Our wine is better than your water

One of the wagons in the Vendanges des Artistes was painted with this:  Our water is better than your wine.  I guess that's what passes for trash talk in the wine world.

One of the wagons in the Vendanges des Artistes was painted with this: Our wine is better than your water. I guess that’s what passes for trash talk in the wine world.  (The photos in this post are from the video made by Sebastian Nickel at vnickel.com)

[Update: I learned today that while my translation is literally correct, the photo to the left is actually a very clever play on words. First, the "water" is real bottled water that's produced in Sainte Cécile les Vignes, which is the village next door. Then, eau de là -- which I translated as "the water there," sounds the same as au delà, which means beyond. Or, in this case, the great beyond. So you could read this as "Our wine is better than dying," which would most likely be the truth.  But it could also be that their neighbor's bottled water is like death.  Ah, the crafty French!  That's much better trash talk.]

It’s harvest and wine-making time again. Harvest is the busiest time of the year for most wineries because you’ve only got a limited amount of time to pick the grapes before it gets too cold at night (or during the day, for that matter). If the harvest is later than usual because of cooler or rainy summer weather, then it’s really a race to pick them quickly.

So while there’s still time before the harvest starts, a lot of villages in wine-making regions have a pre-harvest festival. One of these villages, Cairanne, in the Southern Rhône Valley, just had its third annual Vendange des Artistes, or Artists’ Harvest.

The wine cat of Cairanne, from a grape wagon at the Vendanges des Artistes.

The wine cat of Cairanne, from a grape wagon at the Vendanges des Artistes.

As I posted a couple of years ago, the festival started with local art students painting the wagons used to haul grapes from the fields to the wineries (called bennes in France), in consultation with the winery owners and grape-growers. Although the wineries’ names don’t appear on the wagons, the hope was that you’d see a wagon with decoration you’d like and either follow it back to the winery, or find out who it belonged to. Then, of course, try the wines.

The Vendange des Artistes has become a little bit more elaborate every year and is now open to more than students. And the folks promoting Rhône Valley wines are using it for a marketing tool now, which is probably how the video of this year’s festival got made. Still, it’s a really fun idea. And a great way to bring the community together.


Gives a whole new meaning to "bottle rocket," doesn't it?  From the 2014 Vendange des Artistes in Cairanne.

Gives a whole new meaning to “bottle rocket,” doesn’t it? From the 2014 Vendange des Artistes in Cairanne.

We don’t carry wines from Cairanne anymore, but this week’s recommendation is from a village that’s practically next door.  Cave la Romaine Séguret ($15) is 70% Grenache and 30% Syrah. The winery is the cooperative in Vaison la Romaine, but all the grapes are grown in Séguret, a village only a few kilometers from Cairanne. The wine is medium-bodied and has all sorts of ripe fruit flavor, plus a great leathery/tobacco earthiness. Robust enough for grilling, and the perfect thing to take the chill off our September evenings.

When it gets cool at night I start thinking of heartier foods. Yet we know that we can still get a couple of scorching days and I won’t want something too heavy. Salmon fits the bill for this anything-goes weather-wise time of year. I got the idea for this recipe from watching Jacques Pepin make a salmon dish. He put a fresh bread crumb and hazelnut topping on a side of salmon and baked it in a low oven — low enough to be able to bake the salmon right on the serving platter. I tried it, but the salmon wasn’t cooked enough for my taste. (I don’t need to have it completely cooked through, but this was a little too raw for me. I also have to admit that I wasn’t courageous enough to risk breaking my serving platter cooking it in the oven.)

So I guess you can read this as wine improving your sight, or that everything you see looks better with a little wine.  Either one works!  From the 2014 Vendange des Artistes.

So I guess you can read this as wine protecting your sight, or that everything you see looks better with a little wine. Either one works! From the 2014 Vendange des Artistes.

So I’ve upped the temperature and bake them a little longer. Plus, instead of the hazelnuts in the recipe, I use walnuts, which are easier to find, and I added garlic and thyme to the crumbs for a little extra flavor. I make the recipe with four to six ounce fillets instead of one big piece. You can put the fillets butting up against one another if you like, that way the ones in the middle will cook a little less.

Southern Rhône wines pair very well with salmon, so the Séguret will be a good match. Serve the breaded fillet on top of some salad for a lighter meal, or with something like pasta with garlic and olive oil as a side dish for a colder-weather dish.  You may not live in a place where you can watch the grape wagons go by, but you can eat as if you do!

Bon Appetit!


Baked Salmon with Walnuts and Bread Crumbs

Serves 4

4 4-6 ounce salmon fillets, skin on, any little bones removed.

1 large clove garlic, peeled

1/4 cup walnut pieces

2 slices sandwich bread, or 5-6 baguette slices (remove the tougher parts of the crust if you’re using baguette slices), torn into small pieces

1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

Salt and freshly-ground pepper

Extra-virgin olive oil

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Lightly oil a shallow baking dish that’s just large enough to hold all four salmon fillets.

Drop the garlic clove through the feed tube of a food processor that’s running and let it get minced. Stop the food processor and add the walnuts. Pulse until the walnuts are very finely chopped, but not ground. Empty the walnut/garlic mixture into a medium-sized bowl. Put the bread pieces in the food processor and pulse until you make fresh bread crumbs. You should have about a cup of crumbs; if not, use the processor to make enough.

Combine the walnut mixture and the crumbs, along with the fresh thyme and a little salt and pepper. Stir in a tablespoon of olive oil. Put the fillets skin-side-down in the oiled baking dish, and brush the fish with the olive oil, then season with salt and pepper. Using your hands, press the crumb mixture on top of the fillets and drizzle a bit more olive oil on top.

Put the fish in the oven and bake for 25-30 minutes. The crumbs will be lightly browned and the fish should be just cooked through. Serve immediately.

Posted in Cairanne, Cave la Romaine, Jacques Pepin, Musings/Lectures/Rants, Tom Natan, Vendange d'Artistes, wine delivery washington dc | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vacation Rental Kitchen Surprises

For some reason, every vacation rental I've stayed in has at least one jar of red pepper flakes in the kitchen.  Not just the takeout packets, but whole jars.

For some reason, every vacation rental I’ve stayed in has at least two jars of red pepper flakes in the kitchen. Not just the pizza place takeout packets, but whole jars.  (Photo from theperfectpantry.com)

Cooking on vacation can be a challenge. Even if the place has a nice kitchen, you’re not necessarily going to have the staples you have at home. If you’re lucky, the owners spend time there and cook a lot themselves, so they’ll have a good supply and don’t mind your using them. Or, since most people who buy staples on vacation leave them in the house, you could end up staying after someone who just had to whip up lovely meals.

But most of the time that’s not the case. By the time you read this, Cy and I will be in Provincetown, our 14th trip up together (and Cy has been going even longer than that). The first half-dozen years we went, we stayed in a big house with friends and the kitchen had lots of equipment and staples. So we made lots of fun meals and had a great time entertaining, which we love to do.

Since 2008, though, we’ve been renting various smaller places on our own.  While the kitchens aren’t exactly just afterthoughts, there’s usually not a whole lot there. And the food supplies left behind are downright puzzling. Why in the world are there always multiple jars of crushed red pepper flakes? And more than one bottle of cider vinegar? There also seems to be a bottle of pancake syrup every year. Not maple syrup, but Log Cabin and such. (No evidence of pancake mix or Bisquick, though.) And if there’s a blender or a food processor, it’s definitely seen better days — some kitchens look like everything came from the Island of Misfit Toys.

Still, we like to entertain even in less-than-ideal conditions and even make some of the food,  so I’ve had to think of recipes that don’t require specialized equipment or lots of ingredients. The two that have worked out best over the years are tarts or pizza, made with frozen puff pastry or pizza dough from a local pizza place. You can make the Tomato Tart with Cheese and Pizza à la Pissaladière (a fancy name for cooked onions with other things like olives and capers) with about a half hour of prep time, and produce something tasty for guests or an easy dinner for yourselves in an hour. And they’re not just “good enough for an afterthought kitchen” kind of recipes — they’re definitely things you’d be happy to make at home.

According to Epicurious, Mrs. Butterworth's is the best of the non-maple syrups.  Unfortunately, I almost always find the store brand instead in vacation rental kitchens.  And, inexplicably, no pancake mix...

According to Epicurious, Mrs. Butterworth’s is the best of the non-maple syrups. Unfortunately, I almost always find the store brand instead in vacation rental kitchens. And, inexplicably, no pancake mix…(Photo from meandmypinkmixer.com)

I’ve posted these recipes before, but I’ve developed a few shortcuts and tips since then after making them in various rental kitchens.   The idea is to use what you can find around and don’t worry too much about things you don’t have or can’t easily get. The recipes are pretty forgiving, and they’ll be delicious (almost) no matter what you do with them.

As I mentioned before, you can make them with pizza dough or puff pastry. If you’re looking to make one of each and the local grocery store has puff pastry, it’s a good way to go, since frozen puff pastry comes two sheets to a box. And the look of puff-pastry tarts can’t be beat.  If you think ahead, put the puff pastry sheets in the fridge the night before you want to use them to thaw. But if you forget or don’t get a chance, just unwrap them and let them sit on the counter until you can unfold them, usually about a half hour. This gives you time to prep the other ingredients.

If you can’t find puff pastry, then stop at a pizza place and ask for enough dough for a large pizza. (They’re usually happy to sell you pizza dough.) Don’t worry about not having flour for rolling — it works just as well just to oil a baking sheet and press the pizza dough into the right size right on the oiled surface. In fact, it actually works better than rolling on flour. And if you’d still like to roll the dough, use a wine bottle as a rolling pin. If your rental kitchen doesn’t have baking sheets, buy the disposable foil ones, or just use two layers of foil as the sheet, fold up the ends so you can grab them, and put the foil right on the oven rack to bake.

Grocery stores have a lot more things like fresh herbs these days, but if you’re going to a store without them, don’t worry. You can use dried herbs, and they may even already be in your rental kitchen. But if they’re not, buy a little jar of Italian seasoning (and leave what you don’t use for the next renter). For the tomato tart, mix about a teaspoon of the seasoning with a little olive oil (I haven’t yet seen a rental kitchen that didn’t have olive oil in the cupboard), and use that to drizzle the top before you bake it. For the onion tart, you can mix the herbs right in as you cook the onions.

And as for cheese, olives, capers, etc, use what you can find. If your grocery store has an olive bar, you can buy just what you need. Otherwise you can leave them out. I have made these tarts with pre-shredded cheese (Sargento brand is good, I’ve used their Asiago blend and it’s tasty), and even pre-sliced Swiss cheese that I cut into little bits.

If your rental kitchen has no dried herbs and you can't get fresh, buy a small jar of Italian Seasoning.  It'll work in lots of dishes and the next renters will love you for leaving it for them.  (Photo from styleforum.net)

If your rental kitchen has no dried herbs and you can’t get fresh, buy a small jar of Italian Seasoning. It’ll work in lots of dishes and the next renters will love you for leaving it for them. (Photo from styleforum.net)

If you want to read more about the recipes and the background for them, you can take a look at the original posts I wrote with them. The tomato tart recipe was one Cy and I had while visiting French friends. And the Pissaladière is based on a pizza we had in a small village where practically everyone town gathers to eat pizza and drink local wine on Sunday nights. That’s part of what makes them perfect vacation fare.

The tarts go with nearly any wine, as long as it’s not too oaky. If you’re looking for something, try the Tradition Côtes du Ventoux Red, White, or Rosé from Cave la Romaine. At $10 a bottle, they’re great for entertaining, and they’re fresh and tasty, whether on vacation or not.

Bon Appetit!


Tomato Tart with Cheese

Pizza à la Pissaladière

PS:  I made both the tarts for a cocktail party yesterday — photos below.

Pizza à la Pissaladière made with puff pastry.  The local grocery store didn't have an olive bar, so I left out the olives, anchovies, and capers.  It was still delicious.

Pizza à la Pissaladière made with puff pastry. The local grocery store didn’t have an olive bar, so I left out the olives, anchovies, and capers. It was still delicious.

Tomato Tart with Cheese.  With Italian Seasoning mixed with olive oil drizzled on top before baking.

Tomato Tart with Cheese. With Italian Seasoning mixed with olive oil drizzled on top before baking.

Posted in Cave la Romaine, Tom Natan, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

In Champagne, 100 years can disappear in an instant

The memorial to American soldiers who fought and died in World War I, in Château-Thierry in Champagne.  (Photo from warpoetry.co.uk)

The memorial to American soldiers who fought and died in World War I, in Château-Thierry in Champagne.  The American and British armies were based there, and launched the counter-attack against the Germans in the Second Battle of the Marne in July 1918.  (Photo from warpoetry.co.uk)

There are all sorts of ways that wine links to history, not least its status as one of the world’s oldest beverages. Really old wine could be considered history in a bottle, but as I mentioned a couple of months ago, even a newer wine can come from vines planted decades and decades ago.  Aside from what’s in the bottle, sometimes the history has to do with places and the luminaries who owned the vineyard lands centuries ago.  But on my last trip to France, I had my first experience with wine and its relation to an event that paved the way for the 20th century as we now know it, standing on land that was part of a decisive battle of World War I.

I hadn’t planned it, but my trip coincided almost exactly with the 100th anniversary of the event that historians mark as the tipping point leading to that war.  It probably didn’t seem quite so momentous back then.  On June 26, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, were assassinated in Sarajevo, a city that was part of the vast Austro-Hungarian empire ruled by Franz Ferdinand’s family.  The assassin, one of seven who had plans to ambush the Archduke but thought he had missed his opportunity, didn’t expect to have a second chance to shoot. And he never dreamed that his pistol shots would lead to World War I, lasting more than four years, with millions of casualties.

The Marne River Valley in Champagne, where the Second Battle of the Marne was fought in July-August 1918.  Paris is about 60 miles west of Château-Thierry, and the German army was making a last-ditch attempt to capture it.

Map 1: The Marne River Valley in Champagne, where the Second Battle of the Marne was fought in July-August 1918. The German army was making a last-ditch attempt to capture Paris, about 60 miles west of Château-Thierry.

Somehow it all seems even more remote than 100 years for many of us here in the U.S.  It strikes me as more in the past than even the Civil War does — especially here in the DC area, which is right at the dividing line between the two sides. We have a beautiful but unassuming (by Washington standards) memorial to DC residents who died in World War I. Contrast that with Arlington Cemetery, the Lincoln Memorial, and battlefield memorials and parks within 100 miles of DC, all with a connection to the Civil War.

It’s a different story in France. Travel in the Champagne region and you’ll see that many cities and villages between Paris and Reims have a World War I memorial or cemetery. Not just for the French citizens who died fighting, but also the U.S. and British troops who fought and died there. The Second Battle of the Marne, which took place from July 15 – August 6, 1918, cut right through the Champagne region and caused enormous destruction.   (Map 1 shows the Marne River Valley.)  It was the last-ditch attempt by the German army to mount an offensive and capture Paris. (Paris was never invaded in World War I –French forces had prevented the Germans from entering Paris in the First Battle of the Marne in 1914.)

Map 2 - The German army advanced from the north and captured territory south of the river to the east and west of Dormans.  Trélou-sur-Marne was attacked in the first days of the battle.  Champagne Bernard Mante, First Vine's champagne producer, is located just about at the "M" in Marne.

Map 2 – The German army advanced from the north and captured territory south of the river to the east and west of Dormans. Trélou-sur-Marne was attacked in the first days of the battle. Champagne Bernard Mante, First Vine’s champagne producer, is located just about at the “M” in the village name.  I visited Bernard and his wife, Christiane, nearly 100 years to the day after the assassinations in Sarajevo.

In May and June, German forces got to within a few miles of the northern bank of the Marne river. In the first three days of the July battles, they advanced and captured Marne river crossings east and west of the village of Dormans. As you can see in the detailed map around Dormans (Map 2), this included the village of Trélou-sur-Marne, which is where Champagne Bernard Mante, First Vine’s champagne producer, is located. Some of the July 15-17 fighting took place on what are now Bernard’s vineyards, and the fighting continued there after the British and American forces joined the French and counter-attacked beginning on July 18. The German army’s advance was stopped, and ultimately the battles in July and August marked the beginning of an unbroken string of Allied victories that led to the war’s end a few months later.

An aerial view of Champagne Bernard Mante and Trélou-sur-Marne.  The German army began its attack from the north just beyond the trees at the top of the ridge.

An aerial view of Champagne Bernard Mante and Trélou-sur-Marne. The German army began its attack from the north just beyond the trees at the top of the ridge.

As Bernard and I walked around the vineyards, Bernard pointed out the topography that made this part of the Marne River Valley a battleground. The north edge of the vineyards climbs steeply and the ridge is densely forested. In June 1918, the German army had advanced south to a point just north beyond the trees. The French army was to the south, on the other side of the Marne River.   The British and American armies advanced from Château-Thierry to the west. Both Trélou and Dormans were hit by the German bombardment.

The war left the champagne industry in dire straits. Not only were the fields in ruins, but so many men had been killed that there was barely anyone to work in the vineyards. As we walked, Bernard recounted the difficulties of replanting and slow industry growth that was then interrupted again by World War II. It was nearly two full generations from the start of World War I until the Champagne region entered what we’d consider the modern era of wine production.

A memorial to two French scouts who died at the start of the Second Battle of the Marne.

A memorial to two French scouts who died at the start of the Second Battle of the Marne.  The photo was taken by Christiane Mante.  She has an eye for taking wonderful photos, and you can see more of them on the winery website:  http://www.champagne-mante.com.

Today the villages are long rebuilt, and a limited-access motorway whisks you east of Paris through Reims toward Strasbourg. Grapevines and wheat cover the battlefields. But there are reminders of 1914-18 on the autoroute, and even more if you take the roads through the villages. At the edge of one of the dirt roads leading into Bernard’s vines there’s a cross, a memorial to two French scouts who were killed there at the start of the battle.   The cross is taller than the vines around it, and is beautifully tended. You can’t help but notice it when you drive by on the main road. And even today, Bernard finds pieces of metal from war materials when he replants vines. It’s amazing how 100 years can vanish in an instant.


My visit with Bernard and Christiane happened just as First Vine’s order of Bernard’s champagne was arriving in DC. The bubbly has rested from its journey by boat and truck, and is now ready to drink. People tend to think of champagne as a special-occasion drink, and of course it’s great for celebrations. But visiting Bernard and Christiane introduced me to the wonder of drinking champagne every day.

Trélou-sur-Marne after the German bombardment in July 1918.  Until the war, the town was called Tréloup.  This is from Bernard's collection of old postcards from the region.

Trélou-sur-Marne after the German bombardment in July 1918. Until the war, the town was called Tréloup. This is from Bernard’s collection of old postcards from the region.

Of course, when you’re a champagne maker you have a lot of it around. But it’s really an ideal beverage for lots of different foods. And it will last for a few days after opening if you’ve got the right kind of stopper — the carbonation pushes air away from the surface of the liquid, leaving a layer of carbon dioxide between the champagne and the air which would start to oxidize the champagne.  This layer keeps oxygen away from the liquid longer than in still wine.  So don’t be afraid to drink champagne (and other sparkling wines) more often.

Champagne doesn’t necessarily have to be served with something fancy. Cheese and fruit make a wonderful, easy meal, and champagne works beautifully with them. Salads can often be a problem for wine pairing if they’re too acidic, but one of the joys of champagne is that it has a little more acidity than many wines, balanced by fruit and yeast. So as long as you don’t overdo the vinegar or lemon juice you’ll be fine.

Another one of Bernard's postcards.  This is a pre-war champagne grape harvest.  Instead of in rows with posts and wires, the vines were staked on individual wooden posts and not necessarily in rows.

Another one of Bernard’s postcards. This is a pre-war champagne grape harvest. Instead of in rows with posts and wires, the vines were staked on individual wooden posts and not necessarily in rows.

Fresh fennel bulbs are starting to show up at the farmers’ markets, and fennel, red onion, orange, and olives make a wonderful salad.   Fennel and oranges are available year-round, but the small fennel bulbs you find in the summer are more tender and don’t have quite as much of a licorice flavor to them. Orange makes the salad a natural for pairing with champagne — think of part of the mimosa as being in the meal as well as in the glass.

Any of Bernard’s champagnes would make a nice accompaniment to the salad, but I’m partial to the Extra-Brut ($35). Champagne gets dosed with sugar and yeast for carbonation, and additional sugar can be added later on depending on the formulation. Extra-brut champagne has no additional sugar after the yeast turns the initial dose into carbon dioxide bubbles, and it’s beautifully refreshing.   Your salad will actually taste a little sweeter, too.

I have always looked at drinking First Vine wines as a way of thinking of the people who made them.  But it’s something new to drink the wine and think of the people who fought and died on the land where that wine was made.  I think champagne is an ideal beverage for that, and now I can also consider that first sip — the one so often taken in celebration — as a tribute to those individuals from around the world that made it possible for me to enjoy something extraordinary.

Bon Appetit!


Fennel, Orange, and Olive Salad

Serves 4

3 small bulbs of fresh fennel (or 2 large bulbs)

2 small navel oranges

24 small unpitted green olives, like Picholine

1/4 of a large red onion

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1/4 teaspoon Dijon mustard

Extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly-cracked black pepper

1. Thinly slice the red onion, and put it in a small bowl. Cover the slices with ice water and let them soak for 20 minutes. Drain and set aside.

2. While the onion is soaking, trim off the stalks and fronds from the fennel bulbs (keep a few fronds for garnish), and cut off the tough bottom pieces. Using a vegetable peeler, peel off the outside of the outer layer of the bulbs. Then cut the bulbs in quarters through the top and cut out the tough center parts. Thinly slice the trimmed fennel bulbs.

3. Cut the top and bottom off the oranges and set them flat on the cutting board. Using a thin, sharp knife, cut the peel off the oranges so that no white part remains showing on the outside. Reserve the pieces of peel. Then slice the peeled oranges crosswise. You’ll want 8 uniform slices. Take the small or uneven slices and squeeze them over the fennel, and do the same thing with the orange peel.  (You can also eat the extra slices, but you’ll want about 2-3 tablespoons of juice for the salad.)

4. Mix the lemon juice with the mustard and a little salt and pepper in jar or small bowl. Mix in 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Stir into the fennel and orange juice, along with the onion.

5. Arrange the dressed fennel and onion on four salad plates. Place two orange slices on top, along with six olives. Drizzle with a little additional olive oil and serve.

Posted in Champagne, Champagne Bernard Mante, Fennel Salad, History and Wine, Musings/Lectures/Rants, Tom Natan, Uncategorized, wine delivery washington dc, World War I | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

We’re all like Olivia Pope when it comes to wine

I'm not sure what the medal on the bottom is all about, but this is a good and interesting wine book.

I’m not sure what the medal on the bottle is all about, but this is a good and interesting wine book.

A couple of months ago I was asked to review a book about wine. Not even an e-book like I usually get, but a genuine soft-cover copy. Tom Stevenson’s Buy the Right Wine Every Time — The No-Fuss No-Vintage Wine Guide is an interesting read and presents a lot of good information and wine reviews in an easily understandable format.

But first you have to get past the very loud front and back cover. The cutesy copy on the back (more about that here) proclaims that it’s for people who “drink wine but don’t think wine,” and who “prefer to stick to the types of wine [they] know.” With Stevenson’s help, they’ll get “instant professional guidance so [they'll] buy the right wine every time.”

Fortunately, the contents are less bombastic (and have fewer italics). I think it fits its niche well. But reading the book got me thinking about how people learn about unfamiliar subjects in a time when so much information is available almost instantly. Would those wine newbies even buy this book?

So I decided to do a little informal research. I asked about 20 wine drinkers, friends and customers plus a few fellow bloggers all of different ages, how they learned what they know about wine. They have varying degrees of wine knowledge. Everything from “I know what I like but not much more than that” to earning certificates in wine education or sommelier-dom.

The one thing they all told me was that someone got them interested in wine. Whether it was just by pouring a glass and the light going on in the newbie’s head, and maybe providing him or her with a few basic wine facts that carried them forward whether or not they decided to learn more. It might have been a family member, a friend, or maybe a person working in a restaurant or wine shop.

If you watched Season 3 of Scandal on television, you saw this play out almost to the letter. In a flashback, Olivia Pope is having dinner with her father and he offers her wine. She says she doesn’t really like wine, and he replies something to the effect of her not yet having tried good stuff. So she tries it (along with some fabulous dish her father prepared) and likes it. Her father writes down the address of a wine shop and tells her to ask for a particular person there. (Then he makes the mistake of giving her the pen he wrote with, which leads to all sorts of mayhem, but that’s another story…) We know it clicked because the one thing she always has in her hand when she’s alone (other than her phone) is a glass of red wine.  Sometimes she even drinks it straight from the bottle.

After that first positive encounter, though, people took off in different directions.  Books and classes for some, playing it by ear and relying on friends or good wine shop staff for others. (I’m not sure about Olivia Pope. She likes to know everything she can so perhaps she sought out more info, or maybe she’s still just relying on her wine shop because they know what she likes.)

That's our Olivia -- glass or bottle in hand, sad expression on her face...we've all been there, right?

That’s our Olivia — glass or bottle in hand, sad expression on her face…we’ve all been there, right?

The divide seems to be less generational than about mindset, at least for wine. People who are research-oriented seemed to turn to books for at least some information no matter what their ages. They may also rely on internet sources, but they own at least one or two of the well-known guides for wine. Less research-y people don’t necessarily, and they may or may not look online for info, but they usually continue to rely on friends and wine shops for wine advice.

This second group is the book’s target audience. Stevenson sought out wines that are widely-available in most non-specialty wine shops and supermarkets with reasonably good wine selections. He asked the producers to provide him with at least a few different vintages of each wine. Then he selected the ones with consistent flavor across the years and rated them in three categories: recommended, highly recommended, and to die for.

The book is indexed in the front by wine grapes, country/style (like Rhône reds and rosés), and attributes like aromatics and sweetness.   So if you already know what kinds of wines you like you can skip to them right away. Then for the nitty-gritty. For each wine, Stevenson answers four questions: What it is, what it tastes like, what else should you try if you like it, and what to try if you want something completely different. There’s also a price indication from one to three dollar signs.

Let me say it again, I HATE this back cover.  As much as I liked the book, if I hadn't promised to read it I would have put it aside just looking at it.

Let me say it again, I HATE this back cover. If I hadn’t promised to read the book I would have put it aside just looking at it.

On the whole, it’s very useful and interesting. The introduction has helpful information about wine, but not too much. And the 20 wine tips at the end are good ones, about storing wine and choosing wine glasses and such. What I like is that for newbies there’s enough information for people who are even a little bit curious to try types of wines they may not have had before. Or if they know they like Pinot Noir, they can try two Pinots — one listed as recommended and the other as highly recommended — and figure out why they’re different and whether price is a good indicator of which one they like better.

This may be stuff that many of us have figured out, whether through instruction, reading, or just tasting. But even if you’re more expert, you can still get valuable information from the book. We’ve all been in the situation where we’re in an unfamiliar place or somewhere with only middling wine shops and want to have a reasonably nice bottle of wine. We’ve all found readily-available go-to wines for those times. Stevenson’s book gives us a lot more to choose from — and wines we might not have considered before. I know I’ll enjoy trying some of them.

Of course, I can’t leave you without some quibbles. As I mentioned before, the back cover is extremely off-putting and would totally make me skip the book if I hadn’t promised to read it. (I’m not a book seller, so perhaps I’m just being touchy about this.) And while Stevenson’s gentle-yet-authoritative style might inspire confidence in some people, the fact remains that he’s a professional wine reviewer and writer with opinions you might not agree with. (You don’t write “twenty-three critically acclaimed titles” on wine — as the back cover informs us — without opinions. Every wine reviewer has styles he or she prefers.) The “instant professional guidance” in the book comes with a point of view.   The implication in the packaging is that it’s for the everyman, but you’ll still have to try a few bottles to see if you share that point of view.

As I said at the beginning, though, I wonder if this book will reach the intended audience. I couldn’t help thinking it would make a great app — even one we had to pay for. That would certainly help for those times we’re in a hurry for a good bottle but in an unfamiliar place. It could be easily updated as Stevenson reviews more wines. And I’m pretty sure Olivia Pope would download it.


Continuing on with Scandal (last reference, I promise), it looked to me like Olivia was eating steak with mushroom sauce, mashed potatoes, and green beans during her wine instruction dinner with her father. Mushroom sauce seems like a wintery thing, and sure enough, Olivia was wearing a winter coat on her way over to her father’s. But it works in the summer, too. Even if you’re going to grill the steak outside, you can make the sauce inside in about a half hour — and most of that time you’re not standing at the stove. Flank steak is a great choice because it’s easy to cook ahead. The hot mushroom sauce over thinly-sliced, room temperature flank steak is a real treat.

This sauce is my version of the classic Bordelaise Sauce. Bordelaise is usually made with red wine and some sort of stock like beef or veal. But you can get some meat flavor by marinating your flank steak in the raw sauce mixture overnight. Take the steak out of the marinade and pat it dry, then pour the marinade into a saucepan with some dried porcini mushrooms. Reduce the wine sauce until it’s about 2 cups. While it’s cooking down, sauté your mushrooms (regular white mushrooms are fine). Strain the sauce, add a little butter and the mushrooms, and you’re done.

You’ll need a whole bottle of red wine for the marinade/sauce. A lighter-bodied, non-oaked wine works better for this part, like Cave la Romaine’s Côtes du Ventoux Rouge Tradition ($10). It’s a great wine for drinking, but also for cooking because reducing it only intensifies its good qualities. You end up with a tasty sauce and no bitter aftertaste. Once the meal is ready, though, I’d turn to something a bit bolder, like Cave la Vinsobraise Emeraude 2007 ($18). It has more Syrah than the Rouge Tradition so it’s got more fruit and spice, plus there’s a little oak for smoothness. This wine is drinking very well these days, and it’s worth a little extra for something really delicious.

Bon Appetit!


Flank Steak with Mushroom Sauce

Serves 4 to 6

1 flank steak, trimmed, about 1-1/2 to 2 pounds

1 750 ml bottle dry red wine

1 small onion, coarsely chopped

2 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled

1 branch fresh rosemary, or 1 teaspoon dried

6 stems fresh thyme, or 1/2 teaspoon, dried

1 teaspoon soy sauce

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

1/2 ounce dried porcini mushrooms

8 ounces sliced fresh mushrooms

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

Marinate the steak at least a few hours or overnight if possible. Combine the red wine, onion, garlic, rosemary, thyme, soy, Worcestershire, and a little salt and pepper in a gallon-size zipper bag (or a 13 x 9 -inch nonreactive pan). Put the steak in and turn it to coat. Zip close or cover, and refrigerate for at least 4 hours. (If you’re in a hurry, leave it at room temperature for an hour).

Take the steak out of the marinade and pat it dry. Sprinkle both sides with salt and pepper and set it aside while you make the sauce. This is the time to heat up your grill, the grill pan, or the broiler.

Pour the marinade into a medium saucepan. Rinse the dried mushrooms in cold water to remove any grit, then add them to the marinade. Bring it to a boil over high heat, and skim off any scum that rises to the surface. Lower the heat but keep it boiling, you’ll want to reduce it by a little more than half to 1-1/4 cups, about 20 minutes.

While the sauce is boiling away, cook the steak — about 4 minutes each side for rare, 5 for medium-rare. Transfer the meat to a plate and loosely cover it with foil. Let it sit for at least 20 minutes to cool off and redistribute the juices.

Then cook the mushrooms. Heat the vegetable oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until you see it shimmer. Add the mushrooms and a little salt and pepper. Shake the pan to distribute the mushrooms over the bottom. Crank the heat to high and leave the mushrooms alone for a minute. Using a spatula, turn them over quickly and cook on high for another minute. Transfer them to a plate to cool off.When you’re ready to serve, strain the sauce and return it to the pan along with the mushrooms, along with any juice that came out of the mushrooms and the steak. Bring the sauce to a simmer, and add the butter, whisking it in to mix. Taste for salt and pepper. Slice the steak very thinly across the grain and serve with the sauce on top.

Posted in Book reviews, Flank Steak with Mushroom Sauce, Musings/Lectures/Rants, Tom Natan, Tom Stevenson, Uncategorized, Wine Books, wine delivery washington dc | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

May 30th is #LanguedocDay!

The Orion Nebula -- which actually has something to do with this week's wine selection.  From the Languedoc, of course.

The Orion Nebula — which actually has something to do with this week’s wine selection. From the Languedoc, of course.

Looking at the date on this post, I see it has been a long time since I last blogged. Lots of reasons for the delay: work-related, personal, and procrastinational (not a word, but it should be). I have a few ideas lined up for blog posts, but I’m not a natural writer — I rarely come across an idea and bang out 500 words in a short time.

I say “rarely” for a reason. Because some days you get an e-mail from a wine publicist that makes the job easy. I get a lot of wine PR e-mails and most of them go right to the trash. Mostly for wine events in far-flung places that require travel (at my own expense). Or pitches about new wines, new vintages, reviews, etc. Delete, delete, delete.

The ones that make it “into print” are the ones that write themselves into blog posts. Like this ever-so-subtle pitch for Happy Bitch wine. Or a nonsense blurb about wine jargon that sets me off. Or a come-on by the lords of French champagne to use proper terminology.

Well, I hit the jackpot at noon today with an almost-too-late pitch from the fine folks at the trade association representing the wines of Languedoc. The header reads “Make 2014 The Year of Languedoc — Languedoc Heats up this June.” It all kicks off with Languedoc Day on May 30. I’m not sure exactly why May 30 was chosen or if this was recently made up, but there is a Twitter hashtag involved so I’m betting it’s not something that has been celebrated for centuries.

As I write this post, the date is May 21. Kind of far into the “Year of Languedoc” to get things started, don’t you think? Only nine days before the big day on May 30. And not a lot of time to get things revved up for whatever might be happening in June. Maybe they’re just a bit disorganized. Or maybe I’m too far down the totem pole to have received notice earlier, even though I import Languedoc wines. Nothing like a PR e-mail to put me in my place, right?

I don’t mean to poke too much fun at them, because they very kindly took me on a memorable wine junket and gave me a lot of great wines to try — some of which I’m now stocking and selling. As I mentioned in a previous post, most people who drink and enjoy wines from the Languedoc don’t know that the wines come from that region. I’m happy to help settle some of the confusion.

So here’s the deal for Friday, May 30. Either open a bottle of Languedoc wine yourself, or go somewhere that has an open bottle or two. Drink, take photos, tweet (using #LanguedocDay, naturally), and enjoy. Really, you can’t go wrong.

Everything you needed to know about #LanguedocDay on May 30!

Everything you needed to know about #LanguedocDay on May 30!

If you’re looking for a Languedoc selection, try the Cabernet Sauvignon from Domaine de Mairan. It’s a French-style Cab. Medium-bodied with just a little oak, it has a good amount of fruit and spice, but not overwhelming.

I’ve profiled Jean-Baptiste Pietavy, the winemaker, in a previous post. He’s a great guy who loves growing grapes and making wine. The 2010 Cab vintage is the first to have a name to it other than the grape. It’s called La Tête dans les Étoiles, which translates to “Head in the Stars.” This is what Jean-Baptiste’s teachers in elementary school used to say when they caught him daydreaming in class. It’s a great name for a wine. Even more so since Jean-Jacques d’Ortus de Mairan, the 18th century owner of Jean-Baptiste’s vineyard property, was an astronomer who was the first to accurately describe the phenomenon of the Orion Nebula.

If you happen to be out on Capitol Hill on the evening of May 30 between 5 and 8 pm, stop in and try the Cabernet Sauvignon as part of DCanter‘s tasting lineup. The store is located at 545 8th Street, SE, and has a great selection of wines (and not just ones from First Vine).  The Cab will be there along with a Languedoc rosé so you can celebrate the bounty of southwestern France.  Or the beauty of a made-up holiday.  Just drink the wine!


There are some places that have particular meanings when it comes to food. A dish with the word “Florentine” in the name will have spinach in it, for example. And dishes à la Languedocienne are ones made with herbs, garlic, tomatoes, and olive oil. Nearly anything can be made this way, of course, including fish and meat. But it works particularly well with pork loin, which just soaks up the flavors during its relatively long cooking.

This particular stuffed pork loin recipe is one I have on a handwritten piece of notebook paper, and I think I copied it down when I was just out of college. It already had most of the basic Languedocienne ingredients (plus some bacon, which makes everything better), but I added some chopped sun-dried tomatoes to round out the list. Why not make it completely Languedocienne, after all?

La Tête dans les Étoiles, the Cabernet Franc from Domaine de Mairan in the Languedoc.

La Tête dans les Étoiles, the Cabernet Franc from Domaine de Mairan in the Languedoc.

Stuffing a piece of meat seems daunting, but this one is easy — no fancy cutting. As the roast sits on your cutting board, just start cutting horizontally about halfway up. Once the knife is in the meat, keep cutting nearly all the way through. You want to leave about a half inch of meat intact on the other side. Don’t worry about opening it up too much to stuff it, you can spread this stuffing in the cut easily with a knife or a spatula. Tying it up isn’t too difficult either, just take four long pieces of kitchen string and slip them under the roast evenly. Tie the roast tightly, then cut off the excess string.

You can roast the pork in the oven or cook it on a grill as long as you can adjust the heat to relatively low. It’s not necessary to let the stuffed roast sit overnight, but the meat will be even more flavorful, and it’s a good thing to do if you have time the night before. You can serve it hot, warm, or room temperature. While many recipes tell you to take the string off before slicing, it’s actually better to leave the string on while you slice it, then take each piece of string off as you get to it. The roast will stay together better, and it’s easier to get it into a container to store when it’s not falling apart.

Naturally, this recipe pairs particularly well with the Mairan Cabernet Sauvignon, but you can also try any of your favorite Languedoc wines with it. Or try a new one. With plenty of inexpensive selections, it’s hard to go wrong. Even though it’s a made-up wine holiday, you might find you’ve come across something that you’ll want to do every May 30th!

Bon Appetit!


Roast Pork Loin à la Languedocienne

Serves 8

One pork loin, approximately 3 to 4 pounds, fat trimmed so there’s still a little on it, but not too much

6 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled

1 tablespoon chopped rosemary

1 tablespoon plus one teaspoon chopped thyme

2 tablespoons finely-chopped sun-dried tomatoes (use the ones packed in oil)

3 slices bacon, chopped into pieces

2 tablespoons olive oil

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

Salt and pepper the pork loin and set it on a cutting board. Using a long, sharp knife, start making a horizontal cut halfway up the side. Keep the knife parallel to the cutting board as you continue to cut through, until you get about 1/2-inch from the other side. Put your hands in the opening and pull the roast open a little, just so that you can get a knife or spatula inside to Set the roast aside while you make the stuffing.

Set up the food processor with the steel blade and turn it on. Remove the plunger so that you can drop things into the feed tube. Drop in the garlic cloves, one by one, waiting until each one has been chopped before adding the next. Stop the processor and add the sun-dried tomatoes and the herbs, along with some pepper. Process to mix. Add the bacon pieces along with a tablespoon of olive oil, and process until the bacon is all ground up with the other ingredients.

Using a rubber spatula or a dinner knife, spread the stuffing into the opening of the roast. Tie the roast up, then rub the outside of the roast with the other tablespoon of olive oil. At this point, you can wrap the roast in plastic and refrigerate it overnight, or continue on to cook it. (Letting it sit overnight allows some of the flavors of the herbs and garlic to get into the meat, but it’s not necessary if you don’t want to do it ahead.)

If you’ve let the roast sit in the fridge overnight, take it out about 45 minutes before you want to get it in the oven. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Unwrap the roast if you let it sit overnight, and put it in a roasting pan large enough to hold it. It will take anywhere from 1-1/2 to 2-1/4 hours to cook — you want the internal temperature of the meat to be 160 degrees F. Remove the roast from the oven and place it on a cutting board. Tent with foil and let it rest for 20 minutes.   Carve and serve.

Posted in Domaine de Mairan, Languedoc Day, Languedoc wines, Musings/Lectures/Rants, Tom Natan, Uncategorized, wine delivery washington dc | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“What is Romance?”

Jeopardy host Alex Trebek with contestant Arthur Chu, who won nearly $300,000 with an unorthodox style of play

Jeopardy host Alex Trebek with contestant Arthur Chu, who won nearly $300,000 with an unorthodox style of play

I don’t know if you’re Jeopardy fans, but February 2014 was a notable month for the show.   I say notable because it seems to have stirred up a lot of both positive and negative feelings.

A contestant named Arthur Chu won nearly $300,000 dollars over 12 days on Jeopardy. It’s not the highest winning total ever, but that’s not what people are talking about. The issue is how he played. I won’t go into all the details, but he essentially turned what some people think of as a game of intellect into one that’s all about the numbers — both how to win money but also preventing his opponents from having the chance to as well.

It’s not a new strategy by any means, and you can find many seemingly ruthless ways for winning the game online. But people didn’t do it on the show before Arthur Chu.   My friend Dan Emberley was a one-day Jeopardy contestant back in 1998, and he described the atmosphere as even more collegial and polite than it appears on TV. (He came in third after not knowing the Final Jeopardy question, which interestingly enough was about champagne.   It just goes to show it pays to know about wine, right?)

Some people, including former big-money champion Ken Jennings, think that Chu’s strategy is good for the game. But many others have taken to the ether with all sorts of criticism. I’m not sure what the big deal is. To me it’s just a game show about general knowledge and trivia. Apparently, though, it taps into deep emotions. Caitlin Dewey summarized Chu’s approach to Jeopardy this way in the Washington Post:

“Chu’s strategy seems to fit into a larger cultural pattern: Now that everything can be measured, quantified and reduced to statistical probabilities, there’s no space for romance or instinct anymore.”

After reading that sentence my first thought was that Ms. Dewey must be living in something other than 21st century DC. After all, most of our lives are controlled by people and circumstances driven by numbers, statistics, odds, and looking out for Number One. And they have been for quite some time now. Was Jeopardy really a little bulwark against all that, where merit and courtliness were the only thing standing between us and Moneyball?

Then I thought that maybe she has a point — we are perhaps losing some of the romance associated with the past as we move into a more and more technological future. It’s hard to explain, but we’ve all at times experienced a real connection to the past that symbolizes something different than what we have today, somehow more personal, although it’s not necessarily associated with a particular person, either. But what Ms. Dewey doesn’t say is that people can and do seek out that romance on their own, whether they realize it or not.

Take heirloom tomatoes, for example. We could debate until the cows come home whether heirloom varieties are tastier than some of the hybrids. But they are definitely more romantic, hands down. The idea that the seeds come from varieties planted decades and decades ago. And their craggy, asymmetrical, deeply-rutted shapes — like Play Doh in the hands of toddlers — stir something in us. Add to it that we can meet and talk with the person who grew them and picked them that morning. It’s definitely Romance – 1, Hybrids – 0.

Eighty-year-old Grenache Gris vines at Domaine de Mairan in the Languedoc.

An early spring photo of 80-year-old Grenache Gris vines at Domaine de Mairan in the Languedoc.  Jean-Baptiste Pietavy, the winemaker, uses the old-vine Grenache Gris in his Aurore Boréale rosé, along with Merlot.

You know where I’m going with this, right? I’m sure you were wondering when I was going to get around to wine. Wine certainly has its associations with romance in many senses of the word — as a part of romantic situations and also episodes of our lives where there was no “romance” involved. But the romantic aspects of wine go beyond those to a past that we ourselves didn’t experience. It’s not just the occasional privilege of drinking an old bottle of wine. Nearly any reasonably good bottle of wine contains grapes grown on vines that have been in the ground for decades — sometimes many decades and even longer. You can’t get much more connected to the past than that.

A year ago I had the wonderful experience of drinking some “old” Carignan in the Languedoc. Normally, Carignan is used in small amounts as a blending grape in French wines to enhance color and flavor. Most of the winemaker’s Carignan was used in these blends. But each year he vinifies separately the grapes from very old Carignan vines as a sort of Vin du Garage, something he makes for himself, ages for about five years, and then drinks and shares.   The wine he offered me came from vines that were 110 years old when the grapes were picked.

Not only was it delicious, but it flooded my mind with thoughts: when these vines were planted 115 years before in 1898, my paternal grandfather was about a year old. Puccini’s opera “La Bohème” had premiered two years earlier in 1896, and my maternal grandfather was born that year. Both Giuseppe Verdi and Queen Victoria were still alive. Twenty years after planting, these vines would be considered mature during the Russian Revolution. I realized that these vines were older than practically every person I’d ever met.

If you live in a climate where annuals die off in the winter, then wine is one of the few food products you have that comes from old plants. Tree fruits and tree nuts are others. I don’t know if fruit trees produce better fruit as they get older, but that’s what happens with grape vines, especially when there’s no irrigation. The vines are forced to grow deep roots to find nourishment and water. Then, in turn, the grapes benefit from the extended soil contact of the roots. While grapevines get pruned each year to limit the number of grapes and concentrate flavors, truly old grapevines naturally produce fewer grapes, but of even greater intensity.

I didn’t know just how much more intense until Cy and I went to a cookbook author dinner for Michael Chiarello at the National Press Club in 2003. The food was from his book Casual Cooking. Typically the Press Club chef asks a local wine distributor to pair with each course. But since Chiarello owns a winery in Napa, he brought his own wines to the dinner. And instead of a carefully-poured glass of each wine, he put open bottles on the tables and we could drink them all before, during, and after dinner. Two of the wines were Zinfandels. Gianna (named for one of his daughters) was made from young vines — about 10 years old at oldest, while the Felicia (his other daughter) was made from much older vines, some as much as 80 years old.   They were made by the same winemaker in pretty much the same way.

Michael Chiarello signed a copy of his "Casual Cooking" book for Cy and me at a dinner featuring his food and wine.  That was my first exposure to wine from young and old vines.

Michael Chiarello signed a copy of his “Casual Cooking” book for Cy and me at a dinner featuring his food and wine. That was my first exposure to wine from young and old vines.  The Dean and DeLuca bit came after a discussion that some of the ingredients used to make the dinner might be a little pricey.

Well, Gianna was nice, but Felicia was amazing.   They both tasted like Zinfandel but Felicia was just more from the very beginning. Along with the intensity there were hints of other flavors with every sip. It was like watching time go by. Then I started doing the math in my head and realized the vines were planted around 1920 — which means that the grapes weren’t even used for wine (at least not legally) for another 13 years. Probably just plain old grape juice before that, or maybe sacramental wine if they were lucky.

Obviously, you can’t have wine from 80 – 100-year-old vines all the time. (At least I can’t, anyway). So just how old are old vines? I asked my blogger friend David White and he confirmed what I had thought. With New World wines like those in the U.S., you’ll probably find “old vine” wines are made from grapes from 20+ -year-old vines. After all, we’ve only been making real quality wines since the 1960s and most vineyards producing today are younger than that. In the Old World, though, you can almost always count on “old vine” wines coming from grapes from vines that are at least 40 years old.

It’s not too hard to find 2007 vintage wines from old vines (“vieilles vignes” in France). The vines for those wine grapes would have been planted in 1967 at the latest, and many of them before that. I myself was just a wee child then (;-)) but when I think about it I can see pictures on the pages of our family photo albums. The Beatles came to the U.S. in February 1964, and most of the vines used to produce that wine were in the ground. The wine in those bottles is from vines that were thriving during the Apollo 11 moon landing. And every bit is from vines that were already in the ground nearly two decades before Arthur Chu even dreamed of being a contestant on Jeopardy. I could go on and on.

So while you might, like Caitlin Dewey, lament the decline of romance, rest assured it’s still out there in any of a number of bottles of wine. Add to that the new experiences you can have while drinking each bottle and you’ve got romance all over the place. So the next time you see the word “Wine,” you’ll know it’s also one answer to the Jeopardy question “What is Romance?”


As a wine merchant, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that First Vine has several wines that qualify for old vine status:

Domaine Chaume-Arnaud La Cadène Rouge 2000 (on sale for $13)

Les Terrasses du Belvédère Cuvée Prestige 2003 (on sale for $16)

Domaine de Montvac Cuvée Vincila 2005 ($24)

Château de Rocquebrune Lalande de Pomerol 2005 ($25)

Domaine Fond Croze Cuvée Shyrus 2005 (on sale for $15) and 2007 ($20)

Cave la Vinsobraise Emeraude 2007 ($18)

Lara O Crianza 2006 ($19)

Bodega Hiriart Crianza 2009 ($19)

Cave la Romaine Séguret 2010 ($15)

Cave la Romaine Puyméras 2010 ($15)

Château d’Assas Réserve 2010 ($18)

Any of them would pair well with this week’s recipe, Roman-Style Cod. I had it at a restaurant in Connecticut while Cy and I were visiting my parents last weekend, and I made up my own version for dinner on Monday. Pretty darned good, and easy too. The cod is served over a simple sauce of tomatoes and white beans, and it can be a light or a substantial meal depending on how you serve it.

If you're drinking old-vine wine, the grapes in that wine came from vines that were already going strong when this Delft plate commemorating the 1969 lunar landing was made.

If you’re drinking old-vine wine, the grapes in that wine came from vines that were already going strong when this Delft plate commemorating the 1969 lunar landing was made.

I served the dish by starting with a bed of cooked quinoa (just cooked in water) topped with some wilted spinach, then the sauce, and the cod on top. That’ll probably be my wintertime version. For something lighter, try raw baby arugula in a shallow bowl, topped with the hot sauce and the fish.

Cod is a relatively mild fish and these are for the most part pretty gutsy wines, so you might not think they’d go with the fish. But the sauce is pretty flavorful, and much of the time you end up pairing the wine with the sauce rather than the protein. And there’s also a flavorful crust on the fish that comes from browning after dusting in flour. I use white rice flour because I think it makes a better crust, but it’s fine to use all-purpose flour. Finally, because the tomatoes contribute acidity, you don’t have to worry about the red wine and the fish tasting bad together as they sometimes can.

While I’ve had plenty of memorable romantic meals, some of my favorites are the dishes I can put together in about a half hour and serve to anyone, including guests.  And if you’re at a loss for conversation, just ask your guests what happened in their lives the year the vines for the wine were planted! (If they’ll admit to being around then, anyway.)

Bon Appetit!


Roman-Style Cod

Serves 4

1-1/2 to 2-1/2 pounds fresh cod fillets, cut into 6 to 8 pieces total

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

1/2 cup white rice flour (or all-purpose flour)

1 14.5-oz can petite-diced tomatoes in juice

1 14.5-oz can small white beans, drained, rinsed, and drained again

4 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled, cut into big slices

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

A big pinch of red pepper flakes

2 tablespoons dry white wine

Extra-virgin olive oil

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Mix the flour with a little salt and pepper on a dinner plate and set aside. In a medium saucepan, combine the garlic with 3 tablespoons of olive oil, 1/4 teaspoon of salt, the red pepper flakes, oregano, and some black pepper. Set the pan over low heat and let it all heat slowly. Continue to cook over low heat as the garlic sizzles. When it just starts to turn golden, add the white wine and cook for a minute. Add the tomatoes and turn up the heat to bring it all to a light boil, then turn the heat down and let the sauce cook at a lively simmer until it looks like half the liquid is gone, about 5 minutes. Add the beans, stir, and cover the pan.

While the sauce is simmering, heat another 2 – 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Dry off the cod pieces an salt and pepper them. Lightly dredge the fish pieces in the seasoned flour and set them into the hot pan. Turn the heat up a little and saute for a few minutes until the fish is golden brown on the bottom. Turn the fish pieces and saute again until they’re nicely browned.

Pour the warm sauce into a small baking dish (an 8 x 8- inch pyrex dish works well). Set the fish pieces on top of the sauce and put the dish in the oven. Bake for 15 – 20 minutes, until you can slip a thin, sharp knife into a piece of fish easily. Take the dish from the oven and let it sit for a minute. Then spoon the fish into four shallow bowls and top with the fish and a drizzle of olive oil. Serve immediately.

Posted in Jeopardy, Michael Chiarello, Musings/Lectures/Rants, Old Vine Wines, Romance and Wine, Tom Natan, Uncategorized, wine delivery washington dc | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Why is wine jargon “pretentious” but sports jargon isn’t?

Image from pretentiousmoviecritic.tumblr.com

Image from pretentiousmoviecritic.tumblr.com

I recently was asked to review a book about wine.  It’s actually a good one, and I’ll be blogging about it soon.  But something on the back cover — which I read after I’d already read through the book and liked it — really stuck in my craw.

There, in big letters, is the challenge:


followed by a list of a list of attributes indicating that you, the discerning reader, are someone who treats wine like any other beverage.  Fair enough.  “Drink wine but don’t think wine” is cutesy, but  makes the point that you don’t have to know everything about wine to enjoy it.

Then I read the third one, which set me off, that you should read this book if you “can’t be bothered with pretentious ‘winespeak.’ “

There is a lot of purple prose written about wine to be sure, and there’s a lot of specialized vocabulary that goes with it.  But the fact is that nearly any activity or hobby has its own specialized vocabulary.  Especially sports — yet you don’t get called “pretentious” if you’re an expert on the detailed points of baseball, no matter how arcane.  Like the infield fly rule or hitting for the cycle, or expounding on the importance of the ratio of plate appearances to strikeouts.**  Why is that?

Or, to put it another way, if you really enjoy something, is it pretentious to learn and use some of the vocabulary that goes with it?

Let’s take one wine word that might seem pretentious if you heard it out of context:  bouquet.  While you could say “smell” instead, bouquet implies more.  The wine probably smells differently on the second sniff than the first, and differently again in a few minutes.  How does it feel in your nose?  And for many people, smell creates a visual image to go along with the aroma.  All of this is part of the bouquet.  With one word you conjure up things beyond a smell.

So why is this pretentious?  I guess maybe because some people perceive it as a little threatening, like a challenge to find something more than just a pleasant-tasting beverage in a glass of wine.

I’ve thought about it for a few days and here’s what I’ve come up with as to why they might feel that way.

pretentious 2First, we’re talking about something that’s almost totally subjective.  Two people might agree that a wine is red, but that might be the only thing they agree on.  At the end of a baseball game there’s an objective outcome — the score and the game statistics.  And most observers generally agree on the things that might be considered a little subjective, like who played well and who didn’t.  But with wine you have not only likes and dislikes, but differences in perception and the intensity of those perceptions.  This isn’t to say that there’s not sports writing that emphasizes the more artistic aspects even apart from the sports that are judged that way, but by and large it’s just the facts.

Another issue is that wine is somewhat esoteric for most people, and adding particular words to it may only make it seem more so.  Let’s face it, most of us aren’t exposed to wine until we’re well into adulthood.  But sports awareness starts right away.  Also beer.  Even if we don’t drink it as children we see commercials on television and grow up watching others drink it.  It’s more ubiquitous, more common, and presents itself that way.  While I remember some beer commercials discussing ingredients and craftsmanship, they’re mostly about camaraderie and comfort.  That familiarity and comfort means that people who graduate from Bud Light to craft beers later in adulthood don’t seem to mind discussing the arcane points of beer brewing when they wouldn’t necessarily do the same for winemaking.

My last two points are a little touchier.

While there are definitely masculine words used to describe wine (intense, strong, powerful, full-bodied, robust) there are also a lot more words like bouquet, delicate, floral, subtle, pale, elegant, etc.  On balance I think wine words  lean to the feminine side.  Add to this the fact that women drink more wine than men do:  According to Gallup’s annual survey of alcohol consumption, women prefer to drink wine over beer and spirits, while men prefer beer over wine and spirits.   I think perhaps the feminine association makes some people uncomfortable with wine and wine jargon, whether they realize it or not.

Photo from guyism.com

Photo from guyism.com

Finally, in addition to wine being perceived as esoteric, it’s also associated  — rightly or wrongly — with what might be thought of as elite things, like classical music and travel to exotic places.  Maybe it’s because a lot of the words associated with winemaking are foreign (cuvée, batonnage, barrique, domaine, château, and my favorite, terroir) even for U.S. wines.  Or that some wine producers go a little too far in describing their wines and the process of making them as a mystical journey.  Also, these days upscale restaurants tout their wine lists and sommeliers as enthusiastically as they do their chefs and exotic ingredients, which makes wine seem out of reach or only for special occasions.   Or something you definitely need help selecting.  My guess is that it all serves to make wine seem out of the ordinary, not for everyday, and not for regular people.  Why is it that one of the measures of assessing political candidates’ electability is which one you’d rather have a beer with, not a glass of wine?

I don’t mean to say that the presentation of some wine jargon isn’t pretentious or off-putting.  The delivery is as important as what they say.  Especially when the deck is stacked against wine jargon from the get-go for all the reasons I’ve listed above and maybe more.  Luckily, I find that most of today’s wine writers strive to educate without intimidation.  When they use those words they’re not “winespeak,” but meant to convey something specific, and they’re usually well-explained.   Whether or not you find it interesting is up to you, but you can’t hold it against them if they use the vernacular.

** Thanks to my sports-loving sister Sue for these examples.


I don’t know how it is where you are, but we’re feeling a little bipolar about the weather here in DC.  Two weeks ago we had a huge snowstorm.  Then this weekend was warm and prompted the first sightings of shorts and tank tops (as reliable as crocuses).  Then we’ve had snow the past two mornings.  And now the sun is out.

It all makes me want comfort food, but something with a little zip, and maybe changed a bit with a nod toward eventually wearing those skimpy clothes myself.

A few summers ago I posted a recipe for Salmon a la Veracruzana, which is grilled salmon in a spicy sauce made from tomatoes, pickled jalapeños, green olives, and garlic.  The dish can also be made with chicken, which makes it easier, and you can do the whole thing on the stovetop.  While it’s traditionally served with rice, I thought lentils would make it more wintery, with their earthy taste.  (It also makes the wine pairing easier with our Rhône wines, which have their own earthiness to them.)

The name Calligrappe comes partly from the picture, which is called a calligramme in French (a picture made up of words), changed to Calligrappe because it sounds more like grapes.

The name Calligrappe comes partly from the picture, which is called a calligram (calligramme in French, a picture made up of words), changed to Calligrappe because it sounds more like grapes.

The problem with lentils and other legumes is that if you cook them with acidic foods like tomatoes they never soften up.  So I figured I’d have to pre-cook the lentils until they were nearly done.  The good thing is that gave me time to make the Veracruzana sauce.  Then I combined the cooked lentils with the sauce and the chicken — bone-on chicken breasts with the skin removed and let it all bubble away gently for a half hour until the chicken was done.

The wine of choice is Château de Clapier Calligrappe ($12), a wine made from 75% Grenache and 25% Syrah.  Medium-bodied, it has some really lush blackberry and black currant flavors, some pepper, and then a nice subtle hit of earthy tobacco at the end.  Perfect with the spice of the jalapeño and the lentils.

There, that wasn’t too pretentious, was it?  A few well-chosen wine words can give you a lot of information.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to watch the hockey game — I’m looking to see my first Gordie Howe hat trick.

Bon Appetit!


Chicken Breasts and Lentils a la Veracruzana

Serves 4


1 cup French lentils (Lentiles de Puy, the small green ones — they stay intact better, or use brown lentils)

2 large carrots, cut into small dice

1 large onion, cut into small dice

2 tablespoons olive oil

2-1/2 cups water or low-sodium vegetable stock

1/4 teaspoon salt

Freshly-ground black pepper

Heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven.  Add the onion, carrot, salt, and pepper and saute for 5 minutes or so, until they soften slightly.  Add the lentils and the water or stock and bring to a boil.  Lower the heat to a simmer and cover the pot.  Cook the lentils for 25 minutes, stirring occasionally and checking to see that the liquid hasn’t all been absorbed (add a little water if you need some).


2 tablespoons olive oil

3 cloves of garlic, peeled and thinly sliced

1/4 teaspoon salt

4 canned pickled jalapeño peppers, stemmed, seeded, and cut into thin slices

1/4 cup dry white wine

1/2 cup stuffed green olives, roughly chopped

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

4 stems fresh thyme

A pinch each of ground cloves and cinnamon

1 28-ounce can fire roasted diced tomatoes

Put the garlic slices, salt, and the olive oil in a large skillet over low heat.  Heat, stirring occasionally, until the garlic just starts to turn a light golden color.  Raise the heat to medium and add the pickled jalapeños (make sure you don’t have your face right over the pan), stir for 30 seconds, then add the wine.  Let the wine cook until it’s virtually gone, then add the rest of the ingredients.  Simmer the sauce for about 10 minutes until it thickens slightly.  Turn off the heat until the lentils are finished.


4 bone-in chicken breast halves, skin removed, and each half cut into two pieces

Add the sauce to the lentils, then tuck the chicken pieces in, making sure they’re completely submerged.  Bring the mixture just to the boil, then turn the heat to low, cover the pot, and cook for 30 minutes, stirring once or twice.  The mixture should have a little liquid but not be soupy.  If the chicken’s cooked and it all seems too liquidy, remove the chicken and put it on a plate covered with foil to keep warm, then raise the heat and boil the liquid until it’s reduced a little.  Add the chicken back in and serve.

Posted in Château de Clapier, Chicken a la Veracruzana, Musings/Lectures/Rants, recipes, Tom Natan, Uncategorized, wine delivery washington dc, Wine jargon, Winespeak | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

It’s organic because *I* say it is

Technically it should be called "In Organic Transition," but I like the sound of Tom-Organic better, don't you?

Technically it should be called “In Organic Converion,” but I like the sound of Tom-Organic better, don’t you?

Right after new year’s day Cy and I went to dinner with friends at a really good DC restaurant.   The food was excellent and it had a great 200+ bottle wine list.  But what most intrigued me was that every wine listed was followed by the letter O, B, or S.  And up at the top of each page was an explanation that the wine was made following “organic (O), biodynamic (B), or sustainable (S) practices.”

Since there were enough of us to justify ordering an O, a B, and an S, that’s what I did.  When the bottles arrived I noticed that none of the wines was actually labeled as organic, biodynamic, or sustainable.  I asked the server about it.   She told me that the owner was really into wine and decided what designation to give each wine on the list, after discussions with the distributors and importers, and maybe even visiting some of the vineyards himself.

In the weeks since Cy and I went to this restaurant, I’ve thought a lot about this.

There are, I’m sure, more than 200 wines that are certified organic, biodynamic, or sustainable available in the U.S., although I doubt there’s any restaurant with a list containing 200 such wines.  The extra costs of production to meet those standards and the costs of certification would make for a very expensive list.  And this restaurant had plenty of bottles in the $37 to $50 range along with more expensive bottles.

We’ve all seen small wine lists where each wine has a description a few sentences long that tells you what you need to know about how the wine tastes and foods for pairing, but almost never one where you learn how it’s produced.  That would take up a lot of room even on a short list, and would be almost impossible on a list like the one at this restaurant.  But customers want to know this kind of information more and more these days, as they should — after all, if they seek out organic food, they may also seek out wine that is made in a particular way.  Hence the shorthand on the menu.

As an importer, I understand the temptation to assign these kind of attributes to the wines because it’s likely that some of them are very nearly organic or biodynamic.  The producer may not think the certification and its restrictions on practices is worth the cost, even if he or she follows most or all of the rules anyway.  I’ve used those words myself in some of my blog posts, but always with a lot of context to tell you exactly what I mean.

This is the coveted symbol for organic food in the U.S.  No imported wine can get this designation.

This is the coveted symbol for organic food in the U.S. Almost no imported wine can get this designation because most of the wineries add sulfites.

But this list has no context.  You just see the letters.  So are we to understand that the majority of the “practices” used to make a particular “O” wine conform to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) definition of organic, or just some of them?  Is the “B” wine produced according to the lunar cycle but skipping the buried cow horn (not kidding here)?  Is the “S” wine made by a winery that actively tries to reduce water and energy use, or one that simply uses recycled glass bottles and natural corks?

I don’t doubt that the owner knows how each wine is made, and I’d enjoy having a discussion about every wine I ordered with him.  The problem is that there are plenty of restaurant owners and sommeliers who try to populate their wine lists with certified wines.  This particular restaurant list allows customers — most of whom won’t read the bottle labels or look for certifications — to think these wines are made under certified designations, using the word “practices” as a disclaimer.

Unfortunately, the owner who put the list together also benefits from the fact that there are a lot of people who think that the terms are all equivalent, or at least all good things they should look for.  The truth is that it’s complicated, and even those of us in the wine business can get confused.  Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Organic is probably the most familiar definition, because if you’ve seen organic vegetables and fruits at a farmers’ market, it’s pretty much the same thing, at least for the grapes.  But wine is grapes that undergo processing and USDA has rules for that, too.  One of those rules is that wines labeled “Organic” or “Organic Wine” can’t contain added sulfites.  While there are wines made without added sulfites that are mighty good, as I’ve mentioned before, the vast majority of the world’s winemakers add sulfites as a preservative.  So the vast majority of those otherwise organic wines sold in the U.S.  have to be labeled as “Made with Organic Grapes,” or another such designation.
  • Biodynamics is similar yet different.  I’ve heard it described as “Organic with Magic,” and while glib, it’s not a bad way of thinking of biodyamics.  (The cow horns I mentioned above really are part of the process.) But I like to think of biodynamics as old-time family farming, particularly since Demeter (the major biodynamic certification organization) requires vegetable and fruit farmers to plant more than one crop and also have farm animals.  Many vineyards actually do this.  But unfortunately, Demeter waives the poly-culture and farm animal requirements for wine in order to encourage more producers to get certified, which seems like cheating to me (since  biodynamic then means something for vegetables and something else for wine grapes).  Adding sulfites is allowed under a general rule about naturally-occurring substances, although I’m not certain how far down that road it’s permissible to go.
  • Finally there’s sustainability.  In the abstract, sustainability is an umbrella for production that does the least harm to human health, the environment, and the people working on it, while still promoting economic success for all parties.  In practice, as I’ve said before, it really means anything the certifying organization wants it to mean.   While the individual goals for sustainability certification, like reducing energy and water use, are important, it’s also possible that their measurement — usually indexed to production or sales — could allow a winery to use more energy and water over time, as long as the amount used per liter of wine or dollar of sales goes down.   So there’s no automatic guarantee of environmental protection.
You think I was kidding about the cow horns?  Manure-packed cow horns are buried to help nourish the vines.  (Photo from winemakingnomad.wordpress.com)

You think I was kidding about the cow horns? In biodynamic farming, manure-packed cow horns are buried to help nourish the vines. (Photo from winemakingnomad.wordpress.com)

Once they get past the certification requirements and the cost of certification, wine producers have to jump other hurdles before their wines can be properly labeled.  For foreign wines, an entity approved by USDA in the producers’ home countries has to certify that each producer’s organic practices are in line with USDA requirements (and produce that certification in English, of course).  It’s no easier for biodynamic wines, since Demeter USA has a registered certification mark on the word biodynamic in the U.S. and won’t automatically accept other biodynamic certifications (even those by other countries’ versions of Demeter), plus requiring importers to pay Demeter USA a hefty fee.  There’s no specific barrier that I know of to acceptance of foreign-based sustainability certifications, although the wineries with those certifications would have to provide documentation in English that would satisfy the U.S. labeling authorities.

So you can see how difficult this all is — time consuming and costly, in addition to all the requirements for actual production.  Still, some producers and importers have gone through the trouble of meeting all the certification and labeling requirements.   And while I understand wanting to give customers more information, it isn’t fair to capitalize on the words if the requirements aren’t met.   Or capitalize –intentionally or not — on customers’ understandable confusion on what all these words mean.


If you’re read all of this, my thanks!  Now, how about a drink?

Not long ago, I was reading a New York Times article about Ralph Lauren’s Paris restaurant, modestly named “Ralph’s.”  Evidently it has become a home-away-from-home for Americans living (or at least spending a long time) in Paris.  As you’d probably expect, Ralph’s is a bit over the top.  Cy and I definitely long for familiar foods when we’ve been traveling, but I still had to chuckle when I read this:

There's no real definition for sustainability, but a lot of people think it's kind of recycling on steroids.  (Photo from calgreeks.com)

There’s no real definition for sustainability, but a lot of people think it’s kind of recycling on steroids. (Photo from calgreeks.com)

” ‘There is a point in my travels when I want to get home for a minute,’ said Joseph Ferrico, Nylon magazine’s fashion director, known as J. ‘Just when you’ve had one too many croque-monsieurs at the Café Flore, right across the street you have this amazing oasis.  You can have a cheeseburger and [c]hampagne.’ “

Believe me, J, I have no objection to a cheeseburger and champagne.  But it’s January and most of us are looking for something a little more modest after all our croque-monsieurs.  Luckily, Ralph’s serves something lighter, too:

“The house drink was a Pink Flamingo, which a very handsome waiter of mixed ethnicity described as a mixture of Cointreau, rosé, and lemon juice,  ‘the perfect mixture of fresh and fruity,’ he said.”

I know I can’t resist that combination (and a handsome waiter wouldn’t hurt, either).  While most Pink Flamingo cocktails are mixtures of vodka,  orange liqueur, and fruit juice, adding the rosé instead of vodka is a great idea.  Particularly since most of us have at least one bottle of rosé left over from the summer.  So I played around with proportions and came up with a recipe that lets you get six lovely cocktails from a bottle of rosé.   Plus a much lighter flavor than the vodka concoctions, and a color that’s a lot more like a pink flamingo.

What if you don’t have a bottle lying around?  Try Domaine Sainte-Cécile du Parc’s Notes Frivoles 2012 ($14).   The 2013 vintage will be certified organic in France, and we’ll be able to put “Made with Organic Grapes” on the label (once I get all the paperwork in, anyway).  The 2012 vintage is in the three-year conversion period, so it can’t be labeled organic even though all of the farming and winemaking practices are the same ones as for the 2013 vintage.  The generally-accepted term is “In Organic Conversion,” but I’m thinking of calling it Tom-Organic.  Has a nice ring to it, don’t you think? ;-)

Bon Appetit!


Tom’s Version of Ralph Lauren’s Pink Flamingo Cocktail

Makes 6 drinks

One 750 ml bottle of chilled rosé, preferably Tom-Organic

6 ounces Cointreau or Grand Marnier (3/4 cup)

3 ounces freshly-squeezed lemon juice (6 tablespoons)

Pour all ingredients in a pitcher with some ice and stir to chill.  Strain into six highball glasses and garnish with a twist of lemon or a stalk of lemongrass.

For one cocktail:  4 ounces rosé (1/2 cup), 1 ounce Cointreau or Grand Marnier (2 tablespoons), and 1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice (1 tablespoon).  Shake with ice and serve.

Posted in Biodynamic farming, Biodynamic Wines, Musings/Lectures/Rants, Organic farming, Organic/biodynamic/natural wines, Ralph Lauren cocktail, Tom Natan, Uncategorized, wine delivery washington dc | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A family history in paper and stone — and now, wine

I'm excited to be importing Château d'Assas wines, named for the home of Simone Demangel, who made false identification papers for my father and grandparents in World War II.

I’m excited to be importing Château d’Assas wines, named for the home of Simone Demangel, who made false identification papers for my father and grandparents in World War II.  The Classique is made from Syrah and Grenache, aged in concrete.

Making wine is often a family business.  For a lot of First Vine’s producers, the vineyards and wineries have been in the family for a century or more.   And something about growing up growing grapes and making wine seems to interest at least one family member in each generation.  Even when the children go off and do other things for a while, many find their way back to the farm and the press, bringing new twists to the family business.

My family isn’t a wine dynasty, at least not good wine, anyway.  My maternal grandfather came to the U.S. from a farm near Naples before World War I, and like any self-respecting Italian, made wine at home (and prohibition made it literally a cottage industry for many).   Over here he bought grapes and then fermented and bottled the wine in his basement in Brooklyn.  My mother tells me that it tasted so bad she had to mix it with cream soda to make it palatable.

So I figured that was it for a family connection to wine.  But it turns out that’s not the only one.  While I’m not related to the winemakers,  there’s a wine that’s definitely part of my family’s history.  I’m pleased and proud to announce that First Vine now imports two wines labeled Château d’Assas from Les Vignerons du Pic, the cooperative winery in Assas, a village north of Montpellier.

Château d'Assas in the sunshine, when I visited this past April.

Château d’Assas in the sunshine, when I visited this past April.

Two years ago I wrote about the trip Cy and I took to France with my father to visit the village where he and his family lived during part of World War II after fleeing Vienna and Brussels.  And also visiting the Château d’Assas itself, which is owned by the Demangel family.  What’s the family connection?  In 1942 Simone Demangel made false identification papers for my father and grandparents to leave Hérault in that very house, after Germany began mass deportations of Jewish people living in the region.

Simone’s family agreed to allow the cooperative to name some of its wines after their home for a few reasons.  First, because winemaking is the principal industry of the village and the surrounding area.  In fact, Simone’s daughter Marie-Claire told me when I first visited that the Germans prohibited the transport of food from one village to another during the war — and since Assas produced only wine grapes, there was a serious food shortage there.  Second, some of the grapes in the wine are grown on land that used to be part of the Château d’Assas estate, so it’s only fitting.  And last but not least, to honor Simone and her resistance work, saving the lives of dozens, if not hundreds of people.

Simone Demangel received the Legion of Honor from General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, leader of the Free French Army, in recognition of her work as a resistance agent during the war.

Simone Demangel received the Legion of Honor from General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, leader of the Free French Army, in recognition of her work as a resistance agent during the war.

Although I wrote a bit about Simone’s life and resistance work in a previous post, I learned much more visiting Marie-Claire earlier this year and reading the moving tribute she wrote about her mother and her wartime activities.  By 1940 Simone was already providing food and shelter for many Jewish academics who were trying to escape the inevitable.  Her transition from what Marie-Claire described as a “femme charitable” and social activist into “Pauline,” the resistance agent who made and delivered false identification papers, was an abrupt one.  Suddenly the house was transformed into a workshop, and the two older girls began to be aware of their mother’s activities, especially since Simone hid some of the forgery materials in the drawers under Marie-Claire’s bed.  (This wasn’t as strange as it might sound to us today, at that point there was nothing to connect Simone and “Pauline,” and she believed that the Gestapo was less likely to search the children’s rooms in any case.)

It’s impossible to overstate the danger to Simone and her family from her courageous activities.  One of Simone’s friends who worked in the Montpellier City Hall and provided her with blank forms and seals for her work was sent to a concentration camp when his part was discovered.  Marie-Claire told me that, fortunately, he survived and returned after the war.  She also described how later in the war she and her sisters were hidden in a Dominican convent to protect them and to keep them from being used as pawns in the German authorities’ search for Pauline.  While there, the girls got to understand the inner workings of the resistance, as Jewish children and British paratroopers who had been shot down over France passed through the convent to safety.  It seems astonishing to us reading this 70 years later to think of what they lived through.  But as Marie-Claire, my father, and my mother-in-law (who was born and grew up in Holland, and has her own fascinating wartime story) told me, they were children and didn’t know anything different.  That’s just the way life was.  I imagine, though, that for adults like Simone, the decision to join the resistance was an agonizing one because they knew how much was at stake.

Marie-Claire Demangel, Simone's daughter, with her grandson Alex this past April.

Marie-Claire Demangel, one of Simone’s three daughters, with her grandson Alex this past April.

As I mentioned before, I’m happy to be able to pay a small tribute to Simone, and those like her who risked their lives to help others during a terrible time.  I’m not certain how many of the people Simone helped actually knew it was she who made their false identification papers.  While some of them may have met Pauline, she was part of a network of people working to get them to safety, and it’s unlikely any of them knew her identity even if they met her.  And it isn’t certain that Pauline would have known the true identity of the people she helped, either.  It was sheer coincidence that my father was a patient in the same hospital  where Simone was working, and that she and my grandfather met.  I hope anyone who reads this and knows about Pauline will learn her identity and recognize Simone for the brave person she was.


It gives me a sense of pride to hold a bottle of Château d’Assas wine and think of what it means to me and my family.  All the more since they’re excellent wines.  I’ve written about the new Languedoc appellations before, and these two reds are classified as Grès de Montpellier for the limestone in the soil.  The climate has many advantages for growing wine grapes, winds from the Mediterranean provide humidity which enhances flavor, and the bigger winds from the northwest keep the leaves of the vines dry, preventing rot and fungus with much less (if any) chemical treatment.

Château d’Assas Classique is 70% Syrah, 30% Grenache, with great fruit and a hint of violets when you first smell it, then the ripe fruit, and the pepper and earthiness come on later.  Château d’Assas Réserve is 60% Syrah, 30% Grenache, and 10% Mourvèdre.  It has a little vanilla from the oak that also tames the Mourvèdre, allowing the ripe fruit and hint of clove to come through.  They’re both medium- to full-bodied and the winery recommends that you pair them with lots of meat.

Not that I mind meat or anything, but I thought it would be nice to have something a little lighter.  And a dish that’s also part of my family history.  My mother grew up in a house where the same thing was served every Monday, every Tuesday, etc.  So I was lucky that when she started cooking for our family she tried a lot of different things.  We rarely ate the same thing more than once a month.  She always had a lot of cookbooks around, especially compared to my friends’ mothers, and to this day she loves looking for new recipes.  Over the years favorite dishes have come and gone, but you can always count of finding one thing in the freezer every winter:  minestrone.

The Réserve  is the more elegant of the two Château d'Assas wines I'm importing thanks to the Mourvèdre and the aging in oak

The Réserve is the more elegant of the two Château d’Assas wines I’m importing thanks to the addition of Mourvèdre and aging in oak

The recipe my mother uses is from an Italian cookbook she bought in the late 1950s or early 1960s.  These days, minestrones are more like stews and are chock-full of vegetables, sometimes exotic pork products (like guanciale), and trendy greens.  Nothing wrong with these, they’re delicious.  But minestrone was born in poverty, and traditionally was more soup-like.  A couple of zucchini and potatoes here and a bit of cabbage and tomato there, with beans and maybe a little bacon or pancetta if they had it.  If they’d had more vegetables, they might have made something else with them.  Plus, cooking vegetables with the beans for an hour and a half gives the liquid a lot of flavor, even if it’s not piled high.  This recipe is more peasant-style soup.  I’ve made a few modifications over the years, but still do it pretty much the way Mom does.

While it’s tempting to cut down on cooking time by using canned beans, soaking and cooking the dried beans  tastes better.  I cook them with a big piece of Parmesan cheese rind in addition to the cheese mixed in at the end, it gives the beans more flavor.  Also, I’ve switched to fresh basil, which is available in the grocery store year-round, and added some dried oregano.  This recipe goes pretty easy on the bacon — maybe four or five ounces for a pound of beans, but you can leave it out if you want and you’ll still end up with a flavorful soup.  I add a mix of herbs, garlic, and lemon at the end.  You don’t have to, but it brightens things up, especially a wintertime soup.

Drinking one of the Château d’Assas wines with the minestrone definitely makes me think of family.  And best of all, I don’t have to add cream soda!

Bon Appetit!



Serves 12 with leftovers

1 pound dried white beans, like Great Northern or Cannellini

5 quarts water

1 large piece of the rind from Parmesan cheese

6 thin slices of bacon, diced (about 4 ounces)

2 tablespoons olive oil (use 4 if you’re not using the bacon)

2 onions, peeled and cut in half vertically, then sliced thin

2 carrots, diced

2 cups peeled, diced potatoes (about 2)

4 cups diced zucchini (between 2 and 3, depending on size)

2 cups drained diced canned tomatoes

6 cups shredded green cabbage (about half a large head)

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

3 cloves minced garlic

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, cut in strips

1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley

1/2 cup raw rice

1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Optional topping ingredients:  1/2 cup fresh parsley leaves, 1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, 2 cloves peeled garlic, finely-grated zest of one lemon, 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, salt and pepper

Prepare the beans:  Soak the beans overnight in enough water to cover them by two inches  Or you can quick-soak them by covering with water (again by two inches), bringing to a boil, the covering the pot and letting them sit for an hour.

Cooking the beans:  Drain the soaking liquid from the beans and add the 5 quarts of water and the cheese rind.  Bring to a boil and cook over low heat for 1-1/2 hours.  Meanwhile, prepare the vegetables.

Bacon and vegetables:  In a large skillet, brown the bacon.  Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of the fat and add 2 tablespoons of olive oil.  (If you’re not using bacon, use 4 tablespoons oil here).  Add the onion and a teaspoon of salt and some pepper and sauté for 5 minutes until translucent.  Add the dried oregano, carrots, potatoes, and zucchini and another teaspoon of salt and continue to cook for  5-10 minutes, until the carrot and potato start to soften.  Add the garlic and basil and cook until you smell the garlic, about minute.   Set aside until the beans have cooked.  (You can start preparing the topping now if you’re going to use it.)

Add the cooked vegetables to the beans and their cooking liquid.  Stir in the diced tomatoes and cabbage and cook for an hour and 15 minutes.  Taste the soup for salt and pepper and add more as needed. Stir in the rice and chopped parsley and cook 20 minutes longer.  Turn off the heat and stir in the cheese.

To prepare the topping:  cut the garlic cloves in half and put them in a small saucepan with the olive oil.  Turn the heat under the pan to low and cook the garlic slowly until it just starts to get golden. Take the garlic out and let it and the oil cool separately (you can leave the oil in the pot to cool).  After you add the rice to the soup, put the herbs, the lemon zest, and the cooled garlic on a big cutting board with a quarter-teaspoon of salt and some pepper.  Using a large knife, chop everything together until it’s all minced.  Stir the mixture into the cooled olive oil, then either top each bowl of soup with a little topping or put it in the bowl and pass it at the table.

Posted in Château d'Assas, Jewish Refugees in France, Musings/Lectures/Rants, Simone Demangel, Tom Natan, Uncategorized, wine delivery washington dc | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Let us give thanks for rosés this November 28th

Thanksgiving is a holiday that brings family and friends together.  Everyone tries to put differences aside and think of the things for which he or she is grateful and bask in good company.

One of the new rosés, from a producer I met on my trip to the Languedoc in April.  It's a great choice for Thanksgiving dinner!

One of the new rosés, from a producer I met on my trip to the Languedoc in April. It’s a great choice for Thanksgiving dinner!

Those differences don’t have to be political or religious ones (although they’re probably the most entertaining), but can be about “traditional” Thanksgiving dishes vs. making changes to the menu.  I admit to feeling for both sides on this one, especially if all the food is good.  Change can be a nice thing in a holiday meal, and can bring out flavors in traditional foods that make them even better.  Still, when I was talking with my mom about Thanksgiving desserts and she mentioned she’d be making her pecan tart, it instantly transported me back to the days when we had it every year.

Choosing a wine is less divisive, because people can (and often do) drink what they want at Thanksgiving — for some reason it’s unlike any other large dinner party and guests don’t necessarily feel obligated to drink what their host provides.  (Of course, everyone offers to share whatever gets brought to the table).  Some hosts ask everyone to bring wine, so guests bring what they like.  Still, if you’re not doing pot-luck wine, you might think it’s tough to decide on wines to serve with the Thanksgiving meal, because there are so many different things to eat.

Pinot Noir seems to be a traditional Thanksgiving wine of choice these days, with good reason — it’s more acidic than most red wines, and in some cases more on the medium-bodied side, both of which make it pair better with food.  (Even though Thanksgiving dinner is often a lot of rich foods, they’re not necessarily going to go well with a full-bodied red.)  Alsatian varietals, like Riesling, are surging in popularity too, because the little bit of residual sweetness even in the dry versions helps bring the dishes together, and they have enough acidity to stand up to the gravy, cream, and butter.

But I want to make a case for another choice:  rosés.  While they’re great summer wines, I think they have the right balance of flavor, acidity, and intensity to pair beautifully with your Thanksgiving meal.

I had an interesting conversation last night at a tasting about this.  The objection I got was that many rosés have too much light fruit and not enough heft.  The thing is, though, by the time Thanksgiving rolls around, most of that year’s rosé has been in the bottle since January or February and has aged while in there.  You will still taste some of the original light fruit flavor.  But because rosés are made (almost) exclusively with red wine grapes and contain some of the color and flavor from the skins, they age a little bit like red wines.  Well-made rosés become more mature.  Even if they’ve got plastic stoppers in the bottle, they’ll have interacted with the air in the bottle to age.  And if they’re in bottles with natural cork, they’re definitely meant to have that interaction with air to create deeper flavors.

In fact, many of my wine producers in France like drinking last year’s rosé (the 2011 vintage — “this year’s” rosé is 2012) better than this year’s vintage for just that reason.  (Part of it may be because they still  have some around at the winery, but that doesn’t mean they’re not tasty!)  And our Spanish rosado producer in Cigales adds Verdejo, a white grape, to rosés made from Tempranillo and Grenache to provide enough acidity to age the wines for at least two years for greater rich flavor.

So our 2012 rosés are entering their maturity, and they’ll drink beautifully for another year.  They don’t taste sweet, but they bring out the sweetness in other foods (like your sweet potato casserole).  There’s still enough acidity to stand up to the richness of the gravy, and some light and darker fruit flavors to go with turkey and stuffing.  Best of all, they’re a beautiful color and look great on the table!

We got a bunch of 2012 rosés in over the past couple of months.  I’ll be introducing them and their producers to you properly in future blog posts, but here’s a brief overview, along with an incentive to try them.

Another new rosé for us, this one is made from 100% Mourvèdre, a grape that's usually used for blending in red wines.

Another new rosé for us, this one is made from 100% Mourvèdre, a grape that’s usually used for blending in red wines.

Domaine Sainte Cécile du Parc Notes Frivoles 2012 ($14).  From Pézenas in the Languedoc, this rosé is made of equal parts Grenache, Cabernet Franc, and Carignan.  Carignan is a grape that’s generally blended into heavier red wines, and has a vivid color, very dark fruit flavor, and a hint of spice like cloves.  But made into rosé, it has a wonderful flavor.  Cabernet Franc sometimes has a kind of bell pepper flavor to it, but the rosé process gives you the fruit without the vegetable flavor.

Château de Clapier Rosé 2012 ($13).  From Mirabeau in the Luberon.  The wine is mostly Cinsault, the typical grape for rosés in southern France, and that contributes the bulk of the light fruit flavor.  But there’s also Grenache, Syrah, and Pinot Noir in there, all of which give the rosé a lot of deeper fruit too.  It’s even got a little whiff and flavor of sea salt in there, according to one friend who tried it, and that makes it especially good with food.  I hadn’t thought about wine having any kind of salty quality to it before, but a few weeks ago I spoke with an Italian winemaker who used the word “sapido” with regard to wine — it’s the same as “sapid” in English and refers to a savory quality, and saltiness is definitely a part of that.

Domaine de Mairan Aurore Boréale 2012 ($12).  From Puisserguier in the Languedoc.  The name means Aurora Borealis, and is a tribute to Jean-Jacques d’Ortous de Mairan, Louis XIV’s science advisor, who owned the property and made wine there.  Dr. Mairan wrote a treatise on the Aurora Borealis for the king back in the early 18th century.  The rosé is made from Grenache Gris and Merlot, the “gray” Grenache is a varietal used almost exclusively for rosé and gives the wine almost a salmon color.  Fairly substantial body, and lots of fruit too, along with deeper fruit flavors from the Merlot.

Les Vignerons du Pic Terrasses de Perret Mourvèdre 2012 ($10).  From Assas in the Languedoc.  Les Vignerons du Pic is a cooperative winery producing wines ranging from some of the Languedoc’s lofty appellations (Pic St. Loup and Grès de Montpellier) to Pays d’Oc wines like this rosé.  It’s 100% Mourvèdre, a grape that’s usually blended into red wines in small amounts.  In rosé it’s milder, and with a lot of fresher fruit flavor you might not expect.

Of course we still have our Cave la Romaine Côtes du Ventoux Rosé Tradition 2012 ($10) and a few other selections on the Summer Pinks page of the website.  And we’re offering an extra 10% off any purchase of rosés through the end of this month, in addition to our regular volume discounts.  Use the code Pink1113 when you order and you’ll get the discount for the rosés even if you’re buying other wines.***

So try a rosé next week with your Thanksgiving meal, and of course with all the leftovers too.  Not only will it bring a hint of summer to your fall table, it’ll make everything go better together — with the food, anyway.  We’re not making any promises about politics or religion!

(In case you needed any more convincing that pink is indeed the color of choice, check out this clip from the 1957 movie “Funny Face.”  You’ll never settle for plain old red or white again!)


This week's recipe was created by Lauren DeSantis -- check out her Capital Cooking blog for great recipes, reviews, and tips!

This week’s recipe was created by Lauren DeSantis — check out her Capital Cooking blog for great recipes, reviews, and tips!

Believe it or not, this is the sixth year we’re writing a Thanksgiving-theme blog post.  I still have a lot of ideas for Thanksgiving, but since I think that most people still want to go the traditional route for the meal, I was looking for something that everyone has had at one time or another (and most remember fondly), but that could stand some improvement.

Many of you know that I occasionally review cookbooks for Capital Cooking with Lauren DeSantis.  It’s a great blog filled with lots of recipes, reviews, tips, and clips from Lauren’s cooking show.  Last year for Thanksgiving she posted a recipe that’s a reworking of the traditional green bean casserole, and Lauren very kindly gave me permission to share it with you here.  There’s not a can of mushroom soup or fried onions to be had.  This makes for more work than opening the cans, but the good thing is that you can do everything ahead including assembling the casserole, then pop it in the oven while the turkey is resting to heat it all through.   And you’ll have something absolutely delicious in the end.

I’ve added a variation to the topping that’s browned Panko bread crumbs.  They add a nice crunch, but feel free to leave them out if you’re running out of space on the stove.   Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Bon Appetit!


*** The fine print:  The discount applies through 11/30/13, and only on wines listed in the Summer Pinks category on http://www.firstvine.com.  Regular volume discounts still apply for purchases of 6 bottles or more on all wines.  The discount applies only to the price of the wine itself, and not toward delivery or shipping charges, if applicable.

Thanksgiving Recipe: Homemade Green Bean Casserole

From Capital Cooking with Lauren DeSantis, recipe reprinted with the author’s permission.

Serves 6 – 8

3 cups vegetable or canola oil

6 large shallots, cut into very thin rounds, rings separated (or use medium-sized yellow onions)

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

Coarse salt and ground pepper

2 pounds green beans, trimmed and halved

1/4 cup unsalted butter

One pound button mushrooms, trimmed and coarsely chopped

1 14.5 ounce can of chicken broth

1 cup milk

Fried onion topping: In a mini-deep fryer set to 375 degrees, heat oil (you can also use a 3-quart saucepan and candy thermometer). Line a baking sheet with paper towels. In a large bowl, toss together shallots or onions and 1 1/4 cups flour until evenly coated. In batches, shake off excess flour from shallots and fry until golden and crisp, about 5 minutes, adjusting heat if shallots are browning too quickly. With a slotted spoon, transfer to sheet and season with salt. Set aside.
Green beans: In a large pot of boiling salted water, cook green beans until crisp-tender, 6 minutes. Drain and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking. Pat dry.

Mushroom Sauce: In a large saucepan, melt butter and a little olive oil over medium-high. Add mushrooms and cook until liquid has evaporated, about 7 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add 1/4 cup flour and cook, stirring, until incorporated, about 1 minute. Whisking constantly, gradually add broth, then milk. Bring to a simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until sauce thickens, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Assembly:  Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.  Add green beans to mushroom sauce and toss to coat. Transfer mixture to a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Bake until bubbling around edges, about 15 minutes. Serve topped with fried shallots.

Topping variation:  heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a medium-sized skillet and add 3/4 cup of Panko breadcrumbs.  Turn the heat to medium-high and toast the bread crumbs.  When they’re brown, pour them from the skillet onto a plate and let them cool.  Combine with the fried shallots on top of the casserole after baking.

Posted in Cave la Romaine, Château de Clapier, Domaine de Mairan, Domaine Sainte Cecile du Parc, french wine, Les Vignerons du Pic, Musings/Lectures/Rants, Rosé Wine, Thanksgiving, Tom Natan, Uncategorized, wine delivery washington dc | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments