My personal favorite things about 2023...
aside from the fact that it will soon be over.
Writing about things that I discover, purchase, eat, drink, or even drive makes my life richer. It forces me to pay closer attention to details, makes me increasingly observant. More and more frequently I find myself chronicling things in my head as I go, making sense of the world in real time with my writing voice and vocabulary. I've had a lot of great discoveries and experiences to chronicle in 2023, and I published essays about most of them. In no particular order, here is a partial list:
BEST RED WINE
The most amazing red wine to pass my lips in the past year was the 60%-40% blend of Cabernet Franc and Merlot from a cool mountaintop vineyard in southern Napa Valley... the same wine I described in Satan’s Sweet Syrup last summer. It reportedly retails for two Benjamins a pop, but I got a 6-pack for $39/bottle under the bargain-rich de Négoce futures program. (To understand exactly how de Négoce works, check out How to Buy $60 Wine for $20.) This wine is labeled as a "Proprietary Red" because American wine law requires a 75% minimum for labeling by grape variety. In a related story...
MY (LEAST) FAVORITE GRAMMATICAL PET PEEVE
"VARIETALS" are wines labeled by grape variety, i.e., Pinot Noir, Moscato, Zinfandel, etc. A vineyard grows grape VARIETIES that may or may not be bottled as VARIETAL wines. But alas, wine scribes everywhere are muddling the distinction through constant misuse. ("Should OF," "different THAN," and "HYSTERICAL" in place of "hilarious" are perennial "least favorites" that infuriatingly remain in regular usage.)
BEST WHITE WINE
Here we have a tie, and a tie-within-a-tie... all involving wines from my local region. My quest for a Finger Lakes Riesling that actually lives up to decades of optimistic promises finally ended when I uncorked a 2020 Hermann J. Wiemer "HJW Vineyard" Riesling. (See "The Search for Electric Icicles.") And while bird-dogging wineries along the local lakeshores I also found sufficient evidence to conclude that the region's warmer temperatures coupled with an influx of world-class wine-making expertise is now yielding world-class, Burgundian-style Chardonnay. The two most stunning examples I found came from Heart & Hands Wine Company and Trestle 31.
If I ever find the time to once again troll the depths of Lakes Seneca or Cayuga for their delicious lake trout, I'll happily pair my catch with any of these three wine gems.
BEST SPARKLING WINE(S)
My local Finger Lakes region is well on its way to reclaiming its position as America's premier "Champagne" source. In contrast to New York's mass-produced bubbly of yore, the best of the current output is drier, has tinier bubbles, and is made from far superior grapes. That being said, it is also rather pricey... nearly as dear as the genuine French counterparts. So I still stick to a pair of bottlings from the other side of America for our house pours– Domaine Chandon Brut Rosé from California, and Gruet Blanc de Blancs from New Mexico. Both wineries were established by actual French Champagne houses, and both bottle a range of bubblers that are beautifully crafted, crisply dry, and retail for well south of $20/bottle. Taken together, these two bottlings make a nicely contrasting duo– the Brut Rosé gets its salmon hue from a generous dollop of Pinot Noir and presents a varietally-correct whiff of red fruits, while the Blanc de Blancs is 100% Chardonnay and accordingly flinty and crisp. For a large enough gathering I would offer both.
WINE BARGAIN OF THE YEAR
Any time I use "wine" and "bargain" in the same breath, one must surely surmise that de Négoce is involved. What's better than $60 wine for $20? How about $90 wine for $9... how can that possibly happen?
Australia produces a lot of great wine... and so when they got into a trade spat with China that cancelled much of their export business, Australia was left with a lot of EXTRA great wine. But then along came Cameron Hughes with a 7-page non-disclosure agreement and pocketfuls of OUR money, and a boatload of Lot 354 Barossa Valley Old Vine Shiraz was soon on the water and steaming toward our shores. The initial futures price of this gem was $12... but then it went on sale for Black Friday, and I snagged two cases for nine bucks a bottle.
MY NEW FAVORITE WINERY
Without question, the aforementioned Heart & Hands Winery– barely an hour from our house!– has captured my fancy with their fanatical, no-nonsense attention to detail and dedication to excellence. (See The Impossibly Perfect Winery.) Rare is the winery that isn't at least partially blind to its imperfections... that doesn't delude itself into believing that its wines are better than they really are, or doesn't try to transform its failures into some supposedly value-added "wine product." Heart & Hands engages in none of this... at least insofar as this former professional wine geek can tell. The owners are a true "power couple," a passionate and visionary husband counterbalanced by a brilliantly savvy and equally hard-working wife. They also sell the coolest, most beautiful wine glasses I've ever seen. Tastings are by appointment, and best appreciated by serious and knowledgeable wine lovers. If you're out winery hopping with your old frat or sorority peeps, you might want to drive right past this place.
MY NEW FAVORITE CUT OF BEEF
After a year of experimenting with Prime Rib in search of the perfect version, an email notice from Snake River Farms re-directed my efforts and attention toward an unlikely cut– Wagyu Chuck Roast. (See Value Alert! A Hack for Affordable Roast Beef.) I can't wait to make it again.
BEST NEW SAUCE
My Faux Jus was nothing magical, or even new... just a long-overdue, brute-force process to replicate in large quantity the drippings of otherworldly deliciousness that accumulate in the pan beneath slowly-roasting beef. I'm quite pleased with the result, but my favorite new sauce is a recent and spontaneous concoction that is most likely someone else's earlier invention, a sort of Nouvelle Cuisine take on classic Sauce Mornay. Original or not, this is the missing link I'd been seeking for my long-overdue and upcoming Lobster Fantastico recipe. Since New Year's Eve is nigh, here is the quick version:
Simmer a minced shallot in a dab of clarified butter. Add splashes of white wine vinegar and white verjus. Follow with fine zest of lemon as well as a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. Cook down the liquid as if making a standard-issue beurre blanc, but then add enough heavy cream to disqualify it as such. Reduce, then stir in some high-quality, unsalted butter. Then carefully whisk in a little shredded Gruyère, being careful not to over-thicken. An optional touch of minced garlic makes it especially lobster-friendly. Enjoy over broiled split lobster tails with a sprinkle of fresh herbs, your favorite bubbly, and your most loved one.
MY FAVORITE NEW COOKING TOY
My German-made, stainless steel Rösle Passetout/Food Mill is responsible for the finest mashed potatoes I've ever made. And my hand-built-to-order Kotai Grill is the best device in the world for grilling fish. My favorite and most useful cooking tool of all time, however, remains my microplane grater-zester. I'd happily post a shopping link, but I bought mine 30 years ago and they don't make them like they used to. (Pro-tip: the finer the better. Everything I've found in a recent Amazon search is a little too coarse.)
MY FAVORITE NEW COFFEE SHOP
In “The Perfect Little Dairy Farm” I drew a distinction between two types of dairy farms– "estate" dairy farms that sell milk, cheese, and butter from the output of their resident herd, and commercial dairy factories that purchase bulk milk from a cooperative and have it trucked in. I am delighted to report that the Pittsford Farms Dairy & Bakery (in Pittsford, NY) occupies a sweet spot between these polar extremes. Just as many a winery purchases fruit from elsewhere yet manages to bottle great wine, the Pittsford Dairy, as it is known, trucks in milk directly from nearby farms, thereby bypassing the cooperatives and exercising greater control over the quality of their raw material. (I know this because I spoke directly with the trucker who was delivering the milk; he and I work for the same company.)
The Pittsford Dairy is also a warm and cozy bakery and ice cream shop with a rustic wood-paneled interior. They are blessed with a knowledgeable and enthusiastic young staff– an increasingly rare thing these days. I look forward to stopping there for a great cup of coffee every week on my way out of town to start my work week.
MY PURCHASE OF THE YEAR
It's not even close... you can read all about my search for my new pickup truck in The Art of the Pickup Truck, Part 1 and Part 2. I also have a major purchase in the works for 2024 that I'm afraid to jinx by even mentioning it in any detail. I'll let you all know when it's final.
MY FAVORITE ESSAY
My fellow scribes will appreciate this. Sometimes, not nearly as often as we writers would like, a sudden bolt of inspiration animates our writing... feelings and concepts flow like electricity from the heavens down into our skulls and then out through our arms to our fingers, instantly becoming useful prose as fast as we can type. I experienced just this sensation as I was penning Gewürztraminer! (A Love Story) in an effort to describe a difficult-to-describe wine grape. A kaleidoscopic swirl of memories– of various female acquaintances, my rural hometown, my post-college poverty, a Rockwell painting, childhood trips to Ithaca, and actual tastes and smells– all furiously commingled to help me capture the essence of this quirkiest of vinifera varieties. I hope my Dear Readers enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
I'm looking forward to writing about all the wonderful things that 2024 has to offer. Until then, here's to a Merry Christmas, a cozy and safe holiday season, and a Happy New Year for all who join us now and then around this Table.