Question authority — your wine authority, anyway

The oracle has spoken: Drink any kind of wine you like with your food. (Photo from

The oracle has spoken: Drink any kind of wine you like with your food. (Photo from

How can it be that Thanksgiving is next week? I walked out of the house in a t-shirt two days ago and was still a little warm. But the calendar tells us that it’s true. And of course, the number of Thanksgiving wine recommendations clogging my e-mail in-box would remind me, even if the calendar didn’t.

I was all set to write the same kind of thing when I came across some notes from a wine conference I went to back in January. And they made me rethink my annual Thanksgiving wine lecture altogether.

One of the conference talks was given by Tim Hanni, a well-known wine educator. He insisted that much of what we think we know about wine – and about lots of other things, actually – is “outdated, outmoded, and filled with errors.” To illustrate, he started off with a question: Who discovered America? The answer is, we don’t know. But we probably think we do.

After a few of these, he got around to wine and asked: Did the French promote food pairing, or matching wine to the dinner? Again, many of us would probably think so. But Hanni put up a photo of a page from Larousse Gastronomique, the famous French food and wine tome. It was originally published in 1938 and had an introduction by none other than Escoffier, the august chef, restaurateur, and hotelier. There, in authoritative black and white, was the following:

“With the entremets… the Bordeaux-Lafite, the delicious Romanée, the Hermitage, the Côte Rôtie, or if the guest prefers, the white wine of Bordeaux, the Sauternes, the St. Péray, etc. should be served.”

The first four wines are definitely fine and pricey reds. But if the guest prefers, he or she can have a white or a sweet wine instead. There’s no right or wrong wine to serve.  Many of us probably wouldn’t think of having a sweet wine with our meal. But Hanni also pointed out that port, generally sweet, was traditionally served with the soup course. And that the category we think of as “dessert” wines – higher alcohol and higher sugar content – was actually a creation of TTB, the federal agency that regulates alcohol trade and taxation. These wines might not have been considered strictly as accompaniments for dessert before then.   But hey, if there’s a regulatory category for them, who’s going to argue with that?

Hanni’s purpose was to get us to question the things that we wine writers consider truisms. But he also got me thinking about my own annual appeal in this blog to serve rosés with Thanksgiving dinner. Sure, Cy and I like them for that meal, and I can give you a bunch of reasons why I think they work together. In the end, though, it’s about y’all and what you want to drink.

Luckily, Thanksgiving is one of the rare group dinners where attendees feel free to bring wines of their choice. Most people wouldn’t think of bringing wine to a fancy dinner party and insisting on drinking it despite the host’s choice of wine for the meal. And it’s probably still good to check with your host for Thanksgiving dinner, too. But especially these days, when many celebrations include food that our parents and grandparents wouldn’t have even remotely considered for Thanksgiving, why not go with what you like?

Just make sure to bring enough for others to try. And be sure to taste some of the wine other people bring, too. Who knows what you might discover? As Hanni told us in his talk, “People who tell you [certain wine and food] pairings don’t work haven’t tried them.” At least try them and see if you can prove him wrong.


I would be a terrible wine merchant if I didn’t point out that First Vine has wines for anyone’s taste. So here’s a list of recommendations that should fit anything you have in mind.

Lighter-bodied white

Cave la Romaine Côtes du Ventoux ($10). A blend of grapes from the southern Rhône valley that has a little of everything: citrus for acidity, a slight floral aroma, some tropical fruit for body. Clean, with a nice finish, eminently quaffable anytime.

Fuller-bodied white

Società Agricola Bulichella Tuscanio Bianco ($18). 100% Vermentino, from the Maremma in Tuscany. It’s also organic, although due to a mix-up with the certifying organization, we can’t put it on the label until our next order. Still, you’ll know it and can tell everyone at the table. It’s a big white, juicy and refined. I have one customer who insists that wine he drinks must be red, but he’ll happily drink this white.

Lighter-bodied red

Domaine de Mairan Cabernet Franc ($13). Many Virginia wineries produce Cabernet Franc, but this is a French progenitor. Some Cab Francs have a kind of green pepper flavor to them. This one doesn’t. Just ripe fruit, a little earthiness too.

Fuller-bodied red

Cave la Vinsobraise Emeraude ($18). 60% Grenache, 40% Syrah, lightly aged in oak. A beautiful spectrum of flavors from ripe fruit and spice to tobacco, and even a hint of flowers as you first sip it. It may be the best value at First Vine.

A little bit sweet

Domaine la Croix des Marchands Méthode Ancestrale Brut ($18). It’s a naturally-sparkling wine made from Mauzac, a grape with a light green-apple flavor. I plan on expounding on naturally-sparkling wine and its long history in a future post. For now, it’s enough to know that the production method maintains a little residual sugar, and it’s a lightly-sweet, tasty wine. The apple-ness goes well with Thanksgiving food, too.

Finally, a rosé

You didn’t think I wouldn’t sneak one in, did you? Try Domaine Sainte-Cécile du Parc Notes Frivoles ($14). It’s made from Cabernet Franc, Carignan, Grenache, and Syrah. It’s a medium-bodied rosé that hits all the right notes (OK, enough with the puns on the name) from acidity to lushness. It’s also the first First Vine selection labeled “Made with Organic Grapes.”

As for a recipe, well, I’ve posted a lot of Thanksgiving and post-Thanksgiving leftover recipes over the years. You probably don’t need anything way new. But there’s always room for a little twist. When Cy and I started spending holidays together, I discovered that his family likes to have hors d’oeuvres before the big meal. I don’t know how this started, but it’s a great way to work it so that guests bring something (and can feel virtuous for doing so), and no one has to worry about his or her offering coordinating with the main meal. It also gets people out of the kitchen while you’re working, another bonus.

Here’s an appetizer spread that will do nicely on all counts: ricotta cheese mixed with lemon zest, finely chopped dried apricots and walnuts, and chopped parsley. It’s worth finding good, fresh ricotta. A local market here in DC sells what’s called basket ricotta – the curds are scooped into a perforated plastic basket to drain, then each little drained basket gets sealed in plastic and shipped out. The closest thing to right-from-the-farm you can get. Mix it all up and serve it with cucumber or apple slices, bread, or crackers.  And to drink with it?  That’s up to you.

Eat and drink well next week, and Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!


Get the Guests out of the Kitchen Ricotta Spread

Serves 6

12 ounces good-quality ricotta cheese

¼ cup finely chopped dried apricots

¼ cup finely chopped toasted walnuts

¼ cup finely chopped fresh parsley

Finely grated zest of half a lemon (about 1-1/2 teaspoons)

Salt and freshly-ground pepper

Fluff the ricotta with a fork to lighten its texture. Gently stir in everything except the salt and pepper. Taste, and see how much salt and pepper you’d like to add. Put the mixture in a small, decorative bowl and serve with cucumber or apple slices, baguette slices, or water crackers.



Posted in Larousse Gastronomique, Musings/Lectures/Rants, Thanksgiving, Tom Natan, Uncategorized, wine delivery washington dc | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A drink for gods and man

The infant Bacchus reaches for the grapes. I'm not sure who is caring for him. In the Greek legend, Zeus entrusted Dionysus to Hermes. Hermes is the father of Pan, who played the Pan-flute -- so perhaps Hermes gave Pan his musical abilities.

Signs of wine precociousness:  The infant Bacchus reaches for the grapes in this Roman fresco from the National Archaeology Museum in Madrid. He later became the god of wine, grape vines, grapes, and winemaking — as well as religious ecstasy, madness, and theater.

Cy and I are just back from a trip to Spain and Portugal:  part wine business, part vacation. I’ll be writing about the wines in future posts, but even our “vacation” parts weren’t wine-free, as you can imagine, and the wine theme cropped up in some unexpected places, like an archaeology museum.

After visiting two of Madrid’s “big-three” amazing art museums, we decided on a change of pace and went to the National Archaeology Museum. The museum has been open for more than a century, and for a long time it was the repository of tchotchkes from the Spanish monarchy. There were plenty of them. After all, Spain was the most powerful nation in Europe, if not the world, for a couple of centuries. And up through the 19th century, the Spanish royal families intermarried all over Europe, bringing all kinds of art and treasure back to Spain.

[A note about the photos in this post — Cy or I took them.   The museum is remarkably generous about allowing photography.]

Bacchus as a youth/young man, from a Roman sculpture in the royal collection.

Bacchus as a youth/young man, from a Roman sculpture in the royal collection.

As the 20th century progressed, and especially after Franco’s death, the museum made a serious attempt to document the lives of inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula through the ages. After a six-year top-to-bottom renovation, the museum unveiled a more unified vision that kept the antiquities acquired by the various monarchies and integrated them into their historical contexts. The result is an outstanding collection, very well curated, and extremely informative.

One thing that struck me was the number of objects related to wine. Most of them are in the Greco-Roman collections, although there were a few Phoenician vessels that could have been used for storing or drinking wine. The oldest wine storage vessels found to date come from what’s now the Republic of Georgia, and certainly the sea-faring Phoenicians would be ideal candidates for bringing wine and wine-making to all parts of the Mediterranean.

But the Greco-Roman objects and sculptures were so much more specific. Coincidentally, I was reading Ina Lipkowitz’s Words to Eat By during our visit, a book exploring the linguistic divide in food words that developed between what is now northern and southern Europe. According to Lipkowitz, the Romans, like the Greeks before them, liked their food to come from a highly-ordered and human-manipulated system. Northern peoples were hunters, foragers, gatherers. Romans and Greeks conquered the landscape and planted crops, and generally made their food more elaborate and “processed” than the northerners.

Detail from a Greek vessel, showing Dionysus entering Olympus.

Detail from a Greek vessel, showing the bearded Dionysus entering Olympus.

Among those crops were grapes, both for eating and for making wine. Anyone can make wine accidentally by piling enough grapes in a container – the weight will crush the grapes on the bottom, which will ferment by means of yeast already on the grape skins. But the Greeks and later the Romans took the process, which was already more highly developed than its accidental beginnings, and systematized it. Not only was fermentation a preservative for grapes, but it took them to a higher form that began to figure prominently in religion as well.

Given Spain’s proximity to Rome and its subjugation, it’s not surprising that a lot of Roman antiquities were found on the Iberian Peninsula, particularly the eastern part. More of the large sculptures came later as the monarchs acquired them, but several sculptures and decorative materials were found in what’s now Spain. Greek objects made their way through maritime trade and more than a few shipwrecks. Later, as the monarchy married into families in what is now Italy, more Greek antiquities also came to Spain through purchase.

Priapus was found by shepherds, who raised him and later admired him for his endless lust. He was also a god overseeing the harvest, particularly fruits and vegetables, including grapes.

In Greek legend,  Priapus was found by shepherds, who raised him and later admired him for his endless lust. He was also a god overseeing the harvest, particularly fruits and vegetables, including grapes.

Let’s start at the top, with Greco-Roman deities. Not surprisingly, many of the museum’s wine-related objects portray Dionysus/Bacchus in his Greek/Roman religious context. There are a few Dionysus creation stories; wildly different except that they all indicate that Dionysus is the son of Zeus, and was gestated by an attachment to Zeus’s thigh after rescue from death or near-death. Just how he became associated with wine isn’t clear to me. But eventually he became the god of wine, winemaking, grape harvest, and grape vines, as well as religious ecstasy, madness, and theater. I guess the last three are all related to one another, springing from music and dance that came in wine-induced bursts that later became more ritualized.

The museum objects show the historical divide between images of Bacchus as a youth in the Roman antiquities and the adult Dionysus portrayed on Greek vessels as Ariadne’s husband and taking his place on Mt. Olympus among the other gods. The toddler Bacchus is fed grapes and grows into a beautiful young man in Roman sculptures. Bacchus’s youthful image was later used by Caravaggio in his famous painting of Bacchus made during the Renaissance. On the Greek vessels, however, Dionysus always has a beard.  Beards were a sign of maturity in Greek culture.  Beards appear less often in surviving Roman sculpture, although they were always associated with grown men.

The Genius of the Year was a spirit that watched over the inhabitants of the Roman villa in which this mosaic was found. Part of this protection extended to their food and drink, including wine.

The Genius of the Year was a spirit that watched over the inhabitants of the Roman villa in which this mosaic was found. Part of this protection extended to their food and drink, including wine.

Now for a couple of lesser gods and spirits. While Dionysus/Bacchus was the big kahuna when it came to wine, there were also lesser beings involved who may have been more localized. The museum has a Roman-era sculpture of Priapus that was found in Málaga. Priapus was a Greek fertility god for men because of his legendary staying power, that carries over today in the name of a potential side-effect of those little blue pills. But he was also the protector of livestock and fruit and vegetable crops. This particular sculpture shows him with grapes among the other crops. I couldn’t get close enough to look underneath and see if it was anatomically correct.  [Update:  silly me, I didn’t think to zoom in.  If you enlarge the photo, you can see it is indeed anatomically correct.]

The museum also has a mosaic called “Genius of the Year,” which was taken from a Roman villa located near Madrid. Genii were protective spirits that watched over a home and its inhabitants. In this mosaic, the genius’s hair and cornucopia are filled with foodstuffs, some of which appear to be grapes. So he would certainly have watched over the wine as well. The name “Genius of the Year” didn’t mean that there was a new genius each year, but rather that the genius also controlled the activities that came with the changing of the seasons.

Two unadorned Greek wine amphorae, recovered from a shipwreck.

Two unadorned Greek wine amphorae, recovered from a shipwreck.

A few Greek wine-related objects. While decorative cups, wine vessels, and pitchers, are often found in art museums, the archaeology museum puts them next to ordinary wine vessels because they came from the same shipwreck. So perhaps not everything had to be decorative, or maybe the wine was transferred from the unadorned amphorae into smaller decorative vessels for serving.

Finally, a more modern royal wine object. The museum keeps a collection of objects used by the royal family for eating and drinking. They’re on an upper floor and way off to the side, since the museum’s purpose is no longer to show off royal wealth. There’s plenty of glassware through the ages, but also a 19th century wine chiller that could easily be used today. Assuming you could lift it when it was filled with ice and wine bottles, that is.

Wine drinking cups, found in the same Greek shipwreck as the amphorae in the previous photo.

Wine drinking cups, found in the same Greek shipwreck as the amphorae in the previous photo.

If you get a chance to go to the National Archaeology Museum in Madrid, definitely go. It’s art, history, commerce, and everyday life combined. Of course, Rome, Cairo, and Athens have it all over other places when it comes to antiquities. But this is one of the best assemblies of life and history I’ve seen. Cy and I left with a feeling of the sweep of time. And, not surprisingly, a need for some wine!


As you might imagine, we ate extremely well on our trip. I’ll be giving you some recipes for the wines from our Spanish producers in other posts. But after this long post, I figured you could use an easy one. This is Pan con Tomate, or Bread with Tomatoes. While it’s not  tomato season anymore, you can still find pretty good tomatoes around, especially at the farmers’ markets. Buy a couple and make the recipe this weekend, while there’s still time.

A 19th century wine chiller from the royal collection.

A 19th century wine chiller from the royal collection.

The recipe is exactly what it sounds like: bread with tomatoes on top. Instead of rubbing the cut tomato on toasted bread like Italian bruschetta, the key here is to grate the tomato on a box grater using the large holes. Cut the tomato in half along the equator, then start grating. Be sure to hold the tomato in your palm and keep your fingers back out of the way. You’ll get almost all the flesh off and you’ll be left with the skin in your palm. Spoon the grated tomato on the bread, drizzle with some olive oil, sprinkle with a little salt, and eat it. We had this dish with eggs at breakfast, but you could also have it in the late afternoon, or – as we saw in Madrid – as a midnight snack.

You can make this a Pan con Tomate/Bruschetta hybrid by toasting the bread and rubbing it with a cut garlic clove before topping it with tomato. As I’ve discussed before, in my experience Spanish tapas don’t use toasted bread as a base. But this is your snack, right? Do what you like! And pick a nice, easy-drinking wine to go with them. I’m recommending our three Côtes du Ventoux selections from Cave la Romaine: White, rosé, or red. All $10 a bottle, and all delicious. Take it easy on your wallet as well as your kitchen time!



The inside of the ceramic wine chiller. Viva España indeed!

The inside of the ceramic wine chiller. Viva España indeed!

Pan con Tomate

Serves 2-4, depending on appetites

1 large, ripe tomato (any variety or color), or two small ones

4 small to medium-sized slices of rustic bread

Extra-virgin olive oil

Salt (preferably coarse salt)

1 clove garlic, peeled and cut in half (optional)

Freshly-ground black pepper (optional)

Cut the tomato(es) in half through the equator. Put one half in the palm of your hand, and grate the tomato on the large holes of a box grater sitting a bowl. Be sure to bend your fingers back so you don’t accidentally grate them. You’ll end up with lovely, homogenous tomato pulp in the bowl, and pretty much just the tomato skin in your palm. Repeat with the other tomato half.

Spoon the grated tomato on the bread slices. Drizzle with a little of the oil, then sprinkle lightly with salt. Add some pepper if you like. Serve right away if you don’t like the tomato to soak into the bread (which I don’t), or wait until the whole thing achieves your desired degree of soakiness.

Optional Bruschetta hybrid: toast the bread slices and rub each slice with the cut side of the garlic clove halves. Top with tomato, oil, salt, and a little pepper.

Posted in Musings/Lectures/Rants, Tom Natan, wine delivery washington dc, Wine in ancient art | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

#Science claims wine causes happiness

Why is it that we think wine has to have health benefits? Isn't it enough that we like it?

Why is it that we think wine has to have health benefits? Isn’t it enough that we like it?

I’ve decided to give up reading articles on health claims about wine. I think it will be better for my health if I do. In fact, I’m not sure why it is we need our wine to be a “healthy” beverage in order to enjoy it in the first place.

Here’s what brought this on. The latest social media blast tells us that drinking a half-bottle of wine before bed will make you lose fat weight. Sadly, I took the bait, and went down the click-hole of articles. I rate the quality of the articles by how many clicks it takes me to get to the actual study or studies that are supposed to support the claims. This one took me a record nine levels down.

The way it works is that Facebook, Twitter, et. al., link to one or more lifestyle articles. These then link to other lifestyle articles that may be housed under the umbrella of bigger media operations. Or to sites that have vague medical/science connections. And finally, maybe a newspaper article or two that may contain a link to an actual study. As often as not, though, you’ll only get the name of the institution that conducted the study. If you’re really lucky, you’ll get the name of the lead researcher. From there, if you’re good at searching (or, like me, have a librarian husband), you can find the complete study.

Of course, by the time the study results percolate up to social media, they’re almost nothing like the original results. In finding the sound bite, all of the caveats that come with any good research get stripped away. When you’re looking at human health studies, things are rarely neat and tidy. In fact, most dietary health studies could honestly be summed up like this: “We’ve found something interesting. We think it could be significant but we’re not sure yet. We’d need to do more work in these particular areas to pin it down. For now, though, it probably won’t hurt you to try this, and it may help.” But that’s never what makes it to my Facebook feed.

How does this happen? It’s a combination of two factors. The first is deadline pressure on reporters, who are usually generalists even if they cover “science” for a media outlet. Then there’s the fact that scientists almost never communicate well about their work. After a long and often frustrating discussion, the reporter and scientist might agree on how to characterize a study and come up with a summary that satisfies them both (and I say “might” because that’s not a given). After that, though, summaries of summaries of summaries make their way out into the world without a glance back to the original sources. It’s a game of telephone without anyone actually talking to anyone else.

Click on most articles about wine and health that you find on social media and it will take you many, many more clicks to get back to the original study they're talking about.

Click on most articles about wine and health that you find on social media and it will take you many, many more clicks to get back to the original study they’re talking about.

This isn’t unique to claims about wine and health. I experienced the same thing when I produced reports based on environmental data and talked about them with reporters. The original print story would (usually) be pretty good. But subsequent print and online stories would get stripped of important clarifying details. It’s even worse these days, because Facebook barely existed when this old enviro was still doing data analyses.

So here’s what I think you could rightly say about the research on drinking wine before bedtime. If you like to snack after dinner and before bed, you could try having a glass of red wine instead. The wine probably has fewer calories than you’d get in a snack, and it may make you sleepy so that you don’t have anything more before going to bed. The wine may have some moderate effect of fat burning. But would you lose as much fat/weight if you didn’t have a glass of wine and didn’t have a snack? It’s not clear, some of the data indicate yes, some no. Hardly the miracle I read about on Facebook.

As more of these studies and reports like this one come out, it makes me wonder about a bigger question. I think wine is understudied, and I’m all for good research on wine. And good press articles on it, too. But why are we so quick to jump on even the most dubious bit of news? Why is it that we need our wine to have miraculous health benefits in the first place?

I know wine is good for me – it makes my food taste better, and makes me a (marginally) better conversationalist at dinner parties. (I also know that too much of it has the opposite effect.) I’d be perfectly happy drinking it without the thought that it’s miraculous for my health, as long as it’s not harmful. Why can’t it just be good for my health because it makes me happy? Within reason, happy people are healthier, right?

I've decided I'll just keep drinking wine even if it doesn't come with a health seal of approval.

I’ve decided I’ll just keep drinking wine even if it doesn’t come with a health seal of approval.

Yet we see these miracle claims every couple of months for wine and, to a lesser extent, dark chocolate. And they get a lot of press, especially if it’s good news (or too good to be true, as is mostly the case). Is it guilt at enjoying those particular things that makes us want to claim that they’re actually good for us, and not just pleasurable things to eat and drink? Do we have to proclaim that we’re just having antioxidants in a highly palatable form so that we’re not seen as mere hedonists? Or deep down, do we actually believe some of the self-loathing, elitist baloney about drinking wine and are looking for cover in health benefits?

I’m not sure if it’s the vestiges of the country’s Puritan heritage, remnants of prohibition-era demon alcohol thinking, or some other cause. But until I hear from reputable sources with better data, I’m happy to go along thinking wine is a pleasant-tasting, buzz-inducing beverage that I drink often. And I’ll definitely try to avoid those click-holes in the future.


Cy and I had a big group dinner to attend this past weekend. The couple who hosted picked the theme – Country French – and the other couples had to make appetizers and desserts on that theme. We decided to make French cheese puffs, called Gougères. Our friends Joanna and Todd came over to make them with us. Since we had to serve finger food to 16 people, we decided to make plenty of them. And to make it more interesting, we decided to make four batches, each with a different cheese.

Gougères are made using the same kind of dough for making cream puffs and eclairs, except with more salt and no sugar. Bring water, butter, and salt to a boil. Then add the flour and cook until it makes a ball that’s a little dry on the outside. Put the ball of dough in a bowl and beat in eggs, then the cheese. Shape them on a baking sheet either by piping from a pastry bag, or using a greased tablespoon. As they bake, they puff to at least twice their original size.

After looking around online, I decided to go with Julia Child’s recipe from Mastering the Art of French cooking. We made three of the batches with firm to hard cheeses, all finely grated: Gruyère, Mimolette (which has a shockingly orange color), and Pecorino Romano. They turned out light and puffy. We also made a batch with St. Andre bleu cheese, and they puffed well, but all but the smallest of them collapsed a little when they cooled, and they were wetter than the puffs made with the other cheeses.

Still, they were mighty tasty. But I wanted to see if I could figure out the reason for the collapse. The bleu cheese dough was wetter than the others, so I figured it was a question of more liquid. So I looked back at the other online recipes and did some math. I calculated the total volume of liquid (water, butter, eggs) to the volume of flour in the various recipes and this was the result:

Epicurious = 2.24

Julia Child = 3.17 = 2.5 = 2.375

Julia’s recipe was much wetter than the others to start, even without the cheese. Adding wet cheese was too much, and the puffs wouldn’t dry out enough to stop them from collapsing as they cooled. With the dry cheeses, the extra moisture in Julia’s recipe probably makes for a much lighter puff. Water turning to steam in the hot oven is what makes the Gougères puff, and to a certain extent more water makes them puffier. But only up to a point.

I’ve redone the recipe with less water and butter. This takes the liquid/flour ratio down to 2.8. That’s higher than the other recipes, but they’ll still turn out beautifully. The cheese you use will make a difference, too. Some supermarket blue cheeses are pretty dry, especially if you buy them already crumbled. But as long as they taste good to begin with, don’t worry about it. I’ve added thyme to the recipe, it was Cy’s idea and it’s a tasty addition.

As for wine, bleu cheese can take more intensity. Champagne is a classic pairing with Gougères. But you can also serve a medium-bodied red wine, especially if it will also go with the other food you’re eating. Cave la Vinsobraise Diamant Noir ($15) is 60% Grenache, 40% Syrah, from Vinsobres in the southern Rhône valley. Wines from Vinsobres seem a little drier and earthier than other wines of the region, it’s likely because of the slightly higher elevation. But they’re delicious, just fruity enough, with a little pepper and spice too. This one is aged in concrete tanks, not in oak, so there’s no wood/vanilla flavors in there. Definitely a treat!



Bleu Cheese Puffs with Thyme

Serves 6-8 as a passed appetizer, approximately 40 puffs

Note: If you want to use a hard grating cheese instead of blue cheese, increase the water and butter by one tablespoon each.

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

1 cup minus one tablespoon water

¾ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon finely ground black pepper

1-1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme leaves

Pinch of nutmeg (optional, but I like it)

¾ cup all-purpose flour, measured by dipping the dry measuring cup into the flour and mounding it, then leveling off to the top of the cup with a knife.

4 large eggs

4 ounces bleu cheese (such as St. Andre and Roquefort), in small pieces

1 egg beaten with a teaspoon of water (to glaze the puffs)

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F, and line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a medium nonstick pot, stir the butter, water, salt, pepper, thyme, and nutmeg together over medium heat. Keep stirring as you bring the mixture to the boil – there should be boiling action in the middle of the surface as well as the edges. Take the pot off the heat and dump in all the flour. Stir with a wooden spoon or firm heatproof spatula until the flour is completely moistened by the liquid.

Return the pot to low heat and cook, stirring constantly, for two minutes or so. The mixture will form a ball and look a little drier. You’ll start to see a little bit of a film covering the bottom of the pot around the ball of dough. Scoop the dough into a mixer bowl (either stand or handheld) and let it sit for a minute.

Start adding the four eggs, one at a time — using the mixer on low speed, combine until each egg is thoroughly incorporated, scraping the bowl as needed. It shouldn’t have moist puddles, but will look like a thick cake batter. Beat in the cheese until just combined.

At this point, you have two choices for shaping. With a large pastry bag and a large tip (either plain or star tip), you can pipe them into 1-1/2 inch mounds. Or, use a lightly-greased measuring tablespoon and scoop slightly rounded tablespoons onto the sheets. Make sure they’re at least an inch apart so they don’t fuse together as they bake. Lightly brush the top of each puff with the beaten egg/water mixture.

Bake for 25 minutes, rotating the sheets in the oven halfway through. They should be lightly browned and puffed. If in doubt, leave them in the oven for another two or three minutes. They’re moist enough so they won’t get too dry.

Remove the baking sheets from the oven and let the puffs cool for a couple of minutes. Transfer them to a cooling rack so they don’t get moist and soggy underneath. Serve at room temperature or slightly warm – they’re easy to reheat in the oven, too.

Posted in Tom Natan, Wine and health, wine delivery washington dc | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Blogging: Cheaper than a guru.

Luckily, this didn't happen to me. (Photo from

Luckily, this didn’t happen to me. (Photo from

You may have noticed that there’s been radio silence on this blog for a couple of months. I took some time to decide if I wanted to keep blogging after 7+ years of putting fingers to keyboard. I was surprised at how much I missed it, considering that I’ve never been someone who could easily bang out 1,000 words on demand. My husband Cy can attest to the amount of effort it takes me. He’ll ask about my day and, on weeks when I’m writing a post, he knows he’ll hear something like “I just can’t figure out how to write my way into it this week.”

Despite that, I’ve decided to start blogging again, although probably (even) less frequently. Coming to that decision was a process of examining a bunch of things about myself, wine blogging, and First Vine. Not easy, but I guess it’s a good thing to do every once in a while. It all comes down to managing expectations – mine, that is.

The blog started in 2008 as an e-mail to what’s now a 1,300 person mailing list in hopes of selling more wine. Each week, either my business partner Dare or I would send a recipe that paired with one of the wines we carried. Over time, I began to add some information on wine in general, in response to questions people would ask me at tastings. In June 2009, we started putting most of the content of each e-mail in this blog, still sending the e-mail to our list to point people to it. I started writing on more science/geeky wine topics, as well as profiling our producers and writing more in general about where the wine we sell is made. These were longer, less frequent posts, still with a recipe and wine pairing in each one. Some of the wine topic posts appear to be perennially popular, according to the stats. But these days, far more people come to the blog by searching for individual recipes than for wine writing.

Has it been successful? The e-mails did, and still do, remind people to buy wine. That’s not surprising, since many of the people on the e-mail list signed up at tastings. Readers don’t necessarily buy the wine featured in the e-mails and blog posts, but I’m sure we sell more wine with the e-mails than we would without them.

But I don’t believe that I’ve sold a single bottle of my wines because of my blog posts. I’m saying this in honest surprise rather than resignation or bitterness. The hope was that by making the blog available to the world, people searching for wine topics or recipes might decide to try one of the wines associated with the blog posts. I guess I was naïve about it, but I thought that if people enjoyed the things I wrote about, that they might be inclined to try the wines, too.   It hasn’t worked out that way, though.

Part of the reason is that the audience for the blog includes a lot of people who write about wine. And as someone who also writes about wine, I’ve come to realize that I could probably get through the rest of my life without having to buy wine for myself again if I chose to do so.

Apparently blogging can lead to enlightenment. (Photo from

Apparently blogging can lead to enlightenment. (Photo from

Don’t get me wrong. I’m thrilled to have knowledgeable and discerning readers. They know things about the topics I write about and provide encouragement and criticism, both of which I greatly appreciate. But if a lot of my readers probably wouldn’t buy wine from me to begin with, then I’m spending time writing for the wrong audience if sales is the goal.

That’s not the main reason that the blog doesn’t drive wine sales, though – it’s because it’s written in a way that pleases me, but doesn’t necessarily lend itself to sales. It’s kind of a hodge-podge. A former coworker who is also a writer once told me that he thought I wrote like someone who had hopes of a career as a crafter of long-form op-ed pieces. That’s probably true, although I doubt I’m focused enough for that, and I have a tendency to ramble. Even with Cy’s editing help. (After all, I’m the one who puts it up on the site…)

There’s nothing wrong with rambling, as long as I recognize it for what it is. In general, though, the more focused the range of topics, the more likely a blog is to attract readers. I get a respectable number of hits. But I could probably get more just by focusing on importing. Or retailing, or just on geeky wine topics. And probably many more if I concentrated just on the recipes and wine pairings, but also took photos of the food preparation and the different wines to include.

That’s what we bloggers are told about monetizing our blogs. More eyes on the blog brings the writer more attention. This, in turn, makes readers more likely to respond to the writer’s recommendations the more they read. Sell yourself, and the product sales will follow.

I’ve made peace with the idea that probably isn’t going to happen in a big way through blogging. What I like about this blog is that it gives me a creative outlet that I don’t otherwise have. Plus, there’s only so much time in a week for marketing and it has to be used wisely. There are some easy tweaks to the blog that I’ll start implementing right away. Not so much in the hope of it generating wine sales from blog posts. But the efforts will result in materials I can use for marketing. May as well multi-task!

So, it’s back to a slightly-modified version of the hodge-podge soon. With luck, new posts will be a little less rambling and better written. Thanks to you all for hanging in there all these years. I still get a feeling of satisfaction with each post I put out there. And I’m grateful, and more than a little surprised, that anyone wants to read it.



Posted in Musings/Lectures/Rants, Tom Natan, Uncategorized, Wine blogging, Wine writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Book Review — Reverse Wine Snob: How to Buy and Drink Great Wine without Breaking the Bank

Reverse Wine Snob CoverLast time I introduced you to a new wine book by my blogger friend Jon Thorsen. As I mentioned, I enjoyed reading Reverse Wine Snob: How to Buy and Drink Great Wine without Breaking the Bank. I think it’s a good reference for people who want to learn a little about wine but don’t know where to begin, and who don’t want to spend too much money doing it, either.

I met Jon in 2011 at the Wine Bloggers’ Conference. His blog was in its first year, and was nominated for the Best New Wine Blog award. We spent pretty much a whole day together, since we were herded onto the same bus going to a couple of wineries for tastings and meals.

I have enough difficulty putting out a blog post every week or two. I was impressed to learn that Jon is a father of three, has a demanding job, and still manages to post several times a week to tens of thousands of readers. And whether he realized it or not initially, his writing style easily adapted to book form. As we learned at one of our conference seminars, getting a book deal is probably still the best way of monetizing a blog. So those years of blogging for nothing are beginning to pay off – and I have to say, all jealousy aside, it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.

[Full disclosure, and switching over to reviewer mode: Thorsen has reviewed three First Vine selections and liked them all. Naturally, I’m predisposed to like him, his blog, and his book. But this isn’t logrolling, as you’ll read later on.]

Here’s some backstory. Six years or so ago, Thorsen and his wife Brenda decided to add wine to their diets for health reasons. They didn’t know anything about wine other than that they liked it, but quickly realized that the $15-$25 per bottle they thought they’d have to spend to get something good wouldn’t fit into their budget. Especially buying three or four bottles a week.

So they bought mostly wines costing less than $15 and almost always under $20, and tried them with and without food, keeping track of how they tasted the day after opening. Word got out, especially since this was post-2008 and everyone was looking to spend less money.

Their effort grew into the Reverse Wine Snob blog when Thorsen, an economist by training and a market research analyst by profession, decided to create a value index. His taste rating accounts for 75% of the total, from 1-10. Price makes up 25%, also 1-10 but in reverse order: anything $20 and above starts at a 1 rating, going up to a 10 rating for a bottle costing less than $6.

The result is a value rating from 1 to 10. Wines with a value rating of 7 to 7.5 are labelled Recommended. Highly Recommended wines score 7.8 to 8, and anything 8.3 and over gets a Bulk Buy designation. 6.0 to 6.9 is a transitional category – the wine is worth another look. $18+ wines that taste great fall into this range, as do what you might call D- to D+ wines in terms of taste that are very inexpensive. Anything below 6.0 is a Skip It wine.

Thorsen told me these categories are pretty much what most readers look at first, before deciding to read more about the wine itself in his reviews. The reviews are generally short and have a little wine jargon to them despite the everyman approach. All of it is well- defined, though, and becomes a kind of shorthand, which is how it ought to be.

The book contains reviews for a worldwide spectrum of wines and so it’s a good start for a novice looking to try a range of recommended wines from all over. There are also individual chapters for store-label brands from Costco and Trader Joe’s, which Thorsen likes for their value. I haven’t tried any of these wines myself, but would be more inclined to now that I have some recommendations. (This isn’t because I look down my nose at either Costco or Trader Joe’s, it’s that both of them require a planned car trip if I’m going to carry wine home. And since I’m in the wine business with plenty of wine at home, and have pretty much everything else I need within short walking distance, I try not to make those trips if I don’t have to.)

Now for something I’m less happy with, although I don’t think it will detract from most people’s enjoyment. As a wine merchant, I’m not the intended audience for this book, so you can take these points with that caveat in mind.

First, it’s the “Snob” word. I introduced my last post with part of Thorsen’s thoughts on wine snobs – people who feel compelled to share their opinions that focus on more expensive wines being better than less expensive ones.   As I said before, I don’t know any wine lover who isn’t looking for great, inexpensive wines. No doubt these people exist, but the problem is that the word snob has now been co-opted for anyone who enjoys more expensive wines as a matter of course, even if they don’t make judgments on what other people like. This book doesn’t address that particular issue, which is unfortunate. I understand that Thorsen wants to redirect the enthusiasm for wine shown by the so-called snobs to wines in a lower price range, hence the name Reverse Wine Snob. Fair enough.

But reading over his tenets of Reverse Wine Snobbery, I think it still comes off hard on people who genuinely like more expensive wine.  For example, one of the tenets is that you should drink what you like.  (Something that pretty much every wine critic and wine guide recommends, actually.)   But since people are uncertain about their choices in a crowded wine market, they turn to “experts.” These experts don’t agree, often wildly, and so they’re not reliable. Thorsen also cites studies of how people can’t pick out expensive wines in tastings, so more expensive wines aren’t better a priori, which as I said before, I don’t think most people believe anyway. This also tacitly reinforces the idea that people who like more expensive wines are snobs, although Thorsen doesn’t try to do this himself.

I addressed part of these issues last time, and why anyone can disagree on the taste of a wine, even from one hour to the next. But I have a further thought — I’m not sure why wine experts (or wine critics) are held to a higher standard than critics in general. Movie critics often disagree with one another, yet people don’t think that they shouldn’t read movie reviews or that movie criticism should be ignored. The reader will have to decide if he or she agrees with the critic.

The same is true here. Thorsen is a wine reviewer, and he definitely has a point of view. He doesn’t try to hide it, but after talking about the unreliability of wine writing it’s also not clear why you should trust him more than any other wine critic – other than that you’ll likely spend less money deciding if you agree with him than you might with others.

As I said, I approach the subject of wine a little differently than Thorsen, because I make my living selling wine to all kinds of customers. At the same time, though, we both have a soft spot for less-expensive wines. Half of First Vine’s selections cost less than $15, and two-thirds are under $20. (Most of the over-$20 bottles are champagne). I’m happy to have more recommendations of wines to try when I don’t feel like drinking First Vine wines but want to stick to the same budget.


I’ve bought a few new cookbooks recently and have been trying new recipes. One of the books is More Mexican Every Day by Rick Bayless. The first Mexican Every Day has probably a half-dozen recipes I use regularly, and I really like it. This new volume is good too, but some of the recipes are more involved. I made a pork tenderloin with roasted tomatillo salsa and it was great, but I’m also lucky to have tomatillos available just around the corner.

Cy and I were visiting family in Brooklyn and, believe it or not, there were no tomatillos at the local grocery store. (And here I thought hipster food rules meant you could get anything everywhere in Brooklyn…) So I decided to doctor up some green salsa from a jar instead, and make the recipe with chicken thighs instead of pork (chicken is also a variation Bayless recommends).

Doctoring up the salsa is easy if you have a grill or broiler – char some poblano peppers, slices of onion, whole, unpeeled garlic cloves, and a couple of jalapeño or serrano peppers. Put the charred poblanos in a bowl covered with plastic wrap to steam them, when they’re cool peel off the blackened skin and set them aside. Stem the chiles and peel the garlic, then blend them up with the onion and some chicken or vegetable stock. Add this to the jarred salsa and simmer it all together. Then brown the chicken thighs and add the reduced salsa mixture, along with the poblanos you’ve cut up. Simmer for about 20 minutes, until the chicken is just cooked through. You can serve it as a stew, with rice, or use it as a taco filling. Top it with any number of ingredients depending on what you have and what you like. Some jarred green salsa is a little sweet – so be sure to taste it, and add a little cider vinegar if you need it to get that nice tang you normally find in tomatillos.

You might be tempted to reach for a beer, but try Château de Clapier Luberon White ($13). It’s a mixture of Roussanne, White Grenache, and Vermentino. Crisp enough to take the heat but it also matches up nicely with the acidity of the tomatillos and the green flavors of the peppers.   If you want a red wine that Jon Thorsen also liked, try the Calligrappe Red ($12), also from Château de Clapier. It’s a mixture of Grenache and Syrah, and its earthiness pairs well with chiles.



Chicken Thighs with Tomatillo Salsa

Serves 6

10 to 12 boneless, skinless chicken thighs (depending on how many you find to a package) 2 15-18 ounce jars medium-hot tomatillo salsa

1 large onion, peeled and cut into thick slices

4 garlic cloves, unpeeled

3 medium or 2 large poblano chiles (use regular green bell peppers if you can’t find poblanos)

2 jalapeño or serrano peppers

2 cups chicken or vegetable stock


Vegetable oil

Cider vinegar

Optional toppings: diced avocado, diced tomato, chopped onion, cilantro, fresh lime juice, queso fresco

Place an oven rack in the highest position and preheat the broiler. Put the poblanos, serranos, garlic cloves, and onion slices on a baking sheet. Broil until everything is nicely charred, turning as needed. Take out the onion, garlic and small peppers when they’re ready – the poblanos may need more time.

While the vegetables are broiling, heat a film of vegetable oil over medium-high heat in a large saucepan. When shimmering, add the jarred salsa and stir for a minute while it boils. Turn down the head and simmer the salsa to reduce it by about a third.

When the vegetables are charred, immediately put the poblanos in a bowl and cover the bowl with a towel or with plastic wrap. Let cool. Let the other vegetables cool a couple of minutes, then peel the garlic and cut the stem off the small chiles. Put them in a blender or food processor along with the onion slices and the chicken or vegetable stock. Blend up until just a little chunky. Pour this mixture in with the reduced salsa, and reduce again by about a third. Taste it for salt and also to see if it needs a little vinegar to get a nice tang. If so, add the cider vinegar about ½ teaspoon at a time until it tastes the way you like it. Cover the salsa to keep it warm.

Peel the blackened skin off the cooled poblanos and carefully cut out the seed pod and stem. Roughly chop the poblanos and set them aside. While the sauce is reducing, cut the chicken thighs into 1-inch pieces. Dry the pieces, salt them, then heat more vegetable in a large deep skillet or Dutch oven. Brown the chicken pieces all over – you will probably have to do this in batches. Remove the chicken pieces to a plate or bowl as they brown. Pour the reduced salsa into the skillet and scrape up the bottom to incorporate any brown chicken bits. Add the chicken and the chopped poblanos, and cook for about 20 minutes, until the chicken is cooked. Taste for salt and vinegar. Serve with any or all of the toppings.

Posted in Book Review, Château de Clapier, Reverse Wine Snob, Tom Natan, Wine Books, wine delivery washington dc | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

If you’re name-calling, it’s Mr. Snob, thank you

If I owned a tux I might look something like this.  But I don't consider myself a snob -- at least not about wine, anyway.  (Image from

If I owned a tux I might look something like this, without the pinched expression. But I don’t consider myself a snob. And I’m not sure why it’s OK to call someone a snob for learning more about things he or she enjoys.  (Image from

My wine blogger friend Jon Thorsen has written a book. I’ll be reviewing Reverse Wine Snob: How to Buy and Drink Great Wine without Breaking the Bank in a couple of weeks. Spoiler alert, I enjoyed it. But the book dropped on June 16, and it happened to come right in the middle of a huge online debate about cheap and expensive wines (well, huge for online wine debates, anyway), and also what constitutes wine snobbery.

So I thought I’d use part of Jon’s introduction to get us into the topic:

“ defines a wine snob as ‘a wine enthusiast, particularly one who is pretentious, or self-important because of their “immense wine knowledge.” ‘

“We all know the type. Perhaps it’s your uncle or a friend who once vacationed in Bordeaux and has now become the overbearing know-it-all who can’t open a bottle without first giving a lecture. The bane of average wine consumers everywhere, wine snobs love to point out just how superior their $75 bottle of wine is to your $10 one.”

I’ve definitely been exposed to this type. Occasionally when I gave tastings at Alliance Française, the French Cultural Institute, I’d get approached by someone who had to show me how much more he knew about French wine than I did. It was sometimes annoying. As a wine merchant, though, I’d engage politely because, well, maybe I’d learn something, and perhaps the person would become a customer.

But the fact is that these people are few and far between, at least in my experience. Being in the wine business has exposed me to probably a thousand people who love wine, here in the U.S. and abroad. Of those, maybe a handful would fit the definition of a wine snob.

Honestly, I’m not sure where this is coming from. Every wine lover I know wants to pay less for excellent wine. Every wine lover I know is also willing to taste pretty much anything that comes along, no matter the price. Most people know it’s just plain rude to disparage other people’s taste, regardless of what you might think about it. In my experience this display of snobbery rarely happens.

People who are enthusiastic about nearly anything have a tinge of fanaticism about them that’s off-putting to the uninitiated. Let’s face it, when you get two or more enthusiasts in a room together, the conversation is going to turn to each person’s most memorable experiences with the subject at hand, challenging the others to defend their positions, and general one-upmanship.

This is true even of sports. Here in DC, I recently overheard two Washington Nationals fans getting into an arcane discussion/debate about the relative merits of the team’s pitching staff. And when I occasionally hear bits of sports radio programs, I’m always amazed at how much knowledge people have accumulated and how willing they are to share it.

Would a wine snob add ice to wine like this?  Cy and I did at dinner last night.  (Photo from

Would a wine snob add ice to wine like this? Cy and I did at dinner last night. And not even those fancy “cubes” that make things cold without melting and diluting.  We’ve seen this done in France all the time. (Photo from

The most recent debate over wine snobbery was sparked by a video posted on Nineteen different Vox staffers tried three wines, all Cabernet Sauvignons, varying widely in price.  The video is straightforward, and the results not particularly surprising. The Vox staffers liked the most and least expensive wine equally well, slightly less than they liked the medium-priced wine. All three wines were rated around 5 out of a possible 10 points, and given the small number of tasters and the likelihood that everyone tasted the wines in the same order, the results actually say that the wines fared equally well on average – although hardly a rave. With a rating of 5 out of 10, I probably wouldn’t buy any of them.

Yet the write-up accompanying the video is titled “Expensive wine is for suckers. This video shows why.” And to bolster this contention, the article and video cite studies showing how all over the place wine ratings can be, how wine judges vary widely in their opinions at competitions, and how most of the time people prefer less expensive wine unless they’ve had some training. Jon Thorsen cites some of these in his book as well.

In a post on Jezabel, Sarah Miller takes these on, and you should read it and the comments it generated. Here’s my two cents on the issue of taste.

As some of you know, I spent my early working life in food product development. Part of everyone’s job was to taste our product – spaghetti sauce – two or three times a week, comparing it to our competitors’ sauces. We usually tasted at around 8:30 am, and my perception changed depending on what I had eaten for breakfast, how much coffee I’d had, how much alcohol I’d had to drink the night before, what else I was thinking about that I had to do later, etc. For validation, two of the samples we had to try were always the same, and some days I couldn’t tell which ones were identical even though I knew two of them would be. (And yes, these were blind tastings, done in isolation booths under red lights so we couldn’t tell which was our product by its looks. Under red lights, spaghetti sauce looks clear and kind of gelatinous and all the spices look like black specks, so it’s a shock when it tastes like tomatoes. Not exactly what you want to see first thing in the morning, is it?)

I suspect this goes on for all kinds of foods for everyone, all the time. Hasn’t it happened that you went to a restaurant and ordered something you’d liked there before but decided it wasn’t as tasty this time? Maybe you had something different for lunch or as a snack, or had a hard day at work, or have something on your mind. You probably don’t think that your taste is the thing that has changed, though. You’re more likely to think that the restaurant is inconsistent – which could be the case, but isn’t automatically true.

When I started in the wine business, I found the same issues, only amplified probably a dozen-fold. At a wine show, there are plenty of things to taste. I would make my choices of what I thought I’d like to add to the First Vine portfolio. Then I’d go back and try some of these choices later and think I’d made a terrible mistake. They tasted completely different. If I managed to get a sample bottle here and there from the producers and try them later, I’d have a third opinion. When Cy tastes with me at wineries, we don’t always have the same opinions about what we like and don’t like. And I’ve made selections based on what regular customers have liked in the past, only to find they don’t like the new wines quite as much.

When you're tasting a bunch of wines sequentially, like at a wine show, something you tasted 10 minutes ago can seem very different when you try it again.  (Photo from

When you’re tasting a bunch of wines sequentially, like at a wine show, something you tasted 10 minutes ago can seem very different when you try it again. (Photo from

The question I have is why this normal variation in taste and opinion is much more important for wine in people’s minds than for other things. And why it’s considered to be a valid excuse for thinking that people who like more expensive wines are wrong, or snobs, or “suckers,” as Vox put it. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think you should lord your taste (good or bad) or expertise over anyone. At the same time, though, why is it OK to disparage people who happen to enjoy more expensive wines or who bother to learn more about a subject they enjoy? I don’t get it.

Sarah Miller chalks it up to a general anti-intellectualism. And when I wrote about wine “jargon” last year, I got comments indicating that wine has esoteric connotations and was the beverage of the rich for centuries, so that’s why winespeak is more pretentious than jargon about other subjects like sports.

Well, I don’t buy either one as an excuse. The world is full of wine and people who drink it. In cultures where people drink wine every day, the vast majority of wine is inexpensive. People drink it happily. And they enjoy a splurge, too – maybe regularly or just occasionally. Would they drink more expensive wine all the time if they could afford it? Maybe, maybe not. Everyone has a point at which the marginal gain isn’t worth the cost. If you decide it’s worth it, though, then it’s no different than a baseball fan buying box seats at a game instead of cheaper seats.


Cy and I were away last weekend and had some excellent food, much of it featuring lobster. Last Monday was National Lobster Day after all, and the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. So we had to celebrate. It would have seemed wrong not to.

One of the dishes I had was Linguine alla Carbonara with lobster. Pasta with bacon, eggs, onions, cheese, and lobster on top of that. It was delicious. Normally when I make Carbonara I leave the bacon fat in to cook the onions. But lobster has a more delicate flavor and bacon fat could obscure it, so I figured the chef had drained off the bacon fat and replaced it with olive oil. I’ve done the same thing here. Also, instead of the cream that you sometimes find in Carbonara recipes, I like to use chicken or vegetable stock, depending on what I have on hand. I saw Lidia Bastianich make Carbonara that way and I’ve done it that way since. It makes the dish a little leaner and doesn’t take away from the richness of the lobster meat.

People can discuss/argue arcane points on many subjects.  But when it's wine, you might as well be wearing this tag.  (Photo from

People can discuss/argue arcane points on many subjects. But when it’s wine, you might as well be wearing this tag. (Photo from

The Carbonara I had was served with an egg yolk that I stirred into the dish. To my taste, that’s a little much. In general, I like egg yolks better than whole eggs for Carbonara because they give it a creamier texture. But you only need three of them for a pound of linguine. While it’s pretty to put an egg yolk in each serving, it also looks good to pile the finished pasta in a large serving bowl.

Long pasta is traditional for Carbonara, so you can use either spaghetti or linguine. I think the flatter linguine soaks up more sauce. Either way, though, don’t over-boil it, since you’ll finish cooking it in the sauce. I like America’s Test Kitchen’s trick for heating up the serving bowl: put the bowl in the sink and set the colander in it.   The hot pasta water will heat the bowl up in a couple of minutes. This keeps the pasta fresher-looking longer. Warm serving plates or bowls also help, but it’s summer so you may not want to heat those up too.

You can go for either a lighter red or a more substantial white with the wine for the dish. I recommend Domaine de Mairan Chardonnay, and at $12 you’ll appreciate the price (especially after you’ve splurged for lobster). It’s crisp and not aged in oak, but still has more body than lighter whites. There’s a little bit of malolactic fermentation here, so there’s just a hint of buttery flavor that makes lobster taste sweeter. I think that an inexpensive wine that makes expensive lobster taste even better is worth a try, no matter how much you like to spend.



Pasta Carbonara with Lobster

Serves 6

1 pound linguine or spaghetti

6 slices thick-cut smoked bacon, about 5 or 6 ounces, cut crosswise into thin strips

Extra-virgin olive oil

1 large onion, ends cut off, peeled, sliced in half through the poles, then each half cut crosswise into slices

2 cups hot chicken or vegetable stock (I like Kitchen Basics low-sodium versions)

2 large, uncooked lobster tails, shelled, and cut into ½-inch pieces.

3 large egg yolks

½ cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus extra for serving

Salt and coarsely ground black pepper

Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. In a large skillet or Dutch oven, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil and add the bacon. Cook it over low heat, stirring occasionally, until it’s browning on the edges but isn’t completely browned. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and let it drain on a plate covered with a paper towel. Pour out all the fat from the pan and add 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Heat until shimmering, then add the onion, a little salt, and the bacon. Cook over medium-high heat for about 5 minutes, until the onions start to brown on the edges.

At this point, you can cook the pasta. Take the package directions and subtract a minute or so. When it’s nearly done, remove 1 cup of the pasta water and set it aside.

Add the hot stock to the pan with the onion and bacon. Bring it up to the boil on high, then lower it to medium-low and let it cook to reduce by half. In the meantime, dry off the lobster pieces and sprinkle them with a little salt. By the time the liquid reduces, the pasta should be ready.

Put a large serving bowl in the sink and set the colander in it. Drain the pasta, then lift the colander and shake it a couple of times. Add the pasta right into the bacon/onion/stock mixture. Add a good ½ teaspoon of coarsely-ground black pepper and the lobster pieces and stir everything together. Let it cook for a minute or so, adding a little pasta water if it seems completely dry. Then turn off the heat, and stir in the cheese and egg yolks, mixing well but carefully, adding more pasta water if it’s dry (it’s better for the mixture to be a little wet because the pasta keeps absorbing liquid). Empty out the warm pasta bowl and dry the outside, then pour the pasta into the bowl. Serve immediately, with extra cheese and more pepper.

Posted in Domaine de Mairan, Musings/Lectures/Rants, Tom Natan, wine delivery washington dc, Wine snob | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

A picture won’t always last longer

I took this label photo at a wine show because Cy and I have a cat named Grendel.  I don't remember anything about the wine, though.

I took this label photo at a wine show because Cy and I have a cat named Grendel. I don’t remember anything about the wine, though.

In talking with wine-loving friends over the past few months, I’ve noticed one topic that comes up: how they’re not using wine apps anymore. Maybe apps that help them keep track of their own wine inventories, but not the ones that record new things they’re drinking. The apps get downloaded and used for a while in a rush of enthusiasm, and then forgotten until it’s time to free up memory on their phones.

I think I’ve figured out why.  Most of these apps are photo-based. And, as I’ve now heard discussed twice in the past month, photos aren’t a good way of remembering experiences that have many more components than the visual, particularly taste.

A few days ago, I listened to a podcast from America’s Test Kitchen that was originally broadcast in spring 2014 (, show 310). Many of the shows feature a segment I’ve come to call the Curmudgeon Corner, in which host Christopher Kimball talks with New Yorker contributor Adam Gopnik about some food thing that’s on Gopnik’s mind. (I predict that Adam Gopnik will one day take up Andy Rooney’s mantle on 60 Minutes, and Christopher Kimball is cranky about most things — or at least he allows himself to be portrayed that way.) Gopnik started this particular conversation by noting that many Paris restaurants had banned taking cell phone pictures of the food, and he was in favor of it.

I enjoy Adam Gopnik's New Yorker pieces and liked his book.  When he gets on the radio with Christopher Kimball, though, there's a lot o kvetching.

I enjoy Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker pieces and liked his book. When he gets on the radio with Christopher Kimball, though, there’s a lot of kvetching.

Kimball agreed, saying that while he had once done that (and used an app for it), he stopped for two reasons. First, he was there to enjoy the meal, not to photograph it; and second, because he never looked at the photos again. Gopnik then opined that in his experience, photographing food actually banished the memory of the meal rather than enlarging or fixing it. Instead, it becomes a sort of digital stamp collection, rather than a collection of sensual experiences.

Interesting, although perhaps not definitive, since these two never met anything they couldn’t criticize. But the show reminded me of something I’d listened to last month, an interview Fresh Air’s host Terry Gross did with photographer Sally Mann. Mann’s photo works include many collections that use her family as subjects. In her recently-published book, Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, Mann expressed an idea similar to Gopnik’s:

Terry Gross: Many of the photos in this book are of your family. And you write that photos don’t preserve our past as much as they supplant and corrupt the past, all the while creating their own memories. And I think I know what you mean, in the sense that a lot of my memories of my parents, who died several years ago — a lot of my most vivid memories of how they look come from the photos that I’ve seen over and over again from different stages of their life…Is that what you mean?

Sally Mann: That is what I mean. I think that using photographs as an instrument of memory is probably a mistake because I think that photographs actually sort of impoverish your memory — in certain ways, sort of take away all the other senses, the sense of smell and taste and texture.

Mann went on to differentiate between the artistic photos she published and the everyday photos she took. Even though her family figured in both categories, her art pieces were concept-based and her family’s appearance in them served a particular concept, which figured prominently in her memory and engaged those other senses.

This in turn also reminded me of a talk by sommelier Tim Gaiser that I heard a few years ago. Gaiser was doing research to understand the habits of people who taste wine for a living. One thing he told us was that the “best” tasters — that is, those who could recall the taste of particular wines in a way that allowed them to make comparisons, identify wines by their smell and taste, etc. — create visual images of the aromas and flavors of each wine.  Recalling the visual image allows them to recall the wine’s characteristics more clearly. In a way, these tasters are creating a kind of concept, just like Mann did in her art photographs.

So perhaps photographing a dish you’ve made could bring back memories of making and perhaps even eating the dish, while photographing a dish in a restaurant wouldn’t necessarily bring anything back? (At least not without some sort of notes or plan for using the photograph in a particular manner?) Certainly, if the meal is a once-in-a-lifetime experience like this one at El Bulli, I would think the urge to photograph it would be overwhelming. Especially since the visual aspect of the meal was so important. But clearly, the blogger Adam Roberts also took copious notes to go with his photographs. (I’m not sure how much that whole process would have detracted from the meal for me, to tell you the truth, but this was clearly an event.)

Of course, the wine apps allow you to write notes that might help you recall the wine more clearly. In my experience, though, that doesn’t happen if they don’t get put in right away or soon afterward. Then you’re left with a bunch of photographs — plus any information that the app has gleaned via the internet from the label image — but without something that’s passed through your brain to attach to it.

Some of this may be my age. People who went to college with smartphones and who came of age taking lots of photos of everything may have a different relationship to photos and linking them to memory than I do. But most of the people I spoke with about wine apps are folks who grew up taking written notes to remember and study things. The act of information passing through my body and out onto the page (or the computer screen) more firmly implants it in my memory. And also makes the information easier to recall when I read what I’ve written. I have some random wine label photos that don’t ring a bell. But if it’s a photo of the label of a wine I’ve taken written notes on, the photo does bring up some other memories of the wine.

Obviously, I don’t know everything about every app out there, and I’ll keep trying them as people recommend them to me. But I’ll stop hoping that they’ll replace my wine notebooks, at least for now.


Last weekend, Cy and I had friends over to taste some wine samples we’d received. I thought we’d be drinking Spanish wines so we planned to make some Spanish food to go with them. Lo and behold, though, I mixed up the boxes and we had South African wines instead (although not the DeGrendel wine in the photo above). But we’d set the menu and bought the ingredients, so we had a multicultural experience.

My version of Claudia Roden's tuna pie.  Less crust, zestier filling.

My version of Claudia Roden’s tuna pie. Less crust, zestier filling.

The main dish of the meal was a tuna pie with a crust made from empanada dough. Empanada dough is often made with oil instead of butter or shortening, and you don’t have to chill it before shaping it (although it does need to rest for an hour after mixing). The recipe came from Claudia Roden’s book The Foods of Spain, and it was tasty. Of course, it didn’t work exactly as Roden described, so I’ve made some changes to the crust. And also the filling ingredients, since I thought it needed a little more zip, particularly if you eat it at room temperature. So I’ve swapped in green olives for the Kalamata olives Roden recommends, and added some lemon zest and a little bit of red pepper flakes.

You’ll need tuna packed in olive oil, between 14 and 16 ounces when it’s drained. Tuna packed in water has a drier texture, so don’t be tempted to use it. And I don’t think fresh tuna would have as much flavor. If you have some, then you could try it, but I wouldn’t go out and buy it to use in the pie. Many supermarkets are now carrying Cento brand, it’s 5 ounces per can so 3 cans work in the recipe.

There’s a lot of flavor here, so it will stand up to red wine. I’d stick with the Spanish theme and serve Bodega Hiriart Roble ($14). It’s 100% Tempranillo, aged six months in oak. Lots of fruit, some spice, and little bit of oak and some astringency that gets you through all that flavor in the pie. And yes, I took a photo of it for you — after all, I had to, right?



Tuna Pie with Empanada Crust

Serves 6 to 8


1 large egg

1/3 cup dry white wine

1/3 cup olive oil

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

1-1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour, perhaps a little more

Crack the egg into a large bowl and beat in the wine, oil, baking soda, and salt with a fork. Use the fork to mix in 1-1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons of flour, switching to using your hands to get it all mixed. It should be soft but not sticky. Add up to 2 more tablespoons of flour if you need to. Wrap the ball of dough in plastic wrap and let it sit for an hour.

Make the filling while the dough is resting.


14 to 16 ounces tuna packed in olive oil, drained and flaked into small pieces

1 large onion, minced

1 large red bell pepper, seeded and minced

1 14 to 15 ounce can diced tomatoes

1/2 teaspoon sugar

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes

Grated zest of one lemon

24 large pitted green olives (like Manzanillas), chopped

2 hard-boiled eggs, chopped

Heat the oil in a large skillet. Add the onion and red bell pepper and cook until everything is soft and just starting to brown, about 10 minutes. Stir in the red pepper flakes and cook for a minute. Then add the tomatoes and the sugar. Cook for about 15 minutes, until all the juice from the tomatoes has evaporated. Turn off the heat, and stir in the tuna, lemon zest, olives, and hard-boiled eggs. Set aside.


A 9-inch deep-dish pie plate, or a 9-inch springform pan, lightly greased with vegetable spray

To assemble: 1 egg, separated. Beat the white with a fork until it’s frothy, and beat the yolk separately with a teaspoon of water.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. If you’re using the deep-dish pie plate, cut off about 1/3 of the dough (keep the rest in the plastic). Roll out the dough into a circle a little bigger than the bottom of the pie dish. Roll it out right on the counter without any flour, and let it sit on the counter after rolling for a couple of minutes. Then gently roll the dough onto the rolling pin and carefully unroll it into the bottom of the pie dish. Lightly press the dough onto the bottom of the dish and a little up the sides. Brush the crust with the beaten egg white and bake for 10 minutes. Take the crust out and let it cool for about 15 minutes.

(If you’re using the springform pan, do exactly the same thing, except use slightly more than half the dough for the bottom.)

Gently spoon the filling over the bottom crust, mounding it in the center if necessary. Roll out the bottom crust to a circle just a touch larger than 9 inches and, again, let it sit on the counter for a couple of minutes. Roll it onto the rolling pin and then over the filling. Push any excess crust down between the filling and the edge of the dish. Brush with the beaten egg yolk-water mixture.

Bake for 35-45 minutes. The crust should be nicely golden brown. Let it sit for at least a half-hour before serving. It’s good warm and at room temperature. Store leftovers in the fridge.

Posted in Musings/Lectures/Rants, Tom Natan, Uncategorized, Wine apps, wine delivery washington dc | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Shake your way to less bitterness?

Little did I know in 1989 that this photo from the salt mine outside Salzburg, Austria, would come in handy for a future blog post on salt.  (That's me, third from left, and behind me are Vicki and Drew Moll, friends from college.)

Little did I know in 1989 that this photo from the salt mine outside Salzburg, Austria, would come in handy for a future blog post on salt and wine. (That’s me, third from left, and behind me are Vicki and Drew Moll, friends from college.)  The mine tunnels are narrow and rough, so we had to wear these white jumpsuits to go in.  We all look like extras in the movie “Sleeper.”

Last week I was catching up on some past episodes of Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s “The Splendid Table.” In one of them, Kasper interviewed Paul Breslin, Professor of Experimental Psychology at Rutgers University. He’s an expert on taste perception, and Kasper spoke with him about salt.

As some of you know, I worked as chemical engineer in food product development after college. So I know something about how salt works chemically, and how we perceive saltiness. The interview reminded me of things I learned way back then about our taste buds and how they operate, although put much more coherently than I could. Then, Kasper asked a question about something I had thought was perhaps an old wives’ tale: that salt decreases bitterness.

Kasper asked Breslin: “Salty caramel is a big deal now in ice cream and everything you can imagine. What’s happening there?”

Breslin replied: “…If you really burn sugar, you’re in effect making it extremely bitter. If you go to the process of just beginning to brown it, it can take on some of the notes or odors that we really like that are part of the caramelization process, but it will become a little bit bitter at the same time. Salt can interact with some of those bitter notes to make them weaker.”

Kasper: “Is that why some people add a little salt when they’re making coffee? Does it take down the bitter side of coffee as well?”

Breslin: “It’s very common for people to add salt to what you might call not great coffee. I don’t know that people would add salt to a really good cup of coffee. But for generic coffee, you are decreasing the bitter taste of it when you add salt to it. It’s not so much that you’re making the coffee taste salty; it’s that a little bit of salt will take down the bitter notes and make it a little bit more pleasant. If the bitterness is low level, a little pinch of salt will probably benefit almost any dish.”

Of course, this made me wonder about salt and wine. I know many people who tell me they can’t take the bitterness of red wines, even light-bodied ones that I think are pretty smooth. Not that you’d necessarily want to add salt to wine. But could eating well-salted food along with the wine make the wine taste less bitter?

While there are some bitter flavor components in all wine, red wines get most of their bitterness from tannins found in the grape skin. Tannins change with exposure to oxygen or proteins.  Air, along with cheese, dairy, or meat can soften up some of the bitterness in wine. (This is why cheese makes many wines taste much smoother.) But could salt accomplish some of the same thing? I set out to see if it’s true.

First, the wine. The most bitter wine I’ve ever tasted was a cheap brand of Malbec available in many supermarkets. So I bought a bottle. (Sorry, all you Malbec lovers. I really enjoy some of them, but the ones that cost less than $9 at the grocery store rarely do it for me.) I also decided to try a bottle of light-bodied Côtes du Ventoux red, which is pretty soft-tasting when opened.

Then, the food. My blogger friend Sue Gordon told me she attended a wine tasting where every wine tasted great with potato chips. I thought that might be due to the salt. It was also a lovely excuse to buy potato chips, one of my favorite foods. But I also had to buy a russet potato to make some salt-free chips to use as a comparison. The other thing I decided on was beef sliders.  I saw Ina Garten make them on “Barefoot Contessa,” which I watched while on the cross-trainer at the gym earlier this week.

Beef protein binds to tannins and makes them less bitter, so I figured this might be problematic. On the other hand, perhaps the beef could knock out some of the tannins and that would give me a chance to see if the salt would work on the remaining bitterness.

In the Splendid Table interview, Breslin suggests using less salt mixed into or sprinkled on food before cooking if you want to taste the salt. You should use the minimum necessary to do the things salt does in food (some seasoning, controlling browning, etc.), and then salt your food before you eat it. That worked out perfectly here. I made eight one-ounce sliders from a half-pound of 90% lean ground beef, mixed with a little salt, pepper, olive oil, Dijon mustard, and thyme (basically Ina’s recipe, except with less salt since I planned to add it on top later.) I fried them up in a nonstick skillet coated with a little vegetable oil spray. The unsalted potato chips were made with a thinly-sliced, peeled russet potato shallow-fried in grapeseed oil. I bought Cape Cod brand salted chips since they’re a little thicker than other brands and more closely resembled what I could make at home.

I left two of the sliders alone after cooking, and then sprinkled various amounts of salt on top the others in pairs to give three different salt levels, and cut each of the sliders in quarters. The routine was to try the wines with unsalted potato chips, then salted potato chips, then go up the line on the sliders. I had some baguette slices and water to clean my mouth after each try. Here’s the order for sampling the wines: just-opened Ventoux, just opened Malbec, Ventoux after 20 minutes open, Malbec after 30 minutes open. I took a bite of the food and then, just before swallowing, a sip of the wine. All in all, 24 different combinations of wine and food. Then I ate some salad.

The results? Well, nothing could save the just-opened Malbec from bitterness. (For the record, I didn’t think this one was over-the-top bitter, but it was definitely tannic.) It didn’t taste quite the same with no-salt potato chips vs. salted ones, but I couldn’t detect less bitterness with salt. However, the same wine open 30 minutes seemed to respond a little bit to the salt in terms of bitterness, both in the chips and the sliders. But the bitterness didn’t get replaced with other flavors and it actually seemed flatter tasting with more salt rather than less (odd, I know). For the Ventoux, which is less bitter to start, I tasted less bitterness with more salt, and the salt made the wine taste a little fruitier. This was a bit more pronounced in the wine that was open for 20 minutes and more so with the sliders than the potato chips (although the last two slider comparisons tasted the same, so perhaps there’s a limit). Overall, I’m not sure there was a huge change in bitterness, but enough that I did detect it.

The usual caveats apply here, this was just me, and your mileage may vary. I am not extremely sensitive to bitter flavors, and I also admit to being a little bit more excited about eating potato chips than I should have been, which may have skewed things. I wish I’d thought to take photos, but I didn’t — I was here by myself and the cat just wasn’t interested in photography.

My takeaway is that there may be something to it all. So if you’re really sensitive to bitterness in red wine and you’re drinking something others don’t think is bitter, try a little more salt on your food if there’s no cheese around. (Cheese will definitely do more to soften the tannins than salting other foods will). Otherwise, salt can enhance the flavors of wine like it does the flavors in food, so don’t hesitate to add a little salt to your food to get more out of your wine. Or do as Sue does, and eat salted potato chips with any and all wines. I know that works for me!


Our cat, Grendel, often sits in the kitchen when I cook.  But for some reason he refused to help with photographs for this post.

Our cat, Grendel, often sits in the kitchen when I cook. But for some reason he refused to help with photographs for this post.

Since I’ve got sliders on the brain, this week’s recipe is for a sort of slider — Kibbeh. Kibbeh are a North African/Middle-Eastern version of meatballs or small patties. Last fall I gave you a recipe for Kufte, the Persian version, which are bound and moistened with soaked Basmati rice. Kibbeh generally use bulgur, which used to be hard to find. But these days I’ve seen it in Harris Teeter, even in the quick-cooking variety, which is what I suggest you use. You’ll need 2 cups of cooked bulgur for 1 pound of ground beef.

The other ingredient you may have to do a little searching for is Za’atar (sometimes spelled Zahtar). It’s a blend of dried herbs, salt, spices, and sesame seeds. Every brand is a little different, but don’t worry which one you get. My version of Kibbeh also get additional flavor from pine nuts, raisins, and lemon zest. Plus a little zip from crushed red pepper flakes. They’re served with a thick sauce made from Greek yogurt and lemon juice, plus some parsley and mint. The mint is optional — some people don’t like the taste. Basil works well in there, too.

If you have time to chill the kibbeh after your shape them they’ll hold together better. But don’t worry if you don’t, they’ll still be tasty even if they crumble a bit. You can grill the little patties, although I think you have a better chance of keeping them intact if you cook them in a skillet instead. Let them cool a bit before serving, or cool them entirely since they are good at room temperature, too.

And serve them with Cave la Romaine’s Côtes du Ventoux Rouge Tradition ($10), the very same wine I used for the salt tasting. Along with potato chips, of course!



Kibbeh with Yogurt Sauce

Serves 4

1 pound (90%) lean ground beef

2 cups cooked bulgur (cooked from instant is fine), cooled to just barely warm

1 large onion, finely minced

1 cup roughly-chopped parsley

1/4 cup pine nuts

1/3 cup golden raisins, roughly chopped

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon Za’atar

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

Olive oil

Finely grated zest and juice of one lemon (keep them separate)

3/4 cup plain Greek-style yogurt

Optional add-ins: 1/2 cup chopped fresh mint or parsley (chop these just before you add them to the sauce if you’re using them, this keeps them from browning)

Break up the beef into small pieces in a large bowl and sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Mix with a fork, and then let the meat sit for about 15 minutes while you prepare the other ingredients.

Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet. Add the onion and lemon zest, along with a little salt and pepper. Cook for a minute, then add the Za’atar and the red pepper flakes. Crank up the heat for a minute until everything’s smelling great. Lower the heat to medium-low and add the pine nuts, half the parsley, and the raisins. Stir for 2-3 minutes while cooking. The raisin pieces should all be separate. Scrape the mixture onto a plate to cool to just barely warm.

Add the cooled bulgur to the bowl with the meat, then the cooled onion mixture. Mix well with your hands. Shape into 24 small patties. If you have time, put the patties on a couple of dinner plates and chill for a half hour or so. This isn’t strictly necessary, but they are less likely to crumble when you cook them if you do. (You can mix and shape them way ahead if you like.)

Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet, preferably nonstick. Cook the Kibbeh patties about 4 minutes per side. They should be nicely crusted and brown, and cooked all the way through. You will probably have to do this in two batches unless you have two skillets — add a little oil to the pan if necessary between batches.

Let the patties cool for a few minutes and make the sauce: combine the lemon juice, yogurt, and remaining parsley, along with some pepper and a little salt if you need it. Stir in the mint or basil, if you’re using them. Serve with the Kibbeh, which can be warm or at room temperature.

Posted in Cave la Romaine, Musings/Lectures/Rants, Salt and Wine, Tom Natan, Wine and Salt, wine delivery washington dc | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

More on craft beer vs. wine

I hear reports that restaurants are paring down their wine lists in favor of craft beers.  Particularly for cuisines that come from regions that don't traditionally produce wine.

I hear reports that restaurants are paring down their wine lists in favor of craft beers. Particularly for cuisines that come from regions that don’t traditionally produce wine.

I’ve written a couple of posts about craft beer over the past few months, and you’d probably thought I’d put it to bed. After all, this is a blog about wine…But a couple of things happened that made me think it was time for an update on the craft beer vs. wine issue.

First, Cy and I took a day trip to visit local craft breweries with friends, Jenn Barger and Callan Swenson. Jenn was writing about the local brewing scene for a regional magazine and wanted our opinions on the beers. The second was an e-mail from another friend, Chris Hoene, who lives in California. He and his wife, Darrene Hackler, love wine but also drink nearly everything else. They have begun to notice a trend toward paring down wine selections in favor of craft beers and cocktails.

I’ll let Chris go first, since he wrote me all about it, and, lazy blogger that I am, I can cut and paste with minimal edits (every blogger’s dream!). Here’s what he had to say:

“Hi from Los Angeles, where I am staying at a hotel part owned by [let’s call him Currently Hot Celebrity Chef, or CHCC] and has two of his restaurants.

“My new wine pet peeve, which has been building to a crescendo in recent months, is places with compelling wine lists, but they don’t actually have the wines listed. Case in point (pun intended), I was at a dinner tonight where the intriguing wines listed included:

– an Austrian Zweigelt,
– a Napa Carbono,
– a Spanish Mencia (Bierzo),
– a Barbera D’Alba (Piemonte), and
– a Cab Sauv from Broadside in Paso Robles (one of my favorite Central Coast wines).

Those are the reds. Their whites/pinks include a Pecorino and Sancerre Rosé.

“But half of them weren’t available, just on the list. Why is this okay? I have increasingly been encountering this problem (admittedly a very “first world” one). The bartender tonight finally admitted what I had already guessed when he said ‘We aren’t really focused on our wine anymore. We are focused on our craft cocktails and beer. So, our wine is suffering.’

“I have seen this a lot recently. But, it isn’t okay. The wine is way more local than the spirits and arguably equally or more local on the beer front. I chalk it up to laziness (on the restaurant’s part) and customers’ default assumption that a locally-brewed craft beer is actually made with local ingredients.

“Tragic. And shame on CHCC for not maintaining the good list he started. There is even Copain Pinot Noir in the hotel room mini bar…a pretty awesome Anderson Valley Pinot for a mini bar. So, the bottom line is that they aren’t trying hard enough.

“I had a similar experience at one of our favorite spots in Sacramento, which went from having a list of about 15-20 wines by the glass (sparkling, whites, reds) and bottle. When Darrene and I were there last week they didn’t have any of the wines anymore and instead had shifted over to a short list (5-6 wines) that they would only sell by the glass. It’s a similar deal — the place has become known for its craft cocktails and beer and I think they just decided not to put the effort into the wine list anymore.”

Three things struck me after reading this: first, a restaurant ought to be able to update the wine list in a timely manner and remove things that are out of stock or that they will no longer carry. Not doing it is lazy and just makes customers angry. (Particularly since CHCC appears to take great care in preparing food.)

The second applies more to the kind of food that CHCC typically serves. While there are suitable wine pairings for all kinds of foods, some are a bigger stretch for most customers. They may not expect to drink wine with a particular cuisine, or the wines on the list may be unfamiliar. If the restaurant wants to sell more wine with the food, either a sommelier is required, or someone to train the staff and write the list in an enticing way. Both of these cost money, though, and a restaurant may want to focus on a cocktail specialist instead. (Most restaurant beverage managers aren’t experts on all types of alcohol, either.) Finally, if the restaurant’s food also naturally pairs well with beer (as CHCC’s does), then customers may default to that, particularly in the absence of help with wine pairings. Terms like lager, IPA, etc., are pretty well-known these days and easy to understand.

While hops can grow nearly anywhere, they have to be dried right after harvesting.  Most local brewers and farms don't have their own processing facilities, so the vast majority of hops in the U.S. come from the Pacific Northwest.

While hops can grow nearly anywhere, they have to be dried right after harvesting. Most local brewers and farms don’t have their own processing facilities, so the vast majority of hops in the U.S. come from the Pacific Northwest.

In Chris’s case, it seems like a perfect storm of all three at once. But his point about customers assuming that a locally brewed beer is really “local” is a good one. Two contradictory things I learned back in January at the wine conference I attended strike me as appropriate here: the first is that craft brewers emphasize the local nature of their businesses, as does the national organization that represents them. At the same time, though, most of the hops in the U.S. come from the Pacific Northwest. So even if the brewery gets all its other ingredients from local farmers (a big assumption), chances are the hops would disqualify the beer from being completely local — unless you’re in the Pacific Northwest.

This point also came up on the beer excursion Cy and I made with Jenn and Callan. We visited three breweries in Loudon County, Virginia. None of them used local hops, and in fact, one of them listed its smoked hops from Germany on the beer menu.

Not being an expert in beer brewing, I wasn’t sure why there weren’t local hops available. It turns out hops will grow almost anywhere. But they have to be dried right after harvesting or they can spoil. Drying hops isn’t as easy as it sounds because improper drying can compromise flavor. Any one brewery or local farmer probably won’t have a hops processing facility. It takes a critical mass of growers and breweries to create demand for one, and even then they may need help.

In northern Virginia, Governor McAuliffe announced a $40,000 grant, to be matched by local development authorities, to bring a local hops processing facility to the region. McAuliffe, like his predecessor, is a big supporter of the Virginia wine industry, but also sees craft breweries as a way to bring employment and tourism to the region, and they accounted for $625 million in revenue in 2013. Making the beer as local as the wine is a smart move. In fact, owners and servers at all three of the breweries we visited told us they’d be using the local hops from the new facility as soon as they became available.

Craft beer has novelty on its side now. But even when some of the novelty wears off, it doesn’t necessarily mean that wine will regain that piece of its former dominance. Chefs change their menus constantly. And as I mentioned before, craft brewers can turn on a dime compared to wineries because of the way their products are made. The locus of new cuisines increasingly moves away from regions that also traditionally produce wine, so it becomes more problematic.

In a recent interview, New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik discussed how the geographic focus of fancier home cooking has changed over the years, from Julia Child’s French to Marcella Hazan’s Italian to Yotam Ottolenghi’s Eastern Mediterranean fare. All of these cuisines pair beautifully with wines. But home cooking often lags way behind restaurants. The hot new places here in DC? Laotian and Philippino food.   Not exactly ones we think of for wine pairing.

That means, though, that we in the wine industry just have to work a little harder at it, right? In my (admittedly limited) experience selling wine to restaurants, I find I have to make it really, really easy for beverage managers to buy even when my wines are a natural fit for the food. If they’re not a no-brainer fit, even more work is in order to create the demand and get back some of the ground that has been defaulted to craft beers. Just wait until you see the pitch I’m coming up with for our own DC-based CHCCs. They won’t know what hit them!


I hate to admit it, because foodies are supposed to love most if not all aspects of food preparation, but I don’t really enjoy grilling. Part of it is that stepping outside in the summer heat of DC to stand over a hot grill isn’t a lot of fun. The other part is that our back yard isn’t the most pleasant place to be anyway, since we’re across the alley from a giant air conditioner for a large apartment building.

So it’s pretty much indoor cooking around here. The one thing that almost makes me want to grill, though, is fish. Most years we don’t really have spring here in DC — we go from kind of cool and rainy to hot and humid in about a week. So the air conditioning’s on and the windows are closed. Not exactly the environment for cooking something with a smell that can linger.

But I came across a recipe for steamed fish over greens this week, and it worked really well even with the a/c on. Of course, I had to remake it from top to bottom, but the technique adapts to a lot of different fish, greens, and steaming liquids. You’ll need a nonstick skillet big enough to hold the four fish fillets, hopefully with a lid. If there’s no lid, you can cover the pan with foil instead.

I chose salmon because it takes well to moist heat cooking, especially wild salmon. For four servings you’ll need about 8 ounces of greens. More assertive flavors in fish can take more flavorful greens, so for salmon I use a combination of baby kale and spinach. Wilt the greens in some olive oil with a little garlic, then place the fillets on top of the greens. Pour over a bit of water, cover, and steam until the fish is done. The greens will still have a little bite to them. Transfer the fish and greens to individual serving bowls with some cooked rice or rice noodles. Then make a quick pan sauce — mine was with ginger, scallions, soy, vinegar, and a pinch of sugar.

While salmon pairs well with red wines, I serve this dish with a rosé. Actually, a rosado, since it’s from Spain. Bodega Hiriart’s Sobre Lías ($16) is a rich, bright-pink wine. Sobre Lías means “on the lees,” a technique of letting the grape juice sit on the skins, seeds, and pulp of the grapes. Rosés generally come from red grapes, so they only sit on the skin for a short time to avoid becoming too red in color. But Hiriart adds a little Verdejo — a white grape — to the mix, to give the wine a nice acidity. Sitting on the lees of the Verdejo doesn’t add additional color, but gives the wine an excellent flavor boost.

Oh, and if you make the recipe and love it enough to decide you don’t want your grill anymore, let me know.  I’m thinking I need one just to keep my foodie reputation intact, even if I never use it!



Steamed Salmon with Greens

Serves 4

4 – 4 to 6 ounce salmon fillets, skin removed

4 ounces baby kale

4 ounces baby spinach

2 garlic cloves, sliced thin

Olive oil

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper



2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger

1 bunch scallions, roots trimmed, white and green parts chopped together

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon vinegar

For serving: 3 cups hot cooked rice or 8 ounces flat rice noodles, cooked

Dry the salmon fillets with paper towels and sprinkle them with salt and pepper. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat in a large nonstick skillet. Add the garlic and cook for a minute, then add the greens along with a little salt and pepper. Stir for a minute to wilt the greens slightly. Spread the greens out and place the salmon fillets on top of the greens. Add 1/2 cup of water and cover the pan (or use aluminum foil to make a lid). Steam for 7-8 minutes until the fish is done to your liking.

Portion the rice or noodles among four bowls and top each with greens, steaming liquid, and a salmon fillet. Add a little more oil to the skillet, heat it up, and add the ginger and scallions. Cook for 2 minutes, until slightly softened. Add the soy sauce, vinegar, a big pinch of sugar and a little water. Cook for a minute until slightly reduced. Pour over the salmon and serve right away.

Posted in Craft beer and spirits, Musings/Lectures/Rants, Rosé Wine, Salmon, Tom Natan, wine delivery washington dc | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Spring is wine donation request season

Even if I couldn't tell it was spring by looking outside, there are other ways -- including an increase in requests for wine donations.

Even if I couldn’t tell it was spring by looking outside, there are other ways — including an increase in requests for wine donations.

After a bunch of years in the wine business, I’ve noticed a couple things that would tell me it’s spring even if I couldn’t feel it myself. The first is that the changeover to daylight savings time makes people order more whites and rosés, even when the weather isn’t really warm yet. Seriously, the orders for red wine pretty much dry up.   If by some chance I’d forgotten to change the clocks, I’d be reminded by the orders in my inbox.

The second is that lots of non-profit organizations hold fundraising events, and every fundraiser needs wine. Requests for wine donations go up substantially in March and April, and then again in September and October, both for wine to be consumed at events and for auction gifts. I have to admit I didn’t expect this when I started First Vine. I’ve also noticed that on wine business discussion boards you’ll inevitably see a thread each spring from a wine business newbie asking for advice on a policy for charitable contributions.

Since I’ve been in the position of asking for contributions (for my former employer and other organizations I’ve been a member of) and the recipient of many requests, I thought I’d share my thoughts and some experiences. Especially for new wine-related businesses.

Come up with an annual charitable contribution budget. Figure out how much you can reasonably afford to spend. This is sometimes easier said than done. There isn’t any recommended formula for percentage of gross income, unfortunately, since as a new business you’ll have a lot of unexpected expenses. You’ll get a tax deduction as long as the organization you’re giving to meets the right criteria. Two things to keep in mind: (a) not all of them do — if an organization spends a certain percentage of its income on lobbying it may not qualify; and (b) The deduction is generally limited to your cost for the wine and not its retail value.

You may also want to factor in the sad fact that some of your inventory will likely approach its shelf life during the year. If those wines aren’t selling they’d probably be great to drink at fundraisers. (But be sure to tell the recipient that these aren’t wines they should keep for next year if they’re leftover.)

Come up with a policy for donations. Will you decide to support a few non-profits more substantially, or spread it out among more organizations? Do you have a particular type of charity that you’d prefer to give to? Are you more inclined to go local when you give, or are national organizations also eligible? Are you willing to consider requests as they come in until you’ve reached your quota, or will you set particular times to decide on requests (say, monthly or quarterly)? Will you have a standard donation or will you adapt the donation to the request/event?

A lot of questions and different approaches. I know a shop owner who gives away the equivalent of $100 per month to a local charity selected at random. The charity can make the request at any time, but is only eligible to receive one donation per year. Another shop owner tells me he supports four particular charities each year and that’s all. First Vine is more in the middle. We support a couple of charities every year, and then make other donations with the rest of our budget based on requests. I prefer to donate wine or wine tastings for auction prizes rather than wine to be consumed at the events, although there may be exceptions if the event is a smaller one.

If you’re taking requests as they come in, you still may need a prioritizing system. I tend to put a higher priority on requests from my regular customers. That might not work for a brand-new business, but I’ve found it’s a good policy for us. After that, I decide based on what the charity does and who it serves, and then what level of donation is being requested.

Once you’ve figured out a policy, stick to it, and consider making it public on your website. That’s what the shop owner I cited in my first example above does, he refers callers asking about donations to his site where they can apply. If you are following your policy, you can honestly tell callers and visitors when you’ve appropriated all of your charitable contributions budget. Some may ask you if they can be considered for next year, and again, you can decide yes or no based on your policy.

We’re making some minor changes to our website, and I plan on putting our donations policy up then. I haven’t yet decided if I want to list the charities we support every year, but am leaning toward doing that. On the one hand, it really isn’t something I’d ordinarily publicize, but I’m also proud that we support them and don’t necessarily mind if people know.

Try not to get worked up over the volume of requests you receive, because you’ll get a lot of them. Think of when you were young and started going out to bars — you walked in and all eyes were on you. It’s going to happen again for your new wine-based business. You are the fresh new face, and the non-profit event/donation coordinators have probably already danced with all the other wine purveyors in the room.

Remember, though, that they have every right to ask for a donation. In all likelihood, it will be a nice request, since it doesn’t pay for them not to be. You probably wouldn’t want to hurt the feelings of a nice-acting stranger in a bar, so stay classy and don’t lose your cool.

Once you start donating, the requests for donations will increase. One of First Vine’s first wine donations was for a relatively exclusive donor event for a DC-based arts organization. Dare and I joked afterward that probably one-third of the attendees must have been fundraisers for other organizations because we got so many donation requests in the two weeks following the event. And talking to a few people we know in the fundraising community confirmed it: there’s plenty of I’ll-come-to-yours-if-you’ll-come-to-mine out there.

Try to convert donation requests into future sales.  I have found that even when I can’t donate to a particular organization, the event coordinator may be open to a conversation about doing business together. You can try with an answer like this one: “I’m sorry, I’ve already reached my donation budget for this year. But I’d love to talk to you about things you have coming up — I have some really good, inexpensive event wines. How about I call you next month?” Then do it.

This is a good place to add three points based on my experience with donations over the past eight (gulp!) years. I’m not saying they apply to any business other than First Vine, but here they are:

1. I’ve learned to look at almost all donations strictly as charitable donations rather than as potential future business opportunities. Yes, this runs counter to what I said above, but I mean for the people attending the events rather than the organizations running them.  I love wine, so I’d like to think that if I were served a wonderful wine at a fundraiser I’d seek it out again. But in 30+ years of going to fundraisers, I haven’t. And if I haven’t, most attendees won’t, either.

This isn’t to say that the karma of being a good corporate citizen isn’t a reward in itself, but I admit it took me a while to appreciate it, because of my next point.

2. Many donation requests come with statistics on the number of attendees at an event, size of the organization’s mailing list, etc. There may even be some demographic information on attendees/donors. Obviously, the attendees are the kind of people you’d like to have as customers. No promises are made (the words “potential exposure” are frequently used), but I allowed myself to infer from the information that the events would be better marketing opportunities than they turned out to be.

Perhaps walk-in business can convert attendees into customers more easily. But with an online-only business, people aren’t going to see a sign when they’re walking and remember that my business was the one that donated wine for that event last week. I’ve learned that some organizations will e-mail attendees on your behalf after the event if you can give them a one-time discount offer, but by and large they prefer not to spam their donors.

Let me say again, no one set out to mislead me. And I realize that most organizations asking for donations have nothing else they can offer you (beyond the good karma). It’s not their fault that these opportunities don’t really help market First Vine.

3. Based on my experience, though, I prefer to give to organizations that emphasize their work in appeals for donations, rather than the exposure I might receive for donating.

I recognize that these may not apply to everyone, so I’m definitely interested in hearing about others’ policies for donations and how they’ve worked out. And if any readers are fundraisers, I’d love to hear your perspective, too.


Our appetizer with fiddlehead ferns, potatoes, and cheese.  Cy and I served it on rounds of puff pastry, but you can use baguette slices instead.

Our appetizer with fiddlehead ferns, potatoes, and cheese. Cy and I served it on rounds of puff pastry, but you can use baguette slices instead.

Cy and I are part of a dinner club with three other couples. We meet four or five times a year. The host couple picks the theme and makes the main course, and the other couples each make different courses in keeping with the theme. The rule is that you can’t make something you’ve made before. Too often we tend to fall back on the same things for dinner parties. It makes sense, you want them to turn out well, particularly if you’re entertaining people you don’t know well.

But Cy and I really enjoy trying new things, and we don’t necessarily want to make something more elaborate just for us. It’s not always a home run, but I’d say at least 90% of the dishes are. And we have a lot of fun. At our last dinner club dinner, the theme was New England. Our hosts made Ina Garten’s “Kitchen Clambake” and it was superb. Cy and I had the first appetizer course, which can either be cocktail party-style pass and eat or seated and plated. We decided to use fiddlehead ferns, which are both New England-y and spring-y. I remember seeing frozen fiddleheads when I was a kid growing up in Connecticut, and even once seeing them in jars. But I’d never prepared fresh ones, and so we decided to do something simple — so you could taste the fiddleheads — but easy to eat standing up with a glass of wine.

This week’s recipe is a streamlined version of our appetizer. Slices of cooked Yukon Gold potatoes sit on baguette slices, held down by a mixture of goat cheese and fromage blanc. Another schmear of the cheese mixture goes on top of the potato slices and they get topped by a single fiddlehead fern that’s been sauteed in butter. A little salt and pepper over everything and you’re good to go.

Fiddleheads need to be cleaned well and completely cooked. Like ramps, they’re wild and not cultivated, so they’re sitting in dirt. Plus they’re high in tannins and will not only taste bitter if not cooked enough, but they can upset your stomach. If you’re going to use them a couple of days after you get them, it’s simpler to wash and dry them when you get home. Then store them in a sealed plastic bag in the fridge. When you’re ready to use them, trim the ends, then cook in boiling, salted water for 7 to 8 minutes, then drain them. If you’re cooking them a couple of hours ahead, you should dump them in ice water to stop the cooking, then dry them. But if you want to use them right away you can drain and serve them. I like to saute them in a little butter. They taste like a sort of cross between asparagus and green beans.

We served San Benedetto Vernaccia di San Gimignano ($16) with the fiddlehead appetizer, and it was delicious. Vernaccia is crisp, mineraly, and citrusy, and it paired well with the fiddleheads and would make a great asparagus wine (something people often find difficult to pair). I think both would make a great appetizer presentation at your next party — or fundraising event ;-)



Fiddlehead Ferns with Potatoes and Soft Cheese

Serves 8 for cocktail-style appetizers

24 baguette slices about 1/2-inch thick, toasted or untoasted as you prefer

24 fiddlehead ferns — they should have a nice, tight spiral and be about 1-1/2 inches in diameter — thoroughly cleaned and trimmed

3 medium to large Yukon Gold potatoes, around 2 inches wide (you’ll need to get 8 good slices from each one)

1/2 cup soft goat cheese, at room temperature

1/2 cup fromage blanc or Greek-style yogurt, at room temperature

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

2 tablespoons butter

Bring at least 4 quarts of water to a boil and add 1 tablespoon of salt. Add the fiddleheads, and start timing once the water comes back to the boil. The fiddleheads need to cook for 7 to 8 minutes. They should be just tender but not mushy. Drain them, then put in ice water for a minute to chill. Spread them out on a towel to dry.  (You can do these an hour or two ahead.)

In the meantime, put the potatoes in a pot with a little salt, cover with cold water, and bring to a boil over high heat. Boil for 30 to 35 minutes, until you can pierce them easily with a sharp knife. Drain and let them cool enough to handle, then cut the potatoes crosswise into thin slices. You should be able to get at least 8 slices from each potato. In a medium-sized bowl, combine the goat cheese and fromage blanc. Mash and beat them together with a fork until well-combined and a little fluffy. Stir in some pepper. Just before serving, melt the butter in a skillet. Add the fiddleheads with some salt and pepper and saute for a few minutes to warm them through. To assemble, spread a teaspoon of the cheese mixture on each baguette slice. Place a slice of potato on top of the cheese. Then top the potato with a dollop of about a half-teaspoon of the cheese, and lightly press a sauteed fiddlehead into the cheese. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and serve.

Posted in Charitable contributions, Musings/Lectures/Rants, Tom Natan, wine delivery washington dc, Wine donation requests | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment