Sunday, July 14, 2013

Viticultural Pursuits

I started a new job as a bartender last month, and I have to say it's great to be back behind the bar serving drinks and meeting new customers, though it's a very different sort of place from the pub I worked in for several years.  Rather than being a campus bar where craft beer, sarcasm, board games, Simpsons-inspired daily specials, and trivia nights fill up the weekly schedule, this is a full-fledged bar in a classy downtown restaurant, with a bar well-stocked with mysterious concoctions like Amaro and Campari, and where the martini and cocktails list is several pages long, and the wine list even longer.  While there's still some different beers to be had on tap to which I can provide some helpful knowledge and expertise, I'm still well outside of my element.  It can be challenging, but I've learned a great deal over the past few weeks, and that's the most important thing.

While beer will always be my passion, recently I find myself increasingly drawn to other Potent Potables in the greater world of booze, and want to learn more about them.  This is not to say that I've reached my peak with beer - far, far from it.  Fully exploring the world of beer is a project that would take several lifetimes to achieve, and I fully intend to make a serious go at it.  But the fact of the matter is I feel I have a pretty firm grounding in the many different styles of beer, how they are produced, and who are the big players in the craft beer scene, and so I think it's time to start exploring other realms of drinkery as well.   Expand my horizons, walk new paths, that sort of thing, especially when it affects my work.  But don't worry - the blog will still be here, and will still receive (haphazard) updates from me about new discoveries, beer news and other flights of beer fancy that I embark upon!

The one beverage that continues to confuse and fascinate me over the years has been wine.  I can safely say that, despite working at a restaurant that puts a high emphasis on wine and having consumed the stuff throughout my drinking career  - I still don't know shit about wine.  Well, I know a few things, I guess, but I couldn't tell a good wine from a terrible one, or a Merlot from a Cab Franc (Right? That's a type of grape, isn't it?).  There are reds I like ("that one is fruity, that one is smoky, that one is dry"), and reds I don't ("too red").  I just know that wine is something that I occasionally have with dinner, or at a wedding, and that it's something adults tend to start getting really interested in as they start settling down, resulting in a series of playful cocktail napkins and t-shirts extolling the benefits of good wine, but I haven't made much of a stab at all in figuring it all out.  Until now.

Fig 1: The Wine Making Process
I guess part of my reluctance towards exploring wine is related to my obsession with beer.  Since some Armenian or Iranian king declared that wine was the drink of royalty, civilization and culture, beer has been on the defensive.  From that point forward, cheap, barbarian beer had no chance against the awesome majesty of a goblet of wine; the Greeks simply ignored it, the Persians ditched it.  Because of this, wine has always been associated with high society, special occasions, and a higher standard of living; meanwhile beer is the drink of the working schmo, like Norm Petersen, Drew Carey or Homer Simpson.  I recently watched the entire series of Downton Abbey and there's a very telling scene where the aristocratic Lord Grantham and his family are reluctantly hosting a couple of uncouth Irishmen, who clearly have no interest in any pre-dinner wine or the other typical beverages of the elite, and so they ask the butler to bring them some beer.  The look of utter disdain and disapproval on Carson's face when he announces that he will have to check the cellar shows just how lowly-regarded beer is in that household.  

And so it seems that part of the whole new craft beer 'movement' has been to distinguish itself from wine or, conversely, show that beer is similar or even superior to wine, because it can be enjoyed in ways normally associated with wine (beer tastings, beer travelling, pairing with food, cellaring).  I admit myself a bit guilty of this, eschewing wine for beer almost as a matter of principle.  After all, how different are red wines from each other, really?  Certainly not as different as a glass of imperial stout is from a Czech Pilsner, an American IPA or a Belgian lambic.  But recently, I have been asking myself...why?  Why not do both?  There are similarities and crossover moments between the two beverages that showcase how both can, and should be appreciated.  As just one example, certain beers, like Belgian dark ales and certain IPAs have wine-like qualities, and recently there has been a trend to use decidedly 'wine-like' hops, such as New Zealand's Nelson Sauvin variety in big pale ales.  Really, though, the question I have to ask myself is: why should I cut out an entire world of drinking possibilities due to some pissing match whose origins are in Antiquity?  

Through a happy strike of providence, while perusing the shelves of a well-stocked Detroit beer store before attending a Tigers game (blog entry on that forthcoming!), I found an example of this possible unity between Team Beer and Team Wine.  A beer brewed alongside Syrah wine grapes! Of all the good fortune!  One that brewed by one of the giants of the craft beer world - Dogfish Head of Delaware, no less!  I took this as a sign from above to carry on my noble, Bacchanalian quest to learn more about wine.  But like the infant dipping his big toe into the water, afraid to jump all the way in, I'm perfectly content to dip my toes into the world of wine in this little way first, while still remaining comfortable on the safe shores of beerdom.

Beer: Dogfish Head Sixty One
Brewery: Dogfish Head (Milton, Delaware)
Type: American IPA
ABV: 6.5%

SUSPECT WINE KNOWLEDGE ALERT!  Again, to remind everyone, I really don't know shit about wine, so this section will probably be full of omissions, errors and downright lies.  You have been warned.

As the story goes, in recent months Dogfish founder Sam Calagione and the rest of his cohorts have taken to drinking their flagship beer, 60 Minute IPA with a little splash of red wine in the glass - just to give the beer a little something else.  They so enjoyed the combination that earlier this year, they experimented with a brew that did just that - combined the hoppy bitterness of the 60 Minute with the dry, spicy and fruity notes of must from Syrah wine grapes, grown in California  Syrah is the French term for what we call Shiraz (which I have learned recently is pronounced Shi-razz, not Shi-rah), and the world seems to be divided over what the grape is called, with France, the US, Argentina and Europe opting for Syrah, and with colonial buddies Canada, Australia and South Africa.  Syrah is a fuller bodied wine, which usually has a darker fruit taste to it (like currant or blackberry), and with an astringent, peppery finish.  Depends on where its grown, the year and such, but that's about all I know about Syrah.  The result of all this is Dogfish Head Sixty-One, which is the 60 Minute with that one extra ingredient.  This brew is Dogfish's first year-round release since 2007, which is quite surprising, considering how many seasonal brews are in their repertoire.

So how does this all look like when put together?

Poured into my stalwart drinking champion, the new Duvel goblet, which I feel really deserves to have some quality brews inside, after the mighty career of its predecessor.  The wine quality to this brew is evident immediately, as rather than the tawny, caramel colour of its 60 Minute IPA base, Sixty-One has a lovely light red wine hue - similar to the colour of a good Pinot Noir.   Pour produces a half inch of light pink foam, which recedes into a thick ring with some streaks of lacing.

Interesting nose of grape skins, muskiness, grapefruit, caramel, a bit of chocolate, currant.  Swirling this brew is an absolute must.  Certainly intriguing, to say the least.

Tasty brew - I'm enjoying this one a great deal.  Since it's been quite a long time since I've had a 60 Minute, I'm finding I'm able to enjoy the brew for what it is, rather than as a comparison, which helps a bit.  Dry red wine, grapefruit hops, mild black currant and cherry, a touch of yeast, and a dry bitter finish with a hint of pepper, though not as strong as in a bold glass of Syrah. Interesting beer.

This is a brew that I have spent a considerable amount of time sipping in an attempt to pull all the pieces together, and so far the result has been pretty good. There's a lot to pick out here, and so this brew would be both an excellent slow sipper or a fine summer afternoon quaffer.  Take your pick.  I'd really need to sit this one next to the 60 Minute to see what has been changed or improved between the two, but as it stands I count myself as a fan of the Sixty One.  (Grade: B+)

Looking forward to a summer of good beer and good wine, and I wish the same to all of you!

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