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William Grant & Sons, 2002

Open Up and Say Ahhh . . .

Let aperitifs awaken your senses

By Sara Bir

I have created, I believe, a great aperitif. At least I think it's an aperitif--a shot of crème de cassis in strong-brewed iced tea over tons of ice, with a lemon wedge. Refreshing and brisk! Both bracing and relaxing! That's an aperitif in a nutshell. But aperitifs are usually served in glasses, not nutshells. Beyond that, defining what is an aperitif and what is not gets challenging. Here, from the textbook Exploring Wine, is a definition: "[an] alcoholic beverage taken before meals to stimulate the appetite." The word itself is derived from the Latin aperire, meaning "to open."

So what's the difference, then, between cocktails and aperitifs? Loosely, it's a question of setting, company, and alcohol content. With aperitifs, lightness is of the essence; the idea is to open up the palate, not to pickle it. Lighter drinks pair better with foods than strong mixed drinks do, and they are especially desirable in sunny, summery weather.

A crisp glass of pilsner would even quality as an aperitif; what differentiates an after-work beer from an aperitif beer may well be how you drink it. Aperitifs are for social times, for chatting and relaxing. There's an implicit level of sophistication, as well as a seemingly contradictory element of casual openness, of breezy leisure.

We think of cocktails as a very swank, adult pleasure--there are strong associations with music, with formal dress, with a '50s and '60s aesthetic. Go to a bookstore and you will easily find at least a dozen cocktail guides. You will find, if you are lucky, one book on aperitifs.

Very likely that book will be Aperitif: Stylish Drinks and Recipes for the Cocktail Hour, Georgeanne Brennan's captivating, IACP award­ winning volume packed with recipes for drinks, cordials, foods, and including a fair amount of aperitif lore. In it, Brennan writes of the rituals around aperitifs in France, the heart of aperitif culture: "It is a national custom that, by deliberately setting apart time to share a drink and to socialize, engenders civility and conviviality."

"[An] aperitif is something that's really going to get the appetite going," says Sondra Bernstein, the proprietor of the Girl and the Fig restaurants in Sonoma and Petaluma, as well as the Girl and the Gaucho in Glen Ellen. "They would have a long, lingering cocktail hour in France or Italy before dinner would start--and dinner would begin so much later than we have ever eaten here. I think that was just part of tradition and community."

There are many drinks that fall under the umbrella of aperitifs, and some of the most simple are the best-known. "A lot of people will go for a glass of sparkling wine as an aperitif, because they know it," Bernstein says. And when can you go wrong with Champagne? You can also add liqueurs to sparkling wine, e.g., crème de cassis, which makes a Kir Royale (a Kir, which hails from Burgundy, is still white wine with cassis). At the Girl and the Fig, they make a Fig Royale with an ounce of the sticky-sweet Provençal aperitif wine Figoun instead of cassis.

A good, crisp glass of rosé--the undeserved underdog of the wine world--makes a wonderful aperitif, as do most lighter-bodied white wines and even a few red ones (Beaujolais, for one).

The first aperitif I ever encountered was Lillet, an aromatized wine from Bordeaux that comes in both blanc (flowery, orangey, lightly sweet) and rouge (sweeter, more syrupy, and spicier) versions. Lillet blanc served over ice with a twist of orange had the same appeal for my adult self as cherry Kool-Aid did for my kid self, and when I was in cooking school, I used to sneak away in between classes in the unbearably sticky days of summer-kitchen humidity for a glass of Lillet, just to regain my bearings.

Bernstein is a big fan of Pineau des Charentes, an aperitif and dessert wine from France's Cognac region that is produced by mixing Charentes grape juice with Cognac to halt the fermentation process. "Pineau des Charentes is so unusual tasting; you don't always know what you are going to expect, and I think that it's fulfilling enough in flavor on its own . . . but it's really suited to having a nibble. We serve it chilled, and I prefer it straight up, not over ice. It's not overly popular, but it is a true aperitif in that it's wine-based. It's got a little sweet essence to it."

For fans of temperance beverages, there's good news, too: Aperitifs don't even have to have alcohol. In Aperitif, Brennan points to citron pressé (essentially a French version of lemonade, prepared at the table) and tomato juice with basil as examples.

The other component implicit in enjoying aperitifs is grazing food--salty, crunchy, simple foods go best. "Definitely a bowl of olives," says Bernstein, "maybe some nuts, gougéres (savory little cheese-filled choux puffs), smoked salmon, radishes with anchovy butter and sea salt--crudité is a nice way to start. Just something to nibble that's not going to be overly substantial or ruin your appetite for the rest of the meal."

With casual home entertaining, it's easy to turn people on to aperitifs, because they are your guests and they will partake in what you serve. But how can a restaurant get its customers hooked on aperitifs when its customers might not even know what aperitifs are? "[They are] definitely on the menu, and we do a lot of training with the staff," Bernstein says. "On our bistro plats du jour, which is a three-course meal, you can spend an extra $7 to have a wine flight with it. A lot of times, the first one will be Lillet. I think it's important that our staff lets guests know what we have available and what the options are."

The ritualistic presentation of pastis or Pernod--anise-flavored aperitifs--can also pique interest, Bernstein says. "I buy antique Ricard and Pernod pitchers from France--some are glass, some are pottery--and I have them at both restaurants. When we're serving Pernod or Ricard, we're pretty much serving it traditionally, with ice on the side, a shot of whatever pastis we're sending out, the spoon with the sugar cube, and then the water in the pitcher on the side. The presentation of that going to the table will usually entice someone's curiosity.

"I think visuals are important. We do have the aperitifs all together on the bar--we probably have more aperitifs than we would vodkas, rum, or tequila."

Aperitifs represent a different approach to cocktails than many of us are used to, and though more people are familiar with the term now than 10 years ago, that doesn't automatically mean aperitifs will be the next big dining trend. "I do think not a lot of people are specifically saying, 'Oh, I'm going to order an aperitif tonight.' I don't think they are thinking about their cocktail courses they way we think about our food courses," Bernstein says. "But I do think it's going to be on the trend-setting side right now. It becomes one of those words that gets blended with so many things."

So while a Frenchman might choke over the notion of me proposing that a can of beer could be an aperitif, he probably would not argue that it's ultimately the mindset, not the drink, that's the determining aperitif factor. Call them what you will, but enjoy.

"The traditions, some of the quality-of-lifestyle areas in France, Tuscany, and Spain--I think the aperitif brings us back to slowing down a little bit," reflects Bernstein. "It's the community; it's sitting around with friends at the table, your family. Kids had glasses of wine when they were really young, because it became part of the meal. It just takes us back a minute, to slow down and enjoy the meal."

Many bars will have bottles of Dubonnet or Campari floating around, but here's a small handful of spots that make a special effort to highlight aperitifs:

Underwood Bar and Bistro
It's the long list of spirits that Underwood has developed a reputation for, but they still make room for a selection of aperitifs. 9113 Graton Road, Graton. 707.823.7023.

Cafe La Haye
Aperitifs kick-off the wine list at this longtime favorite. 140 E. Napa St., Sonoma. 707.935.5994.

Domaine Charbay
This St. Helena distillery has been producing a barrel-fermented dry Chardonnay wine blended with alambic brandy liqueur since 1987. It can be served over ice as an aperitif or at room temperature, up, as a dessert wine. Domaine Charbay also makes pastis. 800.634.7845. www.charbay.com.

Sonoma Wine Exchange
Look here for a stunning collection of rare, vintage absinthe posters. There is a tasting bar in the back, so you could have a glass of white wine as a sort of aperitif. 452 First St. E., Sonoma. 707.938.1794.


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From the June 12-18, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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