Hopes for a better vintage

A conversation with winemaker Mark Neal

On several Napa Valley winery tours, my wife and I were asked by the tasting room manager what plans we had for our visit. Our response usually was, “To visit the best wineries in the valley recommended by our friend, Mark Neal.” That was always greeted with a smile; Mark is well-known in the valley, an authority on vineyard farming and experienced in producing some of the best wines from his vineyards in the valley and on the slopes of Howell Mountain. I’ve known Mark for about 15 years. We met at Leary’s Fine Wines & Spirits in Newburyport, Mass., and I was one of the people who convinced him to sell his wines in New Hampshire.

Recently Mark and I had a long phone conversation about his years in the wine business with some follow-up questions by email; here (edited and condensed) are his responses to my questions.

How did you get involved in the production of fine wines?

Upon returning from the Korean War, myfather, Jack Neal, worked for other farmers, managing their ranches and orchards. … In 1968 he formed his own company, Jack Neal & Son, to manage these ranches and orchards, the same year I bought my first tractor.

When did you begin to buy land and grow your own grapes for wine?

At the age of 20 I bought my first property, 1½ miles away from my parents in Rutherford. … In 1990 I bought land on Howell Mountain to develop into a vineyard. … Our first wine from this property was produced in 1998.

The year 2020 has been a challenging year for all of us. Napa Valley was much in the news twice, with fires threatening the valley from different directions. What have been the effects of these fires?

The Aug. 17 LNU fire … was in the eastern part of Napa County and it headed east. The second fire, called the Glass Fire … started Sept. 27 and came down Calistoga to St. Helena … then crossed over the valley…. The fires spread rapidly because of a surplus of deadwood within the forests. These trees typically have a lifespan of 30 to 40 years, and the forests must be managed. This has not happened, and in its path not only did [the fire] devastate the forest but [it] destroyed many wineries, homes and vineyards. Both fires left the smoke and ash to settle on the grapes for weeks. Our grapes were damaged by smoke and ash, so we didn’t make wine this year … You cannot make ultra-premium wine with damaged fruit or with these conditions that were left from the smoke that would have resulted in a smoke-tainted wine.

However, beyond losing one vintage, a greater cost has come as a result of the continuing Covid shutdowns. This not only has sent ripples through the vineyards but through the entire distribution chain with the closing of restaurants, other businesses, and employment.

What is the biggest challenge you and/or the California wine industry faces in 2021? 

I believe that [the impact of] Covid 19 … will continue into the 2021 wine business. …We [have] already seen the destruction of wine sales in the restaurants and wine retail shops in the last nine months. Some have shut the door for good. Some I believe held on for the holiday rush and that of course has been shut down.

What is the biggest opportunity of 2021? 

We will continue to strengthen relationships with our distributors, retail and restaurants … to meet everyone’s needs during these times. … We will also continue to support and grow our direct-to-consumer segment. 

Neal Family Vineyards has several wines available at the New Hampshire Liquor & Wine Outlets. The 2018 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc, priced at $19.99 andsourced from the Rutherford Vineyards, has tropical notes of pineapple and citric, with a clean finish. The 2017 Rutherford Dust Vineyard Zinfandel, priced at $23.99, has a bit of petite syrah added to it, enhancing the fruit. The 2015 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, priced at $49.99, is superb with great dark cherry notes and a long finish.

Featured Photo: Mark, with sales marketing director and daughter Jessica, and winemaker Jordan Stanley. Courtesy photo.

An adventure in sesame: Drinks with John Fladd

Do you remember reading those Choose Your Own Adventure books when you were a kid?
You’d get to a turning point in a story, then find instructions like:
“To poke the sleeping bear with a stick, turn to page 130.
To run away from the sleeping bear as fast as you can, turn to page 170.”
So, then you’d turn to page 170, and read something like:
“Oh, no! You run away so fast that you don’t watch where you are going and ram into an oak tree, dislodging a porcupine, which falls on you. You scream so loudly that you wake the bear, who eats you, then picks his teeth with the quills. The End.”
This drink is a little like that, minus the hostile wildlife. It is an adventure in sesame.
I’ve been thinking a lot about fat-washing, lately. Fat-washing is what upscale bartenders call a method of infusing alcohol with the flavor of something oily. You hear occasionally about bacon-washed bourbon, or butter-washed rum. Almost any food that is fat-soluble is also soluble in alcohol. Shmancy bartenders can use that chemical loophole to add background notes to a cocktail. Theoretically, you could use this technique to make a peanut butter and jelly martini, for instance. (Actually, that’s not a bad idea. Let me write that down…)
A week or so ago, it occurred to me that if you can fat-wash peanut butter, couldn’t you do the same thing with tahini, the sesame paste used in hummus? I adapted a recipe for peanut butter-washed bourbon:

Tahini Rum

1 liter inexpensive white rum (As usual, you probably don’t want to use your good stuff, when you are covering up most of the subtle flavors with tahini. I used Mr. Boston.)
16 oz. tahini (I like Krinos.)

  1. Combine rum and tahini in a very large jar or other air-tight container. Shake with great vigor.
  2. Store the jar somewhere warm and dark for seven days, shaking twice per day.
  3. Strain through a fine mesh strainer, then filter through a coffee filter.

This results in a fantastic sesame rum. It is silver in color. It is smooth and tastes delicious. You could easily sit in an armchair with a brandy snifter of the stuff. There is, however, a drawback:
The rum and the tahini have spent a week getting their groove on. At the end of it, the rum has gotten everything she wants out of this fling, says, “Well, this was fun…” and goes on her way. The tahini, on the other hand, has turned into Rick Astley, and is determined that he is never going to give her up.
As much as the rum has bonded with the tahini, the tahini has bonded with the rum, and without the use of a lab-grade centrifuge — which my wife will not let me buy — a liter of rum nets you between 10 and 12 ounces of finished product. Given that there was a relatively small investment in the rum to begin with, that might be OK.
But there is another way:

Sesame Rum No. 2

1 cup white sesame seeds
4 cups white rum

  1. Over medium-low heat, toast the sesame seeds in a small skillet, stirring constantly, until they have turned the color of a graham cracker or a lion.
  2. Transfer seeds to the same large jar or airtight container. Add the rum. There will be a satisfying sizzle.
  3. Shake, then store in the same warm, dark place for four days, shaking twice per day.
  4. Filter through a coffee filter.

This sesame rum is not as smooth and silvery as its little brother, but it is also delicious. It has a deep golden color and really pops in your mouth, shouting, “It’s SESAME TIME, Baby!”
And you net about a quart of rum.
So, now you’ve effectively made the first of your Choose Your Own Cocktail choices — silvery and sleek, or bold and bronzy.
Here is your second choice:
The Vera Cruz Chameleon
3 oz. Tahini rum
3 gr. (a very small handful) cilantro
¼ oz. simple syrup
Tonic water to top (I like Fever Tree)
Tiny ice cubes

  1. Rinse the cilantro, then muddle it thoroughly in the bottom of a cocktail shaker.
  2. Add rum, then dry shake. (This means without ice.) This will allow the alcohol to extract color and flavor from the cilantro.
  3. Add ice and simple syrup, then shake again, until cold.
  4. Strain into a large glass, over tiny ice cubes.
  5. Top with tonic, then stir gently.

This is really delicious. The first flavor to hit you is the cilantro, but there is a delightful, smooth sesame aftertaste. If you are a cilantro fan — and of course you are, because you are smart and tasteful — you will love this.
But wait! What’s that you say? You’re not a cilantro fan? That’s very sad, but I’ve got you covered there, too.

The Lebanese Chameleon

3 oz. Sesame Rum No. 2
3 gr. (a very small handful) flat-leaf parsley
¼ oz. simple syrup
Tonic water to top
Tiny ice cubes

  1. Rinse, muddle and dry shake the parsley as above. Do NOT shake a second time.
  2. Filter your parsley/sesame rum through a coffee filter, into a tall glass, half filled with tiny ice cubes.
  3. Add the simple syrup and stir vigorously.
  4. Top with tonic, then stir again, this time gently.
  5. Drink with immense satisfaction.

So, do you remember that classic of American literature, The Cat In The Hat Comes Back? The one where the cat leaves a greasy pink bathtub ring that threatens to engulf the neighborhood? If you don’t filter the parsley rum, you will get the same stain, but in swamp green. It will taste delicious but will not look appetizing. If you want to skip the filtering step, drink this cocktail in a tiki mug.
A note on tiny ice cubes: I recently discovered that you can buy small silicone ice trays that make tiny (about ¼-inch) ice cubes that are like crushed ice, but better! They chill your drink extremely well and they look really, really cool.
So you can make a cilantro-based cocktail with tahini rum or sesame rum, or use the same recipe — again, with your choice of rums — with parsley, instead. You are somewhat spoiled for choice.
And there are no bears.
John Fladd is a veteran Hippo writer, a father, writer and cocktail enthusiast, living in New Hampshire.

Featured Photo: The Vera Cruz Chameleon. Photo by John Fladd.

’Tis the season

Beers for the holidays

You need some beer to get you through the rest of 2020. Has a truer statement ever been made?
In a year like no other, I think we’re all eager to get the rest of this year over with. Yes, OK, we should probably take a minute and try to enjoy a subdued holiday season, but really, let’s get 2020 in the rearview mirror as quickly as possible.
Beer isn’t going to help the end of the year get here any faster, but maybe it will help make the road a little less bumpy and the holidays a little more enjoyable. Well, we can all hope.
We’re celebrating the holidays with fewer people all together this year, but I think we’re still all looking for the same things when it comes to beer at this time of year: rich, malty, maybe a little sweet and maybe with a little spice. I’m thinking flavors of chocolate, caramel, mint, nutmeg and vanilla, and so on.
Here are a few beers to help get you through the holidays and through the rest of the minefield that is 2020.

Kringle’s Krook by Portsmouth Brewery (Portsmouth)
This robust black ale has plenty of roasty, toasty malt character and it’s balanced out by sweet flavors thanks to the addition of candy canes and fresh mint—so yes, this is like drinking a peppermint patty in beer form. A seasonal treat for sure.

Sundae Nights Mint Chocolate Chip Stout by Kettlehead Brewing (Tilton)
Wow. If Kringle’s Krook is a peppermint patty in beer form, it sure sounds like this one is mint chocolate chip ice cream in beer form. This imperial milk stout, which comes in at 10.8 percent ABV, is brewed with cocoa nibs, mint and a “heavy dose” of milk sugar, says the brewery. My goodness — I look forward to trying this indulgent brew.

Bell’s Christmas Ale by Bell’s Brewery (Comstock, Mich.)
My dad said he and my grandfather used to take the Samuel Adams Scotch Ale and mix it with a Budweiser to lighten it up in terms of body and flavor, as the brew was quite “strong.” Look, I was just a kid when he told me this, and at that time who was I to question the move? I’m an actual adult now and as such I have questions, like, I don’t know, maybe just don’t buy that particular beer if you need to water it down? I don’t understand. Anyway, Bell’s Christmas Ale is a bold, richly flavored brew with big notes of caramel and a nice touch of warming alcohol — perfect for sipping by the fire.

Winter by Wachusett Brewing Co. (Westminster, Mass.)
This is a nostalgic pick for me from an underrated brewery as many family holiday gatherings featured this brew as a prime selection. Winter features a traditional holiday bouquet of vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice in a roasty, toasty brew that doesn’t overpower your palate. Extremely well-balanced, Winter is the quintessential holiday brew.

Udder Vanilla Milk Stout by Loaded Questions Brewing Co. (Portsmouth)
I haven’t tried this one but when you combine lactose, vanilla and chocolate malt together in a beer, are we not talking about a glass of chocolate milk? What could possibly be wrong with this one? The brewery says it has “restrained sweetness,” which I think suggests this brew might have a good bit of versatility, too.

What’s in My Fridge
Pompadour by Schilling Beer Co. (Littleton)
This is about as good an American pale ale as I’ve ever had. It’s been a few years since I’ve had this one and it just did not disappoint. Characterized by flavors of citrus, peach and maybe apricot, this is easy drinking and delicious. Absolutely one of my favorite beers of all time. Cheers!

Featured Photo: Beer is your friend as we close out 2020. Photo courtesy Portsmouth Brewery.

Mulled wine by the fire

Looking for a winter drink? Warm up with spices

The days are getting shorter and the nights cooler. The holiday season is upon us and the first snow has arrived. Wish to gather with friends? One way to gather with another couple or two is in your driveway or back yard around the firepit sipping on mulled wine.

Hot spiced wine, or mulled wine, has been around forever, it seems. Depending on its cultural origins, it may be known as glühwein, vino caliente, glögg, vin brulé, bisschopswijn, vin chaud, candola, vinho quente, or by other monikers. Mulled wine exists in just about every European culture and the recipes for making it appear to be limitless. In England mulled wine is known as Wassail, a name whose origins are Anglo Saxon. Like Christmas, this hot punch transformed itself from pagan rites to revolve around the coldest, darkest nights of the year. In its earliest form it was a drink made from mulled ale, curdled cream, roasted apples, eggs, cloves, ginger, nutmeg and sugar. It was served from huge bowls on New Year’s Eve and Twelfth Night (Jan. 6). This warm drink took on a significant cultural identity as through the centuries it was used to toast the holidays.

Hot mulled wine can be a simple concoction prepared in a slow cooker or over the flames of that fire pit. In its simplest forms the ingredients consist of a bottle of robust red wine, an orange (or oranges) sliced into rounds, a half dozen whole cloves, a couple of cinnamon sticks, some star anise, honey to taste, and if you want, a measure of brandy. It takes literally five minutes to make and is scalable from two servings to enough for a large holiday gathering (for next year).

For the wine, I selected Petite Petit by Michael David (originally priced at $19.99, on sale at the New Hampshire Liquor & Wine Outlets at $12.95). This wine is 85 percent petite sirah and 15 percent petit verdot. It is large and fruity with aromas of dark fruit, raspberry and plum. To the taste the black cherry “jammy” flavor comes through with some oak on the edges. This wine is perfect to use as a base for this concoction, as it will hold up well with the additions of fruit and spices. It is well-stocked throughout the state, and the price is so attractive! The petite sirah produces a deep-colored, robust, full-bodied peppery wine, with some tannins, that ages well. The petit verdot, used in blending the famous Bordeaux wines, has a dry, full-bodied taste of blackberry. Like the petite sirah, the strong tannins and high alcohol in the wine from this varietal allow it to age beautifully. It is perfectly matched to the petite sirah! These grapes are grown in Lodi, in San Joaquin County, in the center portion of California’s Central Valley. With long hot summers, these grapes are allowed to ripen well to produce a lot of sugar.

Now, how to make mulled wine: Combine your ingredients in a saucepan and give them a stir. Heat the wine until it just barely reaches a simmer over medium heat. Remember, alcohol boils off at 173 degrees (F), so be careful. Reduce the heat, cover and let simmer for 15 minutes or so. Using a strainer remove the cloves, cinnamon sticks and star anise, and serve in heat-proof mugs garnished with the fruit and cinnamon sticks. Remember, this recipe is very flexible. You can include apple cider or orange juice in the mix. You can use sugar instead of the honey for a sweetener, although it is not as rich as honey. Additional fruit can include thinly sliced apples or frozen pitted cherries. Additional spices can include ginger, peeled and sliced, and a vanilla bean cut open from end to end. The options are limitless and the possibilities endless.

Don’t let the cold, dark December days (and Covid) get to you. Invite a couple or two to gather around the fire pit and share the warmth of the holidays with a steaming mug of hot mulled wine. Savor the moments and cherish the memories of this time when we must be ever so creative in how we can remain connected.

Featured Photo: Courtesy photo

The Blue Train

Shortly after the end of the First World War, it became fashionable for wealthy British to spend at least part of their winter in Southern France. Their money went further there and the Riviera had been spared the worst of the destruction during the War. They could see and be seen by their peers, while sitting in the sunshine and pretending to be bored by their privilege.

This was so common that a train service developed to pick the Smart Set up in Calais, on the other side of the English Channel, then take them, via Paris, to different stops along the Mediterranean. Because the sleeper cars were painted blue, this train became known as The Blue Train.

One interesting aspect of this was that upper-class British adventurers started challenging each other to race the Blue Train across France in their cars. For a brief period of time this became a standing challenge, like swimming the Channel, or shooting leopards — a chance to show off for their peers and look good doing it. Because, of course, the other members of their social circle would be on the Blue Train itself.

“I say,” one of the passengers might say, pointing at a cloud of dust in the distance, “do you think that is Waldo and Reggie?’

“I believe it is! Oh, jolly good; we must drink a toast to them! Waiter!”

Which, theoretically, is where we get The Blue Train Cocktail.

If you go searching for a recipe for a Blue Train, you will find dozens, which vary wildly in their ingredients and methodology, but the oldest ones are extremely simple:

• Three parts brandy

• One part pineapple juice (Pineapple juice? Where did that come from?)

• An unspecified amount of Champagne

I like the romance of this drink and such a simple formula seemed extremely flexible, so I decided to try various riffs on it. Instead of Champagne, I substituted prosecco – because what am I, fancy? – and several different types of brandy:

• Several sources suggested using apricot brandy and that seemed promising. As it turns out, not so much.

• Ginger brandy was even worse.

• Then I decided to return to the fruit theme and made a batch with blackberry brandy. Please, for the sake of everything that is good and wholesome, do not do this.

After a great deal of experimentation and heartache, I was able to fine-tune this recipe to its ideal proportions:

• Three parts brandy

• One part pineapple juice

• An unspecified amount of Champagne

(1) Shake the brandy and pineapple juice over ice.

(2) Strain into glasses

(3) Top with Champagne

This is not a drink that is meant to be sweet. If you use prosecco and a sweet brandy, it ends up tasting like cider, which is fine, but then, why not just drink cider? This drink calls for a drier, more bracing, more refined set of ingredients. I am a big proponent of using bottom-shelf alcohols; when you are making cocktails with strong-flavored ingredients, the subtler nuances of more serious, expensive labels can easily get overwhelmed and covered up.

Not in this case. If you’ve got good brandy, self-respecting brandy, this is a good time to break it out. The same with the Champagne. I’m not saying to buy the best Champagne, but this is a good opportunity to use a dry Champagne that isn’t afraid to look at itself in the mirror. This is not a drink that was developed by people who cut corners.

Serve this with something salty, like caviar.

Or Cheez-Its.

Cocktail-inspired gift suggestions

Truly excellent cocktail cherries — Bada Bing Cherries from Stonewall Kitchen ($7.95 for 13.5 oz., or $34.95 from 72 oz., if you’re really serious) A good cocktail cherry can save a cocktail. A good cocktail cherry can bring a moment of sunshine and contentment in a gray and sullen world. These are very good cocktail cherries. They are rich and deeply flavored, with the slightest hint of muskiness, like a half-heard whisper. And they fit in a stocking.

A proper kitchen scale — KUBEI Upgraded Lager Size Digital Food Scale ($23.99) Like many people over the past several months, I got sucked into the fraught world of sourdough bread. In theory it’s pretty simple. There are few ingredients. Peasants have been making it for centuries. In the trenches, though, sourdough is a cruel mistress who will toy with your emotions and leave you a spent, whimpering husk.

The secret to establishing detente with her is a good kitchen scale.

Weighing – especially by the gram – gives you freedom and power in the kitchen. Your measurements become precise. You use fewer dishes. You start writing weight-equivalents in your cookbooks.

This is an excellent, affordable scale. It switches easily between grams, ounces and pounds with the press of a button. It is battery-powered but can be plugged in or even recharged. It measures to an accuracy of a hundredth of a gram. It has a tare button.

A tare button!

If you don’t know what that is, you will. Oh, you will…

Featured Photo: A Blue Train. Photo by John Fladd.

Harpoon & Dunkin’

Coffee, doughnuts and beer together at last

Harpoon Brewery and Dunkin’ teamed up last year to bring the beer world the Harpoon Dunkin’ Coffee Porter. I thought it was a nice take on the coffee porter, featuring distinctive notes of roasted coffee and chocolate in a robust, malty package.

I suspect Starbucks fans disagree with me, so I just want to offer that qualifier right off the bat.

If you haven’t noticed, Harpoon and Dunkin’ decided to take things to another level this fall. I, as usual, am months behind, but I was pleasantly surprised to find a Harpoon-Dunkin’ mixed-pack during my pre-Thanksgiving run to the beer store. This was not your run-of-the-mill mixed-pack.

My wife requested pumpkin beer and I wanted a coffee-flavored brew, so the mixed-pack, which featured the Harpoon Dunkin’ Coffee Porter and a Pumpkin Spiced Latte Ale, caught my eye. The deal was sealed when I saw the mixed-pack included a Boston Kreme Stout and a Jelly Donut IPA. This is real.

Between Thanksgiving itself and the day after Thanksgiving, I enjoyed a pour of each one. What I enjoyed most and found most impressive about the entire foursome was that they held true to their pairings. The Coffee Porter truly tastes like the Dunkin’ original coffee blend and the Boston Kreme Stout tastes very much like a Boston Kreme doughnut, and so on.

I made my comment about Starbucks in jest but I suspect whether or not you like any of these Harpoon-Dunkin’ brews depends very much on whether or not you like Dunkin’ from both the doughnut and the coffee perspective. If you aren’t a fan of Dunkin’ coffee, nothing to see here.

I think the Coffee Porter was my favorite; I like the richness of the brew. That said, it’s not too heavy. I enjoyed it Thanksgiving afternoon as we finished up meal prep.

I can’t honestly say that I liked the Jelly Donut IPA, but my wife enjoyed it. I just didn’t think the sugary sweet jelly flavor paired well with the hops, but this legitimately tastes like a jelly doughnut. It’s worth giving it a shot as it may well be the most unique brew you’ve ever tasted.

The Pumpkin Spiced Latte Ale tastes so much like an actual pumpkin spiced latte that sometimes I forgot whether I was drinking a coffee or a beer. It’s sweet and features the combination of pumpkin, cinnamon and sugar you expect from this as a coffee — a tasty, seasonal treat. The pour is more or less the color of pumpkin, more orange-y than I expected.

The Boston Kreme Stout was excellent with notes of sweet chocolate and coffee and a smooth finish. This one was much lighter than expected, and because of that, I think this makes an excellent choice for someone who normally doesn’t like stouts.

A final note is that I feel that mixed-packs make excellent choices for holiday get-togethers, as they provide a variety of options and hopefully something for everyone. Now, I know we’re celebrating in smaller numbers this year so just go ahead and save that sage advice for next year.

Featured Photo: Courtesy photo.

Wines for giving thanks

Wines to consider for your Thanksgiving menu

“This Thanksgiving will be unlike all other Thanksgivings!”

We have heard that expression far too many times, haven’t we? We will all be hunkered down, safe in our households, seated for our traditional feast, but there will be differences around us, some subtle, some not-so-subtle. Crazy Uncle Larry who begins his Thanksgiving Day cocktail hour at 10 a.m. will be (thankfully) absent and the feast may be a bit simpler, a bit smaller. For the early afternoon, we plan to have another couple over for hors d’oeuvres in the driveway, surrounded by patio heaters! For our dinner, instead of a large turkey, we will have a roast duck. It will be smaller and simpler but still very enjoyable!

We still need to celebrate with our friends and family, and with wine paired to the extended courses. The possibilities are endless.

Chic Barcelona Brut Cava (originally priced at $14.99, on sale at the New Hampshire Liquor & Wine Outlets at $7.99) is a bargain not to be passed up. A blend of 35 percent macabeu, 35 percent xarello and 30 percent parellada grapes, this wine hails from the Penedès region of Catalonia, Spain, south of Barcelona, where the climate is Mediterranean with continental influences meaning that it tends to have cold winters and slightly milder summers than the interior countryside produces full and fresh wines resulting in a slower maturation of the grapes. Cava is the chief wine of this region and it is made in the traditional, or Champagne, method, which means it has a second fermentation in the bottle. The color of this wine is a light straw. The tiny bubbles that rise from the bottom of the glass are not as intense as with Champagne and the nose is bright and fresh, lacking in the yeasty brioche nose one identifies with a Champagne. To the tongue, the taste is fresh and citric but lacking in length. This is an excellent accompaniment to hors d’oeuvres, and a great way to start the meal. Alcoholic content is 11½ percent.

Höpler Grüner Veltliner, 2019 (originally priced at $16.99, on sale at the New Hampshire Liquor & Wine Outlets at $14.99) is an Austrian wine from the eastern part of the country, from vines planted along the Danube River and on the banks of Lake Neusiedl. The Höpler winery is located in Burgenland, just 45 minutes from Vienna. The soils range from gravel with some clay to rich, fertile well-draining silt. Cold winters allow the vines to go dormant, but hot summers with substantial sunshine and humidity rising from the nearby lake allow the grapes to develop a balance between fruit, flavor and great acidity. The color is straw with a strong overtone of green. The green results from the selection of greener grapes, producing a wine that is more aromatic than the wine made from grapes that are more yellow. To the nose the wine has notes of lime and minerality, along with some white pepper spice. This wine falls between sauvignon blanc (acid and green grassy notes) and riesling (tropical and mineral notes). To the taste, this wine has tropical fruit — pineapple with lemon-lime acidity. This is an ideal wine to cool and just sip, alongside the cava, to enjoy along with oysters, or to transition to the main course, the bird.

Schug 2017 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir (originally priced at $32.99, on sale at the New Hampshire Liquor & Wine Outlets at $14.99) is a blend of pinot noir grapes from select vineyards located in the western portion of Carneros, a region on the coast of the San Pablo Bay. A cool, breezy climate allows the grapes to mature slowly and retain their natural acidity, with bright flavors of red cherries, raspberries and spice. There is also a touch of tart pomegranate on the tongue. The wine is aged in large neutral oak casks and older French oak barrels to keep new oak flavors to a minimum. The finish is long and reminds me of cranberry, and therefore perfect to pair with that bird! It will nicely cut through the buttery fat of the bird’s side dishes.

So, while the Thanksgiving celebration may be small and ever so intimate, it should be savored. The pandemic will pass; the memories will live on. Happy Thanksgiving.

Cocktails as a holiday family avoidance strategy

Holidays are traditionally the time for extended families to gather together. Amid all the hastening and chastening, they are also a time for avoiding family. Hiding in the bathroom or the garage is a time-honored Thanksgiving activity.

But this year — as with all aspects of our lives — things are different. The family we might be the most eager to avoid may also be the same people we’ve been with 24 hours a day for the last nine months. At this point most of us have used up pretty much every viable excuse to leave a room.

Except perhaps one: a cocktail.

Please notice that I have specified “A” cocktail. Aside from flirting with dangerous habits or an outraged liver, heavy drinking rarely produces the outcome you might be looking for. Before you get to the Comfortably Numb stage, you will probably pass through the Karaoke stage, and even the “Let Me Text the Relatives and Tell Them What I Really Think Of Them” stage — neither of which are likely to give you the sense of peace you are looking for.

Leaving the room to make a drink, however, especially at the holidays, is a culturally sanctioned escape from playing Pictionary. “I’m just going to make a drink; go ahead and start without me,” is a tacitly accepted Holiday Get Out of Jail Free Card.

There are two approaches to the Escape Cocktail:

Fast and Easy: Get into the kitchen, make a simple drink, drink it, and get back out to the living room without spending too much of your rapidly diminishing social capital.

Slow and Complicated: Make something that will involve so much time and effort that nobody will be tempted to help you, and at the same time everyone will pretty much avoid and then forget about you altogether.

Thanksgiving Cocktail No. 1 – Fast and Easy: The Jack-In-The-Box

2 oz. Calvados, AppleJack or other apple brandy

2 oz. Pineapple juice

2 dashes bitters (I measured this out and two dashes = about 25 drops)

Combine ingredients over ice and shake thoughtfully. Don’t smash the ice up this time.

Strain into a martini glass.

The Jack-In-The-Box is a classic cocktail from the 1970s. It is different enough from what you are used to drinking to be interesting, but not so different as to be threatening. You don’t need threatening. Not right now.

Your experience drinking a Jack-In-The-Box will be highly subjective, depending on what you’ve been snacking on. If you’ve been eating something sweet, this will taste a little … off. If you’ve been eating something salty on the other hand, you will need one hand free to make a chef’s kiss gesture upon drinking it.

For those of us who are also from the ’70s, the JIB goes spectacularly well with homemade Chex Mix, or as we called it in my youth, Nuts & Bolts (see box).

Thanksgiving Cocktail No. 2 – Slow and Complicated: The Cranberry Cobra

½ oz. lemon juice

¾ oz. jalapeño rum (see below)

1½ blisteringly cold vodka

1 oz. cranberry syrup (see below)

½ oz. 100 percent cranberry juice

1 bottle Fever Tree Aromatic Tonic

Shake everything but the tonic over ice, as vigorously as you see fit.

Pour into a tall Collins glass, over more ice.

Top with tonic and stir gently.

This is a Thanksgiving riff on a cocktail called a Cobra Verde, which is frankly delicious, but pretty summery. The Midori that gives the original drink its verde has been replaced with cranberry syrup and cranberry juice. Tasty-But-Pricey Mexican pepper liqueur has been replaced with homemade jalapeño rum.

Is it delicious? Yes. Is it Thanksgiving-colored? Yup. How long will it keep you in the kitchen? Anywhere from 20 minutes to four days.

Cranberry Syrup

1 part sugar

1 part 100-percent cranberry juice – NOT cranberry juice cocktail

Bring both ingredients to a boil in a small saucepan and cook until the sugar dissolves completely — about two minutes.

Actually that’s it. You will probably want to let it cool before actually using it in a cocktail.

So, right now, if you are a thoughtful reader, you are asking why you can’t just use cranberry juice and simple syrup in the Cranberry Cobra and skip the syrup making altogether.

Seven words for you — Apple. Pie. Ala. Mode. With. Cranberry. Syrup.

Jalapeño Rum. Photo by John Fladd.

Jalapeño Rum

1 liter bottom-shelf white rum

4-5 jalapeños, roughly chopped.

Combine peppers and rum in a wide-mouthed airtight jar. Store someplace cool and dry.

Let it macerate for up to a week, but taste it after three days.

Shake twice a day, which gives you a convenient week-long excuse to leave a room. “Oh, sorry — I have to go shake the rum.”

When the rum is at the right level of flavor and heat for you, filter it through a coffee filter, bottle and label.

According to the website for the Tasty-But-Pricey Mexican pepper liqueur, they combine specially grown-in-the-moonlight ancho peppers and “pure cane spirits,” which sounds like white rum to me. Why bottom-shelf? Any subtle rum flavors will be blown out by the Angry Jalapeño Brothers.

This rum is absolutely delightful and will revolutionize your bloody marys.

1970s Era Nuts & Bolts
½ cup salted butter (1 stick)
2 Tablespoons full-sodium soy sauce
1¼ teaspoons seasoned salt
¼ teaspoon garlic salt (If there was any way to cram more salt into this, we didn’t know about it in the ’70s.)
2¾ cups Corn Chex
2¾ cups Rice Chex
2¾ cups Wheat Chex
1½ cups cocktail peanuts (Oh, wait – apparently there is a way.)
1½ cups sesame sticks
 
Preheat oven to 275 degrees F.
Melt butter in a shallow pan. Stir in soy sauce, seasoned salt and garlic salt.
Add cereal, peanuts and sesame sticks. Mix until all pieces are coated.
Place on a shallow baking pan with sides.
Bake for 40 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes.
“Wait,” I hear you saying, “what about the pretzels?
Funny you should ask.
I have a theory about pretzels; it’s part of my Grand Unified Snack Theory. Take a handful of pretzels. They’re fine. They aren’t exciting, but there’s nothing particularly wrong with them, either. Now, put them in a snack mix. They immediately become the worst thing in that snack mix. Sesame sticks, on the other hand, immediately become the best part of a snack mix. It’s a mystery of science.

Featured photo: Happy Thanksgiving. Courtesy photo.

Thanksgiving and beer

The ultimate day of indulgence requires the appropriate brew

Thanksgiving is the ultimate day of indulgence — savory gravy, delicious stuffing, buttery potatoes and vegetables, sweet and rich yams and flavorful roast turkey followed by a spread of sweet, rich desserts.

And you can’t just sip any old beer on the ultimate day of indulgence.

I sort of teeter back and forth when it comes to beer on Thanksgiving. On the one hand, the food of the day is so rich, so decadent and so carb-heavy that it’s almost a challenge to try to add a similarly rich and decadent brew into the mix — but richer, maltier brews work so well with the sweet, buttery foods that dominate the day. We’ve got ourselves a predicament.

On the other hand, I find that crisp, clean brews like Pilsners or bright, tart sours can cut through the fat a bit better, and that allows you to really focus in on the food you’re eating — nothing wrong with that either.

But you don’t want to feel like you held back on Thanksgiving, so how should we handle this dilemma? That is the question and I don’t have the answer because I’ve gone back and forth on what the best move is from holiday to holiday, and sometimes even from brew to brew.

With respect to these two competing narratives, I’d like to offer a few suggestions from both lines of thought to help you drink your way through Thanksgiving.

Carry On Bohemian Style Pilsner by Great Rhythm Brewing Co. (Portsmouth)

This is crisp, clean, light and so, so easy to drink. You can enjoy this without really having to think about it. This would be a nice choice during appetizers, or honestly, really at any moment on Thanksgiving day.

Georg Munich-Style Dark Lager by Schilling Beer Co. (Littleton)

While this is rich and offers layers of complexity, what stands out to me is that it’s quite dry and easy to drink. I think you get some notes of toasted caramel that would do very well alongside a piece of warm apple or pumpkin pie.

Rye IPA by Stoneface Brewing Co. (Newington)

I haven’t tried this one but I’m intrigued by this brew, in particular because I think the bitterness and the earthiness from the rye would really cut through the richness of the day. The brewery indicates this beer is “bold and malty,” which is a bit different than your typical IPA. This one seems like a good choice on turkey day.

Pandora’s Kettle #4 by Concord Craft Brewing (Concord)

This Berliner weisse is tart, bright, and quite refreshing. Brewed with apple and cranberry, this is perfectly seasonal—and a great choice to sip with the meal or right after when you’re trying to give your belly a bit of a break. At 3.7 percent ABV, you can have more than one.

Vendel Imperial Stout by Kelsen Brewing Co. (Derry)

This is the one you grab when you just decide to go all in on Thanksgiving. This beer holds nothing back. It’s incredibly rich and creamy with big notes of chocolate and coffee. Savor this one slowly on the big day.

Working Man’s Porter by Henniker Brewing Co. (Henniker)

This is dry and robust but it’s also very, very drinkable, making it a nice choice when you’re embracing the decadence of the day but not trying to go too overboard. It’s that dry complexity that I think pairs quite well with Thanksgiving fare.

What’s in My Fridge
DDH Pulp Daddy by Greater Good Imperial Brewing Co. (Worcester, Mass.)
Wow. This one comes at you with hop ferocity. The brewery states that it is its hoppiest beer — double the hops of its little brother, Pulp Daddy (which is also quite hoppy, as is the youngest brother, Pulp). This is a hop-lover’s dream: a tropical juice bomb that pulls no punches. The dry hops adds another layer of complexity and freshness that really allows this beer to stand out. Cheers!

Featured photo: Happy Thanksgiving. Courtesy photo.

Sherry, sherry, baby

Give the world’s oldest fine wine a chance

Whenever I think of sherry, the fortified wine, I cannot help thinking of Frankie Vallee singing “Sherry, Baby” in that Jersey Boys falsetto voice. Wait, I may have said too much, and yes, I occasionally tune into “60’s on 6” on Sirius radio!

Sherry (the wine) has a bad reputation, linked to proper ladies drinking ever so politely from little glasses. However, it should not have such a limited audience. It is more than a beverage option for tea, served with small sandwiches and polite fruit creams. It should be served chilled and enjoyed along a fireside, wrapped in a blanket.

Sherry has a long and storied past. At about 2,000 years old, it is the world’s oldest fine wine, made principally from the palomino grape, along with a couple of others in Jerez, Andalucia, Spain. It has been imitated in other regions, but never with any success outside of Jerez. In fact, the EU has dictated the name can only apply to wines from Jerez. It can range from the driest, most delicate fino to the richest, most pungent oloroso. The wine is made in a traditional manner. The grapes are harvested and the wine is made in exactly the same manner as any other dry white wine, but in the following year the wine is fortified with alcohol and other wine to raise the strength to 14.5 percent. A skin of naturally occurring yeast, called flor, forms along the surface of the wine, which makes a barrier between the surface of the wine and the air within the cask, preventing the wine from oxidizing and imparting that “nutty” character sherry has. The amount of flor on the wine determines the direction the sherry will take, from fino, which is fortified to 15.5 percent, to oloroso, 17.5 percent.

On the bottle labels you may find the term “solera system.” One might call this “quality control.” It is a system of mixing young wines with older wines to ensure consistency, but it is more than that. Typically, there are four tiers to the stand of oak barrels sherry is stored in. Each year two thirds of the wine of the oldest in the tier will be blended with one third of the wine of the following year’s vintage. The wine is tapped off from each successive barrel, allowing new wine to be replenished in the top level. The fino soleras are emptied periodically to maintain the freshness of the wine. A good fino has spent five years rotating through these barrels. The oloroso soleras, however, may not be completely emptied.

Sherry comes in a variety of styles. Fino is the palest and driest of the Jerez styles. It has a citric quality to it. Amontillado is aged beyond five years and has a light shade of almond to it. It is still dry but more complex, rich and spicy. Oloroso sherries spend about 10 years in the solera and while still dry are mixed with other sweet wines to produce “cream sherries.” Sometimes sherries are made from other grapes, such as muscatel or Pedro Ximénez, a grape dried in the sun to produce extremely sweet wine. Sherries can be dated but dating them follows a complex formula because of the mixing of vintages, and sometimes there are individual vintages from single casks, but these are rare and can be pricey.

So, what sherries are available in New Hampshire? Sadly, the New Hampshire Liquor & Wine Outlets have somewhat meager offerings. Of the 76 stores only four varieties of sherries are offered in many of the stores. This is unfortunate because there is a wealth of types of sherries to explore. Our first is Dry Sack Medium Jerez-Xérès-Sherry, available at the New Hampshire Liquor & Wine Outlets at $13.49 per bottle. This wine is the color of weak tea and has a dry “nutty” character to it.

Our next sherry is Savory & James Fino Deluxe Dry Sherry, available at the New Hampshire Liquor & Wine Outlets at $9.99 per bottle. The color of this sherry is a very pale straw. To the nose and mouth it is a very dry, light sherry with strong citric notes. One can compare this to a dry vermouth.

Our last sherry is Harveys Bristol Cream Solera Sherry, available at the New Hampshire Liquor & Wine Outlets at $13.99 per bottle. Perhaps the standard by which all other sherries are compared, it is a rich, smooth, full sherry with creamy notes, as its name defines.

Pick up a bottle or two to enjoy by the fire as the weather gets cooler. And remember, you don’t have to invite Grandma to enjoy new experiences with this fine fortified wine.

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