Friday, April 29, 2011

What does "Weapons Grade" mean? Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love D'Yquem

 So you're a nuclear physicist looking for a lighthearted blog about warheads. Sorry, but this is a blog about alcohol. 

Let's slow down for a second to answer a fluffy nonsense question: What does it mean for something to be "weapons grade"? Well the literal meaning refers to weapons grade or enriched nuclear fissile material like Uranium or Plutonium. As a young nerd, my imagination was captivated by images of gas centrifuges, scientists huddled over massive bomb casings. Years of work, the most brilliant minds in the world, millions of dollars (now billions) being spent to make the deadliest thing we could put our minds to. Its a sick wish, but someday it would be neat to witness a mushroom cloud. Preferably a demonstration, from a safe distance, with adequate protection; but the world is a sick place and I'll take what I can get. All that power and destruction is absolutely fascinating.
As a political science major, I had no shortage of test questions and classroom discussions about totally awesome things like the exact total mega-tonnage of all the worlds nuclear warheads. I remember having an final essay question about the legality of a laser weapon that maims, and does not kill soldiers, and how it pertains to the Geneva convention. I knew I was going to fail that class, so I think the last line of the essay was something cheeky like "If its powerful enough to burn soldiers' eyes out of their heads, its powerful enough to set the physical Geneva Convention document on fire."

I was a political Science major and a Philosophy minor. These two concentrations, while they mean a lot of different things to a lot of people, spoke two very clear messages to me:

1. Everybody in the whole world wants to kill the shit out of everyone else. Usually for the darkest, most insane reasons possible.

2. Pretty much nothing can be known with certainty, especially confirming or denying the existence of God, free will, moral absolutes, or aesthetic ideals.

Needless to say, I started to lose passion about a degree plan that made me want to hang myself. So on a whim, I took Wine Appreciation with Kevin Simon over at the Conrad Hilton College at UofH. I was so hooked, I had my certified pin before the class was over.

The thing is though, my creepy obsession with guns and airplanes and bombs never really stopped, it just kind of... mutated. Early on, I read about Chateau D'Yquem and how their selection process of shriveled grapes was so intense, they would go over the vineyards 12 times. Looking for individual berries. Their selection process was so severe that an entire vine bush would yield maybe a two ounce glass of wine. The facility is state of the art. Some of the greatest minds in winemaking work those vineyards and manage that vinification. The more I thought about it, these people are making something just as fantastic as nuclear warheads. In Hungary, they enrich a dry wine base with Puttony baskets full of sweet aszu paste, which makes one of the most shock and awe inducing wines in the world: Tokaji. BUT OH WAIT, GO BACK TO D'YQUEM. Did you know these people are bottling the world's most expensive sweet wine in NEBUCHADNEZZARS??? Sorry, let me translate for non-wine-nerds.

A 750ml bottle of 2005 Chateau D'Yquem costs about 500 US dollars on release. A Nebuchadnezzar is a 15 liter bottle. How much did D'Yquem decide to charge for this HAMMER? Approximately  $20,000. They will be making 100 of them for every vintage, starting with 2005 on. When I heard about this, I almost blacked out from joy. A 15 liter of D'Yquem might be the definition of weapons grade, as I use it.

OH MY GOD OH MY GOD OH MY GOD *blacks out*

This blog is called "Weapons Grade" to celebrate the fruits of the labor of the greatest boozemakers in the world. I've spent a modest amount of time studying war and the instruments we wage it with, and I have a penchant for hyperbole, so oftentimes I find myself exclaiming, after tasting something particularly delicious,

"That is weapons grade."

The intensity of a glass of D'Yquem actually is the perfect explanation. A half bottle will last a lifetime (Pappas Bros here in Houston has a 375ml bottle of the 1811 vintage). The sugar and acid are balanced on the edge of a razor, and the finish goes on forever. A few drops is really all it takes. And that is truly weapons grade. Only instead of scorching earth, it makes people happy.

And for me, weapons grade is a term that wine made me say. This has trickled down into spirits (see first photo). But yeah, I guess beer can tag along too. Its purty good.

I suppose as an afterthought, the term "weapons grade" does reference the dark heart of man just a little bit, and I think that might be a healthy dose of perspective in this chronically self-important industry.

The world is full of madness. It is full of crazy people who are desperate to use terrifying weapons against innocent people, for all kinds of of stupid, hateful reasons.

Horror even occurs for no reason at all, 310 we killed by a tornado in Alabama yesterday. Sometimes I wish I had a line of work where I could do more for people affected by these things.

If the Asteroid comes, my colleagues and I probably will not be let on the spaceship. But while we're here alive on earth, we will use every ounce of brainpower to bring you something rare, unique, and wonderful. We're not building bridges or putting out fires, but we are stewards of one of the worlds most compelling and accessible pleasures. As dark as the human condition can be at times, I feel like my job is pretty essential. I'm proud of it, so here's to studying and promoting something weapons grade that puts smiles on faces, instead of melting them off.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Beer and Wine Adventures in Orleans (the new one).

I had originally intended to write a wine-centric post to balance out all the beer nerdiness of my maiden voyage, but I'm afraid this was a beery weekend for me. Apologies.

I spent my Easter weekend in New Orleans with Adrienne. We loosely intended to eat at restaurants and walk around doing fun stuff but trying to look as little like tourists as possible. A good start was avoiding Bourbon Street. I'm pretty sure tourists drinking hand grenades kill more brain cells per capita than people huffing paint thinner.

New Orleans is known for its awesome puddles.

I finally got to visit a place I had been wanting to visit for a while: Stein's Deli. Flashback two months ago. I asked Lindsey at Spec's downtown where in the hell I can find Cantillion lambics. He said the closest place he knew was some deli in New Orleans called Stein's. I went on the internets. I got on the googles. Found Stein's and promptly had to pick my jaw up off the floor. The website might as well have read "A list of all the beers Justin Vann wants to drink that aren't available in Texas." Cantillion. Castelain. Schlenkerla. Rochefort. Nogne. I called, incredulous.

"Hi, I was calling to see if you actually have all these beers that you have listed on line in stock."
"Uh, yeah."
"So you actually have Cantillion?"
"Yeah, we have them, Boon, Drie Fontenien, and like 5 others. I'm getting some Cuvee de Champions, and if you like sours [ I DO ] we have the Goudenband and Duchess."
"Sorry I'm just flabbergasted. We can get like, one of those beers in Houston."
"Well, uh, surely you have a specialty beer store somewhere there that you can special order them."
"I manage one of the largest selection of beers in the city. They're not approved for sale by the TABC."
"Ah. Well let me get your number so I can pass it on to my Shelton Bros. Rep. He'll give you a call."
"If they're just for your personal consumption, you could come buy some here."
I just might do that if I find the time to make it up there. You've been incredibly helpful, what's your name?"
"Dan Stein. Here's my cell number, I'll give you a call back in just a second, I gotta sweep the floor."

I want to get wasted with these guys.

This guy Dan, his operation is hard as nails. It's a little Jewish Deli on Magazine Street. The first thing my eyes found was a shelf on a metrorack with an ample amount of every Fee's and Bitter Truth bitters. I see the celery bitters. I want them. Community tables. The place looks dilapidated. I can't tell who looks more grizzled, the employees or the customers. I see coolers. I see more metroracks. My heart is pounding. There's a line of people blocking access to all the beer and I fantasize about throwing a chair to scatter them to get out of my goddamn way. I can identify at least ten sick beers at a distance from the color of the label and the bottle shape. Everything else goes blurry, I grab an empty wine box and start going to town.


For those of you who aren't in the industry, here's what causes this frenzy: No matter what the booze, we professionals have to study it. And when we do study it, we come across things we want to taste really bad. Maybe we've never even seen a bottle in real life, but from what we know, we're reasonably sure we'll love it. The suspense builds. You know it's out there, and that one day you're going to find it and drink the FUCK out of it. Then one day you're farting around in the liquor store, and there it is. Staring you in the face. Maybe it's wildly expensive. Maybe you overdraft your bank account. Maybe you couldn't afford it until someone accidentally gave it a price tag meant for a candy bar. You likely don't care, because you've been waiting a long time and your curiosity has mutated into a pathological obsession. Woe unto the chattel that block your path. People are swirling around you, buying vodka, adjunct lager, box wine, soda, chips. You try to contain your glee. You pick it up, and you grin like an idiot. Nobody knows why you're so excited. You float to the register. When the money finally changes hands and the bottle is in your legal possession, your brain craps every last drop of serotonin into your head, and you're drunk. You haven't even opened the bottle yet. Maybe its underwhelming when you actually try it. Or maybe its so good you trip balls and talk to dead family members and figure out the meaning of life. Either way, I believe that hunt is a joy that unites all us alcohol professionals.

Happiness is surprising yourself with alcohol.

A few examples of unicorn bottles that I spent much time hunting at various points in my booze journey: Namazake, all Pappy Van Winkle products, Vin Jaune, Germain-Robin Brandy, S.A. Huet vouvrays, etc. Well, I been learnin me some beer in the past six months, kay? And God Bless Texas but there are some beers the TABC has not seen fit to allow us to consume. Beers that sound really good to me, like REAL lambic, that isn't cloyingly sweet, and cuts like a knife with freakish acidity. Stout made with OYSTERS. French beer de garde. Trappist beers that I've never tried before. Imperial Oatmeal Stouts made with Kopi Luwak (read: catshit coffee). I knew they were out there. Adrienne wanted to go on a trip. To New Orleans. Stein's is in New Orleans. Lot of beer I haven't had, that is being sold in Stein's. When can we leave?

I freaked out hard because there were so many beers there that I had wanted to try for a long time, and I found them ALL AT ONCE. I clearly annoyed the crap out of all the regulars by pacing the coolers, and loudly filling what came to two cases of beer on the counter, holding up the line like a complete tourist jackass. Sorry, but I caught a herd of unicorns, I'm high on life. We shared a Reuben, it was the best I've ever had in my life. We got back to the hotel and I popped a Castelain. It was heavenly.



There are indeed other beverage categories in this world than beer. We went to dinner at Stella!
It was the bomb. We made friends with the wine director, John Mitchell the night prior. It's always a blast to watch other wine people work. We got the tastin' menu with wine pairings. No Dom perignon please. He replaced it with Robert Weil. He also switched out the cali cab with more burgundy. 2001 Lafarge Clos de Chene Burgundy. It was rill good. 1993 Banyuls with a chocolaty peanut buttery fancy thing was the bomb. FINALLY got to try rose Txakoli, which John (in proper somm showoff fashion) poured from an authentic Txakoli decanter. Where did you get it, I asked. Basque country. Of course. Crap. 1991 Lopez de Heredia white rioja? It's what dreams are made of, silly goose.


I was still thinking about that beer at Stein's. I mean my head was in the moment, getting crunk on VEP chartreuse with Adrienne and eating funky minardises. But here's a question I can't get a satisfactory answer to: why is it so hard for epic beers like these to get a spot on the menu in fine dining restaurants? And no, for fucks sake, I don't mean instead of wine. I mean alongside it. I guess part of my little boozehound heart wished there could have also been a beer pairing option on a place like Stella!'s list. I wish high quality beer had a regular place in fine dining.

I know I'm not the first person to ask this question. I know there are restaurants that have excellent beer menus that one could consider "white tablecloth". But those restaurants seem like an exception to the rule. I feel like in my corner of the world, there are not any beer places that strive to serve really fine food, and no fine restaurants that have a desire to have an esoteric, if not comprehensive beer program. I see restaurants with more tea or coffee selections than beers. Why are we going so deep on wine, liqour, coffee, tea, and just glazing over beer? Do I sound like a conspiracy theorist? Because I feel like one.  I feel like I'm taking crazy pills.

It's getting late, and I have to open tomorrow. I'm skipping over delmonico's, and green goddess, which were excellent meals, with sick wine. Here's one thing that I cannot glaze over though:

All of these pictures were taken by Adrienne Byard.

Bleg post number 2, completed.

Friday, April 22, 2011


Hey gang.

In an effort to force myself to write again, and to infect the internet with my nonsense, I have started a blag.

I just picked some colors that I kind of like, but, lets be real- the blag layout is probably hideous. Sorry.

Anyway, for those of you who don't know me, my name is Justin Vann. On the twitters, I'm @Whiskyplz. I'm 26, and I'm the beer and wine manager at Central Market in Houston TX. I'm an advanced sommelier, a certified wine educator, certified specialist of spirits, and recently, a certified cicerone (I enjoy mispronouncing it to sound like chicharones). I also recently failed the Master Sommelier Exam for my first time. It was an honor to even be let in the building, and I will be back. Don't worry if you don't know exactly what those are or how they're different. It just means I really like taking tests about alcohol. I have a little pin that I can put on my lapel for each of those distinctions. I keep them all in a little Del Maguey clay mezcal cup. I'm told I'm too modest, and that I should indulge in a little self promotion occasionally. We'll just say I'm covering that by assuming the internet wants to hear what I have to say.

Oftentimes I think of stuff that I wish I could tell people, and I think "Dang, it would be so convenient if I had a blag. I should get me one of those." Here it is.


Enough introductions. What did you want to talk about Justin? Thanks for asking, internet:

The first time you start getting interested in wine, they call it "the wine bug". You go about your day and think about stuff, but your mind keeps drifting back to wine. What does this taste like? Why do they make it this way? What food would this go good with? You ponder these things out loud and it annoys the shit out of everyone around you. You forget about it for a day or two, then you find you've lost 4 hours in a Barnes & Noble because you've been reading The Oxford Companion to Wine.

You have the wine bug. So itchy.

I became afflicted with said bug around 21. Maybe a year and a half after that, I got the liquor bug. I bought a bunch of cocktail books and I spent tons of money I didn't have on damn near everything. I frequently tell people I drank fernet branca before it was cool to do so. Unfortunately, that just means I wasn't cool when I was drinking fernet branca. Oh well. I even went to bartending school, before I was smart enough to realize its a scam. Never did get to be a bartender, but my friends and I threw some rad parties with our newfound ability to make grasshoppers, rusty nails, harvey wallbangers, and other underaged drinking throwup-causers.

Got to be a sommelier at the probably way too early age of 22. Got to be a wine director after that. I jumped the restaurant ship last year in lieu of retail paradise: Central Market. Back at Brand X, I had responsibility for like 25 beers total. Most of them were adjunct lagers. I arrived bright eyed and bushy tailed at CM, took one look at the 500 beers on one wall, and quickly realized I didn't know anything about beer. Had to fix this. Can't sell a product I know nothing about.

I drank a lot of beer at Agora when I was in highschool. But I didn't bother to remember what any of it tasted like, or where it came from, or how it was made.

I started studying beer out of a sense of duty to know about what pays my bills. But quickly I found myself really digging deep. How is this dumb beer made? Why does it work with the foods it works with? I begrudgingly found myself enjoying learning a lot about beer. I signed up for the Certified Cicerone exam on a whim, and actually passed. It was a hard test, and it reminded me a lot of the wine tests I've taken in the past. I wondered all kinds of beer questions out loud, and it annoyed the shit out of everyone around me.

So that was last year. I took the MS exam since. For those not in the know, the MS exam is the most respected wine test in the world. Fewer than 200 people have ever passed it. Its the furthest career goal I have in this world, and its probably a little foolish of me to assume that all my problems will go away when (if) I get that gold and red pin.

Wine is what pays my bills. Wine is what makes the majority of the money at all the places I've worked, CM included.

I'm studying for the MS exam again. I have a better idea of what to expect, and I'm studying accordingly. Not as hard as I should be, but hey, I'm easing my foot back in the water.

What is honest to god freaking me out, dear internet, is that while all logic dictates that I should be daydreaming about wine, I'm not. I'm thinking about beer.

Fucking beer. Why? I don't know. I'm a somm. I'm not supposed to care about beer this much.

Let me say that its not hard for me to pick my favorite child: wine. So much. I love the hell out of wine. But I'm also struggling to contain my enthusiasm for beer. My professional friends notice. "You won't like this, it's not beer." Who doesn't like jokes? But I get nervous. Part of a reason I started this blag is to talk out my alcohol identity crisis. It's clear to me that I'm being judged to various degrees for my newfound love of beer. Best case scenario people think I'm going through a phase. Worst case scenario they think I've given up on wine. Come on people.

I talk to beer people about wine. I talk to wine people about beer. It makes my head want to explode. I think what I'm starting to see is that both sides feel certain things are given that the other side doesn't. Maybe only one side is right (beer WAS discovered first, pat yourselves on the back) but I feel like there are far fewer certainties in the discussion of beer and wine than both sides are objective enough to admit.

And hey, I'll admit I'm not objective either. But I'm not satisfied with the discussion of wine, beer, and liquor in the context of one another. So you see, internet, this is why I've chosen to barf my opinion all over you. Sorry. *dabs with napkins*

That's probably enough for now. I look forward to sharing too much about myself under the guise of talking about alcohol. Buh bye now.