Time for a Pennsylvania “Tea Party” (of the vinous variety)

52 - Liberty Bell

Lettie Teague’s recent excellent Wall Street Journal piece on the tyranny of Pennsylvania’s Liquor Control Board (PLCB) focused on its injustices to the state’s restaurant industry. But individual consumers also suffer mightily from its stranglehold on the wine market – so much so, Pennsylvania wine-lovers should consider fighting back just as restaurant sommeliers are starting to do.

(I pick on Pennsylvania because I spend a lot of time in the Philadelphia area and have experienced the PLCB-driven wine market. Residents of the various other states with hard-to-navigate wine laws have similar motivation to lobby for change.)

As Teague points out, Prohibition never really ended in Pennsylvania; the ambit of its banned behavior merely shifted. If you want to consume wine in Pennsylvania – at home, in a private club, in a restaurant – it’s supposed to come from a state store or, in limited circumstances, from an in-state winery or certain out-of-state retailers and wine clubs with proper licensing to ship to Pennsylvania consumers. The law includes a $25/bottle fine for individuals who carry wine purchased elsewhere across the state line, but enforcement has effectively lapsed, spurring fed-up consumers in the Greater Philadelphia area to “wine-mule” cases purchased at New Jersey and Delaware wine superstores home in the trunks of their cars.

Pennsylvania’s restraints on consumer choice put up speed bumps to securing the most competitive prices and interesting selections, although determined Keystone State oenophiles will seek out those retailers and wine clubs that deliver to Pennsylvania. And, by the way, I haven’t unearthed a magic algorithm that determines who these sellers are. Examples: New York-based Sherry-Lehmann does not ship to Pennsylvania consumers while Super Buy-Rite in Jersey City does. The Wine Cellar @ Red Bank (New Jersey), which supplies several wine clubs including WSJ Wines and Virgin Wines, cannot ship to PA, but Lot 18, in Mahopac, NY, includes PA on its delivery list.

So, while savvy and diligent wine consumers can take heart from the increasing ease of buying good product from outside Pennsylvania (driven perhaps by the state’s fear of losing an interstate commerce challenge on constitutional grounds), for their local purchases they are stuck with the PLCB state stores. This is where I dream of a citizens’ uprising.

The state is disinclined to relinquish the cash flow it reaps from this monopoly operation, Teague rightly notes. The previous governor, Tom Corbett, tried but failed to muscle a privatization bill through the legislature and incumbent Tom Wolf shows no interest in reform. How can it hurt – a collaboration of consumers and restaurateurs making a stand against the PLCB system?

In the meantime, residents and visitors, don your rose-colored glasses: the onerous rules that lead to sky-high prices on Pennsylvania restaurant wine lists have also created many BYOB establishments. You can wine and dine extremely well in Philadelphia at a fraction of what you’d pay in New York City – especially if you want to protest the system in your own modest way by bringing a bottle from your favorite (out-of-state) wine store.

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/64487725@N07/14505752118″>Liberty Bell</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/“>(license)</a>

Wine can’t save Greece (but something else might)

Ancient Greece was the center of the wine universe. Contemporary Greece is on the verge of economic collapse, with households and businesses struggling to stay afloat amidst the government’s potentially imminent default on its debt. Can the Greek wine industry play any measurable role in getting the country back on its feet?

Not likely.

49 - Greek stadium

Undeniable, however, is how far the nation’s wine industry advanced in the last three decades of the 20th century. From a tradition-bound, domestically-focused business, Greek winemaking modernized on several fronts. A sophisticated appellation scheme was created, designating four levels of quality.

Grape growers and wine makers trained abroad and returned home to implement new techniques and put unexploited land into cultivation, in turn attracting outside investment.

The quality of the final product improved, previously-obscure native grape varieties began to shine, and exports climbed—although Greek wine exports remain a tiny fraction of those from powerhouse producers like France. In 2014, a lower-than-normal volume year for the region, Burgundy alone exported some 279 million bottles of wine. Exports from all of Greece in 2007 (the most recent figures I could find) totaled some 46 million bottles.

Producers that can are continuing to export despite the financial crisis, giving U.S. oenophiles access to good and interesting Greek product—at restaurants like New York’s Thalassa, for instance (whose wine list, sadly, is not currently posted on its website), and from retailers with a deep international bench. Merchants like Sparrow in Hoboken and Sherry-Lehmann in New York offer a virtual tour, via local reds (Xinomavro, Agiorghitiko) and whites (Moschofilero and Malagousia), of Macedonia and the Peloponnese.

But many aspects of a modern, export-oriented wine industry seem to have gone dormant in Greece in recent years. It is difficult to unearth up-to-date production statistics. A website called Hellastat that used to publish Greek wine import and export numbers is defunct. The Athens Chamber of Commerce and Industry posted an informative account of domestic wine production, consumption and exports, but it covered the late 1990s and was published in 2005.

Adding to the country’s, and its wine sector’s, economic woes, lousy weather in 2014 cut last year’s production by between 15% and 30%, depending on the region.

The country’s dire straits make it difficult to thrive in the wine or any other business in Greece today. Wine lovers may have to wait for a better economic climate to attract the entrepreneurs with the drive and enthusiasm to reinvest in the industry.

Until that day, I can’t resist reviving an old proposal for Greek restoration: make Greece the permanent home of the Olympics. With prospective host cities losing interest because of the enormous investments and disruptions required (case in point: Boston for 2024), and some previous hosts regretting the expenditures made for now-idle infrastructure, the time may have come to shake up the IOC system and build permanent Olympic facilities in Greece.

Just imagine how much Greek wine those biennial hordes of Olympic visitors would consume!

 

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Feeling wine-ish

It was inevitable: the health-promoting ingredients of wine will soon be available for sale in a dried, powdered form. No glass or corkscrew needed.

Equally inevitable, I suppose, is “diet” wine: delivering the pleasures we expect from a standard white, red or rosé, but to a lesser extent.

When I saw the recent news story previewing nutritional supplement Vinia, my first thought (why didn’t I think of that?) was followed by a second thought: oh, a funless way to consume something I associate with pleasure.

grapes 

Vinia, the first commercial offering from Israeli biotech firm BioHarvest Ltd., is a resveratrol-rich, non-alcoholic powder made from red grape cells. It’s due to come to market in September, packaged in single-serve envelopes.

(Interesting side note: BioHarvest, founded in 2007 as Fruitura Bioscience Ltd., announced in January it is relocating its R&D operation from Tel Aviv to Albany, NY. The company hopes to produce an array of “superfoods” made from its patented method for growing fruit cell cultures.)

I’ve reacted to lower-cal, low-alcohol wine with similar disinterest. “Lite” wine can be produced naturally, by harvesting the grapes earlier than normal (when sugar levels are low) and/or unnaturally, through chemical manipulation of alcohol levels or even the addition of fruit juice.

The results are slightly-reduced calorie counts and as much as 50% lower alcohol levels. For instance, one producer specializing in “diet” wine, Skinny Vine, says its three products, Moscato, Chardonnay and Zinfandel, contain 85 to 95 calories per 5 oz. portion and have alcohol content ranging from 7.3% to 8.5%. California-based Skinny Vine is owned by Treasury Wine Estates, now the object of a takeover tug-of-war. U.S.-based Skinnygirl offers “lite” wines and cocktail mixes, and some mass-market wine producers, particularly in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, have created sidelines of low-alcohol wines.

Apparently there are fans of these “diet” wines, and some of them may taste fine. But, to me, altering wine’s natural form and properties to achieve a secondary purpose diminishes wine’s essence.

We justify our enjoyment of the things we ingest by finding reasons they are good for us. Can it be okay not to have a reason?

 

What to pair with your hard-boiled egg

Have you ever approached your lovely lunch, dinner or snack of perfectly-hard-boiled egg with the question, what the heck kind of wine can go with this?

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First, do you know how to perfectly prepare a hard-boiled egg?

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This post is really an excuse to promulgate the consummate technique for such preparation. And, thanks to the recent retreat of the anti-fat food police and reinstatement of the egg’s good reputation, surely you are eating eggs again (if you ever stopped).

Julia Child, in The Way to Cook from 1989, introduced me to this recipe. It is not difficult but requires patience and close watching of the clock to time each step properly. Be sure to have that ice bath ready and waiting when you pull the eggs out of their “steeping” water.

Child didn’t take credit for the recipe, which she noted was developed decades ago by the Georgia Egg Commission. (Sadly—because who knows what other excellent tips and techniques may have issued forth from it in the future—said commission was disbanded last year by a vote of Georgia’s egg producers.)

If you can’t access Child’s cookbooks, you can find the instructions here on food.com. A tweak I recommend to the master recipe is to peel the eggs while slightly warm; I have found the shells don’t lift away so easily once the egg is cold.

And, for a slight variation along with shorter sitting time in the just-boiled water, see incredibleegg.org. Note: the original recipe calls for piercing to ¼” the large end of the egg with a needle or pin before placing it in the pot for cooking, while the revised version warns against this step, on the grounds that a non-sterile needle can introduce bacteria into the interior. I’d say, sterilize your needle first and pierce away!

As for that wine, white for sure. I conjure up a beautiful match between my beautiful egg(s)—which I prefer to eat freshly made and still somewhat warm—and a simple white Burgundy. I’m thinking Mâconnais—a Mâcon-Villages, Saint-Véran, Pouilly-Fuissé or Pouilly-Vinzelles.

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Alternatively, a clean white from Spain, perhaps an Albariño or Godello; a Verdejo or Rioja Blanco.

In any case, a soft, non-grassy wine (I’d stay away from most Sauvignon Blancs) seems the ideal pairing for a late-summer eggy repast. Enjoy!

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Wine glass photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dcbauer/3485439452/ Danielle Bauer, http://photopin.com, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/

 

Languedoc-Roussillon: wine identity under construction

When you order a glass or open a bottle of wine from the Languedoc-Roussillon region, what should you expect from the drinking experience?

That’s a question I’m still trying to answer, following a whirlwind trip through the region. I’m having trouble summarizing the qualities of the various local wines—whites, rosés and reds—I sampled there.

38 - Domaine Ollier Taillefer Allegro

In general, they seemed good values. Purchasing locally, you can pay as little as €5 to €8 a bottle for decent everyday-drinking wines; the highest price we paid (it was in a restaurant) was €23 for a half-bottle of Domaine Ollier Taillefer “Allegro” 2011, a nice white from Faugères. (BTW, another “in general” rule for the region is: stay away from its whites. And I agree, in general, because the Rousanne-Marsanne blends that are common here are not acidic and crisp the way I prefer my whites. In this case, however, the Allegro—a Rolle (aka Vermentino)-Roussanne blend—had enough minerality to satisfy my palate.)

Another sweeping statement you can safely make about these wines is they rely on grapes that do well in warmer climates; not a Pinot Noir vine in sight.

Beyond that, thanks to a diversity of vineyard altitudes and microclimates, grape varietals and blend combinations, and levels of quality, the wines of Languedoc-Roussillon—one of France’s 27 regions and a southernmost one—need more finely-grained parsing to try to figure them out.

Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson do just that: in their World Atlas of Wine they subdivide the region into thirds: western and eastern Languedoc and Roussillon. A bit of shorthand to help in understanding the wines from these sub-regions:

Eastern Languedoc – appellations include (but are not limited to) Faugères, Coteaux de Languedoc, Costières de Nîmes; mostly reds, may remind you of southern Rhône or Provençal reds; grapes include Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre.

Western Languedoc – among its appellations, Corbières, Minervois, Limoux, Fitou; reds from the northern part can be Bordeaux-like while those made farther south (e.g., Corbières) are typically rougher; varietals grown include Grenache, Syrah, Carignan and now even Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

Roussillon – primary appellations Côtes du Roussillon and Côtes du Roussillon-Villages; Carignan the traditional red grape here but Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault now common as well; some decent whites made here, from grape varieties including Malvoisie, Maccabeu, Roussanne, Marsanne and Rolle; also known for its sweet wines, Vins Doux Naturels (VDNs), including Muscat.

I’ll have more to say about the Languedoc-Roussillon wines I drank there and what I thought about them; stay tuned.

Vineyards, vineyards everywhere

Such is the landscape of Languedoc-Roussillon, from which I have just returned. It was my first, and a whirlwind, circuit of the southernmost part of this ever-more-booming French wine region.

Abbaie de Fontfroide vineyard, near Narbonne

Abbaie de Fontfroide vineyard, near Narbonne

The grapes had just been harvested the week or two before, one of the later harvests of recent memory, people told me, so what was on view to travelers like me and my trip companion Marsha as we whirred by on the well-maintained (no matter how remote and narrow) roads were the de-fruited vines, leaves turning to autumn-yellow and orange.

You read that Languedoc-Roussillon is the world’s largest wine region, with more than 700,000 acres under production, but it takes the physical experience of seeing its vineyards stretching to the horizon in all directions, across all terrains, flat and hilly, to comprehend this fact.

Such concentration of grape production is not necessarily a good thing, however, in terms of wine quality and price. The area’s historic high production of juice translated into wines that were not just thin; many were outright bad, France’s black-sheep wines. To address the downward price pressure Languedoc-Roussillon’s overproduction was exerting on European wines in general, E.U. incentives in recent years have prompted growers to rip out vines.

So the region’s wine-making practices have been changing: yields are down, the ratio of grapes to extracted juice has risen over the past decade. Younger winemakers are being drawn to the area, in some cases shunning AOC rules in order to experiment with grape varietals and production techniques.

Our circuit of the area extended up the coast from the Spanish border to Perpignan, straight north from there into Hérault, then meandering southwest through the Minervois and Corbières areas of Aude, to end in the lower reaches of Roussillon’s Pyrénées-Orientales  department. We drank a bit of white, rosé and red, and enjoyed several fabulous meals.

Stay tuned: more on my Languedoc-Roussillon experience in the days to come.

Half-price: restaurants making friends with wine drinkers

Still thinking about how restaurants show their love for wine and, therefore, wine consumers . . . .

Wine lists are an obvious expression of how much an establishment cares about wine and those who will buy it from them. Some restaurants go the extra mile by hosting dinners with winemakers and other wine-themed events.

36 - half-price wines

But nothing says I want your business more than a great deal. I happened on one recently, at the Houlihan’s at Castleton in Indianapolis. It happened to be a Tuesday, which means all bottles on their wine list, all day, are half price—which makes most of them a few dollars over retail. And if you can’t finish the bottle then and there, they’ll recork and seal it up, so you can cart it home without violating open-bottle laws while driving.

Granted, you don’t go to Houlihan’s for its stellar wine selection; but the list in Indianapolis featured were solid stand-bys in all categories. My $16 Kendall-Jackson Grand Reserve Chardonnay was perfect for an Indian Summer evening, sitting on the patio as the sun descended in the west.

Note: Half-price Tuesdays is not a chain-wide policy; the Houlihan’s nearest me in New Jersey has no such bargains.

Yet there is a tantalizing possibility across the Hudson, at the newish Domain NYC restaurant on the upper Broadway. I happened to hear that the restaurant, which touts its organic and sustainably farmed meats, fish and produce, sells its wines for half price on Mondays and Tuesdays.

It’s a decent, international list, with the most diverse selections among the reds. The idea of paying $17 for a 2008 Domaine Devignes Chablis, $34 for a 2008 Tinto Pesquera Ribera del Duero, $87.50 for a 2006 Silver Oak Napa cab: well, I’ll be there soon.

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How to judge a restaurant’s wine list

How wine-consumer-friendly is that restaurant you’ll be dining at tonight?

BYO establishments are the pinnacle of oenophile-friendliness, but most of the time we choose a restaurant based on its food and make the best of the wine list it offers.

35 - wine list

Here are a few guidelines that can help you judge whether a restaurant genuinely loves wine and wants to encourage its guests to sample its selections.

1 – Is the current wine list posted online for advance perusal? While most restaurant websites now post their food menus, not so many include their wine lists. It’s a plus, though, to help you set your spending expectations, gauge markups and search out interesting bottles. Of course, if you order a wine you identified from your online research and the server tells you it’s no longer available, you’re up against my next criterion . . . .

2 – Is the list accurate and up to date? How many times have you ordered a bottle only to be informed that the wine is sold out? Or, even worse, your server presents a bottle of a different (typically younger) vintage than what is listed (although this scenario can occasionally work in your favor, if the replacement bottle would normally command a higher price). These situations depict a restaurant that’s not paying enough attention to its wine list.

3 – What does the list offer for under $100? Affordability is one aspect of consumer-friendliness, and countless restaurants make the grade by this measure. At some of my favorite go-to places, all the wines are below—and often well below—$100. Yet eye-popping (price-wise) wine lists, usually at restaurants with food prices to match, can still be appealing, as long as they include a variety of less-expensive options across categories. And three-digit bottle prices, particularly for older wines that have been in storage, may actually be reasonable, if they are comparable to or barely above retail. Which leads to the issue of markups . . . .

4 – How large are the markups over retail? Aggressive restaurant markups infuriate wine producers, especially smaller ones, who see markups as a way to discourage consumers from trying their product. Restaurants as a rule mark up their bottle prices by at least 2 and sometimes up to 3 times the average retail price, although markup percentages vary tremendously, not only across the restaurant industry but even within a wine list, with lower-end wines often priced at higher markups than more expensive bottles. Savvy diners who feel they’re being suckered if they choose a bottle that’s excessively marked up can do quick research at the table, via smartphone or tablet, or in advance for those lists that are posted online, to find the going retail rates for wines they are considering. And there are restaurants known for their low-markup policies. Landmarc in Manhattan, for one, and some identified by the WSJ’s Lettie Teague.

Diversity of offerings; unusual bottles that are difficult to find—these attributes can also distinguish great from mediocre wine lists. Any lists that stand out in your experience? I’d love to hear about them.

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5 wine party concepts: Part Two

As I was saying, cheers to making wine tasting the centerpiece of a party.

I’m all for organizing a tasting around a theme, to give you and your guests a chance to learn something new about your preferences or about wines in general.

33 - wine bottles 

Yesterday I suggested some ideas for blind tastings. Here are four more organizing principles to consider. In each case, you can keep all the bottles served within a certain price range or explore for value by offering wines at high, low and in-between prices:

One grape, different regions/countries: for wine grapes that are successfully cultivated across a range of geographies, side-by-side comparisons can be revealing. There are many wines for which such tastings would be easy to arrange: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Syrah/Shiraz, Pinot Noir . . . .

One grape, same region: if you want to focus on Oregon Pinots or German Rieslings, Piedmont Nebbiolos or Tuscan Sangioveses, this is a chance to compare producers and vintages.

National suite: here’s a way to showcase an array of wines—sparkling, white, red, perhaps rosé—from a particular country. The list of nations with sufficient wine variety is long and growing—and getting more interesting. Invite adventurous friends for an evening of Brazilian or Croatian wines, or stay more traditional with all-Italian, –Spanish, -French, etc.

Same vintage, different producers: otherwise known as a “horizontal” tasting, this scheme can be as tightly defined or wide open as you choose, from 2010 red Bordeaux under $30 to 2009 Cabernet Sauvignons from all over (or Napa Valley only).

No matter what you taste, enjoy.

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5 wine party concepts: Part One

Fall party season is upon us. Many events are benefits for various worthy causes; others are parties for pleasure’s and friendship’s sake.

32 - wine bottles

If you’re hosting, you can simplify the planning—and possibly wow your guests—by building the party around a wine concept. If you need to keep your costs in check, make wine assignments in advance: ask each guest/guest-couple to bring a bottle of a certain type, region or price point, in accordance with your party theme.

I came up with five ideas; here is the first:

Blind tasting: concealing the identity of the wines you’re serving, by wrapping the bottles or, if color is not a tell in your blindness scheme, decanting them, can add some geekiness to a party—can your guests distinguish a $15 wine from a $40 one, a Merlot from a Cabernet Sauvignon?—and challenge those who are savvy oenophiles.

The object of a blind tasting is to offer a range of wines organized around a particular attribute, such as:

  • Price – Pick a regional varietal (Napa Cabs, New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, red Bordeaux, for instance) and offer a bottles at prices ranging from $10 to . . . $30, $50—whatever maximum you’re comfortable with.
  • Type – Blindfolds required for this approach. Researchers say even seasoned wine tasters can confuse reds with whites with rosés when they can’t see what they’re drinking. I can’t speak from personal experience but am intrigued by the idea.
  • Grape – You can present a range of reds or of whites, or some of each, but each bottle should be a different grape varietal. For example, Pinot Noir, Tempranillo, Sangiovese, Petit Verdot, and Gamay. Who can tell which is which?
  • Country – the same varietal but from different countries/regions. Cabernets from Chile, Argentina, Australia, South Africa, California. Rieslings from Long Island, the Finger Lakes, Germany, Austria. How geographically sensitive are your guests?

This approach elicits active participation, as guest-tasters weigh in on their hunches and can rank their likes, so it can be an ice breaker when people in the room don’t know each other. Be sure to organize your identification system ahead of time and label the bottles or decanters carefully.

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