A holiday gift — be at peace with drinking wine just because you like it

I set out to examine why many wine drinkers seem to need their wine to be a health beverage. Part of it is wrapped up in the whole issue of what constitutes health, and why it has become a necessary counterpoint to contradictory and shaming messages about food. This is partly responsible for the rise of self-care as a major component of health, and for many people, that’s where wine comes in. (Photo by Alisa Anton on Unsplash.)

Since the holidays are nearly here, I expect to see a round of articles discussing how the wine we’ll be drinking this time of year is either (a) the perfect way to get jacked despite the inevitable holiday overeating, or (b) a step toward missing future holidays with our grandchildren, along with some shade thrown at people who touted option (a).

Obviously, I’d like to know what the real deal is with wine and health, as I’d like to with all foods. I personally don’t need wine to be a health tonic. But I wanted to explore why so many people want or need to think that drinking wine is good for them. (Or eating dark chocolate, for that matter). And, conversely, why there’s such gleeful vitriol from some when we learn that it might not be.

I got way deeper into the topic than I expected to, and I don’t want to drag everyone into the weeds. After a couple of weeks of reading and discussion I was left with two conclusions:

1) Anything we eat or drink can be dismissed as self-indulgent, whether it’s for pleasure or what we think of as pursuit of a healthy lifestyle. Wine is an easy target, especially because of its historically elitist associations. Tangible health benefits blunt the criticism. If they turn out not to be true, then those who claimed health benefits are bound to be on the receiving end of “see, you’re no better than the rest of us” – ism.

2) It’s not just food and wine that have to be good for us. Everything in our lives has to be “healthy” or it will seem to have less value, and we’re not supposed to care about it. Since there’s no definition of “healthy” living, we’ve allowed all sorts of aesthetic and decorous things to creep into our notions of health. And then, of course, we want something to back us up in our beliefs.

These seem pretty emphatic, which isn’t what I intended. They’re based on philosophical research, which by its nature tries hard to make its points. So while it might read like we’re helplessly buffeted by forces beyond our control, the point is that there are social norms that work on us whether we’re aware or not. And they influence our attitudes in ways we don’t necessarily understand.

I didn’t expect to find any studies examining people’s attitudes toward drinking wine in a sociological or ethical context, and I couldn’t. But those studies definitely exist for food. I was particularly struck by work done by Rebecca Kukla, Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University, and senior research scholar at the Kennedy School of Ethics.

Kukla wrote “Shame, Seduction, and Character in Food Messaging” as a chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Food Ethics, and it’s an eye-opening look at what she calls “the rhetorical and ethical structure of our public communications and representations concerning food, eating, health, and obesity.” Her take on food messaging is blunt. “Any eating practices in which we may engage are at risk of being shamed. There is no normatively safe way to eat in our culture – no set of eating practices that makes one more or less immune from shaming and criticism… Our eating practices are routinely portrayed as having characterological significance, so there is no right kind of person to be in our culture, when it comes to food.” Further, she says that “messages that create a moralized sense of personal accountability for food choices, linking eating practices with character, also cause moral distortion…[and] can do direct moral harm by demeaning their recipients.”

Since she’s here in DC, I wanted to meet with her, and she agreed. I didn’t know when I first contacted her that she’s also a certified sommelier. She was happy to discuss what she also sees as an increasing need to make wine into a health beverage.

Kukla and I talked about two points in her article that I thought particularly applied to wine. The first is that wine, like some foods, is considered seductive, pleasurable, and rewarding – but at the same time those foods are thought of as “bad” because they’re tempting and an indulgence. The second is that wine is part of what we think of as celebratory foods, which Kukla claims, “are almost exclusively among those also coded as unhealthy and shameful.” While we think of wine, correctly, as part of important cultural traditions, it’s considered celebratory in part because it’s also indulgent and decadent.

She agreed that modern-day wine writing, like food writing, plays up the sensual aspects in a way that can push wine into what people think of as the “bad” category. And the reasoning that we “reward” ourselves with wine (like we do with other celebratory foods) underscores that it’s something we’re not otherwise “supposed” to have.  But if wine has a health benefit, that’s a built-in excuse to drink it without seeming self-indulgent.

Wine has its own elitist baggage, though. Its historical association with wealth certainly doesn’t help. And wine evokes what Kukla called “the charm of other places.” Not that it has to be a French château necessarily, but even many California winery tasting rooms sport the hushed tones generally reserved for the world’s great cathedrals.  I appreciate that charm because it has great associations for me.  But it can certainly seem overblown.

Kukla then took our discussion into work by Anna Kirkland at the University of Michigan. Kukla’s chapter cited one of Kirkland’s articles, titled “The Environmental Account of Obesity: A Case for Feminist Skepticism.” Kirkland’s idea of something called “healthism” – that health has become our new morality – also applies to how we look at wine.

I’m looking forward to contacting Kirkland to discuss her work more fully in a wine context. But reading her feminist skepticism article and my discussion with Kukla on Kirkland’s ideas gave me plenty to ponder.

At first glance, the idea that we need everything to be healthy in our lives in order to be worthy of consideration seems way out there.  But I can see some truth in it.  I think part of it may be a reaction to the definitively unhealthy things in our lives we can’t control, like pollution and global warming.  Kirkland argues that because healthy means different things to different people, we have let the concept slide. It has absorbed aesthetics, character, and class values in a kind of absurd mix. Our images of what constitute “healthy” living now tilt toward the decorous, proper, and clean, like something out of a magazine. And it extends beyond what we eat to things like spirituality.

Kukla and I discussed healthism as it applies to wine, and we agreed that the marketing associated with “natural” wine fits the bill. While there isn’t any evidence that these wines are better for you than wines produced by today’s conventional methods, they have acquired a patina of self-care. Our expanded sense of health includes concepts like self-care, so that makes natural wines “healthy,” especially if you can pit them against other wines.

But even conventional wines are treated as self-care, although most people don’t seem to extend that distinction to beer and spirits. Since we’ve conflated self-care with health, we then want what Kukla calls “Capital S science” to back it up. When we find it, it reinforces the good we think we’re doing ourselves.

Definitely a lot to think about here. Rebecca Kukla and I agree that people should drink wine because they want to, without shame or the need to make it a health benefit. It sounds like it should automatically be that way, but maybe we all need to embrace our habits to give ourselves permission to enjoy the foods we like without making it seem like we’re judging other people for theirs. Easier said than done, I know, since we’re all buffeted by messages telling us otherwise. But hey, it’s the holidays, so we can always hope, right?


Roasted butternut squash and onions

A photo of my attempt at Roasted Butternut Squash & Red Onion with Tahini & Za’atar, from Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. You don’t peel the squash before roasting (it comes out great that way), and you can do the squash and onions a couple of days ahead. So it makes a tasty and easy Thanksgiving side dish. Thanks to Mr. Tamimi for permission to reprint the recipe.

My experience with Thanksgiving food is that most people don’t want to experiment, at least not with the basics. Not because they’ll get shamed for it, but because part of the comfort of the Thanksgiving holiday is the traditional meal.

Dessert can be an exception, especially if someone else brings it. But new side dishes can also get a pass as long as they don’t crowd out the stuffing, mashed potatoes, or brussels sprouts. The trouble is, oven space is at a premium on Thanksgiving Day, so it’s great to have a side dish you can make ahead, refrigerate, and then let sit at room temperature before serving.

I was looking through some of my cookbooks recently and came across a recipe containing roasted butternut squash in the book Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. It has a lot of great stuff in it, but the thing about this recipe is that you roast the butternut squash without peeling it. Cutting it into small pieces first and then roasting skin-side down on the baking sheet softens the skin and makes it a bit chewy, a nice contrast to the softer flesh of the squash. But maybe the best thing is that it was wonderful as leftovers, too – which makes it perfect as a make-ahead Thanksgiving side dish.

I asked Sami Tamimi for permission to reprint the recipe here for you, and he graciously agreed. I’ve included my notes on doing the roasting ahead.

I hope your Thanksgiving dinner is accompanied by a bunch of open bottles of wine, allowing you to try different foods and wines together. So don’t sweat it. But if you’re looking for something in particular – especially if you’re bringing this side dish to a dinner – try Bulichella Rubino ($21). It’s a blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot, made in the Maremma in Tuscany. Not as big-bodied as so-called Supertuscans that have the same blend of grapes (and only pair with Tuscan steak), it’s delicious with a wide range of foods. Shizuko Miyakawa, the Japanese-Italian winery manager at Bulichella, spent a year in the U.S. as an exchange student, and would be thrilled if you served her family’s wine with your Thanksgiving dinner.

Best wishes for the holiday season, and enjoy all of the wine and food!

Cheers!

Tom

Roasted Butternut Squash & Red Onion with Tahini & Za’atar

Serves 4 as a main, or 8 as a large side dish

From Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, reprinted with Mr. Tamimi’s permission

1 butternut squash (about 2-1/4 pounds), skin scrubbed and rinsed, cut into ¾ by 2-1/2 inch wedges

2 large red onions, each cut into 8 wedges (about 1-1/4 inch)

3-1/2 tablespoons olive oil

3-1/2 tablespoons tahini paste

1-1/2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 tablespoons water

1 small clove of garlic, crushed to a paste or grated

3-1/2 tablespoons pine nuts (30 grams, or 1 ounce)

1 tablespoon za’atar

1 tablespoon coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley

Flaky sea salt and freshly-ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 475 degrees F.

Combine the squash pieces with the onion wedges in a large bowl, add 3 tablespoons olive oil, 1 teaspon of salt, and some black pepper and toss well. Spread on a baking sheet with the skin facing down and roast in the oven for 30 to 40 minutes. Keep an eye on the onions as they might cook faster than the squash and need to be removed earlier. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.

At this point, you can refrigerate the squash and onions for up to 2 days. A couple of hours before serving, take them out of the refrigerator and let them come to room temperature.

To make the sauce, place the tahini in a small bowl along with the lemon juice, water, garlic, and ¼ teaspoon salt. Whisk until the sauce is the consistency of honey, adding more water or tahini if necessary.

Place the remaining half-tablespoon (1-1/2 teaspoons) of the oil into a small frying pan and place over medium-low heat. Add the pine nuts along with ½ teaspoon salt and cook for 2 minutes, stirring often, until the nuts are golden brown. Remove from the heat and transfer the nuts and oil to a small bowl to stop the cooking.

To serve, spread the vegetables out on a large serving platter and drizzle over the tahini. Sprinkle the pine nuts and their oil on top, followed by the za’atar and parsley.

Variation: You could also make a different version using spinach, bleu cheese, and walnuts. Roast the squash and onions and let cool. Put 3-4 ounces of washed baby spinach on the platter, top with the roasted vegeetables, ½ cup walnut pieces, and about 1/3 cup crumbled bleu cheese. Drizzle on about 5 tablespoons of a simple lemon vinaigrette and serve.

 

Posted in Anna Kirkland, Rebecca Kukla, Uncategorized, Wine and health | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A stopped clock is right about sustainability

My colleagues at National Environmental Trust created the Luntzspeak website to expose and debunk the environmental doublespeak of Frank Luntz, a republican pollster. Luntz helped create the Contract for America and taught two generations of republican politicians and industry leaders how to make it sound like they cared about climate change.  It seems a little quaint these days, looking back on how we thought the George W. Bush administration was the worst thing that could happen to the environment.

 

I never thought I’d find myself agreeing with Republican pollster and PR wordblitzer Frank Luntz. But in a recent Washington Post article, writer Dan Zak recounted some of Luntz’s testimony before the Senate Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis. And it made me give grudging, limited props to one of the environmental community’s old nemeses due to Luntz’s comments about sustainability and climate change. These are two subjects I follow closely and have written about, particularly for the wine industry.

Luntz, an architect of Newt Gingrich’s Contract for America during the Clinton Administration, also coached leading Republicans on how to be climate change deniers while seeming more reasonable. But the 2017 California wildfires that grazed Los Angeles made him face the real-world impact of his work. In his testimony he owned up to some of his former activities and made suggestions for messaging that could more urgently convey the catastrophic impacts of climate change.

His words reached beyond just climate change, though. For example, when asked about “sustainability” to describe the desired impacts of climate action, he indicated absolutely not. “ ‘Stop,’ Luntz said, ‘Sustainability is about the status quo.’ “

Well, thanks, Frank. That’s the way I feel about industry-sponsored sustainability and so-called sustainable wine production. I’m glad you’ve acknowledged it. But what you didn’t say is that the industries you advised on obstructing environmental progress – energy and auto manufacturing in particular – are the ones who made “sustainability” all about protecting their status quo at our expense. They followed your playbook to the letter. Unfortunately, that means that even if sustainable wine production were a better concept, it would still suffer from the damage caused by those other industries over 30-plus years of greenwashing you helped them achieve.

I did say grudging props, didn’t I? 😉 Well, here’s one more. Unlike other anti-environmental wordsmiths pretending to be voices of reason, Luntz at least now tries to offer helpful suggestions. Not that it now makes Luntz a good guy, but contrast him with someone else Zak mentions in his article, The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Bjorn Lomborg. Lomborg used many of Luntz’s techniques in his book, requiring the environmental community to waste close to a year debunking his nonsense. And at least Luntz has owned up a bit, unlike closeted political figures who harmed the LGBTQ community through their policies and then expected a parade when they finally came out.

Here’s some background. I used to work for a national environmental organization, and our communications department created a website to expose and debunk what they came to call Luntzspeak. I’m sure my colleagues would recognize the Luntspeak in the way big-industry sustainability is practiced today. That is, expressing concern publicly, but undermining progress through inaction and campaign contributions. Although National Environmental Trust doesn’t exist anymore, an archived version of its Luntzspeak website is available here and seems remarkably current despite being from the George W. Bush era.  Read it and feel the nostalgia for a time when those characters were the causes of our environmental worries.  (Note that the domain luntzspeak dot com is now maintained by a different organization, and has a more general, non-environmental focus.)

Zak goes beyond misleading Luntzspeak to address the failure of the good guys — environmentalists and scientists — to find the right language to convey the seriousness of what’s going on. Partly because there’s crisis fatigue among the public, but also because scientists and environmentalists don’t always realize that environmental issues can become challenges to people’s core moral values. As a scientist, I sometimes find myself glossing over this aspect, and it has been an issue for the wine industry regarding sustainability.

I don’t mean to imply that sustainable wine reaches the same heights of seriousness as other issues. Choosing a sustainable wine isn’t going to have the same impact as buying a Prius instead of an SUV. Or choosing to do without a car at all. But as I’ve written before, most wine professionals don’t understand – or seem particularly interested in — what sustainability certification really is, or what it’s supposed to mean even if it doesn’t achieve its goals. And if they don’t, why should the average consumer understand or care about it? Sustainability gets lost among all the other do-gooder terms that seem like ways to guilt you into different choices. Another day, another breathlessly worded warning, like should we eat the new chicken sandwich from Popeye’s or not.

As I said, I’ve written lots about sustainability and wine on this blog, including the reasons why the certifications don’t mean what producers hope they do. (Look for the double asterisk ** below if you want links to some of the posts.) But I also have sustainability sympathy for the wine industry. It’s tough to convey the breadth of techniques involved in both growing grapes and making wine. The wine industry came late to the sustainability party, hoping it would help do that without some of the baggage of organics and biodynamics. It isn’t their fault that other industries brought them bigger, nastier baggage.

So although it still rankles me to think that Luntz is right about something, I guess we need a new term for sustainability in grape growing and winemaking. In my years doing environmental work, I saw “Sustainability” replace “Pollution Prevention” as a catchphrase about 20 years ago, so it’s probably time for something new anyway. And we also need easier, more systematic ways to convey it to consumers without pushing the moral buttons, as some in the “natural” wine industry try to do. Wine producers choose sustainability certification because they want it to be a shorthand for the way they operate without plonking a lot of mystifying terms on their back labels. Customers deserve to know what it means, whatever that is. And all of us in the wine and wine media biz need to do a better job talking about it even if we don’t get a new word.

** Here are some of my sustainability posts.  Enjoy!  And if you’re looking for more, type Sustainability in the search bar on the bottom of the page.

Sustainability as a concept and in wine production, Part 1 and Part 2.
What wine professionals know about sustainability.
Why you don’t see the word sustainability on wine labels.

——————-

The menu logo of the Mayflower Café in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Cy and I ate there earlier this month and had Portuguese Kale Soup. It’s a dish that you used to find all over town, but not much anymore.

Cy and I made our usual summer trip to Provincetown. We tried to hit all the usual activities and food. So there were lobster rolls, and other forms of lobster. And lots of other seafood. And our favorite burgers. And cocktails. But we noticed that one thing that used to be available at nearly every restaurant in the past was hard to find: Portuguese Kale Soup. In fact, a lot of the Portuguese-style foods we used to get there have disappeared. You can still go to the Portuguese Bakery and get various Portuguese and Portuguese-American treats. But I remember long ago being able to get dishes like Cod Escabeche that I haven’t seen there in years.

We went on a hunt for the soup, and found it at Mayflower, one of the older restaurants in town. The decor is nothing to look at, but our food was good, and it was great to have their Kale Soup. The soup is based on Caldo Verde, a Portuguese staple. Every Portuguese cook has his or her own version. Traditionally, it’s made with kale, Linguiça (a spicy, smoked sausage), potatoes, onion, garlic, and water or stock. It’s also generally more pureed (including pureeing the sausage), with some extra Linguiça as a garnish. Provincetown’s version is left chunky, and being in New England also contains beans. Mayflower’s soup had kidney beans in it, but small white or red beans are also used. Given the region’s reputation for thriftiness, probably just water with no stock, too, since you had to cook the beans anyway, and why waste the cooking water. And I didn’t see or taste garlic, which doesn’t surprise me – recipes from the 1920s and 30s frequently avoided it. (Mayflower proudly proclaims its 1920s heritage.)

So here’s my recipe for Portuguese Kale Soup. I’ve combined different versions from more authentically Portuguese to one listed in The Provincetown Seafood Cookbook. Linguiça used to be impossible to find outside of Massachusetts. But now some grocery stores carry it, and I found a homemade version at Stachowski’s here in DC. (Call ahead to make sure they have it, though.)

It’s a meal in itself, but of course bread and salad are always welcome. And serve it with a substantial wine, either white or red. Società Agricola Bulichella’s Tuscanio Bianco ($19) and Rubino ($21) are my choices for pairing. Neither is traditional to Portugal or Provincetown. But they’re both made with organic grapes and subject to the utmost care in grape growing and winemaking. So no sustainability-speak or guilt here.  Just eat, drink and enjoy.

Cheers!
Tom

Portuguese Kale Soup
Serves 6

6 tablespoons olive oil
12 ounces Linguiça (or Spanish-style Chorizo if you can’t find it), sliced 1/4 – inch thick
2 large onions, cut in large dice
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
6 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
1 to 1-1/2 pounds kale (depending on the size of the bunch), center ribs removed, leaves cut into thin slices
2 15-ounce cans small white or red beans, drained and rinsed (See note below if you want to use dried beans)
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper
4 cups chicken stock
Water
1-2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

Heat 4 tablespoons of the oil in a large soup pot. Cook the Linguiça slices in the oil until browned. Remove the sausage from the oil, then saute the onion in the pot until soft and just starting to brown around the edges, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 2 more minutes.

Stir in the potatoes, kale, Linguiça, and beans. Then add the stock and 4 cups of water, plus a little more if necessary to cover everything by an inch or two. Bring to a boil and simmer for 45 minutes to 1 hour, to soften the kale. Add more water at this point if the soup seems too thick – it shouldn’t be a stew. Stir in 1 tablespoon of vinegar and taste. It should have just a little tang. Add more vinegar as necessary, along with more salt and pepper. Stir in the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil, then serve.

Note on using dried beans: Soak 1 cup small white or red beans in a quart of water with 1 tablespoon salt overnight. Drain and rinse the beans, then put them in a pot with 2 quarts of water. Cook for an hour, then taste for doneness and cook longer if necessary. Save the cooking water to use in the soup.

Posted in Sustainability, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Two more reasons wine writing is less diverse than food writing

New and established food writers can drive traffic to their sites via Instagram if they can take good photos. To bad it doesn’t work so well for wine.  (Obviously, with only 11 likes I hadn’t yet learned to tag properly. Things are better now with my food posts, but way outshone by photos of my cats, who are on their way to Instagram stardom.)

This is my third post about the lack of diversity in the wine writing world, especially compared to the world of food writing.  The first post framed the issue and the second set out the financial barriers to wine writing.  You may find some of the background helpful before moving on here.

One caveat worth repeating – some of this discussion is about wine and wine industry jobs, not strictly wine writing.  But all the factors contribute to the result of having a less diverse wine writing population.  Some of the connections are obvious:  almost all wine writers drink wine.  The link between wine professionals and wine writing is less obvious, but a great many wine writers worked in the wine industry in some capacity.  Although I don’t have any data on diversity among wine drinkers, the wine industry is markedly less diverse than the U.S. workforce as a whole.  This lack of diversity certainly carries over into wine writing as well.

In this post, I’ll discuss two additional barriers to wine writing vs. food writing – I call them structural and institutional barriers.

Structural barriers are exactly what the name implies:  the food and wine writing worlds are built differently, especially in the age of social media.  More and easier opportunities means more diversity in the food writing world.

There are many more ways to be part of the food writing world than the wine writing world

The food writing world is much larger to start, and you don’t have to be the person with the byline per se.   You can be a recipe developer, recipe tester, food stylist, researcher, or photographer, just to name a few. 

Wine writing doesn’t have the same range of jobs or the scope of the food writing world.  You can still be a researcher, stylist, or photographer, but in the wine writing world you’re generally the person with your name on the piece.  Even if you’re not writing wine reviews. 

The food world is geographically much larger than the wine world

Wine is made in many places, but food is everywhere.  No doubt the wine writing world still has places to discover and more things to say about wine producing regions everywhere.  But these pale in comparison to the sheer number and varieties of cuisines worldwide.  And many of those cuisines developed without a wine culture to accompany them.

Almost anyone can become a food writer with little effort or investment

Food writing can start with something as simple as making an inexpensive meal, styling and photographing it well, and putting up an Instagram story linked to a recipe and some commentary.  If you like cooking and have a well-stocked pantry you can create photo-worthy meals without a lot of extra expense.  With some trial and error you can also develop and post very short videos that allow your personality to come through.  Sometimes that’s as important as the food you’re making.  A handful of wine people have managed to break through in video, but it’s a lot tougher since you have to use your words instead of counting on the imagery to look as good.  Kitchens are natural backdrops for food videos, and it’s tougher to find the right place to take wine videos.

Wine and wine writing so far haven’t adapted well to Instagram compared to food.  And you don’t have to take just my word for it:  Amber LeBeau recently wrote a piece called “Why do winery Instagram feeds suck so much?”  If wineries can’t do it well with all the built-in imagery they possess, imagine how much harder it is for wine writers posting a photo of a bottle and wine in a glass.  Even a great 140 character wine review doesn’t register without a great photo.

Wine writers tend to do better in slightly longer form, like blogs.  Back when I began blogging, it was possible to start small by posting about an inexpensive bottle with dinner.  This is what my wine blogger friend Jon Thorsen did more than 10 years ago with Reverse Wine Snob.  Wine blogs don’t have the cachet they used to, though, and they don’t have as much influence.  It might still be possible to duplicate Jon’s success starting a blog today, but it won’t have the punch of what social media can do very well.  Or the potential reach, which is important for getting readers.  Just providing a Twitter or Instagram link to your post won’t do it without the right visuals unless you’re already a well-known quantity.  And even then, most people will only look at the photo and not click through.

These structural barriers are what they are – not that things can’t change, or that wine writers can’t find ways to break through them.  But they apply to everyone across the board.  This makes them different from institutional barriers:  the roadblocks faced by people due to race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, and other factors in daily life also apply to wine writing and serve to make the field less diverse. 

I’ve written about the lack of LGBT people in wine production and importing.  But as a middle-aged White man, I can’t credibly address race and ethnicity.  Julia Coney, a DC-based African-American wine writer, posted a discussion last year on the lack of diversity in the wine world and you absolutely should read it.  I can only add two things to elaborate on what she said. 

Julia Coney’s point about non-White wine drinkers getting pigeonholed by wine industry professionals into particular categories is supported by my own experience and conversations I’ve had with others in the wine business

A wine shop owner friend told me that he has had African-American customers thank him for treating them like they’re serious about wine, rather than just steering them to the Moscato.  I’ve heard something similar from two of my customers – buying wine online is colorblind and they can select what they like instead of what someone else assumes they’ll want to drink based on their appearance.

Coney also believes that seeing few people of color working in the wine world discourages people of color from trying more wines and learning about them. 

But those non-White people who get entry-level jobs in the wine industry aren’t always welcomed by every customer.  I recently listened to Jehan Hakimian talk about his sense of other-ness in his early jobs in wine retailing as part of Bâtonnage 2019, a form on women in the wine industry.  Born and raised in the U.S., Hakimian’s parents are Iranian and South Asian.  One of the first things many customers would ask him when he approached them to help was “What are you?”  They weren’t necessarily hostile.  They just clearly expected to see a White person working there.  And statistically, that’s who they’d encounter. 

The food and food writing world also has institutional barriers.  Again, I can’t speak to these barriers as someone who has experienced them, just provide examples of what I’ve heard and read lately.  But unlike most of what I’ve seen of the wine writing world, the food writing world has been making an effort to change things for the past few years.  Here are two of the institutional barriers I’ve learned about recently.

Most non-“American” or non-European food writing is still treated as exotic rather than everyday food

I recently listened to a Sporkful podcast, with host Dan Pashman interviewing Madhur Jaffrey and Priya Krishna about Indian food in America.  Both agreed that Indian food is more mainstream than it used to be, but there’s still a long way to go.

Jaffrey needs no introduction to most English-speaking food lovers.  If you don’t have one of her books, you may have seen her on TV or in movies.  Krishna’s new book is called Indian-ish:  Recipes and Antics from a Modern American Family.  Jaffrey’s first book was published decades ago and had a lengthy subtitle designed to reassure people that they could indeed make this food in their American kitchens.  Unfortunately, Krishna tells us that 45 years later the publishing world doesn’t yet think Indian food and flavors have reached the point where most people use and make them at home, despite her family’s experience.  “If your book isn’t about roast chicken, [publishers and distributors] will label it as ‘international’ rather than something you could use every day,” she said. 

The recent Food Writers’ Workshop I attended confirmed the problem, and panelists discussed how they experience this same bias.  There’s a “We’ve Already Got an ‘Insert-Your-Ethnicity-Here’ Cookbook” attitude among publishers.  Meanwhile, those same publishers jump on any paleo/gluten-free/instant pot proposals, no matter how many they currently have in print.  And some cuisines don’t even get the one book.  Two panelists with significant presences in the food writing world said they were told that there wasn’t a market for their proposed books on Filipino or Caribbean food (other than the ubiquitous jerk chicken, that is).

The food writing world also encourages marginalization by relying on the same few “experts” in so-called exotic cuisines

Panelists at the workshop made the point that the most visible person in a particular food community isn’t necessarily the one who should be on the record.  Especially when that “visibility” comes through hits on search engines in English, conducted by people who don’t take the time to seek out those who might not have such an anglicized presence.  Obviously, that’s endemic to any writer on a deadline, not just food writers, but it can be particularly marginalizing for cuisines that aren’t well known to U.S. food media consumers.  Cuisine “experts” at minimum need to acknowledge the humanity of the culture in order to qualify for the term.  That hasn’t always been the case in the food world.

But the fact that this is just the latest year of multiple workshops with panel discussions dedicated to significant diversity issues indicates that the food and food writing industries take diversity seriously.  For example, one of its major initiatives is designed to erase the old excuse of not being able to find a qualified person who isn’t White and male.  Equity at the Table (EATT), started and overseen by a group of food world heavy-hitters, provides a directory of women and people of color for nearly any position, task, or job in the food world.   Not everyone will look past their old boy network, but responsible employers will at least find that they have a more diverse pool to pick from.

I don’t want to make it seem as if the wine industry has completely ignored the diversity issue.  Bâtonnage and other groups/organizations make an effort to enable more people of color to attend wine industry discussions.  This has made its way into wine writing as well, although much more slowly.  Some wine writers use EATT for people with wine and wine-writing expertise, which is a start.  And there are other things the wine writing community can do to help with diversity, which I’ll discuss in a separate post.

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I found a way to make leftover Linguine Carbonara taste as good as the first time. I realized this could work for nearly any leftover sauced pasta dish.

I’ve been making a lot of food lately, and it has made for plenty of leftovers.  Some leftovers are easy to reuse, especially if they’re already kind of liquid-y.  But others are more difficult.  Leftover sauced pasta isn’t usually great heated up.  (Some people like it cold from the fridge, but I don’t find that appealing).  Shapes like penne seem to do better than spaghetti, but they’re still often pale imitations of their original selves.  So when I had a half-recipe of Linguine Carbonara left over, I wanted to find a way to make it taste as good as it had the first time.

What I came up with is something that works for any leftover sauced pasta with or without meat.  Roast a cruciferous vegetable like cauliflower, broccoli, or brussels sprouts.  Throw some sliced onion in there too unless you’ve got carbonara, which already has a lot of them.  Mix with the pasta and a little stock, put in a greased baking dish, then top with grated cheese or breadcrumbs (depending on the pasta dish and how much cheese it might already have) and bake for 20 minutes.  Serve with a big salad, and you’ll have a meal for four people.

The wine you’ll serve depends a lot on the pasta you start with.  But a light-bodied red works well, even in summer.  Cave la Romaine Côtes du Ventoux Rouge Tradition ($10) is 80% Syrah, 20% Grenache, and 100% easy to drink.  Open the bottle and stick it in the fridge for 20 minutes, it will be ready to serve and just the right temperature.

I know you’ve come to expect much more elaborate recipes from me, but hey – we all need a break.  And if you went through the trouble of making a lovely pasta dish, you should give it the royal treatment without too much work for you.

Cheers!

Tom

Casserole Magic for Leftover Pasta Dishes

Serves 4 with a large salad, 2-3 without

½ a recipe of leftover sauced pasta – use one that started with 1 pound of dried pasta, such as Linguine Carbonara, Spaghetti with White Clam Sauce (remove the clam shells), Pasta Bolognese, or Spaghetti with marinara.

Vegetables:  2 stalks broccoli, or ½ of a large head of cauliflower, or a dry pint of brussels sprouts

2-3 tablespoons olive oil

Nonstick cooking spray

½ of a large onion, sliced into thin half moons (you can skip this if you start with Carbonara)

¼ to ½ cup vegetable or chicken stock, or water (if needed)

½ cup finely grated Parmesan or Pecorino Romano – and/or — ½ cup dry bread crumbs mixed with 1 tablespoon olive oil and a pinch of salt

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

Set a large rimmed baking sheet in the oven and preheat to 400 degrees F. 

Meanwhile, prepare the vegetables:  for broccoli, trim the bottom of the stalks then cut the stalks off.  Slice crosswise into 2-inch lengths and peel off the outside skin, then slice ¼ inch thick.  Cut the florets into ¼ inch slices as well.  For cauliflower, break into florets and slice ¼ inch thick.  For brussels sprouts, trim off the bottom and then slice ¼ inch thick.

Combine the vegetable and the onion if you’re using it in a large bowl.  Add 2 tablespoons oil, plus ½ teaspoon each salt and pepper and toss to coat everything.  Add another tablespoon of oil if you need it.  Carefully take the hot baking sheet out of the oven, quickly spray it with nonstick spray, then pour the vegetables and onions on.  You should hear a good sizzle when the vegetables hit the pan.  Working quickly, spread the pieces out and put the sheet in the oven.  Roast for 20 minutes, then stir everything up and roast for five more minutes if things aren’t getting a little browned.  Remove the sheet and let the vegetables cool slightly, but keep the oven on.

Heat the pasta for 30 seconds to a minute in the microwave to loosen it up. (I leave it in the container it was stored in, although I don’t normally microwave in plastic this makes things easier and it’s not in there long.)  Spray a 2-3 quart souffle dish with nonstick spray.  Gently stir the vegetables and pasta together in a large bowl (or the souffle dish if it’s big enough) with ¼ cup of stock or water.  You may not need to add the liquid if there’s plenty of sauce, but the mixture should be moist.  If not, add up to a total 1/2 cup of liquid.  Pour into the greased baking dish.  Top with the breadcrumbs and/or cheese, and bake for 20 minutes.  Let cool for a few minutes, then serve.

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Wine isn’t always a luxury, but writing about it is

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Every beginning wine writer dreams of being invited on a trip like this one I took in Cahors, with a lovely sunset balloon ride to see the terrain.  It’s a great hands-on way to learn a lot about wine and the region.  Unfortunately, though, only very experienced wine writers get invited on these trips, and only after they’ve demonstrated their ability to translate their writing into sales.  Sometimes, even that’s not enough.  (By the way, I went because I import wine, not for my writing…)

A couple of posts ago I wrote about a food writers’ workshop that was much more diverse than any wine writing event I’d ever attended.  I’m sad to say it showed me that I’d never questioned what appears to be the uniform racial makeup of the wine writing world.  So I wanted to find out more about why that world — at least the part I experience at meetings and conferences — seems to be populated almost exclusively by White people like me.  This post is a starting attempt to get answers.

Although I haven’t found statistics on wine writers by race, it’s useful to look at the wine industry – producers and sellers of wine — as a guide.  The numbers are sobering when it comes to diversity.  I recently listened to recordings of panel presentations at Bâtonnage 2019, a forum about women in the wine industry.  One panelist recounted the results of a recent survey of over 3,000 wine and spirits professionals in the U.S.  According to the respondents, 85% are White.  Two percent are African-American, 4% are Asian-American, and 7% are Latinx.  Contrast this with Bureau of Labor Statistics data on the U.S. workforce as a whole:  63% are White, 13% Black, 6% Asian, and 17% Latinx.  And while 22% of all U.S. business owners/CEOs are women, only 4% of wine and spirits businesses are owned or run by women, and only one-fifth of those 4% are women of color.

After talking with a bunch of wine and food writers, I’ve come to the conclusion that wine writing has much higher barriers to entry than food writing.  For simplicity, I’ve divided these into three categories:  financial, structural, and institutional.  There’s obviously overlap between them, but each has individual challenges.  Unfortunately, all of them contribute to keeping the non-White population of the wine writing world low.

I’ll discuss the financial barriers first.  Many of them have to do with wine itself rather than wine writing specifically.  But the point is the same.  Anything that makes drinking and learning about wine more expensive or difficult is bound to reduce the diversity of the wine writing world.

1)      It’s a lot easier to get a thorough food education than wine education through free and low-cost content

You can start at your public library and view online content to learn about both wine and food.  But the content in the food world is bigger and, generally, better.  There’s plenty of training in cooking nearly anything in old and new cookbooks (cookbooks have a much longer shelf life than wine books, I’ve found), online videos and TV cooking shows, etc.  And if you’re looking for inspiration, there’s a ton more food writing to read and help you decide where your niche might be than there is wine writing.

Teaching yourself about wine can lead to wine writing success, depending on your focus.  Jon Thorsen writes the Reverse Wine Snob blog.  He told me that he didn’t spend any money giving himself a wine education, he relied on free materials online.  He also reminded me that he blogs about wine that costs under $10 and writes his blog for wine novices.  And he has a large, appreciative audience.  Because of his target audience, he receives plenty of samples of less-expensive wines that wouldn’t make it to your average wine reviewer, so he has to spend less money on wines to review.  But he’s one of the exceptions in the more recent wine writing world.

2)      Wine writers generally pitch their content to people who know more about wine, so they need a broad range of experience

The average wine writer isn’t necessarily writing for experts, but I’d say there’s a definite geek factor.   Even general-interest publications pitch the wine writing level to people who know more about wine rather than less.  In order to appeal to them as readers, you have to speak the lingo – or at least enough of it to show that you know what you’re talking about.  And if you’re going to write about wines themselves (as opposed to the wine industry, or particular aspects of wine, wine consumption, and wine production), you’ll have to have quite a few glasses under your belt.

It’s also more difficult to be a wine generalist these days than it used to be.  With more emerging wine regions (emerging for us in the U.S., anyway), keeping up is difficult.  It’s one thing to know a lot about major European and American wines, but how about Georgian, Greek, Uruguayan, and wines coming from China?

Obviously, there are various expertise levels for readers of food writing, too.  But there seems to be a greater tolerance for food writing that’s not necessarily up to your own culinary level than in the wine world.  Perhaps it’s because we’ve been exposed to food from a very young age, and we don’t get exposure to wine until we’re adults.  Many of our formative memories are about food.  I think this is why even professional chefs have a soft spot for people making food they learned from their parents and grandparents. 

As for food generalists, there’s a different standard for food writing — no one is expected to be an expert on every cuisine.  In fact, these days readers expect that an article about a particular cuisine will be written by someone who has more than superficial cultural or experiential ties to it.  This doesn’t mean that people can only write about the foods of their ethnicity, but food writers have to be particularly sensitive to avoiding cultural appropriation – and rightly so.  This probably also helps make the food writing world more diverse.

3)      High-end wines cost a lot more than they used to

Good wine doesn’t have to be super-expensive, but great wine generally is.  And getting more expensive all the time, it seems.  Understandably, a fine hand-made product dependent on the vagaries of the weather and requiring manipulation and potentially years of storage before sale can command a high price, whether it’s wine or food.  But unlike foods, some wines are also considered investments, which raises their prices well beyond the reach of the average wine-drinking novice.  

A wine industry friend told me that she feels lucky to be old enough to have been able to experience drinking and learning about great wine because she doesn’t believe she’d be able to do it these days.  (The 1980s seem to have been a particularly good time for this.)  You don’t need to drink a huge amount of expensive wine to learn about it.  But it’s important to put wines in the context of their regions and of other regions producing similar wines.  if you’re going to say that a low-priced Côtes du Rhône drinks like a more expensive Côte-Rôtie, you’ll have to have tried enough of them to know what you’re talking about.

It’s easy to get media invitations to producer tastings, and those can be a way to learn about wines from a particular region.  However, those tastings generally focus on a relatively narrow price range that the organizers hope will appeal to local importers and distributors who will want to buy them.  This generally leaves out the higher end.  Only after you get established as a reliable wine writing source will you start getting samples of more expensive wines to taste and review, or be sponsored on trips to wine-making regions that really show you what’s going on there.  But even being “established” doesn’t guarantee samples and access.  A super-good DC-based wine writer recently told me that she has a job at a wine shop to get herself the employee discount so she can afford to buy and taste a wider variety of wines and keep herself current.

This isn’t to say that people aren’t drinking nicer wines without a wine shop job.  I’ve heard more than one recounting of groups of people coming into a wine shop and selecting a couple of more expensive bottles to try together.  One wine shop employee told me, “I’ve never seen anything like it before.  One in the group will pay, and the others will Venmo her their share right there in the store.” 

But it’s a whole lot easier to have similar group experiences in restaurants, even high-end ones.  Everyone has to eat, so why not have food education as part of your weekly food outings?  Restaurants in all price ranges are making this easier by populating their menus with smaller plates to share.  As annoying as I find this trend myself, it allows a table of four to try 16 different dishes – plus those small plates look great on Instagram (which I’ll discuss more with the structural barriers to wine writing).

4)      Professional wine training is expensive, and the work-your-way-up options are becoming harder to find 

Working at a wine shop used to be a reliable way to get introductory training and taste a bunch of different wines.  But these days, many of the better wine shops want you to have some sort of wine course certification in order to work there.  A friend with a wine store told me several years ago that he looked for employees who would be good salespeople, since he could teach them about wine but not how to have a good personality.  Recently, however, he advertised for help and required a particular level of certification as one of the qualifications, along with retail sales experience.

The professional-level courses that give you the classic sommelier or wine reviewer-type training are anything but inexpensive.  It’s hard to blame shop owners for wanting certified employees, though.  The shops have to provide added value by means of education that their customers can’t get at grocery stores or Costco. 

Some restaurants still train their servers to help customers with the wine list.  Lots of sommeliers told me that this is how they got their initial training.  But as restaurants want their wine lists to be on par with the food, they’ve moved to having more certified staff.  As with wine shops, it’s part of the customer experience they can provide that less-expensive restaurants can’t necessarily.

Culinary training isn’t cheap by any means, either.  But as far as I can tell, restaurants and nicer food stores don’t require their employees to have cooking school training to work the customer side of the businesses.  And it isn’t impossible for front of the house staff to make their way into the kitchen.

Plus, cooking school training isn’t required to write about cooking at home, which covers the vast majority of food writing.  Many of my favorite professional food writers and cookbook authors don’t have professional cooking training.  That’s also true of traditional wine writing, but those self-trained wine writers tend to have way more years of writing experience than the newer wine writers with professional wine training.  I learned from a reader of my blog that many current professional wine writers started out as sports writers and taught themselves about wine.  I suspect that’s going to be less true in the future. 

Well, that’s a lot for one post.  Although I tried to organize it, I suspect I didn’t do as good a job as I should have.  Sorry about that.  I hope anyone reading this recognizes that while there are plenty of reasons that wine and wine education are expensive (or difficult and time consuming), the end result is that the economics will favor less diversity in the wine writing community rather than more.

In an upcoming post, I’ll look at the structural and institutional barriers to wine writing.  Then after that, a post on how the wine and wine writing industry can help break down some of those barriers.  


No recipe this time – it turns out there’s a time management barrier to food writing with this post!

 

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Has wine marketing finally left the 1990s behind?

In years past, Father’s Day wine pitches sounded like Old Spice commercials, missing only the promise of a comely lass.

I got my first 2019 Father’s Day wine marketing e-mail today.  As I read it, it occurred to me that this is the first time in all my years as a wine importer/retailer that the copy didn’t come across like an Old Spice commercial.

I’m sure you know what I’m talking about – a combination of deeply-scented tasting notes and words like rugged, bold, and powerful.  You can practically hear the sea shanty playing in the background as you read the text.

I also realized that this year’s Mother’s Day pitches were a lot more subdued than usual.  In the past, they’ve veered between “Give mom roses and rosé!” and a bottled version of girls’ night out.  Some couldn’t decide between the two and tried to thread the needle, with predictable results. 

Instead, the Mother’s Day copy now leans heavily on words like natural or additive-free, and highlights the small family farms that make the product.  And the lone Father’s Day example I’ve received so far is (aside from tasting notes) all about small-batch wine and hints at collectability. 

Maybe these are just new and improved gender stereotypes, but at least they’re more about qualities we associate with wine and wine production, and less about how you’re going to feel or present yourself if you drink them.  Of course, it’s also possible I’ve fallen off the wine marketing lists that still live in the 1990s.  I’m happy with either outcome.

Mother’s Day wine pitches used to veer between sticky sweet and promising a girl’s night out in a bottle. (Photo by Isabella Mendes, courtesy of Pexels.)

One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is that I still cringe when I read “gift” used as a verb.  Anyone who has taken German knows that gift means poison, so gifting someone a bottle of wine seems very Lucrezia Borgia.  You’d think that’s not an image any wine marketer would want. 

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Cy and I visited my parents over Mother’s Day weekend and I made a late breakfast for Sunday.  It was a strata, which is sort of a savory bread pudding.  The name comes from the appearance – they’re usually layers of bread and other ingredients.  They also sort of look like a cobblestone street, and “strada” means road in Italian.  I have seen them called both, but “strata” predominates these days.

I have always hated the word “gift” used as a verb. It means poison in German.  Makes me think of Lucrezia Borgia.  Not the image you want for wine for your parents.

Stratas have two things going for them:  you can put in practically anything you like, and you assemble them the night before, put them in the fridge overnight, and then take out and bake the next day.  So if you’re planning on a girls’ night out situation, you can still make that fabulous brunch, whether it’s Mother’s Day weekend or not.

The one I made used breakfast sausage, spinach, tomato, and both cheddar and Swiss cheese.  I’ve also recently made one with shrimp, chard, Gruyere, and goat cheese.  Just make sure you follow the salt-fat-acid-heat test.  In the two examples, you have salt from cheese, cured/smoked meats, and, well, salt.  There’s fat in the meats, cheeses, and eggs, and acid from the tomatoes and sharp cheeses (pickled peppers also work well here).   You can also make it “bold” (for a throwback Father’s Day brunch, perhaps) and add some bacon, but I’d keep the amount of bacon to about a quarter of the total meat in the dish.  Any more and that’s all you’ll taste, which reminds me that you should also apply Old Spice only sparingly.

The recipe below is more of a guideline for you to add what you like or have on hand.  I’m assuming you’ll eat it for breakfast or brunch, although the leftovers make a great dinner, too.  Serve it with some Domaine la Croix des Marchands Méthode Ancestrale Brut ($18).  It’s a naturally-sparkling wine with no additives (other than sulfites as a preservative).  And it’s small batch, too, made on a small family farm with a sustainability certification.  Enough to make nearly any of today’s wine marketers happy!

Cheers!

Tom

Make Your Own Strata

Serves 8 abundantly, up to 12 more modest servings

1 loaf Italian bread, or about 1-1/2 baguettes, sliced ¾-inch thick.  It’s better to use day-old bread.  If that’s not possible, try baking the slices at 250 degrees F for about 15 minutes to dry them out a bit, then let cool.

1 pound cooked meat cut in small pieces – either one meat or a combination, cold or at room temperature.  Like breakfast or Italian sausage, chicken, turkey, ham, shrimp, or bacon.  If you want to use bacon, try 4 ounces along with 12 ounces of a different meat.

2 cups packed grated cheese (about 8 ounces), divided use – either one cheese or a combination.  Like Gruyere, cheddar, Swiss, Muenster, Manchego, Parmesan, or Pecorino Romano.  If you’re using Parmesan or Pecorino, use only ½ cup and 1-1/2 cups of a different cheese.

1 pound of greens – spinach, chard, kale, or collards.  You can mix and match if you like, but one is usually better because not all greens take the same amount of time to cook.

1 large onion, diced

2 garlic cloves, finely minced

1 cup grape tomatoes, cut in half

9 large eggs

3 cups milk, or a combination of 2 cups milk and 1 cup cream

Cayenne pepper

Olive oil

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

Lightly oil a 13 x 9-inch Pyrex or ceramic dish and set aside.  Take the tougher stems off the greens, finely chop the stems and roughly chop the leaves.  Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet, and add the stems with a little salt.  Cook for about 5 minutes.  Then add the leaves in batches, cooking until they wilt.  For kale or collards, turn the heat down to low, cover the pan, and cook for 5-10 minutes until tender.  Spinach and chard will be cooked enough when they wilt.  Scrape the greens into a colander to drain and cool.  When they’re cool, squeeze some water out with a big spoon or with your hands, then roughly chop and set aside.

In the same skillet, heat another tablespoon of oil and saute the onion with a little salt until it starts to brown around the edges, about 10-15 minutes.  Add the garlic and cook for a minute, then add the diced-up meat.  Stir everything well, then let cool.

Whisk the eggs and milk/cream with 1 teaspoon of salt, ½ teaspoon pepper, and two pinches of Cayenne.  Set aside.

Fit a layer of bread slices in the bottom of the greased baking dish.  Cut up a couple of slices to fill any large gaps.  Layer on the cooked greens, then the tomatoes, then half the meat/onion mixture, and half the cheese.  Top with another layer of bread slices (patching the large gaps), and then layer on the remaining meat/onion mixture.  Don’t put the rest of the cheese on at this point, set the remaining cup of cheese in the fridge.

Carefully pour the egg/milk mixture over the bread.  Do it slowly, and make sure it’s evenly distributed.  Cover the pan with foil that you’ve sprayed with some nonstick baking spray, and put it in the fridge for at least 6 hours, preferably overnight.

Take the strata out of the fridge about an hour before you want to start baking.  Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.  Put the strata in the oven, foil and all, and bake for 45 minutes.  Remove the foil, and top with the remaining cup of cheese.  Bake, uncovered for 15 minutes until the cheese has melted and the edges of the bread get a little browned.  Let the strata rest for 5 minutes, then serve.

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What I didn’t realize about the wine writing world

 

This photo captures some of the spirit of the 2019 Food Writers’ Workshop in Brooklyn, examining the past and looking toward the future. Photo by Lerone Pieters courtesy of Unsplash.

A bit more than a week ago, I went to Brooklyn for the Food Writers’ WorkshopI learned more than a few useful things, but those aren’t what struck me most.  At the last wine bloggers’ conference I attended, plenty of people there looked like me – a gray-haired, middle-aged white guy.  But the food writing workshop was a gazillion times more diverse.

Of the 100 attendees in Brooklyn, about two-thirds were women.  Nearly half the attendees were African-American.  Maybe 20 percent were white, and the rest were Asian, Latinx, and other people of color.  And the crowd skewed younger in general than the wine writers do.  Although it’s difficult to tell for sure, I was one of only three gray-haired, middle-aged white guys in attendance.

I was really happy to see some openly queer people there, too.  One of them, Elazar Sontag, moderated a panel on food and activism.  I can honestly say that I’ve never met anyone like him at any discussion of wine writing. 

So, why haven’t I?

Before thinking about why, I had to check to make sure the wine writing conference/workshop world hadn’t changed since my last foray a few years ago.  I asked a couple of people who attended more recent wine bloggers’ conferences.  They told me that the attendees are nearly evenly split by gender these days.  This makes sense – according to surveys, women drink more wine than men do, so there ought to be plenty of women writing about wine.  But if you look at the racial make-up, it’s as white as I remember it.

I should note up front that this discussion is about events dedicated to food and wine writing, not gatherings or meet-ups to talk about food and wine with some writing discussion thrown in.  I also have to note that the food and wine writing events I’m discussing here are very different from one another.  The Food Writer’s Workshop is one-day long with a $15 entry fee and thousands of potential attendees who live within a couple of hours’ train ride.  The Wine Bloggers’ Conference is a two-day conference that takes place in a different wine region each year.  Even with registration scholarships and discounts for non-industry bloggers, there are significant expenses for transportation, lodging, and food for most of the attendees.  

Perhaps neither of these gatherings is truly representative of either wine or food writers.  Maybe there are smaller, more diverse wine writer meetings I don’t know about. I met more African-Americans who write about wine at the food writing workshop than in all my years in the wine business, so it’s possible that the actual wine writing world is more diverse than the conferences that purport to serve them.  And while currently there are many popular mainstream (not necessarily cuisine-specific) cookbooks written by people of color, I’d have been hard-pressed to name more than a few of them even five years ago.  The tippy-top of the food writing world is less white than it used to be, although there’s room for improvement.  And according to some of the (racially diverse) higher-echelon panelists at the workshop, continuous diversity improvement is a goal for their industry. 

But still, really?  Why hadn’t I recognized this difference before now?  I hadn’t questioned the uniformity of what I’d seen of the wine writing world in the past, even though other people have written about it in recent years.  I’d even seen some pushback against it at the 2012 Wine Bloggers’ Conference, but didn’t think more about it after the extremely limited post-conference discussion ended. 

No excuses on my part.  But I still want to begin to understand the why, even in a limited way.  In the next couple of posts, I’ll look at the barriers to entry for wine writing vs. food writing, and how the wine and wine writing communities may – however inadvertently — contribute to the problem.  Obviously, I’m not the only person who has tried to discuss this topic, and I’ll likely make mistakes.  I’ll try to do my homework first and include other people’s perspectives.  And please e-mail me or comment with your experiences and opinions, too.  The more voices, the better.

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The food writers’ workshop included lunch, and it’s a challenge to feed 100+ people with different dietary goals.  The organizers settled on samosas, and they’re a good choice since they’re easily made vegan (although these weren’t gluten-free).  I like the idea of samosas, but not necessarily the frying part.  Not because I don’t like deep-fried goodness (or even shallow-fried goodness, for that matter), but it’s difficult to make the samosas ahead for a party or dinner if you’re going to fry them.  Either you’re stuck in the kitchen before serving them, or they’re reheated and lose some of their magic.

So I use pie pastry instead of samosa (or empanada) dough and bake them like turnovers.  They’re easier to reheat, or to pop in the oven when your guests arrive.  I came up with this recipe for cauliflower and potato samosas for a group dinner.  The hosts picked flower/flour power as the theme and we all had to make our assigned courses.  Cy and I made appetizers, and we thought that samosas with pie dough (flour) using cauli – flower would fit both parts of the theme.

The light spiciness of the filling makes a more robust white wine a good pairing.  Château d’Assas Blanc ($16) is from the Languedoc and it’s a blend of Viognier, Vermentino, Roussanne, White Grenache, and Marsanne.  It’s typical to find white blends like this in the region, and although the blend may change slightly from vintage to vintage, the aim is to provide flavor and balance.  This one pretty much has it all!

Cheers!

Tom

Cauliflower and Potato Samosa Turnovers

Makes 12

Chilled dough for 3 9-inch single crust pies (see note below)

3/4 pound Russet or Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into ½-inch dice

3 cups cauliflower florets cut into pieces no larger than ¼-inch (or use packaged cauliflower rice)

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds

1 onion, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, grated

2 teaspoons grated peeled fresh ginger

1 serrano chile (or 1 small jalapeño), stemmed and finely chopped

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons garam masala

1 teaspoon turmeric

Juice and zest of one lime

1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon water

Tamarind chutney for serving (optional, recipe is here)

For the filling:  Boil the potato cubes in 2 quarts of salted water until nearly tender.  Add the cauliflower and continue to boil for 5 minutes.  Drain, then spread on a baking sheet to cool and dry out a bit.

Heat the vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Fry the cumin seed for a few seconds until you start to smell the aroma, then add the onion and sauté until the edges of the onion pieces start to brown, 8 to 10 minutes.  Add the garlic, ginger, and chile, and cook for 30 seconds or so.  Stir in the salt, garam masala, and turmeric and cook for a minute.  Then add the potato/cauliflower mixture and stir to coat everything.  Cook for 3 minutes, then add ¼ cup of water and scrape up anything sticking to the pan.  Cook for about 30 seconds more, then stir in the lime zest and juice.  Taste for salt, then spread on a baking sheet to cool completely.

Pastry:  On a lightly-floured surface, roll out each pie pastry into a square roughly 10 inches on a side.  Cut into fourths.

Assembly:  Divide the filling into 12 portions.  Arrange each piece of pastry on the counter with one corner facing you, then put the filling below the midline of the diamond shape, leaving a border.  Brush the inside edges of the pastry with water (or use a wet finger to do it), then fold the top down over the filling.  Press to seal, then press with a fork to seal even more (and make them look pretty).  Using a dry brush, brush the excess flour off each turnover.  Place the completed turnovers on a parchment-lined baking sheet and refrigerate for a half hour.

While the samosa turnovers are in the fridge, place two racks evenly in the oven and preheat to 400 degrees F.  Arrange the turnovers onto 2 baking sheets lined with parchment, and brush them with the egg/water mixture.  Cut a small slit in the top of each turnover to allow steam to escape.  Bake for 20 minutes, then lower the oven to 350 degrees F and bake for another 25 minutes or so.  The samosas should be golden and the pastry cooked through.

Let the samosas cool for 15 minutes, then serve with the tamarind chutney or any sauce you like.

Note on pie pastry:  If you’re making your own, shape the dough into a square before you chill it.  That makes it easier to roll out.  If you’re using prepared pie dough, start by folding four rounded edges in to make a rough square.  Then roll it all into a larger square.  Dust very lightly with flour, fold in quarters, and refrigerate for 15 minutes.  Then take it out and proceed with the recipe.

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Please vote for this blog!

You may have noticed the badge at the top of the column of links on the right of this page.  I learned last month that I was a finalist for a Millésima Wine Blog Award in the Wine and Technology category.  It sounds like a cliché, but it really was a thrill to be nominated.  Millésima is a fine wine merchant and they of course produce their own blog.  To be selected as a finalist as a fellow merchant made me really happy.  The post they selected for the finals was one on how winemakers in Portugal and France are trying to cope with the effects of global warming.  I especially like it because it combines ideas from my former and current professions:  environmental scientist and wine importer.

Millésima named five finalists in five categories, and on February 1 the five winners were announced.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t one of them.

But there’s still a chance.  Millésima is offering a chance for one more winner among all the remaining finalists.  This time, rather than using a judging panel, they’re putting it to a popular vote.  So I’m asking for your help.

Please click here and select Wine and Technology – then you’ll see the four remaining blogs up for consideration.  Click on the circle for First Vine/Tom Natan, then enter some information, and submit.

Voting ends on February 10, 2019.  You can vote once per e-mail address that you enter. 

There is a nice prize for winners – a trip to Bordeaux to taste some of the world’s finest wines.  More important, though, is the increase in readers I’ve experienced from being named a finalist.  Winning the sixth spot would likely bring even more readers, and isn’t that the goal of everyone who blogs?  I hope you’ll help.  Thanks so much!

Cheers!

Tom

 

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Four things I learned about wine this year

Off all the end-of-year Advent calendars I’ve seen, this is my favorite. A great way to ring out 2018! (Photo from justbeerapp.com)

Another year nearly done.  Time for another “Things I Learned” blog post, right?  Unlike previous attempts, though, there’s a twist this year.  All of these topics have pushed me to do more digging, ask more questions.  Three of these four topics below are ones I’ll be continuing with into the new year. 

The first thing you’ll notice is that these aren’t the sort of typical end-of-year subjects.  Particularly one of them.  I hope you’ll find that they’re all worth reading and thinking about.  Wine is a beverage made and consumed worldwide, it has social, political, regulatory, health, transport, trade, and environmental considerations.  I’ve been covering the environmental and sustainability end over the past couple of years and will continue doing it.  Here’s what I’m thinking about on some of the others.

This pretty much used to be the thinking about wine and health benefits. But recent studies have pointed to different conclusions.

Studies on Wine, Health, and Lifespan

I’ll start off with the wonkiest one first.  The big news this year was that aggregate studies – compiling data and results from other studies – indicated that the recommended “safe” level of alcohol consumption is lower than previously calculated.  And the type of alcohol didn’t matter, despite indications that wine had some potential health benefits.  Most upsetting to wine drinkers was the conclusion that a beverage deemed to be at least somewhat good for you in moderation before was now associated with a shorter lifespan than for non-drinkers.

I spent many years doing risk assessments and examining epidemiological data in my previous working life, so I try to look at the methodology and conclusions with a critical eye.  There are huge potential public health benefits to examining data from tens or hundreds of thousands of people.  And obviously I think these studies should be done, despite some of the problems I’ve discussed before.  But there are plenty of caveats with aggregating risks and benefits that don’t filter down to general reporting, and I plan on exploring these further next year.

The main issue for me is that a very large deal has been made about what are really very small percentage changes in health outcomes with moderate drinking.  When studies are combined to encompass enormous numbers of people, even a small percentage change in the probability of a health outcome means that the number of people potentially affected will be large.  But it’s still a small percentage change.  I’ll be looking to put it in a more understandable context.

Also, one of the big studies included impacts such as traffic accidents, violence, and fires related to alcohol consumption.  These are different than health effects, so how do you include them in the big picture?  And how do you rank the impact of consuming less alcohol with the other societal levers to reduce incidence of these types of events?

This is probably not the face of interstate wine retailing. But who knows? (Photo from nanteswineblog.wordpress.com)

State Shipping by Retailers

­On to something less weighty, although important (at least to me!)  It looks like 2019 may become the year when retailers will gain the right to ship to customers in most other states, the way wineries can.  I’ve read the articles and some of the filings, and it’s promising.  I imagine a lot of customers are excited at the prospect of a wide-open marketplace. 

But the fact is that even if shipping is allowed it won’t be the wide-open marketplace we all hope for.  States will still control the process and will make it difficult enough for out-of-state retailers to ship in, providing disincentives just short of prohibiting it.  Wineries have already experienced this, and I have as well in getting permits for states that currently allow me to ship. 

There’s a cost/benefit analysis for each state:  How difficult is it to apply for the permit, and how many state departments do you have to be registered with?  How much does the application cost?  Are there fees beyond the application, like posting a bond to make sure you remit sales tax to the recipients’ state?  How detailed is the state reporting, and how often do you have to file?  And then there are the logistics of shipping to consider, getting approved shipping cartons and preparing bottles for shipment.  Wine bottles are heavy, so shipping is expensive and a potential deterrent to sales if that cost is passed on to customers.  Should a small retailer try free shipping to help generate sales even though it will be a huge expense?  Or do you charge for shipping and instead concentrate marketing on more likely customers?  Stay tuned for more on these and other thoughts on wine retailing across state lines.

Drinking and Pregnancy

My blogger friend Jon Thorsen writes the popular Reverse Wine Snob blog.  I first met Jon at the Wine Bloggers Conference in 2011.  When I contacted him to ask if he’d be coming the following year, he told me that he couldn’t because he and his wife Brenda were adopting a son.  In the years since, we’ve learned that their son, Zeke, was born with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.  While they knew this when they adopted him, the true severity only became apparent after they brought him home.

Jon has written about the problems Zeke has because of his exposure to alcohol during his birth mother’s pregnancy.  But his readers may not have read Brenda’s blog, which has more information about the day-to-day issues they’ve experienced with their son’s care over the past six years. 

I had to think hard about including this in a year-end round-up.  It’s a difficult subject, and it doesn’t encourage people to buy or drink wine (which is at least theoretically the function of this blog).  Nothing here is meant to replace the advice of anyone’s doctor.  But I hope you’ll read the posts and get an idea of the human side of the government warning against drinking while pregnant on all bottles of alcohol.

Wine Competitions

The Virtuose de Saint-Chinian is a rigorous wine competition for the appellation. I was asked to be a judge this year.

I get to taste a lot of wine as an importer and retailer.  But this year for the first time I was asked to taste wine for a competition.  Producers from Saint-Chinian in the Languedoc submitted wine for the Virtuose, a very intense wine contest.  Each producer participating was asked to supply three vintages of a single wine that was supposed to be the best thing they make.  Judges blind-tasted 15 wines each (in groups of five judges tasting the same wines), but with three vintages it was actually 45 wines, all in two hours.  We couldn’t go back and re-taste a previous selection after we tried the three vintages, and each bottle was scored on many attributes.  One of them was typicity, or whether the wine tastes like something from the region.  I suppose that’s why I got asked for the jury – I’ve carried Languedoc wines for a while now and have a pretty good idea what the various appellations taste like.

What I learned was that, surprisingly, my tasting partners and I largely agreed on the wines we tasted together, at least in general terms of excellent, good, and not so good.  This was extremely comforting, because I have been accused occasionally of having very particular (if not peculiar) taste in wine.  The other thing I learned is that this sort of judging is really hard.  I could taste differences between the wines, even after tasting many of them.  But when I’m tasting wines to decide on purchasing, I get to go back and re-taste after I’ve tried a few others.  I don’t have to treat each wine as if no other wines existed. 

The experience made me wonder what my producers and customers think about competitions.  For customers, does it influence whether they’ll buy a wine?  For producers, what makes them decide to enter?  All my French producers participate in the contests at local village fairs, and it makes the celebrations more festive.  But for higher-level competitions, what will they get out of them?  I’ll try to get some answers.

Getting ready to taste 45 wines in two hours!

—————–

Thank you for sticking with me this far.  Now for a holiday recipe!

My late mother-in-law came to the U.S. in the early 1950s from the Netherlands.  She’s the only one of her family who left Holland, and each year she’d order boxes of Dutch goodies for her U.S. family at Christmas.  My favorites were the Speculaas cookies – spice cookies cut and embossed to look like ye olde timey Dutch windmill.  I hadn’t had real Speculaas before I tried one of the ones she gave us.  They’re crisp little flavor bombs that are a perfect counterpoint to some of the richer and sweeter treats at Christmastime.  

When Cy and I decided to make Speculaas for our annual holiday eggnog party, I searched around and put a recipe together with things I liked from various versions and a few additions of my own.  I think my mother in law would approve of the result, and I wish she were still with us to taste them.  We were actually going to see if we could find a windmill-shaped cookie cutter or one of those embossing rolling pins.  But when I made a trial batch and tried rolling the dough out it stuck to everything, even greased parchment paper.  So we abandoned the idea of fanciful shapes.  Instead, we take tablespoon-sized portions, roll them into balls that get coated with sugar, and then flattened on the baking sheet with a glass.  They’re all the same size and pretty much the same thickness.  Rather plain-looking, but the sugar gives them a nice crunch and a little sparkle on the edges.  You can always drizzle on some colored icing made with confectioners sugar and milk to up the presentation. 

One of our new selections will pair perfectly with the cookies – Azienda Agricola San Benedetto Vin Santo del Chianti ($28).  Vin Santo is made like balsamic vinegar:  the wine is aged in barrels that allow some water evaporation.  As more liquid evaporates, the wine is put into smaller and smaller barrels until it’s ready.  This Vin Santo is sweet but not overly sweet, with apricot aromas and concentrated fig and date flavors.  It’s made with Sancolombano, Malvasia, and Trebbiano grapes, so it’s a white wine by composition.  However, aging in chestnut barrels and the concentration give it a lightly golden color.   It’s great with fruit, cheeses, and most all desserts.  And I think my mother in law would have loved a glass with her Speculaas!

Happy Holidays to everyone – and a safe, healthy, and happy new year!

Tom

Speculaas

Makes 30 or so cookies

1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened

¾ cup brown sugar, packed

1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1-1/2 teaspoons cinnamon

½ teaspoon cardamom

½ teaspoon ground cloves

½ teaspoon ground nutmeg

¼ teaspoon ground white pepper

½ teaspoon fine salt

1 teaspoon baking powder

1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour (280 grams)

½ cup finely ground almond flour (about 50 grams if you’re going to grind your own almonds)

2 tablespoons milk or cream

Granulated sugar (for coating)

My version of a holiday favorite.

Whisk the all-purpose flour, salt, baking powder, and spices together.  Cream the butter, brown sugar, and vanilla together in a stand mixer until well mixed and fluffy.  Beat in the almond flour until well mixed and any lumps are gone.  Turn the mixer to low speed and beat in the flour/spice mixture about ¼ cup at a time until it’s all mixed in.  Beat in the milk.  You should have a soft dough that holds together.  Put a large sheet of plastic wrap on the counter, then put the dough on it and pat it into a flat disk.  Wrap up the disk and refrigerate for at least an hour (or up to a few days).

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F with a rack in the center of the oven, and line two cookie sheets with parchment paper or nonstick mats.  Put at least ½ cup granulated sugar on a large plate.  Using a measuring tablespoon, measure out 1-tablespoon pieces of dough and roll each piece into a ball.  Roll the balls in sugar.  Place 15 balls on one of the lined baking sheets.  Dip the bottom of a drinking glass or a 1-cup liquid measuring cup in the sugar and then press down on each ball to flatten it into a disk about as big as the bottom of the measuring cup.  You may have to slide the disk of dough off the bottom, but it will come off easily.

Bake for 15 minutes and check the cookies – they should be getting a little bit browned on the edges, but not deeply browned.  Bake a couple of minutes more if necessary.  Remove from the oven, and let them sit on the sheet for about 5 minutes before removing to a cooling rack.  Repeat with the second sheet. 

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Thanksgiving Roundup

Over the years of this blog’s existence, we’ve put out plenty of recipes for Thanksgiving leftovers, but not too many for Thanksgiving dinner itself.  The rationale for this was simple:  most of you really don’t want to mess with Thanksgiving dinner.  Sure, there’s always the thought that you’ll introduce a new and exciting side dish, or maybe brine the turkey this year, or stop brining the turkey this year, or finally admit that your best friend’s/uncle’s/random invited stranger’s pumpkin pie isn’t that good.  But really, part of the comfort of Thanksgiving dinner is the familiar.  There are enough variables in cooking a turkey or making a pie crust, so why introduce more uncertainty?

With leftovers, though, the sky’s the limit.  And why not?  You could be eating the meal’s remains for days.  The joys of even great turkey sandwiches wear thin after too many of them.

Here’s a compendium of our Thanksgiving recipes, both for the meal and the leftovers, and also a few suggestions for using those leftovers in some of the other dishes we’ve presented over the years. 

For the day itself, if you’re looking to mix it up just a little, try this Cornbread and Chestnut Stuffing.  It’s great cooked in or out of the bird.  And even if it’s not part of your normal repertoire, the green bean casserole is a crowd-pleaser.  The dish’s creator, Dorcas Reilly, died earlier this year, so you’ll see a lot of different versions of the recipe in print and online.  We’ve got one devised by Lauren DeSantis, creator of the Capitol Cooking Blog, using no canned products.  And finally, if you put out any appetizers before the meal, consider our “Get Your Guests out of the Kitchen” Ricotta Spread, which is simple to make and good enough to get your guests out of your hair while you get the groaning board ready.

I’ll also go off-book here and recommend something that’s not from my blog.  If you find you have lots of leftover pie that doesn’t get eaten (rarely a problem for me, but you never know), try making Dorie Greenspan’s Two-Fer Pie instead.  It’s a combination of pumpkin and pecan pie in one.  That way you can make only one pie and it’s sure to be finished up.  And if there’s a piece or two left, cut them up and fold into softened ice cream.  Instead of pie a la mode, you’ll have ice cream with pie mix-ins.

Cooked turkey meat is useful for a bunch of recipes.  I try to make Tukey Tetrazzini every year – spaghetti with turkey and a mushroom-filled cream sauce – because it’s delicious, but also because it’s named for Luisa Tetrazzini, one of the most amazing voices of the late 19th/early 20th centuries.  Turkey and Cheese Soufflé Casserole is a riff on a recipe that Jacques Pépin and Julia Child made on their joint TV show back in the 1990s, and it’s worth making even if you have to go buy thick-sliced turkey from your supermarket deli.

You can also use the turkey meat in place of chicken or other meats.  And if you make turkey stock with the carcass, swap out any chicken stock you find in those recipes.  Like this Barley, Corn, and Kale Soup.  Using cubed turkey instead of ham and turkey stock for the chicken stock makes it really luscious.  You can also use turkey and stock in my Chicken Chili (skip the part about cooking the chicken and add the cooked turkey at the end), and Spanish-Style Chicken Stew.  But my favorite way to use turkey and stock is in Circassian Chicken.  It’s a Syrian dish with a spicy sauce made from stock, walnuts, and bread that get ground together in the food processor.  It’s served cool or at room temperature, so it’s great for the post turkey day buffets.

Tacos and enchiladas are naturals for using leftover turkey meat.  But if you want a Mexican dish that’s out of the ordinary, swap out a pound of shredded turkey for the tuna in Pati Jinich’s Tuna Minilla Casserole.  Turkey has less flavor and bite than canned tuna, so up the amounts of olives and pickled jalapeños, plus add a teaspoon or two of lime juice to the filling. 

I find stuffing leftovers unappealing, mostly because I’m not a fan of lumps of soggy bread.  But I do like stuffing when it gets nice and crispy.  Spread the stuffing on a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake it.  Then let it cool and break it into pieces to use as croutons on salad or with soup (I serve my soup croutons on the side.  Yes, I know it’s bizarre, but that’s just the way it goes).  You could even gild the lily on a shepherd’s pie (made with turkey and turkey stock or thinned-out gravy, of course) by spreading a thin layer of mashed potatoes (or potatoes mixed with Mashed Parsnips, Onion, and White Beans) over the filling and then dropping pieces of stuffing on top before baking.  But my favorite way to use leftover stuffing is Stuffing Croquettes.  Bind the stuffing together with some egg white (assuming you don’t have any egg in it already), then form into small balls, dip in egg white and bread crumbs and deep fry.  Crunchy, satisfying goodness.  Serve them with a dipping sauce made from your leftover cranberry sauce thinned out with a little white wine or rosé.

Speaking of wine, you’re no doubt tired of hearing me go on about rosés with Thanksgiving dinner.  So I won’t again this year.  The best wine advice was something I heard at a conference a few years ago: drink anything you like.  Just make sure that you bring enough of it for others to try, too.  And try different wines with foods you wouldn’t normally pair together.  If they work, great.  If not, have a sip of water and try something else.  Maybe you can start a new Thanksgiving tradition!

Cheers, and Happy Thanksgiving!

Tom

PS – As a wine merchant, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the pre-Thanksgiving wine tasting we’re participating in.  Details are here.  It’s Monday, November 19, so if you’re in the DC area, be sure to stop by!

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21st century independence, French style

I realized about five years ago that it seemed there were many more independent producers in southern France than when I started importing wine. So I decided to find out if this was true.

Back in one of my previous ramblings about what’s changed over the time I’ve been importing wine, I wrote that I thought there were more independent producers in the Rhône Valley and the Languedoc than when I started the business.  Talking to people representing the wine industry in both regions, I got vague anecdotal confirmation of this, but never any actual data.

So I decided to ask for numbers.  Are there actually more independent producers than there were in 2000?  Since the appellation rules of the regions don’t allow new land to go into wine production, more independent producers translate to less acreage and grapes going to the cooperative wineries.  What would be the implications of this?  The short answer to the first question is that this is happening, although I still don’t have more than a bit of hard data.  And no one was willing to speculate about what it means on the record.

Still, I learned some things, as you’ll see below.  But first, some background.

I picked 2000 as a start date because of the increase in elevation of villages to cru status since then – the highest possible category for their regions – in both the southern Rhône Valley and the Languedoc.  This has been the case with Vinsobres and Cairanne in the Rhône.  Also, some villages now have Côtes du Rhône Villages designations that were previously Côtes du Rhône.  The Languedoc revamped its classification system in 2007, adding several crus.  And there have been more since then, like AOP Pézenas.  But even in some of the older, established Languedoc crus, the rules changed in the 2000s to allow cru recognition for white wines (and more occasionally, rosés) where previously only the red wines were eligible.

I’ve written a lot about cooperative wineries and I think they’re great.  Not everyone wants to make wine (or can afford to do it), and cooperatives offer the opportunity for farmers to grow grapes.  The farmers also own the cooperatives and have a say in how they’re managed and run, and what wines get made.  In a time when independent winemakers sometimes reject the rules of their local appellations and make whatever wines they want, the cooperatives have a mandate to retain their regional traditions in addition to making wines in a wide range of prices.

But for growers who have considered making their own wine instead of selling their grapes, an increase in status could tip them in the direction of doing it.  Wines with higher status generally command higher prices, which could make a difference in deciding to make wine.

As I said, I didn’t get much information about these changes, with one exception.  The American reps for the Languedoc producers’ association passed along my question and got a response from the head of the syndicate for wine producers in Saint-Chinian, one of the prestige Languedoc appellations.  Over the past 15-20 years, approximately 10% of the total acreage that supplied Saint-Chinian’s cooperatives has been withdrawn.  Of that 10%, 70% has been used by the owners/growers to create their own wineries.  The remaining 30% was sold by the owners to outsiders who have started what they call “Caves Particulières,” or personal wineries.

The 70/30 ratio surprised me, because my impression visiting in 2013 and again in 2018 was that there were a lot of non-French people making wine in the Languedoc.  But it makes sense that organized importer trips for Americans would feature more English-speaking winemakers (and I spoke with more than a few Brits and Americans making wine in the Languedoc while I was there).

The syndicate of Saint-Chinian wine producers gave me some data on land that had been producing grapes for the wine cooperatives in 2000 that’s now run by independent producers.

Since I received only the percentages, I did some research to calculate numbers.  According to information from the Saint-Chinian syndicate and a few producers in the region, there are currently eight AOC Saint-Chinian cooperatives with about 350 grower-owners.  This means that approximately 39 growers left the cooperatives since 2000.  Twenty-seven of them decided to make wine for themselves, and 12 sold to outsiders who started new wineries.

Thirty-nine new wineries would definitely be visible in an area like Saint-Chinian, which now has around 100 independent producers.  AOC Saint-Chinian accounts for approximately 10% of the Langeudoc’s production.  If the same sorts of figures apply region-wide, then the Languedoc could have about 400 more independent producers than it did in 2000.**  So even if that’s not the exact number, my perception of more independent Languedoc wine producers was right.

I wasn’t able to get any numbers from the U.S. representatives for the Rhône Valley.  They sent me links to articles on consolidation of small cooperative wineries in the region, however.  The articles cited increases in efficiency as the primary reason for consolidation.  For example, one cooperative might have a more sophisticated bottling setup or more storage capacity than another, so that some cooperatives could be closed.  I don’t doubt that efficiency factored into the decision.  But it’s also possible that fewer participating growers was a factor in the closings, although that’s not discussed in the articles.

I hope I haven’t made these numbers sound alarming.  I don’t know if they represent a growing trend, or if the increase has leveled off.  For me as an importer, it’s a mixed bag.  More independent producers mean more wine stories, and that’s good for business.  On the other hand, cooperatives are an important part of the regions’ wine traditions and they’re also major employers in their villages.  I’ll be watching closely to see how this plays out in the future.

** Note that these numbers are averages based on data for Saint-Chinian as a whole.  Obviously, there could be a few larger producers that drive things, so 39 producers may represent the upper limit.  It could also be a stretch to use Saint-Chinian’s figures for the entire Languedoc region.  But hey, with enough caveats it’s worth a shot, right?

—————-

Cy and I are going to a Greek dinner party this weekend, and that had me thinking about an old recipe I used to make back when I was in graduate school.  I had a Greek classmate and a bunch of us decided to make him Greek food for his birthday.  I had made chocolate chip strudel for one of our holiday parties, so the others knew I had used phyllo pastry before.  I was volunteered to make the spinach and feta pies.  This was back in ye olde pre-internet days, so I went to the public library to take out a Greek cookbook.

I don’t remember which one I borrowed, but it was meant for American kitchens and was kind of ahead of its time.  The spinach pie was made in muffin tins lined with squares of layered phyllo.  Instead of brushing the phyllo with melted butter, though, this recipe called for brushing with olive oil.  Nowadays, you can buy frozen phyllo cups, and perhaps you might want to use them for this recipe.  But the frozen cups aren’t made with butter, and they aren’t made with olive oil, either, so the ones you make yourself will definitely taste better.

I’ve made some improvements, like using real onion and garlic, and adding some lemon zest.  Also, these days you can find Feta that’s at least partially made with sheep’s milk, and it has a lot more flavor.  The original recipe called for some sour cream, but you can use Greek-style yogurt (probably not made in Greece, but at least it has “Greek” in the name).  And depending on how big your muffin tins are (every one seems to be a slightly different size), you may have leftover filling.  You can bake that separately and slather it on toast for breakfast.

I’d serve the pies with a hearty red wine, like Château d’Assas Réserve ($18).  It’s made from Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvèdre, and is great with Feta cheese.  It’s not Greek, but this recipe really isn’t anymore, either.  Still, you can put on the right music and pretend you’re a French-American remembering a wonderful Greek vacation!

Cheers!

Tom

Spinach-Feta Muffin Tin Phyllo Pies

Makes 12

Ingredients

8 sheets phyllo dough, defrosted according to package directions if frozen

Extra-virgin olive oil

1 medium onion, finely chopped (about ¾ cup)

2 garlic cloves, minced

½ teaspoon dried oregano

½ teaspoon dried thyme

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

1 10-ounce package frozen spinach, defrosted, squeezed dry, and finely chopped

1 cup roughly chopped fresh parsley

Finely grated zest of one lemon

1 egg

8 ounces Feta cheese, crumbled

Greek yogurt or sour cream, if needed to moisten the mixture

Equipment

1 standard muffin tin with 12 cavities, preferably not non-stick

Pastry brush

A large baking sheet, for brushing the phyllo sheets with oil

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Lightly brush the baking sheet and muffin tin cavities with olive oil.  Place a sheet of phyllo on the baking sheet and brush with no more than 1 teaspoon of oil.  Put another sheet on top and brush it with oil.  Continue until you’ve used up the phyllo sheets.  Using a sharp knife, cut the stack of phyllo into 12 pieces, 3 cuts on the long side of the stack and 2 on the short side.  Gently lift each square (use a spatula if you need one) and put each inside one of the muffin tin cavities.  Press the phyllo into the sides of the cups.  Bake for 8-10 minutes, until the inside of the cup turns a little golden.  Remove the pan from the oven and let it cool for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the filling.  Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a skillet, saute the onion with the oregano, thyme, a pinch of salt, and ¼ teaspoon of pepper for about 8 minutes until translucent.  Stir in the garlic and cook for another minute.  Stir in the chopped spinach and parsley, you want everything to be incorporated.

In a medium bowl, mix the egg, lemon zest, and Feta until the cheese crumbles are nearly smoothed out.  Add the spinach mixture and mix well.  Taste the mixture for salt, and also check to see it’s not too dry.  You should be able to squeeze it together with your hands and have it stay together looking moist.  If it won’t, add Greek yogurt or sour cream a tablespoon at a time until it will.  Set the filling aside.

Fill the phyllo cups with the spinach filling.  Bake for 10 minutes and check to see the color of the phyllo edges.  If they look really brown, drape a sheet of foil over the pan and continue baking.  The cups should bake 20-25 minutes and not over-brown.

Take the pan from the oven and let it cool for a few minutes.  Then gently remove the cups to a wire rack and let them sit another five minutes before serving.

Note:  if you have leftover filling, bake it separately in a greased ramekin.

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