Friday, April 22, 2016

Garden update, April 21st.

Thought I'd post a small update today about this year's indoor garden, so I could mention that all my trailing plants for my bookshelves are now big enough to transfer to their permanent pots. We'll call these images "before," so make sure to check back in August for the "after" images.

And there's not much else to report as of today, actually, besides that I recently put together my second round of seedings; on the right there are the basil, opal basil, dill and oregano that I planed on April 4th, while on the left are my brand-new plantings of thyme, rosemary, lavender and chamomile. As always, more updates as this spring and summer continue!

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Head-to-head wine tasting: Wente and Meridian Chardonnays, 2014.

Hey, hello! Long time no see! For people just joining in today, I'm a writer and software developer in Chicago, who as one of his New Year's resolutions decided that 2016 was the year I was finally going to get better educated about wine; and the first project this year I'm taking on in order to do so is to do thoughtful tastings of the world's twenty most popular types of grapes, which I've been taking on in chromatic order, from the darkest reds last January to finishing the lightest whites in May. This is week 13 of the project, which means that I've already gotten through Syrah/Shiraz, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chianti (Sangiovese), Merlot, (Red) Zinfandel, Garnacha/Grenache, Beaujolais (Gamay), Cabernet Franc, White Zinfandel, and Gew├╝rztraminer; and that means it's time for me to finally try one of the most popular types of wine in existence, the often praised but just as often insulted Chardonnay.

The child of a type of grape native to France and one originally native to Croatia, that the Roman Empire brought with them when setting central Europe, two of the big reasons that Chardonnay has become so popular is first because it's so easy to grow (it's cultivated in more different wine regions on the planet than any other single type of grape), and because it's so "malleable," which means that its flavor and texture changes radically based on what kind of soil and weather it's grown in (which together is known as a wine's "terrior"). For that reason, this is a perfect type of wine to use as a base if you want to sample different brands from around the world; Chardonnays from cooler climates tend to taste like apples and pears, while those from hot areas have strong hints of tropical fruit like bananas and mangos. (And for what it's worth, this is also one of the most popular types of grapes for making sparkling wine as well.)

But of course any American who grew up in the 1970s will know of Chardonnay's special significance to this country; along with White Zinfandel, it was one of the wine types that first turned California's wine industry into a world-class one, and eventually so exploded in popularity that there are now more Chardonnay grapes grown here than in France itself. But this is also what caused the backlash against Chardonnay; for not only does this grape type take on much of the terrior of wherever it was grown, it's also highly influenced when aged in oak barrels, giving it a buttery taste that became a favorite of '80s casual wine drinkers. That led to massive infusion of oak into the cheaper brands of Chardonnay in that decade, leading to the rise of the so-called "butter bombs;" and by the '90s it was common to hear people order "ABC" when choosing a wine at dinner, standing of course for "Anything But Chardonnay."

Like last week, I thought it would be good to sample two different types of this wine at once, to give me at least a small sense of what kind of variety I might find out there; for one I picked an oaked Chardonnay from the warm region of Napa Valley, the kind sold at grocery stores for under ten dollars, then for the other I picked an unoaked version from the cool region around San Francisco, which was $15 and came specially recommended from my neighborhood Binny's, not to mention getting a score of 90 from "Wine Enthusiast" magazine. (It's also worth noting that, with its 1883 incorporation, Wente is one of the oldest wineries in California to even sell Chardonnay in the first place; plus its vineyards are also an entertainment destination, including a thousand-seat amphitheater that has hosted such big musicians as James Taylor, Harry Connick Jr., Willie Nelson, Diana Ross, and a lot more. Not a bad way to move some bottles of wine!) You can read my detailed tasting notes below, but basically I discovered that there's a lot of validity to what I read about Chardonnay types; the cheaper brand from the warmer climate was indeed the drinking equivalent of literally pouring butter on my popcorn at a movie theater (which is not necessarily bad, don't get me wrong), while the more expensive brand from the cooler climate has the kind of sharp and crisp nature you would expect from apple juice, and turned out to be pretty easily my favorite white wine I've so far tried in this project. Don't count Chardonnay over yet! These were both quite delightful drinking experiences, and I imagine would especially go well on a hot day spent outdoors.

Chardonnay, 2014
Napa Valley, California
13.5% ABV

Look: Clear and fairly yellow, with no legs whatsoever.

Smell: An exact match to what I “expect” wine to smell like, based on attending all those hippie parties my parents threw back in the '70s, with a strong sour/savory aroma and a powerful strength.

Taste: Yep, it's buttery all right! I have to admit, I didn't quite know what to expect after reading about this so-called buttery nature in all my pre-tasting research; but it's quite literally like a lighter, drinkable version of putting butter on your popcorn at the movie theater, a sort of velvety drinking experience that unfortunately overpowers any distinct flavor this wine might have. A mass-market taste for a mass-market brand, the type of wine you often see on sale for eight bucks at your neighborhood grocery store.

“Morning Fog” Chardonnay, 2014
Livermore Valley, San Francisco Bay, California
13.5% ABV
Wine Enthusiast Score: 90

Look: A bright, pale yellow, barely noticeable.

Smell: A subtle, dry, crisp aroma, with a slight sour/savory edge.

Taste: An enjoyably dry and light taste on the tongue, with the distinct taste of pears, suprisingly thicker in consistency and mouthfeel than the more highly oaked Meridian. A sharp, acidic aftertaste, which I mean in a good way. Bright and delicious; the best white wine I've so far tried this year.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Garden 2016 update, April 9th: Ivy by mail, and my first sprouts.

(For all the updates from this year's indoor garden, click the "garden2016" label at the bottom of this post, or just "garden" for everything I've ever written on the subject.)

So, an interesting experience this weekend, as I start up the first early actions of this year's indoor garden; namely, I tried ordering live plants through the mail for the very first time. This is something I've been thinking about doing for years, since of course otherwise you're beholden to whatever plants your local brick-and-mortar store might just happen to choose or not choose to stock; and I have to admit, I'm less than thrilled with the choices I have in brick-and-mortar garden stores here within the large urban confines of Chicago. (My main choices from where I live in Uptown are either Home Depot, which is really hit-and-miss when it comes to the quality and selection of plants they have at any given time; or the usually much-loved Gethsemane in Andersonville, which I myself find so snooty and pretentious that I can barely stand even walking in the front door.) And now that I have an Amazon Prime account which gives me free shipping on all orders, there's really no excuse anymore for me to not try ordering some plants online, other than the worry that such a thing is simply not feasible and that all my plants will arrive dead.

For my first experiment I tried ordering some English ivy, to complement the morning glories and moonflowers that I'll be growing in order to let hang off the tops of my bookshelves and trail down the fronts, something I've tried in previous years which produces a messy, overgrown look I really love. (See the above photo for more, taken during last year's garden.) I ordered from a place called Hirt's Gardens in Ohio, and you can see here at the top of this entry how they arrived three days later -- basically a mixed bag, with some leaves that were browning but also with brand-new healthy growth among other leaves, the planters all taped up to keep the soil in and the whole thing packed tightly with styrofoam peanuts so that there was no shifting or settling during delivery. I repotted them into three medium-sized containers like you're also seeing above, which essentially cost me about four bucks a pot, which is even cheaper than buying them in-person here in Chicago, even if you could find a place that happens to be selling this particular type of plant. It remains to be seen what the long-term health of the plants will be; but for now, I have to say that I'm quite pleased with this first experiment in mail-order plants, and I think I'll be doing a lot more of this as the months and years continue.

And speaking of trailing plants, I'm pleased to say that, a mere five days after planting the seeds, I'm already seeing tremendous sprout growth among my moonflowers and morning glories, as expected since this is what happened last year as well. That's one of the wonderful things about these particular plants, is that they're hearty and grow extremely fast; and since the bigger goal with my decorative plants is the square footage of greenery I get out of them, as opposed to growing something particularly fancy or showy, that makes these particularly great things to grow for the confines of my particular apartment. More updates soon!

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Garden 2016 has officially begun!

It's the beginning of April, so you know what that means -- time to start my third year of experimental indoor gardening! This is something I tried literally on just a random whim for the first time in 2014, because I had this new apartment and suddenly had the resources to do so, a new hobby that I quickly discovered was something I really enjoyed; then last year I simultaneously upped my game a bit (by buying grow lights for the first time, and trying out hydroponic salad greens) and had a setback (namely, the overwhelming amount of time that DevBootcamp took up last spring brought a sad early end to last year's garden). So this year I'm looking forward to a really great and productive growing season, hopefully uninterrupted by other concerns in my life, and especially enjoyable this year because I'm now throwing dinner parties on a regular basis, which means there will be other people besides myself to actually appreciate it all.

Like last year, I've made some adjustments to my 2016 plan based on what worked and didn't work in previous iterations of my garden; for this year's plan, that mostly consists of dropping all the stuff that's cheap and easy to buy at the grocery store (like salad greens, onions, peas, etc), and instead devote the preciously small amount of window-sill space I have to the herbs that are ridiculously expensive to buy at the grocery store (like basil, sage and lemongrass, all of which I grew last year as well, plus this year adding oregano, rosemary, thyme, dill, the spicier opal blend of basil, and mint). I'm also mixing up my plans a bit for the decorative plants I'll be growing this year; coleus is out for 2016, cape primrose is in, and I'll be adding the trailing plant oxalis (aka purple shamrock) to the usual moonflowers and morning glories I've grown in previous years, all of which hang off the tops of my bookshelves when mature and give my apartment this great "post-apocalyptic Victorian greenhouse" look by the middle of the summer.

I'm also hoping to pick up some more store-bought shade-friendly plants this year; I still have my snake plant from last year, which is still doing really well, and the succulent jade plant I've been growing for two full seasons, but all my other plants from last year have died by now, so I hope to add some ferns, perhaps a spider plant, and maybe a dracaena or two. And finally, I'm trying something really intriguing this year for the first time, which will either be a huge success or a dismal failure -- I've decided to try growing three palm trees all the way from seeds to their full seven-foot height! The subject is of course more complicated than this, but basically all those palm trees you see being sold for twenty bucks or whatever at Home Depot every spring (usually of the Majestic variety) are bad for indoor growing, which is why they sell for so cheap (I bought two of them two years ago, but then both died ignoble deaths over the winter); so this year I thought I'd buy Kentia palms, which are the ones most recommended for indoor growing and year-around health. The problem, though, is that you can't find any local Kentia palms for sale in the city, and to buy a full-sized one and have it shipped is nearly a thousand dollars; but Kentia seeds are only three bucks apiece, so I thought it would be interesting to make a long-term plan out of it, and see if I can't cultivate several thousand dollars' worth of palm trees using just some time and patience. If it goes well, I should be really rewarded in another three years or so; and in the meanwhile, I thought it'd be a really fun project to track online for all of you who follow along with this blog.

Anyway, as always, more details and updates as this spring continues. Looking forward to another busy and productive growing season!