Recently while perusing craft bartender Jason Schiffer’s blog I ran across a book recommendation: his only book recommendation, Home Bar Basics (and Not-So-Basics). Being Jason’s only recommended book, I felt compelled to break down and buy the modestly-priced guide, $12.99.

At first the guide’s small size took a while to get used to but after a buying trip to Costco and Bevmo, I realized its utility — it fits in your pocket. No flipping through sites on an iPhone, decidedly analog — just my style. Spiral-bound and printed on water/tear resistant paper I again realized its utility as it lay flat on my counter while a few drops of overspray from “craft” shaking went into play. iPad’s and Boston shakers don’t mix.

This guide is smart, well put together, well organized and beautifully illustrated. The author, Dave Stolte, is by the way a professional illustrator. It covers all the basics to get the butting mixologist off the ground. If you are a traditionalist like me, the guide might just cover most everything you need to know. I’d rather hone my skills at making a precise Manhattan than be able to make 20 versions of Sex on the Beach. The recommendations on spirits to buy are particularly useful. I already had some Cointreau, Bacardi (not recommended) and bitters so my first purchases were as follows: Bulleit Bourbon ($19), Rittenhouse 100 Rye ($24), a little more expensive than the other two rec’s but described as, “the one to beat”, Tanquerary Gin ($19) and Sauza Hornitos Reposado Tequila ($18). It was Cinco de Mayo so the Tequila seemed like a particularly good deal. $90 and I should be able to make about half the basic 12 Basic Drinks detailed. As this is a cocktail book, all the spirits noted are “mixing” spirits, i.e. they will be blending with other spirits, juices, etc. Quality should be to a certain level but not so high that they would be better poured on their own. Most spirits recommended are in the $15-$30 range.

The guide is opinionated; I prefer, in Stolte’s words, the “Practical – No Bullshit” approach, particularly in an industry dominated by multi-national conglomerates. Stolte’s Vodka recommendation is short and to the point, “Vodka isn’t fit to drink.”, probably not something someone who seeks sponsored trips to Finland would put into print. “…no pre-squeezed, packaged juice. EVER.” — no ambiguity there. He’s also encouraging, “With care and direction, you can make excellent cocktails at home — probably far better than your local bar or restaurant.”  The cocktails are organized in a logical sequence based on the primary spirit used in each cocktail. The first cocktail is the Old Fashioned.

Did I say this guide is smart? It is. Stolte financed this project online so he could make the guide he wanted to make: pocket-sized, spiral-bound, water/tear resistant paper, printed in the USA, beautiful illustrations (no glossy photos), smart recommendations and cleverly organized. Even with the tax and shipping, if you like quality, I can’t imagine this guide not being of use.

Note – as I work through the cocktails I may update and/or add links to this review…

I just received the Slow Wine 2012 English Version. I take all wine guides’ opinions, awards with a grain of salt but I must say I had a tough time putting this one down. The English edition seems to be a bit more condensed than the Italian version but the guide is well laid out and extremely well done. The guide bestows six awards in total, three to wineries and three to individual wines. The awards are as follows:

Winery

Snail awarded to a winery that we particularly like for the way it interprets Slow Food values (sensory perceptions, territory, environment, identity).

Bottle awarded to wineries whose bottles presented excellent average quality in our tastings.

Coin awarded to wineries whose bottles are good value for the money.

Wine

Slow Wine awarded to wines of outstanding sensory quality, capable of condensing in the glass territory-related values such as history and identity.

Great Wine awarded to the finest bottles from the sensory point of view.

Everyday Wine awarded to wines that offer excellent value for the money.

The Slow Wine award is most intriguing and ambitious. Essentially this appears to be an award for outstanding wines that communicate place. A few of the wines that were awarded the Slow Wine are: Kuenhof Alto Adige Valle Isarco Sylvaner 2010, Zuani Collio Bianco Vigne 2010, Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco 2007, Bartolo Mascarello Barolo 2007. I couldn’t agree more that these are outstanding wines that condense terroir in the glass.

Slow Wine 2012 | A Year in the life of Italy’s Vineyards and Wines

*I’ve linked each award to listings on the SlowFood.it website. Click the link and scroll down to see the listings.

I have been a fan for a while now of Petite Arvine. More known outside Italy as a Swiss grape than an Italian one, it may very well be Vallée d’Aoste’s grape with the most potential. Les Crêtes, Vallée d’Aoste’s benchmark producer, produces a fantastic, albeit pricey, Petite Arvine that wins accolades year after year. I recently learned of Elio Ottin, a vigneron who prior to 2007 sold his grapes to the local coop. Ottin produces just under 2,000 cases per year from local grapes Petite Arvine, Petit Rouge and Fumin. After much searching online for a US importer I finally gave up and gave Elio a call hoping that he could speak English. He doesn’t. The language we spoke in, French, gives you an indication of the influences and culture here. To my pleasant surprise, he had recently shipped some cases to an importer in Southern California.

If you are looking for a wine that will provide instant gratification with sweet fruit and oak, this is not your wine. You almost feel like you can taste alpine waters and smell hawthorn flowers growing between the vines. The decidedly alpine character yields a wine one could imagine to be a Sylvaner grown on Mont Blanc, or Monte Bianco, if such a wine existed. There is some weight and breadth on the palate with savory, saline minerality on the finish. This wine takes you some place. Very high quality.

I’ve come across quite of few intriguing wines recently, particularly whites. I have to admit that while I enjoy red wine as much as white I find whites much more versatile, easy to drink and refreshing. Unfortunately, most customers lean on the red side of things which is understandable yet a bit narrow and limiting nonetheless. Italy delivers tremendous value by the way in the ~$30/retail, ~$50/restaurant range in white wine. The following is a round-up of recent acquisitions. Each of these producers is small and artisanal with total productions ranging from 2,500~7,500 cases:

Laura Aschero Riviera Ligure di Ponente Vermentino 2010
Fratelli Brovia Roero Arneis Sanche di Vezza d’Alba 2010
Elio Ottin Vallée d’Aoste Petite Arvine 2010
Luigi Ferrando Erbaluce di Caluso La Torrazza 2009
Grosjean Frères Vallée d’Aoste Gamay 2010

These wines from the hills of Piemonte, the Alps of Vallée d’Aoste and the coast of Liguria are an opportunity to experience a bit of these places and these people…

Etna, a relatively obscure wine only years ago, has gained great appreciation over the past few years and is arguably Sicily’s most prestigious wine today. One might assume being from Sicily that these wines are heavy, fruity, warm weather wines but that is not at all the case. The wines are grown on volcanic soils (Etna is an active volcano) at high altitudes and produced from rarely seen grape varieties like Nerello Mascalese (rosso) and Caricante (bianco). These wines have the weight  and structure of Burgundy with a flavor profile unique to Etna’s volcanic soils.

Alberto Graci is one of the young guard and a rising star of Etna. Upon the death of his grandfather he returned to Sicily, sold his grandfather’s vineyards and moved to Etna. Graci has 18 hectares of vineyards largely in the Passopisciaro area of the region. His approach to wine is minimalistic letting his wines speak of Etna. He eschews French barrique, selected yeasts and temperature control. The results are sincere wines that convey Etna in the glass.

The 2010 Etna Rosso is the most structured and balanced I’ve tasted of his normale bottling yet. There is a nice core of tannin, red fruit and refreshing acidity…very aromatic with cherries, wildflowers and volcanic ash jumping from the glass. The wine is still a little tight on the finish and not showing everything now that it will in the coming years. Decanting is recommended.

Etna Rosso is quite versatile with food due to its mid-weight, low tannin structure. If you must have red wine with seafood, Etna Rosso is a great choice. Even rarer than Etna Rosso is Etna Bianco. Benanti Etna Bianco Pietramarina is a favorite Italian white.

I poured the previous vintage of this wine for an importer of fine Burgundy and to say the least…he was impressed, not just by the quality but by the price. Tenuta Mazzolino is a small family Estate (prod 100k btls) in the Oltrepò Pavese region of Lombardia, a region that  was prior to unification of Italy a part of the Savoia, or Savoy. Franco-Italian roots are evident here. Incidentally, Jean-François Coquard, the winemaker, hails from Burgundy.

The ’09 Chardonnay Blanc while displays complexity and class, deftly balancing the ripeness of the vintage with refreshing acidity, minerality and restraint. Subtle oak complements the wine rather than upstaging it. Lemon, white flowers, hazelnut and even a bit of pineapple persist through the finish. The wine receives classic treatment: barrel fermentation and ageing (25% new) as well as less stirring, bottled a year after the vintage.

Durin Pornassio Ormeasco 2009

Ormeasco is said to be the same grape as Dolcetto of Piedmont. I grabbed this wine on the way out the door to a casual dinner with my wife. Pleasantly surprised, it was bright, fun, food-friendly…at a cool cellar temperature was perfect with local ethnic food. Compared to more serious Dolcetto from Piedmont, this was much brighter, simpler and elegant…all red fruit and delicious. I’ve been looking more and more to Liguria recently for interesting finds.

The recently established (2003) Pornassio DOC covers the entirety of Liguria. Durin Pornassio Ormeasco comes from the backdrop hills of Ortovero, a town half way between Sanremo and Savona.

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