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.
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.
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)
Lara O Crianza 2006 ($19)
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.
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.)
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.