Q & A With Lou Amdur: What To Drink on the 4th of July
When we think of 4th of July we imagine eating extravaganzas, but cookouts, picnics, and backyard parties can mean any number of food possibilities -- hot dogs, hamburgers, fried chicken, exotic baby greens, intimidating fruits, dainty cheeses and charcuterie selections pulled from a basket. It can leave the good guest in search of the right kind of beverage to bring in a bit of a quandary. But such eternal questions are no problem for Lou Amdur, owner of the wine bar, LOU. We spring a pop quiz on Independence Day imbibing to the esteemed Mr. Amdur, who passes with flying (and flags-of-many-nations-waving) colors.
Squid Ink: It's the holiday for Roman Candles and sparklers. What's a fireworks-enhancing wine?
Lou Amdur: I don't know about you, but when I was a kid I loved fireworks not just for how they looked but for how they smelled. There's that flinty, firecracker smell that fills the air and sort of knits seamlessly into all the food that I associate with that too - which are also kind of smoky and charred.
SI: Suggest a delicious smoky wine.
LA: I've been really enjoying some new wines coming from the south of Italy that are made from old varieties that never have derived any level of quality production because they were mostly consumed at the peasant level. It's turning out that some of these old varieties are really quite interesting and delicious wines. There's really two areas in the south of Italy that I'm thinking about: One is Campagnia, which is, of course, dominated by volcanic soil. That's where Mount Vesuvius is. The area near Naples and south and east of Naples is the heartland of the Campagnia wine growing region. They have, understandably, a lot of volcanic soil. There's a wine made from an old grape called Piedirosso. It means "red foot" in Italian. When you open the bottle and pour yourself a glass, a tarry smokiness fills the glass and your nose. Sometimes those aromas come from a barrel - the barrels are toasted and you get charry notes from the barrel. This isn't coming from the barrel. This is aged in huge neutral barrels; they don't add anything to the wine at all. It's coming from the grape variety itself. What's fun in tasting a Piedirosso from Campagnia is that if the grape is grown in areas outside of the Vesuvius growing zone they don't smell or taste that way.
SI: This is a wine that reminds one of disaster films?
LA: It would be naïve to assume that the grapes are picking up the [flavor] directly from the volcanic rock. The volcanic rock causes the grape to exhibit those kinds of smoky characteristics. So if you get a Piedirosso outside the Vesuvius area it could be just be an innocuous fresh red wine.
SI: How about something a little less freaky?
LA: Another wine from that area which is perhaps a little less freaky and made from a somewhat well known grape is Aglianico. It too can taste and smell kind of smoky. That's what the folks in Campagnia seem to savor in their wine. There's a couple of growers I really dig. One guy is named Bruno de Conciliis and the other is the Contrati de Terrasse.. The Piedirosso is geekier. The Aglianco, I would think there is something wrong with someone who refused a glass of well made Aglianco. It means you don't like wine. It's a wine that is very inviting and has these kinds of cherried, slightly candied fruit notes. But underneath is a girdle of smokiness that lights your brain up in a pleasant way.
SI: Ah, the best kind of girdle! A girdle of smokiness!!
LA: Those are two from the mainland. There's an area that is a little farther south in Siciliy - the area around Mt. Etna is also a volcanic region. From there, a grower that I like a lot is Graci. They make a white wine and a couple different reds. The one I'm thinking of right now is called Quota 600. That's a pretty fucking fabulous wine. It's from an area in Italy that has some indigenous grape varieties that are really in the past decade or two decades that have grabbed people's attention. It's an exciting time to drink wine from the south of Italy. Probably not since antiquity has the wine been any better. It's exciting seeing all these old varieties actually capable of making pretty damn fine wine.
SI: What's a good hot dog wine?
LA: Grilling a hot dog is, in my book, the only way to eat a hot dog. I've eaten my share of boiled hot dogs. [pause] Have you ever had a frozen hot dog out of the freezer? My mom would let me watch "The Flintstones" while eating a frozen hot dog. It's fucking disgusting, isn't it? I don't think there's enough wine to erase that memory.
SI: We would agree. Let's get back to the good kind of hot dogs: the cooked kind. What are we drinking with it?
LA: Maybe you want to drink something that also has a bit of char in it. Again, unless you are keeping kosher, hot dogs are pork. There's going to be fat and the fat is what makes it good. You could do white or red. For red, I might want to try something that's a little rustic and raunchy. I just tasted a new vintage of wine I liked very much: It's an old school Cahors. It's in the southwest of France . It's an area that's famous for, among other things, duck confit, walnuts, but most famously for the wines that were appreciated for producing a very, very darkly pigmented drink. In days of yore, they were called [in a loud, menacing growl] THE BLACK WINES OF CAHORS. They're made from Malbec. For better or worse, Malbec gained international fame in Argentina, not the southwest of France. But if you want to try something from the homeland of the grape, that's the Cahors. They used to be cooked wines - they were boiled down until they were pitch black. No one is making them anymore. But the wines are still pretty frigging dark. I just tasted a new vintage of a good traditional grower. This is what I would try if I was about to eat a couple of nicely grilled hot dogs.
SI: Okay, that's pitch black wine. Do we have something from the other end of the color spectrum?
LA: You could also do a white. I revisited a wine last night that I had on the shelf for a couple months. I was freaking out about it. It's funny how you can revisit something and go, "Oh! That's why I got it! It's out of control good!" It's a Hungarian wine from a grape called Furmint, which is famous for making the beloved sweet wines of Tokaj -- which is also capable of making very fine dry wines. It's a dryish wine. It doesn't come off to me as sweet. It comes off as having fruit, but exotic, sandalwood scented fruit that would marry marvelously with the spicing of a well made hot dog.
SI: Did you know that hot dogs served on a bun began in St. Louis, the hometown of Mister Lou Amdur?
LA: Yes, at the world's fair. Women wore white gloves and they were not able to eat a sausage without ruining their gloves....
SI: The idea was originated by the wife of a German sausage vendor named Antonoine Feuchtwanger. If you dare to go into the hot dog business and your last name contains W, A, N and G then you MUST be really courageous. But we digress. If you're carrying a bottle of wine around with you without a way of keeping it cold, what do you do?
LA: This is how I think about wine when it is warm out: Think about it first as a beverage. When it's warm out do you want to put a lukewarm beverage in your mouth whether it is water, ice tea or even coffee? For me, I like my beverages steaming hot or pretty cold. Even cold cold cold. But there is a wine that can be served at any temperature. Come to think of it, it's an appropriate wine for Independence because it is just the sort of wine that the folks who fought in the Revolutionary war and founded our country would drink. It's Madeira, a Ye Olde American wine and, unfortunately, it's really fallen out of favor.
LA: [deep mournful sigh] A lot of people think that it's going to be sweet, something that Grandma might drink. There's a lot of confusion about Madeira. It's my life long resolution to turn more people on to Madeira. Part of its story is that it's a very Ye Olde American wine. Oceans of Madeira were consumed in this country up until the 19th century. It's about as American a wine as you can drink. The Constitution was toasted not with Champagne or Claret, but with Madeira. When you went to a middle class home in the 19th century and they invited you into the parlor for a glass of wine, it wasn't Claret or Burgundy. It was Madeira. Madeira is a Portuguese wine and is grown on the isle of Madeira which is way the fuck south. It's a Portuguese territory that is only 60 miles off the mainland of Africa. So it has much more in common in terms of climate with Africa than Portugal. They have a peculiar style of wine there. They have a specific grape they grow just for making Madeira. It's not a Port. Madeira is a wine that should have bracing acidity, even when they get really, really old. Some Madeiras can taste kind of salty, too, which I really love.
SI: Why do people confuse Madeira with sweet port wine? Is it because they're both from Portugal?
LA: It's because no one drinks Madeira anymore. Mannie Berk, who owns the Rare Wine Co., who has tirelessly toured the country raising the profile of Madeira again, has had modest success. But if it wasn't for Mannie Berk, I know that I wouldn't have access to the Madeira that I really like.
SI: Wait. Isn't Madeira super expensive?
LA: You used to be able to get Madeira for a song. Now that there's been a modest revival, it's gotten to be expensive to ASTRONOMICALLY expensive. But I have a caveat: Madeira in terms of quality/price ratio is actually one of the best valued wines. You'd be hard pressed to find a fine Madeira for much less than $60 a bottle. But the exciting thing about Madeira is that once you open the bottle, it will stay fresh for a year or two. It's fortified in brandy and made in an oxidated style. The wines that are exposed to air as they're aging, that changes the wine. But because they start with so much acidity, when it's done it has a sort of nutty, oxidated note that it picks up from the aging that you might expect with a sherry. But there's this undertone of acidity that makes it fun to drink. Madeira can be dry, sweet, intensely sweet and for a picnic you wouldn't want something too sickly sick.
SI: For example?
LA: A good Madeira is one of the historic series from Rare Wine Co. There's only, like, seven families still making Madeira. Mannie Berk works with one of the families called Barbeito. They make five different flavored Madeiras for Rare Wine Co. The fundamental thing to know about Madeira is that the label indicates how sweet the Madeira will be. Malmsey or Baul make sweeter style Madeiras. Sercial and Verdelho are dryer style madeiras. I would be very happy if someone pulled out a jolly bottle of Rare Wine Co.' s Sercial from their picnic camper and we were snacking on that with hot dogs.
SI: What if you were snacking on a nice fried chicken leg? What would you pair with that?
LA: A Madeira that had maybe a little bit of sweetness in it might be absolutely delicious.
SI: Let's envision a crowd that is not Madeira-friendly.
LA: In the South, what do they have with fried chicken that is non-alcoholic? They have sweet tea, right? What is it about sweet tea that makes it an attractive beverage for fried chicken? There's lemon, sugar and tannin from the tea. So maybe look for a wine that has an acidity, maybe a little tartness, a little tannin and maybe a little sweetness, but not too much. Look for a macerated wine. Maybe a Slovenian wine called Rebula. It's made by a winery called Kabaj. They have ones that are just aged in big vats. It sits on the skin for several weeks. Usually with a white wine you crush the grapes and get it off the skin as quickly as possible. Even letting it sit for four hours. That's considered a long maceration. There's a much older tradition of letting the white grape juice sit on the skin of the grapes for a long time. Some of the wines that I pour at my place, the juice sits on the skin for a year. What you get is a wine that picks up pigment from the skin to the white grape. You end up with a wine that is kind of orangey golden. The category has come to be called "orange wine."
SI: So you walk into a wine store and say...
LA: You say, "What kinds of 'orange wines' do you have?"
SI: Here's a pet peeve: A 4th of July party where the fare is very redneck picnic-on-a-budget - cupcakes with red, white and blue frosting, three-bean salad, Jello-molds - and a pretentious snob shows up with a bottle of wine that is so inappropriately expensive it says "I don't want to be here..."
LA: [deep sigh] You try to go through life and not behave to others in a douche-y way. What you should be doing is bringing a very simple wine that no one would say anything about. If you really want to bring something that is not going make anybody uncomfortable: bring beer.
SI: What kind?
LA: In the summertime, I like a real bitter lager because it's refreshing. But I love Saison-style farmhouse ale. They sometimes come in bigger bottles that are great for sharing.
SI: That's a GREAT idea! A big honking bottle of beer to pass around!
LA: If someone brought a few bottles of Saison du Pont to my cookout, I would love that. For $6 or $7 a bottle, you're getting a beer that is probably more interesting than any $6 or $7 bottle of wine. That said, there's a wine from a Southern Rhone co-op ... Usually when you hear "co-op wine" you think something anonymous, machine-picked and fermented using selected yeast. This is quite the opposite. This is hand-picked and fermented using wild yeast. They make a wine called From The Tank, a white and a red. The red comes in a bag-in-box. It ends up being $7 or $8 a bottle and it is delicious. You get a 3 litre box that retails for $40 and it's much lighter than bringing six bottles of wine. The carbon footprint is ridiculously lower. It's a fresh, fruit-driven wine that is not tannic, something you could actually give a little chill to. You bring a bag-in-box wine to a friend's party and they might glare at you - until they have their first sip. Then they go, [worshipful voice] "Oh, you are my savior. Thank you for turning me on to this."
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