You know those little “ah ha!” moments, when the light bulb goes off and the way you see the world is changed instantly and forever? The bigger the moment the bigger the light bulb. And then there are those moments when over your head there explode dozens of 1000-watt bulbs, and shards of glass rain down onto your big fat skull. Nothing is ever the same after an epiphany like that.
Two weeks ago, at the Family Winemakers of California tasting at Fort Mason in San Francisco, I had one of those upside-your-head epiphanies, and it arrived at a very intimate moment, the moment I lost my virginity. My vermouth virginity, that is. I crossed the threshold in dramatic fashion, tasting wines poured by the master himself, Andrew Quady, one of the world’s finest winemakers (he has the awards to prove it) and a modern vermouth wizard. Mr. Quady, along with his daughter, Allison, generously guided me through their internationally acclaimed Vya vermouths and their much sought-after dessert wines. The sweet wines Deviation and Essensia proved almost as memorable as the vermouths. I have to admit that I’m still in a bit of a swoon.
Over the years I’d had little to no exposure to vermouth. When I was a kid it was something that my parents kept in the liquor cabinet (for far too long, I know now); as an adult it has been an ingredient in cocktails I never order. For those of you who are also ignorant of this celestial concoction, vermouth is wine that has been infused with a bit of spirit and a healthy dose of an herbal/botanical mixture, with recipes varying from producer to producer. The result is a wine with intense aromatic power, offering delightful blends of citrus and spice with floral notes that go on and on. Tasting the Quady offerings almost didn’t happen for me, as I had a hard time pulling the glasses away from my nose, so enthralling was the scent. The word vermouth comes from wermut, the German word for wormwood, one of the drink’s traditional elements. Today, this fortified wine (alcohol levels usually range from 17-20%, as opposed to the typical 12-15% for most still wines) comes in both dry/extra dry, which is pale in color, and sweet, which has a darker, reddish hue.
Do yourself a favor and get to know vermouth. When you go shopping, some of the brands to look out for include Punt e Mes, Cinzano, Noilly Prat, and Dolin. But keep your eyes peeled especially for Vya from Andrew Quady. Then, treat yourself to one of Allison Quady’s signature cocktails: 1.5 oz dry vermouth, 1.5 oz sweet vermouth, over ice, with a bit of orange peel. Take it to the back porch on a sunny day. And wear a hat – those glass shards can really sting. (www.quadywinery.com)