors of nectarine and Meyer lemon are edged by a subtle grassy, stony bite. Juicy and generous, with fruit that carries through.”