Monday, June 27, 2011

Beer VS Wine VS Food

So another thing about me, I did debate for 6 years. 4 in high school and 2 in college. Few things escalate my blood pressure more than a bad debate. This is why I stopped watching the presidential debates- they're not actually discussing anything, they're just flailing around in defense of their point of view and their party. They refuse to work together for a greater purpose (dissecting complex issues), and instead just bicker.

The discussion of beer versus wine, in similar fashion, threatens to hospitalize me. I put this off as long as I could.

This is what you do to me.

The biggest thing the debate about beer vs wine lacks is a criterion. How are we deciding which one is better? I personally think we choose a lot of BAD criteria for this debate. For example:

#1. Aging Potential

Is aging potential a good indicator of quality? Often it is. But is wine better than beer because it can age longer? No. In the wine world, we're constantly explaining that an old wine is not inherently superior to a young wine. Similarly, an old wine is not inherently more valuable than a young beer. A question more important than "can beverage X age well?" is "Should I age it?" 

#2. Number of Ingredients / Complexity of Production

Beer (usually) has more ingredients than wine. Does more ingredients make beer superior to wine? Or is wine better for (usually) requiring fewer additives? We need to drop this one because a complex production process does not equal a complex or intense flavor profile. Bud Light is basically made in a laboratory by rocket scientists, and it tastes like yellow fizzy nothingness. Stanko Radikon's Ribolla Gialla is made pretty simplistically, and is profoundly complex.

Beer can also excel with simplicity: single hop beers anyone? If we were talking about watches, mechanical complexity would have more desirability, but we're not. Beer and wine both involve a lot of manipulation and ingredients, and neither of them are superior for it. If number of ingredients directly correlates with quality, then I'm off to brew a beer made with the entire contents of my fridge and pantry. Then, I'm going to make a blend of 50 different varietals into one sparkling, aromatized, oxidized, fortified, maderized wine.


Problem, Sommelier?

BEER AND WINE HAVE THE SAME EXACT NUMBER OF FLAVORS PEOPLE. THE. SAME. NUMBER. I'm not talking about acid or tannin or sugar or IBUs. I'm talking about FLAVORS. Flavors like apples, tar, pine, cinnamon, bacon, strawberries, cheese, soil, leather, grass, bread, smoke, nuts. I CHALLENGE YOU TO POINT OUT A FLAVOR THAT IS UNIQUE TO ONLY ONE SIDE. Actually, I might have one: petroleum / gasoline, is there a beer that can do that? But seriously, give me a flavor that you think is unique to your beloved beverage, and I will show you how the other side does it too. Per request, here are a few of them:
Common beer flavors and their wine analogs:

Bready malty flavor: found in the majority of sparkling wines as a by product of autolysis, and frequently in sherries and other oxidative wines.

Smokey flavor: Common in a lot of wines with heavy American oak treatment. The degree of toast in the barrel will also influence the intensity of this flavor.

And fuck it, lets do it for wine:

tart cherry flavor: commonly exhibited in varying degrees of ripeness in flemish red and brown ales, and obviously lambics that add cherries.

I can play this game all goddamn day. While beer and wine hit about every flavor note in the book, they do it in VERY different ways. And even though they can both do a flavor, one side usually does one way more often than the other. If you want to start arguing over which flavors are inherently better in alcohol, I will come to your house and beat you with a bat.

Beer and wine have the same range of flavors. STOP arguing about it, for the love of god.

I'm going to go take a break and punch a wall.


Ok we're back! So before I blacked out, we were talking about BAD criteria to evaluate beer and wine. Now is that point where I throw out the only good one I know of:

Food Pairing

How is it a fair fight? Beer and wine have profound impacts on food pairing that has nothing to do with matching flavors together. Both beverages have chemical features that help them work with food. They are:


Tannin- Tannin is the astringent, mouth drying sensation you get from a red wine (and occasionally a white wine). This bitterness comes from the anthocyanins found in grape skins. This mitigates fat in red meat better than damn near anything.

Acid- Malic acid, mostly. Beer people are often good cooks, but when you explain how acid in wine works with food they refuse to understand. Its pretty simple. When you squeeze a lemon on those raw oysters, the acid in the juice cuts the oceany fatness of the oysters. When you sip Chablis with oysters, you are basically drinking that lemony acid element, not to mention mirroring the salty mineral character of the oysters.

Sugar- sugar in wine slays spicy and salty food. If you believe wine can't handle spicy food, you're not even trying to understand what you're talking about. Sweet and spicy/salty are combined so frequently in food that it shouldn't be a shocker that sweet wine works with them.

Carbonation- Beer, you do get credit for being almost always carbonated, but wine does it too. Not only does wine do carbonation, but it does it at 6 atmospheres of pressure. Thats enough power to blow fingers off and poke out eyes, AND help douse the flames of a green curry.

Yes this is all very shocking.

Hop Bitterness- Beer's astringency comes from the addition of hops, rather than grape skins. It plays as prominent and as effective a role in soaking up fat as tannin in red wine. And hey, get this on record- I believe hops suppress capsicum in extremely spicy food better than just about anything.

Malt sugar- Sugar exists in beer, and makes it a powerful weapon in the war against food. The mashing process converts the starch in the grain to sugar, and you turn that sugar into awesome excellent ethanol. But, just like in wine, often some of that sugar is left over. In the case of high alcohol beers, there a crapload of it left over. This is what makes Barleywine and Roquefort as epic a pairing as port.

Acid- YES, OK? Beer CAN contain acid. Sours are called sours because they have acid in them. It works pretty much the same way with food that acid in wine does, although it is important to note that beers that contain a palpable amount of acid are driven by Lactic acid, which isn't quite as potent as Malic acid. But lets also be realistic and notice that the VAST majority of beers are not sours.

Carbonation- Carbonation goes a long way to deliver the flavor of said carbonated drink, and to mesh with any remaining food flavors in your mouf. Beer is carbonated, almost always. This is excellent.

There are other questions that deserve answers in the saga of beer versus wine, but Beer vs Wine vs Food is the big one. It is the Superbowl of alcohol and food pairing. And, *SPOILER ALERT* there's an extremely strong case to be made that there is no overall champion in this sports match. 

I'm done ragefacing. I've got a lot more to say, but its about time I got off the computer and got some "fresh air".
I don't even drink!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Failing the MS / Overdue shout-Out

One of the best meals I ever had in my life was the day I learned I had failed all 3 portions of the Master Sommelier exam.   

It's three weeks away from the MS, I've taken a lot of time off to study at the last minute. I know this isn't going to fill the grand-canyon sized void of knowledge and preparation I need to pass, but I'm going through the motions. Well I got sick. Real sick. I got my first sinus infection. I couldn't smell.

One third of the MS exam is a tasting of 6 wines in 25 minutes that requires 75% accuracy to pass. This is a herculean feat even for someone with a bloodhound nose- it is impossible to do if you cannot smel.

So for the first time in years, instead of letting a cold run its course, I went to the doctor. They gave me a bunch of fancy antihistamines and such, some of which were injections. Most importantly, they gave me 20 pills of Amoxicillin.

"You can't drink alcohol while you're taking this."

"What if I have to?"

"Nobody has to, sir."

"I'm studying for a wine test. And uh, then I'm taking the wine test. Part of the studying and testing involves drinking. Its the hardest wine test in the world."

"Oh I see."

"Well not drinking but tasting. I'll be spitting it out, is that ok? Also, I'm really nervous, and generally could use a drink."

"I would recommend not drinking until you absolutely have to. It will reduce the effectiveness of the Amoxcillin."


While I took the meds, I noticed the pain of my sinus infection going away, but I still couldn't smell. All my wine friends offered to organize about a dozen practice tastings for me. Every time I had to say, "Don't waste your wine, I'm nose-deaf."

The date neared. I was coming out of my freakish sickness, but I was tortured with stress. I feel asleep in piles of flash cards and guildsomm printouts. I wanted a drink so bad, but I couldn't risk my nose not working on the day of battle. The day I would be able to drink again would be the last day of the test, when they give the results.

I withdrew from everyone I new, and by the time I got to the Four Seasons in Dallas, I was numb. I bought a bottle of orange juice the day before my tasting portion. I cracked the seal and took a big sniff. Nothing. It tasted like nothing. I was fucked.

This is we waited, and freaked the hell out.

I was sitting in the bar of the Four Seasons, an hour before I was going in to the tasting portion. The price of a glass of the cheapest Pinot Grigio was more than I had in my pocket (I got paid the next day, but it was still pretty lame).

I called the cocktail waitress over and asked, "Hi! I know this is unorthodox, but could I have 4 dollars worth of Pinot Grigio? It's all I have till tomorrow."

She smiled and said "Don't worry about it, keep your money. Here's a few ounces."

Will never forget.

So I gave her my four bucks, and I'm staring at what must have been exactly two ounces of wine sitting on the table. Fear. Anger. Depression. This my last chance for my nose to get its shit together and work for me. The Court of Master Sommeliers does not give you a make-up date if you can't smell. You just take the tasting portion again. 800 dollars. I will remember everything that happened for the rest of my life.

I picked up the glass, shoved my nose in it, and inhaled. Lemons. Crumbled chalk. Lime zest. Unripe pineapple. Onion skin. Crushed aspirin. My head swam. I almost dropped the glass. This was the first time I had successfully received olfactory stimuli in almost a month. I'm pretty good at not crying during moments of intense emotion, but I very nearly lost it here. My sense of smell and taste came back to me about 30 minutes before I had to go taste. I'm not a religious person, but I'll go ahead and call it a miracle.

The waitress came back a few minutes later,

"How does it taste?"

"Fucking incredible. This wine tastes fucking incredible."

"Well, uh... I'm glad you like it so much."

I was ready to tear the fabric of space and time apart with my anger if I didn't get a chance to actually smell the vinous gauntlet that was going to be laid before me. And I got my chance. I failed fair and square. Can't talk about what I called them. But I will say this: the second before you begin, they say "Please enjoy the wines." It wasn't hard, they were delicious.

Failing the MS is hard on everything. Your mind, your body, your soul. I had realistically low expectations of myself for my first go at it, but it was still very hard. I was standing at the reception, watching everyone mingle and drink krug and console and congratulate, and I felt like my soul was rotting. I hadn't had real food, drink, or human interaction in what felt like months.  I had to do something. Fast. Between the stress of studying, the isolation of being incredibly sick, and finally hitting a roadblock in my wine studies, I was going insane.

Rewind 6 months. When I was first trained at Central Market Dallas in August 2010, my trainer was the then- beer and wine manager, Jennifer Uygur. She is a very strange, very organized, towering woman who invited me to dinner at her house the first Sunday of my training. There she revealed to me that she had put in her two weeks notice so that she could open a restaurant with her husband, David Uygur (he used to be the exec at Lola's). They were gonna call it Lucia, and it was going to be traditional Italian with in-house charcuterie and all that jazz. The dinner was epic, but I had to go back to Houston before I could see the restaurant open.

Fast forward 6 months. I'm sitting in the empty bathtub of my hotel in my suit. I text Jennifer something to the tune of "I just got beaten to death by the MS exam, any chance I can get a table tonight?"

I went by myself. When I walked into Lucia, Jennifer hugged me and asked,

"Do you need some wine?" I nodded.

"Do you want me to pick it out for you?" I nodded again.

"Do you want some Lambrusco while we figure it out?" I kept nodding.

My cell phone battery died right when I sat down, ending all of the consolatory texts I was getting. I sat at a marble counter facing the kitchen. When my server brought me a huge slab of fragrant bread, I realized I haven't sat down to a real meal in a restaurant in what felt like months. It was also the first time in almost a month that I could taste my food.

I remember the bread so distinctly, it had a thick crunchy exterior that smelled faintly of hazelnuts, and a soft chewy interior. This wasn't normal bread, this is what bread tastes like on the dinner table of Valhalla. I dream about that goddamn bread. They bake it in house.

I started off with the charcuterie plate. It had warm Lardo on crackers, two different kinds of salumi, little chunks of bread with liver pate on them. The moment the plate hit the table I also got a glass of the only non-Italian wine on the list: Moric Blaufrankisch. If you're not a wine nerd and aren't sure how hard you should freak out over Moric, know this: it's really fucking good. Its one of those wines where I hold it up to the light and say to myself, this is why I chose wine as my focus, no other beverage can taste like this. What does Moric actually taste like? It tastes like perfectly ripened red fruit. It tastes like the Grave Digger running over cars that are full of terrorists. It tastes like gravel and granite. It tastes like soldiers returning home safely from war and seeing their families. It is in perfect balance, like a universe ruled by justice and love. Yep.

This is what Moric fucking tastes like.

I had duck confit and Gnocchi for my primi. It was so simple and earthy and savory. The bitter cold outside made me appreciate how thoroughly hot each little pillowy bite of Gnocchi was. The last bite still had steam rising off of it. The Moric sliced through the duck fat like a knife. Like a Shun.

David took a brief moment from running the kitchen to stop by and ask me how everything tasted. I'm positive it sounded like crazed rambling, whatever I said. I hope he took from it that I was shell shocked by the food.

Secondi, I had a grilled duck breast. Because who gives a shit, really? There were a lot of really amazing looking dishes, but I wanted more duck, and so that's what I ordered. It was medium rare and it was intoxicatingly gamey and rich. There was also an accompaniment that I don't remember precisely- but it had mushrooms and foie gras and it tasted like hopes and dreams. I'm feeling woozy and whip my head to the right and can see a bottle of Moric that is mostly empty. It's 9:30 and I still see Jennifer darting all over the restaurant, leading the charge. My server asks me, "You doing ok?" It sounds far away. "Do you need more wine?" I nod. She dumps the rest of the Moric in my glass. I pick up the glass, and feel the how light the glass is, and an awesome wave of calm washes over me. I must reiterate: Moric and the duck worked so well, I might have almost perished with delight.

I couldn't decide between the desserts, so I got two of them. One was a chocolate panna cotta with orange, and I had cannoli. I had french press coffee. And I was finishing the Moric. Let's be real friends, I was kinda drunk. And it felt GREAT. I had forgotten the sensation of just tying on a good buzz and enjoying life. My wine, coffee, and dessert intermingled on my palate like a mosh pit. Pistachios kicking chocolate and orange in the teeth, who shoves french press coffee into Moric, who headbutts the cannoli.

I was so busy looking at the jars full of preserves everywhere on the walls of the restaurant that I didn't notice the check hit the counter. The tab was really reasonable. I paid and started to search for Jenn.

When I had dinner at her house 6 months ago, I asked her if I could have a jar of her and David's home-made Mostarda. They had, pear, cherry, and I think orange mostarda. I wanted pear, but I forgot to grab it. She tried to grab me some before I left but we never got around to it.

I found her, and she asked me how everything was. I can't remember what I said but I know I was babbling. I did by best to tell her it was one of the greatest meals of my life, but I know I fell short. I asked her,

"Hey can I buy a jar of Mostarda from you?"

She paused, "Well its not really for sale... but I guess I did offer you one a while ago."

She came back with two jars. "Cherry or fig, you have to pick only one. Just take it." I picked cherry.

"Are you sure I can't pay you for this?"

"Nah, just make sure to tell people if you enjoyed the food."

Enter this blog post. Jennifer and David Uygur are directly responsible for rehabilitating me from the sanity-destroying events leading up to and during the Master Sommelier exam last year in Dallas. They reminded me why I get up in the morning, why I study what I study, and work where I work. They are wonderful people, and their charming restaurant is actually a war machine of authentic Italian cuisine and amazing wine service. I will remember my meal there for the the rest of my life.

David and Jennifer. Photo from D Magazine.

Lucia is located on 408 West Eighth Street, Suite 101, Dallas TX 75208.
The phone number is 214-948-4998 

Go to the bank, take all of your money out, and give all of it to Lucia. I was delighted to hear that due to their huge popularity, reservations are very hard to get a hold of. Call early.

Next time I'm preparing for the MS, I will remember to stop and relax a bit. I hope I get to take the exam in Dallas again, so I can go eat the bread at Lucia until I'm unconscious.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Put your money where your mouth is

Ok, I've loosely committed to waxing poetic about the tension between beer and wine nerds on this bleg. While I let my exact position on this feud marinate, can I ask you a favor, Houston (and rest of America)?

Please do more Beer vs Wine dinners. Please.

I think both sides are too worried about their own nonsense to bother giving the other side an audience. But I'm telling you, this can be the most fascinating exercise.

I'd be a rich man if I had some denomination of currency for every time I heard someone talk shit about how beer or wine doesn't work with food.

"Wine is too sour to go with food."

"Beer is just pairing flavors, it doesn't have tannin and acid like wine."

"Wine can't handle spicy or salty food like beer can."

"Beer isn't complex enough to make truly epic pairings."

I hear this garbage all day long. I hear it from novices and experts. I hear it from restaurants, from retailers, and from distributors. Everyone has an opinion, but no one cares to defend it. I implore you, opinioned beverage geeks:

Put your money where your mouth is, and throw down. Quit talking about it, and start trying to prove it.

Your bickering is PROFOUNDLY unproductive in terms of making Houston a better city to drink in. I know working together is often too much to ask, so the next best thing could very well be conflict: with Houston's palate as your theater of war.

I'm available to help, but I'm just asking for ANYONE to start something. The only time I've ever heard of this happening is The Petrol Station vs Central Market. I think that was a good start, but we can go further. We can think bigger. Please. Put up or Shut up.

Beer vs Wine: Whoever wins, you walk away with a buzz.