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What’s old is new

NPA Chardonnay ©DPaul Brown

Just after Christmas, thanks to a windfall of Williams-Sonoma gift cards, we purchased a Soda Club Penguin Soda Maker. We really enjoy sparkling water, but more or less stopped buying it out of guilt for the amount of bottle waste involved. That, and our preferred brand is Gerolsteiner, out of Germany, and we just couldn't justify consuming such an absurd amount of food miles for something as pedestrian as water, when we live in a society where what comes out of the tap is more than adequate.

Now, with the Penguin, we have four one-liter carafes that we reuse to carbonate our Hetch Hetchy. The carafe goes into the device, the top is lowered, and you press down on a lever, which releases CO2 into the water. It makes a series of amusing sounds, starting with a gurgling that escalates to a high-pitched whine, and then a satisfying PFFFF as you release the pressure. And voilà, sparkling water.

Shortly after we became Penguin addicts, I jokingly mused that they should also make a device that turns water into wine. They could call it the JesusTM. After all, we face the same issues of bottle waste and food miles with wine (though we do drink a lot of locally-sourced wines), and there's not really an alternative.

Or is there?

I recently made the acquaintance of a certain Hardy Wallace. Anyone who dabbles in the intersection of social media and food/wine may find that name familiar. Last year, Murphy-Goode winery held a contest to hire a social media "lifestyle correspondent." Out of 10 finalists, Hardy, who writes the blog Dirty South Wine, was selected, this kicking off a six-month gig as blogger, vlogger and all-around evangelist for the brand. At the end of that six months, Hardy opted to take things a different direction.

Among the many people Hardy befriended in his tenure was Kevin Kelley of Lioco and his own label, Salinia. Kelley was in the throes of starting up a new wine product, called The Natural Process Alliance, a.k.a., The NPA. Hardy found something he could be passionate about.

The NPA's manifesto goes beyond the garden-variety green practices that –thankfully! — are infiltrating the wine industry today. Sure, the grapes are organic at least in practice if not always certification, but that's just one piece of the puzzle. Kelley is taking winemaking back to its roots, if you'll pardon the expression.

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Punch drunk at Smuggler’s Cove

Tiki cocktails at Smuggler's CoveA few months ago, we made an investment in our cocktailian education by attending the Beverage Academy Tiki class at Bourbon & Branch. The good professor Martin Cate, formerly of Forbidden Island, waxed eloquent on the rise and fall of tiki culture in America.

Beginning with Don the Beachcomber’s 1934 Hollywood début and the advent of Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron’s empire of restaurants, tiki joints held the promise of something exotic and fun, a dose of escapism in a novelty mug. After World War II, soldiers came back with stories from the south seas, and tiki bars blossomed like island hibiscus all over the country. We were held rapt as Martin stepped through slides with images from the original haunts, decorated with palm fronds and fishermen’s nets.

Martin’s Power Point-fu was complemented by more practical learnings: Hands-on instruction on making classic tiki cocktails.

At their most basic, tiki drinks are punches and can trace their roots to the classic Planter’s Punch. According to Wikipedia, the first known print reference was in the August 8, 1908 edition of The New York Times:


This recipe I give to thee,
Dear brother in the heat.
Take two of sour (lime let it be)
To one and a half of sweet,
Of Old Jamaica pour three strong,
And add four parts of weak.
Then mix and drink. I do no wrong —
I know whereof I speak.

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Drink me: Pliny the Elder

Pliny the Elder

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Despite my name, I am comprised of at best 1/16 Irish blood, perhaps significantly less than that, but that doesn't deter me from enjoying the holiday. If you're planning to partake this St. Paddy's Day, please do not debase yourself with weak beer tainted with green food coloring. You'll respect yourself more in the morning if you opt for a lovely Guinness. Or, if like me you live in the Bay Area and want to go a bit more local, quaff a pint of my new favorite beer, Russian River Brewing Company's Pliny the Elder.

Like a lot of Northern California microbrews, Pliny is heady and hoppy; but unlike too many other hop-headed beers that offer nothing beyond one-noted bitterness or, worse, a metallic tinge, Pliny is rich and complex. Sure, it's hoppy, but it's layered with bright, refreshing notes of citrus, delicate sweetness of orange flower blossoms and elderflowers, and a healthy waft of the evening breeze in Humboldt County. Or so I'm told. At any rate, it's balanced and utterly drinkable.

My friend Julie has been waxing rhapsodic about this beer for a while now, but I only recently had the pleasure of partaking at a recent installment of Book Club at Toronado. Suffice to say, it was love at first sip.

As for the name? While Pliny is best known for having witnessed, and died during, the eruption at Vesuvius, Pliny wrote a significant work titled simply, Naturalis Historiae (Natural History), an encyclopedia cataloging a mangificent array of understanding of the natural world. Among his achievements in his work as a natural scientist was to give hops its botanical name, or so sayeth the brewers themselves. And this beer's hoppy application is as fitting a tribute as any.

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Daiquiri days and tiki nights


Food and drink bloggers tend to be a merry lot; DPaul and I are certainly not alone in our pursuits of things hedonistic. It generally takes little provocation to get a group of local bloggers to assemble to consume something of interest, in groups large or small.

Last year, Jen organized a come-as-you-are series of outings to case out the various bars and beverages featured in the 2008 edition of Food & Wine Cocktails, 17 of which were from Bay Area locales. A schedule was built, and week after week a cadre of bloggers and booze enthusiasts traipsed to watering holes in San Francisco and beyond in search of these rarefied concoctions. So regular and assiduously attended were these events, they became referred to as our "book club."

Sadly, as it turned out, relatively few of the cocktails in the book were available for the tasting. It stands to reason in an artisanal cocktail center like San Francisco that menus change with the moods and seasons, but some instances were just outright silly. At one location, the cocktail was on the menu, but is apparently never actually served, since they don't stock one key ingredient, a Belgian Trappist ale, that is both perishable and expensive. In one other case, the cocktail was not — and had actually never been — on the menu. Of the comparatively few cocktails featured in the book that were of offer, some were simply disappointing, though often there were superior drinks available at those locations. Ultimately, only a few stood out; my personal favorite was the Tommy Gun at Bar Drake.

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Photo courtesy Anita.

If there’s one thing I adore about the foodieblogosphere, it’s how inspiration spreads like ooey gooey jam over the peanut butter-covered surface of the web. Stephanie drew sufficient inspiration from my previous posts on making limoncello to pursue a batch or ten of her own. When I saw Stephanie after her first foray into ‘cellifying, she spoke of doing a grapefruitcello, and thus the inspiration came full circle.

Many of you may already be aware of my almost pathological aversion to orange, but I really adore grapefruit — all varieties, from the face-twistingly sour to pleasantly sweet-tart. I love the complex bitter-sour-sweetness of its flesh.

Straight away I made my way to the farmer’s market the following Saturday and found a booth bursting with glorious globes of various shapes and sizes. "So," I asked both naïvely and curiously, "which grapefruit has the best flavor in the zest?" They were stumped. So I grabbed an Oro Blanco and a couple pink-fleshed puppies and lugged them home.

Now, in my past few rounds of playing the ‘cello, I’ve learned a thing or three. First, as stated before, Everclear (the 151-proof stuff; we can’t buy the rocket-fuel 190 proof in California) is the way to go. Second, I like my ‘cellos a hair on the bitter side, not so cloyingly sweet, so I use a grater rather than a Microplane to extract a little pith along with my zest. And lastly, I dial down the sweetness even a touch more by making a simple syrup with a 4:5 ratio of sugar to water, rather than a standard 1:1.

The Pompelmocello, as I dubbed it (pompelmo being Italian for grapefruit), was a success. Surprisingly flavorful, it started off with a bright, orangey note, after which a pronounced grapefruit flavor came to rise, tailing off with a pleasantly lemony finish — the full spectrum of citrusy goodness. It was sweet without being too sweet, with an intruiging bitterness that tickled the sides of the tongue.

The ‘cello plays on — I currently have a massive batch (as in, almost five liters!) of limoncello going, a cuvee if you will of Lisbon lemons from Hillsborough and meyers from Potrero Hill. My standby recipe follows after the jump. Cin cin!

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Math is hard

A couple decades ago, Mattel had the misguided vision to release a talking Barbie doll, one of whose onion-skin-witty quips has apocryphally been forever captured as "Math is hard. Let's go shopping!" This Barbie and I, we're, like, BFFs . I…

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Taste-off: Carneros rosés


Ah, summer. Long, lazy days basking in the sun … oh, who am I kidding. At best it gets to 70ºF here. But there’s one summer treat I do like to indulge in regardless: Pink wines.

Now, I’m not talking about your sticky-sweet White Zinfandel [shudder], though some would argue that a glass of that, over ice on a blazing hot day is not unwelcome. But again, see above about the weather.

No, rather, I am referring to the pretty, pert and sometimes petulant rosé wines so popular in Europe yet all too often overlooked stateside. The French and Spanish are particularly fond of these wines, especially as a complement to summer lunches. I remember steaming-hot days in Barcelona, sipping rosato wines, almost unbelievably dry and crisp and redolent of ripe strawberries and pears.

Clearly, I’m not the only one with an appreciation for these lovelies. Paul at Champion Wine speaks directly from my own heart:

"…The word hedonist is often used to describe red wines that taste more
like pancake syrup than wine. In my world, rosé is the definition of
hedonistic – crisp, refreshing, light and lively. The kind of wine that
sings – an echo of the setting sun, an instant reminder of warm weather
and days outdoors…."

Did someone say hedonistic?

And so, after a recent trip up to wineries up in Carneros, we came back with a carful of gem-like pink bottles, just dying to be sipped. But though Paul states that pink wines are meant to be enjoyed and not analyzed, I couldn’t resist staging a little taste-off with a few good friends.

Carneros, for those not local, is the region spanning the southern reaches of both Sonoma and Napa counties, hugging the northern boundary of San Francisco Bay. Because of its proximity to the water, it enjoys a cooler, foggier climate, and so is ideal for grapes that require less intense conditions. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the primary crops here.

A word about the tasters:

Donna and Dennis have a penchant for northern Italian wines, particularly those of the Piemonte region, having spent a fair amount of time in that area. Jim would step over his own grandmother for a good Barolo. Matthew isn’t partial to any one region of varietal, though I would venture to say his is the most sensitive schnozz among us. DPaul, historically, had a thing for big zins, but lately has turned to lighter wines. And me, I’ve long been a pinot-holic (well before that movie), and have only in the last few years introduced whites, much less pinks, into my repertory.

I would categorize us all squarely in the camp of wine consumers rather than wine afficionados. Still, we know what we like. And so, armed with three chilled bottles, some crudely scribbled-upon paper bags and a scoring sheet lifted from a website, I coerced my friends into some comparative analysis of three rosés, all produced within a few miles of each other.

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Limoncello di Hillsborough


While the state of California was in the grip of the worst freeze in recent history, and citrus producers up and down the valley were suffering catastrophic losses, I enjoyed a bumper crop. Our friends Donna and Dennis had recently moved into a gorgeous house in Hillsborough, complete with a petite but prolific lemon tree in the back yard. One night, they brought us a paper shopping bag full of them.

Some were ready for use right away; others were still on the hard side and would benefit from a little quiet time in the corner, extending our enjoyment. Over the next couple of months, I made spaghetti al limone, chicken with fennel and lemon, a monster batch of preserved lemons and lord only knows how many vodka tonics. And we still had a mountain of the things left over.

I practically had to make limoncello.

I’ve been meaning to do so for quite some time. I’ve often been inspired to do so by my good friend Anita, a fine ‘cellist in her own right. She’s made not only limoncello but a seriously heady bergamocello, an ethereally perfumed Buddhacello (from a Buddha’s hand citron) and a difficult-to-name bloodorangecello, as well as any number of other interesting concoctions (such as a seriously complex nocino that I am still enjoying precious sips of, sparingly, two years later).

At its most basic definition, limoncello is simply the combination of a lemon-infused neutral liquor mixed with simple syrup. It’s less a recipe than a technique or, as I often think of such things, an equation. Algebra.


To wit: Limoncello is the product of lemon zest and vodka of a given proof, left together for a quantity of time, after which you strain out the zest; to which you then add a simple syrup of sugar and water and let it rest again for a period of time to mellow and blend. How much of each of those variables is what drives your final product.

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Drink me: Plumpjack 13-year bourbon


It’s easy to forget, when you’re firmly esconced in your own happy bubble of culinary joy, that mediocrity fills the world like so much styrofoam popcorn. The one surefire way to burst that bubble is air travel. For when you are on the plane, the universe of diverse and wonderful consumables is suddenly and horribly narrowed to a meager selection of subpar goods supply of which, in Soviet-era style, is prone to running out even before demand has been given the opportunity to arise.

Coming home from New York, wedged in a middle seat, I sought succor in the form of Jack Daniels to numb the psychic pain of the trip and help make the time pass faster. (This is another thing about air travel — the eerie extension of time, as if the fuselage of the plane is some kind of time machine with the preternatural power to turn hours into days. Small wonder I always feel years older when I deplane.)

Now, DPaul and I like us the bourbon. A lot. Having been to Kentucky something like 500 times, we have had the occasion to visit a few of the distilleries, like Maker’s Mark and Labrot & Graham (producer of Woodford Reserve). Many distilleries are in idyllic spots* full of natural beauty (fresh mountain stream water is, you see, a critical ingredient), peppered with quaint and country-fied cottages and cabins. Yes, it’s all very Disney, but they do cultivate a marvelous image of old-fashioned booze-making.

(Photo: DPaul Brown)

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