Discovering Indianapolis

Despite its proximity to Ohio, I had never ventured west to Indiana, bizarre as that may seem. But when a close friend moved to Indianapolis, it was the perfect opportunity to discover what the city had to offer. It was a quick trip, and I was really just looking forward to two days of nonstop gossip, and yes, drinking. We didn’t waste much time, as we immediately headed to brunch after I arrived. Broad Ripple, an adorable hipster neighborhood, was our destination, and my friend took me to the amazing eatery Petite Chou by Patachou. The wait was long, but we knew what would make it more bearable – Mimosas! From the long list, we selected Lavender, and we gripped our pitcher tightly as we crouched in the corner by the door. Once we got a table, the amazing menu was even more daunting, but I was very pleased with my Ratatouille Crepe Provencal selection. Fantastic!
After some casual window shopping in Broad Ripple (and a purchase of two colorful champagne flutes!), we headed back to my friend’s house (which is adorable, by the way) and uncorked a bottle of 2003 Alovini Armand Aglianico del Vulture (Basilicata, Italy, imported by Specialty Wine Company, $24). It tasted better after it opened up a bit and was a lovely, rich, complex wine with some great herbal and earthy flavors. It may have been a bit much after the Mimosas, but heck, I was on vacation!
For dinner, we had hoped to go to Ball and Biscuit, but the website basically lied and said it was open on Sundays when it actually wasn’t. Nevertheless, we ended up having a great time at St. Elmo in downtown Indy. Being a steakhouse, it wasn’t ideal for me culinarily (is that a word?), so I focused on the wine and the company. 🙂 We shared a 2008 Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley, $81 at the restaurant). While certainly not a bad Pinot, I don’t think its $40 retail price is justified – it just didn’t have the complexity or elegance that I was looking for. I guess I’ll have to spring for the higher-level “Laurene” bottling to find out what Drouhin’s real chops are like. 🙂
The following day, as I dragged around my rather massive hangover (my fault, I know!!), we entered what is basically my paradise – an amazing wine store, Vine and Table. Similar to West Point in Akron, they had both an extensive wine section as well as gourmet food. The most impressive part was the Burgundy and Bordeaux collection that they keep under lock and key in the climate-controlled room which also includes other high-end bottlings. A case of La Tache, anyone? By then I was feeling better and definitely ready for lunch, so we headed to a fantastic little place, Blu Moon Cafe, which had several kinds of gourmet sandwich and a dessert display to die for. My sandwich was yummy – Brie, roasted pears, and spinach – but dessert was what we were both looking forward to. It was a tough decision – especially with the homemade ding dongs staring us down – but we opted for the Orange and Kumquat Cheesecake with a gingersnap crust. It was delicious, to say the least, and perfect since it wasn’t too sweet. The kind server thought she was doing us a favor by cutting us a gigantic slice, but even with two of us hacking away at it, we barely made a dent. Somehow, however, I managed to consume most of it on the drive home…
It went by two quickly, but I had a wonderful time in Indy… the food and wine certainly helped, but it’s friends that make it worthwhile in the end! 🙂

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Wachau Wanderings

The final few days of my Central Europe trip brought to me Austria, which was a wonderful meditative retreat after two weeks of nonstop family visits, which while fun, did not leave me with a lot of alone time. A complicated method of travel – bus, train, taxi, train, and a 2.5km walk – finally brought me to Durnstein and the neighboring villages of Unterloiben and Oberloiben in the Wachau region of Austria. I decided to come here primarily due to the area’s long history of fine winemaking, as well as for the practical reason that it is just an hour’s train ride from Vienna. Wachau is famous for its white wines, especially Gruner Veltliner and Riesling, as well as for apricots, which satisfied my culinary appetite, and saffron, but that’s a whole separate story. Durnstein itself is a beautiful historic village, and I knew that several well-known wineries were located nearby. Every family seemed to have a vineyard, as well as a pension, and I stayed at one such place – Weingut Edlinger. Sadly, I was never actually able to taste any Edlinger wines. By the time I finally got around to it, I had already reached my wine-buying limit, and I knew I couldn’t taste without buying!
My first wine experience in Unterloiben was at a Heuriger, which is a specific name for eastern Austrian establishments that serve their own wine – specifically the most recent vintage – and an assortment of appetizers and snacks. In addition to a couple glasses of GruVee, I enjoyed some delicious Liptauer spread. The place was full of tables with long benches, meaning that I sat next to complete strangers, but it wasn’t awkward at all. The atmosphere was fun and boisterous, even on a Sunday afternoon. I knew this was my kind of place!
The next day I took part in some official wine tastings. The first was at Domaine Wachau, which I believe is one of, if not the, largest wineries in Wachau. This tasting provided a sharp contrast with my next one, as Domaine Wachau had a very professional, modern store in which to sample the wines. It also happened to be about 9am, but since it was on my way into town, I figured, why not? 🙂
Here I learned about the Wachau-specific designations for the body of its white wines. GruVee and Riesling and classified based on their alcohol content (and not necessarily quality, but somewhat), in ascending order: Steinfeder, Federspiel, and Smaragd. As though understanding labels wasn’t complicated enough! These terms are not used outside Wachau, so if a Wachau winery produces wines from grapes outside the region, they cannot use those designations. In addition to some GruVees and Rieslings, I taste a sparkling Riesling, which was quite lovely. I ended up buying a Riesling Smaragd – I enjoyed the fuller body and softer fruit flavors as compared to the citrus and green apple in the Federspiel and Steinfeder.
Later that day I had a pre-arranged tasting at Weingut Emmerich Knoll – one of their 2007 Gruner Veltliners had recently gotten a 95 rating from Wine Spectator, which is what brought them to my attention, and the winery also happened to be a few steps from my pension. When I arrived, I spoke to whom I believe was the patriarch of the family, and he ran to find his son, because his English was somewhat poor. Thus, completely by accident, I ended up tasting wines with Emmerich Knoll! I’m sure the winery is actually named after a great-grandfather or something, but it was still pretty exciting to talk to a family member – and winemaker! – directly. It was very laidback – just sampling in their courtyard, which was very unassuming – and he let me try anything that interested me. Ultimately, I purchased a Riesling Auslese and a Gruner Smaragd, although I enjoyed everything I tried.
So went my Austrian detour, plus plenty of additional wine drinking in cafes and restaurants, sightseeing, and a bit of hiking. It was the perfect way to end my vacation!

The Wine of Kings and the King of Wines

Now that I’ve been back from my Central Europe trip for a week, I think it’s about time I pulled myself together and arranged my thoughts on the screen. From an emotional standpoint, the trip was indescribable. I so rarely get to see my Hungarian relatives, and although we had to rush around quite a bit to see everyone, it was well worth it. As I keep telling people, I forget that I’m rather fortunate to actually LIKE my relatives – and I don’t think it’s only because I see them so infrequently! Bottom line, it was wonderful to reconnect with everyone and see how well they’re doing.
If I tried to describe everything that happened on the trip I could go on forever, so I think I will stick to the wine aspects. I’ll devote one post to Hungary and the other to Austria, starting with the motherland.
Hungary is of course best known for its acclaimed dessert wine, Tokaji Aszu, which inspired the above exclamation from King Louis XIV. As that indicates, Aszu has been made for a few hundred years, and Tokaj and its hillsides was the first legally delineated wine appellation in the world – even older than Port. I just happen to be very fortunate that my dad is from Tokaj – in northeastern Hungary – and that he was attending his 50th high school reunion! Seven grapes can be used to make Tokaji wines, although Aszu is made primarily of Furmint and Harslevelu. Aszu is made from grapes affected by botrytis, or noble rot. The microclimate in which Tokaj is situated is ideal for this beneficial rot, which concentrates the sugars in the shriveled grapes. Moist morning fog, which allows the rot to develop on the gently sloping hillsides, followed by generally dry days, which prevent the rot from ruining the grape, contribute to the creation of this golden wine. Perhaps more than any other wine (except for its kin Sauternes in France and Trockenbeerenauslese in Germany), Aszu vintages are very much subject to the whims of climate. If conditions aren’t right for enough botrytized grapes, then Aszu may not be made at all in a particular year, or only be available in limited amounts.
Fortunately, the grapes grown for Aszu are also used for other wines. Furmint can be made into a dry wine, with different styles depending on whether it is aged in stainless steel or oak – I of course prefer the former. Interestingly, the botrytized grapes can be made into a variety of wines, from dry to sweet. A combination of botrytized and normal, ripe grapes are used to make a wine called Szamarodni, as well as late harvest wines. The former can be fermented dry or sweet, based on the percentage of botrytized grapes in the mix. Apparently, the dry version is reminiscent of a dry sherry. As for Aszu, its sweetness is measured by the number of puttony, which of course means little to most people outside Hungary. At one point, a puttony was actually a basket in which the grapes were harvested, and the number of puttony added to a set amount of base wine (the botrytized grapes are made into an Aszu paste, and then fermented with a base wine) determined the wine’s sweetness. Today, while these baskets are no longer used, the puttony number on a wine (ranging from 3 to 6) is still based on how many botrytized grapes are added to a set amount of base wine. If Aszu is properly made, even the 6 puttonyos is beautifully balanced and not at all cloying.
While Aszu is the king of wines, there is one more – very rare – concoction that can emerge from Tokaji wineries, and it is the uniqueness of the wine, rather than the desire to actually drink it, that makes it so sought after. Tokaji Esszencia is the result of the botrytized grapes being crushed under their own weight, which produces a very small amount of very sweet liquid. Due to the high sugar levels, Esszencia takes years to ferment and still ultimately only has about 1% alcohol. Due to the time and effort involved in making Esszencia, a 375ml bottle costs around $600! At the wineries we visited, we were told that typically only collectors and Russians (I’m assuming mafia guys) buy Esszencia.
And finally, I will describe the wineries we toured! For better or for worse, we just visited two large, foreign-owned wineries, so I didn’t get to witness a locally-owned, smaller operation. It is likely that the latter category is mainly for domestic consumption, and especially for that reason it would have been great to try these wines and compare them to those produced by the behemoths. Another time, I guess! The first winery we visited was Disznoko, right outside of Tokaj in Mezozombor. Its best vineyards are situated on hillsides, although they own about 150 hectares total. Disznoko came into French hands in the early 1990s, during the transition from a command to a market economy, and before that it was locally-owned, although very few Tokaji wineries produced quality wines during the communist era, when winemaking, like other industries, was state-controlled. Many of my family members were able to attend the tour and tasting – my parents, cousin, two aunts, and an uncle – which made it extra special. The grounds were beautiful, and we tried several wines, including a dry Furmint, late harvest, and a 5 and a 6 puttonyos Aszu.
Oremus winery, owned by Spanish giant Vega Sicilia, was the focus of our second day of wine tasting. Here, we weren’t taken around the grounds, but we did get to wander through a small part of the 4km of caves for which Oremus is famous. Here we witnessed the “noble mold” that blankets the wines made from noble rot grapes. Apparently the mold only grows in caves where these wines are stored, as the mold feeds off of the wine itself. The mold also imparts flavors – positive ones! – to the wines. The New York Times detailed the mold in its own coverage of Tokaj and Oremus. We tasted the wines in the caves, and our guide provided us with fur vests to keep us warm, as the caves maintain a constant cool temperature year-round. In addition to the wines we tasted at Disznoko, we were also able to sample Esszencia, which added $10 to our tasting! While nice, I certainly wouldn’t pay $600 for it.
One tidbit about Oremus – which was revealed to us at Disznoko – is the interesting story of grapes and copyrights. Of the 7 grapes that can be used in Tokaji wines, one of them is known as Zeta. However, this name was given to it only recently – it was previously called Oremus. When Vega Sicilia bought the winery, they decided to name it Oremus and copyrighted the name, meaning the varietal could no longer have the same name. To me, this came across as shockingly imperialistic, and I wasn’t surprised that the Oremus tour guide didn’t disclose that story. I tried to imagine what would happen if an American winery opened up shop in Burgundy and tried to copyright Pinot Noir – there would be an uproar!
That sums up our Tokaji experience – not such a short summary, after all, but this is why I can’t delve into the other aspects of my trip. The Austria post is coming soon!

Eastern Europe-bound

The day is finally (well, almost) here – I am going on vacation for the first time in a year, and not only that, but I am traveling to Hungary with my parents for the first time in 12 years. Although I’ve been to my homeland several times in the past decade, it’s never been quite the whirlwind tour with the family that this promises to be. I can’t think of a more ideal vacation – I’ll get to spend quality time with my parents and all my relatives, meet up with old friends in Budapest, reconnect with some of my favorite places in the world, and drink LOTS of wine. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my dad happens to be from the most famous (and the world’s first officially designated!) wine region in Hungary – Tokaj – home of the “Wine of Kings and King of Wines,” the dessert wine Aszu.
I’ve already set up tours/tastings at the Oremus and Disznoko wineries (both of which are foreign-owned), and I’m hoping we can also get into some smaller, locally-owned wineries where we can have a more personal experience. My relatives have also been very gracious and have offered to take us to wineries in other parts of the country as well, particularly around Lake Balaton (Badacsony). And of course, let’s not forget the wine bars in Budapest!
The Austrian portion of my trip will also be pretty wine-centric. In Vienna, I plan to go to Palais Coburg, which received Wine Spectator‘s highest honor – the Grand Award – for the quality and breadth of its wine list. I will spend a few days in the village of Durnstein in the Wachau region, which is home to several famous wineries producing mainly Gruner Veltliner, including Emmerich Knoll. I’ll be there during harvest, which may sound ideal, but it might mean that the winery staff will be in the vineyard most of the time. How dare they not stay focused on self-important American tourists?? 😉 The town, situated on the banks of the Danube, is apparently quite beautiful and of great historical significance, primarily because Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned in its castle.
I can’t wait to get there – more detailed reports to come! (Check out a recent New York Times article for a fabulously-written piece on Tokaj, and the WaPo covered Austrian wines earlier this summer.)

Treasuring Old Friends

One of the very few drawbacks of my current job is the absence of paid vacation time, which means that I either can’t take time off at all, or I have to decide that it’s worth the sacrifice and scrimp and save like a fiend (sort of), as is the case with my upcoming Hungary trip. As a result, I can’t visit friends around the country, which was always one of my favorite things to do. Although I miss them all, I’m lucky that they all live in cool places. However, I’ve been fortunate enough to have a few friends actually make the unlikely trek to Ohio, including two people who have spend an inordinate amount of time with me already – my freshman roommate and my IFPRI officemate. The past several days, I hosted my first longer-term guest, a dear college buddy who decided to buck trendiness and glamor and spend her 30th birthday in Wooster.
Of course, nothing could have made me happier. Although I had to work two out of the 4 days she was here, we still managed to squeeze in some fun. On Sunday, after I picked her up from the airport, we popped into Gervasi (where I reveled in BEING served) and had a lovely lunch outdoors and chatted for a couple hours by the lake. We then headed to our ultimate Woo-town destination, where we celebrated her birthday at my parents’ house with a home-cooked meal and a sad but spirited attempt at a cake by yours truly. She got to hang out with the whole fam, including the nephews.
Before work on Monday, I followed up on our earlier Secrest picnic with an alcohol-free meal, which was just as enjoyable. The azalea and rhododendron gardens there are gorgeous, and the weather was perfect. Tuesday we ate breakfast at perhaps the most treasured of Wooster establishments, The Parlor. Granted, we just had eggs and hash browns, but the friendly staff and cozy booths provided the perfect small-town diner atmosphere. Tuesday was her actual birthday, so although she sadly had to eat most of her dinner at the Steakhouse by herself, we abandoned foodie principles and gorged on cookies and brownies a la mode at Applebee’s. A gluttonous – yet awesome – end to the day.
Wednesday I finally had the day off, so we ventured into Amish country by meandering along scenic country roads, munching on cheese/watching cheesemaking at Heini’s and Guggisberg, exploring charming downtown Millersburg, stopping at (who knew??) Ohio’s largest year-round Christmas store to indulge her ornament needs, and going on a wild goose chase to find the world’s largest cuckoo clock. I perhaps built up this clock experience a bit more than I should have, but I have oddly fond memories of visiting the now-closed-and-auctioned-off Alpine Alpa mini Swiss Village, where the clock was displayed. A wealthy patron donated the clock to Sugarcreek, the “Little Switzerland of Ohio.” (I kept calling it Salzburg, which isn’t even IN Switzerland!) After some aimless driving and a helpful information desk clerk, we found the dismantled clock, which is currently being refurbished. I think it was worth it…
After missing a couple of turns, we met up with our fellow Gilliam Hall resident in historic downtown Dublin (outside of Columbus) at Tucci’s Italian restaurant. It was an ideal night to sit outside, and it felt like no time had passed at all, even though it’s been 12 (!!) years since we met. The night wouldn’t have been complete without a huge helping of Jeni’s ice cream – definitely my downfall.
Friends come in all types, and they are all meaningful in some way. We can’t be as close with all of them, nor would that be ideal. But I cherish this friendship more than most, and I am already looking forward to our next reunion in 2011. What an amazing few days!

DC in 48 Hours: Romance, Nostalgia, and Friendship!

DC… how do I sum up this trip?! It was a crazy whirlwind of old friends, new friends, celebrating two wonderful people in love, remembering all the fantastic things about the city, but also reconfirming that I made the right decision to leave. And somehow I managed to pack this all into a little more than 48 hours! The primary reason I went was for Claudia and Bill’s wedding. I had hoped to get back earlier, but with two jobs, it was just impossible. The wedding was ideal, as it gave me the opportunity to catch up with a lot of old friends, and I was fortunately also able to see a lot of people who did not attend the wedding. Friday turned out to be rather wine-focused – I got to check out Cork Market and Tasting Room, an offshoot of Cork Wine Bar, which opened after I left. They have a relatively small but diverse wine selection, a great cheese section, and some amazing-looking pastries. My friend and I took a bottle of wine and some cheese for a picnic in Malcolm X Park, and we were not disappointed. We decided on a Basque wine, since neither of us had ever had one before, and it was perfect for the typically broiling DC summer day. I had to take a picture of the bottle – it was a 2009 Ameztoi Txakoli, comprised of the grapes Hondarrabi Zuri and Hondarrabi Beltza. Whew! It was reminiscent of a Vinho Verde, but with more depth, and it was a good value at $20. The accompanying cheeses were Garrotxa, a blue cheese – Roaring Forties – from Australia, and a spreadable cheese – La Tur – from Piedmont. All I can say is YUM! The wine fest than continued with a happy hour at my favorite wine bar, Vinoteca. It was great to catch up with some old friends, and it was the perfect amount of people, as I got to talk to everyone. I then headed up to Ellicott City with the girls for a little reunion – we enjoyed some sushi and a delightful sleepover. I realized how much I miss my core group of girlfriends! On Saturday, I had a delicious brunch with some more friends and got to see their adorable (almost) 1-year-old, and some other friends coincidentally stopped by. It was then time to prepare for the wedding. The ceremony was held at Fort Myers in Rosslyn, and it was perfect – Claudia looked ravishing, and I have never seen two people so enchanted with one another. Because we had a few hours before the reception, we grabbed some drinks at Bar Dupont, which was a great opportunity to relax and catch up. The reception was held at the Officers Club at Fort McNair in DC, and the sprawling grounds overlooking the Potomac made for the ideal setting. Sunday brought a somewhat complicated schedule, but I think I was able to see everyone without rushing too much. I had lunch at Le Pain Quotidien, one of my favorite little cafes, and indulged in my cherished REAL frozen yogurt at Yogiberry. When I left, I was much more nostalgic than I thought I would be – I am so lucky to have an amazing circle of friends in DC, and I consider myself very fortunate to still be in touch with all of them. However, I know I made the right decision in leaving. Hopefully, my friends and I will always be close, and we can reunite frequently. I’m thinking of returning in November – perhaps it will finally be time to hit up Minibar?! 🙂

Copenhagen – Don’t Go For the Food or Wine

Although my brief stay in Copenhagen for the UNFCCC conference was well worth it work-wise, I definitely would not recommend Danish food. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so negative about the wine aspect; they just don’t make any of their own. I WAS very pleased to find some glogg, which was served nice and toasty with slivered almonds and raisins. I was, however, surprised to sample so many mediocre sandwiches! I thought this was an American thing! My first night there, I found a nice little restaurant with vegetarian risotto. The last restaurant I went to with Michael and Laura was a hoot – it was western U.S.-themed, with saddles for bar stools! Sitting in them was a bit awkward. Essentially the only vegetarian item on the menu was fried camambert, but it was more upscale than the street-food Czech version, as it was served on a brioche toast with blackberry sauce. And we split a lovely bottle of Pinot – sorry for not recording the name!