The other champagne grapes

The leaf on the right is from a Pinot Meunier vine at Champagne Bernard Mante.  The underside looks whiter than the other leaf, because there are little white-colored hairs on it.  These hairs help keep insects away, and also give the plant its name.  "Meunier" means "miller" as in flour miller, and it look like the leaf is dusted with flour.

The leaf on the right is from a Pinot Meunier vine at Champagne Bernard Mante. The underside looks whiter than the other leaf, because there are little white-colored hairs on it. These hairs help keep insects away, and also give the plant its name. “Meunier” means “miller” as in flour miller, and it looks like the underside of the leaf is dusted with flour.  I think the other leaf is from a Chardonnay vine.  But neither of these is one of the mystery grapes!

Here’s a pop quiz for fellow wine geeks. Champagne (that is, the real stuff from France) is allowed to contain which grape varietals?  I’ll give you a hint: there are more than three of them.  What are “the other” champagne grapes?  Read on …

I love learning about wine and wine production. Whether it’s geeking out reading scientific papers or trying to decipher documents detailing French rules of production, or going to seminars and tastings.   But by far the best way to learn about wine for me is to talk with our producers.

Every visit to one of First Vine’s wine producers is a learning experience. Many of them come from a long line of grape growers and wine makers. Not only are they attuned to making wine, but to the history of their regions.

For many of my producers, their ancestors or the people who owned their land in the past helped make history. And in other cases, they’re trying to preserve the region’s farming and winemaking history by continuing old techniques and planting older grape varietals.

The leaves and flowers of the Arbanne vine, at Champagne Bernard Mante.

The leaves and flowers of the Arbanne vine, at Champagne Bernard Mante.

Back in July I wrote about my visit with Bernard and Christiane Mante. Bernard makes champagne in the Marne Valley, and is definitely a history buff.   He has a collection of old postcards showing his village — Trélou-sur-Marne, and surrounding villages before and after World War I, and also showing how champagne grapes were grown and harvested in the early 20th century.

But as I found out during my visit, Bernard is also trying to preserve some of the agricultural history of the region as well. He’s growing four varietals of grapes that were historically used to make champagne: Arbanne, Petit Meslier, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Gris.

Pretty much everything I’d read about champagne listed only Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier as being the three grapes used in wine called “champagne.”   But Bernard told me that wasn’t the case. He said that the original documents setting out rules for champagne production referred to “Pinot” as a designation. While growers today take that to mean Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, it also means that Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris could be used in making champagne.

These two grapes are used to produce Alsatian wines.  Alsace isn’t far from Champagne, so it’s not surprising to see that they’d have been used in making champagne. But I didn’t know anything about Arbanne or Petit Meslier, so I did a little research.

Leaves and new grapes on a Petit Meslier vine, at Champagne Bernard Mante

Leaves and new grapes on a Petit Meslier vine, at Champagne Bernard Mante

Petit Meslier is the more interesting of the two, because it apparently retains high acidity even when grown in hotter-than-normal weather. Grapes lose acidity in really hot weather because it diffuses through the grape skins. While Champagne produces grapes with higher acidity because of the (relatively) cool climate, it’s not difficult to see how Petit Meslier would have been blended into champagne in hotter years to keep the typical acidity level. It apparently tastes like apples, which reminds me of Mauzac, the grape used to make sparkling wines in southwestern France. Arbanne is also highly acidic, and has a flavor that one taster described as green peppercorns.

Bernard told me it was difficult to get seeds or plants of Arbanne and Petit Meslier anywhere in the Champagne region. He has planted a row of each of them, along with single rows of Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris. He’s not growing enough of each to make wine or champagne from them. At least for now, he’s just interested in preserving a bit of history.

[An editing note here: you'll notice that the letter "c" in champagne is used in both upper and lower case. When I first started writing about champagne I didn't know which to use, so I asked Christiane. She told me that upper case is used when referring to the Champagne region, while lower case is used for the actual wine.]


One of Bernard's historical postcards from Champagne.  Perhaps the lady is expressing delight at drinking champagne containing Arbanne and Petit Meslier?

One of Bernard’s historical postcards from Champagne. Perhaps the lady is expressing delight at drinking champagne containing Arbanne and Petit Meslier?

While I’m all for serving champagne with meals, I have to admit that I primarily serve it as an aperitif or with dessert. Not because I don’t like it with non-dessert foods. It’s just that I think butter and especially nuts taste particularly good with champagne. This week’s recipe has both.

Every year I ask Cy what flavor or style of cake he’d like for his birthday. This year, he left it up to me with the proviso that it be a showstopper. I’m afraid I dithered about it. In my defense, we were busy and we went out of town for his birthday weekend. I had good intentions of making a lovely cake when we got back, but then came Valentine’s Day and before I knew it, it was March…

We decided that we’d have a dinner party for Nov Rooz, Persian New Year, which is on the first day of spring. Cy (gently) reminded me that no birthday cake had yet shown up, and suggested that I make a cake with pistachios to celebrate both occasions. I started looking for recipes. Rather than a typical layer cake that had some pistachios in it, I wanted something that was a little more like European tortes. I found one in Jamie Oliver’s magazine, created by Anna Jones (one assumes it’s Jamie-approved if it appears in a magazine with his name on it, but I like to give credit where it’s due).

Ms. Jones’s recipe included an elderflower liqueur soak and used some in the icing as well, but I thought something with rosewater might be better with a Persian meal so I re-engineered them. And while there are proper weights given for each ingredient since there’s baking involved, there’s still that Jamie Oliver cavalier quality in listing them (can’t make it seem too rigorous, after all). Ms. Jones calls for butter. I used unsalted butter and decided the recipe needs salt. And one of the ingredients is “polenta,” which might be used interchangeably for cornmeal — except that you can also buy polenta-grind cornmeal. That’s what I did, and the cake was a little bit more toothsome than I’d like. Also too crumbly. So now I use finely ground cornmeal instead.

You’ll find Champagne Bernard Mante on our Fizz and Finales page. We carry six different varieties and they’re all very good with most desserts. But since there’s rosewater in the dessert, why not try the rosé ($42)? No Arbanne or Petit Meslier in it, but it does have a little red Pinot Noir wine added for the color and a lovely flavor.

Bon Appetit!


Pistachio Cornmeal Cake with Rosewater Icing

Serves 8 to 10


10 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus extra for greasing the pan

1-1/4 cups plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar

1-1/4 cups shelled, roasted, unsalted pistachios, 150 grams or 5 ounces (see note on pistachios), coarsely chopped, plus a little bit more for decoration

1-1/2 cups finely-ground cornmeal

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons almond flour or almond meal

3 tablespoons Greek yogurt

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

3 large eggs, at room temperature

The juice and finely-grated zest of one large lemon

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Cut a piece of parchment to fit the bottom of an 8-inch springform pan. (You can use a 9-inch pan, but you’ll need to reduce the baking time slightly. Also, if you don’t want to take the cake off the springform bottom, you don’t need to use the parchment). Butter the bottom of the pan, then fit in the parchment circle, and butter the paper and the sides of the pan. Set the pan aside.

Beat the 10 tablespoons of butter and the sugar together using an electric mixer. Beat until the mixture is light-colored and a little fluffy. This takes 6 minutes or so. Add the dry ingredients plus the yogurt and beat until thoroughly combined. Beat in the eggs, then the lemon juice and zest.

Scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Bake 45 to 50 minutes, start checking after 40 minutes by sticking a toothpick in the cake near the center — it should come out clean when the cake is done. Remove the cake from the oven and let it cool until just barely warm.

Rosewater syrup

1/2 cup water

2 tablespoons honey

2-1/2 teaspoons rosewater

Heat the water and honey in a small saucepan to dissolve the honey. Let the mixture cool slightly, then stir in the rosewater. Taste the syrup — you can add a little more rosewater if you want more of that flavor. Reserve 2 tablespoons of the syrup for the icing

Rosewater icing

3/4 cup Greek yogurt

3 tablespoons confectioner’s sugar, sifted to remove any lumps

2 tablespoons rosewater syrup

Whisk the yogurt, sugar, and syrup together until completely mixed.

To assemble: Unlock the springform and remove the ring. Gently place a lightly-greased cooling rack on top of the cake, then turn the cake over, taking care not to squeeze the cake and rack together. Remove the pan bottom and parchment, then put a second rack on the bottom of the cake and turn it right-side up. Set the cake on the rack over a rimmed baking sheet or large plate. Make a few small holes in the cake top with a toothpick and brush the rosewater syrup on the top and sides of the cake, making sure it’s absorbed.  You may not need to use all the syrup on the cake.

Pour and spread the icing on top of the cake and decorate with some chopped pistachios, if desired. Gently lift the cake and transfer it to a serving plate.  Serve slightly warm or at room temperature. The cake keeps in an airtight container for a few days at room temperature.

Note on pistachios: It can be difficult to find shelled roasted unsalted pistachios. If you can only get the salted ones, put them in a strainer and rinse them under running water for a few seconds. Then spread them on a baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees F for 5 or 6 minutes. For this recipe, you can chop them before you rinse and bake them — just be sure to let them cool completely before you use them in the cake.

Posted in Champagne, Champagne Bernard Mante, Champagne wine grapes, Gluten-free cake, Musings/Lectures/Rants, Tom Natan, wine delivery washington dc | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Trick yourself into drinking less wine?

As a wine merchant, I'm not sure I like the idea of people drinking less wine, but if you must...

As a wine merchant, I’m not sure I like the idea of people drinking less wine, but if you must…

In Tuesday’s Washington Post, reporter Nancy Szokan recounted some weight-loss tips she found in Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life, a new book by Brian Wansink. Unfortunately for First Vine, drinking less wine is part of it. I’m not surprised. As I’ve written before, wine and alcohol are often the first things people cut out as part of weight-loss programs.

But I am surprised at the way Wansink suggests we go about it: use a taller, thinner glass and you’ll fool yourself into drinking less than you think you are. “We tend to focus on the height of what we pour and not the width, so we pour 12 percent less wine into taller white wine glasses … than we pour into wider red wine glasses.”

And apparently people who drink white wine end up drinking more too. “Because red wine is easier to see than white wine, we pour about 9 percent less red wine whenever we pour a glass.”

Wansink is the director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University. Through years of studying people’s shopping and eating habits, he concluded that many of our bad eating choices aren’t “decisions” at all, but things we do without really thinking about them. In Slim by Design, he maintains that we can harness that same mindlessness to eat and drink less once we realize how our perceptions work. For wine, this means putting away the larger red-wine glasses and making only the white-wine glasses accessible for use.

I’m not sure I agree. I’ll get to the mindlessness in a minute. First of all, Wansink’s studies must have used particular white and red wine glasses, because when I look in the cabinet I can see that my white wine glasses are much smaller than the glasses for reds. Also shorter.  So I imagine they’d have to be glasses that aren’t too much different in capacity to start with. Because I can’t see that anyone couldn’t tell at a glance just how much less my white wine glasses would hold and make a choice based on how much wine they’d like to drink.

Then, the part about people thinking they’re drinking more if the wine is in a tall, thin glass makes me scratch my head. As a math geek, a wine lover, and someone who enjoys cooking, I’m aware of volume as more than just height. Even without consciously thinking about it, I’m a pretty good judge of what constitutes a four- or five-ounce pour in various wine glasses. I also find that I tend to pour two smaller glasses rather than one large one no matter what glass I’m using — if I’m going to swirl the wine in the glass, there has to be less wine in it to start or the wine will go all over the place. (And I’m nothing if not a vigorous swirler.)

The Post article is the first I’ve heard of Wansink’s book, so I haven’t yet read it. I’m also not an expert on behavioral psychology. Reading a few online articles seems to bear out Wansink’s observation, though. People definitely drink less from a taller, slimmer glass, even though they think they’re drinking more. Szokan says the takeaway is “to consider findings like [this] and change your environment or habits. Then you won’t have to think about it: You’ll just eat less.” But would that really work?

The main building at Cap de Castel, a small hotel in southwestern France.  A meal Cy and I had there was the inspiration for this week's recipe.  (Photo from the Cap de Castel website.)

The main building at Cap de Castel, a small hotel in southwestern France. A meal Cy and I had there was the inspiration for this week’s recipe. (Photo from the Cap de Castel website.)

What I don’t see in these articles is whether or not people continue the same behavior once they’re aware of it. In other words, once you know that you’re fooling yourself with the taller glass, won’t you think about it before you pour the next time? Even if you continue to use the taller glasses, couldn’t knowing you’re drinking less make you feel a little deprived and pour a second glass?

Perhaps you could switch out the glasses then simply forget what you’d learned and end up drinking less by force of habit. Or, perhaps you’d realize that you don’t crave or need more wine than you get in the taller glass and stick with the smaller amount.

This last option strikes me as the opposite of mindlessness, though. And it’s more in line with other things I’ve read that say that understanding when you’re hungry and when you’re not is key to maintaining better weight. Still, it’s interesting to think that you can make a one-time decision about glassware and end up permanently drinking less wine without giving it another thought. Assuming that’s what you’re after, of course.


As we get into fall weather, I always think of the first time Cy and I visited Cap de Castel, a small hotel in Puylaurens. Puylaurens is pretty much equidistant between Carcassone, Toulouse, and Albi in southwestern France. So if you stay there, you can make easy day trips to some great cities. And if you are staying there, you’ll want to come back for dinner in the evening. There’s a small restaurant in the hotel, and guests get first call for seats. We’ve eaten there as late as 9 pm, so you can put in a full day of activities.

I know I have a photo of Cy and me on the terrace at Cap de Castel, but I can't find it.  (Photo from the Cap de Castel website.)

I know I have a photo of Cy and me on the terrace at Cap de Castel, but I can’t find it. (Photo from the Cap de Castel website.)

The restaurant has excellent food and while we enjoyed everything we tried, our very first bite there was the one I remember best. It was a dish of mushrooms in a tasty wine sauce, topped with a small soft-boiled egg (removed from its shell), and crunchy bread with a little garlic and olive oil on it. This was the chef’s take on the classic dish Oeufs en Meurette.   When you cut the egg open, the yolk runs down and mixes with the sauce. It’s really wonderful. Some versions use bacon, but I like it better without (amazing, right? I’ll bet you never thought I’d say something was better without bacon!) And since the recipe uses vegetable stock, there’s no meat in it. I went back to the original poached egg instead of soft-boiled, but if you’re good at peeling soft-boiled eggs, by all means give it a try.

Since you’re cooking with red wine, pick one you can also serve with the dish. I like Domaine des Mathurins Tango pour Hélène ($13), it’s a Languedoc red that’s 60% Grenache, 40% Syrah. Grenache and mushrooms are a natural combination, and the wine’s not aged in oak. I find that oak-aged wines can sometimes turn a little bitter when they’re cooked for a while.

While it looks complicated, this dish is really just cooked mushrooms with red wine and stock, plus poached eggs and a little bread. Almost all the alcohol cooks out of the wine, and that’s where the calories in wine are, so it’s about as virtuous as you can get for so much mushroom-y goodness. While the recipe makes four servings, you can easily eat two and save two for another meal.  Serve it with a salad and you’ll feel almost virtuous!

Better yet, it works out by volume. There are approximately 3-1/4 cups of wine in a 750 ml bottle. This recipe uses 2 cups, which leaves 1-1/4 cups, or 10 ounces — enough for two five-ounces glasses of wine. And it won’t matter what kind of glass you serve it in!

Bon Appetit!


Mushroom Ragout with Poached Eggs and Garlic Toasts

Serves 4


1-1/2 pound fresh mushrooms, bottom of stems trimmed, caps wiped clean with a damp cloth (a pound of white mushrooms and a half-pound of crimini work well here)

2 large shallots, finely minced

Olive oil

2 cups dry red wine

2 cups vegetable stock (canned or boxed is fine)

1-1/2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 branch of fresh thyme, or ¼ teaspoon dried

1 teaspoon red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons softened butter

Salt and freshly-ground pepper

In a medium-sized saucepan, combine the red wine, stock, and thyme and bring to a boil. Boil until the mixture is reduced to about 2 cups (10-15 minutes).

Meanwhile, quarter the mushrooms if they’re large, and halve the medium-sized ones. The small ones can stay whole. Heat a film of olive oil in a large sauté pan until it’s rippling, and add enough of the mushrooms to almost cover the bottom of the pan. Shake the pan and then let the mushrooms sit for 30 seconds or so to brown one edge, then shake again and brown another side. Take the mushrooms from the pan and set them aside in a bowl. Repeat with the remaining mushrooms.

Add a little more oil to the pan if needed and sauté the shallots until they’re just turning golden. Stir the mushrooms in, then sprinkle the flour over the top and combine it with the mushrooms and shallots. Cook for a minute on low heat, then slowly add the hot wine mixture, stirring to combine. Add the vinegar. Let the mushrooms to simmer in the sauce for 5 minutes. The liquid should coat the mushrooms nicely. If it seems too liquid-y, raise the heat and boil it for a couple of minutes. Turn the heat back to low. Stir in the butter, then add salt and pepper to taste. Remove the branch of thyme if you used one. Cover the mixture and set it aside to keep warm (or let it cool and refrigerate. Reheat gently to serve.)

Garlic Toasts

4 thin slices rustic bread cut in half crosswise, or 12 slices of baguette, about a half-inch thick

Olive oil

2 cloves garlic, peeled and cut in half

Coarse salt

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Put the bread slices on a baking pan and drizzle them with olive oil. Let them bake until lightly browned. Rub each slice with the garlic to give a little garlic flavor, then sprinkle with the salt. Let the toasts cool. Store overnight in an airtight container if you want to make them ahead.

Poached Eggs

4 large eggs

1 tablespoon white vinegar (optional)


Bring about 4 inches of water to boil in a wide pot and add some salt and the white vinegar. Then lower the heat to a bare simmer. At the same time, fill a large saucepan one-third full with water and some salt and bring it to a simmer. Create a whirlpool/vortex in the saucepan and crack an egg into the center. Leave it for 30 seconds until the outside is set, then remove it with a slotted spoon and place it in the larger pot to cook for two and a half more minutes. Once you’ve removed one egg from the saucepan you can start on the next one. (I recommend putting them in an a clockwise rotation so you’ll know which one is done first.) Remove the eggs and let them rest on a clean towel to dry for a few seconds. (To do them ahead, put the poached eggs in a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking and refrigerate them. To reheat, put them gently into a bowl of very hot tap water until they’re warm.) You don’t need to worry about them looking perfect, they’re going to taste great in the ragout anyway.

To Serve

Divide the ragout evenly among 4 bowls, top each portion with a poached egg and arrange the garlic toasts around the edge. Dress it up with a little coarse salt and freshly-ground pepper.

Posted in Brian Wansink, Domaine des Mathurins, Mindless eating, Musings/Lectures/Rants, Slim by Design, Tom Natan, Uncategorized, Vegetarian recipes, wine delivery washington dc | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Small plates, big service

If this is what restaurants meant by "small plates," they'd be a whole lot more fun than the (generally) disappointing dining experience I've found them to be.

If this is what restaurants meant by “small plates,” they’d be a whole lot more fun than the (generally) disappointing dining experience I’ve found them to be. (Photo from

If you’ve read this blog for a while you’ll know that I try to avoid restaurants that serve only so-called “small plates.” But Cy and I came across one last month that redeemed the small-plate concept. Even better, we ate there on vacation, when we were really primed to enjoy it.

I listed my small-plate bugaboos extensively in a previous post, but here’s a recap: The each-dish-coming-out-when-it’s-ready thing is annoying and unnecessary. It’s tyranny, really, eating when they decide that you can. No matter how good the food is, and it’s often very good, it’s still difficult to have an excellent dining experience at most of these places. If you’re not rushed through your food, you’re waiting while some of your party eats and vice-versa. If you’re sharing all the food, you’re trying your best not to take more than your portion — and inevitably there are bits left that you all end up eying, hungrily, but no one wants to be the one to make the first move and finish something up.

And worst of all, there’s rarely an option to get small pours of different wines to go with your variety of small plates.

But then last month, when my husband Cy and I were on our final night of vacation and hoping to have one last lovely dinner out, we found a small-plate restaurant that we’d go back to anytime. Joon Bar + Kitchen, in Provincetown, MA, does it right. And since it’s a small restaurant in an expensive town with a very short tourist season, if they can do it, anyone can.

We knew we weren’t in the DC-small-plate scene the moment we walked in. We saw a table by the front window and asked the hostess if we could sit there. She said we could, but that there was another party using that table in an hour and a half — and they reserve your table for two and a quarter hours. She thought we might feel a little rushed if we took it instead of the (equally lovely) one reserved for us. For a moment, we thought that 1.5 hours would probably be enough for our meal. But we decided to take her recommendation, and were glad we did.

The food was very good, nicely prepared, and beautifully served. The best thing, though, was that we were able to ask for our dishes in the order we wanted to eat them. Imagine, getting two small plates of our choosing at the same time, one hot and one cold. And then two more dishes at the same time, as requested. In the second round, one of the dishes was something that would no doubt have come out from the kitchen pretty much right away in any other small-dish place. But it came when we wanted it, right off the grill.

Despite the Persian name, Joon Bar + Kitchen doesn't serve Persian food.  This week's recipe is my version of a Persian small-plate dish. (Photo from

Despite the Persian name, Joon Bar + Kitchen doesn’t serve Persian food. This week’s recipe is my version of a Persian small-plate dish. (Photo from

Though I found a wine on the list that we were happy to drink an entire bottle of despite our disparate dishes, Joon is a wine bar and you can request small pours of any of the wines served by the glass. Next time I’m going to try it out.

While we didn’t take the full time allotted to us, we stayed for two hours at Joon. Contrast this to some DC small-plate places that try to chase parties of four out in less than an hour and a half. And Joon’s not any more expensive than the DC places are. So check it out if you can. You’ll be surprised how civilized small plates can be.


As soon as we saw the sign “Joon,” Cy and I wondered if perhaps the owner might be Persian. Joon, in Farsi, is a term of endearment, like “dear” in English. Cy’s father came to the U.S. from Iran, and Cy’s paternal grandfather was called Papa Joon by his grandchildren. Cy and his sister still call each other Joon when they talk on the phone.

Sure enough, owner and sommelier Audrey is half-Persian like Cy. Her father called her Audrey Joon from the time she was born. So she named the restaurant Joon in his honor. The name fits, though, because it’s so welcoming. The photos on the wall are from her father’s family in Iran, and when I first saw them I wondered how they’d managed to get Cy’s family photos up in Provincetown.

Although there’s no Persian food on the menu at Joon, I thought it would be fun to have a small-plate Persian food recipe. Last year I posted a recipe for Albondigas, Spanish Tapas-style meatballs. Practically every culture has its own version, and the Persian ones are called Kufteh. You can form them on skewers and grill them, or make them as small meatballs and cook them in a tomato sauce with cinnamon and turmeric, as the recipe shows here.

Louisa Shafia's new book is a good introduction to Persian food.  I'll be writing a review soon.

Louisa Shafia’s new book is a good introduction to Persian food. I’ll be writing a review soon. (Photo from

The key to making them moist and not too dense is to soak uncooked Basmati rice in water for at least an hour, then drain it and grind it up in a food processor before adding it to the meat. It’s important to use Basmati rice because other varieties might not behave the same way. Some Persian rice dishes steam Basmati rice for over an hour and it still comes out beautifully — you can’t say that about some other long-grain rices. You should be able to find Basmati rice in the grocery store. But if not, see if your local Indian restaurant will sell you a little. You’ll only need a half a cup. Using rice instead of bread or bread crumbs in the meatballs makes them gluten free, too.

I first made Kufteh earlier this year from Louisa Shafia’s book The New Persian Kitchen, and this recipe is basically hers with several tweaks. The ingredients aren’t out of the ordinary, with two possible exceptions. One is turmeric, a spice not everyone may have around. If you’re someone who doesn’t want to buy a spice you don’t otherwise use to try a recipe, you can leave it out. But last week in my doctor’s office I read about turmeric’s use in relieving joint pain. So it might be worth buying after all. The other is mint. Shafia writes that many Persian cooks used dried herbs in cooking, especially mint. I never thought dried mint had any flavor, but if you’re going to make more middle-eastern food it would be convenient to have around. You can also substitute some dried or fresh basil, which might be easier to find — use about one-third as much dried basil as dried mint, or half as much fresh.  I think wintertime fresh basil from the grocery store has more flavor than wintertime fresh mint, so it might work out better anyway.

This week's recommended wine is a new selection from Azienda Agricola San Benedetto, near San Gimignano, Italy

This week’s recommended wine is a new selection from Azienda Agricola San Benedetto, near San Gimignano, Italy

Since this dish is basically meatballs in tomato sauce, I thought I’d pair it with our new spaghetti and meatballs wine: Azienda Agricola San Benedetto Chianti Tradizione ($14). We’ve just received shipments from two Italian wine producers, both in Tuscany. San Benedetto, near San Gimignano, makes classic northern Tuscan wines like Chianti, Vernaccia di San Gimignano, and Vermentino. Marco and Andrea Gianelli farm and make wine and olive oil on land their ancestors worked as sharecroppers. Their Chianti Tradizione is lighter-bodied, with a little acidity to stand up to the tomato sauce. A great wine for everyday meals. Italian wine and Persian food — combining great cuisines in a meal doesn’t have to be difficult!

Nooshe Joon!


Persian-Style Meatballs in Tomato Sauce

Serves 8 as an appetizer or tapas-style course


1/2 cup basmati rice, soaked in cold water for at least one hour

4 cloves garlic, smashed and peeled

3 tablespoons dried mint, or 1 cup loosely packed fresh mint (you can substitute 1 tablespoon dried basil, or 1/2 cup fresh basil leaves)

1 small onion, cut in pieces

1 pound lean ground beef (90%), or a mixture of ground beef and ground lamb

1 egg, beaten

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper

3 tablespoons olive oil (for browning)


2 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion, minced

3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric

3 cups cooked tomato sauce (use your favorite brand from a jar, preferably one with less herbs. If it’s very thick, add 3 tablespoons of water to it)

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

1-2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Make the meatball mixture: Drain the rice well and shake off as much excess water as you can. Put the rice in a food processor with the garlic, mint or basil, and onion. Pulse until it’s ground up — there should be no large pieces of rice. Put the mixture into a large bowl and combine with the meat, egg, salt, and pepper. At this point you can cover the meatball mixture and refrigerate it for 24 hours if you’d like to do it ahead.

Make the sauce: Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan and sauté the onion until it’s lightly browned, about 10 minutes or so. Add the cinnamon and turmeric and cook for a minute. Stir in the tomato sauce and some black pepper. Bring to the simmer and taste for salt.

Brown the meatballs: While the onion is browning for the sauce, form the meatballs using one heaping tablespoon for each one. Heat the oil in a large non-stick skillet and lightly brown the meatballs on all sides. You’ll have to do this in batches, remove the browned meatballs and put them on a plate while you do the rest of them.

Finishing:  When all the meatballs are browned, pour off any fat in the skillet and add the sauce. Scrape the bottom to mix in any browned bits. Add the meatballs back to the skillet and stir gently to coat them in sauce. Cover the pot and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Mix in 1 tablespoon of lemon juice — the sauce should be lightly acidic but not too much (it will depend on how acidic your tomato sauce is). Add another tablespoon of lemon juice if you think it needs it. Serve warm.

Posted in Joon Bar + Kitchen, Musings/Lectures/Rants, Small-plate restaurants, Tapas recipes, Tom Natan, wine delivery washington dc | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Our wine is better than your water

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bon Appetit!


Baked Salmon with Walnuts and Bread Crumbs

Serves 4

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

1 large clove garlic, peeled

1/4 cup walnut pieces

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

1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

Salt and freshly-ground pepper

Extra-virgin olive oil

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

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

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

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

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

Vacation Rental Kitchen Surprises

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bon Appetit!


Tomato Tart with Cheese

Pizza à la Pissaladière

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Champagne, 100 years can disappear in an instant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bon Appetit!


Fennel, Orange, and Olive Salad

Serves 4

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

2 small navel oranges

24 small unpitted green olives, like Picholine

1/4 of a large red onion

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1/4 teaspoon Dijon mustard

Extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly-cracked black pepper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Bon Appetit!


Flank Steak with Mushroom Sauce

Serves 4 to 6

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

1 750 ml bottle dry red wine

1 small onion, coarsely chopped

2 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled

1 branch fresh rosemary, or 1 teaspoon dried

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

1 teaspoon soy sauce

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

1/2 ounce dried porcini mushrooms

8 ounces sliced fresh mushrooms

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 30th is #LanguedocDay!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bon Appetit!


Roast Pork Loin à la Languedocienne

Serves 8

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

6 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled

1 tablespoon chopped rosemary

1 tablespoon plus one teaspoon chopped thyme

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

3 slices bacon, chopped into pieces

2 tablespoons olive oil

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

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

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

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

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

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

“What is Romance?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Domaine de Montvac Cuvée Vincila 2005 ($24)

Château de Rocquebrune Lalande de Pomerol 2005 ($25)

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

Cave la Vinsobraise Emeraude 2007 ($18)

Lara O Crianza 2006 ($19)

Bodega Hiriart Crianza 2009 ($19)

Cave la Romaine Séguret 2010 ($15)

Cave la Romaine Puyméras 2010 ($15)

Château d’Assas Réserve 2010 ($18)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bon Appetit!


Roman-Style Cod

Serves 4

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

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

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

1 14.5-oz can petite-diced tomatoes in juice

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

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

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

A big pinch of red pepper flakes

2 tablespoons dry white wine

Extra-virgin olive oil

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

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

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

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

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

Image from

Image from

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

Photo from

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.

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