There was a boozy time in our history when business deals were settled over Scotch on the rocks or the driest of martinis. The TV show, Mad Men harkens back to those simpler days and simpler tastes. But today, folks aren’t drinking their parents’ cocktails, or at least they aren’t drinking them with mainstream liquor.
These days, as much as beer and wine come from around the world and around the block, so too are spirits. Craft, small-batch spirits are rising to meet our developing tastebuds in much the same way that craft brewers have blossomed, and one can find family wineries in places like Texas and New Jersey.
So, who better to educate us about those small-batch spirits than Christophe Bakunas, spirits portfolio manager at Cream Wine, one of Hinsdale Cellars’ favorite importers and distributors of fine wine, craft spirits and Ginjo Sake?
“The martini revolution is over,” Bakunas said during a quick phone interview recently. “Sure vodka is still extremely popular, but the cocktail scene over the past five to eight years has changed where bartenders and mixologists are looking for fresh ideas.”
Bakunas will be at Hinsdale Cellars on Thursday, Oct. 25, 6-8 p.m. for Cocktail Night, teaching folks four signature cocktails that are made even better by using craft, small-batch spirits.
The difference between craft spirits versus those that are more industrial is huge,” he said, using as an example of the fjord-like difference Grandmas’ homemade cupcakes versus Little Debbie’s. “Your grandma makes her cupcakes in small quantities with time and attention that make them righteously good – much like the craft distillers. Conversely, larger distilleries must resort to refining processes that diminish their potential for flavor to keep their products consistent and fresh.”
According to Bakunas, after prohibition the laws were written for large-scale beer and spirits production that not only homogenized brands and flavors but also destroyed, in essence, three generations of distillers and two generations of craft brewers. “We went through a period in American beer, wine and spirits history from 1920 until 1979 when home and small beer production was essentially prohibited, losing multi-generational knowledge and lore of brewing. And from 1920 till 2000 craft distilling was nonexistent.” Bakunas said. Fortunately the last decade has seen an increase in federal permits to distill from 24 in 2000 to more than 240 small distiller permits as of today.
But today, these industries sit on a new frontier where consumers not only appreciate creative expression, they actually will buy enough to make artisan liquor production sustainable. “The American palate is changing, and just like with micro brews or visiting the local winery or buying local produce at the farmer’s market, craft distillers tie one human to another. It’s business, but the personal connection adds to what makes it special, too,” Bakunas said. “The coolest thing is that it resonates.”
And when it comes to making the perfect cocktail, his philosophy is quite simple: quality ingredients and balance.
“Coming from the wine side of things, we are always talking about balance,” Bakunas said. “For cocktails, there are three essential elements: the sugar, the alcohol and the acidity. So, as I look at cocktail recipes, it’s a matter of not overwhelming the drink with alcohol and balancing the sweet and sour, so to speak. Finding a harmony amongst these three elements leads to perfection.”
Bakunas will introduce some artisanal gin, bourbon, tequila and rum, while also teaching some tricks of the trade in making the perfectly balanced libation for your next gathering. Space is extremely limited for this tasting, so RSVP ASAP to attend by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 630-654-9862.
Perhaps sheep, goats and a cowbell-clad donkey don’t greet everyone heading down the dirt and gravel road to La Magia vineyard in Montalcino, but they should. Even as a particular long-horned goat unflinchingly stared into our car, my four wine-loving friends and I had to chuckle at the setting’s perfection: a Tuscan sun illuminating the verdant pastures and vineyards, a charming cowbell clinking in concert with the leaves that gently swished in the breeze, the smell of lavender and herbaceous air – how could fabulous wine NOT be produced in this environment?
And sure enough, as we made our way to the unassuming vineyard known as Fattoria La Magia, we were soon to learn just how great that wine could be. Winemaker and owner Fabian Schwarz greeted us and casually took us to a hillside overlooking his grapes with a breathtaking view that also included a distant Benedictine St. Antimo abbey that Charlemagne built so many centuries ago. While it is far from being the biggest vineyard in the world (approximately 52 hectares of which you can see all of it from this one vantage point), here is a winery that has flourished, exporting its wine around the world.
Fabian chuckled and said, “No, but sometimes they look even better after I have been away traveling.”
The Brunello everybody loves
Most wine experts will say that Brunello is Tuscany’s greatest wine varietal; others say it is the best in all of Italy. Roughly translated as “nice dark one,” this is a red wine lover’s dream with its smooth tannins and robust dark fruit and leather flavors. Brunello di Montalcino was awarded with the first DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) in 1980, which means it can only be grown and produced in Montalcino, that everything used to make the wine must also come from Montalcino and that it can only be made from 100 percent Brunello grapes, which are a perfected clone of the Sangiovese grape that dates back to the mid-19th century. Fabian explained that Brunello must age at least two years in oak barrels and a minimum of four years overall as part of the DOCG rules. Riserva Brunello ages at least two and a half years in oak barrels and five years overall.
Like many of the local winemakers, Fabian and his wife offer tastings and tours by appointment, and depending on what you taste and whether you would like some charcuterie alongside your wines, the price ranges between 10 and 18 Euro ($14-25 US). The tour starts in the vineyard, goes through the cellars and finishes outside under a shady tree, where the family dog is quick to nestle herself comfortably under the tables as well.
It’s this kind of environment that allows one to learn about the challenges a winemaker has and see the parts of winemaking that drive his passion. My friend’s simple question about Fabian’s wine label revealed that when he was just four years old, an artist had come to visit his father to design that year’s label for the Riserva wine. However, on that occasion the four-year-old created art that proved to be longer-lived, still adorning all of La Magia’s wine bottles rather than just one vintage like the work from the more experienced artist.
A satisfying tasting
So, La Magia, like most of the wineries in Montalcino has found the benefits of location and have clearly specialized in Brunello. Like most winemakers in this area, Fabian specializes with the three wines of Montalcino: Rosso, Brunello and Brunello Riserva. While winemakers save their best quality grapes for Riserva and lesser quality grapes for Rosso, a lot of the rules can change depending on a good or bad vintage. Many reviewers will note that in bad vintage years, these wines can prove to be exceptional values. As winemakers downgrade their best grapes, the Rosso’s quality improves. Asking Fabian about which years were good years for Rosso and good years for Riserva proved mind numbing. Compounding the confusing list of vintages was the fact that as we tasted his three wines, they all had impressive aroma, taste and color, despite ranging in price from 12 to 45 Euros/bottle.
Bad quality Rosso? Not from this place was the conclusion we drew. Yes, the Rosso lacked some of that depth and tannins in which the Brunello and Riserva bathed your tongue, but it definitely held its own as a hearty, earthy, robust red wine. We bought two bottles of each wine for the rest of our Tuscan vacation. However, we couldn’t resist opening them in threesomes to continue comparing and contrasting.
My husband likes to say that the best wines are always best because of context – you’re having a good time, surrounded by friends or family, or the setting is just perfect. Well, for six traveling friends in Tuscany, we decided La Magia has some damn fine context.
– Ivy F. Kupec
There is an undeniable link between wine (aka Nectar of the Gods) and religion. People drink it at communion. Monks often make it. And it plays a leading role in some of the most sacred ceremonies. Of course, some religions and zealots shun the stuff for holier beverages, but even in those instances they too have connected wine to religion although in not such a positive light. With wine’s obvious origin in the earth and how winemakers work with grapes like sculptors and painters who turn clay and blank canvases into art, wine provides a spiritual connection that provides for a natural communion as we share it with family, friends and new acquaintances.
Whether it’s the brilliant gold of a Chardonnay, the coppery shimmer of a Provencal rosé, the regal crimson of an earthy Syrah or the bubbly and inherent joy of any sparkling wine, a good glass of wine is one of the most sensual experiences, awakening an appreciation for God and mankind’s good works. So, as we approach the Christmas season, what better way to note that relationship than by highlighting three wines that have a very obvious churchy connection. When you learn the names all together, it may conjure the start of some sort of familiar joke…“a priest and three saints meet God at a bar…”but instead you will find that experiencing these oenophilic dreams are just three more reasons to say, “Thank God for wine.”
The Priest: Priest Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa, California
Made from the oldest and boldest parts Oriental and Nightingale vineyards, this wine feels very pure of heart. Winemakers age the wine for 24 months in new and neutral French oak barrels to lend a wonderful earthiness to the wine and make its pairing with your favorite roast beast a perfect marriage. Named for the original Priest family landowners who settled on this land in 1849, this hillside Cab has gorgeous aromatics of black cherry, raspberry, vanilla and cedar that are rustic and classic. A glorious quaff for your holiday table. $39.99/bottle.
The 3 Saints: Three Saints Cabernet Sauvignon, Central Coast, Santa Ynez Valley, California
Here is a Cabernet Sauvignon blended with 18 percent Cabernet Franc and 2 percent Merlot to produce an unbridled, full-bodied, fruit-forward wine. Silky tannins, dark berries, vanilla and an earthy spiciness are a treat to the palate. This wine has a long, smooth finish that marries well with wild game or even those meals more piquant in nature. In its humble way, Three Saints provides a wine that is balanced and murmuring elegance, class and sophistication. $24.99/bottle.
The Creator: K Vintners (Charles Smith) The Creator, Walla Walla, Washington State
Big, like the ultimate “Creator” himself, this wine is about two-thirds Cabernet Sauvignon and one-third Syrah, producing an inky purple sensory monster. Wine Spectator, which rated it a 91, describes it as “dark and chewy…dense with blackberry, currant and tar flavors, glowing and pulsing against a layer of smoky tannins. Shows a lot of life.” It’s hard not to discuss this wine without mentioning its label and name. The outrageous Charles Smith deigns to transform his caricature into a god-like figure, suggesting that this wine is perhaps the wine of all wines. Ironically, judging from the buzz it has created, this wine now has many devoted disciples. Enjoy with your favorite red meat of the season. $62.99/bottle.