May 2010

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How to speak Kiwi

This means "Tasting Room" in New Zealand. Photo by David Lansing.

The other day I asked winemaker Kathy Lynskey if she and her significant other, Kent Castro, who is also her business partner, ever had trouble separating business from the relationship and she said, No, they worked pretty well together.

Actually, that’s not what she said at all. What she really said was, “I suppose if we were going to have a major blue, we’d have had it by now.”

A major blue, in the language of Kiwis, is a fight. So I’ve translated her comment into English—they work well together. But the original language is more interesting, no?

Here are some other peculiarities about the language that I’ve noticed:

They don’t call winery tasting rooms “tasting rooms” in this part of New Zealand. They call them “cellar doors.” So that’s what you have to keep an eye out for when you’re driving past.

If you want milk or cream with your coffee, you ask for a “flat white.”

They don’t go to college over here; they go to “uni.”

They call country music “chicken kickin’ music” and they like to say “gobsmacked” a lot.

I rather like that word. In fact, when I heard the uni fella describe the major blue at the chicken kickin’ bar last night, I was just totally gobsmacked.


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Kent Castro in the tasting room at Kathy Lynskey Wines. Photo by David Lansing.

Asking a winemaker like Kathy Lynskey about her favorite wines is a bit like asking a grandmother if she’s got any pictures of her grandkids; you’d better have lots of time on your hands. After I’d sampled her Gewürztraminer, made in a dry style, as I like it, with lovely notes of Turkish delight and lychee, she called in to the tasting room and asked Kent to bring us out more wine.

“What would you like?” he yelled back.

“Might as well bring it all out,” she said. Kathy is definitely my type of gal.

Next we tasted her Pinot Gris which had a creamy, sort of oily-mouth feel to it that made my mouth water. It had lovely aromas of ripe apple and pears.

Then I tried her signature wine, a select Sauvignon Blanc which had intense, vivid aromas of passionfruit, which surprised me since I tend to think of New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs as tending to be herbal with asparagus aromas.

Kathy told me that Marlboroough has very stony soil that, coupled with the relatively cool temperatures, were perfect for growing aromatic wines.

“I think Marlborough produces the most fantastic aromatic white wines in the world,” she said, swirling the Sauvignon Blanc in her glass and then sticking her nose in it.

“You can go up and down the valley and everywhere you go you’ll find fabulous Gewürztraminer and Riesling and Pinot Gris. I’m tempted to do a Viognier myself.”

So what exactly are aromatic whites? According to wine author Ed McCarthy, they include “all wines in which aromas and flavors are the dominant characteristics; the wines’ aromas could be floral, herbal, fresh fruits, dried fruits, pepper, spice, or minerals—either singular or, more commonly, combined.”

And, he adds, they go particularly well with food—especially in summer.

“I know that lots of fine, light-bodied red wines are out there, but the foods I eat in the summer—salads, fish, seafood, and vegetables—just lend themselves to pairing with aromatic whites.”

Sounds good. But I needed a little convincing. So Kathy asked Kent if he couldn’t perhaps grill up some shrimp she had in the fridge for our lunch. Which he did. While I sampled one aromatic wine after another. Thank god David is doing the driving this afternoon.

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Kathy Lynskey winery in Marlborough. Photos by David Lansing.

Monday morning David Morgan, a Marlborough wine guide, collected me at the Vintners Retreat and we spent the day popping in at half a dozen wineries. His job was to drive and to introduce me to the winemakers and winery owners. My job was to drink. We both fulfilled our missions admirably.

David, who has bushy copper-colored hair and a ruddy complexion that looks as if it’s always a little sunburnt, is the ideal man for a mission like this. He seems to know everybody in Marlborough and has the sort of perky Kiwi personality that allows him to roust a winery owner out of the back office, where they may be hunched over a computer doing the books, to come out and join us for a glass of Pinot Gris or something out in the garden.

This is exactly what he did at our first stop, Kathy Lynskey Wines. Kathy, her blond hair tied up in a no-nonsense ponytail, was working in her office at the winery when David burst in and announced that she had a visitor—me—and that she needed to put on a clean shirt and come join us (evidently she’d been working on a piece of equipment at the winery before doing the books and had grease stains all over her tattered polo shirt).

She washed up, changed, and then came out into her rose garden behind the tasting room holding a bottle of Gewürztraminer.

“Thank you for dragging me out of the office,” she said to David, and she meant it. “I forget sometimes how lovely it is to just sit in the garden and have a glass of wine unless I have visitors.”

Kathy’s winery isn’t particularly large—she produces only about 6,000 case of single vineyard and reserve wines a year—but she and her companion, Kent Castro, pretty much do everything here, from manning the tasting room to growing and crushing the grapes. I asked her if that wasn’t just a tad bit exhausting.

“Actually, it’s totally exhausting,” she said. Then she told me a story of how, shortly after she’d started in the winery in the late 90s, she’d realized that she pretty much was going to have to do everything herself since she didn’t have money to hire a winemaker or sales director.

“So I had a chat with my dad and explained to him how hard I was working and asked for his advice. He said, ‘You’re young enough. Go as hard as you can until the wheels come off.’” She laughed. “Best advice anyone’s ever given me,” she said, pouring herself another glass of wine. Then she got up to go smell the roses in her garden. And I did as well.

Kathy Lynskey. Photo by David Lansing.

Vintners Retreat

The Vintners Retreat in the Marlborough wine country. Photo by David Lansing.

I got into Auckland, New Zealand about 11 yesterday, then caught a little puddle jumper and flew to Blenheim on the Northern tip of South Island. Blenheim is the gateway to Marlborough, the largest and most famous wine region in New Zealand. There are well over a hundred wineries aroud here and I plan on visiting every single one.

Okay, I’m joking. Certainly I won’t get to more than 40 or 50.

By the time I got to Vintners Retreat, an interesting resort out in the middle of a vineyard, I had just enough time to shower, change, and make my way through the grape vines to the resort’s restaurant, Retreat, for dinner.

The restaurant is only open for guests at the resort, which seems a little odd to me, and, since it was Sunday, there were only a few other diners. Being in the heart of the Marlborough wine country, the chef likes to use local ingredients that compliment the area wines, and I’m all in favor of that. So I just went with her “Taste of Marlborough” menu which included a salad of baby arugula (which they call rocket down here) with asparagus and, of course, roasted rack of New Zealand lamb.

I love lamb. In fact, I’m thinking maybe I’ll have lamb every night for dinner for as long as I’m here. Or until I get sick of it. Which I can’t imagine happening. Then again, we’re right up against Cloudy Bay and the Marlborough Sounds, known for their lovely rock oysters and greenshell mussels. And you know how I love shellfish. So we’ll see. But for last night, it was a perfectly cooked medium rare lamb with a fragrant, mouth-filling Clayridge Excalibur Pinot Noir. An excellent start to the trip.

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I missed the Kentucky Derby this year which is just as well since I’m not a huge fan of Mint Juleps which, to me, taste like a child’s version of bourbon, if such a thing is possible. Like marzipan and fudge, the julep is just way too sweet for me. What it lacks is some sort of tart component to balance out all that sugar and mint. Which is why I much prefer a cocktail invented by the King of Cocktails, Dale DeGroff, called the Whiskey Smash, which is very much like a Mint Julep except better. Much better.

Now I say that DeGroff created this drink and maybe he did, but the Whisky Smash has a long history although, like a lot of cocktails, the exact ingredients have changed over time. Jerry Thomas, who is generally considered the patron saint of bartenders, briefly mentions a Whiskey Smash in his landmark cocktail guide, How to Mix Drinks, or the Bon-Vivant’s Companion, first published in 1862.

“This beverage is simply a julep on a small plan,” he writes, and then lists the ingredients as 1/2 tablespoon sugar, 1 tablespoon water, and 1 wine-glass of whiskey.

Well, okay, we get the idea: bourbon, mint, and sugar. A bit anemic, that.

Flash forward to 2005 when Bobby Flay opened Bar Americain in Midtown Manhattan. One of the most popular drinks on the cocktail menu was a Whiskey Smash, which was quite different than the Thomas concoction. To whit, while muddling the mint with simple syrup, Flay added a couple of lemon wedges and smushed those up to get some of the juice as well as a little of the lemon oil (think bitters). Then ice, add the bourbon, and—this is a bit unusual—top the whole thing with a splash of soda.

Did DeGroff come up with his version of the Whiskey Smash before or after Bobby Flay? Who can say. What we know is that his version calls for Makers Mark Bourbon, three lemon pieces, five mint leaves (five: not four, not three—five) and no soda. The version they serve at Bemelmans Bar in New York City’s Carlyle hotel, which credits DeGroff as the creator, insists on Bulleít Bourbon, which I quite like, and lemon juice instead of muddled lemons. I don’t know. I could go either way on the lemon issue. On the one hand, muddled lemons do give you that slightly bitter lemon oil which I find quite nice, but just using fresh lemon juice makes the drink a little smoother I think. Maybe try it both ways and see what you think.


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