Lou Amdur, may have sold his cozy, Laundromat-and-Thai massage parlor adjacent Hollywood strip mall wine bar, LOU, last March. But he still has that gift for being able to effortlessly hold forth on all things wine and food. Want proof? Recently, we got him on the phone to discuss appropriate Easter meal wine pairings. Along the way, he managed to squeeze in mini-lessons in what not to do with country hams, a definition for the Yiddish word gedempte, what a California Chardonnay could do to earn the descriptor of “slutty,” as well as a tiny bit of news about Lou 2.0.
Squid Ink: Easter is in our near future. What wine is best to drink with a scored and glazed ham — especially the kind that we were taught to make by the San Francisco chef, the great, late Bobby Miller?
Lou Amdur: Tell me how you make that ham.
SI: It involves an inexpensive bone-in ham that is drenched in super-carbonated Vernor's ginger ale, then wrapped in parchment paper, covered in aluminum foil and basically steamed for four hours at a very low temperature. After that, comes the glaze made of Dijon mustard, brown sugar, orange marmalade, cloves.
LA: That sounds delicious. There are two main American traditions of ham. One is the ham you're describing. The other is a dry, cured country ham. The oven-glazed Rockwellian ham almost always has a sweet component and that's because pork likes sweet. Maybe there is even something sweet about the flavor of pork so you sort of exaggerate it with a pineapple glaze, or Vernor's or the kind that uses Coca-Cola. So what kind of wine goes well with something that is sweet, salty and fatty and juicy all at the same time? There's a term in Yiddish — gedempte.
SI: Meaning well-cooked.
LA: With gedempte chicken, the skin is flabby but really, really good because all the fat is rendered off. That's what ham is like to me — something that's really falling off the bone. Probably it's not the most fun to have bone-dry white wine with a ham like that. The obvious and fun choices would be white wines that already have some residual sugar in them. Chablis would certainly work: You have the acidity in Chablis, but — at least the Chablis I really dig — tends to be kind of austere. It would be just fine, but I don't think it would be an EXCITING pairing. It's more like a crisp, refreshing pairing rather than something that resonates intrinsically in the food itself. I think this is a great opportunity to drink delicious off-dry wines meaning wines that are not overly sweet, but have a good balance of acidity.
SI: An example?
LA: A Loire Chenin Blanc is the bomb. Wine from Montlouis is one appellation. There's a really great grower there named Chidaine who makes a ton of different wines. Some are quite dry, a lot of them have residual sugar. The wines are racy because they have great acidity.
SI: What about sparkling wines?
LA: This would be a great opportunity would be to try a sparkling natural wine from the Loire Valley. With a sparkling wine you are getting some acidity from carbon dioxide itself, you're getting an impression of acidity on your tongue from the CO2 that's in the sparkling wine.
Again, when I say “natural sparkling wines,” I mean that these are wines that are fermented completely naturally — there's no yeast, no nothing added. The winemaker just bottles the wine before it's finished fully fermenting. It finishes fermenting in the bottle and the carbon dioxide is captured by the cap. It's very simple to make all that sparkling white wine inexpensively.
It's also an opportunity if you have a slutty, oak-y California chardonnay that's been languishing in your cellar or cabinet it's just not your thing. That's a good time to drink something like that.
SI: Slutty? What makes a white wine “slutty”?
LA: Let's talk about the theory of a slut. A slut is inviting, is open, is warm, maybe kind of simple and one-dimensional and seduces you with really obvious charm. A slut does not invite contemplation — it's very inviting and hard to resist. These really voluptuous California Chardonnays are not my kind of wine, but if I had one in my cellar that someone had given me, that's a good time to drink that wine. You're getting, again, a not-obvious but definite level of sugar in the wine. Most of the impression is not coming from the residual sugar but the vanilla on the oak and the alcohol together combined to make it this luscious thing.
SI: What's an example of a slutty Chardonnay?
LA: Rombauer is the most famous. If you like oak-y Chardonnay, you cannot do wrong with a bottle of Rombauer. It's a very, very well made wine. That's sort of their brand. There's a much more interesting wine, though. I always like playing the joker and turning people on to wines that there's sort of a cognate with them, they totally connect them but they are totally not what they thought they are getting into. There's a wine made by a Friulian winemaker in the northeast of Italy whose name is Bressan. He makes a range of different wines, but the one I was thinking of that would go well with the Vernor's glazed ham, is Verduzzo. His Verduzzo is screaming good.
SI: As in it makes you scream? That sounds like quite an Easter dinner.
LA: [patient sigh] It has a lot of acidity. He holds it back for several. If you've never gotten excited by a Verduzzo before, or never even seen one, this is a really, really fabulous example of what can be done.
SI: So the Bressan Verduzzo is for oak-y Chardonnay lovers?
LA: Yes, or there's also a Slovenian wine from Batic. They love a local grape called a Pinela. It comes in a really bizarre bottle that looks like a sex toy.
SI: We have seen that bottle and it, indeed, looks like something that requires a couple of C batteries and can be purchased online at Adam & Eve.com.
LA: But the wine is absolutely not schlocky — it's superb.
SI: Like Thanksgiving, Easter meals can mean a lot of people. What would you suggest as a value wine?
LASomesom: It's a good opportunity for some lighter-bodied reds. I might recommend an old California grape that I really like a lot called Valdiguié. I've seen them range from $12 to $20. It's a fairly reasonable wine.
SI: Isn't Valdiguié thought of as deeply ordinary?
LA: Valdiguié doesn't get respect anymore but a couple of hipster winemakers are beginning to work with it again. It was quite common at one time in Napa. I think today you barely see it in Napa at all. It makes a simple, fruit punch, fresh, fresh, fresh wine. I like serving it cool. It has a perception of sweetness, but in this case, there is no sugar at all — it's all from the fruitiness of the wine. So it's a really fun, light-bodied refreshing wine. Again, if you're having a dry-cured country ham, which I LOVE, it's a different effect. If you glaze a country ham, and some people do, it's like you're blowing it. This is also a good opportunity to pull out a fairly reasonably priced cru Beaujolais. I'm thinking of a grower named Sunier. His Beaujolais is an appellation of Fleurie and is, again, about $17. It's a wine that is light-bodied and fresh.
SI: A small detour: California wines. Since when were you, Lou Amdur, so upbeat about them?
LA: I think there's always been good California wines. In terms of people who are working in a traditional winemaking idiom, I think there's been a huge revival. There has been traditionally made, beautifully crafted Napa Valley cabernets since the 60's. There's always a few freaks in Napa who are pursuing traditional wine-making. But, for sure, the style for the past twenty years — maybe even a little bit longer — has been to make increasingly fruit bomb, high alcohol, high oak wine.
SI: How about some shouts to the freaks?
LA: There are outliers like https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cathy_Corison and Steve Edmunds, these are folks who I guess are in their sixties now and they've been doing this for 20, 30 years, making beautifully crafted wines. Now they're being joined by a younger generation of folks who are turning around California winemaking. There's a younger guy named Chris Brockway and I wouldn't describe him as a hipster winemaker, but he's making wine in a traditional idiom and he's doing great, great things. His Valdiguié is a perfect example, taking a grape that was grown historically in California, now sort of dissed and in decline, and making something wonderful and delicious out of it.
SI: What do you serve with salty country ham?
LA: I know that people typically drink Coke or beer. Maybe there's a wine you can drink that has an impression of Coke, but in a sexy, adult way. There's a drink I like a lot: You take a really good Americano from Vergano.
SI: Americano? What's that?
LA: Americano is an aromatized wine that is traditional to Piedmonte. It has nothing to do with America. It just means “bitter.” It's a Vermouth-type thing but it contains no wormwood. Vergano makes a fabulous Americano. There's no way for me to oversell it.
SI: Give it a try.
LA: You just take a glass, put some ice cubes in there with a sizable glug of Americano that itself should be cold. Then fill the rest of the glass with cold, sparkling water. It is DELICIOUS. What's startling about it is that it kind of comes off like Coca Cola, but not nearly as sweet and the alcohol energizes the drink in a way that the Coke can't.
SI: What happens if glazed ham isn't your thing? What happens if you grew up with a rosemary and garlic roasted leg of lamb on your Easter table?
LA: We were talking about California wines. If you can get your hands on an older Napa cabernet, any bottle of Cathy Corison's wine or Mayacamas Winery that's got seven or eight years of bottle age, pull that out. [very long pause]
SI: What are you thinking about, Lou?
LA: In France, they have this term “garrigue.” What it refers to is the scrubby herbs that grow wild on the hillsides in the south of France. We have garrigue in California. If you hike in the Santa Monica Mountains or even in Runyon Canyon, you'll get this hit sometimes of sage, rosemary, mint and jasmine, almost together. If you're roasting a spring lamb with herbs, a lighter bodied Syrah can work really well together.
People really love a cabernet with lamb. To me, if you're going to go with the cabernet, it should be lighter bodied. A medium rare herb-crusted lamb that you've cooked on your Weber outdoors? The last thing you want to do is hammer it with a high-alcohol, fruit bomb wine. You'll end up masking the sanguinity, the wildness of the lamb.
SI: Let us now direct our conversation to our friends, the vegetarians. What do they get to eat and drink for Easter?
LA: Right now in our raised bed we have all these greens — spinach, upland cress — that are just flourishing. I know this is a dumb statement, but there's something really special about greens that you pick from your garden and cook right away. Maybe there's a way to make a slightly bitter springtime pesto with greens, walnuts and parmesan. Isn't Easter about springtime and renewal?
SI: What is imbibed with the pasta dish of your imagination?
LA: Maybe go with a wine that has a lot of herb flavors in it. Maybe a Ligurian wine.
LA: Liguria is right on the coast and the white wines tend to be very briny and fresh and almost kind of salty. To me, a lot of times the white wines have an herbaceous character to them already. You could also try a Sancerre, but not any old Sancerre. Try a really traditionally made Sancerre — you get some of the herbaceousness from the Sauvignon Blanc, but it's made in a way that does not exaggerate it. There's a very traditional grower named Sebastien Riffault who uses only a horse for his plowing. His wine can be a little controversial for some people because his wines don't really conform, but it may go with it.
SI: It being the vegetarian Easter dish of your imagination?
SI: On a final note, back in March when you sent out an email to the many fans of LOU informing them that you were selling your wine bar, you instructed them to “stay tuned for news of Lou 2.0.” When is this news forthcoming?
LA: Expect news in about a month.
LA: Or less.
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