Thursday, March 15, 2012

White House Wines: Embargo Broken

Well, that didn't take long. Despite Obama Administration efforts to keep secret the wines poured at last night's White House dinner for UK Prime Minister David Cameron and his wife, we now can report that two of the four were Californian, while one each was from Virginia and Washington state. Whether this geographical diversity has more to do with smart electoral politics than smart culinary matchmaking is solely a matter of conjecture.

At any rate, thanks to the tasting notes of one guest at the dinner, Eric Levine, founder of the wine website CellarTracker, and Tyler Coleman, founder of the blog Dr. Vino, we know that the crisped halibut with potato crust was accompanied by the Peter Michael 2009 Sonoma County Knights Valley Ma Belle-Fille Chardonnay, while the bison Wellington was paired Leonetti Cellar 2008 Walla Walla Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. The chardonnay sells for about $80, the cabernet sauvignon $65.

The other wines were the Thibaut-Janisson Brut from Virginia and the Iron Horse Vineyards 2007 Sonoma County Green Valley Russian Cuvee, the latter a particularly peculiar choice to accompany what sounds like an especially busy and rich dessert - steamed lemon pudding on Newton Pippin apples with a sauce of Idaho huckleberries.

For what Levine made of the pairings, visit Dr. Vino. In past administrations, the menu for state dinners at the White House specified the wine to be poured with each course. The Obama Administration, without explanation, has suspended that practice, perhaps because of the expense of some of the wines it has selected in these recessionary times, perhaps because of criticism over its occasionally unorthodox pairing of food and wine. Last night's menu, which goes into enlightening detail concerning the traditions and ingredients of the dishes, simply says of the wines: "An American wine will be paired with each course."

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Cuttings From The Online Vineyard

    Remembering the Civil War, sweetly
  • The latest campaign of the Civil War involves reds and whites rather than Blues and Grays. With the sesquicentennial of the War Between the States under way, wineries in Virginia are commemorating the anniversary by promoting a self-guided tour of commonwealth battlefields and tasting rooms. Visit a war site, then a nearby tasting room, urges the Virginia Wine Board. Not sure how the flavor of one will affect the taste of the other, but stranger pairings no doubt have been tried in the country's wine culture. Virginia visitors can pick up a "passport" along the way to be stamped at each winery on the tour, giving themselves a kind of medal of valor for the long and exhausting trek. Participating wineries also are releasing 30 special wines that pay tribute to notable battlegrounds and pivotal characters in the state. While many of the labels take a balanced or neutral position concerning the conflict, the Confederacy overall gets more favorable acknowledgement. One proprietary wine, "Traveller," even is named in tribute to Gen. Robert E. Lee's horse.
  • Since at least the Ronald Reagan Administration, California vintners have looked forward to the release of menus for state dinners at the White House. They, with wine enthusiasts generally, wanted to see what wines were chosen to accompany the featured courses. Today, copies of many menus from the Reagan and subsequent administrations hang in the tasting rooms of wineries that were blessed with having one or more of their wines chosen to be poured for this or that head of state. That tradition apparently is ending, or at least being interrupted, by the Obama Administration, which seems fearful that voters uneasy over the shaky economy might become downright angry when they learn that the President is serving a prime minister a $100 California chardonnay, and not just one bottle, but several. Or maybe the President's lack of transparency has less to do with election-year politics than with culinary embarrassment. The White House hospitality staff, after all, has been stung by foodie criticism concerning its pairing of food and wine for heads of state, such as a high-alcohol grenache with "coconut-aged basmati" and "green curry prawns with smoked collard greens" for Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh. At any rate, Margaret Talev of Bloomberg News, a former colleague of McClatchy Newspapers, pulled together this comprehensive and fair report on the whole issue. Eventually, of course, the identities of the wines will become known; leaks at the White House aren't unheard of, and few vintners are the silent type.
  • Has the FBI checked out Rudy Kurniawan's art collection? He's the 35-year-old Indonesian who FBI agents arrested last week in what could turn out to be the largest wine-fraud case in the nation's history. Six years ago, Corie Brown, then a writer for the Los Angeles Time (now she's general manager of the the culinary website Zester Daily), wrote this telling profile of Kurniawan, who was maintaining an expensive and high-profile presence on the wine-auction circuit. In view of subsequent developments, Brown's feature  includes this gem of a paragraph: "There are serious pitfalls to buying old wine, Kurniawan says. Counterfeit wines and wines damaged during shipment or poor storage are common. Only after he'd tasted hundreds of bottles did Kurniawan learn how to spot the fakes, he says. He studies the corks for signs of tampering, knows the telling details of the labels for all of the top wines, and can spot bottle markings that don't match that bottle's label." Just as intriguing is her closing paragraph, in which Kurniawan says his new passion is collecting art. For reaction among wine collectors to word of Kurniawan's arrest, be sure to read the comments at the end of this posting at Mike Steinberger's Wine

Monday, March 5, 2012

Wine Today, Saint Tomorrow?

This will shock Arizona conservatives, but one of the two prominent people representing the state at the U.S. Capitol looks to be an illegal immigrant. We're not talking of either of Arizona's U.S. Senators, but of one of the state's two sculptures in the National Statuary Hall.

That would be the statue of Eusebio Francisco Kino, a Jesuit missionary of such humanity and zeal that Vatican officials are considering him for sainthood.

I was introduced to Eusebio Francisco Kino through wine, but not altar wine, though I suppose it could be. Rather, "Padre Kino" is a brand of Industrias Vinicolas Pedro Domecq, a scattering of Mexican vineyards and wineries with headquarters in Mexico City. Under "Padre Kino," Domecq releases two wines, a Vino Blanco and a Vino Tinto. They're packaged in one-liter clear-glass carafes with a pop-off lid. Rare is the supermarket in Mexico that doesn't stock both the white and the red. They customarily sell for no more than 44 pesos per liter, or about $3.50 in U.S. currency at the current rate of exchange. They reputedly are Mexico's most popular wines, though I've been unable to verify that.

Stylistically, "Padre Kino" wines aren't far removed from the simple everyday jug wines that emerged from California's San Joaquin Valley early in the evolution of the state's wine trade. They're viscous, sweet and fresh. The white is a touch floral and peachy. The red is the more interesting of the two, with a note of spiciness to provide its only fetching complication. Their labels suggest they be served chilled, and used as the foundation for sangria.

What the original Padre Kino would think of the wines is anybody's guess. He was accomplished in many disciplines, including cartography, exploration, horsemanship, astronomy, ranching and writing, but he seems not to have had much of a hand in tending vineyards and making wines. He's recognized mostly, however, for building missions in Baja California and the Pimeria Alta, the vast region that includes the upper portion of the northern Mexican state of Sonora and the lower portion of the state of Arizona. Missions, of course, were instrumental in cultivating an appreciation for wine during the West's development.

In 1965, U.S. and Arizona officials dedicated a statue to Padre Kino at the Capitol. At that time, Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall praised Padre Kino as a missionary who "came not to conquer, but to build." Another speaker on that day, the Rev. Ernest J. Burrus, head of the Historical Institute of the Jesuit Fathers, noted that Eusebio Kino, born in 1645 at Segno in the Tyrolese Alps, sought passage to the New World from Spain in early 1681. When Kino found that the quota for foreigners already was filled, he performed what may have been his first miracle: "His name was changed from Eusebio Kino to Eusebio Chavez, his birthplace was altered from Segno, Italy, to Cordoba in Spain, and Kino was on his way to the New World, which he reached at Veracruz, Mexico" that spring, said the Rev. Burrus.

Vatican stamp honors Padre Kino
While that might sound like a fishy way to emigrate, nobody holds Kino's sleight-of-hand against him today. To the contrary, his stature only seems to be growing. Throughout the Southwest and in northern Mexico he's celebrated in songs, stamps, statues and even a symphony. The Kino Border Institute is a group of Jesuit brothers who provide humanitarian aid to migrants deported to Mexico with little more than the clothes on their back. The Kino Heritage Society of Tucson maintains a store where it sells statues and books inspired by the padre, but not wine. The puebla Magdalena, where Padre Kino died on March 15, 1711, was renamed Magdalena de Kino in 1989. And in 2006, proponents of the canonization of Padre Kino delivered 67 kilos of documents to the Vatican detailing his good works, which included brokering peace between warring Indian tribes and gaining for indigenous peoples of the Pimeria Alta immunity from compulsory labor at Spanish mines and haciendas. If I were a Mexican or Arizonian vintner, I'd be seeking to trademark the brand "Saint Kino."