The Death Whisperer Series

The Death Whisperer Series
The Death Whisperer Series available at

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Cognac: The Drink of Nobility

Spent the holiday in Chicago so I’ll have several new wines to review shortly—all good ones! But since it’s a festive time of year, I thought I’d hit a couple of areas that readers have requested more info, since the characters in my books seem to sample these a lot.

I’ll start with a beverage that is, for the most part, out of the realm of my $25.00 price limit. But since I happen to enjoy it and have two favorites which are very close in terms of affordability, I thought I’d take a stab. What’s the beverage? Cognac.

So, what the heck is cognac? There is a saying, “All cognacs are brandies but not all brandies are cognacs.” Technically, brandy labeled as cognac must come from the Cognac region of France. There are strict rules for its preparation beginning with the grapes used, through the pressing, distillation, and aging processes. The entire area of the Cognac region encompasses about 200,000 acres, actually quite a small territory.

The grapes used are covered by the decrees governing the cognac process and come from the white wine varieties of Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, and Colombard. Each has its own purpose. The Ugni Blanc is a late maturing disease resistant grape. Oddly, the Folle Blanche and Colombard produce thin wine that wouldn’t ordinarily be bottled. But it’s perfect for the distillation process leading to cognac. The soil is critical to producing cognac. Again, it produces wine that is not very good, but is ideal for distillation. The soil conditions in the Cognac region vary, ranging from chalky to red clay to green fields. The quality variations in cognac are related to the amount of chalk present in the soil. Generally, more chalk content increases the quality of the cognac, and the softer the chalk, the better.

After harvesting, the grapes must be pressed in traditional horizontal plate presses rather than the more modern continuous presses which exert too much pressure and could damage the skins, causing the pressed product to become bitter. This, too, is covered by a decree. Fermentation is natural—no chaptalization (sugar addition) is allowed. Fermentation takes over two to three weeks at which point the wine is quite delicate and must be distilled immediately while it’s still fresh. Because the alcohol content is low, it takes about ten gallons of wine to make a gallon of cognac. Distillation is done in a charentais pot still, an onion shaped copper boiler that’s heated over an open flame. A swan-necked copper tube connects the pot to a condensing coil and cooling tank. This first distillate is called brouillis, a cloudy liquid with an alcohol content of 28-32% by volume. The brouillis is subjected to a second distillation from which the final distillate or eau-de-vie is obtained.

The eau-de-vie is placed in oak casks created from 100-year-old French oak trees taken from either the Limousin or Troncais forests. The wood transfers its tannin and color to the young cognac during the aging process. Troncais tannins are said to impart smoothness while Limousin wood is known for the strength and balance it imparts to cognac. Aging must be for a minimum of 2 years but can be fifty years and more.

Cognac is not a single year’s distillation but rather a complex blend of many different cognacs ranging in years of age. The final step is the blending of the individual cognacs, a process that is more art than science.

Cognacs have several designations:
V.S.: Very special. These cognacs are the youngest but must have been aged for at least two years.
V.S.O.P.: Very superior old pale. The youngest blend here is at least four years old.
X.O. and Napoleon: These are the top of the line in which the youngest blend is at least six years old.

The top cognac houses are Remy Martin, Courvoisier, Martell, Hennesey, and Camus. Many of these cognacs start at $100.00 and up and some can be well over $1,000 a bottle. But if you have a hankering for something different, especially when the temperature dips and the world is covered in a blanket of snow, here are a couple of my favorites that I can afford. Keep in mind that you don’t open a bottle of cognac and consume the entire bottle at one sitting. The alcohol content is about 70%, slightly less than whiskey. Instead, take a wine glass, or a small snifter and fill it about a quarter full. No more than two ounces at a time. Let it breath for a while to open up the aromas. Then bring the glass to your nose and sniff it delicately. Note the bouquet. Lastly, take a tiny amount into your mouth, run it over your tongue, hold it, then swallow it. You should feel a nice warmth spreading across your body.

First up, Courvoisier V.S. It’s about $30.00 normally but watch for sales. I usually get it for $27.00 which is pretty close to my $25.00 limit. The bouquet brings subtle tones of plums, raisins, almonds, and vanilla. It’s a delightful aroma that won’t bring tears to your eyes like some brandies I’ve had. It’s very smooth in the mouth and on the finish, with notes of raisins, currents and vanilla. My favorite.

Remy Martin V.S. It’s priced the same as the Courvoisier. Very smooth and drinkable. Milder aroma of vanilla, hazelnuts, and plums.

If you want to stretch your budget a bit more, try Camus VSOP, about $40.00 a bottle. It contains a high proportion of the rarest cognac growths and has a beautiful aroma of hazelnuts and almonds. Slightly fruity too. On the palate, it shows notes of vanilla, hazelnut, and peppery spices.

Until next time, enjoy some wine.


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Wines for spicy foods from San Francisco

All right. Last night in San Francisco and I’ve got two more wines and a fantastic Indian restaurant for you.

The first is a Joel Gott Cabernet Sauvignon; $18.00. Floral, but complex nose. Flavors of blackberry, spicy fruit, peppercorns and coffee. Tannins and acidity were mild. It was good but not terribly remarkable for my tastes.

Next, the restaurant: Amber. It’s an Indian restaurant behind the Marriott off Market Street. My dinner started with spinach and feta kulcha, a nan or bread cooked in a Tandoor oven and stuffed with chopped spinach and feta cheese. Dinner was Goan spicy scallops. Six enormous scallops were spiced, grilled, and served with a spicy sauce. It came with Indian spiced rice containing carrots, peas, and corn. It was fantastic!

Now, to stand up to the spices, I needed a wine with strength so I ordered a Domaine Gouran Chinon Loire Cabernet Franc, somewhere between $18.00 and $24.00. Cabernet Franc’s are a conundrum. They are thought of as the “other” cabernet, often ignored as a result. Yet from my point of view, they can be very drinkable, especially those that are from the middle of the Loire region where it really shines. The cabernet francs are under-rated by those who like big, fat, oaky reds that are heavy on the alcohol. Yet because of their underdog status, the French versions can be real bargains. The red wines of Saumur, Saumur-Champigny, Chinon, Bourgueil and St-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil are almost exclusively Cabernet Franc.

This one had a voluptuous nose of wild flowers, cranberry, black currants and earth with distinct spicy overtones. It burst on the palate with cherry, cranberry, and a hint of smokiness. It stood up perfectly to the spicy food, cutting through the richness. In spite of the cold and rain, San Francisco was definitely good for wine.


San Francisco in December

Well, here I am in rainy, cold San Francisco. Of course, “cold” is relative, since my wife said it’s barely above zero with wind chills hovering around -20F back home. Had to give a talk at the American Society for Cell Biology meeting, which I find a drag at this time of year. But it does give me a chance to review some new restaurants and wines. Sooo, here goes.

I got in late to the San Francisco Marriott last Saturday night. Thankfully, Annabelle’s was still serving at 10:30 PM. I’ve reviewed this restaurant before, but since the menu and wines change, I’ll give it another go. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast in Nebraska, which means this was 12:30 AM for me and I was HUNGRY! Started with a cup of very unremarkable seafood bisque. It had a tomato base and the waiter said it had shrimp and mussels in it, but they were nowhere to be found. It was simply a fishy tasting tomato soup. Disappointing. However, next was an appetizer of white cheddar cheese, lightly breaded and fried, then covered with an apple liqueur and diced apples—very nice. For my main course, I had lamb medallions, medium rare, accompanied by a hash of diced rutabaga, carrots, and onions. The lamb was lightly covered in a brown sauce tasting slightly sweet, probably from a touch of brown sugar. Both were excellent. Dessert was toasted bread pudding topped with a Jameson whiskey sauce and accompanied by a chocolate expresso pot de crème. The latter is a dense, creamy, concoction resembling a pudding more than a mousse. Suffice to say, both were outstanding. Wine for the night was a Storybook Mountain Napa Estate, Mayacamas Range Zinfandel. It’s about $24.00 in the stores. Nice deep red color. Fruity bouquet. Berries, strawberry, and spice on the palate. Storybrook Mountain is known for its fine zinfandels and this was definitely one of them.

Sunday, I and three colleagues tried Daffodil’s, just north of Union Square halfway up Nob Hill. It’s a little known place that I can usually get in without a reservation. For an appetizer, I had breaded deep fried calamari with similarly breaded pieces of dill pickle and sauce of jalapenos and cilantro crème fraiche. It was unusual…and very good. The sauce was outstanding with just enough bite to make it interesting.

Two entrees to review here. First was a fettuccine lamb ragout in a brown sauce, similar to what I experienced at Annabelle’s. It was laced with morel mushrooms and diced shallots. Very tasty. Second was a grilled pork chop with an apple liqueur based sauce over wild rice. The pork chop was good, meaty with no fat, and cooked perfectly. Very succulent. For the wine, I chose a Fleur Carneros Pinot Noir, which goes with just about everything. It’s a lighter red with brilliant color and a bouquet of ripe cherries and cranberries. On the palate, the berries persist with a touch of spice and nutmeg. While it’s fruity, this wine is soft and supple with a lingering finish of berries and spice. It generally runs around $15.00 in the stores.

Well, that should keep you drooling for now. I’ll write more as I finish out my trip tomorrow. Until then, enjoy some wine.


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Kendall Jackson Zin

Got a new wine for you tonight. Actually, my wife picked it and she’s rather proud because it’s a good one.

2006 Kendall Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Zinfandel. $10.99 (they were having a sale). This is a medium bodied wine with a rich, ruby color. The aroma of raspberry, blueberry, spice, and lots of berry fruit hits you right away. In the mouth, I tasted strawberry, cherry, and blackberry with a touch of spice accent that lingered on a long, pleasant finish. For the money, this is an excellent wine. It’s not too heavy and will go nicely with all kinds of foods. I think it’s normally around $13.00, but my wife’s sharp eyes caught the sale. Enjoy!


Saturday, December 6, 2008


I know you’ve all been waiting with baited breath for the release of my new novel, Rise of the Fallen. Well…IT’S HERE!
Right now, it’s available at Buy Books on the Web ( The direct url is:
ISBN: 0-7414-5055-0

It will be available through Barnes and Noble, Borders, Amazon, Walmart, etc, in about a month. Just to give you a glimpse of the story, see below for the trailer and first chapter.

A leading U.S. bioweapons scientist dies of an unexplainable neurological disease. A Swiss chocolate factory is guarded by highly trained combat troops. Chechnya is destroyed with thermobaric bombs after an outbreak of a bioterrorist virus. And the beautiful, but enigmatic CEO of a biotechnology company fights off a take-over attempt by a sinister Boston investment group. Unrelated as these events may seem, Liam Michaels, an artist, photographer—and the immortal Angel of Death—recognizes an insidious plot by fallen angels and must act quickly to stop the rise of the Fallen.

Sunday, May 4th; Framingham, Massachusetts
Jeffery Blazek was dying. He lay on the kitchen floor of his cozy, three-bedroom house that backed up to the Boy Scouts forest preserve in Framingham, Massachusetts, unable to move or call for help. His muscle control was gone, and the room smelled of urine and feces. Saliva drooled slowly down his cheek and pooled under his face. His mouth snapped open and shut like a fish out of water, and his breath came in strained gasps accompanied by whistling rales. His body shook with constant tremors; his left hand beat gently against the floor. He was dying.

Two bizarre-looking figures sat at the kitchen table covered head to toe in pale green hazmat suits made of a lyotropic, liquid crystal-butyl rubber composite. The suits operated on a principle similar to Gore-Tex, but with pores one hundred times smaller, blocking the entry of bacteria, viruses, and most chemical warfare agents. Blue, latex gloves covered their hands and they wore clear plastic facemasks attached to respirators on their backs. Both calmly took notes on the Tablet PC’s of two Panasonic Toughbook computers.

A man’s baritone voice spoke. “Let’s go over the progression of the disease.”

“Fire away, my young genius.” The voice of the second figure was female with a slight Irish accent.

The man frowned through his mask. “The pneumonia first appeared three weeks ago, correct?”

“Yep, inoculated him twenty-eight days ago on Sunday, April 6th, as he took a leak in the company washroom,” the second figure answered. “There’s a lesson here, sweetums.” She stared at the man, her eyes glittering behind her mask. “Working weekends will kill you. I put the inoculum in the automatic air freshener dispenser.”

“When did his symptoms first appear?” asked the man.

“Let’s see.” The woman consulted her computer. “Five days after the initial exposure, he showed signs of pneumonia. Doctor put him on azithromycin. Looks like his pneumonia was better five days after beginning treatment.”

“Excellent. When did the neurological symptoms appear?”

The woman again checked her computer notes. “Twenty-one days after infection he began to complain of tremors and a general weak¬ness in his legs. According to his medical records, he stated he felt unsteady and found himself leaning against the walls of his home in order to walk without falling.” She looked up from her computer and smirked. “Sounds like you after a couple of beers.”

“Cut the crap,” the male snarled.

“No sense of humor, little one?” the female purred. “Twenty-five days after infection, his doctor wrote that his speech was slurred, his coordination deteriorating. Boy, this really could be you after tossing back a few.”

The man ignored the comment. “And the doctor’s opinion?”

“Doc suspected Guillain-Barré syndrome.”

Guillain-Barré syndrome resulted from an attack on the peripheral nerves by the body's immune system. It usually followed a few days or weeks after a respiratory or gastrointestinal viral infection. The symptoms varied and included weakness or tingling sensations in the legs and, in many instances, spread to the arms and upper body. The symptoms could increase in intensity until the muscles were useless, and the victim was almost paralyzed. In most cases the affected patient recovered completely, but in rare instances, the paralysis remained. Even rarer, death occurred.

“Exactly what we hoped. So, if today is day twenty-eight post-infection, then the symptoms have progressed just as expected,” the man declared, flexing his gloved fingers.

The man on the floor gasped frantically. His body tried to inhale more deeply without exhaling, straining for the last bit of precious oxygen. Abruptly, the sounds of his wheezing ended and his chest muscles stopped working. He was dead.

“Ironic, isn’t it? The guy’s an infectious disease expert,” the mysterious man said.

“Correction. Was an infectious disease expert.”

“Whatever,” the man continued. “Here he is, dead from an infection, and there was nothing he could do to prevent or cure it.”

“At least you’re good at some things, kitten,” the female said. “I’d say the Desesperado agent is a success.” She began typing into her computer. “Let’s see, oh-three-thirty-five hours, May 4th, the subject, Jeffery Blazek, was pronounced dead. The presumed cause, Guillain-Barré syndrome.”

“That’s it. We’re out of here,” the man said.

The two figures removed aerosol cans of a disinfectant cocktail from small bags at their feet and sprayed down the computers. They left the house through the back door, closing and locking it. The moon shone brightly on the warm, New England spring night. The smell of red hemlock chips arranged neatly around a flagstone garden path filled the air with an earthy fragrance. The man removed a small disinfectant canister from the bag and attached it to a neatly coiled hose connected to a faucet at the back of the house. He turned on the hose and began to spray the woman’s suit as she held her arms out parallel to the ground. When she’d been disinfected, she did the same for him. They carefully removed their suits, placed them in black, self-sealing, plastic bags, and stepped into the forest behind the house.

“So, kitten, since the bug doesn’t affect you and me, why the suits?” the woman asked. Her long black, hair was tied in a ponytail and she wore a black, nomex jumpsuit with military combat boots.

“I just wanted to make sure the agent wasn’t transmissible person-to-person. Otherwise, with all the person-to-person contact you have each night, you might have started an epidemic.”

The woman grinned. “You do have a sense of humor, kitten!” She moved closer to him. “But I don’t think you’re ready for person-to person contact with me. You might get hurt. So be respectful of a lady, sweetums.”

The man snorted and dragged a large rubberized duffle bag out from under a magenta-blooming rhododendron bush. The man and woman carefully placed their equipment in the duffle bag and sealed it. The man threw it over his shoulder and the two disappeared down a path into the forest.

Australian Reds

Hectic week following the Holiday, but it’s time for two new wines. I was intrigued by the Rosemont Cabernet from Australia that we had at my daughter’s wedding recently. As I said in my review, it was quite good and only 8.50 a bottle. Soooo, I bought a bottle of their Merlot and Pinot Noir to “taste” them out. One was good, the other just okay. First the good:

Rosemont Merlot, 2006; $8.50: Dark red color with a deep, ripe berry bouquet. Dark cherry, and plum predominate in the mouth with just a touch of oak. Smooth with a long finish. It seems to be almost chewy in the mouth and coats the glass as it’s swirled. For $8.50, this is a nice one. Goes good with spicy foods or red meat.

Rosemont Pinot Noir, 2006; $8.50: Lighter in color than the Merlot. Berries on the nose and in the mouth. A bit thin for my taste and initially had a slight alcohol taste. It was okay but if you’re exploring Australian reds, I’d recommend the Cabernet or the Merlot.

Coming soon, a little something that is usually out of the price range that I review, but since the characters in my book drink it a lot, I thought I’d do a bit on Cognac’s. There’s one in particular for beginners that I’ll recommend. Stay tuned!