A regulatory axe to grind (or throw)

My husband Cy and I never miss the Health Code Violations blurbs in the Washington Post every Thursday.  While it seems a bit ghoulish, they shine a light on how local government functions.  Admittedly, it’s not nice to read that a favorite restaurant or grocery store had a rodent or insect infestation.  But some entries are for alcohol-related violations, and the citations and fines are issued by the city’s Alcoholic Beverage Regulatory Administration, or ABRA, which also regulates First Vine.

Health Code Violations get reported in the Washington Post every Thursday. Interestingly, many of them are related to alcohol regulation — which seems to apply in areas you wouldn’t think it did. Some of the listings are real head-scratchers, but this one about axe throwing really stood out.

One of today’s entries made us scratch our heads.  As you can see in the photo, a place called Kick Axe Throwing got a $1,000 fine from ABRA for hosting – wait for it — axe throwing. 

Seriously?  A place with axe throwing in the name got fined for axe throwing? And it’s prohibited?  Of course, this leads to all sorts of questions, like how they got a license in the first place if it’s prohibited.  Not to mention whether alcohol and axes are a good mix.

But what it really points out is that alcohol regulation has tendrils in a lot of different things.  It also overlaps other regulatory areas like health and public safety – which is how some things like this end up in the Health Code Violations column.  It’s true for ABRA, and I’m sure it’s true for the alcohol regulators where you live, too. 

ABRA issues all different kinds of permits and licenses for various businesses, and every business has some quibble about parts of the regulations which seem either burdensome or not quite appropriate.  Particularly if they want to do something new.  For example, the online-only alcohol license didn’t exist when I applied for a liquor license.  The agency put “internet only” somewhere on the original document because they didn’t have a category for it.  All of the regulations for walk-in liquor stores still applied to the license, including distance between my storage and other retailers, and not being too close to public schools and parks. Even though the general public couldn’t enter and buy.  I once had to sit and talk with an ABRA inspector at length about my business because it didn’t fit the walk-in license class I had, and he’d never inspected an online-only business before.  Some years later, ABRA solved the issue and developed online-only licenses. 

This was a minor inconvenience.  But some businesses end up getting crammed into regulations or categories that they don’t believe fit them.  Kind of like Cinderella’s stepsisters and the glass slipper. 

In addition to its liquor license to serve alcohol, Kick Axe Throwing apparently has what ABRA calls an Entertainment Endorsement.  According to ABRA’s website, this endorsement allows alcohol establishments to:

  • Offer live entertainment, including a singer, band, or musical ensemble, poetry reading, trivia, karaoke, DJ, comedy show, or drag show.
  • Provide an area or space for dancing.
  • Charge an entrance fee that is not directly applied to the purchase of food and drink.

However, current DC Covid regulations prohibit live entertainment for the time being to lessen person-to-person transmission.  While this is a public health measure, live entertainment falls under ABRA’s entertainment endorsement for businesses that serve alcohol.  Venues with the endorsement are still allowed to sell food and beverages, following the city’s guidelines for doing so.  I don’t know for sure, but it looks like Kick Axe Throwing may have allowed customers or staff members to engage in axe throwing, which by ABRA’s regulation constitutes live entertainment for endorsement purposes in this case.  Because the city’s Covid live entertainment ban was allegedly violated, the venue received a fine. 

ABRA also issues fines to businesses with liquor licenses that aren’t enforcing city mask regulations, or that violate other provisions of the city’s Covid restrictions.  Even though those seem like health department functions. My understanding is that police or an ABRA inspector must witness the activity before a citation or fine can be issued. 

According to its website, Kick Axe Throwing’s owners feel that the venue’s operation doesn’t fit the entertainment endorsement.  Here’s what the company’s home page says:

“Kick Axe Throwing® & ​THRōW Social™ (our sister venue upstairs) will be temporarily closed due to no fault of our own.

​“D.C. qualifies our games as ‘live entertainment’ even though each reservation is private and we follow all social distancing and safety guidelines, including 25% capacity, staggered start times, contactless check-in, mask requirements for all, sanitization between all reservations, and have invested many thousands to make sure everyone felt safe. At this time, we do not feel we can stay open for just food & beverage and still cover our team members’ salaries. 

“Hopefully, D.C. restrictions will be lessened soon and our people will be able to come back to work, but we do not think that will be for five or six weeks at a minimum. Ironically, we do not qualify as ‘Live Entertainment’ for government aid and will not be able to receive the Shuttered Venue Grant.”

I’m not going to weigh in on what’s fair and what’s not here, or on the particular incident in question.  That last statement is interesting, though – that the company qualifies as providing live entertainment in some cases but not in others.  It may be something that the city and/or federal government have to explore when it comes to things like pandemic assistance. 

Additionally, ABRA may develop some license changes or new categories to reflect operating conditions of companies like Kick Axe Throwing.  The agency recently created new licenses for DC-located wine, beer, and spirits producers to sell product at the city’s farmers’ markets, so they’re not static when it comes to new business plans.

But this situation is definitely an example of unexpected things that happen in the wide, wonderful world of alcohol regulation.  You never know where the axe will fall… 😉


We had sleet here yesterday, it left ice pellets on top of ice sheets on every surface.  So even if we were inclined to go pandemic grocery shopping, it was difficult to leave the house.  We didn’t lose power or water, so it wasn’t more than inconvenient for those of us fortunate enough to work from home.

In this situation, my first impulse is to turn to dry goods – legumes, rice, pasta, etc.  And a favorite easy meal is a combination of lentils and rice cooked with lots of onion and spices.  If I have a little bit of sausage in the freezer, I’ll add it.  But it’s not necessary.  If I have chicken or vegetable stock, I might use it to cook the rice.  Water is perfectly good, too, and it makes the dish taste more lentil-y.  

Ice pellets on top of ice sheets, courtesy of yesterday’s storm. We didn’t lose power or water, though, like parts of the southern U.S.

This combination is served the world over, and has different names depending on how it’s spiced.  I’m going with cumin, cinnamon, turmeric, and cayenne here, so it’s a sort of Mujadara.  Mujadara is a typical side dish in many middle eastern countries.  It makes a nice main dish, too – either alone or with some protein mixed in it.  Warm and comforting, easily made on the stovetop, and great as leftovers.  Nothing here to dislike!

Cold weather seems to call for red wine, but I think a substantial white wine also works with this dish.  Ciavolich Aries Pecorino ($19) is a new First Vine selection, made in Abruzzo.  Pecorino isn’t a wine we see too much here in the DC area. It’s generally on wine lists at better Italian restaurants, but not necessarily in wine shops. 

I’ve been talking with Chiara Ciavolich, the winemaker, about her family’s connection to the land in Abruzzo, dating back to the 16th century.  I’ll be writing about it soon.  But growing Pecorino grapes is a natural for Chiara because her family were shepherds when they first came to Italy from Bulgaria.  Pecora is Italian for sheep.  Why would a grape be named after sheep?  Well, you’ll have to stay tuned to find out.

In the meantime, stay warm and dry.  We’ve been promised some melting, but for now there’s plenty of Mujadara left over and you’ve all been patient about putting off deliveries until the roads aren’t icy.  Thanks for your understanding!


Note: you can make this a more Mediterranean dish by substituting red pepper flakes, plus dried rosemary, thyme, and oregano, plus a bit of crushed fennel seed for the spices.

Mujadara – Lentils and Rice with Onion and Spices

Serves 4 as a main course, 6 as a side dish

1-1/2 cups lentils (either brown, green, or Puy)

Olive oil

½ pound lamb, pork, or turkey sausage, sliced, or ground meat (optional)

1 large or 2 medium onions, cut in half lengthwise and sliced

4 garlic cloves, minced

2 teaspoons ground cumin

¾ teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon ground turmeric

¼ teaspoon cayenne

1-1/2 cups white rice (preferably Basmati, but regular long-grain rice is OK)


Water or vegetable stock

Put the lentils in a medium saucepan and cover them with at least an inch of cold water.  Bring to a boil over high heat, then lower the heat and cook the lentils until soft.  Brown lentils take about 15 minutes, Puy lentils take around 25.  Drain the lentils and set aside.

In the meantime, if you’re using sausage or meat, brown them first.  In a large, heavy pot that also has a lid, heat a couple of tablespoons of oil until hot and add the sausage or meat (add a pinch of salt if it’s ground meat).  Cook until lightly browned, then remove it with a slotted spoon to a bowl, leaving as much fat behind as possible.

You’ll need to have about 3 tablespoons of fat in the pan.  Pour out the rest.  If you didn’t use any meat, then add 3 tablespoons olive oil and heat it up.  Cook the onions with a pinch of salt over medium heat for about 10 minutes, until they start to get brown.  Turn the heat to low, add the garlic and cook for another few minutes until it gets lightly golden.  At this point, stir in the sausage or meat if you’re using them.  Turn the heat back up to medium, add a teaspoon of salt and the spices and cook for a couple of minutes.  Stir in the rice.  Cook the rice for a couple of minutes so that it’s thoroughly coated and there doesn’t seem to be as much fat in the bottom of the pan.

Stir in the lentils and 2-1/2 cups of water or vegetable stock.  Bring it to a nice boil, then cover the pot and turn the heat to low.  Cook for 20 minutes.  Uncover the pot and add up to ¼ cup more water or stock if it all seems completely dry or if it’s stuck to the bottom of the pot (sometimes you also have undercooked rice grains on top, this is OK, they’ll finish cooking in a couple of minutes. If you used long-grain rice instead of Basmati, you’ll likely need some extra liquid).  Stir it up and check it – it shouldn’t be soupy.  If it is, crank up the heat for a minute and keep stirring until everything is just moist and not wet.  Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature.

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Lead-ing the way to bottles past

There’s no humble way to say that you’ve had the opportunity to open an old bottle of nice Cognac, so I’m not even going to try.  I did it, and I’m glad. But there was a surprise…

I didn’t expect to see lead foil on a bottle of Cognac. But it was a bottle from the 1960s, and lead foil was used on many bottles of alcohol into the 1990s. Even wine.

The bottle belonged to my husband Cy’s uncle Hooshang.  Hooshang was a pediatrician in New York City for over 60 years.  His apartment in lower Manhattan was filled with gifts from grateful patients and their parents, as well as from colleagues.  Some of these included fine bottles of liquor.

A few weeks ago, I decided to make French Manhattans from David Liebovitz’s book Drinking French. These cocktails use brandy or cognac.  Ordinarily I’d use a reasonably good brandy.  But we had Cognac.  In fact, two bottles from Hooshang:  one was Hennessey that was clearly a more recent one.  The other was Courvoisier, probably from the 1960s from the looks of it.  I thought we’d taste it neat and then use it for spectacular cocktails.  I’m sure Mr. Liebovitz would approve.

I expected that the cork would be dried out.  Most people store liquor bottles standing up, so the cork doesn’t get moistened – sometimes for decades.  What I didn’t expect to see was lead foil covering the cork and the entire top of the bottle.  I didn’t realize it was lead until I cut through it and saw the shiny inner surface.  It was also definitely more substantial than regular bottle foil by weight.  I made sure to take it all off, then washed my hands before continuing. 

As I was picking at the foil to get it off, I remembered that lead was widely used in bottle foil for all kinds of alcohol, including wine.  When I first started doing environmental work in the early 1990s, I contacted a winery in California that had reported a big increase (by weight) in transfer of lead for offsite disposal to EPA in 1988.  The manager told me that a decision had been made to stop using lead in anticipation that it would be banned for use in bottle foil.  Plus, under California’s labeling laws, they’d have had to disclose the lead used in packaging.  No one wanted to keep it lying around, and management didn’t want to sell it.

So why lead in bottle foil?  For the same reason as many of its other uses.  It’s malleable and cheap.  Bottle foil was one of the last uses of lead to be legislated out of existence.  California banned it in 1991, and FDA announced it would be issuing a ban that same year, finalizing the end of lead foil in 1996.  By that time, no U.S. wine producer was using it. 

According to the research supporting the ban, the problem wasn’t that lead would leach into the wine in the bottle from the foil.  Rather, cutting the top of the foil and leaving the rest on the bottle created a fresh edge that could leach lead into the wine as it was poured, especially if the wine is more acidic.  And since a little liquid stays in the cut end of the foil after pouring, that could increase potential exposure even more with subsequent pours.

It wasn’t just the U.S. that banned lead foil on wine bottles.  According to one of my French wine producers, May 1, 1992 was the date of France’s ban.  So if you have some fine old French wine in your cellar, be careful.  I’d take the foil completely off the bottle, but wipe the foil first with a damp paper towel before removing it.  This cleans off any surface dust that could contain lead. Wipe down the neck and top of the bottle again with a different damp paper towel and wash your hands before you remove the cork.  If you want to cut the foil to remove the cork but leave the rest of the foil on the bottle, do the same procedure except leave the bottom part of the foil on, well below the lip of the bottle.  Please wash your hands again before you start pouring, just to be sure.

It’s hard to imagine these days that lead was deliberately used in all kinds of consumer products.  Even aside from paint and gasoline.  And as we’ve all learned from the water issues in Flint, Michigan, there are countless hidden uses of lead, too.  (Lead water lines are surprisingly easy to find in older homes, even today.  My 1920-built house has one and our water company has promised to replace it for nearly 20 years now…)  Lead is a potent neurotoxin, especially in children.  There is a clear link between lead exposure and developmental effects in children.  Toxicologists and medical experts state clearly that there is no safe level for lead exposure.  Even for adults.  Long term adult lead exposure can eventually lead to hypertension, joint and kidney damage, miscarriages, and other symptoms.

Bottle capsules or foils are meant to protect the cork from damage. At least that was the reason they were first used (stopping insects and rodents), and they could slow or prevent oxygen transfer. They’re also another branding space for wineries if they choose to use it.  Obviously, lead isn’t necessary for capsules.  Metal bottle foils are now made from tin, although most are made from plastic these days.  There are some tin-plastic hybrids out there, too.  One of my new Italian producers uses a wax-like plastic seal on top of the wine bottles, which I used to see more often.  And sometimes if you buy wine directly from a winery you’ll get bottles with no foil on them at all.  I like the look of bottles without capsules, although different foil colors can make bottles easier to identify in the cellar.

If you have old bottles with lead foil, you shouldn’t just toss the lead in your recycle bin.  Look for your local hazardous waste disposal, even for just one or two of them.  It’s important that we keep as much lead out of the environment as we can, since it doesn’t just go away.  Be sure to relish every bit inside those bottles, though.  Cy and I toast Hooshang every time we drink the Courvoisier and the other alcohol he gave us.  We normally use good, but not the very best stuff for most cocktails, so we feel like we’ve been living large.  I hope you have a special person or place associated with your old bottles, too.


Amoo Hooshang wasn’t a big spirits drinker, and he always encouraged Cy and me to take some bottles home with us when we visited.  Early last July, we finally did, although unfortunately without him there to offer them again.  Hooshang died from Covid in April, during the first peak of deaths in the U.S.  You can read more about Hooshang and his remarkable life in the lovely obituary Cy wrote for him here.  Sorting through his apartment gave us a little bit of the goodbye we didn’t get with him in the hospital.  Sadly, this is the same situation for many people losing their family members and friends.  Cy and I want to send our sympathy to all those who lost loved ones to Covid, especially if those who died had to be isolated.  Let’s hope we can all see one another again in person soon.


I promised producer profiles, and you’ll have them – I just need some more information before I post them.  In the meantime, though, I have a recipe for you.  It’s based on a dish in Yotam Ottolenghi’s book Simple, and it actually is pretty easy to make.  Lamb Arayes are a mixture of spiced ground lamb that is put on one half of a pita (or in this case, a flour or corn tortilla) with a little cheese, then folded over, and fried until the tortilla is crisp and the filling is cooked.  They’d be called quesadillas if they weren’t filled with lamb seasoned with tahini and pomegranate molasses (although they could be called Ottolenghi Quesadillas, since he uses those two ingredients often.  You can find his recipe here).

I realized you could use this method to make nearly any meat mixture into an araye, quesadilla, or filled flatbread of your choice.  The key is to use a meat that’s around 85% lean, and have enough liquid inside to make it nice and sticky/smushy.  Ordinarily when you’re making meatloaf or meatballs, you’re told not to mix them too much because the meat gets sticky and the final dish can be tough.  But that’s what you want here, because there’s no binder like the typical milk and bread combo to hold the meat mixture together.  The filling doesn’t toughen up in the short cooking time. 

Finished arayes — they’re just a different name for quesadillas, and they’re eaten throughout the Middle East. I first tried them filled with lamb from a recipe by Yotam Ottolenghi. But I realized they’re an easy formula to riff on. So I made a recipe for filling that tastes like Cincinnati Chili.

So, I decided to create a recipe that’s something like Cincinnati Chili, a dish I love.  It uses grated onion and crushed or grated tomatoes, like Ottolenghi’s recipe, but also has cinnamon and unsweetened cocoa powder in it along with garlic, chili powder, cinnamon, cumin, etc.  I added some Greek-style yogurt and an egg white to help it bind together, plus the yogurt adds a nice tang.  (You may not need the egg white, but it won’t hurt to use it.) Ordinarily you’d simmer Cincinnati Chili for hours.  But this version doesn’t need hours of cooking to give you a reminder of the flavor.  I recommend letting the meat mixture sit in the fridge for an hour before cooking so everything mellows out.  In fact, you can mix it all up the night before you plan to cook them. 

Serve it with one of our new red wines – my choice would be Cantine Borga Refosco ($15).  It’s got enough body to stand up to the spices, but it’s smooth and has nice dark fruit flavors.  Refosco is a grape that’s native to the Veneto in northeastern Italy.  It’s not one you see here often, but I’m hoping that’ll change now that I stock it. 😉



Cincinnati Chili Arayes

(based on Yotam Ottolenghi’s recipe for Lamb Arayes in his cookbook Simple)

Serves four as a main dish, eight as a starter


1 pound 85 – 90% lean ground beef

½ of a small onion, about 3 ounces

2 cloves garlic, peeled

½ cup crushed or grated tomatoes (canned is fine, you can also use leftover tomato sauce)

1 teaspoon tomato paste

1-1/2 tablespoons chili powder

½ teaspoon ground cumin

A pinch of ground cloves

¼ teaspoon cayenne or red pepper flakes

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder

1 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup Greek-style plain yogurt

1 egg white (may not be needed)

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

Blitz the onion and garlic in a mini-food processor until finely ground, adding some of the tomato if necessary.  (Alternatively, you can grate the onion on a box grater and microplane the garlic.)  Put the mixture in a large bowl with everything else except the ground beef and the egg white and mix well.  Break the meat into small pieces and add them to the bowl.  Using your hands, mix everything well, being sure to squish the meat in your fingers to break it all up and combine it with the other ingredients.  It should be nice and sticky and hold together.  If it doesn’t, mix in the egg white.  Cover the bowl and refrigerate for an hour.

Assembly and cooking

8 flour tortillas, 8-10 inches in diameter

4 ounces grated sharp or extra-sharp Cheddar cheese

Olive oil or vegetable oil for the pan

Coarse salt

If the tortillas are cold, warm them up in the microwave for about 30 seconds so they’re pliable.  Divide the filling into 8 portions.  Spread one portion of the filling over half of one of the tortillas, leaving a small border around the edge.  Sprinkle the meat with one-eighth of the cheese, then fold the unfilled half of the tortilla over the filling.  Press down a little to make sure the top half sticks and the filling is spread evenly.  Fill the rest of the tortillas and set aside.

Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a 10- to 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-low heat.  When the oil is hot, add two of the folded tortillas and fry gently for 3-4 minutes.  The bottom should be nice and brown, but not burnt, so regulate the heat accordingly.  Turn over and cook another 2-3 minutes until brown.  The filling should be cooked through.  Transfer to a baking sheet and sprinkle with a little coarse salt.  Wipe out the skillet with a paper towel and continue to cook the remaining arayes.

Serve warm or at room temperature.

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New wines relieve the headaches of getting them here

After waiting months and months, a shipment for First Vine finally arrived here in DC about two weeks ago.  We have wines from two new producers in Italy and an old favorite from France. 

Cy took this photo of me as we began unpacking the pallets from a shipment that arrived a couple of weeks ago. Lots of delays in getting it here to DC, but we’re happy to have the wines!

So, hooray!  I really like the new selections and have undimmed appreciation for the ones I’ve been buying now for more than a decade.  And the fun parts of the process were all still there – trying new wines and getting to know new producers (plus chatting with the ones I’m continuing to buy from). Even though meetings were online instead of in person, and transatlantic air shipments of samples didn’t always work out as planned.  Still, it all resulted in that familiar thrill when the pallets show up at the warehouse, just waiting to be unwrapped and organized in First Vine’s storage area.

But in truth, these satisfactions were nearly outweighed by the delays and frustrations caused by lousy government policy and Covid in the past year.  I hate dwelling on them too much because they’ve consumed far too many waking and sleepless hours.  However, those hours gave me time to think of a way to describe them, so you may as well have it.

First, the policy. Wine got tangled in a pissing contest trade fight involving aircraft manufacturers Boeing and Airbus over which companies get more unfair government subsidies.  The eventual answer, according to the World Trade Organization (WTO), was that they both do.  You’d think that’d be the end of it.  But the U.S. got to WTO first and was allowed to apply retaliatory tariffs.  These included a 25 percent levy on French, Spanish, British, and German wines, implemented in October 2019.  The tariffs initially applied to only a segment of these products, which was difficult enough.  However, that changed after WTO granted the EU a similar retaliatory option. This of course resulted in a U.S. backlash.  As of January 12, 2021 all wines produced by these countries now cost U.S. importers 25 percent more.   

[Feel free to skip this paragraph while I get into the weeds a little…] 

U.S. wine importers and retailers have tried to keep prices constant over the past five years or so, even though costs have increased.  But the broader tariffs will likely make that unsustainable.  A 25 percent increase is too big to absorb without raising prices to consumers.  How suppliers will deal with it will be a major issue for wine drinkers.  As far as when or if the tariffs will be rescinded, who knows?  I imagine that tariff issues like steel and aluminum, plus more baseline agricultural products, will take center stage.  Wine will probably have to wait until more of those issues are resolved. 

[Thanks for reading this – now back to my regular ranting.]

And then there’s Covid.  What used to be weekly or twice-weekly transatlantic ship crossings bringing European wine to the U.S. has dwindled to every two, three, or four weeks (if we’re lucky, and depending on the country of origin).  Big wine importers always get preference in scheduling because a full container of either nine or 18 pallets can go on nearly any ship.  But a small importer relies on shippers to consolidate wines from many importers into container-sized loads.  Thanks to various regulatory quirks (and let’s face it, partly for the shippers’ convenience), what they call LCL shipments (short for Less than Container Load) get pushed off onto future crossings.  That used to mean perhaps a week or two later, but not anymore.  And once the wine arrives in the U.S., what was already a trucking shortage here becomes even worse because more and more people order nearly everything for home delivery these days, further straining the trucking system.

In my case, I avoided a chunk of tariffs by careful ordering.  Italian wines are exempt from the U.S. tariff barrage**, although the process of ordering them took longer than expected.  And the French wines in this shipment were mostly exempt from tariffs.  But I definitely got caught in all the Covid shipping issues, including stateside trucking.  On top of that, my two French pallets ended up being taken to Italy because of some issue on a particular ship in France.  That meant that there were now five pallets instead of three they expected to fit into a container leaving Italy, so that delayed the shipping yet again.

So yes, lots of angst.  But they’re here!  And they’re great!  As a friend told me, I couldn’t have picked better stories to tell with these wines, so I’m looking forward to writing about them in the next few posts.  Here’s a preview:

  1. Grapes named for animals and their migratory patterns
  2. Labels that were questioned because they looked like we were marketing wine to children
  3. A family history dating back to the 16th century involving sheep, wine, war, and secret passageways

Stay tuned!

**A friend who works for the Bank of Italy explained that Italian companies provided far more parts and equipment to Boeing than to Airbus, so to the extent that those Italian companies were subsidized by the government, Boeing was the much greater beneficiary.  This was likely the reason that Italian wines weren’t subject to tariffs.


Since I haven’t posted in a while I thought I’d go all out and do a recipe too.  The first bottle I opened after letting the shipment rest was Prosecco Brut Millesimato 2019 from Cantine Borga in the Veneto ($18).  I’ll describe it fully in another post, but I will say that Prosecco normally isn’t my thing.  This one proved me wrong.

It was a pleasure to begin working with Antonio Borga of Cantine Borga in the Veneto. Clearly he and his family have a sense of humor — the Prosecco is so good that resistance is futile!

I served it with a dish that made an appearance in one of Nigella Lawson’s daily e-mails.  Nigella can take any food and write about it in a way that makes it sound like something you must try right now.  But this one was even more intriguing.  I’m calling it Shrimp with Cinnamon and Noodles.  That’s right – actual small pieces of cinnamon stick in there.  Delicious and unusual.  And perfect with the Prosecco.  Here’s a link to Nigella’s version, which she says she ordered every night on a trip to Thailand so she could watch it being made and recreate it at home.

I’ve changed a few details and sauce ingredients.  Also, I like one-pot meals so I added some vegetables.  Asparagus works particularly well (and don’t worry, it’s just a myth that it doesn’t pair with wine, at least in this dish), but you can add peas (thawed frozen peas are fine) or green beans instead if you can’t find any.  Finally, there’s some grated carrot for color and a little more sweetness.



Shrimp with Cinnamon and Noodles

Serves 2-4, depending on the appetites and what else you’re eating

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 stalk celery, cut into one-inch lengths crosswise, then julienned lengthwise

A 2-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and cut into small matchsticks

4 garlic cloves, finely minced

1 large or 2 small cinnamon sticks, broken or chopped into very small shards

2 star anise (optional)

7-8 tablespoons soy sauce (preferably low-sodium)

2 tablespoons dark brown sugar

2 tablespoons oyster sauce (you can swap out a mixture of hoisin sauce and a little bit of fish sauce)

½ teaspoon ground white pepper (or black pepper)

2 teaspoons chicken or vegetable stock concentrate (such as Better than Bouillon)

3/4 cup plus 2 or 3 tablespoons water (divided use)

1 pound large raw shrimp, peeled and deveined

12 asparagus spears, trimmed and cut into 1-inch lengths, or about 1/3 pound green beans, trimmed, cut in half lengthwise, then crosswise into 1-inch lengths, or ½ cup peas (thawed if frozen)

½ pound rice stick noodles, or ½ pound spaghetti, cooked, drained, and rinsed in cold water

1 large carrot, peeled and grated

Put the cinnamon stick pieces and 2 tablespoons of the water in a small microwave-safe bowl.  The pieces of cinnamon should be nearly covered, so add another tablespoon of water if you need to.  Microwave for 15-30 seconds until the water is hot, depending on the power of your microwave.  Cover the bowl with a plate and let the pieces soak for about 10 minutes to soften a bit, then drain the cinnamon pieces, reserving the water (if there’s any left).

Heat the oil in a large non-stick skillet until just about smoking.  Add the celery, ginger, garlic, cinnamon pieces, and star anise and stir fry for a minute.  Add 7 tablespoons of the soy sauce and simmer for 30 seconds, then add the oyster sauce, white pepper, brown sugar, the water (including the cinnamon soaking water, if you have any), and the stock concentrate.  Bring to a boil.

Add the shrimp and the vegetables (except the carrot), stirring everything together and submerging as much as you can.  Make sure it’s boiling, then lower the heat a bit and put the lid on for a few minutes.  Check to see that the shrimp are cooked and the vegetables are just about tender, and keep cooking until they are.

Stir in the noodles or spaghetti and the grated carrot.  Cook, uncovered on high heat, tossing everything together for a minute or two.  The noodles will absorb most of the liquid, leaving you with enough sauce to glaze everything.  Taste a noodle and see if you want to add another tablespoon of soy sauce.  Remove the star anise pods if you see them sticking out.  Serve immediately.

Note:  I like eating the cinnamon pieces, which is why I modified Nigella Lawson’s original recipe to soften them up in hot water ahead of time.  You don’t have to, although the pieces won’t soften up much during the cooking, even though they flavor the dish. 

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Reopening Installment #2: Déjà Vu-19

Obviously, I’m not the only enviro thinking that Covid-19 and global warming are the basis for “A Tale of Two Crises.”  Many groups have rightly pointed out the decrease in global warming emissions during the stay-at-home phase of the pandemic should be a model for the future.  But as you might expect, I’m looking at them through a wine industry lens.

We’re in the midst of a crisis.  The majority of the scientific community agrees it’s a crisis and that there are important yet relatively simple things we can do to stop it from getting much worse.  It affects public health and the economy.  Most people agree that the crisis is real.  But there’s a small vocal minority who don’t believe what they’ve been told.  They refuse to take any action, no matter how small, to help protect their fellow citizens.  And they’re encouraged by some in government, who have prioritized the economy over health.  Where there has been robust government response, it has come from the state and local level.

You’ve probably guessed I’m talking about Covid-19.  But the old enviro in me also realized back in April that it’s playing out the same way as another crisis that’s been happening for a long time:  Global warming.

I started working on global warming issues in 1997, and some of my colleagues had already been at it for around two decades back then.  The U.S. dismissed several opportunities to make a dent in global warming emissions, and increasing urgency hasn’t made federal action any more likely.  Instead, there’s continued talk of how doing something about the problem will tank the economy, and how it’s all China’s fault anyway.  It has been up to governors and mayors to make emissions reduction plans and switch to renewable energy.  Same song, different crisis.

This is a blog about wine, of course.  (Don’t worry, I’m getting to it!)  Both crises have affected the wine industry, in the U.S. and around the world.  Back in the late 1990s, I reviewed a study of how global warming had already affected the California wine industry, driving production northward into cooler areas to maintain quality.  And back in 2018, I wrote about how the effects have accelerated, making it more difficult for certain wine-producing regions to maintain appellation traditions and quality.

The wine industry has responded partly through adaptation (trying their best to make their traditional wines by modifying production methods), but also by reducing carbon emissions in farming and fermentation.  Wineries have also tried to influence reductions up and down the supply chain, from bottle manufacturing to transportation.

Covid-19 has produced different challenges.  It won’t necessarily stop winemakers from making wine per se.  But they’ll have a lot more difficulty getting workers to help harvest the grapes than in past years because of travel restrictions.  And there’s the selling part.  Restaurant sales are way down, and winery tasting rooms are subject to the same kinds of rules as other businesses deemed non-essential.  The wine industry also depends on travel and tourism, which are suffering greatly as well.

Winemaking hasn’t been on the radar for national policies addressing global warming, and I can’t imagine it will be a driver for new economic relief now, either.  But if I had my wish list, here’s what I would ask for from the federal government as part of a Covid-19 crisis response plan for businesses:

In the short term, the tariffs already in place on some European wines should be repealed, and new ones should be rejected.  This will keep wine prices down and keep people in the wine industry employed.  (Read about them here.)

Longer term assistance would make wine and other alcohol easier to buy online, both from wineries and retailers.  Online sales are growing rapidly as people stay home, and many wine fans will keep buying this way after the pandemic is over.  But buying wine online across state lines is difficult because of individual regulations in each state.

As I’ve mentioned before, the state-by-state regulation built into the repeal of Prohibition was deemed necessary to get state buy-in back in the early 1930s.  Despite legal action that has since made it possible for wine to be shipped across state lines, individual states can gum up the works by making it time consuming and expensive to get state shipping permits.  And then there’s the process of collecting and remitting state income taxes, excise taxes, and monthly state reports that are often more complex and take longer to complete than federal tax forms.  So while many states “allow” shipping, it might not be worth it to small wineries that can’t afford the permits or hire someone to deal with all the paperwork.

There’s definitely a role for the federal government, though.  I suggest providing incentives to states to allow generous, reasonably priced permits for shipment of wine, beer, and spirits from both producers and retailers outside their borders.  Government should further facilitate the process by developing a common application for state permits, as well as forms/systems for reporting and paying state sales taxes.  Wineries, breweries, distilleries, importers, and even some distributors can’t operate without federal permission, and granting (or extending) that permission could be contingent on how each state regulates sales.  States that comply and make things easier could also receive federal aid to further help their own alcoholic beverage industries, which often greatly contribute to the states’ economies.  And some money for state infrastructure projects could be tied to states’ policies on alcohol sales.

So yeah, that’s a pie — or Grand Cru? — in the sky dream.  And you’ve probably noticed that it’s self-serving for an importer and online retailer of non-U.S. wines.  But it’s a wish list, as I said, and large-scale to meet the scope of the impacts of Covid-19 on the wine industry.  Who would have imagined even a year ago we’d be in the situation we’re in now, let alone back in the 1930s when state alcohol policies were codified?  Short of replacing the constitution’s 21st amendment that repealed prohibition with one that forbids states from interfering with interstate commerce regarding alcohol, these are the kinds of actions that could twist the arms of state governments and get a better alcohol regulatory system overall.

And then we’ll still need better global warming policies.

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Reopening installment #1: A little bragging is in order

This is my letter to the editor of the Washington Post about their unquestioning use of market research data on alcohol sales. The reporter used data from A.C. Nielsen to imply that we’re all drinking way too much. Nielsen is now adding caveats on the limits of their data to press releases and summaries of their reports. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that I helped push them in that direction.

For years now I’ve been trying to explain that we just don’t have good data on sales of wine and other alcohol.  And I’ve been complaining that the companies that compile, analyze, and disseminate these data issue grand proclamations that don’t acknowledge that they don’t cover the entire market.  This hasn’t stopped the companies from leaping to less-than-well-founded conclusions, particularly about the impact of the coronavirus crisis on alcohol sales.

Well, look what I just saw in a piece about a report issued by A.C. Nielsen, the market research company, with assistance from Wines Vines Analytics and Sovos Ship Compliant, a firm that assists wineries with online sales and shipments:

“We continue to remind our readers that we are only measuring some specific off premise** channels, and that the impact of the health crisis on sales is uneven across companies in the alcohol industry.” 

[**Off premise means alcohol purchased in stores or online for consumption at home or in places other than where it was purchased.  It’s the opposite of on premise, which refers to bars and restaurants.]

I’m going to toot my own horn here and say that I had something to do with this statement.  I won’t flatter myself and imagine that Nielsen managers read my blog posts.  But I wrote something they likely did read – a letter to the editor of the Washington Post, taking the newspaper to task for using Nielsen’s incomplete data to imply that we’re all drinking ourselves into a physical and mental health crisis.  It was published on May 15, 2020, and probably made the company’s daily media clips.

Good for Nielsen.  Although I have to point out that when they say that they “continue” to remind readers of some of their data limitations, they weren’t doing it as of May 6, 2020, when I put up my last post on the subject.  Let’s hope they’ll “continue” to do it in the future.

I’m also encouraged by another sentence later in the report that I haven’t seen from Nielsen before.  Discussing the percentage increase in sales of spirits, Nielsen notes that sales of premium spirits were up substantially, particularly tequila.  It makes sense to me, since if I’m going to go to the trouble of making margaritas at home, I can use the good stuff and it’ll still cost less than a pitcher of so-so margaritas out.  Unlike in past reports, Nielsen acknowledges this may be happening, saying, “Remember again that all those consumers who might have ordered a cocktail in a restaurant or bar are able to save a significant amount of money when they buy a bottle of the same liquor or drink components, at a store or online, and have that drink at home.”

We still don’t know what’s actually happening with alcohol sales.  But at least there’s a little less authority and more caveats in reporting the numbers these companies collect.  That at least helps us decide just how much weight we should give the data.

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Social Distancing Installment #14: Stay six feet from the price at tastings

I couldn’t find one of these posters that showed people holding wine glasses. I’ll need to commission one for my next wine tasting! (Image from Freepik.)

After my virtual wine show experience back in April, I started talking with Italian producers about getting samples to taste.  Eighteen bottles of wine arrived all in one week.  Cy and I were able to taste some of them.  But I needed opinions for the others, particularly when there were two producers from the same region, each making the same varietal wines.

The pandemic presented the challenge of finding an outdoor space in my densely-populated urban neighborhood that was large enough to keep people at least six feet apart, plus with space to pour 10 wines and put out multiple sets of non-communal snacks.  Luckily, one of our neighbors has a deck that could fit eight to 10 people and still keep them adequately spaced.  It was a fun and interesting experience.  And great to see everyone in 3-D, as one of the tasters commented.

The tasting results were clustered at both ends of the praise spectrum and I couldn’t always get a good idea of what the majority of people liked.  Or, in the case of choosing between two similar wines, which ones they preferred.  Especially when the wines were unfamiliar to most of the people tasting.

A few of them were no-brainers.  I served a Prosecco that was really tasty to start.  Everyone liked it, and I wish that half of the contents of the bottle hadn’t gushed out like Old Faithful when I opened it (the hazards of air travel, even after two-plus weeks of rest).  Then there was a Pinot Grigio that no one particularly liked, and a Pecorino that practically everyone did.  But the rest?  Kind of a toss-up.  It might have helped to have more people tasting, which I couldn’t do given the space available.

On the one hand, the split makes things easier, since it’ll probably come down to me to decide.  But it also means that roughly half of the people who tasted might not be happy with my selections.  We’ll have to see.

One issue that came up was price.  Some of the tasters asked what the prices on the wines would be.  (I was super-pleased no one asked about the “price point,” by the way!)  I always give prices for wines I already carry.  But I prefer not to talk specific prices for samples.  I think it genuinely impacts people’s opinions.  In general, my wine selections run $13 – $17, so my current customers already have a guide.  Still, a particular wine might not be their favorite at the tasting, but it suddenly tastes better if you tell them the price is $11 or $12 instead of $15 or $16.  And unfortunately, a tasting isn’t a pre-order, so there’s no guarantee that customers will buy that wine even at a lower price once it’s for sale.

I understand value is an issue, and if it makes a difference between considering what I’d call an everyday selection versus one that’s a little nicer, I can be satisfied buying the everyday wine.  Like for the toss-up choices at this tasting, I could probably go for the less expensive ones.  But I also like to get people’s unvarnished opinions on the wines.  If they really like one of them, I hope they’ll find a way to buy some of it, even if it’s a few dollars more a bottle than something they’d drink every day.  (Obviously, I don’t have all the answers here.  Focus-group gurus might help create a way to help tease out taste and value preferences better, but in this case the small sample size probably wouldn’t yield a useful answer anyway.)

I’d definitely like to hear people’s opinions on this — from wine professionals, non-professional wine drinkers, and people who know marketing.  Do you want to hear about the price when you taste wine, or do you prefer to taste it without knowing the price?  And does that opinion still hold if it’s a wine that’s already available versus something the importer is trying to decide on bringing over?  Are people afraid to say they like wines that are less expensive, and conversely, do they want to seem more sophisticated by claiming to enjoy the more expensive wines more when they’re in a group?  There’s no wrong answer here, and it’ll help me with future tastings and decisions.

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Social Distancing Installment #13: Keeper recipes

mole ish

I couldn’t believe you could get something this rich simmering chicken thighs in chocolate milk with some chili powder and a few other ingredients. I’m calling it Manageable Mole, and it’s super-easy. One hour tops from fridge to plate.

Like many of you, I’ve been cooking a lot during these past 2+ months.  There have been lots of old favorites, mostly comfort-food recipes.  But I’ve been reading and trying plenty of new things, too.  This particular recipe is my version of one I first tried after seeing it in the Washington Post food section because it sounded so bizarre:  Spicy Chocolate Milk-Simmered Chicken.

The Post’s version was super-simple, and once I looked up how to make my own chocolate milk, I was good to go.  It was delicious!  The recipe notes took pains to state that this isn’t mole, one of the long-simmered, many-ingredient Mexican sauces that sometimes contain chocolate.  But it was definitely like mole.  So I decided to look at more-or-less authentic mole recipes and see what I could add to this one and still keep it simple.

There were two ingredients common to most of the recipes I looked at:  ground sesame seeds and tomato.  I thought that substituting tahini or walnut butter and tomato paste could work – and these days, people seem to have them around if they’re making Ottolenghi’s recipes.

The second thing I thought of was browning the chicken, because it would add a lot of flavor.  The Post’s recipe doesn’t call for it, but it’s simple enough to do in a non-stick pan without adding any oil.  Browning the skin-on chicken thighs also renders some fat, which can be used to bloom the chili powder, as well as the tahini and tomato paste.

Finally, it occurred to me that I didn’t need to mix up chocolate milk from unsweetened cocoa, sugar, and milk to add to the pot – I could add the cocoa powder in after the chili powder, tahini, and tomato paste, then stir in the milk, and then add the sugar.

So here’s my gussied-up version.  My husband Cy tells me it’s even better than the original.  It’s still easy and you’ll have a rich, tasty dish ready in less than an hour.  Serve it with rice or any grain you like – just make enough to soak up all the sauce.  You’re not going to want to waste any of it.

Manageable Mole with Chicken

Serves 2-3

This recipe is easily doubled.  Four chicken thighs fit comfortably in a 3-quart nonstick saucepan, but if you’re making more, use a nonstick high-sided skillet with a lid.  If you happen to have chocolate milk at home, you can use it in place of the milk, cocoa, and sugar.  But be sure to taste it – if it’s only mildly chocolaty, you may want to stir in ½ teaspoon of unsweetened cocoa after adding the tomato paste and tahini.

4 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs, patted dry

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

2 tablespoons chili powder (I use medium-hot)

1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder

1 tablespoon tahini or walnut butter

1 teaspoon tomato paste

1 tablespoon sugar

1 cup whole milk (unsweetened oat or almond milk would also work well)

1 jalapeño chile, stemmed, and cut lengthwise in quarters (use 2 if you like it really spicy)

Salt and pepper the chicken thighs on both sides.  Put them skin-side down in a 3-quart nonstick saucepan and set over medium heat.  Brown the chicken on the skin side, about 8 minutes.  Then turn the pieces over and brown on the other side, about 5 minutes.  Take the chicken thighs out of the pot and set them aside on a plate.

Add the chili powder and ¼ teaspoon salt to the chicken fat and stir for about 20 seconds.  You should start to smell the chili powder.  Add in the tahini and tomato paste and stir for another 20 to 30 seconds.  Make sure nothing’s burning – you just want to smell the ingredients, that way they’re releasing some flavor into the chicken fat.

Stir in the cocoa powder, then whisk in the milk and stir in the sugar.  Add the browned chicken thighs back to the pan along with the jalapeño quarters.  Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to simmering and cover the saucepan.  Simmer for 35 minutes, until the chicken thighs are cooked through.  Serve hot with plenty of sauce.

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Social Distancing Installment #12:  RIP, America’s greatest wine salesman

Jerry Stiller died earlier this month at the age of 92. He and Anne Meara, also his wife, were a comedy duo for decades. They also made some of the most successful wine radio ads in history, for Blue Nun.  Meara died in 2015.

We don’t see wine advertisements much on TV these days or hear them on the radio.  But from the 1960s through the 1980s there was plenty of advertising for mass-market wines.  I’ve written about these ads before, and how ridiculous most of them were.  But one set stands out for the right time and the right touch – the radio ads Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara made for Blue Nun.

Jerry Stiller died on May 11, and the tributes focused mainly on his recurring role as George Costanza’s father on Seinfeld (and being Ben Stiller’s father).  I watched Seinfeld only occasionally.  But I have vivid memories of family car trips with the radio tuned to WQXR, New York’s commercial classical music station.  Stiller and Meara’s Blue Nun ads were in heavy rotation.

I don’t know how many other stations ran the spots, but they were just right for WQXR’s audience.  Unlike Orson Welles’s Paul Masson TV ads (with the ponderous “We will sell no wine before its time,” despite there being no “time” when Paul Masson wines would taste any better), the Blue Nun radio ads told you that you were getting a pleasant adult beverage.  I can still recite some of the dialogue today:

Meara:  Where have you been?  It’s almost dinner time.

Stiller:  I stopped and picked up a little Blue Nun.

Meara:  Couldn’t you just leave an extra dollar in the collection plate?

The TV ads for Blue Nun didn’t use Stiller and Meara, and were likely intended for some laughs, too.  But they were way too obvious.  The one I remember was a nun dressed in light blue doing a figure skating routine in soft-focus.  Yeah, we get it, Blue Nun on ice.  Whatever.  The Stiller and Meara radio ads were aimed squarely at people who would recognize the style of George Burns and Gracie Allen, along with some of the extra sophistication of “His Girl Friday” and all the “Thin Man” movies.  They got updated for a younger audience first by the couple not drinking cocktails, which would make them seem dated.  Then there was a little innuendo, a clear indication that there would be other activity going on after quaffing the goods.  Who knows how many post-baby boomers were conceived after a little tipple, quite possibly Blue Nun?

There was also a downside.  I think it’s likely that Blue Nun and some of the other mass-market German wines contributed to a general distrust of Riesling and Gewürztraminer (even though Blue Nun and other low-priced German exports were made mostly from Müller-Thurgau grapes – which can be good, but are generally nothing special).  To be fair, it happened with other mass-market wines, too.  Reunite made Lambrusco kind of a joke, and I think that Mateus and Lancers set Portuguese wines back for decades (Portugal’s dictatorship didn’t help in matters of quality, either).  It took an interest in non-US and non-European food, along with a greater awareness of wines in general, to get the US public to come around on what are some of the world’s finest wines.

But that doesn’t take away from the quality and success of Stiller and Meara’s ads.  They were by far the best of the bunch, and they put across the idea that wine could be more of an everyday beverage.  I don’t think it’s a stretch to argue that the ads influenced the naming and marketing of some later, higher-quality wines as well.  Like Randall Graham’s Cigare Volant, for example.  Yes, it has some sort of historical basis, which makes it seem more legit than a Blue Nun.  But what does a flying cigar have to do with wine?  I can only imagine the fun Stiller and Meara would have had with it.

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Social Distancing Installment #11: Deliveries, pandemic style

Only in these pandemic times have I ever received a mask from a customer! It’s much nicer looking than the tee shirt bank robber style mask I was wearing when I made the delivery.

These are strange times for wine shopping and deliveries.  I’ve written about some of my more (let’s call them) interesting deliveries before.  Those had more to do with who was ordering.  These days, it’s all about the circumstances.

When First Vine got its first wine shipment back in 2007, I used to be able to easily zip around Washington, DC in my car to make deliveries.  Within five years, though, traffic was bad and kept getting worse.  I had to spend up to an hour and a half just to make a single delivery, depending on where I was dropping off the wine.

Well, starting in mid-March when DC’s stay at home order went into effect, everything changed.  The increase in DC’s population over the last decade first brought more cars to the roads, and then the number of rideshare vehicles (many registered in Maryland and Virginia) exploded.  But suddenly, poof!  Even less traffic than back in 2007.  Those hour and a half delivery runs got shortened to 40 minutes, tops.

Good thing, because people staying at home have been ordering more wine.  I’m probably in the car even more than I was before, just making more stops and delivering more wine.  But it’s not 2007 and there are definitely things I didn’t anticipate:

  • Even though there’s less traffic, stoplights are still timed for the pre-lockdown days. I’ve sat at some red lights and seen no cross traffic at the intersections at all.  Some of the lights stay red so long that you feel like you could be snatched by aliens, examined, and put back in your car before the light changed.  And there still wouldn’t be any cross traffic.
  • Drivers are tempted to look at their phones more than usual. Some of them may be delivery people checking for addresses, not that that’s a good excuse.  But I doubt that most of them are – they just can’t help themselves after 10 seconds at a red light.  It’s annoying to be stuck at a long light and then have the driver in front of you looking at his or her phone when the light changes.  I normally don’t like using my horn, but I have to admit a little thrill of satisfaction when I beep and see the head of the driver in front of me snap up in surprise.
  • DC government is taking the opportunity of less traffic to do much-needed road repairs.  It’s happening all over the place.  At the same time, building construction doesn’t seem to have abated much, and the construction crews are a lot more likely to block the street than they used to be.  So it isn’t as if I don’t have to sit in any traffic, but at least it’s not because of volume.  This means I’ve learned a couple of new routes, too.  I normally wouldn’t take those streets, but I’ve seen some lovely homes in the process.

Another thing that’s changed about deliveries is getting signatures from customers over 21.  It was something I did routinely for years, but I don’t want to hand someone a clipboard and a pen (and they probably don’t want to touch them, either).  So I put the wine down on the stoop, ring the bell, and then back away at least six feet until the customer comes to the door and picks up the boxes.

This works well for customers I know are over 21.  But DC requires me to check IDs if the customer looks to be under 35 years old.  Since I’ve had new customers, it has been an interesting dance to have contact-free ID checks.  Luckily, most of them have a glass door that I can look through to see the ID.  One customer actually taped her ID to the front door for me to look at, which was pretty funny.  I checked her birth date, rang the bell, and stepped back.  (Her front door was up about 20 steps from the sidewalk, so you couldn’t see her ID unless you were right in front of it.)  She opened the door and waved, and off I went.  Another customer was even more ingenious and took a photo of her driver’s license, blacked out the license number, and texted me the photo.

But by far the most unusual delivery was something that could only happen in times like these.   One particular customer came to the door in her mask and gloves.  She took the box from me and handed me a surgical mask sealed in plastic.  She said that a friend in China had sent her an entire box of them, and she thought it would be a nice thank-you for delivering the wine.  It definitely was – and much better looking than the tee shirt bank robber style mask I was wearing.

I imagine the pleasant delivery conditions won’t last forever.  People will go back to work, and lots of them will be driving instead of taking public transportation.  I expect traffic will get a lot worse.  And people won’t be home all day the way they are now, which probably means more evening deliveries.  I hope people won’t be so stressed out that they’re not happy to see me with their wine.  I’ve never had anyone unhappy with a wine delivery, but the extra twinkle I see in people’s eyes (above their masks) these days has really made me feel like I’m doing something good!



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Social Distancing Installment #10: Wine sales are up (maybe)

If Nielsen’s sales data are to be believed, everyone’s grocery shopping cart looks like this during the coronavirus crisis.

I get a few daily e-mail summaries of wine news with teasers and links to articles.  This headline in today’s Wine Business Daily e-mail caught my attention:

“Robust Wine Sales Growth as Consumers Turn to Brands They Know: Despite the economic impacts of the crisis, the average price paid at retail for off-premise across alcoholic beverages continues to increase. The wine brands that have led increases in volume and value in Nielsen tracked channels since early March include Barefoot, Black Box, Bota Box, Franzia, Josh, Stella Rosa, Woodbridge, and Yellow Tail.”

I spend a lot of time looking at these kinds of data, and I doubt very much that we can make the kinds of generalizations Nielsen is making for alcohol.  Still, as the country’s largest market research firm, they collect worthwhile data, at least for part of the industry.  What do those data tell us?

Danny Brager, the company’s Beverage Alcohol Practice Senior Vice-President says that off-premises wine sales growth is up over 20 percent from the previous month, and about 30 percent from a year ago.  The other news is about the shift in brands that people are buying.  According to Brager, 16 of the 25 brands with the biggest increases in sales since the coronavirus crisis started weren’t in the top 25 for increases at the same time last year.

Brager summarizes by saying that consumers appear to be making their wine buying decisions based on these three criteria:

  • Bigger, more well known brands;
  • Brands that better fit COVID-19 occasions, drinking at home rather than occasions where people might gather or ‘on the go’ type occasions; and
  • Brands that offer a preferred pack size, for example, larger package sizes.

Lots to unpack here.  As I wrote eight years ago, Nielsen collects sales data from in-store sales mainly at supermarkets and large chain stores, including some large liquor chain retailers.  They don’t include Costco and maybe not state ABC stores, either.  Brager reports that online wine sales are up five to six times what they were for the same time period in 2019.  This figure is calculated from online purchases through stores Nielsen already covers, and from companies like ShipCompliant that assist wineries with shipping (and either share data with Nielsen or publish their own data).

So when you come down to it, it’s not certain exactly how much of the off-premises sales market Nielsen captures.  Eight years ago I estimated it was 50 percent at most.  It might be higher these days, but it still doesn’t include most independent wine retailers, either brick-and-mortar or online-only.

As for Brager’s trend summary, it tells me that consumers are buying their wine when they make their trips to buy groceries.  That explains the brands that top Nielsen’s list, since they’re sold in supermarkets, and those are the data they have.  Many wine shops and liquor stores are open for walk-in purchases, but customers might want to minimize their trips and potential exposure to the coronavirus, making the weekly grocery trip the catch-all for most wine purchases, too.

Given the situation, sure — they’re buying the things they’ve heard of and maybe tried before.  It’s likely they don’t want to spend a lot of time browsing in the supermarket aisle, so that makes sense.  And for the COVID-19 “occasions,” I guess if there are more of them than there were wine “occasions” pre-coronavirus, customers will likely want to spend less money on each one.  Or buy value multi-packs to have on hand.

Brager also reports that there’s good growth in the $20-$25 range, so customers are  buying a few extra nicer bottles to go along with their less-expensive bottles at the grocery store.  What I haven’t seen, though, is an estimate of whether the increase in off-premises (drink at home) sales, both in-store and online, makes up for the loss of sales in restaurants and bars.  Are the nicer bottles people are buying at the grocery store or online the wine they would have had with dinner at restaurants?  And is the surge in sales of less-expensive wine more than people would have spent or consumed at after-work happy hours?

We may be able to get a handle on this question once we have sales tax data from alcohol sales to compare to the previous year.  But for now, who knows?  We can say that people are drinking at home and seem to be buying more of the alcohol they can purchase for drinking at home, at least as far as we know from the data collected.  We don’t know how much, really, or what they’re actually drinking.  I’m looking forward to getting the full story when we’re on the other side of the current crisis.

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