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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Pasta Carbonara with Lobster

Serves 6

1 pound linguine or spaghetti

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

Extra-virgin olive oil

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

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

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

3 large egg yolks

½ cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus extra for serving

Salt and coarsely ground black pepper

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

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

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

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

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

A picture won’t always last longer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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



Tuna Pie with Empanada Crust

Serves 6 to 8


1 large egg

1/3 cup dry white wine

1/3 cup olive oil

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

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

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

Make the filling while the dough is resting.


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

1 large onion, minced

1 large red bell pepper, seeded and minced

1 14 to 15 ounce can diced tomatoes

1/2 teaspoon sugar

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes

Grated zest of one lemon

24 large pitted green olives (like Manzanillas), chopped

2 hard-boiled eggs, chopped

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shake your way to less bitterness?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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



Kibbeh with Yogurt Sauce

Serves 4

1 pound (90%) lean ground beef

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

1 large onion, finely minced

1 cup roughly-chopped parsley

1/4 cup pine nuts

1/3 cup golden raisins, roughly chopped

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon Za’atar

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

Olive oil

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

3/4 cup plain Greek-style yogurt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on craft beer vs. wine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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



Steamed Salmon with Greens

Serves 4

4 – 4 to 6 ounce salmon fillets, skin removed

4 ounces baby kale

4 ounces baby spinach

2 garlic cloves, sliced thin

Olive oil

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper



2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger

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

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon vinegar

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

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

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

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

Spring is wine donation request season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Fiddlehead Ferns with Potatoes and Soft Cheese

Serves 8 for cocktail-style appetizers

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

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

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

1/2 cup soft goat cheese, at room temperature

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

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

2 tablespoons butter

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

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

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

Finally, some real data on pesticides in wine

In my last post about pesticides in wine, I mentioned that I had been making my way through a French study on the subject. Finally, it’s time to write about it.

The study was conducted by Que Choisir, a French consumer organization, and released in September 2013.** The news accounts that followed all focused on a few points: 1) There are no standards for amounts of pesticides permitted in wine in France; 2) At least one pesticide was detected in every wine tested; and 3) The total didn’t amount to levels that would cause concern. Reading the original (in French) and some of the supporting documentation, I think the study is far more significant than the news reports indicate.

As I wrote last time, the U.S. has no standard for pesticides in wine either. The U.S., like France and the E.U., has pesticide residue standards for grapes but not wine. And while TTB, the federal agency that regulates alcohol in the U.S., randomly tests wines for 150 pesticides each year, the Que Choisir study names names and gives concentrations — data I have requested, but not received, from TTB. While there are some limitations on the amount of data for certain wine regions and categories of wine (organic wines and rosés, for example), these are the kind of data we should have for wines in the U.S. It must have cost Que Choisir a huge amount of money to do these tests and produce the report, which is probably why we haven’t seen a similar one here.

The study is also important because while vineyards comprise only 3.7% of France’s agricultural acreage, they absorb 20% of the country’s agricultural pesticide use. The French government has committed to a 50% reduction in pesticide use by 2018 based on 2007 use levels, so understanding where these chemicals end up in actual products means that reductions can be strategically targeted. As the deadline approaches this becomes more critical, since pesticide use in France actually increased between 2010 and 2012. Three points to keep in mind before I get into it all:

  • “Pesticides” includes insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, and chemicals to kill/ward off rodents, as I mentioned in my last post. So finding a “pesticide” in wine doesn’t mean it was an insecticide in there. For the most part, chemicals detected were fungicides. With a few exceptions, the application of substances found in this study was standard practice.
  • You’ll see two particular words used here — detected and measured. With the tests and instruments used to do the tests, there’s a limit of detection (where you know it’s there but not exactly how much), and a limit of measurement (above which you can measure how much is there). Detection means a concentration between 1 and 10 parts per billion (ppb). 10 ppb is the minimum concentration that can be actually measured.
  • For presentation, Que Choisir added up the number of pesticides detected and measured in each wine — although the data are also available separately. So the numbers in the table I made (below) are for that total number of detected + measured (after all, they’re detected if they’re measured). They also added together concentrations for the measured pesticides, even though there might be five different pesticides measured in a particular wine, including insecticides and herbicides. This is pretty much standard practice when reporting concentrations of pesticide residues.
I compiled the data from Que Choisir's study by region to make this chart.  I can't believe I've been blogging for so many years without including a data table.  Makes me feel like an engineer again!

I compiled the data from Que Choisir’s study by region to make this chart. I can’t believe I’ve been blogging for so many years without including a data table. Makes me feel like an engineer again!

So here’s my take on what Que Choisir did, what they found, and what it might mean for wine drinkers.

Which wines were tested? Que Choisir tested 92 wines, selected from nine wine regions or appellations across France, and focusing on wines that people consume daily. The price ranged from 1,60 to 15 euros, or $2 to $20. So the prestige wines that you’ll find reviewed in magazines weren’t there. Many of the wines were available in supermarkets, although not necessarily purchased there. Full disclosure: None of the wines imported by First Vine was tested by Que Choisir.

Which pesticides were tested? Wines in the study were tested for 165 different pesticides or breakdown products of pesticides. Of these 165, 33 different substances were found. Three of the wine samples tested contained residue of a particular pesticide not allowed for use in France or the E.U., and a fourth contained residue of a different pesticide that’s also not allowed for use.

Were organic wines tested? Nine of the 92 wines were labeled organic, or just under 10%. Interestingly, according to the New York Times, 8.3% of the wine produced in France in 2012 was organic, so this was a good sampling in terms of the overall mix. This study also shows that it’s possible to find organic wine in France at everyday prices.

What is the overall finding? As was reported in the news accounts, pesticide residues were detected in every single one of the 92 wines tested. Twelve of the wines (or 13%) had no measurable pesticide residues, although residues were detected even in those wines.

What’s the overall finding for organic wines? Six of the 12 wines with no measurable pesticide residues, or 50%, were labeled organic. In contrast, just 7% (6 of 86) of the non-organic wines tested had no measurable pesticide residues. The fact that every organic wine had at least one detectable pesticide residue is likely due to two factors: use of the chemicals in the surrounding area, and previous use of pesticides on the property (since some of them can persist in the soil). The 50% vs. 7% having no measurable pesticide residue is encouraging, but there needs to be more work to pin it down.  As far as I know, these are the first data examining pesticide residue in organic and non-organic wines.

How big was the geographic variation in selection? Only three of the nine wine regions had 20 or more samples: Bordeaux, Côtes du Rhône, and Languedoc-Roussillon. The others had seven or fewer wines tested. In the case of two regions this was probably because of price — Bourgogne and Champagne make more expensive wines. There are also some pretty pricey rosés from Provence and wines from the Loire, although there are certainly enough inexpensive ones that would fit this survey. The percentage of total selections from each region doesn’t track with wine consumption in France as a whole, and not every wine region was included.

What was the geographic variation in results and how can it be explained? Looking at the three regions with the most selections tested, Côtes du Rhône had the lowest percentage of detections of more than five pesticides, and the lowest percentage of wines with total measured pesticides of 50 ppb or more. Languedoc-Roussillon and Bordeaux were pretty close to the Rhône for pesticide detections, but higher in terms of measured pesticides of 50 ppb or more. Climate is probably the main reason for this. Both the Rhône valley and the Languedoc are hot and dry in summer, compared to Bordeaux. I would have thought the Rhône Valley and the Languedoc would have tracked more closely, so I was surprised to learn that a greater percentage of samples from the Languedoc had residues totaling at least 50 ppb than the Rhône Valley. When I visited the Languedoc in 2013, the climate and terrain were touted as being particularly suitable for less chemical intervention.  Perhaps the vintages were atypical?  I’ll have to do some more checking to see.

One other thing stands out to me. Three of the four wines from Provence tested were rosés. Rosés sit on the grape skins for much less time than red or white wines do, and there were many fewer detected and measured pesticides in the three Provençal rosés than in wines from other regions. This makes sense if the majority of pesticide residue is on the grape skins, rather than in the juice. Provence is also hot and dry, so climate probably played a role in the result. A glance at the data for five of the other six rosés tested looks good as well (sadly, one was a real doozy), although there aren’t enough data on rosés here to do a real statistical analysis.

Was there a difference between red and white wines? While the study says that whites contained more than twice as much pesticide residue on average as reds (242 vs. 114 ppb), I think the difference in this study is due to just a handful of white wines examined that had much higher levels of residue than the other whites. Still, it makes some sense overall that red wine grapes might require less pesticide applications. Red wines are often described as having aromas and flavors of tobacco, which contains some natural insecticides. Tannins, found in the skin of red wine grapes, can also have some effects on reducing pests and possibly serve as fungicides too. Of course, fungicides sprayed on grapevines are as much to keep the leaves from rotting as the grapes, so there’s only so much the grape skin tannins can accomplish.

Do the levels of pesticides found pose a health risk? Obviously, finding two banned substances is unacceptable. As for the rest, I’m going to have to say I don’t really know. If I had to guess I’d give it a qualified no, provided that wine was one of the few sources of pesticides in a person’s diet. Que Choisir points out that the concentrations found in some of the wines with the highest totals wouldn’t be allowed in drinking water — also that most people drink more water than wine. But after reading this study, I will think carefully and try to avoid routinely drinking wines that contain greater amounts of pesticide residues and routinely consuming foods higher in pesticide residues.

Of course, this only works if you know more about the wines and foods you consume. Que Choisir endorses the suggestion of another French NGO that wineries should voluntarily submit samples for testing, and wines with less than five detected pesticides and total concentrations less than 50 ppb could be eligible for a special label. I think it’s a great idea, although it would be good to know who applied but didn’t get the label.

One final thought: This is one study, a snapshot in time, and if it were repeated today the results could be different. Still, I hope that the producers in the various regions will do some more detailed studies to identify wines with greater numbers and levels of pesticide residues and find ways to reduce the totals.

In the meantime, though, I’ll continue to press TTB to provide data on its annual testing. And I have to say that as an importer of some southern Rhône wines, I’m pretty excited — preliminarily, of course — that the region came out well in the study. I didn’t need another reason to like the wines, but this is definitely an encouraging one.

** Que Choisir, 518, October 2013, pp. 46 – 50.


Our porch bear is happy the snow is gone.  We are too, so we can sit outside and enjoy our wine!

Our porch bear is happy the snow is gone. We are too, so we can sit outside and enjoy our wine!

It’s finally spring, at least most of the time. This means that Cy and I get to sit on the front porch instead of inside the house for our Friday evening snacks and drinks. And instead of cheese and olives, which we seem to crave in the winter, we’ll want a lighter snack. We’ll probably still drink red wine for a bit, since these are not the really warm DC nights we’ll be having in a couple of months.

This week’s recipe for nuts roasted with herbs will do the trick. Rather than using a lot of oil to coat the nuts and get the herbs, salt, and pepper to stick, I like to use egg whites plus a little oil. You can really use any herb you like, fresh or dried. I use dried thyme since I always have it around, and fresh rosemary (since it generally survives the winter). This version makes 2 cups of nuts, about a half a pound, which will easily feed 6 people pre-dinner. You can cut the recipe in half if there’s just a few of you. While you could pop the leftovers in the freezer and then bake them until warm, I think they’re better fresh. So it’s probably a good idea to make less rather than more.

For wine, a southern Rhône red (you thought I’d recommend something else in this post?), medium-bodied, no oak. Plenty of those that fit the bill, but I’m thinking of Cave la Romaine Côtes du Rhône Villages Séguret ($15) for this Friday. It’s medium-bodied, 70% Grenache, 30% Syrah. Perfect for that transition to warm evenings.



Toasted Nuts with Herbs

Serves 6 as a hearty snack

2 cups mixed nuts (unskinned almonds, cashews, walnuts, pecans, unskinned hazelnuts), or all of any one you prefer

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 egg whites

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper

1 tablespoon dried thyme

2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh rosemary

Coarse salt (optional)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. About 5 minutes after the oven starts heating, spread the nuts on a rimmed baking sheet and put them in the oven for 5 minutes. Remove from the oven, and let the nuts cool while the oven comes up to temperature.

In a large bowl, combine the egg whites, salt, pepper, and dried thyme. Beat with a fork until you get a little foaming of the egg whites. Beat in the oil, then stir in the nuts. Make sure the nuts are all well-coated. Pour the nut mixture onto the baking sheet and spread the nuts out a bit so they’re just barely not touching each other. Sprinkle the chopped rosemary over the top.

Put the pan in the oven for 5 minutes. Then take the pan out and scrape up the nuts with a spatula to make sure they don’t stick and break up some of the crust. Bake for 5 more minutes, or until everything’s lightly brown and smells beautifully. Taste one of the nuts for salt, and sprinkle with a bit of coarse salt as needed. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Posted in Musings/Lectures/Rants, Pesticides in French Wine, Pesticides in Wine, wine delivery washington dc | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 22 Comments

Another -cide of the issue

OK, I admit it.  I'm enough of a nerd that I didn't know that FIFRA was the acronym for Federación Internacional de Fútbol Rápido.  I just knew it as the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, the law that regulates pesticides in the U.S.

OK, I admit it. I’m enough of a nerd that I didn’t know that FIFRA was the acronym for Federación Internacional de Fútbol Rápido. I just knew it as the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, the law that regulates pesticides in the U.S.

I’ve been gearing up to write about a 2013 study measuring pesticide residues in French wines for a while now. Part of the issue is that while the data are straightforward — they’re just measurements — the interpretation isn’t necessarily. And the main reason for this is what’s being studied: pesticides.

While I spent 15 years working on toxic chemicals issues before launching the wine business, I’m not a pesticide expert. U.S. Pesticide law and the rules that govern their use are handled by three different government agencies: EPA, FDA, and the Department of Agriculture. When you’re looking at pesticides in wine, a fourth agency is also involved. TTB, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which was spun off from the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms after September 11th.

So there was a learning curve for me. It made me think that before I start looking at pesticides in wine in any substantive way, I should probably talk a little about pesticides in general.

The first thing is that the word “pesticides” is a catch-all term. I asked a bunch of random people what they thought “pesticides” were. Almost all of them said that pesticides were insecticides, or chemicals made to kill insects. But the word means more than that. According to EPA, “A pesticide is any substance or mixture of substances intended for preventing, destroying, repelling, or mitigating any pest. Pests can be insects and insect-like organisms, mice and other vertebrate animals, unwanted plants (weeds), or fungi, bacteria and viruses that cause plant diseases. … [T]he term pesticide also applies to herbicides, fungicides, and various other substances used to control pests.”

The second issue is the regulatory framework. Obviously, the more types of substances under regulation, the more complicated regulation is going to be.

The U.S. law governing pesticides is the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, or FIFRA. FIFRA came into law in 1947, replacing an earlier law that dealt mostly with labeling issues. The law got two major overhauls: one in 1972, shortly after EPA was created under President Nixon. The second came with the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act, which I’ll talk more about later.

The Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA), overseen by FDA, authorizes EPA to set tolerances — or acceptable concentration levels — of pesticides in raw food products. FIFRA sets out the process for doing this, and also paves the way for EPA to register new pesticides for use. Registration limits how, where, and under what conditions a pesticide can be used. FIFRA requires re-registration of pesticides, ideally at minimum every 15 years, which is a chance for EPA to review any data on effectiveness or impacts on human health and the environment. FIFRA requires manufactures and users of pesticides to report all of these data to EPA before registration and then as they become available, and these data can also trigger review prior to re-registration. Pesticides that were already in use before 1984 also have to be re-registered under FIFRA.

Crop dusting is a quick way to apply chemicals to crops, but I hope it's a calm day.

Crop dusting is a quick way to apply chemicals to crops, but I hope it’s a calm day.

Like all U.S. environmental laws, FIFRA is administered primarily by the individual states. Pesticide users who grow food for public consumption or who may be using pesticides near farms have to register with their states, generally through the agriculture departments.
This also applies for most uses of pesticides in public places.  The states are largely responsible for inspection and enforcement. And FIFRA represents a floor for regulation — any state can have pesticide laws and regulations that are more stringent than FIFRA, but they can’t be less stringent.

Wine, as regulated by TTB, relies on FDCA and FIFRA. EPA sets tolerances. While EPA hasn’t set specific tolerances for pesticides in wine, the agency has set tolerances for grapes. TTB uses grape tolerances as the maximum allowable levels in wine. TTB currently screens wine for 155 pesticides under a program in place since 1999. The largest single screening program is the Alcohol Beverage Sampling Program. In 2014, TTB examined 105 different wines under this program and found none that contained pesticide residues above EPA levels, and no unauthorized pesticides were found in those wines.

TTB also tests wine for pesticides outside the sampling program for various reasons. These include complaints from consumers and competitors or various news reports of pesticide contamination, routine screening of wines from countries with known pesticide contamination problems, and analyses of wine samples sent to TTB for any other regulatory reason. The agency also has an import safety program, where imported wines purchased in the marketplace are screened.

All of this sounds systematic, if extremely cumbersome. At least it starts with the premise that pesticide manufacturers have to generate data to show that the products work and that, if used under proper circumstances, they aren’t harmful to human health or the environment. I spent a lot of years working on non-pesticide toxic chemicals, and the premise there is that if there are no data, good or bad, there’s no harm. Consequently, we know a lot more about pesticides than we do about many industrial chemicals, particularly those chemicals already in use before 1976.

So far, so good. But you know there’s more. The third and most contentious issue — and rightly so — is what constitutes harm. Most pesticides are designed to kill something or other, which implies harm from the get-go.

FIFRA mandates that a pesticide should not cause “unreasonable adverse effects on the environment,” which include “(1) any unreasonable risk to man or the environment, taking into account the economic, social, and environmental costs and benefits of the use of the pesticide, or (2) a human dietary risk from residues that result from a use of a pesticide in or on any food inconsistent with the standard under […FDCA].”

Pesticide use, like most things, is subject to a cost/benefit analysis. I don’t think that’s a wrong approach as long as we really understand what the risks are. Unfortunately, I’m not entirely sure that we do at this point.

It all goes back to setting the tolerances. As I mentioned before, the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA) amended FIFRA in a big way, changing the way tolerances are supposed to be set by EPA. Most pesticide tolerances would likely go down If FQPA were perfectly executed, because the law requires consideration of a bunch of new things. Like sources of exposure from multiple foods and from sources other than food, different tolerances for vulnerable populations, interactions between different chemicals, and health effects not previously known or considered.

I don't know what's being sprayed on the grapevines here, but some producers I've met use an apparatus like this for applying fungicide, which they may apply after a period of wet weather.

I don’t know what’s being sprayed on the grapevines here, but some producers I’ve met use an apparatus like this for applying fungicide, which they may apply after a period of wet weather.

As you can imagine, though, the process of implementing FQPA has been anything but smooth. Nearly 20 years out now, I believe that the true impact of FQPA is still yet to come. So for the most part, we’re looking at the same or only moderately revised tolerances that were in place decades ago. This, despite our knowing that some chemicals have reproductive effects at extremely small exposure doses, including effects that cause reproductive harm in the offspring of those originally exposed.  And despite the fact that some chemicals persist in the environment without breaking down, potentially increasing exposure as well.

It’s not the first time that regulation lags behind science (think climate change, for example). I don’t blame EPA for this.  The agency (wisely) has tried to include all stakeholders in the discussion for setting up the regulations to implement FQPA.  You can imagine what that’s like.  As someone who participated in parts of it, I can tell you it’s not easy.

Still, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that organic farming could be the thing that leads us to what FQPA was looking for. Organic food avoids industrial pesticides, so it might seem counter-intuitive. But we’re nowhere near a world that has the availability we’d need.  In general, conventionally-produced food, including some pesticide use, has greater yields and costs less to produce.  Understanding pesticides better and using them in a more protective way for the foreseeable future in farming could be the key to achieving goals of feeding more people better food at prices they can afford sooner rather than later.

Yeah, I know you’re not used to pollyanna talk from me.  But I’m just softening you up for my next post on pesticides in wine!


If you read all of this, my thanks! At this point you’ll need an easy meal. One of my favorite books for easy but excellent recipes is Lucinda Scala Quinn’s Mad Hungry Cravings. The food is always good, and she has simplified more exotic dishes to have as few ingredients as possible, but still taste great. I’ve made her Chicken Tikka Masala recipe for weeknight meals and dinners for company. Typically I’ll serve it with rice and a vegetable. But it occurred to me that because it’s pretty saucy, I could add other ingredients and make it into a stew that wouldn’t need rice. So in went potatoes, tofu, cauliflower, and peas. Then, a few other tweaks, and presto — a one-dish meal.

Serve this Tikka Masala Stew with the Notes Frivoles rosé from Domaine Sainte-Cécile du Parc ($14). The wine is made with organic grapes, and we’ll have that on the label with the next vintage.  Plus it’s pink.  You know, the color of some of those flowers that are supposed to be coming up now.  Since they’re not here yet, I’ll take the pink any way I can!



Tikka Masala Stew

Serves 6

12 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut in half

Salt and pepper

Vegetable oil (I like to use coconut oil for this, but any vegetable oil you like will work)

1 large onion, minced

1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger

1 tablespoon minced fresh garlic

1 serrano chili pepper

2 tablespoons garam masala

1 tablespoon cumin

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon mild smoked paprika

1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes

2/3 cup water

4 large red potatoes, scrubbed and cut into one-inch dice

1 large head cauliflower, cored, and cut into small pieces

8 ounces extra-firm tofu, cut in 1/2-inch pieces

1-1/2 cups frozen peas, thawed

1/3 cup cream or evaporated full-fat milk

Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a large Dutch oven. Salt and pepper the chicken pieces, and then brown them quickly on both sides, about 3-4 minutes each side. You’ll probably have to do this in two batches. Remove the chicken pieces to a plate as they’ve browned. Add a little more oil to the skillet, if necessary. You’ll want between 1 and 2 tablespoons — then add the onion, ginger, and garlic. Cut a slit lengthwise in the serrano pepper and throw it in. Sauté for about 5 minutes, until the onion is soft. Add the cumin, cayenne, garam masala, paprika, cinnamon, and a teaspoon of salt. Cook for about a minute, until everything smells beautiful.

Add the tomatoes and potatoes, and scrape the bottom of the pan to incorporate any browned, spicy bits. Then put the chicken pieces back in the pot with any accumulated juices. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to low. Cover the pot and cook for 20 minutes, stirring a few times. When you stir, check to see that the mixture isn’t too dry, and add some water if you need it. Then add the cauliflower and tofu. Bring the pot back to the boil, then cover and simmer 10 more minutes. Stir in the peas and cream and let it all sit for a couple of minutes, then taste for salt and pepper. Serve hot.

Posted in Pesticides in food, Pesticides in Wine | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Woman of La Mancha

María Dolores Cospedal, President of Castilla-La Mancha, giving opening remarks at the Second World Wine Summit in Toledo, Spain, last week.  As she was leaving the auditorium after her remarks, I happened to be exiting my seat and she grabbed my hands and gave me a kiss on both cheeks -- so far my highest-level kiss from a head of state!  (I imagine she thought she recognized me...)

María Dolores Cospedal, President of Castilla-La Mancha, giving opening remarks at the Second World Wine Summit in Toledo, Spain, last week. I happened to be leaving my seat as she was leaving the auditorium and she grabbed my hands and gave me a kiss on both cheeks — so far my highest-level kiss from a government official! (Obviously she mistook me for someone else…)

There’s no way to put this so that it doesn’t seem like I’m rubbing it in, so I’m just going to say it. While y’all were enjoying the last residue of winter over here, the wine gods smiled upon me and gave me a freebie trip to Castilla-La Mancha, in Spain, last week, along with about a dozen other wine importers.

OK, so it was a junket, but I left having learned a lot about winemaking. And heck, if you’re going to be tasting wine, why not do it somewhere beautiful and warm? I’ll be talking about the wines in more detail in future posts, but this week is about the two things that stuck with me as I got on the plane to come home.

The visuals represent the attitude. Yes, it’s that La Mancha, of Don Quixote fame. He’s everywhere in the region. A rendering of his face was etched on practically every wine glass we used for tastings and the regional wine authorities have appropriated him as a symbol of the appellation. But after a few days I got the feeling that winemakers in the region identify with his story as well as his image.

This image of Don Quixote is a calligram -- words from the novel are used to create the image.  The Don is used as a symbol for all kinds of things in Castilla-La Mancha, and this particular image was etched on every wine glass we used for tasting there.

This image of Don Quixote is a calligram — words from the novel are used to create the image. The Don is used as a symbol for all kinds of things in Castilla-La Mancha, and this particular image was etched on every wine glass we used for tasting there.

Castilla-La Mancha (or CLM, as we saw on posters all around) produces more wine than any other part of Spain, and from what I hear, more than the entire U.S. wine industry produces as well. But it’s not a region we hear about much, and I think that the whole tilting at windmills thing is a good metaphor for the region’s attempt to fight its way to world-class status.

One of the reasons our trip was scheduled at this time was because it coincided with the opening of the Second Biennial World Wine Summit in Toledo. Listening between the lines of the opening remarks by the President of CLM, María Dolores Cospedal, it’s clear that the idea of organizing and holding the first summit there in CLM wasn’t universally welcomed. But she and Maria Luisa Soriano, CLM’s agricultural minister, pushed ahead and did it. And by all indications, it was successful the first time, and this time too. So at least for the moment there’s an international spotlight on CLM, and the question now is whether the region’s wine can sustain the attention.

Organic wine may be the region’s breakthrough. CLM makes a lot of organic wine. The main reason is the climate — hot, dry, and windy, but with plenty of water available for irrigation. So there’s less need for chemical intervention.

Hard-working wine importers doing our duty at one of the tastings on the trip.

Hard-working wine importers doing our duty at one of the tastings on the trip.

My experience with organic wine up until now has been mostly in a boutique context. A great many organic, biodynamic, and so-called natural wines have a kind of artisanal/mystical air about them. While some of this strikes me as nonsense, I think there’s good reason to have an extra bit of respect for a well-produced organic wine. There’s a lot more hand-work involved in growing the grapes, especially when the weather is less than ideal, so the resulting wines are generally more expensive than you’d find for something similar not labeled organic. Consequently, most organic producers make higher-end wines — not that they can’t produce everyday organic wines, but because the marginal cost of organic production is about the same per bottle no matter what they make. Customers just don’t notice it as much if the wine is already expensive.

But organic wines shouldn’t be limited to the higher end. We tasted a bunch of drinkable, inexpensive, everyday organic wines in CLM. The climate reduces the need for most of the hand work, making lower prices possible. You won’t get down to a $7/bottle price, but $10-$14 retail is doable, even with the costs of importing, transport, etc. This is no small thing. The ability to drink organic wine should be more available, just like eating organic food. If CLM can do that, I think it will be extremely positive for the wine industry worldwide.


At the Manchego Cheese Museum in Manzanares.  Gotta love a museum dedicated to a single cheese!

At the Manchego Cheese Museum in Manzanares. Gotta love a museum dedicated to a single cheese!

Food was a highlight of the trip. Our last tasting session was held at the Museo de Queso Manchego — the Manchego Cheese Museum, in Manzanares, south of Madrid. The Manchego cheese we get here in the U.S. is very good, but most of it is the fully-aged variety. In the museum, we got to taste young Manchego aged for just a short time. It’s creamier than the older Manchego, not as sharp. But because it’s aged for less than 60 days and contains raw sheep’s milk, we can’t get it here. The Manchego authorities (yes, they exist) have sanctioned some younger Manchego made with pasteurized milk for sale, so give it a try if you can find it.

No worries if you can’t, though — the aged Manchego is delicious and a little like Italian Pecorino but with less sharpness and saltiness. It makes a wonderful accompaniment to tomatoes and eggs, which made me think of a recipe I made years ago — tomato clafoutis.

Clafoutis is a catch-all term for a baked dish that can be like quiche filling or like pancakes. Dessert fruit clafoutis are usually cakier, while savory clafoutis tend to be more like custard, which is what this recipe is. Either way, the mixture comes together in minutes. Since it’s not exactly tomato season, I’d roast the tomatoes for about 45 minutes before assembling and baking the dish. Roasting concentrates the flavors and makes even hard winter tomatoes taste better. But if you have great fresh tomatoes on hand, you can salt and drain the tomatoes instead. Both techniques make a delicious clafoutis.

First Vine doesn’t carry wines from Castilla-La Mancha (yet, anyway), so try the clafoutis with one of our Spanish wines from Rueda, Bodega Traslagares Sauvignon Blanc ($13). It’s kind of a cross between the lushness of a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and the chalkier, more mineral-y ones from France. An inter-planetary wine for everyone!



Tomato and Manchego Clafoutis

Serves 8 – 10 as an appetizer

8 ripe, plum tomatoes (about 2 pounds)

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

2 large eggs

2 large egg yolks

1/3 cup heavy cream or half and half

2 tablespoons flour

3 ounces grated aged Manchego cheese (3/4 cup grated on the small holes of a box grater, or about 1-1/3 cups if you use a fine microplane grater)

1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Lightly oil a 9-inch cake pan or deep pie plate, or spray with vegetable oil spray.

Core and quarter the tomatoes lengthwise. Lay them out cut-side up on a foil-lined baking sheet and sprinkle each with a little salt. Put them in the oven to roast for 30 to 45 minutes. They should have shriveled up some and may be a little bit brown on the edges. Set them aside to cool for a few minutes.

(If your tomatoes are wonderful, don’t roast them, but instead line the baking sheet with paper towels. Salt the tomatoes and then cover with more paper towels and let drain for 45 minutes. This removes some of the water and helps the clafoutis set up properly.)

In a large bowl that gives you plenty of room, whisk the eggs, egg yolks, cream, flour, half the Manchego, and half the thyme, along with 1/2 teaspoon of black pepper for about a minute. You want everything well-combined and slightly thickened.

Arrange the tomatoes in the greased baking dish and carefully pour the egg mixture over. Top with the rest of the cheese and thyme. Bake for 30 minutes, then check to see how it looks — it should be puffed and just starting to get a little brown on top. Bake for about 5 more minutes if it needs it. Let cool, and serve warm or at room temperature.

Posted in Castilla-La Mancha, Organic/biodynamic/natural wines, Tom Natan, Uncategorized, wine delivery washington dc | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Wine’s future — not just more Pinot Noir

Put away the worry beads you dragged out after last week's post.  There is plenty of good news for wine sellers and wine drinkers.

Put away the worry beads you dragged out after last week’s post. There is plenty of good news for wine sellers and wine drinkers.

I want to dial things back a little after last week’s craft beer lecture/worry session. It’s true that craft beer is expanding from a niche market to something a lot more mainstream. But the wine industry isn’t going to disappear and there’s good news for wine sellers. After years of increases in sales of bottles going for $9 or less, it turns out that those wines are losing ground. $10-$14 wine is now the growth category, and in general things are looking up for wines under $30. This is good news for wine drinkers too. While more expensive wine isn’t necessarily better wine, there are a lot more high-quality wines above $10 a bottle than below.

It doesn’t mean the wine industry can just sit back and count the money, though. While predicting future trends tends to be a crapshoot, I was pleased to see that a few of the speakers at last month’s Unified Wine and Grape Symposium independently converged on some ideas that they think will be part of the future of the wine industry. The fact that they have different day jobs (economist, market researcher, graphic designer) made me think that these might actually be big-picture ideas — as opposed to simply saying things like People Will Drink More Pinot Noir.

First up, Mike Veseth. If you’ve spent any time in the wine industry you’ve almost certainly read something of his. He’s an economist specializing in wine and, since he recently retired from teaching, has more time to travel the world speaking and observing. But he’s not just a good read for the winerati: I recommend his books and blog for anyone who wants to learn something about how the business of making wine works. As he said in his talk, wine is not just like everything else people buy. He spoke about what he has seen in the past few years and listed three trends based on those observations, both in the U.S. and abroad.

1) Authenticity. The wine industry will embrace more of the farm-to-fork concept we’re seeing in the food industry. While this is already happening in some parts of the country, wine hasn’t caught up with the know-your-farmer interest that people are showing in buying food. But Veseth thinks this will change, and quickly.

2) Environment. Veseth calls this “grape to glass green,” and it goes along with authenticity. Since environmental protection often seems to be in the eye of the beholder when it comes to wine I hope this means we’ll have some standardization of certain terms like sustainability.

Some low alcohol wines come under FDA regulation and have to have nutrition labels.  Mike Veseth thinks that more wines will have the labels in the near future.

Some low alcohol wines come under FDA regulation and have to have nutrition labels. Mike Veseth thinks that more wines will have the labels in the near future.  (Photo from winelifeinthescv.blogspot.com)

3) Nutrition labeling. Interestingly, the introduction of low-alcohol wines may pave the way for more wineries adding nutritional information. Labeling for wine that’s below 7% alcohol by volume isn’t regulated by TTB, the agency that wine importers and producers typically have to deal with. TTB allows nutrition information on the label but doesn’t require it. Low-alcohol non-beer products are regulated by FDA, and that agency requires all food products to conform to nutrition labeling laws. So if it starts getting more visible as low-alcohol wines hit the market, it’s likely that other wines will follow along — particularly if they’re made by producers who also make low-alcohol wines.

The second set of future trends came from Lulie Halstead, founder and CEO of Wine Intelligence, and a specialist in wine consumer behavior. She gave us four broad ideas that came from her research in how customers see wine in the broader context of their lives. The question is how the wine industry can adapt these ideas to continue to attract people to wine.

1) Well-being. It’s not just a question of physical health, but also mental and emotional health. Food safety belongs in here too. Beyond deciding that you can drink a glass of wine instead of working out today, it’s actively planning if and how wine fits into your own health and wellness. It also wraps all three ideas that Veseth spoke about in his talk. Nutrition labels are an obvious one, but the other two come into play as well: authenticity, because you’ll know how and where the wine was made; environment, because it decreases unnecessary risk to our health and the planet.

2) Customization. Customers want unique, tailored products. This accounts for some of the attraction of craft beers, which can be small-batch and (seemingly infinitely) customizable. Can wine start down a similar path? If not with the actual products, then perhaps with how those products get presented?

To illustrate customization, Lulie Halstead showed us a gizmo to make your cappuccino foam look like Hello Kitty.  Sign me up!

To illustrate customization, Lulie Halstead showed us a gizmo to make your cappuccino foam look like Hello Kitty. Sign me up!

3) Fusion. Just like mixing different cuisines, it’s blending and cross-categorization. Maybe it’s something as simple as non-traditional wine and food pairings, or maybe it extends to products containing wine and other things. This might strike serious wine drinkers as gimmicky. But as consumers find fusions in their lives easier to come by this will have to be a consideration. (Fusion can also lead to customization — Halstead gave the example of Über teaming up with Spotify to make a customer’s car ride more customized and pleasant.) I can easily see the concept extending to how people buy their wine as well. A session I attended on messaging gave this statistic: the days of weekly food shopping or even shopping a few days ahead are over. People shop for recipes and 60% of eating choices are made within an hour of consumption, including those cooked at home. How does the wine industry make wine an active part of those choices?

4) Activation. People want to feel like they’re participating in a political or social movement, preferably one with a global benefit. At a minimum this means environmental awareness, which Veseth also mentioned. But it also could extend to wineries embracing political/social causes transparently and allowing their customers to support those causes by purchasing the wine.

Finally, my third pick for future trends presenter was Kevin Shaw, owner of Stranger & Stranger, a beverage packaging design firm. While he didn’t give us bullet points, he set out to answer the question of why wine packaging is so slow to change. His question to us: Are wine consumers really afraid of the new, or have they just not been given things they like?

He cited consumers’ move to embrace higher-end wines that don’t have the typical higher-end labels. Wineries have dropped vineyard engravings, mercifully. But for years now they’ve been producing something equally boring: “serious,” virtually graphics-free labels with lots of white space, or deep matte-finish colors to indicate the richness of their wines. While these give the wines a kind of timeless quality (and using the same label also means less annual federal approval work for the wineries), they don’t emphasize the uniqueness of each product or vintage within a brand.

Virginia Marie Lambrix, owner and winemaker at VML Wines, wanted a label that showed that the wine was biodynamic without resorting to words.  Stranger & Stranger, a beverage package design firm, made this illustration for her.

Virginia Marie Lambrix, owner and winemaker at VML Wines, wanted a label that showed that the wine was biodynamic without resorting to words. Stranger & Stranger, a beverage package design firm, made this illustration for her.

How is this changing? Illustrations and photographs. Of course, these had already been used on more everyday products or to convey whimsy (think of all those critter wines from 10 years ago. Cute, but it gave you no idea about the winery or what was in the bottle). Now wineries are using illustrations or photographs that attempt to give consumers a message about what the winemakers and winegrowers think is important about their brand and each particular wine.   While there would likely be some unifying concept for a winery, the individual labels for wines within that winery’s brand should evoke some indication of the actual differences in the products to the consumer. And these won’t necessarily be the same year to year.

So if you’ve read this far, you might be thinking this is all just a scheme to figure out new ways to market wine to customers, both existing and future. Guilty as charged. But I’ve been in the wine business for nearly nine years now, and I can honestly say that this is the best attempt I’ve seen in that time to go beyond inside baseball and snob appeal on one end and lowest common denominator on the other in understanding what makes people buy wine. In the end, I think that’s good for everyone.


We got some snow this week and it was really cold, which meant no one wanted to go outside. I imagine there was a lot of cupboard scouring to find things to eat. My kitchen probably isn’t like everyone’s, I realize, but I always have canned beans around. I’ve posted a lot of recipes using beans, so I was trying to think of something different to do with them. Last fall, Cy and I went to a vegetarian dinner and we made vegetarian Italian sausage for it. I’ve had Italian sausage on the brain after last week’s recipe post, and since the vegetarian sausage contains beans I thought about making it again. But the sausage has a lot of other ingredients that most people wouldn’t have (and frankly, I wouldn’t go out and buy). Some of them are for flavor, but most are for texture. So instead I thought that some of the same spice mixture could be used to make bean burgers flavored like Italian sausage.

I took a standard recipe to make two large bean burgers — 1 can drained beans, 1 egg, 1/2 cup dried bread crumbs — and added a spice mixture based on the Italian sausage. I used cannellini beans because they’re always in my cupboard, and they turned out well. But if you’re going to double the recipe and make four burgers, try using one can of black beans or pinto beans. You have to mash up half the beans to make the burger stick together, and the darker color makes it look more like ground meat. I made a couple of tweaks to the spice mixture too. The burgers have a very mild Italian sausage flavor. Add some melted cheese, sauteed onion, and a little marinara sauce, and they’re a tasty, lighter substitute for sausage on a bun.

A couple of other things occurred to me after making them — I always have garlic powder around for spice rubs, but if you only have fresh garlic go ahead and use it: grate it on a fine grater right into the beans when you mash them. And the burgers get more flavorful if you can let them sit before you cook them. With the egg inside you won’t want to leave them out on the counter, though, and if you’ve chilled them the inside might not get warmed through when you brown them. Covering the pan partway through browning the second side will warm them up without softening the crust.

A light-bodied red wine is just the thing for these, so try Domaine des Mathurins’ Tango pour Hélène ($13). It’s made from Grenache and Syrah and is great with burgers and pizza, so why not these as well? Together, they’re better than takeout food and just right if you’re snowed in.



Bean Burgers Italian Sausage Style

Serves 4

2 15-ounce cans cannellini beans, or 1 can cannellini and 1 can black beans or pinto beans

2 eggs

1 cup fine dried bread crumbs

1-1/2 teaspoons garlic powder (or 2 garlic cloves, peeled and grated on a fine grater)

1-1/2 teaspoons crushed fennel seeds

1-1/2 teaspoons sweet paprika

1-1/2 teaspoons smoked mild paprika

3/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon dried oregano

3/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

1-1/4 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce (regular or vegetarian)

Olive oil (for sauteeing)

4 hamburger buns

Optional toppings — sliced provelone or mozzarella cheese, sauteed onion, marinara sauce

Drain the beans but reserve 1/4 cup of the bean liquid — you might need it if the burger mixture is too dry. In a large bowl, thoroughly mash half the beans along with the grated garlic (if you’re using it). Combine the bread crumbs with all the spices in a small bowl, and beat the eggs with the Worcestershire sauce in another small bowl. Add the whole beans and the crumb/spice mixture to the mashed beans and combine well. Add the egg mixture and mix until just all mixed together. Shape the mixture into four flat patties about 3/4-inch thick and 4-1/2 inches in diameter. Put the patties on a plate, cover with plastic, and refrigerate for a half hour.

Heat enough olive oil to thoroughly cover the bottom of a large nonstick skillet, about 4 tablespoons. Brown the patties for 4 minutes on one side. Then flip them over and brown for 1 minute. Cover the pan and lower the heat and cook 3 more minutes. Turn off the heat and put sliced cheese on the burgers, if desired. Serve on the buns with any toppings you like.

Posted in Uncategorized, Wine Trends | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Crafting a way to emphasize craft in winemaking

No problem with craft beer drinkers being calm.  But craft beer is making the wine industry nervous.

No problem with craft beer drinkers being calm. But craft beer is making the wine industry nervous.

Are you a wine drinker who is turning more and more to craft beers in restaurants instead of wine? If so, you’re worrying the wine industry.  (We’re pretty sure you didn’t mean to, but what can we say — we’re worriers.)

While the presenters at the sessions I attended at the Unified Wine and Grape Symposium in Sacramento last month were relentlessly positive about wine consumption now and in the future, it turns out there’s more than one way to read the data.

Wine consumption in the U.S. is growing. But the rate of increase is slowing, as was reported at another wine conference held last week. (Who knew there were so many wine industry conferences?) According to the Wine Market Council report presented on February 6 in Napa, there appear to be a few factors causing the slowdown. But the one that has everyone talking is the growth in craft beer.

Here’s the reasoning: younger alcohol consumers still like wine, but the current center of gravity for wine consumers is people between ages 45 and 64. Those under 35 in particular, though, seem to be more adventurous in their drinking. And the growth in the number of breweries — up 50% since 2008 — shows that some of those breweries are taking drinkers away from wine as well as from mass-market beers.

As it happens, one of the sessions at the Sacramento conference cited all of these data AND tried to put it in the context of what wineries can learn from the craft beverage industry, specifically breweries and distilleries. The panelists were from various parts of the craft beverage world. I’m not good at age guessing, but I’d venture to say they’re definitely not in the wine center of gravity range.

When it comes to "craft" and "wine," unfortunately this is what most people think of.

When it comes to “craft” and wine, unfortunately this is what most people think of.  (Photo from thevspotblog.com)

There were no clear-cut answers, but there was plenty of discussion. I agree with those who think that wine and craft beverages have more similarities than differences. Hardcore craft beer drinkers might not be convinced to add wine to their mix, but there’s enough “craft” in wine production to attract some of the craft beer audience.

There are established definitions for craft brewing and distilling, but not one for “craft” winemaking, despite a huge number of wineries that might qualify.  One thing came out right away at the craft session: the craft beer industry has a definition set by the Brewers Association. So while individual breweries have discretion in what they make and how much of it, there are certain things the consumer can expect from anything that’s truly a craft beer. In particular, no more than 25% percent of a brewery’s ownership can be controlled by an entity that isn’t a craft brewer. And the majority of a craft brewery’s output has to come from making beer, not things like flavored malt beverages. There is also a definition of total output.** The American Distilling Institute has pretty much appropriated this same definition for craft distillers but with a much smaller output cap. Along with the definitions, the Brewers Association also sets out a craft beer manifesto listing attributes of craft brewers. (You can read it here.)

Of course, there are thousands and thousands of wineries that fit a similar description in terms of product, ownership, independence, and integrity. Kellie Shevlin of the Craft Beverage Expo said that no one in the craft beverage industry would dispute it, and also that consumers would agree that an output of no more than 10,000 cases per year constitutes “craft” conditions. But the panelists made the point that by getting out ahead of things and setting vocabulary and definitions, the craft beer industry has put itself miles ahead of the wine industry. There’s no Brewers Association equivalent setting out these kinds of thing for wine. Even words that could — with agreed-upon definitions — have meant the same thing, like boutique, small production, and artisan, have been left to the beholder and consequently don’t mean anything.

Perhaps a little borrowing is in order. Every craft brewery and distillery I’ve visited owes its tasting room model to the wine industry. That is, knowledgeable staff pouring and discussing the product with customers, making suggestions based on what customers say they like, a welcoming atmosphere, etc. Why not take a definition for craft wine in return?

Craft breweries are local businesses producing a local product.  But local wine may actually be more “local” in terms of ingredients. The panelists emphasized the “local” aspect of craft beverages, for people looking to eat and drink local foods. But it seems to me that any U.S. winery that grows its own grapes on site or nearby has it all over most craft breweries. First of all, brewers and distillers are rarely farmers who grow their own crops for making beer and spirits. Local water might be the biggest ingredient by weight, so in that sense the beers are local. But one panelist mentioned that 90% of the hops grown in the U.S. come from the northwest. If it’s true, it seems that unless your local craft brewery is one of the lucky ones with a source of local hops, regional wineries are probably more locally oriented in terms of raw materials.

The first big difference between the craft beverage industry and the wine industry is that craft brewers and distillers focus on transparency in ownership and ingredients.  Craft beer drinkers are dead serious about their beers not being owned by “big business.” I didn’t realize just how serious until I learned about an app called Craft Check, which allows you scan the UPC code on the bottle and learn whether or not it meets the ownership clause. In the wine industry, you hear the words “family owned.” I guess that’s a kind of code for non-conglomerate ownership. But Gallo is family owned, too. In France wineries can use the “Vigneron Independent” or independent winery designation if they qualify, but the wine industry here doesn’t seem to have something equivalent.

Of all the wine bottle crafts I've seen, this is my favorite.

Of all the wine bottle crafts I’ve seen, this is my favorite.

Ingredients are a tougher issue. I’ve seen craft beer menus that read like farm-to-table manifestos, listing the provenance of each ingredient and fairly detailed processing methods. Wine has fewer ingredients than beer in most cases. Some wineries go into detail in their tasting room, but there’s room for improvement. Still, the fact that beer has more ingredients (and may have some non-traditional ones as flavoring) leads right into the second big difference between wine and craft beer makers.

Craft beer and spirit makers focus on creativity and experimentation. These are probably the things craft beverage drinkers wouldn’t think of when it comes to wineries.  In the wine industry, experimentation is often looked down on as cheap and gimmicky, not associated with a quality product. This doesn’t mean that winemakers don’t experiment — they do with every new vintage. But it’s generally a means to making a product strongly resembling what they’ve made before. New products don’t come along very often from established wineries.

Here are some of the reasons: (1) Wine has basically one ingredient — grapes. If the winemaker doesn’t add yeast, then that’s pretty much it, other than added sulfites. Beer has a lot more to play around with.  And beer ingredients don’t have the same kind of appellation requirements for origin as wine grapes do.  (2) The grape harvest comes once a year, and it will start fermenting into wine whether you want it to or not, so there’s no starting over in three or six months if you don’t like it. Brewing ingredients are available year-round. (3) It will likely take many months, if not years, before your product is ready to taste, let alone market. Yes, an experienced winemaker can taste a young wine and determine its future qualities, but it’s not foolproof. This is also true of some spirits that can age for years. But by and large, beer ages for far less time and is ready for release much more quickly. (4) It takes years for grape vines to make grapes of sufficient quality. Unless a winemaker wants to buy someone else’s grapes it’s not a quick process to branch out with different home-grown grape varietals. For beer makers looking to try new ingredients, though, it’s a much simpler and quicker process.

Some wineries do experiment with products, though, and are using customer input to do it. Newer wineries and those that buy their grapes from various sources are more likely to have an experimental component, but occasionally larger wineries with plenty of capacity are doing the same thing. I’ve been invited to several blending events where customers receive a case of their custom-designed wines. But panelist JE Paino, general manager of Ruhstaller Brewery in Sacramento, threw out a challenge to all the winemakers at the session: wine has a built-in uniqueness with each vintage that beer can’t match. It’s true that every batch of beer is a little different, even if the ingredients seem exactly the same. This isn’t like the yearly variation in grape vintages, though. (As Mr. Paino commented, “I wish I had something I could make only once and once it’s gone, it’s gone.”) Why not exploit it and help customers understand the uniqueness in the grapes and the changes in winemaking that go with them?

The general manager of Ruhstaller Beer, a local Sacramento brewer, was one of the panelists at the conference.  The kid with a cigar is a great logo.

The general manager of Ruhstaller Beer, a local Sacramento craft brewer, was one of the panelists at the conference I attended last month. The kid with a cigar is a great logo.

As I said earlier, there aren’t a bunch of easy answers, but there are some things that wineries can do to exploit their own craft natures. While it’s true that experimentation is more difficult for the wine industry, it’s also true that the industry has had kind of an if it’s not broken don’t fix it attitude. Perhaps the recent data are a timely warning that will get people thinking. Craft beer drinkers are curious and willing to try new things, so I think they’ll respond to the effort.

** The craft brewery cap is set at a very high 6 million barrels per year. According to Garrett Peck, author of Capital Beer: A Heady History of Brewing in Washington, DC, this is way out of the range of almost all craft breweries, which might top out with thousands of barrels annually. The 6 million cap was set so that Boston Beer Company could be considered a craft brewery, although the limit was much lower in the past.


While craft beverages are American, many of our foreign wine producers meet a craft definition in terms of ownership, product, and production levels of less than 10,000 cases per year. One of them, Domaine Sainte-Cécile du Parc, in Pézenas in the Languedoc, even meets the spirit of the word in terms of making new products. As I’ve mentioned before, the Languedoc has become the wine laboratory of France because it has great grape growing conditions. The rules of the various Languedoc appellations vary and the higher-level designations generally allow only Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, and Carignan in the red wines. But some of the local designations are more forgiving. These allow producers like Domaine Ste-Cécile du Parc to produce wines to their taste and still retain a local identity in terms of appellation.

Stephane Mouton and Christine Mouton-Bertoli, owners of Domaine Sainte-Cecile du Parc.  Unfortunately I had to lift this photo from their website -- even though they visited DC I forgot to take a photo!

Stephane Mouton and Christine Mouton-Bertoli, owners of Domaine Sainte-Cecile du Parc. Unfortunately I had to lift this photo from their website — even though they visited DC I forgot to take a photo!

Christine Mouton-Bertolli and her husband, Stephane Mouton, purchased the Domaine in 2005. The land had been producing wine grapes for more than a century, and the previous owner had sold his grapes to the local village cooperative instead of producing wine. Christine and Stephane replaced about half the vines with new plantings, and started construction of a new winery on the property. They began conversion to organic farming in 2011. The 2010 vintage gave them the opportunity to make wine from their new vines. One of these wines, Notes Franches ($14), was made entirely from the new-vine grapes. It’s 80% Cabernet Franc and 20% Merlot. While both of these grapes are found in the Languedoc, the blend is more like something you’d find in Bordeaux. They’ve aged the wine half in steel and half in older oak barrels — this softens the wine just a little. But the fruit from the Cab Franc and Merlot shine through, and it’s awfully good. You don’t just have to take my word for it, either. Dave McIntyre gave it three stars and labeled it a great value in the Washington Post.

This week’s recipe is kind of a guilty pleasure food for me. I have to admit that if I see a sausage and pepper hoagie/sub/grinder/sandwich on any menu, it’s hard to order anything else. I don’t know what it is about that combination. Particularly since the sausage is usually just OK. We’re spoiled here in DC with Stachowski’s, a butcher and sausage maker with a Georgetown store. Jamie Stachowski’s red wine Italian sausage is really good. When I have some, I like to make a pasta version of the sausage and peppers sandwich. It seems a little more like dinner that way.

I can’t say it’s a quick recipe, because everything has to get nice and browned, and it takes about 45 minutes. This isn’t a throw the sausage and peppers on a grill kind of recipe. Nothing’s difficult, though. First you brown the sausage links in a little olive oil. Then take the links out and cut them into slices, return them to the skillet, and brown the cut sides. Take the pieces out and brown the peppers and onions. Add the garlic, then some red wine and canned tomatoes along with the sausage and cook for 15 minutes. Toss in the cooked pasta with little pieces of mozzarella and some grated parmesan cheese, and serve. You can use the Notes Franches in the pasta and also serve it with the meal.  It’s craft cooking and drinking.



Sausage and Pepper Pasta

Serves 4

12 to 16 ounces mild Italian sausage (4 to 5 links)

1 yellow bell pepper, cored and cut into thin strips

1 red bell pepper, cored and cut into thin strips

1 large onion, peeled, cut in half pole to pole, then cut into thin half-moons

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

3 cloves garlic, minced

Olive oil

Salt and pepper

1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes

1/2 cup dry red wine

1 pound short pasta (I like fusilli or gemelli)

8 ounces bocconcini (small mozzarella balls), or fresh mozzarella cut into small pieces

1 cup grated parmesan cheese, plus extra for serving

Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large nonstick skillet. When hot, add the sausage links. Prick each one a few times with a fork or sharp knife. When they’re browned on the bottom, turn them over and prick them again. Try to get them as brown as possible on all sides. Remove them from the skillet and turn off the heat. Let the sausages rest for a minute to cool so you can handle them. Then slice them into 1/2-inch pieces. Reheat the skillet and put the pieces in to brown on the cut sides. Remove the browned pieces to a bowl with a slotted spoon.

Add the peppers and onions to the skillet along with the oregano and some salt and pepper. Cook over medium heat until the vegetables start to brown, then lower the heat and continue to cook them until they’re pretty much browned all over. This will take about 20 minutes total. Add the garlic and cook for a minute. Then add red wine and turn up the heat, scrape the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to dislodged any browned bits. Boil the wine for a minute, then add the tomatoes and the browned sausage. Cook for about 12 minutes to get everything thickened up. Taste for salt and pepper.

Meanwhile, boil the pasta in a large amount of salted water. Cook it about a minute less than the package directs for al dente pasta. Drain, saving about a cup and a half of the pasta water. Add the pasta to the skillet and cook for 2 minutes or so, adding pasta water as you need it to make a sauce that’s thick but not too thick. Turn off the heat and stir in the mozzarella pieces and the parmesan. Add more pasta water if you need it. Serve hot.

Posted in Craft beer and spirits, Languedoc wine, Tom Natan, wine delivery washington dc | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment