August is a slow month for wine orders for First Vine. Many customers seem to prefer beer and cocktails in hot weather. And it’s certainly hot – we broke 100 degrees about two weeks ago. Also, people go away. While they could take wine with them if they’re driving, part of the joy of going away is discovering what’s available locally. Plus, after taking a driving trip already this summer, I realize that ordering ahead of time puts one more thing on the already long pre-vacation checklist.
So August leaves me time to contemplate past orders and remember those that stand out. The largest orders are burned in my memory because of their complicated logistics. But plenty of the more modestly-sized orders are memorable, too. Of course we love all of you and your orders. But some are just less unforgettable than others.
1. Customers who have the same last name as the winery or the winemaker.
It’s always interesting to see what comes up when you google yourself. Sometimes you’ll find a wine or winemaker with your name. I’ve had probably a half-dozen customers order wine because of these coincidences. And none of them is related to the winemakers or anyone at the wineries. These orders peak around the holidays – nothing like a gift with your name already on it!
2. Customers who are related to the winemakers.
I’ve had two customers who are related to the producers of wines I sell. One wasn’t a surprise, since she connected me with the producer and then bought the wine once it was here. The other told me that he was surprised to see his relative’s wines here in the U.S. Apparently word isn’t getting out to family abroad. I guess I’ll have to do something about that…
3. A customer who owns the land that some of a particular wine’s grapes are grown on.
A few years ago, I sent wine to a customer and got an e-mail back telling me that he was thrilled to have it. He inherited a vineyard from his grandparents in France, and that vineyard was under contract to a local wine cooperative that I buy from, so his grapes go into those wines. He’d lived in the U.S. since he was a child and never thought he’d see the wines over here.
4. Customers who tried wines I sell abroad and buy them when they see them in the U.S.
One customer in California tried one of the French wines I sell when he was in Berlin. Now he orders a case of it every year. I’ve also had customers who honeymooned in southern France and tried the wines at restaurants there. But the most unusual circumstance came when I sold wines for a wedding here in DC. One of the couple is French, and has lived in the U.S. for many years. She took a look at the cartons and told me that her parents had that particular wine around the house in France – it’s made in a village about a half hour from where they live. While the wine name wasn’t familiar, she recognized the logo printed on the boxes.
5. Customers who want to go to great lengths to make their wine gifts a surprise.
I’m required to get a signature from someone over 21 when I make a delivery. This means I have to make a delivery appointment. So it’s difficult to surprise the recipients with a gift. But some customers really want the gifts to be a surprise and have asked me to go along with various ruses to keep the gift secret until I show up with it. With few exceptions, I can’t because it’s alcohol. Once I explain the difficulties, most customers understand. But a couple of them have asked me to cancel their orders because I couldn’t make it the surprise they’d wanted.
6. Customers who give too much information in their gift notes.
I know that ordering online puts a sort of anonymity barrier between my customers and me, particularly if I’m not delivering to them personally. But I read and transcribe what people have written in their orders onto the gift notes. Some people have typed in things I’d feel uncomfortable having a stranger read. And it’s also then a little weird handing the wine to the recipient, knowing that the giver has written certain things in the note.
7. Customers who ask me to deliver wine to a particular person, and then have another person’s name on the gift note.
I always contact the customer if there’s a mismatch between the delivery recipient on the order and the name on a gift note. Most of the time the customer is ordering gifts for more than one person and just gets the names mixed up. But I had one customer thank me profusely for avoiding potential embarrassment. He sounded so relieved that I immediately concocted all sorts of scenarios to explain why.
8. Interesting deliveries
Let me say up front I haven’t had any deliveries that crossed the line into movie-fantasy territory. But since I make appointments for delivery – generally a specific half-hour window – I’m still occasionally surprised when customers answer the door wearing very, very little. Either they forgot or they like to show off. Only a couple of customers have repeated this on delivery, though, so I guess it’s mostly the former.
Selling online makes it tougher to have the kind of customer interaction I’d have if we had a walk-in shop. So I really enjoy circumstances that allow me to get to know my customers a little better. We’ve just got a bunch of new vintages in, and I expect that September will be busy. Here’s looking forward to more memorable customers and orders!
Cy and I were away in Provincetown recently for our usual summer trip. It was a lot of fun, and we ate out for pretty much every meal except some breakfasts. We had plenty of lobster rolls, because, well, we just had to. And there was lots of other seafood, too. The one disappointment was a grilled calamari appetizer I had at an otherwise excellent dinner. The rule about squid and octopus is that to keep them tender either you cook them at a high temperature for a short time, or you go low and slow. This appetizer must have fallen somewhere in between, because it was tough.
But it reminded me that Cy and I had a wonderful calamari dish in Provence. We went to a Provençal cooking class with four of our friends; it was led by the wife of a winemaker I met at a wine show. Sabine Suter hosts cooking classes at her home, which is beautiful – and it’s a fun, casual way to spend an evening. You’ll be making pretty much everything together, including the bread. And you get to drink her husband Alex’s excellent wine, too.
Sabine led us through making calamari cooked in tomato sauce. Cleaning and cutting the calamari was the most labor-intensive part, but it wasn’t difficult. (You can also buy them already cleaned, with the tentacles and body separated. Just cut the bodies into one-inch squares and leave the tentacles whole, or cut them in half if they’re really large.) The most important step was tossing the cut-up calamari in a hot skillet to dry them off. Otherwise, Sabine explained, they’ll release liquid into the sauce that will make it taste too fishy. And they let out a lot of liquid, too. So don’t skip this step. Also, don’t add salt until just before you serve it. The calamari have some salt in them and you don’t want the dish to be too salty.
Sabine had us make a garlic aïoli to serve with the calamari — you can dollop it on top or mix it in. I didn’t include the recipe here, but you can certainly find one online. It was tasty, but I think the dish is equally good without it.
Sabine used the French equivalent of a tomato passata for the sauce, which you can make using a food mill to puree the tomatoes and remove the seeds. I like doing it because I think it tastes better than using crushed tomatoes, but go ahead and used the crushed if you don’t have a food mill. Also, you can serve this with pasta if you like. But it’s very thick and makes a great dish on its own. If you use pasta, serve it hot. On its own, it’s good just slightly warm, too.
We had Alex’s Côtes du Rhône Villages Séguret with the calamari, so I’d pair it with Cave la Romaine’s Côtes du Rhône Villages Séguret ($15) as well. Open the bottle and pop it in the fridge for about 20 minutes before serving and it will be perfect. Just make sure to schedule the delivery when you’ll be home and more than marginally-clothed!
Serves 6 to 8
1-1/2 to 2 pounds calamari (6 to 8 large ones), cleaned, bodies cut into one-inch squares and tentacles left whole or cut in half if they’re large
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 small onion, finely minced
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
¾ cup dry white wine
1 tablespoon tomato paste
28 ounces peeled, canned Italian tomatoes, put through a food mill, or a 28-ounce can of crushed tomatoes
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper
½ cup chopped fresh parsley
Heat a large non-stick skillet over medium heat until hot. Add the calamari and toss for a minute. They’ll release a fair amount of liquid – around a cup. Spoon off almost all the liquid and cook for another minute to make sure the calamari aren’t releasing any more juice. (You can save the liquid and freeze it to add to seafood stock). Drain the calamari in a colander and wipe out the skillet with paper towels.
Heat the olive oil in the same skillet. Add the onion and red pepper flakes and saute for about 5 minutes, until the onion is translucent. Push the onion to one side and add the tomato paste, toasting it for about a minute. Then stir it all together, clear another spot in the pan, and add the garlic, cooking for a minute or so, until you can smell the garlic but it’s not browned. Stir everything together and add the wine. Cook over medium-high heat until it reduces to just a couple of tablespoons. Stir in the tomatoes, and bring to a simmer. Add the calamari and simmer, partially covered, for at least an hour, stirring occasionally. Add a little water if needed to keep the mixture from drying out or getting so thick that it sticks to the bottom (this can happen even in a non-stick pan). Taste a piece of the calamari after an hour to make sure it’s tender. If not, cook for another 15 minutes and try again. It shouldn’t take more than 90 minutes. Taste for salt, and add a little pepper. Stir in the parsley. Serve hot or slightly warm.