Sustainability and the value of customer knowledge

In a perfect world, this would be the illustration of sustainability — environment, economics, and community (including workers) equally balanced. As recent surveys show, however, the environmental aspects get the most play. And even then, it’s mostly higher-spending and more wine-aware customers who are willing to spend more on wine with a sustainability certification.

I was thinking that perhaps y’all were getting tired of my blogging on sustainability.  But in the two weeks since my last sustainability post, a whole bunch of people have downloaded the back label I posted.  So there must be some of you out there who want to know more.  Luckily, I can go on and on about it!

Seriously, though, the topic needs to be better understood.  As I mentioned in the previous two sustainability posts, two surveys done in the last couple of months have started, in a rudimentary but necessary way, to examine sustainability beyond whether people think it’s a good thing or not.  This post — most probably my last on the topic for a while (don’t want to push my luck, after all) — looks at two issues:  non-environmental aspects of sustainability, and the additional cost that consumers claim they’ll pay for wines from producers that are certified sustainable.

Whatever my qualms about the real environmental benefits of sustainability, it’s understandable that wineries and sustainability organizations would play up that aspect.  Pretty much everyone wants maximum environmental protection in winemaking – providing it doesn’t cost so much that the wineries can’t stay in business.  And clearly, that is the message out there.  Every environmental factor listed in California Sustainable Winegrowers’ survey of people in the wine trade was ranked as necessary for sustainability by nearly two-thirds of respondents, and some factors went as high as 85 percent.   Virtually all the rest of the respondents thought the environmental factors were important if not necessary, and less than six percent thought that any of the environmental factors was unimportant or unnecessary for sustainability.  ***

This wasn’t true about non-environmental attributes, however.  Less than one-quarter of the respondents thought that greater benefits for employees and the surrounding communities were necessary components.  On the one hand, I wasn’t surprised to learn that people in the wine trade weren’t aware that this was a requirement of sustainability certification.  But I was surprised to see how few (47 percent) thought it was important even if it wasn’t necessary.  And that a quarter of respondents thought it was neither important nor necessary for sustainability.

What should we make of this?  People in the wine trade certainly don’t want winery workers to be poorly-treated and subject to greater health and safety risks.  Nor do they think that wineries should be bad corporate citizens.  But do they think that worker protections and good neighbor relations just happen as a matter of course?  As someone who has sat in on many meetings between representatives of chemical companies and the people who live around their plants, I can assure you that those relationships don’t come without a lot of work.  Of course, in many wineries, especially small ones, the winemakers/owners live on the property and try to be good neighbors because they want good neighbors in return.  You can’t say the same of the CEO of XYZ Chemical.  But it’s not a given that an on-site owner makes for good community relations, either.

I’m not sure that California Sustainable Winegrowers’ criteria for certification in these areas represent actual best practices.  And, as I’ve said before, economic viability figures into all aspects of sustainability certification, so wineries may not have to achieve best practices if they don’t think they can afford them.  Even certification doesn’t mean that a winery is doing the best it can.  But the fact that a winery owner is willing to submit to a non-legally-mandated third-party inspection of his or her labor practices and corporate citizenry is something that should be encouraged.  The value ought to be understood in the industry beyond the owners submitting to certification, too.

Finally, on to the dollar value of sustainability.  Sustainable Sonoma’s survey led them to conclude that many customers are willing to pay between $5 and $10 more for a wine that’s certified sustainable.  A closer look at the survey itself is more revealing, though.  The $5 to $10 figure is for customers who were also willing to pay more for wine in general, and showed more knowledge about winegrowing and winemaking.  Almost two-thirds of those customers were willing to spend more money for the certification on the label.  Among less aware and lower-spending consumers, only 40 percent would pay $5 more a bottle for a wine labeled certified sustainable.  So, I guess the takeaway is that if you are more aware about winegrowing and winemaking techniques and already spend more on wine, you’re more willing to spend still more for the certification.  I imagine that’s true for organic and biodynamic certifications, too.  (And, as I’ve said before, both of those certifications are better-known than sustainability.)

But what does it mean for the winery?  Taking the $5 more that the customer pays back through the standard markup on wines in the production chain means that the producer gets $1.48 more per bottle.  That’s not an insignificant amount of money.  Of course, the winery owners will have to balance that return against the costs of the improvements necessary for getting and maintaining certification.  But it’s nice to have a dollar figure to look toward.  Adding the more qualitative benefits of being a certified good employer and good neighbor might tip the balance further if the winery owner is on the fence about getting certified.

Clearly, more information on sustainability needs to be out there, though.  It’s a heavy ask for wineries to change their operations significantly if increased revenue depends on a highly knowledgeable customer base.  Or on customers who already pay more for wine and are willing to pay still more.  More information about the worker and community protection aspects of sustainability could be helpful here — especially since that message hasn’t made it out to the wine trade or the public.



*** Respondents marked whether particular elements were “necessary” for sustainability, “important but not necessary,” “neither necessary nor important,” or “no opinion.”  In theory, this should add up to 100% for each element.  All of the environmental factors were much more likely to be ranked as “necessary” than the non-environmental ones.  And if you add the “necessary” and “important” percentages, every one of the environmental factors totaled at least 93%.

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How do you solve a problem like the weather?

Our weird weather makes eating typical winter foods less palatable.

We’re having a ridiculous winter this year in DC.  This was what my phone told me today, March 8.  Seriously.  I can’t imagine how this won’t result in a summer full of mosquitoes, no matter what the temperature.  The weather people are all a-tingle because it may snow on Sunday.  I’ll believe it when I see it.

I’d normally be making hearty soups and stews.  Or pot pies.  Or vegetable tagines.  I feel robbed, really, because those are some of my favorite foods.  Sure, I could make them anyway.  But when it’s warm enough to have a cocktail on the porch before dinner IN FEBRUARY AND MARCH you kind of lose all sense of what’s right and proper.

So what kind of meal works for weather like this?  Cy suggested fried rice earlier this week and it was a perfect choice.  I started looking for recipes, and put the parts I liked together.

Normally, fried rice is the king of leftovers – already cooked meat or seafood, already cooked rice, and (in most cases) those frozen peas and carrots thrown in.  (Sometimes there’s corn, too, because it’s the frozen peas, carrots, and corn.)  If you have the leftover rice and meat/seafood and a few fresh vegetables, it’s a snap.  But if you don’t have leftover rice, you can still put a great fried rice on the table with about 40 minutes of total prep/cooking time and an hour to let the rice cool off before the final cooking and assembly.  Plus a little help from some pre-cooked items at the grocery store.

It’s important to use either leftover rice or to let your freshly-cooked rice cool off for an hour on a large cookie sheet before frying it for the dish (it is called fried rice, after all…) The starch dries out and the grains separate.  When you fry the rice, there’s a little crisping that happens, which wouldn’t if you used rice you’d just cooked.  About five minutes in really hot oil gives the pre-cooled rice a great texture, not at all gummy.

The second tip is not to use too much sauce.  Some recipes call for up to a cup of sauce for around 3 cups of cooked rice.  But that means you’ll mostly taste the sauce and not the rice, which has great flavor after frying.  I found that 4 or 5 tablespoons of soy sauce, plus a little chili-garlic paste, was just enough to add the salt and flavor necessary.

Finally, a lot of recipes tell you to scramble the eggs in the pan with the rice after frying it.  I found this doesn’t work very well, I like the egg pieces to be separate.  It’s easy enough to fry the eggs in a separate small nonstick skillet while you’re frying the rice.  You want the eggs just set but a little soft, they’ll cook a bit more when you add them into the skillet.

The warm weather also means you can drink lighter wines.  And since this dish is mostly rice, whites and rosés work well.  All our rosés are on sale through the end of this month, be sure to e-mail me here to get the discount code if you don’t already have it.  If I had to pick a favorite for this dish, it would be Bodega Hiriart Lágrima Rosado ($13), which has more oomph to it, good with the little bit of heat from the chili paste.

And if it does snow this weekend and you’re making this dish, never fear.  Red wines work too!



Fried Rice

Serves 4 for a main course, 6 for a first course

1-1/2 cups leftover chicken or ham, cut into ½-inch dice (a rotisserie chicken works well for this), or ¾ pounds pre-cooked small shrimp, or a 12-ounce package of extra-firm tofu, drained, patted dry, and cut into 3/4-inch cubes

2 carrots, peeled and cut into ½-inch dice

2 stalks celery, trimmed and cut into ½-inch dice

3 eggs, well-beaten

6 scallions, roots trimmed, cut in ½-inch slices

2 cups broccoli cut in 1-inch pieces, microwaved for 4 minutes

3 cups cold leftover rice, or 1-1/2 cups raw long-grain rice

4 tablespoons soy sauce

½ to 1 teaspoon chili-garlic paste (depending on how hot you like it)

½ teaspoon black pepper

8 tablespoons vegetable oil for frying

If you’ve got leftover rice, spread it out on a large baking sheet, rubbing the rice gently between your hands to separate the grains.  Let the rice warm up to room temperature, about a half hour.  If you’re cooking rice, bring 6 cups of water to a boil.  Add the rice and 1 teaspoon of salt, bring back to the boil and simmer for 15 minutes.  Drain the rice, then spread it on the baking sheet, and let it cool for an hour.

Put the meat or shrimp or tofu on a microwave-safe plate and heat for 30 seconds, to take the chill off.  Set the plate aside.

Heat 2 tablespoons vegetable oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet over high heat.  When the oil shimmers and moves easily, add the carrots and celery.  Cook for 2 minutes, stirring, then turn the heat down and cover the pan for 2 more minutes.  Uncover the pan and cook for another minute – the vegetables should just be starting to soften but still have some texture.  Put them on the plate with the meat or shrimp.

Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a medium nonstick skillet until very hot.  Add the eggs and scramble them until they’re set but look just a little wet.  Put them back into the same bowl you beat them in initially while you fry the rice.

Mix the soy sauce, chili-garlic paste, and black pepper together and set aside.

Heat up 4 tablespoons of vegetable oil in the same skillet over high heat.  This time, bring the oil just past the shimmer point, you will see a tiny wisp of smoke come up.  Add the rice, and stir fry it, moving the rice around continuously.  It will start to smell good and roasty, and the rice grains will look just slightly yellowed.  Add the scrambled eggs and break up the egg into about ¾-inch pieces.  Then stir in the meat/shrimp and all the vegetables and the scallions and cook for about 30 seconds, stirring everything around.  Stir in the soy sauce mixture, tossing to combine everything.  Taste, and add another tablespoon of soy sauce if you think it needs it.  Serve immediately.

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Why sustainability labeling is hard to find

Entirely self-serving of me to post this, but here's an example of a wine made by a producer that's certified sustainable. Terra Vitis, the sustainability organization that verified production and farming methods, provided me with a letter to submit to TTB to get the sustainability wording on the label.

Entirely self-serving of me to post this, but here’s an example of a wine I import made by a producer that’s certified sustainable. Terra Vitis, the sustainability organization that verified production and farming methods, provided me with a letter to submit to TTB to get the sustainability wording on the label.  As long as customers read the back label, they’ll see that the wine is certified sustainable.  It was a lot of work for the producer to get the certification, though, so I understand why so few wines are labeled sustainable.

In the last post, I wrote about two surveys on sustainable winemaking and why their overall conclusions might have to be taken with a grain of salt.  But that doesn’t mean there weren’t some interesting things to learn.

What intrigued me most were the questions about identifying sustainable wines.  California Sustainable Winegrowers Association (CCSW) surveyed importers, wholesalers, and retailers in the wine trade.  It turned out that wine sellers would like to see sustainability information on the wine labels themselves.  56% of the survey respondents identified front and back label information as key to identifying sustainability attributes of a wine.  And in two other questions, it became even clearer that labeling is important.  80% said that having “clear and highly visible labeling” was the most effective way to promote sustainability.  And 48% said that not having the bottles clearly labeled was a major obstacle to sales of sustainably-produced wines.

That seems compelling.  It makes sense, too, since you can’t count on having shelf-talkers or on customers looking up a winery’s website when they’re making purchasing decisions.  The label is attached to the bottle (whether or not it’s in the right place on the store shelves), and most customers will at least glance at the back label before buying the wine.

The trouble is, putting the word “sustainable” on a wine label isn’t necessarily easy.  As I’ve mentioned before, TTB, the agency that regulates wine labeling, doesn’t have a definition for sustainability as it applies to wine.  Unlike organic, for which TTB uses USDA’s definition, there’s nothing to prevent any winery from using sustainability terms on the label, providing it can back up the claim that it implements those particular practices.  As TTB says on its labeling site, the agency “reserves the right to request clarification and documented verification of any graphics, seals, logos, definitions or language appearing on labels.”

Certification makes it easier.  If a winery is certified sustainable by CCSW or another organization, it can put “Certified Sustainable by XYZ” on the label and send a copy of the certification letter to TTB along with the request to approve the label.  I did this with wines I import from Domaine la Croix des Marchands, which is certified sustainable by a French organization called Terra Vitis.

But as I’ve mentioned before, getting certified sustainable by CCSW and other organizations is a complicated process.  According to CCSW’s survey, the vast majority of respondents think that sustainability is primarily an environmental designation.   85% of the respondents said that minimal use of low impact pesticides and fertilizers was “required” for sustainability.  But there are other non-farming components too — agriculture accounts for only one-third of the sustainability triad.  A winery might engage in many of the farming practices endorsed by CCSW but be unable or unwilling to meet the other requirements.  So how would it document that it uses sustainable farming practices so it could put that statement on the label?

In the old days, the state or county extension service probably could have helped with verification.  Or a university agricultural program.  These days it’s certainly possible to hire a consultant, too.  Winemakers could also band together and form their own organizations to verify the practices of their members.  Back when I started First Vine, I met a French producer who told me she was part of an association with eight other winemakers in the region.  All of them abided by an agreed-upon set of farming and winemaking practices.  And each of them made sure that the others were sticking to it with occasional visits and regular meetings.  At the time, sustainability certification for wine didn’t exist in France, but they definitely used what CCSW considers sustainable farming practices.  With some easy changes in wording to their set of principles, they could have provided the kind of verification that TTB would accept.

But all of this requires a lot of work.  Truth is, it’s much easier to avoid any mention of sustainability on the wine label and put it on the winery website instead.  Or produce shelf-talkers listing sustainable farming methods.  Presumably the wineries would have to be able to prove their claims from a general truth in advertising standpoint, but TTB looks at labels and (usually) not these other things.

I think it’s clear this is why we don’t see more sustainability labeling.  And if this is the best way of bringing sustainability to customers’ attentions (as claimed in the CCSW survey), then so much the worse for sales of sustainably-produced wines.  It’s another reason I’m not sure that CCSW’s rosy conclusions about sustainability are accurate.  In real life – outside of a survey — customers can’t prefer what they can’t find, after all.

I’m running a little behind with getting a recipe up — it’ll be the next post, though, I promise.



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Another winter, more about sustainability

Two surveys on sustainable wine commissioned by sustainable wine organizations produced the expected Sally Field moments this winter.

Two surveys on sustainable wine commissioned by sustainable wine organizations produced Sally Field moments this winter.  No doubt, many arms and backs are sore from self-patting.

Winter is downtime for most winemakers.  That’s why many of the major winemaking conferences are scheduled January – March, at least in North America.  Lots of presentations of information on the wine industry, the wine economy, and other wine-y topics (I mean that in a good way).  For a data geek like me, it’s like a late Christmas present.

What stood out for me this year were two well-publicized surveys on sustainability in wine.  As an enviro, I was excited to hear about them.  Especially because I have my doubts about sustainable wine production.  But despite some potentially interesting avenues to explore in the future, they turned out to be mostly rah-rahs.  To summarize:  Sustainability is great!  No, really!  In fact, to use a phrase we’ve heard a lot in the past year, it’s yuuuge!

Hyperbole aside, here’s the thing — these surveys were commissioned by…wait for it…entities that promote sustainability.   California Sustainable Winegrowers Association (CSWA) and Sustainable Sonoma (an initiative of Sonoma County Winegrowers) hired Full Glass Research, Wine Opinions, and Wine Intelligence to conduct surveys on sustainability.  CSWA’s survey focused on distributors and retailers, while Sustainable Sonoma’s also included end consumers.  And the surveys weren’t identical, except that both commissioning organizations got the ringing endorsements they were no doubt hoping for.

So why am I skeptical?  Back when I did environmental advocacy, my organization and others like it definitely commissioned polls and surveys on the environment from independent research firms.  But we did them for internal purposes. They helped shape the message down the road. We shared the findings discretely with our colleagues, but they weren’t meant for public consumption.  Simply put, we knew we wouldn’t be a credible source for information that came from surveys we helped develop or had a stake in.  It would have been entirely self-serving.

Here’s an example.  Picture this headline: “Public Believes President X Neglects the Environment, Activists’ Survey Finds.”  Well, duh.  Getting your “green badge” as an enviro pretty much requires you to believe that no president pays enough attention to the environment.  How much faith would you put in that survey really representing the view of the public, even though the public was answering the questions?  Not much for me, despite being a green-badge environmental activist.  On the other hand, let’s say President X is running for re-election.  Two large media outlets team up to do a survey of registered voters that includes a few questions on the environment and what those voters believe is the President’s attitude toward it.   Assuming the results bore it out, they’d be perfectly justified in running stories saying that voters think that the environment isn’t anywhere on President X’s radar screen, despite campaigning on the issue.

To me, the difference is clear.  The messenger is important.

To play devil’s advocate, I suppose these industry conferences were somewhat analogous to our sharing survey information with colleagues.  However, we enviros didn’t issue press releases on them, nor did we present the data at conferences where press was invited.  (In fact, some of the survey information we collected still hasn’t made it out for public consumption.)  Clearly, CSWA, Sustainable Sonoma, and the firms that did the surveys wanted the results to go well beyond the people in the room.

No matter how carefully presented, positive survey results releases always seem to have a bit of Family Feud in them to me.

No matter how carefully presented, positive survey results releases always seem to have a bit of Family Feud in them to me.

Aside from the messenger, though, the big question is how this encomium to sustainability is news to anyone.  Of course wine distributors and retailers will look favorably on sustainability.  Why wouldn’t they?  At a minimum it’s more information on how the wine was produced, whether the information gets used or not.  Same thing for customers.  But to me the real deal is how often they’ll choose sustainably-produced wines over other similar wines without prompting, or how much sustainability really factors into those purchases.  While they kind of dance around it, neither survey gets to that issue, at least not in the materials I’ve seen.  And because the surveys are all or mostly about sustainability, they can predispose the respondents to reply more positively than they would actually behave.  That is, if they think that they should think sustainability is a good thing, that may color their other responses.

Obviously, I’m disappointed.  I was hoping to get more insight because in my experience, sustainability isn’t really a big deal for my customers.

I had a long conversation about this with a friend who’s another wine retailer here in DC.  I’d like to think that at least a portion of our customers are knowledgeable wine buyers – and the DC market is big for wine in general.  We both sell a few wines that are certified sustainable, but we’ve barely had customers asking for them.  My friend joked that he’s only had two customers ask, and both of them work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  No word if they work on sustainability issues there, but they’re probably better informed about various agricultural methods than most people.

What we’ve both found is that customers ask for organic wines, sometimes for natural wines, wines without added sulfites, and occasionally biodynamic wines.  Natural and no-sulfur added wines (and their permutations) have received a lot of press in the past few years, so people have heard about them.  (Plus, some people still believe that sulfites cause any particular malady they get when they drink wine.)  Biodynamics occasionally pops up in the press, too, and it’s usually portrayed as somewhat exotic.  No doubt that’s part of the appeal.  But organic food is fully-integrated into our lives now, so it’s not surprising that people are asking for organic wines more often than for the other categories.

Sustainability isn’t on my customers’ radar screens these days.  You don’t see vendors at farmers’ markets touting sustainable farming methods, and most grocery stores don’t sell food labeled sustainable.  At least not here in the DC area.  I recently read that Giant Supermarket is developing sustainability labeling for produce and meat.  If that catches on, perhaps my friend and I will have more than two customers asking for sustainable wine.

Finally after all this survey bashing, I’m going to do a partial 180.  There are three points that the surveys start to examine that are far more important than overall perception:  What people think of when they hear the word sustainability in regard to wine production, how they look for information on sustainable wines, and how much more they might be willing to pay for those wines.  All of these have real implications for sustainability as an agricultural method for wine, and were overshadowed in the survey releases.  I’ll start to look at them in my next post.

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Thank goodness my taste buds are back


My taste buds seem to have returned to normal, and food and wine have me smacking my lips per usual!

My taste buds seem to have returned to normal, and food and wine have me smacking my lips per usual!

Thanks for all the e-mails after the last post about food and wine tasting different after surgery.  I’m continuing to recover well, and can report that most things are tasting the way they should.  I find I’m detecting a little bit more metallic taste in some foods and red wines than I used to, but that will likely fade with time.

Since I’d had surgery and general anesthesia before without any effect on taste, this time came as a surprise.  But as a helpful reader pointed out, it’s a studied phenomenon.  More than 20 years ago, Dr. Robert Henkin published a letter on it in the journal Anesthesiology.  Henkin examined data on 59 of his patients who reported losing some or all taste sensations following surgery that wouldn’t of itself affect taste.  A larger 2014 study by different physicians confirmed those results and suggested possible mechanisms.  On a less scientific note,  I also received a link to an account by a wine writer who reported that wine didn’t taste right after anesthesia.  Apparently, I was in good company.

I’m back to eating and drinking now, although not quite as much as before surgery.  I can’t say that I’ve been engaging in the January healthy eating I read about all last month.  Friends brought over way too much comfort food for that!  And we got a membership to a cheese club as a Christmas gift, so that didn’t help.  So don’t expect something light as a recipe this time.  We wanted to give friends something to eat before dinner when they visited, and we were serving plenty of whites and rosés because it’s been so unseasonably warm.  Cy and I decided to combine bits of leftover cheese together to make a great cheese ball – not like the famed Hickory Farms ball of smokiness, but something a little subtler to go with lighter wines.

This is a trick cooks have known about for years.  Jacques Pépin, the king of using refrigerator leftovers, demonstrated one on TV, making it in about 30 seconds.  It’s a mixture called fromage fort when wine is added to the cheese.  Other typical ingredients are butter, garlic, mustard, and herbs.  I settled on adding thyme, a bit of scallion greens, and a little soft butter.  You don’t have to make the cheese mixture into a ball, but I think it’s festive that way.  Plus, you can coat the outside in chopped nuts.

The combination of cheeses is up to you, but about one-quarter of the cheese has to be fairly soft and sticky to make it work.  We had some Camembert, which did the trick.  It also meant I didn’t have to add other flavorings like garlic because it was nice and ripe.  You could also use soft bleu cheese, or even cream cheese, but cream cheese would probably need flavorings.

Any really hard cheese has to be ground up before mixing the other cheeses in.  I like to use Parmesan or Pecorino Romano for about a quarter of the mixture.  Then the remaining half can be various not-quite-soft and not-quite-hard cheeses.  Use a small food processor, and start with adding one tablespoon of wine at first to see if that’s enough to make it come together.  If you don’t have sticky cheese you may have to add more wine or more soft butter.  Hold off on adding salt until everything’s mixed and you can taste it.  Most cheeses are salty enough.  But definitely add salt if you need to.

If you want a little smokiness, you can add a small amount of mild smoked paprika to some chopped nuts, then roll the cheese ball in them to cover.  Refrigerate for about an hour to firm everything up, then serve.  This is the perfect appetizer for a Valentine’s Day meal, whether you’re eating in our out.  Or serve it as your cheese course instead of dessert.

We’re having a rosé sale this month, and any one of them would be a great choice with this cheese ball recipe.  If you don’t get our e-mail newsletter and want to take advantage of the sale, contact me at the e-mail address here and I’ll send you the discount code.

Thanks again for all your good wishes!  Now that I’m almost back to normal you can expect my usual blog rants to come soon.



Leftovers Cheese Ball

Serves 6 as a light snack

Equipment:  A small food processor, about 2 cups capacity

8 – 10 ounces various cheeses at room temperature, cut in about ½ inch cubes – this is approximately 1-1/4 cups in total.

  • One quarter to one third should be a soft cheese like Brie or Camembert with the rind cut off. You can also combine some blue cheese or feta with cream cheese.
  • One quarter should be a sharp, hard cheese, like Parmesan or Pecorino Romano.
  • The remainder can be any combination of cheeses like Cheddar, Manchego, Gouda; cheeses that aren’t too hard or too soft

1 tablespoon softened unsalted butter

1-2 tablespoons dry white wine

½ teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

3 tablespoons chopped scallion greens

¼ teaspoon black pepper


1/3 cup finely chopped walnuts or pistachios

Pinch of mild smoked paprika (optional)

Grind up the hard cheese pieces in the food processor first.  Add the softened butter and process to blend.  Then add the rest of the cheese, the pepper, the thyme, scallions, and 1 tablespoon of the wine.  Process with pulses until the mixture stops moving.  Check the texture – you should be able to squeeze the clumps of cheese together.  If not, add another tablespoon of wine and process again.  Taste for salt and add a little if you think it needs it.

Put the chopped nuts on a small plate and mix in the paprika if you’re using it.  Remove the cheese from the processor and put it in a small bowl.  Use your hands to mash it together into a ball.  Then roll the cheese ball in the nut mixture and press the nuts in lightly.  It won’t be completely covered, and some bits of cheese will be visible.  You can use more nuts if you like, but I think this is the right amount flavor-wise.

Wrap in plastic and chill for an hour.  If it’s in the fridge longer than that, take it out about 20 minutes before you plan to serve it.

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Wine and healing — not so perfect together?

Normally, the suggestion of wine makes me react much the way a cat does when the treat bag is opened.  But since my hip replacement surgery, wine just doesn't taste the way it should.

Normally, the suggestion of wine makes me react much the way a cat does when the treat bag is opened. But since my hip replacement surgery, wine and food just don’t taste the way they should.

I had hip replacement surgery a little more than two weeks ago.  Things are fine, and I’m recovering well.  My physical therapist tells me I wield my cane like a pro.  (No kids on my lawn, believe me!)  But there have been a few unexpected side effects.  The most annoying of them is that food and wine don’t taste the same as they did before surgery.

One reason may be my medications.  My husband Cy commandeered one of our bread baskets to hold the panoply of pills I have to take.  It makes a lovely centerpiece on our table – a still life in pill bottles.  Friends have been bringing us all kinds of wonderful food.  But I noticed that the tastes of most things don’t live up to their aromas in terms of depth of flavor.  Not that they don’t taste good, just not as flavorful as I thought they would by the smell.  And believe me, our friends are great cooks, so the food’s not the issue.

Of course, we’ve been serving wine when friends bring food to eat with us.  And I found the same taste thing was happening.  I didn’t drink any alcohol while I was taking opioid pain meds.  But I got off of those pills almost a week ago.  The wines’ aromas are as they should be.  And the initial fruits, acidity, tannins, etc., are there, but the expected second wave of deeper flavors isn’t.  Naturally, this got me thinking about the interactions of smell and taste to try and figure out what’s going on.

I’ve found that most wines, even the lighter-bodied ones, don’t really taste the way they smell.  It makes sense from a temperature standpoint.  Much of our sense of taste comes from smell.  But the flavor molecules that evaporate from wine at serving temperature – around 50°F for whites and 65°F for reds – aren’t the same flavor molecules that evaporate once the wine heats up to the temperature of your mouth, 98.6°F.  (And your mouth could be warmer depending on what you’re eating.)  Smelling your wine, which I definitely recommend, isn’t necessarily to tell you exactly what it will taste like, but more to prepare you for the experience to come.  And it’s pleasurable in its own right, which is reason enough to do it.

Hot food, on the other hand, is more likely to taste the way it smells, since all those flavor compounds evaporate at higher temperatures.  I can still smell things properly, because my nose tells me that the dishes our friends made will be full of rich flavor.  There’s just something not translating from smell to taste with the less-volatile flavor molecules for me at the moment.  (Pardon the techno-speak here.  The lower the temperature at which something evaporates, the higher its volatility and vice-versa.)

It also occurred to me that it might not just be the meds.  Maybe my body is suppressing some of the flavor so that I don’t eat and drink too much.  I’ve noticed that even the idea of drinking wine isn’t as appealing as it was before surgery.  Usually the suggestion of wine lights up my brain the same way our cat reacts to the sound of the bag of treats being opened.  And I don’t get as hungry as I did, even though I’m eating less.  Generally, not feeling hungry or thirsty hasn’t stopped me from fully enjoying food and wine when they taste the way they should.  But perhaps my body is telling me that there’s still healing that needs to happen, despite the progress I’ve made.

Whatever the reason, there’s a silver lining.  With luck, the taste of food and wine will serve as another indicator that everything is back to normal.  The first meal when it all comes together will be something to remember – pretty much no matter what it is!



PS – no recipe this time.  But I promise there’ll be one soon.  After all, I’ve been served a lot of wonderful things lately!

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Any excuse for a #hashtagholiday

Cy and me about three weeks before the first anniversary of our first date on January 9, 2000. Now January 9 has been taken over by #nationalcassouletday. We'd feel cheated if we didn't love eating cassoulet...

Cy and me at the White House about three weeks before the first anniversary of our first date on January 9, 2000. Now January 9 has been taken over by #nationalcassouletday. We’d feel cheated if we didn’t love eating cassoulet. (Note this was pre-2001, when mere mortals could go see the White House Christmas decorations without waiting two weeks for a security check.)

On January 9, 2000, my now-husband Cy and I had our first date.  Little did we know that 15 years later, January 9 would also be claimed as National Cassoulet Day – presumably gaining a little more attention than we did by going to a movie and then to dinner.  But we got the day first.  And, to be honest, the way we chose January 9 as our first date came about far more organically than anything having to do with a hashtag holiday celebrating cassoulet.

When I first heard about National Cassoulet Day, I figured it must at least have been a product of some regional food association in (or with links to) Southwestern France, where locals claim the dish originated.  But no — as far as I can tell it was created by Alain Ducasse for his Restaurant Benoit in New York.  And it morphed from being just one day into an entire week.  The excuse given was the unpredictable nature of the weather in January in New York.  One night of bad weather, and sacre bleu, you’ve missed it.  Maybe so, but I’m sure that Ducasse and his fellow restaurateurs were happy to have a week-long excuse to drive people out to eat in early January, normally a slow time for dining out.

And even France’s yearly homage to cassoulet isn’t without its own marketing strategy.  The town of Castelnaudary, which claims the honor of being Cassoulet Central, holds a festival each August that has definitely been around longer than just a couple of years.  This seems a little less hashtag-gy at first glance.  Except that cassoulet is a winter dish.  I suppose you could say that August is when the beans used in the dish get harvested.  Or maybe some of the regional red wines get released then as well.  But it’s not a stretch to think that the city elders of Castelnaudary thought it would be easier to attract people in August rather than in the dead of winter.

The land of cassoulet -- traversed by Paula Wolfert in her book

The land of cassoulet — traversed by Paula Wolfert in her book “The Cooking of Southwest France.” Never has there been such contention over breadcrumbs!

Although Castelnaudary claims to be the place that originated cassoulet, it’s not necessarily so.  Other nearby towns and cities also make the claim.  I recently read the cassoulet chapter in Paula Wolfert’s The Cooking of Southwest France, first published in 1983.  Wolfert traveled from Carcasonne to Toulouse, trying cassoulet as she went and talking to chefs of the region’s restaurants.  It’s a charming read, all the more since the chefs Wolfert met with both extol cassoulet as a local dish (with a marked preference for their local versions) and disparage it as peasant food at the same time.  One chef was even so artfully dismissive as to send Wolfert to meet with a friend at her home to make cassoulet, because he claimed that cassoulet was a dish far better made at home than in a restaurant.  (Apparently his restaurant was a little too fancy-pants to serve cassoulet but he didn’t want to say so outright.  And perhaps there’s a little sexism there too, since most home cooks were likely to be women, at least at that time.)

Wolfert carefully reports what she saw and ate, and it’s interesting to read about the regional variations in the dish over a distance of about 60 miles.  They all use white beans – except for one chef who claimed that cassoulet predates the introduction of white beans to France, so he uses fava beans instead.  The range of meats is impressive, pretty much everything poultry from goose to duck to chicken, and various parts of the pig, some smoked, some not.  And, of course, sausages.  Some versions have lamb or mutton in them.  But what really sets the various chefs and cooks off is whether or not to have bread crumbs on top.  Some claim it’s absolutely traditional, while others say the opposite.  Wolfert speculates that the bread crumb crust was a way to both stretch the dish to feed more people, and also prevent too much evaporation.  The name cassoulet comes from the wide clay pot without a lid that it’s traditionally cooked in, called a cassole.  Covering the cassoulet with the bread crumbs would allow it to cook for longer without drying out.

In the end, Wolfert presents a few different styles of cassoulet and encourages you to pick the things you like and make it your own.  I came up with my version of cassoulet after eating it in France and trying different recipes, from Julia Child through The New Basics Cookbook.  Most recipes call for partially cooking the beans in water and then mixing all the other ingredients together and cooking for a long time.  I found that cooking the beans with various meats and chicken stock gives them enough flavor that entire dish doesn’t need to cook together for very long.  I also do the final cooking in a roasting pan – which allows the browned chicken thighs I like to add to stay crispy on top.  And I prefer not to use bread crumbs.

This is not an easy dish, although you don’t have to do much hands-on cooking.  If you want to serve the cassoulet for dinner on Monday, January 9, start on Saturday night, January 7 by simply soaking the beans overnight.  On Sunday, cook the beans in the slow cooker with a few other ingredients, and then refrigerate them.  On Monday, brown the sausages and the chicken thighs, then bake everything together for a half hour.

My version of cassoulet, developed from a bunch of ones I've tried, both from recipes and in restaurants. Assembling and baking it in a roasting pan concentrates flavors and allows the chicken skin to stay crisp.

My version of cassoulet, developed from a bunch of ones I’ve tried, both from recipes and in restaurants. Assembling and baking it in a roasting pan concentrates flavors and allows the chicken skin to stay crisp.

I use dried cannellini beans, although you can use Great Northern or any other medium-sized dried white bean.  I like Rancho Gordo and Zursun brands because they’re always the freshest, and you can find them in specialty markets all over.  But the supermarket brands are fine too, just check the date and make sure they’re not too old.  If the skins look wrinkled on the dried beans, it’s probably better to pass them up.

As far as meat goes, I like to cook my beans in chicken stock with cubed pork shoulder, a ham hock, and a duck leg.  For sausages, I like half smoked, half unsmoked.  But you can use any combination of meats you like.  I have made a chicken/turkey version using turkey thigh meat instead of pork shoulder, smoked turkey wings instead of a ham hock, then various chicken and turkey sausages.

And, of course, there’s wine to serve with it.  Cassoulet comes from the Languedoc, which produces more wine than any other part of France.  So, in the spirit of “What grows together, goes together,” what can I do but offer some wine choices from the Languedoc?  In fact, it was through a tweet by the Languedoc Wine Producers’ Association that I found out about National Cassoulet Day, so you know they’re on it.  Red wines from the various official Languedoc appellations are made from Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, and Carignan.  The Château d’Assas Classique and Réserve we import have the appellation Grès de Montpellier, an official cru of the Languedoc.  The Classique is Syrah and Grenache, and the Réserve also contains Mourvèdre.

But you’ll also find other red varietals, like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, and Merlot, in wines labeled Vin du Pays.  We carry single varietal Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc wines from Domaine de Mairan.  And some producers make combinations among the varietals in both categories.  While Domaine Sainte-Cécile du Parc’s Notes Franches is a Vin du Pays made from Cabernet Franc and Merlot, their Notes d’Orphée is made from Syrah and Cabernet Franc.

Of course, you could go off the board and drink something else.  But Cy and I know you’ll want to join us in celebrating our 17th first date anniversary by raising a glass, whether or not it’s from First Vine!




Serves 6 – 8

You can make this to serve on National Cassoulet Day Monday January 9, 2017, if you start soaking the beans Saturday night.  If you forget, don’t worry – on Sunday you can cover the beans in a pot with two inches of cold water and add a tablespoon of salt.  Bring the pot to a rolling boil and boil for 1 minute.  Then turn off the heat, cover the pot, and let it sit for 1 hour.  Drain and proceed to the bean-cooking step.  I like to use a slow cooker to cook the beans, but you can also do it in a large pot on the stove if you prefer.  Then on Monday, brown the various meats, and combine everything in a roasting pan and bake for 30 minutes before serving.


1 pound dried cannellini or Great Northern beans, rinsed

1 pound boneless pork shoulder, big pieces of fat trimmed, cut into 1-inch pieces

1 duck leg and thigh (optional, but easier to find in grocery stores these days)

1 ham hock

1 onion, peeled and cut in half

6 garlic cloves, peeled and cut in half

6-8 cups low-sodium chicken broth

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

12 ounces Italian-style sausage, cut in 12 pieces

12 ounces smoked Kielbasa-style sausage, cut in 12 pieces

6-8 chicken thighs, bone-in and skin-on

Olive oil

Soaking the beans:  Put the rinsed beans in a large pot or the crock of the slow cooker.  Add enough cold water to cover by 2 inches, and let sit overnight or for 8 hours.

Cooking the beans:  Drain the beans and put them in the crock of the slow cooker.  Stir in the pieces of pork shoulder.  Nestle the ham hock, duck leg, and the onion and garlic halves in the beans and pork.  Add enough broth to cover the beans by 2 inches (it’s OK if the duck leg, ham hock, and vegetables stick out of the liquid).  Add some cold water if 8 cups of broth aren’t enough to cover.  Sprinkle on ½ teaspoon of salt and some ground pepper.

Cover the crock and cook on low for 4 hours.  The beans should be tender – if not, cook for another hour on low.  Remove the onion halves, the duck leg, and the ham hock.  Drain the beans, pork, and garlic, reserving the liquid.  Shred the meat from the duck leg and ham hock, then add those to the beans and pork shoulder.  Refrigerate the beans and meat separately from the liquid.

Cooking the meat and assembling the cassoulet:  The day you plan to serve the cassoulet, take the bean mixture and the liquid out of the fridge.  In a large skillet, add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and brown the sausages.  Transfer the browned sausages to a bowl or plate.  Sprinkle the chicken thighs with salt and pepper, then brown them well, starting skin-side down.

While the meats are browning, skim the fat from the surface of the liquid and discard.  Pour the liquid into a large saucepan and bring it to the simmer.  Put the beans and meat in a microwave-safe container (if they aren’t already) and heat them up to warm.  Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Pour the fat out from the skillet, then deglaze the skillet with a half cup of the stock liquid.  Add the deglazing liquid back into the rest of the stock.  Spread out the bean and meat mixture in a metal roasting pan or large ceramic baking dish with high sides.  Push all the pieces of sausage down into the beans, then the chicken thighs skin-side up.  Carefully pour the hot liquid into the pan to just about cover the beans – but you want to make sure the chicken skin stays dry.  Bake for 30 minutes, checking after 20 minutes to make sure there’s still a little liquid in the pan:  when you shake the roasting pan you should see things move a little.  If they don’t move, add some more liquid.  After 30 minutes, you should see what looks like a skin forming over the beans – this is fine (and, in fact, just what you’re looking for).  You can cook it for up to 10 more minutes if it doesn’t seem hot enough.

Let the cassoulet cool for 5 minutes, then serve.

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Six things I learned about wine and food this year

Counting down the days until the end of 2016.

Counting down the days until the end of 2016.

It’s that time of year when we reflect back – or not, as some of my friends tell me that 2016 was a year they’d rather not dwell on.  Nonetheless, if you ignore the election-related memories (not easy, I grant you), you’ll probably find some things you appreciated learning.  I know I did.  Here are six of the things I found out about wine and food this year, in no particular order.

1 — In talking with a Naturopath Physician on the health effects of wine, I learned that some people are genetically predisposed to experience cardiovascular benefits from drinking wine, while others will find exactly the opposite, all else being equal. Most of us aren’t predisposed to either extreme.  I’m slogging my way through the studies and plan to write about it next year.

I tried to get myself tested since I drink a fair bit of wine.  My doctor told me that the gene controlling the wine effects is also a marker for a particular form of Alzheimer’s disease.  That meant my insurance wouldn’t pay for the test if I didn’t have a family history of the disease.  And while I could pay to have it done myself, I wasn’t sure I wanted to find out what it might tell me – not to mention that it could inadvertently become part of my medical record.

2 — I have always been puzzled by cookie-making instructions that tell you to chill the dough before rolling and cutting it. Cookie dough made with lots of butter hardens like steel in the fridge.  You’ll sprain your wrists trying to roll it out.  So the conventional wisdom is to take it out a few minutes before you plan to roll it.  But by the time it’s soft enough to roll, it will stick to any surface, including parchment paper.

Well, help is here!  In Dorie’s Cookies, Dorie Greenspan’s new baking book, she details a better way.  Make the dough, then roll it out right away between pieces of parchment paper until it’s the thickness you want.  Put the whole parchment-surrounded package in the fridge for a couple of hours.  Peel off the paper, put the dough back on one of the pieces of parchment, and cut out your cookies.  You can bake them on that same parchment, too.  No sticking, no wrist fatigue.  (I admit this is an issue for me, as you’ll see below.)

My blogger friend David White wrote a really fun book about champagne. I don't normally enjoy reading wine books in my spare time, but this one was great.

My blogger friend David White wrote a really fun book about champagne. I don’t normally enjoy reading wine books in my spare time, but this one was great.

3 — You might be surprised to know that I don’t really enjoy reading books about wine in my spare time. It’s probably because I spend nearly all day every day in the wine business, and already have some required reading to do to keep up.  The exception, though, is a wine book with a great story.  And this year, my blogger friend David White wrote a fun one:  But First, Champagne – A Modern Guide to the World’s Favorite Wine.  It’s getting a lot of good press, all well-deserved.  David gave me an early manuscript copy to read for comment, which is why I didn’t write a separate post reviewing it.  There’s history – regional, wine, and individual makers – plus a whole bunch of interesting facts.  Even though I sell champagne and have been in the region a few times, I learned a lot.  The photos are stunning, too.  All of which leaves you wanting to drink more champagne.

The pork belly of Iberico acorn-fed pigs is called the

The pork belly of Iberico acorn-fed pigs is called the “Secreto.” It’s one of the tastiest things I’ve ever eaten.

4 — One of my Spanish wine producers also raises pigs in western Spain, along the Portuguese border. These lovely animals are used to make the fabulous Jamón, for which Spain is justifiably famous.  But only the hind legs, and sometimes the shoulders, get used for the ham.  My producer told me that the rest of the pig is of course delicious too.  (He even tried to convince me that I should import the meat, which would be a logistical nightmare.)  But it wasn’t until this year that I got to try the ribs, loin, and belly from an acorn-fed pig.  Oh. My. Goodness.  While the Jamón may be available in the U.S. in certain places, you won’t find the other meats over here.  So I guess now you have an excuse to visit Spain, Portugal, or southwestern France if you want to try them.  You’re welcome!

5 — This year I had to move my alcohol license and wine stock to a new warehouse location. As you’ve probably found in your own wine collections, there are bottles that are past their prime, even if they’re still tasty.  Well, I’m sure you can imagine what happens when you have pretty much unlimited space for storing wine.  Some of them I can put on sale or donate to a worthy cause.  But there’s a limit to how many of these bottles I wanted to take to the new warehouse.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t just leave them to be recycled without emptying them.  So over five days I emptied out 10 cases (120 bottles) per day, opening each bottle and dumping the wine down the drain.  And I tried a bunch of different styles of openers to see which would work the best.  The answer is, well, none of them was ideal for opening this many bottles.  Plus, I ended the five days with sore wrists.  And I didn’t even have to open the bottles cleanly or contort my arms to make sure customers could see the label at all times.  I’m kind of surprised that we don’t hear about carpal tunnel syndrome or shoulder problems in the wine industry.  Sommeliers, take note!  I hope your employers’ workers comp is current.

6 — Finally, something that’s more of a trend. When I interviewed cookbook author Lucinda Scala Quinn about wine, she told me that her cooking has started to focus more on the simplicity of individual ingredients rather than a bunch of them together.  I definitely heard more about recipes where the main ingredient is the star in 2016.  Especially vegetables.  A couple of years ago, I wrote about how flavors in general were getting bigger for all kinds of dishes, but not necessarily due to the main ingredients – additions of things like bacon and hot sauce.  I’ve got nothing against either of them.  But they tend to make everything taste the same.

Admittedly, some of the single-ingredient stuff can go too far.  Like a restaurant recipe I heard about for carrots that were roasted, chilled, and smoked.  I’m sure they’re delicious, but probably too much work for most home cooks.  In general, though, if you go to the trouble to buy good ingredients, a return to relative simplicity is a welcome direction.

I’ve found that this is finally happening with wines, too, at least on restaurant lists.  There are more medium-bodied wines on lists than I’ve seen in the past couple of years, and not just on seasonal summer lists, either.  As someone who sells a lot of medium-bodied wines, I’m happy to see them touted as great with food.  And they tend to be better values, too.


There’s no shortage of suggestions for holiday foods around.  Most of us tend to go for the things we’ve always made, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  But if you don’t have family traditions for your December/January festivities, try one from my family:   French onion soup on New Year’s Day.  My father has been making it forever.  Even before he retired, he made it a multi-day process by making beef stock ahead of time.

As you can imagine, it’s delicious – definitely worth the time it takes.  But I have developed a substitute recipe that tastes good and is less work.  There are three things that make it turn out well.  The first is taking boxed chicken and beef stocks, mixing them with wine, and reducing them down.  Go ahead and add the peels and trimmings from the onions while you’re at it.  Just make sure to use low-sodium stock.  I like Kitchen Basics unsalted stocks.  Their unsalted beef stock is sometimes hard to find, but it’s OK to use another low-salt brand as long as the chicken stock is unsalted or low-salt.  Cooking the wine down mellows it out and the tannins get a chance to bind with the stock proteins for extra deliciousness.

The second is to cut the onions the right way.  It may seem silly, but I have found that they brown better if you follow these instructions:  cut the peeled onion in half through the poles.  Then put each half cut-side down on the board and cut crosswise into thin slices.  You can use the food processor for this as long as you put the onions in the feed tube correctly.

Finally, there’s browning the onions.  This takes about 45 minutes, and can’t be rushed.  You want the onions really brown, with a nice brown layer on the bottom of the pot, too.  But you don’t want it all to burn – if it threatens to burn, add some water and scrape everything up, then keep going.  You will end up with what looks like practically nothing in the pot compared to the amount of onions you put in initially, but what’s there will have a lot of flavor.

I am not a fan of soggy bread, but you can do the traditional bread and cheese on top if you like.  (I prefer to toast my bread and cheese separately and eat them with the soup.)  Naturally, you’ll need red wine to serve.  This is one time where you can pull out the stops – despite my extolling medium-bodied wines in the post above, a great big red wine will work wonderfully here because there’s so much flavor.  Cave la Vinsobraise Thérapius ($26) is 100% Syrah and tastes like something much more expensive.  In his Washington Post review a couple of years ago, wine columnist Dave McIntyre rated it a great value, and said it tasted like a Côte Rotie.  No worries with using it for the half-cup of red wine in the recipe.  But you can also use something not quite as special if you have it around – leftover wine works well here since it’s going to get cooked enough.

Many thanks to you all for reading this blog and buying wine this year, and every year so far.  I appreciate the opportunity to share things I feel strongly about, and it’s gratifying to know that many of you feel the same way.  Happy Holidays to everyone, and a very happy new year too!



French Onion Soup

Serves 6 – 8

Unsalted butter or olive oil

4 large red onions, peeled, cut in half through the poles, then sliced thinly crosswise (save the peels and trimmings to put in the stock while it reduces if you like)

7 cups low-sodium chicken broth*

3 cups low-sodium beef broth*

½ cup dry red wine*

½ teaspoon dried thyme

1 bay leaf

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

½ teaspoon sugar

2 teaspoons red wine vinegar

12 to 18 baguette slices

1 cup grated Swiss cheese

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Put the stocks, wine, thyme, and bay leaf in a nonreactive saucepan (along with the onion trimmings if you still have them), heat to boiling over high heat.  Reduce the heat to keep it at a good boil and reduce until it all measures 8 cups, about 15-20 minutes.  Remove the bay leaf and the onion trimmings if you’ve used them.  Set the stock mixture aside.

In a large Dutch oven with a lid, melt 2 tablespoons of butter or heat up the same amount of olive oil.  Add the sliced onions and ¾ teaspoon of salt, ½ teaspoon of pepper, and the sugar.  Stir everything up to coat the onions.  Then put the lid on and cook for 15 minutes over medium-low heat.  Take the lid off and stir.  There will be liquid in the pot, and maybe a little browning.  Continue to cook, stirring frequently.  The liquid will evaporate and the onions will start to brown.  You’re looking for a nice deep brown color, and a good bit of brown stuff stuck to the pot, too.  If you see that it might be burning, add ¼ cup of water and stir everything up, including scraping the brown stuff off the pot and into the onions – then keep going.  All in all, this will take up to 45 minutes.  You will have something that looks like jam but also has some visible onion structure.

Add the stock/wine mixture, and scrape up the bottom of the pot to incorporate all the brown stuff one last time.  Add the vinegar and simmer for 10 minutes.  Taste for salt and pepper.

In the meantime, assemble the bread and cheese.  Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.  Brush the bread with a little butter or olive oil, then put them on a baking sheet and into the oven for 5 minutes, until lightly golden and a little crisp.  Remove the pan from the oven, mix the two cheeses together, and top the bread slices evenly.  Put them back into the oven to melt the cheese and get it just a little brown, 5 to 7 minutes.  You can float the bread on individual servings of soup, or serve the toasts alongside.

*  You can also start with 9 cups of low-salt vegetable stock and 1 cup of red wine and boil them down to 8 cups.

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Last week’s missing recipe

As I mentioned last week, not every blog post automatically segues into a recipe smoothly.  So I put the recipe and wine pairing in a separate post this week.  This will happen from time to time, depending on the subject I’m writing about.

Thanksgiving seems like a distant memory now, although it was only two weeks ago.  This year, two of our guests were vegetarians, and they volunteered to make a lentil-mushroom shepherd’s pie as a non-meat entrée.  It was really tasty.  The online recipe they used was simple, but you know me – I had to make some changes.  The original recipe was vegan.  I kept it vegan, too.  But instead of the recipe’s dairy substitutes for the milk and butter, I used olive oil and garlic in the mashed potatoes, plus a little vegetable stock to thin them out.  They have a slightly green color to them from the olive oil, but they taste terrific.

I also like to reduce boxed vegetable stock – preferably Kitchen Basics unsalted – as a first step.  Then, I take some of the reduced stock and add red wine and reduce it again.  The pie doesn’t have to stay long in the oven, and you want to cook the wine enough to enrich the base.  Cooking ahead, or while you’re cooking the onions and mushrooms, gives a much richer flavor.

This recipe uses a lot of pans, so be prepared.  You cook the lentils in one pot, vegetable stock and wine in another, boil potatoes in a third, and saute mushrooms, garlic, and onions in yet a fourth pot.  But you can cook the lentils ahead, and make the mashed potatoes ahead too, and heat them in the microwave.  Everything should be hot when it goes in the oven, you’re basically just browning the top of the potatoes anyway.  The mushroom and lentil base can be made ahead, too.  But I think it tastes better if you make the base right before assembly.  Leftover lentils tend to fall apart more, and I like them to keep their shape.

A Rhône red is always good with mushrooms, and this has plenty of mushrooms in it.  So try Château de Clapier Calligrappe red ($12).  It’s medium-bodied, but has the right earthiness for mushrooms and lentils.  Use some in the recipe, too.

Lentil and Mushroom Shepherd’s Pie

Serves 6-8

7 cups vegetable stock (preferably Kitchen Basics unsalted), from two quart boxes

1 cup dry red wine

1-1/4 cup dried lentils, rinsed

1 large onion, cut into large dice

4 garlic cloves, peeled – mince two and thinly slice the other two

1 pound button or cremini mushrooms, trimmed and sliced

4 large russet potatoes

1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

3/4 teaspoon dried thyme

1 teaspoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon tomato paste

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

2 – 3 tablespoons cornstarch

Nonstick cooking spray

Start by bringing six cups of vegetable stock to a boil over high heat.  (Save the last cup of unreduced stock to use in the mashed potatoes and to dissolve the cornstarch.)  Continue to boil, uncovered, until the stock reduces to four cups.  Measure out two cups of the stock, put in a saucepan, and add about 2/3 cup of ice to cool it down a bit (or ½ cup chilled water).  Stir in the lentils, ¼ teaspoon of salt, and the red pepper flakes.  (The lentils cook more evenly if they’re not started in boiling liquid.)  Bring to a boil, cover, and cook for 40 minutes, stirring a few times during cooking.  Add water if you need to toward the end, but after 40 minutes the lentils should be soft and the liquid nearly all absorbed.  If not, cook for a few more minutes.  Then drain the lentils and set them aside.

Mix the remaining two cups of reduced stock with 1 cup of wine, and bring to a boil.  Reduce again until the mixture measures 1-1/4 cups, about 15 minutes.  (You can also do this in an uncovered 4-cup measuring cup in the microwave if you’re running out of burners.)

While the lentils are cooking, put the 1/3 cup olive oil and sliced garlic in a small saucepan.  Set the pan over medium-low heat, until the garlic slices start to color.  Pour the oil in garlic in a small heatproof bowl and set aside.

While the lentils and the oil and garlic are cooking, peel the potatoes and cut them into 1-inch pieces.  Cover the potato pieces with water in a large saucepan, add a teaspoon of salt, and bring to a boil.  Simmer until the potatoes are done, then drain them and put them back in the hot pot you boiled them in.  Sitting in the pot will dry them off a little.  Add the oil and garlic mixture, and mash using a potato masher.  Add salt and pepper to taste, and a little of the unreduced vegetable stock if necessary to make a thick mashed potato mixture.  Put into a microwave-safe container and set aside.

Heat the oven to 425 degrees F.  Heat the 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet, add the onion, and cook until the onion is soft and just beginning to brown around the edges, about 8 minutes.  Add the mushrooms, 1/4 teaspoon of salt, and some pepper.  Cover the pan and cook for 3 minutes or so.  The mushrooms should have released some liquid.  Uncover the pan and continue to cook until the mushrooms start to brown.  Add the minced garlic and stir for a minute, until you can smell the garlic but it isn’t browned.  Add the 1-1/4 cups of reduced stock/wine, the tomato paste, and the soy sauce and bring to a boil.  In a small bowl, mix 2 tablespoons cornstarch with a quarter cup of unreduced stock.  Drizzle the cornstarch mixture into the mushroom mixture, and stir until it all boils and thickens.  Stir in the lentils.  At this point, the mixture should be very thick.  If it’s not, dissolve another tablespoon of cornstarch in 2 tablespoons of water or stock and add it in.  Cook for a couple of minutes to thicken.  Taste for salt and pepper – it should be well-seasoned.

Spray a 9 or 10-inch glass pie plate with nonstick cooking spray, then put the mushroom mixture in the dish.  Heat the potatoes in the microwave until hot, then spread on top of the mushrooms and lentils.  Put the dish on a baking sheet, and bake for 20-25 minutes, until the potatoes are just starting to brown.  Let the pie cool for 5 minutes, then serve.

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Out in the wine industry, part two

Mark Lyon was the winemaker for Sebastiani Vineyards for 30+ years. This year he struck out on his own with Eco Terreno. He came out professionally in 2004 as part of a newspaper interview about his wines.

Mark Lyon was the winemaker for Sebastiani Vineyards for 30+ years. This year he struck out on his own with Eco Terreno Wines. He came out professionally in 2004 as part of a newspaper interview about his wines.

This is my second post talking with out LGBT people in the wine industry.  In the first post, I spoke with Alvaro Cardenas, an importer and retailer in Los Angeles.  We both noted that we had met only a few other out importers during our time in the wine business – and he’s been in it a lot longer than I have.

I wanted to see if the same was true for winemakers, and if so, why.  As I mentioned last time, online searches don’t find many out LGBT winemakers, and most of them are in California.  So I contacted Mark Vogler and Gary Saperstein, founders and owners of Out in the Vineyard, a Sonoma, CA company that promotes wine-related tourism for the LGBT community.  They put me in touch with Mark Lyon, winemaker for Sebastiani Vineyards for 30+ years, and who has now started his own Alexander Valley winery, Eco Terreno.

All three confirmed that winemaking as a profession is “98% straight,” as Lyon told me.  And some LGBT winemakers still aren’t out, although Vogler and Saperstein think that the majority are, especially in the last few years.

Lyon came to California to attend U.C. Davis for winemaking.  He started at Sebastiani after graduating in 1978, choosing Sonoma County because it was close to San Francisco.  Vogler and Saperstein confirmed Sonoma’s current gay-friendliness.  But it wasn’t always that way.  Vogler grew up in Healdsburg in Sonoma County and thought he was the only gay person there.  He left after high school.  He and Saperstein moved separately to Sonoma as part of what they called a mini-LGBT exodus from the big cities that started in the late 1990s.  By that time, Sonoma County had long become a weekend destination for LGBT people from San Francisco, many buying second homes there as well.

The recession that began in 2008 was a catalyst for starting Out in the Vineyard.  The California wine industry was hard-hit and needed to find new markets.  Vogler and Saperstein had already met many wine-industry LGBT people, and they started lobbying their friends to market to the LGBT community.  Not all LGBT people fit the double-income-no-kids model, but it could still be hugely profitable.  The beer and spirits industries had already discovered this, and the wine industry was slow to follow. “It was really hard at first to find sponsors for LGBT-oriented wine events,” they told me.  They also wanted to convince some of their winemaker friends to come out publicly.  So they decided to hold a winemaker dinner as part of their annual Gay Wine Weekend – a separate event that would have the friendliest possible audience, and would undoubtedly lead to plenty of future sales.  At least one winemaker came out so that he could participate.

These days, it’s much easier to get winery sponsorship for their events, even from wineries that aren’t LGBT-owned or operated.  But it’s not always a slam-dunk.  When I asked Vogler and Saperstein why they thought that some winemakers weren’t out or didn’t want to sponsor LGBT wine events, they cited two reasons.  The first is that it’s still a farming profession, and some winegrowers and winemakers hadn’t been as exposed to the LGBT community as others.

Gary Saperstein (left) and Mark Vogler are the owners and founders of Out in the Vineyard, a wine tourism company for the LGBT community.

Gary Saperstein (left) and Mark Vogler are the owners and founders of Out in the Vineyard, a Sonoma-based wine tourism company for the LGBT community.

The second is customer perception.  Vogler and Saperstein cited a winery owned by two partners, one gay and one straight.  The straight owner has resisted sponsoring LGBT wine events and using the gay owner’s connections to market to the LGBT community out of concern that their product would get a reputation as “gay wine.”  This might seem like a stretch, since the owners are unlikely to put a rainbow flag on the label.  By customer demographics, though, it’s not impossible to think that there could be an impact.  While millennials – who are more open in their LGBT support — are beginning to drink more wine, the sweet spot for serious (and more lucrative) wine collecting is among people over 45.  Not to say that some older people aren’t just as supportive.  But as we saw in 2012 and 2013 polls on same-sex marriage, younger people were much more likely to support it than those who were older.

Lyon disagreed about the farming community, and said he hasn’t experienced any change in attitude among his peers since they learned he was gay.  But he confirmed that he also had concerns about potential customer reaction when he came out professionally in 2004.  He was already out socially, and had been with his now-husband for a few years.  His professional coming-out was part of an interview with a major newspaper to promote the wines he made for Sebastiani.  It was certainly a bigger audience than he had expected, and bigger than most people coming out ever have, especially before social media.

He wasn’t yet out at work, so he had to make the announcement when he knew the article would appear.  “I was worried, but I shouldn’t have been.  The Sebastiani family was incredibly supportive, and looking back I should have known they would be.”  He also worried about potentially homophobic wine buyers.  “I thought there might be some awkwardness at minimum, but that didn’t happen – it was absolutely neutral, zero impact.”

As my talk with Lyon came to an end, I asked him about the two percent figure for LGBT winemakers and why it’s lower than what you’d find in the general population.  I thought that part of it might be that LGBT people like Vogler felt like they had to leave their rural farming communities in the past.  Lyon agreed, but also said it will change with time.  “It’s like any other profession in some ways.  We’re making inroads now, and that’ll continue.   Think of how many business leaders you have for every Tim Cook.  We’ll get there.”

Vogler and Saperstein had the same optimism.  “Some of our friends in the wine industry still haven’t come out professionally,” they told me.  “But we think they will soon.  Sonoma’s an LGBT-friendlier place even in the time we’ve lived here.”

If you’re a reader who automatically scrolls down to the end of the post for the recipe, you’re probably wondering what’s happening here.  I’ve decided that I’ll occasionally put the recipe and wine pairing in a separate post.  More than a few readers who are also writers have told me that the written content and recipes don’t always go well together.  I think they raise a good point.  Sometimes they do work in tandem — like if the post is about certain aspects/characteristics of food and wine, interviews with cookbook authors, etc.  But in a post like this one, the transition to wine and food talk can be less than smooth.

Never fear, there will still be recipes and wine pairings.  You’ll just get to read more posts from me, that’s all!



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