Infusion profusion

There are three citrus trees outside of our place in Carneros that are laden with fruit. I got more lemons, oranges and tangerines than I could ever possibly eat, so I figured I’d try my hand at infusing some vodka with fresh citrus flavors.

I picked up some large air tight jars, a handle of Svedka vodka (it’s cheap and pretty good) and picked off a multitude of fresh citrus fruit. Infusing is an incredibly simple procedure in which the alcohol in the vodka strips flavors out of whatever you may using to infuse. I made up two batches, one of just lemons and one with all three types of citrus as well as some fresh ginger and other spices. I’m going to let the vodka steep in my closet for about two weeks and then see what I have. I may have a sour mess, but what I’m hoping for is a fresh tasting vodka that I can just mix with some ice and club soda and, boom, it’s a cocktail.

Doing some cursory research online, I didn’t find much in terms of a scientific breakdown in how much of the flavoring agent should be mixed with the vodka, aside from “more flavor, more fruit” so I just loaded up the jars with as much sliced fruit that could fit. Hopefully this doesn’t make for too strong of an infusion.

You can infuse with anything. I’m sure you’ve all scene the numerous flavors in the liquor store, however my favorite homemade infusion I had was at a bar in Oregon where the bartender had made fresh pepper vodka using jalapenos and habenero peppers. The worst? Whiskey infused with bacon. Terrible.

Busy at the home brewery

Here's my glass carboy fermenter in my closet. The red cap is holding a traditional airlock that allows the carbon dioxide gas generated by fermentation to escape but blocks nasty bacteria from gaining entry and contaminating the brew. The "blow off" system was simply a piece of tubing running from the plastic cap down into that bucket that I had filled with about a gallon of water and a small dose of sanitizer.

New year, new brews. With work at the winery slowed after harvest, I’ve grabbed the opportunity to put down a couple of batches.

I’ve a stout in bottles right now that is slowly carbonating, and it’s a little off style in terms of body and hoppiness ( it’s a little too hoppy) but it’s kinda like Lost Coast Brewery’s Downtown Brown or even a lighter version of Eight Ball Stout. Light body, with some good roasted malt flavors and a hoppy finish. I’m hopeful that it will finish up nicely in bottle in time for a little more winter weather. It would be a great beer to enjoy with a whiskey on a cold foggy day.

In the fermenter right now is a double IPA with loads of hops and malt that’s humming right along. But perhaps I should say, burping right along. Because of the cold nights I’ve kept the fermenter in my closet rather than out in the barn where I usually stash it. Our night time lows of upper 30s to low 40s is just too cold for the little yeast beasties doing their thing turning sugars into alcohol.

Because of the high amounts of malt, or sugars, the yeast have been quite active causing the fermenting beer to bubble up with a great deal of force. This can pop the airlock that I usually put on the top of the fermentor so I run a piece of plastic tubing down from the top of the fermenter into a bucket of water. The tube allows carbon dioxide and foam to leave the fermenter and the water, with a dash of sanitizer, acts as a barrier to bacterial infection.

Fermentation started quite vigorously on Sunday evening. As the beer foam bubbled up out of the fermenter, the bubbles caused a constant, plopping sound followed by an occassional “burrrp” as a large volume of gas escaped from the tube. The fermenter was in my closet off of my bedroom and Christine and I couldn’t sleep at all. With the constant dripping she kept dreaming of leaking water, while I was struck by nigthmarish dreams of fermentation. (You know, stuck fermentations, not reaching the right final gravity, bacterial infection, I’m sure we’ve all had them from time to time.) By 3 a.m., we’d had enough and I pulled the tube out of the water.

Fermentation has slowed a bit and now I’m back to using just the regular airlock and it shouldn’t affect our sleep.

I’m enjoying brewing, but I’m already balancing my urge to expand operations with a reluctance to spend $1,000 on a 10 gallon, all grain brew structure like this beast.

Perhaps then I’ll just have to continue my amateur efforts while enjoying the fine products of the West Coast’s excellent breweries and events such as SF Beer Week.

Palm Springs: War birds, cocktails and the desert

After the plane had landed in Ontario and I had stumbled out of the jetway, a little bleary and buzzed from a couple of bloody m’s, I stopped in front of a pane of floor to ceiling windows that ran along the far wall of the airport terminal. There framed by a freeway and a limitless blue sky were some of the tallest mountains I had seen in a while.

Their jagged peaks covered in snow, the mountains stretched straight into the sky like a wall. I had heard the desert would be beautiful, the mountains impressive, but I’ll admit a NorCal bias in that I just can never, ever, believe that Southern California is pretty. We hadn’t even made it to the desert yet and I had been stopped short by my first sight of the San Jacinto Mountains.

Soon afterward, we were cruising Highway 10 headed east. Our rental reservation had been for a subcompact but instead we lucked into a free upgrade for a black and chrome Chrysler 300. The surging engine, sleek hood and sun reflecting off the chrome as we barreled through the desert at 85 mph made for a more appropriate entrance into Palm Springs than putt-putting into town in a Yaris like a pair of schmucks.

Our resort the Rancho Las Palmas. This view is pretty much what we enjoyed from our balcony.

The hotel was gorgeous. We snagged a room at the Rancho Las Palmas resort in Rancho Mirage. So, technically we weren’t in Palm Springs but it’s all the same really. Our room had a balcony that had an expansive view of the resort, a pond and the mountains far in the distance piercing the blue sky. We also overlooked the fifth fairway on the main course. The first afternoon in our room I put on my shorts and sandals and kicked my feet up with a glass of Jamesons on the rocks to watch groups of old duffers navigate a par 3 with a tight fairway and impressive water hazard. I wasn’t that shocked to see some blatant cheating.

Christine was there to relax. I had promised that I too would relax. We would spend a day lounging by the adults’ pool with frosty beverages and simple thoughts in our heads like: “Do I have room for an order of nachos? Can I get nachos poolside?” Well of course you can get nachos by the pool, but I can’t ever relax like that on vacation.

When I’m in a new town I just have to do something. Sitting by the pool can make me feel a little antsy. What did I do? Find the best wine bar, perhaps a legendary cocktail lounge where Sinantra and Deano used to haunt? No, I went to the Palm Springs Air Museum to see the largest collection of fully operational WWII combat aircraft. To this history buff and nerd, the museum may have been the best part of the trip. I was able to stroll beneath the wings of the planes that had won the war in the Pacific and Europe. I may have missed out on lounging, but I’ll never forget being able to stare down the sight of a .50 cal machine gun in the waist of a B-17 Flying Fortress. Yes, I got to walk through one of those great lumbering four engine bombers.

For New Year’s we hung out at the hotel. The place had three bars and each was rocking and the hotel staff had set up another bar and a dance floor in the lobby. It was interesting to hang out and mix out with the rich LA folks, the country club locals and a few yahoos like ourselves from out of town. The Palm Springs area is a network of  walled-in, planned communities with security gates in the front that seem more appropriate for the Green Zone in Baghdad. I haven’t seen too many seniors cruising in Bentley’s to get their scrips at CVS. On the outlying edges of the cities are the sprawling, dense neighborhoods of track homes with air conditioners on the windows and bars on the doors. The homes of the gardeners and the guys who bring up the room service.

But enough of the social commentary. The area has spectacular scenery. From the mountains juxtaposed with the golf courses in the cities to the desert. On New Year’s Day, Christine and I drove out to Joshua Tree National Park. The stillness and stark beauty of the park, which is accentuated with bizarre cacti and stone formations was an appropriate close for our trip. After an oasis of wealth and excess, it was refreshing to walk through a desert bereft of distraction.

Some drinking links

Sorry about the holiday stuff staying up on the blog a little too long. I was out of town for New Year’s and came back with a pretty bad sinus infection. I’m all drugged out, not in the fun way, and will post on my Palm Springs jaunt when I can, but in the meantime here’s some boozy links if you’re interested.

• The Chron’s wine editor has his picks of the most memorable wines of 2010 here. Most are pretty esoteric that only a true wine expert would recognize, but reading his list is just a fun little reminder about how much you don’t know about wine.

• Not in time for New Year’s, but still pretty interesting is a French study on the proper way to pour a glass of Champagne.

• Speaking of Champagne, this blogger is on a quest to drink a different one every day for a year. Godspeed to you good soul.

• A few weeks ago, my sister and brother in law spotted Joe Montana in a SF bar. Trying to find a way to connect to the 49er legend, my sis Googled his favorite drink on her iPhone and discovered it was reportedly a rum and coke. They delivered said drink to the great man and he thanked them kindly. Curious about other celebrity faves, I did a quick Google search and found this link, which purports that Barack Obama can’t get enough Bud Lite.

• Good news for local beer lovers in Napa and the area. The beverage group, Pelican Brands, finalized its purchase of Napa Smith brewery on Dec. 26. This means a the brewery’s finances have stabilized and we don’t have to worry about an awesome local brewery closing operations.


Merry Christmas and have a Happy New Year

Life is too short. Here’s a photo of a small bottle of fine Scoth whiskey that Christine purchased for me during her trip to Scotland back in 2004. The whiskey is not one of the finest, ultra-premium whiskeys out there but it’s hard to find in the States and pretty expensive for our modest means. The little 250 ml bottle cost quite a bit, even in 2004, and it was even more of a pinch because Christine purchased it in pre “Great Recession” British pounds.

Before I opened up this little gem, my friends derided and mocked me for even having a little 250 ml. of whiskey. "Oh did a Leprachaun sell you that?" mocked my friend Brendan. Well, last time I offer them something special.

This little bottle of Cragganmore Speyside lay hidden in my closet for several years. Too special to be enjoyed it made the move to three different houses and at one point probably was forgotten a few times.

Then on my 31st birthday about a month ago, I just decided to open it up and give it a taste. I don’t know much about Scotch, so I can’t really say this was the most amazing Scotch ever! but it was tasty and smooth. I can discern lengthy aging to smooth out the rough edges of peat, oak and alcohol notes that usually dictate in Scotch, so that was enjoyable.

I guess my point is that we often get caught up in the big picture of what we have, don’t have, want or perceive to need. Most times, however, there’s a small bottle, both figuratively and literally, tucked away in the back of your closet that you already have and all you need to do is make time to dig it out of storage and open it up.

Here’s to a New Year! Let’s hope that in 2011 “mixologists” will be replaced by good bartenders who know how to make a Gimlet, Syrah will get some respect, beer prices will at least stabilize so we won’t be paying $12.99 for a six pack of Banquet beer and we all have fun enjoying The Uncorked Life.

Big boy brewing in Fairfield

I lucked out last week by being able to tag along with the X Winery holiday party, which consisted of a behind the scenes VIP tour of the Anheuser-Busch brewery in Fairfield, just up I-80 from Napa.

While I had taken the free tour a few years ago, I jumped at the chance to take the VIP “Brewmaster” tours as these take the visitor deep into the bowls of the behemoth brewery as well as a sampling from a finishing tank. Super fresh Budweiser tastes like, well, Budweiser but it’s still pretty cool. And I do mean “cool.” The storage cellar is kept at around 36 degrees and the fun of the special tasting was diminished a bit when I was shaking and my hands were turning blue.

We got some swell swag, including a hat and beer glasses, and some great first-hand knowledge of production on such a massive scale it’s just amazing.

I thought I’d just post up a gallery of pics from the day’s tour:

(You can read more about the tour by going here:

What I’m drinking: Beer at $1 an ounce

The options for the beer lover these days have never been better. Go into any grocery story, or often even the lowliest of convience stores and you’ll find a plethora of beers to chose from.

Sierra Nevada and its speciality brews, Lagunitas and a sampling of foreign beers can be found almost everywhere. And in addition to these fine six packs one can also peruse shelves of even fancier 22 ounce bottles. These beers are often from ultra-micro breweries from across the nation and the world. The big bottles come with a big sticker price though, in the range of $9.99 to even a shocking $19.99 per bottle.

Recently I was hanging out with some buddies talking about Belgium brews and the American breweries that emulate the funky Belgian style. We were dropping names like the well-known Chimay to the more obscure Three Philosphers. I realized I hadn’t had some of these beers for a while probably because I’m not a huge fan of the Belgian style and I balk at buying beer at such a rate. With wine prices these days it’s often cheaper to pick up a couple of bottles of imported Shiraz then to buy a couple of sixers, let alone one of the special 22 ouncers.

That dog on the label kinda looks like CoCo. At $9.99 a bottle, I paused but Chrissy said let's get two of them. Not to beer and wine makers, pet owners still will buy almost anything with their dog on it.

But this blog is about experimentation, and living The Uncorked Life no matter the personal sacrifice. So at Whole Foods the other day I decided to drop down on some speciality 22 ounce bottles.

I picked up one bottle from an obscure brewery in Colorado because, well, the label featured a chocolate lab. The beer, the “Cellar Reserve” by Grand Teton Brewing Co., was part of the brewery’s signature artist-designed labels and a clerk at the store told me that the current bottles would be the last the store would have.

The beer was amazing. Hands down, one of the best Belgian style white ales I’ve ever tasted. This was so more than just a tasty beer; it had layers on layers of flavor that began with light, flowery all spice and coriander and then finished with sumptuous notes of hops. This was the type of beer that could complement and accentuate fine dining.

I also purchased a 22 of Allagash brewery’s special Curieux release. I was interested in this beer because it’s aged in small, oak barrels that had been used for aging Bourbon. The Bourbon barrel trend has become quite hot in the U.S. with brewmasters across the nation gaffling up any used Bourbon or other brown liquor barrels they can find to age their brews.

To be honest, I was a little disappointed. I had expected fireworks of deep flavor, and instead found the beer to be a bit bland. I could pick up a few notes of vanilla and some liquor alcohol notes, but I think that was about all I got from the Bourbon oak. The rest of the beer was a bit sour.

And at $19.99 for a 22 ounce bottle of the stuff, I have to admit that perhaps my uninterest was fueled by the bitterness in my mouth after having spent what I had.

It is what it is. I recommend tasting through these speciality brews when you can, because you can truly taste something rare and amazing. (Another good example is the Sierra Nevada Estate Beer, fantastic, and probably one of the few beers you’ll find with a wax sealed bottle cap.) Unfortunately you can also taste a clunker.