Sipping time for wine, beers of the season

November 25, 2001|By Rob Kasper

LATELY I HAVE been doing some seasonal sipping. First I sipped 21 wines looking for the ideal companions for raw oysters. The top pick was a Voss Vineyards Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2001, which sells for about $20 a bottle.

Next I sampled 29 beers from this year's crop of bottled holiday brews. The top picks were Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale, Clipper City Reserve Winter Ale, Winternacht, Ale Mary, Stille Nachte, Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout and Blaugies La Moneuse. The prices of holiday beers generally range from $4 for a 16.9-ounce bottle of imported beer up to $9 a six-pack for some domestics.

The wine sipping occurred in Washington's Old Ebbitt Grill. This was the sixth year of the restaurant's international wines-for-oysters competition. Described as a "dating service for wine and oysters" by Jon Rowley, a Seattle-based seafood consultant who originally helped set up the proceedings, the contest seeks the perfect marriage of mollusk and grape. Wineries from around the world submit entries -- 433 this year -- and the candidates are pared down to 21 finalists. Michael Franz and Paul Lukacs, who in addition to teaching political science and English at Loyola College in Baltimore are wine columnists, did the culling. Franz writes for the Washington Post and Lukacs for the Washington Times.

Last week Franz, Lukacs and 11 other wine and oyster lovers, including Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, selected the top 10 wines. The proceedings were formal. Tasters sat in silence as we ate raw Olympia oysters, quaffed a small amount of wine labeled only with a letter of the alphabet, and pondered the union.

After an hour or so, we listed our top 10 on scoring sheets, then went to another part of the restaurant to eat more oysters, drink more wine and await the tally. When the results came in, there was elation when you discovered that one of your favorites was a top finisher, and disappointment when one of your choices finished out of favor. While a Napa Valley wine finished first, wines from New Zealand and Australia with distinct citrus notes dominated the top 10.

"That is the trouble with democracy," I muttered as I compared my favorites with the winners, "the group muddles your point of view." Scalia smiled knowingly and told me it happens all the time in Washington.

The other top finishing wines were, in order, Whitehaven Marlborough New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc 2001, Thornbury Marlborough New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc 2001, Shaw and Smith Adelaide Hills Australia Sauvignon Blanc 2001, Ariston Brouillet Brut, St. Supery Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2000, Isabel Estate Vineyard Marlborough New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc 2001, Te Kairanga Martinborough New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc 2001, Highfield Estate Marlborough New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc 2000, and Domaine Fournier Sancerre Grand Cuvee 1999.

The beer tasting was a less formal affair. It was held in Lansdowne at the offices of the Clipper City Brewing Company. Hugh Sisson, Clipper City's proprietor, arranged the furniture for the tasting. Dave Butcher, of the Wine Source liquor store, brought the beers as well as a couple of hunks of cheese and a loaf of bread baked by his wife. I brought a yellow legal pad and during the tasting washed a few glasses.

The beers from Sierra Nevada and Clipper City, made on opposite sides of the country, were amazingly similar, balanced yet highly hopped brews. Our surprise of the season was the Ale Mary from Britain, which somehow blended the flavors of cloves, ginger, coriander, rum and raisins, and still made the beverage taste like a beer.

I am a big fan of chocolate and beer, and the Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout delivered in big ways. The Snow Goose, a favorite of mine in prior years, seemed lighter this year, but it is still hard to resist the holiday packaging showing a goose decked out in sunglasses.

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