Bottled Californian sunshine

Having accumulated several bottles of wine over the summer, I hosted a mini tasting session of a mere fraction of the full cupboard of Californian sunshine. Here are some piccies taken pre-drinking.

Mini wine tasting

The cheese and fruit spread was intended to 1. line the stomach and 2. provide gentle reminders of the often-fruitiness of wine. OK, maybe the cheese was merely my lazy way of providing some food without much effort on my part other than choosing a wide enough range to suit most palates. I personally prefer mature, sharp cheeses, but sometimes like the sweetness to be found within a Gouda. The Whole Foods in Westwood stocks two pretty decent varieties: the Rembrandt and the Vincent. I don’t know who makes these, but some prize must be given to the person/agency that named the cheeses. After all, when asked, most people would probably name these two big guns as examples of Dutch painters. And the marketing genius behind the names even took into account the relative status of Rembrandt van Rijn and Vincent van Gogh, marking the more mature Gouda as the earlier, Baroque Dutch master. If asked in a taste-test which painter I would have likened the mature Gouda to, it would have to be Vermeer: brightly coloured, domestic scenes with a certain maturity in content and theme come to mind, with a slightly mysterious provenance like most of his work. The younger of the two Goudas did not make as much of an impact on me, but I appreciated its slight tartness, which worked well with the 2006 Pinot Grigio from Castoro Cellars I started the evening with. Admittedly, once the cheese entered my mouth, that was the last of the delicately flavoured Pinot Grigio I tasted. If we were to get this wine again, I’d be more careful and serve it with something less sharp, more sweet and slightly fatty. The vineyard suggests scallops in cream sauce. Mmm… I miss our Edinburgh Farmers’ Market scallops from Loch Fyne… After the Pinot Grigio was done with, we just gave up and had the rest of the wines with the cheese and fruit willy-nilly. So much for paired tastings, eh.

Hard to soft

The other cheeses on the hard->soft board were Mimolette, Cheddar and Brie. I have a soft spot for the Mimolette. It sounds a bit silly, but it reminds me of a mature hard cheese that’s sat in a cool dry place for a little too long, and has a concentrated saltiness to it. Slivers of Mimolette on the tongue almost melt away as the salts dissolve, leaving you gasping for rehydration of your salt-dried tongue. A mature cheddar, on the other hand, marries its slight saltiness with a slight tang and some softer chewiness. This Borough Market label is a very good example of a good cheddar, best eaten in thin-ish slices. It’s no substitute for my favourite cheddar in the world though. The cheddar they make on the Isle of Mull is to-die-for-although-not-literally. And thinking of that make me miss the Iain Mellis stores in Edinburgh, of which a trip to our local Stockbridge branch was our fortnightly treat to ourselves. Perusing their list of cheeses makes me almost cry for the inaccessibility to us of Cuddy’s Cave, a cheese we used to fight over, the Ardrahen, Gubbeen, and the blue that made me like blues again: Cashel Blue. Cue sighs all round the dinner table. And don’t start me on the lady who sold the nutty Dunlops and creamy Bonnets at the twice-monthly Farmers’ Market. We miss her. And her cheeses more so. The last cheese on the board was a creamy Brie. OK. Not much to write home about. If not for the recent heatwave, I’d be tempted to leave this out at room temperature to allow it to breathe and mature some more. Nothing more insipid than a Brie that’s too young. Our other local hangout, Herbie, used to (probably still does) have a round wooden board on the counter-top, on which would rest a really stinky Brie. It’d usually be oozing when I’d walk in, smile at the VERY cute men behind the counter, indicate how many inches I desired, smile even more when they turned their backs to cut me a slab, leave happy with oozing cheese and never ever tell P that’s why I ALWAYS looked in through their window.1

The stinkers

Is that enough cheese reminiscing? Probably shouldn’t have started. Food gets me homesick for Edinburgh. And sometimes I get homesick for Singaporean food. Speaking of which, the Stilton on the board always reminds me of Singapore, where an English friend of my father liked to recount the time when he thought the house he’d recently moved into had blocked drains. Apparently, it had started all of a sudden. The whole place stank, just stank, of damp, dank sewage every now and again. Peeeuuu… It turns out it was durian season, and the neighbours’ fruity feast was wafting over and offending his senses. Said English friend is a huge fan of Stilton, as is my dad. Huge fans. Every Christmas, we’d have to get one of those damn Stiltons in a pot. I though the royal blue of the pot was pretty, especially with the goldish Mason jar-style lightning closure wires. But come time to open the pot, I’d flee from the kitchen. Those darn Stiltons stank like blocked drains to me, the world’s biggest eater of durians. For the longest time, I could not stand Stiltons. I would eat any and every other blue cheese, including Roqueforts and Gorgonzolas, but not Stiltons. Until one day, on impulse, I bought a slab of Stilton from Valvona and Crolla for P as a Christmas present, in keeping with my own yearly tradition of buying my dad a Stilton even though I would not touch the stuff with a barge pole. Suffice to say, P had to fight to have any of that present over Christmas. Mmmm… Ngom ngom ngom… Stilton on an oatcake, Stilton on a water biscuit, Stilton on a chunk of bread, Stilton licked straight off my finger. Drains no more.

Of the other two cheeses on the Stinker board, only the Pyrennes was mildly offensive. But they were there with the Stilton on the basis that they were made from raw milk and hence not entirely safe for pregnant women and sprogs. Come to think of it, the Brie and Cheddar were probably not entirely safe either. As you can plainly tell, I’m not used to having to cater for pregnant women and sprogs, but I’m learning… I was surrounded by pregnant women and sprogs through my PhD years, but had a reprieve through the early post-doc years. Suddenly, I’m surrounded again. Sprogs everywhere! They come in spurts, don’t they? Even if you have a decent range of ages for friends, births tend to cluster. Never just one. Always 3 or 4 at the same time. Never just one baby growsuit to buy, always several. At least we can cheat and give the same ones to the different parents. Ah. Back to the cheese. Cheese I know a little about. Babies are a complete mystery to me. The last cheese was a Morbier, which I have a certain fondness for, despite the bitterness. It’s partly the way it’s made that’s appealing, and partly its creamy smoothness. And something about that middle layer of ash again reminds me of my grandmother’s habit of burning prayer slips into hot water for me. Ashy prayer slips in how water does not quite live up to a kid’s expectation of a treat.

Soft fruits

The second wine of the evening (yes, we’re still banging on about wine. sorry about the cheesy interlude) was the 2005 Paso Robles Sangiovese from Eberle, the vineyard with a huge boar statue outside its tasting room (photo to be uploaded sometime in the next decade). I love Italian wines, thanks to an education by Valvona and Crolla’s back room and tasting sessions. And the relatively inexpensive prices don’t hurt them either. In California, the Paso Robles lot really know how to make Italian-style reds. They say it’s the climate, I think it’s the attitude2. At any rate, this my-grandmother-was-from-Tuscany grape makes a damn fine wine in their hands. It’s juicy, fruity, and yet, fresh. Like the process of plucking raspberries off their canes and catching a whiff of the organic compounds released upon damage to the fruit and parent plant.

Big Red and chocolates

The third wine of the night was originally, in the grand scheme of things, meant to be the fourth. But P took one look at the already sozzled guests and made an executive decision to skip the Mouvérdre and hop right in to the Big Red from Hop Kiln. We’d made an impromptu stop at Hop Kiln after our canoe trip down the Russian River with Kirin, ostensibly to taste the wine but more to use their loos after a few hours on the river. Feeling somewhat self-conscious, we tried some of their wines and came away pleased with their blended reds. With the Big Red, you can tell they were aiming for a fruity, spicy wine. And it goes pretty well with chocolate. Something about the slightly bitter fattiness of high-cocoa chocolate marries well with what the bottle label tells us was 52% Zinfandel, 18% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Syrah, 14% Carignane. Talk about a multinational wine. It’s a good one for just sitting, sipping and scoffing the chocolate with.

While the Hop Kiln Big Red was meant to be the finisher, we ended up having the Bonny Doon 2004 Mouvèrdre3 anyway. And while it was out of sequence, and obviously so, we enjoyed it too, for we are great big lushies.

1 To check their Brie was oozing, of course. What else?
2 Or altitude even.
3 I love Bonny Doon labels. The Ca’ del Solo labels by Chuck House were, along with the enthusiastic recommendation of the West End OddBins folk, were huge deciders in my loyalty to the brand. The gorgeous graphics sucked me in, but the adventurous wine-making and unique tastes of their many experiments made me stay. Stumbling across the tasting room near Santa Cruz was the most fantastic find of our trip down the central coast of California. The refreshingly “young” and experimental nature of the place chimes very well with how we view wine: something to play around with and enjoy. In the case of this Mouvérdre, the awesomely ferocious komodo dragon was designed by Tavis Coburn. Strangely, I don’t think of this wine as a Rrrargh sort of creature; it’s fruity in a raspberry-fresh-tart sort of way. It’s more like a wimpy iguana… But to each his own interpretation.


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