Fungicides used most on wine grapes are one less thing to worry about, despite the numbers

I was tickled to learn that “vitalizing” essential oil of sweet orange also helps treat downy and powdery mildews on wine grapes. I’m sure it makes the vineyards smell lovely, too.  But “vitalizing?”  It sounds like a made-up word; “I can’t today, I’m out vitalizing…”

Three years ago I wrote what has turned out to be my most-read blog post, a summary of a study on pesticides in French wine.  A French consumer protection organization, Que Choisir, tested around 100 French wines for 165 different pesticide residues, including some banned pesticides, naming names in their published results.

In the background for the study, Que Choisir indicated that vineyards use 20% of the country’s agricultural pesticide volume, even though they account for less than 4% of agricultural land use.  Since the French government had launched an initiative to reduce pesticide use by 50% from 2007 to 2018, Que Choisir wanted not only to inform consumers about which wine regions appeared to use the most pesticides, but also point the way to regulators for targeted reductions.

Since the study was done more than four years ago, I contacted Que Choisir to see if they were doing a follow up.  The organization replied that they are planning to do one in 2019 or 2020 – presumably after the 2018 pesticide use reduction period ends, to see what the results are. 

However, they mentioned something I hadn’t known before:  Vineyards account for 80% of the total fungicide use in France, despite the low overall percentage of acreage of vineyards in total agricultural land use.  (Note that fungicides are considered pesticides as well, so the figure of 20% of total pesticide use includes fungicides.)

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn this.  Grapes and grapevines are susceptible to all kinds of mildew (powdery mildew, downy mildew, and Botritis), molds, and just plain rot if there aren’t precautions.  Climate can help – hot and dry with steady winds can keep undesirables in check.  Targeted leaf removal from the vines, to get more sun and air circulation, is another technique, as is tying leaves to the trellis wires to keep them separated and keep some of the leaves away from the grape clusters.

Fungicides are still widely used, though, so I wanted to learn more about them.  This isn’t a comprehensive look by any means, just a first pass to see what substances get used and why.  The initial takeaway here is that fungicide use, at least as currently practiced in vineyards and agriculture in general, is almost certainly the least of our worries where pesticides are concerned.

By far the biggest fungicide use on wine grapes comes from two things – sulfur or copper.  Four of the 10 substances on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s list of 10 permitted fungicides for use in organic farming contain those two elements in naturally-derived forms.  Two others are potassium compounds.  The remainders are natural oils.

One of my French producers whose vineyards are certified organic confirmed that these are the substances she uses as fungicides on her vines.  Sulfur and copper are used as sparingly as possible.  Additionally, she uses essential oil of sweet orange, potassium bicarbonate, and various naturally-occurring bacteria that help combat mold and mildew.

Many of you may remember copper sulfate crystals from high school chemistry lab. In addition to turning things a lovely blue color, copper sulfate is a commonly-used fungicide for wine grapes.

Of course, there are plenty of synthetically-derived fungicides too, some of them are likely used on conventionally-grown wine grapes.  Looking at U.S. EPA’s latest estimates, though, the most-used synthetic fungicide comes in way behind copper and sulfur compounds in terms of total use.  (This is for all U.S. agriculture, and not just for wine grapes.  Still, it tells me that most fungicides used out there aren’t the really scary ones.  I think that’s good news for all of us.)

The advantage of copper and sulfur is that they’re topical — they get applied to the vines and grapes and don’t get absorbed by the plants, and so are easily washed away by rain.  They don’t end up in the grapes – as opposed to fungicides that are sprayed on the plants and soil to be absorbed through the leaves or roots and work from the inside.  These are called systemic fungicides, and you’d be much more likely to find their residue in the grapes than topical fungicides.  Che Choisir didn’t test for the ten fungicides allowed for organic use.  But even if they had, these substances almost certainly wouldn’t have shown up in wines.

This doesn’t mean there can’t be problems with the fungicides approved for organic use.  Prolonged exposure to copper can cause kidney and liver damage.  Workers have to take precautions when applying copper to avoid inhaling the liquid or dust.  And since it’s a metal and doesn’t break down, the amount in the soil can build up if used too frequently.  My producer told me that her vineyard’s soil gets tested every year for copper to make sure they’re minimizing accumulation.  This becomes particularly important when people are working in the fields, to avoid inhaling copper from soil dust. 

Potential health effects of sulfur as it’s used in agricultural practice have barely been studied at this point.  I suspect it’s partly because sulfur was used as a topical antibiotic for centuries, so there’s a predisposition to expect little harm.  And so far there hasn’t been any indication of issues with non-worker exposure for adults.  However, vineyard workers wear protective gear to prevent skin, eye, and respiratory irritation when they apply sulfur. 

But there may be unintended health issues beyond the fields.  A 2017 study on children’s exposure indicated increased incidence of asthma and other respiratory illnesses for children living within one kilometer of farm fields treated with sulfur.  Children inhale more air per pound of body weight than adults so their exposure is going to be greater than adults’ would be under the same circumstances.  Obviously, more research is needed, but it’s clear that it’s worth extra caution to avoid overuse and drifting beyond the fields.

The other issue is that molds and mildews can become resistant to treatment, even with copper and sulfur.  Everyone’s heard about antibiotic-resistant “super-bugs,” and there are some weeds that have become resistant to the herbicide Roundup.  But there have been cases of resistant mold in vineyards already, so it’s worth minimizing use of even the least harmful substances.  The temptation is to think more is better just in case, but we certainly don’t want to have to stop using the things that seem to work with the least potential harm.

So what started as a seemingly alarming statistic about fungicide use in French vineyards doesn’t seem so scary.  This isn’t to say that grape growers don’t want to minimize fungicide use, to minimize worker exposure, protect surrounding communities, and potentially save money.  But I’m more worried about things like the U.S. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s decision not to ban chlorpyrifos – an insecticide widely used on produce – despite the agency’s own scientists recommending the ban due to its neurodevelopmental effects (demonstrated through decades of data).  As I mentioned last time, drinking wine may not extend your life, but at least we don’t have to worry about children’s nervous systems being affected by its production.

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Now that we have our kitchen back and better than ever, I’ve been in there a lot.  But doing just as much baking as cooking.  I got a copy of Sweet by Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh and so far have made three desserts from it, including one called “Vineyard Cake” with grapes on top and a 500 ml bottle of sweet dessert wine in the batter.  But my favorite of the three were the madeleines made with honey, orange, and saffron.

I’d never used saffron in a dessert before.  You could taste it (and see the threads), and it was warm and just slightly spicy.  Since my husband is half-Iranian, we get some excellent saffron and I use it in Persian food.  My first encounters with it, though, were in Seafood Paella and Bouillabaisse.  But it also works well with chicken.  In fact, my mother used to make a chicken version of Bouillabaisse from a cookbook I gave her in 1989 called Mediterranean Light, by Martha Rose Shulman.  Shulman wrote a few “light” cookbooks, and I think they hold up better today than when they were published.  Mostly because we have access to a lot more and better ingredients than we did back then.  And if you’re going to eliminate most (or all) of the butter and cream from recipes, you need really good ingredients.

I have changed almost everything about the original recipe.  And I’ve added back the rouille, which is a garlic mayonnaise that you spread on toasted baguette slices and either float on the Bouillabaisse, dip in, or eat on the side (which I do, since I don’t like soggy bread).  The rouille is good for other things, it makes a great sandwich spread or add more olive oil to it and use it as a vegetable dip.  Shulman adds potatoes and shelled fava beans to her recipe, but I use the rouille and bread instead of potatoes, and a drain and rinsed can of small white beans instead of the favas.

Bouillabaisse is Provençal in origin, so you’d probably expect a rosé with it.  But I think Cave la Vinsobraise White ($12) is a better pairing because the blend of White Grenache, Viognier, and Marsanne hits all the same notes as the Bouillabaisse.  In fact, get two bottles because you’ll need almost a whole bottle just for the dish.  How nice when your food gets to drink well, too!

Cheers!

Tom

Chicken Bouillabaisse

Serves 4 to 6

10 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, each thigh cut into 4 pieces

4 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra for drizzling

2 large onions, sliced thin

4 garlic cloves, minced fine

6 scallions, white and green parts sliced separately

1 14-ounce can petite diced tomatoes, drained

2-1/2 cups dry white wine

3 cups low-sodium chicken stock

2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme (or 1 teaspoon dried thyme)

½ teaspoon saffron threads

½ teaspoon fennel seeds, bashed up a little in a mortar and pestle

1 lemon, peel cut off in strips with a vegetable peeler, then juiced (keep separate)

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

1 14-ounce can small white beans, rinsed and drained

Optional baguette with rouille

Rouille (garlic mayonnaise, see this recipe for homemade and doctored store-bought versions)

1 baguette, sliced and toasted

Combine the wine and chicken stock in a saucepan, bring to a boil, then reduce the so it’s still boiling and cook until the liquid is reduced to 4 cups (about 25 minutes).  Add the drained tomatoes and the saffron, plus the dried thyme (hold off on the fresh thyme if you’re using it).  Cover the pan and set it aside.

While the wine and stock are cooking, heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a Dutch oven, then add the chicken thigh pieces.  Cook for about 4 minutes, then turn and cook the other side.  You may have to do this in batches, depending on your pot.  Remove the chicken with a slotted spoon and put it in a bowl.  Add the remaining olive oil, heat it up, and add the onion and white slices of scallion, plus the fresh thyme (if using) and the fennel seed, and about ½ teaspoon each of salt and pepper.  Cook until the onions just start to get a little brown on the edges (about 10 minutes, stirring often), then add the garlic and the lemon peel and cook for a minute.  Add the wine/stock/tomato mixture, then the chicken.  Heat until boiling, then reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for a half hour, until the chicken is cooked.

Remove the lid, then add the drained beans, scallion greens, and a tablespoon of lemon juice.  Cook for a few minutes to heat the beans, then taste for salt, pepper, and lemon juice.  Ladle into big bowls and drizzle each bowl with a little olive oil, serve with the baguette slices slathered with as much rouille as you like.

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Does wine shorten your life, or does life without it just seem longer?

According to a new study, even moderate wine consumption can lead to a shorter lifespan. Not a whole lot shorter, perhaps — but it may feel a lot longer without wine. (Photo from jeremyriad.com)

I’ve read as many studies on alcohol and health as possible for the past decade-plus.  And also the media coverage that goes with them.  As I’ve mentioned before, wine studies are often big news.  And by the time the coverage reaches the formats read or seen by most people, the studies’ caveats can be ignored in the rush of getting to the good or bad news of the headlines.

The tone of the coverage is either celebratory or snide depending on the findings.  Each piece of “good news” about wine — like saying that having a glass is equivalent to going to the gym — is greeted by rhapsodic cheers.  I get that, because who wouldn’t like a tasty way to skip going to the gym every once in a while?  Of course, the rosy scenarios rarely play out in the fine print, but we can dream, after all.  What puzzles me is the snark that accompanies news that alcohol, and especially wine, isn’t the cure-all that people had thought it was from previous reports.

The latest in this more negative category comes from an opinion piece by Barbara Allen in The Guardian titled, “Wake up tipplers, your nice plonk is not actually doing you any good.”  I learned about it because someone commenting on Ms. Allen’s column linked to one of my blog posts, and then several people reading the comment clicked on that link.  (Remember, folks, it’s not just Facebook that learns about what links you follow…)  Her piece comments on the British National Health Service’s (NHS) recent statement that the maximum weekly “units” of alcohol that people can consume without adversely affecting their health should go from 14 to 12.5.  (12.5 units of alcohol is five 175 ml glasses, while 14 units is 5.6 glasses.)  In making the statement – not yet a recommendation or official policy — NHS cites a recent worldwide study suggesting that drinking more than five glasses of wine or beer a week is associated with shorter lifespan.

OK, fine.  But Ms. Allen uses the piece as an indictment of people who claim wine as part of their eat healthy/revel in the dirt on your farmers’ market vegetables/get your exercise/you’re not really going to eat that, are you/didn’t see you at the gym today lifestyles.  “When,” she asks, “are certain drinkers going to realize they’re just drinkers, consuming alcohol like everyone else, with no exemption from health consequences?”  They’re “[fooling] themselves that there’s ‘nice’ alcohol and the other sort and that their demurely sipped mid-price plonk is ‘different’ somehow to a slugged-back pint.”

Ms. Allen claims to be writing not out of any sense of morality, but rather to comment on people’s self-delusion.  “As far as I’m aware, nobody is busy pretending that they’re insulated from the health hazards of cigarettes – that, like with the wine, there’s a moderate way to smoke that is ‘actually healthier than non-smoking.’  Nor do you tend to get people sticking a needle in their arm at dinner parties, arguing: ‘Heroin lowers my stress levels and gives me a sense of wellbeing, so what’s wrong with that?’ ”

Well.  Ms. Allen has definitely put her friends on notice, which may make for awkward silences at parties to come.  But regardless of her social strategy, the study NHS cited reported that the difference in lifespan between five and 5.6 glasses of wine per week is about two weeks, so I’m not sure why she’s getting worked up.

Ten glasses per week shortens lifespan by six months.  That means her “demure” drinkers will live a half year less than those who drink less.  While six months is six months, it comes out to less than 1% of the average Western lifespan.  It hardly seems necessary to be so emphatic.  And since she objects to the tone rather than the drinking, I hope Ms. Allen gets equally outraged over the subset of non-drinkers who go on about their healthier-than-thou proclamations, which she doesn’t mention here.

But her column leads me to this question: Are people who think that a couple of glasses of wine a day is good for them actively deluding themselves?  It’s certainly true that people tend to be more positive about the things they like.  Plus, I can understand wine drinkers buying some of the hype put out by news outlets of every stripe, including reputable ones like Ms. Allen’s own Guardian.  Even the particular study Ms. Allen references acknowledges that there appears to be a health benefit to drinking – it reduces the risk of having a non-fatal heart attack.  As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t understand why people feel the need to grasp at even the most dubious health benefits attributed to things like wine and chocolate.  But I get that people don’t want to be seen as merely self-indulgent.  While Ms. Allen might give them points for owning up to it, plenty of other people definitely wouldn’t.

I also have a few thoughts about the underlying study and ones like it.  It’s important that entities like NHS with lots of data on health outcomes examine those data to help construct health policy.  Patient outcomes are objective, in that you know how long they lived and what they died from.  Data on amounts of drinking and smoking, however, are less objective because the patients provide the answers.  No doubt the questionnaires have ways to try and get accurate numbers.  But people aren’t stupid – they understand that there’s a stigma attached to drinking too much, or smoking even a little bit.  It seems likely to me that people understate their alcohol and tobacco consumption on a regular basis.  And some who drink very little or not at all may overstate it, so as not to seem overly zealous.

I’m not sure how to avoid this.  A few years ago, I wrote about an Italian study that measured the amounts of certain compounds in people’s urine as a proxy for the amounts of wine they drink.  This seems less variable, but unless doctors randomly stopped their patients on the street and dragged them inside to give a urine sample, there’s still the possibility of under-reporting.  Wouldn’t at least some of the patients decide to drink less (or no) wine before their annual physical exams?

The other issue is that these studies show association.  And, as science skeptics point out, association is not causation.  (That’s probably the only point of intersection between their point of view and mine.)  Even with a strong association, there could be other behaviors involved that don’t get covered that affect the results, or certain factors that act in concert.

Still, a statistically strong association indicates a direction to look further.  So the notion that ingesting certain substances could have an impact (positive or negative) on health and health outcomes isn’t necessarily just the product of nanny-state thinking, but deserves consideration on the merits.  Regarding alcohol, what these long-term longitudinal studies – following the same group of people for a relatively long period of time – suggest is that even what we consider moderate drinking results in a shorter rather than longer life.

However, the studies don’t examine the quality of people’s lives.  As long as drinking remains legal, you are free to make your own decisions and weigh the potential benefits and risks.  Obviously, when consuming alcohol affects others, such as during pregnancy or while driving, a stronger policy is necessary.  Smoking bans serve the same purpose, to protect others nearby from the health hazards of secondhand smoke.  But for your everyday life, you get to decide.  This requires both the best possible information, and the acknowledgement that what’s considered the “best” information might change over time. Whether and how you describe that decision to others is also up to you, despite what Ms. Allen thinks.

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I’m loving this video of a Michigan TV weatherman who calls out his on-air colleagues for their daily vocal disappointment with his forecast.  I live with a weather geek husband who tells me what to expect weather-wise at various times of day, and I don’t blame him for the actual weather.  But I understand people being tired of the teases of spring that revert back to what seems like an endless winter the next day. 

The weather has also made deciding what to eat more challenging.  But thanks to friends giving us some salmon they’d hot-smoked at home and looking back through old, old cookbooks, I came up with a salmon loaf recipe that works in warm or cold weather. 

You can usually find canned hot-smoked salmon in nicer grocery stores if you don’t have generous foodie friends.  Combine it with regular canned salmon (or non-smoked salmon you cook yourself) and the usual meatloaf ingredients and it’ll be really tasty.  I like to make it a bit ahead of time, let it cool a little, then brown the cut side of the slices before serving.  You can eat it hot or at room temperature, and then let the weather dictate what you serve with it.

Salmon loves red wine, so try something lighter-bodied like Château de Clapier Calligrappe ($12).  If it’s warm out, put the wine in the fridge for 15 to 20 minutes to cool it just a little.  Happy calendar spring to everyone, and here’s hoping it feels like actual spring soon.

Cheers!

Tom

Salmon Loaf

Serves 4-6

1 1-pound can of salmon, drained (save the liquid from draining, though) bones and visible skin removed, flaked into small bits (or 1 pound of cooked salmon fillet, flaked)

4 to 6 ounces hot-smoked salmon (a little more is fine too), drained if canned (discard the liquid), bones and visible skin removed, flaked into small bits

1 cup dry bread crumbs or cracker crumbs

1/3 cup milk, half and half, or cream

2 eggs, beaten well

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon ground black pepper

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

2 teaspoons anchovy paste

2 teaspoons chili paste or chili-garlic paste (like Sambal Oelek)

1 small onion, finely minced (about ½ cup)

1 carrot, finely minced (about ½ cup)

1 rib celery, finely minced (about ½ cup)

Olive oil

½ cup minced fresh parsley

¼ cup minced fresh chives or scallion greens

Grease a 4-1/2 x 8-1/2-inch loaf pan and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.  Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet, and saute the onion, carrot, and celery with the salt and pepper for about 10 minutes until soft.  Set aside to cool.

Put the bread crumbs in a large bowl with the drained liquid from the regular canned salmon and the milk.  (If you cooked your own salmon, add 2/3 cup milk total).  Stir to mix.  Let sit for a minute to soak the bread crumbs, then mix in the eggs, lemon juice, Worcestershire, and chili paste.  Add the salmon, cooled vegetables, parsley, and chives and mix well.  Pack into the greased loaf pan and bake for 45 minutes.  The internal temperature should be 160 degrees F.

Let the loaf cool for about 10 minutes, then remove it from the pan – it should slide right out.  Cut into eight slices.  Heat another 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a nonstick skillet, and brown the cut sides of the slices.  Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature.

 

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Winemakers fight global warming with science and tradition

Outdoor concrete tanks at a large winery in the Alentejo region of Portugal. Most of the tank is underground, which helps maintain temperature even as summers get hotter with increased global warming. The tanks are constructed by first digging the half-sphere pit, then filling a large balloon-like structure with air, and finally covering the balloon with concrete. The balloon is removed and the inside gets lined with concrete as well.

In my last post I mentioned some of the impacts of global warming on grape growers and winemakers, as told to me by winemakers at two European wine shows.  While extreme weather and shortened growing seasons were shared concerns, the winemakers also discussed geographic-specific concerns, like changes to local wild yeast. 

So how are winemakers and grape growers coping?  As I mentioned before, it’s a mixture of both cutting-edge research and a return to older traditions.  And so far, farmers and winemakers are running ahead of their regional appellation authorities in adaptation to climate change.

There’s a bunch of active research on breeding from grape stock that seems to do better in the increasingly warmer weather.  In the long run, that will benefit everyone.   One area of breeding research focuses on growing smaller berries no matter the varietal.  In general, smaller grapes do better because the skin to juice ratio is higher and since lots of flavor comes from the skin, there’s more opportunity for flavor development during fermentation.

Another solution for some producers has come from something that seems counter-intuitive:  increasing the yield per vine (and hence, per hectare).  In general, grape growers strive for a particular yield range that ensures high-quality grapes.  Fewer grapes means less competition per grape for nutrients and the products of photosynthesis.  However, this also means that the sugar content increases more quickly than it would if the grape yield were higher.  More competition for resources per grape actually lengthens the growing season, because the grapes take longer to reach their optimal sugar content.  Longer ripening in turn means a longer time for flavor development – avoiding the problem of under-ripe flavors.

In general, increasing the yield has proved more effective for white wines than red wines.  Red grapes don’t seem to respond in quite the same way.  This may be different for some varietals, but the Portuguese winemaker I discussed the yield/quality issue told me that greater yields don’t have the same effect for his red grapes.

Instead, he has turned to what he can do in the winery.  One of the keys is to minimize the “green” or under-ripe flavors during the winemaking process.  The more the wine or juice gets pumped around by mechanical means, the more likely it is the final product will have green flavors at the expense of riper ones.  I’ve written before about how pumps are the bane of many winemakers’ existences.  They still have to be used, of course, but minimizing their use – particularly during fermentation and initial aging — is key. 

Specifically, the winemaker told me he has stopped what’s called “pump-over.”  When pressed grapes and juice go in the tank, the skins usually float to the top.  In order to keep everything mixed and maximize skin contact, juice typically gets pumped from the bottom of the tank and sprayed over the skin mat at the top to mix. 

There are other ways of mixing the skins and juice, depending on the size of the tank or barrel.  If the fermentation vessels aren’t too large, winemakers can mix by hand.  It’s similar to batonnage, stirring up the wine in barrels to even out contact with the wood and the small particles suspended in the wine.  One of my French producers claims this is how she maintains upper body strength and tone.  Another of my producers told me that rolling up his sleeves and pushing the skins down into the juice in the barrel – and allowing visitors to do the same – gives those visitors a perfect selfie moment, in addition to being good winemaking practice.

But hand mixing in large tanks is impossible.  And the amount of mechanical mixing necessary to get everything in contact can create as much disturbance to the juice as pumping.  So this particular winemaker told me he has resurrected a 19th-century technique – using the carbon dioxide generated during fermentation to push the juice up over the skin mat.  A cone-shaped insert in the tanks guides the juice up the sides and down through a hole in the middle, gently mixing the skins and juice.  Normally, carbon dioxide vents out the top of the tank anyway, so it’s intriguing to know that it can have a beneficial use as well.

I also learned about a number of innovative storage techniques developed for use in larger wineries, including some dome-shaped vessels that are half underground and can be used in even the hottest Portuguese summers.

Storage vessels and tank mixing are pretty straightforward, and changes to them (other than changing the materials they’re made from, or what touches the wine) don’t trigger problems with the rules for the wines’ particular appellations.  Neither does substituting manufactured yeast for natural yeast.  But grape breeding and changes to the yields definitely do. 

Although even many of the most ancient grapes used to make wines are hybrids (like Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon), most winemaking appellations have strict rules about hybridization.  So while hybrid research for global warming is still relatively new, there will be a time when it becomes an issue for particular appellations if winemakers want to use the new hybrids in their wines.

The same is true for yield increases.  The Portuguese winemaker I spoke with told me that it takes a 20-25% increase in yield to give him the right flavor in some of his white wines.  That high an increase definitely puts his wines outside the yield rules for the appellation.  It’s not that he can’t make the wine that way and sell it – the issue is how he labels it.  In general, wines conforming to the appellation rules and are labeled with a particular D.O. can get a higher price than those labeled as Table Wine.  So he and other winemakers are working with their appellation authorities to see if the rules can be changed to accommodate new climate realities.

Still, if it comes down to making better wine versus labeling it with a higher designation, the Portuguese winemakers I talked to won’t hesitate to go outside the appellation rules.  Particularly since their wines are now beginning to find significant international markets.  “We’ve got a good reputation to maintain and want to keep our production quality consistent,” one winemaker told me.  “I’m not as concerned about what I call the wine, although I hope that the D.O. will agree.”  The French winemakers I spoke with said that they’d ultimately do the same, although for some producers in the Languedoc, they’ve only recently managed to carve out new appellations beyond Vin du Pays.  “We’ve finally recently received recognition of the individual character of our local wines,” according to a Languedoc winemaker.  “Of course we want to preserve that character, I just hope we can do it within the rules we worked hard to get implemented.”

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No recipe this time.  Cy and I are undergoing home renovations and we’ve been without a kitchen.  Once I’m back to cooking it’ll make me think more about making food.

Cheers!

Tom

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Global warming from winemakers’ perspectives

Many wine regions experience winter frost. But as bud break gets earlier in the year, it’s more likely that there can be frost damage that reduces the harvest. (Image from noaa.gov.)

I didn’t expect to be writing about global warming so soon again after my last post.  But I spent a week at wine shows talking to winemakers, so of course the subject came up. 

It was a pleasure talking to people who are on the front lines adapting to climate change.  And the shows I attended were in Lisbon and Montpellier, so the fact that there were so many similar concerns across different wine regions was troubling. 

While I was away, I saw that a few wine bloggers I read regularly also wrote about global warming and wine.  (I’d like to think I kicked things off!)  But I didn’t read much about winemakers’ geographic-specific concerns and what kinds of steps they and grape growers are taking.  Talking to French and Portuguese winemakers, I learned that trying to make their wines under changing climate conditions has been an exercise in science, patience, and in some cases, a return to techniques of the past.  And some of the techniques are things that put them in conflict with the rules of their particular appellations, which adds another layer of complication.

That’s an awful lot for one blog post, so I’m going to concentrate on effects of global warming in this one, and then some of the ways winemakers are coping in another.

Everyone mentioned that the harvest gets earlier and earlier.  But one winemaker in the Alentejo region of Portugal told me that the harvest has moved up by six weeks during his 20+ years in the wine business.  Spring bud break hasn’t moved up as much, so the growing season is significantly shorter than it was even 10 years ago.  This means that certain flavor compounds don’t fully develop, since they rely on time on the vine rather than the sugar content of the grape (which is more a function of weather).   While shorter hang time for the grapes is often cited as a consequence of global warming, the earlier harvest has other impacts.  For example, some winemakers also insist that the cooler weather of September and October imparts a richness to the grapes that is more and more difficult to achieve when harvests take place in early August.  And it also makes late-harvest wines and icewines more problematic and difficult to produce.

In some ways, earlier bud break due to a shorter/warmer winter can create more havoc than the earlier harvest.  If bud break moves into a time when the region has had traditionally colder weather, chances are greater that there will be a cold-weather event that can damage or destroy the buds.  Larger wineries with more cash on hand can sometimes use propane heaters in the vineyards to stave off freezing, but that’s not an option for most.   All of the producers I import from in the Languedoc experienced some decreased yield in 2017 from freezing after bud break.

Most people think of global warming in terms of everything just getting warmer.  But as winemakers (and Californians) have come to learn, it causes more potentially extreme weather – hot and cold, drought and lots of precipitation — even during what otherwise seems like a normal growing season.  A winemaker in Bergerac I’ve imported from avoided the freezing after bud break, but he had to contend with hailstorms after the grapes had started growing.  This hadn’t happened before in all his years as a winemaker.  Overall, his yield for 2017 was down 70% from 2016, and he doesn’t have any wine to sell me after meeting his local commitments.

The other important thing that the winemakers want people to understand is that while there’s a perception that years with warmer growing seasons make better vintages, that only happens because those warmer summers were formerly the exception rather than the rule.  I’m thinking of 2003 in the southern Rhône Valley, for example.  That year produced some amazing red wines.  But it’s only because the vines had more normal summers from 1999-2002, and again from 2004-6.  Grapevines can respond to the stress of a single warmer growing season with great results.  According to the producers I spoke with, this is totally different than the constant warming we’ve experienced in the past decade.  You don’t get the same great results if every summer is warmer than the last one.

Finally, I also learned that climate variations affect the amount and type of natural yeasts in the air.  Yeast content and character already varies by geography, as we all know.  But if a winery counts on natural yeast for fermentation, variability is an issue.  In some cases, reduced ambient yeast can mean that other (undesirable) microbes can take over during fermentation.  A couple of winemakers told me that they have made the decision to supplement with added manufactured yeast to gain some consistency from year to year.  A straightforward solution, but I also heard some sadness and resignation that their most traditional and (to use a much-maligned word) “natural” practice had to be abandoned.

All of this sounds pretty dire.  But winemakers are nothing if not resourceful, and I learned about techniques I hadn’t heard of before to cope with the global warming-associated changes.  I’ll write about them in a future post, so stay tuned!

_____________

Over a decade of blogging, I’ve decided that the hardest thing to do is transition from a blog post about wine to a recipe.  There are exceptions, of course — interviewing cookbook authors about wine makes it easy, as does talking about a particular wine.  But a post on global warming?  I’ve decided the only thing to do is launch right in, smooth transition or no.  So cue the needle scratch, and here we go!

Friday, March 9 was National Meatball Day, at least in the U.S.  I’ve given plenty of recipes for meatballs over these years of blogging, from classic Italian-American meatballs with red sauce, through Spanish and Persian recipes as well.  But there’s always room for more meatballs.

I’m generally suspicious of anything called “Asian Style” in foods, because it usually means someone has added some soy, ginger, and garlic to pretty much anything.  But I decided to try my hand at it for meatballs, and after looking at a bunch of online recipes I added sesame oil, scallions, and chili paste.  The results were pretty good, and I figured they’d go well with the typical sour/spicy/sweet/salty dipping sauces you typically find with dumplings.  Well, I think they’re even better if you dunk them in the sauce after cooking, and then put them back in the oven for a few minutes to set the sauce flavor on the outsides.

So here’s my made-up Ginger-Sesame Meatballs.  And I like them as an appetizer, served with our naturally sparkling wine, Domaine la Croix des Marchands Méthode Ancestrale Brut ($18).  It has a touch of residual sweetness that goes really well with the sauce, and it tames the spice a bit too. 

Cheers!

Tom

Sesame-Ginger Meatballs with Orange Sweet and Sour Sauce

Serves 4 as an appetizer or used in sandwiches

Meatballs

1 pound ground turkey (90 or 93 percent lean), or ground pork

4 scallions, finely chopped (including green parts)

1-inch piece of peeled fresh ginger, grated

3 garlic cloves, grated or put through a press

2-1/2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 teaspoons sesame oil

½ cup plus 2 tablespoons panko bread crumbs

1 tablespoon chili paste (Sambal Oelek)

1 egg

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F and line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper or a non-stick mat.

Combine everything except the turkey and bread crumbs in a large bowl and mix well.  Break the turkey up in pieces and add to the bowl along with ½ cup of the bread crumbs.  Mix well.  Add up to 2 more tablespoons of bread crumbs if the mixture seems too liquid.

Using a 1-1/2 inch ice cream scoop, make individual meatballs and space them evenly on the lined baking sheet.  Bake 20 to 25 minutes, until they’re cooked through and have a little browning on them.

Sauce

1/3 cup Hoisin sauce

¼ cup orange marmalade

¼ cup plus 1 tablespoon white vinegar

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 teaspoon finely diced fresh ginger

1 teaspoon finely diced fresh garlic

Combine sauce ingredients in a large bowl, then pour half of the sauce into a smaller bowl for dipping.  When the meatballs are cooked, gently put them into the large bowl with half the sauce, and stir to coat.  Return the meatballs to the baking sheet and bake for another 5-7 minutes, until glazed.  Serve hot or warm with the dipping sauce on the side.

Posted in Global Warming, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Dateline Glasgow 2050: The Great Rhônes of Scotland

While I look forward to a kitten calendar every year, I realized that I’d been anticipating 2018 for quite a long time. It all goes back to the Kyoto Protocol, negotiated in 1997.

As 2017 drew to a close, it occurred to me that I had unconsciously been looking forward to 2018 as an important year for a very long time.

After a boozy New Year’s Eve and a little recovery time, I realized why:  2018 was supposed to be the beginning of the compliance period for the Kyoto Protocol, a global agreement to reduce the man-made greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.  The agreement was hammered out in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997.   A group of participating countries agreed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to 10 percent below 1990 levels by 2018-2020. 

It also got me thinking about the effects of global warming on the wine industry I’ve seen in the 10 years I’ve been an importer, and what the wine world I import from is going to look like in the future.  I think that Kyoto was a huge missed opportunity, one we may not have again, and not just for the wine world.  Feel free to skip the next five or six paragraphs if you want the wine thoughts without the history.  (Don’t worry, I’m used to people ignoring my geeky enviro ramblings.  You won’t hurt my feelings.)

As I’ve mentioned before, I spent many years working for an environmental advocacy organization.  During the Kyoto negotiations and for a couple of years afterward, I did a ton of research on ways the U.S. could meet some of its goals without cost – that is, things that could be done that would pay for themselves in terms of reduced energy and materials use.   My first calculations indicated that we could get at least halfway there without cost, and quickly.  That would leave plenty of time for innovations that could take care of the rest.  Heck, we were pretty confident that the U.S. could easily exceed Kyoto goals, even though the country’s electricity use kept climbing year after year.

And it wasn’t just us green card-holding, tree-hugging weirdos who thought so.  Even leading conservative writers at the time argued that we could easily meet the targets.  If not with one hand tied behind our back, then at the very least with minimal economic disruption.  Of course, there were plenty of dissenting voices.  The principal argument on the right was that developing countries didn’t have binding targets, so why should we stick our neck out if China and India didn’t have to.  And there were some on the left who thought Kyoto wouldn’t do enough and wanted something bigger.

Ultimately, nothing was done on a national level, despite great hopes and several near-misses.  While the U.S. signed the Kyoto Protocol during the Clinton administration, it was never submitted to the Senate for ratification by either the Clinton or Bush administrations.   Without the U.S.’s participation as the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter (both in annual amounts and cumulatively), reductions by other participating countries would have much less impact.*

One of the near misses was particularly disappointing.  Despite some bipartisan support, we couldn’t even get a common-sense measure requiring U.S. industrial facilities to report their greenhouse gas emissions, something facilities in Canada and Mexico already had to do.  The idea was that if the public knew precisely which facilities released the most greenhouse gasses, there could be pressure on them to make reductions and for the industries to develop best practices.  Precisely the kind of competition-inducement underpinning the free market, or so we thought.  But industry has a history of reflexively fighting disclosure, and they were helped by other events.  In the post-9/11 years industrial facilities were increasingly seen as potential security targets, and the idea of public greenhouse gas reporting was dropped.  (I spoke with NPR’s Nell Greenfieldboyce about Canada and Mexico’s inventories, as well as the lack of one in the U.S., back in 2007.  Nothing has changed since then.  Amazingly, the story is still up.)

By the time President Obama was elected, the Kyoto Protocol was seen as a thing of the past.  Instead, countries including the U.S. began working on an agreement that included binding targets for countries that hadn’t had to set them for Kyoto.  This became the Paris Accord – adopted at the end of 2015, with a baseline of 2005 and reduction goals for 2020 and 2025.  But since U.S. emissions grew substantially between 1990 and 2005, even the relatively ambitious goals of the Paris Accord still meant that the U.S. would be emitting more in 2020 than if we had stuck to Kyoto.**  I have no doubt that reduction strategies to meet the Kyoto targets would have resulted in getting us further than the Paris Accord’s 2025 goal as well, because we’d have laid the foundation for innovation instead of now playing catch-up.

(Of course, while ambitious, the Paris Accord still also had to be submitted to the Senate for ratification.  Before that happened, the Trump administration took the U.S. out of the Paris Accord, so we currently have no national greenhouse gas emissions targets, official or not.)

With the start of 2018, I decided to take a look at what might have been.  Had we achieved emissions 10 percent below 1990, our current emissions would be about 13 percent lower than EPA’s latest estimate of our current levels.   But that’s not the whole story.  If we’d started the work of making reductions in 1998, we’d have put 20 percent less greenhouse gasses in total into the air over 20 years – equal to emitting nothing for four years.  If you combine that with reductions from the other developed countries that signed Kyoto in 1997, it’s staggering to see what we could have accomplished, but didn’t.

Looking at the impacts in my current wine-related career is equally sobering.  Back in 2003, I started to read emerging studies on wine regions in the northern hemisphere moving northward because of global warming.  I later realized that some wine producers had been sounding the alarm on this since the 1990s.  The studies documented the migration and made general predictions that it would continue more rapidly.  Activists in states with relatively new wine industries hoped that the potential economic impact could help persuade policymakers that greenhouse gas reduction goals were worthwhile.  But the studies also concluded that it was impossible to predict what would happen in microclimate areas.  Since virtually every wine-producing area can lay claim to having some sort of microclimate, it was easy for national policymakers to ignore the predictions couched in modifiers.  And while the wine industry is important to many states’ economies, it doesn’t have the same optics as even a single industrial facility employing thousands.  Despite the fact that we didn’t have to choose between them.

Obviously, there are way too many variables to make specific statements here.  With China’s emissions increases it’s impossible to predict what the impact of U.S. reductions would have been.  But there’s widespread agreement that global warming has exacerbated extreme weather events.  And with the detrimental impacts of extreme weather on wine production in France and the U.S. this past year, I wonder if we could have helped avoid some of the damage by starting to act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 20 years ago.  Britain, British Columbia, Oregon, Washington State, and other current and emerging wine-producing regions are benefitting from the northward migration, and it’s hard to argue that quality wine from more places isn’t a good thing.  But that could change as global warming accelerates, and more quickly than we imagine. 

It’s not inconceivable that certain wine regions will suffer greatly – particularly if they rely on irrigation.  Even those that don’t rely heavily on irrigation have to contend with the ability of vines to adapt to widely changing conditions that haven’t existed before, assuming they can.  If they can’t, we will definitely have to redraw the map of the wine world as we know it.

Of course, people constantly wax nostalgic about the “good ol’ days,” especially wine drinkers.  Back when I was a young wino I used to roll my eyes at older wine lovers telling me that I missed out on the glories of the 19xx vintages from Blah-Blah.  But I’ve come to realize that some of the nostalgia is about a sense of place in addition to the wine itself.  With the threats posed by global warming, it’s not hard to imagine that I’ll be yammering on to wine newbies decades younger about how they missed the great Bordeaux and California vintages of the 1980s.  And some of the Rhônes from the late 1990s, 2003, and 2007 — assuming they’re not producing them in Scotland with climate migration, that is.  (Perhaps Glasgow and its suburbs will become the new Châteauneuf du Pape.)  And especially one of my favorite wine memories, the 1990 Veuve Cliquot Grande Dame. 

It’s a shame, really.  Because while I definitely see myself as a “Grande Dame” someday, spouting wine information at will, I’d much rather be extolling the virtues of the wines of the future rather than just looking back on the glories of the past.  And I hope I won’t still be regretting that we passed up an opportunity to take the first easy steps laid out in 1997.  

*The U.S. was the world’s largest annual greenhouse gas emitter through 2005, and cumulatively is still the largest.  China exceeded the U.S. for annual emissions in 2006.

**2005 U.S. greenhouse gas emissions were 15% higher than 1990 levels.  Although the 2020 Paris Agreement goal was for emissions 17% below 2005 levels, this is still six percent higher than the Kyoto goal for 2020.


I’ll be traveling to Portugal and France in the next couple of weeks, so I’ll have some new recipes in future posts.  I’m now writing up an interview I did with David Leite, author of The New Portuguese Cookbook.  David is also the creator of Leite’s Culinaria, a fantastic cooking site.  He was really fun to talk with.  And unlike all the other cookbook authors I’ve interviewed so far, his family actually made their own wine.

Finally, back in late August I was interviewed by Jackie Beyer for the Organic Gardener Podcast.  Jackie told me she’ll be putting the interview up soon, and I’ll give you the link as soon as I have it (providing I’m not cringing in horror at the sound of my own voice, that is…)

Cheers!

Tom

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‘Tis the season for (savory) cookies

One of my childhood food memories is making ravioli on Christmas eve to eat the next day. Last year, I got to introduce Cy to the tradition. He’s a natural!

The holiday season brings back remembrances of all sorts of foods.  One of my childhood memories is of making cheese ravioli on Christmas eve with my family, then storing them on baking sheets in the cold garage overnight to cook on Christmas day.  It’s something my mother did as a child growing up in Brooklyn.  We hadn’t made them in decades.  Last year, I finally introduced Cy to the ravioli tradition.  It turns out he’s a natural at making them!

But most of my Christmas food memories are about sweets.  My mother has made amazing cookies every year for as long as I can remember, and my sister and I helped (or “helped,” depending on our ages) for many of our formative years.  The repertoire of cookies has changed since I was a kid, but she still makes two that I remember from childhood.

One is jelly wreaths, which are really a decorative delivery system for large amounts of butter and strawberry jam.  The other is Viennese Walnut Crescents, basically Mexican Wedding Cakes or Russian Tea Cakes shaped into crescents.  What sets them apart, though, is that they’re rolled in confectioner’s sugar that has tiny pieces of vanilla bean in it.  In the days before getting a food processor, this was done by mom chopping the vanilla bean with a knife, and then my sister or I pounding it with the sugar in a mortar and pestle.  A perfect job for kids, as long as you don’t mind getting sugar all over the place.  Whenever I smell vanilla beans, it takes me right back to those days of vanilla-scented flying powdered sugar.

Out on my own, I’ve continued the cookie tradition.  Especially since Cy and I have now been having our annual eggnog party for nearly two decades.  We make three different kinds of eggnog all without booze, and then let our guests add their libation of choice into their cups of eggnog.  There’s pretty much no cookie or holiday sweet that doesn’t benefit from a little eggnog alongside.

But we also serve wine for the nog-averse.  And for people who have had just a little too much fat and sugar as the evening goes on.  None of our guests has ever complained about eating cookies with wine.  And sometimes white wine is a good pairing for cookies, especially if it’s a white with even the tiniest bit of residual sugar.  But Cy and I had been looking for a treat that would go well with both red wine and eggnog.  Last year, we finally found one:  Dorie Greenspan’s Rosemary Parm Cookies.

I’ve written about Dorie Greenspan a few times in this blog, and was fortunate to interview her about wine last year.  She’s one of my favorite cookbook authors, and I know that giving her cookbooks as gifts is a sure-fire way to make friends.  As part of her publicity tour for Dorie’s Cookies, released in October 2016, she did a cookie-filled event at the National Press Club here in DC.  It was my introduction to the world of savory cookies, since the evening started out with wine and a selection of savory treats from the book.

Even though they’re called “savory,” they still have some sugar in them for texture and flavor.  And that bit of sugar makes them excellent accompaniments to both eggnog and wine without being sweet enough to make the wine taste bitter.  I tried the Rosemary Parm Cookies last year, and they were a huge hit – I’m making even more of them this year so we don’t run out.  I asked Dorie for permission to reprint the recipe here, and she graciously gave it.

The recipe is completely self-explanatory, so I won’t go on about it here.  Except to entreat you to weigh your ingredients, in grams, as directed.  Volume measurements may be the stuff of our childhoods, but traditions deserve tweaking when something better comes along.  And if you don’t have a good kitchen scale, well, then it’s something to put on your gift wish list.

As usual, we’ll be putting out a whole bunch of wines at the party.  But there’s one I think will go especially well with the cookies.  Château d’Assas Réserve ($18) is made from Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvèdre, and as I’ve written before, is part of my own family history.  So it makes this new holiday tradition fit right in.

Enjoy your holidays, whatever and wherever you celebrate.  And thanks to you all for another year of reading my blog musings!

Cheers!

Tom

Rosemary Parm cookies from Dorie Greenspan’s book “Dorie’s Cookies.” They’re just one of the savory cookies in the book, and pair perfectly with eggnog and red wine.

Rosemary Parm Cookies

From Dorie’s Cookies, by Dorie Greenspan.  Reprinted with the author’s permission

Makes about 60 cookies

3 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh rosemary

2 cups (272 grams) all-purpose flour

½ cup (60 grams) toasted pecans

1/3 cup (30 grams) lightly packed grated Parmesan

½ teaspoon fine sea salt

2 sticks (8 ounces, 226 grams) cold unsalted butter, cut into small chunks

1 large egg yolk, lightly beaten

Working in a small bowl, rub the sugar and chopped rosemary together with your fingertips until the sugar is most and aromatic and maybe even tinged with green.

Put the flour, pecans, Parmesan, salt, and rosemary-sugar in a food processor and pulse to blend.  Drop in the pieces of cold butter and pulse until the mixture turns crumbly.  Add the beaten yolk a little at a time, pulsing as each big goes in, then continue to pulse until you have a moist dough the forms clumps and curds.  [Although the recipe doesn’t specify it, you can add up to a tablespoon of water if it seems too dry and doesn’t clump together when you squeeze some of it in your hand.]

Turn the dough out and divide it in half.  Pat each half into a disk.  Working with one disk at a time, place the dough between two pieces of parchment paper and roll to a thickness of ¼ inch.  Slide the dough, still between the paper, onto a baking sheet – you can stack the slabs – and freeze for at least 1 hour.

Center a rack in the oven and preheat to 350 degrees F.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.  [You can also use one of the pieces of parchment from rolling the dough.]  Have a 1-1/2 inch-diameter cookie cutter at hand.

Working with one piece of dough at a time, peel away the top and bottom papers and return the dough to one piece of paper.  Cut out as many cookies as you can and put them on the lined sheet, leaving about an inch between them.  Gather the scraps, then combine them with the scraps you got from the second sheet of dough, re-roll, freeze, cut, and bake.

Bake the cookies one sheet at a time for about 15 minutes, rotating the baking sheet at the midway mark, or until they’re golden and set.  Let the cookies rest on the baking sheet for 3 minutes, then transfer them to a rack to cook completely.

Repeat with the remaining dough, always making certain you start with a cool baking sheet.

Storing:  The rolled-out dough can be wrapped well and frozen for up to 2 months, cut and bake directly from the freezer.  The baked cookies can be kept in a covered container for up to 1 week at room temperature.

Posted in Château d'Assas, Dorie Greenspan, Holiday cookies, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Swiping right or left in the wine world

After returning from a wine show arranged for wine buyers and producers to meet, I realized that the organizations making the connections are basically just dating services. Some even have you pick prospects from producers’ profiles and then confirm if the producers want to meet with you as well. Next thing you know, there’ll be a Grindr-like app to hook up.  For wine, that is!  (Many, many thanks to my friend Norman Mallard for creating this photo.)

I’ll get the travel bragging out of the way first:  I got invited as a guest to a wine show near Florence, Italy, to taste wines and have discussions with around 40 winemakers and/or winery reps.

That’s one of the perks of importing wine.  Producers want to export to the U.S., and they know they can’t hope to simply be discovered by an itinerant importer who stumbles on their winery one day.  And as I’ve mentioned before, there are way too many producers out there for importers to rely on just getting lucky and finding the perfect match blindly.

It occurred to me after this trip that the industry devoted to bringing buyers and sellers together is basically running a dating service with two different approaches.  The first is a group show, where producers have tables in a big hall and buyers can wander, taste, and talk.  The second is an appointment-driven show, where you and the producers check out each other’s profiles and agree beforehand that you’re going to meet, then you schedule the time.  These different styles borrow from one another as well, and you’ll often find that the appointment conferences have an exhibit hall component, and vice-versa.  But you can count on attending something that’s predominantly one form or the other.

It’s easy to link the two meeting styles to their dating counterparts.  The first is like going to a big singles mixer and trying to chat up some people (who are there for the same purpose you are, eliminating much of the uncertainty).  The other is more like scrutinizing potential matches on a dating app before swiping right or left, and then mutual right-swipers agreeing to meet (for a glass of wine in a public place, naturally).

[For those of us who are dinosaurs regarding dating rituals: “Swiping right” on certain dating apps – literally doing a swipe to the right with your finger on the screen of your phone or tablet — means you find the person whose profile you’re looking at attractive, while “swiping left” means you don’t.  The term is finding its way into non-dating life as a means of approval or disapproval.  Thus endeth today’s anthropology lesson…]

Generally, the big events take place in less immediately-attractive surroundings, because few places that fit thousands of people are also going to be pretty or interesting.  Think of a generic hotel ballroom or a cavernous convention center.  Often there’s the feeling that you could be anywhere, despite the foreign language.  That doesn’t mean there can’t be meaningful contact if things look promising, but you have to overcome the noisy, uninspiring atmosphere.  Plus there are other potential suitors lurking nearby, waiting for you to finish your conversation.

This is the Medici villa near Artimino in Tuscany. I attended a wine show there that linked wine producers and importers. The surroundings were so lovely it was difficult to think anything but good thoughts. No doubt what the organizers had in mind.

The smaller shows can individualize and enhance the ambiance of the potential matches between producers and buyers.  The most recent show, in Artimino near Florence, was in a hilltop villa constructed by the Medici family, and Cy and I were housed in an apartment that was a 10-minute walk away on the next hilltop.  The walk to the villa afforded us a 360-degree view of Etruscan ruins, beautiful vistas and scenery, and we could even see the Duomo in Florence from just the right spot.  I’m not easily impressed, but this was lovely.  The organizers were clearly hoping that the surroundings would put us all in the mood for love.  I admit I was inclined to look on the entire enterprise favorably from the start just because of where we were.

Maybe I’ve belabored the point here, but it also occurred to me that this same dating analogy doesn’t hold true for most other work-related conference expos.  Or even art or craft shows.  When wine buyers (presumably wine lovers) meet winemakers, there’s already a bigger spark than you’d otherwise find.  And at our meetings I can tell from their products whether they’ve adhered to the traditions of their region or departed from them, even before I hear the story of their family-owned wineries.  Subsequent conversation reveals the reasons behind their decisions – and when philosophies align, it can lead to the beginnings of a solid personal connection that goes beyond business.  Maybe that’s also true at fancy food shows, but I suspect it doesn’t happen when you’re seeking to buy most commodities.

So how did it turn out?  With 20 half-hour appointments over a day and a half, there was an element of speed dating in there too.  I decided I could eliminate 13 of the 20 right there at the meeting.  No idea how that compares to first-date percentages in the non-wine world, but it’s a pretty good business outing for me.  I can tell almost on the spot if the combination of product and price isn’t going to work.  For the rest, it’ll take more conversations, negotiation, and some time to decide.  And that goes for the producers, too – I have no idea if they think I’m a good fit for them.  I guess I’ll find out soon.  Now I just need to make sure none of us ghosts the other.  (Dinosaurs, you’ll have to look that one up for yourselves!)


Relax? Maybe. But then you turn the page and see there’s an 18-day calendar of preparations. No, you’re not working every single minute.  But still…

I’m finishing this up on Sunday, November 5, and had a good laugh this morning when I opened The New York Times.  There’s a special Thanksgiving food section that starts off with the following in big letters:

Relax.  It’s going to be great.”

Then, at the bottom of Page 2, there’s a calendar of preparation activities that starts 18 days out.  In other words, once you put down the Sunday paper, there’s a list of things for you to do to prepare for Thanksgiving.

Ummm, that’s supposed to be relaxing?  Maybe if you’re ultra Type-A and have to have something to do at all times.  I’m swiping left on that, thanks.  Cy and I are doing something that’s actually relaxing.  We’re going to Dare and Mark’s for Thanksgiving instead of cooking it ourselves.

Of course we’re going to bring something for the festivities.  As I’ve mentioned in the past, Cy’s family always has a pre-dinner appetizer spread.  I didn’t understand it the first time I spent the holiday with them, since there were a ton of appetizers and then 30 tons of food.  But I quickly came to see the value in food that gets people out of the kitchen when you’re trying to get things done.

I’ll be bringing goat cheese tart, which is one of the most-viewed recipes on this blog.  I’ve updated it a little, giving it a sweet and savory topping that uses some of the hot cherry peppers I pickled this summer.  Plus chopped dates and olives.  I make granola so I have a lot of dried fruit at home including dates, but you can use raisins, chopped dried apricots, or prunes instead.

For wine, I’d go with a light red since the tart’s an appetizer and there’s plenty more drinking to come (at least for me, anyway).  Château de Clapier Calligrappe ($12) is 75% Grenache, 25% Syrah.  Lighter in body, but still rich in flavor.  Great with the goat cheese and the toppings, and no one will feel too full.

Enjoy the run up to Thanksgiving, everyone, no matter how you’re spending it!

Cheers!

Tom

Goat Cheese Tart

Serves 8 – 10

The topping is optional — if you’d rather not put it on, bake the tart for 40 minutes and check for doneness.

Crust

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup cornmeal

1/2 teaspoon salt

6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, plus extra for the pan

Butter the bottom and sides of a 9-inch springform pan.  Mix the dry ingredients in a food processor, then cut the butter in small pieces, add to the mixture, and process in pulses until the mixture looks mealy and you don’t see any large pieces of butter.  Press it into the bottom of the buttered pan and refrigerate for 20 minutes.

Filling

10 ounces soft goat cheese, at room temperature

6 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature

1/4 cup heavy cream

1 tablespoon flour

2 large eggs

Finely grated zest of one lemon

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Mix the filling ingredients in a food processor until smooth.  Pour into the pan onto the chilled crust.  Bake 30 minutes, then carefully remove the tart from the oven.

Topping

2 tablespoons chopped pickled hot cherry peppers

4 large pitted dates, chopped

6 large Kalamata olives, chopped

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

Mix the topping ingredients in a small bowl, and sprinkle evenly over the top of the tart.  Press gently to get the topping to adhere and sink just slightly into the cheese mixture.  Return the tart to the oven and bake 10 – 15 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into near the center comes out clean.  Let cool and serve at room temperature.

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It’s enough to give you nightmares

This may look like a fun idea, but don’t try it at home. It turns out that drinking alcohol before bed can ruin your sleep.  (Photo from vinepair.com)

I’ve noticed as I get older that I don’t sleep as well as I used to.  So I set aside time to listen to Dr. Matthew Walker’s interview on “Fresh Air.”  He’s the director of UC Berkeley’s Center for Human Sleep Science, and talked with Terry Gross about the findings in his new book, Why We Sleep.

Walker confirmed my suspicions about my own sleep, citing the brain’s decreasing ability to generate sleep as we age.  But there was another part of the conversation that made me sit up and listen:  using alcohol as a “nightcap” not only doesn’t work, it’s counterproductive.

As someone in the wine business, I’d heard that alcohol can interfere with sleep before.  But Walker’s warning went further.  Alcohol has a sedative effect, so it can put us to sleep.  Not surprising, since that’s why many people have a glass of wine or a nip of something before going to bed.  The problem is that alcohol-induced sleep isn’t anything like natural sleep, which we need to function normally.  It lacks the physically restorative effects of natural sleep.

Not only that, your sleep will be more fragmented.  You’ll actually wake up several times during the night, although you won’t realize it.  So when you get up in the morning, you’ll have no idea how much sleep you actually lost.  And worst of all, alcohol blocks REM sleep – which we need for mental and emotional well-being.

This doesn’t necessarily counter the arguments about alcohol’s health benefits.  (Except for the ridiculous notion that a glass of wine before bed will help you lose weight.)  But it does mean you need to think carefully about when you drink.

Obviously, I wouldn’t recommend not drinking wine in the evenings (talk about career suicide).  Perhaps we all need to think about leaving enough time between the final glass and going to bed, though.  Getting the alcohol metabolized first could be key to sleeping better.  The alcohol will make us feel tired and wanting to go to bed, but it’s better to resist for a while.  Just like you wouldn’t drive with too much alcohol in your system, it’s probably wise not to succumb to sleep, either.

Take some time to get the alcohol out of your system before you go to bed. One way to do this is to clean up after that dinner party instead of waiting until morning.

So maybe you should clean up after that dinner party instead of leaving it until morning.  Take the dog for a walk instead of just a trip to the backyard.  I’m sure you can think of plenty of things to do other than sleep with a little wine in you!


I think I’ve mentioned before that Cy and I are part of a dinner group that has themed dinners.  Our most recent one was a dinner with recipes from Jerusalem-born chef Yotam Ottolenghi.  Cy and I made a grape leaf and yogurt pie, which is a classic recipe from Turkey.  It’s baked, thickened yogurt surrounded by grape leaves, and it was tasty and easy to serve.

Cy’s and my attempt at Yotam Ottolenghi’s grape leaf and yogurt pie, which was the inspiration for the latest recipe. Ottolenghi tops the pie with bread crumbs, but I don’t think it needs them.

Cy’s family often has stuffed grape leaves at special-occasion meals.  They’re delicious, and it can be a fun project to fill and roll the individual leaves if you have time.  But it also occurred to me that I could take the pie as inspiration: line the pie plate with grape leaves and then put the traditional rice filling inside.  Bake it for a half hour, and you’d save yourself time but still have the same flavor.  You can serve it at room temperature, which is also a plus.

Well, it turned out beautifully.  We served the yogurt version with Bodega Traslagares Verdejo ($13), and it works with the rice version, which I like to top with a little yogurt before serving.  Leftovers are good, too – let it warm up a bit since the rice has a crumbly texture when it’s cold.  You can even eat it right before bed, just not with the wine!

Cheers!

Tom

Stuffed Grape Leaf Pie

Serves 6-8

About 20 grape leaves, fresh or from a jar, dropped in boiling water for 1 minute, then drained and dried

3 cups cooked Basmati rice, cooled on a baking sheet

¼ cup toasted pine nuts

¼ cup currants or chopped raisins

¼ cup chopped parsley

¼ cup chopped dill

¼ cup chopped mint

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon pepper

Zest of one lemon

2 tablespoons lemon juice

¼ – ½ cup vegetable stock

Olive oil

Plain yogurt

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.  Brush an 8- or 9-inch glass pie plate with olive oil.  Take a look at the grape leaves and cut off any protruding stems.  Starting on the sides, arrange some of the grape leaves to go around the pie plate, about half of each leaf should go beyond the rim.  Fill in the bottom of the plate, then brush liberally with olive oil.

Combine the rice, pine nuts, currants, herbs, lemon zest and juice, salt, and pepper in a medium bowl.  Add ¼ cup of the vegetable stock.  The mixture should be moist and hold together if you pick up some and squeeze it in your hand.  Add more stock if necessary.  Taste for seasoning.

Spoon the rice mixture into the lined pie plate, pressing down gently.  Fold the leaves over the filling, then brush with more oil.  Put another layer of grape leaves on top and brush again with oil.  Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, the top leaves should be crispy and the filling should be hot (check with an instant-read thermometer).  Let the pie cool, then slice and serve, topped with yogurt if you’d like.

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New Adventures on the Wine Route

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One of the many stops during more than a decade of travel in France looking for wines to import to the U.S. This was in Alsace in 2009.  Not every visit results in a wine purchase, though, and I don’t carry Alsatian wines…at least not yet.

The first book I read when I was thinking of becoming a wine importer was Kermit Lynch’s Adventures on the Wine Route.  And I think if you asked most people in the wine business, they’d tell you it was an early read for them, too.

I read Lynch’s book in 2004, checking it out from the library.  One of my nephews gave me a copy this past Christmas, and it was fun to look back at it with a decade-plus of wine importing under my belt.  (Along with an expanded waistline inside that same belt, no doubt related.)

When the book was published in 1988, it covered 15 years of Lynch’s experience starting in the 1970s.  He’s a good writer, and his portrayals of the winemakers he came to know are vivid.  Probably everyone in the business who has even a casual relationship with winemakers anywhere in the world will find Lynch’s portraits recognizable today.  However, nearly everything else about the wine business has changed since then, and reading the book is almost like looking out your window and seeing someone go by in a horse and buggy. It makes me a little sad to think that I came to the business too late to have experienced the joy of meandering through the French countryside, visiting previously-unknown wineries with barely legible signs, and discovering gems the way Lynch seems to have been able to do.

I mean no disrespect by that – Lynch himself notes the changes in the business over those 15 years, and they’ve only accelerated since.  Thinking back on how I started the business back in 2005-2006 compared to how I travel and select wines now, I’m equally amazed by how much has changed.  Here are four examples:

First off, there are a lot more independent wine producers in France than there were when I first started.  Wandering won’t cut it anymore, you have to have a plan and hit the ground running.  Many of these relatively new independent producers are farmers who had formerly sold their grapes to their village cooperatives.  Elevation of some villages to cru status, like Vinsobres and Cairanne in the southern Rhône valley (and the spate of new crus in the Languedoc as well), has sped this process.  If farmers can earn more starting wine production to make a cru wine than they could selling the grapes to the cooperative, then you’ll see more of them doing just that.  With or without cru elevation, I’ve also noticed that when farming responsibilities pass to the younger generation, the new farmers often decide to make wine in addition to growing the grapes.

A lot of newly-minted winemakers have joined the party without those family connections as well.  In a region like the Languedoc where grape-growing conditions are so good, you’ll find new farmer-winemakers who relish making wines that wouldn’t have been made just 10 years ago.  They’re worried less about the appellation requirements than making what they like.  In the past, they might have decided not to get into the business at all if they had to conform to the rigidity of the appellation/naming rules, but now they know there will be a market for producing what they want to, as long as the quality is there.  An example — on my last importer trip to the Languedoc, I drank an excellent blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese.  I wouldn’t have seen that blend made in the Languedoc on my first trip to the region in 2008, that’s for sure.

On some scouting trips, you can go with your gut about finding great wines.  This is the entrance to a small tasting room in the Languedoc, and the wines were indeed wonderful.  A case where the beautiful tiles advertising the wines turned out to be true!  But most of the time it takes planning and research, in addition to luck.

Part of this diversity is due to my second change issue, the internet.  It has changed our lives, so we’d expect it has changed much about the wine business, too.  Combined with my third point, the rise of the E.U., most winemakers have found they have a built-in marketing tool that they didn’t have before.  While they might have relied on a trade association in the past, they don’t automatically have to now – and they often e-mail directly looking for importers rather than waiting for importers to come to them.  Trade shows have become a lot more sophisticated and business-oriented as well.  The E.U. also created a huge market just beyond France’s border that is much more accessible than it was before.  While many producers are happy to export to the U.S. (it’s a big market after all), some of them are deciding to avoid U.S. requirements and stick to Europe since labeling and other paperwork are easier for them.

Finally, as much as it pains me to say it, France just isn’t the center of the winemaking world that it used to be.  Kermit Lynch could be sure that he could bring over almost any quality wine and it would sell – it would be something new for many of his customers and French wine was still the ne plus ultra.  The wine world is a much bigger place, and customers have a huge variety both down the street at their local shops and at their fingertips online.  Excellent wines come from many places.  And while I think on average French wines are still great values, people are coming to value variety as well.

As I said earlier, though, one thing that definitely hasn’t changed is that I’ve met some of the world’s most delightful people during my 10+ years in the business.  Much is made of the natural reserve most French people seem to have – you hear stories of people talking across their fences for years before one will invite the other to his home.  And that’s true to some extent.  I didn’t see the instant informality of the U.S. when I started buying French wines.  Everything was polite and efficient at first, and continues to be.  But once I had worked with my producers for a couple of years, I started getting invitations to their homes and to meet their families.  A love of good wine often comes with an equal enjoyment of good food.  Add to this that you’re dealing with people who are doing something they love, and nothing makes them happier than sharing what they’ve made with others.  Like Kermit Lynch relates in his book, some of my most memorable times have been spent in the company of my wine producers.  Since that tradition continues, I can’t help but think the rest will work itself out, despite the changes as time goes on.

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I tried something new this summer – water bath canning.  The first thing I wanted to do was pickle the hot cherry peppers that Cy grows in pots on our tiny back slab and deck.  And while I could pickle them and just refrigerate them for use if there were just a few, Cy’s green thumb resulted in pounds of them.  So I had to preserve them for longer.  I didn’t want to buy one of those big canning pots, though, and no one I know has one.  But a neighbor told me I could use a big stockpot as long as I had a rack that would fit inside it to keep the jars off the bottom.  All I really needed was the jar lifter tool for getting the jars into and out of the hot water.  So for $6.99 plus the cost of the mason jars, I was on my way to home food preservation.

pickled peppers

The first batch of pickled cherry peppers this summer, three pints. And there were more to come, too.

After the peppers, I tried canning tomato passata, which is a lightly-cooked tomato puree.  It’s a great thing to do with those “seconds” tomatoes you find at farmers’ markets this time of year.  The passata is pretty versatile, and I know I’ll find plenty of ways to use it.  But the cherry peppers?  Great with cheese, in relishes and Giardinera, on sandwiches, and stuffed with tuna.  I hadn’t really used them in cooking before, though, so I thought I should concentrate on that. 

After looking around at various websites for clues, I put together a recipe for boneless thick-cut pork chops in a white wine sauce that also contains the pickled cherry peppers, olives, and capers.  Pretty simple overall, and it cooks up in about a half hour.  Salt the pork chops and set them aside while you prep the rest of the ingredients.  Then flour and brown the chops and put them in the oven to finish cooking.  Cook some onions and garlic in the skillet, add the cut-up cherry peppers, olives, and capers, along with some wine and vegetable stock, and boil for a few minutes.  Then add the chops in and cook for just a couple of minutes more.  The sauce will thicken a bit and everything will come together nicely.

Pretty much any white wine with some acidity will work here, but I like to use Cave la Vinsobraise Côtes du Rhône White ($12).  It’s a workhorse wine for cooking that also drinks really well.  There’s enough acidity to stand up to the vinegar in the peppers, olives, and capers, and it still has plenty of fruit.  Plus it’s from the village that started my wine route journey, so you’ll always find it in my cellar.

Cheers!

Tom

Pork Chops with Cherry Peppers and Olives

Serves 4

4 thick-cut boneless pork chops, trimmed of excess fat, 1-1/2 to 2 pounds

Salt and freshly-ground pepper

½ cup all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion, peeled, cut in half through the poles, and sliced thin

2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced

4 pickled hot cherry peppers, stems removed, cut into 6 pieces each (remove as much of the ribs and seeds as you want, depending on how hot you like them)

1 tablespoon capers, rinsed and drained

12 large green or black olives, unpitted

1-1/2 cups white wine

1-1/2 cups vegetable stock

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.  Line a baking sheet with foil, and spray the foil with some nonstick spray.  Set aside.

Put the pork chops on a plate and season them with plenty of salt and pepper.  More salt than you think you might need, about 1-1/2 teaspoons total.  Set them aside for a couple of minutes while you prep the onions, garlic, and cherry peppers.  Heat the oil in a large nonstick skillet.  Put the flour on a small plate and dredge the chops, making sure to cover all the surfaces.  Brown the chops over medium-high heat, about 2-3 minutes per side.  Transfer the chops to the prepared baking sheet and put in the oven to finish cooking, about 15 minutes.  They should be just barely pink in the middle and temp out at 140 degrees F.

In the meantime, saute the onions in the same skillet, adding a little oil if necessary, along with a pinch of salt.  When the onions are soft, about 10 minutes, add the garlic and cook for another minute.  Add the cherry peppers, capers, and olives, along with the wine and vegetable stock.  Turn the heat up to high and cook until the liquid reduces by half, about 5 minutes.  The chops should be out of the oven now, add them to the skillet and turn a couple of times to coat them with the sauce.   Serve hot.

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A different look at sustainable farming

New Jersey farmer Gabriel Siciliano of Abe’s Acres Farm on the right — he’s taking the same pose as his grandfather, Joe Notterman, who farmed and was also a psychology professor at Princeton. Cy and I met Gabe selling his produce at a farm stand and I contacted him to talk about sustainable farming.

I’ve written a lot about sustainability over the past year and how it relates to wine grape growing and wine production.  But it hadn’t occurred to me to look at how sustainability works in other agricultural sectors.

Then while driving home from Provincetown last month, Cy and I stopped for lunch at the Americana Diner in Hightstown, NJ, which is Cy’s hometown.  The diner gets particularly crowded on weekends, and there’s a wait for tables.  This summer, customers had the opportunity to buy fresh produce during their waits from a local farmer who set up a stand out front – Gabriel Siciliano of Abe’s Acres Farm in Hightstown.

Cy and I chatted with Gabe and bought some beautiful produce.  After we were back home, Cy looked at Gabe’s website and read me the description: “Produce and herbs grown sustainably in Hightstown, New Jersey! Our products are better than organic… ask us how!”  Given my skepticism about sustainability, I decided to take him up on it and ask.  We spoke about a week later, and I learned a lot about small-scale organic and sustainable farming.  This post is an edited version of our conversation.

First, though, a little about Gabe and the farm.  Gabe is 25 years old, and 2017 is his first year of commercial farming.  He grows mixed annuals on 1.5 acres.  The land is part of a 200+-acre property that was purchased by his great-grandfather, Abraham Feldsher, in the 1930s.  Gabe’s grandfather (Abraham’s son-in-law), Joe Notterman, continued the family farm, and he was also a psychology professor at Princeton University.  The property was eventually rented to another farmer who still grows soybeans on most of the land.  Gabe was able to carve out his parcel for farming with only minor soil amending, and has plans to expand in the future.

A fun coincidence:  when Cy mentioned that he grew up in Hightstown, Gabe said, “Then I’ll bet my grandmother was your pediatrician.”  Dr. Rebecca Notterman was indeed Cy’s pediatrician – the town’s pediatrician, in fact – and Cy remembers her fondly.  She is 92 now and only recently retired from practice.  So Gabe has deep roots in the community.  In that way, he reminded me of the wine producers I buy from, whose families often lived on the vineyard land for generations and are community leaders as well.

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You’ve named your farm Abe’s Acres after your great-grandfather.  Had he always been a farmer?  No, not at all.  My great-grandfather came to the U.S. from Russia during the pogroms.  As a Jewish man, he wasn’t allowed to own property so he wasn’t a landowner, and he hadn’t been a farmer.  He became a grocer in Brooklyn when he came to this country.  But he really wanted to do what had been denied him and buy land, so he and his wife moved to Hightstown with their three young daughters, including my grandmother – who later became your husband’s pediatrician.

That’s a great story!  When we spoke at the farm stand, you mentioned that you’re supplying a few local restaurants in addition to selling to the public.  What have you grown this year?  A range of annual vegetables — potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, beets, chard, kale, carrots, turnips, and parsnips.  It’s tough to rattle them off like this, I may have left something out!  I’ll grow garlic over the winter and harvest it in the spring, too.

How did you get interested in the environmental aspects of agriculture?  Through the apprenticeships I did before starting the farm.  One was at Chickadee Creek Farm in New Jersey that taught me about the economics of organic farming.  The other was at Quail Hill Farm on Long Island.  It’s also a land trust, and without some of the financial pressures on them they are able to push the envelope on truly sustainable practices.

You really made me curious by saying on your website that you thought sustainable farming was better than organic.  I’ve come to the conclusion – at least for sustainable winemaking and grape-growing – that the economic part of sustainability tends to outweigh the other parts, so I’m not necessarily a fan.  Why are you?  I’m kind of a purist when it comes to sustainability and I go back to what I think is its original definition:  Meeting current needs, and making sure that future generations can meet their needs as well.

So how do you think that this is any different than, say, the CEO of a large oil company would view sustainability?  Because of the word “needs.”  It should be about meeting our needs, not our wants.  Not the level of consumption we have now for things like food and textiles and water use.  Because our current production system and consumption level is unsustainable.  Even if there’s a certification for it.

The other thing is that you’re right — industry, and even super-large agriculture, thinks mostly of being economically sustainable.  That is, how long can they sustain their current activity and still make a profit.

I found the same thing when I was doing environmental work, evaluating pollution prevention plans for industrial facilities in New Jersey. Even if projects seemed like no-brainers financially, most facilities wouldn’t do them.  I’m not surprised, most factories are going to want as many years out of current operations as possible.  Eventually they’re going to have to completely re-tool anyway, and they’d want to spend as little as possible in the meantime.

But the problem with that is, it puts the onus on the consumer rather than the producer to learn if production is done as efficiently and with as little possible harm as they can manage.

Gabe says he sometimes gets a little jealous of other farmers’ photos on Instagram. But his own photos look pretty good, too.

And on the surrounding community, too, I absolutely agree.  So in the interests of informing the consumer, why would you choose sustainable rather than organic?  Particularly when the rules for organic certification are codified, and sustainability doesn’t really have rules.  Don’t get me wrong, I think organic is a good starting point.  I’m in my first year of three to becoming organic certified.  But until I’m certified, USDA won’t allow me to use the word organic.  I can’t use it on any signage, packaging, etc.

Really?  You can’t say that you’re in organic transition?  I could say that talking to people at the farm stand and to my restaurant customers – and I do, just not on paper.  But I find it’s a lot easier to talk about sustainability because I’m following the organic rules, but also pulling in other things I think are important.  Then I can talk about those as well with my customers.  Also, I think the USDA organic standards are below par.

Then why go for organic certification at all?  Well, as I said, it’s a place to start.  Some farmers don’t want to, because while the costs of certification are partially subsidized, it means a lot more bureaucracy than normal.  I look at it as an opportunity, though, because it’s a lot harder to make changes to the system if you don’t participate.  As for the standards, I think farmers have a responsibility to ameliorate as much potential environmental effects as possible, from chemical use to soil conservation and climate change mitigation.  “Organic” as we know it is only a part of that.

Did you have to do anything to your soil to begin the process of transition to organic certification?  Not much.  The land has been farmed by someone growing soybeans.  So the only things used were some artificial fertilizers and Roundup – since it’s practically impossible to grow any soybeans other than the Roundup-ready ones these days.  But none of that stuff persisted in the soil.  After the initial testing, I was asked to amend the soil with some elemental boron, since it was low.  That made me scratch my head a little.

How so?  Well, elemental boron is an artificial product, it doesn’t exist in nature.  If I hadn’t been instructed to use it prior to planting, I wouldn’t have been allowed to use it later under the USDA rules.  It’s too bad, because elemental boron is also a safe herbicide, so it could be even more useful.

You’ve mentioned water use a number of times, so I imagine that’s something you’re focusing on.  Yes, absolutely.  I’m using drip irrigation, because you pretty much have to irrigate annuals most years.  But I’m always looking to save on water and the associated costs like pumping.  I’d like to start some perennials like asparagus and artichokes, because they’re dry-farmed.  I hear that’s happening more these days in vineyards, too.

Yes, nearly all of the European wine producers I import from operate irrigation-free.  And you’re finding it more in U.S. vineyards, too.  It forces grapevines to get deep roots with lots of soil contact.  And the older the vines get, the more concentrated the grapes become.  This is true of grapevines in general, but even more with dry farming.  That’s interesting.  There are plenty of orchards with older trees around here, but I don’t know if they produce better fruit than younger trees.  At one of our local ag meetings, the owner of Terhune Orchards in Princeton told me that less irrigation produces sweeter fruit, so he tries to irrigate as little as possible.

I wonder that you have time for meetings!  It seems like a lot of work, even on 1.5 acres.  How much time do you spend on it?  In theory, it’s 50 hours per week per acre.

So this is basically an 80 hour-a-week job for you?  That must make it difficult to do other things.  Yes, pretty much.  It’s my first year and I’m doing it myself, unless I can get someone to help, usually that’s for things like the farm stands.  But I’d like to expand.  In five years I’d like to have between nine and 12 acres, and maybe five employees.  In the meantime, though, it’s hard work keeping it all together.  I have to admit I have some jealousy when I look at pictures of other people’s farms on Instagram!

I think everyone with the app has some Insta-jealousy.  And looking at your site, you’ve clearly found a way to take enviable photos already.  It was great talking to you, and I look forward to checking in as you go forward.  Thanks, Tom – it was great meeting you and Cy, and I’d love to talk with you again.

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It seems funny not to add a recipe to a post of a conversation with a vegetable farmer.  Sorry about that.  But the weather is making me think more of fall and I’m coming up with recipes for the season.  Next post, I promise!

Posted in Abe's Acres Farm, Gabriel Siciliano, Sustainability, Sustainable farming, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments