Tag Archives: Reviews

Wine O’Clock: Bighorn Cellars Camelback Vineyard Chardonnay 2007

22 Jun

Chardonnay exploded onto the California wine scene in the 1970’s with the hometown boys of Chateau Montelena besting the French in the famous Judgement of Paris in 1976.  By 1988, plantings of Chardonnay in California surpassed those in all of France.  By 2005, California-grown Chardonnay accounted for 100,000 acres or 25% of the world’s Chardonnay plantings.  Those Left Coasters know their way around the grape.  I have come to love Chardonnay from Sonoma and Napa since I poured a Sonoma vs. Napa tasting at Barriques in Middleton  a few months ago.  The best examples I have tried have expertly balanced New World-style tropical fruits with soft, buttery oakiness for a sublimely complex-yet-smooth experience.

The Bighorn Cellars Camelback Vineyard Chardonnay 2007 comes from the Los Carneros AVA, which is in the Sourthernmost extent of Napa.  As such, the grapes are soothed by ample coastal fog and bay breezes that allow the grapes to develop complexity without ripening too quickly.  This offering is currently a tasting selection at Barriques Wine & Spirits in Middleton.

Bighorn Cellars Camelback Vineyard Chardonnay 2007

Varietal: 100% Chardonnay

Vitals: Los Carneros AVA (Napa); 14.4% abv; ~$25/bottle

Company Line: “Our 2007 Camelback Vineyard Chardonnay is an exquisite example of the varietal, showcasing an excellent range of fruit on the nose from pineapple and tropical fruits to ripe pear, orange-blossom and brioche. The palate is tantalizing, lush and full bodied with flavors of grilled pineapple and apricot…

Gold Medal Winner – 2009 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Tasting

My take: pale lemon yellow in the glass.  Nose exhibits ample overripe tropical fruits with an undercurrent of caramel apple and braised pear.  Full-bodied on the palate, bringing fruity notes of overripe pineapple, dried apricot and bright citrus over an undercurrent of smooth, understated buttercream.  Finishes clean with a mild lemon twist.  A highly drinkable chardonnay exhibiting the balance of fruit and oak that Sonoma and Napa examples are known for.  Reminds me of the fantastic La Crema Chardonnay from Sonoma that I poured during a recent early spring tasting.  I don’t think anyone does balanced, well-composed chardonnay like Bay Area winemakers.


Let’s do Lunch: Sprecher’s Restaurant & Pub

15 Mar

Considering what seems like half of the search hits to this blog have come from queries related to my earlier posts on the impending opening of Sprecher’s Restaurant & Brewery, I figured it was high time I made an appearance to get the lay of the land.  Sunday lunch with Pops seemed like a good time to see what they’ve done with the former Houlihan’s space.  Now I’m not sure I ever went to that particular Houlihan’s but based on the Wisconsin Dells location I’m sure it was lots of booths and dark wood and lamps and appeteasers.

The location, on John Q. Hammonds Drive in Middleton, is pastoral meets office park and the building itself is your standard national chain-style box.  Inside, they’ve done a respectable job of creating a comfortable dining and drinking atmosphere with a mix of table and booth seating and display cases of German beer glassware flanking the large U-shaped bar.  Several flat-screen TVs in the bar area were showing typical Sunday afternoon sports fare, namely golf and World’s Strongest Man re-runs on The Deuce.  The walls of the bar area were adorned with impressionist-style “paintings” depicting scenes from around Madison including Camp Randall and the Memorial Union Terrace.  It’s a nice reminder that even though I’m in a bar/restaurant between a field and an office park that I’m still technically in Madison.

Their selection of Sprecher beers on-tap was surprisingly robust with 14 offerings including year-round, seasonal and special releases in addition to 4 draft sodas (even more beer and soda available by the bottle).  In my post-racquetball tournament body coma, the Bourbon Barrel-Aged Doppelbock was my poison of choice today.  Served in a snifter, this doppelbock went down silky smooth thanks to the softness imparted by the oak and bourbon and finished with a vanillin’-laced malty sweetness.  I’m glad to see them really committing to carrying the entire Sprecher catalog.

The menu spans the familiar territory of soups, salads, burgers and sandwiches, with a selection of flatbreads and entrees ranging from steak and ribs to a “Thai Peanut Bowl”.  The eclectic menu evokes similar wide-ranging ethnic-fusion dishes present on the Great Dane’s menu which also includes a peanut stew and Ahi tuna salad.  The lightness of the latter dish appealed to my weary digestive system and overall “morning-after” disposition.  It mimicked the Dane’s rendition in the execution of its sesame-seared tuna, peanuts and crispy wonton strips, but veered from the Thai theme with the inclusion of a chile-lime dressing and jicama.  It was crisp and refreshing, if somewhat less inspired than some other versions I’ve had.  My dad opted for the Sunday brunch buffet which included a selection of standard breakfast meats and sides, prime rib and a design-your-own-omelet station.  He was feeling a little under-the-weather and didn’t end up indulging with his usual gusto, but said it was otherwise satisfactory and comparable to similar brunch buffets around town.

I think the place has potential to do great business with the built-in office park crowd and nearby lifestyle shopping centers and the Sprecher brand name certainly carries a certain caché among those who dabble in the craft beer scene.  It would certainly be a place I would stop in after work or drop by if I was in the area, though I doubt its location would land it on my regular nightlife rotation.  I can’t help but continue to think of Sprecher’s as a sort of Great Dane Lite for the Far West Set, which is certainly no major slight to Sprecher’s as they could pick far worse establishments from which to draw inspiration.  I foresee some post-shift Sprecher-sipping in the near future now that I have a decent beer spot between my two places of employment.

Wine is fine: Tenuta Le Velette Rasenna Orvieto Classico Amabile

12 Nov
Tenuta La Velette Rasenna Orvieto Classico Amabile

Yes, that's really the name of the wine. Rolls right off the tongue.

So, working at a wine and coffee shop has its perks.  All the coffee I can drink.  Lots of leftover soup and baked goods.  And a whole bunch of slightly past-its-prime wine.  Tonight, from my personal wall-of-not-quite-100 comes  the concisely-named Tenuta Le Velette Rasenna Orvieto Classico Amabile.

*Disclaimer – I don’t know squat about wine, so bear with me as I stumble to describe what I’m tasting here*

Style: “Italian White” (further digging found Orvieto to be a wine-making region located in Umbria and Lazio known primarily for its dry white wines)

Upon the first sip I was taken aback by the perfume-like sweetness of this wine which I was not expecting.  Bright notes of pear and peach with a hint of vanilla come to the forefront of the nose with the fruits carrying through to the palate.  The sweetness dominates and while it avoids being cloying, could use more acidity or tartness  for my tastes, but maybe that’s what they’re shooting for (the region is known for its drier whites, but historically was known for sweeter, golden-hued wines which this more-closely resembles – perhaps explaining the “Classico” descriptor).  The mouthfeel is fairly viscous and on the heavier side for whites that I have sampled,  but this makes sense based on the sweetness.  This is a pleasant wine that I imagine would pair well with light pasta or pork dishes.

Let’s do lunch: Papa Bear’s BBQ

29 Sep
Nothing bad ever came out of a white styrofoam container
Nothing bad ever came out of a white styrofoam container

It was somewhat by-accident that I happened to find myself at Papa Bear’s BBQ for lunch yesterday.  I was working on the East Side (well, Monona if you want to be specific) with my new car for the first time, so the possibilities were numerous.  I wanted to try something new, so I turned to my technological  crutch for inspiration.  A quick local search on Yelp! brought up Papa Bear’s, a new-ish BBQ joint in my old stomping grounds (corner of Cottage Grove Rd and Acewood Blvd on Madison’s East Side).  An Isthmus review from 2008 offers a little more information on Papa Bear himself, proprietor Jeff Norwood,

Jeff Norwood (a.k.a. Papa Bear) was a chef at Cherokee Country Club for 11 years, but loved to cook barbecue.

how this spot came to be,

And so, in 2007, when his wife, Ursula, noticed the empty space that Bull’s BBQ had recently vacated, the urge was irresistible. They soon were in business.

and the way he does his Q:

Jeff cooks his ribs in the traditional manner: “low and slow,” as the mantra goes. He uses hickory wood exclusively (experts say that hickory and pecan are the best woods for smoking pork) and cooks the ribs at 225º for hours, until the meat has absorbed that wonderful wood smoke, most of the fat has drained off, and the meat is ready to fairly fall off the bone.  The ribs are slathered in Jeff’s own sauce, which is a fairly standard Kansas City-style sweet-and-tangy tomato mixture, very mild.

Last year I had the opportunity to travel to Kansas City for the first time to represent UW-Madison in the USA Racquetball Collegiate Nationals tournament.  While a mysterious and untimely bout of pinkeye largely sullied my on-court performance, the smoky, saucey silver lining on the trip was without a doubt the food.  Our modest contingent made a concerted effort to eat as much BBQ as humanly possible in the 4 or so days we had down there and I must admit that we did pretty well for ourselves. To the best of my recollection, we were able to sample the succulent offerings of Fiorella’s Jack Stack (Q was tasty enough, but definitely had a sterile,” upscale corporate chain” feel to it – replete with oversized plates, silverware and leather-trimmed, laminated menus), two different locations of Gates Bar-B-Q (while a local chain, food and staff had soul to spare), and the venerable Arthur Bryant’s (the kind of place you see highlighted on the Food Network for its charm, tradition, plucky staff, and damn good Q).

The one concession I must make to Jack Stack was introducing me to the concentrated über-meat that is burnt ends. The charred, chewy, smoky, savory bits trimmed from the edges of brisket, burnt ends are a KC delicacy that are absolutely the best bang-for-your-buck option at any BBQ joint in town.  You’ll find them served alone, smothered in sauce, in a bun or between a couple slices of Wonder Bread, or mixed in with the baked beans as the ultimate flavor enhancer.  You can have your $25 rack of ribs – I’ll take an $8 plate of ends every day of the week and twice on Sunday.  OK, that might be too much, but you catch my drift.  The oft-maligned cast-off cuts bring the most flavor and the best value in most cases – if you can settle for a chewier, homelier experience.

This brings us back to my menu selection at Papa Bear’s: rib tips.  Perhaps not shockingly, rib tips are the narrow ends of the rib closest to the sternum that are generally trimmed off to make a more uniform rack.  These cuts are quite tender and meaty, though they often contain smallish bits of cartilage and/or soft bone and a fair amount of fat marbling.  Like burnt ends, this “trimmings” cut is a great value at most BBQ establishments and Papa Bear’s is no exception.  They offer rib tip meals in two sizes ($6.75 for a smaller portion, $8.50 for large) along with a choice of two sides and a biscuit.  Can’t argue with those prices.  You can see about how much food that $8.50 bought me.  A normal person with a healthy, proportional appetite could probably get two meals out of that fairly easily.  Not this guy.  Let’s break down the components of this classic meal and see how they stack up to my experiences from KC.

  • Coleslaw: I’m an unapologetic slaw-fanatic, so this side dish tends to hold a little more water for me regarding the success of a BBQ meal than it may for most.  This was easily among the creamiest slaws I’ve encountered.  The overall impression was ‘sweet’ and the cabbage itself was a little…limp.  I would have preferred a little more zip in the form of vinegar or mustard, but this slaw was pleasant enough.
  • Baked beans: The beans were swimming in a brown sugar-y sauce and included diced green pepper or jalapeño.  I assumed the latter, but if that is the case, they imparted little or no heat to the beans.  I was also somewhat disappointed to see no discernible chunks of meat in the beans.  Whether or not they use meat as a flavor enhancer or I simply was unlucky and didn’t get any in my scoop is unknown, but again, I was unable to detect any meaty richness or smoke in the beans.  Again, the overall impression was ‘pleasantly sweet’.  I began to see a pattern emerging.
  • Biscuit: This was your standard buttermilk-style biscuit.  While the flavor was there, the texture was more crumbly than flaky and along with the dryness, left the impression that it was just a little old or had been sitting out for too long.  ‘Serviceable’ was the word that came to mind.
  • Sauce: Not all BBQ traditions emphasize the sauce, but it has always been an important part of my BBQ experience.  Sauce, in the right hands,  has the ability to highlight the smokiness and savoriness of the meat and add just the right of moisture to the dryer cuts.  In the wrong hands, it can be used as a crutch and a bandaid – drenching overcooked, flavorless meat in a desperate act of one-upmanship.  Papa Bear offers a fairly standard Kansas City-style sauce – a tomato and molasses-base with a decent vinegar zing.  As you might guess, ‘sweet’ steals the show again and I was left wanting a little more depth of spice or perhaps a little heat.  I appreciate when BBQ joints offer multiple sauces to compliment their meats, but can respect a chef who has a vision and wants you to experience it.
  • Rib tips: The meat was fall-off-the-bone-if-there-were-any-bones-to-fall-off-of tender with a healthy (well, actually not healthy at all) marbling of fat.  The exterior of each tip was pleasantly chewy and had a hint of that trademark hickory smoke, but less than I would have liked.  Overall the flavor of the meat was great and the sauce went well with any dry rub that may have been used, but again – it lacked a depth of flavor that I came to expect from the Q I tried in KC.  Nonetheless, the meat was very well-cooked and generously portioned.  I have to think there is as much meat in the large rib tip meal as in an entire rack of spare ribs.  Value, friends.  Get some.

Papa Bear’s has managed to create some very faithful representations of Kansas City-style barbecue that may lack the depth and character of some of the KC stalwarts, but nonetheless shows that a little passion goes along way in the BBQ world.


New Brew: Lagunitas Hop Stoopid Ale

19 Sep

Hop Stoopid

I’ve always had a complicated relationship with Lagunitas as a brewery.  An on-again, off-again type of affair.  While many breweries develop a sort of “house flavor” – a common flavor profile shared by several beers within a brewery’s catalog due to the use of similar yeast strains, hop varieties, recipe bases and brewing techniques – Lagunitas has always stood out as having a distinctly one-dimensional repertoire.  For as many one-off’s and special releases as they turn out, it seems as though the vast majority of them are hopped-up strong pale ales with a very similar overall impression or variations on that theme.  Don’t give me wrong, I like this one beer they seem to be repackaging over and over.  I just wish they’d branch out a little.  There’s a wide world out there beyond Southern California-style über-hoppy IPAs.  That said, here I am, sampling for the first time another double IPA, aptly named Hop Stoopid, that I purchased this evening on my first visit to the new(ish) Steve’s on PD.

Beer: Lagunitas Hop Stoopid Ale

Style: American Double/Imperial IPA

Vitals: 102 IBUs, O.G. 1.085, 8.0% ABV

Description: “So Hoppy that it threatens to remove the enamel from one’s teeth. – lagunitas.com”

My take: This one pours a crystal clear pale orange under a strangely wispy white head. Sifting around on the innernets a bit and subsequently deciphering the Lagunitas trademark rambling in size 2 font on the label, I came to find that this beer is brewed with no whole hops, rather an insane amount of liquid hop extracts and hop oils.  Apparently the amount of whole hops it would have taken to produce this beer would have no doubt clogged the mash tun and made an awful mess.  This revelation explains the clean and potent hop aromas and flavors present here that can only be described as resinous or oily.  Absent is any kind of herbal or vegetal hop depth, which I think would have made for a rounder product, but is certainly in line with Lagunitas’ clean house hop profile.  Also typical for the brewery is ample residual sweetness which, while a welcome respite from the hoppy assault, leaves one with sticky lips and probably a cavity or two.

The creativity of an all-extract double IPA is certainly novel and it does satiate that hop-head jonze that I am wont to develop, but I can’t say it has changed my overall impression of the brewery.  Ultimately, Lagunitas may be a one-note brewery, but at least it’s a pretty good note; and at ~$4 a bomber for a double IPA, it’s a cheap buzz at the very least.

Hold the Soy: Alterra Café Voltaire

14 Sep

Cafe VoltaireThis week’s coffee also comes from Barriques PD.  Alterra Cafe Voltaire is clearly a big seller over there because half of the time I stop in, the bin is empty.  I was lucky enough to snag a half pound on my last visit, so lets see if the beans are as enlightened as their namesake.  According to Alterra and other sources, French philosopher, essayist, and guy-whose-weird-novella-you-had-to-read-in-lit-class Voltaire was reputed to have drunk between 50 and 75 cups of coffee a day, which should make even the most sadistic of modern coffee junkies feel a little at ease.  It also explains a lot about Candide, and no doubt crowned Voltaire as the most gastro-intestinally regular thinker of the 18th century.  Luckily for me, 2 or 3 shots in the morning seem to do the trick.

The beans are a blend of East Indian origin with a medium-dark roast teetering on the edge of oily.  The nose is a bouquet of cinnamon and cocoa; the body rich and smooth.  Acidity is on the lower side here, which thankfully lessens the blow on the gut.  Aftertaste is understated  and clean.  Not the most dynamic cup I’ve ever drunk, but the smooth focus lends itself to many dozen refills and leaves one with a Panglossian sense of optimism.  In the best of all posssible worlds, I wouldn’t mind drinking a cup or 50 of Cafe Voltaire. (ok, I’ll stop making lame Candide references now.  But hey, serves me right for never thinking I’d ever have a real-world application for freshman-year humanities class)

Beer Me: Lake Louie Brother Tim’s Tripel

13 Sep
43N/89W: Now with eye candy!

43N/89W: Now with eye candy!

If you haven’t heard of Lake Louie Brewing Company by now, you’re not paying attention.  What started as a pipe dream for former auto-industry engineer Tom Porter in a utility shed in Arena, WI has quickly become the source of some of Wisconsin’s most consistently well-made and sought-after beers.  I remember the first time I tried a Lake Louie beer, which was early in my journey through craft beer.  Back then, the only way you could try their beers outside of a few small pubs around Arena was in growler form.  For the uninitiated, a growler is a 64-ounce glass “jug” most often used by brewpubs to allow patrons to take their beer home with them.  For fledgling breweries, it’s a low-cost way to get your beer in stores without investing in expensive bottling rigs.  My first Lake Louie experience was a big ol’ jug of their venerable Warped Speed  Scotch Ale, a high-octane, ballsy malt-bomb.  I was in love.  While all of Tom’s beers aren’t as brash as the Warped Speed, they all show a reverence for their respective styles that is rare from such a young brewery.  The beer I’m enjoying tonight while the Packers put an old-school hurt on the Bears on opening night, Brother Tim’s Tripel, has experienced a number of facelifts over it’s relatively short life.  Speaking with Tom on brewery tours and at various beer events around town, I learned that he has tweaked the recipe a few times mostly to polish some of the rougher edges that often poke through in American versions of the classic Belgian style.  This has been the third or fourth release I have had the pleasure of sampling.

Beer: Lake Louie Brother Tim’s Tripel

Style: (American) Belgian Tripel

Description: “Based on the strong abbey style ales of Belgium, this tripel has a spicy nose and a delicate, fruity balance of malt, hops, and yeast on the tongue. – lakelouie.com”

Vitals: limited August release

My take: Pours a hazy golden yellow with 4+ fingers of frothy-white head that leaves great lacing on the glass.  Spicy yeast and bright fruit dominate the nose, though the alcohol makes itself known just a little too much.  Mouthfeel is thin and beyond the spice and fruit tipped off by the nose, sweetness and booze comprise the lasting impression.  Like all-too-many American takes on the style,  it is just far too sweet and rough on the booze front.  The great thing about a true Belgian tripel is the complex spice of the yeast and the lemony dryness of the body.  While spice we’ve got in spades, the underfermentation has left this one a little cloying to do the style justice.  It’s not a bad beer objectively, and quite frankly, if this were called a “golden ale” or “Belgian pale” it wouldn’t have the built-in expectations that taking on a Trappist style brings into play.  The delicate balance that the lighter Belgian styles require seems to elude many American brewers and while Tom’s Prairie Moon Farmhouse Ale works as a refreshing summer quencher, Tim’s doesn’t have the benefit of orange peel and coriander to hide its shortcomings.  I think Tom is best when he tackles traditional British styles like porter, milk stout, scotch ale and pale ale where his brewing fundamentals truly shine and there is certainly no shame in that.

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