The government shutdown affects wine importers. Who knew?

I didn't expect that the government shutdown would affect First Vine, but it has.  (Photo from

I didn’t expect that the government shutdown would affect First Vine, but it has. (Photo from

Each day for more than a week, I’ve been reading about how the federal government shutdown has affected people and businesses.  I didn’t think I’d have something to write about First Vine, though.

Now I’m not furloughed and (I hope) there’s no danger of the business going under.  Under ordinary circumstances, the federal government isn’t a daily part of running First Vine and selling wine, which is controlled mostly by state and local governments.  But when wine comes in from outside the U.S., federal regulation kicks in and more than one federal agency has to be part of the import process.

We have a shipment that’s leaving France on October 14, due to arrive in the U.S. on the 20th.  Apparently U.S. Customs and Border Protection is open, but there’s some paperwork I need to submit to them in order for the wine to clear customs.  The paperwork is on the site of the Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), which licenses alcohol importers and approves labels.  TTB’s main site is up, but the label approval site isn’t.  Those labels approvals are mandatory and need to be part of the documents presented to customs before the wine can be released to me.

This is what comes up when I try to get into the labeling section of the TTB website to download papers necessary to clear customs.

This is what comes up when I try to get into the labeling section of the TTB website to download papers necessary to clear customs.

What passes for the current wisdom says that all will be cleared up, or at least pushed off into the future, in time for the next fiscal deadline:  raising the debt ceiling before October 17 to stave off defaulting.   There are all sorts of dire warnings about what will happen by that time if it’s not settled.  If everything’s open on the 17th, I’ll be able to get the paperwork to my customs broker before the shipment arrives.  But  other reports say, well, yes, the 17th is important, but we won’t actually default for a couple of weeks after that.  So it could be November 1 before the federal government is back up and running.

This isn’t the end of the world for me, and the wine will sit in a warehouse waiting for the paperwork if I don’t get it in before the ship arrives on October 20.   (Although First Vine supposedly will have to pay rent for Customs to store it more than 30 days.  I wonder if that will be enforced if it comes to that…)  But I can’t be the only importer with this problem.

Fall is a busy time for wine shipments — a lot of nicer red wines get bottled just before the harvest in early September, and there’s also stocking up on champagne for the holidays.  All wines, but especially reds and sparkling wines, need to sit and settle undisturbed after transport before they can be sold.  The amount of time varies, but it can be at least four weeks for champagne.   A November 1 return to normal would push some sales to early December, which would be a shame for retailers.  Lots of people buy wine for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s all together in mid- to late November.   Not to say that they won’t go back for something they really love, but it’s always better to have what customers want when they want it.

The other potential impact of all this is on the exchange rate between the dollar and the euro.  It’s unclear whether and how significantly the shutdown may be weakening the dollar – Bloomberg News seems to think it’s real, the Financial Times thinks not – but even a slightly weakened dollar can translate into significant cost increases for importers.

As I mentioned, I didn’t think we’d be in this position with the shutdown.  So we’re hanging on waiting, like the rest of you, for this all to get resolved.  Especially for the people who will inevitably be hurt by loss of income and with the holidays right around the corner.


Many of my blogger friends have written about Italian cook and cookbook author Marcella Hazan, who died last week.  Mrs. Hazan’s first cookbook, The Classic Italian Cookbook:  The Art of Italian Cooking and the Italian Art of Eating, was published in 1973.  Her follow-up, More Classic Italian Cooking, appeared a few years later.  Her timing was excellent, whether planned or not.  People who had cooked their way through Julia Child’s two volumes of Mastering the Art of French Cooking were excited to have real Italian cooking explained to them in a thorough, exacting way.  For many people, Mrs. Hazan’s books were their first introduction to regional Italian food — the idea that people in one part of Italy eat very differently from people in another part (and that they wouldn’t necessarily have eaten each others’ food) was a strange one for us in the U.S. who hadn’t traveled to Italy.

Marcella Hazan's first cookbook, which has had a huge impact on the way Americans make Italian food.

Marcella Hazan’s first cookbook, which has had a huge impact on the way Americans make Italian food.

Although she had a huge impact on Italian cooking in America, Marcella Hazan didn’t become a household name like Julia Child because she didn’t appear on television.  And you definitely don’t get warm fuzzies reading her books.  With Julia Child or Lidia Bastianich, you get the feeling that nothing would make them happier than to have you try the recipes and make modifications if you need or want to.  Part of that may be that we hear their voices in our ears as we read.  But while Mrs. Hazan’s colleagues and friends attest to her sense of humor, her books — at least the early ones — take themselves pretty seriously.  There’s a right way of doing things, and you’re never in doubt just who is right.

I have to admit that this sort of scolding tone put me off when I first read through her books, even in a time when most cookbooks weren’t the chatty, down-home, personality-driven photo-ops we have today (the exception is probably Maida Heatter, whose Book of Great Desserts first came out in 1965 and is every bit as useful and enjoyable as it was then, with tons of personality, but it’s still about the food first).  Looking back on it now, I think she probably felt like there was such a big gap between what we Americans thought of as Italian food and what she grew up with that she had to roll up her sleeves and get to work teaching us, no time to waste with nonsense.

Having said that, Mrs. Hazan’s food is always very good.  And her directions are impeccable.  Every page is filled with useful tips.  Like using more salt, which people didn’t use enough of back then.  And peeling bell peppers before you eat them raw or cook with them (use a sharp swivel peeler and take off what you can, then cut the pepper through the indentations and clean up the edges).  And how much better anchovies packed in salt taste when you fillet them yourself (it takes about 10 seconds per fish) rather than using the ones in tins packed in oil.  But the most memorable thing I’ve taken from her recipes is a tip for making risotto.  While she preferred using homemade stock, as far as I know she was the first to say that it was fine to use canned broth, but that the canned broth was too strong and had to be diluted with water — pretty significantly — to get the right flavor in the risotto.  (Most homemade stocks are pretty dilute unless you concentrate them.  Concentrating them is fine for soup and some sauces, but not necessarily for braising or making risotto.)

Thinking about it now, this makes perfect sense.  If you were to cook the rice by the conventional method (in a covered pot), you’d use 3 cups of liquid for 1-1/2 cups of rice.  In the risotto method (in an open pot), you use 6 to 7 cups of liquid because of evaporation.   While some of the flavor components evaporate during cooking, what mostly evaporates is water.   So the rice ends up with about twice as much flavor from the cooking liquid.  According to Mrs. Hazan, that’s too much — risotto is supposed to taste like rice, not stock.  The dish gets enough richness and body from the starch that comes out while you cook it, and it doesn’t need all that extra flavor.  She suggests a 1/4 or 1/5 ratio of stock to water (especially for the condensed broth which was ubiquitous back then).  These days, there are a lot of different brands of boxed stock and some have more flavor than others.  But even the weakest of them needs to be diluted with water.  I generally use half stock, half water for chicken or vegetable stock.  If it’s really flavorful stock, I’ll go one-third stock and two-thirds water.

I have since picked up tips from others that make cooking risotto easier than the proverbial stir, stir, stir that it used to be.  Instead of adding the stock one ladle at a time, I add half of it up front and let cook undisturbed for about 8 minutes until it’s absorbed.  Then I add the rest of the stock and any flavorings (roasted butternut squash, sauteed mushrooms, cooked vegetables, etc) and stir it up, then make sure to stir continuously for the last few minutes of cooking.  Then add the Parmesan cheese and maybe a little butter or olive oil off the heat, and serve it right away.

This week’s recipe is my version of risotto.  I remember making it during the last government shutdown — it was January 1996, and there was a huge snowstorm in the DC area at the same time.  Risotto was the perfect thing to eat after digging out of three feet of snow!  But I’m sure I didn’t drink anything special with it back then.  Not a problem today.  Since the predominant flavor isn’t stock, this Risotto pairs well with white wine.  Like our Cave la Romaine Viognier ($16), which has a floral element that seems to draw even more flavor out of the rice (and particularly the butternut squash, if you want to add it).  Try the risotto and raise a glass to Marcella Hazan for showing us all how to have a little bit of Italy in our kitchens and on our tables.  It wasn’t easy, but she was more than up to the task.

Bon Appetit!


Risotto, Plain and Fancy

Serves 8 as a first course, 4 as a main course

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium-sized onion, finely diced

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

1-1/2 cups short-grain risotto rice (like Arborio)

1 cup dry white wine

3 cups chicken or vegetable stock

3 to 4 cups water

1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Combine the stock and 3 cups of the water in a saucepan, heat to the boil and then cover the pot and turn off the heat.  In a large pot, preferably non-stick, heat 1 tablespoon of the butter and the two tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat.  Add the onion and a teaspoon of salt and cook until the onion is softened, about 2 minutes.  Stir in the rice so it’s well coated, and cook for another 3 minutes or so, stirring constantly.  The rice won’t brown, but it will absorb some of the butter and oil, and you’ll start to hear a kind of clicking noise as you stir the rice around.  Add the wine and keep stirring until the wine is all absorbed and evaporated to the point that you leave a path in the rice when you drag your spoon through it.

Pour in half of the warm stock and water mixture (then cover the pot with the rest in it).  Stir up the rice and liquid, then clean off the sides of the pot above the liquid line.  Adjust the heat to a very light boil and leave it for 7 to 8 minutes.  Add the rest of the stock and water, plus some pepper and any of the add-ins listed below.  Let it boil lightly for 3 minutes, then lower the heat to a bare simmer and start stirring, making sure nothing is sticking to the bottom of the pot.  Stir for about 5 minutes, until the liquid is nearly all absorbed.  The rice should have the consistency of “al dente” pasta — it should still have a tiny bit of white in the center of the grain.  If it’s getting too dry, heat up the last cup of water and stir in as much as you need.  Turn off the heat and stir in 1 tablespoon of butter plus the cheese.  Taste for salt and serve immediately.


Butternut squash:  In a large bowl combine 1 pound of peeled butternut squash cut into 1/2-inch dice with 1 teaspoon of salt, 1/2 teaspoon of pepper, 1/2 teaspoon of ground fennel seed, a pinch of cinnamon, and two tablespoons of olive oil.  Spread on a baking sheet and roast at 400 degrees for 20 – 25 minutes, stirring halfway through.  Or brown them in a preheated large non-stick skillet (let the cubes sit undisturbed for the first 5 minutes, then turn them with a spatula and continue to cook for another 5 to 8 minutes).  Remove from the skillet or baking sheet onto a plate until needed.

Sauteed mushrooms:  Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large skillet on high heat.  Add 1/2 pound of cleaned, sliced mushrooms and 1/2 teaspoon of salt.  Let the mushrooms sit undisturbed for 30 seconds, then turn them over and sear the other side.  Remove from the skillet onto a plate until needed.

Peas:  Rinse 1 cup frozen peas in warm water to thaw them.

This entry was posted in Cave la Romaine, Government shutdown, Marcella Hazan, Musings/Lectures/Rants, Tom Natan, Uncategorized, wine delivery washington dc, Wine Importing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The government shutdown affects wine importers. Who knew?

  1. Pingback: Terroirist: A Daily Wine Blog » Daily Wine News: Great Lists

  2. Paul says:

    Thanks Tom. Some good tips!

  3. Sue says:

    I think the shutdown IS a total outrage and your problems multiplied by every single business owner is a really frightening prospect.

    I loved your thoughts on Marcella Hazan. It’s funny I never thought of her as scary. I guess it’s because I felt I knew so much more about French cooking and I was happy to have her explicit Italian recipes on how to do things.

    I love your risotto riff and I’m going to remember those stock comments. Also I LOVE butternut squash in risotto. I can’t decide if I approve (except that it’s really delicious) of Ina’s little cheat with “risotto”. She makes it maybe in the oven (I can’t remember the actual method), but THEN before serving, she stirs in mushy stuff like mascarpone to approximate the slightly wet texture of real risotto. I think Marcella might object, but it is an easy, luxurious way to make rice.

    • firstvine says:

      Hi Sue, thanks for your as ever thoughtful comments! I spoke with my wine shipper today and I’m indeed not the only importer with this problem, so at least there’s plenty of company.

      I didn’t think of Marcella Hazan initially as scary so much as kind of high-handed. Perhaps since she also taught cooking classes her students got the benefit of the lighter side of her personality, but that doesn’t come through in the early books. Her later books seemed more personable. As for Ina, I’ve seen her make risotto the regular way on TV so I know she can do it, maybe the mascarpone thing would be interesting if you made it with long-grain rice instead of short-grain? You know that if Mrs. Hazan had no problem chewing out Mario Batali over his risotto, you can bet she’d have done the same to Ina.

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