A corkage too far

I’m slightly peeved. While the dollar amount at issue is small, I think BYO restaurants that employ the policy I find annoying would help themselves by abolishing it.

Here’s what happened: a brand-new BYO restaurant we tried over the weekend in the Philadelphia area (I’ll leave it unnamed for now) charged $5 to open our bottle of wine. (By the way, it was a delicious 2009 Liparita Oakville Cabernet.) While the restaurant announces its BYO status in caps on the front door, it gives no forewarning of the “service fee,” which shows up as a line item on the bill.

In my experience, restaurants that lack liquor licenses and allow customers to bring their own wine or other alcohol (there are many such places in New Jersey and Pennsylvania) generally do not assess a corkage. After all, it’s inherently unfair to charge for opening a patron-supplied bottle when the restaurant cannot offer equivalent bottles on its menu.

And, more than unfair, the policy feels petty and makes the restaurant—particularly in this case, when the food is beautifully prepared and delightfully seasoned—seem miserly. If the owners aren’t meeting their expenses with the food prices alone, why not raise the menu items by a dollar or two? For this establishment, which is prix-fixe, it would be easy to add $2.50 per head and drop the corkage.

BYO deserves more respect

New Jersey is lousy place to live if you’re a wine drinker, according to a state-by-state report card issued last month by the American Wine Consumer Coalition (AWCC).

My state of residence earned a D+, based on six criteria, and a #28 ranking (as did the other prongs of the Tri-State Area, New York and Connecticut).

(By the way, the AWCC gave seven states an A+ and a #1 ranking: California, D.C., Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oregon and Virginia.)

But New Jersey’s poor showing is due in part to the relative weights assigned to the study’s six criteria, and there I beg to differ with the methodology. This state is a BYO mecca, yet that benchmark is weighted next-to-last in this study.

brown bag2

As the report, “Consuming Concerns,” explains, AWCC surveyed 1,000 wine drinkers around the country to identify the key parameters on which to judge a state’s responsiveness to their interests. That survey further enabled AWCC to rank the six in importance, from most to least, and rate each state according to its laws around each parameter:

Ability to have wine shipped to their home from any winery

  1. No State monopoly on the sale of wine
  2. Ability to have wine shipped to their home from any wine retailer
  3. Ability to purchase wine on Sundays
  4. Ability to bring their own wine into a restaurant to drink with their meal (BYO)
  5. Ability to purchase wine in grocery stores

Really, is BYO that low on the priority list for most people? Maybe if you haven’t experienced its joys (and financial benefits!) you don’t know what you’re missing.

New Jersey is no paradise for restaurateurs, because it restricts the number of liquor licenses available, thus driving up their price. The result is a number of excellent dining establishments that cannot sell alcohol. (And even many licensed restaurants let customers bring their own by paying a corkage.)

But what’s bad for a restaurant owner is a boon for customers. For serious wine connoisseurs and collectors, BYO restaurants are prime locations to open a special or long-cellared bottle not found on a typical wine list or, if it is, that carries an exorbitant price tag. For average customers who may not be wine experts but nevertheless enjoy having decent wine with dinner, BYO establishments allow them to bring a bottle from home or a neighborhood wine shop, paying a fraction of what that wine would cost on a restaurant list.

In fact, rather than being inhospitable to restaurants, I’m willing to bet that BYO-friendly states like New Jersey result in more dinners out rather than less, because each meal with a BYO wine saves the diner $20 and up.

I can live with a D+ if it comes with BYO rights.

Mapping out Spanish wines

Noodling around the web yesterday to explore possible travel itineraries, I discovered a fine resource for understanding Spain’s wine regions and appellations.

Spanish vineyard

If you’re considering a self-guided trek through Spain and were wondering how to include some winery visits in your schedule, Spanish-wines.org gives pointers on specific wineries along with their addresses and contact telephone and fax numbers (although no email addresses, unfortunately; you’ll have to do some independent digging for that info).

Tourism ideas aside, for wine lovers who want to understand what they’re drinking, the site is arguably most valuable for the explanations it gives of 14 wine-growing regions, from Andalusia to Valencia, and its A-to-Z listings of the myriad red and white grapes cultivated in Spain.

Excellent trivia fodder in these listings, by the way: for instance, what’s the primary grape in Txakolí?

The website, which bills itself as “The World of Spanish Wines,” has a few other gems, including a history of cava, but goes off topic with sections on the wines of Argentina and Chile.

But, back to the reason I found the website, its attention to tourism-minded oenophiles. Its region-specific pages in the “Spanish Wines Tours” section offer overviews that can help in comparing wine routes along with winery details.

One caveat: the website carries a 2011 copyright, suggesting that winery information is not up to the minute. The site’s sponsorship is not identified but may likely be a government- or producer-supported association.


photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/smb_flickr/906848358/, http://photopin.com, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/


Healthier living through wine

According to the latest news flash from the realm of how-wine-consumption-impacts-health, modest weekly wine consumption can stave off depression in people over 55.

This assessment comes from a seven-year study of some 5,500 Spaniards; results were published recently in BMC Medicine.

Champagne toast 

While the methodology and conclusions of this particular study seem a bit shaky (meals and socializing with friends and family probably do help ward off depression, but is the wine that’s part of those rituals responsible?), I nevertheless reserve the right to have faith that wine consumption can help me live a longer, healthier life.

After all, belief in wine’s healthful attributes dates back to ancient Egypt. Wine for centuries was prescribed to improve digestion, alleviate diarrhea, ease the pain of childbirth and, applied topically, disinfect wounds.

Wine, and alcohol consumption in general, subsequently fell into disfavor in some quarters. Among the claims of wine’s possibly pernicious effects have been that it boosts the risk of breast and other cancers and weakens bone tissue.

But, on the bright side, a number of medical studies find that wine drinking in moderation contributes to longevity and good health for most adults.

Simply enjoying the glass of what’s in front of you should be reason enough to drink wine. But if you need a health justification, here are a few:


photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/nima0021/3193886965/, http://photopin.com, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

A winery grows in Brooklyn

Make that three wineries, and counting, in New York’s hippest borough.

wine tasting

Urban wineries—in most cases, facilities where juice from regionally-grown grapes is blended and bottled as well as sold in on-site tasting rooms—are a booming phenomenon in cities around the country. According to Visit Urban Wineries, there are urban wineries in 20 states and Canada. Seattle and Portland are in the vanguard of the trend but locavore-friendly Brooklyn is not far behind.

My research has turned up Brooklyn Oenology (BOE), the oldest of the three (established 2006), and Brooklyn Winery, both in Williamsburg, and Red Hook Winery in, well, that neighborhood.

All three produce small-batch, craft wines and offer them for sale through their websites—although tasting first, which you can do here, is not a bad idea. In fact, Brooklyn Winery appears to depend heavily on its wine bar business; the space is a decent size and food is also served. BOE and Red Hook Winery feature more traditional tasting rooms.

BOE and Red Hook wines are made exclusively from New York State grapes—that is, mostly from Long Island’s North Fork and the Finger Lakes. Brooklyn Winery’s whites tend to be sourced from Finger Lakes vineyards but their reds look to come mostly from California; their online descriptions are quite specific about appellations and production methods.

Prices? For all three producers, they fall mostly in the $20 to $35 range.

I got turned on to Red Hook with their 2012 Chardonnay/Sauvignon Blanc blend at Bin 14 in Hoboken, but I don’t see it listed as available on Red Hook’s site. Next up: a field trip across the East River to investigate.


photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sdbaywinefoodfest/3653839577/, http://photopin.com, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

A modest proposal, for Detroit

Detroit, $18 billion in debt and seeking bankruptcy protection, is desperate to reinvent itself. Once America’s 10th largest city and the world’s car-manufacturing capitol, the Motor City/Motown is exploring ways to regain financial viability with a population that’s 40% of its peak levels in the 1950s and with acres of vacant land.


Why not plant grapes and build a new mecca for wine production in Michigan, a state with a robust and growing wine industry? Michigan already boasts dozens of wineries across five distinct wine-growing regions, but Detroit to date has not been part of this boom.

Yet urban farming is indeed sprouting on plots of Detroit land abandoned by former residents, businesses and factories, and many city boosters see farming as an ingredient of a successful future for this city with such a vast physical footprint.

Even if Detroit’s soil proved hopeless for growing any of the many local or European grape varieties, wine makers would find cheap real estate there to set up winery and tasting room operations.

B. Nektar Meadery set a precedent for such a business model when its founders claimed an unused property in Ferndale, Michigan, a short drive north of Detroit, and scaled up their formerly home-based honey-wine production.

Where the entrepreneurial spirit simmers, empty land goes begging, and thirsty wine lovers await, I see opportunity.


Photo credit:




Lot 93 from 90+ Cellars

Better late than never to worthy discoveries. I tried my first wine from 90+ Cellars earlier this summer: a friend had brought one of the company’s Sauvignon Blancs to a backyard barbecue.

But was it the Lot 64 from northern California’s Lake County, or Lot 2 from New Zealand? I didn’t know enough about 90+ at the time to pay attention. Either way, though, it was nice and, I was told, not expensive.

Later I read up on 90+ Cellars’ story; they’ve certainly garnered great publicity since launching in the recessionary days of mid-2009. Looking for great wines at decent prices, the Boston-based company’s founders sought out highly-rated wineries with unsold product that were willing to have their wine bottled under the 90+ Cellars label, at prices (mostly under $20) below what the original winery names could have commanded.

90-plus Chardonnay (2)

A search on their website turned up 156 retailers and/or restaurants in New York City that offer 90+ wines, from Acker Merrall to the Tribeca Grand Hotel to Bobby Van’s Steakhouse. (You can also purchase the wines from 90+ Cellar’s shopping website.)

In Hoboken, the small but well-stocked Garden Wine & Liquor sells a wide array of 90+ varieties. Garden Wine owner Phil said they’ve proved a huge winner for the store, so he displays them prominently near the entrance.

The reds on recent offer included a Malbec from Lujan de Cuyo, a Pinot, several Cali Cabs, a Bordeaux, and more. Among the whites: that Lot 2 from New Zealand, a Pinot Grigio from Trentino, “French Fusion White” from Languedoc.

For $15, I took home a bottle of Lot 93, a 2012 Russian River Chardonnay, 700 cases made.

What did I think? In the glass, the wine is quite pale, implying Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc. The nose suggests mineral, citrus and a hint of cheese. It’s a high-alcohol Chardonnay (14.5%) but doesn’t drink like one. I enjoyed the first sips, but the wine didn’t hit its stride until it had opened up for half an hour. 90 points? I’d give it 89.

Out with the pizza stone, in with the steel

Today I’m reading about the Baking Steel, invented and produced by Stoughton Steel in Massachusetts. An email from Pure Wow led me to the product site, and their story, and the rave reviews.

Scientist-cook-former Microsoft CTO Nathan Myhrvold inspired Stoughton’s Andris Lagsdin to fashion a steel plate for baking with his comments, in his epic Modernist Cuisine, about steel’s superior conductivity compared to the brick or stone typically used for commercially or home-cooked pizza.

A Kickstarter campaign quickly raised the money Lagsdin needed to launch a serious manufacturing effort for the baking steel.

The final product weighs 15 pounds, measures 16” by 14”, requires a lower oven temperature than a baking stone, and costs $79. Cook’s Illustrated, Food & Wine, the Wall Street Journal and other have applauded it.

So, what does this product have to do with wine? Once you make that pizza, you have a world of vino – red, white, rose – to pair with it.

I’m a traditionalist: sausage and mushrooms, which calls for a red, anything from a rustic Salice Salentino or Corbières, to a modest California Pinot or Merlot ($12 to $15 is about right for a pizza wine, in my view). Or what about one of the oodles of delicious, affordable Bordeaux from one of several recent fantastic vintages?

If you make your pizza “white” or veggie-only, dry or stony (there’s Bordeaux again) whites accompany nicely.

But, no matter which way you go – homemade, take-out, thick crust, thin, red wine, white wine – take the time to savor your choices.

Backyard basics

Alas, summer is winding down, but some decent weather for picnics and backyard barbeques still lies ahead. For those occasions, you might find my lightweight, go-anywhere wine-drinking and dining accessories useful:

Igloo thermos aka wine chiller – I repurposed an old but indestructible Igloo thermos, with a convenient handle no less, into a single-bottle wine chiller. With a few ice cubes and an inch or two of cold water in the bottom, a bottle of white or rose nestles in perfectly. For multiple bottles, a cleaning bucket partially filled with ice water works nicely.

Igloo chiller

Govino glasses – I take no credit for discovering these glasses; all the kudos go to my neighbor, Beth, who has a wonderful eye for such items. She’s sharing a box of these lovely, flexible-polymer (they won’t crack) stemless glasses with our condo building for the summer and they’ve gotten a major workout. Govino glasses come in several sizes; Govino also makes carafes.

Govino glasses

Transport/serving trays – I saved the garden-store trays that held my flats of petunias at the start of the season, because I knew I’d find a use for them eventually. Sure enough, they’ve gotten a second life, transporting dishes and supplies to the backyard for those under-the-stars dinners.

Tray w chiller, etc.

Happy outdoor dining as the countdown to Labor Day continues!

Recommended reading

“The most informative and interesting wine emails on the Internet.” Indeed they are.

So does Chambers Street Wines bill its email communications program, and I can vouch for it.

Just in the past week I’ve gotten emails on new domestic arrivals; new arrivals from Macon, Beaujolais and Burgundy; a 2012 Fleurie from Alain Coudert; and an array of 2012 Muscadets and other Loire wines from a variety of producers.

And they’re not the usual labels you see elsewhere. That’s because Chambers Street specializes in bio-dynamic, natural and organic wines. Those terms are not interchangeable but together they convey that most of the product offered here has been produced with less chemical and mechanical intervention than is the norm for mass-produced wines.

Many of the producers represented on their shelves make their wines in small quantities. For instance, Chambers Street’s new bottles from California include the – how’s this for a name – Field Recordings’ 2012 Jurassic Park Chenin Blanc Santa Ynez, just 40 cases made.

Also, from Mendocino, Salinia Wine Company’s 2012 Sun Hawk Farms Louisa Smith Love & Collarbones, an intriguing blend of the vineyard’s whites and reds (23 cases made). Chambers Street describes it as “piquant and silky” and “innovative and alluring.”

From Long Island’s North Fork, “paying homage to Friulian winemaking method and tradition long before it became trendy” is Channing Daughters’ 2006 North Fork Meditazione, an orange wine.

The Chambers Street store, in Tribeca, is a fine space for browsing and its staff boasts a very high wine IQ.

But for delightful reading that opens the mind to many wine discoveries from around the world, sign up on their website for Chambers Street’s emails. Do it now!