Friday, February 27, 2015

Wine Dinners: RIP?

Before they became so commonplace, food and wine pairing dinners were some of the most exquisite and memorable experiences a diner could have. Chefs would spend weeks imagining, testing and refining their menus, working with a winemaker or sommelier to create singularly satisfying dishes that paired with different wine experiences, course to course. The chosen wines would pay homage to the layers of flavors and textures in the food and the artful dishes would highlight the characteristics and personalities of the wines. Harmonic excellence was the goal, the wine making the food taste even better and the food, in turn, elevating the wine experience.

As their popularity grew, wine-food pairing events extended far beyond the traditional venues of fine dining establishments. Pairing events became the rage at neighborhood eateries far removed from the chic downtown centers of the country’s hippest cities, at prices ranging from the ridiculously affordable to the once-in-a-lifetime extravagance.

Yet today, the choreographed beauty and balance of the wine dinner is under threat. The culprits are not volatile, overworked chefs or snooty, out-of-touch sommeliers. Rather, the threat comes from the diners themselves, who, it need be stressed, have elected to attend a wine-food pairing event.

In choosing to attend, these diners generally understand that the focus of the evening will be a series of courses and wine pairings that have been designed to create culinary magic that is focused and specific, therein providing the value and raison d’être for these special gastronomic-oenophilic experiences.

Notwithstanding this prior knowledge, however, diners now present laundry lists to chefs and proprietors listing their food sensitivities, intolerances, allergies or mere distaste for certain ingredients that mustn’t be used at the wine dinner. Sometimes, these guests inform the culinary team of their exceptions in advance of the event – and sometimes not, seemingly unaware that dining establishments are not also grocery stores with pools of unbusy skilled laborers.

Here is a recent list of exceptions given to a small establishment:

Multiple guests:

Shellfish allergies
Gluten intolerant

At least one guest:

No red meat
No fish of any kind
No nuts
No dairy
No green onions
No shallots
No red onions
No mold (no mushrooms, no blue cheese)
No cheese
No celery or lettuce
No dairy
No pineapple
No crab
No clarified butter
No mango
No melons of any kind
No garlic

In fairness, about 1% of the population can be expected to have a true gluten allergy. However, many gluten-related and other claimed food sensitivities are often self-diagnosed, misdiagnosed, overdiagnosed or are more a matter of personal preference or belief than a true medical exigency.

Altogether, up to 3 or 4% of the US population has a food allergy, although 15% – four times as many people – believe they have a food allergy. Cranking that small establishment’s numbers, the tally would appear to hover north of 50%.

Miraculously, one guest’s food allergy was reported to vanish at a wine dinner once the aromatic, allergenic plate of a tablemate appeared, causing the food-allergic guest to about-face and to request the unmodified, original dish instead, the one containing the previously objectionable ingredient.

Because the hospitality industry aims to accommodate and please the guest, chefs and sommeliers have attempted to extend themselves, including guests with food issues to these special wining and dining experiences. But at what cost? Does a modification of a dish that was originally crafted to marry seamlessly with a certain wine now deliver the intended food-wine experience after certain key ingredients have been left out or substituted, too often at last-minute? Moreover, how many alternate, highly specific non-this/non-that dishes can a chef and his/her kitchen staff reasonably be expected to prepare in the frenzy of a food and wine pairing dinner, which usually is a boundaries-pushing version of that dining establishment’s usual fare and often includes exotic ingredients, precise timing, innovative preparations and meticulous plating and presentation?

In hospitality terms, a wine dinner is similar to a banquet planned for a group of guests. That is, there is a set menu that has been previously been vetted and agreed to that will be served to everyone. Sometimes a meat or fish or vegetarian option is offered, sometimes not. Compare that to a personal preference or a la carte dining experience in which each diner is free to choose from a menu of offerings, some of which may include vegan, gluten-free, healthy choice or other options.

Whereas wine dinners are planned and executed more like banquets, today’s diners have come to view wine dinners as personal preference opportunities, regardless of the consequences for the chef or for their fellow diners. In a sense, the food exceptionalists are akin to the anti-vaxers of the elite dining experience, it being the exceptionalists' personal (and often nonscientific) issues that govern the consequences for the majority.

Sadly, the restaurant, hospitality and food and beverage businesses can expect to encounter more food and drink exceptionalists. It might also be expected that imaginary toxicities, overpersonalization and overinterpretation of maladies will spread to affect wine service. The wine exceptionalists' list might begin as follows:

No sulfites
No additives
No non-native yeast
No non-organic wines
No imports
No synthetic corks

Now doesn’t that sound like a fun wine event?

Perhaps, as one chef ruefully suggested, we should just serve cereal at the next wine dinner. Organic, non-GMO, vegan, dairy- and gluten-free, of course. Oh, and hold the cereal.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Super Bowl Wines

Coming up on Super Bowl LXIX, we thought we'd update a post that still rings true four years later. Sure, we have pigskin picks to vinify your Super Sunday, but first a few food facts about the super-snackdown day of the year. Any idea what this statistic means?


No, it's not the number of excuses offered by the Pats to explain Deflate-gate. Incredibly, it's the amount of calories Americans will tackle this Super Bowl Sunday, even gut-busting Thanksgiving Day, the defending pig-out champion. The average fan is set to scarf 1,200 calories and 50 grams of fat from game day snacking alone – and that doesn't include any regular meals that day. 

Unless you plan to walk around a football field for three hours, no amount of fist-pumping and pogo-cheering is going to burn off those calories. Backfield in motion, baby, and bring out the tape. Or, as comedienne Elaine Boosler would say, why not just rub that stuff right into your thighs?

Worse perhaps is that so many bowl day foods are close to awful. Can we get a holding foul here? Burgers, fried funkitude and chip-dip combos that scream out for an aspirin-nitro-statin garnish hardly seem worth the angina – or agita either, for the Italians out there. I mean, if you're gonna Hail Mary, doesn't a nice plate of lasagna or a juicy rib-eye off the grill sound more appealing than something that stinks of cilantro or singes your palate? Yuck.

Bottom line is that many Super Bowl food flavors + wine = false start. Chili, thick dips and weighty or fried foods are hard hits for lighter reds and oaked Chardonnays. In the red zone, Cabernet tannins come across as too harsh when combined with super salty foods. Even bigger or bolder reds such as Syrah or Zinfandel can get crushed in the pileup by four-alarm barbecue sauces or hotly spiced wings. 

Unfortunately, there aren't many takers for the alt idea of super Sunday: flip on the crockpot in the morning and uncork a favorite bottle over a real meal during halftime break. No worries about delay of game or missing the halftime show – odds are it'll be as lame as ever, with or without a nip-slip. Bah humbug. So with a shrug to mega-snacking as the official play of the day, here are wine picks sure to score big with the gang:

Riesling racks up huge yardage for how well it goes with a wide range of foods, especially spicy dishes, sausage, salads and smoked fish. Many Rieslings are low-alcohol too, to help keep guests safe and under-the-limit. Look for Dr L by Loosen Brothers in the tall, teal screw-cap bottle, under $15 at Dan's Wine Shop and Trader Joe's. Another pick is Chateau St. Michelle, which reliably makes great Riesling from bone dry to a range of sweetness levels. Buy six or more at local grocers to get the best price. 

Box Wines
The space-saving eco-packaging by Octavin Home Wine Bar holds three liters, equal to four bottles of wine. With a convenient pour spout, these tasty, good quality wines will douse a couch-full of thirsty fans. Find them at Albertsons and Ralphs grocers, better still when they're on sale. Kickoff reds worth a runback are the low-tannin Pinot Evil Pinot Noir or Big House Red. We hear good things about Black Box, on our list to taste.

If you think real men don't drink pink, food-friendly rosé will rock your manly man's playbook. Go with New World rosés made from heartier red grapes instead of more delicate French and Provençal rosé styles. Give it a good chill and watch for conversions. Try screw-capped Tapiz Rosé of Malbec from Argentina (BevMo!), Barnard Griffin Rosé of Sangiovese from Oregon or Mulderbosch Rosé of Cabernet Sauvignon from South Africa (World Market Cost Plus, Dan's). 3rd Corner in Palm Desert is another source for tasty rosés.

Let us know if you find Super Bowl wines that score big, especially if they beat the odds.  

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Giving the Gift of Wine

Are you thinking about giving the gift of wine this holiday season, but not sure where to begin? Make your holiday wine gift-giving way easier by consulting this guide to wines that are sure to make someone’s holiday more jolly and bright.
Get some Clio for yourself, lay it down for 1 - 5 years and restock annually - always a special treat.

Start first by considering the type of wine lover you are shopping for. Is your giftee a casual imbiber, an eclectic wine enthusiast or someone who is dedicated to particular brands or styles?

The casual imbiber, being less rigid about likes and dislikes, tends to look at wine enjoyment as fun and social. Women who enjoy wine casually can gravitate towards white wines, sparklers and lighter reds, perhaps rosés too. Some of these wines might have a touch of sweetness, or be overtly sweet.

Wines gifts for the casual imbiber include Chardonnay and Moscato. The 2012 vintage was outstanding for Napa and Sonoma Chardonnay. For unexpected goodness, look north to Oregon (especially for their unoaked styles) or Washington. As for Moscato, Italy’s spritzy versions are sheer drinking delight. Michele Chiarlo’s 2013 Moscato d’Asti Nivole is dreamy, and a terrific bargain at $15.

The eclectic wine enthusiast is open-minded to a variety of wine styles. Being more adventurous wine drinkers, eclectics tend to appreciate less common varietals and bottlings from smaller, less well-known producers. Good choices for whites include floral Viognier or a rich Roussanne (Andrew Rich’s Roussanne is a perennial favorite and can be ordered online). Paso Robles' Tablas Creek makes consistently good Rhône white blends - try the 2012 Patelin de Tablas Blanc, $20.

If your eclectic giftee’s taste in reds tends towards lighter styles, zero in on an Oregon Pinot Noir from the ripe 2012 vintage. For heavier reds, look to Spain for mouthfilling Mourvèdre or to Washington for sumptuous Syrah. A stunning example of Mourvèdre comes from Jumilla, the smoky 2012 Clio, about $40. For Syrah, the JM 2012 Columbia Valley is a winner at about $45. If you're watching your holiday budget, you won’t go wrong with the Charles Smith 2013 Boom Boom! at $15. And don't forget Australia for terrific Syrah/Shiraz in all price ranges. Stateside, seduce the eclectics on your list with Syrah from Paso Robles (Alta Colina’s 2011 Toasted Slope, about $40) and Santa Barbara (Jaffurs 2012, about $30).

Devotees of certain wine brands or styles can be tough cookies to please in terms of wine gifts. If your brand fans like bubblies, Champagne is an excellent, though pricey choice. Go with the Champagne house whose wines your giftee usually orders at restaurants. If that’s out of your budget, consider the Lucien Albrecht Brut Rosé Crémant d’Alsace or Calistoga’s Schramsberg (the brut blanc de blancs and rosé are equally tasty), both around $20. 

Brand-focused wine lovers will also appreciate the Caymus 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon 40th anniversary release. The festive label makes this bottling even more coveted, despite being widely available. Find it at local grocers and wine shops for about $55.

You're in luck if your giftee is a devoted Cab or Zin drinker who isn’t as fixated on brands themselves, giving you a bit more gift-giving leeway. Besides spendy Napa, look to Paso Robles for many winners (the Daou 2011 Cabernet overdelivers for less than $30) and Australia (the 2012 Mollydooker cabs, from $25-75). Smaller wine merchants such as Dan's Wine Shop, LA Wine Company and 3rd Corner Wine Shop & Bistro often carry knockout Zins in a range of prices and styles. Ask for their advice to find the style that matches your giftee's tastes. 

Lastly, if you know that your giftee likes dessert wines or Ports, go with the outstanding 2011 vintage for a sure-fire Port pick.

Let us know about any great gift-giving wines you've found this holiday season in the comments section. Happy Holidays!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Thanksgiving Wines

Regardless of how you celebrate Thanksgiving, one thing is certain: the Thanksgiving meal is all over the place. Sweet and savory, lean and rich, spicy and neutral, soft and crunchy, even hot and cold all find a place at the Thanksgiving table.
Oregon's 2012 vintage offers ripe and delicious Pinot Noir such as this beauty from Ken Wright 

With all those flavors, it’s no surprise that hosts and wine-toting guests find themselves in a pickle when it comes to choosing the best Thanksgiving wine.

To make your wine selection easier this year, keep a few of these ideas in mind.

If you’re serving one wine, make it a rosé. For all-around food-friendliness, it’s tough to beat rosé. Pinks, whether sparkling or still, will sing with turkey, savory stuffing and many of the Thanksgiving sides – except for Grandma’s sweet potato casserole. Skip the very dry and lighter Provençal styles and look for a lustier, heftier version such as rosés made from Malbec, Pinot Noir, Montepulciano or other non-traditional red grapes.

Add some sparkle to your table. Consider starting with a bubbly that’s just slightly sweet and refreshing such as Prosecco. If many of your dishes have a fruit base, consider floral and fruity Moscato d’Asti. Red sparklers such as Lambrusco or Brachetto d’Acqui make terrific Thanksgiving wines that are practically guaranteed to make your celebration a bit more festive and special.

Cover your bases: serve two types of wine. It’s practically unfair to expect a single wine to work with all the flavors and textures of Thanksgiving. Besides, some of your guests might be full-blooded white or red wine drinkers who will want to drink their favorite color no matter what. Give your guests the choice.

These simple rules will guide you to wines that will reward your inner sommelier:

  • Lower alcohol wins. Not only will you help keep your guests from getting tipsy, but lower alcohol wines also offer better balance with the heaviness and sheer quantity of holiday foods.
  • Serve palate refreshers. Higher acids wines will keep the palate refreshed for multiple courses, especially with richer foods. 
  • Slightly sweet works. Off-dry whites or sparklers can work well with a variety of foods, from savory to spicy to somewhat sweet. With reds, look for fruitier wines or try some of the new slightly sweet reds and red blends.
  • Nix the tannin and oak. Big and oaky wines will fill your belly faster than that third helping of stuffing. Tannic wines won’t work with lean turkey and most of the holiday sides – save these for the December holiday roasts.

Here’s my list of wines or styles that have a better chance of working with all the trappings of Thanksgiving, with my favorites in bold:

Sparklers: Rosé, Prosecco, Vouvray, Lambrusco, Moscato d’Asti, Brachetto d’Acqui

Pinks: Rosé, still or sparkling

Whites: Chenin Blanc/Vouvray, Pinot Gris (Oregon or Alsace), Riesling (off-dry)

Reds: Pinot Noir (New World), Beaujolais, Valpolicella

Whichever wine you end up serving, resist the temptation to bust out that monster Cab, killer Zin or awesome Amarone. Pop those corks at next month's holiday celebration.

Happy Thanksgiving!