Moonshining Through Thanksgiving

moonshineMoonshine: In New Orleans for Thanksgiving, I made sure to drink American. No, not Zinfandel, the uniquely American red, rich with ripe fruit and black pepper, that flatters the diverse tastes of the Thanksgiving table.

Instead, my patriotic pour was none other than the infamous, unlicensed libation known as moonshine, which, until then, I thought was solely the stuff of hillbilly hellmaking.  To my delight, however, home-brewed spirits – dubbed “moonshine,” and also “skull cracker,” “ruckus juice,” and the “sweet spirits of cats a-fighting” – are waiting to be discovered in some of the Big Easy’s best eateries.  It happens to be on the dessert wine list at Cochon, a spectacular sanctum of Southern swine cookery.  At dinner, we started with wood-roasted oysters and then literally pigged out on pork ribs, fried boudin with pickled peppers, roasted pork shoulder, creamy grits, cucumbers in vinegar, and smothered greens – all washed down with bottles of cleansingly crisp Commanderie de Peyrassol Rosé 2007.

It was then time to shine, so to speak, with two commercially-available moonshines: Virginia Lightning Corn Whiskey and Catdaddy Carolina Moonshine.  The first was clear to the eye and lethal to the larynx, a tribute to the grab-anything-in-the-parents’-liquor-cabinet mistakes of my teens, a liquid “mule kick” if ever there was one.  The Catdaddy, however was a different animal altogether, with a rounder, sweeter side, and flavors of nutmeg and butterscotch taming its bourbon-y bite.  I liked it so much that I picked up two bottles the next day at Martin Wine Cellar on Magazine Street.
I was still on my moonshine high when we went to dinner the next night at Herbsaint, which is Cochon’s more upscale sister eatery, both owned by James Beard-winning chef Donald Link.  While feasting on a lushly-textured Kurabuta pork belly and a bright-but-earthy red Burgundy, I asked general manager and wine buyer Joe Briand if Herbsaint was also in possession of moonshine.  He smiled knowingly and invited us to roll up to bar before we left.  We did, and there he retrieved two Mason jars sitting discreetly behind the bar.  They turned out to be the realest of real deals: home-brewed hooch, illicitly distilled and smuggled to New Orleans in someone’s truck; that someone apparently gets around the law by not selling it to the restaurant outright but by bartering it for the occasional dinner.  The production and sale of such private-label (or, this case, no-label) hooch is illegal (though rarely prosecuted by the authorities today) due in part to backwoods distillers’ dangerously primitive practices, such as using a car radiator as a condenser and a campfire as a heat source.  These methods have been known to imperil the distiller or poison the drinker.
But because it was acquired by one of New Orleans’ top restaurants, the moonshine before us seemed more like it would be an artisanal creation – not unlike unpasteurized gourmet cheese or high-end homemade wine – that was more Great Gatsby than Uncle Jessie.  Even so, when I tasted the clear liquid of the first jar, I could have sworn I heard the banjo picking of the Dukes of Hazzard theme – as my motor skills were beginning their own hazardous journey.
“This one is not about flavor, it’s about proof,” Briand explained. “It’s simply a means to an end.”  Indeed, this was ruckus juice at full squeeze, better suited to battlefield anesthetization than it was to postprandial relaxation.  The second moonshine, however, struck a better balance.  Carmel-colored from oak aging, its high-proof potency was tempered by a smooth, cider-like flavor, not unlike a nice glass of Calvados, the apple brandy from Normandy, France.
What better way to celebrate Thanksgiving than with a mysterious tonic in a city that is like moonshine itself: clandestine, dangerous, marginally legal, and an XXX barrel of fun.

Other libational highlights:
– Melini Vernaccia “Le Grillaie” 2004 (at Galatoire’s, recommended by the incredibly knowledgeable general manager/wine sage Chris Ycaza)
– Rene Rostaing Coteaux du Languedoc “Puech Chaud” 2004 (another terrific Ycaza pick)
– Domaine Chevillon-Chezeaux Nuits-St-Georges “Les Saint-Julien” 2005 (a Briand recommendation at Herbsaint)
– Brander Cuvée Natalie 2006 (Sauvignon Blanc blended with Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Blanc, at Mr. B’s Bistro)
– Pol Roger Rosé 1990 (hauled from home)

Flying with Wine: Building the Perfect Booze Bag

Like Linus with his safety blanket, I always seem have a bottle of wine in tow. This can be problematic – as I learned this summer when flying out of Atlanta’s airport – when one forgets that TSA rules now prohibit thirsty trekkers from carrying aboard when flying, even one wine bottle – even if it is unopened and placed in the world’s largest Ziploc pouch. After TSA officers caught me with a bottle of Delamotte Brut Rosé Champagne NV after I inadvertently left it in my carry-on bag, I returned to the airport’s lobby and scrambled to find the most parched potential recipient. First, I offered it to a circle of Army infantrymen in uniform, figuring that no one needed a good swig more than they.
“We’re flying, too,” they informed me, almost in unison.
Roger that. I revised my mission to find someone who looked deserving and who wouldn’t need to pass through the security checkpoint that day. I found my mark by a burger joint, where a sweet-looking couple in their twenties was enjoying a leisurely lunch.
“Are you flying today?” I inquired.
They eyeballed me warily, probably searching for a Hare Krishna robe hiding beneath my sweater.
“No, we’re waiting to pick up friends.”
With Bob Barkerian ebullience, I extended the bottle their way and explained:
“Security won’t let me take this through the metal detector – and it’s too late to check my bag. Would you like it?”

wine smuggle flying travelling

They still hesitated.  Who can blame them, with the airport intercom’s endless warnings about not accepting scary packages from strangers.

“It’s a $75 bottle of Champagne,” I offered.

That did it.  Their hesitation melted into jubilation.  A businessman in pinstripes eating next to them – likely a wine connoisseur — shot me why-didn’t-you-pick-me look.  My bubbly baton, finally, was passed.

Then, a few weeks ago, before heading to one of those ultra-trendy, extortionist hotels in Miami’s South Beach for the week, I resolved to bring my own stash of wine in order to avoid paying bottle-service prices for a 7-11 wine.  (My penchant for traveling and flying with wine is well known to my friends and has also been documented in this New York Times piece).  But multiple bottles wouldn’t fit in my regular suitcase and packing them properly and Fed-Ex-ing them down to the hotel in time would cost hundreds of dollars.

The solution?  I headed down to Manhattan’s Fourteenth Street, a bleak, Bucharest-like boulevard known for dollar-stores, pawn shops, electronics in various states of inoperability, and really cheap luggage.

“What is your least expensive but sturdiest roller bag?” I asked the clammy Cosmo Kramer-type hovering near the bags at Balas Electronics and Gifts.

He pointed me to a perfectly-fine-looking stewardess-style bag with “Bonjour” emblazoned its strap.  Now this was a find: only $20 and linguistically faithful to wine’s spiritual homeland!  But when I gave it a test roll, it wobbled like soused sailor.

“Ah, let me get you a fresh one,” Kramer said, as if I were purchasing a juicy but bruised piece of fruit.  He rummaged around in a back room and produced a bag with a slightly better gait – wheels sturdy enough for a toddler’s toy or, just possibly, a one-time rumble with Continental Airlines baggage handlers.

Back at my place, I wrapped seven wine bottles in t-shirts and Fred Perry track pants and stuffed all of it into the bag, creating a de facto hamper-cum-wine locker.  To my amazement, the bag survived the trip to the airport, and most surprisingly, emerged in one piece – though extra wobbly — at the baggage claim in Miami.

In my hotel room, I unzipped the bag, expecting an abbreviated version of that scene in The Shining when the sea of blood comes rushing out of the elevators.  Instead, the bottles were dry and happy, ready to slake the thirst of anyone with a corkscrew.

The experiment a success, I guided the teetering bag downstairs to Ocean Boulevard and thought about how a bag purchased in one of the world’s dreariest locations would now be discarded in a movie-set scene of paradise – well, if your idea of paradise involves pink flamingos and the synthesizers of Jan Hammer.  Placing it atop a public garbage can — amid azure skies, majestic palms, and a silly Day-Glo bench — I gave it a respectful salute.  Au revoir Bonjour booze bag!

In the bag:

Schramsberg Crémant Demi-Sec 2004 (California, $35)
Taittinger Brut Champagne Millésimé 2000 (France, $75)
Domaine Carneros Brut Rosé NV (California, $35)
Jelu Torrontés 2007 (Argentina, $12)
Taz Pinot Gris 2005 (California, $15)
Tulocay “Nord Valley Vineyard” Pinot Noir 2001 (California, $22)
WillaKenzie Pinot Noir 2005 (Oregon, $24)

flying flying with wine

Where Cortisone Fails, (Romanée) Conti Conquers

Where Cortisone Fails, (Romanée) Conti Conquers: Dagger-like nerve-shocks pierced my ankle as the jet touched down at SFO, the pain from these Shining-esque hatchet-hacks enveloping my ankle as if it swelled forth from Phlegethon, the river of blood in Dante’s Inferno. I was in the Bay Area for a dinner which featured offerings of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s — among the most treasured pleasures extant on the planet, even for the merry circle of illustrious collectors hosting the dinner. But all I could think about was my acutely inflamed ankle — a product of some reckless play in New Orleans the day before and even more reckless play the weeks leading up to this trip.

cortisone wine medications pain

Since my sprained-and-bruised high-school wrestling days, I have taken pride in an elevated threshold for pain, but my normal resiliency was now being supplanted by darker thoughts.  While flying, the specter of an air disaster seemed no longer so horrible – at least the daggers would be done.  Low-altitude wind shear?  Sure, go ahead.  Spark in the fuel tank?  Not so bad.  A Valujet plunge?  I’m ready.

The next day found me doing everything I could to contain this gangrene before the dinner that night.  I became a limping trashcan of treatments — stomach-curdling-doses of naproxen, a Snoop-Dog cane, Bio-Freeze, Lidocaine patches, oral doses of notoriously potent cortisone — none of which made even a dent in the agony. Isn’t Cortisone supposed to offset this pain?

“Bite the bullet, boy,” my inner-Louis Gossett, Jr. chided me like I was Mayo on the roof in An Officer and a Gentleman.  But I didn’t really need the extra motivation: I’d have to be in a coma and shackled to my bed to miss this tasting.

When night fell, I pried on my tuxedo and hobbled from my hotel to the dinner. Effective Cortisone or not, I couldn’t miss this. Thankfully, distractions awaited. The evening commenced with Dom Perignon Oenotheque 1973, a 33-year-old sparkler that still tasted fresh because it had been recently “disgorged” — that is, recently removed from its lees (i.e., the sediment resulting from the bubbles-creating secondary fermentation induced in each bottle of Champagne). The DP indeed had a sprightly citrus quality and a chimney of pinpoint bubbles, while also showing the richness and depth you’d expect from bubbly that has had so many years of contact with its lees.

We then sat for dinner and the featured attraction: thirteen red Burgundies, three from the fabled Domaine Leroy and the rest out of DRC.  Except for one corked bottle, there were no disappointments, just a succession of peaks, with certain bottles — namely, the 1952 and 1978 DRC Richebourg and the 1959 and 1978 DRC Grands-Echezeaux and Echezeaux — exemplars of complexity, length, and texture.

Sounds great, you might say — but what is the take-away for the budding enthusiast?  To the extent that it is even possible to describe commonalities among night’s favorites (and also other fine, aged Burgundies), this is what I noticed:

* hints of what I call “glowing licorice” — a kind of incandescence of minty fruit that for some might seem more like some combination of Asian spices or raspberries or violets or roses

* a fascinating earthiness evocative of smoky autumn leaf piles or mushrooms or even cooking cabbage.  Those hopelessly infected with oenophilia have been known to call this quality “sous-bois” — French for undergrowth or forest floor.

* other crazy nuances that sometimes emerge as the wine wakes up — leather, tea, musk, bullion, wax, green beans, oats, or even soy sauce.  At its best, Burgundy portals you to exotic locales.

* flavors more intense and long-lasting than its agile, light-to-medium bodied frame would suggest

* a velvety texture that coats your tongue and throat like nothing else

So the night went.  And somewhere in the middle of our feast it dawned on me: the veil of intense pain had finally lifted — the daggers had melted into a tourniquet stitched from the rarest Burgundian silk.  As I ambled back to my hotel, pain-free and happily under the influence of DRC, it became apparent: where cortisone fails, (Romanée) Conti conquers.


Dom Perignon Oenotheque 1973
Domaine Leroy Le Corton 1966
Domaine Leroy La Romanee 1953
Domaine Leroy La Romanee 1962
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Echezeaux 1959
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Echezeaux 1966
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Echezeaux 1978
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Grands-Echezeaux 1957
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Grands-Echezeaux 1959
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Grands-Echezeaux 1966
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Grands-Echezeaux 1978
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Richebourg 1952
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Richebourg 1966
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Richebourg 1978

The Parisian Speedo Police

Before I get to this entry’s featured wine, I ask you to indulge a digression into an indignity that happened on a recent wine-tasting trip to Paris, France.

paris speedo

Being an avid swimmer, I sought out a decent pool in Paris, and all suggestions pointed to the enormous Piscine Suzanne Berlioux at the underground Les Halles shopping mall in Paris’ 1st arrondissement.  So I grabbed my goggles and hopped the Metro to Les Halles.  Entering the lobby, I encountered a curious placard: “Pas de Bermuda”.  That’s odd, I mused, but if this means what I think it means – pas de problème – I have in tow not knee-length Bermuda shorts but just a standard-issue boxy bathing suit – the kind adorning any guy around any pool in Normal, Illinois.

After a quick change in the locker room, I headed out to the pool area, set down my bag of gear, and prepared to dive in. Suddenly, from the shadows charged a pool employee with her face twisted in a pretzel of consternation, as if I were about to heave a boa constrictor into the pool.

“Arrêter, arrêter [stop, stop]!…pas de Bermuda!” this Frenchified Roseanne Rosannadanna barked. “You must buy zee proper suit in zee locker room.”

“Really?” I asked, “In America, swimmers wear these,” pointing to my comfortably baggy suit.  She wasn’t buying it, waiving her finger at me in a French figure-eight of finality.

Defeated, I slinked back into the locker room and found the female attendant (yes, there are female attendants planted in the men’s locker room at the Les Halles pool, though their appearance were more lunch lady than Lindsey Lohan).  I scraped together a few bits of my shoddy Jersey-trained French to ask to buy an approved bathing suit.

This sent the attendant rummaging through a box of bathing suits in a nearby closet.  She fished out a black satiny swatch – a miserable sliver of cloth whose rightful place is parked on a Brazilian pinup or on Borat from Kazakhstan – not on a jetlagged wine writer just looking to swim laps.

“You can’t be serious!,” I protested, my guttural McEnroean scorn in full flower.  She shrugged, her face a scowl of intransigence, the man-thong hanging from her fingers like a gift from Euripides’ Medea.

Then the thought of trekking all the way to the pool for nothing – and the solace of knowing not a soul there – tempered my disgust.

“Okay, fine, give it to me.” I handed her four Euros and most of my self-respect.

The swim ended up being less horrible than I expected.  When every other guy is dressed in the manner of a marsupial – imagine the Mike Myers-parodied dancer in Madonna’s “Justify My Love” video – it’s easy to blend in.  And those Speedo-sporting Olympians may be on to something: there’s definitely less drag in the water.

However, the question remained: why on Earth is this Paris swimming pool enforcing a Speedos-only policy?

I pictured the mystery woman for which the pool is named, Suzanne Berlioux, as a militant feminist, sitting with her girl-power cronies in a smoky backroom. “Errr, I ’aave it,” she exults, her eyes beaming with anti-patriarchal righteousness. “If zee women must wear zee beekini, then zee men must too!”

I held fast to this silly theory until my friend’s Parisian girlfriend – a frequent swimmer herself – revealed the real reason. She said that the policy was borne not of misguided gender politics but of simple hygiene – to prevent French men from wearing their shorts all day and then swimming in them.

That’s a novel idea, I thought, but does it really work? “What’s to prevent these filthy boulevardiers from wearing their Speedos underneath their shorts all day and then swimming in them anyway?”

Her answer explained everything.

“Why ask all of these questions? We’re French.”

paris wineProducer: Jacquart
Wine: Brut Champagne Mosaïque
Vintage: NV
Cost: $35

The French may have singular notions of swimming pool hygiene, but they know a little something about bringing back the fly in flying. Whereas you can’t even buy bubbly in economy class on most U.S. airlines, Air France dished it out gratis both ways between New York and Paris — and decent stuff to boot.

Not your usual monochromic, medicine-bottle coach-class quaff, the Jacquart Brut pushes all the right buttons with its bright, Granny Smith perfume and hints of toast and honey, culminating in a persistent finish that is both tangy and smooth