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 a lot of 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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Social Distancing Installment #9: WHO wants you to stop drinking NOW

Looks like WHO is channeling Winston Churchill with its latest guidance on alcohol consumption during the coronavirus crisis.

On April 14, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a statement and fact sheet on alcohol and COVID-19.  There’s no subtlety here:

Alcohol is known to be harmful to health in general, and is well understood to increase the risk of injury and violence, including intimate partner violence, and can cause alcohol poisoning. At times of lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, alcohol consumption can exacerbate health vulnerability, risk-taking behaviors, mental health issues and violence. WHO/Europe reminds people that drinking alcohol does not protect them from COVID-19, and encourages governments to enforce measures which limit alcohol consumption.

Blunt but reasonable.  But the accompanying six-page fact sheet, “Alcohol and COVID-19:  What You Need to Know,” goes beyond a sober warning and, frankly, into moralizing territory:

  • “Avoid alcohol altogether so that you do not undermine your own immune system and health and do not risk the health of others.” (Page 2)
  • “Make sure that children and young people do not have access to alcohol and do not let them see you consume alcohol – be a role model.” (Page 2)
  • “Monitor the screen time of your children (including TV), as such media are flooded with alcohol advertising and promotion; they also spread harmful information that may stimulate early initiation and increased consumption of alcohol.”  (Page 3)
  • “Your time, money and other resources are better invested in buying healthy and nutritious food that will maintain good health and enhance your immune system response. For further ideas, take a look at the food and nutrition tips during self- quarantine issued by WHO.” (Page 3)
  • “Instead of consuming alcohol to pass your time at home, try an indoor workout. Physical activity strengthens the immune system and overall – from both a short-term and a long-term perspective – is a highly beneficial way of spending a period of quarantine.”  (Page 4)
  • “The present situation is a unique opportunity to quit drinking, or at least to cut down considerably, as various social cues and peer pressure situations, such as parties, friends’ gatherings, restaurants and clubs, are (by necessity) avoidable.”  (Page 5)

I admit I’m a WHO fan from way back.  In my environmental advocacy days, I could always count on WHO to say things that US government agencies wouldn’t.  The organization’s precautionary approach – avoid doing harm rather than mitigating it afterward – led them to classify hundreds of substances as suspect long before US EPA did.  WHO’s bluntness was a help in pushing for legislation like the Food Quality Protection Act, which was intended to usher in a new way of setting exposure limits for toxic chemicals.

But there’s a difference between asking governments to protect public health when it comes to things largely out of our everyday control (food and environment) and bullying people into making what WHO considers “better” choices in their daily lives.  It looks to me like WHO is using its well-earned bully pulpit to elevate the issue of alcohol consumption and sees the coronavirus crisis as an opportunity to engage in demagoguery, using anti-smoking campaigns as a model.  It’s a little hard to take, especially when we know that even so-called “light” smoking will reduce the length of your life by a much more significant amount and cause far more health problems than moderate drinking will.

Why did WHO decide to go all Helen Lovejoy on us about the dangers of having wine at dinner in front of your kids? Haven’t we been told that exposing your children to reasonable drinking habits was a way to encourage them not to binge drink later?

As I mentioned before, I understand that current isolation measures could encourage people to drink more than they otherwise might.  We should all be vigilant about our own behaviors and helping others who are feeling the strain of lockdown requirements.  Certainly, medical and mental health professionals are within their rights to suggest that their patients reduce/eliminate alcohol consumption if they show signs of stress or anxiety, especially when isolation can encourage some individuals to abuse alcohol.  But I’m not sure most of those professionals would try to generalize to the world at large beyond standard advice about moderation.

I’m a non-smoker and I appreciate laws that protect me from second-hand exposure outside my home.  Laws against public drinking and serving already intoxicated people similarly protect from the dangers posed by others who are intoxicated.  And as a society we have laws that punish those who engage in harmful actions regardless of motivation or circumstances.  Still, as long as we stay within legal parameters, we get to decide on our habits and behaviors.

So, thanks for the facts about alcohol, WHO.  I’d even be OK with it if you added a “we believe that…” when you decided to do some (small amount of) editorializing.  But please don’t present me with your choices for clean living as if they were requirements for my life.  And, really, have a little perspective when we are all trying to get on as best we can during this extraordinary time.

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Social Distancing Installment #8: A day at a virtual wine show

Last week I “attended” my first videoconference wine show looking rather schlubby after making deliveries, sitting at my kitchen table.  Afterwards I thought that perhaps I should cultivate more of this look for the next one — just as soon as I can go get a haircut… (Photo by Austin Ditsel on Unsplash.)

Like other industries, the wine world is adapting to social distancing.  The first activity to get the video treatment has been wine tastings.  Many of you have probably received invitations to video tastings done by your favorite wine store or restaurant, or perhaps a winery or a wine writer.  Reviews on these tastings have been mixed, at least initially – although the quality will likely improve with time and practice.

In the world of wine professionals, wine shows have been the main vehicle for importers and distributors to meet wine producers.  A few of the organizations that organize wine shows have tried video format, and I “attended” my first one last week.  I’m looking forward to more.

I’ve written about the different kinds of wine shows before and how they’re like dating services.  You either have the big singles mixer or something more like a dating app, where you pre-screen.  Last week’s show was the latter kind.  I picked from a list of producers and they then had to decide if they wanted to meet with me.  At least both parties have agreed, providing a degree of enthusiasm going in.  Appointments were set and videoconferencing began.

The one thing missing was the wine.  In a video tasting done by a wine shop or winery, you can buy the wine ahead and taste it with the presenter.  None of the Italian and Spanish producers I met with in this show already exports to the U.S., so it wasn’t possible to get the wine ahead of time.  Normally, at least half of our 20-minute meetings would have been spent tasting and discussing the wines with each producer.  But with the video it was up to us to fill the time.

I always take a few minutes to explain my business, since it’s unusual.  I’m a retailer who imports wines because I’m allowed to do that here in DC, and I sell directly to the public online without a walk-in shop. I’ve got the elevator pitch down now and I know where I’m likely to get questions.  “Wine retailer” has many different permutations in Europe so I have to nail down precisely what I do and don’t do.  And I occasionally still have to explain that Washington DC isn’t Washington State.

But beyond that it’s their time to talk, with some questions at the end.  How they fill the time tells me a lot about them, whether they intend it or not.  I was surprised that only half of the producers I spoke with gave the kind of presentation I used to have to make routinely when I worked for an environmental advocacy organization – giving me a concrete idea of why I, the importer, should want to buy their wines.

In the old days, tasting the wine and seeing the price sheet might be enough.  But that wasn’t an option.  There were some language issues, which was unfortunate.  And the quality of the video feeds were erratic.  Still, I’d have thought that every one of them would have had some kind of talk ready, going from the big picture down to the specifics of their vineyards and winery.

As with virtual wine tastings, it’s early days, and I guess most producers haven’t had to think like they’re making a pitch on “Shark Tank.”  Especially the ones taking over a generations-old family business.  They prefer to let the wine speak for itself.  I’m sure each of them would be a genial, informative host in a two-hour meeting at their wineries.  They just have to translate that into something that works on a short video link.

The best presentations all had a few things in common.  The producers first put their wines into the context of their region in terms of tradition and the recent trends of wine making.  Then they got down to more specifics about the vineyards and the winery, including some of the history of both the property and their families (since they’re mostly family businesses).  Finally, to the wines more specifically and what they were trying to accomplish with them.

This sounds formulaic, but there’s plenty of room for individuality.  No one sounded rehearsed, and they got the information across with a good dose of their personalities as well.  They made me exceptionally sorry I couldn’t pick up a glass and try the wines – which I hope I can do in the coming weeks.

 

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Social Distancing Installment #7: Keeper recipes

markus-winkler-5qrrqfSsIfg-unsplash

I love to use dried beans, especially chickpeas, in recipes.  But even these days, when I’m in the house more, I don’t always want to take the time.  So I modified a killer recipe for dried chickpeas to use canned — it’s done in about an hour, but tastes like you cooked it all day.  (Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash.)

This is the first of what I’m calling “Keeper Recipes,” things I made because I wanted to use pantry staples I had on hand — but they turned out so well I’ll want to add them to my non-social-distancing repertoire.  Enjoy!

—————–

I’ve been making lots of recipes with beans these days – dried beans, canned beans, fresh beans.  I have a pressure cooker and a slow cooker, both of which seem to be made for cooking beans.  Generally, I like using dried beans, especially when the pressure cooker has them ready in under an hour without soaking.  The cooking liquid is great for soups and is a good start to making a luxurious vegetable stock, because it gives the stock a nice texture.

But even with the pressure cooker’s relative speed, canned beans are convenient and usually tasty.  And although the staying at home thing renders an actual meal schedule less urgent, there are times when I want dinner that tastes like it cooked for hours but really didn’t.  The other advantage of using canned beans is that since they’re already cooked, you can cook them with acidic ingredients like tomatoes and get them flavored up pretty quickly.  If you cook dried beans with too much acid, they take a lot longer to cook – and sometimes won’t soften at all.

Recently, I made one of Yotam Ottolenghi’s one-pot (or pan) recipes for chickpeas: Braised Chickpeas with Carrots, Dates, and Feta.  It starts with dried chickpeas soaked overnight, then cooked in a covered casserole in the oven for a couple of hours.  Then you top it with a mixture of feta, caraway seeds, lemon zest, and parsley.  It was amazingly good.  But I wondered if I could modify it to use canned chickpeas and still get the same result without planning the night before.  It turned out really well, using a simple trick.

As I mentioned, one of the perks of cooking dried beans is the cooking liquid.  And in this casserole, all of the goodness from the chickpeas stays in the pot.  But canned chickpeas come in liquid.  So I thought if I drained them and saved that liquid, I could use some of it to enrich the result in the final dish.  You don’t want to use all of it, because it can be salty (I personally don’t use salt-free canned beans because they don’t taste as good – and it takes a long time for salt to penetrate inside them if you use them in a dish.  Lower-salt beans are a good compromise if you can find them).  And it’s pretty concentrated.  But using about a half a cup of the liquid here gives the dish a nice silkiness and a flavor boost, too.

You’ll need between four and four and a half cups of drained chickpeas, from two or three cans depending on the size.  They should give you more than a half cup of chickpea liquid, but don’t worry about it if they don’t.  Just make up the rest with water.

This is a recipe where you shouldn’t sweat about not having everything you need, there are plenty of substitutions.  I didn’t have any jalapeños or other fresh green chiles so I used a chopped up dried chipotle chile instead.  Or use some canned pickled jalapeño if you have it.  The feta topping calls for caraway seeds, which might not be in everyone’s spice rack.  You could also use cumin seeds, which would be tasty.  Finally, since I was out of fresh parsley, I used dried parsley in the topping.  Not much flavor, perhaps, but it gave everything the little bit of green color it needed.

Lots of explanation here for something that’s actually simple.  I hope you’ll try it – it made a wonderful, comforting, and flavorful dinner.  And that’s pretty much all we can ask for some days.

Cheers!

Tom

Braised Chickpeas and Carrots with Feta Topping

Serves 4-6

Adapted from a recipe by Yotam Ottolenghi in the Guardian, January 19, 2019

3 15.5 ounce cans of chickpeas, drained in a sieve or colander set over a bowl to collect the liquid — or you can use other canned beans or a mixture of beans to make 4 to 4-1/2 cups (make sure you still collect the liquid)

1 large onion, finely chopped

6 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger

1 jalapeño pepper, stemmed and finely chopped (seeds and all) – or 1 dried chipotle chile, seeded and blitzed into small pieces, or 1 teaspoon chipotle chile powder, or about 2 tablespoons finely chopped pickled jalapeño, or ½ teaspoon dried red pepper flakes

3 tablespoons olive oil

1-1/2 teaspoons ground cumin

1-1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 tablespoon tomato paste

2 large dates, or 3 prunes, or 4 dried apricots, chopped

1 pound carrots, peeled and trimmed, each cut into 4 pieces if small or medium-sized, 6 pieces if they’re humongous – or use a combination of carrots and parsnips

Vegetable stock (optional) or water

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

Zest and juice of 1 large lemon

6-8 ounces crumbled feta cheese (whatever size package is on sale) — or queso fresco, or labneh (strained yogurt cheese)

1 teaspoon caraway seeds, toasted and coarsely chopped — or use ½ teaspoon cumin seeds, or ½ teaspoon fennel seeds

A little chopped fresh parsley — or 1 tablespoon dried parsley flakes, or ½ teaspoon dried thyme, or ½ teaspoon dried oregano

Measure out the chickpea liquid and reserve ½ cup.  (If you don’t have ½ cup, then use what’s there and add water to make it ½ cup.)  Rinse the chickpeas and taste one.  If it’s really soft, that’s fine.  If not, put the chickpeas in a large saucepan and put in enough water to cover by about an inch.  Bring the pan to a boil and simmer the chickpeas for about 15 minutes while you start chopping and cooking the rest of the dish.

In a large high-sided skillet with a tight-fitting lid, or in a lidded Dutch oven, heat the oil until shimmering.  Add the onion, garlic, ginger, and jalapeño (if you’re using a fresh one) plus 1 teaspoon of salt, and cook for about 5 minutes, until the onion is translucent.  Add the cumin, cinnamon, dates (or other dried fruit), tomato paste, some ground black pepper, and the chipotle or pepper flakes or pickled jalapeño (if you used any of them instead of the fresh jalapeño) and cook for a couple of minutes.

Drain the chickpeas, reserving the liquid if you cooked them further.  Stir the drained chickpeas into the onion mixture so that they’re nicely coated.  Stir in the carrots, again until everything is nicely coated, and then add either enough of the chickpea boiling water or plain water or vegetable stock to just cover everything.  Stir in the half-cup of chickpea liquid you saved from the cans.  Bring to a simmer, cover the pot, and cook over very low heat for 45 minutes.  Check every 15 minutes and stir to make sure nothing is sticking to the bottom of the pot and that there’s enough liquid.  Add some more water if needed.  You want to end up with the liquid no more than halfway up the chickpeas and carrots – not dry, but not soupy, either.  If there’s too much liquid after 45 minutes of cooking, let it boil uncovered for a few minutes to reduce.

While the pot is cooking, combine the feta, caraway, lemon zest, and parsley, and set aside.  When the 45 minutes are up, stir the lemon juice into the pot and taste for salt and pepper.  Let the chickpea mixture sit, covered, for 10 minutes.  Scatter the feta topping over the chickpea mixture.  Serve hot.

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Social Distancing Installment #6: Earth Day and wine

Clusters of new wine grapes in spring. This time of year the vines expend lots of energy and take more from the environment. Will the recent lockdown that has led to less transportation pollution have a positive impact on the 2020 crop? (Photo by Raychan on Upslash.)

Today is the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day in 1970.  It’s hard for us to imagine (or in some cases, remember) the state of the air, water, and land back then.  Practically all of the major U.S. environmental laws came into being after 1970, and they have had a huge impact on our world.

But the virtual standstill over the past couple of months due to the coronavirus has showed us that we’ve still got a long way to go.  The drop in transportation, industrial activity, and power generation from people staying home has made for less smog and less water pollution.  Clearer skies over big cities and dolphins in the canals of Venice are things we should be expecting during the regular course of our lives, not just during a pandemic lockdown.

Likewise, if we look at agricultural practices in the 1960s and 70s, we’d be stunned at the variety of now-banned pesticides that were in use.  I remember that Chlordane was sold in hardware stores for people to kill Japanese beetles on their lawns.  One of my wine producers described that time as a chemical free-for-all.  Thanks to regulation and changes in production mindset, chemical use has decreased by huge amounts.

Obviously, there’s still further to go with wine production and the world at large.  The cleaner environment over the past couple of months has made me wonder if we’re going to see a difference in the 2020 wine grape harvest.  As I mentioned before, grapes that show little to no detectable contaminant residues aren’t just a product of not using chemicals on the vines – they also come from vineyards that are protected from chemical drift and transportation pollution by geography, topography, or prevailing winds.  Transportation particulate pollution often contains heavy metals, as well as droplets of condensed organic chemicals.

Vineyards near well-traveled roads are normally subject to more of this pollution.  But with fewer non-essential trips happening, these vineyards are getting a reprieve.  This time of year is important with bud break, flowering, and fruit set happening.  The vines expend a lot of energy producing the grapes, and take in more of what’s in the environment.  It’s not unrealistic to expect that the longer the shutdown lasts, the less transportation contaminants will end up in the grapes.  In addition, less smog would allow more direct sun and that could reduce spring molds that might otherwise develop.

Will this cleaner period have a measurable impact on public health and the environment down the road, let alone on wine grapes?  In terms of public health, we may not get a definitive answer – especially if people aren’t seeking medical attention that would help tally results of respiratory illnesses.  Even if we knew that there was an improvement, it could well be swamped by coronavirus cases.   For wine grapes, I assume that winegrowers who test for chemical residues at harvest will continue doing those tests, so perhaps we’ll get some data, especially from organic vineyards if they choose to release the information.  But the vast majority of publicly-available data from residue tests are done by public interest organizations, not winegrowers.  Residue testing is expensive, and unless those testing organizations get more funding we probably won’t see any results.

Obviously, there are other differences from year to year that influence the flavors and quantities of grapes, including prevailing winds, so transportation pollution effects might not even be detectable.  But if we do find a difference in the grapes that we can pin on a quiet spring, it would be a great data point to add to other evidence that could influence future regulation and practices.  Helping drive government, industry, and individuals to find ways to lessen our environmental footprints without economic disruption and a public health crisis could be a small silver lining to these difficult times.

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Social Distancing Installment #5: Eat and drink what you like

If your fond memory of a perfect food and wine pairing — where each enhanced the other to the point of transcendence — also contained a view like this one, then you’re not likely to experience the same frisson again even with the same food and wine. (Photo by Anthony Delanoix on Unsplash.)

A friend e-mailed me after my last couple of posts.  While she enjoyed reading them, she said she missed my not-so-long-ago format of recipes and wine pairings.  She asked if I’d get back to it, at least occasionally, with more pantry staples given how we’re cooking now.

It got me thinking that these days, when substitution is key to making meals with what you have on hand, the traditional ideas of how to pair wine and food may not work that well anymore.  Despite the e-mails I get from wine delivery websites promising help with any and all wine pairing questions.

This has been a bit of a controversy recently, as veteran wine blogger Alder Yarrow declared earlier this month that wine and food pairing are essentially junk science.

Yarrow’s post is worth reading, not least because he makes points I’ve stressed before in posts on pairing wine and food.  Like that everyone perceives taste differently, and that what we remember as a transcendent food and wine pairing may have had as much to do with the situation and the company as the actual wine and food.

He starts with a discussion of what could be considered “old world” wine and food pairing:  if the wine and food are both locally-sourced and traditional to the region they will go together well.  This kind of pairing is still valuable, he says, but it falls apart in our current marketplace of worldwide food and wines.

Yarrow particularly dislikes special restaurant food and wine pairings – flights of wines to go with multicourse tasting menus.  He stops short of blowing off the sommeliers who create those pairings, however, saying that somms who seek out new and different wines can give you a great wine experience that doesn’t have to pair with your meal.  (Frankly, a wise move on his part, since somms would no doubt have their sabrage swords at the ready the next time they saw him…)

Here’s where it gets interesting for me.  Yarrow dismisses what he calls the “new rules” of trying to match the intensity of flavor in the wine and food and how the chemical characteristics of wine and food (acidity, sweetness, bitterness) can be combined or avoided.  Too many exceptions occur in real life because of people’s individual tastes, he says, and they pretty much make these rules useless.

That might be true.  For me, these “new rules” work pretty well and are the basis of most of my food and wine recommendations.  But the fact is that if you like a particular food and a particular wine, you may well like them together even if they’re not in line with anyone’s ideas of pairing wine and food.

And I think we’re coming to a different understanding of what we eat and drink.  We’re well into what I’ll call the Salt Fat Acid Heat Era, named for Samin Nosrat’s cookbook and Netflix series.  We’re learning to balance flavors and (for lack of a better term) chemical and physical properties in our food – or at least coming to appreciate that the great cuisines of the world already do this.  It could be that a wine adds an element that a dish may lack, and creates balance through pairing the wine and food.  But if all is in order, does well-balanced wine work with well-balanced food more often than not?  I don’t want to throw more somm terms out here, so perhaps it’s as simple as good-tasting things can be surprisingly good together because they’re each made to have that balance.

As with everything concerning wine, words and tone matter.  The idea that every recommended food and wine pairing is going to be the best thing you’ve ever had (particularly if they’re expensive) is ridiculous.  It’s an opinion.  No one has to follow it, and everyone’s choice is valid for them.

Of course, I will continue to recommend food and wine pairings — it’s what I do.  I started because people asked me my opinion, and they seem to enjoy (or at least tolerate) my giving it.  I hope I haven’t given the impression that any of these pairings will change your life.  Think of them as suggestions, something to try if you can.  Or feel free to ignore.

One last thing:  when you’ve changed your usual cooking to less familiar territory to keep to what you have on hand, you may want something familiar and comforting, or off the charts fancy, or cheap and cheerful to drink with it, screw the pairing.  Honestly, as long as you’re drinking wine and enjoying it, that’s enough for me – and anyone in the wine industry, for that matter.

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