Monday, June 30, 2008

"Where the Grapes Can Suffer" (But We Don't)

Here's a droll little anecdote I like to relate: I was browsing the shelves at the Solo Vino wineshop in Saint Paul a few years back, and came upon a bottle from the Alexis Bailly Vineyard in Hastings, Minnesota. In spite of my enthusiasm for all things local in the world of food and drink, I had been slow to embrace the offerings of our local winemakers. It was a thoughtless prejudice to which I must confess flat out: I just didn't think that wines from this climate could be any good, and so I hadn't really tried them.

But just prior to my visit to Solo Vino I had had occasion to try some ABV wines, and I'd been pleasantly surprised--their Leon Millot and Seyval Blanc wines had really impressed me as serious, distinctive wines. So upon noticing the Bailly wine on the shelf I picked it up and, turning to one of the store's proprietor's, Sam Haislet, I said: "You know, this stuff is actually pretty good."

Sam sort of cocked his head to the side, raised an eyebrow, and said, "Yeah, it's not bad."

What I didn't know at the time was that among the many hats Sam Haislet wears--wine expert, artist, raconteur, bon vivant--he is also, how one might say, Mr. Nan Bailly. Nan Bailly being the owner and winemaker at, of course, the Alexis Bailly Vineyard.

I'm glad I had something nice to say....

(Here's Nan tending shop on a typically busy day at the open house.)

And indeed, the intervening years have given me many nice things to say about Nan and Sam, ABV wines, the charming vineyard and winery, as well as about Sam's current vinous endeavor,
Sam's Washington Avenue Wineshop . (It usually bores me silly listening to "experts" talk about wine, but I could listen to Sam all day...well, maybe not all day; I get thirsty listening, is the problem. But Sam's unpretentious passion for wine is a rare and wonderful thing.)

The occasion of these current nicenesses was a visit to ABV for Nan's spring open house. We heard our friend Naomi Karstad sing, sampled the current line-up of ABV wines, heard Sam's hair-raising tale of a fall down a cellar staircase that left him with a fractured wrist, played a little bocce ball, petted Nan and Sam's new pup, and just had a wonderful, relaxing afternoon. Brought home a case of wine. A good day.

Nan's website has lots of great info on her wines, so I'll simply say that we have truly enjoyed the current Seyval Blanc and Rosé Noir. Both are excellent wines for summer menus, the Seyval dry, elegant, and refreshing, the rosé a bit more informal, with a touch of sweetness--either would go well with those pizzas I keep writing about. On the red wine front, Nan's new Voyageur has been a resounding success. (It goes really well with Smoke-Grilled Chicken Thighs, recipe below.)

The ABV motto, "Where the Grapes Can Suffer," is of course a reference to the French notion that great wine can only come from vines that face adversity. The Minnesota climate certainly provides that sort of context. Sometime too much so: The Leon Millot wine I mentioned above, which was, to my taste, the perfect wine to match with local gamebirds, is, sadly, no longer made here. Apparently even a grape vine can only stand so much suffering.

Applewood Grill-Smoked Chicken Thighs
Serves two

4 chicken thighs, bone in (about 1 ½ pounds)
Juice and zest of ¼ lemon
1 large clove garlic, crushed & chopped
1 Tbsp olive oil
A few sprigs of fresh thyme, chopped (or rosemary, oregano, or sage—what you have and like)
A few grinds from the pepper mill

Either grate the lemon zest or remove it with a peeler and mince. Combine everything but the chicken and salt. Smear the mixture on the chicken. Salt the chicken. Refrigerate for a couple of hours or overnight.

Prepare the coals. Natural chunk charcoal is the way to go. Push the coals to one half of the grill. Grill the thighs over direct heat for about five minutes each side, till nicely browned. Then move the thighs, skin side up, to the side of the grill away from the coals. Place a chunk of applewood on the coals. Close the lid and smoke-roast for 25 minutes. Raise the lid and return the thighs to the direct heat to crisp them up, a couple of minutes each side.

Test for doneness: Poke with a skewer; the juices should run clear. Cook a little longer if needed.

We served this over a lightly dressed salad of mixed young garden greens—lettuce, kale, mustard, radish leaves, turnip greens. A spinach salad with the excellent spinach now available at the market would be equally fine. A few sautéed snap peas and a piece of grilled bread will round out the plate very nicely.

Text and photos copyright 2008 by Brett Laidlaw

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