The Playboy and the Electric Car



The playboy and the electric car…it’s an odd title, I’m aware. And kudos to you for even clicking on it, as it admittedly tells you very little about the story which is to follow, which is actually about Cynar.

Cynar—pronounced CHEE-nar—is an Italian amari (bitter liqueur) that is probably only known to true cocktail aficionados and CSS students. For you liquor store archeologists, it’s the big green bottle with an artichoke on the label. (Yes, an artichoke.)

Before we get into the actual story I’m burning to tell you, let’s get this out of the way: Cynar is an acquired taste. It’s not the prettiest bottle on the shelf—and it’s competing with beautiful bottles bearing pictures of rose petals, wild raspberries, and baskets of wildflowers from Provence. Also, if you glance at the bottle quickly, you might think that the C-y-n-a stands for cyanide. I’d understand if you would prefer to walk on by.

Then there’s the flavor. It has a short burst of sweetness and quickly becomes intensely bitter and very, very herbal—this followed by a vegetal flavor that you might recognize as asparagus, but will describe as artichoke because you saw the picture on the bottle. You might think that you’ve never tasted anything like it before, but then you remember the Dr. Brown’s celery soda you once bought by mistake.

Keep in mind, however, that an acquired taste is just that—it must be acquired. Remember your first taste of hoppy beer, Stilton cheese, or octopus-on-a-stick? You might not have adored it at first, but you got used to it until you started to crave it. Trust me, Cynar will be the same, and its legendary ability to calm your stomach (like many digestives) is a real thing.

The story of Cynar (and the playboy and the electric car) begins in 1952. About that time, a Venetian entrepreneur named Angelo Dalle Molle created and began to distribute Cynar, his artichoke-flavored liqueur. Rumor has it that he chose the artichoke due to its aphrodisiac properties. The story continues (with a wink and a nod) that the love-potion formulation must have worked pretty well, as the creator was a well-known and successful man-about-town, fathering six children with six different women and—at the age of 80—marrying his secretary who was 40 years younger than he.

Numerous references point to the veracity of this story, and as far as I am concerned, that’s a pretty good story. I love a good tale of love, lust, and longevity. And there’s a happy ending as well: Cynar became popular very quickly, and in 1976 Dalle Molle sold the formula to Bols (a Dutch brand famous for many spirits and liqueurs) and became a wealthy man. Many years later, well into his 90’s, he passed away peacefully—and left his young bride a fortune of over 30 million euros.

But there’s another side to the Venetian playboy of Cynar. In addition to being a businessman, he is remembered for being a patron of the arts and a utopian philanthropist. Let me explain: utopian—in the  sense that he believed in the possibility of an ideal (or, at least, better) world and philanthropist—meaning he was generous with his time and money, using both in the service of mankind.

He also had a technological/scientific side—he’s been called a true “Renaissance Man,” and in his case, it’s believable. Dalle Molle was an early adopter of information technology and believed that technology should be used to improve the quality of human life. In order to accomplish this goal, he established the Fondation Dalle Molle pour la Qualité de la Vie (Dalle Molle Foundation for the Quality of Life). The foundation is still awarding grants and prizes for projects that “encourage and promote research which allows people to benefit from science and technology and to improve quality of life.”

Through this foundation he created and funded several research institutes, including the Istituto Dalle Molle di Studi Semantici e Cognitivi (Dalle Molle Institute for Semantic and Cognitive Studies), which was established for the purpose of conducting research into languages, linguistics, and automated translation. Another project is the Istituto Dalle Molle di Studi sull’Intelligenza Artificiale (Dalle Molle Institute for Artificial Intelligence Research), founded with the goal of applying artificial intelligence to the quality of life.

Dalle Molle was very concerned about pollution, and at yet another project, the Centro Studi della Barbariga, he oversaw the design and production of over 200 electric cars. These cars were put to use as taxi cabs, vans, and as an ambulance. Seven of these cars are now in the collection of the Museo dell’automobile in the city of Vicenza.

Angelo Dalle Molle’s work lives on, and you can learn more about about his life—as both a playboy and a creator of electric cars—on the website of the Dalle Molle Foundation for the Quality of Life.

References/for more information:

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas…

Cassis: the Town, the Wine, the Liqueur


What do you mean by cassis?

It’s a question I have heard quite often—usually at wine tastings, when someone with a nose in a glass of Cabernet claims it as one of the wine’s aromas. Several others in the group may nod in approval at the spotting of a black currant jam- or Cassis liqueur-like aroma in the glass. Others have never heard of it—and thus, the question at hand.

Cassis is actually many things—a seaside resort town in Provence, a French AOC wine-producing region dominated by white wine, and a black currant-flavored liqueur produced in many parts of the world, but particularly famous in Dijon. Read on for a bit more information on the many faces of Cassis!

Cassis—the Town: If you happen to find yourself on the Mediterranean Coast, perhaps in the Provencal town of Marseille, and if you drive south on coastal route highway 559 for about 15 miles, you’ll end up in the seaside resort of Cassis.  The waterfront of Cassis is a picturesque fishing port lined with cafes and restaurants, making it both a wonderful place to stroll as well as one of the most popular tourist destinations in Provence. While there, you can take the petit train touristique around the town, walk along the waterfront, or grab a boat tour to the impressive calanques (narrow, very steep rocky inlets found along the Mediterranean coast).

The town of Cassis

The town of Cassis

The town is snuggled at the foot of Cap Canaille–a 1,293-foot (394 m) high seaside cliff (the highest in France).  The very picturesque Route de Crêtes (Corniche des Crêtes) runs over the top of the cliff, linking Cassis with the nearby towns while offering stunning views of the cliffs, the sea, and the towns in between.

If you’d like to find the sunniest part of the town, follow the signs to La Cheminee du Roi Rene (King Rene’s Fireplace)—a sun-drenched area at the junction of the two water-side walkways known a s the  Quai Jean-Jacques Barthélémy and the Quai des Baux.

Cassis—the Wine: Red, white, and rosé wines are produced in the Cassis AOC. The reds and rosés, typical for the area, are based on Grenache, Cinsault, and Mourvèdre with a smattering of other red grapes allowed in the mix. The white wines, of which the area is rightfully quite proud, are based on Marsanne (30–80%) and Clairette. Other allowed white grape varieties include Bourboulenc, Sauvignon Blanc, Pascal Blanc, Ugni Blanc, and Terret Blanc.

The Cassis AOC is unique in rosé-heavy Provence in that white wines dominate its production; in fact, three out of every four bottles of Cassis AOC is a white wine. These wines are known for their aromas of citrus, white flowers, pears, and honey along with a touch of minerality. Generally fresh, dry, and medium-bodied, these wines are delightful when young, but may also improve in the bottle for 2 to 5 years. Not surprisingly, they pair perfectly with Mediterranean fish dishes as well as dishes made with tomatoes, olives, and herbs.

Cassis—the Liqueur:  Cassis (sometimes known as Crème de Cassis is a sweet, dark red liqueur flavored with black currants (sometimes known as cassis fruit). It is quite famous as an ingredient in the Kir cocktail—white wine (ideally Burgundy Aligoté) and crème de cassis—as well as its fancier cousin, the Kir Royale (ideally made with champagne). As with many things in life, you can get an inexpensive version of generic cassis at just about any corner liquor store and be done with it (try it on ice cream or in a Pompier cocktail [3 parts dry white vermouth, 1 part cassis, served tall over ice with soda]).

On the other hand, there is the good stuff: France has several PGI versions of cassis, including those that hail from Bourgogne, Dijon, and Saintonge. Of these, the original—and most say the best—is the Cassis de Dijon.

Sweet, fruit-flavored beverages were made in many places around Europe in the eighteenth century. These were often referred to ratafias and generally made with fortified wine or unfermented grape juice flavored with a variety of berries (and sometimes produced with a spirit base as well).

True cassis began to be produced in Dijon in 1841 by a gentleman name Auguste-Denis Lagoute. Lagoute was a fan of the sweet ratafias but wanted to produce a beverage of a higher quality using local fruit. He began by soaking black currants, which grew in abundance around Dijon, in oak barrels along with high-proof spirits and beet sugar. Soon the family’s brand of cassis, Lejay (named after the son-in-law), was wildly popular, particularly when served over ice with a splash of vermouth de Chambery, and later, when served as a Kir along with the white wine of the region. Lejay is still produced, and is one of the few producers approved to use the PGI of Cassis de Dijon.


The PGI for Cassis de Dijon was first approved in 1923. The regulations specify that the finished product contain at least 400 grams of beet sugar per liter (cane sugar is not permitted).The specific type of black currant is not defined, but in general there are two varieties of high-quality black currants: Noir de Bourgogne (known for its aromatics) and Black Down (considered to be a rounder, smoother, and sweeter variety).

The finest Cassis is described as having aromas of black currants, cherries, and plums; a rich, velvety texture; intense, fruity flavor; and a sweet taste balanced with a bit of an acidic “snap.” Sounds good to me!

References/for further information:

 The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas…


The Genius of Gentius

Gentiana Acaulis photo by Ramin Nakisa via Wikimedia Commons

Gentiana Acaulis photo by Ramin Nakisa via Wikimedia Commons

If you are a fan of the Aperol Spritz (or Suze and Soda on the rocks), you might not know it, but you are a fan of Gentian. Gentian is a flowering plant that grows wild in the mountains of Europe, particularly the Vosges, the Alps, the Pyrenees and the Massif Central.

Gentian (Gentianaceae) may have yellow, white, blue, or varied-color flowers. The dried root of the gentian plant has a variety of culinary and medicinal uses and is often used as a flavoring agent for bittered wines and spirits–including Campari, Suze, Aperol, Bonal, Fernet, and various brands of cocktail bitters and vermouth.  Gentian root is highly aromatic and adds a range of sweet aromatics as well as a bitter taste to an aromatized wine or a spirit amari.

In addition to the range of gentian-infused amari on the market, gentian liqueurs have a following of their own. Gentian liqueurs originated in the historical French region of Auvergne, which is now part of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region. This is a mountainous region of central France where gentian grows wild. In these parts, gentian liqueur is traditionally served as an aperitif, over ice and with a wedge of lemon.

Photo of Salers Gentiane via Wikipedia Commons (public domain)

Photo of Salers Gentiane via Wikipedia Commons (public domain)

Salers, a bright-yellow-colored liqueur, is considered to be the oldest producer in the area, having started production in 1885. Other brands still produced in the region include Avèze (formerly known as Auvergne), Chantelune, and Gentiane Couderc.

In addition to its role in beverages, gentian root is used in herbal medicine to treat fever, muscle spasms, and digestive problems. This is despite the fact that most scientific studies have shown little to no actual effect on these conditions other than a placebo effect. However, it is widely accepted–in many cultures, east and west–that bittering agents and the taste component of bitter can increase gastric secretions and therefore aid digestion. Just witness the long tradition of “tonics” and digestives made with bittering agents, which might include your own habit of calming a rumbling stomach with a shot of Fernet (it works for me). We might just have to call this debate a draw.

Gentian is named after King Gentius, who ruled as the last Illyrian King (a kingdom near present-day Montenegro that later became part of the Roman Empire) from 181 to 168 BCE. It is believed that Gentius discovered the medicinal and flavoring value of the plant and encouraged its use. Several ancient writings, including those from Pliny the Elder and Dioscorides, allude to the fact that gentian was used for a variety of medicinal purposes during Roman times, including as an antidote to poison and in the dressing of wounds.

King Gentius of Illyria, designed in Photoshop by Hyllier, via Wikimedia Commons

King Gentius of Illyria, designed in Photoshop by Hyllier, via Wikimedia Commons

Here is a partial list of well-known beverages that contain gentian. See the “for more information” links for even more:

  • Amère Sauvage
  • Angostura Bitters
  • Appenzeller
  • Aperol
  • Averna
  • Bonal
  • Campari
  • Cinzano Bianco Vermouth
  • Fernet-Branca
  • Peychaud’s Bitters
  • Picon
  • Salers
  • Suze
  • Underberg
  • Unicum

References/for more information:


P.S. Of course, to get a hit of gentian, you could always have a Negroni Cocktail–that’s always a good idea!

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas…

Gin de Mahón

photo via:

Here’s a question for those “in the know” when it comes to distilled spirits: Name a IGP Gin from Spain! It’s a tough question – but the answer is: Gin de Mahón, produced on the island of Menorca (one of the Balearic Islands located in the Mediterranean Sea, off the east coast of Spain).

The production of gin began on the island of Menorca during the island’s occupation by the British in the 18th century (1712-1802). This time in history coincided with London’s Gin Craze, and the British soldiers on Menorca would ask for gin during their visits to the local taverns. The island, at the time, didn’t have gin – or any similar spirit – so the locals found a way to re-create (and, most likely, improve upon what was at the time) the London style of gin.

Using a brandy base made from wines of the region (remember, this is Mediterranean Spain and grapes and wine abound), the spirit was produced in wood-fired copper pot stills, re-distilled with juniper berries (grown wild on the island) and lemon zest, and aged in American oak barrels. This created a unique, earthy style of gin with the distinct botanical-piney-resiny aroma and flavor of juniper, along with a hint of bitter citrus, a smoky, earthy undertone, and a clean finish.

After the British left the island, the locals continued to produce and enjoy their unique style of local gin. By the 20th century, several brands began to emerge and the gin became an international commercial success.  One particular brand – Xoriguer – was started by Miguel Pons Justo, a member of a family with a long history of craftsmanship. Xoriguer was (and continues to be) the name of their family business, and the picture on the bottles  is of a windmill built on the family estate in 1784. Xoriguer – which appears to be the only producer of Gin de Mahón left – is still a family business and produces a range of spirits and liqueurs.


Gin de Mahón is produced using a base ferment of the local wines of the region, distilled in wood-fired copper stills, flavored with local juniper, and aged in American oak before bottling.


The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas…

Keeping Santa Cruz Weird

Santa Cruz

Visitors and residents alike (both of which I have been, at various points in my life) agree: Santa Cruz is unique. Witness the surfing santas, omnipresent drum circles, kooky politics, and even the tag line “Keep Santa Cruz Weird” (borrowed from Austin, Texas, which can also boast all of the above). Combine this with incredible natural beauty, a moderate climate, 29 miles of coastline, the University of California at Santa Cruz, the historic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk with its Giant Dipper wooden roller coaster – and you have a heck of a place.

Viticulture as well has a unique place in this inspired environment. The area has been home to famous winemakers in the past, such as Paul Masson, Martin Ray, Randal Grahm and David Bruce; and it remains a vibrant center of wine production as well as a leader in organic and sustainable winemaking.

The Santa Cruz Mountains AVA was established in 1981. It was one of the first AVAs to be established according to elevation, and largely follows – and sits above – the fog line along the coast. The region encircles the ridge tops of the Santa Cruz Mountain range – which reach over 3,000 (920 m) in elevation. The eastern boundary of the AVA rests at 800 feet (240 m), while the western edge, located close to the Pacific Ocean, extends down to 400 feet (120 m).

Santa Cruz 3However – the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, which is tucked in betwixt and between several other AVAs, is the only section of the coastal region from Santa Barbara to the San Francisco bay that isn’t part of the larger Central Coast AVA. As a matter of fact, it is “specifically excluded” from both the Central Coast AVA and the overlapping San Francisco Bay AVA as well.  Sounds a bit tough, doesn’t it?

The story goes as such: When the Central Coast AVA was first created in 1985 (four years after the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA was born), it was much smaller than it is today, and, due to differences in topography and climate, did not include or extend above Santa Cruz. The southern boundary of the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA was (and still is) contiguous with the border of the Central Coast AVA.

However, 1n 1999, a petition was made for a new AVA, to be known as the San Francisco Bay AVA. It was proposed that this new AVA would include the counties of San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Alameda (which includes Livermore), and Contra Costa, as well as parts of Santa Cruz and San Benito Counties – including the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA. At the same time, it was petitioned that the Central Coast AVA be expanded to include this new San Francisco Bay AVA. The Central Coast AVA would, then, encompass virtually all of the area west of the Central Valley from the North Coast AVA on down to Santa Barbara.

santa cruz 2However, when the proposal was open to public comment, the TTB received almost 50 comments. Thirty-three of these were opposed to combining the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA with either the new San Francisco Bay AVA and/or the expanded version of the Central Coast AVA.

One comment claimed that combining the established Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, which many viticulturists and vintners had worked so hard to build the quality, reputation, and distinctiveness of, with the Central Coast AVA would cause “incalculable damage.”

Others stated that combining the areas of the Santa Cruz Mountains with such far-flung and diverse regions as Livermore and metropolitan San Francisco would “undermine the meaning of American viticultural areas.” Another respondent made the point that, culturally, people that reside in Santa Cruz do not consider themselves residents of the San Francisco Bay area, and that if Santa Cruz could be called part of the “San Francisco Bay Area,” then the North Coast AVA could be called the “Napa Area,” and the Central Valley could be called the  “Yosemite Area.” It was a vinous version of “hell no, we won’t go.”

Screen shot via

Screen shot via retrieved on September 26, 2015

The San Francisco Bay AVA was approved in 1999, along with an expansion of the Central Coast AVA (both were expanded again in 2006).

However, the boundaries of the new and expanded AVAs “specifically excluded” the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, as well as its sub-region, the Ben Lomond Mountain AVA.  And it remains so – keeping Santa Cruz weird.

Click here to read the official documents relating to the petition and public comments of the: Central Coast Expansion -Federal Register Jan 20 1999

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas –

Five Cognac Curiosities

Cognac CuriositiesAll good wine and spirits students know that Cognac is a high-quality French Brandy, made from grapes grown in the delineated Cognac region, located just north of Bordeaux. There are several grape varieties allowed, of which Ugni Blanc (aka Trebbiano) is the preferred; the ferment goes through a double distillation in an Alembic still, followed by a minimum of two years’ aging in oak. Good! We’ve covered the basics. But did you know…

#1: The product of a third distillation is known as “Espirit de Cognac.” Espirit de Cognac was awarded an AOC in 1936, and is an unaged product that—after hours and hours of distillation—comes off the still at 80% to 85% abv. Brandy lovers of the world, don’t feel bad if you think you’ve never had Espirit de Cognac—it is not allowed to be sold as a spirit. Instead, it is used in the production of sparkling wines, and may comprises a portion of the liqueur d’expedition used in your favorite Champagne.

#2: Don’t confuse the unaged, bound-for-bubbly Espirit de Cognac AOC with a product labeled as L’Espirit de Cognac. Many Cognac producers use the term L’Espirit to designate their top-tier bottles. For instance, L’Espirit de Courvoisier is an assemblage of old cognacs – the oldest is rumored to be from the 1802 vintage (“the few precious drops that escaped Napoleon’s lips”), and the youngest from 1930.  Bottled in a numbered, hand-crafted Lalique crystal decanter, L’Espirit de Courvoisier sells for upwards of $5,000 per bottle – if you can find one.

Cognac grapes#3: Cognac is distilled from a white wine base, which is typically based on Ugni Blanc with some Colombard, Folle Blanche, Montils, and Sémillon sprinkled in. In practice, Ugni Blanc is by far the dominant grape, accounting for up to 90% of the total vineyards. Folignan, a Folle Blanche X Ugni Blanc cross may be used up to a maximum of 10%.

#4: Three other grapes are currently allowed to be used in the base wine as well. These are Jurançon Blanc, Meslier-St-François, and Sélect. Most of these grapes fall into the “uninteresting” category; however Meslier-St-François is (according to Jancis Robinson, et al, in Wine Grapes) a historic French variety that once grew in Champagne, the Yonne department of Burgundy, and the Loire Valley. As a matter of fact, in 1990, Charles Jumert of Cave de la Berthelotière “saved” the last surviving Meslier-St-François grapes of the Loire Valley by taking cuttings off of a vineyard as it was bulldozed under. He planted the grapes in Villiers-sur-Loir (north of Tours) and has been making a varietal Vin de France from them since 2003.

Cognac curiosities 2#5: 97% of all Cognac produced each year is exported. That’s right—only 3% of the Cognac produced, on average, is consumed at home. As a matter of fact, the French consume as much Scotch whisky as they do Cognac. This means that an average of 130 million bottles of Cognac are exported each year, which is enough to make grape brandy one of France’s most valuable exports. (As for France’s other valuable exports, #1 is airplanes [as in Airbus], #2 is medications, #6 is wine, #9 is make-up and sun-tan preparations, and #13 is perfume. Number 18 is brandy, Cognac included – not bad. You can see the rest of the data on French exports here.

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas…

In Praise of the Juniper Berry

Fig 4-2 Juniper BerriesThe hero of gin lovers everywhere, the juniper berry is not really a berry at all but the seed cone of the juniper plant. Juniperus communis, the common juniper, is a shrub or small evergreen tree with needle-like leaves in whorls of three. Juniper often grows as a low-spreading shrub, but juniper trees can grow to over 32 feet (10m) tall. The juniper plant has over 50 species, and the largest range of any woody plant, thriving throughout the temperate zone of the Northern Hemisphere from North America to Europe and Asia.

Many cultures consider the leaves of the juniper to be a symbol of protection against disease and evil spirits. In Tuscany, a sprig of juniper is often placed in front of the door to offer protection to the house and its inhabitants. Juniper can also ward off snakes, at least according to the ancient Greek pharmacologist Pedanius Dioscorides, who claimed that the smoke from a fire of burning juniper could keep snakes away.

The “berries” of the juniper plant begin life a grey-green color, and ripen in 18 months to a deep purple-black hue with a blue waxy coating. Juniper berries are revered for their medicinal purposes, particularly as a diuretic and in regards to conditions of the kidney, bladder, and stomach.

Of course, to students of wine and spirits, the juniper berry is known primarily as the predominant flavoring in gin and other spirits such as Genever, Steinhäger, and Wacholder. The flavor profile of juniper berries is often described a pine-like, resin-like, intensely herbal and with bitter citrus notes. Noted author Harold McGee, in his book On Food and Cooking defines the flavor of juniper as “green-fresh.”

The Juniper Forest ("The Valley of Juniper) in Ziarat, Pakistan

The Juniper Forest (“The Valley of Juniper”) in Ziarat, Pakistan

Juniper berries are considered an important culinary herb, particularly throughout Scandinavia and Central Europe. Juniper is often used to impart a sharp, clean flavor to meat dishes – particularly game meats – as well as cabbage and sauerkraut dishes. Juniper has a natural affinity for pork and is found in many recipes for roast or braised pork. The recipe for Choucroute Garnie, a classic Alsatian dish of sauerkraut and meats, universally includes juniper berries.

One more thing: on Easter Monday, the young boys in Kashubia (Northern Poland) chase the girls in the town square, brushing (sometimes referred to as “gently whipping”) their legs with juniper sprigs. This is, according to tradition, to ensure good fortune in love to the “chased” young ladies. After watching this annual tradition unfold,  I am guessing, the parents would most likely appreciate a nice shot of gin.

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas: