Another year nearly done. Time for another “Things I Learned” blog post, right? Unlike previous attempts, though, there’s a twist this year. All of these topics have pushed me to do more digging, ask more questions. Three of these four topics below are ones I’ll be continuing with into the new year.
The first thing you’ll notice is that these aren’t the sort of typical end-of-year subjects. Particularly one of them. I hope you’ll find that they’re all worth reading and thinking about. Wine is a beverage made and consumed worldwide, it has social, political, regulatory, health, transport, trade, and environmental considerations. I’ve been covering the environmental and sustainability end over the past couple of years and will continue doing it. Here’s what I’m thinking about on some of the others.
Studies on Wine, Health, and Lifespan
I’ll start off with the wonkiest one first. The big news this year was that aggregate studies – compiling data and results from other studies – indicated that the recommended “safe” level of alcohol consumption is lower than previously calculated. And the type of alcohol didn’t matter, despite indications that wine had some potential health benefits. Most upsetting to wine drinkers was the conclusion that a beverage deemed to be at least somewhat good for you in moderation before was now associated with a shorter lifespan than for non-drinkers.
I spent many years doing risk assessments and examining epidemiological data in my previous working life, so I try to look at the methodology and conclusions with a critical eye. There are huge potential public health benefits to examining data from tens or hundreds of thousands of people. And obviously I think these studies should be done, despite some of the problems I’ve discussed before. But there are plenty of caveats with aggregating risks and benefits that don’t filter down to general reporting, and I plan on exploring these further next year.
The main issue for me is that a very large deal has been made about what are really very small percentage changes in health outcomes with moderate drinking. When studies are combined to encompass enormous numbers of people, even a small percentage change in the probability of a health outcome means that the number of people potentially affected will be large. But it’s still a small percentage change. I’ll be looking to put it in a more understandable context.
Also, one of the big studies included impacts such as traffic accidents, violence, and fires related to alcohol consumption. These are different than health effects, so how do you include them in the big picture? And how do you rank the impact of consuming less alcohol with the other societal levers to reduce incidence of these types of events?
State Shipping by Retailers
On to something less weighty, although important (at least to me!) It looks like 2019 may become the year when retailers will gain the right to ship to customers in most other states, the way wineries can. I’ve read the articles and some of the filings, and it’s promising. I imagine a lot of customers are excited at the prospect of a wide-open marketplace.
But the fact is that even if shipping is allowed it won’t be the wide-open marketplace we all hope for. States will still control the process and will make it difficult enough for out-of-state retailers to ship in, providing disincentives just short of prohibiting it. Wineries have already experienced this, and I have as well in getting permits for states that currently allow me to ship.
There’s a cost/benefit analysis for each state: How difficult is it to apply for the permit, and how many state departments do you have to be registered with? How much does the application cost? Are there fees beyond the application, like posting a bond to make sure you remit sales tax to the recipients’ state? How detailed is the state reporting, and how often do you have to file? And then there are the logistics of shipping to consider, getting approved shipping cartons and preparing bottles for shipment. Wine bottles are heavy, so shipping is expensive and a potential deterrent to sales if that cost is passed on to customers. Should a small retailer try free shipping to help generate sales even though it will be a huge expense? Or do you charge for shipping and instead concentrate marketing on more likely customers? Stay tuned for more on these and other thoughts on wine retailing across state lines.
Drinking and Pregnancy
My blogger friend Jon Thorsen writes the popular Reverse Wine Snob blog. I first met Jon at the Wine Bloggers Conference in 2011. When I contacted him to ask if he’d be coming the following year, he told me that he couldn’t because he and his wife Brenda were adopting a son. In the years since, we’ve learned that their son, Zeke, was born with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. While they knew this when they adopted him, the true severity only became apparent after they brought him home.
Jon has written about the problems Zeke has because of his exposure to alcohol during his birth mother’s pregnancy. But his readers may not have read Brenda’s blog, which has more information about the day-to-day issues they’ve experienced with their son’s care over the past six years.
I had to think hard about including this in a year-end round-up. It’s a difficult subject, and it doesn’t encourage people to buy or drink wine (which is at least theoretically the function of this blog). Nothing here is meant to replace the advice of anyone’s doctor. But I encourage you to read the posts and get an idea of the human side of the government warning against drinking while pregnant on all bottles of alcohol.
I get to taste a lot of wine as an importer and retailer. But this year for the first time I was asked to taste wine for a competition. Producers from Saint-Chinian in the Languedoc submitted wine for the Virtuose, a very intense wine contest. Each producer participating was asked to supply three vintages of a single wine that was supposed to be the best thing they make. Judges blind-tasted 15 wines each (in groups of five judges tasting the same wines), but with three vintages it was actually 45 wines, all in two hours. We couldn’t go back and re-taste a previous selection after we tried the three vintages, and each bottle was scored on many attributes. One of them was typicity, or whether the wine tastes like something from the region. I suppose that’s why I got asked for the jury – I’ve carried Languedoc wines for a while now and have a pretty good idea what the various appellations taste like.
What I learned was that, surprisingly, my tasting partners and I largely agreed on the wines we tasted together, at least in general terms of excellent, good, and not so good. This was extremely comforting, because I have been accused occasionally of having very particular (if not peculiar) taste in wine. The other thing I learned is that this sort of judging is really hard. I could taste differences between the wines, even after tasting many of them. But when I’m tasting wines to decide on purchasing, I get to go back and re-taste after I’ve tried a few others. I don’t have to treat each wine as if no other wines existed.
The experience made me wonder what my producers and customers think about competitions. For customers, does it influence whether they’ll buy a wine? For producers, what makes them decide to enter? All my French producers participate in the contests at local village fairs, and it makes the celebrations more festive. But for higher-level competitions, what will they get out of them? I’ll try to get some answers.
Thank you for sticking with me this far. Now for a holiday recipe!
My late mother-in-law came to the U.S. in the early 1950s from the Netherlands. She’s the only one of her family who left Holland, and each year she’d order boxes of Dutch goodies for her U.S. family at Christmas. My favorites were the Speculaas cookies – spice cookies cut and embossed to look like ye olde timey Dutch windmill. I hadn’t had real Speculaas before I tried one of the ones she gave us. They’re crisp little flavor bombs that are a perfect counterpoint to some of the richer and sweeter treats at Christmastime.
When Cy and I decided to make Speculaas for our annual holiday eggnog party, I searched around and put a recipe together with things I liked from various versions and a few additions of my own. I think my mother in law would approve of the result, and I wish she were still with us to taste them. We were actually going to see if we could find a windmill-shaped cookie cutter or one of those embossing rolling pins. But when I made a trial batch and tried rolling the dough out it stuck to everything, even greased parchment paper. So we abandoned the idea of fanciful shapes. Instead, we take tablespoon-sized portions, roll them into balls that get coated with sugar, and then flattened on the baking sheet with a glass. They’re all the same size and pretty much the same thickness. Rather plain-looking, but the sugar gives them a nice crunch and a little sparkle on the edges. You can always drizzle on some colored icing made with confectioners sugar and milk to up the presentation.
One of our new selections will pair perfectly with the cookies – Azienda Agricola San Benedetto Vin Santo del Chianti ($28). Vin Santo is made like balsamic vinegar: the wine is aged in barrels that allow some water evaporation. As more liquid evaporates, the wine is put into smaller and smaller barrels until it’s ready. This Vin Santo is sweet but not overly sweet, with apricot aromas and concentrated fig and date flavors. It’s made with Sancolombano, Malvasia, and Trebbiano grapes, so it’s a white wine by composition. However, aging in chestnut barrels and the concentration give it a lightly golden color. It’s great with fruit, cheeses, and most all desserts. And I think my mother in law would have loved a glass with her Speculaas!
Happy Holidays to everyone – and a safe, healthy, and happy new year!
Makes 30 or so cookies
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
¾ cup brown sugar, packed
1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1-1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
½ teaspoon cardamom
½ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground white pepper
½ teaspoon fine salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour (280 grams)
½ cup finely ground almond flour (about 50 grams if you’re going to grind your own almonds)
2 tablespoons milk or cream
Granulated sugar (for coating)
Whisk the all-purpose flour, salt, baking powder, and spices together. Cream the butter, brown sugar, and vanilla together in a stand mixer until well mixed and fluffy. Beat in the almond flour until well mixed and any lumps are gone. Turn the mixer to low speed and beat in the flour/spice mixture about ¼ cup at a time until it’s all mixed in. Beat in the milk. You should have a soft dough that holds together. Put a large sheet of plastic wrap on the counter, then put the dough on it and pat it into a flat disk. Wrap up the disk and refrigerate for at least an hour (or up to a few days).
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F with a rack in the center of the oven, and line two cookie sheets with parchment paper or nonstick mats. Put at least ½ cup granulated sugar on a large plate. Using a measuring tablespoon, measure out 1-tablespoon pieces of dough and roll each piece into a ball. Roll the balls in sugar. Place 15 balls on one of the lined baking sheets. Dip the bottom of a drinking glass or a 1-cup liquid measuring cup in the sugar and then press down on each ball to flatten it into a disk about as big as the bottom of the measuring cup. You may have to slide the disk of dough off the bottom, but it will come off easily.
Bake for 15 minutes and check the cookies – they should be getting a little bit browned on the edges, but not deeply browned. Bake a couple of minutes more if necessary. Remove from the oven, and let them sit on the sheet for about 5 minutes before removing to a cooling rack. Repeat with the second sheet.