Social Distancing Installment #6: Earth Day and wine

Clusters of new wine grapes in spring. This time of year the vines expend lots of energy and take more from the environment. Will the recent lockdown that has led to less transportation pollution have a positive impact on the 2020 crop? (Photo by Raychan on Upslash.)

Today is the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day in 1970.  It’s hard for us to imagine (or in some cases, remember) the state of the air, water, and land back then.  Practically all of the major U.S. environmental laws came into being after 1970, and they have had a huge impact on our world.

But the virtual standstill over the past couple of months due to the coronavirus has showed us that we’ve still got a long way to go.  The drop in transportation, industrial activity, and power generation from people staying home has made for less smog and less water pollution.  Clearer skies over big cities and dolphins in the canals of Venice are things we should be expecting during the regular course of our lives, not just during a pandemic lockdown.

Likewise, if we look at agricultural practices in the 1960s and 70s, we’d be stunned at the variety of now-banned pesticides that were in use.  I remember that Chlordane was sold in hardware stores for people to kill Japanese beetles on their lawns.  One of my wine producers described that time as a chemical free-for-all.  Thanks to regulation and changes in production mindset, chemical use has decreased by huge amounts.

Obviously, there’s still further to go with wine production and the world at large.  The cleaner environment over the past couple of months has made me wonder if we’re going to see a difference in the 2020 wine grape harvest.  As I mentioned before, grapes that show little to no detectable contaminant residues aren’t just a product of not using chemicals on the vines – they also come from vineyards that are protected from chemical drift and transportation pollution by geography, topography, or prevailing winds.  Transportation particulate pollution often contains heavy metals, as well as droplets of condensed organic chemicals.

Vineyards near well-traveled roads are normally subject to more of this pollution.  But with fewer non-essential trips happening, these vineyards are getting a reprieve.  This time of year is important with bud break, flowering, and fruit set happening.  The vines expend a lot of energy producing the grapes, and take in more of what’s in the environment.  It’s not unrealistic to expect that the longer the shutdown lasts, the less transportation contaminants will end up in the grapes.  In addition, less smog would allow more direct sun and that could reduce spring molds that might otherwise develop.

Will this cleaner period have a measurable impact on public health and the environment down the road, let alone on wine grapes?  In terms of public health, we may not get a definitive answer – especially if people aren’t seeking medical attention that would help tally results of respiratory illnesses.  Even if we knew that there was an improvement, it could well be swamped by coronavirus cases.   For wine grapes, I assume that winegrowers who test for chemical residues at harvest will continue doing those tests, so perhaps we’ll get some data, especially from organic vineyards if they choose to release the information.  But the vast majority of publicly-available data from residue tests are done by public interest organizations, not winegrowers.  Residue testing is expensive, and unless those testing organizations get more funding we probably won’t see any results.

Obviously, there are other differences from year to year that influence the flavors and quantities of grapes, including prevailing winds, so transportation pollution effects might not even be detectable.  But if we do find a difference in the grapes that we can pin on a quiet spring, it would be a great data point to add to other evidence that could influence future regulation and practices.  Helping drive government, industry, and individuals to find ways to lessen our environmental footprints without economic disruption and a public health crisis could be a small silver lining to these difficult times.

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Social Distancing Installment #5: Eat and drink what you like

If your fond memory of a perfect food and wine pairing — where each enhanced the other to the point of transcendence — also contained a view like this one, then you’re not likely to experience the same frisson again even with the same food and wine. (Photo by Anthony Delanoix on Unsplash.)

A friend e-mailed me after my last couple of posts.  While she enjoyed reading them, she said she missed my not-so-long-ago format of recipes and wine pairings.  She asked if I’d get back to it, at least occasionally, with more pantry staples given how we’re cooking now.

It got me thinking that these days, when substitution is key to making meals with what you have on hand, the traditional ideas of how to pair wine and food may not work that well anymore.  Despite the e-mails I get from wine delivery websites promising help with any and all wine pairing questions.

This has been a bit of a controversy recently, as veteran wine blogger Alder Yarrow declared earlier this month that wine and food pairing are essentially junk science.

Yarrow’s post is worth reading, not least because he makes points I’ve stressed before in posts on pairing wine and food.  Like that everyone perceives taste differently, and that what we remember as a transcendent food and wine pairing may have had as much to do with the situation and the company as the actual wine and food.

He starts with a discussion of what could be considered “old world” wine and food pairing:  if the wine and food are both locally-sourced and traditional to the region they will go together well.  This kind of pairing is still valuable, he says, but it falls apart in our current marketplace of worldwide food and wines.

Yarrow particularly dislikes special restaurant food and wine pairings – flights of wines to go with multicourse tasting menus.  He stops short of blowing off the sommeliers who create those pairings, however, saying that somms who seek out new and different wines can give you a great wine experience that doesn’t have to pair with your meal.  (Frankly, a wise move on his part, since somms would no doubt have their sabrage swords at the ready the next time they saw him…)

Here’s where it gets interesting for me.  Yarrow dismisses what he calls the “new rules” of trying to match the intensity of flavor in the wine and food and how the chemical characteristics of wine and food (acidity, sweetness, bitterness) can be combined or avoided.  Too many exceptions occur in real life because of people’s individual tastes, he says, and they pretty much make these rules useless.

That might be true.  For me, these “new rules” work pretty well and are the basis of most of my food and wine recommendations.  But the fact is that if you like a particular food and a particular wine, you may well like them together even if they’re not in line with anyone’s ideas of pairing wine and food.

And I think we’re coming to a different understanding of what we eat and drink.  We’re well into what I’ll call the Salt Fat Acid Heat Era, named for Samin Nosrat’s cookbook and Netflix series.  We’re learning to balance flavors and (for lack of a better term) chemical and physical properties in our food – or at least coming to appreciate that the great cuisines of the world already do this.  It could be that a wine adds an element that a dish may lack, and creates balance through pairing the wine and food.  But if all is in order, does well-balanced wine work with well-balanced food more often than not?  I don’t want to throw more somm terms out here, so perhaps it’s as simple as good-tasting things can be surprisingly good together because they’re each made to have that balance.

As with everything concerning wine, words and tone matter.  The idea that every recommended food and wine pairing is going to be the best thing you’ve ever had (particularly if they’re expensive) is ridiculous.  It’s an opinion.  No one has to follow it, and everyone’s choice is valid for them.

Of course, I will continue to recommend food and wine pairings — it’s what I do.  I started because people asked me my opinion, and they seem to enjoy (or at least tolerate) my giving it.  I hope I haven’t given the impression that any of these pairings will change your life.  Think of them as suggestions, something to try if you can.  Or feel free to ignore.

One last thing:  when you’ve changed your usual cooking to less familiar territory to keep to what you have on hand, you may want something familiar and comforting, or off the charts fancy, or cheap and cheerful to drink with it, screw the pairing.  Honestly, as long as you’re drinking wine and enjoying it, that’s enough for me – and anyone in the wine industry, for that matter.

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Social Distancing Installment #4: Sourdough madness

Although it has puffed up to about 2 cups, this is a cup of sourdough starter ready for use. I was reluctant to try it since lots of starter recipes waste flour. But with this one you start small and end up with enough for a loaf of bread plus some left to keep the starter going.  I’ve decided to name my starter Château Whoopdie-do, since, like wine, it’s all about the fermentation.

I’ve seen lots of social media postings for two things lately:  banana bread and sourdough.  Who knew people had so many overripe bananas around?  I don’t like bananas at all, but I love bread and making my own.  So I was intrigued by the sudden surge of posts on sourdough.

At first, though, I wasn’t tempted.  Most sourdough starter recipes use an awful lot of flour and I didn’t want to waste any.  They direct you to throw half of your starter away every day and feed it more flour and water.  If you didn’t, you’d end up with about a half-gallon of starter after a week (the amount of time it usually takes for the starter to mature), and even the recipes for the biggest bread rounds use at most a cup of it.

But after a few days of social distancing, I started to see recipes for small batches of sourdough starter.  By small, I mean that you end up with at most one cup of starter, and some make even less.  Best of all, the people posting them also made Instagram live videos to show how it all works.

That sounded a lot more reasonable, and manageable.  Leftover starter keeps well in the fridge, and you only have to feed it a little flour and water once a week.

(Of course, you can save the discards and make other things with them.  There are all sorts of posts for crackers, pancakes, muffins, waffles, etc.  And if you want to go that way – and have enough flour and planning energy to make all those things – then by all means go ahead.)

I decided to try the starter method from David Atherton, the 2019 Great British Bake-Off champion.  Mainly because he seemed the most relaxed about the whole thing – bread flour, all-purpose, whole wheat, rye, you can use them all, pretty much anything you’ve got on hand.  You can see his Instagram posts and short videos @nomadbakerdavid.

Looking around for a bread recipe, I really liked the one by @ellie_croissant.  She also writes a blog called The Flour of Love, and her Instagram TV video of her bread process is the best.  You can find her recipe here, she also gave me permission to post it below, where I’ve added my notes and a few small changes.  You should look at the photos in her post, though.  You can really see what’s going on, and I almost never remember to take photos as I go along.

This is not an immediate enterprise.  You’ll need a week to make the starter, mostly leaving it alone and letting it ferment.  Then you’ll need two days for making the bread.  Again, you’re not working all the time, although the bread dough requires more of your attention the first day.

There are about four cups of flour in this bread.  It’s mostly white bread flour with a little whole wheat in there.  And you’ll use almost no flour shaping the dough, so you won’t

Here’s the dough ready for proving in the fridge overnight. @Ellie_Croissant recommends using gluten-free flour on the work surface and for the rising basket (which you don’t need to have, btw) and that works really well if you have it. GF flour doesn’t absorb as much liquid as wheat flour, and the dough won’t stick to the basket as much.

waste any.  You can make it entirely by hand or use a stand mixer (which is what I did).  Since I make bread often I have a banneton, which is a spiral-pattern rising basket.  But you can also let the dough rise in a greased bowl, so no need for anything fancy.  The one thing that’s essential is an enameled cast-iron pot with a lid.

I loved the result – the bread is beautiful, tastes great, and has a lovely texture with the kind of big holes you find in artisan bread.  Best of all, it worked as described.  Seriously, I’d have been more than a little ashamed if I couldn’t get fermentation right, being in the wine business and all…  And it’s a link to the past.  This is the way bread was made before commercial yeast became available.  The best part is that everyone’s sourdough tastes just a little bit different, because we all have different yeasts in the air around us.  So, as with wine, you’ve got built-in terroir.  Feel free to name your starter after your favorite wine château, or (for that matter) anything you like – it’s your terroir, after all!

Cheers!

Tom

Sourdough Starter

Method from David Atherton, on Instagram and Twitter @nomadbakerdavid

This starter requires seven days of sitting around.  On day eight you’ll be ready to make bread.

Day 1:  Start with a clean jar with a lid that’ll hold at least a pint.  Put 3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon flour in the jar, along with two tablespoons of lukewarm filtered water (80 – 90 degrees F), and ½ teaspoon of plain yogurt or sour cream (look on the label to make sure it has active cultures) if you have it around.  No worries if you don’t.  Mix well, put the lid on, and let it sit for 24 hours in a warm-ish place (around 70 degrees F).  If you’re leaving it on the counter, put it on a coaster or a potholder – even though the counter is the same temperature as the air in your kitchen, the starter cools off more quickly if it’s in direct contact with the counter.

You can use bread flour, whole wheat, or rye flour depending on what you have.  All-purpose flour works too.  Organic flour will likely start bubbling faster, but don’t worry if you don’t have it.  Atherton also mentions that you can add a couple of organic grapes or raisins to the starter and they’ll help it along quicker.  But again, don’t worry if you don’t have them.

Day 2 and 3:  Add the same amount of flour and water to the starter and mix well.  Don’t add any more yogurt or sour cream.  Cover and let stand.

Day 4:  If you’re seeing bubbles in your starter, hooray!  If not, don’t panic.  Sometimes it won’t start bubbling for another day or two.  You’ll notice that it may look separated (even on Day 2).  This is fine.  The warning signs are anything pink – if you see it, throw the starter away, clean the jar well, and start again.

Remove the grapes or raisins if you used them, they’ve added everything they’re going to at this point.  If the starter is bubbling, then add half as much flour and water (1 tablespoon water, plus 1 tablespoon and two teaspoons of flour).  If it isn’t, then add the same amount of flour as Days 1-3.

Day 5-7:  Follow Day 4 again.  Your starter should be bubbling by Day 6.  At this point if it’s bubbling you’ll notice it really rises up and then falls.  All of this is OK.  It should smell slightly sour.  A little grayish or greenish tinge to the liquid on the top is perfectly fine.  Beware of pink stuff, and any foul smell.  You may notice that the starter puffs up a lot when you take the lid off the jar — again, perfectly fine.

I have heard some people say that it can take up to 10 days to get a starter going, depending on where you live, what flour you use, and what the temperature is like in your kitchen.  So you can continue feeding the starter if it’s not active, but after Day 7 you can use the smaller amount of flour and water from Day 4.

The lovely boule out of the oven! I made the vertical slash but the horizontal one happened in the oven. So I modified the instructions to make a cross in the top instead.

Beginning on Day 8, you’re ready to make bread dough.  Congratulations on making the starter!  Put any starter you don’t use in the fridge and feed it once a week with the smaller amount of flour and water from Day 4.  If you want to use it again, take it out of the fridge, feed it the Day 2-3 amount of flour and water and let it sit overnight.  It’ll be ready to use the next day.

And what about if it doesn’t get active but doesn’t spoil?  You could start again.  Or, in the interest of saving flour you can add some of what you have to another bread recipe that uses yeast.  The starter is equal weights of flour and water.  I’d use 100 grams of starter, and subtract 50 grams each of flour and water from your bread recipe.  The starter will give the bread great flavor even if you’re using commercial yeast.

Sourdough Boule

From @Ellie_Croissant on Instagram, http://theflouroflove.wordpress.com.  Reprinted with Ellie’s kind permission, with modifications by me.

Ingredients

108 grams sourdough starter

380 grams lukewarm filtered water

54 grams whole wheat flour

488 grams unbleached bread flour

2 teaspoons salt

Equipment

A large bowl, or the bowl of a standing mixer [standing mixture instructions in square brackets]

A 4-5 quart enameled cast-iron Dutch oven with a lid

Dough Scrapers – one flexible one to get the dough out of the bowl, and a stiffer one for shaping the dough

A well-floured banneton, or a greased bowl with a diameter slightly smaller than the Dutch oven

A thin bladed serrated knife (for slashing the bread before baking)

Sliced after cooling for an hour. The texture is just what you find in artisan breads!

Instructions

.1.  Weigh out your starter into your mixing bowl [or the bowl for your mixer]. Pour the lukewarm water into the bowl and use your fingers to vigorously mix the two together, until you have a large bowl of muddy-looking water.

.2.  Add your two flours to the bowl and mix until well combined. [If you’re using the mixer, use the paddle and mix on low speed until combined. Clean off the paddle and remove it.]  Cover the bowl with a clean tea towel and leave to rest for thirty minutes.

.3.  Once the mixture has rested, use your scraper to scoop it out of the bowl, and onto your (clean, unfloured) kitchen worktop. Pour your salt onto the dough and add a tiny splash of water to help it dissolve. Using your hands and the dough scraper, incorporate the salt, and knead your dough for ten minutes. This will feel like a long time, I’d advise putting the radio on- three songs should do it! [For the mixer, sprinkle the salt over the dough and put the dough hook on. Mix on low speed for a minute, then raise the speed to medium and let the mixer knead for about 7 minutes more.]

.4.  Once your dough is kneaded, scoop it back into the bowl [or leave it in the mixer bowl], cover with your tea towel, and leave for another thirty minutes.

.5.  Now it’s time to ‘turn’ your bread every thirty minutes for three hours (six turns), which is a way of helping the gluten strands stretch out and create structure in the dough. Wet your hands with a little water and use your scraper to scoop the dough into your hands. Let it relax for a second, then fold it in on itself in thirds like a business letter. Rotate the dough a quarter-turn and fold, then rotate the dough and fold again, until you have a slightly tighter ball of dough. Don’t force the folds — you want to be stretching the gluten, not tearing it! Put the dough back in the bowl, cover it with the towel, and let it rest for 30 minutes. Repeat this step over the next few hours; you should feel the dough tightening and becoming less sticky as time progresses.

.6.  After your sixth turn, lightly flour your worktop, and place your dough, fold-side up, onto the flour. Press your dough gently into a square shape, allowing any large pockets of air to escape. Pull the top right corner in toward the center line of the dough and press gently to make it stick. Repeat with the left corner, and continue alternately on each side, essentially knitting that side of the dough together to create a tube of dough. The take the end closest to you and roll it away from you onto itself to create a tight roll of bread dough. Leave the dough, seam-side down on the work top covered with your tea towel and leave for another thirty minutes.

.7.  The dough will have spread a little as it relaxes, so use your dough scraper to flip it over, so the seam is back on top. ‘Knit’ the two edges into the middle again, once again rolling the dough into a tight ball with the seam underneath. Using your dough scraper again, pick up your ball of dough and flip it into your floured banneton or greased bowl, with the seam on top. (Note: Ellie recommends using gluten-free baking flour for flouring your banneton and the work surface, and it works well because the gf flour doesn’t absorb water like wheat flour does.) Put your banneton or bowl inside a plastic bag and leave to prove for around 12 hours in the fridge.  If you’re going to make a round loaf instead of an oval one, you’ll want to pull all four corners in as described.  Then pull in the sides in between the corners.  Keep going like this until you have a nice smooth round ball of dough.

.8.  Take your dough out of the fridge and let it rest for about an hour at room temperature. Then set the oven to 450 degrees F with a rack on the bottom rungs. Whilst it’s coming up to temperature, put your pot with the lid on into the oven to heat up, too.

.9.  When the oven is heated, turn your proofed bread out onto a piece of parchment paper. Gently press the paper onto the dough and turn the whole thing over – it should come right out. Dust the top of the dough with flour and use your bread razor or serrated knife to score a cross along the top of the dough that’s about ¾-inch deep and at least half as wide/long as the dough is. Do this gently, you don’t want to press down hard and push out all the bubbles you’ve waited to form.  The cross allows the bread to expand as it bakes, and can look pretty too if you’ve time for fancier designs!

.10.  Carefully remove the Dutch oven from the oven and take off the lid carefully pop your bread (still on the paper!) into your pot and put the lid on. Shake it gently side-to-side to center the dough in the pot. Cook in the oven for thirty minutes.

.11.  After thirty minutes is up, take the lid off your pot and turn the oven down to 425 degrees F. Cook for another thirty minutes.

.12.  Remove from the oven and let your lovely new loaf cool on a cooling rack. Try and wait at least an hour before diving in!

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Social Distancing Installment #3: Cook with what you’ve got

Trying to cook with the ingredients at home these days — and no one is better at using pantry goods for meals than Jack Monroe. She has started a Twitter feed to help people with questions, and that has led to a BBC show recently.

I’m the kind of cook who usually shops nearly every day.  Since we are encouraged to stay at home as much as possible, though, I’m trying to cook from what’s around here instead of shopping.  I’m pretty good at coming up with combinations of odds and ends – at least within the mindset of the styles of food I usually cook.

But that’s sometimes limiting.  So I’ve been turning to Jack Monroe for inspiration.  I had seen her on Twitter and then read about her in a Washington Post profile.  She’s definitely a home cook and not “chef-fy” in any way.  Her cooking drive came from necessity.  Faced with unemployment and a child to raise, she had to find a way to eat from the weekly food box she received from a local food pantry, supplemented with other low-cost ingredients.

She started blogging about her experiences, and the blog turned into cookbook opportunities.  She’s now working on her seventh cookbook.  They’re full of ideas and different flavors.  Monroe has great instincts for flavor combinations.  (Check here for the recipe that made her famous – Carrot, Cumin, and Kidney Bean Burgers.)  These days, lots of cookbooks seem to be specialized by cuisine or region of the world.  And while it’s fun to see collected recipes from individual cuisines we don’t know much about, it’s also great (and face it, a lot less reading) to have different styles of recipes together.

In these home sequestration days, Monroe has been using her skills and knowledge to help her Twitter followers make meals with things they find in their pantries.  You can check them out using the hashtag #JackMonroesLockdownLarder.   Obviously, she’s way ahead of the curve on this – and she’s going to be on a daily BBC television show soon to demonstrate recipes and share more ideas.

It’s great to see her so successful, since things didn’t always go this smoothly for her even after she started finding an audience for her books.  She got plenty of criticism for using  “expensive” ingredients like wine in dishes when she’s supposed to be helping poor people cook (and I guess they don’t deserve nice ingredients?  Even when you can get an inexpensive bottle of wine and make four different dishes with it?)  And at the start of the coronavirus crisis, some UK publications were turning to “celebrity” chefs for the kind of things she does much better.  Frankly, it’s hard to imagine some of these folks ever reaching for the packaged products that Monroe uses so well.

For example, one of the things I admire about her is her ability to use existing pantry staples to make new, more interesting pantry staples.  Like her idea for pickling canned beans.  She inspired me to come up with my own version and some variations – there are plenty of things that will work, so try something that appeals to you.

Cheers!

Tom

Basic method

Drain and rinse a can of cannellini beans and put them in a mason jar with a bay leaf, a few peppercorns, a big pinch of red pepper flakes, a quarter-teaspoon of dried oregano, and a big pinch of dried rosemary that you’ve crumbled a bit.  Combine ¾ cup white or apple cider vinegar and ½ cup water with a teaspoon of sugar and 1/4 teaspoon of fine salt in a small saucepan.  Add a small clove of garlic that you’ve thinly sliced.  Heat until the liquid boils.  Stir and let it boil for a minute to cook the garlic through and dissolve the sugar and salt.  Pour over the beans, put the lid on, and cool to room temperature.  (If the liquid doesn’t cover the beans, you can add equal parts vinegar and water to top off.) Then put the jar in the fridge for a couple of days or up to a week to flavor up.  Drain the beans and stir in a little olive oil and you have a great mixture for serving on pieces of toasted rustic bread.  You can also mix them into prepared hummus as a spread, add them to salads, mix into tuna salad (add some chopped olives too), etc.

A few riffs

First, if you don’t have a mason jar you can use a heatproof bowl.  Cover the bowl with a plate until everything cools, then switch to another jar or plastic container and refrigerate.  Then, switch out beans and flavors.  The cannellini bean flavorings will work with other beans, certainly, or try these:

Black beans (or pintos, or red kidney beans) — a half-teaspoon of cumin seeds (toast them in a small pan first if you can), ½ teaspoon ancho chile powder (or use regular chili powder, or crumble up a bit of a dried chile), and a half-teaspoon of oregano into the jar.  You can also put a couple of slices of jalapeño or serrano if you have it around.  You could stir some into guacamole, use as a garnish for chili or soups, or mix with avocado and tomato for a salad.

Chickpeas – a quarter-teaspoon each of ground cinnamon, cumin seeds, and coriander seeds.  Put in a pinch of red pepper flakes and a couple of cardamom pods that you’ve crushed lightly (or add a pinch of ground cardamom).  If you have some bell pepper (any color) dice up about ¼ and add it.  This makes a great salad with some grated carrot and radish.  Or cook some ground lamb or beef with a bit of the same spices and stir in the pickled chickpeas.  Serve with rice or couscous.

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Social Distancing Installment #2:  The start of neo-prohibition?

Dr. Aiysha Malik discusses the potential for alcohol abuse during self-isolation from the Covid-19 outbreak. This has led some opinion writers to call for a ban on alcohol sales.

In a recent op-ed piece for the UK’s Independent, Ian Hamilton suggests that closing liquor stores and wine shops during the coronavirus pandemic “would yield more for the nation’s health than almost any other policy intervention.”

Hamilton, a lecturer in mental health sciences at the University of York, wrote his op-ed in reaction to alcohol retailers being classified as “essential businesses,” meaning that they are specifically allowed to remain open while other businesses have been ordered to close.  He’s not the only writer at the Independent who has concerns about alcohol sales during the Covid-19 crisis, as you can read here.

Obviously, as a wine merchant, I’ve got a dog in this fight, even though I’m not in the UK.  I’ve heard some social media rumblings here about whether alcohol retailers should be classified as essential here in the US, although nothing in the mainstream press.  Hamilton argues that the main reason alcohol businesses are still open during the virus outbreak in the UK is because the alcohol lobby is too strong for politicians to overcome.

I’ve certainly felt the sting of state-based prohibitions on shipping wine here in the US thanks to state alcohol lobbies.  But it’s naïve to think that’s the whole story.  After all, we’ve tried the experiment before with prohibition.  The UK never had government-enforced prohibition the way we did here in the US.  If the UK considers imposing even a temporary form of prohibition by closing shops that sell alcohol, it won’t just be the alcohol lobby opposing it.

Prohibition provides an interesting analog to today’s coronavirus crisis in two ways.  Part of the success of the temperance movement that helped create the national prohibition law was to help curb domestic violence.  This is a worthwhile goal and is also one point cited by some UK mental health groups advocating eliminating alcohol sales today.  The other point is that the virus has led to massive unemployment, which mirrors one of the impacts of the Great Depression.  Although prohibition was enacted a decade before the Great Depression began, it showed that people with enough money had virtually unimpeded access to alcohol during the roaring 20s.  By October 1929, when US unemployment skyrocketed, there was substantial illegal infrastructure to make and sell alcohol – so much so that alcohol consumption increased despite prohibition. And state and local governments didn’t get any tax money from the illegal sales.  Ultimately, prohibition failed because people found ways to get alcohol and state governments lost essential revenue during the depression.

I’m not trying to be flip about mental health. I’ve seen a lot of Twitter postings about how self-isolation is really messing with people.  That’s hardly a scientific survey, but it’s noticeable.  So it’s not out of bounds to consider that people who are feeling lonely and vulnerable might drink more than they otherwise would.  That could be a problem, and it’s important to consider it.

But it’s early days for self-isolation and I haven’t found any real data on this.  I’ve seen plenty of what I assume are joking references to breakfast cocktails, they appear to be for entertainment.  Even Ina Garten upped the typical cocktail portion size in a viral video this week.  But I wonder if it’s also possible that people reaching out on Twitter and other social media are getting some comfort and relief from those activities rather than alcohol.  Social media feedback might not replace in-person interactions, but it’s something people are definitely using.  (And no, I don’t think Ina drank that industrial-sized Cosmopolitan herself, at least not in one sitting.)

Ina Garten posted a video on Instagram joking that the serving size for alcohol might need some adjustment.

I also get that it’s irritating that alcohol retailers get labeled as “essential,” when alcohol has upended so many lives.  I’d be happy for First Vine to shed its “essential” classification in favor of one that’s less imperative.  Perhaps there could be a less dramatic adjective applied to it, rather than what appears to be the current all-or-nothing shorthand.

Finally, it’s important to remind people that drinking in moderation is key, and what moderate drinking actually means.  Reflecting on when and how much we drink is a good idea, and if we’re more mindful we may decide that we don’t need to drink as much alcohol.  That’s all to the good, I think.  Accordingly, I have put a link on my sales homepage with recommended guidelines.  Beyond reflecting on our alcohol consumption, we can also all help one another by keeping in touch with our families and friends as best we can.  Last week I saw a cartoon blaming the videoconferencing app Zoom for the coronavirus crisis.  (For the record, I don’t believe that, even though it’s funny.)  But hey, if it helps people connect and eases some of the anxiety of self-isolation, I’ll happily raise an appropriately-sized glass to them as part of my weekly moderate drinking schedule.

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Why I love Wine PR — and why I’ll be writing more often

I rigorously unsubscribe from most e-mail lists, but I stay on the ones for wine-related PR because of pitches for things like this.

A few days ago, Philadelphia-based fashion and culture bloggers Tom and Lorenzo posted a challenge to their readers on Twitter.  I’ve been reading their blog for years and I’ve learned a lot from them.  They asked their readers to take our blogs up again or start one if we’ve been meaning to.  The world needs distraction content in days of social distancing, they said, and I think they’re right.  So I thought I’d post more.  This’ll give me a chance to write about things I probably wouldn’t have before – I’ve always considered that blogging as infrequently as I do meant I had to write more substantive posts.  Well, not anymore!

Social Distancing Installment One:  Wine-related PR

Over my years in the wine business, wine-related PR has been the gift that keeps on giving.  I’m usually vigilant about unsubscribing from mailing lists, but I keep myself on these, even if I have no idea how I got on them in the first place.  Not because I’ve ever been convinced to buy something or write to promote whatever it is.  But there’s a beauty in the hyperbole of their overreach that’s unmatched in my experience, and I find it irresistible.

Why?  Well, basically, wine is a luxury product.  We love it, of course.  But it’s not the thing that’s cleared out on grocery store shelves in these days of social distancing and staying home.  So how do you make it seem like something you can’t live without?  The pitches are usually some sort of snob appeal – you’re the kind of person who will appreciate this for its age/expensiveness/tradition/environmental consciousness/pure naturalness, aren’t you?  Or, the opposite, something like you’d imagine the way a dog thinks:  gosh isn’t it fun to drink wine?  Let’s make it even more fun!  Isn’t it fun?  Really, isn’t it fun?

The latest pitch leaned into the dog thought bubble.  It’s for the Sipski, which is a self-hanging bracket you can put in your shower to hold your wine glass.  No awkward suction cups or specialty tools required, the miracle-coated silicone back clings to any surface.  Isn’t that a relief?  Nothing to interfere with the fun! “Bringing Happy Hour to Your Shower,” the copy reads.  And better yet, it’s “Part of an entire line of #Drinkintheshower accessories.”  Who knows how much fun you’ll have?

Where to start with this?  Maybe I’m just getting old, but who thinks it’s a good idea to take a wine glass into the shower, assuming it’s real glass and not plastic?  I mean, you could slip and the glass could break and jeez, who knows.  Or maybe steam condensing on the glass will make it slippery and you’ll drop it.  I guess it’s a good thing that you’re already in soap and water to clean the cuts you’ll get.

My second thought was that I don’t think I spend enough time in there to have wine.  And what about the restrictions on water use in California?  You mean you’re supposed to squeeze in a glass of wine during your mandated extra-short shower time?  How exactly is that supposed to work?  I think they’d need to change the name from Sipski to Chugski.

But what it comes down to is, WHY DO YOU NEED TO DRINK WINE IN THE SHOWER?  Do you think it’ll improve your shower singing ability?  Trust me, it won’t.  (And don’t go pretending your wine glass is a microphone, either.  That’s just asking for trouble.)

Snark aside, if the shower is the only place you can be by yourself and enjoy a glass of wine — something that could definitely be the case these days — then please, have at it.  But for goodness sake, be careful!

See what I mean?  So much entertainment.  No unsubscribe for me.  I can’t wait to see what’s next.

Cheers!

Tom

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A smile for everyone on a ride around the world

Twenty-two-year-old Hideyuki Miyakawa on a round-the-world bike trip in 1960. Hide stopped in Turin to see the famed auto show, met an Italian woman, and stayed for decades. He’s the founder and owner of Bulichella in Tuscany, one of the wineries I import from.

One of the best things about importing wine is meeting the people who make it. Some have taken over generations-old family businesses. Others came to making wine after doing other things. In those cases, there’s usually some cognitive dissonance between the old and new careers. But even among the occasionally outrageous wine origin stories I’ve encountered, Hideyuki Miyakawa probably gets the award for the biggest swerve in career and life changes.

Hide (pronounced EE-day) as he’s called, is the owner and founder of Società Agricola Bulichella, a farm producing wine and olive oil in the Maremma in southwestern Tuscany, near the village of Suvereto. His road – and I do mean road — from Miebashi, Japan where he was born, to Tuscany, where he now lives, was both unexpected and full of surprises.

In 1960, 22-year-old Hide and a friend decided to take time off from their automobile design jobs and go on a motorcycling trip. Not just your average trip, mind you, but to ride around the world, writing articles for a Japanese publication as they went. They started in southeast Asia, riding through India and Pakistan before hitting the Middle East and then Europe. They arrived in Italy in time for the Rome Summer Olympics, and Hide wrote about the games, basing himself there for a while. Soon after, the two auto designers decided to ride up to Turin and check out the annual auto show.

Marisa Miyakawa in the early 1960s. In addition to raising seven children and helping start Bulichella, she founded Un Sorriso per Tutti, a charitable organization to help orphans in the Congo.

The Turin Auto Show is a big deal, featuring the world’s finest in automotive design. And since it attracts people from all over the globe, the show organizers try to hire as many translators as possible. The translator for Hide was Maria Luisa (Marisa) Bassano, a young woman from Turin who was studying Japanese.   Sparks evidently flew between the two, and despite the presence of combustible material, no one was harmed. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself with that…) Marisa took Hide and his friend around the show and invited them to her family’s home for lunch the next day.

Forget “La Dolce Vita” — in 1960 it was still a big deal for a proper Italian girl to bring a boy she’d just met home to meet the family, and a foreigner no less. Even with his friend along as “chaperone.” But Marisa’s family was charmed by Hide. Marisa soon left to spend a year in Japan for her studies, and her family took Hide under their wing while she was gone. In 1961, Hide went to visit Marisa in Japan, and they got engaged there, marrying in 1962.

They settled in Turin, where Hide began working with Giorgetto Giugiaro and Aldo Mantovani, both well-known Italian auto designers. In 1968, the three men founded Italdesign, a company that designed concept and production cars for many European auto companies, plus cars produced in Asia and the U.S. – including the DeLorean which was used in the “Back to the Future” movies. (Giugiaro is a giant in the world of Italian design, and also created cameras, computer prototypes, office furniture, watches, firearms, and even pasta shapes.)

One of the many spectacular views at Bulichella. The trees are featured on many of the wine labels.

And then came the wine, or at least the first step toward it.  In 1983, Hide and Marisa bought a piece of farmland in the Maremma to use as a vacation property. The land had grapevines and olive trees, and Hide and Marisa quickly saw its business potential. All of the farming was organic, something unusual for the time and the region. In 1992, they began transitioning their lives to Tuscany from Turin and decided to invest more in Bulichella, as the farm came to be known. For help, they hired the Bonaguidi family, who had been in the area for many years and knew the particular soil and climate well, and they also started an agriturismo business at Bulichella, which was then a relatively new concept. In 1997 they completed construction of a new winery, producing all their wines with organic certification.

But the move to Bulichella also led to other changes.  The same year the new winery opened, Marisa finalized plans for a philanthropic organization to aid orphans in the Congo. This venture combined a number of influences from her life – her training and work as a special education teacher and a passion for understanding the world and the problems of the less fortunate that her father had taught her from childhood. The experience of being in a multi-national and multi-racial family in what was a relatively homogeneous Italian society also influenced her worldview. It led her and Hide, after having four children, to adopt three more children from Africa. And this, in turn, led to the founding of the non-profit Un Sorriso per Tutti – A Smile for Everyone – that continues today.

Sadly, Marisa died in 2003, and over the next few years Hide began to turn more of Bulichella’s farm and production operations over to his daughter Shizuko. Shizuko splits her time between Bulichella and her family in Turin, and has continued to focus on wine and olive oil. In 2015 she hired a new enologist, Lucco d’Atoma, and his changes convinced Shizuko that she needed new label designs to launch a new phase for Bulichella. Before, the labels had been a simple stylized stand of cypress trees seen throughout Tuscany. Shizuko and the family chose line drawings that convey more of the particular setting and terroir of Bulichella plus a bit of family history. The new look made its debut at Vinitaly in 2018 and Shizuko said it was a truly proud moment for her and her family.

The label of a wine named for Hide in a new series of labels from Bulichella, showing him driving a classic car in the vineyards. In the back are two cypress trees, which used to be on Bulichella’s labels.  Shizuko Miyakawa, Hide’s daughter and Bulichella’s manager, wanted a design that combined older elements with some family history and a sense of terroir.

I’ve got lots of great stories about Hide and Bulichella, but the visit Cy and I made there in October 2017 stands out. Shizuko invited us to a big Sunday family lunch. Her husband came down from Turin, and her oldest brother Marco and his family drove from Milan. Hide and his second wife were there too, and a surprise guest arrived – Hide’s motorcycle-riding buddy came up from Rome. There was great food, mostly Italian but with some Japanese dishes too, in seemingly endless amounts.

As we sat looking at the beautiful scenery, conversations around the table switched from English to Italian to Japanese, sometimes all in the same sentence. It seemed unlike anything else we’d experienced. Yet at the same time, it was very much like family dinners at the homes of some of our producers in France. And family celebrations here in the U.S. It was a lovely reminder that the world isn’t such a large place – it’s only a motorcycle ride away.


With 17 hectares of vines, Bulichella grows Sangiovese, Cab, Merlot, Syrah, Montepulciano, Vermentino, and Viognier.  The 2017 Tuscanio Bianco ($19), made from Vermentino and Viognier, is drinking spectacularly well right now.  So is the 2016 Rubino ($21), which is 50% Sangiovese and 25% each Cab and Merlot.  Shizuko told me they named it Rubino for its color.  It has a similar formulation to so-called “Supertuscan” wines, although unlike most of that category, it’s aged in second- and third-use barrels.  Both of these wines are IGT Costa Toscana, a designation that Hide helped to create (they were previously designated as Bianco di Toscana and Rosso di Toscana).  He also pushed for creation of a DOCG Suvereto Sangiovese, and those grapes go into the 2013 Tuscanio Rosso ($35).  It’s a beautiful Sangiovese, complex and not too oaky.  Bulichella also produces the signature wine called Hide – obviously named for Hide himself — which is 100% Syrah, and a Bordeaux-style Cab and Merlot blend called Colledipietrerosse (Red rock hills).  I brought some Hide over to sell, and after pouring it at one tasting sold my entire stock within a month.  Colledipietrerosse is one I plan to bring over in the future.

I’ve been recommending Bulichella wines with recipes for a while now because they drink spectacularly well with food.   This post’s recipe is another one that will work with any of the three Bulichellas in stock.  Roasted Sausages and Grapes is supposedly a Tuscan recipe, since I have seen it in restaurants in Tuscany I’ll just go with that designation!  Dishes with grapes are pretty common in wine-making regions of Italy, some with pork or chicken.  Cooked this way, some of the grapes stay whole while some burst and release their juice into the sauce.  The dish can be made as an appetizer or a main course.  For an appetizer, you’ll want to slice the sausages up to use as bruschette.  Mashed potatoes, polenta, or cooked farro are great bases to use if you want to serve them as an entrée.  Either way, make sure you get really good Italian sausage.  It’s fine to use turkey and chicken versions as long as you get ones you’d be happy to eat even without all the grapes and sauce.

I find that I’m less inclined to drink wine outside of meals these days, so if I’m opening a bottle I’ll want to use it in the recipe too, if I can.  Although this recipe calls for ¼ cup of red wine, I’d go ahead and use the Tuscanio Bianco if you have it open.  And if you’re drinking the Tuscanio Rosso (and I hope you will), go ahead and put ¼ cup of that in the recipe.  That way you can tell your guests that you used a spectacular wine in the dish because they’re worth it!

Cheers!

Tom

Roasted Sausages and Grapes

Serves 6-8 as entrée or 12 as appetizer

2-1/2 pounds Italian sausages, (hot, sweet, or a combination) made from pork, turkey, or chicken

2-1/2 pounds seedless grapes (red or white or a combination), washed and stemmed

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted plus 1 tablespoon unmelted

6 garlic cloves, peeled and cut lengthwise in quarters

¼ cup dry red wine

¼ cup balsamic vinegar

Salt and pepper

Serving suggestions:  mashed potatoes, polenta, or cooked farro for entrée, toasted baguette slices for appetizer

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.  Prick the sausages with a fork, then put them in a single layer in a large skillet.  Add enough cold water to cover the sausages and bring to just boiling over high heat.  Reduce the heat to a bare simmer, partially cover the pan, and poach for 15 minutes.  This will remove some of the fat and ensure that the sausages get completely cooked in the oven.  Remove the sausages from the water and let them cool for a couple of minutes.

Meanwhile, combine the grapes, melted butter, garlic slivers, and some salt and pepper in a large roasting pan, preferably one that can also go on the stove top.  Toss well to mix and set aside.

At this point, you’ll have to decide whether to slice the sausages or not.  For an entrée you can leave them whole or cut them in half or quarters.  For an appetizer, slice the sausages into about 1/2-inch thick pieces.

Add the sausages to the roasting pan, pressing the sausages down to the bottom of the pan.  Put the pan in the oven and roast for about a half hour total.  If you’ve sliced the sausages, you’ll want to stir the pan up a few times during cooking.  If they’re whole or in pieces, turn them over once halfway through cooking.  The sausages should be nicely browned, otherwise cook for a little longer.

Remove the pan from the oven, and use a slotted spoon to remove the sausages and grapes to a bowl or platter.  Place the roasting pan over one or two burners on the stove and turn the burners on to medium-high heat.  (If you’ve used a ceramic roasting dish, pour the liquid into a saucepan instead, scraping up as much of anything on the bottom of the roasting pan as you can.)  Add the wine and balsamic vinegar and scrape up the bottom.  Boil for a few minutes to reduce and then add the last tablespoon of butter.  Taste for salt and pepper.  Pour the sauce over the sausages, and serve.  Use the bread to make bruschette for appetizers.  For an entrée, serve with something to help sop up the juices.

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How dry we were?

For the past five years or so, the idea of alcohol-free Januarys has caught on in many countries. There are many motivations, but it’s mostly perceived as a health benefit.  This particular photo comes from a series of public-interest initiatives in the U.K.

February marks the end of what for some is a month of trying various forms of self-improvement. Although we think we’re going to keep up the things we’ve started, that mostly doesn’t happen (at least for me.) Veganuary may segue into Vegruary, but probably not for most people. And after Valentine’s Day we’ll see sanity and space return from January’s crowds at the gym. In the past, there were various reasons for people not drinking as much as usual in January, like saving money or drinking their holiday alcohol gifts. I could expect a jump in wine sales as the calendar page turned.

But in the last five years or so, deliberate alcohol-free Januarys have become more of a thing. For some people it’s a way to raise money for charities by collecting donations as encouragement. For most who try it, though, there’s a health angle. At its best, I think it could be a good thing – giving people a way to examine when and how they consume alcohol. When the month’s over, this could lead to a better relationship with drinking.

Mindfulness when it comes to food and drink is a good idea. But like so much else, dry January has also been incorporated into ideas of self-care. It’s a real needle scratch for me when, for the rest of the year, many people look at wine a positive part of self-care, as I’ve written before. How wine is part of self-care part of the year but not during January doesn’t make sense to me.

Part of the reason for seemingly contradictory actions is likely because really good information on alcohol and health is scarce. And it’s not just for alcohol, but top-notch medical information in general, especially for women. In the February 12 Washington Post op-ed section, Dr. Nikki Stamp argues that a history of one-sided medical research and institutional sexism has fostered the rise of the wellness culture we have today. She starts with a look at Gwyneth Paltrow’s new Netflix show on wellness. Much of it seems expensive and useless, Stamp says. Which is fine if you want to waste money trying to look younger. But if it extends to rejecting sound medicine for treatable conditions, that’s another story. Paltrow doesn’t appear to conflate the two things, but that’s not necessarily true of wellness in general.

As Stamp recounts, last month the head of Britain’s National Health Service “delivered a stinging assessment of the growth of the wellness industry and the harms that the willful ignorance of science is bringing.” She agrees, but also argues that if doctors find the multitrillion-dollar wellness industry distressing, they deserve part of the blame for medical science that has ignored women. And, since most medical research applies almost exclusively to men, it has resulted in misdiagnosis and unnecessary perpetuation of painful conditions in women. Wellness has rushed to fill this gap for people who feel excluded by medicine. “The wellness industry purports to be everything that conventional medicine is not: egalitarian, hopeful and accessible.”

I also suspect there’s a sense of novelty to self-care and wellness that helps keep people engaged, both men and women. There’s always something new to try. The conventional message from medical science hasn’t changed for decades on general health and maintaining a “healthy” body weight: eating right, exercising, not smoking, etc. We could all recite it in our sleep. But cold plunges, a novel diet, a common substance we don’t eat enough of but should, and things like that? Why not try them? Maybe they’ll work, or kick-start a better regimen in general. But if not, at least we tried something new.

Avoiding alcohol in January certainly fits in here – while it’s not exactly a new concept, most people will have forgotten what it felt like last year so it’ll seem like something different 😉. Seriously, though, as I’ve written before, I don’t expect alcohol to be a health tonic. While I’d like to know more about it, I’m comfortable with moderate drinking given the current state of information. I’m also on board with people who want to see if not drinking will benefit their lives.

But I have a suggestion. Most people don’t just do a dry January, they try other things as well. This means that the effects of not drinking might not be as clear to us. We lead multi-variable lives, so if we want to see which things have a real effect, we can’t necessarily do them all at once. Next year, maybe we should wait until we’ve established some of the other things, like the new eating and exercise regimen, and then give a dry month a try. That way we’ll be able to judge the real impact apart from the noise.

———————–

If you’ve decided to return to drinking wine in February, or just want to try something new, we’re here to help. I’ve put most of our wines costing $19 per bottle and up on sale. You’ll automatically get an additional 20% off through the end of April when you order them, on top of the regular volume discounts. So maybe grab some special occasion bottles, or just upgrade your nightly meal wine with something you probably won’t drink every day.

And one of the ones I think you could pick, especially if you want something to pair with the chicken recipe below, is Società Agricola Bulichella’s Tuscanio Bianco ($19). It’s mostly made with Vermentino with a little Viognier. It’s a wonderful winter white wine, and perfect for many vegan dishes, too.

The recipe is Apricot and Prune Chicken Stew, from The Saffron Tales by Yasmin Khan. My husband Cy’s father was born in Iran, and Cy grew up eating Persian food at family get-togethers. I like to make Cy this dish because he says it reminds him of his grandmother’s food. When it’s cooking and he comes through the front door, he tells me he can smell it as he comes up the steps! There’s not a lot of preparation, and most of the cooking is hands-off. We’re not necessarily used to combining meat and fruit in our food here in the U.S., but the apricots and prunes add just a touch of sweetness to the sauce. And the saffron adds a wonderful aroma, too. It’s awfully good.

Iranian (or Persian) cookbooks are easier to find than they used to be, and The Saffron Tales is one of the best. I asked Ms. Khan for permission to reprint her recipe, and she graciously agreed. And although it’s a “stew,” it’s not particularly heavy, and it fits in with lighter eating. Well, OK, not grilled-chicken-breast-and-steamed-broccoli lighter eating, but still – it’s a winter meal you can eat any time of year.

Cheers!

Tom

Apricot and Prune Chicken Stew (Aloo Mosamaa)

From The Saffron Tales, by Yasmin Khan

Reprinted with the author’s kind permission

Serves 4

Vegetable Oil

3 medium onions, finely chopped

¾ teaspoon cumin seeds

¾ teaspoon cilantro (coriander) seeds

8 boneless, skinless chicken thighs (about 2 pounds, I like to cut them into two pieces each)

1-1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1-1/2 teaspoons turmeric

1 teaspoon fine sea salt

½ teaspoon black pepper

2 cups good-quality chicken stock

16 dried apricots, cut in quarters

16 prunes, cut in half

½ teaspoon saffron threads

A pinch of sugar

2 tablespoons freshly boiled water

2 tablespoons lemon juice

Heat 3 tablespoons of oil in a large saucepan with a lid and gently fry the onions over a low heat, stirring occasionally, until brown and very soft (around 25 minutes).

Meanwhile, toast the cumin and cilantro seeds in a dry skillet for a minute or two and then grind them into a fine powder with a mortar and pestle or spice grinder.

Once the onions are ready, add the chicken thighs to the saucepan, along with the ground cumin and cilantro, the cinnamon, turmeric, salt, and pepper. Cook for a few minutes over high heat until the chicken is sealed (not raw-looking) on all sides and then add the stock. Cover and cook over a low to medium heat for 40 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat a tablespoon of oil in a skillet and lightly fry the apricots and prunes for 2-3 minutes until they start to plump up.

Grind the saffron with a pinch of sugar in the mortar and pestle and then transfer to a cup and leave to steep in the boiled water for 2 minutes.

When the chicken is cooked, add the fried fruit, along with the lemon juice and saffron liquid. Cook for a final 5-10 minutes until the sauce with the lid off, until the sauce has thickened a bit. Adjust the seasoning with a touch more salt, pepper, or lemon juice.

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Limiting pesticides in wine — and a little of my skepticism, too

The Zero Pesticide Residue Label that will appear on wines certified by Nouveaux-Champs. The organization has begun to certify wines and one of the producers is a winery I used to import from.

This morning I read an article about a new certification in France for agricultural products containing zero pesticide residues. And that a few French wineries had joined the effort and become eligible to label some of their wines as “Zero Pesticide Residue” products.

Best of all, to my enviro/chemical engineer mind, the resulting bragging sticker to be placed on the bottles contains five important words: Within the limits of quantification. This acknowledges that the wines might contain pesticide residues, but that the quantities are so small that current instruments and methods can’t yet detect them.

Bravo for the honesty. And good for the certifying organization, called Nouveaux-Champs (or New Fields, in French), for coming up with something that conveys accurate and useful information to consumers so that they can make more informed choices.

Back in 2015, I wrote about a study of pesticides in French wines. All of the 100 or so wines tested contained detectable pesticide residues, even the ones labeled organic. Some wines contained what seemed to be high quantities, although no wines exceeded government standards.  Que Choisir, a French consumer organization that did the study, recommended that wineries opt into a testing program that would allow wines with the fewest and lowest quantities of detectable pesticide residues to label themselves that way. It looks like Nouveaux-Champs has created a program to do that, also requiring demonstrating sustainable practices and periodic third-party monitoring of production in addition to publicizing the result.

The first winery to join, Les Vignerons de Tutiac, a large cooperative in the Bordeaux region, is one I know well. I used to import one of their wines. The winery has a reputation for high-quality production. Because it’s a large cooperative with many growers, it makes sense that the operators could find a few growers with exactly the right conditions for the three wines that will bear the zero pesticide residue label. As I mentioned before, many pesticides persist in the environment, so even a long break without pesticide use can still result in pesticide residues in agricultural products. And pesticides travel by air in dust and droplets far from where they’re used. Even pristine areas can show detectable pesticide levels.

So how can zero pesticide residue wines be made? In all likelihood the grapes are grown on land that hasn’t seen any pesticide use in decades. I’d bet that the properties are all relatively isolated from other agriculture, as well as industry and major roads. And that they’re surrounded by some kind of natural physical barrier, like woods or bodies of water, that blocks pesticide drift and air transport. Or otherwise topographically sheltered from prevailing winds.  Few vineyards can achieve these kinds of conditions, at least under current agricultural practices. It’s especially remarkable in Bordeaux, which Que Choisir found to be the region with the most and highest pesticide detections in wine.

Of course, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t offer some caveats. Because the substances weren’t detected doesn’t mean they’re not there. A barely undetectable amount of a really bad actor could be much more unsafe than a detectable amount of something much less toxic. There’s no reason to expect this kind of situation, but we don’t know what we don’t know.

Another issue is that “pesticides” is a catch-all term for a bunch of substances. These include insecticides, obviously, but also fungicides – something that nearly every winery uses at one time or another. The pesticides that Nouveaux-Champs tries to measure almost certainly don’t include the things approved for use in organic wine production. After all, sulfites, which are created as part of fermentation, are “pesticides” even if we don’t think of them that way, since they kill bacteria that could cause the wine to spoil. (Sulfur compounds are also used as fungicides for grapevines.)  And nearly every wine produced on the planet contains measurable amounts of sulfites, even if they’re not added by the winemaker.  The difference is that we know they’re in the bottle because it says so on the label by law.

One final thought that might be considered a caveat. I’m looking forward to seeing how this plays out economically. Nouveaux-Champs estimates that those products certified as containing zero pesticide residue can expect up to a 30% price premium from consumers. With the normal supply chain markups, this means that that producers would earn between about four and seven percent more per bottle (they’d get the entire 30% for wines sold at the winery). Grape growers may receive even less.  Is that enough money to bring more wineries into the fold, given the increased costs for production and certification? We’ll find out as time goes on.

But OK, enough objections from me for now. In my former life as an environmental scientist, I advocated for the public’s right to know – about toxic chemicals coming from industrial facilities, toxic chemicals in children’s toys and other consumer products, and about genetically-modified organisms in our food. Not because anything would kill or even necessarily harm us, but because we have the right to make informed decisions about our lives. This ought to extend to the wine we drink, too. I’m really pleased that we’ll now start to have that chance.


No recipe this post — I’ve been spending a bunch of time responding to the proposed 100% tariffs on European wines, as well as commenting on the 25% tariffs on certain French, Spanish, and German wines.  I’ll share some of those comments with you next time, and I promise a recipe, too.

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A holiday gift — be at peace with drinking wine just because you like it

I set out to examine why many wine drinkers seem to need their wine to be a health beverage. Part of it is wrapped up in the whole issue of what constitutes health, and why it has become a necessary counterpoint to contradictory and shaming messages about food. This is partly responsible for the rise of self-care as a major component of health, and for many people, that’s where wine comes in. (Photo by Alisa Anton on Unsplash.)

Since the holidays are nearly here, I expect to see a round of articles discussing how the wine we’ll be drinking this time of year is either (a) the perfect way to get jacked despite the inevitable holiday overeating, or (b) a step toward missing future holidays with our grandchildren, along with some shade thrown at people who touted option (a).

Obviously, I’d like to know what the real deal is with wine and health, as I’d like to with all foods. I personally don’t need wine to be a health tonic. But I wanted to explore why so many people want or need to think that drinking wine is good for them. (Or eating dark chocolate, for that matter). And, conversely, why there’s such gleeful vitriol from some when we learn that it might not be.

I got way deeper into the topic than I expected to, and I don’t want to drag everyone into the weeds. After a couple of weeks of reading and discussion I was left with two conclusions:

1) Anything we eat or drink can be dismissed as self-indulgent, whether it’s for pleasure or what we think of as pursuit of a healthy lifestyle. Wine is an easy target, especially because of its historically elitist associations. Tangible health benefits blunt the criticism. If they turn out not to be true, then those who claimed health benefits are bound to be on the receiving end of “see, you’re no better than the rest of us” – ism.

2) It’s not just food and wine that have to be good for us. Everything in our lives has to be “healthy” or it will seem to have less value, and we’re not supposed to care about it. Since there’s no definition of “healthy” living, we’ve allowed all sorts of aesthetic and decorous things to creep into our notions of health. And then, of course, we want something to back us up in our beliefs.

These seem pretty emphatic, which isn’t what I intended. They’re based on philosophical research, which by its nature tries hard to make its points. So while it might read like we’re helplessly buffeted by forces beyond our control, the point is that there are social norms that work on us whether we’re aware or not. And they influence our attitudes in ways we don’t necessarily understand.

I didn’t expect to find any studies examining people’s attitudes toward drinking wine in a sociological or ethical context, and I couldn’t. But those studies definitely exist for food. I was particularly struck by work done by Rebecca Kukla, Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University, and senior research scholar at the Kennedy School of Ethics.

Kukla wrote “Shame, Seduction, and Character in Food Messaging” as a chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Food Ethics, and it’s an eye-opening look at what she calls “the rhetorical and ethical structure of our public communications and representations concerning food, eating, health, and obesity.” Her take on food messaging is blunt. “Any eating practices in which we may engage are at risk of being shamed. There is no normatively safe way to eat in our culture – no set of eating practices that makes one more or less immune from shaming and criticism… Our eating practices are routinely portrayed as having characterological significance, so there is no right kind of person to be in our culture, when it comes to food.” Further, she says that “messages that create a moralized sense of personal accountability for food choices, linking eating practices with character, also cause moral distortion…[and] can do direct moral harm by demeaning their recipients.”

Since she’s here in DC, I wanted to meet with her, and she agreed. I didn’t know when I first contacted her that she’s also a certified sommelier. She was happy to discuss what she also sees as an increasing need to make wine into a health beverage.

Kukla and I talked about two points in her article that I thought particularly applied to wine. The first is that wine, like some foods, is considered seductive, pleasurable, and rewarding – but at the same time those foods are thought of as “bad” because they’re tempting and an indulgence. The second is that wine is part of what we think of as celebratory foods, which Kukla claims, “are almost exclusively among those also coded as unhealthy and shameful.” While we think of wine, correctly, as part of important cultural traditions, it’s considered celebratory in part because it’s also indulgent and decadent.

She agreed that modern-day wine writing, like food writing, plays up the sensual aspects in a way that can push wine into what people think of as the “bad” category. And the reasoning that we “reward” ourselves with wine (like we do with other celebratory foods) underscores that it’s something we’re not otherwise “supposed” to have.  But if wine has a health benefit, that’s a built-in excuse to drink it without seeming self-indulgent.

Wine has its own elitist baggage, though. Its historical association with wealth certainly doesn’t help. And wine evokes what Kukla called “the charm of other places.” Not that it has to be a French château necessarily, but even many California winery tasting rooms sport the hushed tones generally reserved for the world’s great cathedrals.  I appreciate that charm because it has great associations for me.  But it can certainly seem overblown.

Kukla then took our discussion into work by Anna Kirkland at the University of Michigan. Kukla’s chapter cited one of Kirkland’s articles, titled “The Environmental Account of Obesity: A Case for Feminist Skepticism.” Kirkland’s idea of something called “healthism” – that health has become our new morality – also applies to how we look at wine.

I’m looking forward to contacting Kirkland to discuss her work more fully in a wine context. But reading her feminist skepticism article and my discussion with Kukla on Kirkland’s ideas gave me plenty to ponder.

At first glance, the idea that we need everything to be healthy in our lives in order to be worthy of consideration seems way out there.  But I can see some truth in it.  I think part of it may be a reaction to the definitively unhealthy things in our lives we can’t control, like pollution and global warming.  Kirkland argues that because healthy means different things to different people, we have let the concept slide. It has absorbed aesthetics, character, and class values in a kind of absurd mix. Our images of what constitute “healthy” living now tilt toward the decorous, proper, and clean, like something out of a magazine. And it extends beyond what we eat to things like spirituality.

Kukla and I discussed healthism as it applies to wine, and we agreed that the marketing associated with “natural” wine fits the bill. While there isn’t any evidence that these wines are better for you than wines produced by today’s conventional methods, they have acquired a patina of self-care. Our expanded sense of health includes concepts like self-care, so that makes natural wines “healthy,” especially if you can pit them against other wines.

But even conventional wines are treated as self-care, although most people don’t seem to extend that distinction to beer and spirits. Since we’ve conflated self-care with health, we then want what Kukla calls “Capital S science” to back it up. When we find it, it reinforces the good we think we’re doing ourselves.

Definitely a lot to think about here. Rebecca Kukla and I agree that people should drink wine because they want to, without shame or the need to make it a health benefit. It sounds like it should automatically be that way, but maybe we all need to embrace our habits to give ourselves permission to enjoy the foods we like without making it seem like we’re judging other people for theirs. Easier said than done, I know, since we’re all buffeted by messages telling us otherwise. But hey, it’s the holidays, so we can always hope, right?


Roasted butternut squash and onions

A photo of my attempt at Roasted Butternut Squash & Red Onion with Tahini & Za’atar, from Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. You don’t peel the squash before roasting (it comes out great that way), and you can do the squash and onions a couple of days ahead. So it makes a tasty and easy Thanksgiving side dish. Thanks to Mr. Tamimi for permission to reprint the recipe.

My experience with Thanksgiving food is that most people don’t want to experiment, at least not with the basics. Not because they’ll get shamed for it, but because part of the comfort of the Thanksgiving holiday is the traditional meal.

Dessert can be an exception, especially if someone else brings it. But new side dishes can also get a pass as long as they don’t crowd out the stuffing, mashed potatoes, or brussels sprouts. The trouble is, oven space is at a premium on Thanksgiving Day, so it’s great to have a side dish you can make ahead, refrigerate, and then let sit at room temperature before serving.

I was looking through some of my cookbooks recently and came across a recipe containing roasted butternut squash in the book Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. It has a lot of great stuff in it, but the thing about this recipe is that you roast the butternut squash without peeling it. Cutting it into small pieces first and then roasting skin-side down on the baking sheet softens the skin and makes it a bit chewy, a nice contrast to the softer flesh of the squash. But maybe the best thing is that it was wonderful as leftovers, too – which makes it perfect as a make-ahead Thanksgiving side dish.

I asked Sami Tamimi for permission to reprint the recipe here for you, and he graciously agreed. I’ve included my notes on doing the roasting ahead.

I hope your Thanksgiving dinner is accompanied by a bunch of open bottles of wine, allowing you to try different foods and wines together. So don’t sweat it. But if you’re looking for something in particular – especially if you’re bringing this side dish to a dinner – try Bulichella Rubino ($21). It’s a blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot, made in the Maremma in Tuscany. Not as big-bodied as so-called Supertuscans that have the same blend of grapes (and only pair with Tuscan steak), it’s delicious with a wide range of foods. Shizuko Miyakawa, the Japanese-Italian winery manager at Bulichella, spent a year in the U.S. as an exchange student, and would be thrilled if you served her family’s wine with your Thanksgiving dinner.

Best wishes for the holiday season, and enjoy all of the wine and food!

Cheers!

Tom

Roasted Butternut Squash & Red Onion with Tahini & Za’atar

Serves 4 as a main, or 8 as a large side dish

From Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, reprinted with Mr. Tamimi’s permission

1 butternut squash (about 2-1/4 pounds), skin scrubbed and rinsed, cut into ¾ by 2-1/2 inch wedges

2 large red onions, each cut into 8 wedges (about 1-1/4 inch)

3-1/2 tablespoons olive oil

3-1/2 tablespoons tahini paste

1-1/2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 tablespoons water

1 small clove of garlic, crushed to a paste or grated

3-1/2 tablespoons pine nuts (30 grams, or 1 ounce)

1 tablespoon za’atar

1 tablespoon coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley

Flaky sea salt and freshly-ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 475 degrees F.

Combine the squash pieces with the onion wedges in a large bowl, add 3 tablespoons olive oil, 1 teaspon of salt, and some black pepper and toss well. Spread on a baking sheet with the skin facing down and roast in the oven for 30 to 40 minutes. Keep an eye on the onions as they might cook faster than the squash and need to be removed earlier. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.

At this point, you can refrigerate the squash and onions for up to 2 days. A couple of hours before serving, take them out of the refrigerator and let them come to room temperature.

To make the sauce, place the tahini in a small bowl along with the lemon juice, water, garlic, and ¼ teaspoon salt. Whisk until the sauce is the consistency of honey, adding more water or tahini if necessary.

Place the remaining half-tablespoon (1-1/2 teaspoons) of the oil into a small frying pan and place over medium-low heat. Add the pine nuts along with ½ teaspoon salt and cook for 2 minutes, stirring often, until the nuts are golden brown. Remove from the heat and transfer the nuts and oil to a small bowl to stop the cooking.

To serve, spread the vegetables out on a large serving platter and drizzle over the tahini. Sprinkle the pine nuts and their oil on top, followed by the za’atar and parsley.

Variation: You could also make a different version using spinach, bleu cheese, and walnuts. Roast the squash and onions and let cool. Put 3-4 ounces of washed baby spinach on the platter, top with the roasted vegeetables, ½ cup walnut pieces, and about 1/3 cup crumbled bleu cheese. Drizzle on about 5 tablespoons of a simple lemon vinaigrette and serve.

 

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