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

Gadgetry — winery edition

Sunset over the vines -- probably the first thing most wine lovers imagine when they dream of owning a winery.  The sunset is probably the only thing you won't have to buy.  (Photo from pixgood.com)

Sunset over the vines — probably the first thing most wine lovers imagine when they dream of owning a winery. In reality, though, the sunset is probably the only thing you won’t have to buy. (Photo from pixgood.com)

If you’ve ever dreamed of starting a winery, my guess is that you’ve been thinking about all those photos of sunsets over the vineyards. Or the glow of low light on rows and rows of oak barrels with just a hint of red wine on them for color. Or the precision of the tank room with its gleaming stainless steel soldiers all lined up, connected by pipes and valves. Or the line of the bottling machine, where bottles get filled, corked, foiled, and labeled as if by magic. Or your bottle storage rooms, with the bins of bottles waiting to be packed and shipped to your adoring customers worldwide.

All lovely, to be sure. But if you’ve got an actual winery, everything on that list — except the sunset — has to be bought or eventually replaced. Don’t worry, though, there’s a big world of vendors out there to help.

Last month I went to the Unified Wine and Grape Symposium in Sacramento, CA. As the name implies, there were plenty of sessions on various topics related to winemaking and winegrowing (as growing wine grapes is apparently called). But as at most big conferences, there was also an expo for vendors of everything wine-related you could think of. From grapevine nurseries to tasting room point-of-sale software, winery equipment to university oenology programs, tractors with automatic grape-picking attachments to wine tchochkes. There was even a little wine to sample (naturally), and plenty of interesting people to talk to.

Nothing but wine stuff as far as the eye could see. I loved every minute of it.

As an engineer, I’m kind of a gadget and equipment geek. I also like seeing all these different things together in one expo hall, and talking to the sales reps about them. I will probably never own a winery or be a winemaker. But if you’re a wine lover, wandering the aisles of a trade show like this one is a must-do experience.

I took a bunch of photos and even a couple of videos.  I’m too cheap to pay for the deluxe blogging upgrade that would let me show the videos, so I hope the stills will give you an idea of what’s going on.  (I also had some trouble formatting the photos, so it might look a little disorganized.)  Here are some of the things I liked best.

IMG_0882Tanks, tanks, tanks — stainless steel, plastic, wood.  The stainless steel tank is like those you’ll find in nearly any winery, only shinier.  The plastic egg is made in Germany and is supposed to be good for short-term aging (as I wrote in an older post, it’s much easier to keep everything mixed in an egg-shaped tank).  The wooden barrel tank is French-made and is kind of a showpiece.  Usually you have to pump or siphon wine out of barrels, but this one allows you to drain it from the bottom, and you could also use it for fermentation if you wanted to.  I didn’t ask the price, since I’m sure I can’t afford it.


Snapshot 1 (2-3-2015 4-58 PM) Barrel WashingAnd of course you have to keep those barrels clean if you get them.  Amazing how much this looks like a home dishwasher on water jet steroids.  Still, it beats getting in there with a giant bristle brush and a hose, both of which you could also find at the expo.  No quieting insulation, though, so it’s pretty loud.  I think I missed the booth showing earplugs. You’d definitely need those to operate this piece of equipment, even though you’d only use it once a year.

IMG_0893Bottle foils come in all shapes, sizes, and colors.  Any of them can be customized for your winery, from plain to fancy.  And loads of different materials, too.  Way back when I started doing environmental work, some were made with lead foil, if you can believe it.  I once called a winery to find out why it had reported so much lead disposal to EPA and it turned out the owners were switching foil material due to regulations in California and had to get rid of the old ones.  (I assume they went to a secure landfill, but this happened back in the late 1980s, so who knows?)

IMG_0891Bottle labels are customizable, but most of them are pretty small.  If you really want visual impact, go for the Tetra Pak, which has lots of room for possibilities.  There are environmental advantages over glass, mostly in transportation.  But you still have to drink up the wine once you open it — these aren’t the box wines with the collapsing bags that keep air out.  There were plenty of those around, too, and most of the boxes hold at least three liters of wine.  So even more room for graphics, which wasn’t always a good thing.  One of them was called “Stark Raving,” with a picture on the box that would give me nightmares if I had it at home.

IMG_0892If you’re looking for that oak-aged flavor but don’t want to spend the money for actual barrels, these slats might do the trick.  They get suspended in steel or concrete tanks filled with wine for about three weeks, then removed.  Obviously, they don’t give you most of the complexity that true barrel-aging can, but I tasted some wine made with them and it was a good everyday drink.  The marketing was a bit over the top — especially with names like “savory,” “balanced,” etc.  Honestly, are they hoping to write their wine notes before the wine is even made?  (It must be a savory and balanced wine if it says so on the pieces of wood I stuck in the tank…) And what do you do with them once they’ve been used since they’re single use only?  The rep had no idea.  I thought of maybe drying them out and then chipping them for a winery-scented potpourri.  I know I’d pay good money to give my house that awesome winery smell.

Snapshot 1 (2-3-2015 5-30 PM) Storage humidity controlFinally, what might be my favorite gadget of all.  If you’ve invested in barrels for aging wine, they have to be stored properly and that includes the right relative humidity.  Too dry and the staves shrink, causing the barrels to leak.  Most of us can’t afford a cave in Champagne, which has just the right combination of temperature and humidity.  But you can give any storage area that cave-like feel with one of these gizmos.  I wish you could hear the hissing noise it makes, though — it would probably scare any cats away, so you’d better have another way of keeping the mice out.

Definitely a great way to spend an afternoon!  Just thinking about it all makes me wonder if I couldn’t start a winery after all.  Hmmm…now I just need $10 million for a shopping spree.


Last year I posted a recipe for the minestrone my mother cooks. It’s delicious, but takes a long time because it starts with dried beans. This week I came up with a quick version using my pressure cooker (I told you I love gadgets). If you’re good at cutting up vegetables you can have it ready in about 45 minutes. It’s lighter than classic minestrone since it doesn’t use oil or bacon, and you can make it vegan if you leave out the parmesan cheese rind and don’t sprinkle any cheese on it before serving.

Cooking dried beans does something that’s more difficult for canned beans: it makes the cooking liquid tasty and adds texture to the finished soup or stew. I got around this by mashing some of the canned beans in water and adding them to the pressure cooker with vegetable stock (traditionally you’d just use water to cook the soup). While canned and boxed vegetable stocks aren’t always very good, I took Lynne Rosetto Kasper’s advice and used the Kitchen Basics low sodium version. Since you cook all the vegetables with the stock they add a lot more flavor, too, but the Kitchen Basics has a better flavor to start, so look for it. If you can’t find it, use another brand but taste it first. If there’s a lot of carrot or tomato flavor, you might want to change the proportion of ingredients in the soup. But don’t worry, it’ll still be tasty.

Finally, in addition to canned beans, tomatoes, and vegetable stock, I used one other convenience product: cole slaw mix. It’s just shredded green and red cabbage with some carrot, no seasonings. You could shred your own cabbage but since it’s only about a pound in total you’ll definitely end up with lots more cabbage than you need even with a small head. If you use it for other things, then shred your own. I was happy to have less chopping to do, and the result was tasty.

My pressure cooker is a large one, so you may have to cut the recipe down if yours is small. Be sure to read the directions because you don’t want to overfill it. These days pressure cookers are unlikely to burst open, but you still want the pressure relief valve to be unobstructed. You can also add a tablespoon of olive oil to the mixture to help prevent any foaming that might inadvertently cover the valve.

I like an everyday red wine with an everyday soup, so try Château de Clapier’s Calligrappe ($12). It’s made from 75% Grenache, 25% Syrah. Be sure to have a glass while the pressure cooker’s working, too.



Pressure Cooker Minestrone

Serves 6

2 zucchini, trimmed, cut into fourths lengthwise, then cut into half-inch slices

2 large carrots, peeled, cut in large dice

1 large russet potato, peeled, cut in large dice

1 large onion, peeled, cut into large dice

4 cloves garlic, minced fine

1 14 to 16 ounce package unseasoned cole slaw mix

1 teaspoon dried oregano

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 piece parmesan cheese rind, plus some grated cheese for serving (optional)

1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for serving (optional)

1 quart Kitchen Basics low sodium vegetable stock

1 can (around 15 ounces) petite diced tomatoes

2 cups water

3 cans (around 15 ounces each) cannelini beans, rinsed and drained

Small pasta (farfalline, ditallini, elbows, etc.)

Put the zucchini, carrots, potato, onion, garlic, cole slaw mix, oregano, cheese rind, stock, and tomatoes in the pressure cooker, along with 2 teaspoons of salt and some ground pepper. Measure out a cup of the drained beans and mash them with the 2 cups of water and add to the other ingredients along with the tablespoon of olive oil if you’re using it. Stir everything well and bring the unit up to high pressure. Cook at high pressure for 25 minutes and let it sit off the heat for another five minutes. Then release the pressure by any quick method the manufacturer of the pressure cooker recommends. Stir in the beans and cook over low heat for five minutes. Taste for salt and pepper.

While the soup is cooking, boil a pot of salted water to cook the pasta. Serve the soup with some pasta in each bowl, and top with a drizzle of olive oil and some grated parmesan cheese if you’d like.

Posted in Winery equipment | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Elixir of January

Wine figures prominently in Donizetti's opera L'Elisir d'Amore.  (Photo from artflakes.com)

Wine figures prominently in Donizetti’s opera L’Elisir d’Amore. (Photo from artflakes.com)

It’s January and none of you is buying wine.   This happens every year. Maybe it’s a health or diet resolution that’s keeping you away, or maybe it’s the credit card bills from the holidays. But with few exceptions (bless you, by the way), you’re not in a wine-buying mood. And you’re not alone. In today’s Washington Post, cocktail guru Derek Brown says that some people refer to this phenomenon as “Drynuary,” although he wishes there were a less ugly word for it.

So I figured you wouldn’t mind a not-quite-totally off the wall post that’s related to wine. Not about how it’s made or what it tastes like, but about how being in the wine business taught me something new about a seemingly unrelated thing: opera. Specifically, an opera called “L’Elisir d’Amore,” or The Elixir of Love, composed in 1832 by Gaetano Donizetti.

I’ve mentioned this opera before, in a post about wine and health benefits, and how wine and alcohol have been part of medicines for centuries now — and a lot of them didn’t work at all. In L’Elisir d’Amore, Nemorino, a poor farmer, is in love with Adina, a wealthy landowner. In order to make her fall for him, he buys a “love potion” from a quack doctor that turns out to be non-magical, ordinary wine. Right after Nemorino drinks the wine, though, all the women in the village start throwing themselves at him because they’ve learned he inherited money from a rich uncle. Of course, he doesn’t know this yet, and thinks that the so-called elixir really worked.

But what struck me recently was not directly about the wine aspect. The L’Elisir audience knows that Adina loves Nemorino too. But she’s not tipping her hand, and she engages in the kind of behavior every teenager would recognize: don’t show any interest, flirt with someone else to make him jealous, etc., albeit more methodically than most teenagers could muster. Through a typically silly operatic set of plot developments, Adina eventually admits she loves Nemorino and the whole thing ends happily.

L'Elisir has been performed constantly since it premiered in 1832.  It was the most popular opera in Italy for a 10-year period pre-1850.

L’Elisir has been performed constantly since it premiered in 1832. It was the most popular opera in Italy for a 10-year period pre-1850.

So what’s going on here with putting him off (other than a way to make a full-length opera)? Apparently I’m not the only one to wonder about it, believe it or not. On a recent podcast about L’Elisir, one of the (male) hosts complained that Adina isn’t very nice or likeable but gets redeemed by the music. And on the Adina defenders side, I listened to an interview with a soprano singing Adina who claims she’s just thoroughly modern and acting the way men do when they have the power in a relationship. But neither of these seems like an adequate explanation. Not that you have to like every character in an opera, but there has to be more to it. And, thanks to being in the wine business, I think I know what that is.

Six weeks ago I introduced you to one of our new Italian producers, Azienda Agricola San Benedetto, located near San Gimignano in Tuscany. The Gianelli family owns the property and the winery, but their land was part of a large estate well into the 20th century. The Gianellis were tenant farmers on that land, sharecroppers, for decades before they were able to buy some for themselves. They worked for the landowner and had to give him (or her) a large percentage of the crops each year in exchange for having a place to live and work.

After I had written about the history of San Benedetto, it occurred to me that this is the same situation as l’Elisir, and the opera audiences in 19th century Italy would have recognized it immediately. Adina is the landowner and Nemorino is one of her tenant farmers. And it’s not just a question of marrying down. A woman in her position was a rarity. She’s the boss of everyone, including Nemorino. Adina’s land would become her husband’s property on marriage and she’d no longer have the control over her life she has at the start of the opera. She’d be giving up a lot. Nemorino, although good-hearted, is kind of an idiot. So even if she loves him, she has to be sure about him. He passes the tests and she realizes that he’s even kinder than she thought, and that she had gone too far herself in what she put him through.

If you're looking for L'Elisir on DVD, this 2005 performance with Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon is hard to beat as a total package.  But if you just want to listen, there are better audio-only recordings.

If you’re looking for L’Elisir on DVD, this 2005 performance with Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon is hard to beat as a total package. But if you just want to listen, there are better audio-only recordings.

L’Elisir has been popular since its premiere and has a lot of great music, despite being composed in only six weeks. The duets for Adina and Nemorino are all top-drawer, and one of Nemorino’s arias would make it onto any opera lover’s list of top tenor tunes. But l’Elisir was also the most performed opera in Italy for a 10-year period pre-1850. Given the huge amount of high-quality opera that appeared during that time, this one probably wouldn’t have achieved its domination if audiences just thought that the high-handed Adina was getting her comeuppance, no matter how good the music.

For me, learning the historical context restores the humanity to the piece, thanks to our new friends at San Benedetto. It’ll never be Shakespeare, but it’s a much nicer and more complex story than I first thought. And since you won’t be ordering wine this month, I’ll have plenty of time to listen to it!


Of course I’m recommending a wine from San Benedetto this week. Their 2013 Vermentino ($13) is a nice, easy-to-drink wine that packs citrus and richer fruit flavors. It’s medium-bodied and pairs well with a bunch of foods, particularly those you might be eating if you want to eat lighter in Drynuary.

Although many people don’t like to cook fish in the winter, it can make a great, easy meal. If you use a very fresh, mild fish like cod, you can bake it in 20 minutes without smelling up the house. Cod takes well to a number of different spices, giving a big variety to meals. The best way to bake individual pieces of fish and keep them moist is to bake them in parchment. It looks a little pretentious but it works. You could put them in a covered baking dish too, but they’ll take longer to cook since the dish has to heat up. And since you’re going to use citrus — either lime or lemon — with the fish, you don’t want to use aluminum foil.

The Vermentino from Azienda Agricola San Benedetto is this week's recommended wine.

The Vermentino from Azienda Agricola San Benedetto is this week’s recommended wine.

Cut a piece of parchment that’s as big as a baking sheet and put the paper on the sheet. Place the fish fillets on the paper with a little space between them. Season them however you like, but be sure to hit them with a little lemon or lime juice too. Then grab the short sides of the parchment and bring them together. Start folding them down toward the fish, creasing well with each fold. It should stay together, but you can use a couple of paper clips to secure it if you want to be sure. On the long ends, make a fold halfway between the fish and the ends of the paper, then tuck the paper under the fish.

I’ve been in the mood for Indian flavors, so this week’s recipe uses Garam Masala and a little crushed fennel seed to flavor the fish. And it’s served with rice cooked with coconut, spinach, and a little more Garam Masala. Garnish the rice with some chopped orange and give everything a spritz of lime juice.

If you’re really going cold turkey for Drynuary, you can skip the wine, of course. But if you’ve abstained you might be missing wine about now. We promise we won’t tell anyone if you order some.



PS:  a couple of youtube clips if you want to hear some of the opera.  My favorite Adina is Ileana Cotrubas — her commercial recording is to my mind the best sung and an appealing character.  This is from a live performance of her first aria, where she reads aloud about the elixir of love that Tristan gave to Isolde, and how it would be great to know how it was made.  The second is Nemorino’s famous aria, Una Furtiva Lagrima, where he realizes that Adina loves him, even though she hasn’t said so.  Gajillions of tenors have recorded this aria so it’s tough to pick just one.  Overall I think Luciano Pavarotti probably sang it best.  But it’s hard to resist Rolando Villazon in this 2005 clip.  By 2009 or so his voice was in shreds, so it’s a nice document of what he could do at his best.  Enjoy!

Parchment-Baked Cod with Coconut Rice

Serves 4

4 4-5 ounce cod fillets, about 1-1/2 inches thick

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

A one-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and minced fine

3 garlic cloves, smashed, peeled, and minced

2-1/4 teaspoons Garam Masala, divided use

1/2 teaspoon fennel seed

1/2 of a naval orange, peeled, sectioned, and each section cut in 6 pieces

1 cup raw long-grain white rice

1/4 cup usweetened flaked dried coconut

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 small bag washed baby spinach (5 ounces)

1 lime, cut in half

Equipment: a rimmed baking sheet (15 to 18 inches long), parchment paper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Put the rice in a saucepan and add 2 cups of water, the coconut, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil over high heat, then stir it up, cover the pot, and set the heat to low. Cook for 14 minutes. The liquid should be all absorbed — if not, cook for another minute or two. Take the pot off the heat, stir up the rice, and leave it uncovered.

Put the fennel seeds on a cutting board. Using the bottom of a heavy skillet or pot, crush the seeds. Put them in a small bowl with the Garam Masala and set aside.

While the rice is cooking, prepare the fish. Cut a piece of parchment that’s as big as the baking sheet and put the paper on the sheet. Place the fish fillets on the middle of the paper with a little space between them. Sprinkle some salt and pepper on the fish and let them sit for 5 minutes. Then sprinkle on half of the Garam Masala/fennel seed mixture divided among the fillets. Squeeze half of the lime over the fish. Grab the short sides of the parchment and bring them together. Start folding them down toward the fish, creasing well with each fold. Go all the way down to just above the fish. The paper should stay folded together, but you can use a couple of paper clips to secure it if you want to be sure. On the long ends, make a fold halfway between the fish and the ends of the paper, then tuck the folded paper under the fish.

Put the fish in the oven about 10 minutes before the rice is done. Set the timer for 20 minutes to cook the fish. After the rice is cooked, heat the oil in a large, nonstick skillet until it shimmers. Add the ginger and garlic, and cook for a minute, stirring constantly. Add the rest of the Garam Masala mixture, 1 teaspoon of salt, and some pepper. Stir for about a minute until you can really smell it. Add the spinach to the pan and stir to wilt it. The spinach will release some liquid as it wilts. Make sure to mix the spinach well with the garlic, ginger, and spices, and push it to one side of the pan so that the liquid goes to the other side. Cook to boil away most of the liquid, just a couple of minutes. Then add the cooked rice and cook everything until the rice is dry and maybe beginning to brown just a little. Taste for salt and pepper. Turn off the heat and stir in the orange pieces.

The rice should be done just as the fish comes out of the oven. (The fish can sit in the parchment if you’re not quite ready with the rice yet.) To serve, dish out the rice on four plates. Carefully cut open the parchment and put a fillet on each plate on top of the rice. Spoon any juices in the parchment over the fish. Squeeze the other half of the lime over the four plates and serve immediately.

Posted in Azienda Agricola San Benedetto, L'elisir d'Amore, Musings/Lectures/Rants, Tom Natan, Wine and opera, wine delivery washington dc | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Resolution-ary news

Sadly, it seems you need a little more exercise than this to get the benefits of resveratrol in wine.

Sadly, it seems you need a little more exercise than this to get the benefits of resveratrol in wine. (Photo from foodandwine.com)

“OMFG: Science Says a Glass of Red Wine May Be Equivalent to an Hour at the Gym,” read a post on the American Wine Consumers Coalition (AWCC) Facebook page. It was referring to an article by Ashley Fern that appeared on the site elitedaily.com.

AWCC’s comment in response: “If true, wouldn’t we all be in the best shape ever?”

They’re right to be skeptical. Elite Daily links to a story on latintimes.com by Natalie Roterman, called “Is Drinking Wine Better Than Going To The Gym? According To Scientists, Yes!” Both articles cite research at the University of Alberta, published in the Journal of Physiology. In the study, researchers fed a group of rats small amounts of resveratrol, the compound found in wine that is thought to be principally responsible for all the good things we hear wine can do for us (health-wise, anyway).

Amazingly, though, the study doesn’t support either headline.  Reading the study makes it clear that there’s an exercise component that isn’t discussed in either Elite Daily or Latin Times. Two groups of rats were used in the study. One group was made to exercise relatively vigorously, and the other wasn’t. Feeding resveratrol or not to the non-exercisers made no difference. But the exercising rats fed resveratrol showed physical and health gains that were larger than the gains of the exercising rats that didn’t get resveratrol. So wine doesn’t replace exercise, it just makes exercise more effective.

Fun, but have you noticed that this style of corkscrew never works, much less works out?

Fun, but have you noticed that this style of corkscrew never works, much less works out?

As a certain Texas politician once said, “Oops.”

It’s too bad that the two articles hyped the wrong conclusion, because the study actually contains good news. There is a giant industry built around getting more out of exercise, from protein powder to creatine, chromium piccolinate to CoQ10, etc. This study shows that small amounts of resveratrol per day — like the amount in a glass of wine — could show some of the same benefits as those supplements when combined with exercise.   There are the usual caveats with studies like these: it’s rats, not people, and the study was conducted over a relatively short period of time.

Motivation comes in many forms!

Motivation comes in many forms!

Naturally, there’s a lot we don’t know. When during the day is the best time to drink the wine? Would these extra resveratrol benefits continue to accrue indefinitely if you kept drinking and exercising? Or are the extra gains temporary and would they reverse themselves without daily resveratrol? Could resveratrol alone stave off the small decline in fitness that happens when you stop exercising for short periods? This last one would definitely be a bonanza for people like me who find ourselves exercising less than we’d like to.

But even without it, it’s great to think that a glass of wine per day can help you see greater fitness gains if you’re exercising. Part of the reason people stop their exercise programs is that they don’t see results quickly enough. As much as I dislike seeing the gym packed in January with the exercise resolution crowd, the wine merchant in me would like nothing more than to be able to peddle better health in a bottle. Firstvine.com, everyone!


With the cold weather of the past couple of weeks, I’ve spent more time at the stove keeping warm. Cy and I made tea-smoked duck for a dinner party, and discovered that it’s possible to make lightly-smoked foods inside without the whole house smelling of smoke. I used a recipe I found online and borrowed a neighbor’s wok and bamboo steamer to make it. Neither Cy nor I anticipated that the steamer would be permanently infused with smoke when we were done, though, and the recipe didn’t mention it. So we’re buying our neighbor a new steamer. But the good thing is, we get to keep the old one and use it to do more indoor smoking — or even steaming (assuming we don’t mind a little smoke flavor in anything we use the steamer for).

Smoking chicken thighs may be even better than smoking duck. They have enough fat so they won’t dry out, and their flavor isn’t as strong as duck’s, so you can taste the tea smoke more. Plus, since they have to be fully cooked before you smoke them, there are more options than you have with duck. Duck is so fatty you have to make sure your cooking method gets rid of most of the fat before you smoke it. This can take a lot of time, but it’s much easier with the chicken thighs.

This is the wok and steamer setup Cy and I used to make tea-smoked duck.  We borrowed our neighbor's steamer and now it smells smoky.  But the duck was delicious!

This is the wok and steamer setup Cy and I used to make tea-smoked duck. We borrowed our neighbor’s steamer and now it smells smoky. But the duck was delicious!

I think the easiest way to pre-cook the chicken is to poach it in chicken broth. The bonus of this method is that the chicken will make the boxed chicken broth you start with much more flavorful, and you can then use it to make some kick-ass soup. Or to cook rice in to accompany the chicken. You can poach the chicken thighs way ahead of time and refrigerate them, just let them come back to room temperature before you smoke them.

The smoking method is much easier than I thought it would be. Line the wok with aluminum foil, then put in a mixture of tea, rice, and sugar. Heat the wok until the tea mixture starts smoking.   Put the steamer in the wok with the chicken thighs inside it and turn the heat to low. Stuff two damp kitchen towels between the outside of the steamer and the edge of the wok. Steam for 20 minutes, then turn off the heat and let the chicken sit for another 10 minutes. After that, you can put the chicken thighs skin-side down in a hot non-stick skillet to brown the skin.

Maybe they would, but hey -- anything that works, right?

Maybe they would, but hey — anything that works, right?

While you can usually serve a light red wine with chicken, I’d serve the smoked chicken thighs with Cave la Romaine Viognier ($16). The floral notes of the Viognier taste great with the light smokiness of the chicken. If you’d like a red for the extra resveratrol, try Cave la Romaine’s Côtes du Ventoux Rouge Tradition ($10). They both pair well with a good workout.

Bon Appetit!


Tea-Smoked Chicken Thighs

Serves 4

8 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs

1 teaspoon salt

1 quart boxed chicken stock or broth (I like Kitchen Basics)

1 cup black tea

1 cup granulated sugar

1 cup raw rice

Freshly-ground black pepper

Equipment: A wok (14 inches in diameter) with a two-level bamboo steamer (10 inches in diameter) that has a lid, aluminum foil, two damp kitchen towels.

Sprinkle the meat side of the chicken thighs with the salt and let them sit for 10 minutes. Then put them in a pot and pour the stock or broth over them. Add a little water to cover the thighs, if necessary. Bring to the boil over medium heat, skimming off any scum that rises to the top. Then turn the heat down and simmer gently for 30 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the thighs sit in the liquid for another 10 minutes.

Line the wok with aluminum foil. Stir together the tea, rice, and sugar, and put the mixture in the wok. Spread the mixture out into a circle that’s just a bit smaller than the steamer diameter. Turn the heat under the wok to medium.

Meanwhile, remove the thighs from the broth (save the broth for another use). Pat them dry with paper towels and place four of them on each of the steamer racks. Put the racks together and put the lid on. When the tea mixture in the wok begins to smoke all over, put the steamer on the wok over the tea mixture. Turn the heat to low and surround the steamer with the damp towels to prevent steam from escaping. Smoke on low heat for 20 minutes, then turn the heat off and let the apparatus sit for another 10 minutes.

Just before the chicken’s time in the steamer is up, heat a large non-stick skillet that you’ve sprayed with cooking spray. Put some pepper on the thighs then put them in the hot skillet, skin-side down, and cook them for 5 minutes or so, to brown up and crisp the skin. Serve hot.

Posted in Cave la Romaine, Tom Natan, Wine and exercise, wine delivery washington dc | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What’s the point, anyway?

I have no idea who this is wearing the shirt, but, as you'll read, I definitely don't heart price point.

I have no idea who this is wearing the shirt, but, as you’ll read, I definitely don’t heart the term price point.

I’ve had conversations with a lot of people about resolutions lately. Whether they have them, whether it’s realistic to make them, and what drives people to torture themselves by making them in the first place.

It’s probably too ambitious to consider making your life over via resolutions. But I think the idea of setting goals is a good one, and I’ve decided the new year is as good a time as any to mount a campaign against particular words and phrases I hate. My list starts with “proactive.” It came into vogue when I was first doing environmental work, and companies’ PR people would explain that these firms were environmentally conscious even though it wasn’t required by regulation by saying how proactive they were. Especially if their single — and generally unimpressive — activity in advance of sanctions was meant to distract us from the rest of their sorry environmental records. Sadly, this foolishness caught on big time and is now trumpeted by anyone who does something even a nanosecond before he has to (and believes he ought to be rewarded).

But I may have a chance to make some headway with one thing that I hear used in a wine-selling context. This morning Cy and I had a conversation with someone about wine pricing, and we remarked later that we were both pleased that she had said “price” and not “price point.”

Because it drives me absolutely f*&%ing nuts hearing people use price point when they mean price.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had conversations with people who ask, “What’s the price point on that bottle?” My first reaction is to reply, “What’s your point in asking?” What they want to know is how much the bottle costs. But saying price point instead of price? Maybe it sounds more learned. Or maybe more detached, as if their interest in the price is purely academic rather than for purposes of purchase and drinking. Either way, they’re still asking for the price.

Or does the term “price point” have an actual meaning beyond just price that I didn’t know about? And, if so, am I just overreacting, as Cy thinks I am with proactive?

I turned first to Ms. Google, and found that most definitions of price point refer to a range of prices in a sales, demand, or competition context. So I decided to ask my sister Sue, who has been a market research professional for 25 years. She assured me that people should say price and not price point when asking me about a bottle of wine.

Can we all agree that unless we're marketing professionals we'll say price and not price point?

Can we all agree that unless we’re marketing professionals we’ll say price and not price point?

She then gave me three specific examples where she has seen price point used in her work:

1) Let’s say you’ve done a comparison of the price of a particular product or products across a particular geographic area. Then you can say that City X in State Y has a lower price point for canned red kidney beans than City A in State B. You could even extend it more broadly to say that price points for consumer packaged goods are generally lower in the south than in the northern U.S. because more of these goods are manufactured in the south than the north, and transportation costs are lower.

2) Perhaps individual stores in a chain price their merchandise using different strategies, such as everyday low prices in one store and average higher prices with specific promotions in another. If you’re comparing the prices of particular items under different strategies, you’d refer to them as price points.

3) You’ve done promotions, coupons, or some other thing lowering prices for a specific period of time and you go back to analyze the data. If there’s a particular price that generated more sales, that’s called the “hot price point.”

Sue told me that hot price point is still used pretty regularly, but even marketing professionals are now saying price and not price point. So I have her permission to tell you to knock it off, officially.

But ever so nicely, of course. And while you’re at it, would you mind terribly much not saying proactive, either? Pretty please?


Seriously, how does this happen with just a little snow?  Two DC buses sideswiping on 16th St. NW on Tuesday.  (Photo by Bill Feldman.)

Seriously, how does this happen with just a little snow? Two DC buses sideswiping on 16th St. NW on Tuesday. (Photo by Bill Feldman.)

We had our first snow of the season Tuesday and it created the usual mayhem. Buses sideswiping, a stuck fire truck, and traffic so slow that it’s faster to walk. Even uphill. It’ll probably mostly be gone by tomorrow, but it’s going to be cold for a spell. So I decided to think summery thoughts and lower the, ahem, prices on some of our rosés for rest of January. Enter the promo code Jan15pink at checkout and you’ll get 15% off on French rosés from our Summer Pinks page, in addition to the regular volume discounts.**

My producers tell me that rosés are more popular year-round than they used to be. And by the time winter rolls around, they’ve aged a little in the bottle and have more richness. Maybe some of that “Gosh, it’s summer” light strawberry flavor is gone, but the remaining flavors are more mature and the wines pair better with the foods we eat in winter. Like root vegetables and winter squash. Rosés also pair well with Indian and Asian foods, which are some of my favorites for takeout.

And since some of us might have resolved to eat better (in January at least), rosés will work beautifully with all those salads we’re forcing ourselves to consume.

This week’s recipe is an easy salad with shrimp that is served just a little warm. Frozen peeled and deveined raw shrimp get roasted in an olive oil and lemon juice dressing with some garlic, salt, and red pepper flakes. When they’re just cooked, put the whole mixture in the serving bowl and let it cool a few minutes. Top with the other salad ingredients, then toss together. Serve and enjoy.

Bon Appetit!


** Fine print:  the extra discount applies to the price of the wine, and not to any delivery or shipping charges.

Warm Green Salad with Roasted Shrimp

Serves 4

1 pound large (20 – 25 per pound) frozen peeled and deveined raw shrimp

3 cloves of garlic, peeled and thinly sliced

6 tablespoons olive oil

Zest and juice of one large lemon

1 large pinch red pepper flakes

1 teaspoon salt, plus a little extra

1 large carrot, peeled

1 cucumber, peeled if it has been waxed

1 bunch of arugula (about 6 ounces)

1 cup grape or cherry tomatoes, halved

1 red or yellow bell pepper, cored and cut into thin strips

3 scallions, thinly sliced (white and green parts)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Spray a rimmed baking sheet and set it aside.

While the oven is preheating (and the shrimp are roasting), start on the vegetables. Using a vegetable peeler, shave the carrot into thin peel strips. Cut the cucumber in half crosswise, pick up one half and also start shaving it down until you get to the seeds. Then give it a quarter turn and start shaving it again, etc.  Repeat with the other half.  You’ll end up with lovely, fluffy piles of carrot and cucumber.

If the shrimp won’t come apart, run them quickly under cold water to separate them. They should still be frozen.  Dry them off with a paper or cloth towel and spread them out on the sprayed baking sheet. Whisk the red pepper flakes, 1 teaspoon of salt, the lemon zest and juice, and the olive oil together in a small bowl and pour them over the shrimp. Use a spatula or a large spoon to get the shrimp and garlic coated. Put the baking sheet in the preheated oven and roast for 25 to 30 minutes.  Stir in the sliced garlic after 15 minutes. The shrimp will be done when they start to turn lightly pink and feel firm to the touch. The garlic should be lightly golden.

Take the pan from the oven and scrape everything into the bowl you’re going to serve the salad in. Let the shrimp cool until they’re warm but not scalding hot. Then put the arugula on top of the shrimp, followed by the pepper strips and sliced scallions. Top with the carrot shavings, cucumber shavings, and tomatoes. Toss everything together gently and taste for salt. Serve immediately.

Posted in Musings/Lectures/Rants, Rosé Wine, Tom Natan, wine delivery washington dc | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The stockings were stuffed by the chimney with care

I asked my friend Sue Gordon for some gifts/stocking stuffers for cooks.  Her top pick was a mellon baller.  And she sent a photo!

I asked my friend Sue Gordon for some gifts/stocking stuffers for cooks. Her top pick was a mellon baller. And she sent a photo!

Christmas is a week from today. Cy and I have bought (almost) all the gifts we set out to buy, but now comes what for me is the hardest part: stocking stuffers. They were never a big deal in my family, but Cy’s family really enjoys them. And every year I have to rack my brain a little to come up with ideas. This has been a (thankfully) very busy Christmas season, though, so I decided I needed help. A few weeks ago I asked one of my blogger friends for her recommendations for small gifts and stocking stuffers for people who like to cook.

Sue Gordon writes the Food Network Musings blog and also writes on food for the Princeton Examiner. She’s extremely generous with advice on her blog and also in person, as I’ve learned. I’ve put her response to me verbatim below. She even included photos, which kicked my butt to take a couple of my own. So, I’m giving you a break from wine talk for a couple of weeks, and this week’s post contains Sue’s gift suggestions plus a couple from me.

First, three ideas from Sue:

Several of my favorite kitchen gadgets are more tools than gadgets, but I’ve been finding them indispensable lately. The good thing is they would make great stocking stuffers or be good as part of a kitchen-themed gift exchange.

Sue also recommended Sistema containers -- they snap shut easily and seal well.

Sue also recommended Sistema containers — they snap shut easily and seal well.

The first one is a melon baller. All cooks should have one in their kitchen drawer. The funny thing is I can’t remember the last time I used mine for melon, but it’s become my go-to tool for coring apples. If I’m using the apples unpeeled, I simply cut them in half (on the International Date Line) and using the melon baller, I scoop out the middle of the apple to get the core. Then I make another scoop above and below to remove the rest of the core. (If I need the apple peeled, I peel the whole apple and then halve it and proceed as above.) I also use the melon baller to scrape the seeds out of butternut or acorn squash OR to remove the seeds from quartered tomatoes. The slightly sharp edges seem to do the trick.

The next tool is a tea strainer – the kind that looks like a miniature strainer with a handle. I haven’t used it for tea in ages, but I always have it at my side when I’m baking. I often don’t bother to sift my dry ingredients (c’mon, does anyone?), BUT I always sift my baking powder and particularly my baking soda. Who wants a mouthful of undissolved baking soda in chewy chocolate chip cookies? It can also be used for quickly sifting together different spice blends.

My last kitchen find is something I discovered after an ant invasion when I wanted to pack all my pantry baking items into airtight containers. I found these Sistema plastic containers. I love the strong blue clips on the sides and how well they stack. You can find them in different shapes and sizes, and they’re available individually and in sets. You could always buy a set or two and split them up into different gifts.

Christmas would have been ruined, RUINED, without my little offset spatula to help get cookies off the parchment paper they were rolled on.

Christmas would have been ruined, RUINED, without my little offset spatula to help get cookies off the parchment paper they were rolled on.

Everyone has to eat and, thus, cook at one time or another. Kitchen gifts are never out of place, especially when you’re sharing your expertise along with the gadget.

Then from me:

Cy and I have been baking holiday cookies for the past couple of weeks. Practically everything in the kitchen has been pressed into service during that time. I found two small items that were indispensable in baking, and in one case it pretty well saved the entire batch of cookies.

We decided to make Speculaas this year as one of the selections. They’re spice cookies from Holland. (Biscoff cookies are something like Speculaas, although Biscoff are sweeter, don’t have butter, and only contain cinnamon for spice and not all the other goodies we put in, like mace, ground cloves, cardamom, and white pepper.) You can either use special molds or roll them and cut them, which is what we decided to do.

None of the recipes I found tells you how sticky the dough is, even if you chill it before rolling it. The cookies stick even when you roll them between sheets of parchment paper (which is the only way they won’t turn out with too much flour or too greasy.) The only way to get them off the paper is to scrape them gently with a suitable object. A little offset spatula was the perfect tool. We still had to be careful, but we managed to get the cookies all rolled out and cut. Mine has a 3.5-inch blade (the flat part) and is made by Ateco, but I’m sure you can find other brands that will work just as well. Just make sure the blade is pretty thin so you can slide it under sticky dough without tearing. I’ve also used it to spread fig jam on my Fig and Shortbread cookies, icing on nearly anything small, and soft butter on cinnamon roll dough.

My mother has had one of these nut choppers forever, it seems.  They're great for walnuts and pecans and don't crush as many as you will using a food processor.

My mother has had one of these nut choppers forever, it seems. They’re great for walnuts and pecans and don’t crush as many as you will using a food processor.

The other tool is a nut chopper. You could use a food processor, of course. But for walnuts and pecans the nut chopper makes more uniform pieces, creates less nut dust, and it’s easier to clean than the food processor. And it’s a lot easier than chopping by hand, especially if you have a bunch of them to do. Put the nuts in the hopper and turn the crank. I keep nuts in the freezer, and I don’t even have to thaw them to use the chopper. Mine is made by Progressive and has a rubber gasket on the bottom to keep it steady on the counter. Supposedly you can do a coarse or fine chop but I don’t see any difference in the size of the pieces. They’re also not built for the ages so if you use it a lot you will have to replace it every 10 years or so. But at around $10 it’s a still a bargain.


This week’s recipe is from Jenn Barger, our neighbor and also a blogger, journalist, and stylist. Jenn and her husband Callan had Cy and me over a couple of weeks ago for chicken chili and Jenn made some amazing cornbread to go with it. The next day she e-mailed me the recipe for Southern Rogue Cornbread and the story behind it:

“I learned how to make it from an old friend’s boyfriend who was a handsome rogue from the south — let’s call him Rhett. He was a huge flirt and a great cook. But some of his ‘secrets’ were as down-home as my Ozark grandma’s — canned soup, pre-prepared ingredients. I grew up eating cornbread with chili in South Texas, and it always seemed dry.

“But one night, when my friend was making chili for a group, Rhett drawled, ‘I’ll show y’all how it’s done.’ He proceeded to use a standard Jiffy mix and doctor it up with sour cream, red pepper relish and — eek— my old childhood friend, creamed corn. The resulting cornbread is moist and a little spicy (you control how much pepper relish to add) and there are hardly ever leftovers. I now sub Mexican crema for the sour cream — it adds a nice tang — but sour cream (or even crème fraîche) works just fine.”

Jenn’s cornbread was really moist, had a great texture, and just barely holds together when you take it out of the pan even though it’s fully baked. I asked her if it firmed up overnight. She replied that she supposed it would, but it was a long time since there had been any second-day leftovers so she couldn’t say for sure. I decided to cut down on the sour cream and it worked beautifully, the cornbread was still very moist but a little firmer and it tasted great the next day.

This is sweet cornbread, which makes it a perfect foil for spicy chili. The sweetness comes from the creamed corn, not the Jiffy mix, which isn’t all that sweet. Jiffy mix contains lard, though, so you may not want to use it. Jiffy’s website claims they’ve got a vegetarian version, so you can look for that. If you can’t find it or want to use butter or shortening instead, I’ve come up with my own mix and included it below.

Cy and I discovered that leftovers of this cornbread make a great base for fried or scrambled eggs. Split the pieces and toast them a little and top with eggs and a breakfast meat or smoked fish of your choice. Naturally, I’d serve champagne with it, like our Champagne Bernard Mante Brut ($32). I’m sure the rogue would approve!

No post next week.  All of us at First Vine wish you a wonderful holiday and a very happy new year!


Southern Rogue Cornbread

Makes 18 good-sized pieces

2 8.5-ounce boxes of Jiffy Corn Muffin mix (regular or vegetarian)

1 14-15 ounce can creamed corn

2 large eggs

1/3 cup sour cream, Greek yogurt, crème fraîche, or Mexican crema

1-2 tablespoons red pepper relish (or Darrene’s Bacon-Onion-Serrano Jam)

1 tablespoon butter, cut into 3 slices

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F and grease a 13 x 9-inch baking pan (set the oven to 375 if you’re using a Pyrex pan). Put the Jiffy mix in a large bowl and add everything except the butter. Stir until it’s all combined, but don’t worry about a couple of small lumps or streaks of flour. Pour into the pan and bake for 20 – 30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Take the cornbread out of the oven and brush the top with the butter pieces using a pastry brush. Let it cool and serve slightly warm or at room temperature. Store the leftovers in the fridge.

If you can’t find the Jiffy mix or don’t want to use it: combine 1-1/2 cups each of flour and fine cornmeal in the bowl of an electric mixer or other large bowl. Add 2 tablespoons baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and up to 2 tablespoons of sugar (you can leave it out, but it helps the cornbread brown). Whisk or mix to combine. Cut 6 tablespoons of soft unsalted butter or vegetable shortening into pieces and scatter them on top of the flour. Use the mixer or pastry blender (or your fingers) to combine everything until the butter or shortening is completely distributed in the flour mixture and there are no lumps.

Posted in Kitchen gadgets, stocking stuffers, wine delivery washington dc | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Eat, drink (wine) and be very merry

This is Vico d'Elsa, a village in the Chianti region.  I don't know if the people there were part of the Chianti wine and health study, but it's a pretty place!

This is Vico d’Elsa, a village I’ve visited in the Chianti region. I don’t know if the people there were part of the Chianti wine and health study, but it’s a pretty place!

During the holiday season, we’re drinking more. At the same time, though, we’re eating more and exercising less. Everyone’s fervent wish is that the drinking will help compensate for the other two unfortunate trends.

And for the past 20 years or so, that has been the general conclusion about moderate alcohol consumption and overall health. There have been multiple small studies feeding people wine and other alcohol over short periods of time and the results have been promising to good. Of course, since demon alcohol is involved, lots of effort has also been expended trying to find the magic bullet that would bring those same health benefits without having to drink actual alcohol. So the majority of research has focused on resveratrol, a compound found in wine (more in red wine than white) and which, at least on paper, would seem to be a good candidate.

I’ve thought this was a bad idea ever since I’ve been reading those studies (and I’m not the only one). This single-chemical approach neglects the hundreds, if not thousands, of other chemicals in wine. And it completely rejects the notion that some of these may act together. We know, for example, that some pesticides are even deadlier when combined with others. But studying multiple chemical interactions is a difficult prospect, not to mention that it’s less likely to bring a simple pharmaceutical solution.

Then in May 2014, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published a study examining data from a fairly large population, 783 adults age 65 and older living in two villages in the Chianti region of Italy. (Participants ranged from 65 to 82 in 1998, and were studied through 2009.) Rather than controlling their diets, the researchers looked at participants’ habits and health outcomes. They also measured breakdown products of resveratrol in urine for all subjects. And the overall conclusion was that the amount of resveratrol people consume through normal dietary means — including wine — doesn’t seem to have any impact on their health or mortality.

While the JAMA study focused on resveratrol, the researchers point out that the amount of resveratrol residue in urine correlates well with the amount of alcohol the subjects reported consuming. Since this is the Chianti region of Italy, home of fabulous red wines, the assumption was that the resveratrol most likely came from wine. So it wasn’t a stretch to say that drinking more wine was not associated with better health outcomes and lower mortality rates, at least among these people.

I used two wordy paragraphs explaining this not just because I’m a science geek, but because it’s important to acknowledge that this was a one-of-a-kind study. And because it created a veritable s***storm of snarky media coverage when it came out, especially in the U.S. and the U.K. I’m not sure why there was so much vitriol. Maybe some of it is the elitism thing I’ve discussed before — a little schadenfreude that those snooty wine drinkers don’t have it any better than anyone else. It doesn’t seem to have caused a stir in Italy and France, though, where people drink wine as a matter of course.

Concrete tanks containing genuine Chianti, which was probably the beverage of choice for the subjects of the JAMA study,

Concrete tanks containing genuine Chianti, which was probably the beverage of choice for the subjects of the JAMA study.

I decided to take a look at the study more closely. And I’ve decided that while I love the methodology, I don’t think it can be used to say definitively that drinking wine has no benefit. The data are the data, and mortality and disease among the various groups by amount of alcohol consumed are what they are. My problem is with the interpretation and, more generally, with the population selected.

Two things struck me right away. First, the mean alcohol consumption for those in the highest-consuming group was 31.1 grams per day. That’s the amount of alcohol you’d find in a five-ounce glass of wine. Not very much wine per day. And the second was that these “big drinkers” were also much more likely to smoke than those in the group that drank the least alcohol: 25% of the big drinkers were also smokers, while only 7.7% of the teetotalers were. A 65-year-old smoker in 1998 had probably been smoking for at least 40 years. Of course, some people can smoke for decades and live into their 90s. But if the mortality rates weren’t all that different between the drinkers and the teetotalers, maybe the wine did insulate them from some of the health effects of smoking after all, moderately consumed though it was?

The biggest issue, though, didn’t occur to me until later: the study examined the elderly in two villages in the Chianti region of Italy. On the one hand, picking what was likely to be a relatively homogenous group was a plus in terms of research. You always like to eliminate as many variables as you can. But if you’ve been to villages in that part of Italy, you’ve seen that outside of the tourist zones people eat modestly and are eating the highly-praised Mediterranean diet that’s supposed to be so good for you. And they walk a fair amount, as people in farming communities are prone to do. So could you also conclude that a population already leading a relatively healthy lifestyle isn’t going to feel any particular effects from drinking wine or not? It’s certainly worth considering.

Perhaps this one admittedly elegant study can’t be used to refute all those other studies that showed more positive results. It does suggest that holiday imbibing isn’t going to offer the blanket cover for gluttony we hoped it did in the past, sad as it is to think about.  But think positively — maybe we’ll have a Christmas miracle!


Overlooking the vineyards at Azienda Agricola San Benedetto, near San Gimignano

Overlooking the vineyards at Azienda Agricola San Benedetto, near San Gimignano

Thanks to the JAMA study I’m featuring wines from the Chianti region this week. Last fall, Cy and I visited Tuscany with our friends Darrene and Chris. One of the wineries we visited was Azienda Agricola San Benedetto, located near San Gimignano. In September 2014, we got our first shipment of San Benedetto wines.

The Gianelli family runs San Benedetto, producing wine and olive oil. The family has nearly a century of history growing wine grapes and olives, beginning in the 1920s. For years, family members were sharecroppers for a large farm called Casaccia, which existed until the 1960s. As the tenant farmers began to buy the land they had farmed, the Gianellis — brothers Dario and Guiseppe — bought land near the very small village of San Benedetto. They built a winery on their property in 1975. The farm, winery and agriturismo business on the property are now owned by Giovanni (Dario’s son), Marinaro (Giuseppe’s son) and Andrea and Marco Gianelli (Dario’s grandsons).

San Benedetto has 25 hectares of vineyards and two of olive groves. Eighty percent of the grapes are red grapes, mostly Sangiovese with some Canaiolo, Malvasia, Colorino, and Ciliegiolo (which mostly add color to the red wine), along with a bit of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Montepulciano. Seventy percent of the white grapes are Vernaccia di San Gimignano, and the rest are Trebbiano, Malvasia, Vermentino, and Sancolombano. The red grapes go into Chianti Tradizione ($14) and Chianti Riserva ($23), plus another everyday red and a more elegant red blend, and Vin Santo and Grappa. San Bendetto also produces Vernaccia di San Gimignano ($16) and Vermentino ($13) whites.

It’s tough to find a single recipe that you could pair with all of these wines (nothing to stop you from making separate courses for the wines, but probably not on a weeknight). I wondered what some of these study subjects would have eaten as children back in the 1930s and 40s. So I did a little research and found several variations on a vegetable pasta sauce. While we think of Bistecca alla Fiorentina and wonderful sausages as typical Tuscan dishes, meat was consumed much more sparingly and often as a flavoring rather than a main ingredient. Slow cooking vegetables gives them a wonderful sweetness and depth of flavor, and they were inexpensive and widely available. Topping with a little cheese and toasted breadcrumbs gave sharpness and crunch.

The recipe is extremely simple, the only thing you need is time to make it, between an hour and a half and two hours. Sauté finely chopped vegetables in olive oil until they’re very soft, then add a whole bottle of red wine — but in half-cup increments, like you’re making risotto. As the sauce simmers and the liquid evaporates, add another half-cup of wine. If you use a heavy, nonstick pot or skillet, this doesn’t require constant stirring, just checking it every five to 10 minutes. After the wine is all in, add some drained diced canned tomatoes and cook for another half hour. You can easily put this on the stove when you’re making dinner one night and then serve it the next or a few days later. It also freezes beautifully.

Chris and Darrene at San Benedetto.  Good friends, food, and wine make any trip special!

Chris and Darrene at San Benedetto. Good friends, food, and wine make any trip special!

The recipe makes almost three cups of sauce, which is enough for more than a pound of pasta. Since the sauce isn’t chunky, it works well with spaghetti. Take about a cup and a half of sauce (or more, if you like your pasta saucy) in a large skillet and heat it up while you’re cooking a pound of pasta. Add about a half cup of pasta cooking water to the skillet, then the drained pasta and cook for a minute to put it all together. Turn off the heat and toss it with a little grated Parmesan cheese. Serve it with more cheese or toasted breadcrumbs.

There are plenty of tips on eating and drinking responsibly out there, and you’re no doubt tired of hearing about them. There are lots of tempting things to try, and some that we have only once a year. Try not to neglect getting some exercise, drink plenty of water, and eat sensibly when you’re not at a party or dinner with too much delicious temptation. We don’t know the exact extent that wine helps us combat our bad habits, but do we really need that as an excuse to drink it?

Bon Appetit!


Tuscan Vegetable Pasta

Serves 8 with a full recipe, 4 with half

6 large carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces

6 large stalks celery, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces

2 large onions, peeled and each cut into 8 pieces

4 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled

1 small sprig fresh rosemary

3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for serving

1 750 ml bottle dry red wine (3 cups)

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

1 28 oz can diced tomatoes, drained

Parmesan cheese (1/2 cup for half the sauce, 1 cup for all the sauce, plus more for sprinkling at the table)

1 or 2 pounds dried pasta, preferably spaghetti (use 1 pound for half the sauce)

1/4 cup minced fresh parsley

Optional: toasted bread crumbs for serving (see note below)

Fit the food processor with a steel blade. Turn on the processor and drop the garlic cloves through the feed tube one at a time until each is finely chopped. Turn off the processor and add the onion pieces. Pulse until they’re finely chopped. Scrape the onion out and put the carrot pieces in the processor. Pulse until they’re also finely chopped. Scrape them out, then repeat with the celery.

Heat the olive oil in a nonstick pot or large skillet. Add all the chopped vegetables plus the sprig of rosemary, about 1/2 teaspoon salt, and some ground black pepper. Turn the heat to very low, cover the pot or pan, and cook for 15 minutes. Take off the lid and cook for about 10 minutes more, stirring occasionally. The vegetables should be very soft and lightly browned, and their liquid should have evaporated (there will still be oil in the pan, just not vegetable liquid). Add 1/2 cup of the red wine and simmer until it’s absorbed and evaporated, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. If you have a flame tamer or simmer shield, this is a good time to use it. Repeat until you’ve used all the red wine. Then stir in the tomatoes and cook for another 30 minutes. Stir occasionally and check to see that it’s not burning or outrageously thick. If so, add a little water. Taste for salt and pepper.

For one pound of pasta, use half the sauce — heat it in a large skillet and set the pasta to boil in a big pot of salted water. When the pasta’s nearly cooked, add half a cup of pasta water to the skillet. Then drain the pasta, reserving a little more pasta water. Stir the pasta and parsley into the skillet and cook for another minute, adding more pasta water if you need it. Turn off the heat and stir in the half cup of cheese. Pour into a heated serving bowl and drizzle with a little more olive oil. Serve with extra cheese and toasted breadcrumbs (if you like them).

Toasted breadcrumbs: heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet. Stir in 1 cup unseasoned dry breadcrumbs with a little salt and pepper. Stir for a couple of minutes until the crumbs are browner and smell a little toasty.

Posted in Azienda Agricola San Benedetto, Health benefits of wine, Musings/Lectures/Rants, Resveratrol, Uncategorized, wine delivery washington dc | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

S is for silent

Cécile Dusserre, owner and winemaker of Domaine de Montvac, was featured in Le Point in 2011.  She makes great wines and justifiably receives lots of accolades.

Cécile Dusserre, owner and winemaker of Domaine de Montvac, was featured in Le Point in 2011. She makes great wines and justifiably receives lots of accolades.

In a second look at some of the most popular search terms leading people to this blog, I was surprised to see that a bunch of people wanted to know about French pronunciation.

Specifically, about how to pronounce the names of certain towns in France that end in “s.” While for most French words ending in s the s is silent, it’s not always the case for proper nouns, including village names.   It turns out that in the south of France, and in villages with wine that First Vine imports, there are plenty of village names ending in a non-silent s.

Four years ago I wrote a profile of one of our producers, Cécile Dusserre, who makes excellent wine from grapes that come from both Vacqueyras and Gigondas. And, more or less as a throwaway, I included the fact that you pronounce the final s in both of them. From a blog hit perspective, it was a very good thing, since lots of people want to know about it.

When Cy and I began regular visits to the southern Rhône Valley, we were surprised to hear the final s in Vacqueyras and Gigondas — before that, I’d only heard them pronounced the way you think they would be in French, without the s. Even by U.S. wine merchants who were selling wines from those villages. We also visited Nyons, another village with an audible s at the end (and the olive capital of France). All three of these villages are within 20 km or so of one another. But in that same area, you’ll also find silent s names like Vinsobres, Puyméras, Baumes de Venise, Sarrians, Ste Cécile les Vignes, and Carpentras. So there’s no way of knowing a priori how to say any of them.

A map of some southern Rhône wine villages.  Guess which ones end in a silent s!

A map of some southern Rhône wine villages. Guess which ones end in a silent s!

It’s not just the southern Rhône valley that has these anomalies. Go north and you’ll come to Valréas (pronounced Val-RAZE). To the west, in Aveyron and the Languedoc you’ll hear Rodez pronounced with the z (not Ro-day, the way you’d think the French would pronounce it) and Pézenas with the s (not Pe-ze-nah).  I’m sure there are a lot more of them I don’t know anything about.

The reason for all this is that many of these names aren’t French in origin. It wasn’t until the 1880s that French became the only language allowed in public primary schools in the country. Before that, you’d find all sorts of different regional languages spoken.   In the 1950s, the French government began recognizing regional languages as part of the country’s heritage. But they clearly were spoken all along. Cy and I have found that people we’ve met there — and their parents and grandparents — still speak languages such as Alsatian, Occitan, and Provençal. We even saw a local newspaper in Occitan, which was pretty neat except that we couldn’t figure out a single word.

Some village names have been Frenchified over the years, and when you drive through them you may see signs indicating the name history. In Vaison-la-Romaine, for example, you’ll see that the town was called Visun, which got changed to a more French-sounding Vaison. (The la Romaine was added later, because of the town’s Roman ruins that are a major attraction). But others kept their earlier names and pronunciations, so you get the uncharacteristic final s sound with some of them.

As someone who started learning French only when I began the wine business, I found French pronunciation rules pretty difficult to remember at first. Of course, I can only imagine it’s worse for people learning English as anything but a first language. But after Spanish and German, both of which are pretty much “pronounce it the way it looks” kind of languages, French was a challenge.   I’m happy to say that no one in southern France gave a single grimace when we mispronounced the names of their villages — they seemed to be glad we were making the effort at all. Still, if you’re going to visit, it’s nice to get the names right. The locals will be even happier to see you if you do.


Vaison-la-Romaine was apparently once named Visun, but the name became the more French-like Vaison.  The "la Romane" part was added later to call attention to the village's plentiful Roman ruins.

Vaison-la-Romaine was apparently once named Visun, but the name became the more French-like Vaison. The “la Romane” part was added later to call attention to the village’s plentiful Roman ruins.

While I’m set to order more of Cécile Dusserre’s wine in the spring, we still have some of her 2005 Vacqueras and Gigondas wines left. It was a year that gave more than the usual amounts of tannins and the wines took a while to soften up. The tannins also gave them greater longevity, though, and preserved the very rich fruit and earthy tobacco flavors. The wines are interesting and complex, but thoroughly drinkable. The Vacqueyras ($22) and Gigondas ($27) are both 70% Grenache, 25% Syrah, and 5% Mourvèdre, although the Gigondas is aged in oak while the Vacqueyras is aged in concrete tanks. The Vincila ($24) is a special cuvée that’s 60% Grenache, 40% Syrah, aged in oak.

When I profiled Mlle Dusserre, I included a recipe for beef stew. It’s a good one, but my recipe has evolved a little. (You can also see the original here.) Since then, I’ve tried tweaking things and also making other recipes, and the result is even tastier. The biggest change came from trying America’s Test Kitchen’s (ATK) recipe, which doesn’t require any browning on the stove. I liked the flavor, but found the meat was too tough even with long cooking and following the recipe exactly. But they did one thing that was really ingenious. Since you have to cut up a large beef chuck roast to get the two-inch cubes for the stew, you’ll end up with probably 25% of the original piece as scraps. Instead of discarding them, ATK browns them and uses them to flavor the stew. So you’re getting the flavor of four pounds of beef even though you’re only eating three.

The trick is to tie the browned scraps in a big piece of cheesecloth along with some carrot, onion and herbs, and add them to the stew as it cooks. I tried it without the cheesecloth, but then it’s tough to tell the scraps from the actual meat pieces. I used ATK’s method of browning them in the oven as I was prepping everything else so I didn’t have to spend even more time at the stove browning. (As someone who wears glasses, I can tell you there’s nothing like browning meat to get little blobs of grease all over the lenses. Especially since there’s a lot of fat in the scraps.  Gives you bleary vision whether you’re tired or not.) While the scraps were in the oven, I also roasted carrots and parsnips to add at the end, it made for tastier vegetables that didn’t fall apart.

Neither the original recipe nor the updated one is what you’d call easy cooking, but the individual steps aren’t difficult. It’s just that there’s a lot of them. But you can do the whole thing a few days ahead and reheat it. And it feeds a crowd. Nothing says festive like a pot of stew!

Bon Appetit!


Beef Stew Chez Moi, Revisited

Serves 6 with plenty of leftovers

3 pounds boneless beef chuck roast, cut into two-inch pieces — cut from a 4 to 4-1/2 pound roast, trimmings reserved and cut into smaller pieces

3 slices thick-cut bacon, diced

6 tablespoons olive oil, plus additional if necessary

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

1 bottle light- to medium-bodied red wine (for example, see our Everyday Reds page)

8 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled

6 large fresh bay leaves

Fresh thyme and rosemary

2 red bell peppers

3 strips of fresh orange peel, cut from an orange with a vegetable peeler

4 carrots, peeled and cut into six to eight equally-sized pieces each

2 parsnips, peeled and cut into six to eight equally-sized pieces each

2 large onions (see recipe for treatment), plus 1 medium onion, chopped

1 pound whole Cremini mushrooms, cleaned and trimmed

1 cup pitted black olives (such as Kalamata or Niçoise)

1 14-ounce can diced fire-roasted tomatoes

1 cup beef broth or stock (canned is fine)

Equipment: a large piece of cheesecloth, at least 2 feet square, a roasting pan, a large Dutch oven with a lid, and a rimmed baking sheet

The night before:  combine the beef, about a teaspoon each of salt and pepper, four of the garlic cloves, two of the bay leaves, a few sprigs of thyme and rosemary, and the wine in a bowl or plastic bag.  Mix well, cover or seal, and refrigerate overnight.  You can also roast the peppers ahead any way you like to do it (I put them right on the gas burner to get them charred all over, then put them in a bowl covered with plastic until they cool off.  Peel off the charred skin, then core them and slice the peppers and refrigerate).

The next day:  preheat the oven to 400 degrees F, with two racks set in the lower third of the oven.  Use 2 tablespoons of the oil to oil the bottom of the roasting pan, then put in the beef scraps and bacon pieces. Put the pieces of parsnips and two of the four carrots on the baking sheet and toss with 4 tablespoons of oil plus a little salt and pepper. Put the roasting pan on the top rack and the baking sheet on the lower rack and roast for 40 minutes, stirring two or three times until everything is nicely browned.

While the scraps and vegetables are roasting, strain the marinade, reserving the liquid but discarding everything else except the beef.  Combine the marinade with the beef stock, bring to a boil, and turn to a very low simmer.  Cut off the top end of the two large onions leaving the root end on, then peel off the skin and just barely shave the root end off.  Cut each onion lengthwise in half and then each half into thirds, making 12 wedges that hold together by the root end. Dry the beef pieces with paper towels.

Remove the roasting pan and baking sheet from the oven and lower the heat to 325 degrees F. Using a slotted spoon, remove the browned beef scraps and bacon pieces to a bowl that you’ve lined with the piece of cheesecloth. Carefully pour the fat from the roasting pan into the Dutch oven — you should have about 6 tablespoons (use a little oil if you need it). Add the chopped onion and the pieces of 2 carrots to the beef scraps in the bowl, along with a couple of sprigs each of thyme and rosemary. Tie the ends of the cheesecloth together to make a bundle.

The roasting pan should have some nice browned bits on the bottom. Put it over a burner and turn the heat to medium. Add about 1-1/2 cups of the simmering marinade and scrape the bottom of the roasting pan to deglaze it. Pour the liquid from the roasting pan back into the pot with the rest of the marinade.

Heat the fat in the Dutch oven and brown the meat on two sides of each piece using medium-high heat, doing just enough not to crowd the pan and thoroughly browning the beef on those two sides.  Remove the beef to a plate as it browns, and add more oil if necessary to brown all the meat. Put the onion wedges in the pan and brown them for a few minutes on each cut side, then remove them.

Pour off the fat from the Dutch oven. Add the wine mixture and gently scrape the bottom of the pan. Put the cheesecloth bundle in and make sure it’s completely submerged, then move it to one side of the pot. Add the beef and any juices on the plate, olives, roasted peppers, tomatoes, mushrooms, the four remaining bay leaves, the orange zest, a couple of sprigs of thyme and rosemary, the remaining garlic cloves, a teaspoon of salt, and a few grinds of pepper.  Stir gently to mix.  Bring to a simmer, then cover the pot and put it in the oven for 3 hours.  Stir it up gently halfway through.

Remove the pot from the oven. Carefully remove the cheesecloth bundle, and use a pair of tongs to squeeze all the liquid out of it that you can. Discard the bundle. Add the browned carrots, onions, and parsnips to the pot and heat gently, uncovered, for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat, cover the pot, and let it sit for another 20 minutes. Skim off as much fat from the surface as you’d like to, and serve.

Posted in Cécile Dusserre, Domaine de Montvac, Musings/Lectures/Rants, Tom Natan, wine delivery washington dc | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment