Vermouth is the beginning of everything. The pre-meal aperitif. The first stop when leaving work. The start of a chat with your friends. — Más Vermut Málaga
“THIS VERMOUTH RECIPE was originally made in Málaga by my family.”
Patrick Mata wrote this in an email to me in September. Via the website for his New York importing company, Olé & Obrigado, I’d sent him a note to ask about the Spanish vermouth brand that carries his name.
As I’ve written about in the previous two columns, I picked up a bottle of Mata Vermouth Blanco back in August at the increasingly eclectic Lawler’s Liquors in Napa and discovered, more or less with my eyes closed, that it marries quite well in a cocktail with Savage & Cooke Tennessee rye whiskey, lemon juice, and a few dashes of bitters. I dubbed it the Tahoe Delicioso, after the lake where it was concocted in August by your vacationing correspondent.
This column is dedicated to the memory of Daniel Hyatt, a good friend and great San Francisco bartender.
WHEN IT COMES TO COCKTAILS, I’m a bit of an accidental tourist. Their mixing, I mean, not the imbibing. In this respect, I’m highly intentional. Especially these days.
As we headed out to the West Shore of Lake Tahoe for a week’s vacation in August, I intended to make a drink or two using the ingredients I’d brought along on the trip. The tourist in me would’ve preferred to sip some punch on the dock at Chambers Landing or enjoy cocktails at Sunnyside Lodge’s lively bar, but the pandemic was doing a great job of sucking the fun out of those time-honored Tahoe traditions (we did manage to get some Chambers Punch to go—this little miracle of an adult beverage could be the subject of its own column).
Arriving at our rental cabin in Tahoe Pines, a century-old community along the West Shore that recedes back into immense groves of white fir and Jeffrey pine, we unpacked for a relaxing week and the temporary escape from reality back home. There was still plenty of reality by the lake: over the next six days, the steady stream of traffic along West Lake Boulevard would be a reminder of Tahoe’s popularity, especially during this coronavirus road trip summer with almost no one getting on airplanes.
“If I had a thousand sons, the first humane principle I would teach them should be to forswear thin potations and to addict themselves to sack.” – Falstaff, Henry IV
AS PASSIONS, TRAVEL AND WINE PROVIDE unique opportunities to open one’s mind and, perhaps in the best of circumstances, impart a sense of place that allows a deeper view into the interplay between people and environment. Tradition and authenticity take on new meanings in an ever-shrinking world while seeming to grow only more valuable in their rarity. With this in mind, and with a desire to be transported mentally at a time when physical travel is all but impossible, I opened a bottle of Manzanilla Deliciosa from Valdespino.
Manzanilla is a sherry that comes from Sanlucar de Barrameda. Since 1964, the area surrounding this coastal Andalucian town has had its own DOP (Denominación de Origen Protegida), but it is generally included under the DO of Jerez-Xérès-Sherry y Manzanilla de Sanlucar—a mouthful even to Spaniards! Located where the Guadalquivir River flows into the Gulf of Cádiz, on the Atlantic Ocean, Sanlucar is the northernmost of the “golden triangle” of Sherry towns, with El Puerto de Santa Maria to the south and, inland, sherry’s namesake and most famous town, Jerez de la Frontera. The area has a history of wine production that dates back to the Phoenicians, who founded Cádiz over 3,000 years ago.
“There is a horrible American vermouth — I shall not reveal its name.”
– Julia Child to Jacques Pepin
IT WAS A PLEASANT SURPRISE TO FIND OUT earlier this year from my friend Carl Sutton that his Sonoma County Brown Label vermouth, a labor of love if there ever was one, had been featured in the New York Times. I became a convert to this extraordinary aperitif wine last fall and subsequently plied friends and family with it between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve. At the end of January, I brought a bottle to a friend’s restaurant in Napa Valley to mix “Carlitos” (a Cava-sherry-vermouth cocktail; recipe noted below) for his manager and him. A couple of wine industry friends were in tow. It was roundly agreed that, on top of experiments with hand-made vermouth being a pleasant way to spend a Friday afternoon, this dry, rich, botanically expressive wine was good stuff. Then Jordan MacKay’s article appeared in the Times in early February. Echoing Julia Child, he observed that while the supermarket brand vermouths we Americans are used to drinking are almost unmentionable, the Brown Label is another beverage entirely. The publication of MacKay’s article was an event I figured would alter Carl’s world of artisan winemaking for good and perhaps, too, my chances of continuing to buy it at such a friendly price.
As both a friend and professional colleague, I’ve had a unique view into Carl’s winemaking world. Six years ago, I helped him sell his wines to a handful of restaurants and retailers in the Bay Area. Meeting at his and his wife’s San Francisco apartment to organize our sales plan, I took note of regular updates to the classroom-sized chalkboard on their kitchen wall. The board would tell intertwining tales. It served mainly as a calendar for a busy schedule of distributor visits across the country and event dates in and around the city. But also I recall notations of wine science data, interspersed with abacusian reminders (“$$owed from Ohio!”), domestic exhortations (“Buy coffee!!”), and a sidebar devoted to drink recipes and ideas, wacky and otherwise. The serious purpose of our work meetings notwithstanding, my powers of recall in the wake of visits to Carl’s flat have always been softened by his more formidable skills at hospitality. I have, in fact, come to believe that his favorite adjective to pair with the word “wine” is “fortified.” So The Chalkboard, like a kiss or a cigar, might just have been a chalkboard. What I know for sure is that Carl Sutton’s kitchen, like his mind, is an ideas factory for riffs on the theme of fermented grape juice.