After waiting months and months, a shipment for First Vine finally arrived here in DC about two weeks ago. We have wines from two new producers in Italy and an old favorite from France.
So, hooray! I really like the new selections and have undimmed appreciation for the ones I’ve been buying now for more than a decade. And the fun parts of the process were all still there – trying new wines and getting to know new producers (plus chatting with the ones I’m continuing to buy from). Even though meetings were online instead of in person, and transatlantic air shipments of samples didn’t always work out as planned. Still, it all resulted in that familiar thrill when the pallets show up at the warehouse, just waiting to be unwrapped and organized in First Vine’s storage area.
But in truth, these satisfactions were nearly outweighed by the delays and frustrations caused by lousy government policy and Covid in the past year. I hate dwelling on them too much because they’ve consumed far too many waking and sleepless hours. However, those hours gave me time to think of a way to describe them, so you may as well have it.
First, the policy. Wine got tangled in a
pissing contest trade fight involving aircraft manufacturers Boeing and Airbus over which companies get more unfair government subsidies. The eventual answer, according to the World Trade Organization (WTO), was that they both do. You’d think that’d be the end of it. But the U.S. got to WTO first and was allowed to apply retaliatory tariffs. These included a 25 percent levy on French, Spanish, British, and German wines, implemented in October 2019. The tariffs initially applied to only a segment of these products, which was difficult enough. However, that changed after WTO granted the EU a similar retaliatory option. This of course resulted in a U.S. backlash. As of January 12, 2021 all wines produced by these countries now cost U.S. importers 25 percent more.
[Feel free to skip this paragraph while I get into the weeds a little…]
U.S. wine importers and retailers have tried to keep prices constant over the past five years or so, even though costs have increased. But the broader tariffs will likely make that unsustainable. A 25 percent increase is too big to absorb without raising prices to consumers. How suppliers will deal with it will be a major issue for wine drinkers. As far as when or if the tariffs will be rescinded, who knows? I imagine that tariff issues like steel and aluminum, plus more baseline agricultural products, will take center stage. Wine will probably have to wait until more of those issues are resolved.
[Thanks for reading this – now back to my regular ranting.]
And then there’s Covid. What used to be weekly or twice-weekly transatlantic ship crossings bringing European wine to the U.S. has dwindled to every two, three, or four weeks (if we’re lucky, and depending on the country of origin). Big wine importers always get preference in scheduling because a full container of either nine or 18 pallets can go on nearly any ship. But a small importer relies on shippers to consolidate wines from many importers into container-sized loads. Thanks to various regulatory quirks (and let’s face it, partly for the shippers’ convenience), what they call LCL shipments (short for Less than Container Load) get pushed off onto future crossings. That used to mean perhaps a week or two later, but not anymore. And once the wine arrives in the U.S., what was already a trucking shortage here becomes even worse because more and more people order nearly everything for home delivery these days, further straining the trucking system.
In my case, I avoided a chunk of tariffs by careful ordering. Italian wines are exempt from the U.S. tariff barrage**, although the process of ordering them took longer than expected. And the French wines in this shipment were mostly exempt from tariffs. But I definitely got caught in all the Covid shipping issues, including stateside trucking. On top of that, my two French pallets ended up being taken to Italy because of some issue on a particular ship in France. That meant that there were now five pallets instead of three they expected to fit into a container leaving Italy, so that delayed the shipping yet again.
So yes, lots of angst. But they’re here! And they’re great! As a friend told me, I couldn’t have picked better stories to tell with these wines, so I’m looking forward to writing about them in the next few posts. Here’s a preview:
- Grapes named for animals and their migratory patterns
- Labels that were questioned because they looked like we were marketing wine to children
- A family history dating back to the 16th century involving sheep, wine, war, and secret passageways
**A friend who works for the Bank of Italy explained that Italian companies provided far more parts and equipment to Boeing than to Airbus, so to the extent that those Italian companies were subsidized by the government, Boeing was the much greater beneficiary. This was likely the reason that Italian wines weren’t subject to tariffs.
Since I haven’t posted in a while I thought I’d go all out and do a recipe too. The first bottle I opened after letting the shipment rest was Prosecco Brut Millesimato 2019 from Cantine Borga in the Veneto ($18). I’ll describe it fully in another post, but I will say that Prosecco normally isn’t my thing. This one proved me wrong.
I served it with a dish that made an appearance in one of Nigella Lawson’s daily e-mails. Nigella can take any food and write about it in a way that makes it sound like something you must try right now. But this one was even more intriguing. I’m calling it Shrimp with Cinnamon and Noodles. That’s right – actual small pieces of cinnamon stick in there. Delicious and unusual. And perfect with the Prosecco. Here’s a link to Nigella’s version, which she says she ordered every night on a trip to Thailand so she could watch it being made and recreate it at home.
I’ve changed a few details and sauce ingredients. Also, I like one-pot meals so I added some vegetables. Asparagus works particularly well (and don’t worry, it’s just a myth that it doesn’t pair with wine, at least in this dish), but you can add peas (thawed frozen peas are fine) or green beans instead if you can’t find any. Finally, there’s some grated carrot for color and a little more sweetness.
Serves 2-4, depending on the appetites and what else you’re eating
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 stalk celery, cut into one-inch lengths crosswise, then julienned lengthwise
A 2-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and cut into small matchsticks
4 garlic cloves, finely minced
1 large or 2 small cinnamon sticks, broken or chopped into very small shards
2 star anise (optional)
7-8 tablespoons soy sauce (preferably low-sodium)
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons oyster sauce (you can swap out a mixture of hoisin sauce and a little bit of fish sauce)
½ teaspoon ground white pepper (or black pepper)
2 teaspoons chicken or vegetable stock concentrate (such as Better than Bouillon)
3/4 cup plus 2 or 3 tablespoons water (divided use)
1 pound large raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
12 asparagus spears, trimmed and cut into 1-inch lengths, or about 1/3 pound green beans, trimmed, cut in half lengthwise, then crosswise into 1-inch lengths, or ½ cup peas (thawed if frozen)
½ pound rice stick noodles, or ½ pound spaghetti, cooked, drained, and rinsed in cold water
1 large carrot, peeled and grated
Put the cinnamon stick pieces and 2 tablespoons of the water in a small microwave-safe bowl. The pieces of cinnamon should be nearly covered, so add another tablespoon of water if you need to. Microwave for 15-30 seconds until the water is hot, depending on the power of your microwave. Cover the bowl with a plate and let the pieces soak for about 10 minutes to soften a bit, then drain the cinnamon pieces, reserving the water (if there’s any left).
Heat the oil in a large non-stick skillet until just about smoking. Add the celery, ginger, garlic, cinnamon pieces, and star anise and stir fry for a minute. Add 7 tablespoons of the soy sauce and simmer for 30 seconds, then add the oyster sauce, white pepper, brown sugar, the water (including the cinnamon soaking water, if you have any), and the stock concentrate. Bring to a boil.
Add the shrimp and the vegetables (except the carrot), stirring everything together and submerging as much as you can. Make sure it’s boiling, then lower the heat a bit and put the lid on for a few minutes. Check to see that the shrimp are cooked and the vegetables are just about tender, and keep cooking until they are.
Stir in the noodles or spaghetti and the grated carrot. Cook, uncovered on high heat, tossing everything together for a minute or two. The noodles will absorb most of the liquid, leaving you with enough sauce to glaze everything. Taste a noodle and see if you want to add another tablespoon of soy sauce. Remove the star anise pods if you see them sticking out. Serve immediately.
Note: I like eating the cinnamon pieces, which is why I modified Nigella Lawson’s original recipe to soften them up in hot water ahead of time. You don’t have to, although the pieces won’t soften up much during the cooking, even though they flavor the dish.