“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

Sure the new American cuisine is great. But when am I gonna see some of that for lunch?

The premise of Michael Steinberger's book is that French food and wine's world dominance is at an end.

The premise of Michael Steinberger’s book is that French food and wine’s world dominance is at an end.

A quick post this week, and more about food than wine.  I’m in the middle of reading a French study on amounts of pesticides and fungicides in French wine, and I’ll be writing about it in the next month.  But in the meantime, I’m also reading a book called Au Revoir to all That:  Food, Wine, and the End of France by Michael Steinberger.  Steinberger was the wine columnist for Slate magazine from 2002 to 2011 and also writes about economics, politics, food, and sports.  Au Revoir was published in 2009.

The book’s premise is that the previously unsurpassed quality of meals in French restaurants has declined over the past few decades.  Where you used to be guaranteed a great meal practically anyplace you went in France, that’s not the case anymore.  And French wine, which also used to be of unassailable quality, has been outperformed by good, inexpensive wine from other countries.  Steinberger tries to explain why this is happening in an examination of history, politics, economics, and (to some extent) the character of the people who make the food and wine.

Unfortunately, he devotes only one chapter to wine, and it’s a dense and rather difficult one.   (Since Steinberger is a well-known wine writer, I had hoped it would be a little more readable, to tell you the truth.  And this is coming from someone who normally revels in dense and difficult.)  The majority of his criticisms focus on the workings of the French AOC system — the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée — that controls what wine gets made where, what goes into it, and what it’s called.  Having had my own crash course in some of the positives and negatives of the AOC system earlier this year, I want to distill Steinberger’s take a bit more before I write about it.  Also, to be fair, he appears to have done most of the research for this chapter in 2006 and 2007, and there have been some changes in the interim.  So once I sort it all out I hope to be able to comment.

I’m not sure I feel qualified to examine every point Steinberger makes about French food culture since I’m neither an economist nor a historian.  But there is one thing that caught my attention and I thought it was interesting enough to throw out there as a point of discussion.

Any non-cookbook writing about a country’s food has to have a discussion of its politics as well.   Books like Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and Marion Nestle’s Food Politics examine how industrial food production has shaped the way we eat in the U.S. via agricultural policy.  But Steinberger is talking about an overall sense of food culture and for that he goes straight to the top.   The prosperity of the “30 glorious years” that came after France’s recovery from World War II produced memorable food and experimentation.  But the subsequent series of economic crises could (and apparently should) have caused France to re-examine its policies toward business and entrepreneurship.  The failure to do so, he says, is in large part responsible for the decline of French cuisine:

“The toxic stew that choked the economies of Britain and the United States — weak growth combined with rising inflation and unemployment — left France ailing.  A second energy crisis, in 1979, deepened the pain for all three countries.  That same year, frustrated British voters swept the Conservative Party to power, and its leader, Margaret Thatcher, who campaigned on a promise to revive the British economy, became prime minister.  In 1980, Ronald Reagan, who also ran on a platform of economic renewal, was elected president of the United States in a landslide.  A year later, French voters elected Mitterrand, who came to office pledging to institute an ambitious program of left-wing reforms.  Which voters you think made the smarter choices depends on your politics, but insofar as the restaurant business was concerned, the United States and Britain unquestionably took the better route.  What was true in the eighteenth century was no less true at the end of the twentieth:  Chefs need prosperous patrons.  Notwithstanding their other effects, the Reagan and Thatcher eras made the rich richer and spawned vast new wealth, money that bankrolled gastronomic revolutions in the United States and Britain.  The French economy stagnated and French cuisine did likewise.”

I had to read that a few times to get the point.  Is getting a world-class cuisine really as simple as having enough rich people to bankroll restaurants?  People spend more money when they have more money, perhaps they feel more adventurous about trying new things, which also helps the drive for culinary innovation?   Do we need to worry that the supposed constraints on entrepreneurship we hear about from our politicians will cut into our emerging pre-eminence on the world food scene?  And does that also make the French system — with higher taxes but where everyone in the restaurant makes a living wage and gets state-run health care — less valuable?

I’m also not sure I’m on board with the premise.  My first trip to France was in 2001, so I guess I missed the misty-eyed past that Steinberger goes on about.  I have had plenty of excellent food in France, and some not-so-good food too.  But on balance, the good has far outweighed the bad.  I can’t say that the average level of cuisine I experience in American cities (at prices that normal humans can afford, that is) is better than the average level in France.  So just when is this American culinary renaissance going to penetrate to the level where we feel its effects on our everyday meals, and not just special occasions?

Clearly questions I don’t have answers for, but they’re worth thinking about.

And this week’s recipe is something to chew on while we chew on those issues.  It’s Fougasse Vigneronne, a French version of focaccia that’s traditionally shaped like a leaf.  In Provence, the fougasse is sort of a platform for toppings like pizza, often with olives or anchovies.  The “Vigneronne” part comes from putting grapes on it celebrating the wine grape harvest.  Some also have wine in the dough.

My version of Fougasse Vigneronne -- ready in about an hour and a half, tops.

My version of Fougasse Vigneronne — ready in about an hour and a half, tops.

I had seen lots of versions of this bread before, including an Italian one with grapes and fennel seeds.  But recently, a French acquaintance sent out a recipe that the winery she works for is promoting in conjunction with an oven manufacturer.  It looks mighty tasty.  The ingredients and directions call for a fancy oven with a dough-rising setting and steam injection.  Since most of us don’t have that kind of equipment, I thought I’d modify it so we professional-oven-deprived people can make it at home.

The French version I got uses Muscat grapes, which are small and extremely sweet — since I can’t find them here I substituted seedless red grapes cut in half and put a tiny bit of sugar in the dough.  I also found I needed more liquid than the recipe called for, since American flour has more protein than French flour and absorbs more liquid (if the dough is too dry it’s more difficult to shape).  You can skip the steam-injection and just bake it without any problems, you’ll get a nice chewy result that’s just the same if you brush a little olive oil on top before baking instead.

The key to making the fougasse without spending all day on it is the rising.  You have to keep it warm and moist, or the dough can take a couple of hours to rise.  I like to put the dough in a covered bowl on top of a heating pad set on low, or put the bowl on top of a towel sitting on one of our giant radiators if the heat is on in the house.  You can have nicely-risen dough in about 40 minutes.  Then turn on the oven, punch the dough down, shape it, put on the toppings, and by the time the oven is preheated the bread will have puffed a little and be ready for baking.  The red wine and the rye flour in the recipe contribute flavor that ordinarily you’d have to give a very slow rise to develop.

Using cut grapes means you have to eat the fougasse within a couple of days but that’s not really a problem.  First, have some with dinner.  Since the recipe calls for red wine, have some of that same wine with it (like Cave la Romaine Côtes du Ventoux Volupté, a $12 bottle that’s perfect inside and outside the bread).  Then have the rest for breakfast.  It’s a great accompaniment to the morning paper, especially if you’re pondering how the economy of the future will impact French and American cuisine.

Bon Appetit!


Fougasse Vigneronne

Makes 8 good-sized bread servings

2-3/4 cups all-purpose flour (measured by spooning the flour into dry-measure cups and leveling off the tops), plus a little more if necessary

7 tablespoons rye flour (I use medium rye flour)

3/4 cup warm water (about 110 degrees F)

1/4 cup dry red wine

1 scant tablespoon of yeast (active dry yeast or instant yeast or bread machine yeast)

1 teaspoon sugar

1 tablespoon plus one teaspoon olive oil (plus extra for oiling the bowl, the pan, and the bread dough)

1 teaspoon salt

12 seedless red grapes, cut in half

3 tablespoons chopped walnuts

Note:  If you’re using the active dry yeast from the packet, stir the yeast into the warm water with the sugar and let dissolve for about five minutes, it will start to puff a little.  If you’re using instant or bread machine yeast, you can mix it in with the dry ingredients, these are the directions below.

Put the all-purpose flour, the rye flour, and the sugar, salt, and yeast into the food processor and blend for 10 seconds to combine.  Pour in the water, the olive oil and the red wine, and process until the mixture makes a ball that travels around the food processor bowl and cleans the sides.  If it won’t come together, add another tablespoon of water.  Stop the processor and feel the dough.  If it feels more than just a little sticky, add a tablespoon or two of flour and process until it’s mixed in.

Lightly grease a medium-sized bowl with olive oil and scrape the dough ball into the bowl.  Turn it over to coat the dough with a little oil, then cover the bowl with plastic wrap.  Put the bowl in a warm place (like the top of a radiator with a towel underneath the bowl, or on a heating pad set on low) and let it rise until it’s nearly doubled, about 40 minutes.  It will take longer if the temperature isn’t warm enough, but it will still rise.

When the dough has doubled, start heating the oven to 425 degrees F.  Brush a baking sheet with some olive oil, then punch down the dough and spread and pat it out into an oval shape on the oiled pan with your hands.  Make 4 diagonal cuts all the way through the dough starting at the center, two to the right and two to the left, alternating right and left and going nearly to the edge of the dough.  They should look like veins in a leaf.  Using your hands, pull the dough gently to enlarge the openings.  Lightly brush the dough with olive oil, then press the grapes into the fougasse, cut side down, and then press the walnut pieces in as well.

When the oven is heated, bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until the fougasse is lightly browned on top.  Let it cool for a half hour, then serve.

Posted in Au Revoir to All That, Fougasse Vigneronne, French food in decline, Michael Steinberger, Musings/Lectures/Rants, Tom Natan, Uncategorized, wine delivery washington dc | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The government shutdown affects wine importers. Who knew?

I didn't expect that the government shutdown would affect First Vine, but it has.  (Photo from ibtimes.com)

I didn’t expect that the government shutdown would affect First Vine, but it has. (Photo from ibtimes.com)

Each day for more than a week, I’ve been reading about how the federal government shutdown has affected people and businesses.  I didn’t think I’d have something to write about First Vine, though.

Now I’m not furloughed and (I hope) there’s no danger of the business going under.  Under ordinary circumstances, the federal government isn’t a daily part of running First Vine and selling wine, which is controlled mostly by state and local governments.  But when wine comes in from outside the U.S., federal regulation kicks in and more than one federal agency has to be part of the import process.

We have a shipment that’s leaving France on October 14, due to arrive in the U.S. on the 20th.  Apparently U.S. Customs and Border Protection is open, but there’s some paperwork I need to submit to them in order for the wine to clear customs.  The paperwork is on the site of the Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), which licenses alcohol importers and approves labels.  TTB’s main site is up, but the label approval site isn’t.  Those labels approvals are mandatory and need to be part of the documents presented to customs before the wine can be released to me.

This is what comes up when I try to get into the labeling section of the TTB website to download papers necessary to clear customs.

This is what comes up when I try to get into the labeling section of the TTB website to download papers necessary to clear customs.

What passes for the current wisdom says that all will be cleared up, or at least pushed off into the future, in time for the next fiscal deadline:  raising the debt ceiling before October 17 to stave off defaulting.   There are all sorts of dire warnings about what will happen by that time if it’s not settled.  If everything’s open on the 17th, I’ll be able to get the paperwork to my customs broker before the shipment arrives.  But  other reports say, well, yes, the 17th is important, but we won’t actually default for a couple of weeks after that.  So it could be November 1 before the federal government is back up and running.

This isn’t the end of the world for me, and the wine will sit in a warehouse waiting for the paperwork if I don’t get it in before the ship arrives on October 20.   (Although First Vine supposedly will have to pay rent for Customs to store it more than 30 days.  I wonder if that will be enforced if it comes to that…)  But I can’t be the only importer with this problem.

Fall is a busy time for wine shipments — a lot of nicer red wines get bottled just before the harvest in early September, and there’s also stocking up on champagne for the holidays.  All wines, but especially reds and sparkling wines, need to sit and settle undisturbed after transport before they can be sold.  The amount of time varies, but it can be at least four weeks for champagne.   A November 1 return to normal would push some sales to early December, which would be a shame for retailers.  Lots of people buy wine for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s all together in mid- to late November.   Not to say that they won’t go back for something they really love, but it’s always better to have what customers want when they want it.

The other potential impact of all this is on the exchange rate between the dollar and the euro.  It’s unclear whether and how significantly the shutdown may be weakening the dollar – Bloomberg News seems to think it’s real, the Financial Times thinks not – but even a slightly weakened dollar can translate into significant cost increases for importers.

As I mentioned, I didn’t think we’d be in this position with the shutdown.  So we’re hanging on waiting, like the rest of you, for this all to get resolved.  Especially for the people who will inevitably be hurt by loss of income and with the holidays right around the corner.


Many of my blogger friends have written about Italian cook and cookbook author Marcella Hazan, who died last week.  Mrs. Hazan’s first cookbook, The Classic Italian Cookbook:  The Art of Italian Cooking and the Italian Art of Eating, was published in 1973.  Her follow-up, More Classic Italian Cooking, appeared a few years later.  Her timing was excellent, whether planned or not.  People who had cooked their way through Julia Child’s two volumes of Mastering the Art of French Cooking were excited to have real Italian cooking explained to them in a thorough, exacting way.  For many people, Mrs. Hazan’s books were their first introduction to regional Italian food — the idea that people in one part of Italy eat very differently from people in another part (and that they wouldn’t necessarily have eaten each others’ food) was a strange one for us in the U.S. who hadn’t traveled to Italy.

Marcella Hazan's first cookbook, which has had a huge impact on the way Americans make Italian food.

Marcella Hazan’s first cookbook, which has had a huge impact on the way Americans make Italian food.

Although she had a huge impact on Italian cooking in America, Marcella Hazan didn’t become a household name like Julia Child because she didn’t appear on television.  And you definitely don’t get warm fuzzies reading her books.  With Julia Child or Lidia Bastianich, you get the feeling that nothing would make them happier than to have you try the recipes and make modifications if you need or want to.  Part of that may be that we hear their voices in our ears as we read.  But while Mrs. Hazan’s colleagues and friends attest to her sense of humor, her books — at least the early ones — take themselves pretty seriously.  There’s a right way of doing things, and you’re never in doubt just who is right.

I have to admit that this sort of scolding tone put me off when I first read through her books, even in a time when most cookbooks weren’t the chatty, down-home, personality-driven photo-ops we have today (the exception is probably Maida Heatter, whose Book of Great Desserts first came out in 1965 and is every bit as useful and enjoyable as it was then, with tons of personality, but it’s still about the food first).  Looking back on it now, I think she probably felt like there was such a big gap between what we Americans thought of as Italian food and what she grew up with that she had to roll up her sleeves and get to work teaching us, no time to waste with nonsense.

Having said that, Mrs. Hazan’s food is always very good.  And her directions are impeccable.  Every page is filled with useful tips.  Like using more salt, which people didn’t use enough of back then.  And peeling bell peppers before you eat them raw or cook with them (use a sharp swivel peeler and take off what you can, then cut the pepper through the indentations and clean up the edges).  And how much better anchovies packed in salt taste when you fillet them yourself (it takes about 10 seconds per fish) rather than using the ones in tins packed in oil.  But the most memorable thing I’ve taken from her recipes is a tip for making risotto.  While she preferred using homemade stock, as far as I know she was the first to say that it was fine to use canned broth, but that the canned broth was too strong and had to be diluted with water — pretty significantly — to get the right flavor in the risotto.  (Most homemade stocks are pretty dilute unless you concentrate them.  Concentrating them is fine for soup and some sauces, but not necessarily for braising or making risotto.)

Thinking about it now, this makes perfect sense.  If you were to cook the rice by the conventional method (in a covered pot), you’d use 3 cups of liquid for 1-1/2 cups of rice.  In the risotto method (in an open pot), you use 6 to 7 cups of liquid because of evaporation.   While some of the flavor components evaporate during cooking, what mostly evaporates is water.   So the rice ends up with about twice as much flavor from the cooking liquid.  According to Mrs. Hazan, that’s too much — risotto is supposed to taste like rice, not stock.  The dish gets enough richness and body from the starch that comes out while you cook it, and it doesn’t need all that extra flavor.  She suggests a 1/4 or 1/5 ratio of stock to water (especially for the condensed broth which was ubiquitous back then).  These days, there are a lot of different brands of boxed stock and some have more flavor than others.  But even the weakest of them needs to be diluted with water.  I generally use half stock, half water for chicken or vegetable stock.  If it’s really flavorful stock, I’ll go one-third stock and two-thirds water.

I have since picked up tips from others that make cooking risotto easier than the proverbial stir, stir, stir that it used to be.  Instead of adding the stock one ladle at a time, I add half of it up front and let cook undisturbed for about 8 minutes until it’s absorbed.  Then I add the rest of the stock and any flavorings (roasted butternut squash, sauteed mushrooms, cooked vegetables, etc) along with the rest of the stock and stir it up, then make sure to stir continuously for the last few minutes of cooking.  Then add the Parmesan cheese and maybe a little butter or olive oil off the heat, and serve it right away.

This week’s recipe is my version of risotto.  I remember making it during the last government shutdown — it was January 1996, and there was a huge snowstorm in the DC area at the same time.  Risotto was the perfect thing to eat after digging out of three feet of snow!  But I’m sure I didn’t drink anything special with it back then.  Not a problem today.  Since the predominant flavor isn’t stock, this Risotto pairs well with white wine.  Like our Cave la Romaine Viognier ($16), which has a floral element that seems to draw even more flavor out of the rice (and particularly the butternut squash, if you want to add it).  Try the risotto and raise a glass to Marcella Hazan for showing us all how to have a little bit of Italy in our kitchens and on our tables.  It wasn’t easy, but she was more than up to the task.

Bon Appetit!


Risotto, Plain and Fancy

Serves 8 as a first course, 4 as a main course

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium-sized onion, finely diced

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

1-1/2 cups short-grain risotto rice (like Arborio)

1 cup dry white wine

3 cups chicken or vegetable stock

3 to 4 cups water

1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Combine the stock and 3 cups of the water in a saucepan, heat to the boil and then cover the pot and turn off the heat.  In a large pot, preferably non-stick, heat 1 tablespoon of the butter and the two tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat.  Add the onion and a teaspoon of salt and cook until the onion is softened, about 2 minutes.  Stir in the rice so it’s well coated, and cook for another 3 minutes or so, stirring constantly.  The rice won’t brown, but it will absorb some of the butter and oil, and you’ll start to hear a kind of clicking noise as you stir the rice around.  Add the wine and keep stirring until the wine is all absorbed and evaporated to the point that you leave a path in the rice when you drag your spoon through it.

Pour in half of the warm stock and water mixture (then cover the pot with the rest in it).  Stir up the rice and liquid, then clean off the sides of the pot above the liquid line.  Adjust the heat to a very light boil and leave it for 7 to 8 minutes.  Add the rest of the stock and water, plus some pepper and any of the add-ins listed below.  Let it boil lightly for 3 minutes, then lower the heat to a bare simmer and start stirring, making sure nothing is sticking to the bottom of the pot.  Stir for about 5 minutes, until the liquid is nearly all absorbed.  The rice should have the consistency of “al dente” pasta — it should still have a tiny bit of white in the center of the grain.  If it’s getting too dry, heat up the last cup of water and stir in as much as you need.  Turn off the heat and stir in 1 tablespoon of butter plus the cheese.  Taste for salt and serve immediately.


Butternut squash:  In a large bowl combine 1 pound of peeled butternut squash cut into 1/2-inch dice with 1 teaspoon of salt, 1/2 teaspoon of pepper, 1/2 teaspoon of ground fennel seed, a pinch of cinnamon, and two tablespoons of olive oil.  Spread on a baking sheet and roast at 400 degrees for 20 – 25 minutes, stirring halfway through.  Or brown them in a preheated large non-stick skillet (let the cubes sit undisturbed for the first 5 minutes, then turn them with a spatula and continue to cook for another 5 to 8 minutes).  Remove from the skillet or baking sheet onto a plate until needed.

Sauteed mushrooms:  Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large skillet on high heat.  Add 1/2 pound of cleaned, sliced mushrooms and 1/2 teaspoon of salt.  Let the mushrooms sit undisturbed for 30 seconds, then turn them over and sear the other side.  Remove from the skillet onto a plate until needed.

Peas:  Rinse 1 cup frozen peas in warm water to thaw them.

Posted in Cave la Romaine, Government shutdown, Marcella Hazan, Musings/Lectures/Rants, Tom Natan, Uncategorized, wine delivery washington dc, Wine Importing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Newcastle loves more coals

Sometimes our guests tell us that bringing us wine is like bringing coals to Newcastle.  I know it's just an expression, but I don't see any coals in this photo (from Wikipedia).

Sometimes our guests tell us that bringing us wine is like bringing coals to Newcastle. I know it’s just an expression, but I don’t see any coals in this photo (from Wikipedia).

Rummaging through the freezer today, I saw a container of raspberry buttercream leftover from a cake I had made for an old friend.  He’s a pastry chef, and seeing the frosting reminded me of the first time he tasted something I had baked.  Cy and I were at a pot-luck hosted by a mutual friend and I brought a cake.  When I saw the pastry chef (who I didn’t know well then) I blurted out “If I knew you were coming I wouldn’t have baked!”

In my defense, I’d probably had too much wine by that point.  But I was also a little intimidated offering my baking up to an expert.  I shouldn’t have been, though.  He handled it with grace, asking me where I’d gotten the recipe, which we then discussed.  I figured he’d be polite, but as we talked I realized that since he loves to bake he’s always up for trying things other people make, and hearing what they like in baked goods.  And as someone who bakes for a living, he’s definitely happy to eat things he didn’t have to make himself.

After being in the wine business for more than six years, I often find myself on the other end of this situation.  Over the past week, Cy and I hosted old friends at our house and got gifts of wine and flowers.  The beautiful flowers were accompanied by “well, we couldn’t bring wine, it’s like bringing coals to Newcastle,” and the lovely bottle of wine came with a very nervous-sounding hope that we’d enjoy it.

First, let me say that I’m thrilled that anyone wants to bring us anything, anytime.  But I know I can express opinions a little emphatically at times, and I hope that doesn’t make anyone nervous about offering a wine gift.  Because the longer I’m in the business, the more I appreciate it when people bring us wine.  (And yes, we adore getting flowers too, and always have!)  I enjoy trying things that other people like and drinking wines that are different from the ones we sell.  Dare, Cy, and I drink a lot of First Vine wines because we need to remind ourselves what they taste like and see how they’re aging — not because they’re the only wines we like to drink.

Our wine aficionado friends have brought us some wonderful bottles of their favorites.  But some of the most memorable wines we’ve received as gifts have come from people who aren’t in the wine business and definitely wouldn’t consider themselves even moderately expert in wine.  Who wouldn’t be charmed by a guest offering you a bottle and hearing that he or she loves it with summer foods, or with barbecue, or for any reason?  Or that it was recommended by a friend?  Or that the label was so enticing that he or she just had to buy it?

Funny, but this has never happened to us! Cy and I bought the original artwork for this strip from Hilary Price, the cartoonist, back when we thought of starting First Vine, and she graciously gave me her permission to reprint it here. Be sure to check out the Rhymes with Orange website at www.rhymeswithorange.com

Funny, but this has never happened to us! Cy and I bought the original artwork for this strip from Hilary Price, the cartoonist, back when we thought of starting First Vine, and she graciously gave me her permission to reprint it here. Be sure to check out the Rhymes with Orange website at http://www.rhymeswithorange.com

What really warms my heart, though, are the stories like the one from our guest this past weekend.  After I thanked her (sincerely), she visibly relaxed and mentioned that the bottle came from her favorite wine shop.  She’d talked to the owner about First Vine and wanted something that would be different from what we sell.  Since she always likes the wines the shop staff help her select, she figured we would too.

What’s not to love about that?  It was thoughtful, of course, but as a wine importer and retailer, I really appreciate that (a) she has a favorite wine shop; (b) she feels comfortable asking questions about wine; and (c) she has developed a relationship with the people who work in that shop and doesn’t hesitate to take their suggestions even if she’s never heard of those wines before.  This is every wine retailer’s dream.

So anytime you’re intimidated at the idea of bringing wine as a gift, well, don’t be.  If your hosts love wine, they’ll be happy with whatever you bring them.  If they’re in the business, even more so, because you’re sharing in their passion and offering them the thrill of discovery.  And discovering new and interesting wines is something we can never get enough of!


When our friends visited, I made Ina Garten’s Savory Palmiers as a snack to serve with wine.  Palmiers refer to the shape since they look like unfurling palm leaves, and they’re usually for dessert.  Ina’s aren’t sweet, and she spreads the puff pastry with pesto, sun-dried tomatoes, goat cheese, and pine nuts before shaping, cutting, and baking.  I bought little jars of pesto and finely-chopped sun-dried tomatoes to make the palmiers, and had lots of the two ingredients left over.  So I used them as the basis of a quick marinade for fish that turned into a delicious sauce after baking.  I’d serve it again anytime, especially for a quick weeknight meal for guests.

I know I say my recipes are easy and you all roll your eyes when you read it, but this really couldn’t be simpler.  Spoon from the jars, mix, add pepper, and spread on the fish that you’ve lightly salted.  Let it sit for a few minutes.  Bake for a half hour, part of the time covered.  Take the fish from the pan, pour the juices from the pan into a small pot, add a splash of white wine, and cook for a minute.  Pour the sauce over the fish and serve.  That’s it.

Use a thick, firm-fleshed fish like monkfish or swordfish.  And serve it with a light- to medium-bodied red wine, like Château de Clapier Calligrappe Rouge ($12).  It’s 75% Grenache, 25% Syrah, and perfect with flavorful fish, not to mention all the sauce ingredients.   I decided to call it Pesce al Forno con Sugo di Avanzi because the ingredients are all Italian-based.  It’s a nicer-sounding name than “Baked Fish with Leftovers Sauce,” and your guests deserve it for their thoughtful wine gift!

Bon Appetit!


Pesce al Forno con Sugo di Avanzi

Serves 4

4 Monkfish or Swordfish fillets, one inch thick, each about six ounces

1/4 cup prepared pesto (right from the jar)

1/4 cup finely-chopped sun-dried tomatoes in oil (right from the jar)

Salt and freshly-ground pepper

2 tablespoons dry white wine

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.  While the oven is warming, mix the pesto and sun-dried tomatoes with a little pepper.  Dry the fish fillets with paper towels and lightly salt them, then spread the pesto/tomato mixture on both sides of the fillets.  Place them in a non-reactive ovenproof dish that’s deeper than the fillets.  Cover the dish with a sheet of foil (not touching the fish) and set aside until the oven is ready.  Bake for 20 minutes, covered, then uncover and bake for 10 more minutes (save the foil).

Remove the fish and let the fillets sit on a plate covered loosely with the foil you took off earlier.  Pour the liquid in the baking dish into a small saucepan and add the white wine.  Boil for a minute or two until the sauce is reduced slightly, then pour over the fish and serve immediately.

Posted in Château de Clapier, Musings/Lectures/Rants, Tom Natan, Uncategorized, wine delivery washington dc, Wine gifts for wine experts | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Can a little wine knowledge make you open to celebrity manipulation?

You might not associate "The Breakfast Club" with wine, but Emilio Estevez is now a winery owner.

You might not associate “The Breakfast Club” with wine, but Emilio Estevez is now a winery owner.

Did you hear that Emilio Estevez recently became a winery owner? It probably comes as no surprise that his foray into wine hasn’t generated as much attention as Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s.  Think about the movies they’re known for.  It’s tougher to associate “The Breakfast Club” with a fine adult beverage than “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.”

Someone with too much time on his or her hands thoughtfully compiled a list of celebrities who own wineries and vineyards on Wikipedia.  There are a bunch of them, including Nancy Pelosi.  For obvious reasons, we don’t see her endorsing the wines made from her grapes.  But we don’t see the other celebrities doing that with their wines, either.  Even the food-world luminaries who own wineries don’t plug their wine wares on television (or much in print, for that matter), even though we see plenty of plugging of their other products like cookware.

So would celebrity endorsements of wine have an impact on wine sales or the perception of those wines?  The Jolie/Pitts of the wine world can generate free media for their efforts.  But should wineries owned by lesser luminaries exploit whatever fame their owners have?  Or should non-celebrity-owned wineries seek out celebrity endorsers to boost sales?

Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are winery owners, too, but perhaps it's part of the glamour image?

Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are winery owners, too, but perhaps it’s part of the glamor image?

Four Canadian university researchers recently examined these questions**.  They used three equally well-known Canadian sports figures who don’t currently endorse wine or own wineries to test two ideas.  First, would the sport of the endorser have an impact on the perceived quality or value of the wine?  And would the results be any different if the people viewing the ads and tasting the wines had greater knowledge about wine in general?

One hundred fifteen volunteers were given a short quiz to assess their knowledge about wine.  They were then asked to participate in an interactive computer presentation that tested their perceptions about wine.  During the presentations they looked at wine ads featuring three athletes:  a pro golfer, a speed skater, and a professional wrestler.  The athletes chosen were well-known in their sports and did not do endorsements for other products that might make them recognizable outside of those sports.  (They also presumably didn’t have personal lives colorful enough to make the tabloids.)  Each of the ads was accompanied by a glass of wine, and the wines were spaced throughout the time the volunteers viewed the presentation.  The volunteers rated the wines for quality and price they’d pay for them as they drank them.

What the volunteers didn’t know was that all three glasses contained exactly the same wine.   And only three participants figured that out —  those three had to be eliminated from the study.  Otherwise, there were no significant demographic differences among the remaining volunteers.

The researchers went in with the idea that golf had a higher association with wine in the minds of the volunteers, and pro wrestling a lower one, with speed skating somewhere in between.  All other things being equal, you might expect the golfer-endorsed wine to come out on top in the study.   But as it turned out, the volunteers with less wine knowledge ranked the wines all about the same in terms of quality and what they’d pay for them.  The endorser didn’t seem to make a difference.

What about the participants with more wine knowledge?  They ranked the wine endorsed by the speed skater higher for quality and the price they’d pay.  The researchers suggest that for people who know more about wine, a little cognitive dissonance might help to improve a wine’s image.  Since the speed skater was a slightly but not outrageously unusual choice for a wine endorser, he made people who knew more about wine pay more attention.

According to the researchers, people with more wine knowledge ranked the wine endorsed by a well-known speed skater as the better wine -- even though it was the same wine as the others.  So much for discernment...

According to the researchers, people with more wine knowledge ranked the wine endorsed by a well-known speed skater as the better wine — even though it was the same wine as the others. (Nothing against speed skaters here, but really?)

One issue the study didn’t address is whether it makes a difference if the celebrity endorser is somehow involved with the winery he or she is plugging.   To my mind it’s clear that the winery owner has some input on what gets produced, even if he or she isn’t the winemaker.  So while no one imagines Angelina Jolie is out there harvesting grapes, she may be helping to make decisions about which wines get bottled and sold.  And it could also mean that the endorser would come off as more sincere than one who was just plugging the wine.  (Think of those old Remington shaver commercials — “I liked them so much, I bought the company!”)

Celebrity endorsements are rare for wine, so it might not make a difference who was doing the endorsing, especially if the celebrity has no affiliation with the product.  That could be what happened in the study for the participants with less wine knowledge.  Perhaps if more celebrities start endorsing wines, we’d see a difference in perceptions based on the endorser.

In the meantime, the news ought to make Emilio Estevez happy, because people who know something about wine may really like his.  They might not associate his movie characters with wine per se, but if this study holds true they’d be intrigued enough to try it.    (It might also be the first and last time that someone willingly chooses him over Brad Pitt, but that’s another story.)

I have to admit I was surprised (and a little ashamed) to learn that we semi-knowledgeable wine lovers can be so easily manipulated.  Nothing against speed skaters, but how can we hold our heads up after this?  Can we continue to trust what we thought was our previously unimpeachable judgment of wine?  Or are we condemned to having our own finely-tuned sense of irony come back to bite us in the end?

[** The study is called "The Effects of Perceived Product-Extrinsic Cue Incongruity on Consumption Experiences:  The Case of Celebrity Sponsorship."  The researchers, Sarah Clemente, Eric Dolansky, Antonia Mantonakis, and Katherine White are from Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario; Brock University in St. Catherine's, Ontario; and the University of British Columbia.  The study hasn't been published yet:  e-mail me if you'd like contact information for the authors.]


Perhaps this should be the recipe of the week, but we're going for a little cognitive dissonance.

Perhaps this should be the recipe of the week, but we’re going for a little cognitive dissonance.

In the spirit of appealing to cognitive dissonance, I wanted to find a great celebrity recipe from someone you might not associate with cooking.  I have a book of recipes compiled from singers at the Metropolitan Opera, but that doesn’t fit the bill — given the stereotypical shape of the opera singer it might not be surprising to learn that they could cook as well as eat.  There are a few websites out there that claim to have recipes from celebrities.  But my goodness.  Never have I seen so much canned cream of mushroom soup used by so many, recipe after recipe.

So I decided to look through a bunch of recipes I had downloaded and found one from Rachael Ray that I thought fit the bill.  Yes, she’s a TV cook, so you’d expect her to be able to cook.  But bear with me.

I have never agreed with those who look down on her like Christopher Kimball and Martha Stewart do.  If there is indeed a trend toward in-home cooking and eating less take-out food, it’s because of her 30-minute meals show and others like it, not America’s Test Kitchen and whatever show Martha’s doing now.  Making a meal is often as much about the sequencing and getting a feel for how things cook, how long they take, what you can prep while something is cooking, etc.  Nobody does this better than Rachael Ray.  You might not be able to make her meals in 30 minutes, since that takes a lot of focus.  But 45 minutes?  Absolutely.

After watching her show on and off for a few years, though, I had to admit that the recipes were starting to look the same.  Lots of meat, not enough vegetables.  Chicken breasts and ground beef because they cook quickly.  Everything in one pot, and toward the heartier side rather than lighter.  I can’t say that any of her recipes have entered my cooking rotation.  With one exception.

I think I’ve mentioned before that Cy and I don’t have cable, so I watch the Food Network at the gym.  There are two different grocery stores between the gym and our house, so if I see a recipe I like I can easily pick up ingredients on my way home.  These impulse recipes are usually from Ina Garten or Giada de Laurentiis, since their shows are usually the ones on when I’m at the gym.  For some reason, I had gone earlier one day and caught Rachael Ray.  She made a recipe for pasta with ground pork that looked so good I stopped and bought the ingredients on the way home.

What stood out for me was that the sauce was essentially a deconstructed Italian sausage — all the ingredients you’d find like fennel seed, crushed red pepper, sage, and smoked paprika, but instead of having to take already-made Italian sausage as you found it, you could make it to your taste.  Plus it has a much fresher flavor than using pre-made Italian sausage.  After cooking the sausage ingredients together, Rachael added tomatoes and finished with some chicken broth she had cooked down and infused with saffron before adding the pasta.  Lots of flavors I don’t usually see her using, and being a sucker for pasta dishes I thought I’d give it a try.

It was very good as-is, but of course I’ve made a few changes.  I think vegetable stock works better than chicken stock (the dish is already rich enough), and I substituted oregano instead of sage because I like the flavor better.  I also cook the pasta in the sauce for a couple of minutes at the end and then toss everything with the cheese because it just tastes better that way.  You can also make a meatless version using portabello mushrooms, I’ve listed that as a variation below.

My go-to wine for pasta dishes like this is Cave la Vinsobraise Diamant Noir ($15).  It’s 60% Grenache and 40% Syrah, rich and earthy, but with enough acidity to cut through a richer meal.   And it goes perfectly with a side of irony.

Bon Appetit!


Pasta with Deconstructed Italian Sausage Sauce (or Mushroom Version*)

Serves 4 to 6

1 pound dried ziti or penne


2 cups vegetable stock

1/2 teaspoon saffron threads, 3 pinches

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling at the table

1 teaspoon fennel seeds

1 pound coarsely ground pork

Freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon dried oregano (or 2 teaspoons fresh, chopped)

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

2 teaspoons smoked sweet paprika

4 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 large onion, finely chopped

1 (28-ounce) can tomatoes (Muir Glen or San Marzano)

8 large basil leaves, torn up

3/4 cup freshly-grated pecorino cheese, plus more for sprinkling at the table.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  Heat the stock and saffron over medium heat in a saucepan and reduce by half, about 15 minutes.

While the stock infuses and water comes to boil, heat a large deep skillet with extra-virgin olive oil, a couple turns of the pan, over medium heat. Add the fennel seeds and toast for 1 minute. Add the meat, onions, oregano, red pepper flakes and paprika, plus a teaspoon of salt and some black pepper.  Raise the heat to medium-high.  When the meat is brown, add the garlic and cook for a couple of minutes. Add tomatoes and crush, then bring the sauce to a bubble, reduce the heat and simmer until the sauce thickens, about 15 minutes.  While the sauce cooks you can think about starting to cook the pasta — you want it just about al dente, which can take anywhere from 8 to 10 minutes depending on what it says on the package.  Don’t worry if the sauce has cooked its 15 minutes, you can turn it off and wait for the pasta to finish.

When the pasta is ready, save a cup of the pasta cooking water, then drain the pasta.  Add the infused stock to the sauce. Toss in the drained pasta and cook until the pasta is al dente, about 2 minutes.  Turn off the heat and mix in the pecorino and the basil.  Taste for salt, and add some pasta water if it’s too dry.  Serve in shallow bowls and drizzle each portion with a little olive oil, then top with a little more cheese.

* Mushroom version:  use 2 pounds of portabello mushrooms instead of the pork.  Cut the caps into large pieces, then pulse them in the food processor until they’re chopped up but not ground up.  Add the mushrooms instead of the pork.  The mushrooms will give off a lot of water, and you want this to boil away and the mushrooms to brown a little.  This can take about 10 minutes, so be patient.  Finish the recipe as directed.

Posted in Cave la Vinsobraise, celebrity wine, celebrity wine endorsements, Musings/Lectures/Rants, Tom Natan, Uncategorized, wine advertising, wine delivery washington dc | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Late with a new post, like the 2013 harvest

Sorry for the sparse blogging this past month.  I could give you the usual excuses — vacations, holidays, end-of-summer mental confusion, etc.  Instead, I’m going to say that the hiatus was in solidarity with our wine producers in the Southern Rhône valley, where this year’s harvest is delayed by at least three weeks.

Who are you calling lazy?  We temporarily suspended blogging in solidarity with our producers for their delayed harvest.  That's our story, and we're sticking to it!

Who are you calling lazy? We temporarily suspended blogging in solidarity with our producers for their delayed harvest. That’s our story, and we’re sticking to it!

I got a hint that things might be a little out of the ordinary back in late May.  The export manager for one of my producers e-mailed me about some labeling issues and closed with, “Please tell me it’s warm and sunny somewhere, because it isn’t here.”  Normally it’s gorgeous weather in southern France that time of year.   Sunny but not too hot during the day, beautifully cool at night.  April can be iffy (the rains are bone-chilling) and June temperatures can already be in the 90s (mid 30s for you continentals).  But May?  Nothin’ but blue skies, like the song says.

Actually, I’m not sure there is ever a “normal” year when it comes to wine production. Harvest time is determined by the sugar content of the grapes and their flavor.  In theory, this runs on a schedule that leads to a late August/early September harvest.  If it has been a hot year, harvest is a little early; a cool year means it’s a little late.  When you get outside that “little” bit, though, it can be problematic.

A really hot, dry year (like 2003 or 2009) can produce outstanding red wines with extra fruit and spice.  But some of our producers decided not to make rosé in 2009 because the weather conditions caused higher-than-normal sugar content in the grapes even with an early harvest.  In general, the higher the sugar content in the grapes, the more alcohol in the wine (assuming all the sugar is fermented into alcohol).  That might be fine for a robust red, where there are plenty of other flavors to balance the alcohol burn.  Rosés are supposed to have a lighter flavor, though, so a high alcohol content is not a good thing.  Those producers decided to blend the Cinsault — the major constituent of their rosés — into their red wines instead.

On the opposite extreme, 2008 was cool and rainy.  So even though the weather got better by the end of August, winemakers had to be selective about each and every grape.  Plus the yields were low.  The harvest was delayed and went on through mid-October, because growers wanted the grapes on the vine as long as possible for complete ripening.  That must have been a nail-biter.  Cy and I have frozen our butts off in mid-October in the Southern Rhône valley, so I can imagine there were universal hourly checks of the forecast.  (As a weather geek Cy does this anyway, but it’s different when a year’s vintage depends on it.)

The harvest is late, but the harvest festivals go on, like this one in Séguret.  Photo by Diane Simmons-Tomczak

The harvest is late, but the harvest festivals go on, like this one in Séguret. Photo by Diane Simmons-Tomczak

Harvesting early is convenient in some ways.  There’s less chance of bad weather before or during the harvest, which could either damage the crop or cause the grapes to absorb water and dilute the juice.  But reducing the length of time the grapes spend on the vine can negatively affect flavor too.  This is because some flavor components develop over time and are relatively independent of the specific weather conditions. Harvesting late increases the chance of cold weather and rain.  It also pushes wine production later into the fall and early winter, which can cause delays in distribution.

But practically every vineyard has at least one microclimate and soil zone that’s different from the rest of the property – maybe even more than one.  And winemakers have a lot of slight variations of technique they can use.  So even less-than-ideal years can still produce some memorable wines.  There were some slightly cooler areas producing great Cinsault for rosés in 2009, so cooperative wineries with access to a greater variety of vineyards (like Cave la Romaine and Cave la Vinsobraise) made outstanding 2009 rosés that were still amazing to drink in 2011.  And while red grapes grown in poor clay soil with bad drainage did badly in a wet year (they’d otherwise create great wines in warmer, dryer weather), areas with well-drained soil did well.  So Valérie Chaume-Arnaud was able to make a spectacular 2008 La Cadène Blanc that’s still hanging in there after most white wines are past their prime, if not spoiled.

I haven’t heard anyone say that the 2013 Southern Rhône harvest is problematic, other than being late.  (Unlike some parts of France that had crop-destroying hail this year.)  Things look pretty good for harvesting, weather-wise, so I’m looking forward to the usual wonderful whites and rosés arriving in March and April 2014, and excellent 2013 reds making an appearance in 2014-2015.  Yes, those are a lot of superlatives.  But with solidarity, you’re in all the way or not at all!


An old-time ride through the vineyards at the harvest festival in Séguret.  Photo by Diane Simmons-Tomczak

An old-time ride through the vineyards at the harvest festival in Séguret. Photo by Diane Simmons-Tomczak

So in spite of the afore-mentioned solidarity bravado, there has been a lot going on.  Cy and I were on vacation for almost two weeks, then Dare, Mark, and their daughter were on vacation, and there was back-to-school and back-to-work stuff.  Plus a new twist:  the company we use for shipping delivered wine from only one of the two vineyards I had contracted for them to get to us.  What with vacations and delays on their part we didn’t get the second producer’s wine for three more weeks.

It was especially disappointing because the missing wine was from Château de Clapier in the Luberon.  I have a soft spot for Clapier’s wines because in addition to producing great wines, it was the first winery I found on my own to buy from for First Vine.  I’ve mentioned before that the wines from Cave la Vinsobraise in Vinsobres were my first introduction to consistently marvelous southern Rhône wines.  But tasting Château de Clapier Soprano red, made by Thomas Montagne, was another milestone altogether.  And now we have the Soprano 2010, rested and ready to drink (and yours for $18).  It’s 55% Syrah, 25% Grenache, and 20% Pinot Noir, and will only get better with time, for a long time.  When Cy and I visited Thomas in 2010, we tried his 1999 Soprano and it was really something.

You really can’t go wrong food-wise with the Soprano.  Cy and I have had it with any number of typical red-wine food pairings and it has never disappointed.  But with a complex wine, simple food is often best.  For example, grill an excellent steak and serve it with some mushrooms cooked with olive oil and shallots.  But if you’re looking for a recipe, you can’t do much better than this one for Goat Cheese Tart.  It’s a recipe I put in one of our very first First Vine newsletters, way back before we had this blog.  And it’s the one that Dare and I give out most to people when they ask for recipes for in-home wine tastings.  So please excuse the duplication if you’ve seen it before, but it’s definitely worth repeating.  I found the recipe years ago, made a few changes, and have been making the tart ever since.

Goat cheese can be crumbly and dry on its own, but combining it with cream cheese helps make the tart filling smoother.  Luckily, you can usually find logs of soft goat cheese that are just about 10 ounces in many supermarkets (an ounce more or less is fine), and cream cheese can be found in 3-ounce packages, so there’s nothing to weigh out.  There aren’t a whole lot of other ingredients, so you really taste the tanginess and earthiness of the cheese.  The cornmeal in the crust provides a nice contrast to the smooth filling, and you don’t have to roll out any pastry.  The wide range in baking time is a result of variations in the amount of moisture in the goat cheese:  depending on what you buy it can take more or less time to bake.

You may not feel like baking in our still-hot weather, but this tart is worth it.  Bake it early in the day and let it sit at room temperature until serving, or do it a day ahead and cover and refrigerate it, then let the tart sit at room temperature for an hour.  It will keep for a few days in the fridge and makes a great lunch.

As I mentioned in a previous post about Château de Clapier, Thomas Montagne told us he was distantly related to 19th century opera composer Ambroise Thomas.  Mignon, his most famous opera, was a repertory staple through the 1950s but has fallen out of favor since then.  Still, it’s full of great music and has three arias that everyone would recognize (they’ve been used in plenty of TV commercials).  Two are for mezzos, and one is for soprano.  So (carefully) open the wine, put your feet up, and watch Natalie Dessay in her high-soprano days tossing off “Je Suis Titania” like it was nothing.  It’ll be tough to decide which is more thrilling — the Soprano wine, or the high F the soprano flings out at the end.  Can’t go wrong either way!



Goat Cheese Tart

Serves 8 – 10


1 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup cornmeal

1/2 teaspoon salt

6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, plus extra for the pan

Butter the bottom and sides of a 9-inch springform pan.  Mix the dry ingredients in a food processor, then cut the butter in small pieces, add to the mixture, and process in pulses until the mixture looks mealy and you don’t see any large pieces of butter.  Press it into the bottom of the buttered pan and refrigerate for 20 minutes.


10 ounces soft goat cheese, at room temperature

6 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature

1/4 cup heavy cream

1 tablespoon flour

2 large eggs

Finely grated zest of one lemon

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Mix the filling ingredients in a food processor until smooth.  Pour into the pan onto the chilled crust.  Bake 30 to 45 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into near the center comes out clean.  Let cool and serve at room temperature.

Posted in 2013 Grape Harvest, Château de Clapier, Musings/Lectures/Rants, Tom Natan, Uncategorized, wine delivery washington dc | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment