A very long ago, pre-Instagram tasting area photo of Cy and me at a winery in Sonoma. The tasting room and patio were designed to draw your eye to the lovely vineyards, so naturally, that’s what people focused on — not the wine, and not anything else in the tasting room, either.
Even though I have lots of wine-loving friends, I’ve noticed that more of them post food photos on social media than wine photos. Not that they don’t take wine-related photos, just that there are barely any featuring a particular wine. They’ll post plenty of lovely vineyard/winery scenery shots, and maybe some collections of bottles, or an interesting label here and there. And, of course, selfies with wine glasses in hand.
Contrast this with their lovingly-shot photos of glistening plates of food, taken from various artistic angles, showing interesting things in the restaurant in the background. The food is definitely the star, based on its own visual qualities, along with how it’s plated and how it fits into the surroundings.
I admit to being somewhat social media impaired. So while I noticed the wine photo deficit, I didn’t think too much about why. Then one day I listened to Alton Brown interviewing Gaby Dalkin, a southern California food blogger and social media wizard. Her “What’s Gaby Cooking” blog is gorgeous and full of interesting recipes. Dalkin pretty much perfected the use of Snapchat for short cooking videos (she and her mother named them Snapisodes). She also posts a lot on Instagram and does Facebook Live videos. Naturally, she has gained some knowledge about social media food photography.
Gaby Dalkin’s author photo from her What’s Gaby Cooking blog. In an interview with Alton Brown, she said she’s determined to make Bruschetta the trend of 2017, so of course I had to use this photo.
Dalkin talked about Instagram in particular and said that chefs have been heavily influenced by it, knowing that people would be taking and posting photos of the food. This has definitely made for more colorful and casual-yet-totally-staged plating, and may even have contributed to the (to my mind, inexplicable) small plate craze. She and Brown both agreed that multiples of the same thing look better on plates and in photos than just one – they’re more visually appealing. Hence, two tacos, a pyramid of four Albondigas, three Bruschette, small cribs of perfectly squared-off fries stacked like firewood (or all standing upright in a small copper pot), etc. Dalkin also said, just a little sheepishly, that she sometimes chooses what she’s going to eat based on what will look best on Instagram. (Brown accused her of “Instajudging,” which she readily admitted was true.) Colorful salads, tacos, most pastas, and pizza make the best photos, according to Dalkin. They have enough visual interest so that you can even photograph them from directly overhead.
She went on to say that Instagram also heavily influences restaurant design. For example, food photos almost always look better in natural light. So getting natural light into the restaurant is key – along with colors that are going to enhance rather than detract in photos. After listening to the interview, I did some research and found quite a few articles on Instgram’s influence on restaurant design over the past couple of years. It has led to things like putting interesting objects on the walls instead of paintings or large photographs, because they make for better food photo backgrounds. As well as great photo subjects in and of themselves. Another area of influence is utensil design, which has become even more important lately.
Glasses of wine suffer in comparison to glistening food. Even multiple glasses together aren’t that interesting. A few posts ago, I asked Joanne Weir – a chef, TV cook, and cookbook author who makes a point of talking about wine – why she didn’t do more with wine in her television shows. Her reply was that it’s really not compelling visually. Even the color we see with our eyes doesn’t necessarily show up on camera. And you have to spend a lot of time talking about it since only the most experienced wine drinkers might be able to imagine the flavor from the visuals.
This made me wonder if Instagram and other social media could start to have an influence on winery tasting room design – finding ways to overcome wine’s visual shortcomings and help make it the focus of photographs. In my experience, winery tasting rooms are designed to show you the beauty of the surroundings – rolling hills, rows of grapevines, trees, lovely outbuildings, etc. Or if the tasting room isn’t right on the vineyards, then you’re looking out at beautiful gardens or something like that. There are often huge windows, which certainly help with natural light for photos. But very little in the tasting rooms themselves that will draw your eyes to the wine or the inside surroundings to make you want to photograph them. Of course, many were designed in an era that didn’t consider customer photography. So I wondered if perhaps newer or newly-redesigned wineries might have considered Instagram, etc., in planning.
After contacting a few, I didn’t get any indication this was true. Even for brand-new tasting rooms, like the one at Lokoya in St. Helena, CA, customer photos weren’t a consideration in the tasting spaces (which are gorgeous). While the design brings the outside in, it doesn’t draw your attention to the wine. Everything looks designed for wide-angle photos rather than close-ups. In a way, this makes sense – the design should be somewhat timeless because it’s expensive to build, and you want it to look good for a long time. Wineries probably aren’t going to make over their tasting rooms until they’re old or they need to expand them, they’re going to put their profits into making the product instead.
I then thought that urban wineries/tasting rooms might be different, since so many have started since Instgram’s 2010 launch. And in many cases, they’re more like bars than tasting rooms, and may have kitchens to serve food. But I contacted the managers/owners of several and couldn’t find any who would definitively say that the tasting rooms were designed with photography/social media in mind. And among the few that Cy and I visited in Oakland, CA a couple of months ago, only one had plenty of natural light coming in. Not because it was designed that way, but because the space had been a sandwich shop and juice bar before the winery moved in. The manager called it a “fishbowl” because people could see in, but it was enjoyable being in that space. And it did bring the wine into greater focus, rather than the view beyond the windows.
It’s not surprising to see so many fairly dark spaces. Natural light can be the enemy of wine – after all, that’s why so much of it comes in green bottles. Many of the spaces themselves are in more industrial buildings that don’t have a lot of windows to begin with. It’s easier then to keep the tasting area dark and cozy rather than light and airy. And even a small batch winery requires a fair amount of space, which won’t be cheap in many urban areas, and certainly not in the retail core. The Oakland urban winery I mentioned with the big windows had been in an industrial building with few windows before this more retail-oriented space opened up.
I don’t mean to imply by any of this that tasting room designers should entirely cave to the “If it didn’t happen on Instagram, it didn’t happen” meme. But it might not hurt to consider making the urban spaces less like dark bars and providing more interesting and photograph-worthy surroundings and décor. Obviously, I didn’t contact dozens of wineries or tasting rooms for this post, so it’s entirely possible I’ve missed some that were designed with customer photography in mind. Still, my small survey leads me to believe that hasn’t been an issue, at least not yet. Wineries may be missing out on an easy way to gain potential customers’ attention through social media, so it’s worth thinking about.
Grated, salted, and drained zucchini mixed in with orange pepper, onion, and tomato. Draining the grated zucchini gives it more flavor.
Speaking of social media, a friend posted recently on Facebook that she hates zucchini. It reminded me of watching Sara Moulton on “Sara’s Weeknight Meals,” when she said that she had also hated zucchini for a long time. Until she realized she could concentrate the flavor by grating, salting, and draining it. The result is a great addition to lots of different dishes.
I decided to try it in couscous a few nights ago, and it was delicious. You can serve the couscous as a side dish, mixed in with salad greens, or as a base for a protein and sauce. I made this one vegetarian by cooking the couscous in vegetable stock, but you could use chicken broth if you’re making a chicken dish.
The salted, grated zucchini only needs to sit in a colander for 10 minutes or so. Then you can either press on it with a spoon, squeeze with your hands, or squeeze it all in a clean kitchen towel to remove the liquid. You’ll be surprised at how much comes out. If you want to be super thrifty, collect the liquid you squeeze out and use it to cook the couscous.
You can serve the couscous hot, warm, or at room temperature – it’s great to do ahead and serve with summery meals. Your choice of protein might determine which wine you pick. But if it’s served like a salad, try Bodega Traslagares Verdejo ($13). It’s got great acidity and just the right amount of floral notes. Put it in a nice glass and it will look beautiful on Instagram next to your plate of summery zucchini couscous!
Here’s the vegetable mixture with cooked couscous. This makes a great summer side dish.
2 medium or 3 small zucchini, washed and trimmed
1 small onion, chopped
½ of a yellow or orange pepper, minced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 small tomato, diced, or 8 grape tomatoes cut into pieces
1-1/2 cups quick-cooking couscous
1-1/2 cups vegetable stock
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Grate the zucchini in a food processor or using the large holes of a box grater. Mix with ½ teaspoon of salt and put in a mesh-style colander set over a bowl. Let sit for 10 minutes. Press on the zucchini with a large spoon to extract as much liquid as possible.
In the meantime, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet. Add the onion and pepper with some salt and pepper and cook until they’re soft, about 7 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another minute. Then put in the tomatoes and cook for a couple of minutes until they shrivel. Stir in the drained zucchini and cook over medium-high heat. The grated zucchini will shrink a bit and will just start to brown. Taste for seasoning, then turn off the heat, cover, and set aside.
When you add the zucchini to the skillet, bring the stock to a boil in a small saucepan that has a lid. When it boils, add a quarter teaspoon of salt, some pepper, a tablespoon of olive oil, and the couscous. Stir to combine. Then turn off the heat, put the lid on, and let sit for 5 minutes. Remove the lid and fluff the couscous with a fork.
Add the cooked, fluffed couscous to the skillet with the vegetables and stir to combine. Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature.